The Last Twenty Or So Hours

Bed

WARNING: This story contains strong adult language/themes and gay sexual content. If you are not 18+ years old, navigate away from this page!

Jesse’s frown deepened as he thumbed the bell and pounded on the door of Tony’s bay front home for a third time. There was still no answer. Jesse cast his eyes accusingly toward Tony’s Stingray gleaming in the driveway. The car was here, so Tony had to be here.

Then why the hell wasn’t he answering the damn door?

Jesse’s logic was faulty. He knew that. Tony could have left the house with another friend. Unlikely. He had a date the night before. Maybe he stayed at her place. Not his usual MO. Went away for the weekend? Not without telling anyone. Went for a run? Doubtful. Tony could have simply overslept. Jesse glared at the blue sports car again.

Why the HELL wasn’t he answering the damn door?

Jesse huffed and glanced at his watch. Nine thirty-eight—six minutes since he’d arrived at the house. An eternity! He punched the door with the side of his fist and cursed.

Something was very wrong.

Tony was a no-show at breakfast this morning. That never happened. Tony never missed their weekly breakfast—he’d never been so much as a minute late. In the two years that Jesse had known Tony Cerise, he couldn’t recall a single time when Tony had ever arrived anywhere late. The guy was constant as the northern star.

Repeated calls to Tony’s cell phone went unanswered and he failed to return Jesse’s messages. That, also, never happened. Tony Cerise never went MIA. Ever.

Jesse scanned the neighborhood—no one in sight. That wasn’t unusual for a chilly Saturday morning in April, but Jesse was now on high alert. His usual calm gave way to the rising fear that something terrible may have happened to Tony, and for good reason. Tony and Jesse’s involvement in the FBI investigation of notorious mob boss and drug lord Domenico “Little Nico” Ciccone exposed the duo to serious risk after their testimony led to Ciccone’s conviction last month in federal court. Ciccone hurled obscenities at Tony and Jesse, vowing to have them killed as bailiffs dragged the former mob boss from the courtroom.

Jesse returned his attention to the front door. He considered kicking it in, but decided the French door on the rear patio deck would be easier to access. He fished his cell phone from his pocket to call for help, but decided to wait until he knew what he was dealing with first. Jesse slid the phone back into his pocket and hopped the railing, landing soundlessly onto the soft fescue.

Jesse made his way across the lawn to the rear of the house and stopped short. He was shocked—and frankly, more than a little annoyed— to find Tony sitting on the edge of a deck chair clad only in a pair of black boxer briefs. Tony stared straight ahead, unblinking.

Jesse McKillian met Tony shortly after Jesse began working for KarasCorp. An attorney for the billion-dollar corporation, Jesse represented the Karas family in business matters and served as their personal attorney. The two men met when Tony, a KarasCorp pilot, ferried Jesse and the Karases to a meeting in London. Tony and Jesse bonded immediately.

Jesse stepped forward. “You better have a damn good reason for blowing me off, Flyboy,” he growled.

Tony’s gaze never wavered.

Jesse’s scowl faded and he moved closer to touch his best friend’s shoulder. “Hey.”

The younger man jumped and blinked uncertainly a few times, surprised to see the tall blond man standing over him. “Jess? What-what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here?” Jesse parroted. “I’ll tell you what I’m doing here. You were a no-show at breakfast. I tried to call you like a gazillion times, but you didn’t answer.” He jerked a thumb toward the French door. “I was about to kick in your damned door!”

Tony glanced around in a daze. “I don’t know where my phone is,” he mumbled absently.

Jesse cocked his head, taking in his friend’s haggard appearance and red-rimmed blue eyes. His tone softened. “You had me worried, you dummy.”

Tony was sheepish. “I’m sorry. I-I should have called,” he mumbled, averting his eyes from Jesse’s gaze.

“Yeah, you should have.” Jesse sighed and raised a quizzical brow. “Why are you sitting out here half naked, anyway? The neighbors are going to think you’re some sort of pervert.”

Tony lowered his head. “Maybe…maybe I am,” he murmured.

Jesse frowned and kicked off his flip-flops before lowering himself into a matching deck chair next to Tony. “What’s wrong?”

Tony shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Yeah,” Jesse scoffed. “Well, that’s bullshit. People don’t cry for no reason, so…”

Tony bit his lip and looked to Jesse. He opened his mouth to speak, but frowned and looked away again.

“Okay,” Jesse murmured. He stood and stepped around Tony to the open French door, entering the house without so much as a backward glance.

Tony’s eyes followed his friend’s exodus until he disappeared. A small part of him hoped Jesse was leaving, but he knew better. Jesse wasn’t about to let this go. He was giving Tony time to pull himself together. Tony knew that when Jesse returned, he’d expect him to talk.

A light wind sang through the rigging of nearby sailboats as Tony stared out at the marina. Images from the night before flashed through Tony’s brain. Some events, when they happen, are so extraordinary, they seem like dreams. He’d been trying to reconcile what happened all morning. What he couldn’t reconcile was the man he was last night with the man his friends thought they knew. How could he talk to Jesse about this? He was about to put this friendship at risk. He was about to tell his best friend…

“Here.”

