"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
Billy's apartment is a shabby one-bedroom, first-floor unit in a drafty building that was a house, once upon a time. Alan parks in the driveway, throws on the parking brake, and goes around to help Billy out of the passenger's seat. The hospital in Florida released him last night, saying that he was okay to fly, but the trip has taken its toll. He's half asleep against the car window and slurs, "Are we there?" when Alan eases the door open and reaches over him to unlatch the seat belt.
"Almost," he says, slinging an arm behind Billy's back, to his opposite shoulder. He guides him out of the seat, holds on in case his legs give out. He probably slept during the plane ride home, groggy from the cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics. It's not worth taking a chance; there are only a handful of humans on record who have survived a dinosaur attack, not enough data to gauge whether Billy would be fine with just Advil or if it's possible that extinct pathogens have wormed their way into this century. If other survivors do exist, and they likely do, InGen was careful to bury that information along with specifics on unofficial cloning projects.
Billy's hair smells like the island: wild, thick with wind and sweat and dirt. They didn't bathe him in the hospital, just cleaned and dressed his wounds before discharging him. Alan suspects there were shower facilities, but that Billy opted for the first flight out. He would've done the same. He locks the truck with Billy's bag inside, a cheap hospital tote stuffed with his few surviving belongings: wallet and ID, camera bag. The bag wasn't with him when he jumped, but Alan held onto it afterwards, twisted the strap in grief, like he could drum up its luck, summon Billy back.
He shouldn't be alive, but he's slumped against Alan's shoulder, shuffling his feet up the cracked pavement. As they near the door, Alan asks if Billy has the key, and there is a moment where he pauses, looks down his body slowly, touches his pockets.
"I—my bag, I think."
He sounds uncertain.
"Do you have a spare hidden?" Alan prompts.
Billy's blink lags a few seconds behind Alan's question. He barely nods his head, as though it takes great effort, impeded by something invisible and thick.
"Flowerpot," he says.
It's to the left of the door, a large terracotta pot with matching base, sprouting a parade of weeds.
"Original," Alan comments, lifting it with a toe to check if the key is there. It's dark brown from exposure, but Billy looks relieved to see it. Alan leaves his side just long enough to stoop for it, unlock the door. He pockets the key, saying, "I'll get copies made," and is patient as Billy steps across the threshold.
They hadn't gone home before leaving for Costa Rica, just packed up what belongings they had with them at the dig site and left from there. The stench of forgotten trash wafts out to meet them when Alan taps the door with his foot to swing it open. All of the windows are shut, place hasn't been lived in for a couple months. The six-hour trip back and forth from Bozeman to Fort Peck Lake doesn't make that easy. Billy has joked about giving up his lease, just living out of a trailer wherever he could find a place to park it.
Alan deposits him on the couch and throws open the curtains, unlocks the windows and pushes them up fully. The last one sticks, but he puts his shoulder into it, grunts until it bangs open. He winces, afraid the glass might have cracked from the force, but it's fine. He backs away gingerly, holding up his hands like the window might rebel and decide to slam back down.
"Slider's broken," Billy croaks.
"Now you tell me," Alan needles him.
It's sweltering outside. The air rolls in hot but fresh, so Alan lingers beside the window and breathes it in. It's dry, unlike the swamp-like conditions on the island. He's showered a handful of times since arriving back on American soil, but he can't scrub the tacky salt-stretch from his body.
The first time—how absurd that he has to clarify—they burned the clothes they'd had with them as a precaution, but the muck seemingly clung to his pores, the tang to the inside of his nostrils. For months he smelled his own fear as though it were immediate.
He'd kept the hat, had it dry cleaned. Ellie called him Indiana Jones for a couple years, until the strain of survivor's guilt and the pressure to find funding eventually shut down the Snakewater dig. He wasn't surprised when she decided she'd like to settle down, get a change of pace.
"Maybe I'll teach or take up writing," she mused over a dusty cup of coffee. They ate their weight in dust, those days, before she moved to Washington, D.C.
Long distance was the death knell, but he was happy for her, glad to have finally met Mark, to have fat little hands squeezed around his instead of just a folded picture of Charlie in his wallet.
Billy is hunched forward over his knees, cradling his head between his hands, stock still. He stops himself from asking if there is anyone he should call. Billy's family lives in California, and the only people he spends time with in Montana are from the university. Alan knows that as well as anyone; he's possibly closer to Billy than anyone. Cat even supposed they were dating with the frequency they came into the bar together, their tendency to order the same thing.
"You should get a shower," he murmurs.
Billy exhales into his palms. It's unsteady, like he's crying, though his shoulders don't shake.
Eventually he says, "Yeah," and struggles upright. He walks a slow path to the bathroom, saying with his back turned, "You didn't have to do this."
"I know," Alan says beside the window.
Billy goes into the bathroom and closes the door, which Alan supposes is the sign that he can leave. He promised to get Billy home safely, make sure he got some rest, but beyond that he can't make any promises. He's relieved that Billy is alive; he'd be a monster to think otherwise, but there is still the matter of the eggs, that split-second decision which had almost cost six lives.
Had it been the Kirbys, he could have understood, but a paleontologist should know better; Billy should have known better, and there was the crux: he had expected better of Billy than he expected of the others around him, known he could rely on him, and Billy had been the one to disappoint. It's a massive, crushing weight in his chest that was all but forgotten in the helicopter, rushing back like the tide.
When he walks into the kitchen to check the contents of the refrigerator, the edges of the key dig into his thigh. The refrigerator is practically empty, holding three unopened bottles of ale, an empty water filter pitcher, and a styrofoam takeout container of questionable age. He frowns and removes the styrofoam container, carries it to the trash, which he empties and ties off, setting it outside so the room can air out. He opens the cabinets, which offer more than the fridge but nothing that can call itself dinner, unless Billy is planning to live on stale graham crackers and canned peaches. The paper towel holder offers up an empty tube.
Billy will probably be a while in the shower. His motions are impeded by the bandages, and he’s tired. Alan slips out without saying goodbye, starts the truck and heads to the closest hardware store.
