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A River of Midnight Stars

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"Mikleo..."

"Uh, Sorey... stop. Come on, I know you're tired... and I don't have class tomorrow anyways..."

"But..." Sorey looked down at his crotch, and Mikleo felt, more than saw, the obvious reason that was bothering Sorey.

"Yeah, hard not to notice, you think?"

I wish you'd do more than just notice it, Mikleo... Sorey was about to say, and to be honest, he had almost let those words slip out of him in a desperate whine. Not that he was exactly proud of himself for being this needy. He could at least be thankful that his better self had not completely given in to his throbbing impulse.

He sighed a little too loudly, enough to make Mikleo bristle. "Can't we do something about it? Please? I promise to be good..."

Now that pretty much sounded like real agony. Sorey could only mourn how fast his better self had turned into one, embarrassing existential joke. 

Mikleo grinned. "Don't you wish I thought of saying that first?"

"Yeah? If wishes could come true by mere wishing, I would."

"Good for you," Mikleo groaned, setting pen and paper down as he gave the grocery list he has been pondering for the last ten to fifteen minutes a final look before pushing it away. He leaned back a little, almost tipping the stool but not quite, just enough to catch the scent Sorey exuded since he came out of the bath smelling every bit like fresh meadow after a light spring rain.

Even without looking, he could tell Sorey only had a pair of boxers on and a thin, cotton-blend, V-neck shirt which he loved sleeping in every night. Mikleo was the one all covered up, but he could not help feeling a little cold despite the fact that the heater was working just fine. He would have stood up to get a blanket to wrap around himself if not for Sorey's weight crashing against him from behind.    

"Really, it's been a month, love. I'm dying..."

Mikleo gave him a slight push. "Can you keep still and listen? We're going to be on the red again if we're not careful, and I'm largely to blame. Shouldn't have let you talk me into buying those books... I mean... I'll never let you talk me into it ever again."

Sorey bent over to rest his chin on Mikleo's head. "Come on, they're books, you need them. I can get by on peanut butter sandwiches for the next few months if I have to, no worries..."

"Oh, god..." Mikleo gave a helpless sigh. "Strawberry jam would be a fine alternative every now and then. I'll make sure to get some."

"Anything you wish..." Sorey whispered, trailing lips along the curve of Mikleo's nape. For some reason, the fact that Mikleo's nape hair only partially hid that smooth, white skin from view made it even more erotic for him, and he found himself grinning like a teenager again. "I bet strawberry jam would taste better when I'm licking it off your you-know-what."

Mikleo gave him an unexpected jab and got him on the rib, which caused Sorey to yelp exaggeratedly.

Mikleo was incredulous. "Hey, I swear that didn't hurt!"

"Harsh," Sorey groans with a wounded-puppy look. "You just broke my fragile heart."

"Got what you deserve, you dirty dog!" 

"Oh, the kitty's mad..." Sorey laughs heartily, familiar with the petty exchange of insults. "But seriously, let me handle the groceries. I'll take care of them first thing in the morning."

"But you have work, don't you?"

"I just have to wake up early, run to the grocery, and be back to get dressed for work. Speaking of which, I could heat the curry omelette Rose gave us for breakfast. I've tried them before so I'm sure you'd love them..."  

Mikleo scrunched up his face at that, knowing Sorey's bad habit of switching topics to distract him. "No, that's almost like killing yourself!"

"C'mon, Rose's curry isn't that bad."

"Sorey, you know what I'm talking about! I swear, I'm handling our groceries from now on. Definitely, I'm more practical than somebody around here who always ends up buying more stuff from the second hand bookstore than what we actually need for survival... you know what I mean, don't you?"

"Let me think..." Sorey pressed himself hard against Mikleo's back as he leaned from behind.

He wrapped both arms around Mikeo's svelte waist, loving the scent of Mikleo's skin, the feel of his softness, even the way strands of silver hair clung to his cheeks, framing his perfect, heart-shaped face.

This time, though, he stopped his breath, barely touching Mikleo's ear with his lips as he wound his arms tighter around Mikleo. His heart almost skipped two beats at once.

"Tell me... have you been losing weight? You haven't been skipping meals, have you?"

Sorey had to turn him around before Mikleo could hazard a decent answer from his foggy memory. "Look, I don't even recall ever gaining weight, and besides, weight issues aren't something a proper man should bring up, all right?"

That would have been cute, but Sorey knew better than to smile at his fiance's attempt to avoid the topic, something he too was guilty of just moments ago. He peered into Mikleo's face to get a better look, which was not easy to do since his fiance of barely six months was avoiding his eyes altogether.

Mikleo tried to give him a scorching glare. "Just wondering. Am I going to get arrested?"

"Hey, don't give me that!" Sorey frowned, emerald eyes almost steely. "I know we rarely have breakfast together because you have morning classes. But you're leaving the same stuff in the freezer... like you get home pretty late and sneak into bed, and you don't even bother to wake me up... I mean, I wished you would... even if it's just to watch you eat."

Mikleo knew better than to disagree. As far as he could remember, Sorey has always been a little too keen on anything that Mikleo did around him, though he was not one to comment or complain unless it was a matter of urgency.

Though it may be occasionally cute to see this worried side to him, Mikleo would never have it at Sorey's expense. He knew all too well that Sorey had more than his fair share of troubles, like juggling several jobs in one day when they really needed the money... money for the heater, some winter clothes, and his school expenses among other things that make survival a feat on its own.

The reminder was enough to make his heart twist. This was another argument he was going to lose. 

"Fine, I'm guilty as charged, but once or twice isn't all that bad! Besides, I snack a lot in school, and I make sure to pack something for lunch as well."

"Oh, yeah? Well, I'm going to pack your lunches this time!"

"You don't have to. No need to stress over it."

"Do you hate my cooking that much?"

Mikleo shook his head. "That's not it. It's just... your servings are huge... like you're feeding bears straight from hibernation!"

Sorey was adamant. "You need to eat more, and I'm going to make sure you do."

"You know I can't eat that much!"

"Oh yeah? Well, I'm doing it starting tomorrow, and there aren't any buts or ifs about it this time!"

"Listen," Mikleo sighed, careful to lower his voice a few notches as there was little to no reason to get Sorey worked up over a silly argument. "You have work, and you barely have time to prepare your own meals yourself. It wouldn't be fair to impose."

"You're not imposing if I'm insisting, all right? I hate that you're neglecting the most important part of studying. You need to eat. You need to stay healthy... Muse... Muse was sick for a long time..."

"I'm not my mom... I won't get sick like that."

Sorey gripped his arm more tightly than he would have liked or was aware of. "Muse was a lot older when she got sick... but she had never been well or healthy either... not as much as she should be. You know how much she suffered... she was in so much pain..."

"Losing weight doesn't mean being unhealthy. I have regular check-ups, all right? And the clinic would have said something if I was that sick." 

"You went? When was this?"

Mikleo bit his lip. "I was dizzy that's all... it was months ago..." he lied.

"Don't... don't ever lie about this, all right!" Sorey's face was scrunched up, and his grip tightened on Mikleo's shoulder like a vise. "You know you're going to kill me if anything happens to you..."  

Mikleo huffed. "Oh, I see, what a brilliant change of topic we're having. It's not like you're taking good care of yourself either, you know."

"I get free lunch at work," he declares, as if it explains everything. He took a deep breath, releasing Mikleo's shoulder as he tried to keep his voice from shaking.

"Sorey?" Mikleo peered into his face. "You're all red. Just punch me if it'd make you feel better. I hate seeing this side of you."

Sorey looked away, trying to find a distraction, anything, to keep himself from blurting out things he would rather keep to himself. "Mikleo, just-just give me a minute."

Mikleo idly fondled Sorey's sleeve. "I hate worrying you, all right? Let's talk about something else... I mean, how was your day? I think I haven't asked that. Just tell me anything, I'm listening."

"Well..." Sorey pondered that a bit, though it was a struggle to shake off the cold panic sitting in his gut like lead. "The owner was wondering if I could work full time like manage the cafe on days he's not available. But I haven't really given it much thought."

"Why?" Mikleo gave him a surprised look. "Wouldn't that be a lot easier for you? Hopping from place to place to keep time with different schedules is enough to kill the fainthearted. I don't know how you manage it. And don't tell me you're immune to stress."

"Having two to three part-time jobs isn't all that hard, not when I'm already so used to it."

"That's one bad habit of yours, Sorey. There are days you look unwell, but you wouldn't even consider taking a day off."

"I feel great. Missing you in bed drains me more than work."

The tease sounded off. Mikleo sighed. "Honestly? Is that what you really think of it?"

Sorey gave up, unable to keep to the subject. "I won't lie about missing you, but I'd worry about that later... I mean, you're not off the hook yet! I swear, if I have to, I'd come and get you after your classes... drag you someplace just to get you to eat."

"No kidding."

"Besides, eating out once in a while can be good... must be."

"It's unnecessary expense, and you know it."

"Or we can go home and have dinner."

"Sorey, look... if you have to juggle your schedule just to make way for me..."

"It's what I want to do, and it's my schedule to begin with. How about a homemade meal we can eat it in the car?"

"In the car, huh?" Mikleo caught the softening gaze. "As if you don't know what comes after..."

Sorey coughed. "Well, don't let me think about it. But seriously, you better start eating properly... or if you're craving for anything right now, we could go for a drive and grab something." Sorey gave him a look of concern while searching for his keys.

"At this hour? Thanks, but I'd really rather go to bed."

"Sure? Don't tell me you're wondering if I could afford it?"

"Gosh, I'm the stingy one, remember? I'm fine, really... I'm just not hungry right now." 

Sorey walked up to him and started massaging his shoulders. "I'm sorry love, didn't mean to get so upset. I'm not good at worrying... never when it comes to you."

Mikleo ruffled Sorey's hair when he knelt down to rest his head on Mikleo's lap. "You're like a mom sometimes. You take care of everything, I feel so ashamed."

Sorey grinned. "More like a dad, maybe, since you're the woman of the house, remember?" It felt good to tease after a fight, and they used to do it a lot... tickle fights, pillow fights, name it.

"So tell me me more about this job of yours, if you don't mind. Your boss must be nice enough to offer you a full-time work schedule, though you haven't been with the company that long, have you?"

"Company? Well, I'm not sure if I could call it that. But the place does serve decent lunch and dinner, and the cafe is frequented by regular customers. There's also a bar where we exclusively serve wine. It's not exactly that sophisticated or elegant, enough to scare someone with a limited budget, but it's got an old-fashioned, classic appeal to it that's relaxing and can put you in the mood. I might have to get myself a business suit if I accept the offer. Not like I'd hate wearing one either."

"Well, I'd love seeing you in a suit for a change. But... tell me more about your boss. Is he... I mean, I could imagine he must have tons of sex appeal."

"Tons?"

"He must be one seductive charmer with a cool-sounding name and amazing family background. I'm stereotyping I know... but it's harder to imagine otherwise in that sort of set-up."   

"Well... I guess?" Although Mikleo's curiosity was nothing strange, Sorey found himself feeling unsure as to whether it was something he really needed to talk about. Lying is one thing, but having to talk about something that might just end in needless worrying on Mikleo's part is something he wanted to avoid for good reason. Not that his job is every bit as troublesome or stressful as one might think it is.

On the contrary, he felt lucky he was able to land one that was relatively easy to learn, a job where everything just seemed to fall into place.

And true enough, the owner-manager was a man of elegance and easy charm, a businessman capable of exuding pride and dignity in the way he moved and spoke. He rarely used more than a few words, but his graceful wit and shrewd sense of humor easily put people at ease.

If there was anything at all left to complain about his character, it would be nothing less than his infectious, hardworking lifestyle, his contagious enthusiasm that draws attention like a magnet. If Sorey were to be honest, even he would understand the insecurity it arouses.

With that kind of rival around, any comparison becomes a pointless exercise in humiliation.  

He wondered if Mikleo would understand. His boss incites that kind of feeling, that kind of petty fear and jealous anxiety possessive lovers are prone to. Just imagining how Mikleo would look good with the man... just imagining his boss catching Mikleo's interest and actually showing interest in Mikleo...

He could not help wondering what life would be if Mikleo had someone like that... a man with success written all over him, someone more dependable and reliable... a man with a stable, secure future instead, not a scrimping part-timer who has to squeeze in extra hours just to be able to afford little emergencies and occasional pleasures.

He knew he was not exactly the ideal man for Mikleo, but he kept that inner voice down, suppressed it with self-serving denial. Michael pointed out that bleak reality from the start, and it was the same reason Bartlow had threatened to take Mikleo away.

He knew there was always the possibility of Bartlow seducing Mikleo with every comfort he could offer, knowing too well how Sorey's financial capabilities fell short of minimum expectations.

That no less than a chancellor was carelessly obsessing over his boyfriend only added to his scoreboard of insecurities and shortcomings.

"Sorey, you're not... avoiding this conversation, are you?"

Sorey almost jumped. "You mean about him? What for?"

"You pretty much talk about Rose, Alisha, Zaveid... even that high school kid Edna who loves hanging around just to poke fun at you, you say. But you rarely talk about the head of the family... I mean... this boss of yours. What sort of man is he? He's not into guys, is he?"

"Hmm... you think I should go ahead and ask?"

"Not funny! So... is he attractive... in a physical and intellectual sort of way, maybe?" 

Sorey could only smile, though he suddenly wished he did not have secrets to keep. "Sheesh, asking that is like asking if there's anyone else like you in the whole, wide world!"

"Flattery won't get you anywhere, Sorey! You haven't even bothered to introduce me or anything!"

"Look, he's a good guy, I'll give you that. I've heard his family owns shipping lines, and his last name does sound a bit political though that's not surprising. We've talked a few times inside and outside the office, and I ran into him once or twice in the bookstore. But I could honestly say we're not particularly close. Aside from rumors I know nothing much about him, not that I should..." 

"Oh, and do you intend to get a little closer to know him more?"

Sorey laughs. "He's married, all right?" Although that was not exactly a lie, Sorey felt a twinge of guilt nonetheless.

"If it were otherwise..." Mikleo frowns.

"It wouldn't matter, even if you leave us on an island with only sharks and coconuts. I'm not into him, and he's not into me either."

"Seriously though, how does being married explain all that?"

Sorey pulled Mikleo's left hand toward him where a simple white-gold band with tiny stones of amethyst around a small diamond shone like a halo. He gave Mikleo's ring finger a kiss.

"I'm sure this does, even though we're not exactly married yet. Unless you plan on being unfaithful..."

"Me?" Mikleo honestly wondered. "Was I ever?" 

He was stopped by a hug so tight around his waist, he almost felt crushed as Sorey leaned forward, letting the weight of his upper torso rest on Mikleo for a moment. There was nothing unfamiliar in the gesture, definitely nothing Sorey has done for the very first time, but it still made Mikleo's body react as if it was new, as if the erotic feel of Sorey's heaviness smothering him with warm, undeniable affection was both unforgettably nostalgic and refreshingly exciting.

Of course, he had always known how well-toned Sorey's body really was, how lean and perfect those muscles were as they rippled above and beneath him in panting pleasure every time... every single time Sorey wrapped his arms around him during lovemaking...

"No, Mikleo, you never were. And I won't ever be either. For as long as I live and even after that, you will always have me. You know that, right?"

Mikleo really squirmed this time as Sorey lifted him up over his shoulder then stood up, carrying him like he was as light as a feather. "Sorey, gods, put me down!"

"Not gonna happen. I'll tuck you in bed and make sure you get some sleep."

"You're the one who needs it more," Mikleo sighed as Sorey put him down gently on the bed, smiling as he held onto Mikleo's arms still wrapped around his neck. He did not want Mikleo to pull out of his embrace just yet, even though the better part of him intended to keep his word and give Mikleo the rest he needed.

"Mikleo, I'd really feel better if you worry more about yourself. I'm used to working all kinds of jobs by now, it's not like I'm doing something I haven't done when I was single."

"You still are."

Sorey looked honestly confused, making Mikleo's heart squeeze even more.

"Still what?"

Mikleo tried to keep his gaze steady. "Single."

Sorey's gaze softened. "Not anymore since we met."

"Are you forgetting we're childhood friends? We didn't start dating until high school."

"Technically." Sorey kissed him on the cheek. "But it never felt like I was ever single in my life."

"You're complaining?"

"Would I ever? I've always wanted to marry you, and that has never changed, Mikleo... nothing will or ever can..."

Mikleo felt his heartbeat race like he had been running. It was like being thirteen again, when Sorey had first let slip that he had always liked Mikleo that way.

"Shut up."

Sorey smiled happily. "I was waiting for that magic word..." he groaned, parting Mikleo's lips and opening his mouth to push his tongue in.

It was a slow, deep, achingly desperate kiss that said how Sorey's body wanted more... more than just a soulful kiss drunk with love and affection.

His body was pressing against Mikleo in a tight, agonizingly yearning way, making Mikleo feel every hardening muscle that wanted him, desired him in ways that seemed impossible to ignore.

Mikleo was unaware that his right hand had managed to sneak its way from Sorey's nape to his arched back, his lower hip and thigh. He nudged Sorey's hardness with the slightest hesitation, earning a deep, aching groan from Sorey.

"Stop teasing, all right? I'm so hard it hurts."

"I can make it easy for you..." Mikleo tried to sound brave but ended that with a shuddering breath. His neck felt hot, and he could not look directly into Sorey's honest face. "I missed you too, you know..."

He smiled as he bent down to kiss Mikleo and lay next to him, pulling him into a casual hug.

"Sorey?"

"Forget what I said. My body's just being selfish, as always."

Because you don't know how much I want it too, you dork! But Mikleo steeled his thoughts.

Sorey was keeping his distance, and it was almost unnerving. He ignored the casual pat Sorey gave him on the shoulder before pulling a blanket to his chin, like he was a baby that needed to be all covered up to be warm and safe. He could not help but give Sorey an irritated frown.

"What?" Sorey asked, doing his best to be casual about it yet again, though he lacked practice and he was terrible at lying.