The sudden sound of Jesse’s voice made Tony jump again, breaking him away from his musings. Jesse stood just outside the range of Tony’s peripheral vision—he did that on purpose. Years of martial arts training had given Jesse cat-like reflexes not to mention cat-like stealth. What he needed was a cat-like bell around his neck.

Jesse stood at Tony’s side holding two steaming mugs of coffee from the Keurig. When Tony didn’t respond, Jesse touched one of the mugs to Tony’s bare shoulder making him flinch. Tony sighed and contorted himself awkwardly in his chair. He reached up, reluctantly, to accept the offering. He allowed his gaze to follow Jesse’s movements as Jesse crossed in front of Tony to reclaim his deck chair. Jesse lifted the mug to his lips and took a slow, deliberate sip of the brew. Tony was anxious—like an errant child waiting for permission to speak.

Jesse lowered the mug and finally looked to Tony. “Spill it.”

With those words, Jesse invited Tony to spill his guts. His heart pounded in his chest. He swallowed hard and spoke the first words. “I…had that date last night,” he murmured.

Jesse nodded. “Yeah, the girl you met at the bookstore,” he recalled. “So, how’d it go?”

“Tasha,” supplied Tony. “Her name was Tasha.”

“Tasha,” repeated Jesse. “Right, so how’d it go?”

“She called at the last minute to cancel.”

“Damn, that sucks,” replied Jesse, “but that’s not why I found you in Zombieland.”

Tony set his mug on the patio deck and shook his head. “No.” He paused and breathed out a sigh. “It’s what happened after that. I was already at the restaurant when she called, so I stayed to have dinner.”

“Okay. And?”

“Someone…noticed me sitting alone and asked if they could join me,” Tony related.

“And you said yes,” presumed Jesse.

Tony nodded.

Jesse sipped from his mug again. “Did it go badly?”

“No,” Tony murmured with a rueful shake of his head. “No. It went—it went really well, actually. I don’t…completely understand my…” Tony’s voice trailed off and he hung his head. “I’m scared,” he finally whispered.

“Why?”

“Because I’m attracted to this person. Like, really fucking attracted,” groaned Tony. “I’ve never felt such intense feelings for anyone I’ve ever…well, for any of the girls I’ve dated before.”

Tony’s gaze rested on Jesse who sat silent with his Ray-Bans perched atop his head and his gaze fixed on the horizon. Tony knew his friend well. Jesse was not at a loss for words, he was surreptitiously observing Tony’s facial expressions, body language, even his respirations. Tony wasn’t certain how acute Jesse’s hearing was, but Tony suspected that Jesse could hear Tony’s heart pounding in his chest even from that distance.

“Okay. What’s your Mystery Date’s name?” Jesse finally asked. “Let’s start with that.”

Tony’s gut twisted into painful knots. He was afraid that what he was about to reveal might cost him his best friend. Fear gripped his heart. It was suddenly hard to breathe. His head was spinning, his palms were sweaty. He finally choked out the words. “It wasn’t a girl.”

Jesse nodded. “I know that.”

Tony’s head shot up. He stared at Jesse, dumbstruck by his friend’s intuition. “You do!? How did…how did you know?” He asked hoarsely.

Jesse half stood and dragged his deck chair around with one hand so that it faced Tony’s. He settled himself onto the edge of the chair and abandoned his mug to the deck with a plunk. A slight smile played at Jesse’s lips as he shook his head slowly side to side. “Please, who knows you better than me?”

Tony felt hot tears sting his eyes. “I thought…I thought you’d hate me,” he said quietly.

Jesse half laughed, half sighed. “You’re such a dope. Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know,” Tony shrugged. “I just thought…”

“Dude, you seriously thought I’d kick your ass to the curb ‘cause you’re gay?”

“I don’t know,” muttered Tony with a hangdog look. “Maybe.”

Jesse’s tone conveyed his disappointment. “What have I ever done to make you think I’d hate on anyone?”

Tony hung his head and shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he moaned. “I’m just really screwed up right now.”

Jesse had never seen Tony this distraught. He felt Tony’s shame, sensed his humiliation at revealing something that he would have preferred stayed hidden—even from himself. Jesse knelt in front of Tony and pulled him into a bear hug, literally offering him a shoulder to cry on.

Tony sat rigid for a moment, thinking of how gay it felt to hug Jesse and worried that Jesse may feel the same way. If he returned Jesse’s hug, would Jesse push him away. Despite Jesse’s assurances that they would still be friends, would their friendship change anyway? Would they grow apart? Tony rejected thoughts that Jesse was also secretly gay as ridiculous, although he’d fantasized about it more than once. Tony felt a moment of panic at the thought that he might pop a boner and that Jesse would knock him on his ass.

These thoughts whirled through Tony’s mind like a cyclone, but then Jesse tightened his grip and the thoughts drifted away. Tony felt safe and melted into his best friend’s embrace. He wrapped his arms around Jesse, hesitantly at first and then tightly. Tony’s head found Jesse’s shoulder and all his fears vanished. Tony’s tears came like a flash flood through a dry riverbed and he clung to Jesse, unloading his misery on his best friend.

