Ben slightly jumped when Michael walked into the cabin. Ben didn’t understand why he suddenly felt so uncomfortable in the place he called home for many months while he wrote and tried to get his life in order. Ben wasn’t very satisfied with all the twists and turns his life had currently taken. And if he was truly honest with himself, the feelings he was beginning to develop for Armand were downright scaring him. But he had to eventually confront Michael and there was no time like the present.
“Michael, how are you?” Ben was trying to be casual but failing miserably.
Michael thought carefully before answering. “I’m good. Things are finally coming together,” he said with a small smile.
“Are you planning to stay here tonight?” Ben cautiously asked. “At the cabin, I mean.”
“No,” Michael said as he shook his head. “I just came by for my clothes and things. I don’t think I’ll be back for a while. I kinda feel bad for making John build it,” Michael said softly as he took a good look around.
“And you wouldn’t mind if I stayed here for the summer?”
“Someone should enjoy it. I think you should ask Hunter and Nick to stay for a while. Maybe JR and Jacqueline; there’s plenty of room,” Michael calmly suggested. He was so calm and so reasonable that Ben was beginning to wonder who this pod person really was.
“Yes, I’m sure. I have the store and the online store to keep me busy. JR certainly could use a break. I don’t think she and Jacqueline have ever taken a real vacation. I gave her a lot to worry about lately. She deserves the break.”
“Wow, uh, I mean, that’s a great idea. I’ll ask the girls now, if that's all right with you,” Ben said in awe.
“Sure. I won’t be long, I don’t have much to pack up.”
“Take your time. It’ll probably take me hours to find the girls in this mob, the guys too,” Ben said with a smile.
“You look well,” Michael couldn’t help observe.
“So do you. You look like you’ve found peace.”
“I think I have. I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.”
“Please don’t apologize. I probably owe you the apology. I’ve always prided myself on being honest. I was feeling miserable and instead of owning up to it, I ignored it. It was easier to blame you and others. I should have been honest with you, and myself, a long time ago.”
“I never gave you a chance. It was easier to blame your book, or Ma, or Brian or our friends for taking sides. And when you all tried to help, instead of accepting it, I lied until it all blew up in my face.”
“There’s blame enough to go around,” said Ben.
“Agreed,” Michael concurred with a maturity Ben had never seen before or maybe never noticed.
The lack of conversation was beginning to feel awkward so Ben headed for the door. “I better find JR and Hunter before it gets dark.”
“Good idea. Maybe you should suggest street lamps to Brian and Justin,” Michael said with a laugh that made Ben smile.
“Michael, about Armand, nothing physical happened,” Ben assured Michael.
“I’m not accusing you of anything. He’s very good looking.” Ben nodded. “And he’s into art?”
“His brother owns the main gallery in Paris that’s hosting Justin’s work,” Ben explained. “Armand occasionally helps out.”
“I imagine you both have a lot to talk about,” Michael conceded.
Ben shrugged his shoulders as he gave a little nod. “I’m not planning on having sex with him.”
“Nobody plans on having sex,” Michael said then took it back. “Unless you’re Brian Kinney.” He and Ben laughed.
“I’m serious, Michael. We made vows…”
“Yeah, we did, in another country and never here when we could have! Maybe that was a sign or something,” Michael said then stopped himself before saying something stupid. “What I’m trying to say without fucking it up is that shit happens. I’m still learning how to be an adult, I have to fix me before I can try to fix anything else. I’m not expecting you to wait.”
“I…I’m not sure what to say. Just know that I’ll always care about you. We’ve shared so much history that I’m not willing to give up. But…”
Michael raised his hand to stop Ben from finishing his sentence. “You’re not sure if you’re still in love with me. I’ve given you plenty of reason not to be. Just know that I’ll always care about you too. You deserve to be happy.”
“We both do, Michael.”
With that, Ben left the cabin.
