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Bells takes a breath, sitting back on her heels, chin wet and tongue tingling from the rasp of the soft golden hairs between Hayes’s legs. She keeps her fingers dug into the flesh of his thighs, his ass, spreading them apart so she can look her fill. “Do you remember,” she asks, “Valentine’s day, my sophomore year?”

“Teixeira…” Hayes groans into the pillow. “Fuck.”

“I remember,” Bells continues on, ignoring the way he shifts his hips, trying to push back into her hands. “I remember the Liquor and Lingerie party at Jase’s and I remember what you looked like in that red silk slip.”

He’d been gorgeous, so perfectly beautiful, with his cheeks flushed and his hair damp and messy and the top of the silk slip skimming his upper thighs, the thin little straps of it straining across his broad shoulders, and his mouth that had tasted like gin and Bells’s pussy. She’d locked them in the upstairs bathroom, and bent him over the sink and fucked him with her fingers while he bit her other hand and came all across Jase’s bathroom tiles.

“Do you still have that slip?”

“It wasn’t mine!” Hayes gasps as she slips her thumb into his hole, outraged and breathy and indignant that she’d think he just kept women’s lingerie around, she guesses.

“That’s okay, sweetheart,” Bells assures him, “I’ll buy you as many pretty lacy things as you want.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Teixeira,” Hayes snarls, “shut the fuck up and fuck me.”

Bells takes her hands off him, long enough to spread more slick over the purple silicon ridges of her dick, and tries not to smirk at the way Hayes whines when she’s not touching him.

“You are such a cute, needy little slut,” she says, pushing into him, listening to him groan as she bottoms out in one fluid motion, “can’t go five seconds without something filling you up--”

Hayes pushes back against her, grunting at the initial breech, and says, “The fucking shit you say, Teixeira,” and after that, with heat blossoming in her chest and curling around her heart, they don’t say anything for a while. Hayes too incoherent, breathing into the cross of his arms; Bells too focused on doing her level best to break their new bed, chasing her pleasure and Hayes’s to the rhythm of the frame slamming against the wall with all the strength her dedication to leg day can muster.

 

Afterward, Hayes wobbles like a baby deer on the walk from the bed to the bathroom and Bells smiles contentedly. He kisses her when he comes back to the bed, hand cupped around her jaw, biting her lip, and she falls asleep with her face smushed into his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her, his face buried in her hair.

 

When she wakes up, it’s still dark outside. There’s no sound of movement in the apartment, and a glance at her phone tells her it’s 3:41 a.m. The side of the bed next to her is empty. When she gets up, the kitchen is empty too, and the bathroom obviously so, dark and unlit, the door open. The TV isn’t on and Hayes isn’t on the couch. She slides the patio door open and finds him sitting on the lawn chair, bare feet on the concrete slab. He’s in shorts and nothing else, and the wavering fluorescent light makes his tattoos twist a little. He glances at her and takes a sip from the glass in his hand. The ice rattles when he sets it back down.

“Hey, Teixeira,” he says, soft, like he doesn’t want to disturb the quiet of the hour, and a little weary, like he hadn’t really expected she’d sleep through his early morning vigil, but had been hoping she would.

She climbs into his lap. He doesn’t stop her even though they don’t really fit between the folding arms of it very well. He makes room for her, shifts his arm so somehow they squeeze. She sniffs his cup. It smells like the cold brew coffee from his fridge. Bells lets the minutes tick by without saying anything. Hayes tucks her head under his chin and doesn’t volunteer any explanation. She can feel his throat and jaw move when he lifts his cup to take another sip.

Finally, she asks, “Did you have a nightmare?”

He snorts. “No,” he says after a beat. The vibration of his voice moves through her cheek. “Just restless. Not used to getting so much sleep.”

Bells yawns and wriggles and Hayes suddenly grips her by her hips and pulls her around so she’s facing him, legs straddling his own. “Teixeira,” he says, “do you understand? I didn’t have a nightmare. I don’t have… PTSD… or whatever. And if I’m sitting out here wondering what to do with myself this early in the morning, it’s only because I miss it. Nine to five every single goddamned day, sitting behind a desk like a fucking POG while I wait for my discharge to go through, pushing paper and listening to bullshit, and then coming back and getting eight hours of sleep on a bed, boxed in by four walls and a ceiling I can’t breathe through, and my fingers itching and I don’t know. I don’t know, Teixeira, if I can do this shit for the rest of my life, wear a suit and act civilized and not spend my 3 a.m.s blowing shit up, sleeping in the dirt, and jumping out of the sky, do you understand? Is that the sort of person you want to be married to?”

Bells can’t look away from him. His face is so closed off, something hard and kind of mean in his tone.

She feels stiff, an ache in her hip flexors, climbing off his lap to stand up. “Lay down,” she says.

He looks at her and doesn’t move, so she repeats herself, pointing to the cement. “Come on, Haywood. Get on the ground.”

He rolls his eyes but lies down on his belly, and she takes her seat between his shoulder blades. She digs her toes into the silky fabric of his shorts stretched across his ass, and she says, “Start with fifty.”

“Teixeria.”

“You’re restless. This will make you un-restless. Come on.”

He grumbles through the first twenty. When he gets to 100, the small of his back is slick with sweat under her toes. His arms tremble as he pushes up to 101, and then he lies back down and doesn’t move.

She turns around, knees in his shoulder blades. “Only a hundred? Did the marines let you go soft?”

“Fuck you, Teixeira, I've been recuperating.”

She shifts so she’s straddling him. The concrete is rough on her knees, and she leans over to stare at him, upside down. Her hair makes a curtain around them. “When you’re out, will you grow your hair out enough so I can finally have something to tug on again?”