Jesse patiently held Tony until the emotional storm subsided. “It’s okay, Flyboy,” he murmured. “You don’t have to go through this alone. I’m here for you.” A thought occurred to Jesse and he voiced it. “This guy, he didn’t…hurt you, did he?”

Tony shook his head against Jesse’s shoulder. “No,” he sniffed. After a long moment, Tony regained some of his composure and he lifted his head. “It was just the opposite,” he continued. “My whole world turned upside down last night, but the one thing I do know is that I met someone who happens to be a guy and for the first time in a really long time, I felt happy…and safe.” Tony sniffed and wiped a hand across his nose. He looked at his hand and grimaced. “I need a tissue,” he said.

Jesse leaned back and pulled his t-shirt over his head, handing it to Tony. “Here.”

Tony arched a brow and tried not to stare at Jesse’s naked, muscular torso. Epic fail. “Seriously?” he sniffed. “Your best friend comes out to you and the first thing you do is strip off your t-shirt?”

Jesse smiled and shrugged. “You got snot all over it, dude. That’s fucking nasty.”

Tony smiled through his tears and took the shirt, using it to dab at his eyes and wipe his nose. It was warm and smelled like Jesse. A final shuddering sob that sounded more like a loud snort escaped Tony, adding to his embarrassment. He averted his gaze to focus on the deck.

Jesse pretended not to notice. “You better wash that before you give it back,” he said with a grin as he stood and took his seat again. “I better not see one snot stain.”

Tony laughed a little through his tears. His smile slowly faded and he fell silent for a long moment. “I don’t want to be…this,” he lamented. “I don’t choose to be gay.”

“I don’t think anyone chooses to be gay,” replied Jesse. “I didn’t choose to be straight, I just…am. We’re born the way we’re born.”

Tony thought about that for a moment. “Have you ever questioned your sexuality, ever thought about…being with a guy?”

Jesse hesitated. “When I was thirteen, my best friend, Zach, and I used to watch porn and jerk off together,” he admitted. “One day, he asked if he could touch my dick.”

“Did you let him?”

Jesse shook his head. “No,” he replied. “I told him I wasn’t into it. Things got a little awkward after that. We didn’t hang out so much and not long after, Dad moved us uptown. Zach and I grew apart and eventually, we lost contact with each other.”

“Oh.”

Jesse chuckled. “You sound disappointed.”

Tony shrugged. “I guess… I was hoping you had a dirty little secret, too,” he said.

“Hmm. I may have one or two,” joked Jesse. “What about you? You didn’t suddenly decide last night that you liked guys. When did you first know you were gay?”

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “Maybe I’ve always known I was…still hard to say…gay, like somewhere in the back of my mind, but I was never willing to admit it to myself or anyone else. I’ve fought it all my life. I thought about guys a lot, especially at night when I was alone in my bed. There were guys in school that I…did stuff with.” Tony fell silent for a long moment. When he continued, tears clung to the thick fringe of his dark lashes. “I’ve never told a living soul what I’m about to tell you.”

“You know you can trust me.”

“Do you remember me talking about St. Thomas?”

Jesse recalled that Tony had mentioned an all-boys catholic prep school he attended in Baltimore. He got the impression that Tony’s memories of the private school weren’t happy ones and so Jesse never pressed Tony for the details. “I remember,” he said.

“St. Thomas is my dirty little secret,” Tony confessed.

“Tony, you don’t have to…”

“I need to say this before I lose my nerve,” Tony continued, cutting Jesse off. “I learned about it at the end of my sophomore year, a secret club that met in the dormitory attic. My roommate, Connor, invited me to join, but first I had to pledge my loyalty to the club with the understanding that, if I breathed a word to anyone of what went on there, they would cut off my balls and feed them to me.”

“Damn,” Jesse muttered. “These were high school kids?”

Tony nodded. “Catholic high school kids,” he shrugged, half-jokingly. “Most guys sat in a circle and jerked off. Some got or gave blow jobs, other guys…well, they did things I never even knew were possible. Most nights, the ‘main attraction’ was two guys fucking in the middle of the circle while everyone else watched and got their rocks off. My first night there, Connor got fucked by a senior. That was the first time I’d ever seen two guys fuck.”

“I kept my underwear on that first night. I stood in the back of the room in my tighty whities and watched. Seeing Connor get pounded by a beefy football jock was almost more than I could take. My underwear was so wet, I thought I would nut without even touching myself. That night when I got home, I hid in the bathroom and jacked off. I moaned so loud when I shot my load that I’m pretty sure the whole dorm knew.”

Tony glanced at Jesse to gauge his reaction, but Jesse wore a neutral expression, revealing nothing.

