Chapter 1: Thomas

 

It was a stroke of luck that the recital was so busy. His parents were sitting as close to the front as possible—to be fair, his dad couldn’t really stand for long periods of time and his father always escorted him around. He could see his sisters’ heads next to his father. But Eira and Grace were young and had no choice yet. They were also used to putting up a façade around their parents, it would not help if Thomas approached now—it was true one could get used to anything and four years after leaving home, he was used to freedom.

It had been all too easy, even with his sisters holding him back from cutting ties completely.

He could have taken the empty seat at the end of the row they’d probably saved for Colleen. But without her around, his ability to keep a civil tongue around his parents was limited. He loved all his sisters equally, but Eira and Grace were fifteen and thirteen respectively and he couldn’t count on them as a buffer. He didn’t expect anything like that from them, of course, and if they’d gone out of their way to shield him, he would have told them not to. They lived with their parents by doing what they were asked to do, dressing how they were expected to dress and taking refuge in whatever variety of scientific knowledge took their fancy any given week. Thomas was pretty convinced they were both geniuses, but they never spoke of their future plans—or of how Eira would start university two whole years before Grace, who could probably not cope without her.

Sometimes he thought about it… But his parents would never agree to let Grace move in with him, not even if he didn’t spend most of the year travelling with the team. He’d considered going against their wishes, even taking legal measures… But that would leave Valentina alone at home. Damn his parents for having four kids after him to keep him coming back after he’d got out.

It was his job as the eldest to protect them, and Colleen’s… As his sister insisted on reminding him. He had the heavens to thank for Colleen, who was nineteen but hadn’t left despite how difficult their parents were.

He’d been hoping she would keep him company, but she’d already texted that she was running late—her linguistics presentation at university had run long.

He leaned against the back wall, close to the exit and out of sight. He was tall enough he could easily see across the room to the stage where Valentina and the rest of the choir were standing in bright red shirts. The ruffles in her shirt and matching ribbons at the end of her plaits had been obviously chosen by their dad. She looked lovely, of course, but Thomas knew Val preferred to wear her hair in a single low ponytail and her clothes plain. At least Colleen was around to make sure that could happen most of the time and that their parents didn’t buy their youngest sister an all-pink flowery wardrobe.

Colleen was the expert on handling their parents. Thomas was grateful, even if he also couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. If anyone should have protected the younger kids, it should have been him… But at least he was here now and he made enough money to have a flat of his own where they could escape for a day or two when things got too much at home.

Of course, that money came from hockey, which meant he couldn’t really be there as much as they needed, much less—

But he’d keep showing up to school events, buying them the ‘wrong’ clothes and lying about Colleen spending the night at his place when she went out with friends their parents wouldn’t have approved of while she lived under their roof and ate their food.

He covered his mouth, unable to suppress a yawn. Someone older was talking to the audience about something Thomas couldn’t quite catch. From years in school, he guessed it wouldn’t have helped keep him awake. If the recital was meant to highlight the children’s talent and hard work, why weren’t they singing?

Someone pressed against his side and Thomas jumped, a rush of adrenaline going through him. “Sorry!” The newcomer gave him an apologetic look.

Thomas blinked at him, then shook his head and reclined back against the wall. “It’s fine; you woke me up,” he added with a half-smile.

The stranger seemed surprised, but he smiled back, and oh, he was pretty. He was also older—probably married with kids if he was here. “Your kid singing?” he asked.

The man repressed a smile. “Nah. Well, I volunteer at an adoption centre. Kyeran’s really cool, so…” He seemed almost embarrassed by it, which Thomas didn’t get. It did make him flush enticingly.

“That’s really sweet of you,” he told him, eyeing up the kids lined up in the stage now that the adult in charge had vacated it.

“No,” the stranger insisted. “I told you, he’s really cool. And he loves singing. Better than therapy, apparently.”

Thomas shot him a look. Valentina was nine and the kids with her all had to be under twelve, but if the kid was living in an adoption centre... “Sounds like a tough kid.”

The man shrugged, and Thomas’s eyes were hopelessly drawn to the lines of his shoulders and arms under his blue suit. Probably come straight from work to make it on time for an event programmed with children’s bedtimes in mind. Thomas could see why a kid would trust this guy, down to earth and open even to a stranger. He extended a hand across the space between them. “I’m Thomas, by the way.”

