This is for the lovely Nadine, who wanted to see Jem and Mac cuddling at home after a tough shift. It takes place directly after Training with the Professor in the Erotic Gym series. If you’re reading this between 4 April and 6 June, 2016, you can read all of these stories for free in Ripper’s Irregulars on Facebook. Come hang out!
This story was written for Promptapalooza, 2016. If you’d like to play our reindeer game, go ahead and join the list.
Mac was still thinking about Lupe when he walked into the house. He wasn’t surprised to see the light on in the kitchen, and he wasn’t surprised when Jem stuck his head out and held up a bottle of wine.
“You think that’s a good idea? I mean—” He broke off, not quite sure what he meant. Because if we get drunk we can’t cuddle, which would be sad.
Not that he needed cuddling. Except maybe some part of his brain was kind of…expecting it. Damn.
“Never mind,” he mumbled, dropping his jacket in his bedroom. When he turned back, Jem was standing there in the doorway.
“Come upstairs? One glass. I can drink a glass without totally losing my ability to think.”
Jem smiled. God, Jem’s smile was so…warm. Made Mac feel so good.
“Yeah, upstairs. You didn’t think I slept in the kitchen, did you?”
Upstairs. Jem’s bedroom. Whoa. Mac swallowed.
“No. Not after—I mean, after tonight, like…no.”
“I’m not trying to seduce you, Mac. Not that I wouldn’t, but we work together, and I like that you’re in the house, and it’s better if we don’t. Plus, you’re not sure if you’d even want that, which is cool, but I kind of get off more on seducing guys who know they’re into it.”
For a long, terrible moment Mac trembled on a precipice. There were rules, sensible ones, but Jem was so good, and more of Jem seemed like it could only be more good. That it wouldn’t be fair, that he understood in a vague way that Jem needed to protect himself even more than Mac did, very nearly didn’t matter.
If he stepped in, kissed Jem, Jem would probably kiss him back. Damn the rules.
He clenched his fists and nodded. “Yeah, I could use a glass of wine.”
“I think we can do a glass of wine and still cuddle.”
Mac could almost ask to be fucked; he couldn’t even imagine asking to cuddle. “Tonight was crazy. Right? I’m not making that up.”
“Tonight was amazing. But Lupe, oh my god. Like, seriously, she kills me.”
Following Jem up the stairs, following the wine, seemed normal. Walking into Jem’s bedroom was something else.
“Oh damn,” Mac murmured.
“Welcome to mi casa.” Jem sat down at a little sitting area in the middle of his bedroom and started working on the cork.
Two little sofas and an armchair made up the focal point of the room, gathered around an honest to god fireplace that had candles set up inside it. Heavy curtains were pulled over the curtains in some kind of…orange color. It took Mac a minute to locate the bed, in the back corner, scattered with pillows up against the wall, like it was just one more place to sit.
“En suite, too. Totally worth paying the extra rent.”
Mac, still looking around (bookshelves evenly divided between books and DVDs), said, “I thought you owned the house?”
“Well, yeah, but rent’s based on square footage, so it’s fair. You pay a little more for your room than anyone but me, because it’s pretty big. When’re you gonna get a bed?”
He shrugged. Rugs, everywhere. A stand-up wardrobe next to the narrow door that probably led to the bathroom, though it was closed. Maybe a closet? But it was the only door.
The room felt soft, comfortable, welcoming. So Jem. But Mac couldn’t help but notice that it was a room set up for company. And that Jem never seemed to have any.
He took the armchair automatically, but immediately wished he hadn’t. How were they going to cuddle if he was on the damn armchair? And he didn’t…want to be that far away from Jem. He wanted to be closer.
Shit. He was crappy at this friendship thing. Especially if it included cuddling.
“Hell of a shift.” Jem extended his wine glass to clink against Mac’s. “Cheers.”
“The Professor really freaked you out, huh? That’s so interesting to me. She…doesn’t get under my skin as much as Coach does. Except when she’s trying to, obviously, though I think they take turns.”
“I just don’t understand what she wants from me. Or what Coach wants from me.”
Jem raised his eyebrows. “It’s not enough that they want you to have a good time. And possibly orgasms?”
“Feels like more than that.”
“True.” Jem stretched out, kicking his shoes off and extending them to the end of the sofa. “I think more than anything they want to understand. Like, okay, so Lupe’s got her story. Mine isn’t all that dramatic or extreme, but the first time I talked to the Professor? I cried. Like ugly, little kid tears, because I’d been fired for no reason, or I’d been fired for some mix of being gay and being a whore, which sucks worse than being fired for no reason. And she has this…this way of looking at you, totally dispassionately, like she couldn’t care less, and it’s weird, but that’s what broke me down. It was like her indifference made it okay for me to totally lose it. Does that make any sense at all? Because seriously, I can’t make it make sense.”
“I think it does. Maybe.” One glass. One glass had to be savored. Rationed. Mac took a sip and put his glass down so he wouldn’t drink it just because it was in his hand. “It’s like, most people, the people who really seem to care, want something from you. They want…validation, maybe. They want you to respond a certain way. Even Coach. He’s always waiting for me to feel something, or say something, or do something.” He glanced over, to make sure Jem knew he wasn’t criticizing Coach.