He has three keys cut: one for Billy, one to replace the rusty spare, one for himself. It’s probably presumptuous to have one cut for his use, but if he’s going to fill the role of nursemaid while Billy is recovering, he has to be able to let himself in and out. He buys a roll of paper towels and a small container of dish soap, cleaning wipes: necessities he didn't see handy. He pays with cash and stops at the gas station to refuel, gets bread and peanut butter, stack of American cheese, a gallon of milk, coffee. He's got the bag in one hand, keys in the other, and opens the door inward.
"Alan!" Billy exclaims, frozen in a half-standing position over the couch. His hair is damp; he's in loose-fitting sweats and a University of Montana t-shirt Alan has never seen. "Did you forget something?"
"Picked up a few things," Alan mumbles, looking over Billy's shoulder so he doesn't have to look him in the eye. The door closes behind him. "Staples," he continues and walks past Billy into the kitchen. The air has cleared while he was gone; it smells mostly of mildew and dust now.
Billy follows him, hovers in the cutout between the kitchen and living room. It's a galley kitchen, with a worn vinyl floor and a fluorescent light that hums.
"You should see if your landlord will fix that," he says, opening the paper towels, setting the bread next to the microwave. He lays the spare key where Billy can see it on the counter.
"My landlord wouldn't fix the roof if it caved in," Billy jokes. "But the rent's cheap."
There's a lull while Alan balls up the plastic bag, throws it away, and refills the water pitcher. He points to the coffee tin and raises an eyebrow.
"Sure," Billy says.
They drink coffee on the couch, a cushion apart. Alan keeps his head bent over the mug. Billy stares into his mug and says to the surface, "Thanks for this, Alan."
"It's just coffee," Alan offers, though they both know that's not what Billy meant.
Billy laughs a little sadly, a series of puffs that come out his nose. He drinks and turns his head away, toward the wall.
There is so little of him in this apartment, nothing that speaks of him as an individual: no photographs, no home decor, not even a candle. His boots sit on a mat beside the door; an assortment of jackets are flung over the arm chair. Their backs face the bedroom door, but he'd bet there's nothing of Billy there either, just a place to sleep.
"Listen, Alan, about what happened..." Billy rubs a hand over his face and looks up toward the ceiling. "I don't know how to make you understand how sorry I am."
Alan sits for a while without responding, conscious of his heart beat, how loud it sounds when he swallows. This situation is a mess, but he doesn't see the point in drumming up bad feelings, not when Billy needs to sleep, and he needs to sleep. They can talk about this some other time.
"Well," he says, tapping the side of the mug. It's chipped on the edge, lined with coffee rings all the way to the bottom. How many times has Billy drunk from it? "This is a start."
Billy looks at him. Alan can see the earnest expression from the corner of his eye, the way Billy smiles: brightly, hopefully, just for a few seconds before dropping his head into his hand again and gasping.
It will be a while before he processes what he did, what happened to him. Ellie cried a lot when they first got back; Alan still has nightmares about the sounds.
He rests a hand on Billy's back, between his shoulder blades. He doesn't rub, just lets it press flat against his t-shirt, absorb his quiet sobbing. The mug tilts sideways and begins to drip coffee onto the carpet. He takes it from Billy's hand and sets it on the table, angles his body slightly and scoots closer, so that he’s leaning into Billy’s side.
They don’t talk. There’s nothing Alan can say that can alleviate what Billy feels, and time is the only thing that can heal what has fractured between them. But for now, Alan can do this: sit here on this couch, with his hand on Billy’s back, and let him break down safely.
Billy cries for a long time. It starts as something soundless, just vibrations in Alan’s hand, then rises into deep chest sobs. Between cries, he gasps for air, chokes on it. He doesn’t remove the hand over his face, though red works its way up his neck, into the exposed patch of cheek between his fingers. His ears are flaming.
Alan feels a spot of tenderness for him, of pity. Billy is young, just twenty-five, and what Alan said to him in the stairwell were words spoken in fear. He’d admitted that to Eric; funny how simple it is to admit things to a child. They see the world so differently, having experienced little of it. Eric knew firsthand what the raptors were capable of, yet he’d been able to forgive Billy in the wake of his sacrifice.
Alan will forgive him, just not today.
The cries soften, falling into moans as Billy settles, wears himself down. He leans back into Alan’s hand, then into his side, as a child might. Alan holds him, catches the clean notes of his shampoo, the soft brush of his hair. Billy tucks himself against Alan’s chest, head against his shoulder, and goes still. He’s trembling. Alan does what comes naturally, brings both arms around him, holds him the way he used to hold Ellie when she would thrash awake during the night and switch on the lights.
It has grown warm in the apartment from the windows being open; Billy falls asleep against him easily. His breathing evens out, each inhalation becoming progressively longer, eventually retreating to small, quiet puffs against Alan’s neck. His body goes limp and pliant. Alan’s back is beginning to cramp from the angle, not supported by anything, so he gently eases backwards, bringing Billy with him, so that he can rest his head against the back of the sofa. He removes his hat and keeps Billy firmly against his side.
He wakes up that way, much later, when the apartment is comprised of shadows. The temperature has dropped several degrees, but it’s still terribly warm. Alan’s shoulder is soaked where Billy’s head rests against it.
“Hey,” he whispers, shaking Billy gently. It’s past dinnertime, for it to be this dark in the summer. His stomach growls. Billy doesn’t respond, so Alan nudges him again, guides him upright. Billy blinks the sleep out of his eyes.
“Alan?” he asks, voice hoarse. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” Alan says around his tongue, which feels thick and dry.
“I think I’m gonna go to bed,” Billy says. He sits forward and braces himself on his knees.
“Should you eat something?” Alan asks, but Billy shakes his head and shuffles toward his bedroom.
“In the morning,” he says. “I can barely open my eyes.”
“Alright,” Alan says. “I’ll, um. I’ll check on you. You call me if you need anything.”
“Are you okay to drive?” Billy asks.
