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SIDEKICK

Devyn Morgan


Copyright © 2017 by Devyn Morgan

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.




CHAPTER 1


David Matthias looked around his new place. The left half of the duplex he was renting had more space than he knew what to do with, now that Julian had turned from a roommate to a landlord, and had moved out to live with Cade. The apartment was a great deal, considering how close he was to his office on the outskirts of Alexandria, Virginia, and especially because Julian insisted on charging him minimal rent.

Because they were still coworkers.

Because they became friends.

And, maybe, because Julian had finally figured out that the newly-divorced David had more than a crush on him.

David wore only socks as he spun easily on the beige carpet of his living room. The bare walls looked even starker with the few pieces of inexpensive furniture that Julian had left behind. The brown corduroy sofa was pushed against the wall, with a matching reading chair angled beside it. The coffee table took up most of the middle of the room. Its surface of green stone had been polished to a high shine, cold and impersonal.

As cold as the whole place felt, with just David living here now.

He stalked off into the kitchen, grabbed a fitness magazine from the pile of mail on the counter, and tossed it on the pristine coffee table.

Better.

Not pretty, but at least now it looked like somebody was actually living here. Maybe he should add an assortment of empty beer bottles and a pizza box for a full-out bachelor look.

The concept arrested him. David never wanted to be a bachelor, let alone a “confirmed bachelor,” and his divorce from Marla was as tragic as it had been inevitable.

These thoughts weren’t going to lead anywhere good, however, so David shoved his regret into a lockbox and stored it in the back of his mind. It wasn’t her fault he was gay, and it wasn’t his own fault, either. He just... he still loved her, just not the way she needed to be loved.

It was for the better. Or so she said, and he was trying to believe it with his whole heart.

He put up a pot of coffee. Then he cut the big, cardboard Ikea box open, spread the parts on the carpet in his organized and meticulous way, and flattened the instructions against the fitness magazine on the table. Building something, even if it was just a new entertainment center, gave him a sense of purpose, and right now he needed that more than he needed a good fuck.

This place was his home now, and it would look better than some sleek, upstart hotel room. David took a deep breath and allowed it to expand his chest.

This was a new beginning.

It would all turn out okay.

He had come to believe that after several months of couples therapy. As he slowly came to grips with his sexuality, even David had to admit that they were, essentially, incompatible. He clung to his intellectual understanding, hoping it would sink into his gut. Even if they were better off as friends, one year of marriage had taught him that he wanted to be with someone. He wanted to lavish his attention onto a... a guy.

Yeah, he wanted to find a guy that would love him back. The task seemed insurmountable and the whole dating scene intimidated the hell out of him. Clubs, online dating, apps – all those waters were new and uncharted, and David shuddered at the thought of picking a stranger up at the bar, bringing him home, and getting naked.

What worked so well in fantasy made his skin crawl in real life.

He wanted a soul mate, perhaps, although the soul mate connection with Marla had fallen somewhat short in the physical needs department, when the fire between them failed to thrive into a full-blast inferno.

More like dying embers, David reflected.

It's not that he wasn't interested. He just wasn't interested enough, and ever since he started working out at the gym with Julian Jackson, whenever he and Marla got together and the lights were out, he couldn't help but think what would Julian feel like in his arms.

Would his hands feel soft, or would they be just a little harder than Marla’s?

Would he miss the softness of Marla's smooth skin, or would Julian's body hair provide a pleasant change of pace?

And would kissing a man feel different? The fair skin of Julian’s neck was marked with obvious love-bites well above the line of his white shirt collar, and at work, they had all given him flack over it while waiting for a meeting to start. So, presumably, Julian and what’s-his-name had kissed... and more.

All that was water under the bridge now. Marla kept the house, because it was closer to the big law firm where she worked as a marketing manager. Just like Julian’s place was close to their mutual office, where David worked in the accounting department. When Julian invited him to move in after the divorce, David’s hopes had soared, only to be dashed on the rocky shoals of what’s-his-name. David had not realized that Julian’s interest in what’s-his-name was serious enough to move in with him. Even worse, Julian hadn’t even realized that David had been harboring a massive crush on him.

So here he was, two months later, divorced, and alone.

The phone buzzed in his pocket, and David fished it out and answered it. Marla.

"Hello?"

"Hi, David?” Marla said in her concerned and melodious voice. "How are you doing? Are you settling in okay?"

It was kind of funny that Marla should take his well-being so much to heart. He didn't quite know what to say.

If he said he was doing great, not only would it have been a patent lie, it would feel ungrateful somehow, because she let him go so graciously. On the other hand, if he sounded too lonely and distressed, Marla would feel unaccountably guilty all over again. She might, once again, float a timid suggestion that that they get back together, and David knew that that was a terrible idea.

She needed to be able to move on with her life and find someone who would love her in all ways, and for all of her excellent qualities and funny quirks – and who would also lust after her passionately and make her feel cherished and wanted. She could do a lot better than being a mere best friend.

And David tried to believe, as hard as he could, that he also deserved just that.

"I'm settling in," he said, giving a measured response as he censored both his words and his tone of voice. "I just made a mess in the living room. I’m assembling a piece of Ikea furniture."

