tagGay MaleRivers to Follow

Rivers to Follow

byeightleon©

This is a long, character-driven story. The sex begins around the last five pages or so-- if that's what you're here for. I'd like to think that the rest of it is somewhat worth reading.

Notes & constructive criticism are greatly appreciated.

-- Leon xx

*****

"FUCK!"

I slammed my fist down on the island, tears burning in my eyes. I was still standing there in my kitchen, half-dressed and holding a carton of orange juice, just as I had been when I'd answered the call.

"Matty, sweetheart--"

"When was this?! God DAMN it, Phoebe!"

There was a pause on the other line of the end. I sucked in a deep breath to shout again, but Phoebe must have heard me, because she quickly began to speak before I could start up again.

"A little over three hours ago. A drunk knifed him behind some diner. The owners said he'd been around for a while... said they'd been trying to feed him real meals but he'd only ever take the day's leftovers."

I heard a choked sob on Phoebe's end and felt a stab of-- fuck. A stab of guilt. Of all the fucking choices of words.

"I'm sorry, Phoebe. I'll be right there."

I ended the call and sank to the floor. My tears flowed freely, but I was silent, barely a change in my breathing. Noah had been one of our youngest residents. I knew that we couldn't keep him, Hell, none of the minors weren't even supposed to be with us, but I never should've let him go alone.

I punched the floor, waiting for the familiar cracking of bone against tile, the stinging reopening of skin. My left hand was virtually useless at this point; in the two years I'd been working with the network, there had been thr-- four deaths, and I had a fracture in my hand to show for each one. The last one had been recent enough that my skin was still wrinkled and loose from the scars.

I grabbed the lip of the counter with my good hand and pulled myself up. I rinsed the blood from my knuckles and wrapped the hand in a paper towel. I began a script for the phone call to his host family in my head, not yet ready to think about the script that I'd be writing for a few days later. Noah would've wanted Phoebe to write it, but I knew she wouldn't be able to. And, hey, funerals are for the living.

******

"Noah found Silver River the way most of us here found it: through a queer homeless friend of a queer homeless friend of a queer homeless friend. He joined the way most of us here joined: angry, lonely, and scared. But Noah didn't live the way most of us here did. Noah lived so that all of us here could. He lived to earn his place in the network. He lived to help everyone in his home feel safe, comfortable, and happy. He lived to help everyone in our family feel proud. He was constantly asking how he could lighten the workload, what errands he could run, what busywork he could do. Noah couldn't believe that his presence alone was enough for us; in the end, that is why he left. The work that we do here is invaluable; I know that, Phoebe knows that, and every one of your hosts know that. Noah knew that. But you all are invaluable as well. You all are the reason that we're here: because you are worthy of having a home; you are worthy of having a chance. Noah was worthy of having a chance. And all I ask of you now, Noah, is that you look down and see that you are worthy. That you earned your spot here, and that Silver River is eternally blessed to have known you."

I stepped down from the makeshift stage, my arms shaking, and Phoebe caught me just before I fell to the ground. I gripped her shoulder and thanked her with a weak smile. She kissed my cheek and we held hands, looking out over the thirty-odd kids and adults before us. Some sat; some kneeled. Some wore all black; some wore rainbow; Noah's family wore blue, his favorite color and the color of his striking, ever-twinkling eyes. We all lit our candles, Phoebe holding mine so that I could use my good hand, and we said goodbye.

******

"Phoeeebss!" I shouted into the phone. "Youuuuuu are not being helpful! Pick up your phone!"

I snorted as I hung up the phone. I knew that she was seeing my calls just like she knew that I was drunk just like I knew that she wasn't picking up my calls because she knew that I was drunk. I didn't even really want to talk to her; I just figured she'd think I got murdered if I didn't spend my night off leaving her drunk messages. Two months since Noah had died and she still hadn't asked me when this bullshit was gonna be over. God, she was a good friend. Or she was an enabler. Either way, she was the best.

"Hey. Christopher Sly, bar's closing."

"Is that from Shakespeare?" I slurred, a smile spreading, or maybe remaining, across my face. I looked up, expecting to see the boring, straight as a hockey fan bartender who usually came to berate me at closing time when I saw the most beautiful man I'd ever seen in my life. That may have been/probably was a boozed-up hyperbole, but he was definitely beautiful to some capacity. He had dark, dark brown chin-length waves and broad shoulders, which I loved. He was tan, almost certainly too tan to be white, or a WASP, or whatever; his skin was a beautiful reddish golden brown. He grinned at me, looking kind of curious, kind of amused-- a nice deviation from the usual bartender's look of disinterest and impatience.

