jackxwill - pirates of the caribbean slash

Title: As Time Goes By

Authors: Veronica Rich and N. Ranken

Pairing: Jack/Will

Rating: NC-17

Summary: Jack and Will circa mid-1970’s … and on.

Part: 1 of 3

Disclaimer: POTC copyright Disney. Not us. We’re just playing with them.

Authors' Note: Written for the J/W Ficathon. The assignment was for an AU *waves to Fabu*

Feedback: E-mail the authors at verthefirst@yahoo.com and spooniekid@yahoo.com


I

Will Turner glanced up from the sofa where he currently had eight tiny hypodermic-like claws stuck in his hand. "Come in," he called, looking back down at the tiny bundle of fluff.

The kitten attempting to bite his finger was small enough to fit in the palm of Will's hand, and on its back, the animal’s thin black tail barely went past the young man's wrist. Its fur was warm and soft, and he could feel the tiny heart thumping madly against his skin as the kitten played with the large hand.

He heard Jack step in the door, and the kitten startled at the noise, abandoning Will’s hand and leaving small red pinpricks as it scrambled off the sofa. "Ohh, it's all right, little one,” he purred at the kitten. "That's just Jack. He's not going to hurt you."

Quirking an eyebrow, Jack Sparrow halted in the entryway of the living room, the bottom cans of the six-pack he was holding still swinging a bit from the motion of his rolling gait. He eyed the kitten that crouched beneath the table next to the couch, watching the human with wide, terrified blue eyes. "Thought you were getting a dog," he finally spoke.

"I decided a cat would be better," Will explained, reaching down to pet the small head before the fuzzball skittered off, tripping over his own paws as he made his way to the shallow, glazed-clay decorative dish he'd chosen for a bed, then burrowed under the cloths with which Will had lined it. "I don't have to listen to any lowing or barking, and he can still be trained on a lead in a few months." The younger man stood, casting a glance at the black tail that peeked out from the cream-colored cloth before looking back to Jack. "Ahh, I see you brought the drinks ..." He’d been challenged into proving that a Brit could actually cook, and Jack had insisted on bringing his own beer – tea and soda weren’t enough for the dusky American.

"A leash?" Jack burst into laughter and backed away to turn toward the kitchen, his merriment echoing down the hallway. "Fancy that, a cat on a leash. Next you'll be teaching it to sit up for tuna and meow on command."

Will rolled his eyes and followed. "Actually, a harness,” he explained. “Goes over the chest; keeps the poor thing from being strangled."

He trod the thick beige hall carpet he'd paid extra to have installed. The previous owners had done appalling things with the place – dirty gold and red shag carpeting, with nauseating patterned wallpaper in a mockery of Moroccan design. He still shuddered to think of it, and ran his hand over the beige-cream walls with satisfaction. It had taken forever to turn the place into something livable, in wood tones, beige, and burgundy, but the result was a home Will loved.

"I think I still have some crisps in the cupboard, if you'd like some salt to go with your alcohol," he deadpanned. Will often teased Jack for his American diet of meat, salt, and booze, and was set on converting his friend to the wonders that were fruits and vegetables; hence, the challenge.

"Nope." Jack dropped the beer off on the island set in the middle of the small kitchen, then pried one away from its mates. "You promised me a right proper meal, and that's what I'm here for. I even passed up my usual noontime burger at Fat Boy's for this-" He cut himself off by sipping from the cracked can of Bud, then pointed the can toward Will. "But if you make me wait past about one to eat, I may start gnawing on your new roommate."

Will tapped Jack on the nose. "Touch that feline, sir, and I shall bop you ‘til bloody Sunday," he huffed, heading over to the cupboard for a pot. "You make it sound like your sandwich is the be-all and end-all of nutrition. Keep eating those, and you'll have a gut that hangs out over your leather trousers," Will warned. "Now, me, I learned to cook from a flatmate of mine in school. French chap. And what he didn't know, I had an Italian just down the hall to fill in the gaps." Will smirked, and spun the pan by its handle. He still had the skill to throw with pinpoint accuracy – a lifetime of playing darts while standing on a barstool to be as tall as his father until he’d actually reached his mature, lanky height – and could probably smash a fly with the metal pot from across the room.

He headed to the new refrigerator, where he'd set some beef the night before to thaw. He'd also paid handsomely for plain white appliances to be installed, as well, replacing the avocado-green ones that had come with the house. Current American design often made him sick to his stomach; these people had no idea of the different shades of beige, and how each one could be used to convey a different degree of airiness or oppression in a room. "Besides, I didn't spend all that blasted money on this kitchen to eat out all the time."

Jack hoisted himself up to one of the barstools, hooked a heel on the rung, and leaned forward on his elbows, sprawling partway across the island countertop. He played idly with the rim of his can and eyed Will's back, sliding his eyes progressively lower until they settled on the man's high, rounded ass. Three years, and the Brit still hadn't savvied Jack's interest in him – which was well enough, since Jack actually enjoyed his company. He'd picked up plenty of bed partners in his time, none of whom he still shared friendships with.

"Guts do not come to those who run five miles every morning," he pointed out, swallowing another sip of beer. "Believe me, I grind those Fat Boys to dust fast enough." He watched as Will pulled several spices and other unfamiliar ingredients from the cherrywood cupboards, putting different pots and pans to the heat of the gas stove.

Another roll of the eyes as Will loaded some cauliflower into the jar of the masher. It was an old trick his mother had employed to get her recalcitrant four-year-old to eat vegetables – grind up cauliflower into chunks, and call them hash browns when fried. "I imagine five miles takes quite a while, what with those short legs of yours." He chuckled, turning to face Jack as his hands pumped on the spring-loaded handle, the blades chopping repeatedly into the vegetables. "Short, dark fox feet zipping through the park ... Catch any rabbits lately?" He smiled widely at the darker man's glare. "All right, all right, I'll stop. Apologies." He glanced over at the stove, waiting for the water on the back left burner to come to a simmer. One had to be careful with egg flower soup; it was easy to burn.

"Not all of us are built to fly over concrete like overgrown Keebler elves," Jack shot back, straightening his posture and arching his back a bit to crack a couple of stiff spots. "Then again, I'm not always the first to know the weather, so maybe being a beanpole does have its advantages," he smirked. “By the way, what are you doing to those things in the jar?”

“It’s cauliflower,” Will explained, checking the consistency, and he noted Jack’s wrinkled nose. “Oh, stop it. When I’m done, you’ll never know they weren’t potatoes.”

“What’re you planning on doing to them?” He toyed with his beer can before looking back up at Will.

“Well, first I’m mashing them into bits, and then I’ll spice and fry them like you would any hash-browned potatoes. Quite simple, and it fools the brain into thinking you’re eating something unhealthy.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

This was becoming a regular ritual for them, to pick a weekend day to hang out together, either at Will's house or head to some car show or sports bar. Back during the summer, they'd suffered together on the company baseball team, which was no picnic for either one; Jack had a power hit to make the Babe weep, but every time a ball came his way outfield, he invariably ended up with a knot on his head – likewise, Will fielded beautifully, but struck out more often than not. After a few weeks, the two eventually made a habit of splitting an extra large pizza and bitching about Porter Advertising, their shared paycheck hell.

Later that afternoon, Jack conceded the bet; Will was an excellent cook. He did the dishes as penance, while the other man sat and watched, until Will’s attention to detail took over and he relegated Jack to drying and putting away. They'd polished off the six-pack and were starting on Will's longnecks out on the man's back linei when Jack remembered he had to finish a campaign for Monday morning. "Aw, Christ," he muttered aloud. "Damn weekend's shot to hell." He glanced over at Will with a shrug. "Brooks meeting Monday; can't stay as long as usual, apologies."

