Many of you may have seen already this – This story was made available Feb 10th 2012 – the download link has now expired, but you can read it here (it’s short).
Getting It Right
copyright Kaje Harper 2012
This Life Lessons story takes place between story 1.5 – And to All a Good Night and Breaking Cover – book 2 in the series.
Detective Jared MacLean pushed back from his desk impatiently. He was done with this. Just done.
The dead woman had called the cops on her ex-husband several times. They’d picked him up for smashing the planters on her porch with a baseball bat. He’d been back out on the street an hour later, without formal charges. She’d gotten a restraining order and reported him twice more for violating it, but both times he was gone before the patrol car showed up, and there were more urgent things for the uniforms to do than track the guy down. More urgent, until the neighbors called about screaming, and by then it was too damned late.
Her friends were going to blame the Minneapolis Police Department, and Mac felt that responsibility deep in his gut. They’d failed Bonnie Wilkins. But so had the rest of the legal system, and a society that tolerated and glorified violence as a way to solve problems. One life ended, one blighted beyond repair. The ex had barely moved as they cuffed his blood-smeared hands behind him. Just blank dead eyes and silence, as they hustled him into the patrol car. Her future and his, both gone.
God, Mac was tired.
The rest of the damned paperwork could wait till tomorrow. He shut down his computer. Thinking about going home lifted a little of the oppressive weight of failure off his shoulders.
This time, he wasn’t heading back to his bleak little attic apartment, where the chilled February air dropped off the single-pane windows like cold death. He was going to Tony’s place. His secret haven. It would be warm at Tony’s, and if he was lucky something good would be cooking in the crock pot. And even better would be the heat of Tony’s arms around him and that smile as Tony looked up at him. Every damned time, coming home to all that cracked a little more of the ice around his heart.
He’d worried for a while it might be a bad thing. That being more open, more emotional, would make his job harder. But instead, it was getting easier to put his game face on for work, knowing that at the end of the day he could take it off again. With Tony he could just be. No hiding, no masks, no pretending he didn’t care and didn’t feel. Best of all, no worries about whether someone might see the gay man underneath the layers of tough cop. Tonight, that sounded like heaven. Well, most nights it did. Pretty much all nights.
His partner Oliver glanced over from the neighboring desk. “Packing it in?”
“Yeah. This is cut and dried. All I’m doing is detailing all the ways we fucked up in protecting Wilkins, until we could arrest her bastard ex for murder. He’s going away now. Pity she’s not around to see it, but them’s the breaks.”
Oliver sighed and came over to sit on Mac’s desk. “You’ve got to let it go. I keep telling you that. You’ll fry your brain otherwise. Just make sure every fucking i is dotted and every t is crossed, so he doesn’t walk. And then let it go.” He slid Mac’s coffee mug aside and settled in more comfortably. “So, did you hear about Hanson? Apparently he was taking his new girlfriend out to dinner, and it turned out his other girlfriend had just gotten a job as a waitress there. Hanson had to do some fancy tap dancing to make it slide by.”
“How do you know about that?” Mac wasn’t really interested in Hanson’s harem, but Oliver’s ability to dig up gossip was fascinating.
“Heard him talking to the new girl on the phone. Buttering her up. Sounds like the girls already know he’s not exclusive, but this one didn’t like having her face rubbed in it. Hanson’s going to have to come up with something spectacular for Valentine’s tomorrow to make up for it.”
“I guess.” It probably could get expensive, stringing along multiple women. Not a problem Mac had ever had, thank God.
“So what are you getting your girl?”
Oliver grinned at him. “You’ve got to be seeing someone, right? I’ve seen you come in with that completely fucked-out look lately.”
Never fucked out with Tony. Mac shrugged with careful nonchalance. “No special girl. No one I have to buy stuff for. Fortunately.” His money did go a little further these days, with Tony cooking most nights. Eating out had been a budget-killer that he’d had a hard time resisting when he was alone. Now he had no desire to go out, when eating at home meant watching Tony wrap his lips around a forkful of something… Mac dragged his mind away from the thought of Tony’s lips.
“Doesn’t matter how casual it is,” Oliver said. “If you’ve gone on a date with a girl and so much as held her hand, she wants something on Valentine’s Day. It’s like a rule.”
Still not Mac’s problem. Or— suddenly his brain stuttered— was it? After all, Tony was a romantic. He loved all the little being-together gestures. Mac had once gone digging in Tony’s bedside drawer when the lube fell in it, and he’d come across what looked like every casual note he’d ever left the man. Even little scraps of paper with, “Gone running. Back in 30 min. M.” on them were tucked away in there. So would Tony expect something for Valentine’s Day?
