She asked for water to be brought in, then glared and requested a straw. Mr. Viteri chuckled a little when the guard started apologizing and brought her the straw. “You’ve got a very good ‘don’t fuck with me’ glare.” He nodded to her. “You practice, or did it come naturally?”
“Little of both.” She held up the glass for him to take a sip, then set it on the table before resuming her own seat.
“My mother had the same one.” He shrugged. “I was still living with her at the time. Between the record and the lack of a steady paycheck I couldn’t get a place of my own. She was sick a lot, so maybe it was for the best. I did the yard work and house maintenance and stuff.”
“You have a sister?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Half-sister. We weren’t close and uh…” He twitched his shoulder as much as the restraints allowed. “I’d, uh…” He exhaled. “She’s not really part of the story. She’s got a life of her own, kids, and folks have…” He trailed off, then hung his head. “Her kids had this dog. Little spaniel mix, with springs for legs and not a hell of a lot of brains. Sweet thing, loved everyone, and those kids adored it. After I got charged…” He took a deep breath. “Somebody lynched it from her front porch.”
“That’s…” She swallowed past the lump that had risen in her throat. “Oh god, that’s horrible.”
“She wrote a couple times. Never wrote back. Figured that tie was better cut.” He looked up again.
“So, you and Tobias met up again after high school, decided to start over?” She looked down at her notepad.
“Wasn’t exactly a clean slate sort of thing. We both remembered those days. But like I said, high school is kind of a self-discovery sort of phase. No one really knows who they are yet. I knew that was true of the ones at the bottom. Turns out it’s also true of the ones at the top.”
“So, what, we add flame decals to the side of the thing?” Zeke raised an eyebrow.
Tobias laughed. “Couldn’t hurt. Nah, what I meant was you’ve got kind of a signature look with your stuff.” He started to indicate the wheels, then stopped. “Nothing is going to explode it I touch it, right?”
“Uh…” Zeke frowned. “Maybe just…”
“Right.” Tobias withdrew his hand. “Kind of a steam punk sort of thing going. It’s a marketable aspect, maybe you could incorporate it into a logo or theme or something.” He straightened. “It’s popular right now.” He shrugged. “How soon until it’s ready?
“Functionally it’s ready now. Just need to put the casing on so it’s sturdier.” He led Tobias out of the workroom. “Currently its only good for about 40 minutes. Can’t improve that until I have funds to improve the power source.”
“How much do you need?” Tobias raised an eyebrow.
“We need…” He stopped, and shook his head. “Can’t borrow that from you.”
“Well I was going to consider it more of an investment than a loan.” Tobias chuckled. “Seriously, you’ve got something good there. I mean, your improvements on efficiency loss alone are incredible.” When Zeke raised an eyebrow, Tobias rolled his eyes. “I sat behind you in AP physics, dipshit. I didn’t forget all the science when I majored in finance.”
“Sometimes I forget there was a brain under the football helmet.” Zeke grinned. As much as he appreciated Tobias’s business advice, he also enjoyed the man’s company. Strange how things could change in just a few years. “Hey, stay for dinner? Mom’s making pie.”
“Can’t.” Tobias shook his head. “Though…” He suddenly shook his head. “Fuck it. Yeah. Love to.”
“Something wrong?” Zeke frowned.
“Supposed to have dinner with Paden and his wife but uh…” Tobias folded his arms. “Just thinking how pissed he’d be if he knew who I was blowing him off for.” When Zeke raised an eyebrow, Tobias sighed. “He and his wife are part of this right wing semi-militia group that meets at their church.” He shook his head. “It’s all stupid.”
“You’re not…” Zeke hesitated.
“I grew up.” Tobias shrugged. “Realized my dad was…” He exhaled. “I’ve never been sure how much is asshole and how much is just stupid, but there is a lot of overlap between the two.” He stared at the machine for a few minutes. “I wish you’d take the money.”
“That your white guilt talking?” Zeke narrowed his eyes.
“My…” Tobias blinked. “No.” He sighed. “Maybe. Dad’s been ranting about how if you give a black man money he’s just going to waste it on drugs and spinning rims and…” Tobias turned toward Zeke. “You know even if you don’t go any further with this idea, you could still make yourself some money selling the patent.”
