This is a work of fiction, and as such takes place in idyllic universe wherein there are no nasty sexually transmitted diseases, so I guess you could call it an AU if you want to. Rated NC-17 for bad language and boy-on-boy action, and EF for 'extremely farfetched.'
Contains serious spoilers for the films "Buried on Sunday" and "Masterminds." It would probably help matters immensely if you've seen both films before you read this story, though I tried to put in enough of the respective backstories that it can stand on its own. Gus Knickel belongs to Paul Donovan, William Fleming, and Salter Street Films. Ollie belongs to Roger Christian, Floyd Byars, Alex Siskin, Chris Black, Sony & Columbia Tri-Star. Gack. Wish they were mine but they're not, and no disrespect or copyright infringement intended.
Soundtrack: Simon Collins: All That You Are. Cowboy Junkies: Sad To See The Season Go. Dream Academy: Life in a Northern Town. Great Big Sea: Consequence Free. Loreena McKennitt: Night Ride Across the Caucasus. Joan Osborne: St. Theresa, Righteous Love, If I Was Your Man, Baby Love, & His Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles. Toshi Reagon: Real Love, & Yes It Was. Rufus: Tell Me Something Good, & Stay. U2: Elevation. Dar Williams: Ocean. Thompson Twins: Lay Your Hands On Me
As usual, profuse thanks to my beta readers-- AuKestrel, Betty, Judi, and LaT-- those brave souls who manage to say 'hey, that didn't work very well' in such a way that a) it doesn't hurt and b) forces me to figure out just what exactly I'm trying to do and why it's not coming across right. We may not always agree, and maybe sometimes I don't take your advice, but I'd be lost without you guys. A big thank-you also to Sylvie Grenon for help with the passages in French. --Kellie
Crossroads, part I
© 2001 Kellie Matthews
Wet. Ollie was fucking wet, and fucking muddy, and fucking mad, and his fucking crew was fucking gone, probably hauled off to fucking jail. And he was going to be facing the same fucking fate if he couldn't figure out a way to get his fucking arse back home without anyone being the wiser. The one bright spot in the whole debacle was that he had gotten out of the drains intact, with a duffle bag full of money and a briefcase of something he wasn't quite sure about but that had to be valuable, since Bentley had gone half crazy trying to retrieve it.
Where he'd failed, Ollie had succeeded through a combination of luck, ingenuity, basic physics, and being smart enough to stay out of sight until the law was gone. Still, he was very glad that the outflow was a storm sewer and not the . . . other kind. And after all his work Ollie figured he was entitled to the money, and whatever was in the satchel. He and his crew had done their jobs, they deserved to get paid for it. And if there was maybe a little extra left after he portioned out his crew's shares to their accounts like they'd planned, he'd just consider it a bonus from Bentley for having to do his job, not to mention everyone else's jobs, under dangerous conditions.
He grinned at the thought of the Paxton kid and the way he'd spiked Bentley's guns. So to speak. Neat, very neat. Clever kid, quick kid, kind of kid that thought rules were made to be broken. Maybe it had something to do with having a weird name. Ollie. Ozzie. Yeah. O names. Cool. He could have used someone like that working on his side. Someone more like himself. Duke had been worse than useless. "Colonel, my fucking arse," he said out loud. "In what? The fucking Stupid People's Army?" No, the only one Ollie'd had was Ferret. Loyal as hell. Damn good in a fight, but dumb as a post.
He stopped walking to rest for a minute, thinking about Ferret. The rest of his crew were all new hires, he didn't feel too bad about them, but he and Ferret had a long history. Ferret had been his right-hand man for a long time. 'Course, just because the place was crawling with cops didn't mean they'd gotten good old Ferret. He might not be smart but he was good at making himself scarce. And if they had got him, then his share of the cash would help pay for the barrister or solicitor or whatever the hell they called them here. He'd spent some time in a jail once. Never, ever, wanted to do that again, even if it wasn't in a third-world country this time.
Ollie sighed and started walking again, trying to ignore the way his favorite boots now squished with each step. Walking in soggy boots was giving him blisters. Felt like he had blisters up the top of his foot and down the bottom of the other fucking side. And on top of that his wet jeans had chafed his inner thighs before they'd dried. He limped on, the bag and the briefcase getting heavier with each step. He was starting to wonder how the fuck paper could weigh so much when he heard the sound of a car approaching from behind him. He dropped the duffle, turned around, stood up straight, and stuck out his thumb, trying his best to look harmless. It hadn't worked the last eight times, but he was an optimist by nature if not by trade. The car passed him without even slowing down.
He sagged, letting his arm fall to his side with a sigh. Funny, that. He had enough brass to buy a whole fleet of cars and he couldn't get a fucking ride. He put the briefcase down on the duffle bag and stretched, worked his toes in his boots, then sighed and picked everything up again. As he turned around he saw the car that had passed him sitting a hundred yards down the road, its brake lights glowing invitingly. The driver stuck a hand out the window and waved him forward. He grinned, and headed towards the stopped vehicle. Finally, damn it, something else was going right today.
He stopped by the driver's door and leaned down, to make sure he was really being offered a lift, and found himself staring. The first thing that registered was the face, like something. . . well. . . like a fucking 1940's matinee idol, complete with thick, dark hair, square jaw, pretty mouth, ruler-straight nose and gray. . . no. . . blue eyes. It was the kind of face that tended to make Ollie want to see what the owner looked like naked, and sweaty and . . . suddenly the second thing registered. The important thing. The black and white clerical collar beneath the face. Oh. . . fuckitall. Going to hell for those thoughts, Oliver MacIntosh, even if you hadn't already been headed there. A priest. Shit. That was all he needed. He was about to turn him down when it suddenly hit him. . . what better protection? If the cops were on the lookout for him they wouldn't expect him to be riding with a priest, of all things. The guy gave him a good long look up and down, then lifted amused-looking eyes to his face.
Ollie laughed, he couldn't help himself. "Bleedin' awful," he said, grinning.
"Come on, get in then." He gestured to the passenger seat.
"I'm a bit . . . ." Ollie began, eyeing the pristine upholstery, but stopped short, not sure how to describe his condition. At least it was only mud, not anything worse.
His rescuer smiled. "That's why God made vacuum cleaners. I'll pop the trunk for your things."
The car's boot opened with a little thunk, and Ollie nodded, his token protest made. He limped around to the back of the car and put the duffel bag in next to a big cardboard carton that had been sectioned into smaller squares. Each section held a tall green bottle, and he pulled one out just to see if it what it was what he thought it was. Discovering it was, he lifted his eyebrows, wondering what a priest needed with all that wine. Maybe the bloke had a really thirsty flock. He patted his bags possessively before slamming the lid and checking to make sure it latched. It was hard to let them out of his sight, but he didn't want it to look like he was too attached to them. Might make the fellow suspicious. Finally he limped around to the passenger side and got in, settling into the comfortable seat with a sigh.
"Ta for the lift. Saved my ar . . . skin," he said, remembering at the last minute not to use bad language in front of a priest.
"No problem. You're limping, are you hurt?"
Ollie shook his head. "Just blisters. Wet boots."
"Feel free to take them off."
Ollie hesitated for a second, then shrugged and went to work on his waterlogged buckles and straps.
"So, you're not from around here, are you?" the priest hazarded.
Ollie kept tugging at a strap, letting his bent head hide his smile. "What makes you say that?" he asked, knowing his accent was a dead giveaway: North Yorkshire with a dash of Soho from his mum.
"Well, I think it was the fashion statement," came the unexpected reply in a voice warm with good humor. "Not that I'm all that familiar with the denizens of this area, but from what I've seen there aren't too many people around here who dress like a refugee from either The Road Warrior or a BDSM club. I'm Gus, by the way."
Ollie sat up fast, eyes wide as he stared at the driver, who had his attention on the road, completely casual, as if he hadn't just made a completely outrageous statement. Gus flashed him a look, eyebrows lifted, and Ollie realized he was waiting for a reply and cleared his throat.
"Ollie," he offered thoughtlessly. Only after he'd said it did it occur to him maybe he ought to use a fake name. He must still be a bit rattled by the day's events. Yeah, that was it. He wasn't just a moron, and he certainly wasn't a bit distracted by a priest talking about kinky sex clubs. Not at all. Bloke was a priest, for god's sake. He took some comfort in the fact that at least he hadn't spilled his last name too.
"Pleased to meet you, Ollie," Gus said, for all the world as if they had just been introduced over afternoon tea.
"Likewise," Ollie said, not knowing what else to say.
* * *
The hitchhiker was the most interesting thing to happen to Gus all week. He'd gone to the ecumenical conference in a slightly desperate bid to get away from the increasingly difficult situation on Solomon Gundy for a few days, hoping that the conference would distract him enough that he could stop worrying about things just for a little while. No such luck. Nothing at the conference had been interesting enough to distract him, and he'd spent most of his time with his mind squarely focused on the things he was trying to forget. Didn't it just figure that as soon as he was on his way back, a distraction would present itself?
He'd almost passed the man, had actually done so, telling himself the guy looked like exactly the wrong sort of person to pick up hitching. But something about the Mad-Max's-little-brother-on-shore-leave look combined with the expensive leather satchel had presented a puzzle too good to resist. Even so, he hadn't actually made up his mind to give the guy a lift until he'd glanced in his rear-view mirror and seen the dejected slouch of the guy's shoulders as he tiredly hoisted his lumpy-looking duffle bag and satchel. That had, for some reason, pushed his 'need to help' button bigtime. Besides, what self-respecting serial killer would actually go out on the road looking like a serial killer? No, serial killers always looked like the boy next door. So technically the hitcher had more reason to fear Gus, with his disgustingly wholesome appearance, than Gus had to fear hitcher.
The smile the hitcher flashed when he'd realized Gus really was going to help him out had sealed it, even if it hadn't already been fated. That startling and magnetic flash of white in a face so dirty Gus couldn't even tell what race he was-- though his bright blue eyes and sharp features suggested he was Caucasian-- had been irresistible. The accent had further deepened the mystery. What was someone obviously from-- it sounded like Northern England, mostly-- doing hitchhiking on a Northern California back road where he'd be lucky if three cars passed him in an hour's time? Gus couldn't resist sounding him out a bit.
"So where're you headed?"
Ollie shot him a narrow look, as if wondering why he wanted to know, but finally answered noncommitally. "Far as I can get, north, or east, or both."
"In a stunning coincidence, I'm heading north-east myself," Gus said casually, trying to put him at ease and not seem as if he was prying.
"Funny that," Ollie said, studying him with disconcerting intensity. "You're not from here either, are you?"
Gus smiled. "My accent give me away?"
Ollie grinned back. "Nay, all you Yanks sound alike."
Though he knew that to an untrained ear there was probably little difference between his accent and the local one, Gus bristled a bit. "I'm not a Yank. I'm a Solomon Gundian."
"I bet they got a cure for that," Ollie said, flashing another smile. Clearly he had no idea what a Solomon Gundy was, let alone where.
Gus laughed. "So they do, so they do." He was quiet for a moment, thinking about what the cure entailed and why it was the last thing he wanted, and then to distract himself he glanced at Ollie again. "Well, aren't you going to ask?"
"Pushy bastard," Ollie grumbled, then half a moment later he looked embarrassed. "I mean, pushy s. . . ah never mind." He shook his head. "Right then, what's a Solomon Gundian?" he asked obediently.
Gus smiled. "Solomon Gundy is an island off the coast of Canada."
"So you're Canadian then?"
"Ah. . . not exactly. We're an independent republic." Sort of, he thought to himself. At least at the moment. Unfortunately not a self-sustaining one.
Ollie frowned for a moment, then his expression lightened. "Oh, I get it. The Solomon Islands, right?"
