"It will be fun."
"You know I hate that sort of thing Connor."
"Come on it's just for the weekend."
"Yes! I'm going to pack."
"This means I have to read his books doesn't it?"
"You should have done already, they're great," Connor called as he disappeared up the stairs.
Kevin looked at the pile of books Arnold had sent him the other day. Arnold had put his imagination to good use and had become a rather celebrated author. He'd taken it upon himself to send his former companion the entire set free of charge.
They'd just received an invitation inviting the pair of them to Arnold's huge country house in The Hamptons for the weekend. As much as Kevin loved Arnold, he hated going there because it always brought out his worst jealous side and reminded him that he and Connor didn't live as well. Connor would always have to tell him that he loved him all the same and he couldn't think of two more humble people than Arnold and Naba.
Kevin picked up one of the books, the dust cover untouched and the pages crisp. It cracked as he opened it to the first page. 'Dedicated to Kevin Price, my best friend'.
He felt guilty for not reading them. He probably should. He'd get round to it someday, maybe he'd bring one with him.
He opened another to read the inscription inside. A pang of jealousy went through him. 'Dedicated to Nabulungi Hatimbi, my life, my love'. He still couldn't get over the fact that there was now someone more important than him in Arnold's life. Granted, after Uganda they weren't living together so weren't as close but, Kevin still resented the relationship that in his mind had been replaced.
"Connor?" Kevin called upstairs.
"Do you think other people will be there?"
"It's a party Kevin, of course there will."
"But it's Arnold."
"Well he moves in wide circles now."
Kevin grunted. Connor appeared at the top of the stairs, several pairs of shoes in his arms.
"Come and help me pack."
"I don't like packing."
"We don't have to go if you really don't want to."
"No it's fine," Kevin sighed, "I want to see Arnold. I just don't want to compete for his attention."
"Do you want me to ring Chris and ask if he's been invited?"
Kevin flicked open another book. 'Dedicated to district 9'.
"You don't think he's trying to surprise us all with a reunion do you?"
"I think that's exactly what he's doing," Connor replied re balancing the shoes in his arms.
Kevin watched him disappear again and went into the kitchen to fix himself a strong coffee. He sipped it, stroking one arm with the other to soothe himself. Connor returned fifteen minutes later.
"Chris says both he and James have been invited and that they're going. He also says Arnold invited Noah and his girlfriend. She can't come but he is."
"What's Arnold playing at? Happy families?"
"Chris also said Freddie and Eric have been invited, he doesn't know about their partners. He's lost touch with Jacob and Ryan but he could find out from Eric if we wanted to know. That's everyone from Uganda."
"It's going to be weird."
"I don't know about you but I'm curious."
The car was loaded up two days later, Connor handed a map to Kevin and told him not to get them lost and set off. It was a six hour drive to Arnold's so plenty of time for Kevin to get simultaneously nervous, excited and wish to turn around.
"Where now?" Connor asked Kevin about half way through the drive.
"Kevin? We're almost at the junction I need to know which way," Connor saw Kevin rotating the map in circles out the corner of his eye, "Have you lost us?"
"No I just can't find where we are."
"For goodness sake."
"Please don't get angry."
"You had one job, one very easy job."
Kevin looked out the window avoiding Connor's accusing glances every few seconds.
"Oh this is great," Connor said suddenly, startling Kevin by banging the dashboard, "Just great."
"It's not that bad."
"No it's not bad that we're lost because of you, it's bad because there's now a massive exclamation mark flashing and the car is slowing down."
"That's not my fault."
Connor raised his hands exasperated as the car came to a holt by the side of the road.
"Fantastic, fucking fantastic."
"Don't tell me to calm down."
"Maybe we should-"
"Get out the car."
"Get out the car and try to flag someone down for help."
Kevin got out his door and went to stand on the edge of the curb, flailing his arms every time a car drove past. Connor went to the front to open the bonnet, coughing and leaning back as hot black smoke rose from inside.
"This is hopeless, do we have a breakdown number?"
"I don't think so."
"Well then we'll be stuck forever"
"I think someone will find us before then," Kevin said patiently, still waving at every passing car, "Here we go."
A car was slowing down before it pulled up before their broken down one. The car was sleek and appeared brand new. A man stepped out the passenger door, he was dressed in a shiny suit that looked recently bought.
"Elder Price? Elder McKinley?"
Kevin reeled. He hadn't been called that for years and he had never liked it anyway. The man came closer and laughed.
"Oh my God, it is you."
"Elder Neeley?" Connor smiled back moving over with his hand out stretched, both of them quickly deciding to turn it into a hug instead.
"Wow," Connor said looking at Noah's car.
Noah waved his hand, brushing it off. "Well we are going to Arnold's, you have to try your best."
"Of course, you're going to Arnold's."
"You too I'm guessing."
"We think everyone's been invited."
"We think so don't we Kevin?"
"Mmm," Kevin made a non committed noise looking between their broken down car and Noah's shiny one.