Will shrugged. "Bugger. Well, I suppose it can't be helped. I need to spend time with Noche anyway; have to get him used to me being around. He has this habit of sitting on my chest and patting all over my face. I think he's trying to figure out why I don't look like his mum." Another laugh, and Will sipped from his bottle. "You know, Jack, you're always complaining about the Pit – why don't you leave? Start up your own place?" ‘The Pit’ was their nickname for the firm, and they joked about being lesser demons taking the punishment for sins committed in a past life.

"You know what kind of money that would take?" Jack rolled the bottle between his palms, dark eyes staring down into the neck without really seeing it. "And how would I live, huh? Until I made back some money, I mean."

"Well, would you rather struggle for a bit for something you'd enjoy doing, or do you want to be the marionette on Manchester's strings the rest of your life?" Will glanced over, then out at the trees behind his home as he thought of Jack’s supervisor. Shaking his head with a sigh, he huffed "You Americans are all talk, you know. No action. I honestly do not know how you made it across the country on your own." His eyes flicked to a neighbor’s home, where the noise of a radio could be heard – a Beatles song, he could tell.

"Buncha British castoffs doing it, that's how!" Jack laughed and tilted his bottle in salute toward Will. "Seriously, that's an awful thing t' say – you know I'm not lazy or unproductive ..." He pulled a small pout at this, now wondering if, in fact, he weren't both of those things.

"Damn straight. You do more of Manchester's work for him than he does himself." He scoffed, raising the bottle to his lips again. The song changed, and he found himself smiling at it. "Don't know how he finds enough hours in the day to take credit for all your ideas.” There was a pause, and Will oriented himself to the music, pinning down the specific song. “Mmm. 'Unrequited love's a bore,'" he hummed along. "'And I've got it pretty bad ...'" He broke off with a laugh at Jack's sudden, odd look. "The Mamas and the Papas." He gestured over to the other unit and the radio in the window. "It's an odd bit of music, but interesting."

"I ever tell you I once met Mama Cass?" Jack set his bottle aside. "Wicked sense of humor. Damn shame." He shook his head mournfully.

"No, you never told me about that one." Will turned to face Jack. "I do know she was strong on the short one – Denny, I think his name is. But she was broken after she found Denny and Michelle together."

Jack tilted his head back. "Never trust a fellow to be faithful," he sighed. "Men are dogs." Then he cracked one eyelid and glanced over at Will, with a smirk. "Except you, O Cat Master."

"I'm British. We have these things called manners – fascinating concept. Manners and self control." He turned at the soft meeping at the screen door to see the kitten with his nose pressed to the screen. "No, little one – you'll get carried off by one of these bloody crows if I let you out. I swear, they’re large as a small village here. Must be all those fast-food scraps they eat."

"Does it have a name?" Jack wanted to know, eyeing the fur bundle. "And if not, what'll you do when it's bigger than your shoes and you can't call it that anymore?"

"Noche," Will pronounced. "He's so black, that I thought it fit. And unless he turns out to be a panther, I think I'll always be bigger than him, Jack." He sighed, leaning his head against the back of the wooden chair. "Oh, bollocks ..." he breathed in the weather, a huff of frustration. “At least it was this nice out today. I don't need a rainstorm with the kitten around."

Jack was still pondering the name, and didn’t hear the rest of Will’s lament. One finger tapped the hollow beneath his plump lower lip. "Means ... 'night,' doesn't it?" Something was lodged in the man's mind now, but he couldn’t bring it to the fore.

"In Spanish, yes," Will confirmed with a nod before getting up and opening the door. “All right, but you’re not getting down,” he warned, scooping up the baby cat and slipping it into his shirt pocket.

II

Jack tilted back in one of the thirty or so random chairs strewn through the empty room and glanced around as he waited for his friend to pour the celebratory wine. "Well ... I did it," he pronounced. For effect, he threw his arms wide toward the dark, dusty room lighted only by sun filtering in through the windows. Empty boxes from their takeout Chinese covered the small, rectangular conference table between them. "It was a library, and now it's ... formless." He leaned his head back and looked around the high-ceilinged room. "And mine." He frowned. "What've I done?"

"You've bucked up the bollocks to start your own business, as you've been grousing about for ice ages," Will replied, pouring the wine. He set the bottle down and picked up his chopsticks, cradling them in long-fingered hands. "You've left Manchester and started your own business." He paused, his brow denting – it sounded odd, referring to his friend's boss with the same name as the large town from his home, as if Jack had just moved to Liverpool or the East End.

"It's a business, Will!" Jack covered his face with his hands, in rather dramatic fashion, and growled past his sun-dappled palms. "It's a fucking, bloody business, and what do I know about running a business?" His dark hair shook, putting Will in mind of rippling on a sunless sea – or nearly sunless, anyway. He could see the streaks of auburn in the thick locks; secret, hidden colors in the depths that one had to actually look for to find.

"That's usually why you have consultants, assistants, and accountants to help you," Will pointed out. "And I'm glad to know you're starting to pick up the Queen's English. In a matter of speaking." His eyes twinkled as Jack glared through dusky fingers at him, and the taller man snagged a broccoli floret with practiced ease. "Mmm, not tandoori, but good nonetheless."

"This is not English your Queen would apply to normal, everyday conversations," Jack pointed out, letting the chair drop to its front legs with a hollow thud ringing through the empty room. Well, not entirely empty – random freestanding bookshelves still sat haphazardly here and there, and there must have been a trillion dust motes zinging around in the air. "Not to mention I have absolutely no idea how to run a bar. Or a book store. Let alone both." He cupped the wineglass beneath the golden liquid, watching it slosh a bit. "What irresponsible, half-assed banker loaned me money, anyway? How old was he, Will – sixteen? Couldn’t have been hatched before nineteen fifty-seven or so."

"Twenty-three, actually. Jack, your credit history's good, you have a good head for what should be done and what shouldn't be ... I'm sure you'll be able to learn how to serve drinks, and I know you can read already. I think you're making too much of this." He took another bite. "Besides, now all you have to worry about is your suppliers, not your boss."

"And my customers," Jack pointed out, reaching for his own box of chow mein, then paused. "But I think they're called patrons, actually. Anyway." He dug into the box after stirring it around, levering a bite to his mouth. Not having eaten since the day before – too nervous – he closed his eyes and made a small moan of pleasure at the food hitting his stomach. Two o'clock was really too late for lunch, at least for his impatient digestive system. "Now, if th' liquor licenses jus' get 'proved," he mouthed around the noodles.

"I don't think you're going to have a problem with that, Jack. Seems they'll give a license to anyone, really. Besides, it's a unique idea; no one automatically thinks of classy drinks in a bookstore. I'm sure it'll go fabulously – and don't eat so fast. You'll get a stomach ache," Will warned, noting the speed at which Jack was noshing.

"I've not eaten for twenty-four hours." Jack pouted, pushing noodles around and staring down into the box, thinking. "You really think it'll do well? You sure you're not just saying that because I'm a friend?"

“All the more reason to go slow. Eat too fast, and your body will reject it. Painfully. I don't need to hold your hair when you're not drunk." He reached out to take a sip of the wine, noting the dust motes floating in the sunbeams. "And secondly, I'm being honest here. Nobody I know of has tried it; I think it's a good idea."

Jack lifted a brow at Will. "Don't remember you ever holding my hair back." And I would've remembered that, I believe. "I've never thrown up from eating too fast, don't worry; really, I can eat all day and do just fine, without ever getting-" He pulled up short, sat the box down hard, and stood, walking past his chair and circling the room, hands on hips, trying to calm his breathing. "Okay ... slow down, slow down," he muttered to himself. "Just a – just a bit of worry. Things'll be fine. You'll make money. You will not end up sleeping under an overpass ..."

Will raised his eyebrows as he nibbled on a strip of beef, then set his chopsticks in the box, standing to cross the floor. He moved in front of Jack, hands on the smaller man's shoulders, a shaft of sunlight in his face, and he could actually feel his pupils contracting from it as he tried to find Jack's eyes in the backlighting. "Jack, you're not going to die of starvation. If, God forbid, things don't work out, you can come stay with me for awhile. But it is going to work out, I promise." Once he’d found the two pools of blackness from the brilliance of the sun, Will held that gaze, trying to ground his friend, even as their footsteps and voices echoed in the empty room.

