Taco Hub was packed.
Brin leaned back in the booth, spreading his arms wide and clapping Ferg on the ear with one hand. “The sun is shining, the zoning board is voting on the new overpass—it’s a great day to constipate yourself with a burrito the size of your forearm.”
“What happened to cooking for me sometime?” Derek asked Ferg.
“I said Thanksgiving.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Derek caught a glimpse of the boy who was going around picking up trays and refilling waters.
He turned, not quite able to believe what he was seeing.
In a green-and-yellow Taco Hub uniform.
He looked as thin, tired, and shut off from the world as he had the other day in the alley.
“Holy shit,” Derek whispered.
“Huh?” Brin said, looking where Derek was looking. Ferg looked too.
“It’s Landon Moredock.”
“Working at Taco Hub?” Brin almost screeched.
“Shh,” Ferg said.
“No,” Brin said, still straining to see Landon. “Nope. That’s not Landon Moredock. That’s some high school dropout with pimples on his ass. Look at his shoes.” He turned back to his burrito. “Landon Moredock would never look so appallingly grease-greasy-greaserton.”
“It’s Taco Hub,” Ferg said. “Everything’s greasy.”
“Seriously. Why do you bring me here? We’re breaking up.”
“That’s definitely Landon,” Derek said. “I can’t believe he actually did it.”
“Did what?” Ferg asked.
“I saw him the other day downtown, looking for work. I told him this place was hiring.” He glanced at the poster in the window, which showed a group of racially diverse people in green-and-yellow uniforms under the headline: NOW HIRING. DO YOU “HUB” WHAT IT TAKES?
“Well, that was sweet of you,” Brin said. “He loses you fifteen thousand dollars, and you point him toward one of these mysterious ‘jobs’ he’s only heard tell of in legend. And Mr. Morecock certainly seems to hub what it takes. He blends right in.”
Brin shifted to grab one of Ferg’s chips and accidentally knocked his water over. He squealed as it dripped off the table and onto the booth seat, soaking his Vera Bradley bag.
Ferg sighed and righted the cup. “How about you ask, and I’ll hand you some chips?”
“How about you move your lug butt so I can take Vera to the bathroom and run her under the dryer?”
Landon walked by with a water pitcher.
“Hey,” Brin called.
Landon turned, face blank.
Brin nodded at his cup. “Would you mind refilling my water? It seems to have mysteriously vanished.
Derek tensed as Landon approached the table. He felt strange—still guilty about what he’d said to Landon the other day. Still embarrassed he’d even considered sending that photo to Kim. He glanced at Landon’s uniform. The yellow nametag read “Lane,” not “Landon.”
Derek had never thought of him as anyone but Landon Moredock—a name from the newspapers. But here was a kid who looked tired, whose hair stuck up in the back, who liked dogs. Who went by Lane.
“You don’t know where it went, do you?” Brin asked Lane. “My water?”
“Brin,” Ferg warned.
“I’m just asking.”
Lane refilled Brin’s cup. Derek saw that his hand shook. He filled it too full, and a little water ran down the side of the cup and onto the table.
“When,” Brin said loudly.
Lane started, righting the pitcher. He looked unfocused. Derek could see how tight his shoulders were, how shallow his breathing. And then Derek noticed something else. Bruising, on both wrists.
What the hell?
“Sorry, I forget you’ve probably never done this before,” Brin said, pulling his water close to him. “You want to stop when the cup is full, just like the butler used to do.”
“Brin!” Ferg snapped.
Lane hurried back to the counter.
“What’s up his ass?” Brin asked. “Maybe nothing, now that his sugar daddy’s gone. Or does he have others? An endless parade of father figures who buy him pretty things and spank him when he’s naughty?”
“You are this close,” Ferg said.
“To paradise?” Brin kissed Ferg’s cheek. “I know.”
“To a paddling. You leave that boy alone.”
Derek continued to watch Lane as he walked across the seating area with his pitcher clutched to him like a shield and filled the cups at another table. He dropped a couple of straws on the floor and bent to pick them up. He moved slowly, stiffly.
Hurt, Derek thought. He’s definitely hurt.
Something protective surfaced in him. Yeah, it was Landon Moredock, someone Derek had fantasized about hurting on more than one occasion. But there was nothing satisfying about seeing him look so tired, tense, and unwell.
Or about seeing him in a Taco Hub apron.
Well, maybe there was something satisfying about that. You can work for your money just like the rest of us, Landon.
The feeling wore thin quickly.
