Authors: Nicole Stewart
She shrugged but nodded. “I understand. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know how you feel, but I empathize. I know this has to be tough for you.” He stopped in the hallway outside his father’s hospital room door. A nurse scurried past them with a quiet pardon and kept hurrying down the hall. The fluorescent light illuminated the couple as he took both her hands and stared at Cee-Cee.
“I don’t feel anything. That’s the point. I could walk in there, and that man could be dead. Other than sympathy for the death of another human being, I wouldn’t be able to grieve him. I don’t know him!”
“I don’t think your mom expects you to fake a connection with your father that isn’t there.”
“He shouldn’t have made her wait for him. She was his dirty little secret, and he was the promise she shouldn’t have believed in, and I feel…so like them.” He shuddered. Cee-Cee looked into his eyes inquisitively.
“With me and Phoenix,” she deduced. “That’s why it bothers you so much.” She squeezed his upper arm and dropped her gaze. “If it helps, I don’t promise anything.”
He snorted and pulled away. “Come on. Visiting hours are almost closed. Let’s get this over with.” He tapped on the door first before letting himself in.
Whether Cee-Cee realized it or not, she promised everything. She promised to be easy to get along with. She promised to be there with him when he needed her. She promised late night, nonsensical conversations and laughter when he joked and a listening ear when he wanted to try out the lyrics to a new song. Just by virtue of being, she promised to be the girl of his dreams.
She wouldn’t allow herself to be, but there was promise.
“Reginald Harold?” he whispered to the man in the hospital bed staring at a small TV mounted to the wall.
There were wires leading to monitors at the bedside, and he looked frail and unkempt. His hospital gown bloused out from his haggard frame, but his eyes were alert and alive. Grey as a storm but clear. His eyes lit up when he saw Ashley.
“You came,” Reginald said simply. His baritone voice carried, a big voice for such a wasted man. Ashley nervously stepped closer.
“Hi. A flight across the world and a tour bus ride across the country later, I’m here. How are you?”
“Making it,” the old man muttered with a rueful grin. “How are you? Who’s this you’ve got with you?”
Cee-Cee gave a small wave and clung to Ashley’s arm. “This is my friend, Cee-Cee.”
“Nice to meet you, Cee-Cee.”
“Nice to meet you as well, Mr. Reginald. We came a long way to spend some time with you. I know Ashley has been looking forward to this.”
“Has he?” A slow smile said he disbelieved her. She shook his hand, and he rubbed his thumb over her smooth skin. “It’s good he has friends like you. I’m glad you came.”
His words were so like Ashley’s that she caught her breath and said nothing.
Silence slipped in. They didn’t know what to say to each other. Ashley swallowed thickly. He saw the resemblance. They had the same flared nostrils and slightly upturned eyes. The same bold chin. Reginald had silvering blond hair instead of his dark brown.
But as he stared at his biological father, he thought about days spent tossing a ball with William. His father had taken him to the beach and taught him how to surf. He had learned how to drive in William’s beat up Ute. William had let it slide the first time he broke curfew and grounded him when he slipped up and did it again.
William had had the sex talk with him and explained girls. William had helped him pick out a tux for the prom and taken him and his mum out to dinner after he graduated from high school. It was William who’d shout for him to turn down his music and get to bed when he stayed up late, practicing guitar. William. That man was his father. This man was a stranger.
He had questions. He didn’t know if Reginald had answers that would suffice. “Why did you leave my mother?” he asked quietly.
In the hush, Reginald nodded and made a contemplative sound. He looked at the ceiling thoughtfully. “Young,” he answered. “Foolish. Busy. For no justifiable reason. Did she tell you that I knew nothing about you until years and years later?”
Ashley bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling. He inclined his head subtly. “I managed without you. She didn’t deserve to.”
“Love is a many splendored thing and a monstrous creature over which we have no control. Neither the giving of it nor the getting. I wish I had been a better man to her, but the truth is your mother was not my destiny. I went on and married someone else. We had a home, a family. She died. My oldest boy…second oldest, I guess…he moved out of state. I don’t hear from him much, but he’s living well, I think. I see that you are too. Big time rock star.”
He chuckled drily and the laughter turned to a coughing fit. His spare frame rattled as he covered his mouth with his fist and hacked into his hand. Cee-Cee quickly reached for the pitcher of water while Ashley helped his father sit forward to open his lung passages. Reginald turned red with exertion, but after an uncomfortable period of painful coughs, he finally managed to calm the spasm. He inhaled shallowly.
“It’s cancer,” he answered the unspoken question.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cee-Cee sadly. She rubbed Ashley’s back when he tensed at the diagnosis.
