The Secret of Flying

E. L. Phillips

 

Prologue

CHQUO1LINESTARTTHE Price of Flight

“Flying might not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.”

―Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It

Fifteen Years Ago

CHQUO1LINEEND

“…so, I’ll have to find someone to cover for me, Leda. It’s the only way,” David Smith concluded wearily, one hand on the steering wheel, the other wrapped around his third cup of coffee in as many hours. “I’m not gonna put you and Enrique on a bus all the way to Yellow Sand, to stay there by yourselves at the hospital for almost two weeks, before having to come back on a bus with a seven-year-old who’ll just have had corneal transplants and will probably still be in pain!”

“Oh, really, David,” Leda Greco-Smith dismissed, laughing, as her husband frowned out at the night-dark road. That road seemed to simply appear a few yards beyond the headlights of their ancient jeep as they sped down the highway between Yellow Sand and Santa Fe. “It’ll be fine. It’s not like we’ll be sleeping in the hospital linen closet! Everything’ll be fine. Absolutely fine. Right, ‘Rique?”

Enrique Albert Smith grinned, displaying more gaps than teeth, distracted for a moment from the miniature fighter plane that’d come with his Argle-Bargle Burger mini-meal—plastic, almost featureless, and a cartoonish green and pink, but ready, nonetheless, to conquer the skies.

“Right!” he agreed brightly, then continued to fly his airplane above his head and his car-seat, making engine noises. His mother laughed again, watching him with warm affection, smiling her pretty, rosy-cheeked smile. Even in the night-dark car, she, like everything in Enrique’s sensitive vision, had a noticeable halo…like she was an angel. His earliest memory of her was of a bright smile and dark eyes, indistinct, blurred features, and that yellow-gold halo. “Doctor’s gonna fix my eyes!”

In the rearview mirror, the area bracketing his father’s tired, worried eyes crinkled in a way that meant he was smiling. “Is that so, string bean?”

“Uh-huh,” Enrique confirmed without a shred of doubt or worry. Though he was only seven (and a half), Enrique was already more than smart enough to know that this time, when the doctors in Yellow Sand fixed his eyes, they’d finally be just like everyone else’s.

Enrique still occasionally struggled just to pronounce the name of the eye-disease—keh-ruh-toe-COE-nuss—which he’d suffered from since he was a baby. But that didn’t matter, anymore. It was to be corrected, at last. And he would, at last, be able to go to regular school like the neighbor kids, play outside with them in the daylight, and not be trapped in his house—sometimes for days with headaches that got so bad he couldn’t keep any food down and even had to go to the emergency room or see the brain doctor. And, maybe, he could even—

A sudden flash of light from outside the windshield caught his eyes, causing him to wince as that light shot through his pupils like an arrow to his brain. Sharp, instant agony made him whine and hurriedly cover his face with his tiny, sticky hands. The small, brightly-colored plane fell to the floor somewhere just before he shielded his light-sensitive eyes.

Enrique’s parents had already turned away from him—his father’s eyes shifting from the rearview mirror to the road, his mother’s head just starting to whip forward—more annoyed than alarmed. Then, all was dark, created by Enrique’s small, ketchup-smelling hands…darkness that was almost immediately pierced by bright white lights so intense, they shone through both hands and eyelids.

Tires squealed—like that time his father had jammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the Hidalgos’ stupid poodle, Jojo, which had wandered into the middle of the street—and a sudden lurch rocked not just Enrique, but the entire car. A moment after that, something struck the car, head-on. Enrique was slammed forward in the booster seat, his tiny body held by the straps. Glass shattered, followed by a metallic, screaming-crumpling sound, and the car slid backwards …pushed, spinning and…and falling. He had no more control over his limbs than a rag-doll. His mother’s frightened screams filled the car. “David? DAVID!”

The straps of the booster seat bit into Enrique painfully and for an eternity, burning like hellfire…until there was another impact that drove him forward again, and the straps, or perhaps the buckles, gave suddenly…

And he was falling out of his booster seat—no, he was launched out of it. He was airborne

Enrique Smith was flying and flying. This, at last, was the secret of flight—it started out as falling and fear and pain, and ended with freedom and weightlessness and a strange, confused joy…until he wasn’t, anymore. Until he crash-landed on his right side in a dry, sandy place, overgrown with scrub and home to several startled lizards.

