Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

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All about Arubio

All about Arubio

A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale introduces us to some new places. Some of these places you may have already heard about, but others will be brand new. Arubio is one of those new places. So let’s discover a little more about it.

Geography

Arubio is located in the vast Kundalini Desert, not far from the Red Mountains. It has a typical desert clime, with hot days and low nightly temperatures. Snow isn’t unheard of, although that usually happens in the Red Mountains. The Kundalini is a sandy desert with plenty of dunes. Sandstorms are a common occurrence, but rain is relatively rare.

Sand dunes and blue sky in a desert.

Arubio is located in the Kundalini desert, a sandy desert with dunes.

Arubio itself is located over a spring running underground from the mountains. It’s thus a sort of oasis in the midst of a sea of sand. The city lies a few hundred miles inland from the coast. The vast desert protects it from coastal raiders.

 

Plants and animal life tend to be more diverse within the city walls, as the spring feeds the oasis town and makes water more abundant than it is otherwise. Palm trees and rich, almost tropical, flora aren’t uncommon.

 

Politics

Arubio, the gem of the desert, is the seat of the Arubian Empire. Arubio is one of the foremost powers on the continent, although it is smaller than Rus. It usually settles squabbles with neighboring tribes and protects the people under its jurisdiction from “barbarians,” particularly nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes who live in the Red Mountains or further to the east.

 

The Arubian king is the head of state. The king is believed to be a divine descendant of the sun god, Helios, who created the incubi to rule over the short-lived human species. Incubi live for a millennium, and so they take a much longer-term view of development and plan for sustained prosperity.

 

The royal family lives in a castle in the center of the city, although they have land holdings outside of it.

 

Tarquin is the seventh ruler in the Aurelian dynasty, which has ruled Arubio for millennia.

Arubio is a vassal state to the more powerful Rus Empire. It often engages in war to subdue and annex new territory and expand the empire. It also engages in warfare on behalf of Rus, to enforce Rus’s own authority. Tarquin’s aunt married the Emperor Theophilus of Rus. His cousin Aleksandru is next in line for the throne.

 

Demographics

Arubio is the only major center within the Kundalini Desert. As a result, it is a major port for trade flowing north from the south and south from Rus. The arrival of merchant caravans and nobles traveling to other parts of the empire or to court often swell the population.

 

Arubio is home to many different peoples. The incubi control the throne. They form a large part of the nobility. Not all nobles are incubi, and not all incubi are nobles. Giants from the Red Mountains have also emigrated to Arubio. Humans, dragons, and many others live in Arubio. Fey and Nords are almost entirely absent.

Culture

Arubio has some fairly deeply ensconced traditions. The official religion is a polytheistic one with the sun god, Helios, at the center of it. Other gods and goddesses include the moon goddess Selene and Xotil, the rain goddess.

 

Religious festivals mark the calendar year, punctuated by the two solstices. The summer solstice is the more important festival, although the winter solstice is also a large celebration. It celebrates the rebirth of the sun god and closes out the year. It begins with the solstice and ends with the celebration of the solar new year. The people also celebrate the lunar new year. Spring rituals include the festival of Xotil, which is more important in the southern state of Karakorum. The harvest festival and the celebration of the dead and departed mark the fall season.

 

The people celebrate a number of religions, however, and the state tolerates them. Those fleeing persecution see Arubio as a haven state; the state does not levy additional taxes or penalize practitioners of other religions, although tensions between groups sometimes emerge.

 

The people of Arubio are ethnically diverse and most of them speak several different languages. Arubian is the official language. Many people also speak Rus. Many traders find it useful to speak Karakesee, the language of Karakorum.

 

Dancing and drumming are important traditions in Arubio. Musical history and culture is particularly rich in Arubio, as is traditions of poetry and architecture.

 

Arubio is a leader in scientific thought and inquiry. The telescope was invented in Arubio, and the calculations for calendars and how large the orb is were also conducted in Arubio.

 

The writing system is another Arubian invention. It has since been exported and adapted to other languages.

 

Economy

Arubio has a trade-based economy. Most products are imports, as there are few natural resources in Arubio. Arubian industry ships finished products.

A camel caravan in the desert.

A camel caravan wouldn’t be out of place in Arubio.

Arubio’s agriculture consists mostly of sheep farming and the raising of cattle, camels, or other beasts. The textile industry is large and rich in Arubio; many fabrics and manufactured and made in Arubio, then exported around the world. In Rus, Arubian rugs are markers of class and status.

 

Arubio’s most dominant industry is mercantilism, with many people involved in trade and commerce. Finance is also common, and there is also employment in education, as the Arubian state supports research and a couple of established universities. Arubio has a state-of-the-art astronomy program. Its desert climate makes it a wonderful place to study the stars and the motions of the heavens.

