CL Mustafic © 2017
All Rights Reserved
“I swear to god, if you get on that plane tomorrow, I’m going to pack my shit and go home,” Lucas shouted.
Gage sat on the couch looking up at the slight blond man who was in the middle of having yet another tantrum brought on by Gage having to leave on a business trip. “I thought this was your home,” Gage replied blithely.
It wasn’t the first time Lucas threatened to leave, and it probably wouldn’t be the last since they’d had this same argument each time Gage left on a business trip. Still, he knew he’d get on the plane, and when he got back in a month, Lucas would be there—apologetic and looking to make up. That’s the way it had gone for the last two years—ever since Gage took over the emerging markets accounts at his dad’s company.
“You know that I only came here to be with you. There’s no other reason anyone would come to this Podunk town.” Lucas gave Gage his best scowl. “But you’re never here. This isn’t what I signed up for.”
“I told you I’d be gone quite a bit. I never lied to you. You were the one who decided to move here. I was fine with driving down to see you on the weekends.”
Okay, so he knew Lucas wasn’t exactly happy in a smaller city, but it was Lucas’s decision—after a year and a half of only seeing each other on weekends—to move. Lucas had been happy in Minneapolis, when they both had their own places and could see each other whenever they’d wanted but had grown weary of the weekend-only visits that were primarily spent in bed. Gage had been just as happy with seeing Lucas only on the weekends when he’d moved back north to his hometown, and with all of Lucas’s drama of late, he’d been thinking he’d be happy to go back to that arrangement. He’d thought his feelings for Lucas would deepen over time but, though he cared for Lucas, he’d never fallen in love with him—or at least he didn’t think this was what love felt like.
“Sure you were fine with that, but I want more. I’m not just some booty call here for your pleasure when you need to get off,” Lucas spat out. And there it was. It was like there was a script for their lives, and this scene was repeated often.
Lucas wanted more, and at the age of thirty-seven Gage probably should too, but he’d come to realize more wasn’t always better, and even though he tried, it was impossible to convince Lucas what they had was good enough. He’d only let Lucas move in with him because he’d been lonely, although now he was thinking he should have gotten a dog.
Pushing himself up off the couch, he went to Lucas. This was the part where he always took Lucas in his arms and let him cry it out until he decided to stay. Then Gage would take him to the bedroom, fuck him through the mattress, and Lucas would fall into a contented sleep in Gage’s arms. In the morning, Lucas would wake up just enough to tell Gage to have a safe trip and that he loved him when Gage kissed him before he left for the airport. Of course, Gage would reply with a “Me too” because he’d never said the actual words to anyone before, and he wasn’t about to start with Lucas—Gage had never lied to Lucas.
“Don’t even, Gage,” Lucas said holding up his hand to ward Gage off. “I’m not going to let you sweet-talk me into bed this time.” Oops, Lucas had gone off script. He looked up at Gage with his big blue eyes on the brink of tears. “I’m really going this time. You know I love you more than anything, but I can’t do this. I’m sick of being alone so much, and there’s nothing here for me. All of my friends and family are back home. You’re all I have here, and you’re never here.” His voice cracked with emotion, and he ended his speech with a sniffle Gage knew always preceded the tears that were inevitably going to come.
“Babe, come on; we do this every time. You know how this is going to play out. Can’t we just skip this?” Gage grabbed his hand, giving it a tug, and Lucas let himself be pulled to Gage’s chest, even wrapping his arms around Gage’s waist like he wanted to be there. Lucas’s chest hitched, and Gage knew he was crying before the wetness seeped through his shirt. Gage stood there holding him for a couple of minutes, hoping Lucas would come to his senses like he normally did.
“I have to leave, Gage. Maybe you were right. Maybe we’re just in different places in our lives—our timing is off. I just can’t do this anymore. I’m going to be gone when you come home. I hope you understand. I don’t want you to hate me because I still love you. Maybe someday you’ll be ready, but I can’t take the chance that you may never be,” Lucas said into Gage’s chest after he’d calmed enough to talk.
