The Painted Phoenix – Excerpt

A quiet moment between Nate and Ras, in the early stages of their relationship.

By the time Nate opens the door, Ras has found a tall plastic cup to put the flowers in and arranged them on the tiny dining table among the pastels and sheets of thick white paper. He’s on Nate’s sofa, reclining with his feet up on the armrest, reading over the rest of Nate’s file on his phone. It paints a bleak picture of a man who’s been mistreated all his life, and Ras wishes he could remember how they knew each other. Nate isn’t the only gap in his memory from those years, and he’s mostly gotten used to the idea that those parts of himself may be gone for good, part of the price he had to pay to make his mind whole again.

“You’re in my apartment.” Nate sounds more resigned than surprised, standing in the doorway with a heavy book tucked under one arm.

“I wanted to see you.” That much should be obvious.

“And…you brought flowers?” Nate sounds puzzled.

“Don’t you like them?” Ras asks, sitting up.

Nate glances uneasily at the bouquet, then finally steps into the apartment and shuts the door behind him. “You, uh, you’re supposed to bring flowers for girls.”

“It doesn’t seem fair they should have all the fun. I thought you might like to paint these. That’s all.”

Nate sighs, setting the thick black book on the table by the couch. Ras peers at it.

“A bible?”

“I already got four.” Nate gives him a weary shrug. “I went to go see my sister. They’re pretty religious. I think giving me this makes them feel better.”

“Can I make you dinner? As a friend,” Ras adds before Nate can make a predictable protest.

Nate crosses his arms over his chest with a suspicious frown. “Why?”

“Because we’re going to be working together, and I’d like to get to know you.” It sounds very convincing, Ras thinks. And it’s not entirely a lie.

But more than that, he can’t get it out of his head, that moment when Nate stood in the doorway to the restaurant’s back room, his shoulders high and chin raised like some kind of knight from a bygone era as he said the words that would save someone’s life. His surly, suspicious persona had fallen away, revealing a shining nobility. Ras can’t for the life of him figure out why he finds it so compelling. Nate is a hero, and Ras is a lifelong villain, and he should find heroism antagonistic, or at least boring, but when it comes to Nate, he doesn’t. He’s fascinated by the light within Nate, and he’s not about to let it slip out of his grasp.

“Just friends,” Nate says. “I guess so.”

Ras grins at him. He wonders if the fire inside Nate can be tamed, if it can be owned. It’s a challenge he’ll certainly enjoy.