 

The black market flourishes in Arubio.

Education

Education is generally the domain of the upper classes in Arubio. Both men and women receive an education. Boys receive a primary basic education in warfare. Girls generally become doctors, nurses, and scientists, primarily due to their attention to detail.

 

A well-rounded education includes studies in math, science, language and the arts, agriculture, weaving, and caregiving.

 

Men and Women in Arubio

Women are full citizens, with full rights. The only catch is they cannot sit on the throne.

 

The gender divide is largely evident in the economy and the realm of culture. Women are generally considered to be more detail-oriented, which makes them excellent scientists and engineers. Men, by contrast, are usually considered more suited for hard or heavy labor, including warfare. Men are typically considered better politicians and lawyers. Caregiving usually falls to women.

 

Women’s status occasionally conflicts with respected cultural practice, such as the keeping of harems or veiling. Women do not have to veil. Tradition is for unmarried women of the upper classes to veil in public. Some theorize this started as protection against sandstorms, and it isn’t uncommon for men to wear veils during sandstorms or windy weather.

 

The harem tradition is still strong in noble circles, although the girls must agree and any girl who wishes to be “freed” of the harem must have her wishes respected. Abuse of the practice is rife, however, and better protections are needed. Some groups believe harems should be abolished altogether. The creation of reverse-harems, comprised of men for wealthy women, has many supporters.

 

Men are occasionally gifted as part of the harem. Same-sex relations aren’t unusual. The royal family, being incubi, have few strictures against sexual activity of any form and since they don’t prohibit it for themselves, do not legislate against it. Only a few practices, including rape, are illegal.

 

This brief overview can’t capture all of the nuance of Arubio. You can learn more in A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale, arriving May 8!


Chapter One: New Year, New You [Submerged]

Chapter One: New Year, New You [Submerged]

Gabriel hisses as he sinks down into the water. His head spins with the heavy scent of chlorine. It’s always worse, the first few days back in the water. In some ways, he’s annoyed he’s waited so long to get back in the pool.

Being back in the water is some sort of relief, even if it does sting at the lingering scratches on his arms, his back. His arms ache as he languidly strokes down the lane, stiff with disuse, sore with the memory of everything he did during his week in Istanbul with Reese. The memory of competition has long since faded, the ache easing out of angry muscles, but the image of Reese, flushed and spread wide beneath him lingers on, distracting him even as he adjusts his goggles, then ducks under for another set.

He tries to push it away. Stroke after stroke, lap after lap, he forces the issue from his mind.
Swimming is meditation sometimes. Sometimes the harder sets force him to forget about everything. Sometimes, it’s easier to meditate when the set isn’t quite so hard. Today, the simple workout allows his mind to wander, and he wanders right back to the filthiest gutters, even as he stares up at the ceiling and backstrokes another lap.

He should forget about it, really. He’s been back in Baltimore for three days now. They spent Christmas in Istanbul, because Reese’s heat didn’t break until late the evening of the twenty-third. Neither of them wanted to risk a thirty-three–hour flight home, missing Christmas, spending it trapped in an airport or on a plane. So they spent it together, in a strange city, on a different continent.

But that was all, Gabriel forcibly reminds himself as his fingertips brush the wall. He dives under, flips himself over, propels himself back along the length of the pool. Reese has a boyfriend—although Gabriel’s really questioning if it’s a real relationship, if it’s anything at all or something Reese invented to seem cool. The whole story is fishy.

Gabriel’s not sure whether he should call Reese a liar or pity him for being an idiot. He seems to be both.

But even if Reese doesn’t have a boyfriend, even if he’s being strung along or catfished or deluded, what happened in Istanbul isn’t going to happen again. For one, Reese is going back on his suppressants. He has to. Omegas aren’t allowed to compete, so Reese has been hiding this. He’ll have to go back on the suppressants in order to continue.

And besides, he said he didn’t want to do that again. Even if they did end up dating, they weren’t going to have sex.

Gabriel said he didn’t mind, but he’s honestly not sure. He’s friends with Reese, which is fine, but what’s the point of dating someone if you’re not boning them?

Gabriel is antisocial, a little prickly, yes, but his sex drive is alive and kicking. He’s not sure why he’d agree to a chaste relationship, especially with Reese.

It’s probably better if they just stay friends, he figures. Less messy. Easier.

He finishes his final lap and hauls himself out of the pool. His arms scream at him as he does so. He shudders in the cool air, preparing to rush across the deck to the locker room. He pauses when someone gasps.

He jerks his head up and meets Kat’s startled gaze. She’s clapped her hands over her mouth, like she’s shocked or something.