“Yeah, and with the Professor you can just be, because in a way she cares, but in a way she doesn’t care at all.”
“She definitely cares about you. And Lupe.”
“She’s invested in us. Not that that’s all it is, but the way to get close to the Professor is to take up a lot of her time, because then she kind of has to care.” Jem grinned. “It’s like she’s tending me, like a fruit tree she planted a few years ago. I require less maintenance now, but she wants me to bear fruit, so she waters me and makes sure I don’t have bugs.”
Mac couldn’t resist grinning. “Bugs?”
“Oh my god, the Professor as an STD counselor. Worst. Idea. Ever. She’d be like, ‘You have crabs and chlamydia.’ And that would be it.”
“I think that’d be better than Coach. He’d want to hold your hands and process your feelings.”
“Mm. Coach can hold my hands any day. He can process my feelings any day, too.”
“Are you, like—” In love with Coach? But he couldn’t ask that.
And apparently didn’t need to. Jem sighed and leaned his head back, one arm depositing his wine glass beside Mac’s on the table. “I love him. Both of them, but him especially, in a way that’s not really healthy. I would do, literally, anything for him. But I get that’s not really a good thing, so I have boundaries and stuff.”
“Is that…like, okay? I mean, doesn’t it make it hard to work with him?”
“If he didn’t know, it would. If it was a secret. But Coach gets me, and makes room for me, and keeps me as close as he can without getting us into trouble.”
“Does he feel that way about you?” That hadn’t even occurred to Mac, though it might explain some things.
“God, I wish I knew. Sometimes he looks at me a certain way and I think maybe he feels something more than, you know, he likes me and wants me to be happy. Which is definitely true. But I reminded them of Ryan, who was his first love. As far as I know, his only love, besides the Professor, and I think that’s different. And I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be the guy he loves because I remind him of the dead love of his life.”
Mac reached out and grabbed his wine. So fucking interesting, and so annoying, because he didn’t want to be interested. He wanted these people to be disposable.
“What about you, Mac? Any embarrassing crushes in your past?”
What Jem and Coach shared went well beyond “crush” as far as Mac could tell, but he didn’t challenge it. “No. I’m not really the crush type.”
“How can you not be the crush type?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“But—how do you know when you’re interested in someone if you don’t crush on them?”
“It’s never really been like that.” He hesitated, but by now Jem knew he’d been with girls, probably knew he’d only been with girls. He could say this without worrying it would make Jem think badly of him. “Maybe I’d be out, and some girl would hit on me, and we’d go out to her car, or sometimes back to her place.”
Jem watched him, eyes dark. “And have sex. But not really get to know each other at all.”
“Right.” He focused on his wine. “It wasn’t about getting to know people for me.”
“What was it about?”
“I don’t know. Getting laid. I mean, you didn’t have a crush on every single person you’ve ever slept with, right?”
“No. No, but the times when I was really into them were better. Like when I couldn’t wait to feel their hands on me, or see their eyes, or make them laugh. Not like it’s that way for everyone, but when it is, it adds something for me.”
Mac eyed the way light hit his wine and considered the last week and a half. He’d felt that way about Coach. Hell, he felt that way about Jem and they weren’t even fucking. He definitely wanted to see him smile. Shit. He didn’t have a crush on him, though. Unless he did, which would be inconvenient.
He cleared his throat. “How do you tell the difference between that and just…liking someone?”
“I don’t know. I like a lot of people, but I don’t fantasize about kissing them.”
“You fantasize about kissing Coach?”
“God. Don’t ever, ever repeat that. And he lets me kiss him. Like that’s not even a thing. It’s…more that I sort of wish he’d take me home, to their actual house, that he’d let me just be there with him. Share a pot of coffee, watch a movie. Cuddle when it doesn’t have to do with The Gym.” He sighed and leaned his head back so he was looking at Mac upside down. “I’m serious. Don’t ever tell him that.”
“I know. It’s just…sometimes I wish that for me. But sometimes I think he needs it way more than I do. Someone to hold him. Someone to look after him. Not that it needs to be me, but he should have someone, and he doesn’t.”
“You don’t think he and the Professor kind of…do any of that?”
“I don’t think the Professor leaves the building. And no. I think they’re perfect together. I think they complete a sphere, each of them bringing different things, in perfect balance.” Jem paused. “But that’s not what Coach needs all the time, you know? Maybe not what anyone needs all the time. You have to have more…question marks than that. More rough edges. Something to push against. You know?”
“Everything about Coach is something I push against. Not that I’m—that I—”
“You can crush on Coach, Mac.”
Mac bit his lip. “I don’t want to call it that. But I look forward to seeing him. I like knowing I’m supposed to see him at the end of the day, that I don’t have to think about it.”
“I miss that. Him constantly checking in.”
“But he’d do it. Coach would never turn you away.”