Gage couldn’t help thinking how sad it was that Lucas was the one saying it to him instead of the other way around. He should be the one ready to settle down and start a family, not Lucas, who was only twenty-six—just a cute little twink. Someone like Lucas should be out clubbing and fucking everything that moved and not tied down to a guy like Gage.
It wasn’t that Gage didn’t want to be with just one guy for the rest of his life and maybe adopt a couple of dogs or kids or whatever. It was hard for him to explain it to Lucas because he didn’t really understand it himself. He could tell Lucas that his shrink diagnosed him with “commitment issues” that stemmed from his not “fully accepting his homosexuality,” but Gage was sure Lucas wouldn’t buy it for a minute—hell, Gage didn’t buy it for more than the time it took him to walk from the guy’s office to his truck.
“You have to do what’s best for you, Luke. I just wish you wouldn’t have waited until the night before I leave to tell me.” Gage was more than a little annoyed at the timing.
“If I would have told you sooner, you’d have had time to talk me out of leaving. I thought about just letting you leave, thinking I was happy, and moving while you were gone, but I couldn’t do this over the phone. I’ve loved you too long to end it that way,” Lucas said softly. He tilted his head up to look at Gage, who leaned down for a kiss, which Lucas accepted, letting Gage kiss him tenderly but pulling away before it could become anything more. “I can’t do one last goodbye fuck with you, Gage, I know how it will end. I’m going to go stay at Jen’s tonight. I’ll move my stuff out before you get back.”
“You don’t have to go. You can stay here. We’ll just sleep. Just let me hold you while we sleep one more time.” It was finally sinking in—Lucas was serious this time and was going to leave. That fact hit Gage harder than he figured it would. He wasn’t sure he wanted Lucas to stay, but he was almost certain he didn’t want him to go either. Yeah, I can’t even figure things out in my own head, some great catch I am.
“No, you know that is not what will happen. I need to go now while I still have some control over my emotions.” Lucas put on his coat, grabbed his car keys off the hook by the front door, and then turned his tear-stained face to look at Gage. “I’m so sorry, Gage. Have a safe trip. I love you.” Opening the door, Lucas walked out on Gage without giving him the chance to say “Me too.”
Gage awoke to his alarm blaring and his head pounding as he rolled over to smack the shit out of it to make it stop. He should have known better than to drink himself to sleep the night before he had to travel for seventeen hours straight. He rolled out of bed with a groan, and by the time he made it to the bathroom, he’d almost convinced his stomach to quit lurching. He grabbed pain pills out of the medicine cabinet and washed them down with a handful of water from the tap, which caused another lurch of his gut. Gage looked up to meet his own bloodshot green eyes in the mirror and cursed his reflection for being such a dumbass.
Stepping into the shower, he hoped the water might wash away the memory of the previous night as well as the smell of alcohol oozing from his pores—it didn’t help. He kept seeing the hurt and sadness on Lucas’s face when he’d turned to leave. To his chagrin, he also remembered how upset he’d made Lucas when he’d drunk dialed him at half past midnight to beg him to come back and spend the rest of the night in their bed, only to have Jen take the phone and tell him to go fuck himself.
Gage washed quickly, got out, shaved, and brushed his furry-feeling teeth. He ran his fingers through his hair, thankful he’d just gotten it trimmed so it wouldn’t need blow-drying to keep it from freezing in the outside air. He dressed in a comfortable pair of jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt for the flight. He was no stranger to transatlantic crossings and wasn’t going to endure one in a suit. He’d have a little over an hour layover in Munich to change into more appropriate attire before his final flight to Sarajevo.
He grabbed his bags and dragged them down the stairs from the loft bedroom into the living room. The condo had an open floor plan, so the main floor living area was one big room with just an island counter to divide the kitchen from the sitting room and a half bath and bedroom off the hall from the entryway.