He cocked his head and tried to give Will a cynical look. It was impossible not to notice how the light sparked the amber in his dark brown eyes, squinting into it but revealing enough color to give Jack pause. The hands on his shoulders were large, warm and strong for a number-cruncher – though that by far only took up as much of the man's time as required to earn a paycheck. Will jogged, boxed, and, while the guys at their office pumped iron at the gym, liked to head out in the field behind his house and chop wood at least twice a week for his fireplace. He remembered Will saying that he’d always had an affinity for flames, and would have been a firefighter if he hadn’t fallen below the minimum weight limit.

I don't need to be thinking about how I'd like to get him into bed, Jack chided himself. Not now. Really, not ever. Will was as straight as an arrow; Nancy in Marketing swore by it, and often, thanks to a brief relationship she'd had with the man last summer. "God, tell me I don't have to sleep with Noche," he bitched instead.

"That's entirely up to him, though I don't know how keen he is to share his bowl. Besides, I know it doesn't look it, but the sofa has a pull-out, so I can actually accommodate a guest if need be." Will turned, slung his arm around Jack's shoulders, and steered him back to the table, blinking to regain his vision after having the sun in his eyes. "Now, I want you to pick up that fork and eat – slowly. You can't work on this place if you pass out from hunger."

Being quiet went against Jack's basic nature, but he allowed Will to guide him to his chair and waited for him to take his seat before picking up the box again and fingering the plastic fork. "What kind of books should I stock, you think?" he asked. "I was thinking modern fiction and maybe biographies of celebrities, or some such thing. And there's all those self-help books coming out every day – can't wander properly through a place without falling over the damn things, these days," he scowled, making his feelings on the topic clear.

"Some people don't want to accept what they are," Will agreed. "They look to anything they can that they think will change them. A small section in the back for that would be okay, and maybe a small classics section – I’ll need something to read while I’m there. Other than that, I think the biographies and current fiction is a good idea." His voice was a hum that soothed even the dust motes into a gentle, falling submission, and Will nibbled more at the contents of his box as he gave Jack the silence in which to think.

"Capital." Jack suddenly straightened in his chair, pointing his fork at Will. "I'm putting you in charge of inventory. Makes the most sense – you're the one who practically lives at the Waldenbooks; you can see what people are reading, buying."

Will choked on a floret and dropped his sticks, coughing. When he regained his air, he looked up, cheeks still flushed. "Jack, I'm your accountant, not your purchasing agent!"

"Don't get your shorts in a knot." Jack waved off his refusal. "I'm not asking you to go buy the bloody things and cart 'em back here. Just take in a notepad or something, write down some titles, what people seem interested in." He paused. "Young people. Like us – who would come to a bar." He grinned. "'Course, we won't turn away the blue-haired grannies who want to show up, eh?" He thought that over. "Hmm ... trannie grannies ..."

Will rolled his eyes. "You make it sound like it's going to be a pickup spot for dirty old women and their young victims," he buzzed. Then, a chuckle. "Okay, I can check the books out; I'm usually looking up the new historicals anyway. Melanie and Rick will be surprised if they see me looking at popular books, though."

"Well, then, set one of your girlfriends to doing it." Jack took a bite of noodles, watching Will as he chewed. "They can read, can't they?"

"I don't have a girl anymore, and thank you for reminding me." Will's reaction was reminiscent of a cat hissing his displeasure, and he stabbed at a floret with his chopsticks. "Janet and I broke up last night. I was trying to not think about it, all right?"

Guilty as he felt, Jack couldn't help but wonder- “Who's Janet?" he asked, the name not ringing any bells. "New?"

Will gave him a deadpan look. "We'd been dating for five months, Jack. It was her cat that had Noche, you know. He was the only one left of the litter, and when I went to pick him up, well, that’s when it really started."

"Oh. Apologies, then." Jack kept eating to cover his embarrassment. Now that he thought about it, he remembered the woman's proper name – he'd always privately referred to her as Mrs. Robinson. The woman had to be close to forty, and anytime Jack had seen Will with her, she draped herself all over her much younger boyfriend as if afraid Jack would carry him away if she didn't. She'd usually given him a narrow-eyed, hard look, too, and Jack had no doubt she'd somehow found a way to divine his thoughts and regarded him as competition. As if. "If you'd been right for each other, it wouldn't have ended," he philosophized, keeping his voice as sympathetic as possible under the circumstances. "She was just looking to get her MRS. Eat your crab Rangoon."

"MRS?" Will asked with a turn of his head.

"M. R. S," Jack repeated. "You know, get married? What they used to say about girls who went to college back in the fifties – they weren't actually looking to learn anything, just snag husbands?" He picked another noodle out of the box. "My uncle used to mention it – how he met my aunt."

"Sounds wretched," Will huffed, biting hard into his beef. "I mean-" swallow – “how can you live your life around another person entirely? It's ridiculous to think that you won't be complete if you don't have someone else there. I like myself just fine; I would simply like to have the companionship of a caring person to enhance my life, not to make it."

"You'll end up with someone, don't worry." It was a familiar refrain, but one Jack believed. Will was really too good a person to go alone for too many more years. "Meanwhile, it's why you have friends. And what you need to distract your mind is work," he nodded. "'S why I'm putting you on merchandise inventory – books, any other little things you can think would fit in well and sell."

"Yes, darling," he drawled with an eye-roll, sarcasm plain. "Anything you say, luv." A snorting laugh took him as he reached out for his wineglass. "Seriously, though, I can check out the bookstore. Besides, I have a baby cat to keep me awake, so I should have time to read a few for review."

"He'll cut that out, once he gets old enough for neutering," Jack predicted.

"I hope so. When he's seven or so months, I'm going to take him in and have them clip him up." Will laughed again. "Little eunuch; maybe he won't want to dash outside so much afterwards. Oh, I've been meaning to ask – what are you going to call the place?"

Jack tapped a tine of his fork against the box lid and shook his head slowly, staring off into space as he thought for the hundredth time on that very subject. "No clue ..."

III

Will flipped the bottle of ketchup, humming to himself as he added a bit extra to the pan; Jack had shown him this thing called the "sloppy joe," and he was experimenting with different spices. He'd only been happy with the special beef he was able to get from the market downtown; Luis carried a leaner cut than he could get at the grocery store, and it was much fresher. He'd already converted Jack to the wonder of cauliflower; now he was working on cultivating the man's taste in broccoli.

The two had gotten to the point where Jack didn't need to knock when he came over anymore. As long as he didn't let the cat zoom out the door, Will was fine with it. He'd had no other companions for about three months, which was all right, he supposed. Noche had been getting cranky when even the mailman passed by, and Will figured it was time to have the poor cat altered, if for nothing but to improve his disposition.

He cast his gaze over the kitten, who was sitting on the island, looking expectantly at his human. "Get down from there," Will scolded, taking a false swipe at the feline with the ketchup bottle. The cat jumped, and Will set the bottle back in the refrigerator before pulling out some cleaning spray and his ever-handy rag, wiping the countertop. He loved his feline, but he wasn't about to eat off a surface where its rear end had rested.

Noting the clock, he saw that it was a quarter to three – fifteen minutes before Jack was supposed to arrive, and probably forty-five before he actually made it, knowing the man's penchant for showing up "fashionably late." Setting the cleaning supplies out of the way, he reduced the heat under the meat to a slow simmer, and slid across the stone tile of the floor to the small cassette player he kept in a corner. He ejected, then flipped the tape, and hit Play.

A smile spread over his face as the sonorous tones of Placido Domingo echoed in the tiled room. He recognized the song and found himself singing along to the Spanish rumba, harmonizing with the tenor, Will's own alto voice weaving around the recording and adding a drop of sweet honey to the heat coming from the speakers.