“Uri.” The guy’s smile didn’t get any less stunning with repeated exposure, apparently. “Um, Uriel.”

“So do you live with them?”

“Oh, no,” Uri said at once, his eyes were brown. No, not brown… Hazel? Only that seemed too common. Honey and mustard, the colour of some rare mineral. “I’m a lawyer, I represent them when they need help. I sort out adoption paperwork and stuff like that. Well, when they can find parents that are crazy enough to want to jump through all the hoops.”

He sounded a little jaded and Thomas swallowed, suddenly aware he knew nothing about adoption centres beyond what their name indicated. “Um, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about this stuff. Why is it so hard?” He shifted in place, suddenly hoping the concert would start and save him the embarrassment. “I play hockey. For a living, I mean,” he explained.

The stranger blinked his thick dark eyelashes up at Thomas—he was a little shorter and built in the way men who didn’t spend half their lives at the gym could be, healthy and strong but not designed—and Thomas realised his words didn’t quite make sense out of context. He loved hockey, of course, but it was a little hard to explain that he didn’t know what happened to kids in his own neighbourhood when their parents couldn’t take care of them, or simply weren’t around. It seemed like something everyone should be aware of, like how to call the police or the fire brigade. And maybe they were and Thomas had slept through that Civics lesson, too.

Uri was quiet for long enough that Thomas risked a look. “Most people don’t know about it,” he said kindly. “But kids cannot be adopted if their biological parents are alive and might be able to take them back. Or grandparents. Any close family, really. The law says we must do our best to get them back where they belong.”

“But what if the parents aren’t… fit or something?”

“If they are dangerous, they are disqualified, but if they’re just drunkards or too out of it to remember to buy the kids clothes and school supplies and check they go to bed? Well, it’s their kids and they have parental rights, so they get another chance.”

Thomas’s stomach twisted; he’d wanted to get out of his house since he could remember—desperate to avoid his dad’s exact schedules and rules and his father’s menacing presence both—but he’d never lacked for anything he truly needed. Not anything anyone could see, anyway. “But then what’s the point of an adoption centre?”

Uri sighed, pressing his lips together for a moment. “Good question, and I’ve had a few kids ask me, too, to be honest. I guess the point is to get that lucky. Some of us do,” he added with a conciliatory smile.

“Oh, so you…” Thomas didn’t finish, lost in the fantasy. What would it have been like to move out of his parents’ place and somewhere where he could choose his friends, his books, share his thoughts without fear of punishment? It had never even occurred to him, really; he’d just figured he had to put up with it until he was old enough to get out.

Uri nodded. “I was six, and my mums are amazing.” He stole a look to the front of the room. “But most of the time, luck needs some help, I’ll admit.”

“You can say that again,” Thomas agreed wholeheartedly. It was only when the other man’s gaze returned to his face that he realised he’d have to explain the comment. “Um, just—” He exhaled, resigned. Why couldn’t he not overshare for bloody once? “My parents aren’t…” His eyes searched them out, a part of his brain always keeping track of whether they were close enough to overhear. “They are very traditional,” he settled for, which was true but didn’t explain why he’d brought them up when Uri was talking about being adopted, probably after losing his own biological parents somehow, if the process had been the same back then.

He almost jumped when he felt the other man lean against his side, intentionally this time. But at least in this, his body didn’t mess up. He turned his head to check the other’s reaction and found him staring towards the stage like an attentive guest; Thomas thought he might have been blushing, but even as close as he was, his darker skin made it hard to tell. “So, who are you here to see?” Uri asked him.

It was an innocuous enough question; except it wasn’t asked at an innocuous time. “My little sister. The littlest, actually, I’ve got four.”

Uri’s eyes flickered his way—in surprise?—and he nodded. “Sounds like fun. I only got one brother. David, same age as me.”

“Uriel and David…” Thomas repeated.

“My mothers aren’t traditional,” Uri clarified. “But ethnicity is one of the criteria for adoption.”

Thomas swallowed the question on the tip of his tongue, torn between wanting to know—he’d known the man for less than thirty minutes and he’d already made him want to know more about several things he’d never even thought about… Uri let the pause stand, then gave him a nod. “I mean, we don’t know for sure. My grandmother was too busy with me after my mum died to go to the temple or anything, but based on my name...” He shrugged. “Adoption counts as conversion anyway,” he explained.