He sighs. “Bells.”

“I’m serious. Because here’s what I understand, Hayes. You’re mine. And in two weeks, the United States Department of Defense is going to relinquish their rights to any part of you that they may have argued belonged to them, and that means all of you will be mine. You belong to me and I’m not giving you up, and I don’t want any other sort of person except you, exactly as you are, except for the fact that I am fucking tired of the US Marine Corps making decisions about how your hair looks. If you’re restless, I’ll work it out of you. If you can’t stay still in one place, we’ll move. If you don’t like sleeping indoors, we’ll sleep outside. If you get a sudden urge for mischief at 3 a.m., I’m sure I can find some industry for you. Like those enrichment activities that zoos make for big cats. You can take up art thievery. Sasha knows a few guys, I could get you an introduction if you wanted a mentor program.”

Hayes laughs. “The shit you say. I think that’s illegal.”

“What the fuck do I care about that?”

He rolls over and she rides him like a wave, settles onto his hips. “You say that now, because no one’s ever stolen one of your paintings.”

“If you don’t like sneaking about stealing paintings at 3 a.m., I can teach you big wave surfing or windsurfing or freestyle motocross. Or you can go around eating bats and drinking your own urine like Bear Grylls. Maybe I don’t know about your ridiculous military stuff, but I know about early retirement, and I know about adrenaline junkies, and I know a whole list of ways you can push yourself to your limit without also destabilizing developing countries.”

Hayes looks up at her, smiling, eyes soft and thumb tracing circles on her hip. “You’re crazy. Your whole family is crazy. But all right, Teixeira, give me something to do at 3 a.m.”

Bells affects her primmest librarian face, tosses her hair over her shoulder and says, “I will put together an itinerary. For now, it’s actually 4 a.m., and if you need something to do with yourself, I suppose you might as well fuck me.” She wiggles her hips a little bit, grinding down on the length of him.

He bites his lip. “Jesus fucking Christ, Teixeira, and here it’s not even Christmas or my birthday. Are you sure? What if I don’t remember how?”

“Yes, well, it’s a special treat for the effort toward honest discourse and emotional vulnerability.”

He laughs, calling her a manipulative little shit under his breath, and then when she tries to pull down his shorts, catches her hand. “Not here, you little heathen. Four a.m. is a normal hour for most of our neighbors to be up this close to base.” He stands, hauling her up with him as he does, and lifting her up, legs wrapped around his waist and arms around his neck.

When he sinks into her, on their mattress, he feels impossibly too big, even though she’s wet and slick and ready for him, and he gasps into her neck and she sinks her nails into his back and tightens her legs around his waist. Hayes's jokes about how infrequently they do it this way around aside, he doesn’t seem like his skills have gotten rusty during his off-season. She falls asleep almost immediately after, indifferent to the wet spot or the damp sweating of the sheets. Hayes doesn’t. She’s dimly aware that he gets up and gets into the shower, drifts in and out as he dresses in his uniform and kisses her on the forehead before leaving for work.

 

When she wakes up again, it’s nine a.m. and the app on her phone says the surf’s up at Oceanside. She doesn’t have work. She’s on an extended family emergency leave that really should have ended. But every time she thinks about emailing her boss, she thinks of the sick feeling of dread she used to get going into work half the mornings, and she thinks, I don’t want to think about it, and, aren’t I allowed, for once in my life, to slack off, just a little, and she doesn’t email, or call, or turn on her work phone. Instead, she surfs, and tries not to feel guilty about it.

 

Hayes comes home that afternoon and asks her about her day. He’s in uniform, like always, with his hat thing in his hand (“It’s not a hat, it’s a cover, Teixeira”) and boots loud on the linoleum. Bells is restless and short tempered and tells him she went surfing. She feels a weird, lingering sort of discombobulation. She didn’t work. She was just surfing, and then sitting at home, reading, and Hayes did work. Was she supposed to make dinner? She doesn’t know how to make dinner. She doesn’t want to make dinner. But it would probably be fair, if she wasn’t working and Hayes was? To make dinner? But also it chafes, like now that they’re living together she’s just supposed to fall into some role, the little wife, or something while he goes off in his uniform and she stays at home and makes dinner and ugh.

Hayes is not much of a cook either.

“Do you want to go spar?” Bells asks him, because maybe they should just blow off some steam or something.

She’d thought of it this afternoon, while thinking of ways to keep Hayes from being bored out of his skull in retirement. They used to wrestle, sometimes, in college. Bells had taken krav maga as a kid and into high school. It had been fun. She was pretty good. It normally ended in sex when she sparred with Hayes, but normally the exceptionally satisfying, very sweaty sort of sex that made your knees wobbly afterwards and would probably improve her mood.

“No,” Hayes says, ratherly shortly, staring at the George Foreman grill cooking the chicken breasts.

Bells grits her teeth and tries not to snap and Hayes eyes flicker over to her. “Sorry.” He shakes his head. “Long day. But no, not really.”

“We used to.”

“Well,” Hayes says, “that was different.”

Bells exhales through her nose. “I don’t see that there’s anything different.”

“Well, you’re my wife.” Hayes says and something about the tone of it just screeches up her spine like nails on a chalkboard.

“Oh,” Bells says, just fully ready for an argument now, “so now I’m your wife, so I just have to stay at home, and make dinner, and we can’t do any of the fun things we used to do, it’s just boring shit you can do with your wife, right? And all the fun stuff that’s for all the… secret guy friends in your little clubs….”

Hayes raises his eyebrows. “By little club and secret guy friends you mean special forces operators in the United States Marine Corps, then yes, Bells, I am only going to spar with in the super secret boys club. But I think we have plenty of fun, you and I. And also,” he gestures at the George Foreman grill, “pretty sure I’m the one making dinner.”

