Aspiring author, Boone Daniels, always figured love would be as easy as he was. Fresh off the whirlwind winter-vacation romance with ski-god and would-be boyfriend, Wade Walker -- Boone was certain that saying goodbye would be the hardest part.
He'd survived the unconventional way in which they came together, proven himself somewhat worthy to Wade's hometown of Summit City, and felt certain the self-imposed, six month boy-buffer would prove one thing - their fate was to be forever entwined.
Once real life settles in, Boone suffers the realization that no one ever actually said love was easy and that even after you fall, you can still break. As their two worlds collide, he begins to understand that if he can navigate the landscape of life in fusion, he just might get that happily-ever-after -- after all.
Buck Caldera methodically inched his way across the thin ledge, grasping at any bump or crevice in the steaming cliff rock wall he could find to help maintain his balance. He took in a tense breath, knowing one misstep and he'd plummet to his death. The intense heat would have been more than most could handle. Even for him, born on the volcanic planet of Voldaire, the blistering dry wind that ripped through the vast chasms of Pluternica were nearly enough to make him lose hold of his senses. It required total concentration to maintain his balance and stave off disorientation.
The shrill shriek from the Darten Beasts living among the caves throughout the canyon whisked by, as if riding on the wind, and serving as a reminder he was in constant danger. Even the light from the three suns that kept this wretched planet drenched in constant daylight was severely diffused by the dense fog, which whizzed past him, trapped in the straight-line winds.
He tightened his grip, his fingers burning as another large stone bounced down the side of the cliff, missing his head by mere inches.
"Fucking dung beasts!" Buck growled. Dirt and rock particles rained down upon his head and shoulders, shaken loose by the larger stone. He carefully continued making his way closer to the large vent in the wall. "I'm looking forward to slicing open as many of you as I can."
The only advantages he had were his cunning and the Caldemantian sword, forged from the hardest metal known in all the galaxies. It was rare indeed, and could only be found on Voldaire. Many had perished trying to relieve him of the sword, which could cut through anything, even the thick hide of the Darten Beasts. All he needed to do was open up one of them. The sickly, sweet stench of the beast's blood would be enough to disorient and ward off the rest of their kind. He'd have maybe thirty clicks from the time he spilt the first drop of the Darten's blood to search the caverns for the Halo. If he were unable to vacate before the effects wore off, he'd be left open to attack once again.
Buck was just outside the opening. He steadied himself before removing the sheath from its holster on his belt. He held it out, pressing the lever that released the blades from the openings on each end. The sound of the metal scraping as the blades shot out never failed to give him a blood-lustful thrill. A sensation of power shot through his chest and into his loins. He was ready to do battle-ready to kill.
Keeping his back pressed firmly against the rock, Buck yanked one of the two remaining plasma grenades off the other side of his utility belt. He hesitated, counting off the time before tossing it around the corner into the shaft. The blinding light went off and a thunderous clap vibrated the wall, jarring one of his feet loose. Several shrieks erupted as the air was forced out of the tunnel, and Buck jabbed one end of the sword into the cliff side to balance himself until he once again had his footing.
Buck shook his head, spitting out more of the dust and debris he'd been showered with. He grinned, pulling the sword back out of the rock, knowing he'd eviscerated the beasts that had been laying in wait for him. It wouldn't do anything to ward off the others, as they had been instantaneously burned to dust, but it would give him time to get his bearings and prepare for battle.
He swung his body around the corner and jumped into the pitch black opening. He retrieved the pair of goggles from the utility belt and slipped them on. Tapping the button on the side caused them to hum as the green glow from the night vision flickered on. He was now able to see through the darkness.
Buck tried to regulate his breathing, settling himself into heat. His long scruffy black hair stuck to his face and neck in clumps. He licked his lips, they were cracked and as dry as the air around him, burning from the single bead of salty sweat that ran down his cheek to the corner of his mouth.
The cavern was larger than he'd expected, opening up once inside. The deep purple rock seemed to pulsate, though Buck knew it was merely the heat vapors creating the visual effect. He didn't have to wait long, having barely made his way inside before the first Darten was screeching toward him.
