Rumor Has It
It's said that a rumor without a leg to stand on will get around some other way. In Stokes, Maryland, that way was named Tony Moreno.
This year's theme for Stokes' gay pride celebration was "Proud Past, Fabulous Future", which was arguably the worst theme in years but that did nothing to dissuade the masses from coming out of the woodworks to celebrate. The gang split up during the day but planned to meet back at Strokes for a drink that night.
Strokes was having a massive party, having brought in the hottest diva this side of the Mississippi, none other than Miss Pearl Washington. Everyone wanted her to play their venue, but it was Sweetie who'd managed to land her. Turbo was already back at the club working with her people to set things up for the big performance. Nik, Sweetie, and a few select members of the staff were spending the day working the crowds and passing out flyers. Since Miss Washington had made a sudden detour from her North American tour to play Stokes, they were forced to do some drastic last minute publicity.
"Nik!" Sweetie said, glancing over at the co-owner. They would have covered much more ground if they'd split up. But if Sweetie wasn't there to keep an eye on Nik, the only place the flyers would have gone would have been the back of an alley with Nik and some delicious trick. Possibly the one Nik was kissing right now. "Nik, I mean it!" He was serious, but laughing.
Nik pulled back, grinning. He let the gorgeous beast go and licked his lips, falling into step behind Sweetie. "You're no fun," Nik complained. "You should have stheen that guy. He wasth huge."
"You didn't see him either," Sweetie pointed out. "Though he saw quite enough of you." His eyes flicked over Nik's practically naked body. It was a blisteringly hot late June and Nik had taken full advantage of that fact. He had walked out of the house that morning in a shirt and shorts, but not long after that the shirt came off and was tucked into the waist of his shorts at the side. There was so little to the shorts that little Nik was practically poking out at the cuff, even though the shorts hung down on his hips, revealing a glimpse at his gold underwear.
They managed to pass out flyers for another five minutes before running right into Tony. Literally. The flamboyant bookstore owner collided with Sweetie, who had just enough sense to wrap arms around the man to keep them both from falling on their asses.
Tony had decided that being on wheels was the statement he wanted to make today, but had conveniently forgotten that he hadn't skated since the eighties and he failed to note the difference between roller skates and roller blades. "Thanks," Tony said gratefully, as Sweetie rolled him over to the outside of a shop so he could regain his balance along with his dignity.
"Justht the persthon we were hoping to sthee!" Nik dangled a flyer in Tony's face. "Can you help sthpred the word? No one getsth around thisth town like you."
"That, my dear," said Tony, "Is the best compliment paid to me all day." He took a whole clump of flyers. "But just so you don't go getting the wrong impression, I'm doing this for Miss Washington."
"Natrually," Sweetie said. Already he felt better about the night. They were guaranteed to have a good showing tonight now.
Tony went on, running a hand languidly over his chest and the skin-tight rainbow-colored shirt which was so thin his nipples were practically breaking through. "And now for a little tit for tat. Have you heard about Mickey and Linus?"
Nik's jaw dropped and Sweetie shook his head in disbelief.
Tony grinned. "Now, no one's seen them back together exactly. But last week Mickey came down with this awful summer cold. You know, the kind with chills and coughs and sneezes? Well, Linus came down with it this very morning. So rumor has it..."
Unsteadily, not long after, Tony was coasting down a sidewalk just off the town square. There were booths set up all over, where companies were appealing to the LGBT community shamelessly and organizations were desperately trying to recruit every passerby. He spotted one booth in particular and directed himself towards it, grabbing hold of several people to redirect him towards his chosen path. He crashed into the post of the canvas tent, legs sliding out from under him as they went their separate ways. His body folded wrongly and he collapsed onto the ground in a tangle.
Olly raced out of the tent and squatted down next to him. Tony sighed, looking up at the concerned face. "Hello Olly. How's it hanging?"
Olly nodded, looking back at the booth he and his coworkers had set up to promote the free clinic. "Not bad. But how are you?"
Tony winced. "Think I banged my leg."
The cooler at the back of the tent was filled with drinks, and Olly grabbed one, holding it carefully against the spot Tony pointed out to him. Tony winced even more and pounded the ground with his fist as the intense cold took hold of him. The sensation passed and he relaxed. "Thanks, Doc," he said with a sly smile. "So, I hope I'm not the first patient you attracted today."