Gus shook his head. "No, though I often wish it were. It'd be a lot warmer, not to mention having more tourists. I'm sure you've never heard of us, unless you happened to hear about the little incident with the nuclear missiles we had a few years ago."
Ollie stared at him. "Missiles? The. . . " he made a descending whistle, ending with an imitation of an explosion, accompanied by a hand movement indicating something falling, ". . . kind?"
Gus chuckled. "Yeah, that kind. Our navy had a little. . . problem."
To his surprise Ollie grinned. "Sounds like fun."
Gus sighed. "That's what I thought, until a friend of mine got killed."
There was a short but profound silence in the car, then Ollie cleared his throat. "Fuck all, that's rough."
Gus nodded. It was a good way to put it. "Yes, it sure the hell was."
He caught Ollie's startled look at his casual profanity, and smiled. "You don't have to watch your language. I think I'm on intimate terms with most if not all of the words."
Ollie studied him for a moment, head cocked slightly, then nodded. "Ta, appreciate that. Haven't had reason not to, not since my mum passed on. It's a hard habit to break."
Gus chuckled. "I completely understand. I once used the word 'shit' in a sermon. I got a stern talking to from my Minister of the Interior."
"Your. . . what?" Ollie asked, clearly confused.
"Minister of the Interior." At Ollie's continued confusion Gus remembered that the man had no way of knowing who he was. God, he hated this part. "Sorry, I forgot to mention that I'm kind of the head of state on Solomon Gundy. They keep wanting to call me the Prime Minister but I told them I'm already a minister and they need to come up with something less confusing."
Ollie laughed. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on."
Gus grinned. "I'm not a lunatic, at least not yet, though I may end up there. Like grandfather, like grandson. No, honestly." He took a hand off the steering wheel and reached into his jacket pocket for his passport and ministerial identification. They were very nice. Zeda's nephew Clarence had done a lovely job with the embossing of the Official Seal onto the maroon leatherette covers. He passed them to Ollie. "Have a look."
Ollie took them cautiously, examined both, and shook his head. "Could be a forgery. Easy to do."
"Very true. But it's not. I really am the prime minister of Solomon Gundy. Of course, Solomon Gundy is smaller than the State of Rhode Island, and has a population of six-thousand and three souls, so that's not saying a hell of a lot."
Ollie relaxed visibly. "Six thousand?"
"No, can't forget them."
"Certainly not. Oh, and that's not counting Hamlet."
"Go on, you haven't got a pig named Hamlet!"
"I certainly do." Listening to Ollie, Gus was hard pressed not to start dropping his own aitches Ollie's inflections were confounding but internally consistent so Gus didn't think he was faking. During his two years at Oxford he'd gotten fairly good at identifying regional accents. Ollie seemed primarily to have the cadences and vocabulary of working-class Yorkshire, but just when Gus thought he had him pegged he'd come with something that sounded like Eliza Doolittle and made him doubt his own conclusions. At the moment Ollie was considering Gus thoughtfully, and then he smiled and shook his head.
"Well, I suppose a pig's a useful sort of pet if you ever run out of food."
"True," Gus allowed.
Ollie laughed. "Not much of a pet if you can think of eating him."
"Well, one sometimes has to be practical." He fell silent again, reflecting bleakly that if things kept going on as they had been, he was going to end up eating Hamlet sooner rather than later. He sighed and rubbed at his forehead, feeling the beginnings of a tension headache. He felt his passenger's eyes on him, curious, but couldn't think of anything further to say, which was strange, because he was rarely at a loss for words. It was his curse and blessing. Finally he managed to come up with something to say and looked over at Ollie, and closed his mouth on his words.
The man was asleep. Leaning against the car door, body relaxed in a boneless sag, long-fingered hands lying open and slightly upcurled on his thighs. Gus stared at him a moment, his gaze tracking over the filthy but somehow still attractive face down the long tendon in his throat, across shoulders surprisingly well-muscled for someone as lean as Ollie was, and, on down to the substantial . . . he glanced away, automatically, as if he was worried Ollie might catch him looking, and hoooly shit, he was on the wrong side of the road.
Gus managed get the car around the curve that had snuck up on him while he was busy ogling Ollie's crotch, somehow doing so without waking his traveling companion. Taking his foot off the accelerator he sent a silent thanks to a God he still only half-believed in that there hadn't been any oncoming traffic. By the rosy-eyed Jesus, he could've killed them both. He hadn't stared at another man like that in . . . well, since Oxford. Maybe it was just nostalgia, the accent triggering old and rather fond memories. Yes. That must be it.
He drove for a while in silence, wondering if he ought to wake up Ollie and ask how far he wanted to go. Mileage wise. He shook himself. Stop it. The stress was affecting him more than he'd realized. The sun was getting low on the horizon to his left, and Gus was getting tired. He probably should have waited until morning to start for home, but after a week of the conference hadn't felt like waiting for the closing remarks, he'd just wanted out. He wondered if there was a McDonalds anywhere along this road where he could stop and get coffee so he could stay awake. Having someone sleeping next to him wasn't helping his fatigue. He probably should've stuck to the highway, but, used to the traffic in Solomon Gundy, he preferred back roads when he could find them. He'd have to get on the interstate soon enough.
After another hundred miles he'd passed signs for a bunch of ski areas that weren't open for the season yet and was beginning to wonder if he would have to pull over at a wide spot in the road to catch a nap when he spotted a faux-rustic sign announcing the presence, just ten miles to the west at the next junction, of a 'Kozy Kampground.' It boasted all the amenties: a snack bar, RV hookups, tent spaces, showers, and 'Kabins' for rent. The spelling made him wince, but the thought of stopping for the night was appealing. Ollie probably wouldn't mind a chance to clean up and get some rest in a horizontal position, and if he couldn't afford to share the cost of a 'kabin' that was all right, Gus wasn't completely broke. Yet.
Ollie slept through him pulling into the campground, nearly deserted this time of year, getting out and going up to the office-cum-snack bar to rent a cabin for the night. The old guy there had given him a 'clerical discount' which Gus had accepted without guilt. Every dollar he could save was a dollar he could spend back home where it was needed. However, when Gus got back into the car with two foot-long chili-dogs and a pair of bottled waters Ollie roused finally, sitting up, blinking in confusion.
"Where the fuck are we?" he asked, suddenly tense, looking around at the somewhat dilapidated campground surrounded by pines and a scattering of deciduous trees, their few remaining leaves bright in their fall coloring.
Gus handed Ollie both hot-dogs and got out his map, hard to see in the fading light. "Somewhere west of Reno, I think, not far from Lake Tahoe. I hope that's all right. You didn't say how far north-east you were going. I'd've kept going but I was falling asleep, and you looked like you . . . wouldn't mind."
Ollie looked taken aback, but after a minute he seemed to recover and he shrugged. "It's good. And I'm heading for the east coast, so if you fancy a rider, you have one." He looked at the hot dogs in his hands, and then back at Gus. "Your dinner?"
Gus grinned. "Our dinner. It was this, or corn chips with some sort of yellow goo on them that I'm not entirely sure wasn't an alien life-form."
Ollie chuckled. "The Yanks have some nerve saying our grub's bad."
"Amazing, isn't it? Give me a good ploughman's any day. Still, it's food, I think. Hang onto those for a minute, our cabin is just up the road, according to Mr. Miller at the office."
He started the car and drove slowly down the gravel road until the headlights picked out the post with the silhouette of a beaver on it. "That's it. The Beaver Den."
"Beaver Den?" Ollie asked incredulously.
"Yeah. Apparently in place of numbers he uses animals. I guess they get a lot of kids here."
Ollie snorted. "Oh, kids, aye. You know what that means in American, don't you? Beaver?"
Gus chuckled. "I do, actually. But I'm not sure Mr. Miller does."
They shared a laugh, then suddenly Ollie sobered. "Look, I can pay, you know. How much was it for the night, the grub and all?"
"Don't worry about it."
Ollie bristled. "I can bloody well pay my share. Have done since I was fourteen."
Gus saw the challenge gleaming in Ollie's gaze, read it in his lifted chin and clenched fists. Clearly it was a point of honor. Gus had learned the hard way the wisdom of knowing when to fold. He nodded. "All right then. Frankly, that's just as well, the treasury's not exactly flush. If my conference hadn't been paid for by a speaker's honorarium I'd still be at home."
Ollie stared at him a moment longer, then relaxed. "Times rough?"
Gus sighed. "Very. We're not exactly a self-sustaining economy yet. Not sure we ever will be," he said bleakly, giving in to pessimism for a moment. "But that's neither here nor there. The room was forty-five, the food came to nine."
Ollie nodded. "So, twenty-seven, plus some for petrol, make it forty? That fair?"
"More than fair."
Ollie put both hot-dogs on the dashboard and shifted in his seat, pushing his hips up so he could dig in his pocket more easily. Gus tried not to pay attention as he did so. Having already risked life and limb once ogling Ollie's crotch he wasn't going to do it again. Judging by his companion's quick temper, getting caught staring might well provoke mayhem. After a moment Ollie managed to get one long hand in and back out of his front pocket, emerging with a small roll of bills. He peeled off two twenties and handed them to Gus. It was warm and slightly damp, and smelled of. . . Ollie.
Gus swallowed. "Well then, shall we check out the cabin?" he asked with forced cheer, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. Granted, it had been nearly three years since Noelle had gotten fed up with life on an island with a man whose attention was more focused on governance than romance and gone back to Ottawa, but it wasn't like he didn't have regular dates with Rosie Palm and her five sisters.
Ollie opened his door, getting out as Gus did the same, then Ollie leaned back into the car and when he came back out he had the chili-dogs in his hands. He reached across the car to hand one to Gus, and then proceeded to down half of his own dog in a single bite. Gus set his jaw and headed for the cabin door, trying valiantly not to think about that. So the guy had a big mouth. So what? He unlocked the door and pushed it open, flicking on the lights. For forty-five dollars he hadn't been expecting much. It was just as well.
Ollie's voice came from just behind him, close enough to be startling. He didn't sound sarcastic. That said a lot. The one room-cabin was divided into a tiny kitchenette/dining area, and a sleeping area containing a single queen-sized bed which sagged visibly, a small table with two folding chairs, a 1950's vintage bed-table and lamp, and a wardrobe constructed of plywood painted a festive shade of institutional green. That was it. A small door led into a bathroom with a pedestal sink, toilet, and a shower barely large enough for a grown man. Apparently Ollie had an unusual definition of 'nice.' Gus continued into the room, and Ollie followed, heading immediately toward the bathroom, but stopping halfway there to look back at Gus.
"Sorry, you need to use the toilet before I shower?"
Gus shook his head. "I'm fine, go ahead."
Ollie nodded and stepped into the bathroom, closing the door behind himself. Gus sat down at the small table, ate his lukewarm chili-dog and swigged his water, hearing the sound of the shower coming on. He sat for a moment, at a loss, then decided he should bring in his overnight bag. He went to the bathroom door and knocked.
"Oy!" Ollie responded, sounding startled.
"I'm going to get my bag, do you want me to bring yours in?"
"No!" Ollie said sharply. "Nothing in it I need," he said a moment later in a more normal tone.
"All right," Gus said, and headed out to the car to get his bag from the back seat. For a moment he thought about opening the trunk, his curiosity pricking at him, but he got himself under control. It was none of his business. None at all. Well, maybe a little since it was in his car, but . . . no. He resolutely locked the car and returned to the cabin.
The shower was still running. Not surprising. As dirty as Ollie had been it would take some doing to get clean. He set his bag on the floor next to the table and rummaged through it for the budget report Zeda had given him before he'd left home. He'd managed to avoid looking at it for a week now, but he had to face it before he got back. It was an eight day drive back to the island , which gave him that long in which to come up with a creative solution to their fiscal crisis.