"Do you want a lift?"
"Of course hop in."
Connor retrieved their suitcases and climbed into the passenger door leaving Kevin to sit in the back.
"That was Connor on the phone."
"Oh yeah?" James looked up from his folding.
"He wanted to know who was invited."
"Shall we pack our trunks?"
"Well they do have a pool."
"Going for yes then."
"Do you think they've changed?"
"It's been nearly ten years, some of them probably have kids by now"
"Do you want to take a bet on the number of beards?"
James smiled and closed the suitcase. He carried it to the front door and put it next to the other things there.
"Why don't we have kids yet?"
"We haven't had the baby conversation yet."
"The baby conversation."
"I'll take your word for it. Do we want to have it?"
"Let's not bring it up this weekend."
"I've been working in the city which means a long commute but my girlfriend prefers the suburbs."
"That's nice for you" Connor said pleasantly, looking at Kevin in the mirror urging him to do the same and look less sullen.
"What do you do?"
"I work in advertising" Noah explained, "It's not very exciting but the pay's good. What about you?"
"I'm still dancing and Kevin's still teaching"
"Are you doing any dancing at the moment?"
"Ah I see" an awkward silence followed which was broken by Kevin.
"Have you read his books?"
"Of course, they're brilliant, one's even dedicated to me!"
"I didn't realise you were so close."
"Well I say me, I mean district 9"
"Have you read yours?"
"The one he dedicated to you."
Connor shut his eyes and winced. Kevin could at least pretend he had some interest in Arnold's novels, especially over the next few days.
"He treats you quite well in it."
"I'm in it?"
"Well he treats 'Kenneth' well," Noah chuckled to himself, "I don't think he's trying to hide anything."
Kevin retreated back into himself watching the increasing greenery as it passed by the window.
He reached across to his bag pulling out the novel he'd decided to take with him and read over the weekend. 'I Am Here For You'. He'd almost put it aside after reading the saccharine dedication to himself but, decided that if he was going to read any of Arnold's books it might as well be this one.
'Arnold Cunningham does it again with yet another delightful book outlining the fascinating rite of passage for all young Mormons. A sometimes joyous sometimes sorrowful insight into the authors own experience, you will be unable to put down this hilarious and surprisingly touching memoir. 10/10' – NY Times
Eric finished throwing his clothes into a cloth holdhall and setting the lights on timers. This invitation couldn't have come at a better time for him. It would get him out the house and away from the sofa, the fridge and the space inbetween.
He did a quick once over the house to check he hadn't forgotten anything. He glanced round the bathroom feeling his stomach lurch as he noticed it was still littered with flowery conditioners and scented body lotions. Her toothbrush was still there too.
He slammed the door a little too hard cursing himself for letting another girlfriend go. He didn't know what it was about him but they never seemed to stay long and he just hated to be alone.
"How long daddy?"
"Not long at all," Jacob Michaels lifted his small daughter onto his knee and kissed her nose, "Just the weekend."
"You'll be staying with grandma," Rachel Michaels said smiling nervously at her husband, "She'll be ok with her won't she?"
"She'll be fine, it's two days."
"Faye! Don't be rude." Jacob lifted her off his lap at the sound of the phone ringing. His wife caught his eye and gestured.
"Make it quick we have to leave."
"Hello?...Yes?...Oh…Oh I see….that's…that's very…I see…well goodbye." he put the phone down and turned grimly to his wife, "That was my mother."
"She's um…she forgot about Faye and only just remembered."
"Well thank goodness she did, we can't find anyone else as this notice."
"Um…well that's the thing…she went to Mexico."
"She's gone to Mexico."
"What do we do?"
"We find somewhere else."
"There's no time."
"We'll try the phone book."
"She'll have to come with us."
Jacob stopped in his tracks on his journey to the phone book, suddenly looking grim.
"No she can't."
"What about them? This is your daughter!"
"We can't just show up with a kid to Arnold's."
"I'm sure he has plenty of rooms in that massive house."
Jacob sighed and rubbed his eyes with his hands. He looked at his daughter, innocently looking up at him and then at his wife who was staring at him accusingly, hands on her hips.
Freddie finished up trimming the new batch of tulips that had just been sent in. It had been a quiet morning at Freddie's Flowers but he still wanted to make sure he took care of all he could before he left.
He was leaving the shop under the care of his assistant Will, he'd left a long list of instructions and emergency numbers.
He was both looking forward to the weekend and also dreading the embarrassment. Arnold had asked him to bring his plus one. It was no big secret that the only person he'd ever loved had been on the mission in Uganda. That person also happened to be his companion and that person also happened to be married to another man who just so happened to have also been on the Ugandan mission.
So he'd been too late to express his feelings for James Church at the time, but Freddie still regretted every moment and had struggled to care for anything other than his flowers since.
Will came through from the back room tying his apron behind him.
"You'll be ok?" Freddie asked him trying to hide the concern in his voice.
"How hard can it be?"