Michael stood in the living room for a few minutes. He took a shuddering breath. He was confused, feeling sad but also feeling a sense of pride. Sad because he felt he was losing the man that was his husband, but proud of their conversation. A few more deep breaths then Michael found the strength to pack up his belongings. Before saying goodbye to the cabin and the lane Michael had one more task to perform.
Brian was walking toward the cabin when he noticed his brother also heading in that direction.
“Were you summoned?” John asked Brian.
“Yeah, you too?” Brian asked.
John nodded. “I wonder what’s going on,” he asked as they spied JR, Hunter, Debbie, and Carl heading toward them.
“I guess we’ll find out soon,” Brian assumed.
“What’s going on?” Debbie asked Brian with an accusatory tone. “What have you done?” Debbie narrowed her eyes at Brian.
“Beats the shit out of me. I just got a text asking me to come to the cabin,” Brian explained.
“So did I,” JR said as she took her phone out of her pocket and waved it around.
“Me too,” Hunter confirmed.
“We did too,” added Carl. “It was probably the fastest way of getting us all together,” he logically said.
“Remind me to never invite half of Pennsylvania to the lane ever again,” Brian grumbled.
“Let’s not keep the man waiting,” John stated as he led the way to the front door of the log cabin. “Michael?” John called out as he knocked then opened the door.
“In here,” Michael replied from the kitchen. “There’s not much in the refrigerator but there’s water,” he offered. When no one took him up on his offer of refreshments, Michael led them to the living room to be comfortable.
“Sweetheart, are you okay?” Debbie asked with concern.
“I’m fine, Ma.”
“Really? You don’t look fine to me,” Debbie said, about to begin one of her diatribes.
“Let’s give Michael a chance to explain,” Carl interjected before Debbie could take a breath. Michael gave Carl a grateful smile.
“I just wanted to let you all know that I love you and I wanted to thank you for putting up with me…”
“Deb,” Carl warned as he put his arm around his spouse. Debbie was working her way up to crying and wailing.
“You all tried to help and I fought you but I know that you never stopped loving me. I just wanted you to know that I understand now what you were trying to do and I’m sorry for being an asshole.”
The room exploded with everyone speaking at once.
Before Michael could go on to explain, one more person came through the door.
“Uncle Michael?” Bree’s voice called out. Brian’s face darkened but John placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Give him a chance.”
“In here, Briana,” Michael replied.
Bree quickly looked around, taking a deep breath as she entered the living room.
“Hi, Uncle Michael,” Bree said with a sunny smile.
“Hi. I’m glad you could make it. I have something to say to all of you but especially to you, Bree,” Michael began to explain.
John felt Brian’s shoulder tense under his hand; John gave Brian a little squeeze.
Michael stood to greet Bree as she came closer. He knelt in front the petite young lady. “Thank you, Miss Briana, for finding a way through all the walls I built around me,” Michael said as he gave Bree a crushing hug. “I think you saved me.”
“I love you, Uncle Michael,” Bree said in all sincerity.
“I love you too,” Michael murmured into the baby fine strawberry blond hair. After a few moments, Michael stood and gently handed Bree over to her father. Bree sat on Brian’s lap and gave his neck a reassuring hug as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Ben and I had a good talk a little while ago. I’m driving back to the city soon. I told Ben he should stay on the lane for the summer, and Hunter, I hope you and Nick can find some time to stay here too. You too JR. I hope you and Jacqueline will take a break and stay here. This cabin was built for all of us and I’d like to see it used.
“John, I’m sorry I put you through building hell when I insisted on a log cabin. I hope you know how much I really love this place and I plan to come back.”
“Oh my poor baby,” Debbie blurted out with tears. “What’s going to happen to you?”
“Ma, nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m just going back to Pittsburgh and going back to work on Monday like I always do.”
“But you can stay with us tonight,” Debbie whined.
Michael shook his head. “No, it’s better this way.”
“What about Ben?” Carl asked.