“Then the guilt hit me,” Tony continued. “Catholic guilt is the worst. I mean, I dealt with guilt before, fantasizing about hot guys in my class while jerking off, but this was on a whole new level. I felt intense shame. I felt like a deviant. I couldn’t go to confession, so I prayed to God and the Holy Mother for deliverance from my sins, but my prayers were never answered. I tried to distract myself with other things. I ran cross-country, played lacrosse, joined the choir, and even became an altar boy.” Tony looked to Jesse and shrugged. “Nothing worked. The lure of the live sex show in the attic was too strong.”

“I turned seventeen that summer,” Tony continued. “I visited the attic almost every night. Over time, I grew bold and, like any slut, I found the courage to get naked and join in the fun. I found I liked kissing guys, but I liked their hands and their mouths on my body even more. I let them touch me wherever and whenever they wanted and found the courage to touch them back. I stopped hiding in the bathroom to get off and let the guys in the circle service me.”

“By the end of the summer, I finally had the balls to let someone fuck me. There was this cute guy that I liked from my Algebra class who had just started coming to the attic. One night I asked him if I could touch his dick and he said yes. After a few minutes, he reached out and wrapped his hand around mine. He looked at me with these big, beautiful brown eyes and asked, ‘May I?’ Before I even realized I was nodding my head, he leaned over and wrapped his lips around my penis. It felt incredible, like an electric charge went through my body. When he started sucking my dick, I was in heaven. I would have done anything for this kid, even star as the main attraction.”

Tony fidgeted in his chair self-consciously. “But that was also the night that changed my life. I went back to my room that night, feeling like I was on cloud nine. Connor was already asleep. For whatever reason, he didn’t go to the attic that night. I got ready for bed and drifted off to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke with my underwear around my ankles and Connor, naked, on top of me. He forced a kiss on me and when I started to cry out, he clamped his hand over my mouth and told me it was my turn to get my ass pounded. I freaked the fuck out! Somehow, I found the strength to flip him out of the bed. I had the top bunk, so he landed onto the tile floor with this sickening thud. He hit his head and was knocked unconscious, but at the time, I thought I killed the bastard.”

“Jesus,” exclaimed Jesse.

“I ran for help,” Tony continued, “and someone called paramedics. When the priests asked me what happened, I told them that Connor had fallen out of bed. Connor regained consciousness right before the paramedics arrived. The senior that fucked Connor on my first night to the attic, got to Connor first and whispered something in his ear. I saw a look of fear in Connor’s eyes, but he nodded. Seconds later, the paramedics were there and started to tend to him. As they wheeled Connor out, the senior came up behind me and leaned in so close that his lips brushed against my ear. ‘Connor’s story will agree with yours,’ he said. ‘Keep your mouth shut about what happened here tonight, or you’ll regret it.’”

Jesse shook his head in disbelief. “Holy shit.”

“Yeah, Tony muttered. “I stuck to my story and so did Connor. I moved to another room and never breathed a word to anyone about what happened that night. I never went back to the attic and never hooked up with the hottie from Algebra. I just kept to myself after that and tried like hell to be normal and straight. I thought God was punishing me for being a pervert.”

“You weren’t the pervert,” said Jesse. “You were a victim. That asshole sexually assaulted you, Tony.”

“I know,” sighed Tony, “but at the time—at the time, I was just trying to keep my secret from getting out and trying hard not to out myself. Two other guys were outed and expelled, but not before a mob beat the shit out of them and tied them to the goalpost naked. They carved the word ‘faggot’ into each of their chests with a knife.” Tony’s voice broke slightly. “One of those guys was my Algebra crush.”

“Damn, Tony, I’m sorry.”

Tony nodded a silent thank you. “When that happened, everyone freaked out. I stopped going to the attic before that incident, but everyone stopped after that happened. I…started dating girls after that and kept my secret past locked away inside of me.”

“The world is different now, Tony. You don’t have to hide and you don’t need to be afraid anymore.”

Tony half shrugged. “Deep down, I know that. I know I can live my life without fear, but I have a lot more to lose now. I’m the chief pilot for a major corporation. I have to protect my reputation and I have a responsibility to the Karases.”

“Bullshit.”

Tony recoiled. “What?”

“Bull. Shit,” Jesse repeated. “You’re hiding.”

“Oh really,” Tony scoffed. “Who am I hiding from?”

“From yourself, chief pilot, sir. You know damned well that neither Damon nor Chris would give a rat’s ass that you’re gay. You also know that Dr. and Mrs. Karas would be nothing but supportive. Do I need to refresh your memory on KarasCorp’s non-discrimination policy?”

“No, but…”

“But nothing. You can’t use that as an excuse. You know the climate there.”

Tony nodded, conceding Jesse’s point. “Okay, but I’m still scared to come out.”

“Understandable.”

“I’ve been hiding so long… I guess I don’t know how to act, how to be gay.”

“Most of my other gay friends are just themselves.”

Tony’s head shot up. “You have other gay friends?”

Jesse shook his head and frowned back at Tony. “Why do you ask me that like I’m a member of Westboro Baptist?”

“Uh…it’s…it’s just that you never mentioned it before, that’s all.”

“That’s because being gay doesn’t define who they are. It’s just a small part of who they are. You actually know some of them as well.”

