When I woke the next morning I’d been certain the invite from Haven had been a dream. One of those dreams that you woke up thinking for sure had been real, like winning the lottery and being able to do the work you love without supplementing it with a job you hate. But the navy pickup that pulled up in front of the house that evening proved the veracity of the dream.
“Well, go on, boy.” My uncle pushed my coat at me. “Don’t keep him waiting, I’ve a bingo game to get to and your boyfriend’s blocking me in.”
“Go on.” He opened the door and pushed me out it before I could finish my sentence. I stopped on the porch in front of a surprised Haven. I shifted under his gaze, unsure what to do next; I still wasn’t confident this was a date at all. He probably just wanted to catch up. As friends. “Well, don’t just stand there mooning over each other,” my uncle said as he stepped onto the porch himself and shut the door behind him. “I’ve only got ten minutes to get to the VA before those bastards start without me. Tonight’s my night, I feel it.”
“Grampa, you forgot your stamps.” Ryan came out with his coat unzipped, holding a small bucket filled with what looked like markers with round bulbs at the end.
“You’re going too?” I didn’t think kids enjoyed such a boring game.
“Of course! Who else is going to be Grandpa’s good luck charm.” Meaning he was going to be Uncle Joe’s gofer, but he seemed exited about it.
“How much did he offer this time?” Haven asked.
Ryan beamed. “If he wins a pot I get 10% and if he doesn’t win he’ll give me twenty bucks.”
My eyebrows rose and Haven said, “Wow. That’s very generous Uncle Joe.” It almost sounded sarcastic.
Uncle Joe just grunted and tugged on a pair of fingerless gloves.
“The grand prize drawing has rolled over the last five months so it’s huge!” Ryan’s grin just seemed to get bigger, somehow.
“Okay, then. Well, have fun.” I said stepping off the porch after Haven.
“You too.” Ryan waggled his fingers at me as Uncle Joe grunted and climbed into his station wagon. In a singsong voice he chirruped, “Have a good night, Haven and Keelan. The willow by mystic lake is easy to climb.”
I blushed at the nine-year-old’s audacity.
Haven responded, “Later, Alphalpha.”
I burst out laughing as I noticed the wind had made the hair at the top of Ryan’s forehead stick up just like in The Little Rascals. The boy made a face as he tried to flatten his hair, finally settling on pulling his coat’s hood up.
I seriously must’ve been stressing lately because I didn’t stop laughing until we were walking into a sit-down restaurant I hadn’t caught the name of for the tears in my eyes. We were seated off to the side in a booth rather than a table. It seemed he remembered my preferences.
Haven smiled at the death throes of laughter that bubbled out of my throat as I attempted to look over the menu. “It wasn’t that funny.” Which just set me off again.
I took a sip of the water Haven had asked the waitress to bring us.
“I think I just needed to laugh.”
“Looks like it.”
I thought a moment. “Actually, I haven’t laughed so much in the last decade as I have in the last couple days.”
“I’m glad we’re making such a good impression on you.”
“The town, your family.” He paused a second, turning his glass of water slowly. “Me.” There was a bit of flint in his eyes that seemed to contact the chunk of steel in my chest and igniting a pile of forgotten tinder in my chest.
“So, what’ll you two have?” A welcome interruption if ever there was one. I’d made a promise to myself the night before that I would think about my actions more and being around Haven again seemed to make me forget that.
Haven ordered Mongolian Beef and I must’ve made a face, because he looked at me sideways and asked, “What?”
“It’s just seems wrong hearing a bison order steak.”
“Still?” He rolled his eyes and I chuckled.
“And you sweatheart?” Bonnie’s voice shook a little, her eyes twinkling. Her nametag said Bonnie and I thought it fit her very well.
“I’ll have the special, Bonnie. Thank you.” I didn’t know what the special was in a place like this but a quick glance around the room made me think it was probably chicken, or sushi or something like that. It could be steak of some sort but there were tanks at the back with various fish and crustacea keeping their food sources alive. I doubted the special would be something terrible, though, and I didn’t want to wait any longer than I had to.
“Alrighty. Let me know if you need anything else.”
