It wasn’t like it wasn’t difficult enough to try to make breakfast for them both and try to dress the little girl for school at the same time, but trying to pull clothing onto a moving target just added one more level to the whole thing. Justin was pretty sure that it might have been easier to try to pull a t-shirt onto a Tasmanian devil, actually, or a whirlwind.
Only forces of nature like that were unlikely to talk quite as much as his daughter was. How, exactly, she had come from him, he had no idea. They were pretty much polar opposites, with her gregarious, a chatterbox, friendly and extroverted and open. Whereas Justin, well, he was not any of those things, to say the very least.
“Dad, Dad, Dad,” she chanted, as she bounced around him. Behind him, he could smell the eggs that he was cooking, or trying to cook, though mostly he was fussing with his daughter’s long, midnight black hair, which was still tangled exactly as it had been when she’d crawled out of bed despite how he’d told her a million times to brush it.
“Jade, we don’t have time for this,” Justin protested, pulling a hair elastic from around his wrist and wrapping it around the thick strands of her hair. He turned around back to the eggs, which were steaming alarmingly now, but Jade grabbed him by the wrist and tugged him back.
“Dad, this is important! I need new tights.”
Justin sighed and rubbed at his eyes, eggs forgotten, for the moment. The toast popped up, mocking him with its cheerfulness, and he looked down into the imploring gray eyes of his daughter, eyes of the same shape and hue as his own, but filled with so much more energy, and curiosity, and youth, and life. Eyes that reflected a soul that hadn’t yet figured out just how much the world well and truly sucked, and if Justin had his way, never would.
“Okay. I’ll stop by the dance shop this weekend,” Justin said, calculating rapidly as he tried to find the closest time that he could stop by to get yet another pair of dance tights for his daughter. What did she even do with them? Roll around in gravel pits? Eat them?
“No, Daddy,” Jade returned, looking up at him with the beginnings of panic in her eyes. “I need them for dance today, after school. It can’t wait until the weekend. You know that Miss Daphne says that our dance outfits have to be in good shape.”
Justin groaned and fought down the nearly overwhelming urge just to fall to the ground and bury his face in his hands. He didn’t have time for this. Every spare minute today was accounted for. Lester was expecting a new Lost Boys album within the month, and Jade had a dance recital coming up, and he still had to keep her fed …
Shit. Fed. Spinning around so quickly that the room seemed to reel around him, blurring sickeningly, Justin looked down at the eggs which were supposed to have been his daughter’s breakfast. Black now around the edges, and with the yolks hardened, the whole thing was a congealed mess. It wasn’t the sort of thing that Justin would feed to a dog, much less the most important person in the world to him.
“Go brush your hair,” Justin finally said, after peering hopefully at the eggs for a few moments. But there was nothing that could be salvaged from them, and, taking a deep breath to try to calm himself down, he tossed the pan into the sink and ran some hot water into it.
When Jade came back, fully dressed and with her hair at least neatly back into a nicer ponytail than he’d been able to manage, Justin thrust a piece of toast into her hand. He had another one, liberally smeared with peanut butter, not necessarily the healthiest breakfast in the world, but at least it was something.
“Dad, it’s ten to nine,” Jade helpfully pointed out, like Justin wasn’t perfectly aware of how the moments were ticking by. He fought down the urge to swear like a sailor, shoving shoes onto his feet at the same time as he slipped the straps of Jade’s backpack over her slender arms and securely onto her shoulders.
“Dad! We have to go,” she prompted, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him out of the house toward the car. He knew that she was right, too. If they left right then, they would get to her school just barely in time.
Which made it, of course, the best possible time for his phone to start to ring, vibrating merrily in his pocket as though he had any time whatsoever to answer it. As he swung into the car, checking anxiously to make sure that Jade was settling in and getting her seatbelt buckled, he tugged out his phone and dismissed the call without even looking at the call display.
As he drove, Jade chattered, and Justin felt his shoulders relaxing, some of the tension knots letting go. He might not care much about the shows she was talking about or the hobbies that were big in her class which she’d bought into fully with all of her customary enthusiasm, but it was definitely delightful to see how much she enjoyed it.
Sometimes, he had to wonder why he did all of this. Why he worked so hard, why he had always worked so hard, brought himself up through little more than sheer effort and willpower.
When he watched his daughter bounce out of the car, her hair gleaming with little glints of red as it was heated by the warm spring sunshine, so full of life and energy and will, he knew why. He knew why he would do it all again, too, every sleepless night, every time he’d had to kiss someone’s ass to get to where he was, beg people to give him a chance.
“Dad!” Jade looked back, shading her amused, slightly worried, gray eyes in the golden sunshine. His daughter, the only person in the world who really, truly mattered to him. Was she worth it? It wasn’t even a question. She was worth anything, and his heart swelled as he looked at her until it cut off his voice entirely.
“Dad, what about my tights?” she demanded, and Justin swallowed down that lump and forced his voice past it. Even with his frustration, and the rough morning that he was having, he couldn’t help the smile that touched his lips as he looked at her.
“I’ll get your tights, but try to tell me before you need them next time,” Justin told her. But he might as well have been talking to the wind, because she might try, really and sincerely, but there were limits to what an eight-year-old could even remember to do.
“Thanks!” Jade gave him a bright grin and then ran off, dark hair flowing behind her like a river, so damn precious to Justin that he couldn’t take his eyes off of her for a while.
Being a single father was no picnic, but if anyone had asked him right then if it was worth it, he wouldn’t even have had to hesitate. Being Jade’s father was worth it, more than worth it. Worth any hardship, and annoyance. Worth any number of overly expensive dance tights.