Mac had always figured it was a day for women. All that red and pink and sparkly stuff was about ten miles away from what a guy was interested in. But maybe he should get Tony a card. Or something.
Oliver snickered. “You have that deer-in-the-headlights look. You do have someone you should buy for, don’t you?”
“No!” Mac stood abruptly. “You’re deluded. Also wrong. I was thinking about Anna. I should get her something.” And that was true, too. At least for his little daughter, he could go for shiny pink sparkles, and know that that her heart would be satisfied. Sometimes dealing with a four-almost-five year old was easier than knowing how to handle a grown man.
He picked his jacket off the back of his chair, ignoring the part of his brain chanting, “Often. Handle him often. And naked. You could handle…” He wasn’t thinking about that at work. He held the jacket draped in front of him. “I need to get to a store, buy Anna a teddy bear or a tiara or something. Thanks for the reminder.”
Oliver slid off the desk, shoving back a few papers that tried to head to the floor. “You’re welcome. Man, sometimes I wish my boys were that age again. They’ll be buying valentines for their own girlfriends soon enough. Or maybe even now. They don’t tell me that stuff.” His face fell. Mac knew he saw his sons less often than he’d like. But then he winked with deliberate cheer. “Not that this gets you off the hook. I know the look of a man trying to figure out what a woman wants. Who is she?”
That evidence that Oliver didn’t actually have a crystal ball would’ve been more reassuring if it hadn’t hit so close to home. What did Tony want? Mac sometimes felt like his very breath depended on figuring out the answer to that question. But he wouldn’t ask, because he was too damned scared to hear the answer.
Tony wants a real boyfriend, out in the open.
That wasn’t going to happen— couldn’t happen— but maybe Mac should get something nice, something to say thanks for putting up with me. Give it to Tony tomorrow. Or not. He’d have to sleep on it. Maybe hint around, feel Tony out. Feel Tony up… He abruptly shrugged on his parka and zipped it. “There is no she. See you tomorrow, partner.”
Tony averted his glance from the scarlet-and-black corseted dummy in the display window of the store, and stepped inside. The influence of Valentine’s the next day had clearly brought out a plethora of pinks and reds. His gaze slid over edible underwear and pink vibrators, and winced away from a pair of cuffs lined with fluffy, crimson fur. So not his tastes, or Mac’s.
He headed farther back, wondering whether he was doing the right thing. He’d been planning to ignore the holiday. After all, it was really unlikely to be something Mac cared about. V-Day had been a non-event for most of Tony’s friends over the years, unless they had a girlfriend to placate. A few loathed it, the majority could care less, and only a couple had reveled in the chance to indulge.
But one of those guys was the reason he was in here, looking at sex toys. Because after mulling the whole V-Day thing over and deciding not to be stupid about it, he’d pulled out his phone to call and ask Marty what he thought. He’d had his finger poised over the screen. Remembering there’d be no answer had stopped his breath. Half a year with an empty hole in his life where his best friend had been, and he still had that dumb reflex to speed-dial lucky 7. Shouldn’t I have quit doing that? Apparently some subconscious idiot down inside him still hadn’t moved out of the denial stage.
And then he’d held the phone in his hand and just sat there. He could hear Marty in his head. “How do you expect the man to learn to be romantic if you don’t nudge him along? Come on Tony, what could it hurt? You should get him something. Doesn’t have to be sweet and pink, you know. Buy a red dildo, if you think that would make your man light up. But get something. You have to teach him how to be part of a couple.”
Marty had been an incurable optimist, and one of the weird guys who loved V-Day. But he’d also often been right.
So, nothing too sappy, nothing that would make Mac feel trapped. Tony had held back the impulse to grab one of the silly valentines he helped Ben choose for his kindergarten class. Because even something as simple as “Bee mine” was pushing Mac a little too far. Tony knew very well, almost viscerally, that he had to go slow with Mac.
Mac still liked to pretend that this thing they had together was all about sex— or at least mostly about sex. So he’d get a sex toy. A sex something. Tony glanced around at the displays.
“Can I help you?”
The saleswoman was pert, blond and…um…enhanced. Even Tony’s attention was drawn to that spectacular endowment. He dragged his gaze back up to her amused eyes. “I think I’ll just look around, thanks.”
“If you need help with sizes or anything, let me know.”
“Thanks. But I’m good.” Tony turned away to hide his blush at having stared, even though she must be used to that from guys. He was the one flustered by noticing a woman’s boobs, even in an “I wonder why she doesn’t tip over forward” way… which was unkind and he needed to stop thinking about her.