"Actually, we've had a good day so far. We're advertising free blood tests. And you know some of these queens can't pass up such a good deal."
"Aren't they free every day?"
Olly nodded again, laughing. "We're trying to make the offer sound urgent and important. Then we fill them in about how all our services are always free."
"Sounds like you're marketing the clinic all right. But what about yourself?"
"Well... you know... I don't have a lot of time to-"
Tony reached up and put his hands on Olly's shoulders. "Bullhonkey! Everyone needs a little fun during pride week. I'm going to make sure you get laid properly tonight if it kills me."
"Why, do you have someone in mind for me?"
The gears in Tony's head were already turning. "I can think of a few names. You like playing the nursemaid, Olly, or do you get enough of that at work?" Olly looked at him in a ‘why do you ask?' sort of way. "Have you heard about Linus and Mickey?" He launched into explanation as he tried to get back up again.
"But I thought they hated each other now," Olly said, extending an arm to help Tony back up again.
"Oh, they do. But rumor has it that David was seen entering Mickey's abode with a toolbox and I suspect that wasn't the only thing he was entering."
Olly laughed. "Sounds like a bad gay porno flick."
"Oh, honey, I know you're Mister Movie Critic but is there really quality gay porno? I mean, we want it cheesy and dirty, right?"
"I suppose so." Olly shrugged.
"Anyway, about David... who was then seen sporting a rather familiar summer cold..."
After he left Olly on a leg that worked just fine, Tony cruised around, checking out the sights. There were plenty of hot guys, and some incredibly clever outfits. He spotted the staging area for the parade not long after. He was getting better at roller skating by then but stopping was still a significant problem. He scanned the masses for a familiar face and saw Sweetie's beau, Jamie. He looked hot. Not the usual hot, though Tony had to admit the man was handsome, but the sort of hot someone is when he's wearing a heavy hockey jersey in one hundred degree weather. He called out to Jamie just a moment before they collided.
"Whoa, there!" Jamie laughed. He spun in place with Tony until the wheels stopped turning. "Those are some blades you've got."
"I don't quite have the hang of them yet," Tony confessed.
"Oh, I think I've got a few guys who can help you with that." Jamie was marching with a bunch of coaches and members of the Gay Youth Hockey League. They had a brilliant blue banner with the league name and the logos of all four teams. Not all the players wanted to walk, but a good number of them showed up.
Four of them- Sinclair, Reese, Stention, and Rogers- set to work showing him the basic moves, including how to slow down and stop. Tony wasn't an especially quick learner but they were patient with him and had him skating up and down alongside the lineup for the parade. There was enough time before the parade was supposed to start for Tony to get the hang of everything, including stopping.
When they got back to Jamie, Tony demonstrated the technique, which was sloppy at best but effective. "Nice," Jamie said, nodding. Tony raised an eyebrow. "All right, maybe not nice but definitely not bad." Tony grinned and made a motion as though to tip his invisible hat towards Jamie. "Are you having a good pride week so far?"
Tony nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. "I might even go as far as to call it a fabulous week," he joked. "Although not everyone's doing quite as well. You know Linus and Mickey?"
"Didn't they break up some time ago?"
Tony kept nodding as he went through the story. "My sources tell me that David was spotted at the gym, going into the sauna with William Tannison, that sexy bodybuilder. And, what do you know, William came down with the very same cold..."
After thanking Jamie and his boys for his new sense of balance on wheels, Tony backed off. The parade was about to start and he wanted to watch at least some of it. There were some utterly amazing floats, and the turnout was significantly better than last year's. He cheered and clapped as they passed, and when he spotted Pit, he couldn't help but skate over.
Pit was part of the Bear Brigade, a group of Pit's friends who were riding the length of the parade on their motorcycles. As the parade was only just beginning, they were mostly starting and stopping, and going about two miles an hour when going. It was a good time for Tony to jump in. And while Pit, a born hugger, was in no position to do any hugging, Pit greeted him with a great big smile. "What's going on, man?"
"Just having some fun. You?"
"The same," Pit said, taking off his helmet. They were at another standstill now anyway. He was shirtless to show off his tats and was wearing black leather chaps and boots.
"Got some big plans tonight, big boy?" Tony asked slyly.
