Railfans

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/300096.html)

Isaiah startled back to alertness when the shop bell jingled. It almost never jingled; the only reason the Rook City Miniature Railyard stayed open the few days it did was because he had nothing better to do. Not many people in downtown Rook had an interest in model trains, but the building had been paid for before the bigger, fancier leases moved in, so whenever the mood struck him Isaiah would head down and open the shop for a few hours to process customer orders or dust the shelves or whatever else he felt like. He straightened his shirt and put on his best niche-retail smile.

“Hey, welcome. Let me know if you want me to order something.” It’d taken him a while to find the perfect balance of courteous and casual. The few customers he saw that weren’t curious looky-loos bleeding in from the more gentrified storefronts appreciated it, and those few customers were the people who made it worth opening up shop in the first place.

Of course, most customers didn’t have weirdly familiar voices. “Isaiah? Isaiah Price? Holy shit, it is you.”

“Zack?” Zachary Green was taller and heavier than he’d been in high school, but aside from that (and the beard, which didn’t look too bad on him, if Isaiah was going to be honest with himself) he was still the same Zack Isaiah’d gone fishing with during the summers and swapped math notes with during the school year. At some point between the last time they’d spoken in person and right then he’d shaved his head completely bald, which was a look Isaiah suspected he was too white and goony-looking to pull off himself; on Zack, though, it worked, because Zack had always had a knack for making anything work. When he’d woken up that morning, Isaiah hadn’t put “reunite with childhood best friend” on his to-do list, but it seemed worth penciling it in.

Zack shook some of the sleet off his fancy sports jacket—what team it represented Isaiah didn’t know—and leaned on the counter. “Wow, how long has it been? Eight years, nine? Senior year was forever ago.”

That was one way to put it. There’d been different colleges in their futures, and while at first they kept up with each other pretty well they’d gotten wrapped up in their own lives, which meant falling out of touch, which meant just kind of forgetting each other existed after enough time had passed. He would’ve felt guilty if Zack weren’t just as responsible for things drying up as he was.

“More like nine and a half. What brings you back to Rook this time of year? Visiting family?”

“Ah, that’s part of it. Aunt Matilda decided to pack up and head to Louisiana to spend the rest of her days wrestling gators or something, so she left me her place. I got transferred down here recently so the timing couldn’t be better.” He glanced around the store, which made Isaiah thankful for keeping up with the dusting. “You run this place now?”

Isaiah shook his head. “Technically I just keep tabs on the place while the owner does whatever,” he said. “Most of the time he’s busy doing whatever, so I don’t technically have to come in unless someone’s waiting on a special order or we’re expecting a delivery truck.” He gestured broadly at the racks of model locomotive parts and bagged-up plastic scenery. “Most of the locals don’t care about putting together tiny train sets, but between the handful of regulars and a few wargame nerds I see in here buying terrain pieces, we do okay. Gives me something to do.”

“What, you gave up on the Great American Novel already?” asked Zack. That more than anything was a reminder of just how long it’d been since last they talked.

“Wrote a little, did okay, and my muse had the decency to wait until I told the stories I really wanted to before burning out. That was my cue to come home.”

Zack nodded. “So what’s ‘a little’ mean when it comes to your writing?” It was a valid question; back in the day Isaiah had kept entire three-ring binders full of printouts, most covered with highlighter and pen where he’d edited them by hand during his free time. Zack had been pressed into reading some of them before Isaiah had gotten too self-conscious about showing off unfinished work.

Well, no sense in being humble if Zack was expressing interest. “Two books which made some charts and some short stories which didn’t. Most of my income is actually from royalties. If you keep your expenses low you can live off that kind of money indefinitely.”

“That’s great!” said Zack, and his smile went all the way up to his eyes the way it used to back when they’d skip out of study hall to go joyriding in Isaiah’s borrowed car. “Really great. I’m happy for you, man. A guy like you deserves it.”

Isaiah had heard that line before, back when he’d first gotten the acceptance letter to Columbia after a week of idly planning with Zack which of the local community colleges was worth their time. Of course, two days later Zack had gotten the good news from Auburn, so they were both pretty much set. They’d not talked about their futures much, at least not beyond wishing each other good luck at their respective schools, to try and keep things from getting weird. It’d still been a little weird anyway.

