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A big thanks to those who commented on Chapter 1. Yes, it’s been a long time since we last left Ryan and Erik, they’ve lived their own lives, grown a lot, and are in better places as they pick up their journey together again.
I may have failed to mention that this part of the story focuses a lot more on Erik than Ryan. Ryan processes things better when he’s on his own and has room to figure his shit out—he did that by going back to Canada, creating distance from porn and New York and Erik. Erik hasn’t quite figured his shit out yet; this is what we’ll read about this time around.
Again, no sex in this chapter… sorry! Next chapter will be steamier, promise!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions, so please comment!
Copyright © 2018 by Hudson Bartholomew. All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Embracing the Tension – Chapter 2
The Toronto Aquarium was surprising empty on Saturday morning when Erik showed up to meet Ryan and his niece. They were waiting for him in the lobby, tickets already in hand, Chloe jumping from foot to foot, eager to go inside.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Erik said as he approached. He didn’t get the standard grin from Ryan this time; no, instead he was treated to a full smile that made Erik’s insides turn to liquid.
“You weren’t.” Ryan turned to the five-year-old girl with dark-brown hair and chocolate-brown eyes. If Erik hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that she was Ryan’s daughter. “Chloe, say hi to Uncle Erik. Remember I told you about him? He’s going to come see the fishies with us today.”
“Hi, Uncle Erik,” Chloe said with the air of certainty that came naturally to outgoing five-year-olds. “Are you Uncle Ry’s friend?”
“Sure am, Chloe.” Erik smiled and sneaked a quick glance at Ryan at the use of the nickname. “Thank you for letting me come with you guys today.”
“You’re welcome.” She tugged at Ryan’s hand. “Come on, Uncle Ry. Let’s go!”
Erik followed as she dragged Ryan across the lobby toward the aquarium entrance. After handing in their tickets, they were plunged into a dark world where aquatic flora and fauna shone at them through thick panes of glass. Chloe immediately ran to the nearest window into a watery landscape and stood up on her tippy toes to see what she could see. Erik hung back with Ryan, watching in silence as the little girl followed the fish around with wide eyes.
“Thanks for getting my ticket.” The dimness of the aquarium warranted Erik’s quiet volume.
“No problem,” Ryan responded, eyes still on Chloe. “I did invite you, after all.”
“Such a gentleman.”
“Uncle Ry, look!” Chloe ran back to them, grabbed hold of Ryan’s hand and pulled him toward the edge of an overlook under which was a play area for kids. “Can we go there? Please!”
“Sure, Clo. But we have to go around to the stairs first, and there’s lots to see on the way.”
“Okay, let’s go!” She took off toward the next glass-encased exhibit, and Ryan and Erik hurried to keep up.
Chloe stopped at the next tank and drifted slowly along the window, staring at the big red octopus with its tentacles curled in on itself. Then there were brilliant blue lobsters that looked fake, except they crawled along the sandy floor. And finally, swarms of small fish, no bigger than Chloe’s hand, swimming in circles as if driven by some unseen current.
“She seems to like marine life,” Erik commented, thinking of his nieces and nephews back in Salt Lake City and how they would be bouncing off the walls in a place like this.
“Looks like. She’s never shown too much interest before. Maybe this will change things.”
There was something in Ryan’s voice as he watched Chloe gaze in wonder at the fish. Erik recognized it, because he sometimes heard it in his own voice when he spoke about his family. It was a total and complete love, a willingness to do anything and everything for the child, driven by the unquestioned belief that the child was a miracle. Because all children were miracles.
Erik assessed the man in front of him: Ryan was just as much the same as he was changed. Under that quiet reserve remained an unknown depth that Erik had always been curious to discover. And yet, Ryan was so much more at ease with himself than he’d ever been during their time together in the big city.
Erik’s previous understanding of Ryan was flawed; there had been a material externality at play that he hadn’t taken into account. The entire time he’d known Ryan in New York and everything he thought he knew about the man was tainted by the porn they were filming.
When Ryan had left New York, he said he needed time to sort out the real from the make believe. Erik had brushed it off at the time, assuming güvenilir bahis that he saw things more clearly. But seeing Ryan now, removed from the pressures of having hot sex for an audience and surrounded by simple, everyday amusements, Erik wondered if Ryan had been right all along.
