“Damn wind,” I muttered, shutting the door behind me and turning to see Alia and TJ watching me. He was helping me sit tonight since we’d had plans to hang out before Kate reminded me I was booked for babysitting duty (it was an added bonus that he was up for sitting her at his place). “What?” I asked as I set the paper bags down on the coffee table and TJ scowled.
“Language,” he retorted.
“What? Oh, come on! She’s not even two, she’s not repeating everything I say.”
He shook his head, “She will soon enough.”
Rolling my eyes, I broke open one of the bags and grinned at Alia. “Look what I got us for dinner!” Her eyes lit up at the sight of fried chicken. Not the Southern kind, but the Chinese variety, with sauce on the side as I wasn’t sure she’d be up for that. But some form of chicken nuggets and rice? Easy win with a toddler.
“Chinese again?” TJ asked. He wasn’t complaining, just looked skeptical. It’s possible that in the past I may have been a bit of an ethic food snob and put my nose up at the local Americanized Chinese take-out joints.
“It’s good, right?”
Grabbing plates from his kitchen, TJ gave a shrug as he set them down. “True. How’d you discover this place?”
I mumbled and earned a “What was that?” from TJ.
“It’s one of Cass’ favorites.”
He gave me a look, but Alia’s cries for food thankfully detoured his argument. Assuming he was about to start one.
As I tucked in, I had to admit he’d been fairly decent about the Cass issue in the last couple weeks, maybe because we were still (mostly) in the friend zone. It probably didn’t hurt that I’d also was a better mood than I’d been in a long ass time. There wasn’t any question that TJ had noticed.
“Alia,” he scoffed, “you’re making a mess!”
That she was; she’d dragged a container of rice to her and was trying to shove the sticky stuff into her mouth, with marginal success. I smiled; it wasn’t my house or carpet and TJ had been the one to offer to have us over.
“Don’t look so smug,” he said, trying to wipe her hands as she growled. (Literally—who knew kids actually growled?) “You’re helping me clean this. Go get a wet towel!”
I chuckled and obeyed. TJ made me promise to bring a high chair or booster seat or something if Alia was brought over for another meal, which I was more than happy to agree to. Any help watching Alia was amazing, and less clean up for me? Hell yeah.
Truth be told, I’d been surprised TJ was so willing, but hey, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right?
“Well, she got some food inside her,” TJ said with a defeated exhale as Alia went running off to wreak havoc with the box of toys set on the couch. It was funny to see what a struggle it was just for her to climb onto the couch itself.
“You have to help me baby proof this place.”
“Really?” I blinked. “You have most things out of harm’s way. How often do you actually plan to sit her?”
He shrugged and moved to his lazy boy while I stayed on the floor. “Don’t know, but better to have things set up and not have to think about it or rush around ‘proofing’ everything if I do, right?”
“Yeah.” Though I wasn’t quite convinced that was all there was to it. TJ was like family to me, and Kate by extension, so he did what he could for us when we needed it, but I hoped he didn’t feel obligated to fill a ‘father figure’ role for Alia. I mean, I was around, would be around for… well, I wasn’t sure.
“Did you reply to the Photo Society yet?”
God damn, everyone talked about how wonderful it was when people knew you well, but it could be a huge pain in the ass too—because there’s no hiding anything from them.
“I accepted. Not like I could seriously turn down membership. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still free to do whatever type of photography I like. Something different maybe.”
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah, sure. You spent months working on a portfolio review of the plight of the homeless with some the best photographers in the world, have honed your skills over a decade—“
“Not quite that—”
“Whatever you’ve been through you’ve always gone into the field to shoot. For a decade,” he said. “And now that you are finally going to be a member of an elite class of the best in your profession, you’re going to, what? Decline the invite and start shooting weddings?”
“I think that’s being dramatic. And I said I accepted—did you miss that? Alia, stop that!” I yanked at the toys she’d been stuffing down the back of the couch and, predictably, she wailed like I’d just kicked a puppy. Christ. “Alia, you can still play with your toys! Just don’t put them where—can you STOP screaming?!”
I heard TJ huff at my own raised voice as he moved across the room to grab my niece and lift her in his arms. She kicked around at first but he hushed and rocked her and she clung to him and stared daggers at me. Just great.
“Good to know she likes one of us.”
TJ ignored me. “Anyway, what’s your plan? You don’t want to keep doing what you’re doing?”
“No, that’s— I already have a flight booked for the Philippines in six weeks or so. But…”
“But?” His voice was muffled as Alia’s little hands pressed against his mouth and played with his lips.
“I don’t know. With Alia around and Kate depending on me more, maybe I shouldn’t leave so much or put myself in risky situations. I could find a different angle and work more in the States.”
“True.” He was waggling his eyebrows and half-listening now as Alia chuckled. But he turned to me to ask, “And your family, that’s the only reason you’d want to make this change?”
I opened and shut my mouth, then spread my hands. “I can’t say. I don’t think there’s anything else that’s…solid enough to bank on or change for.”
TJ set Alia back down—or tried. She screamed so he picked her up again and settled back on the couch with her in his lap. “Have you mentioned any of this to Cass?”
