“I don’t get it. Your dad isn’t really the miserly type. I mean he’s not going around clipping coupons and under-tipping at restaurants.”
Max made a barely audible noise of assent. He was looking out the window at the vineyards and orchards sweeping past, over-long blond bangs whipping in his eyes.
“He’s not one of those small-government nuts. Wasn’t he doing something with the Bernie campaign a few years back?” Ian gestured vaguely, one hand on the wheel. “Doorbelling or whatever.”
“Uh-huh,” Max murmured.
“When I was a kid,” Ian continued, “there was this house in my neighborhood that would put up lights on their roof every Christmas that said BAH HUMBUG in big letters. I mean, the Scrooge type, that’s not your dad!”
“It’s July,” Max said absently.
Ian tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Hey, seen any 747s up there?”
Max blinked. “What?”
“You had your head so far in the clouds I was afraid a passenger jet was going to fly in your ear.”
“You didn’t hear a word I just said, did you?”
Max’s shoulders drew up around his ears. “Sorry for being a little distracted!”
“Hey.” Ian reached over and squeezed Max’s arm briefly, before putting both hands back on the wheel to take a tight turn. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“No. No, it’s not that.” Max frowned, expression distant.
The narrow, winding two-lane didn’t have a shoulder, but he pulled off into a vineyard’s driveway and turned to look at his boyfriend. “You know we won’t do this if you don’t want.”
“That’s not the problem.” Max knotted his fingers together in his lap. “It’s like…doing this is like admiting that he might die.”
“This isn’t Final Destination, there’s not a wacky death waiting around every corner.” Max pouted at him, and Ian blew out a breath. “I’m sorry, I know how much this has been weighing on you.” He put his hand palm-up on Max’s knee, and Max slowly uncurled enough to take it, peering through his bangs. “I’m sorry for joking. But the only people who think Todd is going to die suddenly are you and him.”
Two months previously, Max’s dad had been bitten by a spider while on an ayahuasca retreat in Brazil and thrown their peaceful little household of three into disarray. It had turned out to be harmless, but not before a frantic, barely-coherent satellite call had convinced Max that Todd was dying of a Brazilian wanderer bite. The Mulligan men, father and son both, were like the huskies Ian’s parents kept: energetic, affectionate, sociable, and neurotic as hell when stressed. Since then, an obsession with mortality had gripped the always-spiritually-suggestible household, and the less said about their creative estate planning the better.
“Your dad is healthy as a horse, and– I know,” Ian held up a hand to forestall a familiar protest, “anything could happen at any time to any of us, but no one can live worrying like that every day, and there’s no more reason to worry now than ever.” Max chewed his lip, looking down at their linked hands. Ian tightened his grip. “We talked about overthinking things, remember?”
“I know. I just…can’t stand the thought of losing him.”
“I know, c’mere.” They hugged awkwardly across the console, Ian threading his fingers in Max’s hair. “You’re a daddy’s boy all the way through, huh?” Max nodded against his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Daddy’s got you, and your dad is fine. His health, at least. I can’t vouch for his sanity.”
Max gave a muffled laugh-sniffle, and pulled back, wiping his eyes. “Sorry. I’ll pull it together. What were you saying, when I wasn’t listening?”
“Just that this tax evasion stuff doesn’t seem like your dad.”
“I guess you’ve never heard him go off about the government.” Max tugged the lapels of his suit jacket straight, and adjusted the pink pocket square. “He never really recovered from being a closeted teen in the Regan administration.”
“I guess so.” Ian let out the parking brake and put the car back in gear. “Ready?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Are you okay?” Max gave him a rueful, watery smile. “I know this is all sort of insane. Last chance to run.”
“Oh hell no. It is insane, but you’ll have to pry me out of this crazy family with a crowbar. And now, divorce papers.” Brushing a hand against his chest, Ian felt the shape of the little ring box in the inner pocket of his suit jacket.
Max’s smile deepened, a tear escaping as the corners of his eyes creased. “I love you.”
“Love you too, babe.” Ian brushed the tear off Max’s cheek with his thumb and said, “Let’s get rolling, I don’t want to be late for my own wedding.”
The Sonoma County Courthouse was a mid-century block of concrete and glass just off 101 on the north side of Santa Rosa. Todd’s electric BMW was already in the parking lot, blinding white in the overexposed glare of the California sun. Ian pulled his own 2004 Toyota into a spot nearby, took a deep breath, and cut the engine. Max was looking at him a little nervously still, so Ian didn’t let himself hesitate, just stepped out of the car and straightened his own jacket. Todd himself was waiting in the shade of the portico, and waved vigorously when he spotted them.
Todd Mulligan did not give the appearance of a man living in fear of death’s door. He was a wiry, lightly built man in his early fifties, with the lean muscle of a swimmer and cyclist, face tanned and deeply lined by sun and smiling. He came toward them with a bounce in his step and greeted them both with a hug and kiss to the cheek in a waft of verbena aftershave.
“Hi boys,” he said, like always, like the first time Max brought Ian home; the easy acceptance of the two of them as a unit had dazzled Ian, who hadn’t spoken to his own parents since getting caught in the storeroom of a ShopRite with a male coworker’s hand down his pants. “Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” Ian said inanely, as if this were some minor favor.
Instead of his usual uniform of bike shorts, Patagonia, and sandals, Todd was in an immaculate suit. His fair hair, so like his son’s, was brushed back neatly, its natural light color camouflaging the streaks of silver. His usual contained energy today bordered on the manic. “Well! Shall we? None of us is getting any younger.” He held the door for both of them and they stepped into the refrigerated dimness of the courthouse.
Signing in for a courthouse wedding was a surprising amount like going to the DMV. They had the license already, registered and issued last week, and at the desk they showed that along with ID, paid a fee, put their names down on the walk-in list, and then waited on plastic chairs until a justice of the peace called, “Mulligan and Rossi?”
She was a small bullet of a woman with gunmetal gray hair in a neat bob, and she zipped ahead of them, black robe of office flapping, to an empty court room. It looked just like on TV, Ian thought, in a vague, nervous burst of distraction. The three of them gathered at the front of the room, and the justice laid a heavy sheet of embossed paper on the counsel’s table. “Do you have personalized vows?”
“No,” Ian said. It came out in a dry rasp and he cleared his throat. No one else seemed to notice. His heart was thudding in his ears.
“And will you be exchanging rings?” she asked briskly.
Todd pulled a box out of his pocket and set it on the table beside the marriage certificate. “Right here.”
“Alright.” She looked at Ian and Max. “Let’s begin.”
Max squeezed Ian’s hand briefly, and released him. Breathing deeply, Ian stepped forward. Beside him, Todd did the same. The justice blinked. “Mr. Mulligan and Mr. Rossi?” They nodded. She recovered gyroscopically. “We are gathered here today,” she began, checking her notes, “to witness the union of Ian Rossi to Todd Mulligan in marriage.”
Afterward, Ian couldn’t recall a single sentence of the short ceremony, nor of the generic and carefully secular vows he repeated after the justice as he slid a ring onto Todd’s finger. Todd’s hand was strong and weathered, gentle on his own as Ian received the matching ring. He managed not to trip over any of the words, not even “I do.”
“Now, if you will each sign.” The justice held up two fancy pens, embossed with the Sonoma County logo, and indicated the correct line. The pen scritched and Ian realized he was holding his breath. “And your witness, here.” Ian passed the pen to Max, their eyes meeting, and there was such clear, calm happiness in Max’s face that Ian felt air rush into his lungs.
“By the power vested in me by the State of California, I pronounce you wed. You may kiss.”
Somehow, Ian hadn’t thought this far, hadn’t been expecting that. He turned dazedly to Todd, feeling his cheeks burn with Max’s gaze on him. Todd’s hand was gentle on his bicep, guiding him in. Ian’s heart fluttered beneath his clavicle, more than just first-kiss jitters. The awareness of Max watching prickled over his skin like a shiver of excitement, a frisson of the forbidden. Ian had always been an exhibitionist. Todd’s lips were soft, as gentle as his hands. He was the same height as Max, within an inch, and Ian had to tilt his head down slightly to kiss him. A warm press, over fast as a handshake.
Ian drew back, opening his eyes, and felt a dizzy sense of deja vu, as if he were looking at Max in twenty years’ time. There was a warm, pleasant swooping in his belly.
“Congratulations, Mr. Mulligan and Mr. Rossi,” said the justice. Max started to clap. Ian swallowed a sudden bubble of laughter, and just exhaled shakily.
They got to keep the novelty pens.
To celebrate, they went for dinner at a French restaurant tucked in the hills above Sebastopol. Todd had reserved a private terrace for them, arbored with grape vines and fairy lights making the crystal wine glasses sparkle. The afternoon’s heat still lingered in the patio stones, but a pleasant breeze fluttered the white tablecloth, carrying the scent of ornamental flowers and eucalyptus. The waiter brought the wine list, which Ian ignored out of self-defense, and they placed their orders. Max and Todd kept up the conversation, about music, local gossip, and, as the appetizers were delivered, the merits of electric bikes. Ian couldn’t stop fidgeting with the band on his left ring finger.