"Don't give me that fake look, all right? It's not like we're still high schoolers who make a big deal about kissing every now and then."

Sorey was suddenly reminded of something that happened one Christmas, about six years years ago. Whenever those things slip into his memory, he could not help but smile just reminiscing those rare moments when he really, absolutely felt happy like a child.

"I still remember that party we had just before high school... that one time I got drunk after downing Zaveid's drink by mistake all in one go. It was almost a disaster, though some parts of it was really good..." He smiled against Mikleo's cheek, sniffing and nuzzling him playfully.

"Y-yeah, I remember just how stupid that was," Mikleo stuttered, secretly reminded of that part of Sorey he found out for the first time when it happened. After all, he has never seen Sorey drunk ever again since then, so the noisy, shamelessly honest side to him only revealed itself at that time.

Until now, Mikleo had not breathed a word of it, not to Sorey ever. "Well, whatever made you so nervous as to drink all that much anyway?"

Pretending not to know felt like a lie. Mikleo looked away, trying to avoid Sorey's gaze.

Sorey felt a little stupid. Thanks to Mason, what he said and did back then gave him a pretty good reason never to forget those things. "Uh, tell you some other time?"

"How can you smile like that when you're all hot and bothered?"

"Come on, I'm always hot and bothered. If you have to give in to my every whim, you won't be able to leave this room at all."

"So I'm not allowed to think that way too?"

Sorey pulled Mikleo to him, suddenly kissing Mikleo's neck, the curve of his chin, the line of his jaw. He touched Mikleo's lips and traced the sensitive shape of it with his index finger.

"You don't know how bad it gets when I think about you. If I accept that offer I was talking about, I know it's only so I could spend more time with you on my days off at least... because it gets so hard sometimes. I mean, Mikleo... I get so needy there are days I wish we could do it every day. When it gets so bad, I even start daydreaming about it at work!"

"That sure was honest. So why are you tucking me in bed when you've been dying to have sex with me all this time?"

Sorey cringed with embarrassment, neck burning. "Hey, isn't this the best time to argue? Just so I could think of other stuff than that?"

"But that's not what you really want, is it? Besides, if you're not too tired... and you really feel like doing it..."    

Sorey felt his heart squeeze. Mikleo was wearing an expression he rarely wore so openly in front of him... an expression that says how much he wanted to comfort Sorey in every way he can, in every way he knows how... and in countless ways he had done before, making Sorey fall for him so easily...

So inevitably, like a puzzle piece that would never fit anywhere else but that special place it was made for.  

He caressed Mikleo's cheek. "Having you is already more than I deserve. If I start asking for more, I might make the gods jealous enough to want to kill me."

Mikleo caught Sorey's index finger as it traced another line, this time from his right temple to his cheek, down to his lower lip and chin. "Don't you think you're overrating me when you say that?"

Emerald eyes flickered in denial. "You're perfect... everything I've ever wanted and wished for, in all my childhood dreams and wishes. But all I could give you is this. You wouldn't have to put up with any of this if it wasn't my fault."  

Mikleo glared back at him. "Of all the things you are, it's this soft side to you I can't help hating the most. If you want me, don't regret me. I thought we were clear on that-"

"I'd never regret you, Mikleo!" Sorey finished for him, eyes shining with pained concern. "But that doesn't excuse what I did. It would be stupid if I hadn't realized by now how things would have been if I held myself back... if I didn't let us get caught that time. I got careless... and needy... and I let you get dragged into it..."

Mikleo knew right away that he had been right. Losing his inheritance and being disowned by his family after his relationship with Sorey had been discovered had bothered Sorey more than it did him. No amount of convincing, it seems, will ever change the way Sorey feels about it.

He scowled teasingly at the expression Sorey was making. "Look, how many times do I have to remind you that it was as much my fault? I couldn't wait for a better time to tell you that they meant to send me away, and maybe... maybe I was hoping it would happen the way it did... that you'd do something to stop me."

Sorey frowned. "Of course I would, but I let myself get carried away instead of thinking what else I could do to make things right."

Mikleo could never belittle those feelings, but he could not help the smile that crept into the corners of his mouth. "Sorey..."

"All I knew back then was I couldn't let you leave. I never bothered to ask about your priorities or what your family wanted for you," Sorey sighed in between breaths. "And every time you're with me, it's the same, I can't help but not be able to think of anything else but having you by my side... even if I'm not good for you."

"Shut it and kiss me, you dork."

Mikleo felt his body grow hot as Sorey lowered himself gently and slipped a hand underneath Mikleo's shirt, kissing every inch of skin showing as he lifted Mikleo's shirt with one hand and caressed his cheek with the other.

Mikleo tried not to shiver as Sorey looked up at him with beseeching eyes. "Sorey, you know I can't ever hate you. Even back then, I wanted it to happen. Maybe we did push it too far, but it's sort of funny... how we ended up in my bedroom right after that."

Sorey smiled, unable to take his eyes off Mikleo's creamy, white skin. "I know. It was my first time... and we did it until morning too."

Mikleo felt his groin react to the warmth of Sorey's swelling need against his own. "That's why we got caught."

"And no less by Michael of all people," Sorey muttered as he threw his shirt onto the floor and slipped out of his boxers. Mikleo caught his breath at the sight of Sorey's manhood and his sculptured body towering over him now as Sorey yanked Mikleo's shirt off and pulled down his pajamas. 

Mikleo tried not to be too distracted. "If it were my mom, you think the shock would have been less?"

"Muse adored me, at least." Sorey said that nonchalantly, but with an expression that was certainly nostalgic. "I miss her as much as you do... a mother I never had who always looked after both of us in every way."

Sorey's voice caught a little, but he stopped himself there, not wanting to make Mikleo any sadder than he must feel at the reminder of someone precious who had left this world... like a memory of good things and happy things doomed to remain nothing but a memory for reminiscing.

Mikleo looked away, trying his best to swallow the pain engulfing him like a sudden tide. "Nothing right has ever happened after that... nothing... except you."

It was just a momentary weakness, a vulnerability Mikleo had rarely, almost never, shown, but Sorey felt a sudden, irrepressible urge to fill the void, that yawning emptiness about to swallow Mikleo whole.

He started kissing Mikleo slowly... agonizingly slow, breathlessly yearning kisses that ached to do more but held themselves back with shivering self-control and trepidation.

But as his fingers ran down Mikleo's waist to his hip, then down that space between his thighs where he ached to touch and stroke Mikleo, Sorey paused and held Mikleo by the wrists instead, pushing them above his head and pinning them there gently.

"S-Sorey?"

"I promised Muse that I won't ever hurt you... that you'll have whatever you need... everything you deserved."

Mikleo saw the desperation surfacing for about three seconds before being suppressed once more. His eyes misted with a twisting ache.

"Sorey, why are you killing yourself with guilt over me when you lost more than I ever did? I took your dreams away... you had to give up your scholarship and quit the university even when you had so much potential. You're brilliant... you've worked so hard to get those recommendations anybody else would die for..."

"Stop it, all right? It's not like my alma mater's gonna run away and disappear. I just have other priorities at the moment."

"You could lose your one and only chance, and you know it! But I could always have my grant back. I mean, Michael can't take away everything even if he says he can. His empty threats don't mean a thing."

Sorey took Mikleo's mouth with a savage kiss, biting his lower lip and the lobes of his ears with desperate urgency. Memories came to him of that conversation he had with Michael that shocked him more than anything, to the point he could not bring himself to let Mikleo know of it.

He pulled out of Mikleo's embrace for one flickering moment just to let him know how resolved he is.

"Look, I love Muse, but I can't forgive Michael. That's why I promise to do everything I can so you don't have to depend on him or on anyone else for anything. 'Cause it hurts so bad, when there are things I couldn't give you... things that you deserve... in every way."

"Sorey, you got it all wrong!" Mikleo shook his head. "For a moment, have you ever thought about what you want? You work six days a week, you take two to three jobs every chance you get, you're spreading yourself thin, and you worry if I have everything I need? Did you even stop to think where you would be right now if you didn't have me to look after?"

Sorey's eyes glazed over. "I just can't imagine a world without you. Is that wrong for you?"

"One of these days you're gonna realize what I put you through, and you'll hate me for everything you had to give up for me..."

"Nothing I ever did could make me hate you 'cause I wouldn't have done it if it felt wrong to begin with. Besides, I didn't give up anything, I'm just putting them on hold is all."

"Even if that's true, I don't think I could repay you. Even if I live my life a million times over, I'd still owe you."

Sorey kissed him softly, tenderly. "Loving me a little every day is already a lot."

"Don't make me cry..."

"My bad, I was actually doing my best to make you smile. C'mon, cheer up, stop thinking I was such a loser for choosing you."

"What a creep, you're such an idiot, do you know that?" Mikleo had tears in his eyes, and he wiped them away angrily. "I swear, you're going to have to let me do something for you to even things out, and you can't take no for an answer."   

"Only if you really want to. Except for one thing."

Mikleo's eyes widened in surprise as Sorey fondly caressed his cheek then lowered his hip onto Mikleo's groin.

"In bed, I want to be on equal terms with you, love. Forget everything about who owes who because I never think about those things anyway. It would hurt me if you did... and it would kill me if you do things for me for any other reason than what your heart really wants."

"You're a dork like always..." Mikleo groaned in Sorey's ear as he felt Sorey's throbbing need nudge his thigh as if begging to be let in.

"You can say what you want, but I'd always want you. Every single moment of every single day of your waking life from hereon. That's more demanding than you'll ever be."

"How mean, just when I'm willing to bargain... like starting today I'm free of charge when you want to shower together... or if you want some service..."

"Service, huh? Are you sure? Like nothing in fine print I should know?" Sorey laughed a little, muffling Mikleo's reply with kisses that included teeth and tongue playfully nibbling, licking and sucking everything into a sweet bruise. "As if I'd let you anyway..."

Mikleo stroked Sorey, feeling his enormous shaft tremble so eagerly in his hand. "It's so huge I want to put this in my mouth to taste, just once."

Sorey shivered when Mikleo said that, his muffled groan arousing Mikleo as he quickened his strokes.

"Don't force yourself, though. You've never done it before, and I wouldn't want to make you cry because I let you do something weird or disgusting... or something you're not quite ready for."

"It's not disgusting. Maybe weird, but everything about you is just you. I love you too, Sorey..."

Sorey quivered as Mikleo's smile took him. "Careful, I might get used to this." 

"I don't mind. But you have to earn it." It was his turn to smile at the tease as Mikleo slowly adjusted his position, letting Sorey switch places with him as he rolled on top of Sorey and lowered himself.

Sorey's hardness stood as straight as a rod, thick and almost dripping with moist heat.

"I just want to lick it. Is that all right?"

Sorey throbbed at the question. "Seriously, just feeling your breath down there is enough to make me lose it."

Mikleo put his lips on the side of it, feeling the veins tickle the tip of his tongue. "So hot, so sticky... I didn't know it tastes like this."

Sorey trembled. "Stop teasing, I'm controlling myself right now. I don't want to get your face all dirty... oh god... oh god Mikleo, that felt good!"

Mikleo swirled his tongue a bit more playfully around the tip then down the length of the shaft to the base. Sorey smelled nice too. "Your scent is stronger here..."

"Hearing about it only makes me miss that part of you too. Wanna switch places with me?"

"But I'm not done yet..." Mikleo tried to put Sorey's cock in his mouth, but the size was too much for him, making him barely cover the entire tip. He sucked on it though, hoping he was doing it right the way Sorey knew how. Just imagining Sorey doing this to him was enough to make him come. He wanted nothing more than to make Sorey feel the same way...

Sorey finally pulled Mikleo up and pushed him down the bed, putting his weight on that light, svelte figure as gently as he could, earning a deep, yearning moan from Mikleo as their needs met. This time, he kissed Mikleo's mouth hungrily, licking his lips as his hand slid between Mikleo's legs to stroke him. When Mikleo's nails dug into his skin, and he gave a whimpering moan that told Sorey how much he wanted Sorey inside of him right now, he pushed Mikleo's legs apart, hooking one thigh over his shoulder.

Mikleo's eyes drooped with a heavy, undeniable yearning as Sorey's languid, emerald gaze spoke to him wordlessly, begging to be allowed the sheer pleasure of claiming him to his heart's content.

When he nodded, Sorey let his fingers enter first, moistening the tight, throbbing hole that swallowed him eagerly, wetly, enough to make his cock swell into a massive pain as he imagined what it would feel to have his manhood plunge into that tightness like it belonged there and nowhere else. His other hand, meanwhile, continued to stroke Mikleo fluidly, up and down, gently at first, then going faster and faster as Mikleo melted against him, arching his body to meet his hot, hard thrusts.

Sorey could only do so much with foreplay... his body ached and throbbed and it was too painful to bear. He held his cock and pushed his weight down Mikleo, sinking his hot, hard shaft down to the hilt. He could not keep himself from crying out Mikleo's name as the heat gave way to his thrusts and tightened all around him.

He bent down to kiss away Mikleo's soft whimpers against the pillow. "I love you..."

Mikleo craned his neck to kiss that soft mouth that brushed against his nape, his temple, places that burned and tickled as he lavished attention on them.

Sorey felt his manhood throb with a telling ache. "I'm at my limit, love... can I?"

Mikleo moaned. "I love you. But you already know that, right?" 

"Maybe?" Sorey bantered a little, grunting as every inch of his body, his desire, begged to be relieved. Even his thoughts quivered with a familiar yearning he could never deny even back then, back when he thought he could keep his feelings to himself and leave Mikleo alone.

I'm sorry... I don't know if you can forgive this selfish person for falling in love with you and not letting you go.

I just hope you won't regret me. Because there's nothing I'd regret ever for as long as we can be together...

With that, Sorey shuddered as he plunged himself ever so deeply, more deeply than his rapid thrusts ever could.   

Mikleo grabbed his arm for support, his body rippling with ecstasy as he felt Sorey's length shudder within him. Sorey had been holding himself back for the longest time, and all that yearning made him tunnel deeper, harder and faster with stuttering grunts and cries of pleasure.

Finally, he thrust into that hidden place with a deep, whimpering moan that spoke whole volumes of the intensity of his want. Panting, Mikleo twisted and cried out Sorey's name as he arched into an ecstasy of absolute surrender.

"You know how much I love you, don't you?" Sorey breathed out in the middle of his rising climax, chasing his breath. "I can never love anyone but you... until we're old and grey and about to leave this world."

Mikleo reached up to touch Sorey's face. "Sheesh, I hope you're aware how scary that sounds when you say it."

Sorey kissed his fingertips. Then he pulled out and started for the drawer. 

Mikleo stopped his hand with a quiver. "You don't... have to use that. I want to feel you inside me... just as you are. It's all right."

Sorey's eyes widened. "We haven't done it that way since the first time... are you sure?"

Mikleo rolled onto his stomach and pushed his hips up. "Make me feel good, Sorey..." 

Sorey leaned onto him, hands firmly latching onto his waist as his widened eyes shimmered with intense devotion. "Don't worry love, I will... I promise... and I love you so much..."

That night, Mikleo could not tell how many times he felt Sorey's overflowing desire within him fill him up and fulfill everything he might have wished to be right in the world.

For Sorey it felt more than a miracle and all the secret wishes he could ever pray for... more than all the light of those stars shining in some corner of the universe like souls aflame looking for a place to heal and a place to be born again.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

  

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

"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.

 

o-----)o(-----o 

 

"Chancellor, he's waiting in the foyer. He says he'd rather you meet him there."

"I see. Is he alone?"

"Yes, sir."

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."

"Classes?"

"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.

 

o-----)o(-----o

 

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.

Expectations indeed...      

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.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 o------------o)O(o------------o

 

"Here we are, number fifty-five, Devereaux Drive." 

The sharp curve brought the cab to an abrupt stop, but more than being a necessary inconvenience, it signaled the fact that he had arrived at the mansion. Bartlow handed the driver a sheaf of paper bills, not bothering to count them.

He stepped out, glad that the driver did not bother to give him a second look. He was dressed down after all, deciding to change into a nondescript office attire from the formal business suit he left in the office. The man beside him was more casually dressed, though he was on duty.

"It's been a long time since I went out like this."

The man said nothing, cradling his phone as he rang the security inside the gate. They were let in in less than five minutes.   

The interior of the mansion was barely lit. He went up the flight of stairs to his bedroom, dropping his coat on the way.

The room was huge, more a combination of an office, a study, and a personal chamber with a chandelier at the center that had dimmer lights. There were two lamps on the far side of the room across the bed, one on each side of a long, velvet couch that sat in the opposite wall across a long table and a large mahogany bookshelf.

A man was seated on a lone armchair next to it, his posture barely adjusting to the presence that had just about made itself felt.

"You're late," the voice came from behind a book hiding the man's face. "I've been calling, but you seem too busy to even check your cellphone."

"You seem to forget you're talking to one of the most important men in this country."

Michael Rulay gave him a sardonic glance, but he did not put his book away. "We seem to be in a bad mood."

"Dear god, I'm tired."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Chancellor. Did my nephew break your heart that much?"

"Shut up, Michael. Where's dinner, by the way?"

"If you're going to be an asshole this entire evening, I'd rather dine out. On my own."

"Not asking about you." Bartlow threw down his tie after pulling it off with an impatient tug. "A talent for annoyance seems to run in your blood, that I can say."

"Indeed. I wonder what Muse would say if she knew."

"Don't start with your dead sister. My humor is foul today."

"Are you going to break my neck the same way?"

Bartlow flinched visibly. "Are you accusing me of murder?"

"As far as I know people can break their necks when they've had a little too much... of suffocating love."

"I think you've had too much to drink."

"I remember Captain Boris," Michael said with uncharacteristic emphasis, though his voice seemed calm and composed, too composed in fact. "I had a pleasant talk with his younger brother at the book launch today. A very good-looking man... just like his older brother. We both saw him at the funeral and even shook hands with him. His eulogy was quite poetic, almost moved me to tears."

"I hardly remember anyone I have no business with."