“Right,” Bells says, trembling with that so angry I’m going to cry feeling that she hates. “So I guess I can’t even make dinner, what is even the point of being married to me if --”

“What,” Hayes says, “the. Fuck.”

Bells tries to push past and Hayes grabs her wrist, fingers tight around it, tugging her back. “Don’t fucking run off.” She squirms against him, and finds, to her absolute horror, that Hayes is much stronger. His fingers are like iron, tight and hurting in her wrist. “Let's get a few things straight,” he says, voice tight with absolute fury. “I didn’t marry you for your fucking kitchen skills, Teixeira,” he says, pushing her up against the counter. “And the reason it’s different sparring with you now, is that in college, I was a dumb 20 year old kid, and now I’ve got 30 more pounds of muscle, advanced combat training, and a lengthy confirmed kill count under my belt. I am going fuck stir-crazy sitting behind a desk, and the last time I wrestled someone, I was in a war zone, and I stabbed them in the fucking throat.” He drops her wrist, and jerks back. He’s flushed high on his cheeks, and he looks away, furious. “I’m not going to hit my fucking spouse, Teixeira. I don’t care what context it’s in. I’m just not going to. That’s a hard limit for me.”

The hot burning mortification of tears in the back of her throat is just about the worst feeling, except for maybe the wretched flicker of fear, actual fear, the animal hindbrain part of her that had started shrieking when pushed up against the counter and she’d realized she couldn’t shift him. And the shame of having pushed and needled at a boundary, just to pick a fight, just her foul mood fouling up everything else. She should apologize. He should apologize. They should talk. They should be reasonable, responsible adults, but she can’t, because she can’t stand to be in this room one second longer.

She pushes past him, and runs out the door. Her longboard’s leaning against the stoop and she grabs it in her haste.

There’s something about crying on a skateboard that makes her feel about 13 years old. She’s not 13, though -- she’s a 28 year old woman with a career (sort of, some awful part of her brain whispers back), and she just can’t fucking deal with any of it right now. She’s miles down the road, almost to the beach when a car drives by.

“HEY GIRL!” someone shouts out the window. “DO A KICKFLIP!”

“I’M ON A LONGBOARD, DIPSHIT” she shouts back, and then, hoping to hell she doesn’t fuck it up because it’s been a few years, ok, she does one anway. It’s not particularly clean, but she lands it out of pure spite. The car erupts into a chorus of OH SHITs and she flips them off and skates away, feeling deeply, righteously, viciously vindicated.

She rides around S. Pacific Street for a while, until her temper fades a little and she feels less like she wants to either bawl her eyes out or murder someone. She watches the sun shimmer over the waves, people walking around the beach together and decides to turn around and head home, talk things out like an adult.

She’s stopped at the light when a truck pulls up. The window rolls down. “You forgot your phone,” Hayes says.

She doesn’t want to get in the truck.

She does want to get in the truck.

She gets in.

He hands her phone, and the light turns green. Hayes pulls an illegal U-turn. They ride in silence for a few minutes before he pulls into Frazier Farms and parks.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know I scared you. There’s absolutely no reason for me to have lost my temper like that.”

“I was… needling,” Bells says. “I’m sorry for pushing. I’m sorry for... not recognizing a boundary. I should have just said I was in a rotten mood and…”

“I’m a grown ass man, Teixeira. Yeah, you were pushing. But I didn’t have to push back.” He pauses. “I wasn’t exactly in a stellar mood to start with either. We’re both pretty stubborn assholes.”

She exhales. “Yeah.”

He reaches across to grab her hand. “So. In a less inflammatory way than before, but just as earnestly. What the fuck. I am not trying to keep you barefoot and pregnant here, but you just blindsided me out of nowhere with some kind of shitty accusations of it. When that’s not how our relationship works at all.”

“I just... I don’t know.”

Hayes looks frustrated by that, though he doesn’t say anything, and she tries again. “Don’t you ever just, like... chafe with constrictions of heteronormativity?”

Hayes leans back against the seat, head thunking against the headrest. “No. Not really.”

“But, like, it’s just this whole stupid thing you know -- you’re bi, you’re queer, whatever, but as soon as you’re in a straight relationship, everything gets straighter and it just…. Sucks.”

“Okay, well, as a straight person, I guess that’s not a disconnect I experience, but from my perspective, none of that is what is happening, except you’re you know… projecting some kind of weird insecurity going on in your brain right now. You’re bi. You’ve always been bi. You know that doesn’t change just because we’re only with each other. I don’t expect you to make dinner. I don’t expect you to be a homemaker. Hell, I straight up told you in the beginning you were going to be bored as shit out here, and you should go back to New York. Just because we’re trying to make it work living together doesn’t mean you have to like morph into a fucking Stepford Wife, or that anyone is expecting you to.”

“It’s not that you expect me to. It’s that like, society makes this map, right and you’re surrounded by it your whole life, except if you’re not, if you’re on a different map, you know, if you’re queer or whatever, in an alternative lifestyle-type life, then you do what you want, but as soon as you like, go onto something like the typical path, it just, it’s like all this unspoken shit kind of happens in your head and, like, you don’t say, oh, I expect my wife to do the dishes, but, like, if you’re a woman, and you’re there, and someone else is working and you’re not, and there’s dishes and you want to clean them because the sink being dirty is gross, so you clean them, but then is it because you’re being tricked into doing two-thirds of the domestic labor in the whole third shift thing, or would you still have done the dishes if you were a different kind of relationship, it’s just… I don’t know. It’s chafes. I wasn’t raised like that, I grew up in a queer household and things were different but I’m not immune to society’s influence, you know, and it just… seeps in.”