"I was worried you'd say something like that."
"Go have a nice time, I'll manage."
"I'll try" Freddie tossed him the keys, "Remember to lock up every night."
"And remember the shipment of carnations on Saturday."
"It's written down."
"Also you might want to change the displays-"
"Ok ok I'm going."
He left the shop the bell jangling as the door shut. He got into his car, adjusted the mirror and put it into gear. He sat there with the engine humming for quite some time before he turned it off again and got out. He went back to the shop and opened the door. Will looked up.
"Do you want to come with me?"
"Do you want to be my plus one to Arnold's?"
"Do I want to come to a party held at the massive country house of famous author Arnold Cunningham? Are you kidding?"
"Yeah there's just one little condition, you have to pretend we're together."
"I think this is it." Chris and James' car slowed down as it reached the entrance to Arnold's house, "Wake up Chris, we're here."
"Oh my God." Chris said groggily as he slowly woke gazing in disbelief at the house and gardens.
"You can tell he's rich, he has gates."
"And a driveway as long as the highway."
Finally the large, fresh and white house appeared before them leaving both their mouths agape. The wheels crunched on the gravel as James pulled up next to another car.
"Is that Arnold's or is someone here already?"
"We're pretty early but I think that's Eric's car."
"How can you tell?"
"The Star Trek bumper sticker."
James opened the boot and lifted their suitcases out while Chris headed for the front door.
"What is it?"
"Look at the doorbell."
"Oh wow would you look at that."
"He has a rope pull door bell."
"Yes he actually does."
"I can just tell this weekend's going to be pretty surreal."
Ryan Zelder didn't know what possessed him to take the train all the way into the countryside. He did enjoy trains though and he also didn't know if he could be bothered to drive across two states. Still he was already bored.
The train stopped at a station that Ryan vaguely heard the name of over the intercom. He watched as a selection of passengers got on and off. A skinny man with sandy hair, younger than him wearing jeans and an old t shirt got on and held his ticket in one hand making his way down the aisle.
Had Arnold not paid for his ticket he might have thought this man had no business in first class but he swallowed his thoughts and continued staring out the window. That was until he noticed that the man was standing directly above him.
"Can I help you?" He asked politely.
"I think you're in my seat."
"Oh I'm so sorry, let me just check my ticket."
"No worries, I'll just go here." he placed his luggage in the holder and sat down next to Ryan in the spare seat next to him. He got out a paper and unfolded it to the puzzles page, proceeding to do a Sudoku.
The train pulled out of the station and Ryan went back to his staring.
Ryan jumped at the language coming from the man next to him. He gave him what he deemed an appropriately scornful look and turned back to the window.
"Do you have a pen? Mine's just run out."
"I'll just have to finish this later then." he put the paper away in the seat pocket in front of him and turned to Ryan catching his eye before he had a chance to turn away.
"So where you heading?"
Oh so he was one of those people, Ryan thought, the kind who liked to engage in conversation with strangers. Ryan was pleased to say that he was not one of those people, but he also didn't like to be rude.
"To a party."
"All the way out here?"
"It's at someone's house."
The man nodded turning into the aisle as a trolley of snacks was passed through.
"Would you like any coffee?" the woman asked smiling at the two of them.
"No thanks I can't drink caffeine"
As the woman pushed on Ryan and the man both turned to look at each other in amazement. It wasn't every day you said something at exactly the same time as a stranger.
"You don't drink caffeine?" Ryan asked first, reassuring himself that it was probably just a health thing.
"No I'm Mormon."
"You're joking right?"
"Of course not, I just came back from my mission."
"Yeah I was based in Botswana."
"Dude stop staring! I hate when people treat us like some kind of attraction."
"Sorry it's just, I'm Mormon too. Well…I used to be anyway."
"It's so good to see you!"
"You look great"
"So do you, Eric's here already, come in and say hi. You can dump your stuff in the hall I'll take it upstairs later. Naba! Chris and James are here!"
Naba came through from another room, beaming as brightly as the beautiful summer dress she wore.
"You look gorgeous." Chris said as he kissed her on both cheeks. James followed suit and then followed her through to a spacious living room. Eric was standing up against a book shelf flicking through a hard back.
"Is this director authorised Arnold?" he turned around holding up a copy of 'Lord of the Rings: Behind the Scenes Secrets', "Oh hey guys!"
"The nerd off has already begun I'm afraid," Naba said to Chris and James, "I'll try to keep Arnold in check."
James laughed. "Well we all have to deal with our husband's obsessions don't we," he grinned at Chris who looked back at him unimpressed.
"I stocked up on poptarts before you arrived. If you're hungry you can help yourself anytime."
"I'd be wary of making that offer if I were you," James said, "They'll all be gone in a day."
Chris's retort was interrupted by the doorbell. Naba whisked out the room to answer it.
"So what was Uganda like?"
"Probably similar to Botswana."
"I can't believe you're actually Mormon and part of the famous district 9."
