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Going North

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Guern's driving, so naturally if they're stopping for anything it's donuts and coffee. Apparently there are to be no bathroom breaks until they get to this little diner he's heard is awesome, in a town off the I-5 just before it crosses the state line into Oregon. 

"You know I hate you forever, right?" Cottia says from the seat directly behind him, reaching a hand forward to flick at his ear. "Don’t you get enough donuts at work, Mr LAPD?"

"Ow!" The little VW van swerves slightly on the dark highway as Guern bats her hand away. "Motherfucker, that hurts!" 

"Oh yeah? Well, so does my bladder. Do the words pregnant and woman mean nothing to you?"

In the passenger seat, Liathan wrinkles his mouth. "Yeah, how much longer is it? I haven’t eaten since we left LA."

"Maybe twenty minutes till the turn-off," Guern says, but he’s distracted, peering into the rear-view, at the dark of the back seat. "Any signs of life back there?"

"Watch the road," Cottia says sharply. "God, I don’t know why I let you drive at all." But she looks over her shoulder at the back seat for him, then leans forward over her baby bump to speak into his ear. "They're asleep."


Yreka


When they finally reach the rest stop, Cottia slides open the middle door of the van before Guern’s even pulled it to a halt, shouting something over her shoulder about how nobody will ever find his body. Guern just laughs and parks up. Unfolding himself from the passenger seat, Liathan sticks his head into the back of the van to wake Marcus and Esca. 

They’ve been asleep since maybe an hour out of Sacramento – unsurprising, given he knows they both worked through the previous night and into this morning at their bar to ensure everything would run smoothly while they were gone. Now, they’re leaning together on the backseat – Marcus’s arm over Esca’s body, Esca’s head on his chest. Liathan knows they didn’t go to sleep like that, mostly because he, like Cottia and Guern, had to witness the blazing argument they had going on until maybe half an hour before Sacramento (when the stubborn silence started). He shakes Marcus by the shoulder.

"Wha?" Marcus blinks blearily. "Oh, we stopped?" 

"Yeah, that coffee and donut place Guern was talking about."

This is when Marcus visibly notices he’s attached to Esca, who’s stirring against his chest. Liathan hears something about ‘five more minutes’ muttered into Marcus’s shirtfront as he ducks out of the van and heads towards the diner. When he looks back, Marcus has disentangled himself from Esca – who’s already asleep again by the looks of things – and is propping him back against the seat, gently.

Guern has ordered a pot of coffee; Marcus and Liathan reach the booth he’s chosen just as Cottia emerges from the ladies’ room to collapse down beside him. 

"Esca still asleep?" she says.

"Probably be back with us in a few," Marcus supplies, and she nods.

"So what kind of family are your family?" she asks Liathan as he slides over the vinyl seating to make room for Marcus. "Stuck-up like mine? Crazy like Guern’s –"

"Hey!"

"Totally cracked like Guern’s, or stoners like Marcus’s uncle?"

Liathan laughs. "Uh, they’re OK. There’s fucking loads of them, is the only thing. The whole tribe of Selkoes. Lived on the Muckleshoot reservation since time began, or some shit."

"I love how totally unbothered you are by what she just said about your uncle," Guern tells Marcus with a grin.

Marcus looks up from pouring himself a coffee to roll his eyes. "She speaks the truth, dude. I love him but he does smoke a lot of weed."

"You remember when I first bought the van off of him, Guern – it took about three weeks for the smell to dissipate…" Guern just shakes his head.

The waitress who approaches them is perky and she smiles at Guern longer than at anybody else. He orders twice as many donuts as they could possibly eat, asking her to pack most of them in boxes for the journey. 

"Sure thing, honey," she says with a flutter of her eyelashes, and refills their coffee pot.

Liathan pours Cottia’s coffee and explains how his parents moved from the reservation in Auburn to Seattle when he was a kid; describes how the extended family acted like they were moving cross-country rather than just a half-hour’s drive away.

Cottia grins. "They must have flipped their shit when you told ‘em you were going to UCLA."

"Hey, it could have been further," Marcus cuts in. "He was looking at a university in Scotland, weren’t you? I remember ‘cause when you and I first met Esca you two, like, bonded over it in a weird Briton-and-Britannophile kind of way."

"Yeah, I never told mom about the whole Edinburgh thing." Liathan makes a face that indicates precisely how accurate Cottia was with her prediction of shit-flipping. "If you could not mention it when you come to dinner, that’d be great."

Esca slouches into the diner then, hands in his hoodie pockets and eyes half-open. "’Scuse me, zombie moment," he tells them dully as he drops into the booth – beside Marcus, but keeping a distance between them. "Coffee needed."