"You don't sound very excited," she said. "Should I come over, and have a look around?" Despite her solicitous tone, David detected a note of hesitation, as though she hoped he was going to say no, thank you, everything is okay.

"No, thank you. Everything is okay." He said it with a smile, doing his best to sell the sentiment.

"Have you been back to the gym?" Of course she had to ask that. His attraction to his gym buddy had come up during counseling.

"Yes," he lied. “Baby-steps, you know?”

She hummed, and they chitchatted back and forth for a while, her about her new promotion at the law firm, and the exciting possibility of travel. He told her more about what was going on with his work, but not a word about Julian, and the way Julian had moved in with his horse trainer.

Whatever his name was.

And also, not a whisper of the fact that he just didn't have it in him to show up at the gym three times a week, lift weights, and try to earn an appreciative gaze from the man that was now forever out of his reach.

But maybe she was right. He should try going back, if only on principle.


DAVID FINISHED HIS second set of bench presses, not really paying attention whether the number of plates he had stacked on each side of the bar looked impressive. He used to lift heavy, used to care about the numbers, but all that was as gone as the melted snow. Right now he just plain couldn't give a rat’s ass.

"Hey, David! Long time no see!" Larry was a guy from the office across the hall, David remembered quickly. He sold, wait… Insurance? Isn't that what he did? Larry was an average age guy with average looks, in an average physical condition, who liked to keep the middle-age spread at bay by squeezing a quick workout into his busy schedule before he hit the road to join his wife and kids for dinner at home.

David forced a smile. "Yeah, I was moving. Hauling boxes and furniture has been a workout enough."

Larry’s face pinked. He leaned closer, almost too close, and whispered: "Yeah, we heard all about that. The whole office did! So it's true you’re batting for the other team now?"

David suppressed a groan, sighed internally, and sat up. He fixed Larry with a steel gaze. "That's a personal issue, Larry. I'd rather not discuss it."

"Oh. Oh! So you haven't gone public with it! I mean, out. Isn't that the word, out?" Larry was wringing his hands now, apparently mortally embarrassed, and trying to make up for it. David realized he must've been one of those guys who lived in an insulated bubble of heterosexual marital bliss. He most likely lived in the suburbs, surrounded by a neighborhood of Larry-clones who drove Larry-clone cars and had Larry-clone families and opinions.

He didn't even know the lingo. He was unaware of the issues, the keywords, and he probably wouldn't have been able to tell a guy was hitting on him even if it was happening at the force of a hurricane.

"It's okay," David said, straining to keep civil. "I think I'll just go and wrap it up for the day."

He didn't need to meet Larry’s quizzical gaze. He wasn't going to bother explaining that this place has become an alien wasteland for him now, a place where he had found something he couldn't have.

Once he was showered and dressed, David walked out of the gym with his head held high. As far as he was concerned, this was the last time he darkened the door step of this particular gym with his shadow.

He would never be back.

The glass doors swung shut behind him and the warm, late spring, Virginia air washed against his face. He drew a deep breath and relished the scent of hidden flowers that were blooming somewhere in the neighborhood.

The breeze washed off the sad gym cooties and infused him with new and inexplicable hope. Could be, this end would have a new beginning. Maybe he wouldn’t come back here anymore, but he could do something else.

Something new.

Something exciting, maybe… like hang gliding.

Or horseback riding – wait, not that. That's what Julian was doing with what’s-his-name. He felt an urge to slug what’s-his-name, and suppressed it, but the violent impulse gave birth to an idea he had not explored since his high school wrestling days.

How about some kind of a martial art? Maybe MMA, just like on TV. All those fighters were fit and lean, and had mad skills. Some were easy on the eyes, too – and, statistically, some of them had to be gay.

Or jujitsu. He knew wrestling was an important skill in mixed martial arts, and all that rolling around and body contact just might lead to something... interesting.

Or even karate.

At this point, he didn't really care. It just had to be different, and exciting, and it had to give him a good workout with people he had never met before.


CHAPTER 2


Hunter Davenport scanned the living room of his hosts’ little house with a covert glance. Small, tidy, well-organized – he would be cramped, but he knew he was perfectly willing to accept lack of privacy in exchange for a place with a family other than his own.

A home where he didn’t have to watch his mother sip bourbon out of a porcelain cup in the afternoon, pretending it was tea. A place where his workaholic father retreated to the small, remodeled half-garage that was now his office.

A tidy house where the power didn’t get turned off due to dysfunction, where he wasn’t called names, and where his loved ones didn’t keep breaking his heart by refusing to get the help they so badly needed.

Two years ago, Hunter had begun eyeing the bottle himself, and at that point, he knew he had to get out. As much as they tried to make him stay – gay or straight, martial artist or pedigreed professional – his parents loved him, clung to him, smothered him.

Hunter had given them a written ultimatum: Get help, or I leave.

They refused to admit they even had a problem.

He left.

Which is why he was here now, several states south of his native Massachusetts. He’d been traveling from school to school in his little pick-up truck, staying with teachers that appreciated the breadth of knowledge he brought to their dojos, and were happy to trade room and board for knowledge for weeks at a time.

Two senseis later, he got paid for taking over classes for the first time.

