“And then she gave me this!” It’s one of the guys, Elmer, coming back from the bar with a few opened bottles of beer in one hand and waving a napkin with the other. He’s grinning like he just won the lottery and when he places the bottles down hard on the table, spilling some of the beer, it’s clear he’s already a bit drunk. “Told you she’d finally cave. No one can resist this guy’s charm.” He points at himself and smiles, dimples carving deeper into his cheeks.
They’ve come here regularly for the last few weeks. The bar isn’t anything special, though the beer is okay and it offers enough space for Darren’s wheelchair. But the main reason they are here is Elmer’s crush on one of the waitresses and the amusing ways he’s trying to rope her in, only to be rejected every single time. He never takes it to heart, the waitress doesn’t seem to really mind the courting, doesn’t even appear to be entirely opposed to the idea herself, and it’s funny to watch the two battling, so no one took it on themselves to suggest to move the party to another location.
Chris places his own glass down and snatches the napkin from Elmer’s hand, flattening it on the table. There are numbers written across it. “Is this—?”
“Her telephone number. That’s right. This guy’s getting lucky tonight.” Elmer grins triumphantly, tosses a beer over to Jay and shoves one in Darren’s direction.
Chris narrows his eyes and shakes his head. “This isn’t a telephone number,” he says slowly.
“Wait, what?” Elmer blinks.
“It’s a code,” Darren mumbles at Chris’ side. Everyone at the table turns to stare at him and then back at the napkin.
“Are you kidding me?!” Elmer cries and tries to reach for the napkin again but Chris pulls it out of his reach.
Elmer throws his hands up. “It’s numbers, you idiots. Like… for calling someone! What else would it be?!”
“It’s indeed a code,” Chris says, nodding to himself, then points at the napkin. “See? It’s really simple, the numbers are letters of the alphabet, so it says—”
“Fuck you,” Darren completes, enunciating slowly. He is leaning a bit forward to see, his left hand braced against the table, and the edges of his lips are twitching as he looks back up at Elmer.
“Whaat?” Elmer finally succeeds in retrieving the napkin and he plops down on his seat, staring at it for a few seconds. “Damn it, you’re right! She did it again.” He looks so genuinely surprised that everyone breaks out laughing. Chris is kind of high-fiving Darren, palming his right fist with his own hand and burying his face in Darren’s shoulder while both are shaking with merit. “She told you in a way she thought you’d finally understand!” someone shouts over the noise of laughter.
Elmer shakes his head, dazed, still seemingly unbelieving, and then empties a good part of his beer bottle with a long drag. “I’ll never speak to girls again,” he grumbles when he finally places the bottle down, which elicits another uproar of laughter from everyone, because they all know he’ll break this promise tomorrow, if not already tonight.
Jay leans back, lifting his own bottle to his lips, and observes the dorks that are his friends. He sees Chris moving the beer closer to Darren until he can reach it, and watches him drink, carefully lifting the full bottle to his lips, his hand trembling slightly. During the last months Jay has noticed that there are two types of people among his friends: those who seem to think that Darren swims easily with the group, and those who know he’ll need a little accommodation now and then. He’s shocked to realize he belonged to the first type for a long time, thinking that Darren just miraculously managed all the things that they did as a group, without noticing that there were people looking out for him, holding doors open, advocating for certain locations without steps or crowds, and helping him with the little things, without Darren having to ask. Jay can’t believe he was so blind.
“Time to leave, guys,” Elmer says, emptying his bottle with alarming speed and slamming it back on the table. “I’m done here.”
“Damn well you are,” Chris mumbles but nods with the others. “Where to?”
The group gets up, one half of the table has to wait for Darren to transfer back into the wheelchair before they can leave the bench. The others are discussing the new location while putting on their jackets. Autumn has come, and with it rain and gusty winds.
“I’m heading home,” Darren announces while someone helps him in his jacket.
“Oh no!” A few heads go up when Jay protests. Usually everyone just accepts Darren leaving early. “You have to stay. I know a place,” Jay says, eagerly. “It has music!”
Some groan and others cheer, but they don’t reach a decision. They leave the bar together, crowding in front of it, huddling together in a bit of cold drizzle, arguing. “Is it one of your Latin things?” someone asks. Jay shrugs. It is, but he knows the others aren’t into that so he doesn’t elaborate. “It has burgers and it’s not far from here. Down the street.” He’s looking at Darren when he says that because he knows it may sway him to stay. It’s even closer to the train station than this bar.
“I’m in,” Elmer grumbles, shrugging as well. “Who knows, those Latin girls are bound to have great bodies, huh?”
Everyone groans but then Darren pushes against the joystick, the wheelchair whirring to life. “Alright. Jay, lead the way.” And they all follow.
It’s hard to stay seated with the music’s driving beat going on and Jay manages only until he’s finished his burger before he joins the dance floor. He vaguely knows quite a few of the better dancers, there aren’t many people who know to dance Latin properly even in this city. The majority of the crowd is just enjoying the music, winging it with dance steps of their own, and Jay enjoys that, too. While he’s moving with the crowd he occasionally catches a glimpse of his friends. They all stayed back on their table, mostly deep in conversation, enjoying themselves. All but Darren. Whenever Jay’s gaze goes over to the table, his eyes lock with Darren’s dark once. Jay isn’t sure if Darren approves, his face is impenetrable like always, his head twitching a little, but he never looks away.