Max sat beside Ian, knees bumping under the table like always. He seemed relaxed, happy, looking just as handsome and at-home in his suit, washed by the watercolor California evening, as in his sweats at their old apartment in Brooklyn. For once, dressed by the same expensive tailor as the Mulligans, Ian didn’t feel shabby, and in their private alcove it didn’t matter if he mixed up the salad and seafood forks. But he still couldn’t shake a jumpy self-consciousness which flared every time he glanced across the table at Todd and thought, my husband.
“You know, this really gives me so much peace of mind,” Todd said when the gruyere bruschetta with figs and the delicate endive and shaved almond salads had been cleared away. “When I was lying in the jungle, staring up at the stars with my leg throbbing, and had my revelation” — Todd’s hallucinogenic near-death trip had been much discussed and dissected in the recent past — “I realized that to reach peace we need to take a radical stance. I’ve always thought it’s important to live our values, that’s what inspired me to start Greenheart; the three H’s of the herbal industry: health, healing and humanism. But when I saw that vision of a green and peaceful humanity, all hand in hand, I knew that the war-mongering and destruction-hungry systems we have now will never take us there.” The waiter arrived with their entrees balanced aloft. “Thanks so much. Maxie, do you remember going to DC, in ‘04? For the protest?”
“Of course.” Max shifted his wine glass out of the way of a plate of asparagus and pesto tart flambe. “In that converted school bus.”
“Ah, yes, Johnny’s bus. I remember reading Cat’s Cradle to you while the bus was broken down in Illinois. I know, I know, you’re giving me the Dad-I’ve-heard-it-a-million-times look.” He took a bite of his linguine and hummed. “I knew I couldn’t let Greenheart’s legacy help politicians put nuclear satellites in orbit. Not to say they’re all the same, god knows, but they all suck cock at the Pentagon.”
“Dad!” Max exclaimed, more amused than indignant.
“You’re right, my apologies to cocksuckers the world over and at this table specifically. And I won’t say I don’t see the appeal of a man in uniform…” Ian snorted and Max put his hands over his face, pink and laughing. “But you know what I mean. If I wanted to pour money into Lockheed Martin I’d have invented hemp fatigues. This way the money stays in the family and you two can keep doing good work with it when I’m gone. I know it’s an unusual arrangement, and I’m grateful to both of you for even considering it, and Ian especially.”
“We like unusual,” Max said, glancing at Ian slightly sternly, and Ian nodded hasty agreement. It had taken him a bit to come around to the idea, and he still thought it was hairbrained and ridiculous in typical Mulligan fashion, but then again he wasn’t an estate lawyer. Ian, who had never contemplated inheriting anything, had needed the concept explained to him several times, and then had said “Taxable over how much?” several times until Max had said, “Seven million isn’t really that much when you’re talking about share valuation.” And then Ian, whose dad had been on disability ever since a construction accident when Ian was a kid, and whose mom was a hairdresser, had to go and put his head under a pillow for a while. But Max had come and sat on the edge of the bed with his big eyes and held Ian’s hand and said, “Dad trusts you to take care of me. And the money,” he added as an afterthought. In the face of a fortune and Max’s puppy eyes, Ian had folded like a house of cards. Anyway, tax evasion was a time-honored New Jersey tradition. If you ignored everything else about Ian’s life, he could almost imagine his dad being proud.
Todd poured more Cardinale cabernet for each of them. “When I die…”
“If, Dad,” Max interrupted.
“I was given the gift of being reminded that we all die, sooner or later. And when I do, you boys will be free to continue your lives together, and invest Greenheart’s legacy in the right places for peace.”
Ian gripped Max’s hand under the table. “We’re all continuing our lives together. No one’s dying any time soon, okay?”
“You know, that’s something I love about you, Ian. You’ve got positive vibrations, I knew it from the first time I met you. A dad couldn’t wish for a better partner to his son.”
Max squeezed Ian’s hand back. “Stop talking about dying, Dad. We’re celebrating.”
“I know, I know. It just puts my heart at ease, knowing he has someone to spoil him besides his old man.”
“He deserves the best,” Ian said, and Todd beamed at him.
They finished their entrees as the last of the daylight faded from peach to lavender in the sky, and then began to deepen to indigo night on the other side of the bright fairy lights and lanterns decorating the restaurant patio. Todd pushed his empty plate away, sighed contentedly, and said, “We ought to take a honeymoon. All three of us, don’t you think? We should go somewhere nice.”
“No jungles,” Max said firmly.
Todd shuddered. “Agreed. How about Sicily?”
“But it’s so beautiful here.” To Ian, the postcard-perfect Sonoma hills, aggressively cute, quirky Sebastopol, and the Mulligans’ beautiful hillside home, too expensive and architecturally lovely to really be called a house, but too aesthetically attached to Todd’s crunchy Santa Cruz roots to be called a mansion, had never stopped feeling like a vacation, even after three years. “We can have a quiet summer here, as long as the smoke doesn’t get too bad.”
Max squeezed his arms. “Ian’s right, we don’t need to go anywhere. Being here is perfect. With my family.”
Todd’s face creased warmly. “Well. That settles it.” He raised his glass. “To family.”
“To family,” Max and Ian echoed, and the glasses chimed together.
Ian sipped the California cabernet, swallowed, swallowed again, the sweet-tannic aftertaste thick on his tongue. “I um. I have something. For Max.” He considered the logistics of pushing back his chair and getting down on one knee, and opted for simple. He took Max’s hand with one of his and reached into his jacket with the other. “This is for you.” Max’s mouth and eyes popped open as Ian pulled out the ring box. Todd had bought the pair they’d exchanged at the courthouse, from a local jeweler, probably for a stupid amount of money, but Ian had bought this one himself, off Etsy. It was rose gold, a match for Max’s hair, and patterned like wood grain. “Because…well. Today I made a commitment to you too.”
“Oh, Ian!” Max threw his arms around Ian’s neck, nearly toppling into his lap, and kissed him. Ian clutched him close, as they kissed so long and deep that Ian was glad for the table cloth hiding the way his dick thickened against the front of his slacks. When Max finally drew back, flushed and glowing, Ian wiped a thumb under Max’s damp eyes, blinking rapidly himself, and then glanced self-consciously across the table.
Todd was beaming at them with such warmth that Ian felt himself flush, a pleasant, full-body shiver. His dick was still hard. Ian looked away and cleared his throat. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I love it. It’s perfect,” Max said, leaning in for another quick kiss.
Dessert was some of the best tiramisu Ian had ever had, but the looks Max kept casting him made Ian wish it was styrofoam take-out from a bodega, to be shoved in the fridge while they stumbled to bed. When dinner was finally done, they drove home in the violet darkness, up into the hills, the BMW purring silently around the dark curves of the road. Ian and Max held hands in the back seat, Max’s thumb rubbing over Ian’s wedding band, not looking at one another to resist temptation.
At home, they said a hasty goodnight to Todd and retired to their room, which was more of a guest suite with its own bathroom and a little kitchenette, seldom used. Shutting the door hard behind them, Ian gripped the lapels of Max’s jacket and Max’s arms wrapped tight around his neck. Their mouths met, open and eager, and Ian’s groin tightened, cock starting to chub. They kissed and groped in the darkness, swaying together, and when their lips parted, Max whispered, in a heated, tiny voice that gusted against Ian’s cheek, “You’re like, for real my stepdad now.”
Ian felt his pulse throb, an abrupt tingle of increased blood flow through his whole body. “Kinky,” he whispered back.
“Yeah.” Max squirmed against him, erection pressed to Ian’s thigh, and Ian could just see his smile in the blue darkness.
Ian ran his hands down to Max’s ass, squeezing. “Like it?”
“Yeah,” Max murmured again. Ian raised his eyebrows. Max bit his lip, breath hitching a little. “Yes, Daddy.”
“Good boy,” Ian growled. “Going to let your new daddy fuck you on his wedding night?” Max shuddered against him and nodded. Ian sucked Max’s lip and released it, cock throbbing in anticipation. “Come to bed, baby.”
Ian and Max had been living with Todd since the pandemic began, but Ian was still shocked by the beauty and luxury of the house overlooking a vineyard and the valley below. It faced east, washed in sunlight every morning, and beautifully cool in the blazing afternoons. Sonoma County got the coastal influence, so the nights were chilly even when the daytime temperatures rose toward the 100s. The windows stood open every night, filling the house with the rustle of leaves and crickets, and so cool that Ian sometimes pulled on a sweater in the mornings, even in July.
