the all-seeing eye
by cimorene

He was sitting on the stage in an auditorium--perhaps the auditorium of his high school. Brice was sitting with him. A clothesline was strung back and forth, higher than he could reach without standing in the chair, and a lot of little black-and-white, hand-developed photos, of the kind he had made in high school, were clipped to it with clothespins.

There was a white spool of thread on black. There was a pile of cheap jewelry. There was a hand, palm-down, blurred with motion. A plastic boat in a sink. A park bench. The hood of an antique car. A boy sitting with his legs drawn up in the kitchen window and a book open on his knees, his full lower lip caught between his teeth, a pencil in his hand, sunlight spilling all over him like a religious painting. And the boy was Brice.

Hilary turned to look at him and suggested they leave, but Brice said, "It's been locked for hours. Get that one." He pointed to a picture at the far end, in the second row.

Hilary dragged his chair over to stand in. When he reached for the picture he saw that it was a picture of a woman's open mouth, heavily glossed with dark lipstick. He picked it up and when he looked down at it again in his hand, it had become a picture of two mouths sealed together in a kiss, cut off at the chins and noses. Two men's mouths.

Some sound woke Hilary at five in the morning.

He lay in bed, counting his breaths to make sure they were even, and staring at the ceiling. Then a soft footfall in the hallway told him what it was that had awakened him. He listened to the sound of Lara's feet padding down the hall, then running down the stairs.

He got up and went in the dark to his wardrobe. It wasn't the first time he'd made breakfast before dawn.

While he was bare-chested, hanging his pyjama shirt in the wardrobe, sharp, loud hammer-blows sounded from downstairs, followed by the sound of wood splintering and giving way. (What was she doing?)

Hilary finished undressing and dressing one garment at a time, but very, very quickly. He even sat on the edge of his bed to lace his shoes. As he slipped down the side stairs to the kitchen, he heard the sigh and snick of the side door opening. She must have gone to wake Brice with her find, unless she was going for an early morning run; but Hilary went with intuition and made the coffee.

He and Lara both drank tea, but Brice had explained his first day here that coffee was the universal "drug of choice" of the computer genius. Brice hardly ever wanted anything but coffee. When he was working late, he drank it black, except on rare occasions when he was very excited and wanted it loaded with cream, vanilla, and sugar. Sometimes toward the end of a project, such as a finished stage of one of his fighter robots, he actually drank cappuccino, although he seemed to do that with a guilty smile. Many times he had slipped into the kitchen in the middle of the day when Hilary was there and made himself a pot, which about half the time he mixed with chocolate syrup, and the rest of the time drank with (non-fat) milk and sugar.

But in the morning Brice never ate anything sweet. In fact, he detested hotcakes, pies, whipped cream, and even fruit. Most of the time he made his own coffee, but he always made it the same way, and what he asked for on the rare occasions that he was eating with Lara, or otherwise busy, was always decaf café latte with non-fat milk--no sugar.

Hilary had never asked him why he didn't drink caffeine in the morning, when one would think he would need it most.

As he stirred the non-fat milk into the cup with a silver spoon, Hilary's mind strayed against his will back to the dream and he felt a sort of painful tightness in his chest. He swallowed to dispel it, and was only partially successful.

It was ridiculous regardless of--any other considerations. He was on the verge of thirty. He had been old since he was a little boy, always teased for being too serious.

He put the coffee cup and a napkin on a silver tray. Sometimes Hilary hated himself.

He hated himself for allowing this attraction that he felt--for allowing it to grow on top of his peculiar friendship with the boy--for feeling it at all for someone small and tense and energetic, lively and enthusiastic and vulnerable--someone with the irresistible qualities of a friendly puppy, whose innocent overtures and curiosity and poorly-masked nervousness already had touched him so deeply, against all reason.

He hated himself for feeling the insidious, crawling, sparking heat of physical arousal where he was already so vulnerable through emotional attachment.