“Well, you look the part,” Thomas offered, then immediately winced. It was true, which was to say that he conformed to a stereotype that had some basis on biology. “Fuck, I—”

Uri covered his mouth, bending over a little as he laughed. Thomas watched him, half fascinated, half dreading what he’d said.

“I’m sorry,” he insisted. “That was… rude.”

Uri’s dark eyes were still full of mirth when he straightened. “I like it,” he told Thomas. “You say what you think.”

“Well, I don’t think saying racist shit is a plus, really—”

“No,” Uri cut him off. “It’s not racist to acknowledge I look different from you. And, anyway, it’s… I kinda like that I look the part, I suppose.”

He vacillated, not sure if he should explain that he didn’t actually know what Jews looked like, not outside of movies, anyway, because… well, he never spoke about stuff like this with anyone. He had no idea if any of his teammates were religious. If they needed to do anything to keep their gods happy, it certainly didn’t show when they put on their skates and got on the ice.

And he’d never asked.

But maybe there was a reason they hadn’t said, either. Uri had. Uri wanted him to know. To know him.

“Well, if you were looking for someone who can stick his foot in his mouth at least once per conversation…”

The soft smile turned sharp. “Wouldn’t say I was looking for anyone,” he clarified. “But—”

Just then a woman on the last row turned around and shot them a venomous look. Thomas startled a little and Uri straightened like he’d been electrocuted. Thomas pressed his shoulder against the other man’s in silent support as the angelic voices of the children started to rise in the auditorium.

They were really good, to his surprise, and Valentina was standing straight and full of manic energy—not like when she was performing most of the afterschool activities their parents signed her up for. Maybe this would be a good compromise—something she loved that their parents thought it was appropriate for her to love.

Uri hadn’t moved away, and Thomas was proud he managed to keep his attention on the kids. It wasn’t just that the guy was hot, either—the unfinished conversation nagged at him.

But when he saw Valentina running off the stage towards their family, he couldn’t hold himself back and started pushing his way to the front. He could see her later, sure, but it was Val, the unexpected late baby, the one that would always be a baby for her big brother because there was no getting over holding a child that young and defenceless in your arms. She was already in his father’s arms when he reached them, but she turned towards him when he touched her hair, smiling widely in delight.

“Thomas!” she squealed. His father let him take her with a warning look—she was a big girl now and shouldn’t be babied. She could be a little girl for as long as she pleased as far as Thomas was concerned. And, anyway, hadn’t his father picked her up in the first place?

“Wow, you sing like an angel, but you are getting heavy as a rock!” he teased her.

She huffed. “I’m not!” She hit his arm with an open hand. “Mayyybe you skipped the gym again. I watched your game the other day! You need to watch your left more,” she admonished.

The damned thing was, she was right. She had an eye for the game; Thomas wasn’t sure if it was a natural gift or just all the hours he’d put her through when he’d babysat her during his secondary school years when he’d had whole mornings free.

“Thomas,” his dad cut in. “We need to get the girls home for dinner.”

Thomas looked away from Valentina’s dimming smile. “It’s not that late, is it?”

“You’re invited too, of course,” his dad offered, gentle but implacable. It was a common theme for his dad; he was an omega and really believed that meant he should be submissive and want nothing but to take care of his family, but at the same time he had very fixed ideas about how to do that and since his instincts were designed for just such a task, his opinion on the matter was unarguably superior to Thomas’s own.

Thomas hesitated before letting Val slide down to the floor. “Can’t,” he said with a shrug he hoped looked regretful enough. “Early practice.”

“Of course,” his dad agreed, green eyes inexpressive. Thomas didn’t think he’d bought it, but it didn’t matter, did it? It wasn’t like telling the truth was encouraged or even tolerated in their house.

Dinner wasn’t something Thomas could deal with on his own—especially not when his dad had pretty much announced his younger sisters would be sent to bed soon after. He gave his dad a short nod even as Val, quick to catch on, gave him a last squeeze before abandoning him to go find one of her friends to say goodbye.

Eira and Grace, both in homemade dresses that made them look like they’d just stepped through a time portal from their parents’ childhood, were whispering quietly to each other in a corner.

They looked up when Thomas approached, and Eira extended an arm for a half-hug. Grace didn’t, she disliked being touched. She could put up with it when her parents insisted it was expected of her, but none of her siblings ever tried.

