Rhythmic rainfall tapped my office window, the gentle monotony adding to my late afternoon fatigue. I pushed a stack of exams aside and leaned back in my chair as I rubbed my tired eyes. Two more weeks of giving and grading tests, and then this semester would be over, and not a moment too soon.
I glared at the exams. When I was sure the bastards weren’t going to grade themselves, I sat up and picked up my red pen once again. As soon as I started reading, though, the words on the page started to run like rain sliding down glass.
A Red Bull. That’s what I needed. Maybe two.
I didn’t have any change in my pocket for the vending machine, so I leaned down to fish around in my desk drawer.
Come on, come on, I know I saw a few quarters in here the other day. There has—
Someone knocked. I rolled my eyes, cursing under my breath. I didn’t have any student appointments this afternoon, so whoever this was, they’d better hope it was quick.
“It’s open.” I continued rifling around for change as the door opened. I wasn’t out to be rude, but damn it, I needed that Red Bull stat.
My hand stopped moving. It was a stranger’s voice, but something about it was familiar enough to make my blood run cold. When I looked up, even colder.
The family resemblance was undeniable. The same dark hair and darker eyes. The same sharply angled jaw and chiseled cheekbones. The same broad shoulders, which were currently bunched with tension beneath a brown leather jacket.
“Yes, I’m Dr. Stewart.” I sat up and swallowed hard. “Can I help you?”
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. “Yeah, I….” He paused, setting his jaw and looking me in the eye. “I’m Tristan Walker.” Another pause. “Dustin’s brother.”
The introduction wasn’t necessary. He was a couple of inches taller than my boyfriend and lacked the goatee, but he was as close to a doppelganger as any twin could have been.
We looked at each other in silence for a moment. He didn’t extend a hand. Neither did I.
I cleared my throat. “This is… unexpected.”
Tristan shifted his weight. He put his hands in his pockets and stared at the floor. “Yeah, I—” He paused, looking at me. “I haven’t caught you at a bad time, have I?”
“No, no, now is fine.” I pushed the exams aside and gestured at the chair in front of my desk. “Nothing that can’t wait. Please, have a seat.” My heart pounded. So much for needing that emergency Red Bull.
He hesitated for a moment before accepting my invitation. The muffled squeak of his leather jacket was the only sound in the room as Tristan eased himself into the chair situated on the other side of my desk. Most of the teachers and professors here had their guest chair at the end of the desk. I preferred to have people sitting across from me, and my rather cramped office didn’t allow for the more traditional configuration anyway.
Now, with my boyfriend’s estranged brother sitting across from me, I was more than a little thankful for the desk between us.
Tristan leaned heavily on the armrest, thumbing his chin as his eyes darted around my office. I didn’t speak, just let him take in his surroundings. I’d watched a few nervous students do the same thing during pauses in conversation. I knew the visual trajectory by heart, and Tristan followed it just like everyone else did: motivational poster. Bachelor’s degree. Doctorate. State-issued teaching certificate. The plaque from last year’s faculty billiards tournament.
When he got to the framed photo on the file cabinet, his lips tightened into a bleached line and he immediately shifted his gaze to the floor. To anyone else, it was just a picture of the grinning first- and second-place winners of another pool tournament.
Tristan knew better. The arm around my shoulders in the picture was, I had no doubt, why he was here.
I resisted the urge to tap my fingers on my desk. He unnerved me, and I didn’t want him to see it. Not until I had some idea of exactly why he was here. He was impossible to read just now. Every move he made spoke of tension, but what kind? Was he hostile? Nervous? I didn’t know what to make of his presence. He hadn’t spoken to his brother in two years because of our relationship, and here he was in my office. His quietude could have been from his own uneasiness, or it could have masked something more menacing.
The hand stuffed into his jacket pocket made me nervous. He could be hiding a gun. Another weapon. A balled-up fist. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d gotten a fist in the face from someone unhappy about his brother’s sexuality. To be fair, that angry brother was mine, but I still didn’t draw an easy breath, even as Tristan pulled his hand out of his pocket and laid it across his lap.
The silence was about to drive me insane, so I shifted slightly and cleared my throat. “Well, this is a surprise. What can I do for you?”
My voice startled him. His eyes flicked up and met mine for a fleeting second before he dropped his gaze again.
“Listen, Dr. Stew—”
He stiffened slightly. His Adam’s apple bobbed once and he fidgeted in his chair. First-name familiarity probably made him uncomfortable. I couldn’t say I particularly cared.
“Listen, Brandon,” he said at last, “I… I wanted to talk to you. About… my brother.”
“I figured as much.” He and Dustin hadn’t spoken in two years. Not since he’d found out we were dating.
Drumming his fingers on the armrest, he looked me in the eye with what seemed like a tremendous effort. “I understand you and Dustin are getting….” He trailed off. Cleared his throat. Shifted in his chair. “That you’re….”
He grimaced. “Yeah. I guess that’s the word.”
I shrugged. “Engaged, getting married, doing a commitment ceremony.” I narrowed my eyes and couldn’t quite resist injecting some ice into my voice as I added, “Whatever option hasn’t been denied us by society’s collective disgust.”
He leaned back in the chair and ran a hand through his hair—exactly the way Dustin often did—before looking me in the eye again. “Okay, so, apparently this… what you guys…. It’s not…” He swallowed. “Not temporary, I guess.”
“After two years, you’re just now assuming it’s not temporary?”