“I should be fine,” Alan says, getting up. He's reluctant to leave and nearly suggests that he might take the couch, only there's an eagerness to Billy's face that startles him. He gives a half-wave and gathers his hat, has one hand on the doorknob when Billy’s voice calls him back.
There is a desperation to it that strikes something, makes him swallow. They're approaching an event horizon. His shirt is still damp where Billy lay asleep, growing cold against his shoulder.
“Yeah?” he asks. He tilts his head but doesn’t turn around. If he looks at Billy, it will be harder to leave.
“Nothing,” Billy says after a beat. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Alan nods and shows himself out, secures the bottom lock and the dead bolt. He deposits the new spare key underneath the flower pot and leaves the other in his pocket. When he starts his truck, it's not without a pang of regret.
For the first few days after Billy arrives home, Alan checks on him, usually around lunchtime. He takes his break, picks up takeout for himself, and goes by the apartment. Billy's mobility has been reduced because of the injury to his shoulder. He can dress himself, and he claims he sleeps comfortably if he lies on his other side, but getting in and out of the car is proving a challenge. After a week, his laundry piles up outside the closet door. He doesn't make his bed. It's a rumpled modern art statement framed by the gaping bedroom door.
What happened on the couch doesn't happen again. By some unspoken agreement, they are both careful to maintain a noticeable distance from one another, like magnets pushing each other away.
There has never been awkwardness between them, an intentional separation of personal space. Billy is a tactile person. It's not uncommon to see him on his belly on the ground, a hand on top of someone else's hand, helping to distinguish rock from bone. Some people call that a flirtatious personality, but Alan is convinced there is very rarely anything sexual behind it. Billy is drawn to touch, so Billy touches, the way he often touches Alan.
It's a hand on his shoulder at the end of a long day; or the way Billy leans, almost imperceptibly, into his side at the bar. There's nothing threatening or forward about the way the space around them overlaps: Billy touches him as though he has a right to touch, as though it would be strange not to touch, and Alan permits it.
He can recall the first time it happened, because he was so surprised: not that it happened, but by the lack of ceremony or realization from Billy, whose fingers curled around Alan's forearm across the desk, squeezed, and let go—all while Billy's eyes trained down the letter that approved another year of funding. He had to know that he did it—how could he not know?—but Alan didn't comment, and Billy didn't yank his hand back as though he had made a mistake. They went out for drinks to celebrate the victory: three years would've been better, but another year is another year. They squeezed into a booth and drank until they were both laughing.
There wasn't another touch for weeks, but Alan found himself thinking about the one that had occurred more than he should.
He called Ellie. She was in her first trimester with her second child, sick as anything, and grateful for the distraction.
"I wondered when you'd finally get around to calling me," she said, laugh laced with exhaustion. A child's laughter and the plastic clash of toys sounded in the background. Ellie was happy, and though it wasn't with him, he was grateful. He wanted her to be happy, and that was how he knew he had finally healed from everything they had been to one another.
"So what's on your mind?" she asked, because she always did read him better than anyone. Alan chuckled, removed his hat and flexed the band in his right palm, kept the phone firmly pressed to his left ear. He wet his lips and was a minute before replying, but she didn't rush him. He wasn't sure how to say it.
"Just spit it out. Whatever it is."
"I think I might have feelings for someone."
It was the first time he had allowed himself to think it, let alone verbalize. He supposed he had walked that ledge, but never let himself look down, to see what lay below. But these were feelings. He couldn't deny that. He had experienced feelings like this before; he knew them for what they were.
The distance between them now is intentional. They never work to be in each other’s space. But this feels deliberate. Alan is aware of every movement Billy makes, how he sits forward on the couch with his knees together, a plate resting on them; how he reclines and allows his legs to part casually, once he's finished eating.
He often pondered that he might have seen Billy as a son. That explained their unusual closeness, that Billy might view him as a father figure. He didn't speak about his father much, just mentioned in passing that his family lived on the West coast, and they weren't attending his graduation next year. Alan assumed it had to do with finances and let it go.
When Billy didn't go home for Christmas break, but chose to spend it on campus, dropping by Alan's office and offering to help catalog specimens, Alan wrote it off as loneliness. They had dinner in town on Christmas day, then drove over to the museum the next afternoon. The campus roads were empty. Billy hummed along to the radio, drumming his fingers on his thigh.
Standing over a partial section of vertebrae (Velociraptor, four foot), Billy passed him a small package. It was well-wrapped in brown parchment, without any inscription, a book by its weight and heft. His mouth parted and he began to protest—he hadn't gotten Billy anything—but Billy held out a hand.
"It's to say thank you," he said, "for all your help this year."
It was an older hardback copy of The Origin of Species, likely picked up at a used bookstore. The spine had wear; the scuffed cover bore a photograph of Darwin. Alan regarded it as a funny pressure built in his chest, stirred from uncertainty. He had received gifts from students before. Why should this book be any different? But it felt different. Private.
"It's because you're always joking that we have to evolve," Billy said with a laugh that sounded far from easy. He pointed to a slip of paper sticking out the top. "Open it," he directed.
Someone, probably Billy, had highlighted a quote, which Alan murmured to himself at half volume: "There is grandeur in this view of life..."
"It made me think of you when I read it," Billy offered, once Alan had finished. His voice had dropped a degree; there was a roughness to it that made Alan's throat tight.
He turned the pages and came across more highlighted passages, margin notes jotted in pencil. He recognized the handwriting from Billy's field notes and realized the book was his personal copy. How long had Billy owned it? Who had given it to him? Why was he giving it to Alan?
Alan supposed he knew why.
"Billy, thank you," he offered, laying a hand over a page, then closing the cover. He tucked the book underneath his arm.
Billy looked at him warmly for just a moment too long, smiled, then turned and began poking around in a box labeled Fort Peck Lake: August 2000. They spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through boxes, selecting specimens for public display, in a quiet, companionable silence.
"I feel bad that I didn't get you anything," Alan said as they were locking up. "How 'bout I buy you dinner?"