“Ben knows how I feel.”
“And how do you feel?” John asked.
“I’ll always love Ben but it’s time for me to learn how to love myself again.”
“Oh, Daddy,” JR cried out as she practically threw herself into her father’s arms.
“It’s okay, Honeybun. I haven’t felt this good in months. And I meant what I said, I want you and Jacqueline to spend some time here.”
“We will, Daddy, I promise.”
“Hunter,” Michael reached out to his son. “Thank you for helping me to find some purpose in my life. And I promise to keep volunteering at the Center.”
“I know you will,” Hunter confirmed. “And Nick and I plan to spend several weeks here this summer, I promise.”
Michael smiled at Hunter and gave Bree a wink. “I don’t want to keep you from the party and I have a little more packing to do. I’ll see you two back in the Pitts,” Michael said.
Feeling dismissed, the family started to leave one by one but not before giving Michael a hug and kiss. Of course, Debbie cried and made Michael promise to call often and to eat well. Michael promised as his eyes pleaded with Carl to come and take his mother before she crushed the living daylights out of him.
“Come on, Debbie, I think we have more hungry mouths to feed,” Carl told his wife.
“Okay, but you promise to take care of yourself,” Debbie said before she was ushered through the door.
“I promise!” Michael called out.
John shook Michael’s hand as he followed JR, Hunter and Bree out the door.
“Will you make sure Ben’s okay while he’s on the lane?”
“He’s a big boy, I’m sure he’ll be all right.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, he’ll be fine. We’ll make sure he eats more than tofu burgers and bean sprouts,” Brian said with disgust making Michael laugh. “There’s my Mikey,” Brian said as he wrapped his arm around Michael’s neck. “It felt like we were having a wake.”
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, Mikey. You’ll be all right.”
“Yeah, I will.”
Brian leaned down to give his old friend a chaste kiss before he left. “I love you, Mikey. Always have and always will.”
“I love you too, Brian,” Michael said before Brian closed the door.
Michael gathered up his stuff then took one last look around. By the time he started up his car Michael realized it was starting to get dark. It was time to go home.
“You okay, little brother?” John asked Brian.
“Yeah, it’s all good. Why’d you ask?”
“Just checking.” All of a sudden Brian smirked. “What’s with the face?”
“I just realized another Taylor busted down a few walls,” Brian said with a touch of pride.
“Yeah, but this time the walls belonged to a Novotny not a Kinney,” John observed. “No matter, another Taylor tradition in the making.”
“Speaking about traditions. Is it almost time for the main event?”
“Soon, little brother, very soon,” John assured Brian as the brothers walked back into the fray.
"Uncle Ben," Bree called as she saw her hunky uncle walk into the backyard of the conjoined cottages.
"Hi, Bree," Ben said as he continued to survey the throngs of people moving and talking and laughing around the yard.
Bree was sitting on the swing in the big tree. Ashley had joined her mother and was probably discussing her punishment and why she had drunk wine in the first place. Bree felt out of place in the big group. Her recent actions had made her feel like a bit of an outcast. At least it had been nice to find out how much her Uncle Michael appreciated what she had done for him.
"Are you looking for someone?" Bree asked Ben.
"Yes, Armand, but I don't see him anywhere. Have you seen him?"
Bree shook her head. "You could talk to me while you wait for him," Bree suggested. "Everybody comes through here eventually."
Ben chuckled. "Yeah, you're probably right." Ben walked closer to the swing. "Want a push?" he asked indicating the swing.
"No thanks. I don't feel like flying today."
"Is something wrong?"
Bree nodded. "I got into trouble."
"Trouble! Not our princess," Ben scoffed.
Bree nodded her head to show that she meant what she had said. "Ashley and I drank some wine and got sick. My daddies were really mad."
Ben's eyes had got quite big. Everyone thought of Bree as just about perfect. This didn't sound like the girl they all knew. "Why?" was all he said.
"Why were they mad?"