Jack checked the clock set into his sedan's paneled dashboard as he killed the engine. Two-fifty-five. He grinned, grabbing the fifths of rum and bourbon from the passenger's seat; Will was going to be well and truly shocked to see him this early. He supposed he could have his friend over to his place more often on their weekends, but the truth was that he liked the man's cooking and figured the chef would be more comfortable in his own kitchen rather than putting around a strange room. Then again, strange was a relative term, since Jack's stucco house wasn't all that large and Will had been there enough not to feel like an intruder or guest anymore.

At least this is what Jack hoped. He'd spent a great deal of time cultivating this friendship – he hadn't had many with other men; women were much easier because he was less inclined to want to sleep with them – and he didn't want Will ever feeling left out of his life. He'd like, as a point of fact, to include Will more in his life, but knew the man's penchant for heterosexuality and had since they met right out of college.

Didn't mean he couldn't dream.

Checking first for the cat through the screen door, Jack quickly let himself in and pulled it shut in case the little demon showed up out of nowhere and bolted for the steps. Music was already going, the scents of perking sauce and rich butter wafted to him, and Jack was struck by how much this place felt like home. Heading down the hallway, he paused in the entry to the living room, trying for a moment to process the vision of the lanky man sliding gracefully across the hardwood floor in his sock feet, his back to the entryway, executing a complicated dance rhythm as his clear, loud voice harmonized with the radio. Jack leaned against the door frame, letting his dark eyes follow that body, one corner of his mouth uplifted in both appreciation for the humor of the moment – if Will knew he was there, he'd probably smack him for watching and not announcing himself – and in admiration for the sensuous, fluid ease with which the man danced.

Will wasn't as limber as he'd been in college. He didn't have the same rigorous physical regimen as he once did; he swam three times a week and walked the cat through the park in the evenings – usually spending ten minutes getting the cat down from a tree if he held the lead too loosely. The music changed, a softer song, and he shook his head, chuckling to himself as he padded into the kitchen to check the meat again, stirring to keep it from boiling, and then checked the broccoli, heading over to the fridge for half a lemon.

He caught Jack's shape out of the corner of his eye, and turned to face him, a puzzled expression on his face. Will then looked pointedly at his watch, then up at Jack. "All right, what pod did you crawl from, and what did you do with my Jack?"

Your Jack?" he asked, quirking a brow and swinging the arm holding the liquor. “Only belong to myself, you know.”

"Well, there are so many in the world, I have to tell you apart somehow, don't I?" Will replied, with an answering quirk before finishing his trek for lemon. He passed the player on the way back and turned down the volume to a nice background level. "I just figured that since you're early, space aliens must have invaded or something.” He squeezed juice until it beaded against the butter, and nabbed his wooden stirring stick to mix the concoction. "So, do you regret giving up your ‘grease boy’ burgers, or whatever, on the weekends?" he tossed over his shoulder, checking the potatoes next. They were just about ready for the cheese to be melted in, he decided.

"Fat Boy burgers," Jack corrected, setting the liquor on the island. He made a show of visibly sniffing the air, then sighed as if put out. "Oh, I don't know ... sacrificing haute cuisine like that for this-" He sniffed again. "Questionable fare?" His wolfish smile told Will his real answer.

"Well, I'm only British," Will parried, pulling out a couple of glass tumblers and handing them to Jack. "Not like we're the experts on much of anything, except how to be stuck up. Only reason I know how to do all this is I was put in one of the other houses at Oxford, and there were actual interesting people there ... people from other countries who had personalities. Was fascinating study." He palmed a block of cheddar and a cheese grater to carve it for the potatoes.

Twisting his body to slide around the island, Jack meandered over next to Will and watched him grate, reaching out every so often to catch a few shreds and poke them in his mouth. "Mmm, sharp," he approved, nodding. "'S hard to make this kind without burning the ‘taters doing it – how do you manage?"

"Well," the younger man admitted sheepishly, "I use probably more sour cream than is healthy, but it makes things blend well and taste better. It’s just potato flakes, milk and butter, then enough sour cream so you can’t even taste the starch. Then you add the cheese." He tipped his head and examined his friend, and the mischievous twinkle in the dark eyes brought a smile to his face. "You know, if you're going to be over here, you can stir the meat while I'm doing this." He gave Jack a small bump with the side of his hip and indicated the frying pan with a toss of his dark curls. "Not like you help out much, anyway – though after the incident with the salt, I'm keeping you strictly on stirring duty."

Keeping a death-glare trained on the back of Will's head, Jack moved around him to the other side, taking up the wooden spoon and stabbing at the mounds of spiced beef a few times before getting underneath and stirring it from the bottom. Mostly, he was grateful to spend time with Will. Not working with the man anymore, he saw less of him, but Will made it up by coming by Libra Noche at least one night during the week, in addition to their weekend time.

Jack had settled on the name of his establishment two weeks before opening, as the sign company had been breathing down his neck to bloody well come up with something or he'd be headlining a no-name weird place, instead of just an oddball business. Libra Noche, true to its humble past, housed books as a respectable store, but also incorporated a bar and dance floor which rendered it something of a pseudo-nightclub. It was during the days, like this, Jack had the best chance of getting away from the place and leaving it to his clerks. "So, how's corporate slavery these days?" he wondered, tasting the mixture he was stirring.

"I am getting so angry with Rasmussen that I'm about ready to knock his bleeding block off," Will replied, half-seething, half-sighing. "I'm considering just punching him in the nose the next time he tells me to ‘Think American.’ And I thought the British had a high opinion of themselves." He swallowed the anger and kept grating, stirring every so often when the potatoes made soft blupping noises. He reduced the heat a bit, and looked over at Jack. "Could you be a dear and pull some of the milk out, give a splash of it into the pot? They're getting a bit thick."

Fetching the milk from the refrigerator, Jack chuckled, unscrewing the plastic cap and toting it back to the stove. "Be a dear? Y' know, sometimes I have to wonder which one of us is the homo, here." He poured a little, then stopped, glancing at Will. "Well, say when, already."

"A bit more," Will instructed. "There, that's enough." He picked up the spoon again and stirred in the milk, his jaw grinding with minute motions before he spoke. "Do not blame me if your homosexual community has picked up the Queen's English as preferred parlance." He blended the ingredients, pausing to grate more cheese. "And anyway, I remember Laurence flitting around the cafeteria, draping himself all over half the students' laps. Didn't bother me then; he was a nice enough bloke."

"He ever drape himself in your lap?" Jack asked, setting the milk aside in case it was still needed. "And who the hell is Laurence?"

"He did once on Halloween ... pouted at me for not having much more of an outward reaction than ‘Laur, you're blocking my book.’ He was the house poof, as he often called himself. He liked chaps more than birds, and wasn't ashamed of it." Will shrugged, and lifted the lid on the broccoli to give them a quick poke.

"Birds ... women?" Jack guessed, going back to his stirring-tasting.

"You're catching on," Will encouraged. "And if you keep nibbling like that, there won't be enough left for dinner." He set the grater in the sink and returned the cheese to the icebox. "Yes, he kept trying to tell me that I should go with him to the West End sometime, but he was almost afraid to take me for fear I'd be bent over a rubbish bin before I knew where I was." Will laughed, rolling his eyes, pulling the hamburger buns from the cupboard. "I still say he was mad."

For wanting to have his way with you up against a trash bin? Jack wondered. Sounds that way; I'd rather have you in my bed. Or yours, either way. "You know, mate, Rasmussen has a bit of a point – it is an American company, after all," he pointed out, turning down the heat under the beef until the blue flame was extinguished. "You done what I told you? Looked around for something else? Lord knows you're qualified enough."

"Only thing I could do is freelancing, really," he sighed. "All right, I want you to take at least four florets. You liked the cauliflower well enough," Will reminded him. He leaned against the counter as Jack filled his plate, and a sigh flared from the broad nose. "One of the chaps from the flower shop down the street from Libra asked if I'd be willing to help them out, and I said I'd think about it, but it would be a bit hard to work on just that account, really."