Gabriel glances down at his arm, notes the bruise, the claw marks Reese left on him during their tryst.

Oh.

He looks up at the dark-haired freshman again. Her eyes are bright, her cheeks are pink, and there’s something excited, hopeful about her stance that makes him grimace.

“What?” he asks as gruffly as he can, stripping off his cap and goggles.

“Oh my God,” she breathes, dropping her hands, “you look like a tiger mauled you.”

Heat creeps up the back of Gabriel’s neck. He snorts. “So?” he mutters.

She squeezes her hands together and squeals. “I can’t believe you and Pieces finally got together!” she cries. The utter delight in her voice is disconcerting.

“What?” he sneers at her.

“We were betting on it all semester,” she explains. “You two were so flirty, it was just clearly going to happen.”

Gabriel frowns deeply. He thinks back on the chemistry he felt with Reese in Istanbul, the innate spark of their relationship with one another.

Even if they want to deny it, they’re a good match for each other. Even if it doesn’t appear that way on the surface.

It probably explains why, despite all his efforts, Gabriel can’t get the redhead off his mind. He snorts at Kat, shakes his head. “So what?” he scoffs. “We hooked up. People hook up all the time.”

She gives him a guarded look. “Yeah, but—”

“We hooked up,” he repeats, enunciating, emphasizing this time. And then, fuck it, she knows, so he says, “He was in heat. An alpha should help an omega in heat. He’s my friend and my teammate, so it was kind of my duty.”

If anyone else were there, they’d clip him with some line about taking one for the team. Kat, however, is silent, evaluating him as he wraps his towel around his waist and sucks on his water bottle.

“You banged him and that’s it?” she asks finally.

“Yeah,” he replies.

“So,” she says slowly, “you’re not dating.”

“Nope.”

She shakes her head. “Not boyfriends?”

Gabriel very nearly tells her about Eric, Reese’s so-called boyfriend. Instead, he shakes his head. “Not that I know of,” he offers, then pauses. He fixes her with a look. “Why? He say something to you?”

“No,” she says, shakes her head furiously. Her long locks go flying.

He nods. “It is what it is. It happened, and now we can all forget about it.”

He leans in a little closer to her, says, “Not a word about it to anyone. You, Mel, Brody—you were there. You know what happened. But you’re the only ones who need to know.”

“What about Gord?” she asks, blinking.

Gabriel grimaces. Their coach especially does not need to know that Reese is an omega and went into heat during an international competition. “No,” he grunts. “You keep it quiet, understand?”

She glances away, then nods slowly. “Yeah,” she sighs, then meets his gaze. “There’s a lot of shit we have to keep quiet, isn’t there?”

He’s not quite sure what she means—although he has a few guesses. Swimming, like virtually every other sport, is full of deep, dark secrets. It’s like the water itself: calm on the surface, but all kinds of unsavory things lurk beneath the pristine veneer.

“I got it,” she says.

“Good,” he replies, then glances up at the clock. “I gotta go.”

She frowns. He rolls his eyes. “I missed Christmas,” he explains, unsure of why he’s compelled to tell her anything. “My mother’s having a fit.”

“Oh,” she says, but he beats a hasty retreat before she can press him anymore. The locker room door bangs shut behind him, and he sighs—a mixture of relief and exasperation.

He has to go from one awkward conversation to another, he knows. He drags his towel up over his head, sips thoughtfully on his water bottle as he heads for the showers.

It’s New Year’s Eve, so the pool is basically deserted. They’ll be closing early too, which is the excuse he gave to Babs for coming so early. She was a little pissed he left the house at nine this morning, before she’d even finished her coffee. She complained that he’ll probably want a nap, or that he’ll fall asleep before midnight.

He doesn’t care all that much.

He rinses off, then changes and packs up his stuff. He glances at his phone on his way out of the change room. He has a couple of messages from Reese. He clicks on one, smiles at the picture of a couple of slobbery-looking dogs vying over a black tee shirt.

‘dont think they like u’ Reese has written, which makes Gabriel frown.

‘y?’ he fires back, then stuffs his phone into his pocket as he heads out into a veritable blizzard. In the time he spent doing his laps, the world has turned completely white, and snow is falling in huge clumps, the wind whipping it by him. He shudders and makes haste to the car.


His sisters, Izzy and Heather, have already arrived by the time he gets home. He has to park on the street. He sighs and tucks in close to the curb, hopes the plow doesn’t clip his car. Won’t be the first time, of course, but the Tercel is pretty beaten up. As if to prove his point, a chunk of rust drops into the snow when he slams the door. (He’s still waiting for his sponsorship checks to roll in.)