They moved to an exhibit called the Kelp Forest. At first glance, the tank looked like it housed some nondescript green seaweed. But upon closer inspection, the tank was a giant, two story cylinder filled with tall, big-leafed plants, all dancing in the water. Stairs appeared where the path-ended, and with every step down toward the lower level, the majestic size of the kelp became more and more apparent.
“Uncle Ry, look,” Chloe whispered in reverence, taking her time with each step and soaking in every inch as she went.
“Pretty cool, eh, Clo?” Ryan kept pace with his niece and Erik followed a couple of steps behind.
At the bottom, Chloe picked an out of the way spot by the glass and craned her neck to look back up at where they came from. The top of the tank was so far away that it couldn’t be seen from where they stood. She stayed there for a moment and watched the kelp dance. Erik watched Ryan.
“You’re really good with her.”
The compliment drew Ryan’s attention back to Erik, where he grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “She’s got me wrapped around her little finger.” He turned back to Chloe. “And I love it.”
Chloe finally turned away from the kelp and moved to the next exhibit. “Look, Uncle Ry! I found Nemo!” She pointed to the little clownfish darting in and out and around colorful anemone. “There’s, like, a hundred Nemos!”
“Looks like you found all of them, Clo.”
She giggled at the blue-, yellow-, and orange-colored fish, all swimming around strangely shaped corals that filled the tank.
“What about your nephews and nieces?” Ryan asked as they continued along. “How’s your family?”
Now it was Erik’s turn to shrug. “Okay, I hope.” He tried to keep his tone light, but it wasn’t light enough.
Ryan turned to him with a frown. “What do you mean?”
“I haven’t spoken to them in a while,” Erik admitted.
“I thought you were close.”
“We were.” He took a fortifying breath. This was harder to talk about than he anticipated. He thought he had gotten over this already. “I have a cousin, married with kids, but in the closet.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Ryan glanced back and forth between Chloe, still following the Nemos around, and Erik.
“His wife found out.” Erik couldn’t keep the hardness from his voice now. “And he outed me.”
“What?” A couple of other aquarium guests turned at Ryan’s exclamation. “Why would he do that?”
“To deflect attention away from himself.” Erik gazed at the fish in the electric blue waters. “But wait, it gets better. He also told them about…” he shot a quick look around, “the videos.”
Ryan scoffed in indignation for Erik and took a couple of steps away. Erik could read the tension vibrating in his shoulders. Seeing Ryan so visibly upset on his behalf took almost all the bitterness out of Erik, and he felt the sudden need to comfort the other man. He placed a hand on one of those tense shoulders and squeezed.
“Your parents didn’t take it well?” Ryan bit out the question through clenched teeth.
“No, they didn’t. The best part, though?” Erik’s chuckle was humorless. “I think they were more upset about me being gay than about the videos.”
Ryan gaped at him, but Chloe grew tired of the colorful fish before he could speak, so they followed her to an underwater tunnel that led into the next tank. The path in the tunnel was a moving walkway that wound slowly underneath the aquarium’s largest and most impressive attraction: the Dangerous Lagoon.
“Careful, Clo,” Ryan said as he helped Chloe onto the mobile sidewalk. “Stay close, don’t run off.”
They stood next to each other on the walkway, close enough for their shoulders to touch. Chloe stood, clinging to the handrail opposite them, head tilted back to look at the big fish swimming beside, above, and all around them: massive sharks with bulging white eyes and rows of sharp teeth; imposing flat-bodied rays rippling their wings as if flying; and strange-looking creatures with saw-shaped noses sticking out a yard in front of their faces. The kings of the aquarium swam past them, separated by mere inches of glass.
No one spoke, awed in the presence of the beautiful aquatic environment. Erik let himself be distracted by the watery world, by the way the fish glided effortlessly through the twinkling expanse, by the warmth of Ryan’s body that radiated through their touching shoulders. It felt comfortable to just stand in silence and enjoy being together. And especially with Chloe, Erik could appreciate the simplicity of seeing the strange, new universe through a child’s innocent, untainted eyes. It was refreshing, and if Erik was careful, he could avoid letting himself miss his own family.
“Uncle Ry.” türkçe bahis Chloe suddenly turned toward them. “We have to take a selfie.” There was no room for discussion.
“How about I just take a picture of you, Clo?” Ryan offered.
“No, we have to take a selfie.” She held her arms up to Ryan, demanding to be picked up. “Uncle Erik, you have to take it because you have the longest arms.”