"Really? I find that hard to believe."

"You can believe almost anything."

"True enough," Michael chuckled. "Boris was a promising young man... before you started toying with him. Nothing but a piece of meat to vultures like you."

"That Boris?" Bartlow gave a snort of disgust. "They love the attention when it gives them something they want but don't deserve. Like a title... some social status money can't buy."

"And you merely grant them their most earnest wishes. How thoughtful of you. I almost thought you loved charity." Michael huffed. 

"They have to earn their keep, everyone does. There's no such thing as free lunch."

"Is that what you put in Boris's head when you conspired to get rid of Muse? He did a fine job seducing my dear sister, took advantage of her trusting nature to rob her of her fortune, then gave her a bastard son as if to remind her of the misery she didn't deserve. But then, after accomplishing such a feat, you made Boris kill himself... and it's all for your sake. You've disposed of the corpus delicti so well... so tragically... that it even ended up making Boris a hero, as if that matters to the dead. As for the real culprit, no one can charge him with homicide, murder, or manslaughter... not by any law. I think the right term should be manipulation... and it's a crime that wouldn't land anyone in jail, oh no."

Michael put down his book this time, as well as his glasses, meeting the grey, unflinching stare that seemed willing to burn a hole through him. "Maybe hell, Charles, but not a prison cell. Because any sentence would be too kind for a man such as yourself."

"Call me a monster, a devil, if you wish. I'm going out."

"Careful, darling. I don't want you to die so soon. Not when we still have our dreams to fulfill..."

Bartlow threw down his coat and pulled Michael out of the chair by the collar. "How desperate are you to find me in bed?"

They kissed... madly, Bartlow grabbing Michael's crotch desperately, as if he was reaching for something too far for grasping.

"Your frustration almost tastes as bitter as mine, Charles," Michael says finally, after breaking off the kiss. "You ought to be careful."

Bartlow pinned his arms from behind him before Michael knew what was happening, then turned him around, pushing him against the wall. He unclasped his belt, shoved down his trousers, then doing the same with Michael began to ram him hard from behind, rasping, panting, letting his leery breath ghost behind Michael's ears as he began to ease his engorged manhood between his lover's thighs.

The violent thrusts ended sooner than Michael had been afraid of, leaving Bartlow's release oozing from between his legs.

Bartlow left his trousers where they were, deciding to grab a bathrobe instead. "We're having dinner when I'm done. You better clean yourself too."

For some reason, his voice did not sound as thick and gruff as before. Not that Michael had expected otherwise. This was just one of a few things about the chancellor that made him so appealing despite his age. And to think he had just turned forty-seven. His stamina is almost frightening.

"I don't think I'd be able to walk easy after this."

Bartlow looked over his shoulder but not far enough to make their eyes meet. His grin seemed more crooked than Michael had last seen it. "Then cook anything you want, you seem good at that. Just leave out the poison, if you could."

Try as he might, Michael could not think of anything to say to that.

 

o-----)o(-----o  

   

The air was cold, damp, and it seems that the first snow has just started to fall. Yurive had been counting his own footsteps on the wet pavement, careful not to stray from the white line that he used to trail as a child imagining sharks on either side of it.

He could not help smiling as the memory pushed itself more insistently, and he almost jumped when his foot slipped. Make-believe sharks seem to be just as frightening as real ones as he thought of rows of jagged teeth snagging him by the foot if he ever fell off the white strip of cement that was his imaginary lifeline. 

For fifteen minutes, he allowed himself to fall into the old habit, unsure as to why he kept returning to those vague, childhood memories.

He remembered his own father, the one whose face was easier to forget than the monthly check he would send as allowance or compensation, whichever it was. Yurive knew it was to make certain that his alcoholic mother took care of the brat that he was, while keeping her mouth shut about everything else.

When he was growing up, he wondered why during her saner days his mom would just watch the news and spit at the face of a certain man who spoke of the elections, or the economic downpour that had saddled the entire continent for the past twenty years. He sounded brilliant enough, looked dignified enough (any man in a grey suit would, he assumed back then), but his mother would cuss and call the guy names he himself was not allowed to use while playing basketball with his friends.

The senator was considerate at least, never forgetting his obligations until Yurive finished college. But it was hard to admire someone when you realize that the same man kicked your mother out of his estate after getting her pregnant because he already has a pretty wife and picture-perfect children he could call family... the same ones your mom had been babysitting for when she was not too busy spreading her legs for him.

Crushing the man's cock would not be enough for revenge. But he thought of something better with which to score victories no one should be able to humiliate him for.

Yurive managed to graduate from Princeton with honors. He made friends with all the filthy rich kids who shook hands with him because he was such an irresistible charmer with a sweet tongue no one could compete with. He slept with anyone, man or woman, depending on his pocket, his title, or the size of his charms. Along the way he had met a Greek shipping magnate who loved art films and young men with pedigree.

It was easy to get the man's attention... he could have been his grandfather, the age gap was huge. But it did not seem to be an obstacle. The aging business tycoon invested his money in a multinational franchise and put everything under Yurive's name before he died. It was to be expected that he passed away a bachelor with no other heirs save distant relations who would rather take a huge check than file lawsuits and have their ugly secrets exposed.    

Easy money, easy life. Yurive became a shameless Cassanova just like the father he would have hated less if he had known him more. As they say the more you know a person the more you excuse everything he did.

And the more he knew his father the more he realized how he resembled him... and little by little learned to forgive the demon that he was.

After all, it was the only way he could live with himself, excuse his own tireless greed and love conquests, his exorbitant need for reassurance, his self-serving pride and intellectual arrogance.

By and by, he felt the need to settle down and married a woman whom he thought could change him. But no matter how beautiful, no matter how brilliant, even good friends have their limits, and he was a bad lover to begin with.

The romantic progression from friends to lovers does not happen even if you put years into it if the other would not cross to the other side. 

Or maybe he just loved men too much to give up his sordid affairs. After all women seek faith and loyalty more than anything, but that was the last thing on his mind when he thinks about relationships. Faith is only for religion, and he did not even have that either. And loyalty is only for dogs...

That was what he thought back then. But love must feel different. Love must feel like faith in the impossible... like the hopeless wish of a child who did not know any better and could not be any worse for not knowing. 

Love is blissful ignorance, a state of mind that turns a blind eye to a world of lies, hypocrisies, and self-serving truths. It craves for something permanent in a world that is temporary and always changing.

Love believes in a happily-ever-after that naively expects everyone to stay the same no matter what. Despite inflation, recession, corporate downsizing, global warming, the great Euro crisis and the pandemic.

It wants vague things, ambiguous things, cut out from fantasy... not the geometrical precision of a reality full of sharp angles that can bleed you in many ways.

Thankfully, his meandering thoughts had been rudely interrupted.

He glanced at his cellphone. His secretary was calling. She told him that Sorey was still at the cafe. But he had requested to be off earlier than his normal schedule. Something urgent he said.

His secretary then asked if he wanted the young man to be told to wait for him. Yurive thought about it for three seconds. Normally he would have simply said yes, after all, is that not a superior's prerogative?

But something stopped him. With Sorey he would rather not impose. It would unnerve him to have Sorey conduct himself like a dutiful employee where he is concerned. Besides, it would be more exhilarating to catch him unawares.

He wanted to see his genuine reaction to his arrival, even if that was something best left to his imagination.

"No need to. I'm sure to catch him if I head over now."

He thought about what he has just said. Catching Sorey would not be so easy. Oblivious and kind almost to a fault, he would not suspect anything Yurive did as a sign of affection. He would let things pass and render them invisible... like sunshine, rain, and the weather.

To Sorey, he must be no more significant than the daily weather report. You listen to it, talk about it, but you never think about it for more than three seconds of every day.

Oh god, that was just depressing. He shook his head for overthinking, then turned around quickly, heading for the opposite direction when his body met something hard... or knocked against something so hard the figure literally went down on its knees. 

Yurive took a minute to realize what had happened before instinct took over, and he pulled the young man to his feet.

"I'm sorry," he stuttered, his mind still reeling from the distraction. "I didn't see you..."

He paused. Silver hair, almond-shaped, lavender eyes... eyes that probably haunted anyone who had seen them this close. The young man seemed barely in his twenties, though his eyes had a sophisticated expression in them that betrayed experience.

"No, it was as much my fault. I was looking at the time."

"Same here." His heart was aflutter. The young man has the same penetrating gaze, the same fragile beauty and indifference as someone he had known from his past... a relationship he had lost to someone who probably did not deserve him.

This man reminded him of a certain woman he would be damned to forget. And it's not because of some infatuation he has had before. Quite the opposite actually... 

"Sure you're not hurt? Let me help you up..."

The young man gave him a steady gaze as he reached out his right hand. The pull was gentle but powerful, making him stumble forward as he tried to regain his balance.

Yurive was amazed at the almost weightless pressure against his chest as the man leaned forward for support. "You're incredibly light. Are you sure you're all right? You look a little pale."

Lavender eyes gave him a look of surprise. "Sorry about that, but thanks, I'm good. I'll be on my way."

"Uh, wait!" For some reason his body moved on its own, and his hand reached out to pull at the young man's gloved hand. "You dropped this."

He gently pushed onto him a leather-bound book that looked slim enough, like a personal journal. "This might be important."

"It is, thanks again."

Yurive had glanced the legible handwriting on the book cover. "You're a law student? I have to say I was trying to be a gentleman."

"No worries, no one files a lawsuit without a decent cause of action. And this doesn't qualify." There was a hint of a smile on those pale lips.

"Uh, right. Don't let me get in your way again."

"Sure, thanks."    

Yurive did not know why he found something so sensually arousing about the young man's distant gaze as he walked past him, to disappear just as quickly in the moving dots of grey and black, unencumbered by the scant snowflakes drifting lazily from a dead sky.

He glanced at his watch and frowned. Without letting another distraction compromise his feelings at the moment, he started walking in the direction of the cafe with uncharacteristic haste, unaware of the sharks on either side of the faded white line that disappeared under his feet.

The way bad romance and childhood memories ought to.

o-----)o(-----o 

 

Mikleo felt tired, rushing through the groceries while thinking of something Sorey might like for dinner for a change. He called him up to tell him that he decided to postpone his trip to the library. He wanted both of them to have dinner at home, and he planned on cooking for him too.

Sorey's reply to say the least was overenthusiastic. He always made sure that Mikleo felt appreciated by expressing his feelings as explicitly as possible. Too explicit to the point of sappy, the kind that embarrasses Mikleo a lot. But it made him smile and got him so distracted that he bumped into someone while going over Sorey's message.

The man was almost huge, well-built, and had a very handsome look around him. Mikleo was almost distracted by his looming presence.

He shook his head at the thought. He preferred Sorey's height, his build, his kind, honest eyes. Sorey's emerald eyes are the world to him no other beauty could compare. And his smile all the more makes it better... an irresistible temptation he would never regret falling into.

As soon as he got all the groceries on the kitchen counter neatly classified and set apart to be put away later, he walked into the bedroom and undressed. A shower seems to be in order, he felt so tired, almost enervated, even if he could not remember having done anything so stressful.

Then again there was Bartlow. That man... Mikleo flinched at the memory of his fingers latching onto his hip like that, those fingers reaching down to feel him through the coat. He wanted to throw up just imagining where those hands would have been if he had been naive enough to meet the chancellor in the privacy of his chamber.

Sorey had warned him enough about not coming anywhere near Bartlow, much less being alone with him. Could it be that Sorey had known all along? He did not venture so far as to ask him why he seemed so adverse at the mere mention of the man's name.

He rarely catches Sorey in a sour mood but when it comes to Bartlow, he suddenly becomes tight-lipped and uneasy, bright eyes dimming like cold steel in dead water.

Mikleo shook off those images, trying to get his tired body to relax in the warm shower. Maybe he could put some cologne too... not to be too suggestive, though. Just enough to subdue the stench of cigar that clung to his memory like stigma, even though he knew it was impossible for that stench to be lingering around him now.

Even in places too far for Bartlow to reach, Mikleo could feel vague, restless shadows ghosting his skin, filling his nostrils with the pungent smell of tobacco ash and stale tea... like odors that had been locked in a room for too long and left to ferment there.

Trying to shake free of those thoughts, he stepped out of the shower into his blue, cotton robe, appreciating the softness and the lavender scent of it as he tied the front together in a loose knot. He looked at the time and felt it too early to be getting dinner ready.

Maybe he still has time for a nap.

He was looking for something easy and comfortable enough to wear when he spotted a familiar box sitting in the corner of the dresser. It must be that over-sized pajama top that he had been considering returning to the store to exchange for the correct size, but somehow he and Sorey never got around to doing it. He took it out of the box and tried it on. It felt comfortably loose and long enough to cover his upper thighs.

Without bothering to slip into any underwear, he threw himself onto the bed, loving the feel and scent of the sheets while leaving his pajama top loosely buttoned to let his skin dry naturally.

He was exposed, but, strangely, he did not feel hot or cold, making him wonder about it vaguely. Feeling his lids grow heavy, he promised to change into something more decent as soon as he wakes up. Right now, all he needed is a quick nap to feel refreshed.

He would get up in half an hour, have dinner ready, and welcome Sorey with a free mind, unhampered by images of Bartlow and those filthy hands feeling him up.

He was fast asleep before he could set the alarm on the bedside table, ticking quietly away.

 

o-----)o(-----o   

 

Sorey was wondering if surprising Mikleo with flowers would be too much. Flowers are expensive, and he buys them only when the occasion warrants it because Mikleo complains a little too much when he overspends on gifts. Not that one could really call it over-spending.

Mikleo is admittedly stingy when it comes to buying personal stuff for himself, but that only makes it more tempting for Sorey to buy him small tokens of affection, anything to surprise him once in a while when they have time for each other, which comes rarely with their tangled schedules.

Arriving at their apartment at half past six that evening, however, Sorey was not expecting to be the one surprised.

Creamy white skin sprawled luxuriantly, exuberantly and very carelessly in an over-sized pajama top suggestively showing nothing beneath it. Sorey almost jumped out of his coat, scarf, gloves and underwear to ravish Mikleo when he saw those slim legs, those bare calves, that slightly bare chest laid out like a feast on their pristine-white bed.

Mikleo looked so virginal, so seductively pure and innocent despite the wanton posture that begged to be assaulted.

Sorey laid the flowers on the bedside table, then leaned over Mikleo to give him a soft kiss. As much as his body throbbed for intimacy, he did not want Mikleo to be disturbed. 

Mikleo groaned sleepily, making Sorey curse himself a little more. He swore Mikleo had virtually nothing beneath that top, making his cock twitch just imagining it.

"Sorey? Is that you?"

"Tired, love? Don't get up, I can fix dinner, I mean... that's why I left work as soon as I got your message. I wanted to help out."

Mikleo stretched his legs a little. Try as he might, Sorey could not take his eyes off those slender thighs parted just ever so slightly as if to give the tiniest hint of what could be lying in between. He swallowed.

"So stupid of me to forget the alarm. I really just wanted to take a nap... I got home too early and had a shower and it felt so good..." Mikleo knew he was rambling. It was one of his bad habits when waking up.

Sorey chuckled, loving the way Mikleo sounds when he tries to talk in his half-awake state. "So is this part of it too?" He lifted the pajama top, hoping to get a peak of Mikleo's naked manhood, but Mikleo beat him to it, pulling it down before his eyes could devour the enticement that was down there.

"Stop teasing, all right!" He noticed the flowers. "What's the occasion?"

"I... well... I want to thank you for yesterday. I know it's not the only thing I should be thankful for but... it was a memory I wouldn't forget. I hope you feel the same. And..." Sorey scratched his cheek. "I just couldn't get it off my mind. I think everyone at work noticed."

"Oh god, you're such a teenager! Don't tell me you got distracted and broke a few plates?"

"Not this time, but Rose did, and for a different reason." Sorey handed him the bouquet, leaning in for a kiss. "Do you like them?"

"I've always loved tulips," Mikleo found himself admitting so openly, breathing in the subtle scent. "They're mighty expensive, though, and I just told you about not bothering..."

Sorey could not help himself. Mikleo and the sight of reds and yellows hiding his face as he bent down to smell the tulips were enchanting enough to make Sorey lose his reserve. He cupped Mikleo's face and kissed him with a passion, putting his tongue in while pressing his body hard, so hard against Mikleo's pliant body that he was certain Mikleo felt the hot, hard, pulsating bulge between his legs.

Setting down the bouquet on the bedside table behind him, Mikleo drew back to stare at the tent in Sorey's pants. The attention only made Sorey swallow harder. "What got you so aroused?" 

"You in our bed in that pajama top... it's just... so... so sexy..."

Mikleo suddenly had wanton thoughts. He fell back onto the bed in a half-reclining repose, lifting his legs until the edge of the top slipped up, barely an inch above his crotch, showing a shadow of the tip of his cock that was half-hard. "Come to me then, Sorey..."

Sorey threw down his coat in three seconds, slipped out of his scarf and gloves in two, then kicked his socks off in one. He left his clothes in a confused tangle on the floor as he climbed onto the bed on all fours. He suddenly stopped midway.

"What is it?" Mikleo asked.

He remembered how sensitive Mikleo was to smells and odors. "I haven't showered yet..."

"You did this morning... and you still smell great..." Mikleo wondered why it was he who sounded impatient.

"Sure?" Sorey sniffed himself. Mikleo laughed.

"Stop! You look so uncool when you do that!" It was, to be honest, one of Sorey's child-like idiosyncrasies, and it was more endearing than he cared to say.

Sorey laughed at himself. "I know, I just don't want you pushing me away right in the middle of the action."

"Sheesh, you make it sound like this is a wrestling match."

"Isn't it, though?" Sorey asked, lunging at Mikleo before he could dodge. He tore the pajama top open, letting his hands roam the expanse of creamy, white skin that bared itself to him as his fingers pinched the sensitive pink nubs of flesh that made Mikleo catch his breath. Satisfied with that reaction, he savored Mikleo's bottom lip, loving how the softness gave in so easily to his persistent tugging. 

