Taz was walking down North High Street, lost in thought, when the door to The Chamber burst open, startling the shit out of him. A group of men stepped out onto the sidewalk, bringing with them a gust of laughter. The group looked incongruous coming from The Chamber dressed as they were in khakis and purple vests.
The Chamber was a sex/Gothic store; they sold whips, chains, ball gags, Tripp pants, corsets and short skirts, porn—GLBT and straight—and more. Taz fondly remembered buying some edible underwear from The Chamber once. It was his favorite sex store.
"Did you really need all of that, Dekk?" one of the men asked, laughter in his voice.
He knew that voice. It belonged to—
"Tepin! Shush! Or shall I mention what caught your eye in there?"
"Nothing caught my—”
"Amun, did you happen to see the big, green v—”
"Okay! I'm sorry!" Tepin said desperately.
Taz wanted to laugh at the embarrassment etched on Tepin's beat-red face. He was just so cute. He hadn't figured him to be a blusher, and the sight was oddly endearing.
He must have made a sound because Tepin's head whipped up, his gray eyes locking on Taz's own honey-whiskey eyes. Electricity arced between them, and his breath hitched. As he lost himself in the gray gaze, the world fell away until it was just Taz and Tepin. His heart beat faster, and heat pooled down into his cock, making him almost rock hard.
Tepin's eyes darkened, until they were more of a charcoal color, and Taz knew where his thoughts had strayed, because he was thinking about the same thing: sex. Hot and hard, sweaty bodies moving together in perfect synchrony. His ears were ringing with the harmony of two voices panting and moaning their pleasure. He could almost feel Tepin's body moving above him, under him, in him, his hard body slick with sweat, as they rode each other to completion.
Tepin looked away, breaking the intense eye contact, and with it, the spell. Taz felt his cheeks heat.
"Tepin, where are your manners? Introduce us."
"Taz, this is my brother, Dekklahn. Dekk, this is my—ah, this is Theodore, though he goes by Taz."
"This is him?" Dekklahn was looking at Taz, but his question was directed at Tepin.
"Yes, this is him."
"Damn, he's sexy. When are you bringing him home?"
Taz narrowed his eyes at Tepin's brother. "He is standing right here. And he hasn't agreed to go anywhere with anyone."
Dekk looked back at Taz, his lips curved into a sheepish grin. "I apologize. I should have spoken directly to you."
Dekklahn looked sincere, and Taz found his irritation slipping away. "Apology accepted," he said grudgingly.
"So, Taz," Dekk said nonchalantly. "Why haven't you agreed to come home with my brother?"
Tepin groaned. "Dekk, leave it alone. This is between Taz and myself."
"And all of Nefer and Hotep," he said, grinning.
"Shut up," he grumbled.
Taz would have been amused if Dekklahn's question hadn't reminded him of his life falling apart. One minute he'd been happy with his life. He'd gotten good grades all throughout school, made valedictorian, and had won a scholarship to almost any school he wanted. He was well on his way to realizing his dream of becoming a social worker. But then, in the blink of a storm-gray eye, everything changed. He no longer knew who he was.
In that moment, as Taz watched the interaction between Tepin and his brother, he hated him. Hated the way Tepin knew who he was. Hated that he knew where he belonged. It wasn't fair that Tepin should be so happy with his life when Taz's own was crumbling down around him.
Although okay. Taz knew it wasn't really Tepin's fault, and it was childish to blame the messenger, but that's how he felt.
"So?" Dekk prompted, breaking into his thoughts.
"You never answered my question."
Dekk rolled his eyes. "I asked you why you haven't agreed to go with my brother."
"Oh. That question," Taz said inanely. "I haven't agreed to go with him for a number of reasons."
"What might those reasons be?"
"One, I don't know him. Two, I just found out about all this. Three, I don't trust him. Four... He hasn't asked me to go anywhere."
"Ah. That's all rectifiable," Dekklahn said with a decidedly wicked smile gracing his handsome face.
"Dekklahn..." Tepin said warningly, his voice almost a growl.
"What?" Dekk asked, his eyes wide as he tried to look innocent. It didn't work.
"Do not do anything."
"I wouldn't dream of it, habibi."