He frowned as he caught sight of the Christmas tree in the corner, looking like a cast-off from one of those cheesy lifetime holiday movies Lucas insisted on watching every night for the week leading up to Christmas. He hoped Lucas would take the artificial monstrosity down before he left—it was, after all, his tradition that had it still standing there two days past Christmas. Knowing Lucas, he’d probably leave it up to get back at Gage for leaving just before New Year’s, the idea sending a small pang of sadness through him. It would be the first one they’d spent apart in five years. Gage sighed. He didn’t have time to deal with it at that moment. He needed to get to the office and then the airport, and as it was, he was running late and would have to hit a drive-through for his morning coffee.
Checking to make sure he had everything he needed for his trip, he loaded it all into his truck in the attached garage, pushing the button to open the garage door on his way so he could let the truck warm up while he got into his coat, gloves, and scarf. The mercury was hovering around zero, so not too bad, but still a bit on the nippy side. He locked the door leading to the garage, got into his truck and headed to the coffee shop to grab a cup so he could face his coworkers—many of which were also family.
Coffee in one hand and briefcase in the other, Gage walked into the office of H&S Equipment. His father and uncle owned the company, and Gage had come back to work for them just over three years earlier. He’d gotten his MBA at the U of M down in the cities and took a job there after graduating. He’d intentionally stayed away from the family business for years, but when his uncle called and offered a job setting up offices in eastern Europe at twice what he’d been making, he couldn’t find a good enough reason to say no.
Though his family had been grudgingly accepting of the fact that he was gay, it had taken awhile for them to adjust. They understood why he hadn’t come straight home to work for the company when he got his degree. He’d needed time and a place where he could be anonymous to sort himself out. While his hometown had grown to be pretty good-sized for this part of the country, when you came from a family with money like Gage’s, people tended to know who you were, and he hadn’t wanted that notoriety at a time in his life when he was still figuring things out.
Gage was barely seated at his desk when Connor stepped into his office. Connor was one of those who was both family—Gage’s cousin—and coworker. He was dressed as always in an expensive suit with an obnoxious printed tie. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but the way he slicked his hair back made him look like a slimeball, and his attitude did nothing to contradict that.
“Hey, cuz, you look like shit,” he said as he plopped in one of the chairs opposite Gage’s desk. “Worried about meeting the Bosnian mafia tomorrow?”
“They’re not the mafia,” Gage countered. “You know how it is in these countries. You can’t get anything done unless you know someone and are prepared to grease a few palms. I’m not worried. Everything went fine in Serbia last year, and my guy there helped me get an in with a guy in Sarajevo. He vouches for him, so I’m not worried.”
“Yeah, sure, you’ll probably end up held for ransom one of these days, and then I can tell ya I told ya so.” Connor smirked.
Gage knew Connor was just jealous. He’d wanted Gage’s job, but he still wanted to wipe the smirk off the asshole’s face by telling him the old men knew Connor couldn’t handle it because he was a mouthy, arrogant prick. He held his tongue for the sake of family harmony, besides he didn’t feel like getting into a pissing match with Connor after the night he’d had. His pulse was still thudding a little too hard in his temples, the ibuprofen barely doing its job.
“Where’s JJ? He’s supposed to take me to the airport. You seen him this morning?” Gage asked, changing the topic. JJ, his uncle’s other son, was someone he actually liked. JJ was only a year younger than Gage so they’d grown up together, spending many summers on their grandpa’s farm, throwing hay bales and picking rocks.
“He’s around here somewhere. What time’s your flight leave?”
“Not till two twenty, but I thought we’d get some lunch before I have to leave the land of American fast food behind.” Gage had no intention of eating fast food for his last meal before heading out. He was getting Chinese—couldn’t get it easily over there, and it was something he missed when he was gone.
“My ears were ringing,” JJ said as he walked through the door to Gage’s office.
Eyeing Gage suspiciously, JJ could probably see there was something going on, and it had nothing to do with Gage’s dislike of Connor. Gage would eventually have to tell everyone Lucas left him so decided he may as well start by telling JJ over lunch about his breakup. Maybe even see if JJ would be so kind as to spread the news around but not make it seem like a huge deal.