Jack turned a bit clockwise, giving Will a dry, unamused look. "I've asked you more than once if you'd be willing to spend more time on Libra's books," he corrected, then gave his attention once more to the skillet of meat. "Said you hadn't the time for it."

Will sighed. "I might as well. I'm growing to loathe that place – work, not the shop – with a passion, really. I rather feel like flying a Jolly Roger and going at them with a blade. Seems it’d be much more satisfying to do that than just quit, but I have no desire to be arrested for murder."

"Yes, Laurence wouldn't be the only one trying to bend you over a multitude of landmarks, then," Jack pointed out, fixing his sandwich and spooning some potatoes onto his plate. "Mix me a Morgan and Coke, eh?"

"You and your rum." Another roll of the eyes, and Will reached for one of the glasses he'd pulled out earlier, carrying it to the refrigerator to pull out a can of the soda, and a bottle of root beer for himself. "You make it sound like my ass is routinely considered for plunder. What, do I have a sign on my bum that says 'raid me' or something?" His soft British accent still purred the words, rolling from him with warm honey.

"If you're determined to wander around talking like Captain Hook, it's no wonder your booty'd be seen as such prime property." Jack turned to lean against the counter and began stabbing at a broccoli floret as he watched Will mix his drink. "So when're you handing in your resignation, then?"

"I don't know. Probably Wednesday or so. Give me time to check with the other shop, see if they know of anyone else who could use some additional help." Will shrugged, and set the drink down before heading over to fill his own plate and snuff out any burners still going. "I do admit, it is a liberating feeling, deciding to give Rasmussen the finger – metaphorically speaking – and leave."

Crunching down the vegetable, Jack was impressed with the flavor infused through it. "All else fails," he spoke, swallowing, "you can always come live with me. Always did want my own personal chef." Something wound around his ankles, and he lifted his plate, glancing down to find the cat leaned back on its haunches, clearly begging with large, round eyes. "And doorstop," he added under his breath.

IV

Muttering, Jack circled the room again, from one end of the wide wooden bar to the other, hands on his hips. He had no idea what he ought to do, legally – informally, he had a pretty good notion. He suspected who did this and was reasonably certain he was right; question was, how to go about cornering the bastard and making him sorry to ever attempt it again?

The creak of the doors brought him up short, made him spin to see Will coming in bearing two boxes for their lunch. They'd intended to spend the afternoon getting receipts tallied for tax deductions so Will could get the forms filed before April. Will knew nothing of what had happened, and Jack had only discovered the vandalism upon his arrival half an hour ago. The CPA looked around, obviously puzzled, then turned his attention to Jack.

"It's Barbossa," Jack growled, referring to a rival bookstore owner five blocks over. "Bastard had someone break in last night."

"Are you certain?" Will asked, setting the takeout boxes on the table. He un-shouldered his satchel and put it by the chair, noting the waves of anger rolling off his friend. "How do you know it was him? What did he take?"

"You mean aside from the fact his goons came by last week and threatened to be back and do as much?" Jack closed his eyes, shaking his head; he didn't mean to snap at Will. "Nothing was taken. I wouldn't have even known anyone was here, probably, were it not for the broken lock on the back door-" He paused and nodded back toward the storeroom, which was not visible from their position. "And the books on the counter."

He motioned Will closer; he'd left the volumes just as he'd found them, lined up: Puzo's "The Godfather," Machiavelli's "The Prince," Shakespeare's "Macbeth," and, most curiously, Melville's "Moby Dick." "These are all about revenge and plotting," he explained, "if I remember my classes well enough." Jack had the grace to look sheepish. "Didn't much like lit classes." Then he shrugged. "Who else would take the time not to steal anything of value except my sense of security, and go to the trouble of leaving such a ... message?"

"Then the best thing to do is go to the police, not jump in the man's face and break his nose. Explain to them all the things you've told to me, and give them a bit on your history with the bastard. And don't touch the books – they can be dusted for prints, provided the goons were stupid enough to not wear gloves."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Will, Will ... these are professionals we're dealing with. The cops aren't going to do a thing about it – you know as well as I do. They've enough to keep up with." He grinned madly. "I have a better idea."

"Jack," Will warned, eyes boring into the older man, "this is no time for one of your plots. If you do something to retaliate, and then he goes to the police, you haven't a leg to stand on. There will be no record of a report or complaint, and no proof that he was the one to make the first move!"

"Not planning to do a thing that'll get me in trouble, mate." Jack shook his head. "We simply spread the word that we're upping our campaign against the old goat’s book store, and then sit back – or rather, sit in here until we catch one of the heavies trying to get in again to leave us another 'message.'" He indicated quote marks in the air and rolled his eyes, then, recognizing the boxes for the first time, he nodded toward the small table on which Will had deposited them. "What'd you bring today?"

"My version of your grease burgers," Will replied. "Chicken tandoori. Found a wonderful Indian restaurant a few miles down the way, and it makes the most wonderful curry. It's like a taste of home, with enough cholesterol to give a heart attack. Oh, mind the spices. It's a bit hot." Truth be told, he could handle quite a bit of spice, having grown up with it, and found American food a bit bland for his taste.

"Dish it up." Jack turned one of the cafe chairs backwards and dragged it against the table, straddling it and resting his arms on the table, watching Will. "What's in that stuff, anyhow?"

"Oh, curry roots, inner tree barks, things that come from nature that people do not want to know about these days. They prefer to think of things as coming from the market in neatly-wrapped containers." Will checked the contents of the boxes, and pushed the lighter-colored one toward Jack. "Here, that's the mild one. And milk ... you'll need that. Alcohol will only worsen the burn. Milk soothes it."

Five minutes into his meal, Jack forked another piece of chicken and wolfed it down as he watched Will expertly twirl chopsticks into his rice and vegetables. "Never could figure out how to use those things," he nodded toward the slender sticks of wood.

"Not really that hard. Just have to know how to move your fingers right. Shall I show you?" he offered, looking over at Jack with an ingenuous expression.

"You can try." Jack shrugged. "I feel compelled to warn you my dexterity with chopsticks is kind of like Noche's with the top of the TV set." The year-old tom had a tendency to climb the sofa, take a flying leap toward the top of the set, and skid right off the other side, unable to get a hold or stop in time.

Will chuckled. "I’m considering tacking a swath of carpeting to the top for him, and really, chopsticks aren’t that hard." He moved around beside Jack, reaching out to orient the sticks in the man's hand before sliding behind him and wrapping his hand around his friend’s. "Now, see, it's like this ... your thumb and forefinger hold this one, while your middle and ring finger hold onto this one. You use the fleshy part of your hand here to move them." He used his own long fingers over Jack's more delicate ones to show the correct motion and pressure. "Then, it's just a matter of down into the box, get a good grip on a piece, and back up." He guided the bit of meat into his own mouth and smiled at his friend, who was looking at him with dilated eyes. He repeated the motion silently, and helped Jack guide the morsel into his own mouth. "See? Not that hard now, is it?"

Remembering to chew just before the meat could slide whole down his throat, a distracted Jack shook his head to clear the lustful haze settling behind his eyes. He didn't want to resist that warm body or those clever hands, yet he had to for the sake of their friendship. Still, for the moment ... "Let's try that one more time, eh?" he asked, tilting his head back to look back up at Will after swallowing his food, a gleam in his eyes he was fairly certain Will wouldn't understand. "Need another practice go."

Will shrugged and slid his hand over Jack's again, leaning down to rest his chin on Jack's shoulder, fitting fingers into place. "All right, see how they lock into each other here?" he asked, guiding Jack's hands through the motions of picking something up. "This is where you control it, right where they come together." He moved his hand down again, guiding Jack to pick up the morsel and bring it up. "Not difficult."

Jack craned his neck forward to nab the pepper before it could slip from the sticks, biting down into it and encountering hot seeds. "Ho-oh!" he vocalized, shutting his eyes briefly on the spiciness of it; he coughed a bit, then started laughing when he heard Will chuckle, straightening up and moving back to his side of the table. "I thought you said this was the mild one!" Jack chastised, lifting his brows at the contrite Brit. Or was he that sorry?