Plus Lane looked good in the apron. He looked good in canvas sneakers and pants just a little too short for his long legs. He just looked good.
Except for those bruises.
Those didn’t look good.
Lane straightened and returned to the counter, disappearing through the swinging doors behind it.
“That boy is a hot, hot mess,” Brin said, jabbing clumps of ice in his cup with a straw.
Derek couldn’t have said it better.
Lane was back ten minutes later and stopped to pick up the trays stacked at the end of their table.
“We’re doing well here, thank you for asking,” Brin said. “That Hub-añero Supreme was positively magic.
Lane was already gone.
Brin yelped as Ferg kicked him under the table.
“What part of ‘enough’ is giving you trouble?” Ferg demanded.
“I’ve got more,” Brin said.
“I’m sure you do. And you will keep them to yourself.” He looked at Derek. “You ready?”
“If you are.”
Lane was behind the counter. There was no one else up there.
Derek made a decision. “One minute,” he said. “I’ll meet you outside.”
He went to the counter. Nodded at Lane, then glanced up at the menu. “Could I have one Triple Tuna Taco to go?”
Lane rang it up without looking at him. “Four twenty-three.”
Derek handed him a five. “I could use an assistant.”
“For this photo shoot I’m doing, with the shelter dogs. Someone to help set up, dog wrangle, and hold the damn reflectors. You seem good with dogs. If you’re interested, let me know. I’ll pay you as well as I can—which isn’t well, but it’s something. I can work around your schedule here too.”
Lane looked at the card but made no move to take it. “I’m not interested.” He gave Derek his change. Derek tried not to stare at the bruises on his wrists.
“Well, keep the card. In case you change your mind. The shoot’ll be going on through the end of the month.”
Derek pushed the card a little closer. He had a vision of Andy, the gold dog in Christy’s kennel, refusing to take the treat until Christy was out of sight.
Across the room, someone slammed a tray down. Lane flinched. His pulse jerked in his neck, and his hands still shook.
“Lane,” Derek said softly. His first time saying the name out loud. He liked it.
Lane looked at him, finally meeting his gaze.
Lane didn’t answer right away. Then he nodded slowly.
“Maybe go outside,” Derek said. “Ask for a break for a few minutes. See if that helps.”
Lame advice. And why was he giving the kid advice at all? Except that Derek had seen subs panicked, stressed, or confused, and his first instinct was to help. Even if Lane wasn’t his sub. Even if Lane wasn’t a sub period. Even if last time Derek had seen him, he’d accused him of not caring about Acton Wagner’s suicide.
A lot of help that must have been.
Lane looked away. Someone from the kitchen tossed a to-go bag onto the counter. Lane handed Derek the bag and his receipt.
Brin walked up to the counter and stood next to Derek. “I’d like a dessert burrito to go. Cherry filling.” He turned to Derek. “Are you judging me?”
“Why would I?”
He wiggled his ass. “I know I’ve got a little extra padding back there. God knows I need it to protect me from Fergus’s iron hand.”
He said it loudly, then glanced at Lane.
Derek looked too.
Lane was punching buttons on the register, blushing again.
Derek wondered what that meant. Had Lane ever been spanked? Had he ever fantasized about it?
“Three eighty-seven,” Lane said.
Brin handed him a five. “That goes in the drawer, hon,” he said. “Not in your pocket.”
Lane’s blush deepened, and Derek was glad to see some anger in the kid’s expression.
You don’t have to take that, he thought, wondering when he’d put himself on Lane’s side. Go on. Fight back.
Lane stuffed the bill in the drawer and yanked out Brin’s change. He slapped it on the counter and shoved it toward Brin. “Have a good day.” He sounded as if what he actually hoped was that Brin would fall through a manhole and drown in the Belleview sewers.
Derek went back to their table and set five dollars on it.
Was that insulting? It wasn’t like Lane was a waiter, but he was providing a service, and probably not enough people who came to Taco Hub bothered to tip.
He heard Brin bid Lane a faux-cheerful good-bye and head out the door.
Derek tucked the five under his water glass and headed outside to meet Ferg and Brin.
They were standing by their car. Derek heard Ferg’s voice first.
“—no excuse for speaking to him that way.”
“I don’t like what he did to Derek,” Brin said.
“He wasn’t the one who took the money. And we don’t know that he actually knows where it is.”
“You said you’d eat five burritos if he didn’t.”
“Yeah, well.” Ferg rubbed his forehead. “Maybe I don’t want to think about that kid getting thrown in prison.”
