Take two, and call me in the morning.
Eli and Zane. Colleagues at work and close friends, though on the surface it's an unexpected friendship between an odd couple. While Zane took the "high school to college to med school" track, medicine is Eli's second career and the best choice he ever made. He has work that he loves, an extended second family of colleagues and friends, and Zane.
So why does everyone make such a big deal about the pair of them?
Yes, they spend a lot of time together. It doesn't mean they're a real couple. When teased about it one too many times by their colleagues, Zane challenges Eli to set the record straight with a kiss to prove there's absolutely no chemistry between them.
Neither expected a spark to ignite between them. More than a spark. Desire. Passion.
Zane wants to try getting up close and personal again to see if it was a one-time fluke or something more. Eli thinks he's too old to jump the fence now, but he can't say no to Zane and he doesn't want to.
Truth be told, Eli's not so sure they can set the record straight after all.
* * * * *
“There you are.” Zane laid down the heavy, ivory-colored menu he'd been idly flipping through as Eli approached, making his way through the maze of tables at their regular bistro. “I almost thought you weren't going to make it.”
Eli sat with a thump, running his hand through his dark brown hair, cut short but still quite capable of standing on end. He grimaced when he discovered he'd forgotten his stethoscope, still wound around his neck.
“Long night?” Zane asked, already waving their server over with the universal “coffee here” gesture.
Eli relaxed and let Zane take care of him. Some days, a man truly appreciated a friend who'd have his back when he needed a rock to shore up against. “Long, long night. Three-car pileup at an intersection. I didn't want to leave before everyone was stable.”
“That's my boy.” Zane shifted out of the way to let their server pour Eli's cup. She was a pretty thing, well packed into her curves -- curves that she offered not so subtly for display.
Zane ignored them. He'd taken Eli's face in his hands and begun to assess him for signs of exhaustion. The guy had good hands, firm and dry and dexterous. They felt nice and cool against Eli's skin. He let Eli go with a light slap to the cheek. “Your eyes look like burned holes in a blanket. You should go home and get some rest.”
“Like I'd miss a chance at a fine, elegant brunch?” Eli rolled his eyes.
“Heaven forbid.” Zane gave good deadpan. “Jeez. This is the kind of place I fear running into my family.” How moneyed Zane's family was, Eli didn't know. Coming from an ivory tower was a sore spot for Zane, who much preferred the life he'd chosen in a grittier world.
Eli segued to spare Zane any discomfort. What were friends for, right? “You were on last night too. How'd you manage to get away in time for a shower and a sharp morning suit?”
“Questions, questions.” The corners of Zane's eyes crinkled when he smiled. “Unlike some of us, I leave when my shift's done.”
“Since when? You're as much of a workaholic as I am, if not more. A hospitalist's work is never done, especially at Immaculate Grace. What was I thinking when I chose that as a career, anyway?”
“That you're a glutton for punishment?”
“True enough.” Eli drank deeply of his coffee, almost moaning in appreciation. The influx of better-than-decent caffeine stimulated his brain. “Before I forget, I got those concert tickets you begged me for. Two, even.” He patted his dark brown shirt pocket. Plain clothes for a plain man, built tough to last, Chicago born and bred for forty-three years.
Unlike Zane, who looked as fresh as a daisy in a casual white linen jacket, pale violet button-down, and pressed slacks. Pretty as a picture, coming across as maybe five years younger than his forty-one. Zane brightened and made a grab. “Good seats?”
“I'm told they're the best. Ah-ah-ah.” Eli tapped his pocket again. “I also got advance tickets for a Cubs game when the season starts. Fair is fair. I try not to fall asleep during the chorale or chamber music or whatever you want to call it, and you endure beer, umpire heckling, and giant foam fingers.”
“Done and done. You drive a hard bargain.” Zane clinked coffee cups with Eli. He hadn't looked away once, but Eli liked that about Zane. When he gave you his full attention, nothing else seemed to matter to him. All part of the Zane package, and it made him the best doctor Eli had known. “I --” He stopped, interrupted by the chiming of his pager. When he checked the number, he grimaced. “Damn. Sorry, I've got to take this. Keep that warm for me.”
“What did I tell you? Workaholic. Hey! Do not let them talk you into coming back to the hospital today.”
Zane waved backward at Eli as he walked off. Eli watched him go, amused.
