an excerpt

Cade opened the office door and ducked in swift reflex. Something light and sinuous wound itself in loving coils around his ears.

"Oops, sorry!" Ardith's voice held stifled laughter. She stepped down off her stool, and helped him untangle the strands of red cord and sparkly hearts from their grip on his head.

"If this is a trap, you caught the wrong guy," Cade told her.

"I know that. I really was hoping I'd get it strung up before anyone came in. You're early."

"Couldn't sleep." Something in the new meds was screwing with his day/night cycles. He was prone to dropping off at odd moments during the day and then felt restless and wide awake at night. Maybe he should just write that great American novel after all. It would beat staring at the ceiling. Too bad his brain usually felt too cottony and unfocused for coherent prose. Maybe he could write the great American porn novel. No focus needed there. At least he'd had an interest lately, which was more than he could say for the previous six months.

And his mind was wandering again. Fuck.

He handed Ardith the last of her over-amorous decorations and headed for his desk.

His computer booted right up, which was a good sign. Maybe the gods of Linux were smiling on him today. Ardith hummed as she taped her garlands to the wall. The little hearts sparkled in the fluorescent lights. Valentine's Day tomorrow. Huh.

It had never been a holiday he and Lorin had celebrated. Lorin wasn't much of a sentimentalist, and sparkly hearts had definitely not been the man's style. Unless it had been a heart-shaped sparkly jock-strap, maybe. Cade had a moment of regret that he had never tried that for Valentine's. Maybe that would have made a dent in Lorin's bah-Cupid attitude. Well, too late now.

The door popped open again and Ardith teetered on her stool. The young man who had burst in grabbed her arm and steadied her.

She laughed. "Maybe I should just stay here with this garland until a straight guy walks in. It seems to be a guy-magnet."

Joel let go and made a swipe for her head. "But what if the next guy is Steven?"

"Um. Good point." Ardith wrinkled up her nose. Personally Cade would have paid to watch her drop sparkly hearts on the boss's head. But he understood why she hurriedly fixed the last free end of the garland and put the stool away. Steven did not have much of a sense of humour.

Joel wandered over and leaned on Cade's desk. "So. Plans for tomorrow?"

"You're kidding, right?" He'd never figured Joel for insensitive.

Joel flushed red. "No, sorry, I wasn't thinking. Just small talk. Me either. I mean, I don't have a date either. Not in forever. Not that I think you should be dating again but... okay, I'm just going to go sit down and work now."

Cade fixed his eyes on his screen, so as not to stare at Joel walking hastily away. Not that I think you should be dating again. The damned thing was, he was thinking about it. How long was long enough that you didn't feel guilty for wanting to move on after losing the love of your life? Or the guy who should have been the love of your life, perhaps. How many months; how many years? Was it some kind of ratio, like a month for every year you were together? Five years of loving Lorin, five years of arguing and laughing and hot sex and cold anger, highs and lows, and the long, drawn-out ending. Did that last year count more or less, when Lorin was so sick? At least they had finally been exclusive, until Lorin's interest had been lost to the never-ending parade of discomforts and humiliations, large and small.

It had been almost eight months now. Cade realized he no longer knew the exact number of days without looking at the calendar. Surely that was long enough. But it was complicated, and he wasn't ready, and damn the man. A familiar wash of grief and anger went through him. Not yet. He turned determinedly to his work.

Fortunately, the buggy program he was tackling was complicated enough to keep him focused. Three hours later he had made very little progress. He pushed his chair back and rubbed at his stiff neck. He should get up, go out somewhere and walk for a bit, but he didn't have the energy. He ate at his desk, forcing his sandwich down despite a vague distaste for it. The salami had an odd flavour. He wondered if it was just his lack of appetite, or if the meat had gone bad. Or maybe some other odd taste-altering side effect of a medication. He seemed to be the world champion of idiosyncratic drug reactions. Not the bad ones. He didn't have the vomiting and the skin rashes and sky-rocketing kidney and liver values that had put medication after medication off the list for Lorin. No, what he got was dumb stuff, like seeing auras around lights or developing ingrown toenails. He had a sneaking suspicion his doctor hoped to write a research paper describing his charming array of reactions.

Cade figured he should be glad if someone got a productive use out of him.

He sighed and went back to staring at his screen. There was something still not working about the website revision he was doing for the office. A script that had always worked fine in the past now gave him a complete web-server crash. He was beginning to wonder if he needed to just write his own code for the damned thing. A sharp sound made him look up, startled.