Billy hesitated, which was out of character—like any cash-strapped grad student, he never passed up a free meal. There was a hunger in the way his eyes swept down Alan's body, then away.
"Alan, thanks," he said with pink cheeks, "but I think I better get home."
"Well," Alan said. "Rain check."
The book is in his living room, on a shelf next to a specimen from Egg Hill. He never replaced the raptor claw.
Billy is eating a sloppy peanut butter sandwich made with the heels. He appears to enjoy it about as much as Alan enjoys his takeout, which is too greasy and heavy for early afternoon. Heartburn is inevitable. He excuses himself to the kitchen in search of baking soda or antacids, but comes up with neither. He settles for club soda, which, of all things, Billy has in spades.
He twists open a bottle and returns to the couch with it, sipping gratefully. The bubbles ease the worsening discomfort in his stomach. He drinks half before setting it down and rubbing his hands together. He checks the time.
"I should be getting back," he comments.
"Okay," Billy says. He's finished eating and studies the bottle, turning the label toward him.
"Do you work?"
Alan shakes his head. "Not until Monday."
"I'll be here," Billy says. He gives Alan a partial smile, a rise in his lower lip but not the corners. Billy is offering something, but what he's offering isn't clear. It's clouded by the murk of river water.
That night, Alan lies awake in bed with his phone heavy in his palm, rubbing his thumb over Billy's name, but he doesn't dial.
Alan finds excuses to stay home all weekend. He sends Billy a text message asking if he needs anything from the store, but he doesn't hear back for several hours. When the message arrives, it's two characters long: no.
He makes a show of cleaning his apartment, stripping the sheets and washing them, the towels, the kitchen linens. He vacuums and sprays down the wood surfaces, buffs water spots off of the bathroom mirror. Underneath the bathroom sink, he discovers a bleach tablet for the toilet that he deposits in the tank, then retires to the living room to open mail and sort through his emails.
Billy doesn't text him again until the following week, to say the bandages are coming off on Wednesday.
Congratulations, Alan writes back.
Celebrate? Billy writes.
They feast on over-boiled pasta with inexpensive sauce at the cafe table in the living room, which usually serves as a workspace. Billy has cleared it off and Windexed the surface. The air above it still carries the unpleasant scent of ammonia, despite the scented candle flickering in the center. Alan spreads the proffered paper towel on his lap and sips his beer, waiting for Billy to serve him.
"Sure you don't want any help?" he asks, fussing with his top button. It feels tight, and this feels like a date. He's reasonably certain that's what it is.
"I've got it," Billy calls, emerging from the kitchen with a plate in each hand.
There is salad, garlic bread, and a generous nest of pasta topped with sauce and cheese. It isn't fancy, but it smells better than anything they cook up at camp, and it's guaranteed to have less dirt in it.
Billy grins at him as they eat and their boots knock under the table. Alan can't help but flush at the metaphor. He's not an idiot. He knows what's going on just as well as Billy. A part of him is relieved, excited, as much as another part of him is hurt. His excitement is underlain with a frown.
They can't do this. They can't do this while he harbors so much anger, but he's not prepared to get up and leave. How is he supposed to rationalize the two? He wants to fold Billy in his arms as much as he wants to slam him against a wall.
"How is it?" Billy asks, a forkful of salad hovering at his lips.
"Good," Alan replies automatically. "Thank you."
The rest of the meal passes similarly, fragments of conversation between bites of food. Their plates are soon empty. Billy clears them and comes back with two more bottles of beer and a cherry pie. It rattles to a rest on the table.
"You're full of surprises, Mr. Brennan," Alan says but regrets the words the minute they're out. They call up the parasail and the determined look in Billy's eyes before he jumped from the railing.
"It's just the frozen kind," Billy dismisses and cuts them both a slice.
The filling is thick and too sweet, with a hint of almond flavoring. It's hot, just out of the oven. Alan eats impatiently to give his hands and mouth an occupation, but regrets it when the pie glues to the roof of his mouth. It will blister and peel in the morning. Billy licks his fork and dips his chin for another bite, eating it while holding Alan's gaze.
"Billy..." Alan begins, preparing to make an excuse to leave. He pushes his plate back an inch and rests his fork, tines up, in the center.
"I rented a movie, too, if you're not in a hurry."
It's neutral, and they won't have to talk, so Alan agrees in lieu of a difficult exit. They'll watch a movie, and he'll leave as soon as the credits start, citing work. Billy will understand.
"Be right back," Billy announces once he's cleared the plates, retreating into his bedroom. Alan makes himself comfortable on the couch, positioning himself to the far left, against the armrest.
When Billy pads out to meet him, he has changed into comfortable clothes, loose cotton drawstring pants, dark shirt and socks. He sits in the center of the couch, just to Alan's right. The couch dips under his additional weight. The cushions lack support; Alan's abdominal muscles tense to accommodate, but his arm comes into contact with Billy's arm regardless. They touch from shoulder to elbow.
"This okay?" Billy asks, dropping his eyes to the cushion to clarify what he's asking, then lifts them. There's a crease between his eyebrows that gives away his concern. It's the first time he's ever asked, the first time Alan has been expected to answer. When their proximity was automatic they could both pretend not to notice.
Alan can only sigh, move his head a little, just a stutter up and down. Billy's mouth is soft—barely a smile, but a smile. He relaxes into the couch and pushes a series of buttons on the remote while Alan nurses the remaining fourth of his beer. It's gone warm. He doesn't want to finish it, but he doesn't want to set down the bottle.
The movie is a sci-fi action story featuring shouting and an unnecessary level of special effects. Fifteen minutes in, Billy adjusts so that his elbow rests in the crook of Alan's arm. An hour later, he's cast the remote aside and drawn his legs up on the couch, shifting the bulk of his weight against Alan's side. At the climax, when the hero sacrifices himself, Billy exhales unsteadily and rests his head against Alan's shoulder. Alan closes his eyes.
