**When I got this week’s challenge, I was convinced the Admiral was stepping up the game. This one was a tough one to piece together, and not at all easy to write. For a fire, an obligation, and a childhood friend, here’s what I wrote. Enjoy!**
My childhood home was nothing but a burned out ruin. I’d been back in town for three days, and I told myself I hadn’t been by because I’d been dealing with everything that needed taking care of. But it was a lie. I hadn’t been by because I didn’t want to be standing on the winter brown grass, staring at the wreckage, and feeling nothing but relief. Which was exactly what was happening, and I felt guilty as all hell for it.
I’d been seventeen and a newly minted high school graduate when I made my escape. Packed up everything I cared about and drove clear across the country to get away from the physical abuse and language. It was a wonder I even made it to the end of high school. Far too many kids in my situation never did. But my will was stronger than the people I had to call parents, and I got the fuck out of dodge with a high school diploma and the promise of higher education. I’d never looked back. Not once in fifteen years. Until this fire that had destroyed the house I grew up in and had taken my mother’s life.
The funeral had been yesterday, and poorly attended. But at least she was finally at rest. She had never actively taken part in the beatings or the demeaning language, she’d been as much abused as I had, but she’d never put a stop to it either. She never bundled me up and took me out of that situation. And when my father had suddenly died my sophomore year in high school, she had started drinking. She continued to ignore me and drank herself into a stupor every day, and that hadn’t been any better.
I wouldn’t have come at all except for the fact that I had to. I was here only because I was unable to sort through some of the necessities from the other side of the country. Because no matter what had happened in this house, no matter the way I’d grown up, it was still my responsibility and my obligation to handle the fall out.
And I would have avoided showing up at this spot except for the fact that the lawyer said I needed to meet the fire marshal. Apparently he had some questions that only I could answer before he finished his investigation. I didn’t know how I’d be able to answer them, but I was willing to do anything I had to in order to get business finished so I could go back home.
I heard a car door slam shut behind me but I didn’t turn. Boots crunching on the gravel driveway, and then the sound changing to the thud of feet on grass, was the only indication he was coming nearer. I took a deep breath as I heard him approach, steeled myself, and then turned.
And looked right into the eyes of my best friend from elementary school.
For all the years that had passed, there was no mistaking that face. Angel Rivera might have grown up, but I knew without a doubt who he was. And he was even more beautiful as man than he’d been as a ten year old boy. Back then, he’d been the reason that I realized I liked boys, and I’d actually been grateful when middle school had caused us to drift a part. Now as a tall, broad shouldered, and heavily muscled man, if I’d met him in a club, I would have dropped to my knees.
“Connor,” he said by way of greeting, his voice little more than a rumble. He reached out a hand and I shook it, willing myself not to react in any way.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” He sounded like he meant it.
“Thanks,” I responded quietly because it was what I was supposed to say. We stood there for an awkward moment. He looked good in his uniform, and I wasn’t actually all that surprised to see him. He had always said he wanted to be a firefighter. I shuffled my feet, and then cleared my throat. “I’m not sure that I can be of any help to you. I haven’t set foot inside that house in more than fifteen years.”
“I know,” he responded with a nod. His gaze was fixed on me, and I did my best to hold it. Was that a blush staining his cheeks, or just the glow from the setting sun? “I, um, mostly just wanted to check on you.”
I was stunned into silence for a moment. I dropped my gaze to the ground. “So, it’s not about the fire investigation?”
I heard him blow out a breath. “It’s a pretty open and shut case, actually. Faulty wiring, an overloaded socket, and uh—” He cut himself off and my gaze jerked to his face. I knew I saw embarrassment there, and he gave a sort of shrug. He took a breath before soldiering on. “And a lot of alcohol caused the fire to catch and burn quickly. By the time anyone realized the house was on fire, it was fully engulfed.”
I nodded because the news didn’t surprise me at all. “Did she suffer?”
I blinked, surprised at myself. It wasn’t a question I’d thought to ask anyone before now, just accepting the news and trying to deal with everything. But suddenly, hearing how the whole thing happened, I wanted to know.
Angel’s brown eyes softened. “No. She was asleep and the smoke got to her before the fire did.”
I nodded again. He was being polite. What he meant was that she was passed out drunk and she’s suffocated first. Still, I found myself relieved to hear it. For all her faults, I didn’t want her to burn to death.
We were quiet for a long moment. Then Angel reached out with one hand to squeeze my shoulder, and his voice was soft and filled with apology when he said, “I didn’t realize what was happening to you, back then. If I’d known…” he trailed off, and then looked me in the eye. “Well, I don’t know what I would have done, but I would have tried to help.”
“Thanks,” I said sincerely. The truth was he hadn’t known because I hadn’t let on. I was good at hiding the physical bruises, and the times I was with him, I’d been happy. The emotional stress was the last thing on my mind.
“What are you going to do now?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Sell the land, I guess. Put this last piece of my past to rest and go back home.”
He looked at me with an expression I couldn’t quite decipher. “Or you can build a new house here, and replace all the bad with something good of your own making.”
I gaped because I had no idea what to do with that.
His laugh was gentle, and his smile bright. “Come on, let’s go grab something to eat. You can fill me in on what you’ve been doing with your life.”
“Angel—” I began, but he cut me off by taking my hand and giving a little tug.
“Come on, Connor. Let’s start making some good memories.”
Suddenly, that sounded like exactly what I wanted to do. And there was no one else on this planet I wanted to do it with.