"Three Buds, and a ginger ale. And don't mix them up."
John gave Tom a mock glare. "I'll leave the beer in the bottles. That way YOU won't mix them up."
Tom grinned as he put the drinks on his tray and scurried back to the table in the corner.
"You talked to him yet?"
John sighed. "Go away, Dad. I'm working."
"Gotta ask him sometime. Might as well be now. Go on. You know you want him."
Mary chuckled. "He giving you a hard time again?" She focused on a spot above John's head. "Yo, Jimmy. Go rest in peace and leave your son alone."
"Yeah, like he'd listen to you," John scoffed, blushing a little at having been caught again. The imaginary conversations with his father had always been his private burden, but they'd been happening so much recently that even Mary had noticed.
"So what's the prob? He usually only heckles you at tax time," she said, dropping her tray on the bar and snapping her gum. "We got money probs I don't know about?"
He shot her a sarcastic glower. "Is there ever a problem around here you don't know about long before anyone else? Get real, Mare."
"Ah. Must be 'bout Tommy, then. I noticed you ogling his butt."
"Mary!" John glanced around worriedly, afraid that one of the customers had heard. Or worse: that Tom had.
"Oh, lighten up, John-boy. I figure he's a friend of yours he must swing that way. And it's not like you are that hard on the eyes. So get off your damn 'I'm in denial' soapbox and do something about it."
"'Bout what?" Neither of them had heard Thomas' approach.
Would it be too much to hope that Mary would keep her big trap shut?
"'Bout his sex life."
Tom turned to John. "You have a sex life?" he asked quietly.
Mary snorted. "John hasn't had a sex life since Bush was President. And I mean the first one." She leaned forward casually, thrusting her breasts forward. "So, you gonna do anything about it?"
"Me?" Tom squeaked, looking at John in a panic. John shook his head, trying to let him know he hadn't told Mary about Thomas' pronouncement the night he'd 'rejoined the living' as they called it.
"No?" Mary sighed. "Thought you might be one of them. Would explain why you ain't asked me for a tumble." She shrugged. "Not into blondes, hunh?" She grabbed her tray from the bar. "Well, guess we are both shit out of luck, Johnny."
Both men gaped at her as she sashayed away. Finally, John chuckled nervously. "Subtle as a sledgehammer, that woman."
"No kidding," Tom gulped. He looked at John quickly, then away. "Better get back to work."
"Tom," John dropped his hand on top of the other man's, stopping him from grabbing his tray and scurrying away. "I didn't say anything to her. Honest."
Tom gave him a tremulous smile. "I know."
"But I am here to talk if you want to."
"Know that too. Just not ready, k?"
John nodded and withdrew his hand. He turned and picked up a tray of dirty glasses and by the time he'd turned around again Tom was gone. He couldn't help heave a sigh of relief. After stacking the glasses in the washer, he motioned to Mary, letting her know he was heading downstairs for a few minutes.
It was it's usual quiet and peaceful self down there. He knew he should have been grabbing a few more cases of beer to take back upstairs; that was his reason for coming down after all, but instead he just sat down on one of the cases and leaned back, closing his eyes. It had been a weird few weeks. Who was he kidding? His life had turned weird the first moment he opened his back door and invited a scraggly homeless guy in to get away from the cold. Now it was just a roller coaster, and frankly he still wasn't sure he'd done the right thing.
Thomas wasn't dead. That was one thing. And a good thing, at that. Even when he hadn't know the guy, the idea that someone could have died out there in the bitter cold they'd had this winter when he could have done something to save him… well, that wasn't something John'd wanted on his conscience. Then the minor circus that had been caused… Folks were sure hard up for entertainment in this town if a singing bum could become a passing celebrity. 'Course it had been winter, and with the local hockey team being such losers anything was better than nothing.
So he'd made John's life miserable for a little while. Big deal. He hadn't meant to. And he'd pretty much made his own life even more miserable than it already had been too.