“Just dropping in to window-shop today?” asked Isaiah, because otherwise the moment would’ve stretched out far too long.

Zack shrugged, which made the sleeves of his jacket crinkle. He must’ve been transferred recently if he hadn’t even broken it in yet. “Yes and no,” he said. “I was amazed to see you could still find a place like this in RC, especially with the new crowd coming through and contributing to the booming industry in bespoke artisan everything.” Isaiah himself was rather fond of some of his neighboring newer businesses, especially the brewpub that kept its televisions on the Game Show Network for some ineffable reason, but he’d be a liar if he said he didn’t miss some of the older, shabbier places they’d replaced. It was a lot harder to find a cheap burger these days.

Isaiah drummed his fingers against a sun-bleached ad for some company that had closed up shop probably two decades ago. “That’s nice to hear. You come here just to take in the local color, though?”

“Well, you know,” said Zack. He looked up at the ceiling as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen. “There’s also the whole it’s-actually-still-my-hobby thing. It’s kind of embarrassing for me to talk about.”

Isaiah scoffed. He’d dealt with asshole investors who mistook him for the owner, he’d dealt with punk kids who thought it’d be fun to vandalize the merchandise and take photos of it. A self-conscious childhood buddy was hardly an issue.

“I work at a store dedicated to supplying, ordering, and sometimes maintaining model locomotives. The only reason I show up half the time is because I like organizing the stock. I even have my own tracks set up downstairs! I’m in no position to shit-talk anyone for collecting and maintaining a fleet of tiny choo-choo trains, especially not someone I used to build them with as a kid.”

“Do trains even come in a fleet?”

“I don’t know. Even if they don’t, I can still get a Lionel rep on the horn without breaking a sweat.”

“Not Hornby? What are you, some kind of poser tiny choo-choo train outfit?”

That broke any remaining tension. They chatted lightly and Isaiah helped dig up some trees and a train platform to flesh out the diorama Zack was planning. He wasn’t about to invite himself over—close or not, nearly a decade was nearly a decade—but Isaiah admitted to himself that he might’ve encouraged Zack to talk about his ideas a little more than he would’ve with one of the regulars. Still, things stayed professional: there weren’t any mysterious discounts applied when Isaiah rang him up, he didn’t “accidentally” misplace some old stock that might’ve been useful in laying out the town square Zack had mentioned, and he definitely didn’t slip his phone number in the bag as he passed Zack’s debit card back to him. It was just a normal meeting of two people who hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

So of course when Zack suggested they get lunch later that week Isaiah jumped at the chance, because that was also a pretty normal thing to do. A sports bar wasn’t exactly his first choice, but what it lacked in atmosphere it made up for by being cheap and casual, both of which Isaiah approved of on general principle. He wouldn’t even have to change out of his work clothes, assuming he went in to work that day; a daily outfit built on the principles of jeans and a long-sleeved silk shirt could take a man pretty much anywhere he wanted to go that didn’t require specialized plumage.

They exchanged contact information, performed the traditional testing of the text messages to make sure their phones had the right details, then parted ways, Isaiah pulling the door shut against the weather after Zack hustled through it with his bag under one arm. The Rook City Miniature Railyard had once again defied fate and made the modest unofficial budget Isaiah had set for the week, and he hadn’t even had Mr. Peabody in to buy new paints yet.

Left alone to his own devices, Isaiah usually just let his mind wander while doing simple chores or flicking through some of the specialty catalogs they kept on hand for the diehard computer-refusing holdouts. The hours would tick by whether he watched the clock or not. He’d be comfortable and out of the weather, he’d have just enough human contact from phone calls and walk-ins to keep from getting cabin fever, and if he really wanted to he could bring a book and read all day. The average work day was 90% him and his own thoughts.

It turned out that writers left alone with their own thoughts could go interesting places if their routine was shaken up in the right way.

It wasn’t as though he didn’t have friends in town. Isaiah liked to keep to himself, so not seeing people very often wasn’t a problem, and those people who put up with the shop’s irregular hours were as warm and close as anyone he hadn’t met on the opposite side of a counter. He was never at a loss if he wanted to go out for drinks or see a movie with someone’s company other than his own. Only having himself and his pets to take care of at home was nice, and once a month (weather permitting) he’d drive out to see his parents at the swanky only-technically-a-cabin he’d been glad to help pay for with some of the book money.