He hated himself for secretly watching someone who wouldn't even know he was being watched.

He took the tray out the kitchen door and walked on the garden path, breathing deeply the scent of dew and incipient dawn. The lights glowed out the window of the Winnebago, which bristled with antennae in the middle of the garden like a large unpleasant flower.

Lara was inside. Brice was bent over the clock which they later discovered contained the All-Seeing Eye.

Hilary came up behind him with the tray. "Your coffee, sir. Decaf café latte with non-fat milk."

"Champion! Steaming sump oil," said Brice, grinning, and turned back to the clock.

Brice's capacity for single-minded absorption must have gone with that kind of genius, but it was still astonishing to Hilary, and Lara had commented on it to him, much amused. She thought it was cute.

Hilary told himself that he didn't agree.

If he found it charming it was against his will. And it was all a moot point because he had allowed himself to become--rather painfully fixated on a stereotype of a completely heterosexual geek: a pizza-eating slob who would wear muddy sneakers everywhere if he could, who wore the same jeans for a week, who liked wine "all right," but would have drunk beer forever if Lara hadn't insisted, whose room, when he had still slept in the house, had spilled over into the hallway in landslides of dirty sheets and clothes, books, cookie crumbs, comics, electronics manuals, and dead batteries.

"His--personal habits," he had said once guardedly to Lara, "are--awful."

Lara had let out a little choke of laughter, at him or Brice, he couldn't tell, then put one hand on his shoulder. "His personal habits are pretty revolting," she agreed. "I suppose I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to keep him at arm's length for that."

I wouldn't either, Hilary had thought as he walked away, but even then, when Brice was engagingly trying to "court" Hilary to be his friend ("Who else are you going to play cards with when she's gone," Brice had said, "if you can't stand to sit around with me?") and Hilary was letting him for entertainment value, and nothing else had yet occurred to him, he knew that he didn't really want to keep him at arm's length.

He hadn't yet felt the first leap of heart into throat at a thoughtless, lingering touch on his arm; the sweeping rush of blood all through his body, head to foot, that time Brice had said "You need to relax!" and stepped behind his chair, and leaned his whole slight weight into a deep and rough shoulder massage with little practice, but plenty of instinctive talent. But even then, comparatively innocent, he remembered looking around the kitchen after Brice had been making what he called his "famous" leftover-stir fry, and not finding the mess too irritating. He remembered thinking, I'll get used to this.

When Lara was in Cambodia there wasn't a lot for them to do. Which is to say there was almost as much as when she was there, but the big house felt sort of empty and dead in her absence.

Hilary remembered when it wasn't that way, when it was just him and Lara, and the responsibility of taking care of the manor in her absence was enough to occupy him completely. Somehow Brice's presence around had intensified the loneliness since he'd arrived. And somehow now that he knew Lara was in certain and severe danger, and had no idea where she would be at any given time--and was fairly certain that the fate of the world hung in the balance--it was a lot worse.

Hilary woke up at six in the morning. He went through all the rooms before he made breakfast for himself, checking the windows and doors. He prepared something to eat--hotcakes, fruit salad, bacon and eggs, hot porridge or cold cereal--and cleaned the kitchen. He watered all the plants in the house after breakfast, and either went for a run or into the gym to work off some of his nervousness and frustration.

In the afternoon he went looking for Brice, who was almost always awake by noon. Some days he'd pass him in the hall on the way to the library or kitchen, but mostly he was in his work room or the Winnebago. This was something he did even when Lara was at home. Brice might need anything from one hundred feet of coaxial cable to hollow titanium tubing to a sandwich--and he rarely remembered to go in search of these things himself.

Five days had passed and Hilary had felt his skin start to thicken and harden, the itching sense of solitude growing numb. "Oh!" said Brice, whose back was to him. He was bending over a piece of robot arm, wearing gloves and working with a little pair of pliers. "Hilary. Just a second. Okay?"