“Yeah right, you just knew that I’d want to go grab lunch before I head out, and you’d get to take a long break since you’re driving me,” Gage said. It wasn’t like it was a big secret why JJ volunteered to take him to the airport every time.
“Damn straight—a free lunch and getting outta here for a few hours are worth the trip to the airport. What time are we heading out?”
“Probably around eleven. I have to meet with the old men quick.”
“Cool, I’ll be waiting.”
JJ left, followed by Connor, who gave Gage a halfhearted wave as he walked out the door.
Gage’s meeting with his dad and uncle went as planned. They knew Gage knew what he was doing, and they let him do it, but they liked to make it seem like they had a say in how things got done over there. He met JJ in the parking lot at a little after eleven. They drove Gage’s truck so JJ could take it home and park it in the garage. If it was left in long-term parking at the airport, Gage would come home to a pickup that wouldn’t start from sitting in the frigid temperatures for a month—a lesson learned the hard way.
They went to Gage’s favorite place on Forty-Fifth Street where there was a buffet and no health code violations. Gage paid for the meal, and they piled their plates high before looking for somewhere to sit off to the side. He took a few bites of his food, stalling because he knew JJ was waiting for him to spill since he was sitting there, not eating, as he waited.
“Lucas left me,” Gage blurted, figuring it was best just to get it out. Staring down at his plate, he took another bite, filling his mouth so he wouldn’t have to say anything more.
“What did you do? You cheat on him?”
“What do you mean, what did I do? And why would you automatically go to me cheating on him?”
JJ sat there for a minute before he took a bite of food and chewed it slowly. “Well he wouldn’t have left you if you hadn’t done something. Everyone could see how much he loved you. Well, except maybe you, and it’s sort of common knowledge you didn’t feel the same about him.” Gage detected a little bit of color rising on JJ’s cheeks. It probably wasn’t every day JJ sat around talking about one guy loving another guy.
Gage sighed and took another bite to give himself a moment to get his thoughts together on how he wanted to present his and Lucas’s breakup to his family. “He was mad that I was gone so much. He wanted to start a family—you know—start the process to either adopt or find a surrogate. I told him I wasn’t ready.” Gage mumbled the last part in hopes JJ wouldn’t pick that area of his life to grasp on to.
“Fuck, Gage, you’re going be thirty-eight in what, less than a month, and you’re still not ready? You should have just told him you were never going to be because you didn’t love him.” JJ jabbed his fork at Gage to put emphasis on his statement. “I’d have left your sorry ass too.” JJ shook his head at the sad state of Gage’s life. How could JJ possibly understand? He’d fallen in love and gotten married in college and had two kids with another on the way.
“He also said it was the traveling, and you know I can’t stop if I want to keep my job. It will be less once everything is set up, but I’ll still have to go a few times a year to check up on everything.” Gage made the excuse to hide that there had been a way to make Lucas stay if he’d wanted him to. “But maybe it’s better this way. I never wanted to hurt him and I probably should have told him straight out that I wasn’t in love with him instead of letting him think I might someday.”
“You think? But you know damn well if you’d have agreed to the kid thing he wouldn’t have minded the traveling so much, and he’s lived with you this long without you telling him you loved him, so he’d probably have been willing to overlook that you didn’t because he loved you. He wanted a commitment, and you didn’t give him one,” JJ said like he knew every goddamn thing about Gage and Lucas’s relationship.
“Jesus Christ, JJ, I’m going to stop going to my shrink and just start talking to you. It would save me a bundle.” Gage wanted to argue with JJ but knew his cousin was right, so he joked instead.
“I’d charge you double if I had to listen to all the gory details of your life.” JJ snorted and resumed eating.
The rest of the meal was eaten in an easy silence of two men who were comfortable in each other’s company. Gage didn’t want to talk about Lucas anymore, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him. Why couldn’t he have just given Lucas the one thing that would have made him happy—made him want to stay instead of pushing him away? Was loving someone really that important to a relationship if everything else worked well?