He stares at it for a second, like it’s some sort of metaphor for his entire life, then slings his backpack over his shoulder and treks up the driveway, sliding most of the way because apparently he needs new sneakers too.

He shakes snow off himself, taps his shoes on the cracked cement step up to the door, and creeps inside the dark foyer of his childhood home. The door creaks as he shuts it. He has to push it a couple of times to get it to really close.

He manages to step in a puddle once he’s got his shoes off, grimaces as cold water and bits of gravel nip at his feet. He drapes his coat over the bench, drops his gloves, his keys. He hasn’t heard a peep from either of his sisters or his mother, which is a little weird. He can hear soft Christmas music playing, even though Christmas has been over for a week. The smell of turkey pervades the house. The windows in the dining room are already fogging up.

The table has been set, he notes as he slides by, then trots up the stairs. Faintly, he can hear a dog barking. He pauses by the window, but he can’t see anything.

He continues on to his bedroom, drops his swim bag there. He pauses to look at his phone, sees Reese has texted him back.

‘its ur shirt,’ he’s written, then sent a picture of the dogs with the shirt torn in half. ‘sorry i grabed like half ur stuff’

Gabriel considers it, then pitches the phone aside. He’ll deal with that after he’s had a shower.
How should he even reply to that? He glances at his suitcase, sitting neglected in the corner. Maybe he should unpack it and see how much of Reese’s shit he grabbed. They’d packed up pretty hastily.

Whatever. They live together, and Gabriel gets most of his clothing for free at this point. It’s not like he cares much. Half his sponsors are changing for next year anyway, so he probably won’t be able to wear most of it.

Maybe he’ll tell Reese to keep it. Maybe Reese’ll wear it.

He’s not sure why he likes that thought so damn much. He charges into the bathroom, slams the door shut and locks it.

Cold water would probably be his best bet, he thinks, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He turns the shower on hot, almost stingingly so. He sheds his clothes and jumps in. He lathers up, wincing as a potent mix of lingering chlorine and soap seeps into open wounds. He ponders the bruises on his hips, his ribs.

He’s much more gentle with his junk than he normally is. The thought of whacking off, perhaps appealing before, evaporates as soon as he hooks his fingers under his head.

He’s so tender still, even three or four days later. He can only imagine how Reese feels. He can hardly imagine how the redhead brought himself to walk through the airport without limping.
It wasn’t like Gabriel was gentle with him, or like he’d wanted him to be. And they’d gone at it for the better part of a week.

The water turns cold suddenly. He lets out an undignified yelp, then hops out of the shower as quick as he can. He shudders, then turns off the water.

Heather probably showered when she got in then. He remembers when she lived at home, when she hit high school. She took notoriously hot and long showers. He was ten or eleven, but it didn’t mean he liked ice cold baths and showers.

He still doesn’t, even though immersing himself in frigid water is sometimes part of his job. Whether it’s the pool or an ice bath to soothe the inflammation of enraged muscles after a hard swim, he’s sometimes obligated.

He’s not obligated to enjoy it, and he never has. Doesn’t think he ever will.

He wraps up in a towel, then saunters out of the bathroom, into the even cooler air of the hall, dripping water onto the carpet beneath his feet.

He practically bumps into Izzy, the younger of his two sisters, nearly bowls her over. They both stumble back. He grabs her by the shoulders to steady her, and she shoves him back to arm’s length, then snaps, “Gabriel.”

He blinks, then ducks down and grabs his towel up. Whatever. Not like she hasn’t seen it.
She grabs his arm. “The fuck have you been doing?” she asks.

“I was at the pool,” he says, frowning.

She twists his wrist, then runs a finger up some of the claw marks. She lifts her gaze, lifts her brows. “Really,” she says, “looks like you got mauled by a goddamn tiger.”

His lips quirk, a smirk threatening to take over his face. He wonders, briefly, if Reese has ever been called “Tiger” before. Maybe his dad, during a little league baseball game or something.
Izzy shakes her head, shoves him back again. “You fucking prick,” she says, “you missed Christmas so you could bang some broad in Istanbul?”

He has to shake himself out of his stupor. “Huh?”

She holds her hands up, shakes her head again. “You told us your teammate was sick, but you’re—you’ve got claw marks down your back, hickeys all over—”

“My teammate was sick,” he says.

“So what did you do? Heal her with your dick?”

He stares at her, trying to think of the words, then blurts, “Him.”

Izzy closes her eyes. Her brows shoot up into her hairline. He looks away as quick as he can, because shit, did he just say that? He feels the heat burning through his cheeks. “I mean—”

“You stayed in Istanbul to plow one of your male teammates,” Izzy sneers, “wow. Just wow, Gabriel. Fuck you.”