“No.” At his look I threw my hands up. “Why would I? We’re trying to be friends, remember? It would be different if we were together, but we’re not. And frankly the kid has enough to think about right now.”
TJ sighed. “I wish he’d just come out. Things can’t stay this way; it’s not healthy.”
“He has to decide on a career too.” I ran a hand through my hair and saw TJ mirror it as he shook his head.
“This is why I didn’t want you two messing around. People should be in a good, stable place if they start seeing someone seriously and, no offense, but neither of you are there.”
I looked down at my hands, picking at a loose piece of carpet. “I was a mess when I met Nate, and that actually helped me.”
“Yes, but he was in a good place. I don’t know…”
“TJ, I don’t know what you want from me. I’m trying to respect your wishes, not push Cass into anything, respect the fact he’s living in the closet, not get too close—and now you’re saying I’m not taking things with him serious enough because I’m not consulting him about my future? Give me a break here!”
He flopped back on the couch and fished Alia’s pacifier out of his pocket when she began to whine.
“This thing between you and Cass, whatever it is, I think it’s too late to try and keep your distance.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think…maybe you two have to face what’s between you and talk frankly about it. Because no matter what I or anyone else thinks, there’s definitely something there. Maybe I was wrong to ask you to ignore it.”
“Now you say this?” I grumbled.
“I know,” he said with a laugh at the irony, “but, be honest, you two haven’t exactly been acting like brothers.”
I couldn’t hide my smirk. “Maybe not—but I haven’t let it go too far either.”
He nodded, and patted Alia where she’d started dozing on his chest.
“You know you’re not going to be able to move now without waking her?”
I smiled. “Language!”
TJ put the TV on low and was still dozing with Alia on him when Kate came by to pick her up. Somehow she stayed asleep while moving her to the car (small miracles!) and I gave Kate a hug good night before walking home. I had a light jacket on, though it almost wasn’t enough with the weather shifting across the thermostat every day. The change of seasons was always crazy unpredictable.
I barely noticed the chill in the air as I walked, though—there was too much on my mind. Just ‘friends’ or not, I needed to talk with Cass about my plans, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. With so much up in the air for him, the last thing I wanted to do was add one more variable, one more ball to juggle.
I loved my work. Loved that when I really dug my heels in, it felt like I could make a difference with my photos. I’d captured some amazing moments. It took patience to get to know a community and build trust, as I was often seeking to know what was happening to people behind the scenes or on the fringes in a society. It also meant dealing with crap weather, squalid conditions, and food poisoning. But I wasn’t the one dealing with those conditions every day, and it was all worth it when it came together.
Not that it always did, but the gamble and sacrifice were worth it. Well, I’d always thought they were. I don’t think I ever realized quite how much Nate had to sacrifice in turn. I could be gone weeks at a time, I missed weddings and birthdays. Nate had rolled with it, at least at first. He knew it was my passion and saw how much it was a part of my life, so he’d never asked me to change things. Thinking back, maybe he should have. Because it had cost both of us, in the end.
My feet ended up at my front door and I had to berate myself for falling into such a morose mood. It probably wasn’t going to help me make any decisions. Turning the knob, which was left unlocked, I opened my door and had to grin.
Cass sat on the living room floor, face fixed to the TV screen, deep into whatever game he’d brought over. Did I mention I’d given him a key to my place at some point? He’d mentioned how confining his own house felt sometimes so it had just felt natural. And I couldn’t say it wasn’t nice to come home to someone when he dropped in.
“Greet you in a sec. Gotta kill zombies right now.”
I snorted and grabbed a beer from the fridge. By the time I sat down on the couch, Cass was spouting obscenities at the screen. He dropped the controller and sat next to me, giving me a quick kiss.
“How was your night?”
“Alia not cooperating?” he chuckled.
“Does she ever?”
“Aw, what a put-upon uncle you are!” he said, squishing my face.
He was in such a good mood; I hated to spoil it. I moved his hands away. “What about you?”
“Other than zombie-killing?” he sighed and flopped on back onto the couch. “Got online to pointlessly research careers.”
“Careers such as…?”
“Carpenter, lawyer, dog-walker. The usual.”
I snorted. “That right?”
“I even looked into photography.”
He played with the loop on my jeans. “Maybe. You’ve never said what kind of photography you do. I’ve seen some of the pictures you’ve framed around here but,” he waved his hand at the apartment, “I can tell that those were just for fun.”
“I see,” I said with a smile, brushing my fingers through his hair. It was nice to have this casual touching between us, the ease of conversation on nights like this. It was so nice in fact that I wasn’t paying enough attention to where his questions were leading.
“Will,” he said, sitting up and locking on my eyes, “tell me about your photography. Show me your work. I don’t know why you haven’t yet.”
I groaned and rested my head back on the couch. “Can we do it when I haven’t been dealing with Alia and I’m not so tired?”
“Most people like to talk about what they do for a living, you know.”
With a mirthless chuckle, I told him, “Most people don’t have to deal with poop under their fingernails.”