Hilary hesitated in the door, but when it became clear that "just a second" actually meant "just until I finish this, whenever that might be," he came into the room and peered over Brice's shoulder from a safe distance.

It was actually only about a minute and a half before he straightened, started to run a hand through his hair and appeared to remember the gloves. He stripped them off and gave a sigh. "Are you hungry?" He said. "I could use a break."

Hilary said, "I haven't eaten."

"Great." His whole face brightened when he smiled, his whole body moved like an expanded kind of gesture when he spoke. "I'm starving and my back is killing me. I'll come down to the kitchen with you." He gave a yawn and bent with astonishing suppleness backwards, pressing both hands to the small of his back, so his loose t-shirt fell back from the slim line of his torso and outlined his chest and a few ribs.

Hilary drew his eyes away. "You shouldn't stay in one place so much," he offered. "I don't think you've ever used the gym."

Brice snorted derisively and clapped him on the arm. "Nice try, buddy, but knowing one end of a gun from the other is plenty for me. Damn things make me nervous. Come on. Are you going to favor us with a mouth-watering omelette or is it up to me?"

Hilary smiled. "I can handle it."

That night he pulled down a cookbook and made a chocolate cake. While it was in the oven he put the tea-kettle on and settled in a chair with a volume of Yeats.

He didn't hear Brice come in because he was so deeply in reverie. The subtle rhythm of the poetry washed over him and mixed with the thoughts he'd been dwelling deep within.

The sound of the coffee machine starting to gurgle broke through the haze. He looked up. Brice was leaning on the counter, legs crossed at the ankle, hands in his pockets. He slowly raised an eyebrow. "Must be some book."

Hilary blinked. "Yeats."

Brice nodded. "He's all right, what I read." Before Hilary could object to this damnation by faint praise, "What are you making?"

"The cookbook calls it a--" He knew, but he flipped it back open to the proper page anyway. "--Chocolate bomb."

This time both eyebrows climbed. "Nice," he murmured. "Is this chocolate bomb going to be available for eating by the general populace?"

Hilary suppressed a smile. "No. I'm afraid only to the inhabitants of Croft Manor."

"What about if, say, someone lived on the grounds, not in the manor itself?" Brice said hopefully.

Hilary shook his head and laid the book aside. "I'd have to consider his plea carefully, I think." The kettle whistled. He reached out to turn the burner off with a practiced ease and picked the kettle up at the same time with the other hand. The water falling into the open top of the teapot was completely obscured in curls and billows of steam. He set the kettle aside and as he reached for the teapot lid, a chin descended on his shoulder.

"Please?" Brice moved back to let him turn around and pulled his face into an elaborately pitiful puppy-dog mask. He didn't realize, apparently--or perhaps he did--that the peppering of freckles on peachy skin and deep-set, large eyes dominating the thin face already had the same effect.

Hilary hid a smile. "It'll be a few hours to cool." There were a few minutes left on the timer.

"Awright!" Brice punched the air fiercely, one-two, a movement that involved his whole body, his feet braced apart like a rock star's, knees bent.

He slipped into Hilary's chair with his cup of coffee while Hilary got the cake out of the oven. "Listen," he said as Hilary glanced at his watch, turned off the oven, and set a container of cherries out on the counter with a little carton of whipping cream. He paused to eye these ingredients appreciatively. "Wow. Um. I thought I remembered another swimming pool attached to the gym?" The main one was in the yard.

Hilary laughed. "You've never been back there since your first tour of the house, have you?"

Brice snapped defensively, "Yes! It was just... no."

"There is one."

"It's not--I don't know--closed up or anything?"

Hilary shook his head no and lifted the corner of the aluminum foil covering a bowl of fudge pudding: it looked like it was solidifying nicely.

"Well," said Brice, and cleared his throat. "I was feeling like going for a swim."

Hilary didn't turn around. He had to know where the gym was.

"You said it would take a few hours? For the cake to cool?" The ringing tone of ceramic mug being set down hard on marble counter.