“Shit.” Zeke shook his head. “I never even thought about the patenting part.”
“Come by my place next weekend with your schematics. I’ll walk you through it.” Tobias straightened. “I believe you mentioned pie?”
He opened the door to find Tobias talking to his mother, Abigail. “Hey, wasn’t expecting you.” Zeke smiled. “I was just about to —”
“You and your mother were just about to let me take you out to dinner.” Tobias held up a thick envelope. “To celebrate.”
“Your first patent.” Abigail’s voice trembled a little, and he saw tears shimmering in her eyes. “My boy’s first patent.”
“It…” Zeke stared. “It’s done?”
“All taken care of.” Tobias nodded and handed him the envelope. “Congratulations.”
“You know I thought it was just a formality. A no big deal but…” He took the envelope from Tobias and stared at it. Then he looked back up at Tobias. “This is a big deal.”
“I sure hope so.” Tobias grinned. “Come on. Let me take you someplace that serves champagne.”
“Oh, oh, oh…” Abigail smiled. “Just let me get dressed. You too, Zeke. Something other than a work shirt.” She headed toward her bedroom with a bounce in her step.
“You don’t have to…” Zeke turned toward Tobias.
“Is it hard to believe I want to?” Tobias chuckled. “Look, if you’re not going to take your mom out to dinner, I’m just going to steal her away from you entirely.” He rolled his eyes. “I’ve gained three pounds from her sending pie home with me every time I stop by. How the hell were you such a skinny kid?”
“There were a few weeks when all the food I got was the school free lunch. Times were…” Zeke shrugged. “Things are getting better.”
“Good.” Tobias smiled. “Now get dressed, before your mom and I leave to celebrate without you.”
Abigail was nervous, but clearly enjoying herself as she explored the various plates in front of her. Each had a few bite sized morsels of different entrees, giving her a wide choice of options. After she’d been unable to decide what she was in the mood for, Tobias had just shrugged and taken them to a tapas restaurant.
“The problem is the testing involved. And the process for getting approval for the testing.” Zeke doodled on a napkin.
“If you could have Cort work up some of his fancy presentation videos…” Tobias shrugged. “Speaking of which I want to hire him again for the new plant…” He tilted his head. “Maybe we could get a lab interested in return for allowing them a year or two of exclusive use. It’s a smaller initial payoff for you, but it gets you a more solid foot in the door and limits your liability.” He looked across the table at Zeke. “I mean, I know it’s not where you initially intended to go with it, but the medical applications are —”
“No, no, you sold me on that five minutes into the conversation.” Zeke grinned. “You could have done it in three seconds if you’d started with the term ‘cyborg’.”
“I’m suddenly feeling the urge to steal your lunch money again.” Tobias rolled his eyes. “I could —” His eyes narrowed. “Shit.”
“The bathroom is…” Zeke glanced in the direction Tobias was looking, and saw Paden.
Paden frowned in their direction, and walked over. “Tobias.” He shook his head. “I thought you said you were busy.”
“I am busy.” Tobias nodded toward Zeke and Abigail. “As you can see.” He shook his head. “You are interrupting a business dinner.”
A skeptical look came over Paden’s face, and he sneered just a little in Abigail’s direction. Zeke fought the urge to stab his fork into the man’s leg. “I won’t keep you then.” He turned and went back to where his wife was waiting with the hostess.
“As I was saying…” Tobias exhaled. “There other possibilities too. I mean, if we do want to go full nerd here, the fact that you’ve decreased the heat output so much has interesting applications for space travel. Less loss means you can close the system tighter and that could translate into a biodome in another thirty years or so.”
“Now I’m feeling the urge to steal your lunch money.” Zeke nodded.
“Medicine and exploration.” Abigail looked up from where she’d just put a skewer of shrimp on her plate. “The betterment of mankind.”
“I like that.” Tobias nodded. “I can work with that. I want to work with that.” He glanced at Zeke. “If you’ll let me.”
“Frankly, at this point I don’t think I could do it without you.” Zeke smiled.