Joel had paused at his desk and rapped on the laminate top. "Hey. Want a coffee?"

Cade definitely did. "Yeah, sure. Thanks!"

Joel held out a cup of the real stuff from the coffee shop down the block, not the dregs out of the office pot. Cade took it and sipped appreciatively. Mmm, heaven. This at least tasted right.

Joel hesitated uncertainly, and then said, "I hope I didn't offend you."

"Offend?" Cade tried to figure out where that was coming from. "By buying me coffee?"

"No, the Valentine's date thing. I didn't remember... How long has it been?"

"Ah. No, don't worry about it." Joel had only been working in the office for a couple of weeks so far. Someone, maybe Ardith, had obviously filled him in on Cade's back story because after a first couple of days of shy but obvious interest, the guy had been tiptoeing around Cade ever since. The Valentine's date comment had actually been a refreshing attempt at conversation. "Almost a year. Don't worry, it's fine. I wasn't offended."

"Okay. Good. I mean, you know, I'm sorry about your partner, but it's good that you're not mad at me."

"Of course not." Cade watched Joel head back to his desk.

Partner. That was the one thing Lorin had never been. Friend, fuck-buddy, roommate, boyfriend, lover--yes. And maybe they had been heading down that road to becoming true partners. At least, Cade liked to think so. Those last few months before Lorin got his diagnosis, Cade thought they had already been apart less. Fewer nights when he came home to an empty house and a note, Gone out to find some fun, see you tomorrow. Fewer nights when he himself went off to a bar or dark theater, to pick up someone who meant nothing more than warm willing flesh, but would help even the score. Their open relationship had begun closing of its own accord. Until that blood test slammed the door.

Fucking ironic that the months after Lorin had tested positive had been the best of Cade's life. He was scared, yeah, but Lorin was finally his. Finally content to stay home and let Cade take care of him and distract him and tell him it would be fine. After all there were treatments, all kinds of drugs. No one died of AIDS anymore. Unless they couldn't tolerate the drugs that might have worked. And then Lorin slowly got sick and Cade became caretaker and nurse and cheerleader. But never partner.

Damn, he was morbid today. Cade forced his mind back to the screen and his work. Time to concentrate on getting something accomplished. He was successful enough that the end of the day caught him unaware. Steven's voice over his shoulder startled him. "So, is it ready to go up?"

"Not quite." Cade saved his work and stuck in a thumb drive to make a back-up. He squinted up at his boss, wincing at the crick in his neck.


"Maybe. I hope so." Cade stowed the back-up safely in his pocket and pushed his chair back. He stood and stretched. The dull throb in his back told him he'd been in one position too long. Ardith swore by those weird kneeler chairs. Maybe he'd have to look into it.

Steven gave him a nod and headed for the door. Cade got his things together and followed. The parking area was behind the building. Steven's Volvo was parked closest to the door. Cade waited for the boss to back out of his spot before crossing the lot to his old Camry wagon. It was a reliable beast, despite its age. Better than the Porsche of Lorin's. Lorin had adored that thing, but it spent more time in the shop than out of it. It had sat in the driveway for months after the funeral, until Cade couldn't walk past it one more time and sold it. The new owner had been thrilled. And the wagon was all Cade needed anyway.

Cade popped the locks and then hesitated with his hand on the door. All of a sudden the world was doing something interesting in the way of a tilt and shimmy. Either Vancouver was having a major earthquake, or he could add vertigo to his list of new and exciting side effects. The general lack of screaming and excitement in the passersby suggested the motion was all in his head.

Cade leaned his hip against the door, clutched the edge of the roof, and cursed slowly under his breath. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for things to stop spinning. He would have gotten into the car to sit down but he had a queasy feeling that if he tried to move at all, he would end up on the pavement and not in the seat.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Cade made the effort to open his eyes. Joel stood peering at him anxiously.

"I'm fine. Just dizzy for a second."

"Can I do anything?"

Go away and not look at me? Because Cade wasn't out about this. The whole office knew he was gay. Most of them knew Lorin had died of AIDS. He'd never said it out loud, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. But not one of them, not even Ardith, knew that six months after Lorin's diagnosis, Cade came up positive too. And he was going to do everything in his power to keep it private. Bad enough that a couple of people had treated him like some kind of plague carrier just from his contact with Lorin, and his friends all seemed to think he was a fragile widower. Time to move on folks. Except for the virus that kept on giving.