He thought briefly of stopping at Reno to try his hand at gambling, but he'd never had much luck at either cards or love, and it was sheer lunacy to think he could win enough to dig the island out of its hole. No. He knew what the solution was, what it would have to be. He hated the thought of getting up in front of his people and telling them their grand experiment had failed. Hated it more that they would have to go to Ottawa, hat-in-hand, and ask to be taken back into the fold.
His people. God when had he started thinking of them like that? And how had he let things get to this point? He should have insisted four years ago that they dissolve their newly-formed republic and realign with Canada. Unfortunately between their enthusiasm and his own insane optimism he had somehow thought they could pull it off, and in so doing bring some meaning to Dexter's death. As always when he thought of Dexter he felt a jumble of contradictory emotions, chief among them a strangely deep sense of loss. In some ways he had connected more with Dexter than he had Noelle. He wondered to this day what would have happened had Dexter lived. He had a feeling that for all his ambiguous morality, Dexter would have managed to help him find a solution that worked, a way to make Solomon Gundy self-sustaining.
"And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, Gus old son," he whispered bitterly as the tension headache that had been lurking most of the day suddenly manifested its presence strongly. He sighed and put his forehead down against the stack of paper as if he could somehow absorb the answer directly through his skin. When none was forthcoming he dug his fingers into his scalp, rubbing hard at the aches.
"You all right?"
He sat up with a start, staring at Ollie who had emerged from the bathroom finally and was standing a few feet away, wearing nothing but a worn towel around his hips. Caucasian. Definitely. His fair skin was ruddy from the heat of the water and the scrubbing he'd given himself. His short hair had been toweled into a haphazard array of spikes, and appeared, from the driest parts, to be blond. He had a serious case of eight-thirty shadow going, too; far more than Gus did. Maybe he was trying to grow a beard. A well-trimmed goatee would look good on him. Anything would look good on him. Next-to-nothing looked even better.
He had a long body, almost thin, and the muscularity in his shoulders carried right on through the torso, the legs, with their light furring of brown. Long, narrow feet, with pink spots that were probably the blisters Ollie had mentioned earlier. The towel rode far enough below his navel that Gus' gaze was tempted by the faint trail of hair that arrowed down below it, widening, only to disappear frustratingly below white terrycloth. He could barely make out the gentle swell beneath the towel, and he found his fingers itching.
"Gus? You all right?" Ollie repeated.
Gus realized he was staring and he swallowed, clenching his fists against the impulse to tug the towel off. "Yeah. Sorry. Just . . . matters of state. Nothing you need to worry about."
Ollie studied him for a moment, then shrugged. "If you say. You look all in."
"Yeah. I'm tired." He looked at the budget again and shoved it away. "I wouldn't be able to read that if I tried tonight. I should just go to . . . ." It occurred to him suddenly that there was only one bed. And that was his own fault, since he had tried to save money by not mentioning Ollie's presence. Hell. Ollie's gaze followed his, and an odd expression crossed his face fleetingly, then he shook his head a little, like a dog shaking off water.
"Just give me a blanket and I'm good," he said. "I'm no stranger to dossing on the floor. If you want to use the shower just move my clothes off the bar until you're done. Happen they'll dry by morning."
Gus stared for long moments, then he shook his head. "No, certainly not."
Ollie looked at him. "No? Air's dry here, they'll be all right. If they're a little damp still it's no worse than today's been, and at least they're clean now."
"No, I meant you're not sleeping on the floor. I will."
"It's your room."
"You paid for half of it."
"Don't be a wanker. You got it, they'd never have given me one."
"It's not right," Gus said mulishly. "I'll take the floor."
"You won't. You paid for half too."
"I'm not letting you sleep on the floor."
"You and whose army?" Ollie demanded, bristling, fists clenched.
Gus stared. Ollie stared back. Suddenly a smile flashed over Ollie's face and he started to laugh.
"Right then, we can share. It's big enough for two. I promise not to molest you."
Gus felt a pang of disappointment and pushed it down. This wasn't a good idea. It was really not a good idea. But it was just for tonight, and he could certainly keep his hands to himself. He was a grown man, not a teenager. "All right," he said finally. "That's fair."
Ollie looked a little surprised: apparently he'd expected more resistance. Gus figured it would shock the hell out of him if he had any idea just what thoughts were going through Gus' head at the moment.
"You care which side?" Ollie asked after a moment, nodding toward the
Gus shook his head. "No, it doesn't matter."
Ollie nodded as Gus picked up his bag and went into the bathroom, closing the door and leaning against it with a tired sigh. All right. One night. He could do this. He glanced at the shower, thinking for a moment that a cold one might be a good idea, but he didn't feel like moving the black jeans and tank-shirt that were draped over the curtain bar, dripping. Ollie's boots stood neatly next to the shower, each containing a rolled-up towel. Gus figured they probably weren't salvageable, but it was a noble effort. They had to have cost a pretty penny.
As he unzipped to take care of his main reason for going into the bathroom, Gus suddenly realized that while Ollie had learned quite a bit about him, he still knew absolutely nothing about Ollie. Why had he looked like he'd spent the better part of the day working in a coal mine? What had brought him to be hitchhiking on a back road with two mysterious bags which apparently did not contain clothing, judging from the fact that Ollie had washed his clothes in the shower and come out in nothing but a towel.
Nothing but a towel. There were only two items of clothing on the rack. Jeans. Shirt. Oh, that realization was not going to make things any easier in the car tomorrow, knowing that only a single layer of fabric lay between Gus and skin. And the fact that Ollie was at that very moment lying in bed in nothing but a towel, or possibly not even that, was not going to help him get to sleep tonight. He looked down at his semi-interested cock, thought about making the world safe for hitchhikers, and decided it wasn't worth the risk. He knew how loud he got, and there was really no way Ollie would mistake that for anything else. No, he'd just have to suffer in silence. If they were still traveling together tomorrow night, they were getting two beds, even if it cost more.
He washed up and stripped down to his t-shirt and briefs, then thought about Ollie and dug in his bag for the sweats he'd worn to bed at the conference. Safer that way. He turned out the light and opened the door, thinking that it was his turn to ask a few questions, but a single glance at the bed told him that his companion was asleep already. He was lying on his left side near the edge of the bed, one bare shoulder and upper arm showing just a little above the edge of the bedspread he'd wrapped around himself.
For the first time Gus noticed the tattoo on his biceps. From this distance it looked like to two blurry blue-green triangles interlocking at the tips. Odd. He pulled back the blankets on his side of the bed and almost sat down, then remembered the light and went to turn it out. The room was very dark, and he cautiously made his way back to the bed and slide beneath the covers. For a long time he listened to Ollie's deep, even breathing, and smelled the clean, soapy scent of him until eventually he stopped noticing anything.
* * *
Ollie had gone to sleep cold, but woke up warm. Well, most of him was warm, except for one shoulder and his face, which were cold. They hadn't thought to put the heat on before going to bed, and the temperature inside the cabin had gotten pretty low during the night. His right arm, the one underneath him, was asleep and he shifted a little bit to try to get some blood flowing back into it. As he did, he realized that the reason he was warm was because his bedmate was pretty well wrapped around him, despite the fact that they were bundled in separate sets of covers. He'd taken the bedspread, leaving the blanket and sheet for Gus.
It was a strange feeling. Ollie hadn't slept with anyone in longer than he could remember. Just slept, that is, without having sex. It was kind of . . . nice. Not that he was planning on admitting that to anyone. He shifted again as the tingles in his arm and hand became pins and needles, flexing his fingers. Gus stirred a little, tightened his arm across Ollie's midriff, muttered something in his sleep and nuzzled the back of his neck in a way that sent a whole-body shiver through him.
He almost reached back to check out the man nestled up against him, but stopped with a silent curse. While he didn't have a lot of scruples, molesting a priest in his sleep was definitely over even his line. Time to get out of temptation's way. He carefully eased himself out from under Gus' arm and slid out of bed. He had to piss anyway. As he headed for the toilet he grinned over the idea of what Gus' reaction would have been if he'd woken up and found himself tucked around Ollie like a blanket.
After taking care of the call of nature, he grabbed his jeans off the shower rod, and swore softly. They were definitely not dry yet. Not even close. Fuck. A check of his shirt showed it was marginally drier than the jeans, but not a lot. Well, it wasn't like he had a lot of choice. Gritting his teeth he pulled his jeans on. The cold, damp fabric against his skin took care of any hint of lingering arousal. Following his jeans with his shirt, he was shivering in seconds. It would take a little while before his body generated enough heat to warm up his clothes.
He padded back out into the main cabin and turned on the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink, after which he was able to find the gas heater and crank it on. Once he was sure it had started to warm up he started poking around in the little kitchenette. He found dishes, glasses, pans, and finally in the third cabinet found a bottle of instant tea, half a box of sugar cubes, and a container of non-dairy dry creamer. That would have to do. He got out a pan and put water on to heat, then spooned tea and creamer powder into a mug, dropped in a half-dozen sugar cubes, and waited for the water to heat, curling his toes in a vain attempt to keep them off the cold linoleum. When the water finally boiled he poured it into his mug, stirred, and tasted. He made a face but kept drinking. Hot. Sweet. It would do. He really wanted a cigarette, but he'd lost his in the water, and couldn't face the cold walk to the office to see if they had any for sale.
Even with the warm drink he was still shivering, so he got the bedspread off the bed and wrapped it around himself, then he sat down at the table to wait for Gus to wake up. The bloke slept like the dead. Bored, Ollie picked up the thick sheaf of paper Gus had been banging his head against last night and started to look through it. Spreadsheet. Big fucking numbers. That made him curious, and he was good with numbers, even numbers like these. He kept looking at it, and after a few times through he began to realize what he had. It was a budget. And not Gus' household budget either. The sobering numbers brought home the fact that Gus had definitely not been joking about the whole 'PM of Salmon-whatever' thing. And they were in trouble. Big trouble. No wonder he'd looked knackered.
Out of habit, because he was used to doing everything on his jobs, from budgets to fixing engines, he started looking for a way out. Sometime later he was distracted by the creak of the bed and the rustle of covers, and he looked over to see Gus turn onto his back and stretch, then he turned his head to peer at Ollie.
"Morning?" he asked, clearly both a question and a greeting.
"Morning," Ollie confirmed. "Just coming on seven."
Gus made a noncommittal noise and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer, then he pushed himself first into a sitting position, then to his feet, picking up his bag from beside the bed. "I'm going to have a shower."
Ollie nodded as Gus disappeared into the toilet with his bag and closed the door. A moment later he heard the water come on. The lock on the door was the old-fashioned kind with a big keyhole. It took a lot of willpower not to go over and squint through it. He hoped God was paying attention to how good he was being, because it ought to be worth something. To distract himself he got up and heated more water, making himself another cup of fake tea, then figuring Gus might want one too, he made a second. He put both cups on the table and resumed his seat and his place in the budget.
A few minutes later the shower shut off, and a bit after that Gus emerged again, wearing the same olive twill slacks he'd had on last night, with a black t-shirt and a red plaid flannel shirt over his clerical collar. He spent a moment stuffing the sweats he'd worn to bed back into his bag, along with his shaving gear. Ollie ran a hand over his jaw, and figured there was no point in worrying about that. Besides, a beard might come in handy on the off chance anyone was looking for him. Gus zipped the bag and put it by the door, then came over to the table, yawning widely. Ollie picked up the second cup and extended it to him.
"Coffee? Tea?" he queried.
Ollie shook his head. "Not coffee. Not really tea either, to my mind."
Gus took the mug and sipped, shrugged, then continued drinking the sweet sludge without comment. After his fourth sip his gaze sharpened a little as he realized Ollie had the budget in front of him.
"God, you're not boring yourself to death with that, are you?"
