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on the way back home

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Gus doesn't like Ottawa very much. The residents are horribly pretentious, for one thing, and for another, it's next to impossible to find a place that serves a decent halibut. He avoids visiting the city as much as he can, but it turns out that declaring sovereignty and creating your own country is not an act without consequence.

And by consequence, he means endless hours of mind-numbingly boring meetings with the monkeys who make up the Canadian government.

It's been a long day of that today, and the day before that, and even the day before that. But he's finally free, allowed to get out of this awful city and go home just as soon as he can catch a flight. Which, as it happens, is not until the next morning, so Gus takes a walk downtown to search for a decent meal. Maybe he'll even find somewhere that knows how to prepare fish, but he's not holding his breath on that one.

No matter where he is, Gus always makes it a point to avoid eating anywhere with the words "seafood" or "fishery" in the name, as those are more often than not the worst offenders when it comes to making seafood taste horrible, so he walks into a quiet-looking place called Al's Bar & Steakhouse and asks the hostess if there is fish on the menu. She assures him there is, and Gus smiles at her and walks over to the bar.

The place is relatively uncrowded, and his nearest companion is two stools away. "Hello," Gus says politely. He's determined to be as nice as possible to the locals in attempts to annoy them, but this man doesn't appear annoyed - only surprised.

"Hello," he replies, his tone matching Gus' for both forced politeness and lack of emotion. Interesting. More interesting, however, is the fact that this man is not local at all. Gus isn't much for accents, not really, yet there's a certain inflection present in the words of all those who hail from Nova Scotia, and he is well familiar with that.

"What in the name of God are you doing this far away from home?" he asks the man bluntly, after he's ordered a beer from the bartender. "And in Ottawa, God."

Perhaps the only look this man is capable of expressing is one of polite (always polite, Gus notes) confusion. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

Gus waves his hand. "Nah," he replies. "But you're from Nova Scotia, are you not?" The man nods, hesitant. "I thought as much. I was merely curious as to why on Earth you would want to leave there and come here."

The man doesn't answer right away. In fact, it takes him so long that Gus is convinced the conversation is dead, that his conversational offering has been rejected in favour of a cheeseburger. But eventually the man speaks. "Didn't care much for home. Home didn't care much for me, either."

"Ah," Gus replies. He knows he should probably leave it at that, and he does, for as long as it takes him to interrogate the waiter about the state of the restaurant's halibut, then to order himself dinner. Then he can't help himself, and he says, "But Ottawa? You can't possibly like it here."

To his surprise, the man smiles at that, a tiny little quirk of his lips that instantly makes him look at least five years younger. It's gone almost as fast as it came, however, and the man flags down the bartender, orders another scotch. No verbal reply comes, however, and Gus stands up briefly to remove his scarf and coat.

He can tell the minute the other man sees his collar because the mood between them shifts from one of unfamiliar-yet-easy camaraderie to one of tension and uncertainty. Odd, Gus thinks as he hangs his jacket over the back of his chair. The other man has gone pale, and he is fidgeting with his napkin in such a fashion that Gus is certain he isn't aware of his actions.

Gus pretends not to notice as he settles back on his stool, gets comfortable by resting his arms on the bar top. He turns his head to see that the man is hurriedly finishing his drink. Huh. "Are you-" Gus starts, then pauses, considering how to phrase his question. "Does my outfit bother you?"

"I- what?" the man asks, startled. He nearly drops the bottle of beer in his hands. "No," he says after a moment. His tone is still politely flat, but he doesn't quite keep the guarded edge out. "I think I might bother you, though."

What an odd assumption to make. Gus stares at him thoughtfully. "Why do you say that? I hardly know you," he points out. "It's hard to imagine you'd be a bother when I don't even know your name."

"Priests don't like people like me," the man says bluntly, conviction soaking his words. He stands up; his expression is blank, but Gus sees the anger flashing in his eyes. "I'm just going to leave. Enjoy your meal, your worship."

"Wait," Gus says, reaching over and putting a hand on his arm. The man's eyes go wide, then hot, and he pulls his arm away quickly. "Don't leave on my account," Gus tells him. "Sit down."

The man doesn't sit, but he doesn't leave either, so Gus takes it as invitation to press a little harder. His curiosity is well and truly piqued now; this may be the most interesting encounter he's had since he arrived in this shoddy excuse for a town. "At least tell me your name."