“Like wagon-ruts,” Hayes says. “Like, there’s the road, and it’s got these deep wagon ruts from how well-traveled it is. And if you just want to go perpendicular to it, into the grass, fine. That’s easy enough, you’ll have to like, clear brush sometimes, but you can just go in that direction. But if you tried to go, like, slightly off from the road, but still in the same direction, you’re going to keep slipping into the wagon ruts.”

“YES. Yes, like that.”

“Okay, so you’re worried that, like, you can’t tell whether what you're doing is the path you want to be or whether it’s stuck in wagon ruts.”

“I guess, I just… You know, I don’t know! I feel like some angry teenager, you know, just sort of helplessly frustrated, except I was never actually like that as a teenager. When I was a teenager, I had a goal and a purpose. I felt determined. I knew what I was doing. And now it’s just. I have no idea what I’m doing but I feel so frustrated. Like, what if I don’t want to wear suits, what if I want to…” She waves her hand, too exhausted to continue, and too embarrassed by how juvenile it sounds.

Hayes flicks her longboard leaning against her legs. “What if you want to ditch all your office clothes and just shred on your board, and, like, damn the man, man,” he says, affecting a stoned surfer sort of accent.

Bells wrinkles her nose. “Please never make that sound again, and yeah, but that's ridiculous, for eight thousand reasons, all of which boil down to that I am basically the most privileged person on the earth and literally no one is making me do anything, and I am, as you said, a grown-ass adult, and I… money is not a problem and I can literally do anything I want, so feeling like I’m being sort of pressed into things is a ridiculous emotion to have but I still…. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don't... I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I get that, Teixeira,” Hayes says with a heavy sigh. “Like, I can very much fucking empathize right now.”

And oh. Right. He is also facing a major life-changing transition. Now she feels sheepishly selfish all over, although it’s also nice, knowing they're in it together.

“Also,” she ventures, “there’s like, I don’t know, a gender... thing, too? Like not just the heteronormativity, I don’t know, it’s just like, a weird, I don’t know how to talk about it, it’s so mixed up with everything else. All day I just really hated…. Like, I don’t like not being part of the boys club, you know? I’ve always…. I’ve never been…. But then that’s shitty, too, because it’s like, this whole, this whole massive confusion of... is it gender dysphoria or is it just sparkling internalized misogyny, you know? And normally I don’t. I mean, I like it -- when you say I’m your wife? But today for whatever reason, that term just really… grated.”

“Is spouse better?”

Bells shrugs helplessly. “I don't know? Honestly, the word’s never bothered me before; today it just didn’t sit right. And honestly, you know, the underlying… whateverness of heteronormativity is so interlocked with, like, performative gender roles that I can’t even separate in my head… like how can I even tell if it’s one vs the other, you know? When it’s all so interconnected.”

“Is it because I fucked you last night?”

“What?”

“Last night? I was the one doing the fucking. We don’t normally do it that way. Do you think the reason it was bothering you so bad today was because of that?”

“I don’t think so?” She hadn’t even thought about it. “I don’t know. I …. Maybe. I’ll think about it, but I don’t know.” She huffs. “Why are we parked here?”

“Well, Teixeira, the chicken burned. And I know you love a grocery store salad bar.”

Bells smiles, and squeezes his hand. “I do love a grocery store salad bar.”

 

 

The next day is Thursday. Hayes goes to work. Bells walks down to the beach, carrying her surfboard. She surfs. She makes conversation with a bunch of surf kids who seem to not have realized she’s ten years older than them. They all sound exactly like all of her cousins. She walks back to the apartment and takes a shower, and opens her laptop and stares at all her work emails and feels overcome with a tidal wave of helplessness. What good is she even accomplishing? What is even the fucking point? She closes her laptop and texts some pictures of the waves to the family group chat.

 

“Bro,” Mavs texts her back privately, “most excellent waves. But like are you alright bro?”

She texts him back a picture of a squirrel outside of their patio. And then opens her laptop back up and starts answering work emails.

 

When Hayes gets home Bells is not standing awkwardly in the kitchen staring at the sink. She is sitting on the lawn chair on the patio, looking stuff up on her tablet.

He changes out of his uniform into shorts and a t-shirt. There’s only one lawn chair; they never got around to getting a second. He sits down on the concrete next to her.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Good day?”

“Boring, but fine, just riding that desk, I guess, for the last few weeks. What about you?’

“I got some stuff done, I guess. Hey. So, idea.”

“Shoot.”

“Climbing? We used to go to the rock wall at the gym together a lot back in school? And I’ve kept up with some bouldering, some climbs here and there. I know you’ve probably… done some sort of climbing stuff. You’ve got gear in the closet, too.”

Hayes snorts. “I can climb whatever you need me to climb.”

“I’ve wanted to climb Weaver’s Needle for a while, and it’s not that long of a drive from here. If you’re… I mean, you’re still healing, maybe, so…”

“Oh, I’m all cleared for whatever. I’m fine. And I’ve got rope for both of us. I’ll have to go check through it all tonight, but if you want to, we could go this weekend.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

They spend the evening laying out all the rope and gear on the living room floor and checking it over, and reading through the route. Hayes is methodical and organized. Bells Postmates them some dinner. They listen to a tinydesk concert while they organize the gear.

“I need a Camelbak or something. Mine’s in NY... but I can go get one tomorrow while you’re at work.”

 

Hayes gets home around two the next afternoon, unrepentant. “Oh, everyone knows I’ve got short-timers-syndrome. No one expects me to be in the office much past lunch on a Friday,” he says with a shrug.