He could make out the thick, matted silvery hair and long fangs dripping with venom as the thirteen foot beast hurtled itself toward him. The venom was a highly toxic paralytic. You were still alive when they started to eat you. One drop on his skin and he was as good as dead.
He twirled the blade, readying his stance. "Come on you mongrel piece of shit, time to die for the greater good."
His nerves were hard like the metal in his hands. He jettisoned himself forward, closing the distance between himself and the beast.
The Darten's long arms extended, ready to strike as Buck propelled his body up into the air and sailed over the top of the monster. The beast made an attempt to redirect its powerful yet lumbering large arms into the air to grab hold of him, but it was already too late. Buck slashed the Darten across its lower back and it shrieked in pain as its intestines spilled out onto the floor. He landed into a roll and was quickly up on his feet. The beast took two more steps before falling face first to the stone floor of the cavern. Buck turned from the twitching body, the scent of its blood filling his nose.
He forced his own nausea back, taking solace in the fact that the remaining Dartens, which had been headed in his direction, were now fleeing. Their battle shrieks replaced with awful high-pitched moans.
"Fucking animals," he muttered, spitting onto the ground in an attempt to get the taste out of his mouth. He turned back to the carcass and raised the sword, slicing off a large chunk of the intestine. Buck staked the chunk of meat with the tip of his blade, placing it into a satchel constructed from a gauze-like netting. He slung the strap over his shoulder before turning toward the darkness. The blood was already saturating the fabric, hissing as it dripped and boiled on the cavern floor. It was disgusting, but Buck knew keeping a piece of it on his person would buy him the most time.
He tapped his earpiece, turning on the com device and static blew into his ear as he began running down the corridor.
"Activate the timer, Gostric," Buck commanded. "And get the damn ship into position."
Gostric's voice crackled through the com. "You got it, Captain."
Buck continued to sprint down the cavern as the timer in his goggles put up thirty clicks, before immediately commencing the countdown. His adrenaline level was beginning to regulate, and he once again felt the heat pressing in on him as he searched up and down each side tunnel he came upon.
The atmosphere on Pluternica was hotter and more acidic than his home planet. Despite the unusual insulation property of his skin, Buck's chest was beginning to tighten as the sulfuric-leaden air became thicker and dryer the deeper he went.
"Watch your heart rates boss," Gostric said.
"You watch my fucking heart rates, asshole," Buck choked out as he rushed down another dead end cavern. "I'm a kind of busy looking for something no one has ever laid eyes on before."
"Sure thing, Captain."
"Damn all the gods to hell! I don't see anyâ€¦" Buck froze, grabbing onto the wall before hissing in pain from the intense heat of the stone.
There was a soft glow coming from an opening in the cavern wall just ahead. He could feel the grin spreading across his face as he ran toward it. He knew he'd found the Halo; he could feel it. This was one sizeable bounty he intended to collect. Turning into the room, his mouth fell open at the sight before his eyes.
"Son of a Nebulon whore," Buck muttered under his breath.
"What is it, Captain?" Gostric asked, his voice crackling into Buck's ear. "Did you find it? Did you find the Halo?"
Buck looked up and said, "Hey buddy, we're here."
* * *
The tapping on the keyboard of my laptop came to a halt. I sat up straight in the back of the taxi.
"Hey buddy," the cabby repeated, ripping me the rest of the way out of my head.
"Huh?" I asked, perturbed at being interrupted when I'd been on such a roll.
I realized the cab was pulling down Tulane Drive toward my humble little adobe abode. Reality began to slowly seep back in, along with the knowledge that only hours before, I'd told a near complete stranger I'd relocate and move in with him in six months' time.
Have I gone stark raving mad?
A sudden stab of nostalgia ripped through my gut at the panicked thought of leaving New Mexico. I'd lived in Albuquerque all my life-had never imagined living anywhere else. This place was my home and had always felt that way. I belonged to this city and it belonged to me.
The taxi pulled into the drive of my two bedroom 1939 Pueblo style home in the Nob Hill area, not too far from Bateman Park and the UNM campus. The house sat a few blocks off Central Avenue, part of the famed Route 66 from back in the day, a fact that was now more of a charming anecdote used on tourist brochures.