It's been years since he did this with anyone, but he's thought about it every time Billy was nestled in against him at the bar, every time he stretched his arm behind him to lay his hat aside, every time Billy didn't bristle but leaned back into it. He begins to shake, an uncontrollable response in his center that squeezes his ribs with every tremor; the muscles along his back clench. Billy stays where he is, undoubtedly able to feel them. He drops a hand to Alan's wrist and leaves it there.
They finish the movie like that. Billy's thumb drags small circles on his arm, teasing the edge of his sleeve and slipping underneath. Alan shivers, a burst originating in his stomach, fluttering outward. He breathes in, sharp and sudden, through his mouth.
The credits roll; they watch them through to the end without speaking, watch as the DVD returns to the main menu. After a few minutes, Billy speaks against his shoulder.
"So what'd you think?" He doesn't sit up.
"Far fetched but enjoyable."
"Hm," Billy hums. "You know people have cloned dinosaurs, right?"
"You don't say?" Alan mutters.
"Compared to that, blowing up an asteroid doesn't seem impossible."
"I didn't say it was impossible."
"No," Billy concedes. He tightens his grip on Alan's wrist, stares down at it, stilling his thumb. "Alan, you know I—" he begins, then chokes off his own words. He takes a deep breath before continuing. "I'm glad you came over."
Alan turns his face into Billy's hair, inhales once, then looks away as his cheeks grow hot. The shaking returns.
"I don't want to push this," Billy says quietly. "But I want to know if you...I think you know how I feel."
"I think so," Alan says.
"Do you, uh." He swallows. "You're okay with that?"
Alan nods rapidly and clenches his jaw. He's never done this: not with another man, not with a student. But this isn't a crush. It began as one, as mere infatuation, delight over someone half his age showing interest in his work, in him. That's what Ellie called it, infatuation, because of their like-mindedness.
But his reaction to Billy's death, how he hadn't been able to stop himself from sprinting to the railing, shouting himself hoarse—he would only have done that for a handful of others. Billy was reckless, yes, but not thoughtless. The eggs had been for them, for their work, so they could continue it. Given Billy's investment in his future, Alan knows he wouldn't have taken them merely for his own profit, wouldn't risk the university expunging his record for breach of ethics. Alan hasn't reported it and doesn't intend to; on the ride back, he asked the Kirbys to promise the same.
"I think he's seen punishment enough," Amanda said, patting Paul's arm. "You make sure he gets better," she added and smiled gently.
So she'd known. This hasn't been a crush for a long time.
The DVD menu is still on screen. Billy pulls himself upright and inches closer, turning so that he is perpendicular to Alan's side. He places a hand on Alan's chest.
"Can I...?" he asks, eyes flicking to Alan's mouth.
You have to believe me: this was a stupid decision, but I did it with the best intentions.
A plume of anger wells in his chest and rises swiftly. He should push Billy away, take his hat and keys and drive as far away from here as he can manage.
He's hurt. He's disappointed. It might be years before those feelings fade, if they fade.
They might never fade. Blood pounds in his ears.
As far as I'm concerned, you're no better than the people that built this place.
He should leave, but Billy is lovely, gazing at Alan earnestly, lips just parted, acutely aware of his past actions and baring himself regardless. His lips are pink. Alan wants to kiss them, learn their texture with his. The timing isn't right, but he wants it anyway.
He opens his mouth, closes it. Shakes his head.
Billy's face contorts. He shuts his eyes and lowers his head, withdrawing his hand and wrapping his arms around his stomach. He rocks back like he might be sick. Alan can't stand it. He pulls Billy against him, kisses him roughly, swallows the answering gasp.
"I'm angry with you," he confesses, sucking Billy's lip into his mouth, carelessly enough to bruise.
Billy grips his face tightly, bites Alan’s lip and soothes it with his tongue, whispers through tears, “Good.”
He climbs onto Alan's lap, sits astride his thighs, and crosses his arms behind Alan's neck. It draws Alan's face close to his. Billy kisses him deeply, whimpering when Alan asks, "Should you be doing this?" Billy shakes his head but doesn't stop. Alan's hands find his hips, slip beneath the loose-fitting t-shirt to fit over his hip bones, hold steady as Billy rocks forward. Alan is able to feel his arousal through his pants, just a whisper of cotton.
Emboldened, he moves his fingers beneath the elastic waistband, and tentatively slides his palms to Billy's ass. He isn't wearing anything underneath. Alan gasps. Billy's body is firm and muscular from years spent hiking and hang-gliding. Alan squeezes and thrusts him forward, again, then again, encouraging Billy to move.
Billy's mouth is a hot frenzy on his, whispering, "Alan. Jesus, Alan, I wanna touch you," though he keeps his arms locked tightly around Alan's neck. The bite of the zipper against his dick forces him to keep his movements small, tame the instinct to arch up, but it's not painful enough to stop.
They don't. Billy's fingers work down the line of buttons on Alan's shirt, push it off of his shoulders. He smooths his hands over Alan's chest, down his waist. Alan tugs Billy's shirt up and over his head. Billy lets him, raises his arms just long enough for the shirt to pull free from his wrists, then latches onto Alan again.
It's been a long time since Alan has been half-naked with someone; he's all but forgotten the sensation of skin-on-skin. He moans when their chests press together, when Billy settles so close that their stomachs touch. His mouth is soft, reverent. Alan's name escapes with each undulation of his hips.
"Take these off," Billy murmurs, mouth hot and wet at Alan's ear. He thrusts his hands between them. Alan nods, so Billy unfastens the button, works the zipper down while kissing him deeply. Billy's hand isn't dissimilar to how his own feels: large, calloused. Except it's Billy's hand, and the knowledge makes him dizzy. Alan gasps his name.
"Let me," Billy whispers and begins to move his hand.
Alan hasn't come with someone else in years, not since the visiting professor he dated briefly after Ellie moved to Washington. It sweeps over him and explodes blue behind his eyelids, alive through every part of his body as he fucks up into Billy's fist. His toes curl. He grunts an unintelligible sound, wraps an arm tightly behind Billy's neck and seals their mouths together, panting as he comes down from the high.