"I'm just going to sit for a minute." Maybe having an audience was good, because Cade managed to lower himself into the seat without falling. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back on the headrest. He'd always figured vertigo was like a merry-go-round, a gentle swirling thing. This was more like the Camry had suddenly become a rollercoaster at the CNE. A big one. Cade swallowed hard.

"Um, you look like shit."

Obviously Joel hadn't gone away.

"Thanks so much."

"Sorry. I mean you always look good, but you're pretty pale right now."

"How can you tell?" Cade muttered. The days might be getting longer, but it was still twilight in a poorly-lit parking lot.

Joel cleared his throat. "Do you want to... I don't know, go back inside and lie down? Or can I get you some water?"

"I think I'll just sit here for a bit."

"Okay." But there was still no sound of Joel moving away. Cade slitted his eyes open and looked over. Joel was just standing there looking at him.

"You don't have to hang around."

"Maybe not. But I want to make sure you're okay. Anyway, I don't think you should be driving."

Cade was pretty damned sure about that. And what a fucking pain in the ass. He'd have to call a cab, leave his car here... At least it was old enough not to be attractive to thieves. This wasn't the greatest neighbourhood at night. "I'll call a taxi."

"I could drive you." Joel's voice was diffident. "Ardith said you live in Burnaby. I do too. It's not much out of my way. A cab will cost you thirty bucks."

At least. And Cade hated taxis, even the laid-back Vancouver variety whose drivers only seemed to have half a death wish instead of the full-blown Montreal suicidal style. "Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. Although, do you think maybe we could take my car? I hate leaving it here."

Right. Which meant getting up. Of course, since he was sitting in the driver's seat he'd have to get up either way. Cade slid his legs out and stood. And wavered. Joel caught his elbow with a strong hand for such a slender man. "Or maybe I should call an ambulance."

"No. I'm fine." He was. The dizziness was actually backing off. Cade straightened and moved a step away from the door. So far, so good.

"I've got your bag." Joel said. Cade winced. He hadn't realized he'd dropped the thing. Good thing the laptop was padded.

Joel had a new-looking Civic hybrid. No wonder he hadn't wanted to leave it in the lot. He held the passenger door open for Cade. There was less legroom than in the big Camry, but still enough. Cade was barely six feet tall, not a giant like Lorin's six-four. When the Camry died he could get something smaller...

Joel stowed Cade's bag in the back seat and looked at him anxiously, holding the door. "You're sure you don't want to see a doctor or something?"

"I'm fine. Probably just a little food poisoning. My sandwich at lunch tasted off." That was even true. It could be possible.

"Okay." Joel walked around and slid behind the wheel. "Tell me if you need me to stop."

Cade's lips twitched--Joel was probably picturing him puking on the still-new seat. Then the world tilted and his stomach lurched enough to wipe the incipient smile out. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility. "I'll let you know."

Joel was a considerate driver, and their progress was as gentle and jolt-free as a rush-hour commute could be. As they merged on the highway, Joel said, "Hey. I can use the HOV." He changed lanes and accelerated smoothly. "You know, maybe we should car pool, just for this."

"Maybe." Or maybe not. Becoming better friends with this bright, attractive, untainted young man might not be wise.

Cade gave brief directions as they came to the exit. It was odd, so familiar and yet so alien to be sitting there being chauffeured by another guy. Back when they were both healthy--Cade had almost thought when they were young--Lorin had loved to drive. Plus he had had the far sexier car. Cade had spent many evenings sitting in the passenger seat as Lorin took them out to some restaurant or club. Lorin would have been talking a mile a minute, griping at the other drivers, telling Cade about his day, his plans. There would have been none of this oddly restful silence. But the bulk, the warmth and sheer presence of a man beside him was the same.

Joel pulled up in front of Cade's house and looked over at him. After some undecipherable pause for thought, he turned off the car and pocketed the keys.

"You don't have to come in," Cade said. "I'm fine."

"Bullshit. You still have this glazed look. At least I'm going to see you inside and make sure you don't fall down the steps."

"It's not that bad. Really."

Joel's steady gaze didn't look likely to be moved. Cade sighed. He stood up out of the car carefully, but hey presto, he really was fine. No tilting, no nausea, thank the side effect fairies. Joel got Cade's bag out before he could do it himself, and followed Cade up the walk. As they stepped in the door, Cade was aware of the staleness of the air inside. It felt like a damned museum, not a place someone lived. There was dust on everything. It wasn't really dirty; all the trash was bagged, he did the dishes religiously. It was just... untended.