"Do you have a way to get home that doesn't involve you behind the wheel?"

A rather stupid question, I thought, for the 21st century, especially considering that he had just seen me using my phone. But I just altered my smile to something sugary-sweet and replied, "No, but I have a way to your place that involves you behind me."

He choked a little, causing us both to laugh. He cleared his throat and patted my shoulder.

"I'll call you a cab, alright?"

I smiled at him, more genuinely this time, but just as sweet.

"You're new here," I said, and then cut him off as he started to respond, "and I know first of all because you have not yet learned to detach from the well-being of your patrons, and second of all because I definitely would've noticed that tight ass before."

He didn't choke this time, merely rolled his eyes.

"You're very eloquent for a tankard."

"I'm not a-- (hic) -- tankard."

He smiled, and suddenly I was moving, he was touching my shoulders and walking me somewhere someplace but I didn't care because he was warm and he smelled like soap and I wanted him to smell like sex.

"Where do you live?" he asked, pulling out his phone, and I pouted. Were we outside?

"It's cold," I whined, and a smile flickered across his lips. I wanted it to stay.

"You'll be in a cab soon," he replied. He looked up from his phone. "Where do yo--"

"Are you British?" I asked, suddenly registering the unfamiliar tune to his voice. He began to laugh hysterically.

"How drunk are you, mate?" he asked, still laughing and wiping a tear from his eye.

I giggled. "Mate," I mumbled. "How very British indeed." Then I straightened up. "What if I pass out in the cab?" I asked sternly. "What if he kicks me out because I throw up or I can't pay?"

The pretty new man sighed. I batted my eyes and wrapped my arms around his shoulders and he stumbled back.

"Why would you do that to me, Petruchio?"

He looked at me with a wide smile of disbelief. "Petruchio," he repeated slowly.

"The Taming of the Shrew," I mumbled happily, and I pushed up onto my toes to kiss him.

"Woah, woah, no way," he said firmly, pushing me off of him. He kept an arm on me just long enough to steady me and then pulled away from me like I was a leper. "I'll drive you home, alright?"

I smiled and nodded.

You don't invite lepers into your car.

******

"So what were you celebrating, Christopher Sly?"

I frowned at the question.

"I was alone," I said. "Clearly forgetting, not celebrating."

He was quiet.

"Aren't you going to ask what I was forgetting?"

He blushed and bit his lip. Mm, I wanted to bite that lip. I re-realized how sexy this man was, how tall and lean and rough. I reached out to touch his stubble and he shrugged me away.

"Don't do that."

I sighed and turned away.

"I was forgetting a dead person, you know." I immediately felt sick after saying it. I was an asshole, I was such a sick asshole, Noah wasn't someone for me to bring up just to get some hot bartender's attention. "Never mind. That wasn't... that wasn't right. Never mind."

I drew my knees to my chest and leaned against the window.

"Do you read a lot of Shakespeare, Christopher Sly?"

I blinked and looked over, wondering if he'd even heard anything I'd said. He was focused on the road, but when he saw me looking he glanced and gave a small smile. Fuck. Oh, fuck, he was so charming. Was it the accent? His smile seemed British. How long have I been thinking about this? I should probably answer. He asked something about reading, I think?

"Yeah, I read. I mean, I used to. Not a lot of time for reading anymore." I yawned. "I work a lot."

"What do you do?"

I paused. There were a lot of honest answers to that question, too many for my drunk mind to sift through at that point.

"Accounting," I settled on. Accountant by day, homo by night, I thought to myself, smiling. That was Phoebe's favorite.

"Sounds... lucrative?"

I laughed.

"It's a goddamn goldmine, can't you tell?" I said, gesturing to my crumbling old apartment building as the car slowed to a stop. He grinned.

"Maybe if you spent a little less time at bars..."

I stuck my tongue out at him. "That's not all there is to me, Petruchio. Who's a real dick in that play, by the way."

He laughed, and I felt pleased to have made him laugh so heartily. He really was cute. I gave him a quick peck on the cheek before he could protest.