“He’d be a gangbang porno waiting to happen. Is that what you were gonna say?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Hey,” Derek said.
Ferg turned. “We were just discussing what Brin said to Landon in there.”
“Not you at your finest,” Derek agreed.
Brin rolled his eyes. “He deserves
Ferg raised his eyebrows. “And you deserve some serious corner time when we get home.”
“Fergie, don’t be like this.” Brin butted Ferg’s shoulder lightly. “You should have seen how red he turned when I mentioned your iron hand. I think Landon wants to be spanked. I think he wants Derek to spank him. How hot would that be, Derek taking that little liar over his knee and walloping the truth out of him? Der gave him his card. Is that why, Der? To set up a time for a Thou Shalt Not Steal lesson?”
Ferg took Brin’s ear between his thumb and forefinger and tugged. “That is enough.
“Ow. I was just having some fun.”
“Don’t have fun with someone else’s misfortune.”
“I’m sorry, did I miss when Landon Moredock: Accomplice in Unprecedented White Collar Crimes became Saint Lane the Martyr? I don’t like him. Is that a problem?”
“You still have to treat him decently.”
“Fine,” Brin muttered. “It’s not like I’ll ever see him again. We’re not coming back here. Look at this.” He held up the bag with the dessert burrito in it. “How many calories would you say is in this? Three thousand? Five thousand? Bake me some kale chips, Fergie. I can’t live this way.”
Ferg put an arm around his shoulders and jostled him. “Nobody made you buy that.”
“It’s cherry-pie filling and icing inside a tortilla. I’m only human.”
“Luckily, I’ll be holding on to it until tomorrow, so that you can spend this evening concentrating on being still and quiet in the corner without the distraction of trying to digest that culinary abomination.”
Brin’s mouth fell open. “You can’t do that, Fergus. If you don’t eat it the same day, the shell gets hard!”
“You can always pop it in the microwave.”
“Then the icing runs. Oh God, this is terrible! Where is Landon with that water pitcher? I’m going to yank a page from Acton Wagner’s juicy memoir and drown myself.” He thrust the bag at Derek and looked away, shielding his eyes. “Here, take it. If I can’t enjoy it in its prime, I at least want it to go to a good home.”
“Not in a million years,” Derek said.
Ferg looked at Derek. “So we’ll see you sometime? The club? Maybe?”
“I’ll think about it.”
Brin turned to Derek, eyes suddenly shining.
“Sorry if I embarrassed you in there, Der-Bear. I guess I’m the kind of jerk no one wants anything to do with.”
Derek sighed. “Ah, Brin. You know that’s not true.”
“Uh-uh,” Ferg snapped his fingers. “Don’t let him pull that on you. He’s not sorry; he’s delighted.”
Brin whirled on him. “How do you know what I’m feeling? I try to do a nice thing for Derek, sticking it to his mortal enemy. How was I supposed to know everyone actually thinks he’s an okay guy? And now everyone’s yelling at me…”
Derek looked at Ferg, who rolled his eyes, then at Brin, who was placing the burrito inside his still-damp Vera Bradley purse. “Come here,” Derek said, opening his arms.
Brin flew into them, purse bashing Derek in the side. “Don’t let him take me, Der,” Brin whispered, clutching Derek. “He’s going to make me write out the dictionary definition of ‘enough’ seventy-five times. It’s happened before.”
“You deserve it.”
“Don’t say that! You’re supposed to be nice. You were always nicer than he is. Except when you spanked. Good God, Derek, your hand hurt like a motherfucker.”
Derek chuckled and patted Brin’s back. “Good luck. I’ll see you sometime next week.”
“Let’s get going,” Ferg said.
Brin turned and hugged Ferg. “I am sorry, even if you don’t believe me.”
“I believe you.” Ferg kissed the top of Brin’s head. “And you’re still going to write me some lines.”
Derek expected Brin to get indignant, the way he sometimes had when Derek wouldn’t mitigate a punishment. But Brin just snuggled closer to Ferg. “Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Not jealous, not jealous, not jealous,
Derek repeated to himself.
Ferg and Brin left.
Derek got into his car, looking past the Now Hiring poster in the Taco Hub window, trying to see inside the restaurant.
He hoped Lane had taken his advice and gone outside. He hoped the kid had taken a few deep breaths of fresh air and gotten himself under control.
He hoped Lane would call him.
That was the most Derek could do.
J.A. Rock & Lisa Henry