This story is a crossover between Neil and Clem of New Halliday, and Hugh Reynolds of SMU. It’s a Control the Smutwriter story, picked by El over atJustLoveRomance.com for Promptapalooza, 2016. If you’d like to play our reindeer game, go ahead and join the list.
El wanted to see Hugh doing his thing, but this went in a slightly different direction. (And also sets up another prompt, which isn’t yet written…)
Clem and Brent were arguing, as usual. Even the enjoyment Neil found in trading looks with Si was beginning to wear off.
“Seriously, they’ve been like this forever?”
Si shrugged. “As long as I’ve known them.”
“Do you ever want to lock them in a room and go out for dinner by yourself?”
“Oh, Neil. I like you so much. And yes, of course.” Si moved in, taking his arm as they walked down the street. “And they haven’t even begun fighting about the businesses yet.”
Neil, caught between loyalty to Clem and pragmatic respect for Brent, carefully worded his reply. “Is there…an ongoing competition of some sort? How do they determine who’s winning?”
“Everybody loses, obviously. Including us. But the cafe is just ahead, so there’s always a chance espresso will distract them.”
“A big chance?”
“I don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
They ordered coffees from a boisterous Italian guy who greeted Brent and Si by name, then found two tables in front of the shop and pushed them together. There was only one other guy drinking coffee outside, reading a book, and Neil mentally apologized to him for how obnoxious Brent (and probably Clem) were likely to be.
His mind drifted as Brent waxed poetic about the delights of the city (which, Neil observed, they were not currently in; he wasn’t hugely familiar with the geography of the Bay Area, but he knew enough to realize that going over the Bay Bridge put them squarely outside San Francisco). Clem listed all the reasons he quite liked New Halliday, thank you very much, and Si made a few attempts to discover middle ground. When they’d burned through their first shots of espresso without finishing the current (clearly repetitious and ritualistic) argument, Brent and Clem went inside to order more drinks, and Si apologetically followed after them.
Leaving Neil in a moment of blissful peace.
The guy at the next table cleared his throat.
Damn. Neil turned. “I’m really sorry we’re being so loud. You’re probably trying to have a relaxing afternoon, and we’re destroying it.”
“Not at all.” The guy, glasses low on his nose, smiled. “I should of course admit that I’ve done nothing but eavesdrop since the four of you sat down. I take it they’re very old friends?”
“Exhaustingly old, yeah.” Neil was abruptly conscious that he’d drawn attention to the age difference between he and Clem (and Clem’s friends). He offered a rueful smile to the other guy, who was surely closer to his age than Clem’s. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being old…”
“Of course. And I find my oldest friends are the ones to whom I give the most power to get under my skin.”
“In the time I’ve, um, been dating Clem, I think I’ve only seen he and Brent agree without almost coming to blows first maybe twice.”
“My friend Lucy can have me essentially frothing with rage inside of three minutes. She informs me it’s a gift.”
“I’m more sympathetic to the innocent bystanders, honestly. We’re supposed to be on a holiday, and we’ve spent a day and a half—doing this.” He looked up as the door to the shop opened, with Brent in the lead in mid-monologue.
“On a holiday from where?” the guy asked.
Neil dragged his chair away from the continuing debate, closer to the other table. “Oh, New Halliday. Little town in the low hills east of Sacramento.”
“What a remarkable coincidence. I recently met a young man from there.”
“Wow, really? Usually people have no idea where it is.”
“I got that impression. I’ve been contemplating a holiday in New Halliday. There’s evidently a new resort of some kind?”
Which is how Neil found himself selling a stranger on the merits of New Halliday as a vacation destination.
“Sorry, I’m sure you didn’t really need me to sit here and describe my hometown in great detail.” He blushed. Oh god. Embarrassing. Si had shot him a couple of looks now, but was otherwise distracted by keeping Brent and Clem from throttling each other.
“In fact, I invited you to do so.” The guy had introduced himself as Hugh, as in Laurie, which was sort of fitting because he talked a little…stilted, for an American. Like it would have sounded normal if he was actually British (at least on TV), but it was odd for someone who wasn’t.
“Well, it’s a pretty good place, in general.”
“I’m thinking a weekend would make might make a nice surprise for my husband.”
Neil tried to control his knee-jerk shock. Probably not all that successfully. Okay, maybe the guy was gay. And okay, Brent and Si were married. But this guy having a husband seemed really bizarre. Neil had taken him for the kind of loner who kicked around in a mansion, probably with portraits of dead ancestors on the wall. He might talk to the portraits like they were people. He probably wouldn’t be on Facebook. He might not even know what it was.
But he had a husband. And he was planning a holiday.
“I hope your trip is more relaxing than ours,” he said, keeping his voice down.
“Oh, my husband is incredibly good at relaxing. I have to be goaded into it, for the most part.”