"No, why did you start drinking?"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was kind of exciting," Bree admitted.
"Forbidden fruit," Ben said. "Things that are forbidden are often very enticing," he explained.
"Yeah, I guess they are."
"Oh, there's Armand," Ben said as he saw the Frenchman come around the corner of the cottages with John.
"Is he forbidden fruit?" Bree asked.
"What?" Ben asked feeling his face redden. "Why did you ask such a thing?"
"Because you've been spending a lot of time with Mr. Armand. Uncle Michael's going back to Pittsburgh. Did you know that?"
"Yes, I knew."
"Okay then," Bree said enigmatically.
Ben frowned and stared at the precocious young lady on the swing. "I should go," Ben said.
"Sure," Bree replied as Ben headed across the lawn towards Armand. Bree wondered if Uncle Ben and Armand were going to get together permanently. She hoped that didn't happen. She wished that her Uncle Ben and Uncle Michael might be able to get back together, but it wasn't looking good.
Bree gave a push with her feet and started to rise into the air. The wind she created felt cool on her face. Maybe that would help her forget what a bad day she was having.
John had taken Armand across the yard to Gui who sat by himself under the edge of a tree. Gui did not look happy and had not looked happy since he arrived with Ted and Allen. John was hoping a fellow Frenchman might cheer him up a little.
"Gui," John said, "this is Armand. I don't believe you two have met."
"Armand?" Gui asked perking up a bit at the French name. "Francais?" he asked.
"Oui, Paris, et toi?" Armand asked.
As the two men started talking about Paris in French, John took his leave quietly. He needed to get the fireworks extravaganza underway.
"Armand?" Ben said as he approached.
"Ah, there you are," Armand responded. "John took me along the lane and told me some interesting details about all the buildings. Fascinating! Oh, and this is a fellow Parisien, Gui."
"Gui and I have met," Ben said. "He's been living in the same building I stayed in while I was teaching."
"Oh, I didn't know," Armand said.
"No reason you should," Ben replied. "Armand, could I talk to you for a minute ... in private?"
"But of course," Armand said standing and heading towards the greenhouse with Ben.
Gui watched them walk away. "Merde," he muttered to himself. The most interesting person he had met all day had just been snatched from him. He wondered what the hell he was doing in this place with these people. There were nothing but bad memories here of people who had betrayed him or bested him. He should never have come. But he was unable to escape until Ted was ready to leave. Gui leaned back in his chair. Maybe if he just closed his eyes they would all disappear. It was worth a try. He shut his eyes ... tight.
Debbie walked across the lawn and sat down in the empty chair next to Danny. "How the hell are ya?" she demanded.
"Still here," was Danny's terse reply.
"Off talking to people."
"Shouldn't he be here with you?" Debbie asked.
"We're not joined at the hip. He's spent enough time coddling me today."
"Yeah, my fucking arthritis is flaring up. I'm not good company, so please feel free to leave."
"Sorry about the arthritis. I understand. I get these twinges every once in a while," Debbie said sympathetically.
"What I'm experiencing is way beyond twinges," Danny corrected her.
"That's too bad," Debbie commiserated.
Danny shook his head. Debbie never could take a hint. He wished she would just go away. "Was there something you wanted to say to me?" he finally asked.
"I thought you should know that our son is finally growing up."
"Growing up? Hmpff! Took him long enough. How do you know that's happening?"
"Just trust me, he is," Debbie stated.
"Where is he anyway? I wanted to speak to him."
"He's on his way back to Pittsburgh by this time."
"Yeah, he's dealing with some stuff."
"Could you be any vaguer?" Danny asked sarcastically.
"Could you be any ruder?" Debbie gave him the evil eye.
"No, I don't think I can," Danny retorted.
Debbie glared at him for a moment before getting up and leaving the anti-social man.
"Shit," Danny muttered. He hadn't meant to be so rude, but he simply couldn't muster the strength to play nice.
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