Landing hurt. The only upside was that consciousness, and thus the agony, was snuffed out like a candle in a tornado.

By the time it dared—inexplicably, miraculously—to return, his broken arm and ribs, and his punctured spleen and fractured skull were mostly healed. The boy who shouldn’t have lived, let alone woken up, was both alive and awake. And…his mother and father were long buried…long dead.

Chapter 1

CHQUO1LINESTARTFAST Times in Yellow Sand, N.M.

“The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws.”

—Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World

Present Day

CHQUO1LINEEND

After watching his best friends be utterly absorbed by each other for, like, ever—to the point that even he, their soon-to-be best man, felt like he was intruding, though he’d long since thought himself inured to their…eye-fucking or soul-gazing, or whatever it was they did when they gazed into each other’s eyes like that—Henry Albert Sparrow made a rude noise. Incidentally, while making said noise, he spat out crumbs from his mouthful of cookie, covered his mouth, and then said, “Oh, c’mon, you two! I’m tryin’ to eat my freakin’ madeleines!” He shook the small packet of cookies meaningfully.

No response. Unless one considered completely ignoring Henry a valid response.

Henry sure didn’t.

So, he turned his scowl to damn near anything else in their apartment to distract from the grossness of his best friends being all heart-eyes, motherfucker. He gazed longingly at the forty-two-inch television, which was bolted to the wall perpendicular to the sofa, loveseat, and coffee table. Below it was the tall, faux-rustic, oak armoire that held the components of their entertainment and gaming systems, as well as their movie and music collections.

Neither television nor stereo were in use, however, because Frick and Frack on the loveseat didn’t need even background noise when they were together.

Just each other’s love.

His scowl turning into a dark glare behind his prescription shades—a staple of his life in the fourteen years since a corneal transplant when he was eight—Henry’s gaze swung from the television, past the doofs in the loveseat, to the bank of large windows directly opposite the entertainment center. Wide and equipped with wooden shutters that almost exactly matched the armoire, only the ones for the center window were open, since the sun had long since set and indoor lights had been turned on.

There wasn’t anything to be seen outside except the rest of the complex, even on a moonlit night. And said complex didn’t even have a pool to make it a little more interesting.

Halfway between the loveseat and the window was the arched entryway that led to the hall. Directly across that hall was the kitchen, which was currently dark, as Henry hadn’t felt like making dinner and they’d ordered a pizza from Biondi’s, so no one had to go pick anything up.

But then, Henry had wound up going out, anyway. If only to get a break from his lovebird besties. Of course, considering that more of the same had been awaiting his return, going out had been, at best, a mere stop-gap measure.

After once more watching those best friends stare deeply, intently into each other’s eyes without speaking for, like, ever, plus five minutes, Henry had had quite enough, please and thank you, and he was obliged to say something scathing about it. Once he finished his current cookie, that was.

“You two are the grossest pair of douche-canoes in New Mexico. And that’s saying something,” he added after a pause to push his shades down his nose a bit. Even the dim lighting of the living room was like sudden daylight to Henry’s sensitive eyes. Blinking away slight tearing, he gave his friends the stink-eye and then sipped his extra-fat, extra-caf, whip-topped mochachino. He was a connoisseur of chocolate in all its many splendid forms. “Definitely puts you in the running for grossest douche-canoes on Earth.”

“Shut up, Henry,” they both said at the same time, her in a light, sweet, lilting alto and him in a burring, grave baritone. Henry rolled his eyes, noting that they hadn’t stopped staring into each other’s to give their rude, absent replies.

“Aaaaaaaaand now, you’re doing the identical-twins-speaking-at-the-same-time-thing, again. Can I just say ew? Mostly because the twin-thing is uber-creepy considering all the sex I hear you guys having in the bedroom right across from mine.” Snorting, Henry crunched on another madeleine, angry-chewing the poor, defenseless confection with real asperity. “Seriously, I can’t wait ’til you two’re married and back from your honeymoon in a few weeks. After the honeymoon, married people never bone. Or so I’ve been told.”