Helping a guy out the way he had, well, that was a good thing too. It's something Paul would've done. Probably why he'd done it. It was like, for that brief moment, he had Paul back. Not 'cause Thomas was Paul, but because he, John, got to be just like the best man he'd ever known. He'd been Paul. He'd done something Paul-like. And after so many years pining for him, having a connection with Paul - no matter how nebulous - had made John feel whole again.
So maybe that was the problem. Thomas wasn't Paul. Didn't look like him, didn't act like him. And John didn't even want him the way he had wanted Paul. But he'd done all of this out of some Paul-ness. And now he was as confused as all fuck.
"It's simple. You either want him or you don't. Make up your mind."
"I don't, Dad. Really. I don't. But it's like I should. And I don't get it," John sighed.
"Maybe you do, but you're playing hard to get with yourself."
The problem with arguing with a dead dad is that it is hard to glare at him. "I ain't playing anything. I just can't shake this feeling like I am supposed to like him that way. But I don't. And I don't know why I don't. 'Cause it isn't like he's not hot or anything. In a lost duckling sort of way. I just ain't interested."
"Maybe because I'm not interested in you that way either," Thomas replied softly.
John looked up and saw the other man sitting on the steps. He gave him a sheepish grin. "Eavesdropping on fucked up conversations isn't nice, you know."
"Never said I was nice." He stood up and descended the remainder of the stairs and then hopped up on the washing machine. "Apparently I am a lost duck, though."
"Oh, man. I didn't mean it… Shit, I can't say anything right, can I?"
Tom shrugged. "You were just thinking aloud. That's what arguing with your pop is. I get that. Just wish you could have talked to me."
"Ain't that simple,"
"Why? 'Cause I'm your freakin' charity case?"
"Maybe I should just get out, hunh? Clearly 'normal' life just isn't for me," Tom ranted. "Once a basket-case, always a basket-case. I should have just told you to fuck off that first time."
"And you'd be dead by now."
Tom glared at him. "So what? Who'd care?"
"I would, you little freak," John shouted. "You think I do that all the time? You think I helped you 'cause it was just something to do that day? "Clean bar, order beer, save bum, wash dishes…" I helped you 'cause I wanted to. And I'd do it again."
"No frigging clue!"
The two stared at each other and then Tom started to chuckle. "It's the duck in me, isn't it?" He sucked his cheeks in. "I'm just so cute and cuddly," he said in a Donald Duck voice.
"Shut up. Still pissed at you," John growled.
"See, that's what I don't get. Why? Why you pissed at me? I mean, I've tried being good and all. I know I made you angry that first night, but I apologized. So why you still pissed?"
John thought back to the night when Thomas first stumbled off into the dark, and then returned to make his request… and pronouncement. To say he'd gone ballistic would have been an understatement. Tom had stood there and said he was gay too, and John hit the roof. He'd yelled at him, screaming obscenities. How he'd managed to restrain himself from hitting him he'd never know. It was as if all the rage and pain and anger he'd felt since Paul's death - heck, even before that - came crashing out all at once. And all at Tom. Who'd just stood there and taken it. Then apologized if he'd upset John.
John couldn't think of an answer so he just snorted.
"Look, man. I didn't tell you that to upset you. I mean it. I just… You were straight with me and I wanted to be straight with you. I wasn't coming on to you: I told you that. I was just telling you, kind of like as part of a conversation."
"Duh." Tim grinned ruefully. "Look, John, I should probably go."
"Go? Go where?"
"I dunno. Just go. Somewhere. I mean, I've just fucked things up around here since I showed up. And I just seem to be making it worse. So taking off would make sense, you know?" John crossed his arms across his chest. "I changed my mind. You aren't a duck. You're a fucking 'fraidy-cat."
Tom looked startled. "A what?"
"A 'fraidy-cat. A chicken. One sign of trouble and you run off with your tail between your legs."
"One sign?" Thomas squeaked. "You've been fucking freaking on me since I showed up. That was, like, fourteen signs ago."
