The bustle around him was like white noise. You didn't register it unless it was gone. It sat humming in your subconscious, affecting you in ways you couldn't describe. Piper with her sketch book plopped on the counter, charcoal pencils scritching over the page. Jen in the farthest back booth, poring over some kind of paperwork with Trucker. Eddie and Diane at the front table by the windows, glued to their little crackling a.m. radio, listening for the latest on a hurricane watch over the Carolina coast.
Priestly bopped his head to the song playing on the overhead speakers, half wishing Trucker didn't insist on all that Beach Boys type stuff. But it fit the grill. He flipped the chicken breasts and with a furious motion, chopped them up with the sharp edge of his Franken-Spatula, a long handled ceramic contraption with a wide, flat blade sharpened along one edge. He finished the round of sandwiches and had them packed and ready to go for pickup then turned back to scrape the grill clean.
The creaky sound of the front door reminded him that someone should freaking douse the hinges with some WD-40. He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at the two women that entered, chattering cheerfully about something or other. He figured the subject of their chatter probably lied somewhere in one of the brightly colored shopping bags they carried. With a fond grin, he rounded the counter just in time to snatch up the little blur seldom recognizable as a three year-old boy as it flashed past him, grinning wider still at the wild giggles that erupted from the kid as he simultaneously tickled ribs and plopped a loud, noisy kiss on the little guy's cheek.
Pointing, the little guy ordered, "Mommy, too!"
Rolling his eyes, Priestly leaned in, sliding an arm around Tish's rounded belly, and plopped a noisy one on her, too. "Hey, Tish," he greeted, then jumped a little as he felt the unmistakably strong kick against his forearm.
"Hey, yourself," she smirked, wincing and sliding her hand under his arm to rub the spot just kicked by a mysterious foot.
"Iced tea?" he asked, cocking one eyebrow as he set the now bored and wriggling boy back on the tile.
"Yes, please," she said wearily, already heading for the single empty banquette. He fought a grin as he watched her consider the more comfortable booth side but abandon it in favor of the chair. Her belly would never fit between the bench and table. He considered teasing her but decided against it as he studied her tired face and checked his watch. He was late. Again. Priestly wondered if he and his Franken-Spatula should have a pointed conversation with the guy about obligations and expectations and workaholic tendencies. No. Tish would have a fit.
He finished filling her tea, half aware of several things at once. Mikey charging at Trucker with a gleeful cry. "Grampa!" Trucker rubbing his spiky brown hair with one hand and hurriedly moving a stack of papers out of harm's way with the other as Mikey accidentally knocked over his water glass. Jen leaping up to catch the bar towel Priestly tossed their way. And Jude's arms sliding around him from behind, nearly as tall as he in her high heels, her lips nestling close to his right ear.
"I'm pregnant," she said softly.
He turned to her in surprise, his heart in his throat. "Really?"
She nodded, her eyes soft and watering. He let out a sigh and guided her backwards into the back room, away from the view of the customers as he wiped the tears from her face. He smiled against Jude's neck as he kissed the place where it met her shoulder, the place that made her shiver. She met his lips with a fervor that he matched, backing her up against the Beast which, thankfully, wasn't running at the moment. Otherwise she would never be able to hear the soft string of delirious words he whispered to her, and he would not hear the replies she managed between his kisses. Words of love. Words of desire. Assurances that he was happy. Why would I be mad? It's not like we're rolling in money. Fuck money. We're not the Rockefellers, but we've got enough put aside. We've got this. She grinned against his lips as he said those words.
"Hey, boss man, get out here! They're starting!"
Priestly lifted his head from his wife's delicious lips, smoothing his hands over her still flat belly, and backed away from her. Jude smoothed her clothes as he peeked out of the back room to see what was going on.
Priestly tossed his grill man, Gabe, an apron, pulling the ties to remove his own and watched Tish lift her face to accept Rick's kiss. Good. He wouldn't have to have a conversation with the guy, after all. He was late, but not unforgivably so. Mikey, settled in Trucker's lap with crayons and a paper placemat, lifted his head and then lowered it again, apparently unimpressed by Rick's arrival. Well, the kid would warm up to him. Maybe. Priestly felt a little kick of guilt. Probably his fault for not exactly being the guy's biggest fan. Tish loved him, though, and for that reason alone, Priestly tried to just watch from the sidelines instead of getting in the guy's face whenever he was late or thoughtless or careless or stupid, which seemed to be often. Or maybe Priestly just had high standards.