“I do?”

“Yes,” replied Jesse. “Kim Moreno from HR, David Maddison from legal…Harry Stiller from Product Development…”

“I…I never knew any of them were gay.”

“Well, they are. Harry and his husband just adopted a little girl. I helped make it happen.”

“Wow, that’s awesome.”

“I know.” Jesse reached for his cup, drained the contents, and set it down again. “Listen, I can’t sit here and tell you to come out or not to come out. Only you can decide about that. What I will tell you, is that you don’t have to be afraid. I will always—always—have your back. The Karases will always have your back. You will never be alone.”

Tony was silent for a moment as he allowed Jesse’s words to sink in.

“I’m curious about something,” Jesse said. “Last night was not the first time you’ve been with a guy and it seemed to go reasonably well. Why did your date spark this intense reaction in you?”

“You mean why did I blow off breakfast to sit here brooding, wearing just my undies?”

Jesse smiled and nodded. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Tony answered. “I guess I’ve been playing a straight guy so long, that it shocked the hell outta me when I realized that I was attracted to Jayden. This is the first time since St. Thomas that anything like this has happened to me and it brought all that shit flooding back into my mind. Privately, I watched gay porn, fantaicized about guys, and jacked off in the bed alone, but publicly, I’ve been very careful not to give up my secret. Then Jayden shows up and I suddenly lose all my inhibitions.” Tony looked to Jesse as if he could unlock the mystery for him.

“Props to Jayden,” replied Jesse with a grin.

Tony nodded and smiled. “Yeah. but I don’t know what this means for me, or him…or for us, not that there is an us.”

“Baby steps, Flyboy. Take it one day at a time.”

“I guess,” Tony replied.

“So why don’t you tell me about Jayden.”

Tony’s face lit up. “He’s super cute, tall with these ahh-mazing green eyes, black hair cut short, full lips, he’s toned and hot as fuck and oh my God,” he groaned, rolling his eyes. “I sound so fucking gay right now.”

“You totally do, dude, but it’s cool,” Jesse laughed. “What does he do?”

“He’s a lieutenant commander in the Navy.”

“Ahh, so he’s an officer. Is he a gentleman?”

“He is,” grinned Tony. “We came back here after dinner to watch a movie and I kept sneaking peeks at him. I remember wondering what it would be like to kiss him.” Tony paused, unsure of what details he should reveal.

“Did you find out?” Jesse asked.

Tony’s face reddened like a ripe tomato. “He caught me looking at him and I thought he might panic and head for the door, but he didn’t. He just smiled and moved toward me. My heart felt like it was going a mile a minute. He stared at me with those beautiful green eyes as he inched closer. When his lips touched mine, it-it felt like the Fourth of July. I kissed him back. I mean really kissed him.”

Tony glanced at Jesse, feeling the heat of embarrassment flush his face. “I wanted him like I’ve never wanted anyone, Jess. A voice inside my head screamed at me that I was a degenerate, a perverted fucking little faggot, but I liked kissing him, Jesse. God help me,” he moaned. “I really…really liked it. I loved his soft lips and the way his tongue felt against mine and the way his arms…”

Jesse cleared his throat and let out a nervous chuckle. “I get it, bro,” he said.

“Sorry, sorry,” Tony apologized, mimicking the see-no-evil monkey emoji.

“It’s cool,” Jesse murmured.

“I was nervous and shaky, but Jayden was patient and gentle.”

“Good.”

“His mouth was amazing!”

“Okay,” Jesse cried. “I think we’ve arrived in the TMI zone.”

Tony flashed a sheepish smile. “Sorry,” he said.

Jesse grinned and shook his head. “No worries, Flyboy. Maybe I’ll eventually unsee it.”

A chuckle escaped Tony’s lips. “Anyway, when he held me afterwards, it just”—he shrugged—“felt right. We ended up cuddling and talking most of the night. We found out we have a lot in common, actually.”

Tony sighed and laid the balled-up t-shirt on the arm of the chair then looked to Jesse. Jesse held Tony in a silent stare, but there was no recrimination, no outward sign of disgust, no judgment.

“He left about three hours ago,” Tony said, fidgeting with his hands, “and that left me alone with my thoughts. When I thought about what I’d done, I just kind of freaked…” His voice trailed off again and he sat in silence awaiting Jesse’s response.

When Tony envisioned this scenario earlier, he obsessed over Jesse’s reaction wondering if Jesse would hate him, wondering if he would lose his best friend, but there was no need to worry about that anymore. Tony was not about to lose Jesse as a friend. Jesse reassured him of that. On the other hand, Jesse was quiet, too quiet. Was Jesse about to tell him to go fuck off?

Jesse sat silent, trying to think of what to say. His closest friend had just shared the most intimate and private thing anyone could share. Jesse needed to let Tony know that he was not freaked out. Okay, maybe a little. Tony, gay? How did he not know his best friend is gay? Jesse claimed to know Tony best, but clearly not as well as he thought. Jesse thought back over his friendship with Tony to see if he had missed any signs. There may have been one or two, but obviously Tony played his role well. Jesse knew the longer he remained silent, the more Tony would think he disapproved or hated him. He had to say…

“Anything?”