They pack his truck and drive out to Arizona. They get dinner, and a hotel room. Bells licks Hayes out, leaning up against the hotel room desk, one his big legs thrown over her shoulder, thrusting into his hand while she tongues him open.

“Christ, fuck me,” he breathes, “come on, Teixeira, fucking fuck me.”

“Turn around, sweetheart,” she says, and pushes him over the desk. She didn’t bring her strap, a fucking oversight, but pushes her fingers into him, where he’s wet and slick and open from her mouth. She’s wet and slick, too, so turned on, desperate for some friction on her clit. She curls her fingers onto his prostate, while trying to grind up against her own thumb. It’s awkward, and she’s going to get a hand cramp if she keeps it up, but she’s so close it barely takes anything before she’s shuddering against his back. Legs like jello, she leans against him and keeps fucking him with her fingers, curling up against his prostate until he shudders and comes all over the Holiday Inn Express letterhead notepad laid out on the desk.

“Fuck,” he says, catching his breath, braced on his elbows. “Fuck.”

Bells leans over and kisses the space between his shoulder blades.

 

 

The next morning, they get up bright and early before the sun. They get their “continental breakfast” before getting on the road. As they pass an RV Park, Hayes says, joking, “Okay, so, what if we just bought an RV, and were you know, that old couple with the RV. We could just drive around.”

Well, she’s mostly sure he’s joking.

They drive out to the trailhead, park, go through all their gear again, and then hike the trail up to the Needle. It’s a good climb. Challenging, but not so technical that it’s beyond either of their scope. It’s early fall, and not as hot as it would be in the summer, which is nice.

Then they get up to the top of the needle, and the view is just stunning. They’re hardly the only climbers, it’s not a quiet still moment, up there on the top, but the horizon is breathtaking enough that it feels like it is anyway. They eat a meal from their packs looking out over the desert.

“I know I grew up on the East Coast,” Hayes says, “but this type of country is my favorite landscape. I don’t think there’s anything prettier than high mountain desert.” He shakes his head. “Here. Up north in Idaho where Levi’s from. In the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, you should see where Saïd’s family lives, it’s…”

He trails off. Bells doesn’t say anything, and he sits with his thoughts for a while before saying, “I think the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in the world was in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan.” He shakes his head. His eyes look wet. “I know, I know. Anyway, I don’t know where we’re going to end up, Teixeira, but I hope it’s someplace with mountains and no humidity.”

Bells laughs and bumps her shoulder against his. “Deal.”

There’s another group of climbers up at the top. In the lull in their own conversation, Bells can’t help to hear the other party’s conversation turn towards the legends of the Lost Dutchman’s legendary gold mine.

“What do you think, Teixeira?” Hayes says, staring out at the shadow of the Needle along the desert scrub brush. “Think there’s any gold out there?”

“I think if you wanted to get rich, all you’d have to do is wait until no one’s up here and push me off.”

“That’s a fucked up thing to say,” Hayes says mildly.

“Yeah. Sorry. I just. So, you weren’t there, and actually…. I was going to. I had something I was going to tell you, but then you were deployed and didn’t have any communication and then you were shot, and I just never. Um. Surprise, we’re rich?”

Hayes snorts. “Yeah, no shit, Teixeira.”

“No, I mean.” She grits her teeth. “At my birthday party, Uncle Grant was there. And for my birthday he told me. He told me that when I was little, we used to play this game, we talked about this ‘company’ that was mine you know, we named it AstraEqua.”

“You named your company SPACE PONY???”

“I was IN GRADE SCHOOL.”

“Valid point, moving on.”

“Anyway, it was just a game and then at my party, Uncle Grant told me it wasn’t, it was real, and he’d… AstraEqua is a real off-shore holding company and he’s been… putting things. Companies. In it. For years, and he’d wrapped it all up in trust documents for twenty years, and I couldn’t access any of it -- but now I can. So. Anyway, surprise, I own the Boston Bruins. So. So do you.”

“Ah,” Hayes says. “Now I get why you’ve been acting so fucking squirrely. You’re having some kind of moral crisis because you were fine with being the child of millionaires who earned all their money murdering all their joints for public entertainment, but that’s different than being a billionaire, for you, morally.”

“Yes.”

Hayes hums. “It makes it a hell of a lot easier to get shit done, though, Bells. Billions opens doors. You could--”

“No. I know! I… That’s the point. Okay. Look, so. I need to tell you a story, okay? About. A Thing. That Happened. But you have to promise you won’t freak out.”

“Well, that’s a sentence perfectly crafted to make me want to freak out.”

“Promise me you won’t, like, do anything…. Rash.”

“Okay. I promise I won’t do anything rash.”

“So, um, about a year ago. While you were. Wherever you were in the place you were before the last place, I had this project I was working on.”

“I remember.”

“Right, well. I may have, sort of, I mean, it was mostly my fault, but I sort of accidentally almost got kidnapped... a little.”

Hayes goes rigid all over. A perfect sudden stillness.

“See, I said you can’t do anything rash.”

Very, very slowly, he releases a breath. “Who tried to kidnap you? What happened?”

“I was leaving the hotel. I’d ordered a car. I was looking at my phone. It was… my fault, I should have known to look around my surroundings more, but I was trying to respond to an email in my team, I got in the car, and it… wasn’t my car I’d ordered. They put a bag over my head and…” She pauses for a second to get the waver out of her voice. “And put a gun to my side, down low so it wasn’t visible. They took my phone. Took me to some… place.”

“Leaving aside the part where I know you know better than to victim blame anyone, including yourself for getting kidnapped,” Hayes says very quietly, “that sounds less like almost got kidnapped and more like did get kidnapped. How did you get free?”