Half a year later, he started mapping out his trips, reserving space and time, and scheduling self-defense lessons that would cover his living expenses.

And one year ago, he had entered the octagon of mixed martial arts combat, won three matches in a row, and got his first corporate sponsorship.

His career path had taken an unexpected turn just then, and Hunter started to drift through places where he could learn skills that would help him win again.

Winning was good, especially when he didn’t need to sleep in the truck.

Hunter looked at Steve and Tatiana McCain. "Thank you for letting me stay," he said as he tilted his head in a grateful gesture.

“It's no problem, our school’s going to grow by leaps and bounds! With you as the big draw, it’ll be even better!” Presently he was all fired up, gesticulating, pacing around the cramped living room while their little dog kept jumping up and down on the sofa, mirroring Steve’s excitement.

The mutt was just as wired as Steve, and just as loud. This wasn’t what Hunter had imagined when Steve had told him, one month ago, that he was welcome to stay for as long as he wanted to, because they had “lots of space.”

Hunter slid his gaze towards Tatiana fast enough to notice her tight, uncomfortable smile and her barely-suppressed eye roll. The McCains lived in a small, suburban home. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, a pull-out sofa in the den downstairs – there was no way Hunter could possibly impose upon his host instructor and his family for a prolonged period of time.

Not with a six-month old baby, a two-year-old toddler, and a hyper little dog. When he considered the small house and the growing family, he didn’t blame Tatiana for her lukewarm welcome one bit. If another person or two came to visit, their little house would begin to resemble one of those circus clown cars.


THE CINDER BLOCK wall was cool against Hunter’s back, and he pushed off it and stood up straight. As the visiting instructor, he had a certain image to maintain, and lounging against walls wasn’t it, no matter now nice and cool they felt during the first few hot days of spring.

The karate class before his eyes was like so many he had already visited, both as a student and as a teacher. Men and women, all dressed in their traditional white uniforms, wore belts that spanned the colors of the rainbow. It seemed that Steve McCain was a sensei who believed in giving new belts often, presumably in order to motivate them all.

"I would like to welcome our guest instructor, Hunter Davenport." Steve's voice boomed through the gym, reverberating against the hardwood floors and institutional cinderblock walls. "He’ll be with us for at least six months while he's training for his MMA tournament, and when he’s not here, he’ll be training at a local MMA gym with one of the big shots!” He gave Hunter an admiring look, which drew enough curiosity from the students to make Hunter feel like a bug under a microscope. “After he has a chance to see how we run things here, I’ll invite him to share his knowledge with all of us. Please welcome Hunter sensei!"

The three rows of students turned, all at once, and bowed in Hunter's direction.

Very seriously, he bowed back. "Thank you for your warm welcome," he said. “I’m honored to be here, and I’m sure I'll learn as much from you as you will learn from me.”

Those weren't just empty words. Hunter knew he always learned as much from teaching as he learned from listening to older and more experienced martial artists. For now, he followed the flow of the class. Steve had his own take on explaining concepts that were shared by just about every single martial art on earth, yet which each school presented in a different way.


DAVID PERKED RIGHT up when the guest instructor was introduced.

Hunter Davenport. The name stood out and tugged on him with long-forgotten familiarity. He thought back, somewhat distracted as he followed along with the class. The introduction of the guest instructor didn’t shed any light on his confusion, nor did the calisthenics, the push-ups and the sit-ups, or the stretches.

Three practices in, David was beginning to find comfort in the predictable routine of the class. He didn’t feel as foolish in his white gi uniform as before, and he was less self-conscious of his pristine white belt. He was the newest student, didn't know anything about fighting, but at least his weight-lifting background got his push-ups covered.

As he sat on the shiny gym floor with his legs spread far apart, stretching forward, he chanced covert glances at the visiting instructor.

Hunter Davenport.

What an unusual name – he knew he should be able to place it. David peeked up, only to see Hunter spread his legs wide apart, almost into a split, and lean his torso forward.

His chest touched the floor.

David winced. That sure did look painful, and he wasn't going to attempt stretching like that anytime soon.

Watching Hunter was serious eye-candy territory, though. He was hard and lithe and shapely. David wasn’t surprised that Hunter was both shorter and slighter than he was – most people were. Yet when Steve sensei called him out to help show a technique, Hunter’s presence was downright menacing, both in the role of the attacker and in the role of defender.

His hair was cut into a short, no-nonsense style that almost showed his skull, and framed well his large eyes. His straight, Roman nose pointed to lips that were strict now, but which also showed a delectable potential in their cute cupid’s bow. Their corners had a delightful tendency to turn up into a smile once class was over.

David stirred with sudden curiosity. He wanted to talk to this newcomer, if only to find out where this sense of uncanny familiarity came from.

And Hunter was training for a tournament, which was pretty darn sexy. All of Hunter was sexy, in fact, and as soon as David digested this fine revelation while in mid-stretch, he both wanted to meet Hunter, and dreaded it with the self-consciousness of a newly-gay man in the presence of a hottie who towered over him in rank, skill, and cuteness quotient.

He had time, though. Hunter would be with them for at least six months.

Before he knew it, David was halfway through his karate class. He kept getting distracted as his covert glances kept straying toward Hunter, and his unruly thoughts tended to follow. He really didn't have any business thinking of an instructor in those terms. It just wasn't done.