“I can take one of you and your Uncle Ry.” Erik didn’t want to intrude.
“No, it’s a selfie!” Chloe rolled her eyes in exasperation. Sometimes grownups just didn’t get it.
“Okay, okay, it’s a selfie.” Ryan hoisted her up with a harumph and grinned apologetically at Erik, but Erik really didn’t mind.
He pulled out his phone, snuggled up close to Ryan, Chloe sandwiched between them, and held out his arm. The screen blinked a couple of times, and when he went to check, he found that they’d managed to catch a scary looking shark behind them. Chloe squealed—in excitement or fear, Erik wasn’t entirely sure.
“Thanks, Uncle Erik.” She launched herself at Erik, wrapping her arms around his neck and effectively leaping out of Ryan’s embrace.
Erik grabbed on to her before she could drop to the floor and just barely managed to hold on to his phone, too. Good thing she was small for her age.
“Chloe, that’s not very nice.” Ryan scolded. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Erik laughed. He shifted Chloe in his arms and stepped off the moving sidewalk as it came to an end.
They had been deposited in the play area Chloe had spotted earlier, and she wriggled in Erik’s arms until he put her down. Without looking back, she ran to a shallow pool that held hard-shelled creatures with long pointy tails.
“These are called…” Ryan read off the sign posted nearby when they caught up with her, “horseshoe crabs. You can touch them if you’d like.”
“Really?” She sounded incredulous. “Are they alive?”
“Yeah, I think they are.”
Her hand trembled slightly as she held it out, dipped it into the water and ran her fingers lightly across the rough shell. With a squeal, Chloe pulled her hand back and giggled at the new experience.
“It’s kind of slimy.” She laughed.
“Yeah?” Erik stuck in his hand in for a feel, too. “You’re right, they are slimy.”
She reached for a second feel that lasted seconds longer than the first before she squealed again and dried her hand on her shirt.
“Great,” Ryan muttered under his breath. “My sister will be thrilled that there’s mysterious aquarium water all over her daughter.”
Erik chuckled. “It’s just water, she doesn’t have to know.”
The look Ryan shot him, lips tilted in a grin and eyes twinkling, warmed Erik’s insides and whatever sadness he felt earlier momentarily abated.
“Look, a slide! Can I?” Chloe looked up to Ryan for permission.
“Sure, go ahead. Be careful.”
It was doubtful she heard the last warning as she took off for the steps.
Erik and Ryan settled at a safe distance, not far from where other parents had stationed themselves to watch over their children. Their shoulders touched again.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan whispered.
Erik shrugged. “It’s not your fault.”
“Still, must be difficult.”
Ever since his family had effectively disowned him, Erik had felt adrift. Sure, he had friends in New York, friends from school and some who had some knowledge of his history. But no matter how many friends he had, to Erik, Ryan felt like that one person in the entire world who fully understood what he had gone through and was fully accepting of every last detail. No matter what happened after he got on the plane back to New York that afternoon, he would never find someone else who just knew as completely as Ryan did.
He suddenly didn’t want to go back to New York. They had spent so little time reconnecting, and if there was something here to explore—and Erik really hoped there was—he didn’t want to risk losing it again by leaving.
“Yeah, it is difficult.” Erik admitted.
“So, you don’t talk to them anymore?”
“Nope. Not since last Christmas. Went home for the holidays and left early when they stopped talking to me.”
“Fuck,” Ryan muttered under his breath. “I’m sorry.”
“Again, not your fault.”
“What about your siblings?” Ryan asked.
“There have been a couple of emails, but that’s about it.” Erik didn’t mention that he had initiated most of them and had gotten lackluster responses.
“So, what do you do for holidays now?”
Erik had to chuckle. He was usually the one interrogating Ryan, and he wasn’t sure when or how the tables got turned. “I don’t know. Friends?”
Ryan nodded as Chloe ran up to them again, out of breath but beaming.
“Ready to go, Clo?” Ryan asked. “There’s still some more things to see.”
“Sure.” Chloe grabbed one of Ryan’s hands and then spun around to grab one of Erik’s. Her hand felt small in his, güvenilir bahis siteleri soft but strong in the way only children’s hands could be. Chloe’s immediate and unquestioning acceptance of him was such a sharp contrast to the way his family had treated him, and Erik felt himself fall a tiny bit in love with the little girl.