“Oh…. Well. They took my phone, but I’d managed to lock it before they got it. From when I had been doing that work in Mali, when we were trying to get evidence about Nestle’s human trafficking, the UN had had me install a security app thing. Basically if you type in the right passcode, my phone opens. Type in the wrong passcode too many times, it wipes everything; type in a specific wrong passcode and it opens like normal, except the top most frequently dialed number looks like it says, you know, Mom or your bf or whoever you say it should be when you set it up, and when you dial it goes to a voicemail that sounds like that person or whatever, but it’s actually fake and it goes to an emergency response thing, starts pinging your GPS location.” She shrugs. “They held a gun to my head, and told me to open my phone, and I did, with the wrong passcode, and they dialed the top number that said Mom and Dad. It went to voicemail. They left a message and said some pretty shitty stuff. When they hung up they said a bunch more shitty stuff, you know, like I better hope my mom and dad got their voicemail in time or they were going to send them a finger, all that sort of standard sort of… ransom nonsense. They were wearing masks. While they were waiting for my “parents” to call them back, the Norwegian special forces swarmed the place and rescued me.”

“Who?”

“Who what?”

“Who on the Norwegian special forces?”

“I...have no idea? I don’t know. They all looked like big dudes in green outfits with helmets. I wasn’t exactly staring at their name patches.”

“Bells, that is not. That is not almost getting kidnapped. That is getting kidnapped. That’s a traumatic event. How did you…. Does your family know?”

“What? Of course not! I made everyone swear they wouldn’t tell anyone. I said that if one word of it got to the press I’d have them up to their eyeballs in civil suits for the rest of their lives. No one knows. Except for like, some people at the UN, but they didn’t want anyone to know either, so, you know.”

“Bells….” Hayes hand clutches hers.

“I’m fine, it was like, barely… it barely even counts. I was only there for a couple of hours. And I didn’t want anyone to know. It was… humiliating. I felt so ashamed, I didn’t want anyone to know.”

“Did they…” Hayes looks like he can’t even bring himself to finish the sentence.

It’s irritating. “Oh, like that’s the worst thing that can possibly happen to a woman, right? You want to know the worst part of all of it?”

“Yes.”

“When I first realized what had happened, that I was being kidnapped, you know what my first thought was? I thought, ‘Oh, I must actually be getting somewhere against Nestle.’ I thought, finally, finally, someone was actually taking me seriously, I was really getting somewhere, and what I was showing people was actually going to change something. Instead...” She shakes her head, her throat’s too tight to talk, eyes burning. “Then I realized, they had no idea I worked for the UN, they had no idea who I was. They just saw a rich, dumb tourist with an expensive handbag staring at her phone.”

She wipes the tears off her face furiously. “It didn’t even matter. I was back in my hotel room by lunch time. I still made it to the conference, and it didn’t even fucking matter because the US delegate that’d looked straight in my face and agreed with me, and said they’d agree to the policy change had gotten lunch with one of the Nestle execs the day before, and then reversed his stance. It got shot down before it even got off the floor. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and all the work that my team had done, all the stuff my team leader had told me would finally… Nothing happened.”

“Oh, Teixeira,” Hayes says, pulling her into his shoulder. “Fuck, sweetheart, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t call me sweetheart. I don’t want to be sweet. I want to eat their hearts. I want to drag their entrails over hot coals.”

Hayes pulls her into him, tucks her head under his chin, “That’s my vicious little bitch.”

“Anyway, my point is with this whole story -- a month later, I was in New York, I was doing my job. I was having lunch with this person. Working lunch. Networking. There was this place… this little pause in the conversation and I realized, oh, this is where I would make a bribe. This is why he thinks I took him to lunch. And I thought. Oh, I have money. I could just… bribe him. And then, this really important, good thing that would help so many people would happen. Wouldn’t that be worth it? But I panicked. I didn’t want to bribe slimy repugnant assholes. So I faked an emergency phone call, left, and then went home and got blackout drunk for the whole weekend, promised myself I wouldn’t like, turn to a life of crime. And then Monday morning, I was washed my hair and went back to work.” She swallows, takes a sip from her Camelbak. It’s new enough that the plastic taste is still stronger than is pleasant with the water so warm. “And then a while later Uncle Grant told me he’d made me an actual factual billionaire, and that he was planning on leaving the majority of his fortune and all his business shares to me when he died, and I was… about to have a minor freak out about that and then you got shot.”

“And now you’re trying to figure it out all over again. What you’re willing to do to get what you want done?”

Bells nodded into his shoulder.

“Okay. Okay, Teixeira, well, you’re in luck.”

She huffs a laugh against the sticky warm sweat of his shirt. “Oh yeah?”

“You happen to have married a pretty good tactician with a bunch of bullshit military ethics classes under his belt. You’re good as fuck at reading plays, Bells, your confidence is just shook because you’re scared of your own bite. You and I will plot it out, okay? We’ll lay out the whole rules of engagement. We’ll plot out all the costs, and we’ll decide, before you do anything, what you will or won't do, what you’re comfortable with, and if you don’t want to, Bells, look at me, Bells, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to do anything, you get that right? You don’t owe anyone on this goddamn planet a single fucking thing. Once we lay it out, it'll take… a while, talk through it, you decide, if you want to run the world, or if you want to live on the beach and do nothing but surf the rest of your life. I swear to god, Teixeira, either way, we will make it work.”

 

They sit in silence, leaning against each other for long minutes, but it’s the best silence they’ve had between them in a long time, open and happy. Bells feels like she shed a thousand pounds from her shoulders, just speaking it out loud. She’d never done it before -- what was she going to complain about? Oh, poor Bells, things are so hard, all her privilege is giving her too many opportunities. It’s not the sort of thing she could complain about to most people. Oh no, it’s so sad, I’m a billionaire and I can’t decide how to wield all my newfound power, woe is me.