Sighing softly, he reluctantly turned his attention from his daughter and to his phone, which was starting to ring again. It jangled on the edges of his nerves, which were already frayed, and when he finally snatched it out of his pocket, he almost bruised his finger as he pressed the button to accept the call.
“Yeah?” he asked, and he managed to control his voice enough that he didn’t snap at whoever was on the other end of the line. Not quite, anyway, though it was definitely a close thing.
“Excuse me? Where do you get off, talking to me like that?” Huh. Maybe Justin hadn’t controlled his tone as well as he had meant to.
The voice was familiar, and one that set Justin’s teeth on edge. He and Lester hadn’t been exactly on the same page a lot of the time, but the guy was, more or less, his boss. Most of the work that Justin was doing these days was for the Lost Boys, a popular boy band who were blatantly queer, and Justin couldn’t afford to lose such a good opportunity career-wise, much less financially.
“Sorry.” Justin almost meant it, too. He really had no call to be snarling at Lester, no matter how obnoxious the man was. It wasn’t like Justin hadn’t met some pretty sleazy people in the music industry before. Lester was probably no worse than most of them.
“Just get your ass to my office.” Lester was clearly not appeased, and Justin winced as Lester ended the call with an abruptness that spoke of trouble. Justin took a deep breath, glancing at the time and having some tough choices to make.
His daughter’s dance school was incredibly picky about things like tights, and Justin had promised that he would get her some so she could go to the class today. That was important, but so was going to work. Still, there was a shop that sold dance supplies near enough to Lester’s office, so he could just drop by there, snag the tights, and go see what Lester wanted before he got into any more trouble.
Some days, most days, even, he felt like he was walking a tightrope—like the slightest misstep could send him plunging down to utter ruin. Today was worse than some, but he tried to remind himself that Lester was just a dick. There was no reason to believe that he was actually going to do anything rash. The songs that Justin wrote, and had written, for the band, they were always hits.
So really, what was he worried about? Only there was something that hovered over him, something like a thick cloud that he couldn’t seem to get out from under, no matter how much he tried to logic his way out of it. Something bad was going to happen. That was just how today was going.
Sighing, he put his phone back into his pocket and started the car. Now, he had even less time today than he thought he did, only a few hours while Jade was in school to get through all of the stuff he needed to do.
Somehow, though, he’d get it all done. He always did.
* * *
It didn’t end up working out nearly as well as he could have wished, though. The traffic was a nightmare, and his car, as the months went by and got warmer, was starting to make a strange noise. It seemed to be prone to overheating, and he supposed he was going to have to bring it into the shop to get it looked at.
Just one more thing to add to the list of things that needed time. Time, which was something that he just didn’t have. And on top of that, there was a huge, long line at the dance shop, because, of course, it was recital time for all of the other young dancers in town, too.
So he was already running late, unacceptably so, when he pulled his overheated car into the blessed coolness of the underground parking lot. There was one elevator that only went to the ground level, but it had a sign on it proclaiming it Out of Order, so he swore viciously to himself as he took the stairs two at a time, panting by the time he got to the top.
Glancing down at his phone, he swore again when he saw the time. Almost eleven o’clock, and very, very late. The air conditioning blasted him, but it couldn’t dry the haze of sweat on his brow, and not just from his mad dash up the stairs, either.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been late to meet with Lester. Not by a long shot. Lester was always deeply annoyed by that, but what could Justin say? He didn’t tend to share with people that he had a child, and even if he had told Lester, he didn’t think that would change anything.
Well, there wasn’t much that he could do, other than getting there as soon as possible. At this time of the day, the office building lobby was pretty much dead, and there was finally something like luck as Justin jabbed his finger at the shiny chrome button to summon the elevator. The light around the edges of the button lit only briefly, then went dark again as the elevator slid smoothly open. The car was already on his floor, and maybe he wasn’t going to end up being even later.
Even though he knew there was no point, Justin thumbed on his phone, then glanced down at the glowing screen as he stepped into the elevator. His nervous eyes settled on the time again, and so he really had no way of knowing what was going to happen, no way of protecting himself against the human cannonball who flung himself into the elevator behind him seconds before the doors shut.
In fact, Justin had little time to do anything but glance up, startled, into the most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen, eyes exactly the shade of the ocean which was only a few blocks away from this very building. He’d always struggled, and him being a wordsmith, too, with trying to describe those eyes to himself. Were they green, or were they blue?
It wasn’t a question that he was going to get to answer today, though. All he could do was half raise his arms just in time for an incredibly large, strong, energetic young man to blunder right into them.
The issue of what would happen next was never really even up for debate. Ken outweighed Justin by at least fifty pounds, all of it muscle, and was taller and broader than him, too. Justin might as well have tried to stop a speeding car with just his hands, and he felt the breath blasted out of his lungs as he stumbled back and onto the grimly elevator floor.
He barely noticed the pain as his elbow slammed into the mirrored wall. He didn’t noticed as the elevator doors shut silently, and when the elevator started to rise, the swooshing sensation in the pit of his stomach didn’t seem to have anything to do with movement but everything to do with the young man on top of him.
“Ken,” Justin gasped, hoping that the younger man would think that Justin had just had the air knocked out of him by the fall. And he had, but he swiftly recovered from that and focused instead on the large, strong, hot body pressing down against his.
Was it the first time that he’d touched this man? Other than maybe a handshake when they’d first met, Justin was sure that it was. And the contact, the touch, was full body, a gorgeous, fiery, beautiful young man on top of him, both of them looking at each other directly in the eye.
It was also—Justin thought—maybe the first time that Ken had actually, really, truly looked at him and seen him. Though surely that was just wishful thinking? All Justin really knew was that he couldn’t look away and that he wanted this to never, ever end.