"We're not famous, are we?"
"Well you are now thanks to Arnold Cunningham, everyone knows who you are."
"I guess so. Have you read his books?"
"I've taken one to read with me while I'm at his party, I figured it might be something to talk about."
"Which one? Wait what? His party? This party you're going to is Arnold Cunningham's?"
Ryan smiled sheepishly, suddenly very proud of himself for having a famous friend. He felt slightly more comfortable with the whole thing for the first time since getting the invitation.
"Are you a fan?"
"Yes I love him! I wish I could meet him."
"Well you know what, there's a plus one on my invitation and this might sound crazy but, why don't you come along."
"Really? You're asking a total stranger you just met to come with you to Arnold Cunningham's party?"
"I guess I trust you. I think it's the Mormon thing."
"I wasn't Mormon my whole life you know."
"What made you convert?"
"My best friend in school. He was a Mormon and I loved him to bits, he sort of disappeared when he went on his mission and half of me wanted to go in this utterly futile hope that I might find him."
"Have you tried facebook?"
"Yeah he's not on it."
"Who isn't on facebook?"
"Apparently Connor McKinley."
"Are we nearly there?" Kevin said from his position slumped in the back seat.
"I don't know check the sat nav." Noah called over his shoulder.
"I can't see from here."
"There's a screen for the passengers in the back."
"I can't find it."
"Press the button and the screen comes out."
"I can't do it."
"It says about an hour," Noah sighed glancing over to the one in the front, "Anyway, as I was saying I think after this weekend we should all try and stay in touch."
"Well Jacob says he hasn't spoken with you in ages."
"I was at Faye's christening," Connor said grimly.
"Oh yeah, so you were."
"What happened at Faye's christening and why wasn't I invited?" Kevin said sullenly.
"He didn't really like you and we weren't together at the time so he didn't need to invite you. It was like five or six years ago, don't dwell on it."
"But what happened?"
"He got a bit angry."
"At most of the people there actually."
"He didn't get angry at Arnold" Noah chipped in.
"Arnold bought a girlfriend."
"As opposed to what?"
"As opposed to what most his other elder friends brought."
"There might still be time to find a day care."
"Jacob you need to just calm down everything will be fine."
"Where are we going?" Faye asked from the back seat.
"A little holiday darling. But Rachel, I know these people and I don't think Faye should be around them. Remember what happened last time?"
"Of course I do, I was there. But that was six years ago, people change, we're all a bit older. I'm sure we can be mature adults"
"This is Arnold's party, you know that right?"
"His wife's sensible enough."
"You don't understand," Jacob sighed gripping the wheel in frustration, "This is the infamous district 9, he wasn't even exaggerating a tiny bit in that book, that was actually what we did."
"I never actually read the Uganda ones."
"You should have done, they were the best."
"I read 'I Was There For You'"
"That was the worst."
"I thought it was sad."
"You wouldn't if you knew 'Kenneth' in real life."
"You look beautiful as always," Freddie said to Naba once she'd opened the door and accepted the flowers he handed her.
"So are these," she said, "What are they?"
"Lupins, they're very in season right now."
"That's so sweet of you, and who's this?" she directed her question at the man hovering nervously just behind Freddie.
"This is Will and he uh…he's..." The last chance to back out was approaching fast, "He's my boyfriend."
"Hello Will," Naba smiled easily and shaking his hand.
"Hi," Will said shyly retreating behind Freddie.
"Come in come in!" Naba moved aside so the pair could come in showing them where to leave their bags and showing them into the living room.
Freddie instinctively looked up in the high ceilinged corridor, his eye catching the strange assortment of objects hanging on the walls and on the shelves. There were a few nice choice pieces that he figured must be Naba's design but these were offset with Arnold's familiar stamp.
Several framed and autographed photos of various fantasy and sci-fi related people dotted the walls. These alternated with the unusual memorabilia such as the fan of different coloured lightsabers and a couple of samurai swords.
In the living room, Eric and Arnold were having a heated discussion about the merits of unauthorised biographies. Chris and James were watching the exchange like a dull tennis match and looked up eagerly as the two newcomers entered.
"Freddie wow, you've changed," Chris said rising so he could give him a hug, "But still no beards."
"Yeah, I have a bet with James that there will be at least one beard amongst us."
"We don't actually have that bet" James said quickly also standing, yet his height meant he was still looking upwards, "Hi, you look…well"
Freddie strained a smile at his former mission companion repeating over and over in his mind that there was nothing there at all. Nothing that could be rekindled. Freddie just caught sight of James's wedding ring before it disappeared behind his back into a hug.
"I'm Will." Will announced without prompting.
"You're here with Freddie?" James looked for an explanation.
"Yeah we're together." Freddie confirmed.
"Uh...since he started working for me."
"You're his boss?"
"You have no idea how great it is having a gay boss," Will interjected chuckling. He was met with silence and he quickly stopped laughing. Freddie inwardly cursed himself for picking one of the straightest people he knew for this crucial role. Will was well meaning but it would be easy to let something slip.