The man stares at him for a few long seconds, and then nods. He's tense, suddenly primed for a fight (Gus can see the muscles in his back go rigid with anticipation), and his voice is sharp when he says simply, "Walter."

"Well. It's nice to meet you Walter," Gus says, keeping his voice light and easy. He holds out his hand for the man - Walter to shake, and is surprised by the strength of the grip he receives, and by the calluses on Walter's hands. "Now, do you care to tell me why it is you assume I no longer desire to be in the presence of your company?"

Walter stares at him again. The more he does it, the more revealed Gus feels, though he can't figure out why. Gus is about to repeat his question when Walter asks one of his own. "Do you believe in God?"

"What is with that question?" Gus wonders aloud, pausing to thank the waiter when he brings over Gus' meal. "Yes, I do. Most of the time." He almost leaves it at that, but the urge to pry into this strange man's life is to great to ignore. "Do you believe in God, Walter?"

"I want to," Walter replies, and Gus knows that it is, pardon the phrase, the God's honest truth. "I think it'd be nice to have something to believe in."

Gus can't figure Walter out for anything. Every time he thinks he's got it, Walter says something else that is completely out of left field and forces Gus to reevaluate his assumptions. This, the unexpected bare honesty in that last statement is the biggest surprise of all. "Then why don't you just believe?" he asks curiously.

Walter still hasn't sat down again. "Because." It's not a petulant answer; the wheels are turning in his head as he obviously picks his words carefully. "Because God tells me that I am unnatural. I don't want to believe that."

Gus has to think about that for a minute before it really sinks in as to what Walter is implying. Oh, that makes so much sense, he thinks to himself, though he wisely does not comment out loud. He's not sure when his quiet meal out to kill time before bed turned into a confessional for the spiritually frustrated homosexual, but Gus finds that he doesn't mind. Human nature is far more interesting than the curling match playing on the television overhead, which is what he'd be paying attention to otherwise.

"God doesn't tell you that," Gus replies after a moment. "God's followers tell you that because they are afraid of you."

"I don't like it when people are afraid of me."

Another revealing statement. Gus wonders if Walter knows how often he does that, or if he does it at all to people who aren't priests. Perhaps there's something about that band of white that inspires confession. "Then you have to show them there's nothing to fear."

They're both silent for a long time, and Gus wonders how long is an appropriate time to wait before he declares the conversation over and starts in on his dinner.

"What if they don't listen?" Walter asks after a few minutes. He's still standing, jacket in hand, with one bar stool separating him from Gus like a shield. "The people of Wilby, they're not exactly... open-minded."

Gus looks up at him, thinking. Wilby, Wilby... The name sounds familiar, but Gus is fairly certain he's never been there. He doesn't leave Solomon-Gundy very often, unless the government demands it. But small Nova Scotian towns are small Nova Scotian towns, so he imagines he can speak fairly accurately on the subject. "People don't change unless you give them reason to, Walter," he says simply. "Running away doesn't do anything but prove to them that they're right, whether they are or not."

Walter flinches at that - running away - and Gus is pleased that he has finally, finally figured this man out. Walter wants nothing more than to go home and to be accepted as he is, but he doesn't think he deserves that because he let them win once. Oh, Gus has no real idea what it was that made Walter leave Wilby Island, but he doesn't need to know the specifics in order to see that the man is haunted by whatever those events were.

"It's never too late," Gus continues casually, as if he's talking about the outcome of a 3-3 hockey game and not a man's life. "You just need to decide if facing up to it is worth it."

"Right," Walter agrees quietly. "I guess that's the question, isn't it?"

It is, and a rhetorical one at that, so Gus doesn't answer. Walter slips his jacket on, and this time Gus doesn't stop him from trying to leave. He takes five steps forward, past Gus, then abruptly turns around and comes back, taps Gus on the shoulder. When he looks up, Gus is unable to say a word because Walter's mouth is on his.

That's a surprise, he manages to think. The kiss is soft, chaste, with only the tiniest hint of aggression - no, not aggression, defiance - bleeding through. It's over before Gus gets his head around the fact that it's happening, and then Walter is smiling at him, that same tiny smile from earlier.

"Sorry," he says softly, and he's still remarkably close so Gus can see the faint flush in his cheeks. "I just- it's good to know I'm not going to burst into hellfire for the things I want," he finishes in a whisper.

And then he's gone, walking out of the restaurant and leaving Gus alone with his stone-cold halibut and a strange desire to visit a new island when he finally gets home.