After dinner, Abigail insisted on being taken home. “Now, you boys don’t mind me. I’m just not as young as I used to be.” She kissed Zeke’s cheek, then repeated the gesture with Tobias. “You two go out and have fun. Enjoy the rest of your date.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tobias freeze before shifting uncomfortably. Damn it, Mom. “It’s not a date, Mom. We’re just talking business.”
“Oh.” Abigail looked surprised. “I thought…” She glanced at Tobias and her eyes widened a little. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll just…” She opened the door and backed through it. “You go talk business then.”
He hesitated, then turned toward Tobias. “I’m sorry about…” He shrugged. “Look if you just —”
“Nah.” Tobias shrugged. “It’s all good.” He gestured toward his car. “Let’s go see if we can get drunk enough for me to actually beat you at pool.”
“I think that would require me to actually pass out…” Zeke followed him to the car. “Possibly to die.”
Rather than go to a bar and have to deal with getting a cab later, they ended up at Tobias’s house, drinking whiskey on his deck. Tobias did have a good view of the night sky. “You really think we could do like a biodome colony thing in another thirty years?”
“Not on the moon…” Tobias leaned back in the chair and put his feet up on the railing. “Maybe on Mars. There is the gravity issue to consider.”
“The prosthetics thing, though. That’s…” Zeke exhaled. “That’s something real though. The human body does run on electricity. If we could interpret the signals, integrate them properly, we’ve got working fingers.”
“That’s where the exploration thing comes in as well.” Tobias’s words were just slightly slurred. “I mean, bio-feedback, you could explore safely with some kind of neuro-linked robot mind-reading control buddy symbiotic thingy.”
“Make a note to trademark that term. Cause I’m going to make one of those neuro-linked robot mind-reading control buddy symbiotic thingies.” Zeke snickered.
“Dibs on the first one.” Tobias nodded. “I’m gonna name it Scooby.”
“Scooby Dooby Doo.” Tobias took another sip from his drink. “Really though. Think about it. Under the sea. In space. Figure out how to fix the delay relay signal delay and you could mine the asteroid fields instead of fucking up Yosemite or whatever.”
“That’s…” Zeke lifted his drink. “That’s good. That’s a good one. That’s like some saving the world shit right there.”
Tobias took his feet off the railing and sat up. “Are we?”
“Saving the world?” Zeke blinked.
He froze. Then he looked at the drink in his hand. “Tobias, you’re a little drunk right now, so maybe…”
“Didn’t work out with Kaylyn. I tried, I mean…” Tobias shook his head. “Cheerleader, stacked, isn’t that what you’re supposed to want?” He laughed, some bitterness in the sound. “I envied you so much.”
“You…” Zeke stared at him. “Envied me.”
“All the shit flung your way and you…” Tobias looked up at him. “You were always you. You didn’t give in. To any of it.” He downed the rest of his drink and reached for the bottle.
Zeke caught his wrist. “I think maybe you’ve had enough, Tobias. Maybe you should sleep it off, before you do something you’re going to regret in the morning.”
“You want me.” Tobias swayed just a little. “I catch you looking at me sometimes.”
“You want me.” Tobias smiled at him.
“Yeah.” Zeke nodded. “I do. But you are seriously drunk right now and…” He exhaled. “And you’re my friend, Tobias. I’m not going to —” He got cut off by Tobias kissing him. For a few moments, he returned the kiss before catching himself. Even sloppy drunk, Tobias was a good kisser. “Alright, that’s…” He caught Tobias as the man stumbled. “Come on.” He put his arm under Tobias’s shoulder. “Let’s, uh…” He was going to need a very cold shower. “Let’s put you to bed.”
“You’re a good kisser.” Tobias’s voice was definitely slurred. It took Zeke a few moments to get the door open with Tobias leaning on him, especially since Tobias kept trying to unbutton his shirt.
Fortunately, the man was nearly unconscious by the time Zeke got him into his room. He removed Tobias’s shoes, then tucked his friend into bed. Tobias slurred something unintelligible before closing his eyes. Zeke sighed, and headed for the door. Hopefully, Tobias didn’t remember the tail end of their conversation when he woke up, or tomorrow was going to be rather awkward.