"We are sorry to announce that there is a problem with the signalling at the next station and so this train must wait until we are given clearance. We apologise for any inconvenience caused."
"I'm going to be late."
"I'm sure he won't mind. So did you know Connor well?"
"I'm never late."
"It'll be fine. So tell me about Connor, what's he like now?"
"I'll text him."
"Yes and then you can talk to me about Connor."
"Ok one sec." Ryan began typing his message to Arnold, "I might as well add that you're my plus one while I'm at it."
"Do you know how to spell my name?"
"Do you spell it a weird way?"
"Not really no."
"So it's pretty much the way you'd think?"
"Yeah I guess."
"I didn't think there were too many ways to spell Steve Blade."
Naba answered the door to Kevin, Connor and Noah, who stood tired but smiling. She took turns in kissing them on both cheeks and invited them in.
"Arnold guess who's here!" She called into the living room announcing their entrance.
Arnold went straight for Kevin, hug tackling him, his arms barely reaching to Kevin's waist.
"Heya buddy," he said into the material of Kevin's jumper, "I missed you."
"You too," Kevin patted Arnold's shoulder awkwardly.
Noah headed straight over to Eric who had paused in his conversation to greet his former companion.
"Long time no see," Noah said grinning widely, "How are you?"
"I've been better, it was good to get out the house."
"I know what you mean. I like my space. Does Michelle give you space?"
"More than enough, in fact she doesn't even live with me anymore. We broke up."
"Oh. Well I never liked her anyway."
"She was perfect," Eric sighed re opening the Lord of the Rings book, "I was stupid to let her go."
"Well to tell you the truth," Noah lowered his voice, "I'm not too happy with my love life either."
Meanwhile, Connor and Chris were catching up. The former companions did see each other quite often, but Kevin and James noticed the seemingly never ending stream of gossip they managed to talk about.
"Is Jacob here yet?" Connor said to Chris, facing each other side by side on the sofa.
"No but he's bringing his wife with him."
"He's only on his second."
"Such a good Mormon." Connor smirked and took a sip of the drink Naba had handed him.
"He's got a kid as well right? From the first one."
"Yes, I was at the christening. Little Faye."
"Are you talking about Jacob's christening again?" Noah chipped in as he overheard the conversation, "You were there weren't you Freddie?"
"I'd rather not think about it."
"But what happened at the christening?" Kevin wailed to Connor who ignored him and carried on talking to Chris.
"He was lucky to get custody."
"But Rachel was an absolute bitch."
"So you like flowers too do you Will?" James asked politely, realising he was left without conversation.
"Not really." an unsubtle poke from Freddie made him reevaluate, "I mean yes, I love flowers. Almost as much as I...love Freddie." he finished slowly shifting his hand so it hovered awkwardly over Freddie's knee.
Freddie put his hand over it and rested both of them on his knee. It was uncomfortable and Freddie willed someone to speak to take the focus away from them.
"So has anyone met Rachel?" Chris picked up where they'd left off. There was a mutual shaking of heads.
"Evil step mother type do you think?" Connor laughed, "They're arriving today yes?"
"Yeah," Arnold replied, "But they might be held up somewhere. I just got a text from Ryan to say he's been held up on the train."
"Why doesn't everyone get settled in their rooms?" Naba said to everyone, "It will give you a chance to get ready for dinner later, follow me."
The group followed her to the stairs where their bags had gone, already taken upstairs by an invisible entity.
"Do many people work here?" Kevin asked Arnold.
"Just Oliver, he does a lot of the gardening and helps around the house sometimes."
"It's just so big," Naba chipped in, "I sometimes need a little help. I've put you and Connor in here, next to our room."
They made their way inside the small but cosy room. There were touches of Naba everywhere. A lot of the decorations were made of mismatched objects such as the fish nets that made up the lamp shades or the bottle top picture frames. The rest of the group continued down the hall, leaving Kevin and Connor in their room.
"I think it's going well so far," Kevin said generously until he saw the look on Connor's face, "What's wrong?"
"I just...I feel bad."
"This whole situation is just so strange. We're not nineteen anymore and it's clear we've all changed quite a bit."
Kevin began opening draws and putting shirts away. He opened the curtains so a stream of afternoon sun shone in revealing the vast expanse of acherage beyond.
"I think they're all the same myself."
"I feel bad for Freddie."
"You know about him and James right?"
"It was just so embarrassing I don't think he ever really got over it."
"Well he's got this new guy now, Will or whatever."
"I'm really happy for him, he's had a rough time with love."
"Is that a song?"
"Rough time with love."
"Kevin please, I just mean that first it was James, then it was me, I haven't seen him for a while so who knows who else in between."
"Wait you and Freddie?"
"It was pretty one sided and it was also before you arrived so calm down. This Will guy seems nice."
"I don't trust him."
"You don't trust anyone, but I'll humour you, why not?"