“You running away?” Eira asked low enough not to be overheard but sharp enough to make Thomas grimace.

“You know it’ll just...” He waved a hand around.

His little sister sighed, put upon but understanding beyond her years. “Yeah, whatever. Can we come to your flat this weekend?”

Thomas frowned, trying to remember what day of the week it was. He knew he had a game coming in three days, but other than that...

"It’s Tuesday,” Eira offered, projecting superior amusement that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a celebrity, or a monarch.

Thomas rolled his eyes at her. “Okay, so I’m playing a game on Friday. Home ice. You can come over on Saturday.” He glanced at their father, who seemed to be finishing his conversation with whomever had been keeping him busy so far. “Are you working on something special?” he risked asking.

It wasn’t like their parents disapproved of his middle sisters playing around with transistors and robots—not as long as they were also willing to dress the part of good girls and keep the right company. It was less that they struggled to live up to their standards and more that being under observation all the time was pretty exhausting.

“We can’t get the new radio amplifier to work,” Grace offered. “We don’t know why, but maybe someone at that store close to your house can help.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “We can stop by. Maybe we can all go to dinner, then Colleen can take Val home and you can sleep over.”

Grace smiled at him for that, a rare sight. Thomas returned it in kind. He felt a little guilty sometimes for how obviously he preferred Colleen and Valentina—but then again, Grace and Eira were practically attached to each other. It worked for them; it didn’t mean he didn’t love them too, or that he wasn’t there when they needed a safe space to decompress.

“Thomas, it was nice of you to come,” his father said, making him jump a little. He’d lost track of him, he realised with annoyance.

“Um, sure, couldn’t miss Val’s debut,” he replied, trying a smile. “She’s good, isn’t she?”

His father nodded. “Yes, she has a lovely voice. Might be something we want her to pursue,” he added thoughtfully.

It was nothing sinister, but it made Thomas tense anyway—he couldn’t help it; with his parents it was always about the ultimate goal of turning them into perfect citizens, which in itself was nothing else but a side-effect of their own goal of proving they were perfect citizens. Children were a reflection on their parents, his dad liked to say. If that was the case, Thomas must have been a reflection a pretty muddy pool, not that either of his parents would have said anything as straightforward about his choice of career, but he knew anyway. He’d been brought up to help his family and support his community, and what had he done with that privilege? He’d decided to play a game for a living. Exercise was a healthy lifestyle choice, of course—his father went on a run every morning before work and his dad did yoga and calisthenics—but sports… well, they were all well and good for children, of course, that’s how Thomas had ended up on the ice in the first place. They’d encouraged his passion back then and attended his games with the same supportive smiles they’d probably had as Val sang, but later…

“Yeah, maybe,” he said vaguely, looking over his father’s shoulder more than at the man. And then he saw him. The man from earlier… It took his brain a moment to scramble for the name. Uri. “Oh, I gotta…” Across the room, as if feeling the weight of his gaze, dark eyes met his and the excuse turned into a very real urge. “Sorry, I need to talk to someone.”

He didn’t wait for his father to answer, a choice he’d likely have to pay for later. But Thomas was very much a guy who lived in the present—later, after all, might never come.

Uri was tall enough that they could have held each other’s gazes as Thomas crossed the auditorium, but he’d looked away after barely a moment. He was probably talking to someone, maybe the kid he’d come to watch, but Thomas got the feeling the withdrawal had been more deliberate than that.

For a second the thought occurred to him that the guy might not want to talk to him again, but his feet didn’t seem to care, and when he caught sight of the broad shoulders again, the decision was somehow already made.

The child chattering away was dark-skinned and curly-haired, and obviously half in love with Uri, who was nodding along with a serious, attentive expression that seemed at odds with both the setting and his interlocutor. Except, Thomas thought as he slowed to watch, that Uri made it seem anything but odd. He raised a hand and said something, then listened again, tilting his head to literally give his ear—and caught Thomas staring straight at him like a total creep. He offered an apologetic smile and a shrug and got an intense, steady look in return.

He was pretty sure that look didn’t mean he should fuck off.

And they’d already established Thomas was the kind of person who didn’t have a very good sense of… timing, and that Uriel liked that. Maybe, Thomas hoped he wasn’t being too optimistic, that Uriel liked him.

It was definitely worth a shot.

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©2018 by N.J. Lysk. Contact NJLysk@lostinabook.org if there are any issues.