There was a wall tank with decorative fish and sea life. It looked like there was an anemone in there too. I always thought fish were peaceful to watch. I never wanted one as a pet, though, because they didn’t travel well.
“Haven,” a voice called behind me. I turned as a dark-skinned man stole a chair from a nearby table and spun it so he was sitting backwards on it while facing us. Looking at me he asked, “Is this him?”
Haven sighed audibly. “Keelan this is my partner, Alex. Alex, this is Keelan. Play nice.” The last part was clearly aimed at the new guy.
Alex waved Haven off, however. “Pshaw, I’m always nice. So, Keelan, this your first time to Chen’s?”
“Uh, yes. This restaurant wasn’t around when I was a kid.”
“Oh, man,” he said, his already wide grin seeming to get wider and alarmingly more vivid, “you have got to try the clownfish.”
I stuttered a laugh, because he was clearly pulling my leg. “Yeah. Right.”
“Aw, c’mon, man,” he said, smacking Haven on his shoulder. “You didn’t tell him about his options?”
I looked at Haven and rolled my eyes at his friend. Funny thing was, Haven didn’t roll his eyes back. Instead he looked somewhat uncomfortable, almost sheepish. I glanced back at the decorative tank were I’d noticed the anemone earlier and saw there were, in fact, some clown fish swimming lazily around it.
My smile faded some. “You’re not serious.” Alex turned his toothy smile back to me.
“Oh, dude, they’re the best. And Chen? The only cook who can make ‘em properly.” He closed his eyes in apparent bliss.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I was stunned. “You eat Nemo?”
He shrugged at me. “It’s the best.”
“Gross. No. I ordered the special.”
“Ah,” his smile grew suspiciously. Then he looked behind me towards the front door. “Well, enjoy your meal. Save me any leftovers yeah?” He winked and, stunned, I watched him head toward a cute, diminutive woman at the door who was tapping her foot and looking at Alex pointedly.
I turned back to Haven. “Did he mean what I think he meant?”
Haven shrugged, lips pursed attempting to hide a smile and looked toward the kitchen door.
“They serve me clownfish, you’re eating it,” I said with finality.
When our server appeared with our food, she placed a sushi platter in front of me. I poked at it unsure before asking, “This isn’t clownfish is it?”
She burst out laughing. “Oh, sugar, no. We only have one customer who orders that dish. This is your standard sushi platter with the chef’s secret sauce.”
I let out a breath. “Oh, good.”
I groaned and closed my eyes when I dipped the first bite of sushi into the pale sauce and brought it to my lips. This was heaven. When I opened my eyes I saw Haven staring at me with smoldering eyes.
I cleared my throat and searched for another topic. “So, um, Alex is your partner in the Guard?” Smooth, very smooth.
“Yup, best partner I’ve ever had. It’s gonna be hard if he and Kiki move to Yellowstone.”
“Kiki wants to move there for better job opportunities in her field.”
“What does she do?”
“Genetic research. She’s looking to see if the secondary gender can be detected sooner than puberty. I think. That or she’s trying to create a breed of superheros.”
“Ah, yeah. Not much call for that here. They’ve got you.”
He brought his arms up and flexed them like He-man and I laughed. So, he did a couple other poses until Bonnie walked by having just taken another table’s order and wolf whistled. He just winked at her but I could tell he’d colored up a little.
“Yeah. I just wish Alex wouldn’t let her get away with so much. I mean, she’s a good person but she’s got him wrapped around her paw.” He focused on the door Alex had left, his face growing introspective. “I’m actually kinda surprised he’s not given in already.”
“I can understand how hard it is to stand up to someone. Especially if they’re an alpha. Even more so if it’s someone you love.”
“Only if you’re not sure how they feel.” He seemed to remember where he was. “Oh, sorry. I shouldn’t be discussing this right now.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind.” It’d actually relaxed me a bit.
“Wait. Did you imply Alex was an omega?”
“No. He might be small for an alpha, but you really shouldn’t judge him based on that.”
I could tell Alex was a mass of muscle, but next to Haven he seemed like a toothpick. And then there was Alex’s wife. She exuded the aura of an alpha. “But wasn’t his wife-”
“Oh, she’s an alpha too. Although same secondary sex couples aren’t common it’s not unheard of.”