But Hayes understood.

And just getting to say it once out loud, and know he’s still going to be there beside her, makes her heart so much lighter.

“Feeling better?” he asks.

“Time to repel?”

“Time to repel,” he grins.

 

The sun is beginning to set as they get onto the trail. It’s a lingering sort of twilight that will drag on for a while, but it is getting dark.

“So,” Hayes says, “here's an idea. You don’t have to say yes. But do you want to stay out here tonight, and drive back to the motel in the morning?”

“We don’t have a tent?”

Hayes shrugs. “I have a shovel and a space blanket. We’ve still got about two liters of water. I’ll dig us a… grave… well, I’ll dig a hole for us. I’m definitely not going to murder us, don’t look at me like that, in the corps we call them graves, we’ll be fine. The sand will be warm from the sun. It’s supposed to get down to the 50s tonight, so it will be chilly, but between the two of us we’ll be warm enough. We’ve got Clif bars to eat.”

“Will we be in danger of getting lost if we go off the path?”

“Uhmmm…” Hayes rubs his shoulder. “No. I mean, I know people say all the time, blah blah blah wilderness. It’s open. We can see the horizon, we have a giant ass landmark. I have a map, a compass, and our phones have full bars. The trailhead is two miles away. It would be legitimately impossible for me to get lost, Bells, I have done… a lot of… I have been in this terrain a lot. On my own. We’ll be fine. But it won’t be as comfortable as a hotel room, so if you want to say no, that’s fine. Especially if you’re hungry for more than a couple of Clif bars.”

“I don’t care about the food thing. I am hungry, but, like, we can stop at the diner for a big breakfast tomorrow morning. As long as we don’t wind up being one of those missing persons stories on Reddit, I don’t care about it being less comfortable than a hotel.”

Hayes finds what he declares a good spot off the trail. Bells helps by reminding him about ten times not to dig anywhere that would damage any delicate desert vegetation. Hayes rolls his eyes, but is careful about where he picks it.

“It is,” Bells says, breaking a piece off a carrot cake Clif bar, “a little weird to just be sitting here while you dig a person-sized hole in the ground in the deserted wilderness at twilight.”

Hayes snorts.

“It’s nice, though,” Bells assures him. “You look very good digging holes, it does appealing things to your shoulder muscles.”

“Happy to be of service.”

 

They eat dinner sitting on the dirt while the last of the sun sets. Bells zips her pant legs on and pulls on her fleece. Hayes is loose-limbed, shrugging on his own pullover, his face ruddy and dusty. They wrap up in the paper thin shimmeriness of the space blanket. The sand is warm, and so is Hayes -- flat on his back, with one arm behind his head and one around her. The night settles around them. The night sky is brilliantly clear, and they watch it for a while.

“You really love it out here,” Bells says. “Like, when you were talking about not liking sleeping between four walls, you didn't mean metaphorically. You’d rather sleep out here.”

Hayes is quiet for a moment. Then he says, “Yes. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”

“What does it look like, the life where we decide to live in an RV, in your head?”

He pulls her tighter. “We buy an old airstream. You wear a lot of sundresses.” He stops, squeezes her hip. “Is that gendering? Should I not--”

“I like sundresses. I don’t mind… I don’t mind most things. It’s just sometimes, being a woman, the terms around it, the things around, sort of… sit wrong. I mean, I’m not trans, I don't think of myself as a man or nonbinary exactly, just sometimes, the woman thing doesn’t… fit exactly perfectly. But I don’t know if that’s because of a legit gender situation, or if it’s just internalized… Like what if it’s just because I’m feeling powerless right now, and I don’t like feeling powerless. I don’t like not being in control, not being the person that’s in charge. That’s getting shit done. What if I don’t like this feeling, and so my mind is equating how… small… I’m feeling with femininity, which is like a fucked up internalized misogyny? Like, I don’t think that’s true about women, and I didn’t grow up thinking that about women, but it’s still a thing that seeps into your psyche from media or whatever, and what if it did, and that’s the reason some days I don’t like thinking about things that way? That’s not a gender thing, that’s a fucked up internalization of some bullshit thing, and I can’t… I’m not sure enough of what I’m doing with myself right now, to figure it out. And it’s not going to… make me want to transition, or use different pronouns, or change anything at all, really, I don’t think, so I guess it doesn’t really matter to anyone but my own head, what I’m feeling. But either way, I like sundresses, so. Carry on.”

“Alright. Well. I have no idea about the gender stuff, but if you want to talk more about it, on days when it’s not sitting right, just let me know if you want me to switch words I use or something. And, right, well RV dream goes like this. You wear a lot of sundresses. No one ever makes me wear a suit again. I grow out a beard and wear a lot of hideous shorts. We just make our way back and forth along the Panam highway, finding places to surf or whatever. You teach me how to longboard. You get into some kind of weird hippie hobby like dying your own clothes with walnut husks or something. I get into something similar, making ugly guitars out of gas cans or whatever.”

Bells laughs. “What does it look like, when I keep all Uncle Grant’s money?”

“We work out a plan. We go through the board of directors of every company that keeps stalling your efforts, and we systematically convert, discredit, oust, bribe, or blackmail them into changing their corporate policies. We make a lot of deals. I probably make sure a few people have… helicopter malfunctions or something. We have a lot of victory sex. You get a lot of work done.” Bells can tell by his voice he’s leaving stuff out, the bad parts of all of that, but then again, he was leaving it out of the other one too. The parts where they'd fight because they were cramped into a tiny living space, where they'd feel restless, or guilty for not doing anything with themselves.