Billy's fingers loosen but remain curled around him, almost protectively.
"You want to move this into the bedroom?" he asks.
They shed their clothes on the living room floor, leaving a trail in their wake. In the bed, Alan pulls Billy against him, rolling over so Billy is on his back and Alan melts into him. The mattress squeaks. The house is situated so close to the road, Billy's quiet moans are frequently drowned by passing cars, but he clutches Alan's shoulders, digs his heels into Alan's lower back and he rocks up into him, comes from friction alone.
He gets up for a cloth, switches on the ceiling fan, and pulls the sheet to their waists.
"Stay," he murmurs into Alan's shoulder, settling against him.
Forgiveness is an active process. He has to work through the frequent bouts of anger, just as Billy has to work to regain Alan's trust. The anger surges with familiar details: images of cliffs on the television, an ad for bathroom renovations, oversized canned goods. Even the vending machine at work has received numerous frowns as Alan recalls the attack in the genetics lab at the InGen compound, which might never have happened if Billy hadn't taken the eggs.
In those moments, he has to remind himself that he has chosen to forgive, that he has chosen to be with Billy in spite of what happened.
The sex continues. They continue. Billy drives them to work in the morning, and they leave together at night. Sometimes Billy comes back for him when Alan has to work late; or he drops by the lab to tell Alan to take the truck, he'll get a ride home, on nights when Billy's research keeps him hunched over a lab table for hours.
His clothes intermix with Alan's, hung beside his in the closet, stacked in a drawer, tangled in the laundry basket. There are two toothbrushes in the bathroom, and two coffee mugs on the counter every morning when Alan gets out of the shower. He accepts the coffee with a smile and a "Good morning" and kisses Billy hello, even on the morning he finds Billy repairing a tear in his favorite bag, the one he brought with them to the island. Alan kisses him; he chooses to kiss him.
In early Fall, under a blanket on the couch, sweat drying on Alan's back and forehead, Billy mentions that his lease renews in December. Alan surveys his apartment. It makes little sense to continue paying for two. Alan's is closer to campus and has greater square footage.
The next time they have dinner at Billy's, he offers to help pack things, move him in stages. They never had an official conversation about it, he realizes, when Billy is organizing his clothes in the newly cleared right side of the dresser and chatting about the girl he found to sublet. He pins hang-gliding photographs to the living room walls with thumb tacks, and leaves his laptop on the kitchen table.
The holidays are low-key. They spend most of their time indoors, because Bozeman is hit with a record snowfall. Alan doesn't ask about Billy's family, and Billy doesn't offer any information about them.
They chat with Ellie via Skype, and Charlie holds up the new figurines that Billy picked out for him: a Triceratops and a Plesiosaur. The Kirbys send a family picture: the three of them at the Grand Canyon. Billy frames it and hangs it by the front door, over the dish where they keep the keys. Eric's grin is visible from across the room.
They receive a handful of Christmas cards addressed to both of them. One reads Alan and Billy Grant, which makes Billy laugh. "Something I should know?" he asks. He sticks it on the fridge, underneath a magnet for their favorite pizza place.
They order pizza for New Year's, ring in midnight on the couch, with Alan's head on Billy's shoulder. They kiss when the ball drops, and when Alan's eyes sting with tears and his chest feels tight, he knows he's in love.
His agent contacts him about writing another book, but he passes, despite the offer of a generous advance. Initially, Billy tries to coax him into it, but he comes to understand that Alan doesn't want to dredge up the memory of Isla Sorna, not when it could ruin what exists between them. They're both contacted about interviews, even though it's almost been a year. Billy turns them all down and sets his sights on graduating. Alan focuses on the museum, on the new exhibit about Velociraptor communication. The resonating chamber is the centerpiece.
"You know I was flirting with you that day, right?" Billy whispers, elbowing Alan as they oversee the installation.
The confession makes Alan blush. The truth of it is, he hadn't known—he'd been overwhelmed by the sounds the chamber had produced, sounds which had been relegated to nightmares for a decade. But looking back, he has to laugh about the earnest look on Billy's face, the way he locked eyes with Alan as he took a deep breath, pushed it into the replica.
He pats Billy's upper back, lets his hand linger. He likes touching Billy in public, even a reserved touch like this. It's a claim, and Billy lets him make it.
Billy finishes his degree and is awarded his doctorate the following spring. After the graduation ceremony, he's flanked by peers offering their congratulations, wondering where he'll go now. Alan stands quietly at his side. He knows that Billy received an offer for a research position in Ann Arbor, but he turned it down in favor of staying at MSU, under Alan's direction. The position would be prestigious, a smart career move, but Alan is both relieved and shocked at Billy's total dismissal of the idea.
"We've worked together for years," he defends when people question him about the practicality. "I like it here."
They grab a celebratory dinner at Montana Ale Works—Bison burgers and Parmesan fries with a bottle of Cabernet. On the ride home, Billy is slightly drunk, palming Alan's thigh suggestively until his phone rings. He laughs and accepts with a cheerful, "Hey." But within seconds, his posture has gone stiff. He withdraws his hand from Alan’s leg and cranes his head toward the window. When he speaks, it’s in a hushed, clipped tone—as few words as possible.
"We've talked about this." A pause. Then, "I haven't changed my mind."
It's a man's voice on the line, too muffled for Alan to interpret the other half of the conversation, but Billy makes the same defense about their work history, justifying his decision to stay in Montana. He must be talking with his father. Does he expect Billy to move back to California, now that he's graduated?
The call continues after they're home, after Alan switches off the truck and gets out. Billy sits in the passenger's seat and waves him off. Alan goes inside and makes a pot of coffee, but Billy goes right to bed when he comes inside. Alan gives him a while by himself and drinks two cups rather than pouring it down the drain.
The bedroom lights are off. Billy lies on top of the comforter, fully clothed. Alan curls around him from behind, kisses his temple and his ear.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"No," Billy says. His voice is strangled. "Can you love and hate someone at the same time?"