Mikleo groaned and flinched as Sorey made wet, hungry noises while nibbling and biting the buds of pink on his chest, rolling their tiny peaks between his lips then his teeth. He parted Mikleo's legs a little roughly as he tore the rest of the pajama top off, then threw it down the floor.

Finding Mikleo's arousal almost as intense as his own, he began massaging Mikleo's cock hard, with a grinding impatience that reminded Mikleo of their high school trysts... when Sorey would rough him up at the back of the car, managing to tear his uniform every time until a sewing kit became a handy necessity.

With a loud grunt, Sorey tore off his boxers, feeling uncomfortable as his erection pushed the fabric to its limits. His eyes smoldered with lust as he gazed at Mikleo's feverish skin.

"Lie down, Mikleo. I want to suck you off."

Mikleo stared at the huge arsenal bobbing at him. "Don't you think I should be the one doing it? Yours looks painful."

"True, but..." Sorey groaned, then pushed Mikleo roughly down the bed. "I'm dying of hunger right now." With that, Sorey dipped his mouth into Mikleo's opening, tasting the throbbing hole with relish, before letting his tongue climb up, up the erection that quivered between his lips as he took all of it in his mouth.

Mikleo arched forward, loving the feel of Sorey's warm, eager mouth relishing and ravishing him so carelessly.

He let his fingers comb Sorey as he filled his cheeks with Mikleo. "Oh, oh... Sorey... that's..."

"Good?" Sorey gave him a languid stare. "Feed me... Mikleo."

Mikleo arched into his mouth, spilling his seed with a sharp cry. He was panting Sorey's name as Sorey caught the liquid fire that dribbled along the side of his erection, trickling down his thighs.

Mikleo saw how hard Sorey was. His manhood was throbbing painfully. It was his turn to return the favor so he pushed Sorey down. "Let me..."

Sorey spread his legs contentedly as Mikleo dipped his face and took the tip of his swelling heat. Sorey stuttered his name, groaning deep and hard as Mikleo swirled his tongue at the throbbing crown of his shaft.

"Mikleo, you're gonna make me come so soon with that!"

Mikleo paused. "How?"

Sorey's gaze softened. "Your tongue is amazing... it makes me want to be inside you more and more..."

To his surprise, Mikleo laid back onto the pillows, spreading his legs apart, in a way Sorey had never seen him do before. The way his slim, white body beckoned to him so sensually, so lewdly made him shiver.

Mikleo rubbed his cock up and down. "Fill me up when you're ready..."

Eyes widening, he fumbled through the drawer, reaching for a condom. Mikleo shook his head. "Not today either. Just come inside me... like yesterday..."

Sorey's cock twitched, but he ignored that. "Are you sure? Your body might not feel so good after..."

Mikleo shook his head. "I'm losing my mind right now. I want to feel you... only you..."

Sorey would have insisted much longer if his cock was not being so honest. It was rock hard and swelling at its fullest mast. His hand held it instinctively, poking at Mikleo's hole. "I'm going in, Mikleo..."

Sorey tried to do it slowly, but the sensation was too much, and he cried at the naked feel of his manhood sliding into Mikleo's depths. It filled him with an agonizing pleasure, the same thrill he felt the first time they had done it raw.

His body told him to move, and before he knew it, he was grunting loud and madly as he shuttled in and out of Mikleo, lost in the pleasure of that lithe body clamping against his hardness. He tunneled relentlessly into Mikleo again and again, each thrust becoming harder, deeper, and more desperate by the minute.

He lifted Mikleo's legs in the air, his cock vertically aligned with Mikleo's almost suspended body. "So good... uh... M-Mik... Mikleo... I can't stop..."

Mikleo arched toward him, meeting each penetrating thrust with a shiver, seeing as how every naked muscle in Sorey rippled with his every movement. Mikleo squeezed Sorey hard, making him grunt. 

"From the back... so you can lean on me..."

Sorey turned him around, letting Mikleo open himself up to him. His pink hole was twitching.

Sorey entered without hesitation, latching a firm hold on him from the waist down. He reveled at the feel of Mikleo receiving him so smoothly, clamping so hard against every swelling vein of his hot, hard need. 

Mikleo allowed his body to be controlled, following Sorey's rhythm as he rocked Mikleo forward, backward, up and down, making the bed creak dangerously. Beside himself with the rare pleasure of having his way with Mikleo like this, Sorey rammed his cock hard and fast, filling the room with loud, shameless moans of absolute pleasure.

Sorey cried out Mikleo's name as he came to a full stop, then Mikleo felt him shiver violently.

Mikleo held onto the bedpost, feeling Sorey's cock expand then burst into life. Never had he felt Sorey's seed explode this hotly, this intensely inside of him before.

Sorey held onto him, kissing his sweat, his moisture with feverish passion. "God... so good... I've never... felt so good... you're so perfect... so amazing, Mikleo..."

Mikleo let himself be embraced despite the clammy feel of their thick sweat and liquid fires intermingling. "You sound like we're already on our honeymoon."

Sorey trailed kisses on his bare shoulder, sucking on a spot hungrily. "Umm... no... I want that to be even more special. And we'll do it where I don't have to hold myself back anymore..."

Mikleo frowned. "You were holding back at that rate?"

Sorey smiled through his hair. "I was worried about the bed, love."

"Tell me about it." There was an ugly, creaking sound beneath them, like a broken plank.

"Guess I really did break it this time. Maybe seconds before I came."

"Right." Mikleo shook his head. "No need to go into the details, please."

"Well, if it can't be helped, we could always go to a hotel... until we buy a new one."

"No please..." Mikleo begged. "You get ideas every time."

"Hey, the last time was after graduation." Sorey's eyes became languid. "And because you promised back then..."

Mikleo shivered as Sorey started kissing him. "You made me promise, remember?"

"Was I even that bad?" Sorey breathed kisses down Mikleo's neck, amazed at the way his skin bloomed and flushed so easily.

"You don't remember anyone complaining about how embarrassingly loud you were?"  

"Hey, isn't that your fault? Today I almost ended up doing wild, barbaric things to you when I found you the way I did. You're too tempting to be left alone."

Mikleo felt his face burn. "So, should I thank you for your reserve? Not that it scares me when you say that. I wonder why."

"Because you know I can't hurt you," Sorey told him simply, leaning forward to kiss his eyelids this time. "I love you like hell... and I'd make sure you feel loved every single day."

"Sheesh, you're making me feel guilty already. Like... I overslept and forgot about dinner..."

"I'm glad you did. I don't know what would have happened to the kitchen if we did it there, do you?"

"Sorey!"

Laughing, Sorey wrapped his loving arms around Mikleo. "Why don't we both forget about dinner and just go for round two and three?"

Mikleo sighed. "Thought we promised to save some for our honeymoon."

"But I've a lot..." Sorey groans, as his hands began massaging Mikleo's hip. "And I got to unload some or I won't last that long..."

"Are we in high school? You think I'd believe that now?"

"But I want to give you all, Mikleo..." Sorey begs a little breathlessly, kissing the curves of his neck and shoulders. "Been holding in a whole month's worth of love... that wants to be inside you."

"No, thanks..." Mikleo squirmed as Sorey's tongue got a little too playful. "Hey, stop... Sorey, that... god, that tickles... I said no... sheesh!" 

Grunting impatiently this time, Sorey deepened the kiss, letting his hand reach for that intimate part that made Mikleo forget too quickly what he was saying no for.    

 

o-----)o(-----o 

 

He was certain he had caught Sorey when he pushed the door to the cafe and found the interior bustling with customers. Until he realized that it was just the ambiance of a crowded room giving it that effect. When he asked for him, Miss Diphda apologized with a somewhat confused expression.

Sorey had taken over Dezel's shift but had left about five minutes ago, and he seemed to be in a desperate hurry.

Without thinking, Yurive took off for the bookstore, leaving his single piece of luggage outside the door to his office. He was half-running when he got there.

No, Mr. Wilkes has not made a visit that day, the store clerk promptly informed him, and he bit his lip when he heard it. He knew it was the truth. They could not be mistaken about a regular customer who comes in at least three times a week... leaving him with little choice but to head back to the office and to give up finding Sorey that day.

He could only wonder at the urgency and the disappointment he felt. Tomorrow is just a few hours away, he could wait. He could finalize the finer details of the contract to pass the time, there was really no reason to feel so conflicted.

But against reason and better judgment, he decided to call up Sorey, fiddling with excuses he might use to make his purpose seem less suspicious.

He was answered by a voice mail instead. Then again, that would be logical. If he were commuting or getting ready for dinner, he would be too busy to check his phone.

Six hours later, Yurive had almost given up. Something tells him, in the pit of his stomach, that Sorey must have very persuasive reasons for keeping his cellphone unattended that long. At half past midnight of a busy weekday, one might expect a man to be in bed. But it would be strange if he went to bed straight after dinner, so much so that he allowed his phone to be unattended for six hours straight.

Then again, who was he kidding? He, who has had hundreds of relationships before, all of them brutally sexual in every way? At the back of his mind he knew Sorey could not be alone tonight... that somehow, there was some other world pressing him down with the force of gravity, enough to make the rest of the universe seem incomparably small and insignificant... or petty enough to be shut off and forgotten.

He wondered at the truth of that as he stood on the balcony of his mansion, overlooking a diamond-shaped pool. The still waters seemed to reflect the cold stars above, blinking weakly and wearily against the dull light of the moon.

From this distance they looked so lonely and pathetic against an arrogant cosmic arrangement... like a nameless constellation waiting to be discovered.

Or a secret wish, wishing itself to die.

Yurive swirled the wine in his glass. He would rather take his chances with one of those distant stars than stand out like the moon with its borrowed light.

Having said that, he would have to tell Sorey whatever needed saying and soon... if not sooner than he could make himself believe.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

"Sorey..."

"Hmmm...?" Sorey groaned, caressing the warmth of the empty space next to him. "... not morning yet. Come back to bed, love."

"But your cellphone's been ringing. Must be urgent."

"Turn it off and come here. I want you."

Mikleo stared at the blinking phone in his hand as he stood by the dresser. "No, seriously... what if it's really important?"

Sorey frowned. "Mikleo, you're right here. How can anything else be more important?"

Mikleo placed the phone in his hand and pushed the receive button. "No. Answer it right now."

"So mean..." Sorey grumbled and moaned if only to earn an unsympathetic sigh from Mikleo. "Hello?"

"Uh, sorry, did I interrupt anything?"

"Alisha?"

"Uh, sorry if I woke you up. You see, Mr. Strelka's been calling. I think he's been trying to reach you since last night."

It's only five a.m. Sorey raised an eyebrow as he glanced at the time. "Did something happen?"

"Not really." Alisha shook her head though she was certain Sorey would not see that. "He arrived yesterday and came looking for you right after you left. He looks concerned, and Lailah tells me he's sort of expecting you to clock in early today..."

He has my number, though. He scrolled through his messages. Gods, 22 text messages? And... 13 calls? Sorey groaned mentally. "I don't understand. Mr. Strelka usually lets Lailah manage our schedules. Was he... upset?"

Alisha shook her head again, knowing how the same joke has been lost on Sorey from the very beginning when everyone started to notice how he seems to attract the owner-manager's attention in more ways than one, though hardly in unpleasant ways.

"Quite the opposite. Mr. Strelka seems to like you a lot, I mean... as an employee, of course!"

"Strange, I did tell Lailah that as soon as Dezel's okay, I would like a few days off, including this weekend."

"Well, you deserve it. Everyone knows you've been handling all of Dezel's shifts since he was hospitalized. That's three weeks in a row."

"I hope he's-" Sorey stops, eyes shifting to the sound of a door sliding open.

In the soft light, he saw Mikleo standing naked, the teal-blue robe he discarded pooling at his feet. Before stepping into the shower, his body's side curves became completely illuminated, giving it a pale, almost ethereal glow.

Feeling butterflies in his stomach, Sorey swallowed, knowing how rare it was to catch this intimate side of Mikleo in the morning or to even have the chance to share a bath with him. 

"Uh, Sorey, still in there?"

"Y-yeah, sorry."

"So... uh, how about I give Lailah a head start so she could confirm your schedule with Mr. Strelka? Besides, Dezel already said that he's coming in today."

"Yeah, that would be great Alisha, thanks!"

"Sure. Uh, is... uh, Mikleo with you?"

"Huh?" Sorey almost dropped his cellphone. "How did you... err... don't tell me Rose said something-"

"Bye, Sorey! Enjoy the rest of the week, okay?" 

Sorey stared at his phone. Alisha just sounded awkwardly shy but excited back there. It was enough to make him wonder as to what kinds of things she has heard about him from Rose, and how Mikleo fit into the picture.

Not that he should be worried about anything. Rose may be a bit of a tattle-tale, but she has quickly become one of his good friends at the cafe. Alisha is the same. Her sincerity may come across to strangers as symptomatic of an eager-to-please, pushover personality, but there was genuine kindness there too and an inordinate amount of innocent goodwill that was rare enough to be faulted with anything.

Having known them during those six months that he had been working at the cafe for six hours at the most on a near-daily basis, he somewhat expected personal boundaries to shrink, for comfort zones to become a bit more negotiable.

It is no surprise then that whatever he might have let slip in his conversations with Rose gets shared with Alisha. On that note, there is really little reason to impugn his co-workers' curiosity with regard to the most guarded aspects of his private life, even things that concern Mikleo.

In many ways, Sorey really felt like the cafe has become a family to him, a pillar of support during those weeks that he has started working there as a part-time worker. Mr. Strelka has been convincing him to work full-time, but for some strange reason, he felt conflicted.

He loves everyone, they are warm friends who have become reliable and trustworthy enough to make him perfectly at ease in his new working environment. But there is something he cannot quite place... a feeling, a certain mood, that reminds him to be careful where it concerns Yurive.

For certain they get along on a different level. They share similar tastes, even hobbies and interests, which unexpectedly included books and random debates on esoteric subjects. Honestly, Yurive filled that gap he found was there when he quit the university. And it was not like he only missed that part.

For as long as he could remember, he and Mikleo shared the same passions... archaeology, history, rare anthropological finds and theories on ancient civilizations spawned by every new, startling discovery, every budding controversy that only gets mentioned in obscure journals and rare publications.

Talk about being perfect, academic geeks. Of course Mikleo has no rival in being his favorite competition, but with their busy schedules, he would rather not impose his favorite pastime even if he was certain Mikleo would not consider their moments of leisure as imposing in any way.  

Putting his phone away, he could not help but let his eyes linger on the faint silhouette behind the glass door of the shower.

Mikleo's svelte nudity was subtly concealed by the slight mist on the glass panel that left a lot to the imagination... a slender curve that gracefully showed an impossibly slim waist moving subtly with the sound of water... the memory of his hands exploring that shape down to those bare calves... those pink toes that he found so erotic when they are pressing against his bulging- 

Sorey got hard. And the longer he looked, the harder it got to tear his gaze away.

Throwing off the bed covers, he walked up to the glass door and leaned against it.

"Mikleo? Do you, uh, mind if I come in?"

There was the sound of a knob being turned followed by water dripping. "Sorey? What was that?"

"Let me shower with you..."

Sorey counted up to three in his mind.

"Wash my back?" There was just the slightest hint of playfulness in Mikleo's voice.

"Gladly," Sorey answered almost too eagerly, feeling his body flush to the rare invitation Mikleo was offering him. "I'll do anything you ask, love."

The glass door slid open. "You really don't mean that, do you?"

"Try me." Sorey stepped in and wrapped an arm around Mikleo's waist. "But let's use the bathtub. It's embarrassing to show myself rising to the occasion like this." Sorey need not point to his enlarged shaft to make himself understood.

Mikleo shook his head. "You have time to be shy now? Mikleo turned around to fill the tub with water as he adjusted the water setting and let the soap run until the surface is completely covered with a fragrant, fruity, lavender froth.

Looking on, Sorey found himself appreciating Mikleo's smooth, porcelain-white skin... that pink, soft, rosy glow, which made the sculptured mounds of Mikleo's hips an irresistible temptation.

Without even stopping to think about it, Sorey bent down and pressed his manhood against Mikleo's exposed back.

"S-Sorey! We haven't even gotten into the... hey, wait!"

"Oh, god, can't get enough of you..." Sorey moaned with a sharp intake of breath, thrusting the slope of Mikleo's hips and thighs, nudging his entrance but not quite entering fully. He started brushing kisses against the slope of Mikleo's neck and shoulders as well. "Mikleo... so good..."

"S-Sorey!" Mikleo bent down, holding onto the edge of the tub as Sorey pressed himself more insistently, his weight making it harder for Mikleo to keep himself from hitting the rim of the tub. "Heavy..."

"My bad!" Sorey stopped in the middle of his thrusts and moved back to give Mikleo some space. "Did it hurt anywhere? Sorry, I... think I just got ahead of myself there."

Mikleo turned around to catch a glimpse of Sorey's widened eyes. "No, it's not like I'm gonna break like glass, it's just... you really are... so into it. Is something the matter?"

Sorey blinked. "What do you mean?"

Mikleo looked sideways. "By any chance, are you hiding anything? Are you... is there someone else?"

Sorey stopped and turned Mikleo around to look at him full in the face. "I don't know where that's coming from, but that's the last thing... no, not even... that's the kind of thing that will never be on my mind. How could you even ask?"

Mikleo looked away. "I know, I just... I'm sorry, I guess I'm overthinking a lot of stuff lately."

"Hey, I know how stressful things can get at the university. That's why you should take it easy once in a while."

"Says the one who doesn't need to be reminded, huh?"

Sorey turned Mikleo's face toward him to give him a kiss. It was lingering, restless, but full of that familiar yearning that only made Mikleo feel more guilty for ever having doubts.

"Unlike other stuff out there, there's no need to overthink me, Mikleo. I'm an equation without a variable, I love you and only you."

God knows... just holding you... waking up to you... it's like a miracle...

A miracle that makes me so afraid of losing you one day.