Without looking away from his fiancée, Caspian balled up a napkin—which Henry had been selfless enough to go get, along with the beverages and assorted, dessert-type munchables, since his bestest friend, Jenna, was too busy being a douche-canoe with her douche-canoe fiancé—and shied it at Henry’s head like a small stone at a complaining crow. Henry tried to dodge it, but still got hit dead-center on the forehead.

“Fuck, how the hell do you do that, Cas? I freakin’ ducked!”

Henry was, indeed, complaining, as he had frequently since meeting his roommate and best friend’s ex-military boyfriend. His habitually shapeless, loose clothes hid a body that was all coiled, ready, SEAL-muscle. He could and had benched Henry—who, though he’d put on some inches and pounds since his final growth spurt, was still an unimpressive five feet ten inches tall and one hundred fifty-eight pounds, soaking wet—more than once when the pair of them had gotten into good-natured wrestling matches after evenings spent getting piss-drunk off Caspian’s expensive rum.

And yet, even now, all Henry knew about Lieutenant Caspian D. Castillo’s past was that the man had been a Navy SEAL for over ten years before retiring and moving to Yellow Sand, New Mexico, eighteen months ago. He’d barely been in town three months before he’d met a pre-law student named Jenna Sørensen, who’d been fresh out of jail for disorderly conduct during a protest march.

“Let’s just say a good aim and steady arm are parts of my skill-set, and leave it at that, eh, Hank?” Caspian suggested in his smoky, low voice and faint Spanish accent. Henry rolled his eyes.

“I wish I didn’t know you guys.” He sighed.

Caspian merely smirked. At his side, Jenna—who was Caspian’s physical opposite in every regard, small and curvy to his almost gangling leanness, fair and auburn-haired to his olive complexion and dark-brown hair—gave Henry a brief, but eerily similar smirk.

Henry—himself, a man of average, non-threatening build and looks—sneered right back, knowing it looked lame on his boring, boyish face. But despite the sneering, he was, not so deep down, in awe of the speed and depth of the bond that’d formed between the mutually fiery and rather hard-headed couple. Especially considering that, if anything, Caspian was even more fiery and emotional than Jenna by a country-mile, but Jenna was by far more hardheaded and bloody-minded—the Irish in her, she liked to claim, while thickening her barely-there lilt.

Yet when the pair were together, though it wasn’t easily spotted by others, they had this strange way of opening-up like flowers toward the sun the other represented. And that opening-up created a hermetic bubble around them that no one else was able to inhabit, or even penetrate, so to speak.

Henry both marveled at it and resented it.

To his way of thinking, that sort of exclusionary affection was just plain jerkish in mixed company. He, himself, would never be that involved with someone, to the point that others felt uncomfortable, intrusive, and left out in the presence of he and his paramour.

Not that Henry currently had a paramour. Or had ever really had one.

At the ripe old age of twenty-two and a half, Henry Albert Sparrow—who’d focused all his energy, personal and professional, on studying engineering, specifically to design navigation systems for various aerospace technologies—had barely dated, let alone had a relationship. And having only, at the late age of nineteen, grown out of the scrawniness and shortness that’d plagued him during his teen years, he wasn’t used to thinking of himself as particularly attractive to others. Not in a sexy way, at least. His foxlike features and smooth, burnished-copper complexion weren’t homely. But he’d never be mysterious and sexy the way Caspian was.

Now, Caspian finally spared Henry an amused, somehow smug, dark-eyed gaze, which was quickly joined by Jenna’s amused, somehow smug, hazel-gray gaze. After thirteen months of living practically in each other’s back pockets, they often wore the same facial expressions. This, despite the marked difference between Jenna’s fine features and round, porcelain-doll prettiness, and Caspian’s strong, aquiline features, and square-jawed handsomeness. Jenna’s puckish mischievousness and Caspian’s dry reserve.

It was weird, their dissimilar similarities, and Henry vowed to himself, yet again, to never get that intertwined with anyone.

Ever.

