Is there space for second chances with so many walls between them?
Mike and Jim were best friends from their earliest childhood, and they realized they were in love in high school. But when Jim was in college and Mike in the Army, Jim took action to save a friend and apparently betrayed Mike in the worst way possible. Mike deployed before Jim could explain, and they weren’t able to reconnect.
Now Mike is the CEO of a company he inherited from his absentee father. When Jim’s world explodes and he finds himself on the run, there’s only one person he can turn to. Mike is reluctant to let Jim back into his life, but when he hears Jim’s story he knows he has no choice. That doesn’t mean things can go back to the way they were.
Even if they both want them to.
NOTE: Contains mentions of past sexual assault, past violence against women (neither graphic), and an extremely gassy pug.
After dinner, Josie and Debbie went to exercise the dogs. Jim thought it might be an excuse, but he certainly didn’t mind. Debbie seemed like a good person, and Mike seemed to trust her. Besides, it gave him some time with Mike.
“Are you all right?”
Mike narrowed his eyes at him. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You didn’t eat your dinner.”
“I suppose I didn’t.” Mike looked away. “I’m sure you understand things are a little overwhelming right now.”
“I’ll bet. I know we dumped a bunch of stuff on your plate, and you’ve been incredible toward us.”
Mike waved a hand. “It’s been good. Something different, and something that benefits the world as well as you two. I’m just not used to being around so many people who don’t work for me, if that makes sense. It’s fine. It’s just for a little while, right?”
Jim faltered. “Yeah, of course.” He paused. “It’s not all bad, though, is it?”
Mike hesitated a long moment before answering. “I don’t know about being all bad. I know it’s disconcerting. It’s stirring a lot of things up that probably don’t need to be disturbed.”
“Oh.” Jim swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. We’ve been over this. You did the right thing under the circumstances. None of what happened to me is your fault. It’s just life, and we get through it, okay?”
Jim put his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want Mike to see them shaking. “Don’t you want more from life, though? I mean more than just getting through it?”
Mike angled his body away. “That’s what there is. That’s all there is. And I wouldn’t say I’m bad at ‘getting through’ it. I’ve only gone and expanded my sperm donor’s company by an order of magnitude, gotten a doctorate, and survived something most people don’t. Mostly on my own.”
“Is it wrong for me to wish you hadn’t had to do it on your own?” Jim stepped closer. “I always wanted to be there for you.”
“I know.” Mike’s voice was only a little bit above a whisper. “But the circumstances didn’t allow for it.”
“What about the rest of your unit?”
Mike shrugged. “They had their own shit to get through. They didn’t need mine too. It wasn’t a cakewalk for them either.”
Jim understood, or at least he thought he did. “They had families to go back to.”
“Sure.” Mike didn’t turn around.
“And you never thought about letting anyone in?”
Mike glared at him. “I’ve had some hookups. It was years before I even wanted that, okay? And it wasn’t great. It’s not like it was before. People don’t want to see the scars, they don’t want to feel them. They don’t want to have to deal with a partially unresponsive limb or with PTSD. If they know who I actually am they’re willing to stick around for the money, but only the money. It’s just not worth it, Jim.
“At least this way I’m in control. My head is perfectly clear so I can run my business and do what has to be done. I never have to worry about my judgement being clouded again.”
Jim stared. “But aren’t you lonely?”
Mike looked away again. “When has that ever mattered?”
“It matters to me.”
Mike turned around to look directly at Jim. “That’s bullshit.”
“I thought you said you would have made the same choice.”
“I would have. I totally understand why you did it. But that doesn’t mean who I am now is important to you, or what my life is like is even remotely relevant to you at this point. It’s beyond useless to pretend that it is. I’m a means to an end for you. I’m here to help you survive your awful father in law. And that’s okay. I know this, I’ve accepted it.
“But when this is all over, you’ll go back to teaching school. You’ll find someone new. It’s not a criticism. It’s just a fact. We’ll go back to never seeing each other again. It is what it is. I don’t need more from you.”
“Do you really think so little of me?”
“It’s the way things are, Jim. Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone. I’m not the kind of guy anyone chooses. I’m not even the kind of guy anyone settles for. The whole romance thing isn’t for everyone. It’s fine. I’m over it. I’ve got enough on my plate as it is. Same with friends, really. It’s just not something I do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go manage a crisis that came up in the R&D department earlier.” He hurried off toward the exit.
Jim caught up with him easily. He didn’t even think about it. All he knew was that he couldn’t let Mike leave the room thinking that way. He cut him off before he could reach the door, pulled him close, and touched his lips to Mike’s.
Mike didn’t kiss the same way he used to. He was hesitant. He was stiff, at least at first, and for a second Jim wondered if he was going to resist or even refuse. Jim would accept that, if he had to. But he had to try first.
And then, miracle of miracles, Mike relaxed and opened up. His free hand caressed Jim’s cheek and his mouth devoured Jim’s, Jim remembered hazily that Mike had barely touched his dinner. He tasted like fresh fruit, papaya and passion fruit, and the scent of his sandalwood shampoo curled around Jim’s brain like smoke.
Mike was a drug, and Jim only needed this much of a hit to get hooked all over again.