The few other shoppers in the place were all women. Would they consider that saleswoman advertising or competition? Or, judging by the loud discussion between the two brunettes in the video section, perhaps they wouldn’t even notice. He wondered why they were searching for a DVD with the ugliest men. Doing the same thing as he was probably, trying to find something their own guys would appreciate. Only not mentally babbling and procrastinating like he was.
Which brought him back to the problem at hand. Marty had suggested… Marty in his head had suggested a dildo. And sure, Tony figured he could probably give Mac a pretty hot show with one of those. But it didn’t seem right somehow. For a man who’d spent a decade having sex with bar-pickups, there was something old-fashioned about Mac. He would watch Tony play, and probably like it, but he wouldn’t join in. Tony needed something more interactive.
What he eventually brought up to the cash register was small, and not blatant. Unlike the large vibrator and bright pink corset the elderly woman ahead of him bought. His mind boggled slightly, but go her, right? Whether they were for a girlfriend or herself. He turned his attention to the suggestive keychain display. Nope. Although he snickered at the thought of watching Mac attach his keys to a little rubber dick with a miniature Prince Albert. That would last till he was an inch out the door, right?
When it was Tony’s turn, the saleswoman rang up his purchase with a smile. “Just one? There’s a mixed pack.”
“This is fine.” At least he hoped it was. Should he plan a fancy dinner for tomorrow too? Or treat it like just another day, in case Mac really did want to ignore it? Was there a middle ground? Was he going to go crazy overthinking every aspect of this relationship? Tony stuffed the bag in his coat pocket and headed out to buy steaks.
Mac stood in front of the card rack in Target. He had a large, white teddy-bear awkwardly tucked under one arm. He’d asked Tony last night what he should get for Anna.
Tony rolled up on his elbow and smiled. “Other than a stuffed animal?”
“She has so many of those.”
“She loves her ‘stuffies’. Especially the ones you buy her. It’s like buying her a hug. I don’t think she gets enough of those from Brenda.”
Mac winced. “I hug her.”
Tony had kissed his cheek. “Yeah, you do. It’s one of the things I love about you, the kind of dad you are with Anna. But she still spends most of her time without you. Buy her something big she can snuggle.”
Tony was pretty intuitive about what other people needed. Mac wasn’t willing to bet against him. Which explained the huge, fuzzy, pink-bowtied bear Mac was holding, as he tried to find a card to express how he felt about the man.
Of course, it’d be easier if he had a good handle on how he did feel about Tony. They were friends, for sure. Despite their differences, Tony was the best friend he’d ever had, the first guy he could really relax around and be himself. In fact, the man had become a downright addiction. There was nothing more important than beginning and ending his day in Tony’s arms. Well, except Anna and his work.
But all those red cards with the word “love” on them felt like too much. Could you call it love when you had to hide it? When you knew it couldn’t last, that it was just on borrowed time?
Now lust— he had no problem calling it that, none at all. He eyed a card with a shirtless blond guy showing off his six-pack on the front. The model was a little too polished and waxed for Tony’s tastes, but very hot.
A woman reached for the card at the same moment and their fingers collided. She grinned at him. “It takes a secure man to buy that for his girlfriend. I want it for a single friend of mine. I figure the fantasy is as close as she’ll get this Valentine’s.”
Mac pulled his hand back, and watched as she snickered at the sentiment inside the card. Maybe not. If Tony was going to have Valentine’s fantasies, that shiny pretty-boy was damned well not going to star in them. Mac walked away from the cards. Something else. He needed to find something else for Tony. Something right, no matter how long it took to find it.
That evening, he parked his car on the street two blocks down from Tony’s apartment. He was lucky to get the spot. Snow-emergency parking had made good-side-of-the-street parking like hitting the lottery. He switched off the engine.
The big stuffed bear had been a hit. Well, Brenda complained about the size, but Anna loved it. Mac had a picture on his phone of his little girl with her arms wrapped as far as they would go around that bear’s neck. She’d named it Poly-Pop. Her smile had been worth every penny.
Now it was time to see if his other gift was a hit. Although, he still wasn’t sure if Tony cared about Valentine’s Day. Even when they’d talked about Anna’s gift, Tony hadn’t dropped a single hint, not one suggestion, not even a waggled eyebrow. So maybe it would be better to hide the bag in his coat, until Tony said something first.
Before he could open the door, his phone rang. He glanced at the ID. Oliver. Huh. “What’s up?”
“Just thought you might be interested to know. Wilkins’ ex-husband tried to kill himself, almost succeeded.”
“How the hell? He was in custody.”