“Awful and gross,” Henry reiterated grimly. Jenna did that adorable little snerk-thing where her wide eyes crinkled and her heart-shaped lips twitched at the corners, but didn’t quite curve in a smile. None of her previous lovers had managed to elicit such an oddly innocent and girlish expression from pragmatic, practical, worldly Jenna K. Sørensen. Henry half-thought Caspian was a warlock or something.

“Well, whatever,” he dismissed, plucking the napkin out of his lap and tossing it back at Caspian underhanded. The crumpled projectile didn’t even make it halfway across the relatively short distance, landing on the heavy, baroque coffee table between the burgundy sofa where Henry sat, and matching loveseat where Jenna and Caspian sat, before rolling to the floor near Jenna’s foot. Henry sighed.

He’d never had any game. At love or sports. Unless one counted the two dates he’d ever been on, and making paper and model airplanes to the detriment of his so-called social life.

Henry sure didn’t.

Aaaaaaaaand Jenna and Caspian were back to fucking each other’s souls, or whatever. But Caspian took a moment to say, “Has anyone ever told you, you whine like a little bitch sometimes, Hank?”

After gaping for a good thirty seconds, Henry gave Caspian a narrow-eyed glare that was totally ignored.

“No,” he lied in an arctic tone. Caspian snorted, but didn’t look away from Jenna. Perhaps because he had told Henry that very thing quite a bit over the course of their friend-and-roommate-ship, and knew Henry was lying through his teeth.

“Anyway,” Henry went on pointedly, looking away from the loveseat where his friends were once more excluding him. It was time and past to make tracks to his room and work on his final project for Professor Remmick. “You two’re lame. So, I’m gonna go burn down an orphanage and smoke an entire meth lab. Don’t wait up.”

“That’s nice, Henry.” Jenna sighed, sparing a glance and a smile for him for all of point-five seconds. One that came back to rest on him again as he stood and hitched up his baggy, tan cargo shorts. “Oh, and can you do me a favor?”

Pausing in the act of skirting the coffee table and loveseat to head to his own, romance-free space with his precious mochachino and half-finished pack of madeleines, Henry frowned. “Depends on the favor. It’s not like that time you asked me to pick your crazy-ass boss up from Roswell International and drive him back to Yellow Sand, is it? I mean, I told you he tried to give me a lobotomy with his pen-knife and flashlight, right? Because he thought I was some kinda spy or something, right?” He shuddered, thinking of the crazy—but strong and determined—old guy. And his old, but strong and determined pen-knife.

Jenna rolled her eyes exasperatedly. “Yes, you told me, Henry, but this’s nothing like that favor.”

“Oh. Well, good. What can the bestest of best men do for the future Mrs. Sørensen-Castillo, then?”

Jenna grinned her usual charming, but shit-eating grin. The one that other guys—straight guys who weren’t Henry—probably found sweet and girl-next-door-ish, but that Henry just found mischievous and worrying. “You know how the wedding is only six days away, right? Well, my father's flying in from Olympia for it, as you know, and I was going to pick him up, but Jorje needs me with him at a meeting around the time his flight arrives. Soooo…I need someone to pick him up from the Las Cruces airport. And, erm, drive him back to the Cliffside Inn downtown.” Jenna’s eyebrows shot up hopefully and her smile became all kinds of winning and bright.

Henry could only gape in utter disbelief while Jenna blushed, but maintained the infernal, cranked-up smile and poured some extra Irish into her usually faint lilt. “Really, it’ll be easy as pie, oh, bestest of best men! Dad is the sweetest, most affable man on the planet. Great on long drives and—”

“That’s what you said about Old Man Lobotomy last fall, Jenna! And did I mention the part about him nearly lobotomizing me while driving him here from the airport?” Henry demanded, transferring the madeleines from his left hand to his right so he could push his near-waist-length, dark-brown hair back from his temple as he tilted his head back a bit. Then he jabbed his index finger at a spot just beyond his hairline. “See? He even left a mark with that fucking knife of his!”