The summer deepened even as days began, imperceptibly, to shorten. As discussed, the three of them stayed mostly close to home. They went for walks, they hiked at the coast, they went to wine tastings. Max and Ian went running together, Todd took them both mountain biking on his favorite trails. They smoked joints in the art studio, Ian noodled on his guitar in the lavender shade of the ripening peach trees. They swam in the pool and soaked in the hot tub.
The three of them made breakfast and dinner together most days; or rather, Max and Todd made breakfast and Ian shuffled in an hour later to the smell of a fair-trade, artisan batch dark roast brewing.
“You’re up!” Todd said. He was at the griddle making pancakes, and Max was chopping strawberries. “Just in time for the first batch.”
“I’m up.” Ian stifled a yawn, and sidled up behind Max while the coffee percolated mysteriously in the arcane workings of the fancy machine, and kissed the back of Max’s neck. “Morning, sweetheart.”
Max craned back over his shoulder and pecked Ian’s nose. “Morning, babe.”
Todd waved the spatula. “Morning, Ian! Would you pass the blueberries?”
“Morning, hubby,” Ian said, picking up the bowl. It felt at once playfully reckless and entirely natural to lean into Todd while passing the berries over, and kiss him, briefly, on the mouth. Todd blinked and then turned pink under his tan. He looked so much like Max that Ian grinned. Max giggled and stole a blueberry from the bowl.
One morning, rising late with the open windows breathing the bathwater breeze, scented with garden jasmine and dry eucalyptus, Ian found the kitchen empty. A bag of granola and a glass pint of local yogurt sat out on the granite counter, beside a sticky note in Max’s handwriting that said ‘for sleepyhead’ and a big heart. Leaning on the island, waiting for the gleaming coffee machine to hiss, beep, and gurgle out a cup of plain black joe, Ian crunched granola, rubbing idly at his wedding band and the callous that had formed under it against his palm. He could hear faint music, and when the coffee was ready, he followed it, steaming mug in one hand, out the kitchen door, past the peach and fig trees, to the studio.
The studio was a sunny, airy out-building, with paint and clay dust streaking the tiled floor, the easeles and the potter’s wheel. There were shelves full of glossy, dog-eared art books, jars of turpentine, paintbrushes, little glazed statuettes shoved in spare spaces. Sketches, paintings, and half-rendered pieces were tacked up on the walls, and canvases were stacked five or six deep. In pride of place above the wide central window was a large, colorful abstraction in the lavenders and ochres of an LA dusk, except for the bottom edge where there were wild streaks and tiny handprints in vibrant primary colors.
Joan Baez was playing on the smart speaker, the delicacies of the melody lost in the whir of the potter’s wheel. Max was hunched over it, and Todd was curled on the sofa with his sketchbook and a box of oil pastels. Going to lean on the couch behind him, Ian looked down at a smudgy, vivid sketch of Max at the wheel. Todd was self-taught but talented. The morning light caught, on paper, the strong tendons in Max’s arms, the bright birdsnest of his hair, the sweetly solemn concentration on his face. Todd’s own hands were strong and smudged with colors, elegant and confident on the page.
The sound of the wheel changed, tone dropping as it slowed. Joan warbled in the sudden stillness. Max stretched his hands over his head, interlocking his sticky, muddy fingers and groaning as he rolled his shoulders, triceps and forearms defined. Ian watched appreciatively, taking a seat on the free end of the couch.
Whistling tunelessly along with ‘Diamonds and Rust’, Max took the vase he’d just wheel-thrown to a shelf to dry and rinsed his hands at the utility sink, then came over and perched half on the arm of the couch and half on Ian’s lap. “Morning, sleepyhead.”
“Morning.” Ian kissed him and wrapped an arm around his waist, lacing their fingers together against Max’s belly. “Taking a break?”
“My wrist is tired.” He shot Ian a glance from under his eyelashes. The previous night, Ian had made Max fuck himself with three fingers, wrist at an awkward angle, for twenty minutes while he sucked Ian off.
Ian caught his mouth trying to smirk and schooled his face into concern. “Aw, babe, take it easy.” He rubbed the wrist in question, enjoying the warm skin and soft golden hairs, the bone and tendon beneath. Max had a smear of red clay drying in a flaking streak inside his elbow.
Todd flipped over a page in his sketchbook and said, “Stay just like that, boys.” His ring flashed in the sunlight as he reached for another color.
They held still, the warm light from the window gradually creeping over their toes. They were pressed together, chest to shoulder, Max half turned to face Ian. His hair was getting a little long, curling against the nape of his neck. He was tanning slightly unevenly, tiny freckles emerging. Their eyes meet and lingered fondly, nothing to do but stare at one another. Max was looking at Ian’s mouth. Ian rubbed his thumb over the dried clay inside Max’s arm and felt him shiver, trailed the fingers up the sensitive skin without moving his hand, watched Max’s pupils dilate dark in his bright eyes. Felt his own heart rate pick up in response.
There was the soft shushing of paper and the rattle of pastels in the box as Todd sketched, recorded guitar chords as Bob Seger began to croon. Max’s mouth was not full, but elegant; delicately shaped and beautiful around Ian’s cock. He swallowed as Ian watched, Adam’s apple bobbing and Ian felt a pulse of attention in his groin, a tightening of his pelvic floor. He tingled with the awareness of Todd’s gaze on them. Max’s fingers brushed his thigh, below the edge of his shorts, making goosebumps prickle all across Ian’s skin. His cock was plumping up slowly, deliciously. Sweat sprang up under his tee-shirt. Max’s chest was rising and falling rapidly. Ian couldn’t see his crotch without moving his head but, he realized with a jolt directly to the base of his dick, Todd could. Max was sitting with his knees apart, one foot up on the couch between Ian’s legs, the other on the floor. Ian could tell by his face that Max was tenting his shorts and his own cock throbbed fully hard at the thought of Todd seeing. He licked his lips, mouth dry, and swallowed; watched Max watch him; saw ruddy color deepening in Max’s cheeks, glowing like a Sonoma sunset in wildfire season.
Ian realized that he’d heard nothing from the other side of the couch for some time. He glanced in that direction as much as he could without turning his head. Todd had the sketch book on his lap, pigment-streaked hands motionless on top of it, a canary yellow pastel frozen in his fingers. He caught Ian’s movement and looked away abruptly, cleared his throat. “The light’s changed.”
Max blinked, stirred. “Right. I , um. Should change.” He tweaked his shirt vaguely, tugging the hem down over his crotch. “Got clay on me. I’m gonna…go.”
“I’ll come with you,” Ian said quickly. They barely made it into the house before grabbing one another, and ended up fucking in the downstairs powder room, with Max’s ass perched on the edge of the marble sink basin, legs wrapped around Ian’s hips, and one hand splayed on the mirror leaving dusty, sticky clay smears.
It was a long and luxurious month. The weather held, the winds fair and the air clean. Ian continued to telework part time, unable to give up the semblance of self sufficiency, although he supposed technically he was a trophy husband now. He thought wryly about what his parents would say if they knew he was married to someone once profiled by Forbes as one of 2013’s top CEOs to watch.
Todd had retired early after selling Greenheart, but no one could accuse him of inactivity. They drove up to Jenner headlands one morning in the gray dawn, and did the full fifteen miles of the Sea to Sky trail up Pole Mountain. It took all day, and they got home in the blue dusk, aching, exhausted, and exhilarated, and, as one man, headed for the hot tub.
“That was a good hike,” Ian sighed, stretching out till his toes bumped Max’s thigh on the other side of the tub. Overhead, the first stars winked and the only sounds were the rumble of the jets and the crickets singing softly. The bubbles swirled around them, tickling Ian’s skin. “I don’t think I’ll need to take another one for, oh, a couple of years.”
“The view was worth it,” Max said, hand closing around Ian’s ankle and thumb pressing deliciously into the ball of his foot. Ian bit back a groan of pleasure. Steam rose, ghostly in the underwater lights, along with the sweet smoke of a joint burning low in Ian’s fingers. He breathed out the viscous smoke, and passed the joint to Todd, letting his head tip back against the rim of the tub.
Beside him, Todd took a hit and said, “Think I overdid it today.”
“Are you alright?” Max asked.
“Just stiff. An old man like me has got his work cut out for him, keeping up with you boys.”
Max relaxed back down into the water. “You’re not old, Dad.”
“Ha. That’s not what you thought when you were fifteen.”
“Well, I’m not fifteen anymore, am I?”
Todd gave Max a lingering look, hard to decipher in the shifting pool-light. “You sure aren’t. Of course when you were fifteen I could still do twenty miles in a day with a forty-pound pack.” He rolled his shoulders and passed the joint to Max. “I wonder if I should get a new daypack.”
“Are your shoulders hurting?” Ian reached over, digging his thumb into the muscles at the base of Todd’s neck. “You’re all knotted up. Here, come here.” He shifted sideways on the bench, scooting toward Todd, and got both hands on his shoulders. Todd grunted and sighed, leaning back into Ian’s hands.