“I meant, the sick teammate was a guy—”

“So?” Izzy barks. “You just stayed there and like, did what? Let the guy rot while you banged your way through half the city’s female population? Like, what the fuck were you doing?”

“I—”

She holds up her hands, shakes her head. “No, you know what? I don’t give a fuck. The point is you missed Christmas to get laid.”

“I did not miss Christmas to get laid!”

“Mom!” Izzy cries.

“Don’t!”

“What is it, Isabelle?”

“Gabriel missed Christmas so he could—”

He slaps a hand over her mouth. “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” he snarls.

She glowers at him, peels his hand off his mouth. “You shut up,” she spits.

“Isabelle?”

“Mom, he—”

He stomps on her foot, winces when she howls. She grits her teeth, then gives him a shove.
“Gabriel!” Babs bellows from the kitchen. “Don’t assault your sister! Use your words, work this out like adults—”

“He stayed in Istanbul and missed Christmas so he could get laid!”

“I did not!” he hollers back. “Mom, don’t believe her! She’s—”

“He’s got hickeys all over and his dick is chafed!”

He glares at her. “You!”

Babs heaves a huge sigh. “Isabelle, don’t look at your brother’s junk. Gabriel, for the love of God, get dressed. Then both of you come down here and tell me the truth.”

Isabelle gives him something like a triumphant smirk, so he shoves her again and mutters, “Pervert,” before stalking to his bedroom.

“Whore,” Izzy fires back, loud enough that Babs hears her, so she gets an “Isabelle!” from downstairs. Gabriel huffs and gets changed.

His phone buzzes wildly. He grabs it up, frowning.

Reese is trying to Facetime him. Hastily, he hangs up, then storms out into the hall.

His phone buzzes again. ‘dude’ Reese has written ‘i no ur there pick up’

Gabriel glares at the phone again as it starts buzzing. Izzy reaches over, grabs it from him. “Is this your piece of ass?” she sneers, swiping across the screen.

“No,” he huffs, “Izzy—”

“Hey slut,” Izzy snarls, “didn’t you get enough while he was banging you in a hotel room in Istanbul? Why don’t you keep your legs closed for a little longer, huh? Or are you—”

“Izzy,” Gabriel hisses, and she finally looks at the screen.

Reese blinks at her a couple of times, then says, “Whoa.”

Izzy turns furiously red. “Um, hi,” she squeaks.

Gabriel grabs the phone, but this has already spiralled beyond his control as Reese says, “Dude, Gabby, what did you tell your sisters?”

“Uh,” Gabriel says.

“Like what the fuck, you said not to say anything, and then you tell your sisters about what we did? What the actual fuck—”

Izzy’s mouth drops open.

“I didn’t tell them anything!” Gabriel snaps.

“Then how does she know we were fucking?!” Reese roars back.

“She doesn’t!”

Except now she totally does, he realizes, glancing over at her. She grins broadly at him, then darts downstairs.

“Izzy!”

He glances down at the screen. Reese has frozen. He sighs heavily, pinches the bridge of his nose as he hears Izzy breathlessly telling Babs, “Gabriel was in Istanbul with his little boyfriend, oh my God—”

He waits a moment longer, then hangs up on Reese. The redhead will call him back if he thinks it’s important. He pockets his phone and darts downstairs. “Mom,” he whines, “she’s lying, don’t believe her—”

“Oh,” Babs says without looking up from the potatoes she’s peeling, “I believe her. Sounds like something your father would do.”

“Mom—”

“Abandon his family to stick a piece of ass, yes, you are clearly your father’s son.”

“Mom!”

“Get out of my kitchen!” she barks, finally looking up. She’s shaking with rage. “I can’t stand the sight of you, I thought I raised you better than that!”

He stares at her for a second longer, then books a hasty retreat back up the stairs. He slams the door. He pitches his phone down on his desk. He paces, rubs his temples. Today is going to absolute shit.

The phone starts buzzing. He grabs it up, answers it. “Hey dipshit,” he snarls at Reese.

“Fuck you,” the redhead spits back, “you told your fucking sister—”

“No,” Gabriel huffs, “I didn’t. She saw the hickeys you left on me and jumped to her own conclusions and—”

“The fuck, Gabriel—”

“—and then you confirmed it, so good job, idiot.”

Reese twitches, then spits, “Fuck you.”

“You did,” Gabriel retorts, “that’s kind of the problem.”

Reese sneers at him, looks away. Gabriel plonks down on his bed. “So, good going. Now my mother is pissed at me.”

“Why?”

“’cause I missed Christmas for your sorry ass?”

“You seemed to think it was pretty great while you—”

“Just shut up,” Gabriel spits. “This is all your stupid fault.”

“How is it my fault?!”