Ollie shrugged. "Nothing else to do." He looked at the pages, then back at Gus. "You've got a real mess."
Gus sighed and sat down heavily on the other folding chair. "Tell me something I don't know."
"You'd be doing all right if it wasn't for the frigging interest payments. Fish almost bring in enough."
Gus nodded. "I know. Believe me, I know."
"You need a secondary industry."
Gus groaned. "Please. I can't deal with the budget until the caffeine has hit."
Ollie laughed. "Sorry. I've been up a while. You ready to go?"
Gus nodded. "Yeah. Maybe we can find a diner along the way. Dinner wore off a long time ago."
"It did that. Right then, have your budget back."
He stood, handed the sheaf of paper to Gus, and reluctantly put the bedspread back where it belonged. Going into the bathroom he picked up his boots and pulled the towels out. They were still slightly moist inside but at least not squishing any more. He sat on the can to put them on again, wincing as they rubbed the raw spots on his feet. Fucking pansy. Going soft. He snugged the boot's straps down, and went back out to the main room where Gus was just shoving the budget pages back into his bag.
"Ready when you are."
"Now's as good a time as any," Gus said, pulling his keys out of his pocket. "I paid last night so we don't even have to go wake up the manager."
Ollie followed him out of the cabin, and the cold morning air instantly stole every shred of warmth from him, seeming to cut right through his damp clothing as Gus unlocked his car door and tossed his bag in the back, then got in and finally leaned across to unlock the passenger door. Getting inside didn't help much. A shiver shook him, and he told himself firmly the car would warm up soon. It had to. Gus slid the key into the ignition, then paused, looking at him oddly. Ollie tried not to shiver again but he couldn't help it.
"Fuck. I'm an idiot, sorry. Hang on." Gus opened his door again and got out, opened the back door and unzipped his bag to rummage inside. After a moment he pulled out something blue and handed it to Ollie. "Here, put this on. Are your boots dry? What size shoe do you wear? I have a spare pair of sneakers."
Ollie shook out the fabric and found he was holding a thick blue cotton jumper. His face went hot. "Don't need this," he said, trying to give it back to Gus.
"Don't be ridiculous, it can't be more than forty degrees out here, and all you've got on is a fucking undershirt. And were your jeans even close to dry?"
He reached over and stuck two fingers under the waistband of Ollie's jeans, just an inch or so but it was enough to make Ollie suck in his breath in a gasp and stare at the other man in shock. As if suddenly aware of what he was doing Gus yanked his hand back, and his face got a little flushed, but he looked at Ollie, eyebrows lifted over intent blue-gray eyes.
"Isn't that uncomfortable?" he asked, his tone curious and oddly mild.
"I don't need charity," Ollie said, starting to get mad.
Gus rolled his eyes and sighed. "Learn a new song and get the stick out of your ass, Oliver. It's not fucking charity, it's my favorite fucking sweater. I'm just loaning it to you, not giving it to you, okay? Unless you've got a coat hiding back there?" Gus said, jerking a thumb toward the back end of the car.
"No," Ollie admitted quickly, rather than have to try to explain exactly what was in his bags.
"I didn't think so. So put the damned sweater on and stop being an idiot. Now, what about the boots? How bad are they? Still wet? Do they hurt?"
"They're fine," Ollie muttered, avoiding Gus' penetrating gaze. Those eyes could be disconcertingly direct.
"Fine, hunh?" Gus said in a voice that clearly expressed his disbelief. "How wet are they?"
"Just a little," Ollie said. God. He could lie to anyone, why not Gus? It had to be the damned collar.
Gus snorted. "Thought as much. Here." He tossed a pair of athletic socks into Ollie's lap. "Take the boots off. Wear those. Maybe the boots will finish drying before we find a place to stop for breakfast, and if they don't at least the socks will help cushion the blisters.
Ollie sat for a moment, stubbornly trying to think of a reason to refuse, but. . . he couldn't. As Gus rezipped his bag and got out of the back seat, he resignedly pulled the jumper on over his head. It was a little big, but soft and warm, and he knew the instant it went past his nose that Gus hadn't washed it since he'd last worn it. Not that it stank, it just smelled of. . . Gus. Who was getting back into the front seat, and looking at Ollie with an annoying little smirk lurking around the corners of his mouth.
"Thanks, Mum," Ollie said, trying hard to be annoying right back.
Gus laughed. "Wrong parent," he said, and started the car. "Boots, before we get going."
Ollie sighed. "You always this butch?" he asked as he struggled with a buckle, trying not to mash his nose into the glovebox as he worked at the stiffened leather. Suddenly Gus' hand slid between his knees and a moment later his seat slammed back about six inches on its tracks. "What the hell?"
"No. And you looked like you needed the extra room," Gus said smoothly, removing his hand from between Ollie's legs and putting it on the gearshift to move it into reverse.
Ollie swallowed hard, suddenly glad of the baggy sweater hiding his groin. "Uh, thanks."
"Any time," Gus said, an odd little smile curving his mouth.
If Ollie didn't know better. . . . but he did. On the other hand, what had Gus meant by "No?" No. . . he wasn't always this butch? The thoughts that filled his head with did nothing to ease the ache in his groin. He yanked viciously at the boot-buckle and it finally gave, and he managed to get that boot off. He pitched it into the back seat and went to work on the other one, trying not to hurt himself bending over.
* * *
They found a place to eat on the outskirts of Reno, a little mom-and-pop coffee shop with surprisingly good food. An hour later, fortified with food, coffee, and orange juice they got back on the road, and after driving a while in a comfortable, digestive silence, Gus' curiosity finally got the best of him.
"What do you do for a living?" he asked casually.
Ollie's gaze moved from the road to Gus. "I play in the dirt."
Gus glanced at him, not sure he'd heard right. "You what?"
Ollie grinned. "Play in the dirt. Started out in mines, but I've done a lot of other things. Construction, mining, drilling, oil rigs, the Suez Canal, and the Chunnel."
"The Chunnel? Really?"
Ollie nodded. "Yeah. Two years. I was a shift boss by the end of that gig."
"That must have been interesting."
Ollie shrugged. "Not really. Wet, dirty, and hard, like most jobs."
Determined to get more out of him, Gus pried a little harder. "Weren't you a bit young to have worked on the Canal?"
Ollie laughed. "Aye, a bit. Maintenance crew. One of my first jobs outside the country."
"So what are you doing in Northern California? Isn't that a long way from home?"
"I go where the work is. Bloke hired me to do a job, I did it."
Gus hadn't heard of any mining in the area where he'd been staying, at least not since the Gold Rush days, but then again it wasn't like he was an expert on California. Still, that didn't explain why Ollie had been hitching on a back road in the condition he'd been in when Gus picked him up. "So why were. . . ." he stopped, shook his head. There was prying and then there was prying. "Never mind. None of my business."
"Why was I hitching?" Ollie guessed.
"Yeah," Gus admitted. At least he hadn't actually asked.
"Happen the bloke what hired me didn't bother to get permission to do the . . . remodeling . . . he hired me for. There was a dust-up. I got while the getting was good."
Gus chuckled, imagining an irate spouse coming home to find her house in a shambles. "Sounds like a good plan to me, provided you already got paid."
"Oh, I got paid. No worries."
Ollie sounded just a touch smug. Gus wondered why, but left it alone. Money was a touchy enough subject even between friends, and by no means could they be categorized as such. "Where're you headed now?"
"Dunno. Don't have a job lined up."
"So you're going home, then?"
He looked at Gus blankly, and after a moment he shook his head. "Haven't got one, really. Home's wherever I am at the time."
Gus couldn't imagine that. He was so deeply tied to Solomon Gundy he knew he could never leave it permanently. He knew that all too well. He'd even tried, and had still ended up right back on the island. It was as if it were part of him, the earth his body, the sea his blood. He shook off that appallingly romantic metaphysical nonsense and looked at Ollie. "That sounds rather. . . . depressing."
Ollie thought about that and shrugged. "Nah. Just the way it is. No point getting all emotional about it."
That was something Gus just couldn't let rest. "But don't you miss having someplace that's yours, that you come back to after the traveling is done, after the job's finished, a place where you have connections?"
"Can't miss what you never had," Ollie said with an odd tone.
Gus looked at him sharply, wishing he weren't driving so he could observe Ollie's responses more closely. "Never? You're not married, then?"
Ollie snorted. "Not in this lifetime, mate."
"Too much traveling?"
Ollie chuckled. "No. Just don't fancy the right sort," he said cryptically.
Interesting comment. Could mean a couple of different things, one of which made him want to pry, which was probably a bad idea, considering some of the thoughts he'd been having, so he let it go and tried another tack.
"What about when you were growing up?"
Ollie's jaw tightened and he turned and looked out the passenger window. "That's a long time back. Don't remember."
Despite an obvious attempt to make it seem as if it didn't matter, Gus heard the pain in the other man's voice. He was well used to listening for that. He let a moment of quiet build between them, then he asked. "Would you like to talk about it?"
Ollie snorted rudely. "What, seal of the confessional and all that?"
Gus shook his head. "No, I hadn't meant it in that spirit, though of course anything you tell me would be kept in confidence. I simply thought it might be something you wanted to talk about."
"You thought wrong, guv," Ollie snapped, turning his head to stare out the passenger window.
Gus stifled a sigh. "All right. That's fine," he said gently.
After a few miles Ollie sighed. "Sorry. Just. . . the past is done, you know."
Gus nodded. "Yes. That it is."
"So, where is this Salmon place?"
Gus laughed. "Solomon, not Salmon. Solomon Gundy. It's almost as far east as you can get and still be in North America. It's off the Eastern Shore, up by Nova Scotia and Newfoundland."
"So you're a ways from home too?"
"That I am."
"What were you doing in California then? Trying to convince a software firm to relocate?"
Gus stared at him, startled, frowning thoughtfully. "You know, that's a good idea, wish I'd thought of it. Unfortunately, no, I was here for an ecumenical conference. They were holding it at a winery-cum-conference center north of San Francisco."
"Any good?" Ollie asked.
"Stultifying, actually," Gus said. "I was bored out of my mind. Or did you mean the wine? That was quite good. The highlight of the conference."
Ollie laughed. "That explains the case in the trunk"
"Yeah, I'm going to see if I can get it over the border duty-free on my diplomatic passport."
"And if you can't, then just tell them it's communion wine. They'll let it go."
Gus laughed. "You're devious. I like that in a person."
Ollie flashed him a devastatingly cocky grin. "You don't know the half of it. I'm curious about sommat, though."
"Your turn then, what?"
"Why are you driving? Wouldn't it make more sense to fly?"
"Flying is expensive, driving is cheaper."
Ollie nodded thoughtfully, then a moment later he frowned. "How many days is it?"
"Depends on how long you can make each leg. I was averaging about nine hours on the way here, and it was about seven days."
"And you spent the night in hotels along the road?"
"Usually. Once I slept in the car at a rest stop."
"That makes no sense. Between cost of fuel, food and hotels, and lost work-time, it'd be more cost-effective to fly."
The man was sharp. Gus grinned sheepishly. "All right, you caught me. I just needed a break, hoped that the drive might help me clear my head and think of some effective solutions."
Ollie studied him. "Has it?"
Gus sighed. "No. As you said, the interest payments on the bank loans are really killing us and we need a secondary industry, but so far I haven't found a solution. Noelle did her best, but she never came up with anything useful. We've made a few tentative contacts trying to attract investors, but it's hard to generate interest in a place like Solomon Gundy, hell, we don't even have much of a tourist industry. . . I just can't seem to work it out."
"There must be something." Ollie frowned thoughtfully. "You're on the eastern seaboard right? Lots of coal in that area. Has anyone ever done a geological survey?"
Gus sighed. "Yes. We have a few deposits, but probably not enough to make it worthwhile, especially not considering the environmental repercussions . . . no offense."