“Dad, do you want me to rub your feet?”
“Well, if you’re offering.”
“Of course.” Max stubbed out the end of the joint over the side of the tub and his hands vanished into the funhouse ripples of the bubbling water. Todd’s legs looked like quivering matchsticks in the distorted image.
“Gonna give you the full spa treatment,” Ian said. “Just like we were in the Bahamas. I’m no cabana boy but this isn’t so bad, is it?
Todd chuckled. “No, not at all. Nowhere I’d rather be.” He hummed appreciatively, said, “Oh, yeah. Right there.” Nowhere he would rather be either, Ian thought, watching Max opposite him, an expression of endearing concentration on his face. Todd’s skin was silky under his wet fingers, muscles strong. A breeze lifted the sweaty hair off Ian’s forehead, a cool kiss. In the dream-time of the slightly stoned, the moment, for a few minutes, went on forever.
The jets stopped, a sudden stillness swirling across the surface of the tub as the last few ripples died away. In deafening quiet, the water turned placid and clear except for the swirls of steam rising from the surface. Todd had his head tilted back against Ian’s shoulder, grunting softly in pleasure. His eyes were shut. Max wore a rapt expression, that Ian slowly became aware was not simply the vacant gaze of the pleasantly baked. Max hadn’t smoked that much anyway. His eyes were fixed on the water.
Craning his neck, Ian peered down over Todd’s shoulder in the direction of Max’s gaze, and his eyes fell on the distinct tent in Todd’s swim trunks. The water had gone crystalline clear, and the shape of his cock – generously sized, from the look of it, was obscenely spot-lit, like a pornographic tableau in a coin-operated peep show. Ian jerked his eyes back up to Max’s face, saw him bite his lower lip, Ian’s familiar associations with that expression sending a jolt directly to his own cock.
Ian, already flushed from the heat, felt new warmth settle and intensify in his gut. He kept rubbing Todd’s shoulders, enjoying the sensation of getting hard without doing anything about it. Max was too, he could see, although it was less obvious in his dark swim shorts than Todd’s light ones. A sense of wicked possibility, the thrill of the forbidden began to expand in Ian’s mind. It felt like snagging a pair of girls’ panties at Target, making it out of the store undetected, and then wearing them to school: dirty, exhilarating, and good.
Then Todd stirred, blinked, and sat up abruptly, curling forward, the clear window of the water instantly obscured with ripples and eddies. Max yanked his hands back and drew his knees up to his chest.
“Well! Getting late,” Todd said, a bit hoarsely. “Thanks boys.” He climbed out with his back to them. “Have a good night. Don’t stay out too late.”
Ian waited until his footsteps had padded around the corner of the house and the patio door opened and closed before dragging Max into his lap. He ended up fucking Max over the edge of the tub, water sloshing and slapping noisily even though the window of the master bedroom was open above their heads.
Nothing changed, not right away. They went blackberry picking in the brambles along the winding drive, in the shade of the live oak and manzanita trees, and stripped nearly naked all together in the bright kitchen to check one another for ticks. Max snapped the waistband of his dad’s briefs and Todd goosed him with a T-shirt while Ian cackled and ate blackberries out of the bowl. They had blackberry pancakes for dinner.
In the hot, lazy afternoons when the breeze fell still and the scent of baked dust and eucalyptus mixed with the sweet scent of fermenting peaches fallen beneath the trees, they lay beside the pool, slathered in sunscreen. Or, mostly Ian and Todd lay, while Max swam vigorous laps, head bobbing up and down like a porpoise.
“Do you want a Mike’s lemonade?” Ian yelled when his head came up above the water at the far end.
“No thanks,” Max called back. “I’m going to swim some more.”
Ian let the cooler slam shut and popped the caps off two hard lemonades. “Is he part fish or something?”
“Well, he is a Pisces,” Todd said, taking the icy, dripping bottle that Ian passed him. “He’s always been a water baby. I couldn’t afford swim lessons, of course, when he first came to live with me, but I would take him out in his little life vest with my surf board and he would paddle off the end of it. Happy as a clam.”
Ian thought about the baby pictures of Max, chubby-legged and angelic, that hung on the wall in Todd’s study. “Weren’t you worried about sharks?”
“Oh, not on the north coast, not in the shallows.” Todd chuckled. “I didn’t start worrying about sharks until he was a teenager, if you know what I mean. Hanging out with the beach bums all day after school and so on. By that time he looked…well, a lot like he does now.”
“I know,” Ian said with feeling. “Like putting chicken meat in a crab pot.”
Todd smothered a laugh into a cough. “Something like that. But whatever he got up to those summers, he turned out pretty good, if I say so myself.”
“He sure did.” Ian turned to watch Max finish a lap and do a somersault underwater before popping up at the edge of the pool and shaking his head, sending droplets flying.
“You’re both looking at me.” Max blinked rapidly, long eyelashes clumping and holding shining drops.
“You’re nice to look at,” Ian said, smirking deliberately and watching Max blush.
“When did you last put on sunscreen?” Todd checked his watch. “You’re supposed to reapply every thirty minutes when you’ve been in the water.”
“Every half hour? No way.”
“Yes, way. Melanoma is no joke. Come on out and dry off.”
“Okay, okay, you’re right.” Max braced his arms on the edge and hauled himself out of the pool, shoulders flexing and water cascading off him in a crystalline rush. “Better safe than sorry.”
“That’s my boy,” Todd said, and tossed a towel at him.
Max slipped it over his head, rubbing vigorously as he dripped on the concrete between the lounge chairs. His navel was at eye-level, glistening droplets running down his abs, diverting around the jut of his hipbones, catching and sparkling in his honey blond happy trail. His swim trunks clung and dripped down his lean, muscular thighs, showing the shape of his soft dick in the folds of wet fabric. Ian had left a hickey on the silky pale skin just above the waistband. His own dick perked up hopefully at the reminder. He swallowed, glanced up, and caught Todd averting his eyes with a guilty flick.
Oblivious, Max wiggled the towel around himself like a burlesque dancer’s feather boa as he dried his back and torso and then bent to do his legs, soaked shorts pulling tight over his ass. “Will you do my back, babe?” he asked, sitting down on the end of Ian’s deck chair.
“‘Course.” Ian popped the cap on the Coppertone bottle, spurting lotion over Max’s pale shoulders and glancing up at Todd as he smoothed slick hands down Max’s strong back. “You should put some more on too, Todd. You’re looking pink.”
The brick-oven weeks of August slouched on, the skies only a little hazy, the wind off the sea clean. The three of them drove out to Wright’s Beach and went for a hike along the cliff tops with a brisk breeze scudding little strips of cloud across the sky, never dimming the sun. It picked the sweat up off Ian’s neck and made the heads of the wild flowers and hardy seaside grasses bob and dance.
It didn’t even qualify as a hike really, more a brisk walk. A couple of times they scrambled down steep trails to the little coves and pebble beaches, and panted their way back up, sweating, but then the wind would dry and cool them once more. It was the hottest part of the day, a sort of baking heat that gushed up from the dry grasses and dusty trail when the wind died down, and then was blown away again.
They were on the way back to the car, the trailhead sign in sight, but Todd was lagging behind. Ian stopped for him to catch up, and pulled his water bottle out of his pack while he waited. There was only a pitiful, room temperature dribble left to wet his parched tongue. Thank god they would be in the BMW’s A/C in five minutes, and home in an hour.
Max was looking back at Todd. “Dad?” His voice was concerned. “Are you okay?”
Todd said something that Ian missed, whipped away in a gust of wind.
“Dad?” Max repeated, more urgently. “Why are you doing that?” Ian looked up. Todd was hunched over slightly, rubbing at his chest with one hand, frowning.
“Todd?” Ian said. The unzipped pack thumped to the ground in a puff of dust, the empty water bottle tossed inside. Max was already hurrying back down the trail to his father.
“What’s wrong? Dad? What’s happening?”
Todd shook his head, hand still pressed against his chest. “Don’t know. Feels funny. Sort of…fluttery. Like a hiccup, but here.” He tapped his hand over his heart.
“In your chest?” Max’s voice cracked. “Is it…should we call 911?” He pulled out his phone. “I don’t have service. I have literally no service.”
Ian gripped Todd’s arm. “Let’s get to the car, come on. Can you walk? Lean on me.”
“I’m all right, I think,” Todd said. “Just…feels funny. Sort of, not the right rhythm.”
“Oh god, oh fuck,” Max muttered, waving his phone around above his head.
Ian shot Max a look and a little jerk of his head trying to convey as clearly and silently as possible don’t panic. “Are you still breathing okay?”
“Fine. Fine. Don’t forget the backpack.” That must be a good sign, Ian thought, trying frantically to sort the jumbled memory of everything he’d ever read about heart attacks.
“Does it hurt anywhere else?” Max asked, hovering on Todd’s other side.