“Oh, Henry, don’t be petty,” Jenna admonished, snorting a little and chuckling. Caspian joined her. Henry all but growled and raked his hand back through his perpetually messy—at least when it wasn’t in a man-bun—hair. It immediately flopped back forward. “Jorje was only trying to, er…”

“To what? Scalp me? Well, he only gets half the irony points since I’m only half-Apache!” Henry almost-screeched, and Caspian snickered, but turned it into a cough when Henry glowered at him. The other man’s dark eyes were still suspiciously twinkly, however. “He coulda killed us both!”

“Don’t be so melodramatic! There isn’t even a scar!”

“Oh, I’m sorry I don’t have a freaking scar to prove what your psychotic mentor tried to do to me while I was behind the wheel of your three-ton, moving Death Star. Which, also, is a really unfunny name for a bone-white Charger, the emissions of which are single-handedly killing the damn planet, Jenna!”

“Don’t you dare disparage my little Star! She’s a very sensitive automobile,” Jenna said primly, settling against Caspian, who instantly put his arm around her slim shoulders. Henry rolled his eyes. “Anyway, you want me to call her Roadrunner, like you did your crappy old VW bus?”

“Dude. Low blow, going after Roadrunner. She’s a grand ol’ dame, and classier than Death Star will ever be, Sørensen. And just for saying otherwise, your Dad can walk from Las Cruces,” Henry said loftily, but unconvincingly, if Jenna’s incredulous snort was anything to go by. “I’m serious, Jenna-hen. He can walk ’til his feet fall off.”

Jenna gave him The Pout and The Puppy Eyes, and Henry didn’t so much as crack. Not even a little. Mostly because he’d already cracked, and decided he’d do it. After all, what else were bestest best men for?

But he still had a front to present. It wouldn’t do to make it too easy for Jenna. Then she’d always expect to get her precious way. “Anyway, I’m busy. Can’t do it.”

“You don’t even know what day or time his flight arrives.” Jenna crossed her arms and gave him her best attorney stare-down. Henry flinched.

“I…fuck.” He groaned. This time, Caspian wasn’t even trying to hide his snickers. “Fine. When does his flight arrive? With the way my damn final project is going, I probably really will be too busy to do it, y’know? Due date’s not too far off and Professor Remmick loves nothing more than tearing apart his students’ work. I think he gets off on it.”

Jenna’s look turned commiserating for a few moments at Henry’s rueful tone. She’d had her own tough professor in Dr. Glassman. Only, from what Henry had heard, Glassman was exacting, but not actually an asshole. She was hard on her students because she wanted them to have high standards for success. Remmick was a whole different story. And an unavoidable one, in Henry’s major. “Look, his flight arrives on Tuesday, at twelve thirty-seven p.m. Well after your one class of the day ends.” Jenna’s eyebrows shot up in silent plea. Henry sighed and scrambled for any excuse. Any at all.

“What about my internship?”

“Since when do you have an internship?” Jenna demanded crossly.

Henry flushed. “Well, maybe I’d have an internship if I wasn’t always running errands for you! Didja ever think about that, Sørensen?”

“Oh, don’t be like this, Henry. Dad had to move lots of things around and call in plenty of favors to get time off from the university—and on such short notice. It’s important to him to see his little girl get married, even if it’s not a big, fancy wedding and reception. Please?”

Jennnnnnn…” Henry’s capitulation was already a given, and they both knew it.

“Listen, you can take Star again since Roadrunner’d die five miles outside of Yellow Sand with the way she overheats. You take Star to Las Cruces and I’ll drive Roadrunner to work. It’ll be a more than a fair trade: your clunker for my precious, beautiful—”

“Gas guzzler?”

“I’ll reimburse you for the gas,” Jenna haggled. “And give you my AmEx for all the Argle-Bargle Double-Meals you can eat when you get back.”

Henry pursed his lips. “I do love me some Argle-Bargle’s…”

“I know you do.” Jenna was clearly biting back a triumphant smirk.

Henry huffed. “But I hate Las Cruces.”

“So does everyone. But you’re just going to the airport, not taking a sight-seeing tour of the place,” Jenna reasoned. At which point Henry heaved another weary sigh. He was out of excuses and, anyway, after all the stuff Jenna’d done for him—including floating both halves of the rent occasionally, paying for their shared utilities and groceries more often than not, and once changing Roadrunner’s oil in the middle of a heat-wave—he owed her.