He’d previously been satisfied with “single guy, did all right for himself, achieved his goals, now owns bearded dragon named Scrambles” as a brief-but-accurate summary of his life. Zack’s being back—and this wasn’t just a chance meeting that was nice but then over, Zack had been transferred and had a house out there and everything—meant things were in flux again, because while they never really said anything about it they’d still fucked kind of a lot before spiriting away to their respective futures. That didn’t mean anything, but it didn’t not mean anything. It wasn’t like Isaiah had never regretted falling out of touch, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes just for reasons, but maybe Zack had needed the space for reasons of his own. Was there a polite, socially-acceptable way to ask the guy you used to go fishing with every summer whether or not he was seeing someone, and if not, did he want to fool around at any point? Was that something you could even ask about? Isaiah had to force himself to focus on reorganizing a display before his mental italics gave him a headache.

At least he didn’t have to worry about boring anyone if he wanted to talk about trains.

Skinner’s was the local-sports-bar-est local sports bar imaginable: the seats looked like they’d never been new, the lights all had green shades on them, there were neon beer signs over the bar, and half the TV sets were still monstrous CRT things kept on the walls by bolts and prayers to the Virgin Mary. The beer was on the good side of cheap and the food was on the edible side of fried, so Isaiah was happy, even if he had trouble keeping up with what game was making the crowd by the big screen jump up and cheer every so often. The place felt alive, and alive could cover a lot of ground when it came to little Michigan towns in the sloppiest part of the winter.

Zack looked a lot more in his element than he had at the shop a few days ago. He was wearing a sweater—his deep and unironic appreciation for sweaters with reindeer-like things knitted into them having apparently survived the years—and a clunky chrome watch. Isaiah couldn’t remember the last time he’d met anyone younger than thirty wearing a watch.

Their conversation over buffalo wings was as easy as it had always been. Zack talked about his job, which was one of those business-flavored business jobs that Isaiah had always dreaded getting stuck in, but to hear Zack tell it he spent every day locked in deadly financial combat where the loser would be fed to the Fiery Maw of Hell, which was probably located in the mail room. Isaiah in turn shared what it was like working under a pseudonym, then doing a book tour, then doing a second book tour once you knew the well had run dry, then hitting the Red Box to see what Hollywood had done to your work, then feeling better about it once the checks started coming. Somewhere down the line Isaiah promised to loan Zack a copy of his first novel, though he figured he’d probably just sign one of the hardback first editions he had sitting in a box in his closet and give it as a housewarming present. Even if Zack hated the book it’d make for a good conversation piece.

It wasn’t until he was two and a half beers into his meal—non-local, this time, because sometimes you just really wanted a Heineken—that Isaiah was brave enough to start asking more personal questions.

So do we want to talk about those times you sucked my dick before we left for college? he asked in his head. “So do you have any family still around Rook City?” he asked out loud. That was a lot more deft than asking if Zack was seeing anyone, or if he still liked men in the first place.

“Not really. My folks moved to Lansing years ago, John and Nichelle are off doing their own thing, and I already told you about Aunt Matilda.” He paused to pick the meat off another wing. “I dated some in college. Up until a few months ago I was seeing this personal chef named Trish, right? Things were cooling off between us even before I got the transfer notice, though, so we were both kind of glad to call it off. I still talk to her on Facebook sometimes, but like a friend, you know?”

No, Isaiah did not know, but he wasn’t going to push the subject. He finished the rest of his glass before continuing. “Shame things fell apart, but at least you left on good terms. I’m sure she’s nice.”

Zack smiled, and while there was definitely an air of wistfulness going on Isaiah wasn’t about to call bullshit on the “like a friend” thing because of it. “Yeah, Trish is something else,” said Zack. “Better we went our separate ways before we started hating each other so the memories are good, right? It prevented a weird conversation before things got too awkwardly domestic.” He sipped at the ice water he’d been switching off with between beers. “So who’s in your life these days, Ise?”

That was a very delicate way to put it. “A few local friends, the RCMR owner, some regulars I know well enough to give more than the niche-industry token half-a-shit about, some of the delivery people. Sometimes I see family, but none of them live in town. Most of my resources go towards taking care of me, myself, and I.”