As Guern pours him a cup, their waitress returns, carrying a tray piled high with hot, fresh donuts. The table is pretty much covered in plates and boxes by the time she finishes offloading them, with a flourish and a wink at Guern.

"Seriously, does being fondled by a pregnant woman really not say ‘I’m taken’ loudly enough?" Cottia laughs as the waitress leaves them, Marcus and Liathan both immediately grabbing a donut each.

"Who’s being fondled?" Guern says innocently, feigning surprise when she throws a hand onto his knee and gets right up in his face. Her intense expression lasts approximately three seconds before he stuffs half a donut into her laughing mouth.

"Mffh – oh holy crap, these are delicious," she gets out after some chewing, and Guern shrugs, "Told you so. I’ve got California smarts. Grew up here."

"If by ‘here’ you mean ‘half a state away’, sure. What you’ve got is the ability to Google places to eat up to ten minutes off of the I-5."

Esca’s smiling wryly over his coffee, now. "Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s like the 21st Century equivalent of going out and hunting woolly mammoth for you. Very romantic."

"He lives!" Guern exclaims. "Donut, Esca? I’m told they’re delicious…"


I-5


A couple of refills, several donuts and a bathroom break later, Liathan takes the back seat with the remaining donut boxes piled high beside him, Guern tosses Cottia’s keys back to her and gets in beside her, and Marcus and Esca settle – close but not touching – onto the middle row of seats. Cottia peers into the rear-view before she starts the engine.

"So I see we’re all sitting next to the love of our lives – me and Guern, Esca and Marcus, Liathan and sugary deep-fried baked goods."

Esca snorts as he pulls out his book from under the seat, and Liathan laughs. "Sad but true."

Over his shoulder, Guern says to Marcus, "Allora, si pratica?"

", OK," Marcus says, "if you insist," and then they’re off, practicing their Italian conversation skills.

They’ve been talking haltingly for maybe ten minutes, with occasional breaks for Guern to check his pocket English-to-Italian dictionary, when Esca looks up from Le Petit Prince – in the original French, Liathan noticed when he looked over his shoulder earlier – to say, "No, you want the masculine there. Genealogico, not genealogica." He shuts the book.

Something changes then in the set of Marcus’s shoulders, and his eyes go immediately to Esca’s face. From the front seat, Guern says, "Thanks, Esca," and Esca acknowledges him, but mostly he’s looking at Marcus, too.

They share a long moment before Marcus says, so quietly Liathan barely hears him, "Mi dispiace, caro." His arm moves against the seat as though maybe he’s taken Esca’s hand in his, or tried to.

Esca looks away and Liathan can’t see his face, but the change, the softening in his voice is unmistakable when he says, "Oh, and you’ve been getting your future tense wrong this whole time, by the way."


Ashland


They stop around an hour into Oregon and park up outside a neon-signed motel which Liathan found twenty minutes earlier by Googling "motels in ashland, or" on his phone. As they pile out, Marcus and Esca pick up their bags and head for the reception, and Liathan mutters something about sleeping in the van – cheaper – asking Cottia sheepishly if it's OK for her to let him have the keys. 

She looks at him for a second.

"You seriously think I'm going to let you freeze your ass off out here?"

He shrugs, "I’ve slept in colder places."

Rather than reply, she slaps his ear. It’s quite painful. When the man behind the motel's reception desk shows them the laminated card detailing the different types of room, Cottia gives Liathan another look and points to the double with the pull-out single bed included. "That’s what we’re after, thanks."

They end up just along the corridor from Marcus and Esca’s double; Liathan delivers them some of the donuts from the van when he goes to pick up his phone, which he finds he accidentally left on the back seat.

"Breakfast," he says, handing them over.

Marcus must have looked through the peephole, because he’s answered the door in his boxers. Nothing Liathan didn’t see when they were roommates back in college. "Thanks, dude," he says as he takes the box, and behind him Liathan sees the long line of Esca curled under the bedsheets already, eyes closed. He’s got his arm thrown over the other half of the bed like he’s waiting for Marcus to be there.

When he gets back to the other room Cottia and Guern are in the bathroom together – he hears at least one of them brushing their teeth, and low occasional conversation in between spitting and rinsing. They’ve already pulled his bed out from under theirs, so he dumps his bag at the foot of it and sits down to check his phone. 

There’s one new message. He reads it, then blinks and reads it again.

Cottia comes out of the bathroom in a robe, tying the cord over her bump. “Hey, you found it.”

"Yeah, just on my seat," Liathan says after a second, making his mouth smile. "Left it on a plane once – that was fun."