He hadn't heard them come in but was surprised to find his mother and Leo chatting with Trucker and Jen, standing beside the back booth. Zo had also come in from her shop across the street and was now sitting beside Trucker. That was when Priestly noticed another smiling couple crowded around the booth and let out a whoop.
"Sally!" he cried, tugging the tiny woman in his arms. The last time he'd seen her was about six months after Mikey was born when Trucker had the belated grand opening party for the BCG's new location.
"Oh, I missed you!" she laughed, her eyes dancing as Priestly let her go and shook Scooter's hand. "Where's my favorite little guy?" she asked, crouching down to Mikey's level as he played shy guy and pressed his face into Priestly's jeans with a bashful grin. Sally just giggled and made a joke about him not taking after his father at all, which made everyone within earshot burst out laughing.
Jen and Piper slowly came out from the walk-in, carrying the largest cake Priestly had ever seen. Together they eased it down on the folding table they'd set up just for that purpose. Three candles. Three years of Mikey's life, and about three and a half years since Mike's death in the Whitmarsh-Craven explosion.
The media went wild over the explosion. Was it part of the string of fires and explosions suspected to be the work of one of several environmentalist groups? It didn't fit the usual pattern. The fires had been occurring after working hours, when there was less chance of anyone being injured. The Whitmarsh-Craven explosion would be the first fatalities reported. The speculations flew for days until finally the C & O report was released. The fire was due to nothing more than human error involving a devastating mix of built up static electricity and faulty gas valves, a large build up of free gas in underground pockets, and the unfortunate proximity of several as yet uninstalled commercial propane tanks which caused the secondary and tertiary explosions. Mike was one of twenty people who never made it out of the building. His body was one of six bodies never found.
Priestly somberly stared into the glow of the freshly lit candles, remembering that other blaze, then mentally forced those thoughts to the back of his mind and swooped Mikey up, loudly and obnoxiously joining everyone in singing the birthday song.
"Make a wish, Mikey," he encouraged. After a few seconds he urged, "Okay, buddy, blow 'em out!"
He watched the child, wincing as he half blew, half spit the candles out. No matter. They all cheered and fussed as the flames gave way to wisps of smoke. He put Mikey down and took Tish's free hand, the one not clasped in Rick's, tugging her closer and squeezing her hand as he watched it move through her eyes as it always did. Mikey's birthday…and Mike's. Same fucking day.
Waiting for the time to be right to do the paternity test had been excruciating. Tish had been… Priestly inwardly shook himself again, not wanting to recall how despondent she'd been. How she moved through the first few months of her pregnancy in shadows of despair. Her grief was long and deep, less about what she and Mike had actually had, he mused, and more about what she felt, deep down, that they might have had, given time and the chance. And who knows, Priestly thought with a sudden ache of his own. She might be right. Angry as he'd been at Mike, he'd seen it, himself. Tish and Mike had one of those instant, deep connections. The kind that seemed forged before this life. The kind that would continue after it. Like him and Jude.
Priestly watched Mikey getting delightfully messy, cake and icing all over the kid, his clothes, his skin, and his hair and quickly spreading to Trucker, who mellowly swiped at it with a napkin. Grampa. Not really, of course, since Trucker wasn't Priestly's father. But every once in a while one or the other of them let something slip to indicate each one of them felt they might as well be father and son. Like three and a half (or so) years ago when Trucker had proposed the buy-in, for instance. And then after Mike's funeral service, when Priestly was done holding Jude and Tish up, shoring up the walls of their hearts, it was in Trucker's gentle care that he, himself, broke down and was able to share his own. And, of course, it slipped out in the way Priestly taught Mikey to call Trucker "Grampa".
Tish had been in too dark a place when the first availability for paternity testing arose. He thought he'd go crazy wondering, but Mike's death put things in a greater perspective. Regardless of who was the father, Tish was alone. She needed help. She needed money. She needed support…financial and emotional. True to the village Priestly had been "raised" in since coming to Santa Cruz, they all just closed in around her. Priestly signed on to the buy-in option at the grill, and his first action as manager was to order Tish back to work there until she figured things out.