At that turning around was almost involuntary, his face registering surprise, he was sure, because he didn't take the time to school it. Brice's teeth were showing in a sort of nervous grin. "I've got time for a swim," said Hilary.

Brice was slim and slick and wet like a seal, though he couldn't swim like one. He thrashed a lot, and swam under the water mostly, but he winded easily. Hilary was doing a lap of side-stroke, trying not to look like he was watching the play of shadow and moonlight from the dark skylights on Brice's back and legs under the water. Brice pulled up on the edge of the pool, water streaming down his face, gasping. "Hot tub."

Hilary interrupted his laps to plug it in and show Brice the control, then dove back into the pool. He swam five more--nearly every time he glanced up he got a cheery little wave, as if Brice had just picked him out in a crowd instead of a cavernous empty room. By the time he finished the last one, Brice had grown impatient of the hot tub. He leapt into the deep end like a bomb, arms clasped around his knees, and sank deep, streaming bubbles, before his eyes opened and he pushed to the surface, grinning.

"Oh!" He yelled. "That feels great! Why don't I go swimming more often?"

"It gets in the way of the sedentary lifestyle," Hilary suggested, deadpan.

Brice gaped at him for a second, then flicked water in his eyes and started splashing him. He dove underwater to escape and swam almost the length of the pool, the back of his neck prickling; when he surfaced again he got another faceful of water, this time a whole arm's worth.

He had to seek refuge in the hot tub. A jet of water pummeled his lower back, warming and reducing to jelly muscles he didn't even know he had, while the hot water slowly boiled the tension out of him.

Like that he couldn't stand to watch Brice long. The cool air and hot water made him light-headed. The sensual pleasure of the jets on his back and his eyes fixed on the long flexible pale limbs flashing in the low light, glimmering with droplets of water--Hilary closed his eyes against the tide of arousal; it did no good. He shifted his legs apart to accommodate the swelling of his cock and the warm water lapped at his skin in sweet, soothing currents.

He stared at the ceiling, breathing with his mouth open, until it was time to go finish the cake. He gave Brice a wave and ignored his "Just a second!" and escaped to the kitchen. He wanted a few minutes to himself.

His skin was still pink and warm, he saw in the polished side of the kettle when he poured the pudding, then the icing into the center of the cake. Nothing like as pink as Brice's, though, when he finally made it back. He looked like a giant walking sunburn. Hilary was sipping tea then, and whipping the cream in the electric mixer. He raised his eyebrows over the cup.

"What?" said Brice, and then touched his own cheek. "Oh." His fingers left a white print that slowly faded. "I have sensitive skin," he mumbled, embarrassed.

Hilary thought about that--"sensitive skin"--while he cut the cake. He wondered just how sensitive. "Cake's ready," he said, turning around with a smile.

And that night he had a dream, the kind of dream you wake from panting and sweating and sticking to the sheets with come. He raced ahead of a gang of housebreakers through the house, smashing everything he could before they could get to him, and made for the secret exit under the indoor pool. But he couldn't get his breath underwater; he kept having to surface, and he couldn't dive deep enough to reach the control. And when he finally heaved himself out of the pool and ran into the shower one of them caught him, but it was Brice, slick and dripping wet with cold, cold water, pressing him against the white tile wall and kissing him breathless, choking off half-words and phrases and moans, sounding sobbing and desperate, in Hilary's mouth.

In the dream he buried his face in Brice's neck, and licked off all the water and fastened his mouth to the skin in what had suddenly become almost pitch-dark. He fumbled at the front of Brice's swimming shorts, palming a hot erection through the clammy clinging fabric, massaging it with the heel of his hand because it was all just too urgent to figure out how to get his hand inside. He looked up and Brice's eyes were the only thing he could see in the darkness, and he couldn't tell what they were saying--amusement? arousal? derision? hope?--and that terrified him, terrified him, and he was coming and Brice was coming in his hand without releasing his gaze, and he woke up.


follows [hard to find] and precedes [your move].