“If you hadn’t gone into heat—”

“I didn’t ask you to stay!” Reese yells. “I didn’t ask you to do anything, Gabriel! You volunteered because, let’s face it, you’ve wanted to bang me since you met me!”

“Like hell,” Gabriel fires back.

“What so—”

“I was helping you,” Gabriel offers. “You needed help.”

“What about when you kissed—”

Shit. He’d forgotten about that. “Doesn’t mean anything,” he huffs.

“So you kissed me ’cause you never even liked me?” Reese grunts. “Fuck, you’re the worst goddamn liar—”

“You’re so fucking vain.”

“You know what, screw you—”

“What, you actually think someone in their right mind would like you? Why do you think your so-called boyfriend Eric won’t even talk to you? You got dumped, you got used—”

“Go to hell,” Reese says, then hangs up.

Gabriel grits his teeth, then pitches his phone across the room. He drags his pillow over his head. That has got to be one of the stupidest things he’s ever done.

He does like Reese. He did kiss him because he likes him. And he probably would’ve banged him anyway. He would have banged him back in October if Reese would’ve let him.

But he wouldn’t, because he thinks he has a boyfriend—some guy Reese could never even hope to get with, a guy Reese claims to call, a guy who never texts him back, who never calls him.

Fucking stupid Reese.

The next thing he knows, it’s pitch black outside. All the streetlamps are on. The cold creeps around the window. Downstairs, he can hear the TV, Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s Eve blaring into the room.

There’s a hesitant knock on his door.

He glares at the wall, then says, “What?”

“Gabriel?” Heather asks, then pushes the door open a bit. “Gabe, what the—”

“Fuck off,” he snaps.

She glances over her shoulder, then steps into the room. “What the hell?” she asks sharply. “You missed Christmas, so Mom’s all over us about being here for New Year’s. Now you miss dinner, she’s crying into a bottle of wine, and Izzy and I are wondering what the fuck we even came here for—”

“Why don’t you ask Isabelle what happened?” he huffs. “If she could just keep her stupid mouth shut—”

He sits up to glare at her, but she’s even more effective at glaring than he is, so he wilts under her gaze. “I missed Christmas to stay in Istanbul with Reese,” he mutters.

She’s silent.

She probably can’t see him blush in the dark, but he feels it acutely. “He’s an omega,” he admits, “he went into heat, and Izzy found out I missed Christmas so I could … help.”

Heather stays silent.

He hunches his shoulders. “She told Mom, and Mom’s pissed—says I abandoned my family so I could chase tail.”

He grits his teeth. “She accused me of being like Dad.”

Fuck, he hasn’t been this close to tears in forever. He tries not to think about his father, ever. Even just hearing those words unleashed a torrent of memories he never wants to revisit again.
Dad lugging a suitcase with him, himself running down the steps after him, yelling, “Dad! Dad, Dad!” and being ignored. Pausing halfway down the walk, watching the man toss the suitcase in the trunk of a red sports car, crawl into the driver’s seat, and start it up. The beautiful brunette in a low-cut top, her breasts practically spilling out. Her too-thick make-up, her lipstick sticking to her fingers as she winked and blew him a kiss, just before the tires squealed and they pulled away.

The seconds before Dad drove out of his life forever.

It’s been years, but it still fucking hurts. Dad left them for some hot bit, some piece of tail. Just straight up left them.

Heather sighs deeply. “Maybe,” she says softly, “you should … go home.”

He closes his eyes. She crosses her arms. “Mom’s a mess. Like, I don’t know … really upset. I wondered …”

“I can’t go back to the house on Belmont,” he says. It’s not technically true. He has a key. Reese isn’t there. He could go there.

He just … doesn’t want to.

She meets his gaze. “Won’t it be worse if I leave?” he asks. “I mean, like … she’s mad I ditched you guys for Christmas.”

Heather glances toward the door again. “I just …”

He sighs. “There’s no winning,” he mutters. “If I go down there, yeah, she might freak out. If I stay up here, she’ll be pissed. But if I leave …”

Heather sighs heavily, drops her head. “You make the worst fucking messes,” she mutters.
They’re silent for a little while.

“Maybe if you tell her he’s an omega,” Heather says finally.

He grimaces. “I don’t … I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”

Heather shakes her head. “She’s … pretty drunk. I mean, she might remember, she might not. But … at least. Like. That’s … better. Maybe.”

“Not really,” he murmurs darkly.

“Gabe.”

“Don’t call me that,” he mutters, but slides off the bed. He grabs his phone off his desk again, pockets it. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll tell her, but I doubt it will help.”