A different server, young and male, approached with the coffeepot. Eli suspected the waitress had gotten fed up with flirting and traded off. Fine by him. This kid had a good eye for refills. He held his cup up. “Keep it coming, but we're not ordering yet. Still waiting for two.”
And they'd better hurry, if they know what's good for them.
Eli wasn't a huge fan of this bistro. Without Zane there to provide a buffer, the place was too rich for his blood. Made him feel like any second someone with a pedigree was going to jump out from behind a column and ask him what a working-class stiff like him thought he was doing here.
“Of course, sir. I'm sorry if I'm being rude,” the waiter said, deftly pouring. “If I could ask -- you two make such a handsome couple. How long have you been together?”
Not this again. Eli didn't even have to ask what the kid meant. Wasn't the first time he and Zane had been mistaken for a couple, and he'd bet his hard-earned MD it wouldn't be the last. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but we're not.”
The waiter's coffeepot slipped. “You're not -- oh. Oh my God, I'm so sorry.”
“No problem.” Eli waved him off before the kid could apologize again. He'd almost gotten used to the assumption. Whatever people saw in Zane and him, he had no idea. Felt like being on the shooting range sometimes, as many assumptions made about them as they had to dodge. Once corrected, strangers were mostly good about apologizing and moving on.
Friends of theirs, on the other hand, were not so accommodating.
“We made it!” Diana and Holly -- also doctors, both familiar faces at Immaculate Heart -- swarmed the table in a cloud of perfume and joie de vivre. With them, more hesitantly, came a fresh-faced kid Eli vaguely recognized as an intern. The ladies dove into the fresh baguettes and cherry jam their new waiter discreetly slid onto the table before exiting at speed, stage left.
Eli stayed well back from the carnage. Friends they might be, but Holly and Diana -- well, it was best to stay on your toes around them. “Who's the boy toy?”
Holly, a pale, Nordic-type blonde, swatted Eli's arm. “Be nice. Taye's been at work for almost twenty-four hours. He deserved a break, so we brought him along to give him a treat.”
Eli didn't doubt she spoke the truth. The intern was gray with exhaustion and had bags under his eyes big enough to carry the US mail. For all that, he wasn't bad-looking. If you noticed male attributes, that was. A well-shaped face and a kind mouth, reddish gold hair cut short and sleek. Eli could tell he was probably handsome given the way Diana eyed him with impressively dirty intent.
“Really?” Eli nudged Diana under the table.
Diana, forty-two and unashamed, attractive in a gamine sort of way, wrinkled her nose at Eli. A damned fine cardiologist and an innovator in her field, she had the sense of humor of a collegiate and saw no point in growing old gracefully. She nudged back, and ouch, she was wearing pointy-toed shoes. “Bah humbug.”
Taye watched them with big eyes. “Is there something going on here that I should know about?”
“Not a thing,” Diana said. Butter wouldn't have melted between her cherry red lips. She stole Eli's coffee and sipped demurely.
Holly petted Taye's hair. “It's all right, Taye. No one here's going to bite.”
Taye cracked a grin. “Right. It's just -- three doctors and me. All of you have been in medicine since I was in grade school. I'm a little nervous.”
“Shows what you know,” Eli said, jumping back into the conversation. “I just finished my residency last year.” He shrugged. “My midlife crisis came early. What can I say?”
“Seriously? But you seem so... I mean, you're... The way you take charge, I'd thought you were an old pro.”
“Thank you. It's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. And before you ask, I'm forty-three.” Eli took his cup back from Diana, only to find it empty. “Wench.”
She smirked at Eli. “And don't you forget it. So where's your wife?”
“Right now, specifically?” Eli checked his watch, a gift from Zane when he'd been hired on as an attending. “Hell if I know. Either in Nepal with Paolo or in Paris with Neo. I lost track.” Either way, she was doing adventurous things with a man who isn't married to his job. He couldn't blame Marybeth. Cops made terrible husbands. When he'd decided to switch to medicine, that'd been the last straw, and he wished her well with...whoever was on the menu this week. “Enough about me.” They knew damn well he didn't like to talk about personal business in public.
Holly and Diana exchanged glances, the secretly amused and utterly female method of communication Eli had never learned to interpret, God help him.
“Good for her. I was talking about your other wife,” Diana said around a bite of ruby jam and baguette.
“She means Zane,” Holly said.
That, in Eli's opinion, was taking it too far, especially in front of a colleague Eli didn't know. “Enough, the both of you.”