"If you're desperate, you're desperate."
"If I thought it would really be a long-term solution, I'd be on it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, it's not."
Ollie shrugged. "You're the P.M., it's your call."
Gus nodded, his jaw set. "Yes, it is."
Conversation lagged after that, restricted to comments on passing scenery, and occasional questions about the advisability of rest stops until they got to Elko, Nevada a little after one and Gus spotted a K-Mart, and had an idea that required a stop there. He figured they could take a short break to eat in town as well. He pulled into the lot in front of the discount store and parked.
Ollie turned and looked at him, a resigned expression on his face. "End of the line?" he asked, reaching for the door handle.
Gus shook his head sharply. "No, not if you want to keep going," Gus said. "I just need to pick up a few things here."
Ollie relaxed visibly, a flash of relief chasing across his face. "Oh. Right. I'll just wait here then."
Gus didn't argue, since that would make his task substantially easier. He started to pull the keys from the ignition, then stopped. "You want the radio?"
Ollie shook his head. "No, thanks. This is good."
Gus nodded and headed into the store. He figured he was going to have a fight on his hands about this idea later, but he'd deal with that in due course. He made a quick trip around the store, first picking up some bottled waters and snacks, then he added a gym bag, a pair of jeans, several t-shirts, both long- and short-sleeved, a sweatshirt, a package of socks and after a moment, a three-pack of men's boxer-briefs, a compromise since he wasn't sure which Ollie would prefer, provided he would wear them at all. Next he picked up a pair of inexpensive running shoes, guessing the size from a comparison of his own feet with Ollie's. Finally he threw in a toothbrush, razor, sample-sizes of toothpaste, shampoo, and shaving cream, and a hairbrush.
On his way to the checkout stands he passed the pharmacy section where a display caught his eye. He stopped. It was a completely insane idea, but something-- complete wishful thinking-- made him pick up a box from that display, putting it self-consciously in the cart. He was relieved that the checker didn't bat an eyelash, though she looked at him a little oddly when he took his purchases to an empty checkstand and proceeded to rip off every tag and pack everything but the food and his impulse purchases into the gym bag. The rest he transferred to two separate bags, and finally he headed back to the car.
Ollie was leaning back in the seat, eyes closed, dozing in the afternoon sun. Gus wondered if he habitually slept this much or if he was making up for sleep lost on his remodeling job. For a moment Gus was reminded of Gerry, a beat-up yellow tomcat who lived in the church back home, and who slept in the sun wearing that same smugly content expression. Come to think of it, Ollie did look rather feline, and even had similar coloring. He looked up curiously when Gus opened the back door and set the new gym bag next to his own on the seat. The food went in the foot-well behind his own seat, and the final parcel he tucked discreetly into his bag.
"Find what you needed?" Ollie asked, stretching.
Gus nodded. "Yes, I think so."
He glanced at the new bag, and before he could ask, Gus started the car.
Ollie nodded. "I could eat."
"The clerk said there was a good place about five minutes from here, a bar and grill, with pool tables."
Ollie looked at him, startled. "You shoot?"
"I know my way around a stick," he said, grinning.
Ollie let out a surprised-sounding laugh and then coughed. "That. . . that's good. We can play."
"I'm game, but after lunch. I'm starving."
Ollie's bright gaze seemed to warm further and his smile turned into something that suddenly made Gus' impulse buys seem less ridiculous. "Me too."
Lunch was burgers and locally-brewed beer, and a spirited discussion of the superiority of their respective national brews. Afterward they played two games of eight-ball. Ollie won the first handily, and Gus took the second by the skin of his teeth. They both smoked too many cigarettes between the two of them. Gus had mostly quit, but when Ollie lit up the temptation licked at the back of his throat and he found himself sharing Ollie's pack, and buying another to replace the ones he'd used. By the time they left Elko they'd wasted far too much time and Gus knew it, but it felt so good to do something just for the sheer hell of it that he didn't even feel guilty. Or at least not too guilty. As they approached the car, Ollie stopped with his hands on the roof.
"Want me to drive?"
"You drive standard?"
Ollie grinned and winked. "I know my way around a stick."
The impact of the grin, the wink, and the words hit Gus between the thighs and he had to work hard not to gasp. He used getting his keys out of his pocket as an excuse to surreptitiously adjust himself, and unlocked the door before handing the keys across the car to Ollie. "Go for it then. It's a good idea. If we trade off we won't have to stop as often, we'll make better time."
"That's what I figured," Ollie said, taking the keys and unlocking the passenger door before coming around to the driver's side. "Got a map?"
Gus nodded, opening the door to lean in and get it out of the door pocket. Closing the door again, he fanned it out over the roof of the car and they both leaned in to study it. "We're here," Gus said, pointing. "And we're basically staying on I-80 until we get to Chicago. Think you can handle that?" Somehow Gus managed not to smile.
Ollie traced the route with a finger and grinned. "Oh, I think so."
"You're sure?" Gus teased.
Ollie's eyes lit with amusement, and this close Gus suddenly noticed golden flecks in them. Interesting color.
"You might be surprised at what I can handle," Ollie said with a cocky, almost challenging look.
If he'd been talking to a woman Gus would have said that was a deliberate innuendo, but with Ollie he just couldn't be sure. He was probably just talking about work. It was a bad idea to make assumptions, no matter how much he wanted to. Gus had to swallow before he could speak. "I'm . . . sure you can handle anything."
"I can," Ollie said bluntly. "And bloody damned well, too."
Still holding Gus' gaze, Ollie reached to open the door, the back of his hand brushing Gus' thigh as he did. All right. He wasn't imagining it. He was sure of it. Ollie was . . . flirting. Which put the ball in his court. It had been years since he'd done this sort of thing, he wasn't even sure he remembered how, and the rules had definitely changed since then.
Gus thought about all the potential repercussions, and took a step back, literally and figuratively, to let Ollie open the car door, and to remove himself from the danger zone. A flicker of disappointment passed across the other man's expressive face, but he just nodded briefly, opened the door, and slid into the driver's seat. Gus stood for a moment, then made his way around to the passenger side and got in. As Ollie adjusted his seat and the mirrors, Gus reached into the back seat and grabbed the budget out of his bag. Since he no longer had the excuse that he was driving, it was time to face it.
Ollie slid the key into the ignition, starting the car smoothly, but he didn't reach for the gearshift though, or take the emergency brake off. "Got any music?" he asked.
Gus nodded, reaching under his seat to pull out the tape case. "Take your pick."
Ollie opened it and started looking at titles. He shot an oblique look at Gus. "'The Wall?'" he asked in a derisive voice.
"You don't like Pink Floyd?" Gus asked, surprised. He thought everyone his age liked them.
"'Animals,' yeah. 'Dark Side,' 'Meddle,' 'Ummagumma.' But 'The Wall's' just a friggin' lot of whinging. What else have you got?"
He pawed some more as Gus tried not to feel offended. It was certainly normal for two people to have different tastes in music.
"Jesus Christ, Grateful Dead? You need a life. No Bowie? No Iggy? Wait, 'Aqualung.' Right, you redeemed yourself. Oh, hey, this one's brilliant."
He pulled a tape out and slid it into the player, and a moment later Thomas Dolby was being blinded by science as they pulled out into traffic. Gus grinned, watching Ollie tap his thumbs on the wheel in time to the music. The budget tried to slide off his lap as Ollie accelerated, and he rescued it, reminded once more that he really had to get at it. He sighed, uncapped his pen, flipped the budget open to the point where he'd stopped making notes in the margins, and started working.
The next time Gus noticed anything but numbers and stress, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner was on. He'd missed the tape changeover. Ollie was humming along, body moving lithely in his seat in time to the beat. Gus wondered if he'd be hearing howling from the driver's side when the tape hit track four. He could definitely imagine Ollie chiming in on the 'Ah-ooooh.' He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, and Ollie looked over at him.
"Secondary industry," he said.
Gus sighed. "I know, I know. But what? We need something fairly small, environmentally neutral, willing to train a workforce, but that still makes money? Talk about the impossible dream. Just give me a windmill, a donkey, and a lance."
"Software?" Ollie asked, ignoring his literary digression.
Gus shook his head. "We get cut off from outside communication on a regular basis, no software company would put up with that."
Ollie looked thoughtful. "You don't know unless you ask. You're an island, right?"
"So what do other islands do?"
"You haven't got any tourists?"
"A few, but not anywhere near enough. Most people who go to islands for vacations want sun and warm Gulf breezes, not cold Atlantic nor'easters and beaches that are more rocks than sand."
"Sounds like most of the beaches back home. You need a picturesque cottage industry. Maybe a theme park."
Gus moaned. "You're not helping."
Ollie chuckled. "Sorry. You know, there is one other thing they do on islands a lot. Doubt you'd approve, though."
"If you're thinking about prostitution I don't think we have sufficient. . . natural resources for it."
Ollie's gaze slid down him, back up, and he smirked. "Maybe, maybe not," he said with deliberate emphasis. "But it's not what I was thinking."
"Go on. I'm listening."
"Offshore financial centers, tax havens, that sort of thing."
Gus stared at him. Given his appearance, he wouldn't have thought Ollie would know the first thing about the intricacies of international finance, but clearly he did. 'Time to stop judging the book by its cover, Gus old son,' he thought. 'You've made that mistake one too many times.' "Offshore financial centers?" he asked. "Interesting thought. But it presupposes the presence of a bank, I'm afraid."
Ollie turned fast and stared at him long enough to make Gus a little nervous, but the road was straight and there was no other traffic, and somehow the car stayed in the correct lane.
"You haven't got a bank?" Ollie asked after a moment, clearly astonished, returning his regard to the road.
"We have a couple of branch banks on the island, one's Canadian, one's American."
"Jesus fucking Christ, no wonder you're in trouble." He shook his head, then flushed a little. "Sorry. I keep forgetting you're a priest."
"I told you not to worry about it, and besides, I'm not."
Ollie's eyes tracked down to his throat. "What, you just wear that for laughs, then?"
Gus grinned, shaking his head. "No, of course not. I'm an ordained Lutheran minister. We don't call ourselves priests."
"Oh." He smiled. "No wonder you said being called the Prime Minister was confusing."
"Exactly. And you clearly see my problem. No bank of our own, and the outside banks are the ones holding our mortgages."
Ollie shook his head. "You're well and truly fucked."
"Without benefit of lube or foreplay," Gus agreed morosely.
Ollie's head snapped around again, and their gazes locked for long second. Gus felt his face getting warm before Ollie looked back at the road.
"You're an odd kind of minister, guv," Ollie said.
"That's very true," Gus acknowledged.
Ollie was quiet for a moment and then asked another question, this time without looking at Gus. "So, do ministers have to be, what do they call it, celibate?"
If he'd needed proof that he hadn't been imagining Ollie's subtle overture earlier, he had it now. "No," Gus said. "We don't."
Ollie nodded, acknowledging his reply, but after a few moments it was obvious that was as far as he was going to go. Gus knew what he wanted to know, knew Ollie was waiting for him, but he couldn't quite bring himself to answer. He barely knew the man, and it had been a very long time, and he was too old to be having nearly-anonymous flings with passing mostly-strangers, even if they did turn him on a hell of a lot. Been there, done that, and the last time he'd given in to his baser desires it hadn't ended well. By the time she left, he and Noelle had been more strangers to each other than they had been the day they'd met.
He hadn't meant to do that, to push her away, but she had just been so . . . needy. Always asking for pieces of him, his time, his energy, his solutions. He got enough of that every day, from everyone, he needed something else in a partner. He needed someone who could share his burdens, not add to them. Sadly, the one thing he had enough of to give freely, she had never asked of him. No, he wasn't going to give in to the impulse this time. He'd had quite enough of that. A little ostentatiously he picked up his pen and the budget again. Ollie turned Warren Zevon up a notch as he sang about lawyers, guns and money. Too bad Gus had only gotten two out of three.