“How long?” Ashley whispered uncomfortably. He wondered what his brother was like. He had always wanted a sibling. And what about this man who spoke eloquently and had gentle eyes? What would life have been like with him as father? It was easy to see how his mother might have fallen for such a person. Reginald Harold was not the heartless villain he had expected.
He was a tired old man who had made his peace with his past bad behavior. This trip wasn’t for his father. It truly was for him.
Reginald muttered, “I don’t keep up with the time. I’m here while I’m here. I’ll be gone when I’m gone.”
“Months, son. A couple of months. I have my affairs in order, both heavenly and earthly. What I wasn’t man enough to do while I had the time will be handled while I don’t. I want you to know that you’re in my will. It’s not much.”
“No, I don’t want anything.” Ashley clasped his hand and dropped into the chair by the bedside. He hadn’t expected to feel anything, certainly not this desire to hold onto Reginald for a while longer. “I don’t need anything. Is there anything I can do for you? I have money. I can put you in a better facility, help pay some of your bills.”
Cee-Cee slipped quietly from the room. He didn’t even notice her go. Reginald shook his head and leaned back against the cool pillow. “I have insurance. I don’t need money. I just wish…you could stay with me a while.”
“Did you love my mother?”
“Oh, I thought she was the sun and moon. Couldn’t figure out how to get the sun and moon home with me. See, I was a low level employee when they sent me over to Sydney, but I’m sure I made her believe I had money to spare. I didn’t. I lived in a one room flat in New York at the time. Could barely feed myself, much less support someone else. And your mother was doing well for herself. She had a quaint little house. She had friends and family. Despite what she did for a living, she was respected.”
“So you left her because you thought it was better for her?”
“I didn’t want her to come to New York and be disappointed in me. Sheer cowardice. There is no justification, and I’m sorry, son.” Ashley nodded. He watched Reginald’s eyes get heavy. The old man blinked and added, “It’s tough, you know? Can’t explain it. The son I was with for a lifetime takes for granted he’s got me always. You never had me. I wonder if you might want me.”
“I’m here, Dad. I’ll stay around while I can.”
“He’s busy, you know? He’d come if he could. Don’t think ill of him, now. Junior reminds me of me that way, too busy for the things that count.”
Ashley wanted to tell him he was busy too. But he wasn’t too busy. He would talk to Tegan. They’d put the tour on hold. Money would be lost, but maybe he could crowdsource. His Asher fans would be more than happy to help once they heard he had to pause things to be there for his sick father. The man he had never known. He shook his head. He knew how this story would appeal to his fans.
Reginald was asleep within minutes after that, and Ashley exited the silent room to see where Cee-Cee had disappeared to. He found her in the waiting room across from the oncology floor nursing station. “There you are.” She rose at the sound of his voice.
“I’m staying, Cee-Cee. I need to stay in town and spend some time with him.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do? You’ve worked so hard to get your career to where it is. That’s a lot to walk away from.”
“There’s more to life than careers, Cee-Cee,” he scoffed. He wished she understood that. Her career was the only thing standing between them, and he was beginning to hate her bullish ambition. “Let’s go.”
“Yeah, I need to get over to Phoenix. He just called me, sounded upset.”
“That I was here with you.”
“Why would he be upset about that?” Ashley pushed the button for the elevator and glanced at her quizzically.
“Because we didn’t invite him.”
and Ashley ambled into his condo, and Phoenix slammed the door. Fuming, he held up his phone. On the screen was Cee-Cee’s Facebook page. She didn’t even know Phoenix was following her. He shouted, “I never check Facebook. I don’t even know who set up a page for me.”
“I set it up for you,” Cee-Cee murmured. “Why are you so upset? And why are you stalking my Facebook page? You could’ve just sent me a friend request.”
“Well, I happened to open it up, and this is what I see.” Phoenix hit play and the video displayed Ashley and Cee-Cee at the hospital.
“My bae is coming with me to meet my real dad for the first time. Wish me luck.”
Ashley flashed a peace sign and the shot stilled.
“Have you both forgotten that we went public with you as my girlfriend? Now, you’ll have every tabloid connecting the two of you and ruining everything I’ve spent weeks working for! All these events we’ve been going to together won’t mean anything. That shit’s local and Ashley fucking blabs his business to the whole fucking world!”
“I didn’t even post that to Facebook.”
“NowIn,” Cee-Cee reminded him. “It posts to all your accounts unless you customize your post to only go to where you want it to go.”
“Oh, that’s right! I forgot I set up the all-post function at the fundraiser,” Ashley muttered. He didn’t look fazed by Phoenix’s bad attitude. He shrugged nonchalantly.