"I think so," Alan says. "With family, it's hard."
"My dad has never understood why I want to do this. He thinks my whole education is a waste of money, that I should've become a contractor like him. Even when I got the job as your assistant, he said it wouldn't lead to anything; there's no money in it. Fuck, he can't even be proud of me for graduating."
Alan smooths a hand over his hair.
"My father wanted me to be a lawyer," he confesses. "I think at the end of the day, parents want what they think is best for us, but they base it on their own experiences."
"If we have kids," Billy states, "I'm never judging them like that."
The inclusive nature of his statement doesn't escape him. He holds Billy tighter.
"I know you won't," he says.
Alan holds him until he falls asleep, removes Billy's boots and covers him with a blanket. He gathers their phones and puts them both on charge, then gets a shower before bed.
While he's washing his hair, he can't stop thinking about what Billy said: if we have kids. He's never thought about kids of his own. Ellie used to bring it up, but the very idea was absurd. Financial issues aside, there's just no space for children in his life—literally or figuratively. He lives out of a trailer half of the year. It was difficult to manage with two adults and a parrot; he can't imagine adding a toddler to the mix.
He would've agreed to children with Ellie, if they had stayed together, if she had pressed the issue. He would have done it to make her happy. But he never felt the giddiness in his chest that he has now, imagining Billy with a child on his lap, a mop of that same curly hair. Maybe it's his age; he is another decade older. Or maybe it's the strain of having survived another life-threatening situation. Maybe his biology is catching up with him. Regardless, he can't stop thinking about a family with them at the center.
When he gets into bed, he watches Billy in the moonlight, tracing the contours of his face, almost worshipfully. He's never loved anyone like this, not someone who cared for him so freely, so openly. Billy doesn't talk about their future with hesitation; he talks about it is though it is a certainty. Alan never imagined that he could feel like this about someone, that he would want to share every discovery, every rough piece of himself. He and Ellie had a good run, but he can tell that Mark is it for her, just like Billy is it for him.
He pictures a child opening the door to their bedroom, clamoring up onto the bed, and crawling over them. He imagines a small voice saying his name, which carves a smile on his face.
He hears echoes of that voice the next morning over coffee, so much that he's distracted. He doesn't hear a word of what Billy is saying until he's got a hand on Alan's shoulder, a bemused expression. "Alan, you okay?"
He shakes it off, smiles and cups Billy's face. "I'm great," he murmurs.
They fly out to D.C. in early June for a speaking engagement at the Smithsonian, which provides an excuse to visit Ellie and Mark. They stay in the guest room, tastefully decorated in blues and greens, not a dinosaur in sight—those are restricted to Charlie's room.
Jack takes to Billy immediately. He bobs over to stand behind him in his enclosure, ruffling his feathers and occasionally says his name. Despite repeated prodding, he refuses to speak Alan's. While Mark takes a conference call, Billy provides Charlie with a lesson on Stegosaurus plates, how they might have evolved to regulate body temperature, but it's possible they actually served as a visual display. Ellie leans into Alan's side.
"I like him," she confides.
He ducks his head. "So do I."
"You look happy," she says, swatting him on the shoulder. She gives him a warm smile and drinks her coffee. "Younger."
"Well," Alan says. "Better than the alternative."
"You'd better invite me to the wedding," she threatens with a knowing expression.
"Ellie," he promises, reaching to take her hand. "You'll be the best man."
When they head out to Fort Peck Lake for a couple weeks in July, they pack one bag, which they throw into the back of Alan's truck. He keeps a hand on Billy's thigh the whole drive.
Their relationship doesn't have a formal label, but it's common knowledge at the dig site. It doesn't change much. They're still Alan and Billy, just as they were before, only now they sleep in the same tent. Alan doesn't notice a difference in the way people treat him, though some smile a bit more if Billy approaches during a conversation, or when Billy slings an arm over his shoulder at the end of the day. Apparently their affair is a popular topic of debate among the grad students; the department has had an unofficial pool going for years.
There are a lot of questions about the island, which both of them refuse to answer. Alan can see the tension in the lines on Billy's forehead the first night around the bonfire, so he makes a point to keep a hand on his back, rubs circles into it until the lines ease. It's easier to keep his own anger at bay when he's focused on Billy's emotions. Before bed, they sit outside the tent and watch the stars. Billy traces their initials in the dust.
At the end of the first week, they drive into Jordan, to the Hell Creek Bar and Grill for drinks and dinner. Cat beams when she sees them and waves them into her section. They grab their favorite booth and sit across from each other. Alan sets his hat on the seat beside him and smiles as Cat approaches with a drink tray.
"Catfish," he says. "Good to see you."
"So," she prods, slapping down cocktail napkins and sliding an ice pick to both of them. Her hair's pulled back in a ponytail; it's darker than Alan remembered. "What have you two been up to?"
"Got my doctorate," Billy announces. He removes the straw from his drink and sets it aside.
"Good for you!" she exclaims. She turns to Alan. "Still enjoying the bachelor life?"
"Not anymore," Billy answers for him. He grins up at Cat and winks.
"About damn time," Cat says, then nods to the drinks on the table. "Those are on me. Congratulations. Do you want your usuals, or do you want to see a menu?"
"Usual for me, thanks, Cat," Alan mutters, flushing. He wishes he'd left on his hat.
"Me too," Billy adds.
"You got it," she says and walks away to put in their order. Billy bites his lip, leans in and whispers, "Alan, is it okay that I said something?"
"Of course," he says automatically.
"I know we haven't given a name to this." He motions back and forth between them. "I should've asked you."
"No, it's fine," Alan assures him. He clears his throat and folds his hands together.
"I like this. Whatever it is."
"I want to keep doing it," Billy adds. "Indefinitely."
Alan chuckles. "Why, Dr. Brennan, is this a proposal?"
"I, uh," Billy starts. He takes a breath and drags his fingers through the condensation on his glass. "Alan, I'm in love with you."