Mikleo looked away, though the blush was already there. "You know, when it comes to you, abuse of one's right to be sappy should be a crime."

"I guess?" Sorey laughed, not denying anything. "By the way, you told me you have a free cut today and tomorrow, which makes it a long weekend so... why don't we go some place, somewhere far... just the two of us."

"You have work. I bet that was either your boss or one of your co-workers, am I right?"

Sorey knew he was referring to the phone call. "I just told Alisha I'm not coming today until the next weekday."

Mikleo looked surprised. "Is that even possible? You never had a normal day off as far as I can remember."

"Dezel's been recovering from that serious motorbike injury so they needed me to work extra hours. But since he's okay now, he's willing to make up for all that. And if Lailah pushes for me, well, we might just have all four days to ourselves." Sorey looks giddy as he nuzzles Mikleo's neck. "No school, no paperwork, no part-time job, or whatever else... just the two of us from morning 'til night... doing absolutely unholy things to each other."

"Unholy doesn't even begin to describe it," Mikleo groaned as Sorey's painfully hard erection made itself felt.

"Oh, yeah?" Sorey nibbled at the shoulder pressed against him. "Before I go mad and make an absolute mess of you, I might as well negotiate with a higher power. Just so my sins are excused."

Mikleo frowned. "You're not making any sense."

Sorey reached out and pulled Mikleo's right hand, kissing the inner palm of it. "Let's get married, love."

He was absolutely not expecting that. "H-hey, what's the rush? We just got engaged, remember?"

Sorey started kissing the tips of Mikleo's fingers, enough to make Mikleo dizzy with a strange fever. "Six months is too long for waiting. I want to have you now."

"C'mon, after all this time, do I look like a virgin to you?" Mikleo tried to sound casual about it, but his voice quivered.

"It's been two years since I made you do it with me, I know..." Sorey edged closer. "But whenever I touch you, it's like starting all over again. Honestly, are you... by any chance having regrets because of what I did?"

Lavender eyes narrowed at him. "Sorey, would I still be here if I feel that way? What I only meant was, we've been doing it for two days straight... like this must be the twelfth time we've had real se-" Mikleo felt hot as the weight of what he has just said sank into his pit of shame. 

Sorey could not help being amazed at how quick Mikleo's color rises at the slightest hint of embarrassment. "So you think twelve's a lot?" He glides an arm around Mikleo's hip. "If you feel that way, I guess you need more practice... so you'd be ready to deliver when the time comes."

"Excuse me, tiger. Need I remind you that we already broke a bed? And to think we haven't been doing it every single day since I moved in with you."

"Don't worry, I'll buy you a futon. So we can do it a hundred times without breaking anything, love."

"Gods, is this conversation even real?" Mikleo shakes his head. "When we were kids all we did was sleep on the same bed and recite all the stars we know by name until we fall asleep."  

"And I loved you even back then." Sorey laughs, pulling Mikleo's hand to him to kiss before pressing it against his chest. "I know I promised not to complain or get in your way, but honestly... it's hard to be near you and watch you and not do it with you. I've been taking cold showers every time I feel like... uh, you know... that feeling when I want to get on with it, but you're not in the mood? It never really worked for me... I mean, just look..."

His cock twitched as if to emphasize his point.

"Cold showers, huh?" Mikleo grumbled. "I bet it takes more than that to take care of it."

"Hey, no need to get jealous of my right hand. After all, I always imagine it's yours."

"Can't believe you just said that with a straight face!"

"Get used to it, I won't calm down if it's not you touching me like this..." Sorey wrapped Mikleo's hand around his throbbing manhood. Mikleo felt Sorey shiver with his slightest touch, green eyes smoldering in that same, fiery way that turned Mikleo on so easily.

Mikleo groaned. "Gods, sometimes, you're really just embarrassing..."

"Oh?" Sorey stepped forward and gently fondled Mikleo's half-hard cock. "How about I take this in my mouth and embarrass you more..."

The breathless way Sorey said that was enough to make him shiver, but Mikleo shook his head, stepping back a little. "Look, I think the water's ready." He leaned over to give Sorey a light kiss then immersed himself into the water slowly, tentatively.

Sorey followed suit, looking mesmerized as his eyes lingered on Mikleo's supple skin. He settled into the tub, letting Mikleo ease his weight on him as he wrapped his arms around Mikleo's waist.

"So... how about it? Are you ready to take this lamentable lowlife as your husband?"

"Trying to arouse my sympathy with a self-deprecating hyperbole, huh?" Mikleo sighed with suppressed amusement. "I'm not much of a prize, but if it makes you happy..."

"Hey, you are and will always be my better half." Sorey leaned closer as Mikleo nestled against him, letting their cheeks touch. "Besides, it's more like you having to put up with my flaws. You pretty much know how stubborn I could get sometimes because it's the only way you'd let me win an argument."

"Sometimes is humble of you," Mikleo teased.

"You bet." Sorey laughs. "Though I'm sure you already know how I get weak in the knees when it comes to you. Like you could get away with almost anything when you touch me like this."

"Only almost?"

Sorey tingled, aroused by Mikleo's rich, teasing voice. "That's a conservative estimate. I need an upgrade, you see." Slowly, he felt for Mikleo's hole, circling its rim with his finger. 

"Don't be greedy," Mikleo huffed, slapping Sorey's other hand as it tugged Mikleo's own toward that taut and needy part of him aching to be caressed. Mikleo could only blush at the chuckling sound Sorey made when the slightest brush of his fingers made the hard, swollen ache bob at him under the water.

"See?" Sorey groaned in his ear, flicking his tongue at it.

"All right, stop, please!" Mikleo felt ticklish, and a feverish heat began to crawl up his neck. "But seriously, married or not, we're going to be together, aren't we? So I don't see the need to be hasty about it."

"C'mon, a little enthusiasm is perfectly fine!" Sorey grinned, knowing how Mikleo could act so emotionless almost for his own benefit. "Besides, I've been saving up for it for the longest time. It's not all that expensive, I've looked around some, and I know how you'd love a hot spring honeymoon."

"A hot spring, are you sure? That would be nice, but isn't it-"

"Just be honest. You can't resist the water, it's like your natural element."

"Thought we agreed that those extra funds are for emergencies."

"Hey, it's a hot spring, Mikleo! Last time we went was when Muse brought us along to see Gramps on his seventy-fifth birthday." 

"Gramps... I sort of miss him, don't you?" Mikleo regards his own grandfather as someone he and Sorey shared the way they did almost everything.

"Yeah. He does dote on you a lot. He calls you his little angel."

"Stop with the little, all right? And what about you? I remember him saying he'd love to see you married with kids someday."

Sorey frowns. "He's just teasing, you know that. I remember even back then how you really enjoyed the water. I enjoyed just watching you frolic around like a dolphin." 

"I'm no swimmer like you, but I do love warm baths..."

"Right. Talk about soaking for half a day whenever you feel like it. I swear if I don't pull you out you'd be sleeping in the tub."

"Might as well try it because the bed needs some work, thanks to you." 

Sorey turned Mikleo around to him, so that their needs are nestled against each other, Mikleo with little choice but to wrap his legs around Sorey's hips.

"No way I'm letting you sleep anywhere without me."

Mikleo gets flustered as Sorey strokes him gently. "Sorey, how is anything more romantic than the way we are right now?"

"Look... there's only one person I'll marry in this lifetime, and it's no one but you. So how could you ask me to let that pass without even celebrating it? Besides, don't you want to spend our first Christmas together as an official couple? So you could introduce me around as your legit husband and put an end to all those men and women making a pass at you?"

"Says the one who keeps getting second glances wherever we go. I remember some of your female admirers back then using me as a love letter courier. Others even rehearsed their confessions with me... and it was kinda embarrassing!"

Sorey shakes his head at that, trailing wet fingers along the inner curve of Mikleo's neck, down to his collarbone. "You could've just scared them away. That's what I did with any guy who planned on stalking you."

"Yeah, you almost got suspended that time for kicking someone's ass. You're worse than a bodyguard."

"But seriously, it felt... unfair... hiding our feelings from everyone and acting like we're just friends. I understand it's the way things are, but I want to be free to be who we are, Mikleo. That's why I'm looking forward to taking you to parties, showing you around and bragging about you."

"But I'm not even fond of parties. And I'd be shy to host one even if we can afford it someday."

Sorey knew that part of Mikleo so well. Even when they were kids, Mikleo had been withdrawn, though people notice him just the same.

"Tell me, is it that wrong to want to show you off a little? I always imagine you walking into a room full of people holding hands with me... and everyone dying of envy, hating how lucky I am to have someone so beautiful."

"If they don't kill me first for seducing a man who could have fathered their children..." Mikleo says with a hint of fondness, brushing Sorey's temple. "Really, Sorey... your genes are wasted on me. Sometimes I picture you in the grocery with a pretty, little wife hanging onto your arm, and you're both surrounded by at least half-a-dozen, cute little daughters who have the same amazing green eyes as you."

"C'mon, at least half a dozen?" Sorey chuckles. "Thanks for appreciating my virility, but it makes me feel guilty when you say it that way."

"They should be as adorable as you in every way. With dimples, chubby cheeks, and wavy brown hair too."

"Oh god, I don't even know why you're obsessing over things like that. Even back in daycare, I was never interested in anyone else. Remember our first kiss?"

Mikleo blushes as Sorey's eyes linger on his chest, resting on the nubs of pink that he began circling with his thumb. 

"You mean back when we were building that castle in the sandbox?"

"Uh-huh. I kissed you in front of all our toddler buddies, then the teacher got mad because I wouldn't apologize for it."

"Toddler buddies, gosh..." Mikleo shakes his head. "So we were already an item before we even learned how to wipe our snot and write our names in crayon?" 

"You bet. Then in middle school I didn't stop bullying you until you agreed to play Juliet for our school play. It was life-changing."  

"You must be joking." Mikleo looked incredulous. "How did that change anything?"

"You practically gave every guy a confused dick that day. I bet they were never the same again."

"Really funny. But seriously, when you nailed that kiss on the stage, I couldn't believe it! You didn't even think about all the teasing we got for it!"

"Only because I knew that's just how far you'd let me go! But I was a lot braver on our first year in high school... when I tried to make out with you during that Christmas party when I got drunk-"

"So that's it..." This time, Mikleo's face became a hot, furious red. "The secret's finally out, huh?"

"Don't get mad." Sorey grinned, flicking soft, wet kisses on Mikleo's neck and shoulder blades. "Hmm... I do remember Mason telling me it wasn't a dream..."

"Because it was a nightmare! You tried to pole-dance on my bedpost, Sorey! It was the first time I saw your... I mean, you were-"

"Butt-naked, yeah, after stripteasing like a maniac..." Sorey dipped his head lower, catching Mikleo's nipple between his lips. "I was so frustrated back then, you know..."  He paused, meeting Mikleo's abashed gaze. "You were ignoring me the whole time when everything seemed perfect."

"How?"

"Imagine me all alone having to watch Mason and Natalie kiss under the mistletoe. Even Zaveid had his hands full."

"Mason and Natalie have twins now, right?"

"Abby and Reena. I wouldn't miss their birthday for the world."

Mikleo looked sideways. "You adore them, I know."

"But they miss their princess more, which is a good thing. I don't like the idea of those two stealing you from under my nose if they thought of you as a prince."

"As for Zaveid, don't tell me that friend of yours is still crashing parties and breaking young girls' hearts while hoping Lailah's gonna give him another chance?"

Sorey chuckled. "I guess that's not about to change."

"Things turned out rather well, how nice."

"You're changing the subject." Sorey lifted Mikleo's chin, green eyes narrowing. "Back then I heard Sergei ask if you wanna go out and ski with him. I'm sure it was flattering of him to do that, he was a college freshie who looked smart and cool in that intimidating Harvard jacket of his."

"You remember that much, huh? Surprising."

"Who wouldn't? There were ladies ogling him left and right, but his eyes were on you. I bet you had a crush on him, you seem to be enjoying all his corny jokes."

"You were eavesdropping that much? You hate it when I do that."

"I was jealous, couldn't you even tell?"

"Well, he's five years ahead of us, Sorey, and I don't go for older men. So even when he asked me out-"

"So he did? And you're admitting it only now?"

"He wanted to teach me how to ski, and I wanted to learn. Whatever else he offered after that, I declined knowing how you might feel about it. Am I forgiven?"

"Yeah right, after I got hard just thinking about how much I wanted to ask you out myself... like on a real date... and inviting you to my room to do stuff... besides sleeping."

"Well, that's what you get when you eavesdrop on older guys and their dates!"

"Because you were always with me, but you wouldn't get it even with all the hints!"

"Hints? Oh yeah... the sappy poetic lines, you mean? The ear-ache I got just killed it."

Sorey groaned. "Well, I admit those were embarrassing even for me. But I was always looking at you, I couldn't keep my eyes off you. You should have felt that somehow..."

Mikleo swallowed. He would be lying to say he was never flattered by those gazes that spoke whole volumes. "Maybe?" 

Sorey swallowed. "I know we have boundaries, but doing homework with you alone in my room has always been challenging. Don't get me wrong, studying with you was exciting enough, but I got hard every time you were close, and I could smell your shampoo, and your legs were just... so hot... I kept imagining how it would feel to grind my hips against all your curves until I'm ready to come inside your tiny butt..."      

"Sorey! Now I'm wondering how long you could stand not doing it officially with me!"

Sorey's languid eyes bore into him. "It's really more than that, love. I want to marry you right now so I could tell the whole world you're mine, and I have a right to say it... that it's not just some lover's whim or a fickle relationship. I want them to know I'm seriously in love with you, and I'll fight for you even if it's a losing battle."

"Sorey..."

"I won't let you off on your promise, Mikleo. Unless you can convince me with everything you've got that you don't love me anymore."

"So, you're dead serious about this? Are you sure, Sorey?"

"I'm paranoid, maybe, but I'm no psycho. Am I making you nervous?" 

"I'm supposed to say I'm used to your weirdness by now."

"You hate obsessive, selfish types that much, don't you?"

Mikleo feels his heart twist as Sorey looks a little hurt. "I'm sort of a bit like that myself. Besides, who can refuse such an adorable dork?" 

"I love you so much, and I won't get tired of saying it." Sorey pulls him close, letting Mikleo's body sink into him. "So please, let me hold you like this, I want to make love to you right here..."

The embrace was tight, their bodies molded against each other, the water seeping in between the gaps. Mikleo sighs. "Do we have to go anywhere?" 

Hands begin to move against his skin. Mikleo feels every part of him quiver as Sorey gazes into him with languid eyes. "We can take it slow if you want. Right now, I want to make up for everything we've missed... I want to come all day long holding you like this..."

Mikleo felt the sucking pressure of each kiss making him flush hotly all over. "You came inside me, Sorey... all night..."

The honesty only made Sorey tremble with need. "Not enough, love. I want to stay like this longer... pack later... for hot spring... I'm driving..."

Mikleo felt the nibbling become a savage bite on the crook of his neck. Sorey mumbled apologies, kissing and licking the bruise. 

Then, with a desperate groan, Sorey pressed their bodies closer until Mikleo could feel Sorey's manhood thrusting itself gently, probing his entrance as if to tempt his resolve. Without meaning to, he let a moan escape, making Sorey bristle with an urgent yearning to do more as he ground his cock against Mikleo's hips.

He was already chasing his breath even though they had not been going for more than five minutes. He noticed Mikleo looking at his hardened cock and knew how it was swelling impressively as if to daunt his lover even more. The enlarged veins looked constricted, and the tip was throbbing at Mikleo dangerously.

Sorey felt the impatience spreading to his limbs. He could not suppress a loud, impatient groan as he kissed Mikleo a little too roughly, wanting nothing more but to open him up and take him right there.

He raised Mikleo's leg to him, tracing a line of kisses along his thigh, down to his calves. He bit down on the soft skin and grunted at the suppleness yielding to his pressure. He wanted to move inside him now, to thrust his all, to fill him up and share an orgasm with him, and the moment could not wait forever though it felt wrong to rush it. 

"Mikleo, spread your legs for me... I'm going to have to push you down a bit... just enough 'til I'm completely inside of you."

"Sorey," Mikleo feels almost out of breath as Sorey's feverish heat begins to swarm his lower thighs. But then he hears something, making him look up to confirm it. "Is that... that's the doorbell, isn't it?"

Sorey thought he heard it too, but the manly part of him was not about to let that distraction get in the way.

"Never mind, love..." Sorey started trailing kisses down Mikleo's shoulders to the pink buds barely showing above the water as his hand began kneading Mikleo's inner thighs, temptingly brushing against his cock. "It's just the neighbor's... we could always ask later."

Mikleo knew how absurd that sounded. He pushed Sorey away gently as he tried to stand up. "We both know that's ours, I'll get it."

"Hey..." Sorey pulled him down just as fast, as if rudely awakened. "Easy, Mikleo, let me do it. It might be some nasty prankster or other."

"So? It's not like I can't handle it."

"That's not it." Sorey stepped out of the tub, grabbing a white bathrobe to cover himself. "Stay here, all right? Call for help if you need to, but stay put."

"What if it's a stalker or some random shooter? Can't I even come to your rescue?"

"It'll only make me desperate if I see you in danger."

"Sorey, that's not a good reason-"

"I'll make it a good reason. Just be safe, let me handle the rest."

"You expect me to agree with that? But be careful, all right?"

Sorey smiled back. "We've just been reading too many crime reports lately. Think I'd let myself die before the honeymoon?"

"Idiot."

Sorey gently slid the door shut then made his way to the living room. He checked the monitor. Mr. Strelka? What is he doing...

Sorey turned the knob, and the man was really there, standing a head taller than Sorey, his frame enough to crowd the doorway. His hair looked ruffled, like he had just gotten out of bed or had awakened from a bad dream and came running to the first place he could think of.

Even his brown coat looked wrinkled, but his brilliant blue eyes seemed amazed, as if he had just found a ray of hope in the deepest shadows of his darkest doubts.

Sorey stepped out of the door and closed it behind him.