“I heard they were transferring him, crossing a parking lot. A bus was pulling in. He dove under the wheel. They don’t know if he’ll make it.”
“Yeah. I’d say he deserved it, but that’s pretty harsh.”
“So’s what he did.”
“True.” Oliver’s voice shifted from serious to teasing. “So are you sitting outside some woman’s house, trying to decide whether to give her whatever sorry Valentine’s gift you came up with?”
Mac jerked. If Oliver was going to become that psychic, Mac was in deep, deep trouble. “Even if I was— which I’m not— it’d be closer than you’re going to get to a woman tonight.”
Oliver sighed. “Too true. Well, if you are, get the fuck on in there and kiss her. Women will forgive anything if you kiss them enough. Give her an extra one for me.”
Oliver had no idea what he was suggesting. “How about you stay the fuck out of my nonexistent love life? Concentrate on your own nonexistent love life.”
“We’re a pathetic pair. Have fun with your Netflix, or porn. Or y’know, your girlfriend, whatever. See you tomorrow.”
Mac put the phone back in his pocket, but despite the chill seeping into the car, he didn’t get out.
So fate or karma or something had made up for the department’s deficiencies and taken care of Wilkins’ ex-husband. Only too damned late.
Love and hate. They were impossible to understand.
If the bastard was so sorry for what he did that he tried to kill himself afterward, why the hell had he beaten her to death in the first place? How did anyone get to that point, with someone they’d loved? Mac had been blazing mad at Tony a time or two. Madder than at anyone else in his life, maybe, because fighting with Tony could cut to the bone, like no one else ever had. But he would never put so much as a bruise on Tony’s fair skin… he shook his head.
What made someone feel entitled to hand out a beating?
He had a sudden flashback to the old kitchen, when he was small. Of his father’s hand catching Mom across the cheek almost casually, and his father’s voice. “It’s the wrong damned beer. What’s the matter, you too lazy to go buy the right one?” What had that been? Too casual for hate. Surely not love. And yet his father had been violently possessive, and Mom said she loved him. All this time as a cop, and Mac still couldn’t figure relationships out. He shook his head. It was no wonder he couldn’t work out where he and Tony stood.
Suddenly he wanted the answer to be, together right now. No worries about the long term, no looking ahead. Just him and Tony in that familiar apartment, with the door closed. Tony’s voice and Tony’s laugh making the rest of the day fall away. He grabbed the small bag off the passenger seat, stuffed it in his pocket, and got out quickly. Two snowy blocks to home.
Tony pulled the butter out of the fridge and set it on the counter to soften, next to the loaf of French bread. The sleeve of his robe dragged on the counter and he shrugged it a little higher on his shoulder. He hoped he was doing this right. He might be making a big mistake.
But he was certain there was a streak of the romantic in Mac, even if it was buried deep. Look at that book Mac had given him for Christmas. The Front Runner had to be one of the most loving gay relationships in literature. And Tony was going to completely ignore the fact the book ended in pain and tragedy.
Mac wouldn’t have picked that book if he really thought what they had together was only about fucking. Tonight, Tony was going to see if he couldn’t use the sex to find the romantic guy underneath. Gradually. With lots of sex. He’d been aroused for the last hour, anticipating.
When he heard Mac’s key in the door, he glanced over and took a deep breath. Showtime.
Mac came in, bringing the chill of the outside air on his coat even after two hallways and an elevator. Tony went and hugged him anyway, and kissed his neck. “Hey, is it getting colder out there?”
“Yeah. It’s nice and clear tonight, gonna be a frigid one.” Mac disengaged and went to kick off his shoes, hang up his coat in the closet, and then stow his weapon under the sink. Tony followed him into the kitchen.
Mac cocked an eye at his bathrobe. “Are you just out of the shower?”
Tony ran a nervous hand over the terrycloth on his hip. “In a way. A little while ago.”
Mac sniffed appreciatively. “Something smells good. Dinner?”
“Stopped at the bakery for French bread. It’s still warm.”
Mac stuffed his holster into the safe after the gun, locked it, and came to wrap his arms around Tony. “I love that smell. It makes me think of home.” He buried his nose in Tony’s neck. “So do you.”
“Oh!” That got Tony, right where he lived. Fuck yeah, there’s a romantic in there. “Kiss me properly, damn it.”
For a long time, they just stood there, letting their mouths remember each other’s taste and feel. Finally Mac leaned back, his arms locked securely around Tony. “Oliver told me a woman will forgive anything if you kiss her enough.”
“Do you need to be forgiven for something?”
“Not sure. Maybe I’ll make a deposit on account.”
