He met Lars in the kitchen, but then Lars’s phone chimed. Lars glanced at the phone and grimaced. He clicked to accept the call and turned from Seth. “Hey, Mom. How are you?”
Seth heard Lars’s voice as he walked down the hall, away from Seth. Unlike Seth, who had shouting matches with his own parents on speaker phone in front of Lars, Lars privately conducted his familial conversations. It might have had something to do with the fact that Seth didn’t like Lars’s parents.
Well, Mrs. Varga was all right. She’d warmed to Seth when they’d come to spend Christmas in Seattle a few years ago. Even Lars’s father had begrudgingly accepted Seth in the end, but Seth would never forget the way he treated Lars. Never forget, or really forgive either.
They were scheduled to return this year, spending another Christmas in Seattle. This time, however, Seth had insisted they get a hotel room. It wasn’t like Lars’s parents couldn’t afford it. And the pressure of having their disapproving faces staring at him day in, day out had been too miserable to repeat. Even Lars embraced the idea, and they’d reserved his parents a nice suite in a modern hotel two blocks from their condo.
Lars mumbled something on the phone a little louder than the rest of the conversation, and Seth sighed. He hoped Lars’s parents weren’t bailing. As much as Lars pretended he didn’t need their approval, he’d been clearly looking forward to the visit.
He returned to Seth, minus his suit jacket, tie, and vest, his dress shirt untucked from his slacks. He looked worried.
“What’s wrong?” Seth asked.
“Nothing,” Lars said. He shook his head. “Nothing.”
“My brother’s coming out with my folks.”
Lars tried for a smile. “Yay?
Seth rolled his eyes. “Great.” He yanked on his coat. “Another holiday spent breaking in a homophobe.”
“We did a great job last time?” Lars gave Seth a wobbly smile.
Seth shook his head. “I don’t know anything about Jesse. Why is he coming now, all of a sudden?”
“Because he broke up with his fiancée, and she kicked him out of their house. He’s been staying with my folks. Apparently, my mother convinced him to tag along to have all the family together.”
Seth kept his snarky comments to himself. Jesse hadn’t said more than a few sentences to Lars since Lars came out nine years ago.
Lars was from a wealthy family founded on traditional values that frowned upon such rebellious lifestyle choices as homosexuality, natural deodorant, and choosing Mac over PC. Seth wondered if Lars might have remained in the closet indefinitely if Seth hadn’t forced his hand.
Seth had had to break up with Lars to get Lars to admit his affections and reveal his orientation to his family and business partner. The subsequent decade hadn’t been picture-perfect, but it had been mostly wonderful.
As they took the elevator downstairs, Seth studied his boyfriend, thinking about their long romance.
Relationships were hard. The love between two people could shine as brightly as the moon on a cloudless night, but that didn’t always compensate for work stress, health problems, financial woes, personality quirks, slacking hygiene, drinking excesses, depressive behaviors, or unseemly attractions to reality television.
There were whole weeks when Seth felt more like Lars’s roommate than life partner. Weeks where they exchanged merely passing greetings as one headed to the gym or to the office while the other met with friends for after-work drinks. Or when the only conversations they had converged around dirty dishes, laundry, and who bought the crappy, single-ply toilet paper.
Seth had once imagined finding his soul mate would mean two minds becoming one, a constant state of partnership and bliss. But Lars wasn’t his soul mate. He was nothing sacred or special. He was a man who left whiskers in the bathroom sink and still thought burping a song was funny.
But he was also the man Seth loved more than anyone else on this earth. There may not be astral strings entwining the two of them, but after nearly a decade of waking up in each other’s arms, Seth couldn’t define where his life ended and Lars’s began. And that seemed more tangible, real, and valuable than any fairytale soul mate.
Besides, Lars was a fucking amazing cook. Seth could put up with unappealing, unidentifiable hairs in the bathroom.
Lars glanced over and caught Seth staring. “Are you disapproving of my attire?”
Seth grinned. “Never. I love the slovenly suit look.”
Lars pulled on a windbreaker over his untucked shirt, then put his heavy arm over Seth’s shoulder and kept it there as they exited the elevator. Their neighbors smiled and said hello. Lars’s arm tightened around Seth’s shoulders, and a surge of pride filled Seth. He still felt giddy when Lars engaged in public displays of affection, even after all these years.