"Drink the milk. It'll cut the burn. And that is the mild one. If you think you can handle the hot one, take a bite of mine." He returned to his seat, watching one of Jack's hands flit at his side as he quaffed the milk.

Jack was actually fanning to keep from spitting the milk he'd just gulped. "Handling a hot one" and "taking a bite" were not exactly what he needed to hear from this man at this particular moment – not after the back-to-chest moment they'd just shared. Not if he wanted to keep Will as a friend and accountant. "Nah," he shook his head, changing the subject. "How's business? You haven't been coming 'round as much – new clients?"

"No, not really. I usually just spend time with He Who Demandeth Attention, and keep him off my papers. I really just have you and the flower shop for my clients – between the two of you and a few others here and there, I'm paid pretty well. It's not like I have an office to go to aside from that booth in the Libra, really, and it keeps the cat happy." He pushed his food around a bit, not looking up.

Glancing up at the tone in his friend's voice, Jack furrowed his brow, then smoothed it before Will could look up and catch the worried expression. "But, lots of dates, right? Surely that takes up your time, too." Jack usually felt unaccountably better when Will had a steady girlfriend, since it meant he could watch from afar and was much less likely to be noticed doing so. It also reinforced the notion he didn't have a chance with Will, and more than anything Jack needed to remind himself there was a good reason he'd never made a pass at the man.

"Not really, no. And the few I've taken out – there's just no connection." He sighed, wondering what was wrong with him. Of late, he'd been finding more solace in his friend's dark eyes than in those of the women who gazed at him.

"Could be as simple as you need to meet some new women." Jack gave up trying to get a piece of chicken to his mouth and, fisting one chopstick, stabbed it, feeling an unreasonable triumph over the morsel. "You ever tried one of those new dating services?"

His nose wrinkled, and he shook his head. "Nah, not for me. Too impersonal." Will chuckled, looking back up at his friend. "Could always join your ranks, I suppose. Think they'd mind?" His tone was light and joking, but something in his statement struck a little too strong for his comfort. He pushed it away with a thought, taking note of Jack's pause in the middle of yanking the meatball off his chopstick.

"You kidding?" Jack shook his head. "Bunch of old leches'd gang up on your ass, more likely." He glanced up, lifting his eyebrows in meaningful expression. "Quite literally. You'd be safer waiting a few years – chickenhawks don't want 'em over about twenty-nine."

Will turned his head as if glancing down at his rear end. "Not really all that fancy." He shrugged, going back to his food. "Well, it's nothing for you to worry about, Jack. I'm not going to run off with some old goat just to get his money." The ridiculousness of that thought brought another laugh to his face, and a wide smile. "Besides, they'd probably figure out that I have a trained attack cat, and run away from me."

"Um ... yeah," Jack agreed, nodding with his "humor the boy" expression. "And what a fierce creature that Noche is – if an intruder's not careful, it just might dash out the door across his foot, scuffing his shoe fatally."

Will dropped his chopsticks completely at that, laughing long and hard, his face lighting up to rival the sun. "Either that, or the lump would flop down on the shoes and embed fur so far in them that the leather looks alive," he managed through his laughter.

"Or just loll there on his back refusing to move until he's properly worshipped," Jack put in. "An intruder too stupid to comply would still be there when the cops showed up."

"Now, why can't I have fun like this on my dates, eh?" Will wondered aloud, wiping tears from his eyes. "Someone who knows how to actually be human instead of some sort of porcelain doll that has to be handled with care for fear of breaking." He took a breath and nibbled on his tandoori again, reaching for his milk with an automatic motion.

"I'm telling you, a dating service is the ticket." Jack pointed the slender tip of a chopstick at the man. "You can order up crazy, short, strange women there, I'm sure."

"No, no, no," Will deferred. "No. I think I'll take my chances with what I can find at hand."

"Well, there's a ringing endorsement of the greater San Diego female dating pool." Jack lifted his milk glass and waited for Will to clink. "Cheers!"

V

Will grumbled to himself and ordered another soda. After this, he might even get something alcoholic. That had been a complete and utter disaster from start to finish, and just thinking about the afternoon’s date made him shudder. Loud, foul-mouthed, vituperous… not what he’d been looking for at all. He'd escaped into the Libra Noche on pretense of having to get some extra work done, and now he was eyeing both the pool table and the dartboard and wishing Jack were here to talk to so he wouldn't have to run the risk of destroying property.

By his posture, the man looked absolutely miserable. Even from his office, Jack could see Will slumping at the bar, not bothering to sit but instead leaning, one foot braced back further than the other. A moment to admire the way his ass muscles clenched, then Jack walked out, up beside Will, and pointedly eyed his soda before glancing up into the man's murderous face. "Amber?" he called to the bartender, raising a hand behind Will and above his head, pointing down at the man. "Brandy, neat. Don't be stingy."

"I don't need it. I've ordered a soda-" Will turned to face Jack, and caught sight of the man behind his boss. Oh, it's Adonis. Well, isn't Jack the little Ganymede to be snatched up by some peroxide Zeus ... Git. "Don't tell me you've given up a night’s worth of dancing and ass-grabbing to check on your assistant," Will grated. "I'm sure Amber can handle herself just fine."

Jack wasn't sure how he felt about snark on Will – not that it wasn't attractive in its own fashion, but it wasn't a look the accountant should wear often. "Will," he began pleasantly, trying to keep the peace as he turned partway back toward his date, "this is Ross. Ross, Will – my CPA and bookkeeper." He noticed neither moved to shake hands. Leaning closer to Will, Jack lowered his voice. "What's the problem?"

"It's nothing, Jack. Just go on and have fun tonight." He picked up the glass of soda and brought it to his lips. "Lord knows, one of us should have a life at five o’clock on the weekend." He took a large drink, and just managed to get it down without coughing before glaring at the bartender. "I asked specifically for no vodka in this."

Cutting his eyes to Amber, who lifted her brows briefly, Jack could almost read her mind. Okay, I fudged. But he's had it before. It's his usual standby when he orders alcohol, and he looks like he's had a shitty night. Jack nodded imperceptibly in agreement and, aloud, reminded her of the brandy. The bar phone rang and she swooped it up with a curt greeting, nodded a few times, then looked significantly toward Jack, tapping the receiver with a long fingernail. "I'll be right back," he touched Will on the shoulder, raising his voice above the music. "Gonna take that in the office, where I can actually hear conversation."

After he moved off, Ross stood to the side several seconds, then moved close enough to rest a muscular forearm on the bar, facing Will. "So, his bookkeeper, huh? How long you done that?"

Something about this man set Will's nerves on edge. He's too bloody perfect ... the bleached hair, the capped teeth, the false smile and Altoid-breath ... ugh. He covered it under the veneer of his politeness and looked up, thinking. "Bit over a year now, actually. Jack and I get on quite well." Where had that come from?

"I'm sure you do," Ross returned coolly, diverting his glance to Amber for a silent drink order, then backing it up with a sexy smile. "Known each other for a long time?"

"Sometimes, it seems interminable," Will snorted without mirth as he took another sip. "Close on five years. Worked together for a long time." His brown eyes were icy, the layer of manners wearing thinner with each moment the blond tart opened his mouth to speak in that overly-phony accent.

"So ..." Ross drummed his fingers, awaiting his drink, eyes intent on Will, trace of a smirk on his lips. "Who worked under who?"

"We worked in different departments, actually. I was in finance, and Jack was in advertising." The Brit shrugged, signaling Amber for a bottle of root beer, followed by a strong glare to indicate he wanted the bottle unopened. "Technically, I suppose Jack had more seniority than I; he was an intern there in college, and I didn't come on until a couple years later."

"Makes sense, actually." Ross was now making no effort to hide his attitude. "Him over you, and all. You're not quite ... capable-looking, to be the one on top."