* * *
As they passed a green and white road sign that indicated they were nearing Laramie, Wyoming, Ollie looked at his watch, which, being a diver's watch, had survived its dunking just fine. It was coming up on eleven. He was tired, his shoulders were stiff, his right leg kept wanting to cramp up, and Gus had been asleep for about four hours. He figured it was as good a place to stop for the night as any. It was definitely the largest city they'd been through since they'd gotten to Salt Lake and made a quick trip through a Taco Bell. Rock Springs hadn't looked bad, but he hadn't been quite tired enough to want to stop then.
A generic-looking motel with a Vacancy light on the sign caught his eye and he took the next slip road, then backtracked up the frontage road to pull in and park next to the office. Quietly he opened the door and slid out of the driver's seat, stretching gratefully in the cool night air. He closed the door just enough to make the light go off and make sure that it didn't swing open again, then bumped it gently with a hip until it closed with a quiet click. He didn't want to wake Gus up yet.
Going around to the rear of the car he opened the boot, and rummaged in the big canvas bag, taking one bill from each of about ten different bundles. He didn't think they were sequential, he'd overheard Bentley's pet geek talking about that, but it never hurt to be careful. He checked the denominations, decided he had enough to pay for a room, plus some for incidentals tomorrow, and re-closed the bag and the lid, again quietly. He'd been incredibly lucky that Gus carried his luggage in the back seat of the car instead of the boot.
Inside the motel office a sleepy-looking kid gave him a ground floor room around the back with two beds, and asked where he was from. Ollie told him New Zealand, figuring the kid wouldn't know the difference, which he didn't. When asked for a credit card Ollie explained earnestly that New Zealand cards weren't any good in the States and couldn't he just pay in cash? After a few moments of bewilderment the kid finally agreed that would be all right and Ollie counted out the payment, pretending to be confused about the bill denominations. Sometimes people were so stupid it amazed him. He took the key, one of those plastic card things, and headed back out to the car.
When he started the car, the music Ollie had forgotten about blared back to life and Gus woke with a start, blinking sleepily. He looked around as Ollie pulled out of the parking place and headed for the back of the building.
"Where are we?"
Gus sat up straighter and looked at his watch. "Jesus! You should have stopped hours ago."
Ollie shrugged. "Didn't feel like it." He pulled into the spot in front of their room and killed the engine, then held up the key. "Got us a room. Sixty-three, with tax. That okay?"
"Yes, it's fine." Gus shifted, pushing a hand into his pocket, tightening his slacks across his groin.
Ollie managed to look away just before Gus got his wallet out. He'd made it clear he wasn't interested, even if it had also been more than clear that he was too familiar with a few of the details to be as naive as Ollie had expected from a man of the cloth. Of course, it wouldn't be surprising for Gus to have had a fling or two before committing to the collar. Ollie figured that faintly-debauched choir-boy look had to have drawn in a lot of attention from both sexes. Just because he wasn't required to be celibate didn't mean he wasn't. And there was always the possibility, remote as it was, that Gus didn't fancy him. There was no accounting for taste, as the Yanks liked to say. He took the money Gus handed him, shoved it into his own pocket and opened the door, getting out again, then ducking down to look across at Gus.
"Go on, I'll be right with you," Gus said, getting out, then opening the back door to lean across and grab both bags out of the back. Ollie had forgotten about the second one. He wondered briefly what Gus had bought that would take an entire new bag, but since he really wanted to get into the room and hit the loo, the thought was gone by the time Gus straightened and closed the door. Ollie locked the car and they headed into the room.
When Ollie emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later he stopped, puzzled. Gus was sitting on one of the two beds, he had his coat off, and was working on his shoes. One of the two bags was next to him on the bed, the other bag was sitting on the second bed. Ollie's gaze went to the bag, then back to Gus, and narrowed.
"What's this then?"
He could read tension in Gus' body as he spoke without looking up from his bootlaces, though his voice was calm and even.
"Just a few things I thought you might need."
"A few things?"
Gus nodded. A little flicker of anger licked at Ollie, but he controlled it. Over the years he'd learned to make sure of his facts before he got mad. He unzipped the bag. A quick inventory of contents brought a growl to his throat, and the flicker got hotter, heat burning in his face, in his clenched fists. "How many fuckin' times do I have to tell you I don't take handouts?" he asked, his voice low and rough.
"I don't see it as such."
Gus turned and looked at him, meeting his gaze steadily. "I understand that, but you're wrong."
"You paid for it. I didn't. Sounds like it to me."
"I simply thought . . . . " Gus began.
It didn't matter what Gus thought. Ollie knew if he listened any longer he was going to lose his temper, and that would be a bad thing. The last thing he needed was to have the hotel management calling the cops because he was screaming, and a part of him understood that Gus just didn't understand how deeply, viscerally important it was for him to be self-sufficient. He took three steps and reached for the door, shaking his head. "No. Fuck this. I'm out of here."
Gus looked shocked, and was on his feet in seconds, moving toward him. "You're leaving? For God's sake it's almost midnight! Where the hell are you going?"
Ollie yanked the door open. "Out. Just. . . out."
He stepped back out into the chilly night air. A moment later he heard Gus' voice.
"Wait. Take this."
Ollie turned back to see Gus standing barefoot on the cold cement outside the doorway, holding out a small plastic rectangle. Ollie hesitated.
"Please?" Gus said quietly.
Ollie nodded jerkily, and took the key-card. As he walked away he heard the door close behind him. He stopped, took a deep breath, let it out, unclenched his fists and kept going. About a half-mile down the road his blisters started to bother him, and he stopped in front of a low, windowless building encrusted with welcoming neon signs. He stepped inside cautiously; it was always good to be careful in strange pubs. About a dozen people, mostly older men in faded jeans, workshirts, and scuffed, pointy boots were clustered in threes and fours at the tables, drinking, smoking, and talking. No one paid him much attention.
The bar itself was empty and he chose a stool, lit a cigarette and asked for a beer. The bartender handed him a glass filled with something pale yellow that looked more like lemonade than beer. For a moment he thought the man must have made a mistake but the smell convinced him otherwise and he sipped cautiously. It was awful, but it felt good going down and after he'd started a second glass the flavor stopped mattering since the alcohol had pretty much numbed his tastebuds. Unfortunately it hadn't numbed his ears. There were definitely worse things than The Grateful Dead. He smiled a little, thinking he'd have to tell Gus that, then the smile died as he remembered why he was in the bar drinking bad beer to begin with.
Fucking hell. Not smart, Oliver McIntosh. Not at all. Like Gus had said, get the bleedin' stick out of your arse. The man had done him a favor. A bunch of favors. He'd gone the whole good Samaritan thing one better, picked Ollie up, no questions asked, offered to transport him all the way across America, let him borrow clothes, bought him a sodding toothbrush for god's sake, and here he was getting cheesed about it?
He'd ticked Gus off, and was likely out a ride now, in the middle of fucking nowhere. And on top of that, he'd probably hurt his feelings. Gus was a minister, for God's sake. They were used to helping people who needed help. It was what they did, all the time, for everyone. He hadn't meant anything by it, hadn't implied Ollie couldn't make it on his own. And hard as it was, if he looked it in the face he had to admit that he needed help. He might have more money than he'd ever seen in his entire misspent life, but without Gus he'd be back in California trying to get a lift.
Halfway through a third beer the fact that Gus had bought him undershorts began to seem funny instead of annoying, and he almost laughed out loud. Underwear. Christ. Ollie couldn't remember the last time he'd worn pants. And it meant that Gus must have noticed that he wasn't wearing any, and wasn't that an interesting thought? Confusing, but interesting. Suddenly decisive, he put down his beer, put a tip on the bar for the bartender and started back toward the motel.
Letting himself into the room quietly he found Gus asleep in bed, but he'd left the light on in the loo. An optimist. As if that hadn't already been clear. Ollie took 'his' bag into the toilet and used the new toothbrush. It felt good after three days without. Somewhat reluctantly he peeled off Gus' sweater, sniffing it more leisurely this time. Gus just smelled good, and the combination of Gus-smell and his own was frankly erotic. He shook himself and hooked the sweater onto the doorknob. He used the toilet and stripped down for bed, then hesitated. He normally slept nude, but Gus hadn't last night. And since Gus wasn't interested, maybe it would be a good idea to be a little more modest. He looked at the bag, and smiled wryly. Looked like the undershorts were going to get used after all.
He tore open the package and pulled on a pair. They were strange, sort of half briefs and half boxers, but comfortable, the cotton jersey gave easily when he moved, and they didn't bind anywhere. In fact they fit perfectly. He checked the label inside the jeans Gus had bought him. They were the right size. So were the trainers. The shirts were a size larger than he usually bought, but Gus seemed to prefer oversized shirts so that probably explained that. It appeared Gus had noticed quite a lot about him. Ollie didn't think he'd be able to walk into a store and buy the man clothes that fit without having him there to try them on. Though he could definitely imagine what the curves of Gus' backside would feel like in his palms.
The unaccustomed tension of fabric across his groin reminded him not to think about things like that and he snapped off the light and headed for bed. It wasn't as nice tonight, sleeping alone, but he was used to it. He rearranged the pillows to his liking and closed his eyes, only to have them snap open a few moments later. Was that a whimper? He listened hard, and yes, a few seconds later Gus did it again, and he heard the slide of fabric and the slight creaking of the bed as Gus shifted restlessly.
"No!" Gus said, a note of dismay in his voice. "Stop shooting!"
Shooting? Right, what the fuck? Ollie sat up.
"Is everybody all right?" Gus asked, tossing again.
Bad dream, Ollie realized. He slid out of bed, and went over to Gus, intending to shake him awake, then he remembered something he'd once heard about how it wasn't a good idea to startle someone who was having a nightmare. He sat down on the bed and cautiously put his hand on Gus shoulder, just a slight pressure, hoping to ease him awake. Gus suddenly grabbed him and pushed him down. Startled, Ollie tried to push him back, but Gus only held him harder.
"Oh Jesus, no! Bunsy! Bring me some of those shirts!" Gus pressed both hands against Ollie's chest. "You're going to be all right, Dexter."
Ollie tugged at Gus' hands, wondering what the hell he was dreaming. "Let go, I'm fine."
"Yes, you'll be fine," Gus said soothingly, like he was talking to a small child.
"Gus, wake up," Ollie said firmly. "Come on, then. Wake up."
He felt Gus startle, then tense. "What? Who . . ?" he asked, sleepily confused.
"It's Ollie. You 're dreaming."
"Aye. But you can go back to sleep, so long as you don't dream again."
"Mmm," Gus muttered, turning toward him, wrapping one arm and a thigh around Ollie. "'Kay."
Ollie rolled his eyes and waited a few minutes for Gus to get back to sleep, then he tried to ease himself away, only to have Gus protest and tighten his hold possessively. Not quite asleep enough. He waited a bit longer, tried again, with the same results. Gus was pretty determined he was staying. There was no way to get out of the bed without waking him up completely. Great. It was bad enough to have to sleep in the same room, let alone in the same friggin' bed. Feeling put upon, Ollie sighed and reached behind himself to pull the duvet up off the floor and got as comfortable as he could.
He wondered who Dexter was, and it hit him suddenly that maybe there was a reason why Gus wasn't interested. He couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it before. Maybe he was just taken. That would also explain why he didn't seem to like sleeping alone. He found the idea slightly easier on his ego, even if he was still a little disappointed. Okay, more than a little disappointed. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the big, warm body wrapped around his, to ignore the smell of him, the tickle of overlong hair against his neck. He might not have gone to university, but he could damned well read a fucking 'keep off' sign.