The walk to the restaurant was brisk in the chill air. Inside, the overpowering heat caused Seth to immediately break out in a sweat and his glasses to fog. Lars ordered their drinks before Seth had even managed untangle himself from his sweater.
“What do you think the judge is going to decide?” Seth asked.
Lars sipped his bourbon, sucked his teeth at the bitter taste, and then stared at Seth. “They made a good case for her being bitter, and the evidence wasn’t bombproof. There’s a chance we could lose, but I’m optimistic.”
Seth nodded. When they’d first started the business together two years ago, they’d originally planned on never bringing home work with them. They’d discuss business while in the office, never elsewhere.
But life didn’t stay in compartments, and besides, they both loved their work too much. What had started as a practice in business law had merged over the last year to focus specifically on defending whistleblowers and workplace discrimination, something Seth felt passionate about. Lars’s background in corporate law and Seth’s own experience with the bleeding-heart cases gave them unique skillsets working together.
But Seth wanted to talk about Cora after work hours. And he could tell, by the gleam in Lars’s eyes, he did too.
“What did you think of my performance today?” he asked, looking smug.
Seth laughed. “Oh my God. Like you need your ego stroked anymore tonight.”
Lars’ cocked an eyebrow. “I need all sorts of things stroked tonight.”
“When we finish eating, we can talk about what kind of stroking you want.”
Lars laughed and immediately set to studying his menu.
Seth waited until their waitress had taken their order before conceding to Lars. “Okay, fine. Yes. You were fabulous.”
“Haven’t seen me in court before,” Lars declared.
“Nope. I secretly called you the settlement king.”
Lars sipped his drink. “Sometimes it’s worth it to see how the other side reacts when there’s a judge present.”
“Or when they reveal something repulsive,” Seth added.
Lars sighed dramatically. “Well, yes. There was that.” He pointed his stir stick at Seth. “We need to work on your poker face, baby. You looked like someone dumped a bucket of ice water over your head.”
“Someone did, metaphorically.”
“Yeah, but we have to act like we’re always in control of the situation.”
“Even when we’re careening off a cliff?”
“I’m not like you. I can’t act unruffled. I’m like a horse confronting a plastic bag. It’s all feet in the air and screeching.”
Lars laughed. “I wonder who you learned that from.”
“My dad,” Seth replied.
Lars finished his drink. Seth remembered Lars in the small chambers afterward and cocked his head. “Actually, you did seem a little flustered when you ditched Cora and me at the end of the afternoon. Why did you take off?”
To Seth’s amazement, a deep blush spread over Lars’s pale cheeks. He looked away. “I got distracted.”
“By what? Oh my God, was it sex? Were you looking at my crotch or something? Please tell me it was my crotch and not someone else’s crotch, or I’ll—”
“It wasn’t sex.” Lars’s voice was hushed. He flickered his glance upward, his long pale lashes fluttering as he stared at Seth.
Their food came, and they talked about other matters. But Seth’s mind turned over various implications of what Lars meant. Something had distracted Lars about the case then? But if it was work related, why was he embarrassed enough to flush?
They finished their meal and walked home. Their return journey was slower, as it always was, warmed from the inside out with hot food and alcohol. They bumped shoulders. It was a strange night in a big city, a moment when no one else seemed to be around.
It started to rain. There were dozens of types of rainfall in the Pacific Northwest, too many to be defined by the paltry selection of established weather words. Rain, showers, drizzle: they barely captured the variety of wetness options. And was rain worse than showers or vice versa?
This one Seth would have called an embarrassed rain. It fell hesitantly, as if it didn’t want to offend anyone. Is this okay?
it asked. I’ll just splatter right here, away from your shoe. Sorry. So sorry.
Seth’s glasses didn’t even steam up. The low sky left the air wild and fresh, and the night was empty, silent except for their footfalls.
Lars stepped in front of Seth. They were just outside their condo entrance. Lars looked nervous. The rainfall began to grow in confidence, tickling the back of Seth’s neck like an invisible molester.
Lars fumbled in the pocket of his windbreaker. “I…uh…hold on.”
Seth frowned. He moved toward the lobby, but Lars blocked his path.
“No wait. Give me a second.” Lars finally pulled out something that had been trapped in his pocket.
Seth saw a square, black velvet box.
Lars dropped to his knees, despite the rain. For one wildly irrational second, Seth thought Lars was going to blow him in front of their condo.