“It’s something, at least,” Heather mutters, closing the door behind them on their way out.
He squints in the bright light of the hall, then heads downstairs. He pauses in the doorway, surveys the scene. The TV’s on, the Parcheesi board’s out. There are champagne flutes and noisemakers and hats, and in the middle of it is Babs, hands over her face, empty glass of wine near at hand. Izzy’s sitting on the floor on the opposite side of the coffee table, looking up at their mother. Her expression is frayed at the edges, like she’s slowly coming undone.

He sighs and puts his hand on the doorframe. “Mom,” he says, and her shoulders jerk, like he shot her. He grits his teeth. “Mom, I’m sorry, but let me explain—”

“I don’t want an explanation!” she cries. “What possible justification can you have for—”

“He was in heat,” Gabriel blurts, then clamps his mouth shut, pulling back. He glances over his shoulder at Heather, who nods a little.

“What?”

Gabriel heaves another breath, ducks his head. “Reese is an omega,” he murmurs. “He, uh, his medications weren’t working for him, so he …”

Izzy can’t help herself. “He’s an omega?” she practically squeals, grinning broadly.

“Shut up,” Gabriel snaps.

“Gabriel,” Babs says, glowering at him. “Don’t tell your sister to shut up.”

“Your boyfriend’s an omega!” Izzy falls onto her back, kicking her legs. She’s drunk, he realizes belatedly.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” he grumbles.

“What?” Heather asks from behind him. He starts—he’d forgotten about her.

“I mean, we’re not … I stayed because he needed help, guys.”

“Your dick isn’t magic,” Izzy says, sitting up, “s’not like—”

“No.” Heather clears her throat. “No, Iz—you’ve. Omegas in heat need help. They can’t do anything.”

She shares a curious glance with Gabriel, then looks back at their middle sister. “You don’t get it,” Heather says. “It’s not a choice.”

Izzy sneers. “He wasn’t the only one there,” she says.

“No,” Heather agrees, “but does Reese trust anyone else?”

“I don’t see how this changes anything,” Babs interrupts, and the three of them look at her, at her deep frown, her folded arms. “Gabriel still missed Christmas because he was busy banging some redheaded fairy. He still put sex over his own family—”

“Mom,” he protests, “it’s not like that, I swear—”

“Then what is it? You put your friend over your family, which isn’t much better—”

“I was trying to help,” Gabriel huffs, glancing around the room. How are they still having this conversation? “Nobody knows Reese is an omega, he’s stuck there by himself—he missed Christmas with his family too, and he had no choice—”

Babs just goes on glaring. He throws his hands up. “What? What did you want me to do, leave him there to die of dehydration? Let the hotel staff take advantage of him? It was his first time in heat, he had no idea what was happening to him—”

“Aw,” Izzy gushes, “that’s so cute.”

“Isabelle,” Babs snaps, then looks back at Gabriel.

He sighs. “I didn’t have to stay, sure,” he said, “and I’m sorry I missed Christmas, Mom, but … he’s my friend and he needed help.”

He glances down at his toes, knowing this part is a bit of a gamble. “But Mom, you always taught us to be good people, to help people who needed help …”

She presses her lips together, looks away.

He sighs and shakes his head. “It doesn’t change anything,” he murmurs. “But I honestly thought I was doing the right thing. He needed help, someone to take care of him and—”

“Aww,” Izzy coos.

“Will you shut up,” he spits. “You’re the one who started all of this anyway! If you could just keep your stupid mouth shut—”

“If you could just keep your dick in your pants—”

“Will you both be quiet,” Babs huffs. She shakes her head a little, then says, “Gabriel, I still don’t see how this makes it better.”

He sighs, hangs his head a little. He glances up from under his mop. “What if I said I love him?” he squeaks, and he stares at his family in horror, because how dare his voice betray him by cracking like that.

Babs just stares back, her eyes wide.

Izzy, of course, starts laughing. “You said that about Christine,” Heather mumbles from somewhere over his shoulder, and he flushes hotly.

“What?” she asks when he whirls on her. “You did.”

“Oh my God,” Izzy chortles, “I forgot about that. Do you remember? Oh God, oh my God, Christine. Ugh.”

“This is different!” he snaps, unable to fight down the blush.

“How?” Izzy asks, sitting up straight, leveling him with a look.

“I’m not a stupid sixteen-year-old!” he retorts. “I know the difference now, I know when I’m getting used and—”

“Do you?” His mother’s question bites into him, and he wilts back against the doorjamb. “Do you actually?” she continues, rising from the couch, her arms still folded, her frown still disapproving. “Because, Gabriel, I was thirty-three when your father left, and I still didn’t know when I’d been had. I didn’t know until the day he left.”

Gabriel drops his gaze to the floor.

“Ohhhh,” Izzy says in the background, and he can’t even bring himself to glare at her.

“I,” he starts.