Yurive did not know what to say, though his lips managed to move somehow while his eyes took in Sorey's disheveled appearance in one sweep. "I'm sorry for coming here..."

"Uh, I... don't recall giving this address..."

Yurive scratched his cheek. "Well, that book you lent me had an old subscription coupon inside with a mailing address scribbled on it. You can be careless, in some ways... not that I'm complaining."

Sorey shook his head. "So you just got back? Alisha just called to tell me."

"About that... it must have surprised you that I've been looking forward to meeting you as soon as I got back."

Sorey watched him light a cigarette. "I don't want to ask, but I think I should. Is there a problem, Mr. Strelka? I mean, it's six a.m. and we're standing on my balcony looking like best buddies who had just pulled an all-nighter."

Yurive dared lean closer. "I thought you were going to say something more suggestive."

Sorey could not help frowning. "I don't think I get-" He stopped his breath. Yurive was standing mere inches away, intense blue eyes searchingly holding his gaze.

"I'm just happy to be back," he finally managed to say as he stepped back to put some distance, feeling his chest twist as if he was about to run out of air.

"Uh, hey, you all right?" 

Yurive chuckled. "Never better. I just couldn't wait to have you look into my proposal." Without wasting another minute, he shoved a folder onto Sorey's chest with a grin.

The bathrobe was showing most of Sorey's bare chest, and Yurive could hardly keep his eyes from grazing the light tan, the muscular tone that makes the younger man even more impressive.

Yeah, who are you kidding? His mind is full of self-deprecating guilt, not that he could do something about that now.

"Is this the one you mentioned before?" Sorey flipped the folder open, slightly self-conscious of the direct gaze that seemed to penetrate his very soul. That feeling...

"Right. And I want you to manage it for me. You're going to be my personal assistant and secretary. I want you to be there to oversee everything. Like I said before, training is not a problem. I'm looking for someone I could trust, someone who sees things differently... with a keen and fresh perspective that doesn't lose sight of the details for the bigger picture."

"This is great, but... I'm not sure if I'm ready for something like this-"

"Listen, I've also included a special arrangement so you can attend Cambridge while working for me..."

Sorey could not help being amazed. "How did you-"

"Contacts. I get around a lot. Besides, it's a small world. You must have been a brilliant student so it's not unlikely that you'd be remembered."

"I miss the university, not gonna deny that. But I don't mind working to save up for it."  

"That's why I'm making you this offer. You'd be well-paid... enough to finance your way through college. As for the job, I don't intend to keep you on a leash. Quality time is what counts, and I know what a waste it is to be tied down by office hours when you can do things at your own pace and produce excellent results. I'm sure you're smart enough to be able to juggle things the way you've been doing for the longest time. Besides..."

Sorey meets his unflinching gaze, and Yurive could not help but grin a little too cockily.

"Watching you work makes me realize some people are just good all-around. I've always admired those who can multi-task."

Sorey was not quite sure what to make of it. Everything just seems or sounds too... perfect. Chances are there is a snitch somewhere, a hidden proviso... anything that makes it also unreal. At least that is exactly what his instincts are telling him.

"It's really impressive... almost too good to be true, actually, and I'm grateful that you thought of me as a qualified candidate for the position, but..."

"God, don't say no please. I've thought about this for weeks. It's not like a last-minute plan."

Sorey met his gaze, and Yurive suddenly got that feeling in the pit of his stomach... some sort of fear that was almost impossible to name.

"I'm really sorry, but I need time to consider something like this. I can't say yes as of the moment."

Yurive was not about to give up. "Well, nothing's too good in this world except one or two I could name, so don't let that make you nervous about getting into something new. I know you love challenges, and you learn pretty quick."

"Uh, thanks. But still..."

"Besides, you express yourself so well, and I have to hand it to you, it's one of those things that make you so appealing... all the more reason I'm convinced that no one else will do. In this kind of business, charm, charisma... people always look for enigma that makes them feel they're trying something new... that they're special for choosing your product, for taking your offer among hundreds out there selling the same, if not better. That's one of the things we have to focus on in this kind of industry."

"I'm more of a history geek, but I do get that impression."

"Perfect. That's why I'm giving you a week to consider my proposal. I'm not lying when I say you're the only one I have in mind for this project. Don't make me wait too long."

Sorey gave a low whistle. "Tall order, huh? This is all so sudden."

Yurive noticed the thoughtful gaze that made those familiar emerald eyes seem so unsure. "Anything the matter? If it's something I can help you with-"

Sorey smiled. "It's a little personal, actually."

Yurive frowned. "Is there such a thing as being too personal to begin with?"

"Got that." Sorey shook his head.

"So what is it?"

"I... was actually planning to take some days off."

"How long? Two days? We can manage that."

"Maybe just a little more... five days at the most?"

Yurive stepped back, throwing his cigarette away. "You sound like you're either attending a wedding or a funeral. Some family problem, maybe? So which one is it?"

Sorey looked away. "My childhood friend, actually. We've just gotten engaged, but we're getting married this weekend."

Yurive had not seen this coming. True, he has heard vague rumors about Sorey's engagement, but because it was something none of Sorey's co-workers have confirmed even indirectly, he had easily ignored it or had conveniently set it aside for his own peace of mind. Now, the sudden news was like a heavy rock that pressed against him, making it harder to breathe.

"Damn, Sorey, she must be one lucky woman."

Sorey smiled a bit. "I don't know if turning him into a woman would've made a lot of difference. I've been in love with him for the longest time..."

Yurive felt his veins constrict. He had hoped Sorey was gay... or open at least to having a relationship with men. But to actually hear it, have it confirmed by the person himself... it was hard to tell if the shock was a pleasant one. Definitely one he could have relished if that announcement did not go with it.

Then again, this is something he could always use to his advantage. He had been in situations no less different. Bragging aside, he had his fair share of conquests, had broken so many hearts along the way too. Not that all of them were deliberate. Victories come with losses, and for some reason, the mere hint of defeat arouses him, provokes him to the point of turning him into an even more merciless strategist.

He would have been a different person if he had thought otherwise.

It may sound cruel, but nothing, not even marriage, has ever been an obstacle to him in his obsessive drive to win any prize worth another man's attention. It hardly means he was immune to all kinds of pain, though. True enough, he has suffered his own losses, has been scarred too many times as well.

But as they say, old dogs know how to lick their own wounds. He learned the hard way how to deal with the heartache of throwing his all in a ruthless gamble of love where the collateral damage could be just as terrifying.

But as he has always believed, the greater the adversary, the more valuable the treasure becomes when it is finally won... when all the insurmountable odds have finally been crushed and defeated.

At least those were his thoughts when he was younger... when he had fallen in love for the first time... or at least when he had thought he was in love for the first time.

He looks at Sorey. "I'm not one to talk about relationships, but it wouldn't hurt to take unsolicited advice every now and then."

Yurive found his mind pushing those thoughts into words he would have edited and rephrased in his calmer moments. Then again, it has been a long time since he felt right about an uncertainty... since he entertained self-doubts with such confidence that made it all the more contradictory and treacherous. 

So even if it made him slightly nervous to let the lingering thoughts distract him too much, he found his heart wanting to say it now.

"Just so it's clear... you're saying you've fallen in love with a man? And you're seriously getting hitched to this one guy because of that?"

Sorey met his gaze with a slight, flinching sigh. "Is it really that hard to believe? I never felt that my personal life needed explaining..."

"No, it doesn't, I agree perfectly. So let me do it for you... 'cause I'm pretty sure my experiences must count for what they're worth, if you don't mind."

That was confusing. "Mr. Strelka..."

"It's been Yurive in the bookstore. I don't see the need to shift to formalities."

Sorey heaved another sigh. "Yurive... I'd appreciate it if you'd be brutally frank with me as you've always been."

"I'll try. You see..." He could not help pausing now, as if thinking about what he was about to say for the first time. "Love between men is just like light in August."

Sorey looks away. Yurive's voice is like a cool breeze in a hot summer day... unexpected but welcome just the same.

Yurive follows his gaze, momentarily swiping with his foot the ash he has just flicked from his cigarette a few moments ago. "Light has its shadows, and those that fall around it are what makes it beautiful. It's like twilight that hovers between darkness and a perfect sunset. There's really no symmetry, no balance that one might expect from a normal relationship... just a temporary peace that reminds us that between fantasy and reality, the second one always wins. But the struggle is beyond divine pleasure all on its own. Enjoy it while it lasts."

Sorey frowns a little. "I know I wasn't straightforward about saying I was gay... but it's not like I intended to hide it."

"Do I seem so prejudiced to you? What I'm giving you is honest advice from someone who's gay himself but found that a little too hard to admit either."

Sorey was uncertain why he did not seem surprised to hear it. All he could do was meet the deep, sapphire eyes that gazed at him with acceptance.

"I've been engaged five times with five different women and even divorced one of them as you already know, but all the while, I've never stopped playing around with men. I could hardly count how many I've had shallow relationships with... flings... affairs whatever you call them. But as we speak, I could hardly feel bad for myself when I remember all the good and bad times that brought me where I am. Because somehow, I'm starting to think that every experience carves a path for us to travel... a road that intersects with other people's destinations, telling us in a rather offhand way that where we are is where we're meant to be."

Sorey could not help but shudder as he pulled in his breath. In many ways, he has thought about it in exactly the same way.

"The question is, in choosing one path among others, in choosing that final destination, are you certain it would be enough? Are you all right walking a blind alley? A dead end that cuts you off from other roads that might have given you an alternative, a better vision of what's to come?"

Sorey looks up. "In my life, I know I need him... that I can't be the same person without him."

"Dependence is like an addiction. It's not love... though it feels so much like the real thing."

"But who's to decide that? I'm sure my body would continue breathing without him, and my heart won't stop beating either. But I don't think I would ever want to go on without him even if I can endure it. Because living like that is just like... not being dead. I know I'm alive... but only Mikleo can make me feel happy and unafraid that I am."

Yurive lighted another cigarette, his eyes searching through the smog on the horizon. "Mikleo... that's a unique name. So when would I have the chance to meet this lucky guy?"

"Uh, right... maybe when we get back from-"

"Sorey?" The door opened, and Mikleo was there, fresh from the shower, eyes wondering and mildly curious. He was wearing a loose, white top that almost looked like it was a little bigger than his size or maybe had been slightly stretched from being worn and washed too often, and a pair of grey, baggy jogging pants.

Yurive noticed the faded stain on the front of the shirt that must have been coffee. But only after his eyes have taken in the familiar vision with an awe he could not deny.

Fine, silver hair, doe-like lavender eyes, pale lips, a small mouth, a heart-shaped face. There was something in the stance that was masculine enough, but every other feature was androgynous if not feminine. 

Without a doubt, this was the same person he had bumped into yesterday.

Mikleo recognized him as well. "I've seen you before, haven't I?"

"Uh, wait what does that-" Sorey started, looking puzzled.

"Before that, I got a little curious as to what's taking you quite a bit. He is?"

Sorey's gaze barely shifted from Mikleo. "Uh, my boss, Mr. Yurive von Strelka. He owns the cafe and diner where I work. You say you two have already met?"

"Uh, we merely bumped into each other," Mikleo answered quickly. "Quite literally."

Yurive nodded, unable to shift his gaze as well from the pristine image in front of him. "Uh, yeah, sorry about that. I was almost afraid I got you injured."

"Mikleo, you got hurt?"

Mikleo gave Sorey's confused and panicked stare an exasperated frown. "Do I even look hurt to you?"   

Yurive could not help catching Mikleo's name. "You're the one?"

Sorey caught the innuendo that Mikleo obviously missed, eyes lighting up. "That's right! The one and only."

Exquisitely beautiful, was what Yurive instantly thought, although there was that undeniable twisting ache in his chest that seemed too distracting for comfort.

He reached out a hand. "My pleasure to meet you. It was the first time I heard about your engagement... I would have congratulated you sooner."

Mikleo shook his hand, then his eyes shifted back to Sorey. "You should have offered him coffee at least."

"Right, my manners need some work. I was worried you might still be in the shower."

"We're all men. What's there to hide?"

Yurive felt like grinning. "Gods, I didn't know I was intruding. I think I should be off. You both need some privacy."

Sorey scratched his cheek. "Uh, I hope it's all right that I won't be clocking in today and the entire weekend."

"You're getting married so that's to be expected. It would be a private affair I could tell... because neither of you mentioned inviting me."

Mikleo shook his head. "It's not quite settled yet. Sorey is just as spontaneous as ever with these things."

Sorey laughed a little. "C'mon, you just said yes back at the shower."

"Whose fault was that?"

"Look, I'm not taking chances with your changing your mind and having me wait at the altar. So I'd trade a long preparation for something a little more private but certain."

"Having a church wedding is unthinkable for other reasons. It's an overrated fantasy we can't afford to indulge in."

Sorey looked a little hurt. "Fine, it's my fantasy then. Doesn't that even count?"

Yurive could not help but stare. Sorey never shifted his eyes from Mikleo, his gaze full of deep, undisguised affection that seemed content on having that one person in front of him, the only star that kept his orbit in place.

"Having an audience can be unnerving too. Like everyone is practically staring when the bride walks up the aisle... I mean, there's no bride in our case but-"

"Nah, I'd feel smug watching them watching you. Besides, when I'm ninety and past all my charms, at least you'd have a wedding portrait to remind you of the better me."

"It doesn't matter whether you're nine, ninety, or ninety-nine 'cause I swear, you're the last person to ever change, Sorey!" 

Watching the way their gazes lingered on each other as if the rest of the world was not even there, Yurive shook his head. He had sensed it earlier on... that Sorey's infatuation ran deep... but it was infatuation just the same.

He had felt exactly the same with the first man he has ever loved in his life, a man he would have loved through it all, until the very end, if he had not felt betrayed by his sudden animosity, his sudden change of heart.

Boris... Boris von Strelka. The same last name needs no further explanation. He is not one to deny it either. True, it was an incestuous infatuation, a dangerously powerful emotion that became as unstable and destructive as a tornado. All first loves are, anyway, that is why nobody ever settles with one.

One's infatuation, often mistaken for first love, is always a wish fulfillment of some childhood fantasy, a could-have-been that is better imagined than actually realized.

On the other hand, first loves are a tangle of sweet regrets and bitter disappointments that make them unforgettable on their own... a broken dream better romanticized than actually mourned over bitterly.

Everyone has a first love that feels desperate. But everyone moves on from it too. 

And Sorey will move on. Perhaps if he gets his heart broken for the first time, it will take years to recover. But he will recover just the same. First love never dies, but it would be the height of absurdity to imagine anyone dying from a broken heart.

He is living proof of that after all. Boris has been dead for three years, but here he is, struggling for the first time with an emotion he has never felt before, even for Boris.

He loves Sorey, and unlike anything he has had before, he has fallen in love with him without being conscious of the attraction when it happened. When he first met Sorey at Zaveid and Lailah's referral, he had been curious about him right away, as if there was something naturally attractive about him that just drew Yurive's eyes to him.

When they bumped into each other a number of times in the bookstore, he started paying more attention, and when they started having conversations even in the cafe or the office about the things they read, their blogs and favorite internet sites, he started to develop an attachment that felt easy and innocent enough to trust, something that gave him a sense of peaceful calm that he never felt before in his relationships, platonic or otherwise.

It gave him a sense of balance to say the least, a sense of freedom that made him crave for companionship more than physical intimacy even if that were no less intense. Maybe testing these feelings now would be premature, but this much he could confirm without a doubt... even if Sorey rejects him now, even if his infatuation with Mikleo and their promise of marriage seem too deep to be swayed by any distraction thrown their way, he would never surrender or admit defeat.

That alone is sufficient reassurance that his feelings for Sorey are more sincere, more genuine than all those emotions he has mistaken for love before... feelings he has wasted on a man who did not deserve them.

Not that he and Boris had ever sworn to each other undying love and devotion.

But he was young and naive back then, and ignorant enough to think that losing one's virginity on a one-night-stand with the first man you confess all your heart and soul to must be unforgettable enough to make allowances for mutual love to bloom.

But social pressure had caught up easily with Boris's fragile affections, so it was hardly surprising when he gave up Yurive the moment a better potential presented itself.

However, what was difficult was his being in the public eye, showing off his sexual prowess by latching onto infamous celebrities and political figures, until, eventually, Yurive heard about his marriage to a charming, yet chronically-ill heiress with a Russian family name... Rulay was it? Well, from thereon, it became clear to him what Boris was truly after...

It was anything but love, or a relationship, or a quiet family with a man who loved him to death. Rather, he had his eyes set on a fortune easy enough to take advantage of, and a title that could get him closer to his own selfish ambitions.

Men and their egos. What drive men to success seems to keep them farther and farther away from their inner child, their truest selves. He cannot even fault Boris for being ambitious without sounding like a perfect hypocrite.

Love is nothing more than a bad habit. The addiction may give you withdrawal symptoms, but you can live through the pain and come out better without it.     

Yurive shook his head mentally at the antithetical position he finds himself at the moment. True, love must have been only for fools. But as you get older you search for a personal truth with which to anchor your lost and broken self, a truth that becomes all the more fascinating because it defies common sense and all that useless wisdom you have acquired by trial and error.

After all, thirty years must be more than enough to fill one's mental ledger with mistakes that need no accounting to confirm actual losses.

Caught in a sea of meaningless information that drowns any working adult on a daily basis, all those pointless encounters, trivial understandings and make-believes could only be tolerable up to a certain point.

When you finally reach that threshold, you start feeling how you have practically wasted the best years of your life looking for something you have been running away from to begin with.

Instead of trying to put order into chaos, you realize there is a quit button you can choose at your own risk, a chance to start from the very beginning, to go back to those options or revisit routes you avoided in your younger days when you were too proud and insecure to take risks and learn from your mistakes.

By then you realize that there are things out there that you missed because you were looking the other way... things that lacked appeal but have more depth and substance.

You start looking for a love that feels better on the inside... a relationship with genuine romance, not one with a facade meant only to incite the envy of your friends. You start looking for a dynamic based on common ground, an ideological compatibility that lasts far longer and can be just as intense as sex.