Phoenix growled. “So, he’s using your app now? Wonderful. Glad I’m the last to know.” He threw his phone on the side table by the door and marched to the back of his condo to his bedroom.
“Hang on a second!” Cee-Cee flew behind him angrily. “Where the hell do you get off being upset about him using the app that you turned down? As I recall, I offered it to you! Ashley helped me out and got more downloads than I could have ever hoped for, so I’m not going to let you crucify him behind being a good friend!”
“Guys, stop fighting. I have a headache, and I seriously can’t deal with this right now.”
“Whine to your Ashers, Ashley. I could give a shit less!” Phoenix shouted from his room. Cee-Cee pulled back, stung.
Ashley fired back, “Look, don’t get snappy with me! You have no right! You’re the one too fucking preoccupied to pay us any attention. While you’re spouting off about Cee-Cee being your fucking public girlfriend, you barely know a thing about her day-to-day life. You’re not there when she’s babysitting Joe. You haven’t gone house hunting with her and seen her eyes light up when she talks about her future. I guess you don’t have time to treat your friends the way we deserve to be treated!”
“I’m running a goddamned campaign!”
“And? I’m on fucking tour! I make time for the people I care about. I don’t stuff them in a closet to take out when I’m ready to play. Hell, at least I can go public with her. I needed her. She was there for me. Don’t tarnish that with your temper tantrum about having to see it on the Internet.”
Phoenix threw himself into the chair by his closet and stared at the two people crowding his bedroom door. Ashley glared at him. “What has gotten into you?” Cee-Cee asked.
Phoenix bit his tongue. Envy. Plain and simple. While he was out campaigning, making appearances, giving speeches, putting in long hours, Ashley was keeping Cee-Cee company. Did she prefer the singer to him? Did Ashley prefer her? He felt left out of the group dynamic, and he knew he was being petty for starting this argument. It wasn’t a big deal that they had gone to the hospital without him.
He just couldn’t get Ashley’s voice out of his head calling Cee-Cee by a pet name online. He couldn’t unsee her soothingly rubbing the man’s back like they had known each other for years. She never looked at Phoenix quite like that, and—damn it to hell—Ashley didn’t dare affectionately refer to him in public like that. It felt like they were the ones in a real relationship and Phoenix was being humored.
Cee-Cee could comfortably date Ashley and have a great future with him. He wasn’t bothered by her drive to make her app popular. They were already good friends. In reality, Phoenix was only in the equation because she was kind enough to pretend to be his girlfriend.
All he wanted was to feel less alone in this fray. There were so many people needing something from him. He needed something, too. He needed them—Ashley and Cee-Cee. He didn’t like the way the relationship was splintering as each of them got busier. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
Ashley muttered, “Whatever,” and pushed out of the room. Cee-Cee stayed behind. She watched him with cool eyes. Phoenix looked away, stared at the wall.
“I said I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, that was some sorry behavior. Now, do you want to talk about it?” She lifted her brows and looked unforgiving. Phoenix huffed.
“You care about him, don’t you?”
“I care about the both of you, and I know you care about Ashley too, which is why I can’t understand how you could know he just met his dying father and still come out of left field with this tantrum. He’s been through some major shit in his life, Phoenix. Everything isn’t about you and how you feel. Did you consider how he’s feeling right now?”
“Well...” Phoenix was at a loss for words. He hadn’t much paid attention to that part of the recording, focused as he was on Ashley’s arm around Cee-Cee. “What happened?”
Cee-Cee took a seat on his bed and dropped her voice, eyeing the door and listening for Ashley. “His father left his mother in Australia and he was raised by some other guy. He just found out about Reginald a few months ago, and now he finds out his dad has cancer.”
“Shit.” He felt like the biggest jerk.
“It gets worse. Turns out his dad never let his mom go public with their relationship because she was an escort, so there’s a reason Ashley’s not into being anyone’s secret. He knows how that story ends. He doesn’t want to repeat history.”
Phoenix covered his face and breathed. Behind closed eyes he saw Ashley’s face as he had agreed to keep their relationship a secret. He had made that sacrifice for him, despite this. “I feel like such a bastard.”
“Shut up,” he muttered.
Cee-Cee came to him and sat astride his lap, pushing his hair out of his face. He couldn’t believe how good it felt, having her here, not seen on video, not on Facebook, here. With him. She kissed the tip of his nose. “Go talk to him. He needs you.”