He was right. Many of the uppercrust tried to keep alpha lines pure which meant opposite primary and same secondary sex marraiges. I’d just never seen one myself. It was more difficult for an alpha female to carry to term than any omega, and when both spouses of an alpha and omega couple were female it was still the omega who would carry. Only in extreme cases would they conceive a test tube baby in the alpha female of the pair.
“So, how’ve you been?” He winced after finishing the question.
It took me a second to bring my mind back to the present. When I did, I couldn’t help but tease him. “Well, I’ve been worse. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I ran away from home awhile ago.”
“Yeah?” His smile returned. “I seem to remember something about that. But the way I heard it, you were just trying to survive after taking down a kingpin.”
“I was only trying to atone for my own part.”
“Sounds like a superhero to me.”
“Anti-hero, you mean.”
“Those are the most interesting.”
“With the best origin stories.” I continued, aiming my chopsticks at him as if making a point, “Better than mine.”
He gave me a skeptical look. “Let’s think about this a moment. You were the life of the party in high school, got hired by a notorious mob boss, gathered incriminating information, exposed said information thus painting a huge target on yourself, and had to go into hiding until the aforementioned kingpin died before returning to your childhood home to complete whatever task it is your parents gave you.”
“How’d you know about my parents?” I gaped at him.
“O-ho, I see I was on the money.” He winked at me. “I didn’t. It was just a guess.”
I just stared. What could I say? He’d clearly learned some tricks on the job and had used them on me. I couln’t even be mad at him. It wasn’t like it was a state secret, I just hadn’t felt like talking to anyone about it. But somehow he’d known. He’d known I’d been withholding something and had use the tools in his arsenal to get it. And he’d only done it because he cared about me. I couldn’t imagine what ulterior motive could be behind such a inconsequential piece of information.
“They wanted their ashes spread around the place where they first kissed.” Ah, so this was what I’d decided to do. “They didn’t just leave with me, you know. They left everyone else behind. They’d always talk about coming back someday as if we were just doing a world trip. An extended vacation. They talked about bringing Basil and me so many places. They wanted to take us skiing in the Alps, spend Mardigras in New Orleans, go to Temple Bar in Dublin during St. Patty’s, take a Christmas tour of Europe. I think they felt guilty for leaving him behind.” I stared into my glass of water as I stirred it with my spoon. “They shouldn’t have come with me.”
His hand covered mine stilling the spoon mid-rotation.
“They did the right thing.”
“You needed them. Basil had the rest of the family. He never needed help.”
“Perhaps not. But they’d still be alive now, instead of becoming targets.”
“What do you mean, I thought-”
I could still hear their screams. I could still smell the odor of burning flesh. I could still see- I hadn’t realized I was crying until Haven wiped my cheeks softly with his thumb.
“Oh, my god.” I chuckled thickly. “I can’t believe I’m ruining our date.”
Haven’s head tilted, empathy arrested on his face. I was mortified. I hadn’t been thinking. I knew I shouldn’t have called it a-
“Date.” A smile formed on his face as raw as sunshine. “Yes. This is a date.”
“It’s not if you don’t want it to be,” I backpedaled.
“Do you want it to be?” His smile faded slighlty.
My breath caught. I wasn’t planning on staying, but I didn’t want to lose sight of something so pure. Before I could stop myself, I whispered, “Yes.”
The hand that was covering mine moved, picking up my own and pulling it to his side. He turned it palm up and, while staring me in the eyes, kissed the center of it. I sucked in a breath at the sensation that buzzed up my arm like a live wire shock making my heart beat a hundred times faster.
“If you two are ready to head out, sugarmill, I’ve got your check here.” I jumped pulling my hand back from Haven. Or I tried to at least. He held it firm in his hand for a moment after I stopped tugging on it before letting go to retrieve his wallet. I was so flustered that it only occurred to me as he was handing over his credit card that I should pay for my portion. I pulled out my wallet and was opening it when Haven covered my hands with his again.
“It’s a date remember? I got this.” His smile was contagious and my face heated.