“I’ve had a headache for an hour, but that’s just the heat. Really, I feel okay, it’s just…strange.”
“It’s just something wrong with your heart, dad!” Max squeaked. “Oh god.”
“Keep it together,” Ian said. “Come on, almost there.” They reached the car with Todd still moving under his own power, and hustled him into the back seat. Max crawled in with him, and Ian laid rubber out of the trailhead parking lot, gravel and dust kicking out from under the tires.
He took the curves of the coast road as fast as he could without crashing them off the cliffs into the sea. In the backseat, Max was saying, “Can you move both your arms? Smile. Does it hurt any now?”
Todd moved his arms. “No, it just feels weird. It’s not getting any worse.”
“Okay, just…hang on, Dad.” Max leaned over Ian’s shoulder, hanging onto the seat back as they swayed sharply one way and then the other. “Do you have service yet? Where’s the nearest ER?”
“If I look at my phone I’m going to drive us off the fucking road,” Ian gritted out. “You gotta check. I’m just heading south, there’s nothing north of here for miles.”
“Okay. Let me, oh god, it’s not loading. Oh god, okay. Fuck, it’s all the way back in Sebastopol.”
“There’s nothing on the coast? Jesus, what do they do when a tourist brains himself with a surfboard? Okay, okay. Hang on, everyone. This isn’t going to be fun.”
Using every ounce of his skill as a Jersey-born driver, Ian made the forty-five minute drive in under thirty, screaming past other cars in no-passing zones, and doing 105 in short stretches where Bodega Highway straightened out, unable to even appreciate the way the BMW purred and accelerated, too white-knuckled and terrified, trying to cast glances in the rearview mirror without killing them all.
When he pulled into the ambulance-circle of the ER in Sebastopol, Todd was still assuring them both that he was fine, and staggered out of the car under his own power, although his face was a pasty greenish. Max didn’t look much better, and Ian felt a little carsick himself even behind the wheel, so it probably wasn’t a symptom of heart failure. Max hurried Todd inside and Ian pulled away from the curb to park the car.
On his way back from the other side of the building, he stopped at a vending machine and got a ginger ale for Max, and then followed signs to the ER. Scanning the waiting room, he didn’t see either Max or Todd, and went up to the intake desk.
“Was Todd Mulligan admitted? Fifty-something white guy, light hair, here with his son?”
The receptionist tapped at her keyboard. “Are you a family member?”
“I’m his husband.”
“The patient’s son-in-law?”
“The patient’s husband,” Ian said, gripping the cool can of soda.
She looked up at him dubiously. Ian gritted his teeth but after a moment she looked back at her computer and said, “Mr. Mulligan was admitted, yes, with his son accompanying him. I don’t have any other information at this time. If you want to go back and join them, I can get an orderly to escort you when someone is free. Can I get your name?”
Ian gave her his name and sat to wait, rolling the damp can of ginger ale against the back of his neck. The air conditioning raised goosebumps along his arms. His head hurt. He texted Max what’s going on and fiddled with his phone, getting no response. He worried his wedding ring round and round on his finger. Everytime the swinging doors into the interior of the building opened, Ian jumped. He couldn’t stop thinking about Todd’s face on the trail, hand over his heart — a sort of bewildered denial, as if despite all his herbal tinctures, reiki sessions, and other mystical indemnities against illness and ill fortune, he couldn’t actually believe he was in danger.
Ian, headache growing in his temples, felt a surge of helpless, protective anger, not at Todd but at the universe, for the audacity to threaten such a sweet, silly, kind man with heart palpitations. Todd was right, damn it. Anything could happen. The stupid spider could have been poisonous. Ian pressed the cool, sweating aluminum against his forehead.
Ian leapt up, and followed the orderly’s squeaking sneakers through the swinging doors and down a beige hall, lined with examination rooms. Max was sitting on a chair outside a closed door and leapt to his feet when he saw Ian. Ian opened his arms and Max flung himself into them, clinging. “What happened?” Ian asked, clutching Max. “Where’s Todd?”
Max jerked his chin at the closed door. “The doctor asked a bunch of questions, listened to his heart, said it wasn’t accute. They’re doing the EKG now.”
Ian lifted the hand holding the ginger ale without letting go of Max. “I got you this.”
Max took the can, eyes welling up. “Thanks.”
Ian squeezed him. “In sickness and in health, right?”
Sniffling, Max rubbed his eyes with his forearm and nodded. “For better and for worse.” His voice cracked on the last word. Ian guided Max back into the chair, scooted another one as close as he could beside it, and held Max with the arms of the chair jutting awkwardly into his stomach until the door opened and Todd emerged with the doctor behind him.
“Dad?” Max jumped up.
Todd gave them both a tired smile and folded Max in his arms. “I’m alright.”
“What happened? What was it?” Max asked.
The doctor, a short Indian woman with elegant hands, cleared her throat. “They’re called premature atrial contractions: they’re quite common, especially as people age, and not dangerous at all. It was probably brought on by dehydration, and we’ve given some fluids, but rest and Pedialyte is my prescription.”
“You’re sure it’s not dangerous? You’re sending him home?” Max said, bristling like a terrier.
“Dangerous heart arrhythmias usually cause problems within minutes. If Mr. Mulligan were going to have a heart attack it already would have happened.”
“Ugh, that’s not comforting.”
Todd still had his arm around Max’s shoulders, and squeezed him sideways. “I made them order a bunch of tests anyway. Can’t be too careful. I’ve got an appointment next week in the City to see a specialist and get an MRI.”
Ian put his arm around both of them as far as he could reach. “We’ll take it easy this weekend, stay home, and the tests next week will give us more answers. Right?” he asked the doctor.
“There is really no reason for concern, but an MRI will show definitively whether there are any ventral blockages or abnormalities.” She unclipped a packet of papers from her clipboard and handed it over to Todd. “Your notes and instructions are here, call if anything changes. Take care, Mr. Mulligan.”
Out in the lobby, Max pushed the half-empty bottle of ginger ale at Todd. “You need to keep drinking liquids. Have this.”
“Thanks Maxie.” Todd bussed a kiss against Max’s cheek. “My good boy.”
A scarlet flush banished the remaining sick, anxious pallor from Max’s face. Ian coughed to hide a laugh, feeling buoyed with relief, kissed Max on the other cheek, and said, “He sure is. Let’s get you home, hubby.”
It was past dinner time, and they got in a minor fight on the way home, tired, hungry, and heat fatigued, about whether to get takeout and where they could find heart healthy options. They ended up swinging by the grocery store for deli salads. Ian had been vegetarian since meeting Max but thought longingly of In-N-Out burgers and an enormous pile of fries. He ordered potato salad instead and let Max feed him bites while he drove.
At home, Max lingered near Todd, drifting after him as Todd took off his hiking boots with a groan and padded toward the master bedroom. “Should you be alone tonight? Ian or I could stay with you.”
“I’ll be fine. I just want to lie down and sleep for twelve hours.”
“But don’t you think someone should be here? In case something happens.”
“No, really, it’s alright.”
“Are you sure, dad?”
Todd looked keenly at Max. “Would you sleep better if you stayed with me?”
Max nodded mutely.
“Well, in that case.” Todd jerked his head toward the bedroom. “Make yourselves at home.”
Ian and Max brushed their teeth in their own bathroom, bumping shoulders in familiar domestic silence. Then Ian found their PJs, rarely used, and they both went up to the master suite and crawled into the big king bed with Todd. Max was in the middle. They lay in the dark quietly, the slightly strained strangeness of sharing a bed with someone new, until Max choked out into the dark, “I was so scared.”
“Oh sweetheart.” There was a rustle and Todd’s hand brushed Ian’s shoulder as he held out his arm. “Me too.”
Max curled up against Todd’s chest, and Ian could feel him trembling. Ian slung an arm over Max’s hip, face pressed against the back of his neck. His hand brushed Todd’s belly, and he felt Todd’s warm hand close over his, tucking Ian’s palm against his chest. Todd kissed the top of Max’s head with a soft smack. “I love you, Maxie.”
“I love you, too, Daddy,” Max mumbled.
Ian’s eyes, drifting closed, snapped open. He pressed a kiss to the back of Max’s neck and forced himself to relax. Not the time, not what Max had meant, but hearing it like that always grabbed Ian by the balls and the heart both. Instead he breathed in Max’s familiar skin scent mixed with the pleasant smell Todd’s sheets, and listened to the rustle of the trees outside and the crickets singing to the nighthawks as the three of them lay twined together in the dark and Todd’s heart beat under Ian’s hand.
They drove into San Francisco on a Wednesday mid afternoon for Todd’s MRI. Rush hour, which started right after lunch, was already beginning, and even though they were going the opposite direction from most of the traffic but still creeping along bumper to bumper for much of the length of the Bay Bridge. Todd played CCR loudly on the stereo with the windows down, but the thumping rhythm couldn’t entirely dispel the anxiety shrouding the car.