With her in the middle, they continued past the brightly lit play area and back into the dimness of the aquarium. What greeted them next had all three stopping in amazement. In front of them was a wall of glass that spanned from the floor to the ceiling.
The tank was backlit, making the water appear a turquoise blue. And in the water swam jellyfish that glowed a vibrant magenta purple. The mushroom caps of the jellyfish expanded and contracted, pushing the creatures through the water while long tendrils trailed behind them.
Erik felt a tug on his hand. When he looked down, Chloe had her head tilted back. “Look,” she whispered.
Above them was another tank filled with jellyfish. These were smaller and glowed purple on a black backdrop, almost like a doctor’s x-ray scan. Chloe sigh beside him, and then leaned her small weight lightly against his leg. She gazed at the jellyfish, watching the elegant way they drifted through the water. If only life were as simple as watching jellyfish all day.
“I wanna take one home, Uncle Ry,” Chloe whispered.
“Sorry, Clo. jellyfish have to stay here at the aquarium.”
“But they’re so pretty.”
“I know, but we can’t take care of them at home.”
Her sigh carried the weight of the world with it, and Erik had to stop his smile from bubbling into a laugh.
“Okay,” Chloe said with resignation. “Let’s go.”
She led the way again, dragging the two men behind her.
The last part of the aquarium was a room full of pipes and knobs used to pump and treat the water throughout the facility. All the equipment was painted in bright pastels, making the room look more like an industrial playground than a treatment room. Chloe dropped her hold on the grown men and ran through the maze of pipes, giggling as she found secret little passageways.
“Chloe, don’t run off. Stay where we can see you.” Ryan warned.
Erik noticed someone looking at them. One of the other parents, a mother with a couple of children of her own, smiled when she realized Erik had caught her.
“Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to stare. But you guys are so cute with your daughter.”
“Oh—” Erik was about to explain that they weren’t together and Chloe wasn’t their daughter, but Ryan beat him to it.
“Thanks,” Ryan responded with his signature smile.
“Enjoy the rest of your visit,” the stranger said and ushered her children along.
Erik turned to ask what that had been about, but Ryan was already walking ahead in search of Chloe. By the time Erik caught up, Chloe was clamoring about visiting the gift shop before going home.
“Hey,” Ryan said to Erik. “Do you have time for lunch? Clo wants to see the gift shop, but then we’re going to grab a quick bite to eat.”
Erik checked his watch and shrugged. “Sure, I’ve got time.”
In the gift shop, Chloe headed straight for the section with stuffed animals. She picked up stuffed Nemos and stuffed sharks, pressing each one to her chest to test their hug-ability before putting them back. Erik followed, suggesting the toys he thought would be the most comfortable to cuddle with until he glanced down the row and saw the jellyfish.
He grabbed one and brought it back to Chloe—it was almost as big as she was. She squealed as she hugged it, burying her face into the plush mushroom cap.
“It’s perfect, Uncle Erik!”
“You like it?” He asked, stooping down to look Chloe in the eye. “You want to take it home?”
“Yes! Can I? Please?” She sounded so hopeful that Erik knew there was no way he could ever deny her.
“Sure thing. Come on, it’ll be my present to you.”
“Erik.” Ryan spoke as he stood beside them. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know, but I want to.” He ushered Chloe toward the cash register and shot Ryan a don’t-argue-with-me look on the way.
Chloe was so excited about her new jellyfish that she stood on tiptoe, eyes peeking over the glass counter as the cashier rang up the sale. She almost threw a temper tantrum when Ryan insisting on carrying it for her, worried that she would drag it on the ground and get it dirty. In the end, they compromised with Ryan carrying it while Chloe held on to one of the trailing tentacles as they walked down the street. In her other hand, she held onto Erik.
Ryan led them to a nearby food joint. When Erik took a closer look at the menu, he saw they only served poutines with outrageous sounding toppings.
“What exactly is a poutine?” Erik asked.
“It’s fries, with cheese curds and gravy,” Chloe explained as if it were the simplest thing in the world.
“Oh, and do you have poutine a lot?”
Chloe grinned conspiratorially. “Only with Uncle Ry.”
“Uncle Ry lets you have poutine, but your mom doesn’t?”
She shook her head and giggled.
“So, which one is your favorite?” Erik asked, pointing at the pictures.
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