Jem took up his wine again. “I know. I know that’s true. But also, it’s not quite… I don’t know. It’s easy for me to wrap my whole life around Coach, because I love him and I feel safe with him and he gives me what I need. But in a different way it’s bad for me, too, because he makes it so I don’t bother looking for a boyfriend, I don’t bother going out. And that’s not really great for me, either.”
“Huh. Do you? Look for a boyfriend?”
“Sometimes. But they’re so high-maintenance. And the job is…you can’t tell people. Necessarily. I mean, obviously most of the spouses know. The serious partners. But it consumes my life and when I go on a first date I say I work overnights at a gym and pretend all I do is help people run the machines. Not that I go on a lot of dates.”
Mac shot him raised eyebrows.
“Okay, or any. But I have. Sometimes. Oh, shut up. Anyway, weren’t you supposed to be cuddling with me?”
“Uh. Yeah. I mean…yeah.”
“Well? What’re you waiting for?” Jem shifted over, patting the place in front of him on the couch.
“I…” Was there room on the couch? Mac hadn’t even known to imagine Jem’s room. When he’d thought about it, he’d thought about being on the pile of blankets he called a bed.
The couch was…small. Not that small. But for two grown men it was small enough. He swallowed.
Jem eyed him, expectantly. “Can I ask you something? And, uh, full disclosure, I already asked Coach.”
“You don’t have…like, trauma in your background? I just mean the way you get jumpy around touching people makes me think maybe there’s a reason you don’t like being touched.”
“What did Coach say?”
“That I should ask you.”
Mac shook his head. “Not the way you mean. My brother used to bat me around a little. And my dad was…” Fucking terrifying when he started yelling. “Not really supportive. But it’s not like I’m thinking about them right now. Or at least I wasn’t before.”
“Okay. Well, I guess I’m glad there’s not a story behind it. But it’s still kind of a thing. And you don’t seem too freaked out by clients, right?”
“They’re just clients.”
“Right. Like the girls you had sex with were just women.”
“What do you mean? You mean instead of men?”
Jem blinked. “Oh. No. I meant—instead of people who mattered. Like, Lupe matters to you. Was it better kissing her than kissing some girl in a bar?”
Lupe’s hands on his neck. Lupe calling him “sugar” and telling him that letting them touch him was a gift.
“Yeah. Way better. You too. And Coach.”
“So?” Jem patted the couch again.
“It scares me. Being that close. Maybe it’s a little because of my brother. My parents weren’t affectionate to us, so maybe…” Mac couldn’t pull his eyes away from Jem’s hand on his dark brown corduroy couch. “Maybe it’s just the closest thing I know to cuddling is, uh, hitting.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m not going to hit you. C’mere.”
It took a little bit of effort. To put down his wine glass, to shift his weight forward, to shuffle on the armchair, poised to stand.
He looked up.
“You like that spanking earlier?”
“Fuck you.” But he smiled.
“There you are. Now come cuddle with me. God, Lupe’s hands. Mm. So hot. And the idea of her spanking Coach? Swoon.”
The lighter tone made it easier to move, and Jem opened his arms when Mac got closer. It still took something to lower himself to the couch, stretch out beside Jem. But he could do it, mouth dry, worried he was going to screw up cuddling until Jem leaned in and kissed his forehead.
“Flip so you’re facing out so we can spoon.”
Mac flipped, a little relieved, at least until Jem pulled him back and threw an arm around his chest.
And damn, Jem was hard. Fuck.
“No sex, no sex, no sex,” Jem chanted in his ear. “You’re so warm.”
Jem’s arm tightened. “This okay?”
“Yeah. It’s okay.” That was weak. “It’s good.” Mac tried to relax, tried to get his lungs to take in more air. “Really good. Thanks, Jem.”
“We’re just getting started. And you’re welcome.”
He thought they’d keep talking, but they didn’t need to. He could feel Jem’s breaths against his back, and eventually Jem rested his face against Mac’s, which should have been way too fucking much, but wasn’t.
And it was good. So good. Better than good, when Mac let himself feel it. He wanted to lie here with Jem’s arm around him and the better part of a glass of wine helping take just the slightest edge off the day, thinking about Lupe, and Coach, and the Professor, and the kid Lupe must have been when she started working for them, and the kid Jem was when he cried about losing his crappy job.
Would he look back on himself a month ago and see that Mac as a totally different person? If he was honest, he almost was already. The guy who’d spent all those nights on Annabel’s couch seemed like a separate guy, like someone he only barely remembered being. And that was just last week.
“Thank you,” he whispered, reaching up to touch Jem’s arm across his chest.
“Everything. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you for letting me be your friend.”
“Oh, Mac.” Another kiss, this one to the skin right in front of his ear. “Your friendship is a pleasure. Cuddling is, too.”
“Yeah. It’s sort of…” Potentially addictive. “I like it, too.”
“Good. We can do this, then. Whenever we want. Only cuddling.”
“Only cuddling. And one glass of wine.”
They lay like that a little while longer, until Mac was starting to feel stiff. Then he went downstairs to his room and Jem, presumably, went to bed.
For the first time in Mac’s life he wished he was sleeping beside someone. Instead he lay on his pile of blankets and ran the whole night over again in his head until he fell asleep.