“Hey, you live the life you want,” said Zack. “I just thought you’d have a steady girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or a something by now.”

“Nope. I have lizards.”

“Well, I’m sure they’re happy to have you in their scaly little lives.” Was Isaiah just buzzed or was Zack flirting with him? He wasn’t about to assume anything, especially since while Rook City wasn’t too culturally backwards they were eating lunch in the middle of a sports bar surrounded by mildly rowdy guys who probably buried the needle on the Kinsey scale, and just because he still had a case of the long-standing heart-eyes for Zack didn’t mean it was okay to assume it was reciprocated. It was still a nice feeling whether or not it was accurate.

Their conversation drifted away from who wasn’t seeing whom after that. They carefully avoided more than casual talk about the train hobby more out of habit than anything else—nobody was likely to be shoved in a locker for anything they talked about at Skinner’s, no matter how dudebro the crowd, but it was hard for strangers to take you seriously if their first exposure to you was hearing just how much you liked painting tiny water towers and arranging even tinier birds on the railings—and for a while it was nice just talking about the old days and all the camping trips, video games, and ill-advised petty vandalism they’d shared.

They managed to avoid any mention of their not-really-boyfriends-but-more-than-just-buddies thing throughout all of it. You just never knew with some crowds, after all.

“Hey, man, it’s been good seeing you, but I really need to get going,” said Zack once the game was over and some of the spectator crowd had thinned. He gestured to their server for his half of the check. “If you’re not busy later on, I could use some advice on the display I’m putting together. Still settling in at my new place so I don’t yet have a feel for how to use the space I’ve got. You game?”

Isaiah stretched and groaned exaggeratedly. “Ask me again when I’m more sober and the answer might surprise you,” he said as he rummaged for his wallet. That came out a lot more suggestive than he’d meant, but such was the price he paid for having more than one drink without a trough full of starchy food to offset it. No matter how much love he gave the local brews he was still a lightweight from a long line of lightweights.

Zack looked surprised. “Sure, maybe I’ll do that,” he said. Nice, neutral, and borderline impossible to read, just like always. Isaiah supposed he would’ve said the same had their positions been reversed.

Both checks settled and tips assigned, they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways into the sleet-slick streets, Zack towards the nearest bus stop and Isaiah towards the spot half a block down where he’d left his car, as the little lot behind Skinner’s was still packed to the gills with other people’s vehicles. It had been a great time with a man who could very easily become his best friend again, and just shooting the shit had been a lot more fun than Isaiah remembered, and knowing he’d probably have someone he could call on to go see whatever new movie was playing at the local art-house theater was great in and of itself, but everything was still just weird enough for him to feel not entirely at ease with the whole situation. He had to come to terms with how long it’d been since the days when they’d watch the engines getting coupled down at the station or the Amtraks whooshing under the overpass. Once upon a time they’d thrown their nine-year-old hearts into the idea of starting their own train company, sure, but you couldn’t base an entire relationship on sharing the same childhood dream.

At some point he’d have to own up to his dorky crush, but the least he could do was to see if it was more than just residual teenage feelings first and not instantly alienate Zack because his boner said so. He’d always been the responsible one, after all.

Later that evening Isaiah had been giving Scrambles her bath when his phone nearly vibrated itself off the countertop. He caught it before anything irreparable occurred, but thanks to all the fumbling it took and how slick his hands still were his phone had a few messages waiting for him by the time he got past the lock screen.

Lunch was great! Hope I wasn’t too weird about the GF thing, said a text from Zack.

I was just happy to catch up w/you & got carried away, said a second, also from Zack.

It probably would be a good idea if we talked about the way stuff was before at some point. We’re both adults we can figure it out, said a third.

If I’m coming off as pushy or weird or something let me know & I’ll shut up, said a fourth.

Isaiah stared at his phone as though Scrambles herself had messaged him. He dried his hands on his jeans and tapped in a reply.

No it’s fine I was washing my bearded dragon, he sent. Ha ha that is not a metaphor I am actually being a good pet owner right now. True to his word, he toweled Scrambles dry and put her back in her habitat to bask on her heat rock before continuing with the conversation. OK she’s up what exactly did you want to talk about? How people used these tiny little touchscreen keyboards without relying on autocorrect all day he would never understand.