“Sorry,” he growled. “It’s not exactly an easy thing to get my head around.”
I raised an eyebrow. “My apologies,” I said through my teeth.
Tristan sighed and broke eye contact, looking past me instead of at me. “How did—” He paused, his lips suddenly twisting into a scowl before he dropped his gaze to the desk between us. That photo must have caught his eye again. Focusing on something presumably safer—the neglected stack of exams, probably—he went on. “How did he not know all that time? That he was gay?” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Twenty-eight years old and he suddenly figures out he’s into men? I don’t get it.”
I shrugged. “I seem to recall he was busy for most of the preceding decade being the faithful half of a fucked-up marriage.”
“Listen, your brother’s sexuality isn’t up for debate.” I folded my hands on my desk and leaned forward, inclining my head slightly. “I assume there’s a reason you went to the trouble of finding me and coming into my office?”
He was silent for a moment. “When are you guys—” He paused. Swallowed. “Getting married?”
“We’re not sure yet. Still making plans.”
His eyes narrowed. “This is going to kill my mother.”
I fought to keep from rolling my eyes. “And the cold silence from half his family hasn’t been killing your brother for the last couple of years?”
He flinched and dropped his gaze. Blowing out a breath, he rubbed the back of his neck. When he looked at me again, I expected anger and hostility, but nothing of the sort met my eyes. He looked nothing if not… pained.
“Look,” he said quietly. “I don’t really even know why I came. I….”
“That makes two of us.” I hadn’t intended to sound quite so cold that time, but I didn’t apologize for it. His presence still made me uneasy, and his intentions were still unclear. The defenses were staying up until he gave me reason to drop them.
“Maybe I was too quick to blow Dustin off,” he said quietly. “I thought….” He looked down. Ran a hand through his hair again. Then he blew out a breath and looked at me again. “Could I ask a favor?”
I cocked my head. “What favor?”
He pursed his lips. “Would you just ask Dustin to give me a call?”
I blinked. “I, um, yeah. Yeah, I can do that.” I wet my lips. “Does he have your number?”
“It hasn’t changed,” he said. “But just in case, let me give it to you.”
I pushed a pen and notepad across the desk. Tristan quickly scribbled his number down and handed it back to me.
“I’ll pass the message on to him.” I folded the piece of paper in half and held it between my fingers. “Can’t promise he’ll call.”
Tristan nodded. “Well, I hope he does.” He rose, his leather jacket creaking with the slow, tentative motion. “That’s, um, that’s really all I came for.”
“Okay.” For lack of anything else to say, I gestured with the piece of paper with his phone number on it and said again, “I’ll pass it on.”
We looked at each other in silence for a long, awkward moment. Neither of us made any move toward a parting handshake.
Tristan took a step back. Then another. Without a word, he left, and when the door closed behind him, I released my breath and leaned back in my chair. Absently, I pulled Dustin’s dog tags, which he’d given to me early in our relationship, out from under my shirt and ran them along the chain.
Well, that was weird.
Staring at the ceiling, I tried to make sense of our bizarre encounter. Though several of his comments, not to mention his estrangement from Dustin, spoke of ignorance and bigotry, there was something genuine about him. About his desire to get in touch with his brother. And, more than that, his regret about where their relationship stood now.
It was odd that he’d gone to the trouble to find me and taken the time to drive halfway across town to the community college where I worked. All of that effort, when he could have simply asked Kari or Rick for their brother’s phone number. He could have gone by the gym where Dustin had worked back then and still worked now.
He could have, but he didn’t. He came to me.
Maybe in his mind, all I’d been was this nebulous someone, a nameless face he once saw in a grainy, incriminating photo from a camera phone. The reason for the fissure between two brothers who’d been close all their lives. The catalyst.
It occurred to me that he might have shown up intending to confront me but backed down once we were in the same room. Once he could no longer deny that I was real.
Surprise, Tristan. I’m human.
I clicked the dog tags together between my fingers and looked at the piece of paper on my desk. This was going to catch Dustin off guard, that was for sure. The loss of his relationship with his brother was a wound that had only just begun to heal. I didn’t know if this would help heal it, or if it would reopen it.
Tristan must have heard about our engagement from one of their other siblings. I knew their mother had caught wind of it, and to say the least, she wasn’t happy about it. Our engagement had only served to drive another wedge between Dustin and his mother, but maybe it had the opposite effect on Tristan.
I dropped the tags back under my shirt. Sighing, I picked up the piece of paper and tucked it into my wallet. Our relationship had created more than its fair share of ripples in Dustin’s life. It had been touch and go for a while, but he’d adjusted. We’d adjusted. When we decided to make this a more permanent arrangement, the ripples started again. Those who’d managed to ignore us suddenly wouldn’t, and those who’d accepted us suddenly weren’t so sure. Putting a pair of gold bands on our fingers was evidently as horrifying as putting handcuffs on each other in the bedroom.
I rolled my eyes and put my wallet in my back pocket.
Fucking prudes. Oh well. At least they didn’t know about the handcuffs.
Sequel to Rules of Engagement
Brandon Stewart and Dustin Walker started dating two years ago after meeting in the local bar over a game of pool. Dustin has struggled to come out to his homophobic family and come clean about his relationship with Brandon, and now they’re planning to get married. Now, in a bid to fix broken ties, Dustin's brother Tristan is trying to reconnect with him, which makes Brandon wonder if he, too, can mend fences with his own estranged brother. But is sixteen years of silence long enough for old wounds to heal?