"I'm gonna fuck you, you know," I whispered into his ear, and I could've sworn I felt him shiver. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Christopher Sly," he replied quietly, and I slipped out of his car and stumbled away. I looked back and saw him pretending not to watch me. He really is cute, I thought.

******

"How many drunk voicemails from the club should I be expecting tonight?"

I groaned and plopped down on the couch next to Phoebe. I made her mute the onslaught of depressing political developments droning over the TV and pulled my legs up onto the couch. I sat criss-cross and turned to face her. She was giggling.

"You always laugh at me when I sit like this," I grumbled.

"You look like you're in grade school," she tittered.

"ANY-way, I will be sending you all of my voicemails from my couch tonight. I humiliated myself in front of a sexy bartender at the only gay club by my place that I don't hate."

Phoebe gasped and clapped her hands together. "Sexy bartender?!"

I sighed. "Yeah, he gave me a ride home and everything. And he was British."

Phoebe threw her hands up in the air. "So what's the goddamn problem, then?"

I huffed. "Do you even listen to those voicemails, Phoebe? I was a hot mess!"

Phoebe's head turned with mine as we heard keys jingle and the front door open. Phoebe's partner, Tali, pushed open the door, encumbered by what looked to be about three weeks worth of groceries.

"Jesus, Tal," I said, as Phoebe leapt from the couch to help carry the bags.

"Come help us, dickhead!" Tali called cheerfully. She was a sweet little woman with the heart of a saint and the mouth of a sailor. I got up and heaved several of the bags over my shoulders, carefully avoiding putting weight on my injured hand.

"What the fuck is in these?" I asked, wringing my hands after setting them on the counter.

"Oh, that's all kitty litter. I gave you the heaviest ones," Tali chirped. I shoved her playfully, causing her tiny frame to teeter dangerously and eliciting a growl from Phoebe.

"Don't," Phoebe snapped at me, wrapping her arms around Tali and smooching her on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and began unpacking the groceries. "Matty was just telling me about a sexy British stranger that he met at a bar." Tali's eyes lit up, and I shook my head.

"As always, Phoebe is romanticizing. I was drunk and he extended his duties as a bartender to give me a drive home. Probably thought I'd fall down a storm drain, the state I was in."

Phoebe's squeal nearly caused me to drop the carton of milk that I was holding and I grabbed my chest in surprise. She seemingly either didn't notice or didn't care because she plowed ahead into her next lengthy portion of the conversation.

"You didn't tell me that he drove you home! Talk about going above and beyond for a customer, oh la la, what a gentleman. What was this British fox's name?"

I paused and cocked my head. After a moment of thought, I replied, "Petruchio."

Tali raised an eyebrow. "From Taming of the Shrew?"

I shrugged. "He called me Christopher Sly, you know, the play's drunk, so I called him Petruchio."

"I thought the drunk was named Toby."

"That's Twelfth Night. Sly is often written out of performances of the Shrew, though, beca--"

Phoebe gave the most melodramatic of groans and threw herself over the counter. "This conversation was supposed to be about SEX," she cried.

I chuckled as Tali shot me a knowing look and pressed a kiss to the back of Phoebe's head.

"He called me Christopher Sly so I called him Petruchio. I don't know his name, and I never will. The end."

The two girls gave each other a look and then turned to me and scoffed in eerie simultaneity. "Well we're going back," Phoebe said incredulously.

******

"So what's he look like again?" Phoebe asked. I'd given them both about a hundred descriptions from my hazy memory of the man-- dark brown waves, broad shoulders, tall. Taller than you? Yeah, much taller than me, but much slimmer. Nice laugh. British. Makes Shakespeare references to drunk strangers.

Still, I relayed all this information, eager for an engaging topic of conversation. I was really hoping to look like I was having fun with my girl friends on a night out rather than skulking around a bar looking for a hot piece I'd nearly puked on.

"So you're sure he's a bartender? Not a bouncer or a waiter or anything?" Tali was taking a more practical approach to this.

"Yeah, it's usually the bartender's job to round up the sad sacks at the end of the night."

Tali touched her heart. "Just like Moses out of Egypt," she crooned.