It wasn’t long before Zack replied. Hope you don’t mind me texting you this instead of calling. It’s kind of hard for me to get my thoughts down sometimes without writing them out. That was different: Zack was usually never awkward. He’d been the one to suggest they try making out the first time, and he’d been the one who’d brought up jerking each other off a while after that, and even when they weren’t fucking like little gay rabbits Zack was the one who always had ideas about what to do next, so the thought of him actually at a loss for words was as out of place as a clownfish in the desert. Maybe the years had changed him a little after all.

It’s fine, sent Isaiah. Novelist, remember?

Cool, said the next message from Zack, but it took him longer to compose the next one. So I was checking the circuits on some track & was having trouble getting the layout I want to agree with a bridge I just finished two days ago & I thought “Ise probably would know what is up here.” The typing notifier popped up moments after the second message reached Isaiah, so he let Zack type. That got me to thinking about messing around with trains when we were kids. THAT got me to thinking about other stuff.

Isaiah pursed his lips even though there was no one there to see him but his creature collection. At least he wasn’t the only one who’d been a little distracted lately. He coaxed his thumbs into action again. I’m listening.

Zack replied promptly. So I wanted to know what you thought about that. I don’t want to use you as a rebound guy or anything just because I’m single again & we used to be in each other’s pants. But you said you’d be willing to come over when you felt more sober. There was only the briefest of pauses before he followed that up with, You sober enough now?

That was more or less exactly what Isaiah had wanted to hear. It couldn’t hurt to be careful, of course. You asking if I want to fool around?

I’m officially asking you over to see the diorama I’m working on & if it goes somewhere else I’m not saying no.

Isaiah had only one thing to say to that. I’ll be over in half an hour.

Half an hour was plenty of time to feed the animals, change into a clean shirt, swish with mouthwash, and navigate the perilously slick winter streets between Isaiah’s apartment and Zack’s house, but it still felt to Isaiah as though he were racing the clock. He had a sketchbook and some mechanical pencils in the passenger’s seat and some spare parts in a box and the trunk, so even if things stayed completely innocent he’d be able to make himself useful.

Zack opened the door after the second knock to reveal a grinning Isaiah. “Candygram,” he said, holding up a bag with a few lengths of loose track sticking out of the top.

“Hey, come on in,” said Zack as he stood to one side. Isaiah wiped the worst of the crud caked on his boots on the welcome mat before stepping inside, where the heat was kept so high the place blazed like an ironworks. It was weird being somewhere kept so warm he wanted to strip out of his coat before turning on a space heater first. “Hope the drive went fine.”

“The weather’s still shit, but that’s Rook City for you. How do I look?” asked Isaiah as he waited for his glasses to stop fogging.

Zack looked him over and made exaggerated thinking noises. “You look like the guy from those old encyclopedia commercials, just with a weird back-of-the-head ponytail instead of eighties hair.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment. He was cute.”

“He wasn’t going gray at thirty.”

“Yeah, and he just sold the books, he didn’t have to write them.”

“Fair point! There’s some pizza from earlier on the kitchen counter if you want some,” Zack continued. From where Isaiah was standing it looked like Zack was still one of those heathens who permitted fruit to go on pizza, but then again, Zack had first started ordering pineapple abominations simply to mess with certain people—who would remain nameless—who kept stealing too many slices for themselves. Maybe there was a slice or two remaining that just had more reasonable toppings.

Zack passed the kitchen entirely and opened a door leading to a brightly-lit stairwell. “Train room’s going to be down this way whenever you’re ready.”

Isaiah glanced at the pizza, which proved to be entirely corrupted by horrible yellow chunks and therefore inedible, and after deciding his light dinner was going to be quite enough, thank you, he followed Zack down into the repurposed basement.

Whatever Aunt Matilda had done with the room before, she probably had never expected it to be filled with tables of varying heights, most of which were already piled with grass-flocked hunks of terrain. The largest table was the one that actually had track on it, though the bad lighting made it difficult to get a good look at the layout; Zack fussed with a dimmer switch that looked very newly installed and dawn broke over the scene.

Some train enthusiasts made reproductions of specific places, while others invented scenery out of the whole cloth. Zack appeared to be going for parts of both: Isaiah recognized the rough shape of one of the abandoned service tunnels they used to sit on top of and watch trains from, and a drying model of the old drugstore before it was torn down rested among a sheaf of taped-up reference photos. Those ghastly nickel-a-ride merry-go-rounds usually weren’t in the average engineer’s town goals, but there one was right by the automatic doors, complete with the weird paint job on the elephant’s ears.