Yurive knew at this point in his life that only with Sorey has he felt that kind of gravity, that pull that anchors him on several levels. Like a sanctuary or some holy ground, Sorey was for him a reflex that wants you to choose him for all the right reasons, a sense of peace that could never be too much, a quiet contentment that leaves a deep hunger in its wake... enough to keep the fire of lust alive even if the companionship felt just as precious and satisfying.

This is love. It is definitely not the same infatuation spent lazily and lavishly on childhood sweethearts and first conquests. And it is different from something entirely platonic either, or one so depraved as to yearn only for a constant, physical connection... an insatiable desire to dominate or be dominated.

Sex without love is not even a crime, and any man is capable of it whether it was deliberate or just a bad habit.

But to do it with love makes it more satisfying, a feeling that makes you realize that even if your ego has always felt whole and complete, you have a missing part that has just found its way back to you...

And it amazes you because you have never known before who you are outside of what you have known about you all your life until that moment. 

Yurive closed his eyes as if to quiet those restless thoughts. When he opened them, he realized what a strange vision he must have made of himself. The couple had an unmistakable look of concern on their faces, if not a mixture of curiosity and confusion. He almost felt like laughing, though that emotion too felt strange in itself because regardless of what he thought of Sorey just now, the impulse hardly felt bitter or malicious... maybe slightly disappointed and jealous, but almost too confident as to make him slightly nervous.

He has never wanted to win a fight this much or to taste the sweet flavor of victory after a losing battle. For the first time he was resolved to triumph fairly and against all odds... to do everything in his power to gain something worth all the risk and the pain of a potential yet absolute defeat.  

Mikleo broke the silence. "Mr. Strelka, the offer still stands. My coffee isn't great, but I can make you a decent cup."

Yurive could not help meeting that unflinching gaze. Mikleo spoke softly with a smile while standing in the light. Sorey was watching his profile as he spoke.

Wish you would look at me that way... someday... Yurive thought. Someday sounded long, but giving up, even longer. Besides, he knew how to gamble, and he has never been daunted even when the stakes are high. 

He shook his head. "Don't want to be in the lovebirds' way. Likewise, I'm heading to the office to straighten out some things I left in tangles before the trip."

"This early?" Sorey checked the time from Mikleo's watch. "You could use some sleep. It's not even seven yet." 

"Nah, I'm all right. Make sure you think about that proposal, Sorey. You're the only one I would have as my personal assistant, and that would never change."

Sorey gave him a serious expression. "I promise to give it some thought."

"Mikleo, try to convince him, all right? I guarantee it's a career move he won't regret."

"I'll do as much as I can, but it's really all up to him."

"Sounds like what a wife would say?"

Mikleo was flustered. "Uh... no... I only meant-"

"Hey, he was just teasing..." Sorey grinned, leaning a little too closely. "You get teased a lot, so better get used to it."

"That said, aren't you forgetting something? You might wanna accompany Mr. Strelka to his car, I mean, where are your manners, huh?"

Yurive would have been tempted to agree with that, but he stopped himself in time. "Geez, it's not necessary. Get back inside you two, I can find my way to the parking lot, believe me."

Sorey smiled with an awkward huff. "Thanks for understanding. I'll see you again soon."

"See you, likewise. I'd kill you if you forget."

Sorey waved him off as one hand went straight to Mikleo's waist. Then he heard the apartment door close as he turned around to leave.

Somehow, some part of him knew that the last part of what he said was something he meant more than he would want to admit.

Maybe not literally, no, but he meant it just the same.

 

o-----)O(-----o  

 

"Sergei speaking. May I know who's calling?"

"This is Michael. Michael Rulay. You'd be visiting, right?"

"This is a surprise. And by visiting you must be referring to Boris... it's his death anniversary after all... and the least I could do for my brother."

Michael felt relief coursing through him. "I see. I called just to let you know that there's a chance we might actually see each other there. I hope you don't mind."

"Uh, what brings that about? I'm also bringing flowers for Muse. She was a dear sister-in-law... I would never forget having known such a lady."

"Thanks, you've always been considerate. I'm also wondering if we could talk... I have a business proposal, or at least you might call it that."

Sergei flicks ash from his cigarette. "I'm not sure if it's appropriate to bring up something like that, given what Boris did. I was expecting you to be loathe with him, not that I could blame you. I'm still doing my best to grasp the situation, though it's been three years..."

Michael shook his head. "I've moved on. Besides, there's something you must know about Boris... It might surprise you, not that either of us has even begun to recover from the tragedy... and I couldn't say exactly whether you'd think of it as good. I have a feeling, though, that you're the sort of gentleman who still cares about truths and such things. I'm an old-fashioned soul myself... call it self-righteous rage or personal justice if you must... but some part of me does understand what it means to hold on to some idealism, even if others might call that bullshit. I guarantee you've nothing to lose nor anything to be afraid of. Just think I'm doing this for my sister... the same person we both respect."

Sergei looks down as if in deep thought. He considers it for a few more seconds before answering. "All right, you have my attention. Where shall we meet?"

"What time will you be at the cemetery?"

"Around ten? I'm supposed to have a meeting after that, but I'm willing to drop everything for the day to hear this one out."

"Good. Thanks, Sergei, I'm looking forward to it. Why don't we visit together then and discuss it on the way?"

"I can drive over to where you are. That would be?"

"Number fifty-five, Devereaux Drive. I'd be waiting outside at around half-past nine. That all right?"

"No problem. I'd be there."

"Good. See you then."

Michael puts his cellphone back into his pocket only to find a cold, scrutinizing stare waiting for him at the table.

"You have something to say?" Michael thought that was the most casual tone he could muster as the penetrating look gave him a cold sweep.

"You better be careful."

"Is that a threat, Charles?"

"No, not petty enough to sink into that expectation. But I do admit it's a warning that brings bad tidings to those who think they've prepared enough."

Michael sits and resumes drinking his coffee, taking up the daily paper with an expressionless gaze. "Sounds interesting. So where will you be today aside from the office and the university? Has my nephew already noticed that you stalk him every now and then?"

"That bastard lover of his is getting to be a little too much."

"They've probably no idea you've bugged their love nest and have one or two sleazy videos of them in bed. How was it, do you enjoy watching them pant and moan their mutual desires? It must be torture watching someone you love get it on with a man less than half your age. But of course, there's no one to blame but yourself. Your atrocious obsession with my nephew knows no bounds."

Bartlow huffs with sarcasm. "Your atrocious cheating knows no bounds. I guess it's the only thing we have in common."

"I appreciate the observation," Michael comments in a monotone, eyes not leaving the paper as if he was reading something urgent. "Though, Charles, I must say the problem is achingly simple. I'm not enough for you just as you're not enough for me. I call that mutual want... in an ironic sense."

"I should've expected your humor to be even more bitter than the black coffee you're so fond of. Or maybe I just don't have the heart to laugh at your inane jokes."

"All right then," Michael agrees, setting his cup on its saucer with hardly the slightest tinkling sound, but not before turning it clockwise as his usual habit. "Don't let me take your time away from business, Chancellor. I'll see you later."

Bartlow gives him a sardonic glance, preparing to rise as well. "Just saying... don't play with fire you can't put out on your own, Michael. Sergei is no pawn worth dirtying my hands for."

"Sorry to hear about that, but I'm afraid it's not something I could promise until I find what I'm looking for. After all, it wasn't to protect my interest that you pushed Boris to kill himself. You must have your reasons. Even back then he never really did love you, and you couldn't live with the fact that he's become someone beyond your power to control. It was easy to make it look like he took Muse's money and gambled it away, but that wasn't exactly the story I'm after. You made it seem like he was some hero... that he scammed people who were doing dirty work in order to expose their filth. But you had to bring out the dark side of him into the open as well..."

"Everyone in the military knew that Boris had a weak side. He slept around... gambled too much... used his contacts to sell secrets... had one too many affairs on both sides." At this point Bartlow stands up and lights a cigar. "He's worse than a double agent... but the most stupid thing he ever did was to think he could expose me."

"Instead you made him expose illegal funding... contracts stipulating multi-billion-dollar deals on drugs that have been going around secretly... the same thing that found its way to my sister, somehow. That she had become dependent on things like that to keep her sanity was something I couldn't even condemn her for. God knows I'm just as guilty for letting her take matters into her own hands. It was heartbreaking to see her struggle through so much pain... a rare disease that no one wants to talk about 'cause there's no cure for it. For all we know, those deadly mysteries are still out there taking lives in remote places that the public could neither be expected nor be trusted to know about while we sit here and debate on what to have for lunch... or which sex to have sex with."

Bartlow made a deep inhale. "That was some speech. You can say what you want, if it makes you feel good about it, but I used Boris to kill two birds with one stone. That should have made everyone happy... happy enough to settle down and shut up."

Michael clenched his fist. "I guess forgetting how my sister loved the man was just an oversight? Or was it the fact that he loved her far more than anyone cared to believe? He would have done more that needed doing to get the laboratories to work on a miracle. That side of him was heroic... and you used that pretty much to get everyone's attention away from the darker side of things that might betray the shadows you keep. I should add that you must have been pretty jealous of Muse and disappointed with Boris. But as you clarified for me, you could never be petty. I'd have to take your word for it."

"I would never have his personal secrets exposed without exposing myself. It's not wisdom, just convenience that made me work on a plan. If I gave him something more difficult to ponder he wouldn't have taken the bait nor understood what I wanted him to do. He's as predictable as ever and not very intelligent I might say. As for being jealous, I wouldn't know if I'm even capable of that. Maybe not... 'cause in the end, I always get what I want."

"Or perhaps because it needs more heart than brains, something you'd never understand."

Bartlow wheezes. "So he loved Muse, you say? What use is that if you're six feet under the ground molting and rotting away? Life is beautiful... but definitely not for the dead."

Michael glances at his watch. "I'm leaving first. Maybe I'd call Sergei and have him meet me at some hotel rather than here. Besides, the air has become too rancid for my lungs."

"You go to bed with that man, and I swear Michael, I might have to break your neck the moment I find out."

Michael sighs as he stands up to leave. "Wouldn't it be more exciting if my nephew's husband were in the picture? He might wanna know what you've been up to, harassing his lover who constantly rejects you no matter how hard you try to act noble. I'm sure the young man is more than willing to break a few ribs of yours... to make sure you live long enough to suffer what you deserve."

Bartlow bristles, the suppressed reaction enough to twitch the same nerve on his left jaw that Michael had only seen twice. It was Michael's turn to make a disgusted sound.

"Funny, is there anything that dimwit nephew of yours could gain from getting hitched to some lowlife? When poverty enters the door, love flies out the window. He'd come crawling back as soon as he learned his lesson, I'm sure... when he's had a taste of what it's like to have absolutely nothing."

"On the contrary, smart and stubborn go together a little too well, so I don't see that happening. Besides, it seems you haven't even heard about it yet. There must have been places your bugs couldn't reach..."

"Your bluff is not worth my time..."

"Let me just say that I have eyes and ears beyond yours. But I'm ready to give you a clue anytime you might need it... if you promise not to touch anything that's mine, at least not yet. Besides, it's not fair that you get to sleep around and lust after anyone while I wait on you like a lapdog. I have my own needs too, Charles... beyond what you can give."

Charles sidles up to him, lifts his chin up, then nonchalantly blows smoke onto his face, grinning as he did. "Don't try me, Michael. I do want you... but it doesn't mean I have anything to lose by you. Play this little game of yours if it amuses, but don't let me get annoyed too much. I swear my needs are nothing like you've ever imagined."

Michael slaps his hand away. "That depends on how well you know my mind, and I swear you know nothing yet."

With that, Michael turns around and leaves before he could hear Bartlow swear under his breath. Bartlow moves to the window and waits until Michael's car has left through the gate before making a grunting exhale. With a trembling hand he retrieves his cellphone, lips pursed in a grim line as he felt his heart twist with every aching second.

"Raye?"

"Yes, Chancellor?"

"The car. Have it ready in fifteen minutes. And tell my secretary I'm not coming to the office. We're going somewhere."

"Right away, sir. Are we going down the usual route?"

"No, not this time. It's more private... but I need a gun just in case. You know which one."

"Should I send someone to the rendezvous point in advance?"

"Yes, yes, that might be necessary. Tell him it's apartment block twenty-four, at twenty-second High Street."

"That would be Wilkes's residence, sir?"

"Sorey Wilkes, that's right."

"Will do, sir, right away."

Bartlow turns off his cellphone and takes another deep inhale. He gazes outside the window and stubs his cigar while lighting a fresh one just as fast. This will be a long day... he tells himself, unsure as to why his left hand has started to shake again.

It will be a long day indeed, with nothing but the promise of seeing the end of it basked in twilight, under a stark, silver-grey sky that continues to remind him of something infinitely beautiful.

Or maybe something radiant and almost always out of reach... like an innocence lost or a conscience that has waded too far from the shore, torn by the tides and drowned in some bottomless abyss from which it could never return. 

If only the darkest sins could do the same.

 

o------------o)O(o------------o 

 

     

 

Chapter Text

 

o------------o)O(o------------o

 

"I, Sorey, do solemnly swear, to take thee as my lawfully-wedded wife uh, sorry... as my lawfully-wedded husband, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part..."

Mikleo's eyes flicker slightly as Sorey gives him a suppressed, yet, half-teasing smile. "And I, Mikleo, do solemnly swear, to take thee as my lawfully-wedded husband, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part..."

The Master of Ceremonies gestured to them. "You may now exchange rings to signify your eternal devotion, your faith in each other's love with which to seal your vows of matrimony to each other. If you have any other words to express them, you may say them here, before God and man, and by these words let your souls and hearts be bound as well."

Sorey smiles with his lips and his emerald-green eyes... a smile not only full of love and absolute trust... but one of infinite joy as if he has accomplished something greater than what has ever been done or conceived by any heavenly miracle.

"I love you, Mikleo... I always have, I always will... and I will love you 'til death and unto the afterlife, as far as my soul can reach. For all of me is no longer mine but yours, as my heart, my soul, and my will shall always be yours and yours alone... my love, my dearest, now and forever."

He took Mikleo's ring finger and slid a band of gold onto it, kissing it as he did.

It was now Mikleo's turn to give  Sorey his ring.

"I love you Sorey, more than anything the world could give. And if it be possible to love anything beyond everything, more than my heart, my soul can ever give in this lifetime... then let that love be mine to give to you, my husband, my friend, my always and forever, for all eternity."

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

It has been three days.

Sorey stared into a blank wall though he could hardly see anything through the haze of tears and sleepless exhaustion that overcame him.

Fear, disbelief, unbearable grief... no words could paint the emotional abyss that have sunk him lower than the deepest hells as he turned to the quiet sleeper on the bed beside him.

Next to him was a monitor that hummed a constant sound of danger, of a life teetering between the world of the living and a world beyond which no one could reach.

He kissed the pale, lifeless hand showing beneath the pristine white blanket... the same hand he could not bear to let go even for a minute as he regarded the machine and its muted presence as both an enemy and a friend, threatening to take someone more precious than all the world could ever be at that moment.

Mikleo was not supposed to have visitors, but the head of the hospital was a professor Sorey had known in his undergraduate days, and knowing their personal circumstances, he made allowance for Sorey to stay as a visitor for longer hours than was normally allowed.

Sorey himself used to think he wanted to be a doctor, but his interests took a different course, and he found himself being pulled into an entirely different direction.

Those eyes could pull him anywhere, and he would follow. He would always follow no matter what...  

Mikleo... wake up... you can't leave me like this... I won't accept it Mikleo...

Why now... why him... why can't it be me? Whoever is out there... just let it be me... let it be me... I would do anything... just let it be me...

Let me take his place... just this once... I won't ever ask for anything else...

The silence held itself back, as if the answer was a secret not meant to be spoken.

Sorey closed his eyes. 

He remembered that song. He had sung Mikleo a song he had wanted to be theirs, a song he had carved in his heart just for that one, special day when he could finally take him in his arms as his own whom no one else could take away.

When did things start to go wrong... when he meant every word, every syllable with every single breath and heartbeat?

It was a song they had once heard in a cafe they had gone to, a quaint yet cozy one overlooking a beach. It was right after their high school graduation, when Muse gifted them with a trip for just the two of them. The song had been sung with the perfect pitch, like it was a piece of music meant to be sung by angels, and tears filled his eyes remembering how he held Mikleo's hand as the serenade went on.

He promised himself that he would sing the same song for Mikleo...

He had planned it, had readied himself for the chance to sing it when they finally get to celebrate their marriage with their friends. Of course, they wanted their friends to be there too for the ceremony, but given the complications of Mikleo's family situation, they decided it was best to keep things private for a while.

Something nudged Sorey's mind, and his reflex made him clench his fist. There's the possibility that Bartlow had a hand in this, and Michael, and...

A slight breeze touched his cheek as if to distract him from those thoughts. He turned to Mikleo, and all the dark suspicions and uncertainties seemed to fly away into some hazy distance.   

Mikleo was so beautiful that day. Even now, his sleeping face reminded him how he felt, how proud he was to marry him. The song he wanted to sing on their wedding was called "A Song For You" and it was the absolutely perfect choice as the lines mirror not only his feelings at the moment, but all the storms and heartaches they had been through together.

To say that Mikleo was the keystone that held his life together since they have known each other would never be enough to describe what it felt to see him smile... to see him laugh and cry as they go through all the heartaches, the joys, the losses and victories of their life's journey.

He was able to overcome all the pain and misgivings because there was Mikleo who always believed in him no matter what.

A sudden urge welled up in him, making him hum the first few words of the song. He wished more than anything that Mikleo could hear him right now. Like everything else they have shared, those words have been carved deep into their memories of each other... deep into his heart and soul. 

 

Brace yourself, a storm has just began

Face the music, see what you're running from

You're not alone in this lonely, lonely, lonely universe

Your home sweet home is where your heartbeat can be heard

And if you're hurting, don't try to hide from me your welling eyes...