When Tepin looked back over at him, something inside Taz twisted just a little. Must be the tacos I had for lunch, he told himself. No way do I feel something for this man I just met. Not this man, at least. No way would he feel something for the man who had turned his world upside down.
"Theo—Taz, would you like to go somewhere and talk? Without my dolt of a brother?"
Taz hesitated. He wanted to go with him somewhere alone, and he hated himself for it. He didn't want to like the man who had irrevocably changed his life. But they needed to talk. Taz needed to know who he was and where he came from. And since he wanted to talk to his parents even less, Tepin seemed to be the best person to get answers from.
"Okay," he finally said.
"Great." Turning, Tepin looked at the four other men who Taz had completely forgotten about. With Tepin's back to him, Taz was surprised to see he had long auburn hair, longer than was normal for a man. In fact, it was so long, that even with it French braided as it was now, it reached the backs of his knees. "Amun, Fadil, Gahiji, Sadiki. I am counting on you to keep an eye on my brother. Get him a room in the hotel I'm staying at. Actually, get two rooms. With double beds if they have them. Close together. That way, two of you can stay on guard, while the other two rest."
"Yes, Your Highness," one of them answered, bowing.
"Have fun, Tepin. Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Dekklahn sing-songed.
Rolling his eyes, Tepin started walking down the street.
As Taz fell into step beside him, Tepin asked, "So, where do you want to go?"
"I don't know," he said, shrugging. "Somewhere quiet."
"No. Connor's parents are visiting for the weekend. They got here about an hour after you left earlier."
"Connor lives with you?" Tepin asked, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk.
Taz stopped walking, too, and turned back to look at him. The look in Tepin's eyes was one of horrified confusion. Puzzled by his reaction, he said, "Tepin? Are you okay?"
"You live with him?" he finally managed to get out.
Taz sighed in exasperation. "Yeah. It's the only way I could afford the apartment."
"But," Tepin said, his brows knitting in confusion, "you have plenty of money!"
"No," Taz said sharply. "I don't have plenty of money. I didn't grow up in a castle." He paused, took a deep, calming breath, then let it out slowly. "I grew up as a middle-class American. Dane, my brother, was born with two holes in his heart," he said quietly. "My parents are trying to find the money for the operation he needs to get the holes sewn up. I've been giving them part of my paycheck to help. So no, I don't have plenty of money."
Tepin was silent for a moment; then, he said quietly, "I'm sorry."
Taz looked into his eyes, and he could see the truth in Tepin's words. He sighed, his anger sliding away as fast as it had slithered around him. "It's okay." And surprisingly, it was.
They began walking again, side by side, and the silence e between them was companionable. Taz found his thoughts wandering to his birth parents. There was so much he wanted to know about them. What were they like? Did they have any other kids? If so, had they given them up, too? He didn't even know their first names.
Shaking his head clear of these melancholy thoughts, he turned to look at Tepin and asked, "Do you want a hot chocolate?"
"Sure," Tepin responded. "Sounds great."
"Good. Brandon's Café has the best hot chocolate. And it's cheap."
Half a block later, they arrived at Brandon's Café. It was a quaint little shop that sold small pastries, coffee, and hot chocolate. There were three booths along the right and left walls, and one on either side of the door. There were four two-seater tables, total, and in the center, dead ahead of the door, was the glass counter. The counter held pastries inside it. On top of the counter were displays of candy bars, brochures for charities and health, and cookies. Also on top of the glass counter were two cash registers. Behind the only open register stood a tall, gangly redhead. The young woman had one of those sweet, angelic faces, complete with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
"Hi! Welcome to Brandon's Café!" she greeted them cheerfully.
Taz grinned. "Hey, Sheila! Brandon's got you manning the register today?"
"Yeah. Dad's in the back, going over some paperwork."
"Tepin, meet Sheila, Brandon's daughter. Sheila, this is Tepin."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sheila," Tepin said.
"Why, hello there, handsome," Sheila purred, taking his outstretched hand.
Taz felt an irrational flare of jealousy as Sheila held Tepin's hand longer than was strictly necessary. He barely managed to bite back a growl.
"He prefers rainbows, babe," he said, his lips curved into a tight smile.
Her lips puckered into a playful pout. "You get all the sexy ones, Taz."
Tepin blushed. "Um... Thank you..."