Of course, there was still a lot of wiring to be done and it was going to be a while before anyone could run so much as a single circuit around things, but every grand display had to start somewhere.

“Looks like you’ve got something going already,” said Isaiah. He looked disapprovingly at a too-small power source. “You got any notes on your plans…?”

It turned out Zack did, most of them written in plaintext files on a netbook that had managed to avoid being put out to pasture and the rest sketched on typing paper (for the concept work) and graph paper (for anything that required actual numbers). Isaiah double-checked the math and found most of it solid. There were a few easy-to-make errors here and there, but going on what Zack had said about his old place he hadn’t had the luxury of having his train cars anywhere but wall displays, so it wasn’t that surprising he was a bit rusty when it came to setting up a circuit box. At least he’d had the presence of mind to start planning for walk-around throttles so he didn’t have to hunch in one place like a vulture to watch his trains do their thing.

They made it almost half an hour before Zack hit Control-S on the netbook, closed the cover, and swiveled around to face Isaiah where he’d been leaning over Zack’s shoulder.

“So are we going to keep pretending this is purely a social call?” he asked, one arm propped up over the back of the chair.

“The alternative being finding out how much we remember about getting each other off?”

“Yeah, let’s go with that.”

Isaiah pulled out his phone and tapped the screen. “Would you look at the time, it’s where’s-your-couch-o’clock.”

Zack’s couch was upstairs, and as both of them had matured beyond the age of horny teenagers, they bothered to check that the blinds were closed before anything exciting happened. Once their privacy was ensured, however, all bets were off, and so was Zack’s sweater. He twitched when Isaiah’s fingers brushed his stomach, but he only had enough time for half of a comment about what dating a chef had done to his waistline before Isaiah pushed him against the cushions, took Zack’s face in his hands, and worked on releasing a bit of that pent-up sexual energy he hadn’t realized he’d been carting around since halfway through his first book tour.

There was something simple and pure about making out with one’s childhood best friend on a couch in a pleasantly-heated living room. Zack still tasted faintly of that god-awful fruit pizza, which was just about the worst thing ever, though Isaiah was so starved for quality kissing time he was almost able to distract himself by focusing on the way Zack’s lips felt against his own and the inherent joyous weirdness of having someone else’s tongue in his mouth. It wasn’t the first time Isaiah had kissed someone with a beard, but Zack’s was certainly the nicest he’d had the pleasure of experiencing.

Isaiah moved from Zack’s mouth to his ear and then down the side of his neck; Zack’s skin was cool in spite of the furnace working overtime against the Michigan cold. He wriggled and pulled Isaiah back up for another hungry kiss. Not even the four layers of fabric between them could hide how hard they both were, and every time one arched his hips against the other they both gasped. It had been entirely too long since Isaiah had fucked anyone in any manner, and he wasn’t about to ask Zack what kind of sex he and Trish had, so he threw everything into enthusiasm over expertise. It felt right, somehow.

A clock chimed somewhere in the house. It was entirely too late, which meant it was the perfect hour for getting up to no good, and as they wrestled with each other (as much as they could on a couch more intended for sitting than horizontal interaction, anyway) it was hard to keep from laughing. Nothing could ruin the moment, not years apart or even fruit-riddled pizza.

At some point the band holding Isaiah’s ponytail in place got lost, but given the way Zack’s hands were eagerly tangled up in Isaiah’s stress-silvered mane he didn’t seem to mind it any. Only luck kept his glasses from being knocked to the side; Zack had remembered not to try and take them away, at least.

When he finally couldn’t stand the teasing any longer Isaiah reached for his belt buckle, keen on taking advantage of all the privacies a house with no one else in it could allow, but Zack stopped him with a hand on Isaiah’s wrist.

“All outta condoms,” said Zack between pants. “Gonna have to keep it simple. No offense.”

“Not a problem,” murmured Isaiah, because it wasn’t. He unfastened his jeans and pulled himself free, then did the same for Zack. They hissed in unison when their cocks touched. Their last meeting before Isaiah left for the Amtrak station might as well have been yesterday, youthful exuberance and all.