“You boys don’t have to wait,” Todd said at the hospital, but by silent accord, Ian and Max spent the afternoon in the generic coffee shop in the lobby. The idea of playing tourist in the Castro or wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf buying artisanal baked goods and overpriced screen-printed dish towels didn’t appeal. Instead they spent an hour and a half playing scrabble on Ian’s phone and watching people come and go from the pharmacy, until Max’s phone beeped and they went to collect Todd.
Their hotel was at the top of a hill above North Beach and Chinatown, and the view of the city lights from the windows of the double suite was unreal, cinematic. Ian could have spent all night just standing there looking out on the glittering streets and spires, the silent darkness of the bay spangled by the famous bridge, but Todd, coming out of the other bedroom, clapped his hands together and said, “We who are about to die want to have some fun! Who’s with me?”
Max’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Dad?” he said at the same time as Ian said, “Cut it out, Todd, no one is dying.”
Todd put his hand over his heart. “Just one drink, and home before midnight. You boys can chaperone. Anyway, who needs to get wasted to get down on the dance floor? Come on, let your old man have some fun.”
There was a gay club in the city for every occasion, demographic, and desire, but the deciding factor was parking. They found a place with good reviews on Google a quarter mile away, and walked from the hotel after dinner. The evening’s theme was ’80s night, which made Todd laugh and crow, “Perfect!” over the music. He bought Max and Ian shots of top-shelf tequila and himself a fancy cocktail with organic lavender syrup. They snagged a booth, too close to a speaker for real conversation. The dance floor was boisterous, not taking itself too seriously like the best kind of a night out, but Max showed no signs of wanting to leave his dad, and Ian stayed beside him.
They had finished a second round of drinks — a mocktail for Todd as he’d promised — when Cyndi Lauper came on, and Todd nudged Max. “Go on, you love this one.”
“It’s alright. I like listening too.”
Ian leaned across the table and squeezed Max’s hand. “Come on. Your dad wants us to stop cockblocking him. I can sense the twinks circling his silver fox energy.”
Todd laughed. “More like everyone wondering how an old fart like me got so lucky as to be out with you too.”
“No way! You’re hot, dad,” Max said, and then blushed. “You should come dance too. If you feel up for it?” He turned his enormous earnest eyes on Todd. “How’s your heart?”
“Never better.” He thumped his chest. “To prove it, I will get down with the beat, as the kids say.”
Max groaned and rolled his eyes, but tugged on his dad’s arm as he slid out of the booth, and, taking Ian’s hand too, dragged them both out onto the dancefloor.
Club dancing was, second to swimming, Max’s natural habitat. The first time Ian had laid eyes on him he’d been dancing, at a mutual friend’s birthday party in a basement bar. It wasn’t even the type of thing where people normally danced, but Max had been grooving by the retro jukebox so naturally that he’d accumulated a small throng of companions, all, in Ian’s opinion, hopeful suitors. Max had claimed they just liked to dance. But in any event, it had been Ian he’d taken home, or rather, to the bar bathroom, and then home.
Taking Max and Todd’s hands, Ian twirled Max under their arms and shimmied up behind him while he and Todd bopped to the beat. Max laughed, one hand on Ian’s hip, the other holding Todd’s shoulder. It felt so good to see Max relaxed, happy, when he’d been so tense and stressed all week, even more so than Todd. As Ian had predicted, there were already some more young men gravitating toward Todd in the press of the dance floor. Ian had never minded sharing, enjoying the spectators’ admiration of his partners as he danced with both of them.
They danced until Ian was damp with sweat, got some more drinks, went outside for a joint, and cooled off enough in the damp breeze off the bay to return to the dancefloor. Ian was buzzing, throbbing with the music and the surge of the dancers; with Max tucked under his arm and the hot bodies on all sides; with the shots and the weed making everything brightly blurred and immediate. His shirt was plastered to his back, hands sliding on Max’s sweat under his tank top as they ground together. The DJ was mixing mid 2000s dance hits with ’80s classics, nostalgia night for two generations of gays. The beat reverberated in his ribcage. Max was grinning in the lights, and Ian could see Todd over his shoulder, a young guy with a fauxhawk dancing close to him.
As the motion of the dance floor eddied them all in little Brownian rotations, Ian bumped up against Todd’s shoulder and heard him saying over the music, “…not looking for anything tonight, handsome.”
Ian could barely hear the twink’s response, even with them all pressed so close. “Oh, are you here with someone?”
Leaning over, Ian looped an arm through Todd’s. “Yeah!” he shouted over the bass. “I’m his husband!” and then kissed Todd full on his surprised mouth, feeling Max laughing against his chest. Todd’s lips were soft against his, and Ian’s dick was hard against Max’s hip. He got a hand in Max’s hair. “And this is my boyfriend!”
Fauxhawk glanced between Max and Todd. “Anyone ever tell you that your husband has a type?”
Todd laughed. “Believe me, I noticed.”
“Some guys get all the luck!” the twink said, shaking his head. The disco lights strobed behind his hairdo.
“Your perfect guy is out there!” Ian shouted over the music, twirling Max in his arms. “I found two of mine!”
And then Max was pulling Ian in for a kiss, sucking and licking where his dad’s lips had just been and Ian groaned, fire in his stomach, grinding on Max, feeling Todd up close behind him, Ian’s ass rubbing at his crotch, the unmistakable shape of his erection. He slipped his fingers in Max’s waistband and they swayed together, sweaty and frantic, while time stretched like taffy in the smear of the disco lights and the thrum of the bass.
The giddy, uphill walk back to their hotel, made laughingly and at speed, was like another aspect of the dance floor, the cool air bracing but not sobering. After the music and noise and city lights, the quiet darkness of their suite was almost deafening, pressing in like a physical force. Ian swam through it with Max in his arms, Todd shutting the door behind them. No one hit the lights. Ian’s knees collided with the edge of the sofa and he and Max fell on it, not kissing so much as breathing the same air, open mouthed.
Max was hard under Ian, rubbing up urgently against him, gasping, “Please, please, please,” and Ian whispered, “Here?”
“Here, right here, right now, oh please, Ian.” Max grabbed at his ass, fingers scrabbling over tight denim, and Ian pawing at him right back, hands up under his shirt, pinching his nipples, distracted by struggling with his zipper, while Max writhed unhelpfully and sucked on Ian’s neck. When Ian managed to get both their dicks out he had no patience for fucking, just the velvet drag of their cocks against one another, sticky with sweat and precome, the slide of their mouths together, the sound of Max moaning and the earthquake undulations of his body beneath Ian’s.
Lifting his head, Ian could see the glittering cityscape through the window, and, reflected in the plate glass, the ghostly shadow of Todd, frozen on the way to his room, standing beside the other couch, head turned toward them. Ian groaned, a shock of arousal gripping his gut. Max’s mouth found the sweaty pulse-point in the hollow of Ian’s throat and sucked hard, and without even realizing he was near the edge, Ian was tumbling over, dropping his forehead to Max’s shoulder, cock throbbing and spurting between their bellies. Max whined and squirmed, humping up against the slick softness of Ian’s belly, and Ian was whispering, “That’s it baby, you’re so beautiful, so sexy for me, love you like this, fuck, so good, feel so good, you’re so close aren’t you sweetheart, that’s right, do it, do it, come for Daddy.”
Max shouted and arched under Ian, hips shuddering and cock spilling all over their stomachs. Ian sighed happily and rubbed his face against Max’s sweaty neck, kissing and nibbling him while Max made little huffing and moaning sounds. The lights outside the window blurred like galaxies in the corner of Ian’s vision, the world was soupy and small, smelling of sweat and semen and Max’s skin, and Ian was still buzzing, cock soft but pulse throbbing.
Lifting his head he looked over his shoulder where Todd was still standing beside the opposite couch, face completely unreadable in the darkness. One hand was between his legs, cupped over a bulge in his tight jeans. Ian heaved himself onto his elbows, everything swimming a little. “Let me help with that,” he rasped. Max made a little whimpering noise that wasn’t a protest.
The five-star hotel carpet was plush under Ian’s knees. Todd moaned a long way above his head as Ian rubbed his face against Todd’s fly, against warm denim and the solid, delicious thickness of a hard cock beneath. Ian was aware that he was growling muffled praise and reassurance, “S’okay, so good, let me, good boy, let me…” Then Todd’s dick was in his hand, in his mouth, salt on his tongue, salivating. Todd was groaning softly, hips hitching up into Ian’s mouth, fingers curling in his hair.
In the edge of his vision from where he was kneeling Ian could see Max watching, wide eyes gleaming in the dimness, one hand fondling his own recently spent cock against his belly. Bracing himself on Todd’s strong thighs, Ian sucked hungrily, unmoored from time passing and his other senses of the world, enjoying the pressure in his throat, the weight and thickness on his tongue, feeling his own soft cock twitching. Ian looked back at Max and their eyes locked, Max’s mouth open in a silent cry, hand beginning to move in the same rhythm as Ian’s head.