He participated fully in her pregnancy, assuming he was the father and acting accordingly. He went to all of her milestone OBGYN appointments. He nearly cried as he tried to figure out what she and the technician were seeing in the blob of motion that was the sonogram and actually did cry at the sound of the heartbeat. At another of the appointments, he got a huge lump in his throat as the doctor announced that Tish was having a boy. He'd been solemn on the first visit in her final trimester when the doctor performed the SNP microarray, a non-invasive, low risk prenatal paternity test with 99.99% accuracy. Afterward, when Tish confided to him that, no matter what, she wanted to name the baby after Mike, he readily agreed.
Priestly was genuinely surprised when the test came back reading "Boaz Priestly is excluded as the biological father of Michael Priestly Madison." He felt like he'd lost something even though it was never his in the first place. Mike's parents, as his next of kin, had graciously consented to the preservation of DNA for later paternity testing. If Priestly was surprised at his own results, he was fucking gob-smacked as he read, "Michael James Hanson is excluded as the biological father of Michael Priestly Madison."
He remembered the sick feeling as he met Tish's eyes and realized who the father must be. Or might be, given that they'd all been so sure it was it was Priestly and then how sure they were that it was Mike. Tish's grief was renewed when Mike was deemed not to be the father, but it turned to icy silence as they stared at each other, both realizing who the father had to be. Tadd.
It took him another couple months to realize something was wrong with that possibility and to confront Tish on it. She'd broken down and tearfully admitted that one night, about a month after she'd started dating Priestly and they'd had a huge fight, she went out drinking with some of her girlfriends. She had way, way too much. She ran into Tadd who, for reasons she was too drunk to understand, offered to give her and her friends a ride home when it was clear that even their DD was too bombed to master the fine art of driving. She woke up next to him in his bed, naked and horrified, with no memory of what had or had not happened. She snuck out of his apartment without waking him and hadn't seen or heard from him since. Hearing this, Priestly had gone so red in the face that Tish started bawling and begging him not to hate her, not realizing that he was furious for a whole other reason.
Rape, Tish, he'd said in a voice so low and dangerous he'd scared her. With her own face deep red, she admitted she didn't know if it was rape or not. She couldn't remember anything. It was why she hadn't gone to the police, though every instinct screamed at her to do so. Sober, she would never even have spoken to Tadd let alone gotten into his car. Given her abject humiliation, it was tough to stay furious at her like he wanted to.
As her due date neared, Tish tearfully shared her fears with him. If she told Tadd, if he even agreed to testing and was confirmed to be the baby's father… No. No way. I can't, she'd wept hysterically, cradling her belly protectively, Oh, God, Priestly, if he knew he might try to take him from me… As afraid and unprepared as Tish felt, she also felt that eternal connection of mother to child. Telling Tadd, risking the potential consequences, was out of the question. Unfair or not, telling Tadd was not an option.
Mike's parents, though gracious enough to allow the DNA sample from their deceased son, were less than gracious upon discovering the results. After their final birthing class, Priestly quietly told her to put his name down on the birth certificate, and then he'd never mentioned it again.
Though it put him back to the occasional bottle of soap sliver shampoo and sometimes a couple weeks of Ramen dinners, he continued with the partnership agreement with Trucker at the grill, he finished his Bachelor's degree, and he helped Tish out with her medical bills. When Tish gave birth, Trucker put Leo and Davis in charge of the grill and kicked Priestly out of it for a week's paternity leave. As far as the entire world knew, Mikey was his kid. Only Tish, Trucker, Zo, Leo, Jude, Priestly, and his mother knew otherwise. Tish wasn't sure whether or not she would ever tell Mikey the truth. Priestly wasn't sure how he felt about that, but for the time being, it didn't matter. He was too young for that conversation, anyway. And besides, Priestly knew better than anyone that being blood related didn't necessarily make you family.
"Hey," Jude's arms slid around him from behind again. He turned himself around so he was facing her. She played with the little cowlick that tufted out at the back of his head. "Thinking about Mike?"