"I don't know."
Connor sighed and shook his head and began to help Kevin with unpacking. He stood at the window and looked at the impressive view beyond.
"How long until dinner?"
"A couple of hours."
"That's long enough" Connor said putting the bolt across the door.
"Well this isn't too bad," Chris said collapsing onto the bed, James quickly following suit.
"I suppose not."
"I feel like we'll never be invited to a bachelor party again."
"What makes you say that?"
"We've all grown up since the mission."
"We were grown up then."
"Not at nineteen, not really." Chris opened their suitcases and laid them on the bed, rummaging between them.
"Well I know what you mean, everyone's married themselves off. It pretty much goes against everything district nine was about."
"I feel bad for Eric, he never seems to know what he wants. I'm not saying he's driving girlfriends away but I don't think he's trying to keep them close either."
"Well at least we knew she existed. Have you ever seen Noah's girlfriend? She can never come to anything, I've never seen her out in public."
"Her name's Paige."
"Well if you ask me, I think it's a pretty fictional relationship."
"How do you feel about Freddie?" Chris said quickly, deciding to tread delicately on some new ground.
"Well he's got this new guy now, I'm happy for him."
"Yeah same. Really happy."
"This will be your room," Naba said with a flourish as she ushered Freddie and Will into the room next to Chris and James. She left to show Eric and Noah down the hall leaving the two of them to stare at the double bed.
"We don't have to share if you don't want to," Freddie said quickly.
"It's not a threat to my masculinty or anything."
"I'm not scared to be near you just because you're gay. I know it doesn't work like that."
"You could have just said that. Bare in mind I roll around a lot though."
Will looked at the small two seater wicker up against the window and then back to the double bed. It was a double bed because it was too small to be a single but it wasn't quite big enough for two platonic friends to be comfortable.
"I can sleep over there," Will said eventually.
"Are you sure?"
"Yep absolutely," he said brightly fishing out a spare blanket from the wardrobe.
"She'd complain about everything I'd do all the time," Eric was telling Noah as they sat side by side on their bed, "First it was spending too much time at work, then it was not giving her enough space at home."
"Maybe it was good to get out of it then, maybe they were all omens for better things coming without her." Noah shifted closer to Eric on the bed and put his arm around him.
"I just feel so useless."
"You're not useless."
"Ok name one worthwhile thing I've done with my life."
"You went on a mission and helped the lives of a community struggling with some pretty horrific stuff. That seems worthwhile to me."
"Uganda was ten years ago."
"Look at what Arnold's done with his life, I mean wow. And Chris and James and Kevin and Connor are all happily married. You've got this really well paid job, a girlfriend and your car belongs in a James Bond movie. Freddie's got a boyfriend, Jacob's got a kid, it's just me who lives by himself and runs a comic book store. I'm useless."
Eric slid out of Noah's hold and placed his head against the cool glass of the window. His eyes watched as another car pulled into the long driveway
"Do you hear that?"
"Shhh," Kevin slurred trying to pull Connor back into bed, "It's nothing."
"It sounds like shouting."
"Stay out of it."
"I'm going to see what's going on."
"It's none of your business." Kevin made a grab for Connor's vanishing form but it landed in the bed sheets, "I married the frickin district leader who always needs to stick his nose in other people's problems, hooray for me."
"Then stay here."
Kevin couldn't protest any longer as Connor had left their room and was silently tip toeing down the stairs. He paused half way down just before they curved so he could hide and listen to the conversation in the hall way at the same time.
"This is your fault!" an unrecognisable woman's voice spoke.
"My fault? How can it be my fault?"
"You are responsible for your mother! Mexico? What the fuck is that about?"
"Please don't swear in front of Faye."
"She's not my daughter."
"We're all part of this family."
"Guys guys it's fine just chill." Connor recognised Arnold's voice for the first time.
"Don't tell me to chill! I don't care who you are or that you're rich and famous you can't tell me to chill."
"No Rachel, he's right, you need to chill." Connor found himself performing a tiny fist pump as he rooted for Jacob to stand up to himself.
"Oh fine side with him."
"He's my friend."
"And I'm your wife."
"Not any more."
"I want a divorce."
There was a very long silence and Connor could just imagine the tension that was boiling up thick below him. Finally he heard the click of some heels and the door slam. Shortly after he heard a car rev and drive away.
"Is this train ever going to move?"
"Not for a while." Steve got out his Sudoku again and clicked his pen before remembering it was out, "Connor's changed I'm guessing?"
"Last time I saw him was at our friend's daughter's christening and I didn't get a chance to talk long,"
"It's a long story. Basically, I haven't seen him for a long time,"
"What colour's his hair?"
"Last I remember it was red, why?"
"It was always changing,"
"You want to hear a secret?" Noah said finally as Eric continued to stare out the window in silence long enough to watch the car as it disappeared again. He shrugged and went back to sit on the edge of the bed.
"The car's not actually mine. I borrowed it from a colleague. Arnold just makes me feel a bit insignificant."