Then Todd’s hands tightened in his hair, thighs tensing, and a thick, salty taste filled the back of his throat. He sucked, gulped, nuzzled, pulled away, crawled around the designer coffee table and buried his face in his boyfriend’s crotch, licking the taste of their come and sweat off him until Max was shuddering and crying out with a hand against his mouth and spilling again. Ian felt Max tugging at his hair, and let himself be drawn up to kiss, Max licking his own come and – Ian’s cock throbbed – his father’s out of Ian’s mouth, hungry as a kitten. He came rutting against the side of the couch, all over the upholstery.
They all slept late the next morning, and for once Max was still passed out when Ian got up. Ian had been blessed with a cast-iron constitution the morning after a good time. His mouth was foul and sticky, teeth unbrushed, but they hadn’t even been that drunk last night. Ian wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. He got up, brushed his teeth, and dressed on autopilot, thoughts churning slowly.
Todd was in the suite’s kitchenette, eating a danish. There was a bakery bag on the table, the smell of hot bagels wafting up, and two bottles of ginger kombucha and a large to-go coffee beside it.
“Is this for me?” Ian asked, already gravitating toward the coffee. Todd smiled and nodded without quite meeting Ian’s eyes. “Thanks,” Ian said, heartfelt, and occupied himself with more attention than blowing on hot coffee really required.
Todd brushed crumbs off his fingers, got up to toss the napkin in the trash, fiddled with the paper bag. “Feeling alright?” he said eventually.
Todd cleared his throat, swallowed. “Fine.”
“Good.” There was a pregnant pause and then Ian knocked their shoulders together gently. “Thanks for the coffee, hubby.”
Todd smiled a little more naturally. “There’s bagels and cream cheese too, and I couldn’t decide between blueberry or raspberry scones so I got both.”
“Sounds delicious.” Ian looked at the laugh lines around Todd’s eyes, the friendly furrows of age in his cheeks when he smiled, and thought about kissing him. The morning sun made the white and blond mix of his hair glint platinum, caught his silver stubble like slivers of crystalized quartz over his chin.
A door clicked and Max shuffled out of the bedroom in his boxers, squinting pathetically.
“Morning, sweetheart.” Ian held out the arm not holding the coffee and Max folded himself into it, against Ian’s chest, making a noise like “blerg.” Ian kissed his skull. “Hungover?” Max nodded. He was always a lightweight. “Your dad got you kombucha.”
Max peeked up, cheeks pink. “Thanks, dad,” he mumbled.
“No problem.” Todd shifted on his feet, leaned on the counter and coughed, awkward again.
Max’s brow wrinkled in concern. “How do you feel? You didn’t overdo it last night?”
“No, I — no. I’m okay.” Todd pushed himself away from the edge of the counter, and said, “Going to go shave.”
“What about you?” Max asked when Todd had gone.
“Barely even hungover.”
“Not fair,” Max groaned. “My head is killing me.”
“Here.” Ian popped the top off one of the bottles of kombucha and handed it over.
“Thanks.” Max sank down in one of the chairs, and Ian fished out a bagel and began spreading cream cheese. He would not have called himself a bagel snob before moving to the west coast, but the Italian neighborhood where he’d grown up in Trenton was only a few blocks from the Jewish neighborhood and more importantly the little kosher deli and bakery that served an everything bagel sandwich with more lox than bagel. It was true what everyone said about west coast bagels, but — he checked the stamp on the bag — Schwart’s of San Francisco made a respectable attempt.
“You should eat something, these are good.” He broke off a bite and held it out. Max leaned in obediently to take it from his fingers. They finished the bagel in companionable silence, trading bites. When it was gone, and the coffee and kombucha too, Ian said, low, “Did you have a good time last night?”
Max met his gaze, blushing but steady. “Yes. Did you?”
It was Ian’s turn to feel warm. “Yeah.”
Max smiled sweetly. “That’s alright then, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is.” Ian smiled helplessly back. Max leaned across the table and kissed him, and Ian licked a bit of cream cheese off his lower lip.
Todd came bustling out of his side of the suite with slightly more noise than was necessary. “Checkout is at eleven, but we can get going any time you boys are ready. Did you want to do anything else in the city while we’re here? I was thinking we could go to Muir Woods on the way home or something. Might be nice.”
“Dad,” Max said reproachfully. “No hiking. When do you get the test results?”
“By tomorrow. And Muir Woods barely counts as hiking. It’s walking.”
Reaching out, Max caught his dad’s hand and squeezed it as Todd passed the table. “We’ll have lots of time to go walking together. Right?”
Todd’s face shifted from skittish to serious and he settled in his body a little, shoulders squaring. “Right.”
“Good.” Max tugged on Todd’s hand until he leaned down, and Max kissed his cheek. “Let’s go home.”
It was a subdued day at the house on the hill, though the breeze was as sweet with jasmine and peaches as ever, and the sun danced on the ripples in the pool. They went to bed early. Ian woke in the small hours to a harsh blue light, gilding the nighttime shapes of the bedroom. He rolled over to see Max’s furrowed face blazing silver in the light of his phone screen.
Ian squinted at the browser window displaying WebMD and plucked the phone out of Max’s hands, shoving it under his own pillow and wrapping his arms around Max’s shoulders. Max burrowed into Ian’s chest, face damp, and Ian held him until Max stopped shaking silently and began to snore the soft, congested snores of the recently crying.
They did indeed go walking the next day, just down the hill, past the blackberry bushes and the neighbor’s horses, along the edge of the vineyard where clusters of dark grapes were hanging heavily, half hidden in the leaves along the trellises. Summer’s long, sleepy gestation was coming to a close and everything that had been growing in the belly of its days was nearly ready for harvest.
For dinner, Todd fired up the grill and put on black bean burgers and marinated portobello mushrooms, while Max and Ian chopped carrots, cucumber, almonds, and plump, bursting tomatoes for a mixed green salad. They were in the kitchen with the door open while Todd whistled on the patio.
On the granite countertop, Todd’s sleek phone buzzed suddenly. “Dad, phone for you!” Max turned it over with the hand not dripping tomato juice. “It’s the doctor’s office!”
Todd hurried through the sliding door and passed Max the grill tongs. “Watch the veggie burgers, will you?”
“Don’t forget to put the gruyere on.”
“Yes, Dad! Take the call!”
Todd swiped the screen and turned his back to them, looking out at the window over the sink at the peach and pomegranate trees. “Hello? Yes, speaking.”
Ian hooked Max’s elbow and towed him out onto the patio, closed the door carefully behind them for privacy. They could see Todd’s back, the set of his shoulders. The grill sizzled. Max poked at the mushrooms halfheartedly and put the slices of cheese on the bean burgers while they both watched through the glass. Todd was nodding, saying something, nodding again. He put the phone down, stood at the sink for a moment. Max moved as if to rush inside but Ian grabbed his elbow, shaking his head. Todd filled up a glass at the tap and drained it, still looking out the window away from them. Ian felt his heart thumping anxiously.
Then Todd turned, came to the door and slid it open, smiling at them as he stepped through. “All results are normal. No blockages or anything on the MRI. Nothing to be worried about.”
“Oh, Dad!” Max threw himself into his dad’s arms and let Todd swing him awkwardly around, stumbling a little since they were almost the same size. Ian closed in behind them and hugged them both and they all just swayed there while the burgers sizzled and dripped melted cheese. Max was shaking, and Ian’s throat felt a little clogged also.
Finally Todd pulled back and cleared his own throat, blinking rapidly. “Well! This calls for celebration.” Ian lit the candles on the patio table while Max constructed the burgers along with mango aioli, butterleaf lettuce, and thick slices of ripe California tomatoes, and Todd went down to the wine cave, which was more like a walk-in fridge, and brought up a bottle of Napa Valley brut. They ate veggie burgers and salad on the patio as lavender dusk drew in, and had local ice cream for dessert. Max was holding his dad’s hand across the corner of the table, other hand on Ian’s thigh on the other side. Ian felt full and floating in warm contentment, the giddy relaxation after ongoing stress.
Eventually the mosquitos chased them inside, and they migrated to the enormous plush couch in the living room, where windows on two sides looked out over the blue hills, turned to magic-lantern shapes in the deepening twilight, winking here and there with the lights of another villa or grand house. Todd cracked open a second bottle of wine and Max rolled a joint, lit it from the candles Ian had carried in and left on the coffee table. The three of them were curled up together in the L-shaped corner of the couch, talking about nothing, laughing together as the wine bottle emptied and the joint burned down.
Ian was trying to blow smoke rings while Max heckled him and Todd shook his head fondly. “Let me show you boys how it’s done.” His fingers were warm against Ian’s as he pulled the joint to his lips, still in Ian’s hand. The golden light of the coal flaring kissed his face, deepening the creases round his eyes. He hollowed his lips in a silly little O, puffed delicately, and expelled three drifting, expanding rings of smoke.