And leaving Professor Sørensen to his own devices in hot-ass, boring, dusty, awful Las Cruces, to make his way to Yellow Sand was just…heartless.

“Okay! Fine! I’ll do it.” Henry grumped, spinning on his heels and stalking out of the living room, down the brief hall to his room. “But I’m so gonna starve myself before going to Argle-Bargle Burger. Prepare for a sizable dent in your available credit balance, Sørensen.”

Jenna whooped happily. “I’ll text you his photo and vice versa so you both know whom to look for at the Arrivals gate!” she called after him, just loud enough to be heard over Caspian’s low chuckles.

Henry’s reply was a firmly shut—not quite slammed—door.

* * * *

And that was how Henry found himself at Las Cruces International Airport two days later, slouching near the Arrivals gate, hands shoved in the pockets of his camo-patterned cargo shorts, prescription sunglasses perched firmly on his face, hair tied back in a thick ponytail. He was sweating lightly under his faded, old Acapulco shirt and black wife-beater, rocking back and forth, heel and toe, in his admittedly incongruous classic Doc Martens.

The flight, despite Henry’s grouchy suppositions, was almost exactly on time. He’d only been waiting at the gate for ten minutes past the ETA when passengers began to spill from the plane, chattering and laughing.

Of course, he thought irritably, jiggling his leg and tapping his foot, Professor Sørensen’s gonna be the last one off the plane, so I’ll have to stand around even longer, waiting.

But Henry was wrong. He was lazily, hopelessly scanning faces when he spotted the one Jenna had sent him from her phone’s photo gallery, and his mouth fell open because…wow.

Just…wow.

Professor Sørensen was debarking just behind the first wave of passengers, alone but for a few other stragglers coming ahead of the second wave of passengers. He looked exactly like his picture—pale, square-jawed, sharp-featured, with the same intensely changeable eyes and coy resting-expression as Jenna. That expression was pleasant and deceptively innocent with a slight curve playing about a mobile mouth made for such smiles. Jenna’s father was solemn and attractive, somewhat rakish despite obviously being middle-aged. He wasn’t a whit more or less attractive—which was still very—than his slightly fuzzy picture had captured. And yet…

And yet, the moment Henry saw Professor Sørensen’s face, which was also the moment that Professor Sørensen’s hazel-gray eyes met Henry’s from across the waiting area, Henry felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Surely, he had to have been, even if by an invisible force, because what other explanation was there for the way the air suddenly shoved its way out of him in a harsh rush?

And there was absolutely no reason why getting said air back should’ve been so difficult. But as Professor Sørensen smiled and nodded at Henry—approaching calmly, not in any hurry, immaculate in his gray business-casual wear, with his carry-all slung over one shoulder—Henry found he couldn’t quite get enough oxygen. He even began to feel a bit light-headed…

A state that persisted until, after nearly a full gobsmacked minute, during which the second wave of passengers broke and parted around them like the Red Sea, Henry found himself gaping at the man from less than an arm’s-length away.

Professor Sørensen was tall and solidly-built with at least three inches and thirty pounds on Henry. His dark, gray-threaded hair was stylishly tousled and swept back from a high, clear brow. His eyes held Henry’s stunned gaze candidly, but not intimidatingly, and his slight smile widened into a full one that drew Henry’s poleaxed attention to the man’s generous mouth and curving lips once more.

For another near-minute, they simply stood staring, smiling and gaping at each other, respectively. Henry noted that Jenna’s father smelled like cool water and sandalwood, subtly masculine and incredibly…tempting.

Very, very

Nope, Henry told himself sternly…or tried to, anyway. Not even gonna go There. Gonna take a five-thousand-light-years detour around There. Even if he wasn’t Jenna’s freaking Dad, he would still be universes out of my league.

But a minute later, Henry was still staring up at Professor Sørensen like a thirsting man at a cup of ice-water.

Finally, Professor Sørensen chuckled, his gaze sweeping lightly down and up Henry, before settling once more on Henry’s face. He held out his hand, hefting his carry-all higher on his right shoulder.