Holly ignored him serenely and put her chin in her hands. “Come to think of it, this might be the first time I've seen you without him in weeks.”
Eli could feel Taye watching them, fascinated. “My private life is not up for scrutiny, but for the last time, Zane and I are not together. How many times do I have to say this, and to how many people?”
“Wait, what?” Looked like Taye had forgotten his nerves. He turned to Diana instead of Eli. “Zane is Dr. Novia, right? They're not...?”
“No,” Eli said, annoyed. A flicker of motion in his peripheral vision filled him with relief. “Zane, for the love of God, would you get behind me on this?”
Diana and Holly dissolved into giggles. Zane shrugged, untroubled as ever, and took his seat. He tucked his pager away. “What are we being ridiculed for today?”
“Same old, same old,” Eli said. He passed Zane the bread and jam. “Apparently we want to jump each other's bones.”
“An oldie, but a goodie.” Zane lifted his chin at Taye. “What are you looking at, junior?”
Taye coughed. “Nothing. Sorry.” He retreated behind a mouthful of fresh-from-the-oven baguette.
Eli had to admire Zane at work. They could have used a laser stare like Zane's on the force back in the day. He'd have had perps pissing their pants with nothing more than a look.
Zane turned it on Diana. “Look at you, Mrs. Robinson.”
Diana possessed not the smallest trace of shame. “You wish you had my cojones.”
Their byplay didn't stop Holly. Nothing did, as far as Eli could tell. Hell, her husband egged her on; Eli held it in private opinion that the pair of them enjoyed more kink than a Slinky. She folded her hands beneath her chin and gave Zane her best you-can-trust-me psychotherapist face. “It just seems obvious to everyone but the pair of you.”
“It's true,” Diana said. She started to pick through the packages of fake and real sugar, searching for Splenda. “You go to the symphony together. Ball games. Brunch, for God's sake. And when was the last time you went out with a woman, the pair of us aside?”
Eli opened his mouth, closed it, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “So it's been a while. I don't have time for playing the field when I'm trying to get ahead with my career.”
“But you have time to spend with Zane,” Holly said sweetly.
Eli gave up. For the moment.
Diana didn't. “Take, for example, the way you two are sitting. Shoulder to shoulder.”
“The table is crowded,” Eli protested. “Four-person table, five people jammed in. You're plastered against Taye.”
Diana smiled like a cat who'd just gotten her first taste of the cream and said nothing.
Fine, that hadn't helped. Frustrated, Eli looked to Zane for support. No luck; Zane was busy waving for more coffee all around.
Eli wasn't an idiot. When he examined Zane through objective eyes, he could see the appeal. Zane looked closer to thirty than forty, excepting the smile lines and small sprinkling of silver in his hair, and it was a trim, fit thirty with a body he kept in tip-top shape with rigorous exercise.
Not that Eli had anything to be ashamed of on that count, either. Zane's enthusiasm for biking and boxing had chivied Eli out of the threat of middle-aged spread and back into better shape than he'd been on the force. Handsome, fit, successful.
So yes, he noticed these things. Didn't everybody? And so they spent most of their time together. Mankind wasn't made to be alone. Big deal.
Zane's beeper shrilled. He rolled his eyes to the heavens. “I'm going to take this in my car. If the waiter comes around, order for me, but no meat. As soon as we're done here I'm going back to Immaculate Grace and carving myself a filet of intern. Not you,” he said as an aside to Taye. “You're doing great. Keep up the good work. Eli, tell them I want the usual, okay?”
Eli didn't let Diana or Holly ask. “Yes, I know his usual. Belgian waffle with cinnamon sugar and whipped cream, the real stuff, and a fruit salad. No strawberries.” He swatted Zane's hip as Zane scooted behind him and away. “Don't worry; I've got it covered.”
“No strawberries?” Taye asked.
“He's allergic,” Eli said. Medicine fell outside the personal-business umbrella, and Zane considered nothing taboo anyway. Still grated Eli's nerves a bit to answer. “I've never seen how allergic, but he carries an EpiPen. No sense taking chances.”
Hoping the subject would be dropped, knowing there was no way he'd get that lucky, Eli studied the menu until he could no longer ignore the women clicking their tongues at him. Approximately thirty seconds. “What?”
The women exchanged Highly Significant Looks. “Doth the gentleman protest too much?” Diana asked.
“He doth,” Holly agreed. “Let me ask you a question, Eli.”