I saved my word document and shut down my computer before getting out of the taxi. I hated having to stop writing, especially when I'd been having one of those moments where the story seemed to take hold, almost as if possessing me. I tried telling myself I'd be able to get back there once I made it inside, but I knew that wasn't likely. Real life had already worked its way back in.
I took stock of my home while waiting for the driver to pop the trunk so I could retrieve my luggage. Surveying the exterior, it became clear to me that my place was looking kinda rough around the edges. Despite having been lovingly owned and restored by my uncle Barry and his lover Steven, both of whom had passed away years before, the stucco exterior now required some attention. If nothing else, a new coat of paint. I was ashamed of myself for a good three or four seconds at having allowed it to happen, before shrugging it off.
"I've never been much of a handy man," I mumbled as the cab driver set my bags on the pavement next to my feet.
"Me either pal." He folded his arms as if waiting for something.
"Money!" I said, holding up a hand. "I need to pay you."
"That's usually how these things go," the driver smirked.
"Sorry, I knew that-I did." I reached back, taking the wallet out of my back pocket. Fishing out some bills, including a nice tip, I continued rambling about not having suffered from any recent head injuries.
The cabbie nodded, though it was obvious he didn't give a damn if I'd cracked my head open or not. He retreated to the car, sneering as he backed out of the driveway.
"The cabbies treat you a whole lot better in Summit City!" I yelled as the car pulled away from the house, tires squealing. "Nosy as hell-but friendly!"
I now felt like an idiot, standing in my driveway, fist in the air and screaming at no one. Snatching my bags up, I noticed my neighbor, Rosa Diaz, stepping out onto her front porch to watch me. She was wearing the same look of pitied disapproval that came over her whenever I had the misfortune of stumbling into her line of sight. It had been unnerving the first time I met her, as she appeared to be a sweet, motherly type on the outside. Then again, I never had been the best judge of character. I instantly plastered on my most neighborly smile as I sauntered toward my front door, fighting with my luggage.
I never knew exactly what it was about me that garnered her pity-looks. I did, however, assume it all stemmed from my mouth. The things that came out of it were certainly part of the reason. I suspected the fact I was gay was another, so once again my mouth, or what I liked to put into it, had her concerned.
Rosa was also the neighborhood neatnik-always after me about repairing something. Her husband had died the year before, a sweet old man, and while I'd been very sad for her loss, I was shocked that he'd dared do anything without her permission. And if I knew one thing for certain, it was that Mrs. Diaz would have never given him leaveâ€¦to leave.
"I kept a good eye on your house while you were gone," she called out with a wave.
"Thank you." I walked as fast as I could with my arms full as I said under my breath, "Not that I asked you to."
"And that big piece of trim that fell off is still leaning against the side of your house!" She called out. "Not that I mind, but I thought I'd bring it up in case you forgot about it."
"I haven't Rosa, but thank you so much for the reminder." Dropping a bag, I wrestled the keys out of my pocket, cursing my gay ass for bowing to the peer pressure of my culture and wearing the tight jeans, merely because they showcased my unmentionables.
I unlocked the arched front door, one of my favorite architectural features of the house. It was solid oak, stained dark, and had one of those peek-a-boo openings covered with decorative wrought iron that matched the ornate latch and hinges. Tossing my bags in as quickly as possible, I stepped in and slammed the door shut behind me. Despite the fact the door had a latch that locked itself automatically upon closing, I fumbled to also lock the dead bolt, taking no chances that the outside world could get to me for the remainder of the day. I leaned back against it, exhausted.
I let my gaze wander as the familiar scent of leather and wood filled my nose. It struck me as similar to Wade's house in a way; except the smell from the wood in my house carried with it an aged quality.
The living room and its kiva fireplace with the brick and tile surround welcomed me. The creamy stucco walls and rough hewed beams that stretched across the low ceilings mixed harmoniously with the warm hues of the leather and earth tone fabrics, providing a coziness that had all the muscles in my shoulders finally relaxing.