After lunch, JJ parked in front of the airport, and Gage grabbed his bags from the back. “You can tell everyone about me and Lucas. Maybe, just make it seem like it was mutual. I don’t need people feeling sorry for me or thinking I’m an asshole.”
“Sorry to tell you this, cuz, but everyone already thinks you’re an asshole.” JJ’s lopsided grin took some of the sting out of his words. “But don’t worry. I’ll make sure that everyone knows you’re not to blame for running off the only thing that made you likable for the last couple of years. Have a good flight and let us know when you land.” He got back in the truck and took off before Gage could tell him to fuck off.
Gage made it through security quickly—one of the reasons he loved flying out of Fargo—and sat for over an hour waiting to board the plane to Chicago.
The flight was quick and uneventful. He boarded his flight to Munich at seven p.m. and settled into his business-class seat with a sigh. After a couple of travel-sized vodkas, he fell into a pretty good doze, and when he woke up, the plane was descending into Munich. Gage grabbed his carry-on and headed to the nearest bathroom to change into his suit. Boarding the plane to Sarajevo, he almost looked like he’d gotten a full night’s sleep but was feeling like shit all the same.
Gage’s stomach felt as if it was in his throat when the plane descended into the Sarajevo airport. The woman sitting next to him smiled and asked, “Your first landing in Sarajevo?” Gage nodded. “Well if you think the landing’s bad, you’re not going to like the takeoff when you leave. The climb will make your ears pop so hard that you’ll want to scream.”
“Is it really that bad?” Gage asked, for lack of anything better to say.
She was leaning over his lap so she could see out the window. “You see that mountain over there?” Gage nodded again. “They have to pull up sharp to avoid hitting it.”
Gage was already dreading it. Maybe he’d just never leave. I have nothing to go back for anyway, he thought morosely as the plane landed smoothly.
The passengers disembarked on the tarmac and walked to the airport so Gage got his first taste of Sarajevo weather. He realized his heavy winter coat was going to be way too warm. Though there was some snow on the ground, he’d have bet his left nut the temperature was hovering right around freezing. He looked around at the snowcapped mountains looming in the distance, making him think at least the websites where he’d read about the decent skiing probably weren’t totally false. The mountains were a pretty sight and different from the flat plains back home.
Gage followed the line of weary passengers into the airport and through passport control where he stated his reason for being there as business and got a “Have a nice stay” in return. He pulled his checked bags off the carousel and made his way to customs, which he cleared easily with nothing to declare. The airport was about the same size as the one back home, which surprised him. He’d figured an international airport in a city the size of Sarajevo would be bigger and busier.
Walking out the sliding doors to the main airport, he saw the crowd gathered to greet incoming passengers and watched tearful reunions between family members and handshakes between what were obviously other business people like him. It was as Gage looked around for the sign with his name on it that his gaze landed on him.
He was standing next to one of the bar tables in the little coffee shop area just to the right of the crowd and was quite possibly the most attractive man Gage ever laid eyes on. He was maybe a couple of inches shorter than Gage and not as broad but well built. His rich, chocolate-brown hair curled wildly around his head, and his eyes, surrounded by the lushest eyelashes Gage had ever seen, were so dark he could barely make out the pupils. His lips were full, and his carefully cultivated stubble shaded his jaw and added to his dark good looks.
When his eyes met Gage’s, Gage dropped his gaze, but in doing so, he only managed to get a good look at the man’s body. His muscular legs were encased in a pair of tight, faded jeans cinched with a belt at his narrow waist. He was wearing a skintight shirt under an open leather jacket. If Gage hadn’t been in Europe, he’d have pegged him as a friend of Dorothy right off the bat, but men’s fashion was quite a bit different from that in America, so there was no telling which way he swung. When Gage’s eyes made their way back to his face, the man was smirking.
Gage scowled and quickly looked away to find his sign.