“Might work.” Tony tipped his head up again for Mac’s kiss. Yeah, even better.
Eventually Mac sighed and licked Tony’s neck under his ear. “I’m torn between being hungry and being…hungry. And why the robe?”
“Um. It’s your Valentine’s present.”
Mac stepped back and looked him up and down. “Not complaining. You know I like you with bare feet and all. But unless I’m wrong, that’s your old robe.”
“What’s under it is new.”
Mac’s eyes lit up. Then he said, “Wait. My turn first.” He went to the hall closet and rummaged around in his coat. When he came back he had a little paper bag, which he held out to Tony. “It’s not much.” He looked tentative, and the way he bit the corner of his lower lip was just freaking adorable.
“Whatever. You got me something for Valentine’s Day. I’m going to savor the moment.”
“Don’t make a big deal out of it.” But Mac seemed to relax a bit.
Tony reached into the bag. His fingers slipped over cool hardness. Surprised, he carefully lifted out a piece of polished carved stone. It was a little statue of two wolves. One slept, curled in a ball so tight that its nose was buried under one hind paw. The other lay awake, its body protectively curved around the sleeping wolf, but head up and alert, ears pricked, eyes open. The shapes were perfect and yet slightly stylized, not kitschy or cute. The stone was a softly veined gray.
Tony turned it over. On the flat base, a round paper label gave the artist’s bio and name. Ken Anawak. Tony would have to remember him. He looked more closely and realized the paper was folded, held by a clear sticker. Tony popped the edge free. Inside was the date of the work and the title. “Guarding his mate.”
“Wow.” He looked up to see Mac’s dark eyes watching him. Had Mac known the title of the piece when he bought it? Tony decided not to ask. He ran a fingertip over the guardian wolf’s head. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“It’s not romantic or anything. I mean, I figured you wouldn’t want anything sappy. I just liked it.”
“It’s perfect.” Tony folded the label carefully under, pressed the seal back down, and set the little statue on the shelf that held his wine glasses. The wolf’s gaze looked steadily back at him. “Exactly right.”
Mac probably didn’t mean his sigh of relief to be quite that obvious. “So. You got something for me?”
“Now I’m embarrassed. Because I was even less romantic.”
“That’s fine. That’s good. I don’t go for romantic stuff anyway.”
“Well hopefully you’ll go for this.” Tony slipped open the knot of his belt and slid his robe off his shoulders.
“Um. What is it? You look… interesting.”
“Just interesting?” Tony slid a finger across his own bare chest, over the slightly sticky red shapes drawn there. He’d done a few spirals, and arrows. So sue him, he’d done some hearts. And Mac’s name in cursive across his left pec. A couple of years of writing over his shoulder on the whiteboard while keeping his eye on his class made writing backwards familiar, but he’d checked in a double mirror.
Mac touched the spot with his name lightly. “I like having you branded here. But it’s clearly not a tattoo.”
“Edible body paint. This particular red is strawberry-brandy flavor. I tasted it. It’s pretty good.” Tony pointed at the spiral around his right nipple. “Try some.”
Mac lowered his head, rasping over Tony’s skin with his tongue. Tony leaned back and arched into that hot, wet stroke.
“Mmm,” Mac said. “Not bad. Like strawberry liqueur.”
Tony dropped the robe all the way to the floor, and pointed at an arrow angled from his hip. “That way.”
Mac’s smile could have powered a lighthouse. “I see you went to town with it.”
“Waste not, want not.” Tony touched the ruby stripe up the length of his aching erection. He’d been hard for an hour, thinking about Mac licking that one off. “There’s more left.”
“How much more? Can I do some? I always wanted to do graffiti, never had the nerve.”
“Sure. I’ll be your canvas. Your, um, concrete underpass.”
Mac snorted, but Tony could see his big cop’s slacks were looking uncomfortably tight.
Tony glided his tongue across his lower lip, sensuously. “I might even paint you too, if you ask nicely. It’s hard to get this stuff off. Takes a lot of licking.” Tony rubbed at the smeared paint where his pec was wet from Mac’s mouth, then sucked on his sticky fingertip.
“Damn.” Mac grabbed Tony’s other hand. “I want to lay you down and eat my dessert first.”
“Works for me.”
Hand in hand, laughing but painfully aroused, Tony let his lover pull him toward the bedroom. The sheets were clean, dark enough to hide stains, and the little pot of paint was waiting at the bedside. He lifted their clasped hands to kiss Mac’s knuckles. Happy Valentine’s Day, Mac.
From its shelf in the kitchen, reflected and refracted in the surrounding glassware, the guardian wolf watched them go, into the heart of his domain.