“How does that work? I’m, uh, asking for a friend.”
Hugh raised his eyebrows. “It generally requires nudity.”
Neil almost choked. “Oh my god.”
“Forgive me. Too blunt? I have that habit, unfortunately.” Though his expression wasn’t really I’m so sorry for bringing up nudity half an hour after we met while your boyfriend sits three feet away. It was more…calculating. Like the guy was waiting to see what happened.
“I can see how nudity would be, uh, potentially relaxing.”
Clem, as if alerted by an extrasensory awareness of Neil and the word “nudity”, looked across the table. Neil grinned.
“Ah. I was wondering which one was your Clem. Question answered.”
“You could have just asked.”
“Oh, I could have. But it’s more fun this way. Tell me more about New Halliday. When is a good time to visit? Do you have a tourist season?”
“Uh, not really. Though last year we had summer stock at the Resort, which I can personally recommend, if they hold it again. That was a lot of fun.”
Brent clapped, stopping his monologue mid-stream. “I can’t believe we didn’t go up for that, Si! Dammit.”
“If I remember correctly, I suggested we go and you said, ‘The day New Halliday has enough culture to bring off theater, I’ll eat my boot.’”
Hugh reached out to Si, who was closest, and introduced himself. When handshakes were done, they shifted their chairs to include him in the conversation.
“So, where’re you from, Hugh?” Clem asked.
“Right here. Specifically, about two miles away from here.”
Clem and Brent boggled.
“You were born in the Bay Area?”
“Born and raised. Never really branched out to anywhere else, probably to my detriment.”
“Well, damn.” Brent cracked one of his wide smirks. “I guess you wouldn’t have to, would you? I would have given my right arm to be born within driving distance of the Castro, but you’re a much younger man. Things were likely different for you.”
Count on Brent to always draw attention to an age difference. Neil glanced at Clem and rolled his eyes.
“Mm. Yes. I was wildly intimidated by the Castro when I was younger. Something about the sensation that the older generation looked at me as if I’d gotten off easy by merit of my birth year and thus would never quite fit in because I hadn’t suffered enough.” Hugh smiled, with an edge. “I hope I don’t give the younger generation that same feeling, but it’s hard to tell, of course.”
“You don’t have AIDS the way we did.”
“No. We have it differently than you did.”
Brent waved a hand. “You don’t think there’s value in understanding where you came from?”
“I came from here. Driving distance my entire life from a place where gay men expired like flies in summer and the wider world cared about the same for their lives. I didn’t live through those years in the quarantine wards, but they’ve certainly shaped my life.”
For a long moment, they stared each other down.
“I still think you kids got off lightly.”
“Because not enough of us died?”
Oh my god. Neil held his breath, looking between them.
Si shook his head. “Okay. Brent, you can shut your mouth. And Hugh—yes. You got off lightly because you did not spend as many hours watching your friends and lovers die. Because you came of age in a time that taught you how to be safer. But in another way, you missed what we had, for a brief moment, which was…anarchy. Beautiful anarchy. We will never see a time like that again. You will never see it at all.”
“I agree completely.” Hugh nodded. Si nodded back.
“Jesus,” Clem muttered. “This isn’t going to turn into a fucking romance of the plague years moment, is it? You know how much I hate that shit, Simon.”
Si reached for Brent’s hand. “No. But I remember what it was like to stand on a street corner and feel like I’d finally come home. I don’t know if kids today have that feeling, and I wish they could have it without all the suffering that accompanied it for us.”
Clem grunted. “Yeah, well, I must have been standing on the wrong street corners.”
“Nah.” Brent shook his head. “You always wanted something else. You wanted street corners in small towns with the same faces again and again. And you got it, Clem.”
“I sure as hell did. So you’re saying I was born in the wrong time?”
“Hell no. Or who would have taken over my practice business for me? Even if you did nearly run it into the ground.”
And they were off again.
Neil finally exhaled.
Hugh shot him an amused eyebrow-raise. “Did you worry the altercation would get physical?”
“See, you get to go home to your husband. I’ll be listening to Brent bitch about the younger generation for the next three days.”
“Is that a change from the usual?”
“Ha.” Neil shrugged. “Okay, not by much.”
“Well, if I caused you any distress, I officially apologize.”
For a long moment, Neil didn’t say anything. Just watched the guy’s eyes, and felt the way he was being watched in return. Then it clicked.
“So. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a marriage and family therapist.”
Neil grinned. “I knew it. I knew you were a shrink.” He judged the level of the argument and decided absolutely no one was listening. To anyone. “You wound Brent up just to see him spin, didn’t you?”
“Certainly not.” Hugh seemed to consider his answer. “Well. Not just to see him spin. Though I guessed he would. But the points all of us made were valid.”
“Said just like a shrink.”
“Do you have a lot of experience with my profession?”