Jesse’s head shot up. “What?”

“I said are you going to say anything?” asked Tony, head hung low as he stared at the herringbone pattern of the brickwork.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Jesse blurted. “This is…”

Tony felt his blood run cold. “You’re sorry?” he asked.

“This is a lot to process,” Jesse replied. “I won’t lie and say that I’m not a little shocked. I just learned that my best friend is gay and I feel like shit because I didn’t even know it. I’m sorry that you felt you couldn’t share this with me before, but…”

“Jess,” Tony interrupted, “it’s not like that. I couldn’t even be honest with myself let alone anyone else.”

“But,” continued Jesse, “it isn’t going to change anything between us, okay? You are still my best friend and I love you like a brother, man.”

Tony breathed a sigh of relief.

“I mean, it’s weird thinking of you getting busy with another dude, but…”

Tony flashed a timid smile. “You’re thinking of me getting busy with another dude?”

“Yeah. Wait. What? No!” he exclaimed. “Dammit, I was just…”

Tony erupted into laughter. It felt good to laugh if even for a moment.

“You’re a jackass,” Jesse muttered.

Tony’s smile slowly faded as he stared at his hands. “Funny how your life can suddenly turn so complicated,” he murmured.

Jesse nodded. “This guy Jayden must be…well, I mean for you to…”

“I know,” replied Tony. “I swear I’m not a slut. I don’t just fall into bed with any guy who comes along”—he frowned and shook his head—“despite the evidence to the contrary.”

Jesse smiled. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he replied. “I don’t think you’re a slut.” He frowned and decided that he didn’t like that word to describe his friend. “And don’t put yourself down like that, dude.”

“It’s just my way of dealing with it,” murmured Tony.

After a moment of silence Jesse asked, “Was it…good…for you?” He cringed. “Ugh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask like that. I meant…how was it?” He rolled his eyes and tried once more. “Jesus! I mean was it weird, you know—being with another guy…again?”

Tony smiled, secretly pleased that Jesse also suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. “A little scary…exciting, but not weird, not really,” he replied.

“So, no…PTSD…for lack of a better word?”

“No.”

“That’s good,” Jesse nodded, still trying to wrap his mind around it all.

Tony eyed Jesse who had his head bowed and seemed intent on inspecting his fingernails. He smiled, relieved that this had not cost him his friendship with Jesse. Tony decided he was done playing twenty questions for the moment and that it was time to lighten things up a bit. “Jayden said I’m pretty good at tonsil hockey for a beginner,” he announced.

Jesse’s head snapped up to see Tony staring at him with that fake innocent look he gets when he’s putting someone on. Jesse shook his head, a wry grin tugging at his lips. “You’re so stupid,” he muttered.

Jesse stood, prompting Tony to do the same. “I’m still hungry,” declared Jesse. “Did you work up an appetite with your sexcapades last night?”

Tony blushed. “Maybe.”

“Cool. Go get dressed, Captain Underpants,” he replied. “And you’re gonna have to loan me a shirt.”

“You’re going to ride me every chance you get, aren’t you?” He cringed at his own sexual innuendo as he reclaimed his mug and Jesse’s t-shirt then followed Jesse into the house.

Jesse set his mug on the breakfast bar, turned toward Tony, and grinned. “Relentlessly.”

Tony shook his head as he set his mug and the t-shirt on the bar. “Fan-fucking-tastic.”

Jesse chuckled. “Go change.” He watched as Tony climbed the stairs. “And don’t be jerkin’ your gherkin up there,” he added. “I’m starving.”

Tony laughed as he disappeared into the bedroom.

“I need to figure out how to tell Damon and Chris,” Tony called down to Jesse. “I’d kinda like you to be there when I do.”

Tony descended the steps and strode back into the living room wearing jeans and a V-neck t-shirt. He tossed a second t-shirt to Jesse. “When do you think I should tell them?”

“Why don’t we invite them to breakfast,” suggested Jesse as he pulled the borrowed t-shirt over his head and tugged it down to just below his waistline.

Tony’s brow shot skyward as he stepped into his flip-flops. “Really?”

“It’s up to you,” answered Jesse with a shrug.

Tony thought about it and nodded with newfound confidence. “Okay. Give them a call.”

A half hour later, Jesse eased his white Aston into a parking space in front of one of San Diego’s local favorites, the Hash House A-Go-Go on Fifth. Tony flashed Jesse a wry grin as his fingers hooked the door pull. “Really?”

“What?” Jesse asked with a smirk.

“The Hash House A-Go-Go? I see we’re keeping to the theme today.”

“Hell yeah,” Jesse laughed as he exited the car. “Besides, you love this joint.”

Tony offered a conciliatory shrug of his shoulder as he pushed the door shut. “I do,” he replied.

The duo found Damon and Chris Karas sitting at a 4-top against the windowed wall and slid into the two remaining metal chairs across the table from the vinyl-sheathed bench the brothers occupied. The place bustled like a hive.