 

'Cause only light can color the rain

Only time can wash away the pain

And no goodbye could ever tear this one into two

Only love can come between I and you...

 

Just like birds uplifted by the wind

With these words we breathe new life again

We're both together in this unpredictable weather pattern

It's not forever so let go of stories that don't matter

And if you're hurting, don't try to hide from me your welling eyes...

 

Only light can color the rain

Only time can wash away the pain

No goodbye could ever tear this one into two...

 

Only love can come between I and you...

 

Sorey closed his eyes and felt his heart twist again, knowing those tears he had been trying to push deep down were not about to be suppressed for long. Just like his feelings, the tears just seem to keep running... as if his soul is a bottomless well of grief that cannot be emptied enough.

Where have I gone wrong? What have I done to make any god out there hate me so much?

If anyone could hear me, why won't you give me a sign... just one sign?

I need to believe that there's some good out there... some miracle... some higher power...

I need to believe in anything... even if that belief will cost me everything...  I want to believe you can hear me out there...

I need to believe this is not the end. I'll believe in anything... gods, demons, angels, what does it matter?

But if Mikleo's going to die, what does it matter if any of you out there even exists?   

Sorey knew that no matter how often he asked them or how hard, the questions would be left hanging there in the stillness, in the soundless silences of his emptied heart. Right now, his heart is all misery and darkness with nothing left but the howl and fury of desperate yearning slowly slinking into shadows, traveling a road of broken hopes and dreams where even gods and demons dare not tread.

A heavy hand touches his shoulder making Sorey look up.

"Hey, how are you holding up?"

Zaveid and Lailah were standing behind him, a basket of fruit in Zaveid's left hand and a bouquet cradled in Lailah's arms. Their smiles looked sad but hopeful, filled with quiet understanding and tender sympathy. It was easy to feel the genuine sincerity in them.

"He's doing better, isn't he?"

Sorey presses the hand he has never let go for three days. He rarely left the room except for emergencies because he wanted to be the first person Mikleo sees when he wakes up.

"Thanks for coming."

Zaveid gives him a slight push. "Come on, get some life into you! You're not gonna let him see you like that when he wakes up, are you? Likewise, Rose is visiting again a little later. We're all here for you, buddy."

"Thanks."

"Oh my, where should I put these flowers? He loves tulips, doesn't he?"

Sorey nods, something in his gut forcing him to swallow the tears that seem to be rising from within him like a tide. He remembers the same bouquet of tulips he had bought on impulse that day he returned from work early... and that similar bouquet Mikleo held to him when he surprised him with it on the night before their honeymoon.

He remembers the room bathed in the white light of the same moon streaming from their window as soft flower petals covered their bed while they made love.

He remembers every kiss, every panting breath, every moan of desire shared in that room as they fulfilled their childhood dream, their future marriage vows, joining their souls and bodies in that union that made Sorey realize the height of happiness that cannot be measured by words.

In the midst of that maddening peak that took hold of both of them, Mikleo's words sounded like a lullaby reassuring him breathlessly that they are one soul now, meant to share forever together.

He knew right there and then that his heart would never be strong enough to forget that moment. He could not imagine himself ever being free.

For certain one day... one day he would die with his last thoughts only of Mikleo, and he would have no regrets.

He would thank all the miracles that brought them together. If only those same prayers could keep him longer by his side...

He would do anything to make that happen. Nothing can ever be too much.

Sorey gives that small hand a squeeze. No, nothing at all can be too much if it will save you...  

He looks up at Lailah as her simple question came back to him after that reverie. "Yeah, he does." He took the flowers and put them in a vase on the bedside table across them. "Have you had dinner?"

Zaveid frowns. "Hey, don't worry about us, we're good. But you really look like you need a break. Get some dinner and a good sleep. We're here to take over."

"I'm all right. I'd really rather stay-"

"No, Sorey, that's out of the question!" Lailah interrupts. "You really need some rest, you look awful just now!"

"Hey, no need to be charmingly blunt about it." Zaveid was quick to remind her gently.

"But he really needs to take care of himself too!" She turns to Sorey with widened eyes. "Look, you have to stay strong for Mikleo, all right? He needs to see you in your best form when he wakes up so he'll try to get better as soon as possible!"

"Yeah, I'm sure to do that if it were me waking up to you," Zaveid whispers teasingly.

Lailah hits him with a fan. "Everyone thinks that way, if you must know!"

"Mikleo's strong. He knows Sorey is just right here. He'll wake up soon, I can assure you that."

"Thanks." It was all Sorey could say at the moment.

"Say, I was really surprised when I heard you got married. I never knew you were seriously committed to begin with, I mean, you know me. I would've given you discount coupons Lailah and I get from the hotels we-" 

"Zaveid, can you be quiet even for just two seconds? Or should I wait for Rose at the coffee shop and leave you to yourself?"

"What? Sheesh... how demanding of you to say! And to think we're not even married yet!"

Lailah makes a petulant face. "Too bad you need twenty years of practice to be a suitable husband."

"I'll just take lessons from my buddy here, right Sorey?"

Sorey exhales. "Lailah, Zaveid, I really appreciate the concern. You're being here already means a lot, but there's no way I'm leaving him even for one minute. I'll stay right here until Mikleo wakes up."

"And I say you step out for a bit. Get a breath of fresh air. It can work wonders, I guarantee it!" Lailah gives him one of her encouraging smiles.

"Trust her, Sorey. She knows what she's talking about. Besides..." Zaveid tips the outer rim of his hat. "Sorry to tell you this but... it looks like you could also need a bath. I heard this hospital has a cool hot spring, and you know how relaxing that can be. Take my advice."

Lailah looks up. "Hmm.. a cool hot spring, huh? Gosh, that's an oxymoron right there, Zaveid. So simple and nice!"

Sorey shakes his head. "What if Mikleo wakes up..."

Zaveid winces. "C'mon, of course he will, no doubt about it! And that could be as soon as you get here, so if I were you, I'd hurry up and do what I need to do! We'll keep the pretty angel company. Besides, you would know when he's ready to see you 'cause soulmates have that bond, I know."

Sorey pressed Mikleo's hand a bit more tightly, his eyes taking a long look at the sleeping face that seemed calm and unperturbed. The machine hummed quietly like a regular heartbeat, making Sorey feel a little conflicted.

He kissed Mikleo's hand. "I'll be back soon, love."

Lailah's eyes well up. "Oh... oh dear... oh my..."

"Hey, hey watch it!" Zaveid stares at Lailah, looking perplexed and panicked. "Not gonna cry on us, are you? You know how I can't stand that sort of thing!"

"No... maybe... I just feel so happy for the two of them. They're perfect."

"Don't even think of crying on me too, Sorey! Get out of here now, 'cause I ain't gonna have either one of you borrow my shoulder so you can shed baby tears all night, all right?" Zaveid tells Sorey with a flustered look.

"All right, I'll see you."

Sorey looks over his shoulder at Zaveid as he was halfway through the door. "Please text me if anything happens. And thanks..."

"No worries, kiddo. Get some sleep... a proper sleep I mean... and take that hot bath I'm talkin' about... before Lailah and I beat you to it."

Lailah elbowed Zaveid, but Sorey was not around to see it.

"Sorey is such a nice young man. I hate to see him look so hurt and hopeless. And you're mean for saying he needed a bath, how could you?"

Zaveid grinned. "C'mon, if I didn't say that, that kid would still be thinkin' twice about giving himself a little break. He can overdo it sometimes. No, he overdoes things a lot, let me correct myself there."

"Indeed he does. That's Sorey for you..."

"Oh my, why do we all look like we're in a funeral?"

Lailah turned at the sound of that voice only to find Edna at the door staring at them.

"Why, Edna, did you see Sorey on your way here?" Lailah asked, her face all smiles.

"Yeah? Thank god he didn't see me. He seems to be in the dumps. And that's an understatement. Besides, I'm not good at dealing with tragedy. I wouldn't know what to do if he starts crying on my shoulder..."

Edna's gaze shifts to the machine, then to the body attached to it. "This bad, huh? Good thing Sorey could still walk."

"That funeral joke was insensitive of you, Edna, where are your manners, huh?" Zaveid asked, a slight scowl on his face.

"I don't do jokes, I'm serious. You should ask yourselves why you're so depressed about all this. He can't be dead or dying, all right, and thinking that he might do just that is even more insulting, don't you agree?"

Lailah exhaled. "You have a point there, I admit. But uh, what do you have behind you, Edna?"

Edna grew a little red. "Nothing, just some snacks. And some flowers. Can't let the husband think I'm that insensitive and uncaring."

"Oh, right. So tell me, did you get your heart broken?" Zaveid was obviously teasing.

"No, shut up, or roll over and die you big bozo! Which one do you prefer?"

"Don't waste your breath, Edna, he's just poking fun at you. My, these are really nice, where did you get them?" Lailah gushed, reaching out to get the flowers so she could put them in a vase.

"Nothing special. It's Eizen who knows the language of flowers so I let him pick them out for me. I also heard Dezel and Alisha are gonna fill in for you while you're here. Has the boss dropped in already?"

"Not that I'm aware of, but he must've heard about it from Alisha and Rose. In any case..." Lailah breathes in the flowers. "It's so sweet of you and Eizen to get these for Mikleo! And don't you worry... I mean, Sorey's a rare find, but I'm sure there are guys out there who must measure up one way or another. Nothing's really impossible until you do your best to try and find out."

"How did we go in that direction?" Zaveid wondered.

"Always the cheerleader, aren't you?" Edna huffed. "Even if Sorey's the last bachelor on earth, I'm not sure if I'd even consider it. Sorey's just... too stale for my taste."

Lailah looks down thoughtfully. "Nice men always seem that way. But only because no one really bothered to look hard enough."  

Zaveid grinned. "Stale... hmmm, not quite sure what you mean. We all have different tastes, but even the most illogical reasons work out fine if we want them to. But seriously, I couldn't help being surprised. I thought of all people, you have the biggest crush on our kiddo."

Edna gazed at Mikleo for the first time... saw the pale lips, the swamp of soft hair on the pillow, the ashen-white cheeks that must have been rosier before.

"I wouldn't want to find a love that kills, that's why," she tells Zaveid in a low whisper. "If you ask me, falling in love is like a gamble between life and death. You let your strength become your weakness, and where would you be when he leaves? I don't wanna feel the kind of love that hurts so bad I start forgetting what it feels like to be happy without it."

Lailah follows Edna's gaze and looks away, tears welling in her eyes. "It's so sad, isn't it? If Mikleo gets taken away from him..."

"Well, that's the way true love goes." Zaveid looks away. "You can't really love halfway and still call it love. It must be all or nothing."

"Now I know what type of man that dork likes so much. It's the type you can't find anywhere else but here... and that must hurt him more than anything."

"Edna, you think Sorey can be himself again after all this?"

Edna closes her eyes. "Stop asking stupid questions you two. Of course he won't ever be all right again. That's why this Mikleo here has to get his butt moving and wake up. I don't wanna see Sorey not get his life back together 'cause I swear, what's left of him is not gonna be him anymore when that happens."

"True," Lailah agrees, suppressing tears but utterly failing.

Edna finds herself muttering. That dork, what is he even thinking! Ill kick his ass if he doesn't shake himself out of his depression quickly.

"I heard from Rose that Mikleo is Sorey's first love," Lailah whispers as if reading Edna's thoughts. 

"More like his last too," Zaveid adds. "That kid looked scary serious when he said he'd never leave Mikleo again."

"That's not up to him, but up to this guy right here." Edna glances at the machine. "I feel like tearing some wires and shaking him out of that bed. He's the one to blame for doing this to Sorey. I mean, how can a guy make someone fall in love that bad and die on him like this? He just can't do that and get away with it, you hear me, Mikleo? You can't do that to Sorey, 'cause it would be so unfair, and I'd steal him from under your nose, and let you regret it for the rest of your afterlife, you hear me?"

"Edna, I thought you just said-"

"What? Can't we contradict ourselves every now and then? There's probably no one like Sorey in the whole wide world... and who knows that better than this guy Mikleo, right? That's why it's gonna be his fault if Sorey dies on us... and that's why this angel must quick playing dead and wake up! You better quit playing damsel in distress and get your sad ass here before I kick heaven's door and make you!" 

Zaveid and Lailah seem to understand what Edna was trying to say or to do, unable to think of words to deny the resolve they share in their hearts.

 

o-----)O(-----o

 

Sorey has barely submerged his full body into the hot pool when his phone started ringing. Knowing what he has just told Zaveid before he left Mikleo's side, he lost no time answering it, not bothering to read the caller's name.

"You all right? I tried to get in touch when I heard but- I felt you needed some time on your own for a while so..."

"Thanks, I appreciate this." It was Yurive. True he had been calling since yesterday, but Sorey had been too distraught to answer any calls.

"What happened? What can I do to help?"

Sorey thought about it, not wanting to dwell on those thoughts. Answering questions from police investigators the entire day yesterday took its toll on him. As much as he wanted the case solved right away and the culprit arrested, right now, all he could think of was staying by Mikleo's side to help him get better, to give him everything he needed until he is out of critical danger.

"There were three shots, and he took two of them. One bullet barely missed his heart. The other..." Sorey had to pull his breath. "The other hit his left temple. The doctors said he'll be in a coma until... until his body could recover enough..."

"Dear god." Yurive had to pause, contemplating the damage and what Sorey must be feeling right now.

The other line became dead quiet as if Sorey was just waiting for him to say something.

"Look, I have contacts, the best doctors in the field. I'd send for Dr. Scholwitz, he's a neurosurgeon, one of the best. I asked Miss Diphda for details so I know the hospital. Is that all right with you?"

Sorey nodded, more out of habit than the need to have him see a reaction that was hardly visible on his side. "I'm sure the doctors here are doing their best. But it wouldn't hurt to get another opinion. I'm not thinking straight right now, so please, if there's any help you can get Mikleo..."

Yurive's heart almost broke with the tone of voice that carried those words from the other end. It was neither begging nor desperate, but numb? As if Sorey was already resolved to follow Mikleo to wherever this tragedy takes both of them. 

When sadness gets too deep it falls over the edge of an abyss of no return. Just like this...

But I can't let you go there, Sorey. I want to save you more than anyone... just as you've saved me in ways you'll never know.

Of course, having had his own share of tragedies, Yurive would know the feeling of apathy and emptiness and the darkness it harbors within. He had felt the same way too many times for superficial reasons not even worth recalling now.

In other words, he knows what is going on in Sorey's mind. He knows the sound of suicide when one is contemplating it at the moment.

"Look, whatever you do, don't ever lose hope. Trust me, Sorey, I'll pull him out of this, I'll do everything to help him. I already made a personal call to have Police Investigator Reinhardt look into it too. Mayvin is reliable, you can trust him. Of course, if you want some time alone, that's understandable. I asked them to work on this discreetly. I know your boyfriend has family connections in high places so I thought it worth-"

"He's not my boyfriend, I mean... we're already married. Mikleo was shot right after the ceremony, right after our exchange of vows."

The protectiveness dripping from that defense was all too clear. It rubbed Yurive the wrong way for some reason, making him lose sight of his sympathies for a few seconds. Before he could stop himself, he was giving himself away.

"Well, as far as the legality of it is concerned, I heard from the Minister that none of the documents have been signed when it happened-"

"That's true, but-" Sorey stopped.

In his mind it was playing again, that image... that final image of Mikleo falling... falling down, down... one hand draped on his shoulder, the other pushing against his chest. A few seconds before it happened, Mikleo was smiling from across him as he said their vows, but Sorey leaning over to steal a kiss made him turn away in embarrassment, in the hope of avoiding the public kiss Sorey was about to give him.

By then Sorey knew he must have seen something to make his lavender eyes widen like that as his smile froze over, and he did something unexpected.

In the next second, he had pushed Sorey out of the way. And then Sorey saw him falling... saw him sink to the floor, caught by him halfway as he lifelessly allowed himself to be cradled in Sorey's arms with those words leaving his lips... those words Sorey would die to hear again...

"Get away... from here..."

Mikleo was bleeding to death, his face smeared with the same pool of liquid drenching them, soaking them... but all he could think of was Sorey's safety.

He gave him a warning he must have seen for himself but ignored. 

Sorey knew Mikleo must have seen who did it... not that he could say anything now. And even if Mikleo might know anything of it, he would have to wake up to be a witness to the crime that has done this to him.

He would have to survive this ordeal to save himself.

Sorey pulled his breath. Even here, there was nothing he could do. It seemed he has never been able to do anything other than make Mikleo suffer.

Like what Michael predicted, all he could ever be was a yoke weighing Mikleo down. How could he have been too blind to see that he was never the person Mikleo needed?

Even now, there was nothing he could do on his own to save him.

Even if he were to repeat all their vows and tell Mikleo how he would always be that one person who mattered to him more than anything he has ever had, it would be pointless. It would be a little too late.

Maybe Yurive was right to hint it too. Their marriage did happen, but it could not have been real from the very beginning, it was just so surreal.

It was just an illusion he tried to carve into his soul out of his own selfish need for reassurance.  

"Oh god, I'm sorry." Yurive bit his lip as the dead silence lengthened into a yawning, awkward gap. It sounded as if he allowed his personal interest in the matter to take over his better judgment... that he pried into those details without permission and abused his discretion.

Though a feat, Sorey seemed to be doing his best not to get angry.

"I'll take care of it. I'm sure Mikleo wouldn't object... it's just needless formality."

Sorey sounded hurt, and Yurive knew by then that he has just tripped on a landmine. 

"Dammit, I'm sorry. I overstepped some boundaries, I-"

"Mikleo needs all the help he can get. I've no time to bury myself in anger. I'll do anything, give my life if anyone asked, just to save him."

And if I ask it of you, will you give yourself over completely? Yurive wasn't sure if he had voiced that secret wish. 

As if those words have been carried by the power of miracles, Sorey's answer seemed to have considered it already.

"If you can save him, I swear my life is in your hands."

 

o------------o)O(o------------o