Or was it? Would he always walk through life, thinking of men in terms of their partner potential? Would he always wonder whether a guy was hairy or smooth under the gi, whether his voice was baritone or bass, or whether he’d keep leaving the cap off the toothpaste? Would he always yearn to find out what it felt like to press him into a wall and ply his lips with a passionate kiss?

"Ouch!" David yelped, both with pain and with indignation.

"That's what happens when you don't pay attention," Steve-sensei said. "I don't know what you’re thinking of, but it sure isn't your partner's punch!"

Trying to fight down a sense of acute embarrassment, David drew a deep breath. He got caught. And worse, he got caught while thinking of another guy in that particular way. And it wasn't just any guy! It was the new guy, the new instructor. Had he been a dog, David would've shaken himself, and sent the tension flying off like water.

He tried not to let his gaze stray toward the new man. Hunter.

What a great name. And so familiar...

Focus… Focus… Block… Strike!

"That was better!" Steve sensei smiled, doing his best to be encouraging. "Now do it again."


DAVID WAS THINKING of Hunter as he drove home, and he didn’t let up even once he got inside. He wasn't really sure what the rules were when it came to dating somebody within a martial arts school, and he didn't even know whether Hunter would be interested. His first thought had been “no, of course not.” Hunter was a kick-ass martial artist, and therefore was unlikely to be gay.

A hearty laugh ripped out of David’s throat, letting the sound resonate through his bedroom. He stripped off his sweaty undershirt and underwear, tossed them in the hamper, and made his way to the bathroom. He was still laughing at the ridiculousness of his line of thought. As he turned the water on, he flexed his shoulders, he sucked in his abs and tensed his thighs, aware of the way his muscles popped. David had spent quite a number of years lifting weights. He was tough, he was strong, but that didn't make him straight.

Quite the contrary, he realized that maybe he had been using all that masculine display to compensate for his sexuality. He had come to it later in life than most, at least in his generation, and being ambivalent about not being quite straight enough for his wife certainly sent him to the gym to pump iron on a regular basis.

By the time he got out of the shower, his mind was made up. His gaydar wasn't worth shit. There was no way to tell whether or not Hunter was remotely interested in guys, let alone him. But that was not an excuse for not finding out. And in order to find out, David needed help.


ANOTHER TWO KARATE classes, full of covert glances in Hunter’s direction, had passed before David guilt-tripped himself into taking action on his earlier idea. The lovely Virginia weather helped tip his hand. It arrived in full force, with trees blooming and the sun shining. The grass in the yard grew tall enough to be cut, and the Sommers family that lived in the other part of the duplex had shown no inclination to do so. Two adults and two teenagers who already drove, and they were hardly ever there. If he only had a lawnmower, David would be happy to take care of the yard work. In fact, coordinating on house chores with his landlord, Julian, was a welcome excuse to pick up the phone and get in touch again.

He started out with a low-key text.

Hey, I need to talk to you about the house. Call me?

David was halfway through his beer, checking his e-mail and hanging out on Facebook, when his phone rang right next to him. He glanced at the display, and answered.

"Hey, Julian!"

"Hi David," Julian said with a smile David could hear across their long-distance connection. "How can I help you? Is everything okay?"

David decided not to beat around the bush. "Well, actually you can. And maybe I can help you. The lawn needs to be cut."

"Oh, shit. I just plain forgot about that! Doesn’t Jeff Sommers next door have the lawnmower?"

David grinned. "I can only surmise that he does," he said, "I doubt he would even think about doing it, with the schedule they keep. However… If you want, you can come over, rescue the lawnmower from their side of the basement, or wherever you keep it, and I'll be happy to take over!"

A dull silence followed, as though he had been put on mute for just long enough to exchange a few words with what's-his-name.

"Hey, you there? Sorry about that." Julian cleared his throat. "So, Cade and I were thinking we could come over and hang out, get some social time. We could see how you're doing, order a pizza, and I could show you where everything is."

Had Julian suggested this only yesterday, David would've been surly at the thought of Cade coming over as well. He was the what’s-his-name who’d taken Julian away, after all. But that didn't matter anymore, because David needed advice about a new potential love interest. Or, at least the next target. Maybe it was better not to get too involved from the get-go, being new to the gay scene at all, but…. Experienced advice sure wouldn't hurt.

"I’d love that," he said. "Actually, I really need to talk to you anyway, and if Cade has input into my new situation, I’d really be interested to see what he has to offer as a solution."

He heard a chuckle from far away. "Oh really?" The amusement in Julian's voice was one of those sexy, sweet things he always used to enjoy. To his surprise, now it merely informed him of Julian’s state of mind. "That sounds promising!"

That night David was a man with a plan, and having a plan made it a lot easier to fall asleep.



CHAPTER 3


Julian leaned back in the dining room chair, mirth playing on his face and lighting up his eyes. He gave Cade a quick glance before he aimed his beaming, sunshine energy on David, and fired off his question. "So, who’s that guy you’re interested in, anyway?"

David groaned. He spun the plate on the teak dining room table in front of him. A few pizza crusts plus an extra cup of marinara sauce were all that was left of the pizza Julian and Cade had brought over.