"Yeah, but at the same time I'm not sure I'd want to live here. It's so big, you'd get lost in yourself."
"I'm justifying the car though."
"It's a pretty stupid car Noah."
"No it's not! It's the latest XJ ty-"
"It suits you."
"What was that about?" Kevin said as he heard Connor enter the room, his eyes closed.
"Jacob just split up with his wife."
"It's a different wife."
"Yeah I know, I got it. Why?"
"Something about his daughter."
"He bought Faye with him?" Kevin sat up slightly, "If I asked her what happened at the christening do you think she'd tell me?"
"Don't bring it up, especially not now."
"If you'd tell me what happened then I would know why and feel more keen to use my self control."
"Shut up and get dressed, dinner's in a bit."
Freddie poured himself another glass of wine, downed a quarter and topped it up again. He stopped concentrating on the conversation and found himself staring at James sitting opposite. The way he leant slightly to the right, the way this made his and Chris's shoulders touch, the way this made him feel ill but he couldn't stop looking.
"Is Ryan still held up?" Jacob said, gesturing to the empty chair where his mission companion should have been.
"He says he's on his way, the train was late and then they couldn't get a taxi."
"He's bringing someone."
"I don't know, some guy called Steve."
Connor showed no recognition at the name. Why should he? Loads of people are called Steve, he knew several himself, he was also drinking too much to care.
Only Kevin wasn't drinking. He was sober and alert, internally picking holes in everything anyone was saying. Connor had told him quite firmly that if he couldn't say something nice he shouldn't say anything at all. So he had complimented Naba's dress and then sat in silence for most of the meal.
"Are you working on something new at the moment?" Noah enquired gazing round the room at the ornate furnishings and room length windows.
"I've just finished my next one, my editor's just finished with it and she'll be dropping it off tomorrow morning."
"Is it true you write everything on a typewriter?
Naba giggled and laid a hand on Arnold's arm, leaning in to kiss his cheek.
"Yes and it suits me well."
"So what's it about?" Eric said, "I just want to let you know that I loved 'Don't Break the Rules'."
"Entirely based on true events, with a little tweaking," Arnold admitted.
"I still can't believe we actually did half that stuff."
"Neither can I, I was very unimpressed," Connor added in his best district leader voice causing laughter from the rest of the table.
"So?" Eric probed, "Can we see it?"
"Your new one?"
"Yes you can...when it's published."
"What's this one about?"
"It's another semi autobiographical one."
"Haven't you covered enough of what happened in Uganda?" Kevin said with the slightest hint of scorn in his voice. It went unnoticed by the increasingly tipsy men.
"It's pre Uganda," Arnold explained his smile unfazed, "Maybe I'll show you some when my editor drops it round."
"Do I look ok?"
"Seriously?" Steve self consciously tugged at the ends of his shirt and ran a hand through his hair.
"Why is it so important?"
"I just haven't seen him for a very long time."
"Will he remember you?"
"Oh he'll remember me."
Ryan looked sideways at Steve who was the epitome of nerves wondering whether he should question this strange statement.
"The way you say that makes it sound like you're in some kind of godfather gang."
"Oh no" Steve relaxed slightly as he laughed, "We used to date."
"Oh," Ryan said eventually as images of Connor and Steve together failed to conjure themselves. Connor and Steve? That just didn't look right to him, did Steve know about Kevin?
"Well I say date, it was complicated so I don't really know. There was something and you know maybe it's still there." Steve trailed off wistfully and Ryan realised he had to tell him.
"You know he's uh...he's..." Ryan clicked his fingers as he searched for a word that wouldn't make the blow too hard. He failed to find it. "Married."
"How different do you think it all would've been if we hadn't met?"
"Well I wouldn't have found you." James leant across to kiss Chris, Freddie looked down at his lap as his stomach crunched.
"Kevin I love you," Connor said a bit too loudly trying to emulate James's gesture but missing. Kevin moved Connor's glass away from him.
"Well I'd still be living in a mud hut," Naba grinned as she looked between her husband and the gilt dining room.
"You do love me don't you Kevin?" Connor slurred.
"Yes," Kevin replied tonelessly, using one hand to simultaneously hold Connor up and push him away.
"To district 9!" Connor shouted raising his glass, the others repeated as he downed the rest of his glass.
"You should stop," Kevin said now concerned.
"What's wrong with you?"
"I could ask the same question."
"No seriously what's wrong with you? Ever since you found out about this trip you've been so moody, you didn't even want to come. Why didn't you want to see your best friend? Oh yes now I remember, it's because you're so full of yourself you can't accept that someone is more successful than you."
The room went very quiet and everyone stared at Connor in stunned silence and then to Kevin's clouding face as the outburst continued.
"You're not super Mormon anymore, you're not even a Mormon. So you're best friend has done better than you even though you thought it would be the other way round. Why can't you be happy for him? Face it Kevin, you're just jealous and you've been behaving like a child since we got here"
"I'm taking you upstairs." Kevin's face was expressionless as he put his arm on Connor's arm.