He wrapped his arms around her, taking a minute to just enjoy her soft weight before he answered. “Yeah, but what do I say? ‘You can go on Twitter and tell everybody we’re banging?’ No. Absolutely not. I empathize, but you know my situation.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t give a shit what compromise you make, but if you want this relationship to work, you better figure out a way to stop making everyone around you bend to your will because it’s a two-way street.”
“Three-way,” he said softly.
“And I don’t make everyone bend to my will.”
She slipped out of his arms and gestured to the door. Sighing, Phoenix exited his room to find Ashley. The singer was in the living room stretched out on the couch with his hands behind his head and his eyes closed. From the master bathroom came the sound of the faucet and Phoenix realized Cee-Cee was about to take a bath, giving them some space to be alone. He settled on the floor next to the sofa and tentatively put a hand to Ashley’s arm.
“What?” Ashley grumbled.
Phoenix kissed the side of his face. “I hear it’s been a rough night for you. I wish I could’ve been there. Next time if you tell me your plans early enough, I can move things around in my schedule and free up time. I want to be a part of your life, too.”
“No, you don’t.” Ashley turned his head away. Phoenix kissed the back of his neck and rubbed his fingers up and down his smooth stomach. He slipped his hand beneath Ashley’s shirt to feel his skin. Pressing his nose to his shoulder, he inhaled the spicy aroma of his deodorant and cologne and closed his eyes.
“I do.” He kissed Ashley’s arm.
He shifted his arm away. “Hey, I know you’re used to being needed, but I don’t need you. Sorry to put a damper on your hero complex.”
Phoenix rose to his feet and stared down at him. “I started this fight, but I’m trying to end it. Don’t act like this.”
Ashley bucked his eyes and sat up. “I said I don’t need you. Surprised? I’ve gotten through the first twenty-five years of my life without you. Just because you won't be present, holding my hand through every bad life experience doesn't mean I'll be miserable! Wait, what am I saying?” He gave a bitter laugh. “You only want to hold my hand when no one’s watching.”
Phoenix grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him to his feet. Ashley shoved him in the center of his chest. Phoenix angrily swept his hands away and grabbed his shirt again, his color high. Ashley swung on him. Phoenix jerked him off his feet and swung him away from the sofa to the open floor. Ashley gripped his wrists and struggled to break his hold, but Phoenix was stronger.
“Quit it!” Phoenix growled.
“Get the hell off of me, you prick! You only think of yourself! I’m sick of pandering to your ego. You’re not the only one of us who has needs.”
“Stop fighting me, honey. Calm down. I’m listening, Ashley. I’m listening.”
“I’m not your damned doll, Phoenix! You can’t pick and choose when to wind me up!”
Phoenix clasped the back of his neck and pulled him to his chest in a tight bear hug to keep him from fighting. He pressed his face to Ashley’s. “I’m not playing with you,” he whispered. Ashley shook his head and tried to pull away. Phoenix heard him sniffle and realized he was either crying or close to it. He softened his hug and held him. “I’m not playing with you, Ashley. I’m not.” He slid his mouth to Ashley’s and reveled in the soft, salty kiss. Ashley’s cheeks were wet.
Phoenix dropped his hands to Ashley’s waist. He licked along the inner curve of his upper lip, eyes wide open. Brown and grey orbs locked. Ashley’s pain was written plainly on his face, and Phoenix cursed himself for the hardships that Ashley had lived that he couldn’t alleviate.
“You need me,” Phoenix uttered, begging him to say it back. Ashley grunted in dissent, angry and wanting to deny it. But it was the truth. Phoenix shook him by the shoulders. “Tell me you need me!”
Ashley stepped back and pulled Phoenix with him, both of them falling onto the sofa. “You say it first,” he ordered.
“I need you. Alright? I said it,” he gasped. Phoenix moaned and kissed him deeper. “I think about you all day, and it’s driving me crazy because no matter what I do, I can’t hide from that fact. I’m fucking seething with envy every time I can’t have either of you! I need you.”
Their clothes were shed to the music of rushed breaths and sultry moans. Phoenix hurried away to turn off the lights and make sure no one could peep at them through the doors and windows. Then he powered on his sound system and, unexpectedly, the last song he was listening to began to play. It was Ashley’s.
Phoenix blushed in the dark room as he came back to his lover on the couch. Ashley hummed, sang a few lines. “Don’t stop,” Phoenix whispered. Ashley straddled his lap and stared down into Phoenix’s face. He sang the lyrics to the haunting melody. It was the first song from his set at the Yellow Lounge and would forever be synonymous with Phoenix and Cee-Cee.
As he sang, he punctuated the notes with soft kisses. In a dimly lit doorway nearby, Cee-Cee stood wordlessly, transfixed by the scene that played out before her.