"Oh, I'm quite stronger than I look, and more dexterous, too. I've won many wrestling matches; was top of the league at catch-as-catch-can back home." He carefully avoided rising to the taunts; he'd never been under or over his companion in a physical sense, but he wasn't about to tell it to this prick. Will reached for the unopened bottle, set the edge of the lid against the counter, and gave it a sturdy smack to loosen the metal.

"Uh huh." Nobody had probably ever accused Ross of subtlety or particularly endearing manners – he was likely a good fuck, though, and exceptionally gorgeous, which probably served him well in life. "Yes, I can sure see you doing just everything through brute force."

Will set his drink down on the counter with a thud. "If you have something to say, chap, I'd appreciate it very much if you'd stop these allegations, because frankly, you're not that good at them. If you're looking for me to bend you over the bar and shaft you, you're looking in the wrong place. I prefer my dates with a bit less Clorox, as it hasn't bleached their brains out and let them leak through their ears yet." His eyes were sparking kinetic heat; this man had really tapped into his anger – and his vocabulary.

"If you're attempting to incite my interest through the use of inflammatory adjectives and have me on my knees to you one way or the other, again, you can forget it. I don't jump into fornications with some common tart just come in off the street. However, if you're merely looking to challenge me in a pathetic attempt to assert your ego, we have a pool table and a dartboard, from which you may choose. I can play either." He ended with a graceful gesture that encompassed both the green-felt tables and the pockmarked boards, offering the challenger his choice of venue.

Ross was temporarily taken aback, but lifted a well-groomed eyebrow at the other man. "What, and the winner gets Jack – is that it?" he baited.

"That wasn't quite what I had in mind, no. I'm sure Jack's a big boy and can handle himself or anyone else he chooses. This would be between you and me. The winner simply has the satisfaction of knowing he's the better player." Will paused, sliding his eyes back over to the blond with a decidedly dangerous glint. "Or, are you unaccustomed to having someone not provide you with everything you need?"

"Well, somebody here isn't getting what he needs," the blond observed cryptically, shoving his way around Will toward the pool table.

Two minutes later, Will fed coins into the slot and heard the clattering of balls in the tray. He corralled the wayward spheres, setting them up neatly, rearranging their order until they were in their precise spots. Removing the triangular rack, he headed back to replace it while pulling his keying from a pocket. There was a thin, but long, locked panel on the wall, and he opened it to reveal about four cues, reaching in to select the lightest one. He closed the panel again, locking it with the same deliberate precision before nabbing a block of cue chalk.

Ross chuckled at Will's foray into the secret wall. "Possessive, aren't you?" he remarked, waiting for the break. “All ‘this is my place and I know all the nooks and crannies like no one else.’”

"Every employee has his or her own personal cue." Will chalked the tip and strode to the end of the table to take aim at the cue ball. "It's important to have a cue made of softwood, like this pine. Hardwood doesn't dampen the force enough, and has the tendency to split the cue ball if used too hard or by inexperienced hands." A thunk, followed by several clacks, and two of the balls clonked neatly into the pockets. Will raised his eyebrows in appraisal. "Hmm. Solids."

For the next ten minutes, the men took turns. When Jack emerged from his office, blinking to adjust to the lower light and spotted the men, his immediate reaction was to turn and duck right back inside. Will’s demeanor made it clear he cared not one whit for Ross. Jack wasn't sure what set his friend off about the guy. He knew Ross was no brain trust, but he'd dated and fucked bits of mind fluff for years with little commentary from the Turner peanut gallery. Not like he has an investment in dating me, Jack frowned to himself, a bit pissed at the men's terse, jerky game. Great – now neither of them's paying me any attention.

Will's eye happened on Jack glinting in the dull light. He shot the shop owner an odd glance and beckoned him over before bending to take his next shot. He looked up at the snort from his opponent, and those thick lips curled in a feral grin before he struck the ball. It bounced, pushing one of Adonis's striped balls out of clear line for sinking and knocked into one of Will's own solids, pushing it to the edge. It hovered, teetering, before it fell. The Brit felt himself straightening, a self-satisfied set to his jaw as a note of triumph touched his eyes. "Right then." Infused in that tone was all the smug that Will kept bottled tightly inside, and he watched Jack rejoin them, a wary look on those fox-like features.

Glancing slowly between the two, Jack was silent a moment. Then: "Friendly game of balls?" He lingered on the last word deliberately, wondering what had raised Will's hackles tonight. Ross, he could understand feeling a bit ... proprietary; Will simply had no reason, for his relationship was not the same. "Who's winning?"

Will merely raised an eyebrow, lips quirking as he moved over to the cue ball. Even with a ricochet shot, the best he could do was set up his following one, providing his opponent didn't find some way to muff it. "Poor chap needs a bit of work, I'm afraid," Will noised, stepping back. "Mathematical skills aren't quite up to par."

"Oh, you're right, I expect," Ross agreed amenably enough now that Jack was back, as he approached the table and found his shot, speaking without looking up at his opponent. "Then again, some of us don't spend our days bending and tweaking numbers, with nothing more exciting to do."

"Numbers are exciting, though, really," Will opined. "Everything we do is measured by numbers. From the pounds and pence that make up the commerce of our lives, to the fluttering pulse of our beating hearts ... even brainpower is measured in numbers, the measurable amount of electricity firing in the motor-neural cortices. It's all very evocative, when it gets right down to it."

Leaning against the nearby wall, arms crossed, Jack twitched. The corner of his lips lifted in ironic humor as he thought yet again how he'd chosen Ross – and Giorgio, and Stan, and Paul, and many of the others – precisely so they wouldn't remind him of Will. He couldn't have who he wanted, so he reasoned it was better to admire the original from a distance and make every effort to avoid duplicating him in some way. He'd been nineteen when he'd fallen in love for the first time, with a straight classmate. Knowing he couldn't have the guy, Jack had instead gone out with someone else who reminded him uncannily of the man and had ended up too disappointed to date for a year. So far, taking the opposite tack had worked like a charm.

Will's focus was narrow – sink his remaining two solids before Adonis could finish his remaining five. Not that hard- Oh, now what was this? Spotting a possible coup, Will took a long pause before lining up his next shot. He didn't favor subversion, true, but he was not unwise to its tactics.

Switching hands – as it was either shoot southpaw or behind his back, and Will didn't want to be accused of showing off – he took another moment to make sure it would work. He held his breath and gave the cue ball a nudge, watching as it clacked against his own, putting it just at the edge of a pocket .... and rolling the 8-ball right into the path of Adonis's next shot. Will clenched his teeth hard as he straightened, tossing his mahogany locks with the smallest of moves, his muscles quivering with an unexpressed victory jig – years of British repression had helped Will master the self-control to rein himself in and merely arch an eyebrow at his "luck."

Jack snickered, quickly covering it with a cough, then a larger one to warrant a self-whacking on the chest. He ignored the glare Ross shot his way and managed to calm himself as the man approached the table. He couldn't help glancing Will's way when he looked up from admiring the blond's ass, and the Brit quietly arched his brow again; Jack closed his eyes and started chuckling to himself, shaking his head. It wasn't his fault the whole damn thing really was funny.

Will watched the man intentionally muff his shot – and sink Will's teetering ball in the process. "Oh, bad luck, old chap," Will hummed as he glided past the blond and proceeded to sink his last ball, then the eight ball, nicely knocking away Ross's in the process. Brushing away a noisy fly, he thought to himself. "Well, good game, though. Very nice competition." If you can call it that. The Brit gave his cue a spin, and took it back to the hidden panel. "Well, lads, drinks on me, I suppose."

Ross sidled up to Jack as Will strode toward the bar. "I believe he's straight about like I believe you and that Barbossa are best buddies," he muttered over the din of music. "That was to impress you and knock me back on my ass-" Here, Ross held up a forefinger, shaking it. "And don't deny it!"