Jay buys himself a cocktail, taking a rest at the bar, and finds a tall brunette looking at him from the other end of the table. When he joins the dance floor, she’s there, too, and they lock hands almost automatically. Jay’s leading, though it feels weird with the difference of height between them. As the male, it is expected of him to lead, so he goes through with it. He catches a look at Darren from time to time, whenever his chance partner is doing a solo and his gaze goes past her to the tables, and he could be mistaken but Darren seems to be smiling. As time goes by, the crowd grows denser, with more and more people joining as the general alcohol level rises. Jay has permitted himself two shots at the bar and he switched partners once, twice. He dances with a skilled, very young blonde, then with a middle-aged woman who barely got past a basic course, though she tries to lead whenever he slacks. And before he knows there’s someone pressing against him from behind, hands roaming up his body and hips swaying with his in an insane rhythm, and Jay closes his eyes, lets himself get swapped away, until he gets whirled around and notices he’s dancing with a man. It’s a shock, both because he didn’t notice until then and because he enjoyed it so much, that he doesn’t protest, lets himself be propelled away and pulled in again, pressed flushed against flesh and muscles moving in perfect harmony.
“Hey,” a husky voice says into his hair, words flowing easily, a hand is placed against the back of his head, pulling him close to a muscular chest. “Care for a break? Let’s get out of here, huh?”
Jay doesn’t know what to answer but when the guy’s hand wanders down his back to squeeze his ass, he gasps and pushes back, away from him, stumbling backwards. And falls over the wheel of a wheelchair. “Ouch.”
“Are you okay?” It’s Darren, looking down at him, concerned, though there’s something in his eyes Jay hasn’t seen before. They are ablaze, his teeth baring as he looks up at the guy Jay just danced with, approaching as well.
“There’s a clumsy one.” The guy’s grin is broad, though not unkind, as he offers his hand to help Jay up. Jay ignores it, brushes his pants off, and then grabs Darren’s armrest to pull himself up. He places one hand on Darren’s shoulder, for balance.
“Uh sorry…” Jay says, both to Darren and to the guy. The latter just stares at the two for a second, then shakes his head and turns around to storm back into the dancing crowd.
“Huh…” Jay scratches the back of his head, watching him disappear, and notices a second too late that Darren has left, too. “Darren?”
Jay finds Darren in the back of the room. It’s dark here and less crowded. A couple is dancing, arms wrapped around each other, lips glued together while swaying to the music. A bunch of people are huddling in a corner by a cracked-open window, smoking pot. Others are sitting on the floor, back against the wall, almost passed out, cradling their bottles and cocktail glasses in their arms.
“Thanks for the save,” Jay says, not sure if he’s allowed to joke about it or not. Darren has stopped the wheelchair, halfway turned away from Jay. “No problem. You are all right, aren’t you?” His deep voice is slow.
“Huh…” Frowning, Jay takes stock. Yeah, he feels perfect. He’s used to the occasional well-placed hand on the dance floor, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. It just took him by surprise that it came from a guy, and even that is nothing that has never happened to him before. He knows how to get out of such a situation smoother than back then, he was just caught on the wrong foot, that’s all. “I’m good, really.”
“Okay...” Still Darren isn’t really looking at Jay, so Jay is forced to walk around the wheelchair to face him. “Are you all right?”
Jay almost stumbles back, seeing the expression in Darren’s face. He’s furious, eyebrows a solid line, dark eyes sparkling dangerously. His body is tense, much more than what can be attributed to his condition. His legs are closed tightly, trembling and causing the wheelchair to shake slightly. His right arm has snapped to his chest, wrist abducted and fingers closed into a fist. His left hand is braced against the armrest, fingers burying into the material so deep, Jay can see the white knuckles even in the dark. He’s still sitting straight, slightly leaning forward, almost menacingly. But the worst is the pain, speaking from the tremor in his voice, when Darren says through clenched teeth: “Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” It’s no physical pain, for once, it’s something else, and Jay doesn’t know what to do. It suddenly occurs to him how hollow his apology from before must have sounded to Darren, and he shivers with the thought.
“Oh Darren, I…” It’s as if Jay can see the bolts falling in place, he has first row seats to witness Darren closing off in front of him just as Jay starts speaking and he knows he started all wrong. Darren’s shoulders fall forward, he twists away from Jay, and his hand twitches. With gritted teeth and furrowed brow Darren tries to reach for the joystick, and it’s the extra second that Jay needs to make his move.
Darren’s lips are surprisingly soft, or maybe it’s just the contrast to the stubble Jay can feel, a slight chafing as their chins brush. Jay doesn’t dare to breathe but he can feel Darren's surprised exhale as he freezes, his right arm jerking against Jay’s chest. It’s over in a second, Jay pushes back again quickly, righting himself, his heart pounding in his chest. “We should go back. The others will wonder…” he squeaks.
Darren watches Jay several uncomfortable seconds, only his legs jerking a little, then he nods, his eyes never leaving Jay’s. “You are probably right. Let’s go.”