I was home. It felt good, which surprised me considering I was still experiencing tiny pangs of sadness at having parted ways with Wade. It wasn't debilitating, but there none the less, lying just under the surface of all my other emotions. It was strange, having that ache slowly ripping through my chest over a man I'd known for such a short amount of time.
Stupid ass emotions-nothing but trouble.
His mojo was strong, grasshopper-making me feel like a bug, being crushed under the weight of it.
I tried shaking him out of my head as I stepped away from the door and weaved around the bags scattered across the terracotta tile. I'd genuinely missed my house, which was more modest than Wade's mountain lodge and its spectacular views. But my place felt more like an actual home to me. I could sense it, passing over the threshold, that this house was lived in.
I slipped off my parka and tossed it across one of the matching leather club chairs that sat across from a small faux suede sofa. There were plants everywhere, green and lush, spilling out over large pots and cascading toward the floor. Daylight cut through the windows, which were covered in rich, velvety rust colored panels that pooled onto the floor.
From the front door I could see clear through the house to the sliding glass doors that led to a small covered patio. The backyard was nicely landscaped with shade trees, and the stucco wall that wrapped around the property line made skinny dipping in the pool possible.
I stepped up into the intimate dining room and walked past the round mahogany pedestal table I'd rescued from a flea market, tossing my wallet and keys onto it. The dark stained wood floors that ran through the bulk of the house creaked under my feet as I kicked off my shoes.
I pulled my cell out of my pocket and turned on the smart phone. I frowned, realizing Wade hadn't called. I knew it was dumb, since I told him I'd call the instant I made it home, but the new silly-school-girl side of my altered personality had half hoped he wouldn't have been able to wait.
"He did say he thought he loved me." I nodded at the display as if that justified my infantile disappointment. I scrolled through all the numbers, realizing most of the missed calls I'd collected were from my best friend, Gabe. The rest were from dear ole Mommy.
Passing through the kitchen I paused at the small refrigerator from the fifties, and retrieved a bottle of water. It was the second old-ass fridge I'd been forced to search out since the cutout in the wall was too small for today's modern appliances. Everything was smaller in the hobbit kitchen, as it had become dubbed by Gabe.
I stepped down into the den at the back of the house and plopped down on the tufted burgundy cushions of the Morris chair. I leaned back, setting the water down on one arm of the chair, and my phone down on the other. The built-ins surrounding the fireplace had been filled to capacity with books of all shapes, sizes and themes. The den was slightly smaller than the living room, but had the same tiled floor and dark wood beams. The walls were covered in dark, solid wood paneling, giving it a more masculine feel.
People were often surprised by my home, commenting on how tasteful it was. I assumed they were shocked as I, or what came out of my mouth, wasn't usually all that tasteful. I liked to say that I didn't want anything in my home to be more colorful than me, since one's home should be the last place in which one needed to compete. In reality, I believed it to be a revolt against growing up in my parents' house, which was the antithesis of what I now craved in terms of design.
Sitting up, I snagged the remote off the coffee table and turned on the flat screen that hung above the fireplace. I turned the volume down till it was barely audible, and stretched my body out in the chair. I scowled listening to my back cracking and popping.
Either I was getting old, Wade had fucked me out of alignment, or the stress of the past week had taken more of a toll than I'd previously allowed myself to imagine.
"I'll take all of the above." I closed my eyes for a moment. "Well, except the old part. I'm much too vibrant a personality to ever be dimmed by age."
My mind immediately went back to the Quad, the four ladies who'd been the best friends of Wade's mother back in the day. They'd all but adopted him and Jackie after she died when they were kids. I reminded myself that getting older was now looking even worse than I'd ever imagined. "All that sniping." I opened my eyes and smiled. "It was fabulous."
I laughed and reached for the phone. I wondered to myself if Wade had any idea what they'd done. And if he didn't know and I brought it up, would the Quad wind up holding it against me for the rest of my life, making me miserable whenever possible for telling on them?
I thought back to that morning, after the shuttle bus had picked me up at Wade's house in the mountains. I was supposed to be on my way to the airport in Denver. I closed my eyes again, recalling the way I felt in that moment, the exquisite agony of it.