Servers weaved their way around tables, taking orders, presenting the Hash House’s famous twisted farm food to hungry diners, or taking away the remains. The conversation had been amiable, but Tony sat picking at his Tractor Driver Combo while his eggs turned to ice. His nerves and the sweet smell of the maple syrup had made him sick to his stomach.

Damon noted Tony’s anxiety, but remained silent until now. “So…Jesse said you wanted to talk to us,” he broached as he nibbled a piece of hardwood-smoked bacon.

Tony suddenly felt like someone had shot him with a poison dart. He stopped plowing his potatoes and abandoned his fork. Tony glanced at Jesse for encouragement before casting his gaze to the Karases. “Uh, yeah,” he croaked. “So…um, you know how life is full of…little surprises?”

Chris flashed a bemused smile. “Sure, I guess.”

Dead silence. Then, “How do you know you’re at a gay picnic?” Tony suddenly blurted.

Jesse rolled his eyes while the Karases looked at one another and shrugged.

“All the hot dogs taste like crap,” Tony’s voice trailed off.

Chris forced a smile. “That’s…actually I don’t really know what to say. Is that why you brought us here, to tell us lame-ass jokes?”

Tony heaved a sigh and looked down. “Not exactly,” he muttered.

Damon drained the last dregs of orange juice from his glass. “I hope you’re not considering a career as a stand-up comedian,” he said, “because if that’s your opening joke…it sucks.”

Jesse took a sip of his coffee and cleared his throat. “What Flyboy is trying”—he glanced at Tony and then back to the Karases—“not so cleverly to tell you is that he’s batting for the other team now.”

Tony rolled his eyes.

Christian cocked his head toward Jesse, unsure of his exact meaning. “When you say, he’s batting for the other team…”

“I mean he’s…”

Tony huffed. “Gay. I’m…gay, okay?”

The Karases went slack jawed. “What!?”

“Since when?” demanded Chris.

Tony shrugged sheepishly. “Since I…kissed a guy and liked it.”

Damon’s eyebrows shot up. He looked to Jesse for confirmation. “Is this a joke?”

“Oh no,” replied Jesse. “It is definitely not a joke.”

Chris recovered from his initial shock and stared at Tony. “Are you sure? What am I saying, of course you’re sure.” He glanced at Damon and then back to Tony. “You are sure, aren’t you?”

Tony managed a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Damon looked to Jesse with a stunned look. “Holy crap, dude!”

Jesse chuckled. “I know, right?”

“When did this happen?” asked Damon. “Who’s this guy?”

“His name is Jayden. I met him last night.”

Chris blinked back his surprise. “Did you…? Did he…? Did you and he…?”

A rosy hue crept into Tony’s cheeks.

“Wow,” breathed Chris.

Damon pushed his plate away and stared at Tony. “Can you start from the beginning and tell us everything…”

“NO!” exclaimed Christian, looking aghast at his brother. A few diners briefly turned their attention toward the 4-top. “Not everything,” he cautioned.

Damon nodded his agreement and amended his request. “He’s right. Give us the PG-13 version,” he added.

Tony told the Karases about St. Thomas and about how he met Jayden. When he finished, Damon and Chris, like Jesse a little over an hour before, sat silent.

“I’m…still the same person I’ve always been. What I really need to hear from you guys is that it doesn’t matter.” He paused and looked from Damon to Chris. “I’d really like to keep my job, but more importantly, I need to know that you’re still my friends.”

“Of course, it doesn’t matter,” Chris assured him. “Not to us. We’re family, dude. You know that.”

Damon nodded his agreement. “I think I can speak for Mom and Dad when I say that you are this family’s pilot and friend until you decide otherwise. No matter what, you will always be a brother to Chris and me.” he added.

Tony’s face suddenly clouded over. He hadn’t considered his own parents’ reaction. How would they react to their son being gay?

“What’s wrong?” Jesse asked.

“My parents,” he whispered. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell them I’m gay.”

Jesse squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine,” he soothed. “You’ll tell them when you’re ready and if you need moral support”—he glanced at the Karases for confirmation—“you know we’ll be there for you.”

Damon and Chris nodded their agreement.

Relief washed over Tony like a spring rain. He exhaled sharply as fresh tears moistened his lashes. “Thank you,” he managed to squeak out. “That means a lot to me.”

“There’s gonna be haters out there though,” said Chris. “You know that, right?”

Tony nodded. “I know,” he sighed. “My mom will probably be one of them. I feel like she’s gonna go all fire and brimstone on me and tell me what a sinner I am.” Tony offered the brothers a rueful shake of his head. “I half-expected you guys to do the same,” he added.

Jesse nudged his friend’s shoulder. “No one at this table has the right to judge you, Flyboy.”

“There’s only one judge and it isn’t any of us,” added Damon.

Chris nodded agreement. “The cost of our convictions shouldn’t be compassion,” he said.

Tony felt his heart swell, humbled by his friends’ empathy.

Damon smiled. “So, what do we really know about this Jayden guy?” he asked.