Ian’s mouth was open too. “How did you do that?” he complained.
Todd grinned. “I’ve been smoking reefer since before you two were born. It’s all in the throat.” He took a pull, opened his mouth again, and, reaching out dreamily, Ian curled his fingers in Todd’s hair and pulled him in for something the shape of a kiss, sucking in the fragrant, warm air as Todd exhaled suddenly in surprise. Lungs full he tried the o-shaped, little huffs of breath but got nothing as dignified as a ring. Todd was laughing again. Ian shoved his shoulder, leaned over and kissed him again to shut him up, letting the last of the smoke curl back into Todd’s mouth.
When he pulled back, Todd’s smile had turned from amused to intent. Holding Ian’s gaze, Todd lifted the hand holding the joint, fingers brushing Ian’s cheek, and took another drag, held it, and kissed him again, warm and fragrant. Ian breathed in.
It felt easy, natural, to turn to Max with the same breath and pull him in, licking a little at his lips before exchanging the air. Max giggled, sweet, sharp smoke curling between their mouths. Ian exhaled until his lungs felt tight, until he had to pull away to cough the last brambles of smoke out of his windpipe. Max tipped his head back and blew out ribbony plumes, neck long and elegant, and took another hit himself.
Time was soupy and slow, each moment a placid Polaroid disconnected from the next. Max’s impish, grinning face. The orange coal at his lips. Max turning his head sideways, nudging in toward his father’s mouth. Their lips meeting, parting. The languid coil of smoke rising. Their matched profiles, so similar. Ian realized he was rubbing his dick through his shorts, getting hard.
Max drew away from Todd, and they blinked at one another, and then Max cast an uncertain glance at Ian, licking his lips. “Um.”
Ian swallowed, untethered, and rasped, “Do it again.”
Wide-eyed, Max pulled again on the joint, which had burned down almost to nothing, and cast the glowing butt into the ash tray on the designer coffee table.
The smoke was gone but Max and Todd were still kissing, mouths open, eyes closed. Todd was stroking Max’s face and Max was moaning softly. Ian’s cock thickened against his palm. He squeezed himself, drained and abandoned his wine glass on the coffee table, then shifted to his knees, tucking himself closer behind Max so his erection was pressed to Max’s ass. Max whimpered into his father’s mouth as Ian groped his thighs and hips from behind, touch-hungry. He touched Todd’s legs too, his wiry shins and cyclist’s thighs, feeling Todd shift his knees wider on either side of Max.
Max tipped his head down against Todd’s shoulder. “Oh god, oh please,” he whispered. “Ian, please.” He was wiggling his ass back against Ian, half leaning against his father’s chest. Putting a hand on Max’s back, Ian tipped him forward against Todd who was leaning against the arm of the couch, so that Max was kneeling nearly in his father’s lap, their faces close. Slipping a hand between their bodies, Ian felt the shape of Todd’s thick erection as he fumbled with Max’s zip, listened to the way Todd gasped when Ian squeezed him before yanking Max’s shorts down around his thighs.
Scooting himself down the couch, Ian kissed the rounded, meaty muscle of Max’s ass, then bit and felt him jump. He ran both hands up Max’s thighs, and spread his cheeks apart, looking at the dusky pink furl of his hole, always neatly shaved, watched it twitch as Ian admired it. Sighing happily, Ian bent and put his mouth on Max.
Max moaned and fluttered under his tongue, familiar. The thick, rich body-smell filled Ian’s senses; the wrinkled texture under his tongue, the thrill of that tightness yielding. He licked and suckled, holding Max’s hips while he squirmed on Todd’s lap. Ian could hear father and son both breathing hard, not kissing any more, just clinging and breathing the same air. Then Ian pressed two fingers into Max alongside his tongue and Max said in a strangled voice, “Oh, Daddy.”
Todd gasped and then let out a low, visceral groan. Max trembled. Ian growled against Max’s ass, licking sloppily around his fingers, letting spit drip down his chin, swirling it with his tongue into Max’s hole until Ian could slide a third finger in easily. He spat, pulled back, wiped his face with his arm. “You want my cock, baby?”
“Yes,” Max gasped.
“Yes please, what?” Ian felt Max tense around his fingers. Todd’s eyes were closed tight, cheek pressed against Max’s, biting his lower lip. His hand was clenched tight on Max’s arm. “Yes what, Max?”
Max bit his lip then burst out, “Yes, please, Daddy!” Ian felt Todd shudder in the same surge of arousal that swept through Ian like hot, crashing surf. Ian drove forward, shoving his cock into Max’s ass and leaning in to kiss Todd in the same movement. Max yelped. Todd groaned into Ian’s mouth.
Ian was flying, surging on of the crest of arousal and impulse, Max’s insides gripping his cock hungrily, his strong back against Ian’s chest, little huffing noises in Ian’s ear as Ian fucked his tongue into Todd’s mouth right along with his cock into Max, pressed tight between them. Todd’s legs were spread wide on either side of them, thighs tensing against Ian’s sides as if he were the one getting fucked. His hands moved restlessly, over Max’s sides, across Ian’s back, not quite able to reach his ass, but trying, tugging him into Max with each thrust.
“Please, please, please,” Max panted against Todd’s throat.
Ian lifted his head and kissed Max’s ear, wet with his father’s spit. “You like it?” he asked, hoarse.
Max groaned. “Yes, Daddy.”
Ian got his fingers in Max’s hair, tugged up sharply, making him lift his head. “Tell him. Do you like it?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Max whispered, looking straight at Todd. Todd’s eyelids fluttered shut, mouth opening on a silent moan. Slipping a hand under Max, Ian felt the slick, swampy heat of a fresh load of come, smeared between their bellies. Todd whimpered when Ian cupped his softening cock and stroked it tenderly, making it jump in his fingers and leak a little more from the slit.
Ian moaned appreciation, snapping his hips into Max, Max’s cock bumping against Ian’s wrist on every thrust, wet with his dad’s come. Wrapping his fingers around it, Ian worked his hand on Max’s slick shaft so hard his wrist ached, knuckles brushing Todd’s twitching, spent cock. The backs of Ian’s thighs burned with the exertion, his balls tightened. His lips were against Max’s ear. “Like that, baby? Like your dad coming all over your cock while Daddy fucks you? Going to show us how much you like it?”
Max wailed and clenched down around Ian’s cock, shudders rippling through him. In his hand, slick with Todd’s come, Ian felt Max’s dick throb and begin to shoot.
“Fuck, fuck, come for me, sweetheart, come for your daddies.”
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” Max babbled, Ian groaned and bit the back of Max’s neck as his hips snapped forward, climax crashing through him, emptying his cock in long, wracking pulses inside Max. Max whined and clung to his dad’s chest as Ian pounded him through it until eventually, panting, Ian slowed to a stop and leaned his forehead against Max’s sweaty back. He could feel Max’s heart pounding through his ribcage. His dick was softening slowly, pleasantly over-sensitive, sending little shivers through him as his come leaked out of Max and dripped down his shaft, tucked stickily between Max’s legs.
The candles had burned low. Deep night had fallen beyond the windows and thickened in the corners of the room. They lay, listening to one another breathe and to the cries of night birds and sawing of crickets outside. Finally, Todd groaned. “My hips are killing me, boys.”
Max made a noise of concern and tried to lift himself up, elbowing Ian in the stomach and dislodging him. Ian rolled to the side with a grunt, nearly kicking the empty wine bottle off the coffee table. “Sorry, babe. Are you okay, Dad?”
Todd started to pull away, struggling to swim out of the depths of the couch cushions. “I’ll be walking funny for a few days, and I wasn’t even the one, uh.” He coughed and stopped.
Ian was seized with the last of the evening’s intoxicating recklessness, and an instant, urgent need not to let Todd get up and walk away alone. He gripped Todd’s wrist, other arm tight around Max’s waist. “You can be the one next time, getting fucked. If you like.”
Todd blinked, blushed, visibly rallied and said, “Should we…talk about this?”
“No,” said Ian and Max together. “But we should do it again,” Ian said, and Max nodded, biting his lip.
“I never meant…” Todd said, “I mean, when I asked Ian to marry me, this wasn’t…I didn’t mean…for this.”
“We know, Dad.” Max said, hand on Todd’s knee. “Don’t overthink it. Ian’s always telling me that.”
Todd gave a little snort. “Ha. Well. If you boys are sure.” He hesitated as if waiting for a reversal, but when none came he said, with only slightly forced joviality, “It’s been a long time since I enjoyed groin strain so much.”
Max smiled and snuggled in against Todd’s chest, hand over his heart. “We’ll call your PT in the morning.”
Curling up behind him, Ian kissed Max’s neck, squeezed Todd’s shoulder, and said, “Maybe tomorrow afternoon.”