"Your wedding is going to be so Jewish." Phoebe rolled her eyes as Tali nodded emphatically. Then I saw him. "Oh, fuck," I hissed, shrinking down in my seat

He was a fucking vision, glowing under the lights and dressed to kill, no doubt for those Friday night tips. Sleeveless tee, tight black jeans that hugged his ass like it was their goddamn job. He was working at the other end of the bar, his hair tied back in a small ponytail, revealing his strong neck and a jaw that could cut glass. He was so much-- a thousand times more than I'd remembered, and I wondered for a moment if I'd clocked the wrong guy until I heard his laugh above the roar. That I remembered for sure. I felt a pang of something acidic and unwelcome as I saw him direct that laugh at some random liquored-up cub. I turned back to my friends.

"Can we just go, you guys? This is too weird."

"God, Matt, look at him," Tali breathed, and Phoebe smacked her.

"Fucking bi women," Phoebe grumbled, and Tali opened her mouth for a no-doubt scathing reply (this was a point of frequent conflict between them, and it was frankly growing tedious) but I interrupted.

"Yeah, if I had remembered that he was that fucking sexy, I wouldn't have agreed to this. So let's go," I said, wrapping my arms around them and attempting to usher them out the door.

Phoebe yelled "Barkeep!" over my shoulder and I nearly tackled her to the ground. Luckily, the bartender who was actually working on our side came to her aide. He glanced over at me and smiled.

"Hey, you actually brought people this time," he said, chuckling, and I buried my face in my hands.

"Oh, God, Matty, you really do come here a lot," Phoebe said, her tone half-worried, half-amused.

"You know, babe, I think our resident Brit was asking about you." I looked up with an expression that made the bartender burst out laughing. "Lemme send him over," he said with a wink and twirled away before I could protest. Or think about protesting. Would I have protested? He was asking about me. I turned to Phoebe and Tali with a look of excitement and terror that they returned twofold. Then a more smug excitement overtook their faces as their gaze landed over my shoulder and I froze.

"Christopher Sly."

That fucking voice. I turned around to face a whiff of his silky, soapy scent and wanted to jump over the bar right then. I forced myself to think of my previous humiliations in order to ground myself in the gravity of this interaction.

"Petruchio. I heard you were asking about me," I replied smoothly, grappling to regain some semblance of power in this dynamic. It was power easily won, evidently, as he turned a shade of pink different from the sweaty flush he'd been wearing before. He went to tuck his hair behind his ear, forgetting that it was tied up.

"Well, you could barely walk when I dropped you off. I was hoping someone had seen you alive."

There went my upper hand. Phoebe snickered behind me, and I shot her a glare that only worsened her laughing. I sighed and faced my mystery Brit.

"These are my friends Phoebe and Tali. They are the reason that I'm here."

He gave them a wave accompanied with a cute little smile that made all three of us melt. He turned back to me and I tried to refreeze.

"You didn't want to come back and face me?" he asked sweetly. I opened my mouth to answer when he turned away, over his shoulder, apparently being called back by a coworker. He grabbed a napkin, fished a pen from his back pocket, and scribbled down his number.

"I'm off at one tonight," he said with a smirk. "If you're in the neighborhood."

And then he was gone, dancing away, moving like water, or syrup, or something fluid but entirely its own.

"Wow, he is way out of your league," Phoebe said flatly, and, for the life of me, I just wanted to tackle her to the goddamn floor.

******

"Well, you won't be getting a ride with us!"

That was the response Tali and Phoebe had given me that night when I told them I might just head home. They were right to push me, and I knew it, but in the moment I was so pissed. All I needed was for someone (Phoebe) to look me in the eyes and tell me that it was okay to be scared and nervous and that it was going to turn out fine and that even if it didn't turn out fine that would be fine becauses who was he to me anyway? But Phoebe was drunk, and Tali was doting on her, and I was standing outside that damn bar, too nervous to go in, too nervous to leave, refreshing my texts and emails repeatedly in hopes of finding some sort of distraction.

"Christopher," said an almost-surprised, ever-coy British voice behind me. "Wasn't sure you'd come."

I turned and faced him. I'd had time to prepare, trying to wear down the aggressively sexual image of him in my mind, but seeing him in person slapped the preparation out of me, as if to say Nice try!

"Oh, you're not all that scary," I said, trying to sound casual, or flirty, or friendly, or anything other than anxious and turned on. "And could you call me Matty?"

His eyes lit up for a moment. "I'm not sure I recall that character," he replied, tightening his scarf around his neck before gesturing in front of him. My eyes followed his gesture to an empty sidewalk and then returned to stare at him blankly.

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