“Not another word,” Babs says. “You’ve said—and done—enough, thank you. None of this changes the fact you put him—or your heart or your dick, whatever it happens to be—over your family.”

“I love him,” Gabriel blurts, because it’s the only thing he can think to say. It’s not even an excuse or a reason.

His heart hammers and he tries to swallow a sudden lump in his throat. He turns and books it back upstairs, jostling by Heather, then taking the stairs two at a time.

“Gabriel!” Babs hollers after him. “We’re not done talking, get back down here—”

He slams his bedroom door instead, grabs his phone. He grits his teeth when he realizes how much he’s vibrating.

Reese hasn’t messaged him, hasn’t called. Nothing.

Doesn’t matter. He has to hold the phone with both hands as he taps out a message. It’s a slow, painful process—he misspells something more than once, and autocorrect keeps changing all the words in such a simple phrase.

Frustrated, he dials back Reese’s number. It rings for what feels like forever, until it finally clicks.

His heart skips a beat, nearly strangles him. He wants to speak, but he’s cut off by a cheery, “Yo!”

“Reese,” he says.

“Who even calls anymore? Loser. Leave me a message and maybe I’ll call you back.”

Click.

Gabriel closes his eyes, exhales long, soft, and slow. Someday, he’ll kill Reese. He really, really will.

He hangs up, finishes his text instead. He sets the phone aside, then plonks down in the desk chair, tugging at his hair.

It’s a pretty overwhelming realization. He’s never been in love with another guy. He’s liked other guys, thought they were attractive. He’s fooled around, he’s fucked other guys. He hasn’t done the whole “coming out” production. He’s not sure he wants to. He’s not sure he has to. After all, it seems like Babs and his sisters know. Reese should have a good guess. And the most important people on the swim team—Mel and a couple of choice others—know even if he’s never said anything.

But being into guys, being attracted to them seems wholly different than being in love with someone.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. It’s not that it’s a guy, it’s not even that it’s Reese. It’s just that he loves Reese.

And he does. He wants Reese to be safe. He wants to protect him, to keep him safe. Yes, he stayed in Istanbul because there was an omega in heat and he’s an alpha, and people can say whatever they want about that, but …

It was Reese’s first time. He was scared, clueless. He was all alone on the other side of the world, with only a handful of people he actually knows. Most of them were leaving. Did Reese trust any of them?

Of all their teammates, he thinks Reese probably trusts him most. Likes him most.

He closes his eyes, grips the arms of the chair a little harder. He couldn’t just leave Reese there, not like that. Not knowing he was going to be so vulnerable.

Maybe, maybe that was the sentiment of an alpha faced with an omega on the cusp of heat. Maybe that was an alpha who sensed an opportunity. Maybe it was even an alpha sense of needing to protect someone more vulnerable.

But it sure felt like something more. Even in the thick of it, he wanted what was best for Reese, what Reese needed, not what he himself needed. It didn’t matter if he got off or not. What mattered was Reese got what he needed, as best as Gabriel could deliver.

God, he’s such an idiot sometimes. Such a sad sack.

He picks up his phone. Nothing.

He hops into Daybook, scrolls through his timeline. Nothing there either. He clicks into Pictogram, but there’s nothing there from Reese either.

He sighs and pitches the phone aside again.

“Gabriel!” Babs calls from downstairs. “The countdown is on!”

He glances at his phone again, then picks it back up. He dials Reese’s number. He sits through the insipid voicemail message again, waits for the beep.

“Uh, hey,” he says softly, “it’s me. Gabriel. I … um. Wanted to say sorry for earlier. I’m pretty mad Izzy found out, and Babs is pissed I skipped Christmas. It’s … not really been a good day. But … I don’t wanna fight with you. So, yeah. Sorry. I guess I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Happy new year!” rings out from downstairs, and he slides the phone away from his ear, shuts it off with a click. He tosses it aside with a sigh, then heads downstairs.


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Chapter 31: Opening Night Lights

Chapter 31: Opening Night Lights

prudential_center_hockey_rinkIt had been an exhausting week on the road, so Sy was glad to be back in the Telefira Center, back on home ice, the roars of the crowd rattling him down to his core. There was nothing quite like it. Much as he’d missed hockey, much as just being back on the ice after the broken ankle, followed by the indeterminate summer, road games just weren’t same.

Twelve Days of Heat: Day Seven

Twelve Days of Heat: Day Seven

 

Reese wakes up in the depth of the night, shadows creeping under the crack of the door, through the slightest gap between it and the wall, moonlight from the windows outside falling just short of the darkness.

The clock on the nightstand reads 1:59, the numbers glowing into the shadows.

He heaves a breath, then rolls over to face Gabriel.