David gritted his teeth as Julian got that mischievous smile on his face. He watched him lean forward again, flash a glance at Cade, and intertwine their fingers before he looked at David.

"Come on, spill it! Who’s the guy? I know there’s got to be a guy involved. I’ve never seen you this flustered before!”

David inhaled so hard his nostrils quivered. He didn't need this shit. He didn't need all this crap of who is this guy, will-you-ever, and you should go to a gay bar with us. Instead, he fingered the used paper napkin on the table. The place in front of him was littered with leftovers, and he focused on those in an effort to buy some time. Then he pulled on his beer, enjoying the hoppy effervescence that stung his throat, and set the bottle the table with a click. "Do we have to go over this again?"

"All I know," Julian said, "is that I’ve been to the gym, and I asked about you, and the guys haven't seen you in weeks!" Julian gave him a withering glare. "I thought you really liked it. Not that I am going to tell you how you should be spending your free time, but…"

David took another pull his beer, emptying the bottle. Silence was golden. Shutting up never got anyone in trouble. Just like with Marla, silence was the way to go.

"I think what Julian is trying to say is, he wants to see you happy. And, for what it's worth, I want to see you happy as well." Cade's voice sliced through the silence like an unexpected blade. It hurt as much, too, because knowing that the guys were just trying to be nice to him robbed David of his entitlement to sulk.

He gave a helpless and exasperated shrug, as though the gesture would explain everything all at once. "I don't think you get it," David said. "I’m new at this gay thing! I don't even know what to do, or what to say. All I know is, I want to find someone to be with, and I don't even know where to look!"

The silence that had been such a relief before now weighed upon him like a stone. Neither Julian nor Cade seemed to have a decent, easy answer.

After Cade finished his own beer, he leaned forward and parked his elbows on the table, holding his hands out like he was revealing his innermost secrets to the world. "To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not very good at this, either. I kind of lucked into Julian. He just walked into my place."

David raised his eyebrows. Now that was news to him. Cade always appeared so composed, always in control. He was the kind of a guy who never seemed at a loss for what to say, and what to do, and he always knew just when to shut up. To David, Cade seemed able to control anything, be it a man or an unruly horse. "Really?"

"Yeah, really." Julian said. As he patted Cade’s hand with his own, his plain silver engagement ring gleamed. They had even got as far as deciding to tie the knot, and for some reason, this reassured David somewhat. If there was a ring, then Cade and Julian were meant to be.

And if they were meant to be, then he didn't really lose Julian. No, it was just one of those weird karmic things. But, furthermore, if somebody who seemed utterly composed just admitted to being both socially awkward and fortunate, and then had the audacity to put a ring on Julian's finger, there was hope for him, too.

David smiled. "You guys are just so lucky."

"Yeah, I know." Cade met his gaze and held it evenly. "And that's exactly why we are going to help you. Aren't we, Julian?"

Julian whirled to look Cade in the eyes with utter bewilderment. "Why are you looking at me? It's not like I know anything!"

Cade shook his head, and steeled Julian with an uncompromising look. "You, beloved, are the one who knows where the gay bars are. You’ve even been inside them, and from the stories you have to tell, you know how to hook up while you’re there. Not just that, but you know all about those dating apps I’d never bothered to try."

David grinned. He had never seen Julian like this, and furthermore, never did his former crush look this vulnerable. If Julian could look, and feel, vulnerable, then he wasn’t alone in that awful sensation that he’d been just faking his way through adult life. Through life, through marriage... but not through divorce. Yeah, the divorce had been all too real.

"And besides, Julian," Cade went on, "you even have a functioning gaydar!"


THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY, David sank back into the soft embrace of his living room sofa, torn between guilt and satisfaction as he finished snooping on his crush. The silence in his half of the house was underscored by the thud of teenaged feet next door, and the drone of television. He smiled at the familiar signs of life that told him he wasn’t all alone in the house, and peered at the screen of his laptop.

It had taken him hours to read all there was about Hunter Davenport, martial artist extraordinaire. He knew what martial arts he studied, and where he used to work. It seemed that Hunter got around. It looked like he was the next big thing, at least if his health held up, and if he got lucky.

He also found evidence of what he had already suspected. They grew up in the same small town in Massachusetts – and, shit, they were just two months apart in age.

If Hunter looked younger, it was probably because he was so cut. And so friendly.

Hunter Davenport.

A memory niggled at him, one that went way back to the small middle school. The smell of cafeteria fries and ranch dressing came back to him, together with a recollection of a cavernous room full of tables and chairs.

And food fights.

And a short, skinny boy in thick-framed glasses who always got shoved around by the assholes who sat at the prime table by the window.

David sprang to his feet. He’d go get an apple, or water, or... or something. A sudden, restless urge to move around filled him, and he didn’t know what to do with himself.

Their old town was so small, he used to bike across it in half an hour as a teen. There had been just one ice cream store and two restaurants, two supermarkets, and major shopping had to be done in nearby Springfield.

But Hunter Davenport hadn’t been around as a teen.

David kept pacing. Old memories rushed in fast. He vividly recalled the face of their teacher and the heady sensation he had felt back then when he’d first touched Hunter’s hand in gym class during an obstacle course. They had to complete the course in teams, and since Hunter had been so short, David had boosted him over a wall before he scaled it himself.