Not here, too. Not here, where no one knows. Except Clem was sitting across the table, the sun was bright, and Hugh’s gaze was amused, possibly even teasing.
Fuck it. Neil made his voice perfectly even. “Residential treatment after I tried to kill myself when I was sixteen.”
The table went completely silent. Well. That was a nifty trick.
“And so you formed a sixth sense for therapists. Makes perfect sense.” Hugh paused. “I hope your experience was…acceptable.”
“I’m still standing. And it was. I got lucky.”
“Jesus,” Brent muttered. “Way to bring the fuckin’ mood down, kid.”
Clem punched him hard in the arm. “Call Neil a kid again and see what happens.”
“Hey, I get you youths have to stick together—“”
“Bite me, old man.” Clem raised his chin at Neil. You okay?
“Ah,” Hugh said, softly, under the current of the new conversation, in which Si and Clem were ganging up on Brent. “I’ve often imagined there was some special quality to—you’ll forgive me for labeling you—the partners of depressives. Certainly I think my husband’s ability to contain my moods without particularly condoning them is nothing short of miraculous.”
Feeling freed by his confession, and freed by the near-certainty they’d never meet again, Neil didn’t change the subject, or blithely agree. “You too?”
Neil nodded. “I don’t really know. I didn’t give anyone a chance for a really long time. And he and I…surprised me.”
“My husband and I have been together for six and a half years and sometimes our relationship surprises me still.”
“So you’re saying I’m always going to expect everything to go to hell?”
Hugh smiled, and there was a quality to it, almost a sweetness, that sparked something deep in Neil’s brain. Not attraction, at least not exactly. But he could recognize hard-won vulnerability, even in a guy he didn’t know. “Oh, sometimes, certainly. For me the ratio decreases as the years pass. Not all at once, and not without bumps in the road, but the amount of time I spend expecting everything I love to burn to the ground is less than it used to be.”
“That would be good. I mean, it’s not bad right now, but less would be…better.” Less constant checking of his responses, waiting for them to turn, waiting for the chill wind to pick up and remind him that he didn’t get to keep anything as good as Clem.
“The hardest part for me is recognizing that Truman chooses to be with me despite—well, me. And apparently he feels quite protective of his right to do so and expects me to accept it.”
Neil’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “And do you?”
“With extremely poor grace.”
A meaty shove alerted him to the fact that everyone else was getting ready to leave. Hugh stood up to shake hands again, and Neil didn’t miss the way Clem clasped his forearm for a moment.
He’d have questions later about the short guy with the glasses, but whatever he’d seen while fighting with Brent had made him view Hugh as an ally of some sort, which made Neil obscurely pleased.
“Good to meet you,” he said, when it was his turn to shake hands.
“Oh, you too. I’ll look into this resort you told me about.”
“You should. It’s posh.”
Hugh’s smile widened. “Well, in that case. Have a good vacation, Neil.”
Clem fell into step beside him as they headed back toward the car. “You made a friend.”
“A friend I’ll never see again. But yeah.” Neil glanced ahead at Brent and Si, squabbling now over where they planned to eat dinner. Hell. He could take more shit from Brent. He grabbed Clem’s hand.
Which curled immediately into his. “You glad we came down?”
“Yeah. You think there’s any chance you and I could do something on our own later?”
“I’ll take you to Ocean Beach.”
Clem grinned. “He’s a big baby about getting sand in his shoes. Believe me, he’ll stay home.”
“Good. I mean, I love them, but…”
“You see why I don’t come down more often?”
“I think we should. I mean, when you can get away from Nan’s.” Neil considered his house, and Clem’s, and all the familiar faces and places. “This is good for me. It’s good to be us, together, in a wider context than New Halliday, you know?”
“Yeah. I get that. And there’s definitely something nice about not having to think about who’s looking in our direction.” He tugged Neil in for a kiss, which lasted slightly longer than casual and necessitated they stop walking.
“Oh for fuck’s sake! Would you two pansies get your asses over here? Christ! Fucking hicks!”
Clem, smiling, kissed him again. “Well. Okay. Brent’s a dick, but at least I won’t have to hear about this from Drew later.”
“Or Aunt Mel.”
“Yep. Though I wouldn’t trust her not to have spies, even here.”
“It’s gonna be nice to have a holiday from your ex, Clem.”
“I might have to bring back a bucket of sand and fill his shoes with it.”
Neil shook his head, resigning himself to years of hearing about that time Clem filled Brent’s shoes with sand.
Years. Hopefully a lot of years.
He felt a sudden wave of affection for the entire ridiculous family. “Hey, I want to buy dinner, but that means we can’t go somewhere super expensive.”
Brent exploded into laughter. “I don’t want to go to fuckin’ McDonald’s, Neil. Overruled.”
Si hit him, Clem rolled his eyes, and Neil relaxed.
Yeah. This was exactly where he was supposed to be.