“Magnus Sørensen,” he said in a low, gently-accented voice. “And you must be Henry Sparrow.”

Must I be?” Henry asked, then turned a mortified and deep scarlet when Professor Sørensen’s eyebrows lifted a little in amusement that was entirely too Jenna-like. He twitched an arm out to take Professor Sørensen's hand, shook it quickly, limply, noting the man's dry, callused grip before letting go and shoving his hand back in his pocket where it jingled grubby change and old gum-wrappers. “I mean, I must be! Sorry, um. I’m Henry, yes. Here to take you to Yellow Sand and Jenna. Welcome to New Mexico! Uh. Baggage Claim’s this way, Professor Sørensen.”

But neither of them moved or even looked in the direction Henry had nodded. They merely stared at each other, still smiling and gaping. At least until Professor Sørensen finally glanced down, seemingly at Henry’s ironically large belt buckle, and that smile widened even more.

Apparently, Henry wasn’t the only Danger Mouse fan in Jenna’s life.

“Please, call me Magnus. Professor Sørensen was my grandfather.”

Henry blinked. Then blushed even deeper, for some reason, but resisted the urge to adjust his hipster-ish belt buckle or check his fly. “Um. Okay, uh…Magnus.”

At the sound of his name, Prof—, Magnus was the one to blink, his amused expression faltering into something curious and a bit startled. Then he tilted his head and looked Henry over again with such alacrity, Henry immediately straightened and belatedly pulled off his shades, folding them and placing them in the right breast pocket of his Acapulco shirt.

This time, when Magnus’ eyes reached his face once more, their eyes truly met and Magnus’ widened, that smile disappearing completely. So, Henry smiled a little uncertainly, further reddening—probably enough that it actually showed, even on his complexion—and half-turned toward Baggage Claim. “It’s, uh, this way, sir.”

Magnus nodded, but didn’t correct him again. Instead, he swept out an arm to indicate that Henry should go first.

Henry did, turning jerkily away and scurrying through the clutches and groups of people, quick steps taking him past windows, through splashes of arid sunlight and patches of velvety shadow. Magnus followed, a silent but almost grave presence, attentive and somehow curious.

By the time they got to Baggage Claim, an increasingly anxious and tongue-tied Henry had all but sweated through his wife-beater and was working on his Acapulco shirt. He could feel that gaze on his back like a searchlight. Like the warmth of a hearth. And though the temperature of the airport, even with the blasting A/C, was still very warm, the heat of Magnus’ gaze wasn’t unpleasant.

It was, in fact, almost exhilarating, despite the now-clammy cling of Henry’s shirts.

“There’s one of mine,” Magnus noted when they’d been at the carousel of suitcases for a good ten seconds. Before the older man could reach for the modestly-sized, wheeled, gray suitcase indicated, Henry was snatching it up, determined to be gallant and chivalrous. To be more impressive and memorable than just being Jenna’s chauffeuring roommate would warrant.

“And that, too,” Magnus added a few seconds later, stepping past Henry and quickly, easily picking up a large gray suitcase as if it weighed nothing. Then he turned to Henry, smiling, and once more nodded in the direction they’d been heading. “Lead the way, Henry.”

Shivering at the sound of his own name in that voice and on those lips, Henry grinned nervously, then hurriedly edged past an elderly Chicano couple arguing in heated Spanish about whether they were at the right baggage carousel. They made their steady way to the exit, Magnus on Henry’s heels once more, a piercing, powerful presence that still smelled of sandalwood and fresh water.

As they finally stepped out of Las Cruces International Airport into light and heat, Henry had time to reflect, in-depth, that in their three years of friendship/roommate-ship, he’d never hated Jenna Sørensen more than he’d quite suddenly grown to.

Out of my freaking league and off-limits, he reminded himself with a surprisingly deep streak of bitterness, hunching his shoulders up practically to his dumb, stick-out ears. He’s Jenna’s dad, he lives a thousand miles away, and he’s a world-renowned engineer and professor. I have no chance and no hope.

Story of my life.

Glaring down at his Docs, Henry led Magnus Sørensen to the temporary parking lot and to the waiting Death Star in loaded, almost resentful silence.