"Yeah, but you're still more interested in running off than giving it a try. Should have known better. You ain't ready for life yet. You're still too busy hiding from it."
"At least I'm not hiding down here talking to a dead guy."
"At least I'm talking. More than you do," John retorted, then fell back as Thomas' fist connected with his jaw. "Why you…"
The two men jumped at each other, fists flying. John landed a punch to Tom's stomach, which knocked the wind out of the man for a moment, before he retaliated with an elbow to John's chest. The two kept flailing angrily at each other, pummelling as best they could in the confined space. Both ignored Mary's shouted demands that they stop, only halting their assault when she stopped using the bristle part of the broom, but instead started whacking them with the handle.
They looked owl-like at the group of patrons staring at down at them from the top of the stairs. Mary stood there, brandishing the broom like she was willing to smack them with it again.
"You two finished your little fight? Good. Couple of morons, you two. You're supposed to break 'em up, not start them," she glared. "Clean up and get your asses back up here." She turned and hustled the curiosity-seekers back to their tables, slamming the door behind her.
"You okay?" John finally asked.
"I'll live. You?"
"Been better. Will be again." John picked himself up off the cold floor, offering his hand to Thomas. Tom looked at it for a moment then accepted it and slowly stood up.
"Maybe I should…"
"You say you're going and I'll start kicking your ass again," John growled.
Tom snorted, as he dusted his pants. Part of him, the vain part, wanted to make sure they weren't ripped or overly dirty. They were the first pair of new jeans he'd owned for almost two years. The first things he'd bought with the small pay envelope that John had given him. He sighed.
"Now what?" John asked brusquely.
"I was just thinking 'I hope I haven't messed these jeans.' Some bum, I am."
John bit back a grin. "Guess you've changed."
"Guess I have. Look, John, we gotta talk. I mean really talk. This fighting stuff… I'm no good at it."
John winced as he rotated his right shoulder. "Neither am I."
"So can we? Talk?"
"Yeah. We better. After we close?"
Tom nodded. He held up a finger, indicating that John should hold on for a second, and went into the little bedroom that had become his home. He re-emerged with a damp cloth, which he offered to John. "You got a little cut on your cheek. It's bleeding."
John swore and took the cloth, wincing as the cold water hit his cut. "Your eye's looking a little puffy. You should go put some ice on it."
"Yeah." Tom started up the stairs. "I just thought of another reason why I've changed."
He smiled. "It's been a long time since I felt strongly enough about something to fight."
John closed the bar early that night. It was a slow Tuesday anyway, and the only ones hanging around were some folks hoping for another brawl. Besides, having Mary lord it over them was driving him nuts. He hustled her, and the others out, and locked the door with finality.
Tom rolled the mop and pail out of the kitchen and proceeded to clean the floors while John took care of the tables. Twenty minutes later the place was clean and the two of them were seated at their regular table, sipping stale black coffee.
"So," Tom nodded. "Look, you've been great to me and all…"
"You gonna talk about leaving again?" John sighed. "Fine, then. You're fired. Get out"
"What? No severance?" Tom mocked.
"Thought you didn't want to."
John glared at him.
"Look, man, what I am trying to say is this… and let me finish, okay? You've been great and all. But you don't know a thing about me. I mean, seriously, I'm just some guy you picked up off the street. Probably more 'cause you didn't want to fill out the paperwork if you found my carcass in your dumpster."
John flushed. There was far too much truth to that.
"Which is cool, you know?" Tom continued. "But I got shit. Lots of shit. Years of shit. Shit that put me out on the street and kept me there. And I don't want you to have to deal with my shit."
"What? You some kind of mass murderer or something?" John had thought that at one point. Then quickly discarded it. The guy couldn't kill a bottle of muscatel, let alone a person. He knew Tom had baggage: he'd just figured it wasn't THAT bad.
John gaped at him. So much for foregone conclusions...
"See, I told you I was gay. What if I told you that because I was gay that two people are dead?"