"Speak for yourself. Danny is pretty sexy."
"Speaking of Danny..." Sheila smiled, her pretty blue eyes softening.
"Mommy!" a little voice called from behind them.
Taz turned in time to see little Devin running up to the counter, a blue teddy bear held securely to his chest in his left hand, an open container of Nesquik chocolate milk in his right. Devin was a four-year-old version of his father, Danny; black hair that refused to conform to any semblance of order, brown eyes, high cheekbones, a nose that was slightly too big, and he was a little tall for his age.
"Mommy, Mommy! Guess whut Daddy and-and-and I?" Devin looked back to his father, his brown eyes huge.
"That's right, Dev. It's 'Daddy and I'," Danny said, ruffling the kid's unruly black hair.
Devin grinned toothily, then turned back to his mother. "Guess whut Daddy and I sawed—”
"Saw," Taz corrected gently.
"—saw today, Mommy!"
"What? What did you see?" Sheila asked, sounding almost as excited as her son.
"We sawed—saw—a baby ducky!"
"Oh, wow! A baby ducky? Where?”
“At the pawk!"
"Park," Danny said.
"Paw—puh—” Devin scrunched up his nose in concentration, determined to get the word right. "Park. Park! Park, park, park!" Devin said, jumping up and down happily at finally getting the pronunciation right. His chocolate milk spilled out of its bottle, arcing through the air. Taz held his breath as the drink landed on Tepin's vest.
Tepin blinked down at his vest, as if not quite believing the chocolate drink now staining the purple fabric.
"Devin, settle down!" Sheila said, a little too sharply. The little boy looked up at her over the counter he could barely see over, his lips quivering. She sighed, and, in a much gentler voice, said, "Devin, honey, what have we told you about jumping when you have an open drink?"
"Sowwy, Mommy," he said dejectedly, his eyes brimming with tears.
"Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Mr. Tepin."
"It is okay," Tepin said. Taz nudged him, and when Tepin looked up, he shook his head. The kid had to learn.
Devin turned to look at Tepin, a tear rolling down his cheek. "I'm sowwy, Mr. Tepin," he said, in a small voice.
Tepin knelt down, so he was at the little boy's level, surprising Taz. He looked Devin in the eye as he said, "It is okay. I forgive you."
Devin stared at him, his watery eyes wide.
"Devin, I think you have something behind your ear."
Shaking his head, Devin said, "Nuh-uh."
"Yes-huh. It is shiny. Let me—” In a move that completely surprised Taz again, Tepin pulled a quarter out from behind Devin's ear. He'd had no idea Tepin knew magic tricks. Or that he was so good with children... Taz felt his heart melt a little.
He hadn't thought it was possible for the little boy's eyes to get any wider, but they did when he saw the quarter.
"Wow," he said, completely awestruck.
Tepin held the quarter out to him. "Since I found it behind your ear, you may keep it. If,” he hastily added, looking up at first Danny, and then Sheila, "your mommy and daddy says it's okay."
Turning to look up at his parents, he said, "May I? Pwe—pretty please?"
Sheila and Danny shared a look between them, one of those legendary, romance-novel looks, where the couple seems to have a whole conversation without saying a single word. Finally, Sheila looked down at her son. "You may keep it, but," she said when Devin started to squeal, "you have to remember to not jump anymore while you are holding an open drink. Am I clear?"
"Yes, Mommy," Devin said, then he turned back to Tepin, who still knelt down at his level. He took the coin and put it in his zippered knee pocket. Looking up at Taz, he said, "Uncle Taz, will you pease—please hold Bonkers and my drink?"
"Sure, pardner," Taz said, taking the bear and the drink.
Tepin had started to rise back to his feet, but Devin threw his arms around Tepin's neck, dragging him back down some. Startled, he wrapped his arms around the little boy, his eyes darting to Taz's. Taz grinned, shrugging. Devin planted a big, wet, slightly sticky kiss on Tepin's cheek.
"Thank you, Mr. Tepin."
"You are very welcome, Devin."
A moment later, Devin was wiggling to get down, so Tepin set him on the ground.
"Sheila, we better get going before his shirt dries," Taz said. "Can—May we have two hot chocolate specials, please?"
"Coming right up, Sugar Pie."