He woke to find it was daylight, and Gus was trying to cautiously disentangle himself. As soon as he opened his eyes the other man froze and they stared at each other. Ollie wasn't sure what his own expression looked like, but Gus looked curious and intent. Ollie cleared his throat.
"You were having a nightmare," he said, figuring he needed to explain his presence in Gus' bed first thing. "Came over to shake you out of it, and you wouldn't let go."
A flicker of something that might have been disappointment crossed Gus' face. "Oh. I should have warned you, I have nightmares fairly often. You should have just woken me up."
Ollie shrugged, trying hard for nonchalance. "One bed's as good as another." He stretched and looked away, then back. "Sorry for stomping off last night."
Gus shook his head. "No, it's all right. I understand. I shouldn't have done it."
"You were trying to help, I get that. But I'm not flat, Gus, I've plenty of dosh, I had to go off in a hurry and lost my gear, that's all. Happen I should've said, then you wouldn't've felt pressed to help me out."
Gus smiled tentatively. "I'm afraid that might not have made any difference. It's just what I do."
"Right. I figured that out."
"I should have asked. I just didn't want to embarrass you," Gus said after a moment.
Ollie grinned. "I'm hard to embarrass."
Gus grinned back. "I've noticed. I'm sorry if I disturbed you last night, though."
"I didn't mind. Can I ask you something?"
Gus' face went white, and he turned over, flopping down onto his back to stare at the ceiling. Ollie wished he could take back the question, but it was too late. After a moment Gus sucked in a deep breath, let it out, and without looking at Ollie, spoke.
"Dexter was a friend. Not someone I knew very long, though he had quite an impact on my life for someone I'd known such a short time. And if I hadn't been so goddamned cocky he might have continued to do so. Instead I pour a bottle of beer over his headstone every year, two days after celebrating Solomon Gundy's nationhood. He liked beer."
Ollie put two and two together, finally. "He was the one who bought it during the missile crisis?"
Gus nodded. "Yes."
"I'm sorry," Ollie offered awkwardly, not sure what to say.
"So am I." Gus said bleakly, then he abruptly sat up and got out of bed, going into the toilet and closing the door.
Ollie stared after him, wishing like hell he hadn't let his curiosity get the best of him. After a moment he got up, and took out the jeans and trainers Gus had bought for him, pulling on the jeans, leaving the briefs on, figuring the new denim would be more comfortable with something between him and it. He opened the package of socks and put a pair on Gus' bed to replace the ones he'd borrowed before pulling on a fresh pair. The trainers were flexible and comfortable over his blistered feet. He was just pulling on a long-sleeved t-shirt when Gus came out of the bathroom. His eyes and nose were a little red and his hair was a bit damp. Ollie pretended not to notice. Gus stopped when he saw Ollie dressing, and a tentative smile curved his mouth.
"Clothes fit okay?"
"Brilliantly. I'm impressed."
Gus's smile turned into a grin. "I do good work."
"You do. Even the trainers fit. And thank you. I'll be buying you breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a while."
"You don't . . . ." Gus stopped, shook his head, and looked at Ollie again. "That sounds fair to me."
Ollie chuckled. "You learn fast."
"I can," Gus acknowledged.
He turned away and pulled his sweatshirt off, dropping it on the bed. Ollie found himself staring at the wide, smooth-skinned shoulders, unable to look away as Gus slid his hands beneath his sweatpants and pushed them down until they fell around his ankles. He kicked them off nonchalantly, and stood there for a moment, stretching, in nothing but a pair of dark blue briefs. It took every scrap of willpower Ollie owned not to take the six steps that would put him close enough to rid Gus of those too. Gus rolled his shoulders, then picked up his trousers off the back of a chair, shook them out, and pulled them on.
Ollie closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. If Gus hadn't already made it clear he wasn't interested, Ollie would have interpreted that little display as a come-on. But he had, so he couldn't. Fuck. He turned away and busied himself folding up his black jeans and tank and stuffing them in one of the outer pockets on the bag, then headed to the toilet to use it himself. He studied himself in the mirror and decided to use one of the razors and the shave cream Gus had bought him to get rid of the almost-beard he had after three days of not shaving. By the time he finished Gus was fully dressed in yesterday's kit, sitting at the table with the stupid budget again. Ollie was starting to hate the sight of it, and he wasn't even affected by it.
"Put that bloody thing away and let's go find food. Taco Bell was a long time ago, and I could go for a nice cup of tea."
Gus nodded and shoved the papers into his bag and zipped it. "Sounds like a good idea, though I hope your concept of a nice cup of tea is adaptable because this is the United States, after all."
Ollie laughed as he picked up his bag. "It's amazing, isn't it? Starbucks on every fucking corner and not a decent cuppa to be had anywhere. But I've roughed it under worse conditions. I'm flexible."
One corner of Gus' mouth quirked upward as gaze slid over Ollie provocatively. "You look it."
Ollie stared at him. Gus stared back. After a moment Gus looked away and reached for the door. "Breakfast?" he asked, and stepped out into the bright morning.
Ollie stared at the empty doorway for a moment. What the fuck was that? Was that flirting? He couldn't think of anything else it could have been, and he started to grin. So, maybe Gus was the old fashioned kind. He wanted to get acquainted first. Didn't kiss on the first date, or even the second. Kiss. The thought of that mobile mouth under his sent a shiver through him. All right, then, he could wait. From what he could see, Gus looked like he was worth waiting for.
He heard a step outside the door and Gus stuck his head back into the room, eyebrows lifted. "You coming?"
Ollie nodded and grabbed his bag. "On my way."
Half an hour later over mediocre tea and good breakfast burritos smothered in a green-chile that made his eyelids sweat, Ollie started his get-to-know-you campaign.
"So. Ministers. Happen people talk to you all the time, about all kinds of stuff they need to talk to someone about?"
Gus nodded. "Yes. That's what I do."
"And you, who do you talk to?"
Gus lifted his eyes from his plate, startled. "What?"
"Who do you talk to when you need to talk?"
"I . . . myself, mostly," he said, his expression an odd combination of sheepish and sad.
"You ever talk to anyone about your friend? About what happened, about the island, and the problems, all that?"
"Not . . . really. No."
"You want to?"
Gus put down his fork and studied Ollie for a long moment. "Why?"
Ollie took a sip of his tea, then met Gus' gaze evenly. "Because if you want to talk to someone, I'm here, and I don't mind."
Gus looked slightly taken aback at Ollie's blunt honesty. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Fuck if I know," Ollie said, poking his burrito with a fork. "I kind of . . . like you. Strange, I know."
Gus chuckled suddenly. "I like you too."
Ollie smiled. "Brilliant. We're even then. You talk to me, I talk to you, it's good."
"So that means if I talk to you, you'll talk to me? You haven't yet. I don't even know your last name."
Ollie had been preparing for that question. He'd decided to use his real name, his birth name, that he hadn't used since he was a kid, since no one associated with Bentley knew it. "McIntosh. Oliver McIntosh. I don't know yours either."
Gus looked startled, then shook his head and grinned. "You know, this is embarrassing. I usually make it a point to find out someone's last name before sleeping with them."
Ollie snorted. "Well, you would. Sometimes you can't be choosy."
Gus laughed. "No, that's quite true. Augustus Knickel. And I'm pleased to meet you, Oliver."
They shook hands across the table solemnly. Ollie took a bite of his burrito and Gus sipped his tea, then sighed.
"It's a long story."
"We got nothing but time. Three or four more days, right?" Ollie pointed out.
"Right." Gus hesitated for a moment, then sighed. "Well, it all started when the Minister of Fisheries and Atmosphere sent a couple of people out to the island to tell us our fishing quota had been cut down to zero. I don't know if you know what that means . . . ."
"After looking at your budget, I do," Ollie interrupted. "It means eighty-five percent of your populace is out of work, and the island is dead."
Gus nodded, his jaw tight. "Exactly." He looked down at his plate, and laid his fork and knife across each other before looking up again. "Dexter Lexcannon was. . . one of the people who came out to deliver the bad news. He was a lawyer hired by the ministry."
Ollie caught the faint hesitation and wondered what it was Gus wasn't saying. He figured eventually he'd find out. Then it sank in just what Gus had said, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. "He worked for the bad guys?"
Gus smiled a little. "Well, he was a lawyer."
Ollie snorted. "Right, then. Happen I'm not surprised to hear that." He looked at Gus' plate with its neatly crossed flatware, and pushed his own plate away. "Tell me the rest on the road. If you can drive and talk."
"Just don't ask me to chew gum, too," Gus said, standing up.
Gus talked and drove, and Ollie listened, and found himself bemused by the tale Gus spun, one that was by turns funny, maddening, and sad. By the time they pulled into a transport cafe near Grand Island, Nebraska to fuel the car, grab sandwiches at a Subway, and switch drivers before heading back to the dual motorway, Ollie had learned a great deal more about Gus. He had also come to realize that he had been selling the other man short. He was much more complex and a hell of a lot stronger than his matinee-idol looks implied. The nightmare was explained: Gus apparently relived his friend's death in his dreams on a regular basis. Also explained were the lines of stress around his eyes, and the premature gray streaking his hair. He'd been trying to keep the island going, virtually single-handedly, for over four years now.
While Gus got petrol, Ollie walked across to the food court, where he had his choice of several varieties of fast food. They'd already had burgers and Mexican on their trip so he opted for the sandwich shop and ordered. There was a national newspaper discarded on a table, so while he waited for the sandwiches he picked it up and glanced at it. A small headline halfway down on the left side caught his eye, "Hostage Drama Ends With Bang."
He turned to the page indicated under the story, and read the small article quickly. It confirmed his guess that the boy, Ozzie, had nicked some dynamite and blasting caps for his last stunt. He'd figured as much, and had worried that someone might have been hurt in the explosion. Explosives weren't something amateurs should muck about with.
He was relieved to read that no one had been seriously injured, particularly none of the children. The article mentioned that eighteen people had been arrested in connection with the incident. That had to include Bentley, Marvin, Duke and all the mercs, but it also meant at least four men had gotten out, other than himself, and he figured they were all from his crew because they'd probably been washed out like him and had sense enough to scarper. It might even mean Ferret had gotten out. That made him smile.
There was no mention that they were looking for others, and to his surprise there was no mention of any missing money. He wondered if they just had figured the money he had was still somewhere in the storm drains. If so, if they really weren't looking for him, or it, he might just get away with this. Except for one little problem. He sighed, wondering how the hell he was going to get himself and all that money across the border without a passport for himself or any sort of documentation for the cash. The clerk cleared his throat, and Ollie realized the food was ready. He put down the paper, picked up a couple of bags of crisps and paid for the lot, then headed back to the car. Gus was already in the passenger seat, so he handed the food over as he got into the driver's seat.
As he started the car he noticed that Gus had settled into a silent, troubled slouch, not even looking at his sandwich, just staring blankly out the window. Leaving the cafe, Ollie saw a sign for a state recreational area called "Mormon Island," indicating that it wasn't far north of where they were. In fact, he'd noticed when they pulled in that there was a forested area and a lake slightly north-east of the road, though he hadn't seen anything that looked like an island. Making an executive decision, he turned north instead of getting back on the interstate.
Taking the marked turn, they passed what looked to be a store made from a train car painted bright yellow, and followed the narrow, winding road most of the way to the lake until he found a spot with a picnic table that was far from any other visitors, though he could see a couple of small boats on the lake that had fishermen in them. He pulled over and set the brake. Gus finally looked up, puzzled, clearly just having noticed they weren't on the motorway.
"Is something wrong?"
Ollie shook his head. "Naught. Just thought it looked like a nice spot to eat lunch and maybe get out the car for a bit, walk about."
Gus frowned a little. "We'll lose time."