“Is that the only two choices? Either end of the extreme?”

“No. Sometimes I think about other ways, too. There’s one where we buy a ranch somewhere out in Wyoming. We work, we’re on committees, we’re still getting stuff done, but maybe on a slightly smaller scale, going through the bureaucracy of it all. We take care of rescue horses. We have 2.5 kids and don’t traumatize them. I’m a not-horrible father. There’s one where we move to Madeira. Where we just move back to New York. There’s the one where I accept one of a handful of offers I’ve gotten from various intelligence agencies after I separate. We’re pretty miserable in that one. There’s one where you become Prime Minister of Canada and I spend a lot of time thinking about what my whole schtick is going to be as First Gentleman of Canada. I do something about gardening projects for veterans or something and otherwise just look handsome in a suit next to you.”

“What’s the one that you want the most but feel most ridiculous saying out loud?” Bells asks, “The one you know wouldn’t work, but you still want it?”

Hayes is quiet for a long time. Finally he says, “It’s..”

“Right, it’s ridiculous. I know. Hayes, I know all about things that you don’t feel entitled to get to… complain about or say you want, when you have everything else. But maybe we ought to be able to say those things to each other.”

“Okay, then. In that one we move to the Atlas mountains.”

“Like with Saïd’s family?”

“Yes. I know, he doesn't even. He’s touring in Europe, so he’s not even there. But I loved it there. You’ll see, when we go to the wedding, it’s beautiful. The desert mountains are…. I could live my whole life there, happily, and never leave. We’d have horses, and camels, which I like just as much as horses, honestly. We’d sleep in a tent. We’d… travel. We’d raise goats. God knows you know about how to raise goats,” he laughs. “It sound stupid to say it out loud. But I love it there. I know we can’t, for a lot of reasons, and it’s… not our place, anyway, but. Doesn't mean it’s not a nice fantasy.”

“I can’t believe you fantasize about being a goatherd with me.”

“Semi-nomadic pastoralists.”

“Oh, right, pastoralists.”

“I mean, I get it. It’s the whole... the whole cliche of pastoralism as an escape, when really it’s grinding hard labor for the people who really have to live it, but... I don’t mind hard work. I don’t mind a hard life. As long as it’s also a beautiful one. Running a farm, or a ranch, taking care of herd animals is hard work no matter where you’re doing it, and you’re at the whim of weather; if your animals get sick, fortune can change quickly, but it’s…” He trails off.

“Since you’re following Saïd around in your dreams,” Bells teases and Hayes pinches her side, snorting with laughter, “what about one where we follow his band around as roadies. You could still have your airstream, but we could tour around Europe. You could get some more tattoos, gauge your ears. I could get a face tattoo…”

Hayes laughs. “You’d get plenty of skateboarding in, that’s for sure. Alright, it can go on the list. I’ll tell Saïd, he’d think that was hilarious but also he’d be delighted.”

“Hayes?”

“Yes?”

“What if there’s scorpions in the sand, or spiders, and they sting one of us and we die in the night?”

“They won’t?”

“Why not?”

“Just don’t take your shoes off.”

It’s Bells’s turn to pinch him. “Not helpful!”

“We’ll be okay, Teixeira.”

The moon’s high by that time, and pretty much as soon as he says it, Bells hears, distantly, the yipping of coyotes.

“Oh, wow,” Bells says, “great. A pack of opportunistic predators is here.”

“They’re miles away. And they’re not going to come near us. And if they did, I’d just scare them off. We’re not going to get eaten by coyotes.”

“Hey, Hayes?” Bells asks because she is apparently just letting all her insecurities out tonight, for some reason.

“Bells.”

“Do you think my mom will still love me if I inherit all Uncle Grant’s money?” The worst part is how she can’t keep her voice steady, when she asks it.

But Hayes just hugs her tight and says, “Teixeira, take it from someone whose mother does not even like him, much less love him even at all -- I’ve spoken all of five minutes total with your mother combined, and I can tell there is literally nothing you could do that would make her not love you. She might lecture you about your life decisions if you start being a dick about your money, but she’s never not going to love you, and you’re not going to get excommunicated from your hippy commune of a family just because you own majority shares in a shipping conglomerate.”

“And the Boston Bruins.”

“Well, I leave the internal drama of hockey politics between you and your cousins, but I don’t think your mother gives a good goddamn about the Boston Bruins, either way.”

“Teixeira,” Hayes says, a few minutes later. “You’re not small. Nothing about you is small. You’re the biggest force I’ve ever met.”

Bells just grips his shirt, and shoves her face into his shoulder. “Thanks.” She says, and he kisses her hair.

 

Bells doesn’t think she’ll sleep much that night. She’s still wary about the scorpion situation. But, surprisingly, she does. She wakes up, stiff and sore and a little too cool the next morning. It’s barely dawn and the birds are loud as fuck, and she needs to pee.

Hayes fills in the dirt while she rolls up the space blanket. The two mile walk to the trailhead is easy and fast, and they’re hustling. Bells needs the toilet, but would rather wait until she can get to the out-house at the trailhead than use a bush.

The truck’s just where they left it, her purse still stuffed into the glovebox, and they’re dusty and disheveled when they park at the closest diner, but the diner waitress doesn’t even blink. Hayes reaches over the table and pulls a twig out of her hair after the waitress leaves to get their coffee.

Bells takes her tablet out from her purse. Hayes raises an eyebrow in question.

“Just… working on my resignation letter.”

Hayes smiles, nudges her foot with his under the table. “Where to from there?”

Bells shrugs. The waitress is back with their coffee, and Bells thanks her, stirs a creamer into it, and takes a sip before saying, “Well, we’ll figure it out.”