He still remembered the spine-tingling sensation of the contact, and Hunter’s wide, hazel-brown eyes behind the thick-rimmed glasses.

Yeah, this was the same Hunter. No doubt about it – the soft eyes hardened some with years, but the electrifying sensation of their touch was still there.

Even when Hunter had punched slowly, letting him block.

Or when he grabbed Hunter’s wrists in a simulated attack.

That had been hot – and not just for him. A shiver of sensuous memory at the way Hunter slid a heated gaze in his direction forced David to sit in his reading chair, and let his thoughts fly back in time.

It was like time travel, going back to Mrs. Peabody's sixth-grade science class. He could just smell the chalk dust from the erasers that sat on the ledges of decaying blackboards, and he saw her, tall and matronly in her straight skirt and blouse, always with a smile on her face.

Back in that sunlit classroom, where tables aligned in tidy rows and students sat in a predetermined order, he remembered Hunter Davenport as sitting at the far right and in the front. He’d been a short kid, kind of scrawny, and geeky with his large glasses.

He and David bonded over science fact books and cool science videos which Mrs. Peabody let them watch on the classroom’s only computer.

And that science project they did together – David’s vague memory of his mother's kitchen and their chemistry experiment contraption evoked the scent of vinegar and Hunter’s excited smile as they worked side by side.

He had felt a special kind of protectiveness toward Hunter back then. They weren’t what he’d call best friends, but David had always been on the lookout for the classroom bully.

Don Luby was a black-haired kid, not particularly large, and not very smart, but he sure was a pain in the ass. He took things, he lied, and he shoved other kids around. Not many of his “targets” stood up to him, not back then.

Hunter tended to avoid him. He stuck to groups of kids, talking and making friends.

On the last day David had seen Hunter, they had been doing a biodiversity project on a rocky outcrop covered in wild flowers that rose on the other side of the baseball field, which amounted to counting bugs and enjoying the late spring sun. Hunter had found a beautiful, full-grown praying mantis. Big and green, its legs were masked by sturdy stalks of wild grasses. Her eyes, composite and as though made of tiny bottle caps, peered at the world in search of prey.

David didn't quite know what had happened that day. He’d been focused on his own data. A shout of pain had made him look up. Hunter lay sprawled on the ground with his arm twisted in at an unnatural angle, and the broken lenses of his glasses glinted in the grass like tears.

His praying mantis was all squished by the heel of Don Luby’s sneaker.

He knew Hunter had to go to the hospital.

Don Luby had been suspended, but Hunter Davenport had never returned to school.


DAVID DISAPPEARED INTO a whodunit for two hours, but the puzzle of Hunter Davenport still resonated in the back of his mind, much like the crickets used to provide background music on late summer days.

Was the hot, kickass karate Hunter the same person as that geeky boy? The two images were hard to reconcile. The fact that Hunter had disappeared after sixth grade didn’t help. David knew absolute zilch about Hunter’s orientation, but a few of Hunter’s Facebook friends had a rainbow flag in their profile, which gave him hope.

Would it be awkward to date a guy he knew back then? Would it be embarrassing to ask whether he was that guy?

Too bad Hunter was living with Steve-sensei. An arrangement like that seriously lacked privacy. There was also the question of the karate school and its unspoken rules. Was it okay to date somebody there? Especially if that somebody happened to be a hot-shot visiting instructor?

Suppose it didn't work out.

Suppose he and Hunter dated for a little while, and then had one of those huge, public, messy breakups. Hunter would be the one who would get to stay, and David would have to leave, losing a new and interesting workout venue in the process.

If he took the risk, though....

David put his book down. He’d lost track of the plot long ago.

Yes, he’d take the risk. He’d ask.

Even if his quest for a boyfriend didn’t work out, there was a good chance he would gain a new friend.


WEDNESDAY COULDN'T COME fast enough. The class started at 7 o'clock, and David showed up early, intending to stretch out and do a few extra push-ups and core exercises. To his surprise, the dojo wasn’t empty. He knew Steve sensei would be there, true, but he didn't expect Hunter to be on the mat, looking all focused while he was throwing Steve sensei around as though he was a used dishrag.

David let the door close softly behind him, and watched with quiet fascination. Hunter wore the focused look the way a hot model wore a sexy jockstrap – looking away wasn’t an option. And, what’s more, David wanted to be in on this. He wanted to know how to do that – how to take a grown man by his arm and make him fly around like a human airplane.

He spanned the few steps between the door and the mat.

His movement must have alerted them to his presence. Hunter flicked his eyes in his direction, and Steve-sensei froze where he was, lying face-down on the ground. Then he slowly got up, and as David bowed in greeting, so did he. A split-second later, so did Hunter. Steve sensei’s expression and self-conscious body language made him look like a boy who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

David chanced a shy smile. "Hi, I’m a bit early… I just wanted to do a bunch of sit-ups and stuff. I'm sorry if I’m disturbing a private practice?”

A loaded look passed between the two men on the mat, one that David couldn't decipher.