Ollie stared back at him blandly. "You in a hurry?"
"I. . . guess not, no," Gus said. He looked out of the car, then back at Ollie with a tentative smile. "Want to grab a couple of bottles of water?"
Ollie nodded and got out of the car, opening the rear door to reach behind the seat for two bottles of water from the stash there. Gus got out too, and stood for a moment, breathing deeply, turning in a circle, surveying their picnic site. It was a pretty place. The trees were mostly leafless, but the few remaining leaves were brilliant gold and bronze, a few red and maroon ones here and there. There was a hint of chill, and the air smelled damp from the nearby lake.
"Nice. Good thinking."
Ollie nodded, pleased that Gus' mind seemed to be off his worries for the moment. They walked over to the picnic table, crunching through a carpet of fallen leave. Ollie took a seat on one of the benches and put the water down. Gus sat down across from him and handed him a sandwich and a bag of chips.
"What'd you get us?" Gus asked, starting to unwrap his own sandwich.
"Roast beef and cheddar. Enough to go on with, I thought."
Gus chuckled. "Believe me, much as I love fish, having it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner can get wearing. This is a treat."
"Why would you eat it three meals a day?" Ollie asked, puzzled.
Gus smiled wryly. "Because it's what there is. Most of my people eat by the grace of the sea. How could I do otherwise?"
Ollie studied Gus for a moment. It wasn't the first time Gus had called the islanders 'his people.' For some reason that triggered a long-buried memory. He unwound the plastic seal from around the top of his bottle of water and took a sip, trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say. "When I was younger my mum told me a lot of stories," he began, then stopped, fairly certain he was about to make a fool of himself.
Gus' eyes came to rest on his face, waiting and intent. "Yes?"
"It's naught, never mind."
"Oh no you don't. It's your turn to talk, and your mother's as good a place as any."
'Well, you're stuck now,' he thought to himself. "It was a long time ago, I might've misunderstood her. It probably makes no sense."
"Life rarely makes sense." Gus said succinctly.
Ollie sighed. "Right, then. Her favorite stories were about ancient times, and kings, and magic and the like. There was one story she told a lot, about a king who had a wound, and so long as it didn't heal, the land couldn't prosper."
Gus stopped with his sandwich halfway to his mouth, staring at Ollie intently. "The Fisher King."
Ollie nodded. "Aye, that's the one. Others too, though. Bran, and William Rufus, some others."
"Your mother sounds like an interesting woman."
"She was smart, went to university and all, but after she married my dad, well, they never lived any place that had a university so she couldn't teach. He was a miner, and had to live where the coal was."
"That must have been difficult for her," Gus said softly.
Ollie nodded. "It was. They had rows about it. She thought she could earn more than he did, and he'd not have to risk his health and life as a miner, but he wouldn't hear of her working."
"He sounds very traditional."
Ollie laughed a little. "That he was."
"So, go on. The Fisher King . . . ?" Gus prompted.
"I've likely got this wrong, it's been a while since I thought of it, but I think she said because the king and the land were one, the land suffered from the king's pain and a sacrifice had to be made to heal the land. Either the king himself would be sacrificed and a new king crowned, or someone else had to sacrifice himself in the king's place and then he and the land would both be healed."
Gus frowned. "Are you saying we need a human sacrifice to make Solomon Gundy prosper?"
Ollie shook his head hard. "No. Im thinking you already had one."
Gus, in the middle of a drink of water, choked, and stared at him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "What?"
"Your friend, Dexter. You said he seemed ready to die, even willing. You said you two had a kind of bond. You saved his life at the hanging, it struck me, what if he saved yours back?" As Gus continued to stare at him in silence, Ollie cleared his throat. "Told you it was naught."
"It's. . . interesting," Gus said weakly. "Strange." He was silent for a moment, then shook his head. "No, there's an obvious flaw in that theory. If Dexter was a willing sacrifice, why haven't we prospered?"
Ollie thought for a moment, staring at some initials carved into the wooden table, and finally looked up again. "Don't know really, only thing I can think is maybe it's because his sacrifice hasn't been acknowledged? You've been taking responsibility for his death, in a way, keeping yourself wounded."
Gus went white, and Ollie wished he'd kept his mouth shut. "I'm a bloody bugger, sorry. I told you, it's all just a lot of fucking crap. Dad always did say Mum was filling my head with useless rubbish."
"I. . . " Gus stopped, shook his head again, and stood up abruptly. "I need to clear my head. I'm going for a walk."
Ollie watched him go, half-tempted to go after him, but he figured he'd done enough damage. He had no idea where all that had come from. He hadn't thought of his mother's stories in nigh on twenty years. Why now? He looked at his sandwich and sighed, re-wrapping it. He did the same with Gus' so the flies wouldn't get at it, and then turned around and leaned back against the table, closing his eyes and letting the slanting autumn sunlight warm him, absently sipping his water now and then. After a few minutes he looked around, and saw Gus a ways off on the lakeshore, sitting with his arms around his knees, staring at the water. Ollie wondered if it made him feel at home, being close to water like that.
The car keys were on the table, and Ollie decided to take advantage of Gus' distraction to go replenish his cash supply. He could see Gus from where the car was, and he'd have plenty of forewarning if he started back. Opening the boot, he followed the same procedure as last time, taking bills from several different stacks to minimize the likelihood that someone could track him from the serial numbers, though now in the daylight it was obvious that the bills weren't sequential. He closed the bag and started to close the boot, then stopped and shot a glance at Gus, who was still motionless on the beach. He had time, finally, to check out the contents of the leather satchel.
He opened it and pulled out the still-slightly damp papers inside, again thankful that he and the satchel had ended up in a storm-drain not a real sewer. They needed to be spread out and dried, but that wasn't going to happen any time soon. He just hoped they didn't mold. As he flipped through the thick stack of identical pages, he noticed that each one started out with the words "Pay to the Bearer." By the time he got to the bottom of the stack his hands had started to shake a little.
"Bloody hell," he whispered. "Bloody fucking hell."
He should definitely have left the satchel behind for the cops to find. A piddly million in small bills was one thing, but a whole fucking satchel full of million-dollar bearer bonds was something else entirely. How could they not be after him now? For that matter, why weren't the rightful owners trumpeting far and wide that they were missing? There hadn't been a word about it in the article!
He started to count to see how many of them there were, then movement caught his eye and he saw Gus stand up. Quickly he replaced all the papers and closed the satchel, and the boot, and by the time Gus had returned he was back at the table, soaking up the sun again. Ollie heard the rustle of paper and plastic as Gus moved their food down onto the bench, then a few seconds later felt the picnic table give behind him. He left his eyes closed but was a bit puzzled. Was Gus lying on the table? They were both quiet for a little while and then finally Gus broke the silence, his voice quiet, but surprisingly close to Ollie's ear.
"You haven't eaten?"
Ollie opened his eyes and turned to look at Gus. God. He was indeed lying on the table. He'd taken off his flannel shirt and wore only a stretched out muscle jersey, and that fucking clerical collar-dickey. It looked simultaneously stupid and sexy. He had his eyes closed, just soaking up the light, and his hair threw shadows on the sleek line of his throat. The skin of his shoulders and chest, where Ollie could see it, was a beautiful honey-gold. He'd been out in the sun. He looked smooth as satin, smooth as caramel. Ollie's mouth watered and he had to swallow before he could speak. "Nah. Wasn't hungry."
Gus nodded amicably. "Sun feels good, doesn't it?"
Ollie nodded. "Yeah."
After a moment of silence, Gus drew a long breath and spoke again, turning his head to look at Ollie this time. "You know, if someone had told me a week ago that I'd be sitting at a picnic table at a wide-spot in the road in the middle of Nebraska talking about Arthurian myth and human sacrifice with a former miner from North Yorkshire, I definitely would not have believed them."
Ollie chuckled. "It does seem a bit whacked, doesn't it?" He sobered abruptly, remembering how Gus had reacted to his last comments. "Look I didn't mean to upset you. Mouth's running ahead of the brain."
Gus shook his head. "No, I'm glad you said something, because in at least one major way I think you're right."
Gus nodded. "I have been trying to take Dexter's death on myself, when really it was, I think, what he wanted. He'd been hinting at it the whole time he was there. If it hadn't happened the way it did, he would have found a way to make it happen some other way. It's just that it seemed so clearly my doing, at the time, my fault. I have to let it go. I have to let him go. Because if I don't, then, as Noelle said, 'Dexter died for nothing,' and that's just not right."
Ollie chanced a look at Gus. He seemed more relaxed than he had before. "Noelle?"
Tension came back, instantly. "She's. . . she was the. . . other person who came out from Ottawa. She worked with Dexter. She was supposed to help retrain the islanders, help them find jobs outside the fishing industry."
Speaking pauses there. Noelle meant something. Something more than an employment counselor. Something Gus didn't want to talk about. Okay. So. . . maybe Gus hadn't been flirting before. Fuck. Too good to be true, for sure. Ah well. Win some, lose some. Gus was still waiting for a response, so Ollie attempted one.
"Looking at your budget, I'd say she'd a ways to go," he ventured cautiously.
Gus sighed. "Yeah. And I'd warned her right from the start that it wouldn't be easy. To train someone for a new job presupposes the existence of new jobs to begin with."
Ollie smiled a little. "You need a . . . "
"Second industry," Gus finished with him, chuckling. "Yeah. I know. You know, I really liked your offshore idea, it's too bad we don't have our own bank."
"You could still go for the software company," Ollie reminded him.
Gus shook his head. "There's that little problem of having all outside contact cut off periodically."
"You're not looking at this right. You've got to play it as an asset," Ollie said. "Say it's a security feature. No one can get in to steal their product while it's under development if there's no outside link to get in through."
Gus stared at him, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. After a moment he shut his mouth and shook his head. "Fuck. Where have you been the last four years? I don't suppose you'd like to become an extremely underpaid consultant for the Republic of Solomon Gundy?"
Ollie laughed. "You can have the consult for free if you hand me that bag of crisps."
Gus opened the bag, got one out and offered it. "For that bit of advice, I'll feed them to you by hand, one by one."
Ollie leaned forward to take the offered snack with a grin and a snap, then grabbed the rest of the bag out of Gus' fingers. "I can feed myself."
"Yes, master," Gus said, getting off the table in a sinuous roll and going to his knees in the dry leaves on the ground at Ollie's feet. "Can your humble servant assist you in any other way?"
Ollie almost choked on his crisp, and had to fight the urge to tell Gus exactly what he could do for him from that position. Gus looked up at him, his eyes bright with humor.
"Too bad we don't have any grapes. I could peel you some."
Grapes were not what Ollie wanted peeled right now. "Never understood what was supposed so brilliant about that," he managed.
Gus' tongue stole out to moisten his lips. "Ever had one?"
"Ah, what?" Ollie asked, trying not to lean down and do the same.
"A peeled grape," Gus said patiently.
"They're sweeter without the skin."
"Doesn't sound as good."
Gus shook his head. "No, it's not. At least not to me. I like a little tartness with the sweet. I find the contrast. . . interesting."
They stared at each other. Out on the motorway a truck sounded its air-horn, the sound shockingly loud even from this distance, and Ollie shook himself. "How far are we going?" he asked a little hoarsely.
Gus lifted his eyebrows suggestively, looking altogether too wicked to be a fucking priest . . . minister . . . whatever . . . and Ollie hastily explained himself. "I mean, where do you want to stop for the night?"
He could almost swear he saw disappointment flicker in Gus' eyes as he got up and dusted leaf-confetti off his knees with a little sigh.
"I'm not sure. What's east of here? Omaha? Des Moines? Not sure what else."
"Want me to get the map?"
"Nah, let's just get back in the car and just drive until we get tired."
Ollie nodded. "You set the schedule, guv."
* * *
Crossroads part II