Tobias stumbled downstairs just as Zeke flipped over the first pancake. “How’s the head?”
“There is a chainsaw in the garage.” Tobias sat down at the table. “Please cut it off.” He winced. “Quietly.”
“Right.” He set a glass of orange juice and a bottle of aspirin down on the table.
“My hero.” Tobias immediately grabbed the aspirin. He took two, then drank the juice. Then he took a deep breath. “Thanks for uh…” He went quiet for a moment. Then he looked back up at Zeke. “Are we dating?”
“I…” He nearly dropped the plate he’d just put the pancake onto. “Tobias…”
“Because we’ve been hanging out together almost every weekend for the last four months and uh…” Tobias stared down at his hands. “Shit.”
Zeke set the pancake down in front of him. As much as he wanted it to be the case, getting his hopes up was silly. He just hoped the misunderstanding wouldn’t spell the end of their friendship. “That part is entirely up to you, Tobias.”
“What…” Tobias kept looking down at the table. “What happens if I say that we are?”
His heart skipped a beat. “I…” He swallowed. “Tobias —”
“Because I have…” Tobias gave a small shake of his head. “Absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing or what happens next or even…” He slowly looked up at Zeke. “But there is a part of me that really wants to say yes.”
He turned off the stove, and sat down in the chair next to Tobias. He hesitated a moment, then put his hand atop Tobias’s. “If you want to say yes, then…” He nodded. “Then you’re right. I want you. If you want to leave things the way they are, then I’m happy to just be your friend, and we can pretend this conversation never took place.”
The pancake grew cold as Tobias just sat there. “I can’t tell my parents. Or my brother. They…” He shook his head. “Are you okay with that part? I’m not ashamed of you, it’s just…” He exhaled. “It’s not you. I’m just a coward. Just…” He took a few more deep breaths. “I slept with Kaylyn, married Kaylyn, because I’m a coward, and I deserve every bit of humiliation she sent my way because I should have just…” He turned his hand to grip Zeke’s. “If I don’t say yes, it will be the worst mistake I ever made.”
Slowly, he reached out. He brushed Tobias’s hair back behind his ear. “Then we are dating. And if you need to take it slow, keep it quiet…” He nodded. “We can do that.”
“Will you kiss me?” Tobias raised an eyebrow. “Cause uh…” Tobias laughed softly. “It took me way too much liquid courage to get up the nerve to make the first move last time.”
“You’re kind of a funny drunk.” Zeke nodded.
Then he leaned forward and pulled Tobias into a kiss.
She stared down at her notes. That Tobias Grady had helped Ezekial Viteri with getting his patents was well documented. She even had copies of two of the forms that were done in Tobias’s handwriting. The rest of this… “You two were…”
“It was just ours. None of anyone else’s business.” Viteri’s smile was sad. “My mother knew. I mean, she figured it out before we did. And he was wrong. Tobias Grady was no coward. He just wasn’t a fool. He knew the risks.”
“The risks?” Diana raised an eyebrow.
“His family…” Viteri’s laugh was bitter. “What’s the name for them right now? The Alt-Right? Call them what they are. Nazis. Klansmen.” He shook his head. “You’ve got a picture of Tobias there. Look at him. Then look at me. Those kind…” He shrugged. “They wouldn’t have tolerated him being with a man, let alone with a black man.”
Her eyes went to the picture of Tobias Grady. Blond and blue-eyed, with classically handsome features. “He thought his family would…” She looked back up at Viteri. He’d clearly been a handsome man, before the scars, tattoos, and broken nose. “You said they were with a militia group?”
“You know the kind. Stockpiling ammo, got to get back to the good old days when men were men and minorities knew their place.” Viteri nodded. “Tobias was a good man, but he knew…” Viteri exhaled. “He knew who they were under the genteel manners. But he was no coward. Despite their best efforts, they didn’t, they couldn’t…” Viteri swallowed. “He was a good man in spite of them.”
A slight chill went through her blood. None of this had been brought up in the trial. Viteri had confessed to being responsible for what happened to Tobias Grady, but she was starting to suspect there was still more to the story. “What happened next?”