Jack only grinned, eyes still on his friend's back until Ross finished. He cast a sideways glance up at his date and shrugged. "Oh, I don't know," he mused. "I really think it was just to make you look bad. Will's that way sometimes."

"He obviously thinks you like that sort of thing."

The grin never left Jack's face. He may be right.

VI

Will exited the bus and stepped to the curb, looking about before starting the short walk to his home. He refused to drive home after consuming so much alcohol at the book bar, and knew Jack wouldn’t care if he locked up his Jeep and left it in the back parking lot overnight again.

He was a bit tipsy, but not falling over, and he felt just steady enough to keep the world from spinning as his shoes moved over the pavement in smooth strides. As he neared his house, he could hear the loud meowing of his four-footed companion – the two-year-old had ears like radar, and could pick up Will’s car engine or footfalls out of the thousands that passed every day.

“Mrow! Mrow! Mrow!” The cat’s voice was loud and clear as Will fiddled with the lock on the door, and he opened it a crack to find a small, black nose trying to shove its way out. Hoping his coordination would still serve, he allowed the door open a bit more and crouched to snag the animal’s chest harness. His fingers were able to grasp the loop as Noche tried to dash by, and he swung the feline up to cradle in his other arm, automatically holding by putting the tail down and providing a nest for the cat.

“Got you,” Will hummed with triumph, kicking the door shut. He felt the slight dig of claws and set his pet down, watching the cat run halfway to the kitchen before pausing to look back with more meowing.

“Oh, yes, woe is thee, thee of the underfilled food dish – or have you been playing kibble rugby all over my nice, clean floor again?” Will toed off his shoes by the door, and moved over the thick carpet to follow. He was still a bit vexed by his encounter at the club a full four weeks prior, and had taken to imbibing more heavily on Friday afternoons to see if he could bring some free-associated clarity to the general haze of unsettlement he’d been feeling since then. It hadn’t worked; it just served to make him sleepy. Sleepy, rather like he was now. His cat was still meowing monotonously, and Will shuffled to the cupboard for Noche’s food, then to fill the bowl, yawning.

“Dammit … I need a nap,” Will mumbled, heading for the living room. He eyed his overstuffed burgundy sofa, and it looked so inviting … “I’ll take a nap, then get up later and go to bed.” It didn’t make sense, yet it seemed to work, and he nabbed one of the suede cushions for a pillow. He drew the afghan off the back in a haphazard pull, batting and kicking it into place with jerky, half-completed motions until he felt covered. He was fairly sure in a few minutes, when he was asleep, he’d feel the wriggle of an indignant cat who discovered that Will had created an “under” without announcing it for immediate occupation – Noche loved being under blankets.

He felt sleep, and didn’t fight it. He was warm and comfortable, and all he needed to make it perfect was a little fox-like body curled up beside him. A nice, warm fox, with a big, swishy tail and twitchy little whiskers, and short little fox feet …

Will watched Jack lean against the window, looking lost as the rain sluiced over everything. “Oh, come on, Jack. Just because we can’t go to the beach doesn’t mean we’re forced into mope mode. I still have some pasta primavera in the refrigerator, and potato salad – we can have a stay-inside picnic.”

“But, there’s no sun,” Jack huffed, turning to face Will before glancing down at the lump of black fur snoozing happily away in the new, larger clay dish Jack had crafted for the purpose. “Does he always sleep like that?”

Will followed the glance and smiled. “He doesn’t like rain any more than you do, so he chooses to sleep through the whole thing.” He picked up the glass bottle and took a sip, the thick flavor of root beer rolling down his throat. “If I didn’t like it so much, I'd probably do the same.”

“I’ve never understood that about you,” said the darker man. “What the hell do you see in it, anyway? It’s dark, dreary ... and wet.”

Will shrugged. “Mystery? Beauty? I enjoy the sound of the rain hitting the roof. It’s soothing, really. Just close your eyes and listen to it.” He paused, taking note of Jack’s odd expression. “Go on, close them. That’s it.” Will got up from the sofa and padded over to where his friend was standing. “Now, just listen. Listen to the shwush of it bouncing off the street. Feel the thudding as it patters on the roof.” He was quiet for a time, as Jack obviously began listening for those very sounds.

“Almost like a heartbeat, but not,” Jack finally observed. “It seems to have some sort of rhythm, but just when I think I can figure it out, it changes. I can’t …”

“Shh,” Will quieted. “It’s supposed to do that. You can’t ever figure everything out at once. It’d take all the fun out of life. Just keep listening.” He watched the dusky man carefully, noting the crease of his brow that smoothed over the minutes ticking away in the background. “Eventually, if you listen long enough, it kind of fills you from the inside out.” His voice was a low purr that curled into Jack’s ears. He could feel the rain inside his own head, but he’d always listened for it, always felt it. A soft rain didn’t activate him in the same way a thunderstorm did. A soft rain always made him think of cleansing, of washing sins away to start life over again.

“How are you doing this?” Jack’s eyes were dark as he opened them, looking into Will’s beside him. “How did you-”

Will smiled and stepped away from the window, heading for the cassette player. He turned it on, giving Jack something else to focus on beside his new awareness of the universe around him. “I didn’t do anything. It just takes knowing how to stop buzzing for a moment and really
listen.”

“I don’t like having to slow down. It lets me remember what I’ve missed.” The melancholy in the slightly older man’s voice was audible, and his eyes were fixed on the small player. He apparently hadn’t realized that Will liked soft, slow classical music with his drear.

“Well, if you pause every once in a while, you won’t miss so much, Jack,” he chided with a laugh. “Don’t be afraid of your own thoughts, and they won’t be as shallow.”

He was unprepared for the warm hand on his shoulder, but turned when he felt the pressure, and was rewarded with an armful of his friend. Jack twined his fingers with Will’s, resting the other forearm along his upper arm, and Will’s free hand went around Jack’s waist with an automatic motion. He’d studied dance under the expert eye of his mother, as a boy, but was rather confused as to why his friend would do this. “Jack?”

“Cat’s too short; he’s only two,” came the explanation.

“But you don’t slow-dance,” Will protested. He remembered very clearly Jack’s insistence against the idea during one of their weekend conversations.

“Shut up,” was the only reply he got, and they were rocking to the music, Jack’s warm cheek against his neck as their bare feet slid over the carpet. Will closed his eyes and let the music dictate the direction and speed of their motion. When he dared to part them a moment, he noticed the fire crackling in the stone fireplace, though he couldn’t remember lighting one.

“Now, you’re thinking too hard,” came the soft rumble below his chin. “Maybe if you didn’t think so
much, you wouldn’t have so much to worry about.” At the admonishment, the taller man let his eyes slip closed once more, though he could not stop his brain from working.

He felt Jack still his motions and opened his eyes, dropping them slightly to make contact with the obsidian pools before him. They stood like that for a long moment, staring into each other’s eyes, scanning them, noting colors and flickers, gradations and hues. “You’re thinking again.”

The accusation was followed by the touch of soft lips against his own, warm air ghosting over his cheek as he felt the jolt streak through him. It blocked out his thoughts – he didn’t have to think anymore, just feel. Instinct showed him how to open to Jack’s kiss, breath pulling in through the nose as he felt the rough slide of Jack’s taste buds over his own, a small groan leaving his throat before Jack pulled back, leaving one last touch, and Will opened his eyes again.

Jack looked up into the amber-flecked eyes of the man in front of him, and nodded. “I could love you back …”


Will snapped awake to stare around the room, unable to focus on anything for a moment as he fought to exhale the deep breath sucked in just moments before. He blinked repeatedly until he was able to pick out the stone hearth, cold and empty where he’d just seen heat and flame – rather like himself. “Oh, hell no. Oh no, I did not just dream that … no.”

He cast off the blanket and sat up, provoking an annoyed “Prrowl?” from the warm, dark lump that had been resting on him. He was stuck in a blink loop as he rested his head in his hands, eyes defocused as he tried to stare through the floor and into himself. “But, he wouldn’t. He just wouldn’t.

continued in part 2

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