He nodded. Jesus. Jude. If you'd suggested to him that she would be standing in the grill with him, now donning an apron, herself, he'd never have bought it. He'd fully expected her to drop out of school, at least temporarily. Although she remained in Santa Cruz for another week after Spring break ended, she'd packed her things and flew back to Pennsylvania. She'd told him later that ironically, other than him, school was the only thing that kept her from losing it completely. He understood that, though. Just like the buy-in had done for him, finishing her senior year had given her something to focus on, something to draw her out of her sorrow and dark thoughts. And he was wrong, too, in his assumption that she'd withdraw from him like she always did upon returning to school. She didn't. She clung to him at the gate as if she'd never let go. Her last wobbly words before turning to head down the walkway to the plane were, "I love you." Her emails and phone calls ended the same way. She hadn't left his side since returning to Santa Cruz after graduation. No petty fights. No pulling back.
"Thinking about everything," he admitted, swaying with her to the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. He didn't have to explain. She understood it. Mike's birthday did the same thing for her. He'd never forget finding her at the build site after searching so frantically in the chaos of emergency personnel, smoke, screaming, crying, and panic. He'd never forget how they'd come together, clinging, half sobbing into each other's mouths as they'd suddenly and fervently kissed. There was more emotion in that first kiss than in a lifetime of kisses. In the utter silence that appeared to fall over only the two of them, he could all but hear their souls irrevocably intertwining in that one frozen moment in time before the shouting and sirens and chaos flooded back in. It was less time than a heartbeat, yet it changed them both forever.
He returned to the now, to her fingers gently twisting the cowlick, gently tugging on it and with that motion, tugging him back to reality. But for another golden second, it was just the two of them, like it had been that time before. "'God only knows what I'd be without you…'" he sang softly so that only she could hear, fading out along with the Beach Boys as they stared into each other's eyes, feeling their history.
And then Mikey chortled with glee as Trucker shook him upside down by his ankles...at least until Zo suggested that doing that so soon after cake would probably end with him wearing it. Their isolation shattered, Jude and Priestly broke reluctantly apart as Piper called out to everyone to gather around, holding her camera. She turned toward the door with a smile as Noah and Julia came in, arriving late from another birthday party for one of Julia's classmates. Fuzzzy darted in behind them, coming in from work with apologies about traffic. Priestly grinned to himself as he realized he was probably never going to stop thinking that name in his head every time he saw Jeff. He watched Jen, who was only able to be at the grill because she was currently between highly paid computer systems consulting assignments. She tossed aside the paperwork she'd been studying with Trucker so she could kiss Jeff hello. Married over two years and still acting like newlyweds. Priestly vowed he and Jude would be exactly the same way, though they hadn't even hit their first anniversary yet.
Piper set the camera on a tripod and moaned that she wasn't sure they would even all fit in the picture. Still, they tried. Finally, with Noah and Piper in the back row on overturned crates, holding Julia between them, his mother and Leo next to them on their own crates, followed by Trucker, Zo, Jen, Jeff, Sally and Scooter standing normally in front of them, and Rick, Tish, Priestly, and Jude sitting down in front with Mikey leaning equally against Tish's and Priestly's knees, the timer for the flash went off, capturing forever the greater part of their makeshift village.
Now, a week later, Priestly held the framed shot in his hands as he studied the walls of the grill and tried to figure out where it should go. Piper, who didn't have to work but remained on at the grill because she liked having something to do until Julia got out of school for the day, stood beside him contemplating the walls. She had no suggestions. He stared down at the photo. These people, his family. Memories rushed over him like the waves he so long ago dove headlong into. Life. So amazing. Stuff you couldn't predict, wouldn't expect. Shit that knocked you to your knees. Things that sent you soaring. Moments that blocked your throat, choked you up. He felt so far away from the person he'd been seven years ago, the guy who'd filled a backpack with stones to match his heavy heart and plunged into the ocean. The same guy now in the center of all that love. The same guy…born again.
A/N: Gratitude to all of you who have followed, favorited, commented...it's been a great ride! I'd love to hear from some of you silent followers. Thoughts? Likes? Dislikes? Thanks again for the journey into my take on Priestly's life and how he came to BCG!