Silence stretched like old chewing gum. Steve broke it first. "Don't worry about it, " he said, waving him in. "You had no way of knowing. And besides, we’re about done."

Hunter remained silent, but the way he glanced at the floor gave him a decidedly dissatisfied look. He bowed himself off the mat and left for the dressing room – which was exactly where David was going.

He had to change, after all.

It's not like he was following Hunter. Or at least, that’s what he tried to tell himself.


CHAPTER 4


The men's changing room was the size of a glorified walk-in closet, barely big enough to house two opposing walls of small, red lockers with steel doors. Narrow, varnished wooden benches ran the perimeter, leaving a dressing area so small, David could span its length in five steps. There were no showers, just the unisex restroom accessible from the main practice area.

"Hi, Hunter!" David nodded in Hunter's direction, trying not to look too hard as he searched around for just the right hidey-hole to stash his stuff. The one with the number of his age was taken, so he was forced to go one year higher, to 29.

“Hi, good to see you again.” Hunter wore a cool, professional expression. Utterly unflappable, it also elevated him above ordinary mortals. In David’s utterly unbiased opinion, the man had the pull of a small planet. A small, exotic, tropical planet where David wanted to spend all of his free time.

He braced himself, reminded himself that great conquests weren’t won by cowards, recalled all that real-person, humanizing information he’d found about Hunter online, and launched forth. “Hey, did you have Mrs. Peabody back in sixth grade, by any chance?”

The facade began to crack. Hunter tilted his head, drew a perfectly controlled inhale, and pulled his shoulders back and down, as though he had to compose himself. “Why’re you asking?”

David shrugged in an effort to mask his excitement. “I grew up in Milton, just outside Springfield, Massachusetts. A small town with a small school, so I knew pretty much everyone. And there was one Hunter Davenport in my class.” He looked away from Hunter, to give him space, but as soon as he thought Hunter looked at his face in search of recognition, he flicked his gaze back.

Their eyes locked. David could’ve pressed his advantage right here. He felt it, the way Hunter seemed to shut down and retreat behind a wall somewhere inside him, but he didn’t. Instead, he let a small smile play on his lips. “He was a smart kid. Really nice, really intense. He loved a bug project we did – but then there was some kind of a thing that went down, and he disappeared.” He took a step forward, into the middle of the dressing room. “Was that you?”

Hunter tried to speak, but his throat rasped. He swallowed, and tried again. “What’s your full name?”

“I went by Davie Mathias back then. It’s David now.”

Sun came out in Hunter’s eyes. “Davie? The kid who was obsessed with volcanoes?”

David couldn’t resist the grin anymore. He nodded.

“You shared lunch with me,” Hunter said, and his expression softened to nostalgia, seasoned with a wisp of old pain.

“My mom used to pack for two after a while,” David said. He smiled. Those had been the good days for him. Volcanoes and planets, lunches and recess. Homework had begun to get serious just about then.

“And now look at you!” Hunter forced a laugh, staring at David’s shoulders, then sliding his gaze down his torso, his legs. The weight of his attention was almost palpable, like warmth out of nowhere, and David found himself wondering whether his work clothes hid all the hard work at the gym, or whether some of his hard-earned muscles showed even under the layers of fabric.

“Did you move?” David ask, just to break the awkward tension.

“Yeah,” Hunter said with a nod. “It’s a long story.”

“It’s been a long time,” David said with a nod. “And now you’re here. The up-and-coming MMA contender!”

“How do you know?” Hunter moved now, as though he turned from stone into flesh again. As though mentioning the here-and-now freed him from a past he’d rather not revisit. David noticed this, and filed the information away.

“When I began to suspect I knew you from back then, I looked you up. You’re all over the place, you know that? You’re pretty famous!”

“Not all that famous.” Hunter was looking at him with a slightly predatory eye now, an eye of a man who saw something he liked.

David quivered inside. “What gave me away? Our old school doesn’t have anything online. Not names of students, anyway.”

David blushed. The answer would doom him, showing him for the stalker he was. “You’ve always been inspired by the praying mantis. You said so in one of your interviews.”

“Yeah.” Hunter’s eyes narrowed. “I still am.” He gave David an assessing look. "So what other martial arts have you been doing before?"

A pleased flush rushed to David's face. Did Hunter really think that he had more experience than a rank beginner? That was very flattering. That look, the words of indirect praise, all that went to his head just as fast as blood rushed below his waist.

“None. Just wrestling.” David didn't know what to do with himself, and changing into his white gi seemed like a safe course of action. He tried to focus on undoing the buttons of his shirt, one at a time, but his hands began to tremble under the weight of Hunter’s intent gaze. His fingers suddenly felt like bloated sausages. He fumbled with his own shirt like an idiot, all clumsy and ineffective.

He tugged.

A pearl button shot out, hitting Hunter right in the cheek.

"Shit! Sorry!" He fumbled some more, and two more buttons zinged through the air and skittered along the vinyl tile floor.

Hunter just stood there, a small smile curving his perfect lips upward as he remained still, not saying a word.

"Aargh!" David slammed his back into the wall of lockers in sheer frustration.

"For a guy who wears a suit a lot, you're not very good at taking one off," Hunter said. He closed the distance between them in three decisive steps, and slowly, without touching David in any way, he undid the rest of them.