There's no irony in his voice, no doubt. When he looks up, his eyes are glassy and full of hope. Alan's throat closes up, and he can't find his voice. His mouth is dropped open like a fool's, so he sets his jaw, picks up his drink and holds it out. Billy does the same, clinking their glasses together. He raises both eyebrows, and his mouth teases at a smile.
"So," he says. "Is that a yes?"
Six years later
The site at Fort Peck Lake probably has another decade before they will have unearthed enough to call the dig complete, especially with funding secured for another five years. There are acres left unexplored, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, Alan can't see a reason to move their research elsewhere. He's been able to oversee the museum, even though he spends four months of the year living out of a trailer.
Double salaries mean better quality than what he'd been able to provide for himself alone. They have a used model, but it's in good condition, with a new roof and a shower that is sometimes warm. The bed is large, though, which Alan appreciates. His back stiffens with each passing year. It's easier to stretch out on a queen, instead of the generous twin he and Billy somehow made work that first summer.
Billy said that he was going to do a laundry run this morning; Carrie vowed to help. The laundromat is in Jordan, about twenty-five miles from the site. Considering Billy found an excuse to do laundry last weekend too, Alan wonders if he's got cabin fever, thinking of the three-bedroom house waiting for them in Bozeman.
Signing his name to mortgage documents felt a little like signing over his soul—he's never owned anything bigger than a trailer—but once he held the keys in his hand, saw the delighted look on Billy's face when they carted in the first boxes, he knew it was the right decision. They've been home twice this summer, but that's not enough to get settled in. The first thing he's doing when they get home is assembling the swing set.
The dig will run fine without him. He hasn't informed the university that he won't be overseeing it next summer. Teaching doesn't hold the excitement of being on site, touching the fossils, of time travelling across millions of years. But it's what Billy wants, what they've decided is best for Carrie, and Alan accepts that. He's even toyed with the idea of offering one of his lectures as an online class so he can be home more. The new house has an office he can work out of and wireless internet. When he told Ellie about the idea, mentioned that his computer has a built-in camera, she nearly choked over the phone. "Someone's evolved," she laughed.
The trailer sits at a distance from the rest, away from the late-night bonfires and generators that run air conditioning well past dark. It rocks. Alan hears a raised voice, a happy shriek. He approaches with caution.
Easing the door open, he's met by the patter of small feet, and a half-naked three-year-old sprinting into their bedroom. The door clicks closed behind her. There is a still life of bread and peanut butter on the counter. Billy holds up a butter knife and a jar of Concord grape jam, exasperation etched into the lines around his eyes.
"I've put clothes on her three times," he says. "She keeps taking them off."
"I'll take care of her," Alan says, kissing the top of Billy's head. It's damp. He must've just showered.
"Take off your boots," Billy mumbles into his shoulder. "I just swept."
"Alright," Alan chuckles.
Billy lets Alan hold him for a minute before he kisses the side of his neck, worms out of his arms, and goes back to sandwich assembly.
"Will you make me one of those?" Alan asks, sitting at the table to remove his shoes. He sets them in the boot tray. "I'm starving."
"That's because you think coffee is breakfast," Billy mutters, getting down another plate.
Alan knocks twice on the bedroom door and hears giggling on the other side. He crouches down.
"Carrie," he says in a warning tone. "Daddy says you won't get dressed."
The laughter continues, topped off by the creak of mattress springs, a persistent boing, boing, boing,
"She's jumping on the bed," he murmurs to Billy over his shoulder.
"Adorable," Billy replies, though his flat tone suggests otherwise.
Alan swings the door inward, crawls in on his hands and knees, and launches a surprise tickle offensive. Squealing ensues; he laughs until his belly is sore, and Carrie lets him tug the green t-shirt back over her head. It reads, Ask me about my T-Rex. She immediately grabs the hem and pulls it up and over her head, revealing a dinosaur on the reverse side.
"Very funny," Alan tells her. She roars in response. "It was very thoughtful of Aunt Ellie to send this. You can't run around the dig site naked."
"Because I said so," he says sternly. "Why are you giving daddy a hard time?"
"I don't know."
"Go easy on him, kiddo. Where are your shoes?"
She points to a discarded pair of sneakers on the floor.
"Go get them," he orders. She frowns but hops off of the bed, dashes to her bunk on the opposite side of the trailer, and comes back with white ankle socks in hand. "Sit," he tells her. He wrestles her into socks and shoes, then scoops her up. She waves her arms until he swoops her back toward the bed, so she can pick up Billy's old camera bag that she keeps stuffed with her toys.
"You're getting too big for this," he grunts and carries her into the main room, where Billy has laid out lunch: sandwiches, carrot sticks, milk for Carrie, and a beer for each of them. Carrie claims the top sandwich, takes a bite larger than she can chew, and knocks over her milk.
"Sorry," she chimes.
"Remind me why we decided this was a good idea," Billy says into his hands as milk slicks over the table and begins to drip onto the floor. Alan mops up the spill with a stack of paper towels and pours Carrie a new glass.
"Be careful," he lectures, crowding in next to Billy at the banquette. He slides an arm around his shoulders. "It's only two more weeks," he promises quietly.
"Thank god. Did Ellie get back to you about their flight?"
"She texted me a little bit ago," Alan says, digging for his phone. He scrolls through his recent messages. "They get into BZN at two on Saturday."
Billy groans. "We'll have half a day to get the house ready."
"They're not coming to see the house," Alan reminds him. Billy raises an eyebrow. "Okay, they're also coming to see the house. Ellie's spent enough time on dig sites; she knows how a house gets neglected."
Billy shifts and presses his face into Alan's shoulder, squeezes his thigh under the table.
"I know. Sorry. It's one of those days."
"I know," Alan says.
"Love you," Billy murmurs. It doesn't matter how many times Alan has heard him say it; it makes his throat tight. He breathes in sweat and dust and holds Billy tighter.
"Love you, too."
"Well," Billy says, kissing Alan's cheek before he bats Carrie's hand away from the beer. He plucks the hat from Alan's head and casts it aside, runs his knuckles along Alan's jaw. "That's the important thing."