“Since I'm well aware that I can't stop you, please, proceed.” Eli crossed his arms and waited for it.
“How much time did you spend with your ex-wife before she took off for -- where was it again?” She shushed him before he could answer. “It's Austria with Pieter, by the way. I actually know this, and you don't. Now tell me: how much time do you spend with Zane?”
Eli scowled and said nothing.
Holly pounced. “You see? I'll bet you can even tell me where Zane was night before last.”
There was no way he would win here, was there? “My place,” Eli admitted. “Takeout and Die Hard. What's your point?”
“I think their point is that you're all but married,” Taye said. Apparently he'd chosen sides. Good to know. For that, he would pay. “Look, I know a few things about what it's like to love your own gender. It's strange as hell at first.”
Diana's face fell in a way that would have been heartbreaking if it hadn't been ever so satisfying instead. “You're --”
Taye blushed but kept his chin up. “Yes.”
“No disrespect to you personally intended, Taye, but can I just say ha?” Eli pointed at Holly and Diana in turn. “Your gaydar needs a tune-up.”
Diana didn't take defeat graciously. She narrowed her eyes at Taye. “Prove it.”
“Hey.” Eli straightened. “Nobody around here has to prove anything. Diana, leave him alone.”
Taye's color heightened. “I can fight my own battles, thanks.”
Eli held up his hands in mock surrender. “Suit yourself, tough guy.”
Maybe it was the lack of sleep followed by the powerful coffee, or maybe Taye was one of those fortunate fools who didn't hesitate to jump in where mortals feared to tread. “Excuse me.” Taye touched the waiter's arm as he approached, coming in on the third round of coffee refills. “Would it be all right with you if I kissed you?”
The waiter stared at him. Eli waited for the “No!”
Instead, their waiter did a quick check to make sure no managerial eyes were on him, slid his carafe onto the table, and pressed in close to Taye. “I thought you'd never ask, handsome.” He stood on tiptoe and --
Eli sighed. Holly made cooing noises that unfortunately didn't cover up the noises of a highly enthusiastic kiss. A darker mood still shadowed Eli's thoughts when the sound of the smacking prompted a stir in his groin.
He tapped his foot thoughtfully. All right, so maybe it's been a longer dry spell than I'll admit to this crowd. I'm a busy man. That doesn't mean listening to two pretty boys make out turns me on. Or Zane. It just means I need to get laid, or at least spend a quality afternoon with my right hand.
“Is that what we're leaving instead of a tip?” Zane made his reappearance without fanfare or notice from anyone except Eli. “If that's the case, we should take Taye out with us more often.”
Eli chuckled. “I was just enjoying the sight of Diana proved wrong.”
Diana scowled at Taye. “He's your boyfriend, isn't he? No wonder you were willing to brunch instead of crash.”
“Can you blame me?” Taye kissed the waiter again, this time on the tip of his nose. “See you later, handsome.”
Was he? Eli couldn't see the appeal, himself. Waiter-boy was shorter than Taye by at least half a foot, wiry, curly dark hair, a button nose... Okay, maybe he could see it a little. Discomfort at PDA aside, Eli was man enough to admit the pair of them were almost cute. He knew he'd be just as fidgety with a hetero couple. The last time Holly's computer-something-or-another-engineer husband, Keith, had come along to brunch, he'd almost wanted to crawl under the table.
Not even Diana could stand up against that. She sighed and shifted fully from tigress on the hunt to full-fledged fan club member. “Worth it.”
A faint touch at his elbow drew Eli's attention to Holly. “You see?” she asked, quiet as a mouse. A far-too-knowing mouse. “That's the way you and Zane look at each other. You're the only two who can't see it.”
“Be that as it may. We're not interested. Not homophobic, Taye, so no offense to you. You two ladies, stop going there. This is the last time I'm going to ask. We're friends. That's all. Leave it alone.”
Diana clicked her tongue against her teeth. Eli didn't like the look on her face. Too suspicious by half. “Let me ask you this. How do you know there's nothing more to it? Have you ever tried?”
Even Holly tried to shush her at that, but the damage was done. “I think we're done here.” Eli dropped his napkin on the table and stood. “My private life is just that: private. I've had about enough of defending myself.”
“Like I said. Protesting too much,” Diana said. She wasn't one to back down. Normally Eli liked that about her. Normally. Not so much now. “Look it up.”
Copyright © Willa Okati