The waitress arrived to freshen their coffee and take away their plates before Tony could answer. She flashed them all a warm smile. “You boys doin’ all right over here?”

Jesse smiled up at her and nodded. “Yes, ma’am, we’re doing just fine. I’ll take the check when you have it ready.”

“I’ll be right back with it, darlin’.”

“Fair question Tony, what do you really know about Jayden?” asked Chris once the waitress stepped away.

“Um, I know…that his name is Jayden Reed. He’s twenty-seven and he’s a lieutenant commander in the Navy assigned to North Island.”

“Know where he’s from?” asked Damon as he took a pen from his jacket pocket and
jotted the details onto a napkin.

“San Francisco,” he replied, watching Damon scratch the words into the paper. “But he lived mostly in Alameda ‘cause his father was a captain in the Navy.”

“What else?” queried Chris.

Tony groaned. “Guys, c’mon,” he pleaded. “I get that you’re cops and your brains are pre-wired to be paranoid…”

“Cautious,” Chris corrected.

“Cautious,” Tony amended, “but do we really have to do this?”

“Yes, we do,” Chris replied. “Little Nico is still gunning for you.”

“Plus, you’ve been involved in our investigations, so every whack-a-doodle that targets us, potentially targets you,” added Damon.

“I know,” conceded Tony.

“Okay then,” replied Chris. “So, what else do you know about Jayden?”

Tony heaved a sigh. “Fine,” he murmured, “but I want to go on record and say that this is creepy as fuck and I don’t like it.”

“Understood,” Damon replied.

“And we’re sorry we have put you through it,” added Chris.

“I just hope he never finds out,” Tony muttered.

Still unhappy at what he thought was a pointless exercise not to mention an intrusion into Jayden’s privacy, Tony relented and supplied the Karases with the information. “He has a computer engineering degree from Stanford. He was just assigned to North Island from Pearl. He drives a Nissan GT-R and just got his pilot’s license.” Tony paused, trying to recall other details. “He does a lot of charity work and he’s made some pretty savvy real estate investments.” Tony shrugged and then remembered something else. “Oh, and he’s a black belt, third dan—I think—in Taekwondo.”

“That’s actually impressive,” replied Chris. “Does he know what a deadbeat you are?”

Tony flashed a sardonic grin. “You know you’re a jackass, right?”

The younger man grinned, holding his coffee cup to his lips. “It’s part of my charm,” he replied before draining the contents.

“Parents still living?” asked Damon, continuing his scrawl on the napkin.

Tony’s smile faded. “Uh, yeah.”

“Names?”

“I don’t know.”

“Siblings?”

“An older brother, Ryan, I think, and a sister, Emma.”

Damon wrote the names and nodded. “Okay, that should be enough for now unless there’s something else you can think of,” he said.

Tony shook his head and frowned. “Are you sure you don’t want his shoe size, too?”

Damon smiled. “Stop whining,” he scolded. “It’s for your own protection. We should have something for you this afternoon,” added Damon.

Two hours after returning home, Tony lay on the sofa staring at the ceiling, thinking about the last twenty or so hours and the unexpected turn his life had taken. In less than a day’s time, he met a great guy and found out what true friendship really means. Now he anxiously awaited a background check to find out if Jayden had any dark secrets.

An incoming call jolted him from his reverie. He grabbed his iPhone from the coffee table and glanced at the screen to see Damon’s face and number displayed. That was quick, maybe too quick. What did it mean? His heart raced as he thumbed the answer button. “Hello?” His voice sounded weak, pathetic.

“Hey,” his buddy’s soft voice came back, “you want the good news first or the bad?”

Oh God. Tony closed his eyes. His heart was in his throat. His hands were shaking.

“Tony?”

“Good,” he half-shouted on the verge of hyperventilating. “Good news first.”

“Well the good news is—that there is no bad news. Jayden checked out,” replied Damon. “He’s squeaky clean, bro. The guy doesn’t even have any parking tickets.”

Tony exhaled sharply. “Dude, I’m gonna kill you for scaring the shit out of me like that,” he scolded.

Damon laughed. “Whatever, bro.” He laughed again. “Hey, I gotta go, but I wanted to call and let you know what I found out.”

“Thanks, Damon…for everything.”

“Anytime, bud. Ciao.”

“Ciao,” Tony echoed.

Tony ended the call and closed his eyes in relief. He smiled as Jayden materialized in his mind’s eye. Hooded emerald green eyes stared at him. His own gaze roved over the naval officer’s beautiful face, taking in his pillowed lips, high cheekbones and straight eyebrows.

Tony’s phone suddenly barged into his daydream. Annoyed with the device, he turned it over in his hand to see who was facetiming him. Tony’s heart soared. He couldn’t hide the schoolboy grin as he answered the call. “I was just thinking about you,” he murmured.

Jayden chuckled back at him, his silky-smooth voice sending a tremor through Tony’s body. “Aw. You’re sweet. I haven’t gotten a damn thing done today ‘cause I can’t stop thinking of you. I’m off in an hour. How ‘bout an early dinner at the O-club, babe?”

Ҝ

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