It was simple and quick and mostly clothed, save for Zack’s missing sweater and how Isaiah had undone some of his buttons so he wouldn’t be strangled by his own collar. Hand lotion was terrible lube in the long run but it worked for their purposes. They rubbed against each other until someone got close—this time it was Isaiah—and he finished himself off with his hand, a few off-white droplets spattering just below Zack’s navel. Zack followed suit shortly afterwards; he was louder than he’d been when they were first together, likely thanks to the lack of people to overhear them. He still made the same faces.

“So what now?” asked Zack once he caught his breath.

Isaiah shrugged. His hair was stuck to his forehead “I was thinking we’d do the same thing we always did after we fucked at someone’s house: watch a movie, maybe play some video games, then someone falls asleep on the couch.”

“It’s my house so I get the bed. My Dreamcast is still packed up somewhere, but I bet I have a working copy of Braveheart somewhere on my DVD shelf. And you’re going to shower before you get your nasty sex funk all over my new cushions.” Zack was willfully ignoring the fact that his was the sticker stomach of the two, but he’d always been like that.

“Do I get company?”

“Only after you wash your ass.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“That’s a ‘go wash your ass,'” said Zack, who threw Isaiah’s shirt at him. Later on, of course, it meant something different. The water bill was slated to be enormous.

When he woke up some time the next morning, Isaiah needed a few minutes to remember why everything felt so much warmer than usual, followed by why he wasn’t in his apartment, followed by why he was on a couch under a blanket with majestic wolves on it, followed by whether or not he’d dreamed the part where he’d hooked up with Zack.

“Rise and shine,” said Zack as he emerged from the kitchen, not only part-way answering the whole had-they-or-hadn’t-they thing but also being kind enough to bring a spare cup of coffee with him. It was a bit too sweet for Isaiah’s liking, but most of their childhood sleepovers had been during years before caffeine, and by the time they were both drinking bean-water they’d agreed they were too old for sleepovers not couched in terms like “fishing weekend” or “road trip”; besides, Isaiah didn’t know how Zack liked his coffee, either, so they were even.

“Once you feel human again I’d like your opinion on a new idea I had,” Zack continued. “I woke up early so I had to do something with myself until it was an hour suitable for waking houseguests.”

Isaiah found his glasses and sipped at his mug, which despite the thermostat abuse was still hot enough to steam. Zack let him wake up a little more before handing him a sketchbook open to a page that hadn’t been there the night before. It was a picture of the Rook City railyard—the real one, not the place Isaiah worked—complete with the old steam engine they kept by the front gates in a bid for historical relevancy. The actual engine had seen better days, but this one looked well-kept in spite of its age. A pair of kids, one black and wearing a shapeless sweater, the other white and bespectacled, sat on its roof and watched the trainyard run. They were close enough to be read as more than friends, far enough apart to be just friends.

Isaiah raised his eyebrows. “You want me to be part of your track?”

“If you want to be,” said Zack. “I figure, even if last night was nothing more than us getting it out of our systems, we’ll always have the trains, right?” He looked down at the picture and laced his marker-stained fingers. “A tribute to all those times as kids we swore we’d have some of our own someday.”

There had been a lot of those times. Sometimes they’d just wanted an engine, sometimes it was a company of their own, but either way it came back to promising they’d have their own locomotives whenever they finally got to that mysterious age of “grown up.” They’d even pinky-sworn on it, back when they were young enough that the idea hadn’t yet turned laughable. Isaiah couldn’t predict the future, but he was a writer, and he understood the importance of unimportant things.

“Tell you what,” he said. “You stop by the RCMR to compare notes and maybe kick an order my way every so often, you can put a giant statue of me in the middle of your diorama if you want.”

Zack scoffed. “Zachary Green’s Rook City Junior is already skewing pretty white. If I made you any bigger than an inch high it’d turn the whole place clear.

“You asshole,” said Isaiah between laughs.

“Forever and always,” agreed Zack. “To whatever the fuck’s ahead of us?”

“To the weird and uncertain future.”

They clinked coffee mugs. It wasn’t quite like the old times, because those were long gone, but it was maybe a thing and maybe not a thing and either way Isaiah had his friend back, and that would go a long way on its own.

illustrated by Iron Eater

 


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