He was so close, David felt his body heat like a blast furnace. Stifling a frustrated groan, he bit his lip just as Hunter leaned in to pull his tie loose.

Hunter had the most amazing lips, especially the way they looked now. Slightly parted, with not a straight line in them. Like one of those squiggly parentheses on his keyboard, but the corners liked to point up, into a mischievous smile.

David slid his gaze up, past the straight nose and chiseled cheekbones. A few freckles dusted the smooth skin under Hunter’s eyes, fanned by the long, lush lashes of eyes that threatened to flutter shut.

He smelled like mint and coffee.

“Davie,” Hunter murmured. He let go of his tie, skating his fingers up David’s neck, making him shiver.

“Nngh,” David replied intelligently as delicious sensation skittered from Hunter’s fingertips all the way down.

“You can say no.” Hunter’s voice brimmed with desire.

David pulled Hunter in by the black belt that held his white gi closed. Cold metal against his back, the heavy, wanting heat of Hunter pressing against him. Chest to chest, thigh to thigh.

That’s what this was supposed to feel like. All those books, the internet porn, the occasional movie he saw? None of that held a candle to being pressed into a row of lockers by Hunter Davenport, who shifted his feet.

Thigh against thigh and hip against hip, David felt Hunter’s heavy weight against him, hot even through the susurrating fabric.

He ran his hands up Hunter’s back. “Don’t want to... say no,” he whispered.

Their lips brushed once, twice in exploratory contact. Hard and soft, hot and moist. David waited for Hunter to part his lips for him.

Hunter didn’t.

His tongue slid against David’s in an unexpected rush of pleasure. Aggressive and giving, soft and hard at the same time, David relished the sensation with a whimper, trying to grab a handful of Hunter’s gi.

Hunter’s hand in his hair, Hunter’s tongue in his mouth, Hunter’s cock against his.

A cough invaded David’s consciousness just as he felt Hunter freeze in his arms. “Break it up, you two.” Steve-sensei’s voice was quiet and carefully neutral. “Other students will be here within minutes.”

Hunter sprang away as though stung. “Sorry. It’s just...”

“I certainly hope this isn’t your usual way of instructing new students.” A clipped, acerbic voice.

David saw Hunter shrink into himself, still much like that little kid whose praying mantis got crushed underfoot.

“Actually, I’m not new.” Words poured out of David’s mouth like he was addressing his equals in a casual meeting. “Hunter and I... we go way back.”

Steve raised his eyebrows, giving Hunter a stern look. “Is that so?”

“Yeah.” A soft reply. “Way back.”

“Keep it off the mat then,” Steve said. Then he opened his locker, pulled out his phone, and checked it. Satisfied, he let it stay in the locker, and left.

Hunter straightened up and took a breath, then exhaled, and suddenly the karate instructor was back, banishing the sensitive preteen to parts unknown. He eyed David. “Thanks for covering for me. And, by the way, wrestling definitely counts.”

David nodded through a thick haze of desire that didn’t seem to want to dissipate. That kiss remained with him, and even minutes later, after Hunter was long gone and the chill of the locker’s steel began to seep David’s heat away, he still had the intoxicating taste of Hunter Davenport fuzzing the edges of his reality.



CHAPTER 5


Hunter was sitting in a nice coffee shop with a solid Wi-Fi connection. The spring night descended with cool rain, drops drumming against the window next to him. A cup of hot herbal tea sat next to his laptop, which was propped open in front of him.

Nine o'clock.

Back at the house, both kids were already asleep, and if the baby didn’t wake up, Steve and his wife were going to snag a bit of the private time they so desperately needed. Hunter would’ve loved to have stayed and gone to bed early. He was beat after weeks of weight lifting, running, and wrestling guys who were just a shade better than he was – but he knew better than making himself unwelcome with Tatiana.

Even worse, the conversations between him and Steve took on a distinctly chilly edge. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Steve would’ve been only mildly amused, had Hunter been kissing a woman, but asking outright would’ve sounded accusatory. No need to open that can of worms.

He decided to give Steve the benefit of doubt, and he was grateful that David saved his ass by saying they went “way back.” Hunter was pretty sure David had saved his teaching stint at this particular school, and was glad for it, but they had zero opportunity to talk in private since.

Picking up where they had left off had proven impossible at the dojo. After getting caught like that, in a passionate embrace that blocked everything else from Hunter’s consciousness – including Steve’s footsteps – every time Hunter had gotten close enough to correct David’s form, he could feel his shoulder blades tighten under Steve’s hawkish gaze.

He wanted to talk to David, get his number, take him out for coffee – but any communication aside from blocks and punches became impossible.

Not being able to talk to him didn’t stop Hunter from thinking about him. His mind flew back to that difficult time at the most inopportune moments. In traffic, at the MMA gym, in the shower.

When his parents had transferred him from the public school to a local private academy, he mourned the loss of his friends. There was Justin, Susan, and David... His broken glasses were replaced. His broken arm healed just fine, but he missed David and his quirky sense of humor – as well as his protective, looming hulk – the most. Hunter had always relied on an elusive sense of safety that was supposed to come in numbers, but it often dissolved as soon as a strong and destructive element barged into its outside walls.


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