"Don't touch me."
"You're embarrassing yourself."
"But it's ok because I'm drunk."
"It's not ok."
"Leave me alone."
"This is pathetic."
"Stop it! Both of you." heads turned to Jacob who had stood up and was making his way to Connor and Kevin's side of the table.
"Yeah like we want your advice on couples not fighting," Kevin sneered.
"I'll take you to bed Connor, I want to check on Faye anyway." Jacob carried on unfazed lifting Connor out his chair and supporting him.
"Yeah just ring the bell."
"What is it now?"
"Yes very happy."
"For how long?"
"What are you doing?"
"Shhh work with me Connor," Jacob strained under Connor's weight who was allowing Jacob to take it, "Ok we have to get up some stairs now you have to help me."
"The room's spinning."
"Yes I would imagine it would be after the amount you had tonight. Why Connor? You never drink, why now?"
"The room's still spinning."
"Is everything ok with you and Kevin?"
"Jacob! The room! Please hold it still!"
"I think that's a conversation we'll have to have later then."
"The room's ringing."
"No that's the doorbell."
Jacob went to the door and struggled to open it with one hand with Connor still leaning on him. As the two men on the doorstep came into the light Jacob found himself letting go of Connor in surprise.
"Yeah it's me."
"Wow." Jacob moved to embrace Ryan leaving Connor on the floor where his eyes had closed and it looked like he'd passed out.
The second man stepped across the threshold and looked down. Wordless and unnoticed by the two former mission companions he leant down and lifted Connor allowing his limp head to rest on his shoulder.
"Hey Connor. Long time no see."
He carried Connor up the stairs and found an empty bedroom laying him gently on top of the sheets. On the soft impact Connor's eyelids fluttered open just in time to see a blanket laid over him and a kiss planted on his forehead before they closed again and he fell into unconsciousness.
"Guess who's here?" Jacob announced beaming.
"Ryan!" Chorused the men at the table. Ryan smiled and filled the empty seat.
"Have some wine."
"Oh go on."
"I don't drink."
"Still? It's been ten years, I'm sure God won't mind allowing you a bit."
"Some habits were harder to shake than others." Ryan shrugged off handedly but was inwardly begging for Jacob to drop it.
"Please don't tell me you still wear the underwear?"
Ryan filled the empty seat smiling goodnaturedly and reaching for some water.
"I'm tired, it's probably not such a good idea anyway."
"Do you want to sleep?" Naba asked, "I can show you your room."
"That would be great," he yawned, "I'll see you guys in the morning."
"Actually I might turn in too," Freddie added with a glance at James and then standing up with more conviction.
"Jacob? Is Connor ok?" Kevin mumbled.
"Oh shit sorry I forgot he's-"
"It's ok," Ryan interrupted, "I saw Steve deal with him."
"Who's Steve?" Kevin asked suspiciously rising slightly in his chair.
"I met him on the train."
"And you left him alone with Connor?"
"It's ok they know each other, plus he's Mormon and...I don't know he just seemed like a nice guy. Anyway, goodnight."
"Yeah goodnight guys, I'll see you in the morning." Freddie added as he joined Ryan in walking towards the door.
"Hey Will," Eric grinned, "Aren't you going to say goodnight to your boyfriend?"
Freddie's stomach dropped as he shared a nervous glance at Will whose smile had faltered.
"Oh come on!" Eric nudged Will on the shoulder, "You can do better than that."
"It's ok Eric," Freddie said quickly backing off towards the door, "And honestly I don't think we need relationship advice from you."
"Woah I'm just trying to have a laugh," Eric said raising his hands trying to smile through the obvious hurt on his face.
"Yeah well it's not funny." Freddie heard his voice crack slightly and took a deep breath in. He had to hold it together no matter how much the entire evening had made him want to collapse.
Meanwhile Will had risen from the table and had made his way round to Freddie. He placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I can say goodnight to you I think," he smiled, "I think my contract extends to that."
The kiss they shared was detached and unresponsive. It was unlike anything Freddie imagined his first kiss with a man would be like. For a start he was kissing the wrong lips. In the short time it lasted he imagined what it would be like to be Chris and for Will to be James.
They broke apart awkwardly but no one seemed to notice the falsity of what had just happened. Freddie swallowed, nodded and followed Naba and Ryan out the room.
"Are you done?"
The further retching that followed the question told Steve that no, Connor wasn't quite finished.
This wasn't how he'd imagined their reunion to look like. In his mind he'd seen lots of embracing and tears and vows to never leave each other again. He hadn't pictured the scene he was now confronted with; kneeling on the bathroom floor holding Connor's hair back while he vomited into the toilet.
Connor's knuckles were white as he gripped onto Steve's arm for support. Steve didn't even flinch as the fingers dug in. He was too numbed by the sight of the gold band around Connor's ring finger.
He was too late.