She smiles, sitting on the bed and starting to undo her hair. Red coils fall down in sections as she removes pins and lays them on the nightstand. "Me and Guern were just saying, it looks like the other two are out of the woods."

"I guess."

"I overheard them out by the van before we left Yreka. Having one of those conversations you have after an argument, you know. ‘Sorry I called you a bitch.’ ‘Sorry I said you were bad in bed.’ ‘Sorry I got angry and threw your favourite mug out the window’. Or is that last one just me?"

"Probably just you," Liathan says automatically.

"Anyways, theirs were ‘Sorry I repeatedly insinuated your family were bound to be good for nothing’ for Esca, and ‘Sorry I overreacted’ for Marcus, which I think we both know is pretty much something he should get printed on a t-shirt where Esca’s concerned."

As Liathan’s saying, "Why does he think Marcus’s family are good for nothing?" Guern emerges from the bathroom. His pyjama pants have the LAPD logo on them. 

"Marcus thinks it, too," he says to Liathan before Cottia can answer, "he just doesn’t like Esca saying it. His uncle quite often hints that they’ve got mob connections somewhere back in the bloodline. Esca doesn’t want Marcus to get his hopes up about this family history stuff and then, when they get to the Seattle records office, find a piece of paper declaring that his great-grandfather was some Mafioso nogoodnik."

Liathan frowns. "I’d never heard that before, about mob connections."

"Ah, but you’re not from the mother country like I am," Guern tells him and taps his nose twice. "Part of what’s so great about learning Italian with Marcus – you know, aside from the ‘finding your cultural roots’ bullshit – is that now we understand a hell of a lot more of the stuff Aquila’s trying to tell us." 

"Most of it’s still pot-tinged nonsense, though, right?" Cottia mutters good-naturedly, pulling the sheets of their bed back so she and Guern can slide in.

Liathan takes his phone into the bathroom with him and lays it on the counter beside the sink as he gets ready for bed. He stares at the screen while he brushes his teeth, even though the backlight’s long since gone out, then splashes his face with water a couple of times and looks at the message again. The timestamp on it means Regan must have sent it around the time Cottia was trying to convince Liathan he didn’t have to pay for the motel room, saying he could pay for lunch tomorrow instead. He insisted on giving her a third of the cost anyhow.

Hi, he re-reads now, looking at the text again. I thought you should know I’m pregnant.

He turns his phone off before he gets into the low little bed, and doesn’t sleep for a long time.


I-5, again


In the morning, they make it most of the way to Portland on complementary motel-room coffee and leftover Yreka donuts. Guern’s driving again, so they go to an IHOP for burgers in the afternoon, while Cottia takes the van and goes in search of tuna and kiwi fruit, muttering darkly about cravings. 

They end up waiting in the parking lot for her to come back. At first Esca tests Marcus and Guern on irregular Italian verbs, but he stops bothering after a few minutes and settles onto the brick wall next to Marcus, letting the conversation flow without interrupting to demand the past participle ofpotere. While Guern’s talking about the things he and Cottia want to see when they get to Vancouver, Esca takes Marcus’s hand; a second later he leans in a little, just resting against Marcus’s side. Liathan looks away, sliding his hands into his pockets. He can feel the edge of his phone against his left palm.

Marcus says, "By the look of it we should be in Seattle in time for dinner."

Guern nods. "You’ve let your mom and dad know, right, Liathan? It should be around 7."

"I’ll text my mom now." As he says it, the van turns into the parking lot, Cottia drawing it up in front of them. She leans out of her window and leers at Guern.

"Goin’ my way, sailor?"

"Always." He kisses her through the window as the rest of them pile into the van, before walking to the passenger’s side. "Find what you wanted?"

"Yeah, eventually." 

Liathan’s ended up back on the middle row of seats, Marcus and Esca talking amongst themselves in the back, and Cottia meets his eyes at that moment in the rear-view. She frowns a little. "Are you OK?"

Liathan shrugs. "Yeah, I guess."

"You’ve been quiet all day, my friend," Guern adds over his shoulder as he fastens his seatbelt. "Something up?"

Liathan looks at the back of their heads and breathes in. "I’ll tell you later."

"Suit yourself, then," Cottia says, but her tone isn’t harsh, and her eyes seek his in the mirror again just before she pulls the van out of the lot. 

"Tonight, maybe?" he says, a couple of moments after it seems like the subject is closed, and glances behind him at Marcus and Esca, too. "After my parents go to bed, I’ll tell all of you."

Cottia laughs then, a familiar peal of a sound. "You don’t have to draw up a timetable, honey. Whenever you like. We’ll be around."