“I went to check Alia’s diaper and realized, ‘Oh, yes there is poo, and I just put my fingers in it.’”
Cass was trying not to laugh. “Yeah, I’ve done that before with my little cousins.”
Scrubbing my hands over my face I said, “I know it should be funny, but it doesn’t seem that way right now.” I lifted my head and shook it. “What is it someone said about comedy? Time plus pain equals humor? Maybe I just need more time.”
Cass squeezed my knee. “What else is it? What’s up?”
“I just…” I spread his hands. “This isn’t where I thought I’d be. I’m glad I’m able to help Katie, but this really wasn’t the plan.”
“What are you trying to say? What was the plan?”
“It wasn’t being back here. In this town. Not on a regular basis.” I withheld a sigh at the look on Cass’ face, “The town gets small, right?”
“I know.” He paused, a determined look on his face. “This indecision wouldn’t have anything to do with this would it?” Cass asked, pulling a letter out from the couch cushions. “What’s The Photo Society?”
“Hey! What are you doing with that?” I reached for it but Cass snatched it away.
“What is it?”
Letting out the sigh I told him, “Just what it sounds like. It’s a society for a specialized group of photographers, usually those who bridge into photojournalism.”
“You forgot to say it was damn prestigious and invitation only.” He winked.
“Evidently you already know something about it.”
“The wonders of Google!”
“Why did you ask then?”
“Because I wanted you to tell me.” Then added under his breath, “Wondered if you would tell me.”
“Am I that secretive?”
He looked at me then, and his eyes searching mine seemed to delve deeper than I was comfortable with.
“You don’t appear to be at first, but yeah, you are.”
“Want to tell me why you think that?”
Cass waved the letter in my face. “This would be a start.” I swatted at the letter as he added, “The travel plans you never mentioned might be another.”
How the hell…? Cass must have read my face because he sighed and said, “I borrowed your computer to get online and you’d left the ticket confirmation up. I wasn’t spying, so don’t look at me like that.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point. Obviously I trusted Cass or he wouldn’t have my key, and these were things I should talk to him about even if he hadn’t brought them up—things I meant to talk to him about—but… it still struck me as intrusive.
I watched as Will tried to gather himself, fighting off his temper, or trying not to put up his defenses. Even though I knew I was pushing him, I’d waited for answers long enough. If we were going to move forward—and let’s face it, we already were—these things had to be dealt with.
Will swept a hand through his hair, not speaking at first.
“Fine. I’ve been accepted into The Photo Society.” He said finally. “It’s a pretty generic sounding name, but it's a very elite group—many of the photographers work with National Geographic.”
Holy shit. “That’s huge! I want to say congratulations, but you don’t look as if this is good news.”
He frowned down at the letter in my hands. “I know it is, but…” He rubbed a hand over his face. I wanted so badly to help him, but I had no idea what he was so conflicted over. And he seemed a bit—distant.
“It’s a different kind of life, if I start down that path. I mean, seriously start down it,” he said. “My main aim has always been documenting the homeless in foreign countries—trying to see how different cultures deal with the issue and the people. You really have to earn trust and it makes it easy to get attached to people. I do what I can to shed light on the problem but it’s damn exhausting. Christ, I’ve gotten to know the insides of hospitals sometimes better than people, between food poisoning and infections, but,” he shook his head, not looking at me, eyes far off, “it has been incredibly rewarding. And I thought… I always thought that it was what I was meant to do.” Running fingers through his hair again, he let out a huff of breath, and I just let him continue. “To do that kind of work, it has to be your top priority, everything else is second.” Watching him hunch over, head in his hands, I began to get a bad feeling skittering across my shoulders. I wasn’t going to like where this was going.
“Nate, he…understood that.” Will shook his head. “But I think it’s part of the reason we grew apart, over time. And then when Kate got pregnant, I dropped everything to support her.”
Oh god, his voice was shaking. Why didn’t I feel like I could touch him? It was like his past with Nate was an invisible barrier between us.
“I think that was when Nate realized I’d never done that for him. Never dropped everything to be with him; never put him first. He’d never asked but, still, it was there. He knew…” his voice choked, “I couldn’t love him enough.”
Two thoughts slammed into my mind almost in the same instant—that Will shouldn’t blame himself for this, when he was just doing his job, and, a split second after, that Will was crying over losing this guy. Still torn up over the loss two years later.
“You’re still in love with him.”
“What?” Will looked up at me with his tear-streaked face and I almost reached for him then, almost wrapped myself around him and begged for him to put his past aside, but of course it wasn’t all in the past, was it? I didn’t know where Nate was now, but there was always a chance of a reunion. Even if there wasn’t, I couldn’t bare to get attached to someone whose own heart was still taken by someone else. And as much as I told myself I didn’t, couldn’t, have feelings for Will, it didn’t matter. Even if I didn’t now, I would if we were given time.
And that made a new fear curl deep in my belly. I couldn’t bring myself to examine the depth of it. I couldn’t process it all.
“Where are you going? Cass!”
“I’ll talk to you later. I just…I have to go right now.”
“Cass, wait, please!”
But I was already out the door.