Pit's smile was slightly sheepish. "Well, I promised the boys I'd put in some hours bartending for them tonight since they hope Strokes will be packed to capacity. But after that I have a little something-something already arranged." He turned in his seat and nodded back a few rows to an especially attractive leather daddy in a vest and chains atop a motorcycle.
"Well, well, good for you!" Tony nodded approvingly. It was time for them to move up a little. So the brigade revved their engines and went forward. Tony skated out of their way, watching a few on more mobile bikes pop wheelies and show off their stuff. He caught back up to pit in a minute. "Hey," he said, broaching the subject. "Do you know Mickey and Linus?"
Pit gave it a moment's thought, then shook his head.
"I didn't think so. However, you do know William Tannison." Pit nodded immediately with recognition. He went through the same explanation about the string of hook-ups as before. "Let me guess. William came into your shop for some body work recently?"
Pit coughed. "Actually, it was a tune-up. Last a few days ago, as a matter of fact."
"I thought as much," said Tony knowingly. "Because dear William was seen this week in the backroom of a certain unmentionable bar with Jameson."
Pit's eyes went wide. "Wait, Aaron Jameson?" Tony nodded. "My Aaron Jameson?" Tony nodded again. "Fuck..."
"I was under the impression that you two weren't a thing any longer," Tony said sympathetically.
"We're not. But he still works at my shop. Though, now that I think of it, he's called in sick these last few days."
Tony nodded. "With a cold, I'd wager. And that's not all. Rumor has it that Jameson..."
Tony had to finish quickly, then left a shocked Pit with his riders as they moved ahead again in the parade.
He skated in front of the crowd, looking for a good point to excuse himself and break through, which meant locating a cute boy who would step aside for him to pass. Tony did indeed find a cute boy not long after, just not the sort he had planned on seeing. He managed to get himself to stop, then dropped down to his knees. "C'mere Toby!"
On a retractable leash, Toby was able to bound over and practically knock Tony right over. The chocolate lab administered a series of sloppy kisses on Tony's face and neck while Tony laughed and tried to block some of the advances when it got too intense. On the other side of the leash, catching up to the dog a few seconds later, was none other than Auntie Al.
"A familiar face to both of us," Auntie Al said. He and Toby were volunteers to handle crowd control and pass out condoms which were clipped to little slips of paper which had safe sex facts on one side and the contact info for the Free Clinic on the other. Auntie Al transferred the propaganda to one hand and extended his free one to shake hello. "How are you, Tony?" And then, in the very same breath, "Got any juicy gossip for me?"
Tony laughed. He hadn't seen the man in his store for about a week, and there was quite a lot to fill him in on. And while Auntie Al did not know most of the subjects outside of Tony's descriptions and mentions, he had an uncanny knock for being able to follow the exploits of the younger gay social circle. "You haven't heard about Linus and Mickey yet, have you?"
"You told me some time ago that they broke up. They went from Licky to Minus, as you put it."
Tony gave an unattractive snort of laughter in surprise, and he clamped his hand over nose and mouth just afterwards. "That's right. But rumor has it that there have been some recent developments due to the spread of a certain cold bug..." He went through it all again for the older man, who listened intently. "Unlike some people I won't mention, Jameson has visited my store recently. I saw him there just a day ago, sniffling and nursing a cup of tea, sitting in the nonfiction section. I went over and offered him a tissue box, like a good store manager who doesn't want to lose all his customers to a nasty summer cold. Well, who should go to comfort him but Raymond Christoph."
"He's the new waiter at Cool Beans, right?"
Tony was, as always, impressed. For a man who rarely got out, Auntie Al really seemed to get around. "That's exactly right. And rumor has it that he was later spotted with..."
Auntie Al soaked it all in- that and more. And when he'd picked Tony clean, he handed the man a condom, helped him up, and kissed his cheek. "You're coming to Strokes tonight, aren't you?" Auntie Al hesitated to answer. "Oh, love, you've got to come! It's Miss Washington! She's classic."
"I'll stop in," Auntie Al promised.
"You had better!" Tony was sure he would have more news by then, anyway.
He let Auntie Al and Toby move on to do more good deeds, and saw Auntie Al direct an already intoxicated man who had stumbled into the street back onto the curb. The older man could certainly hold his own, and Tony did not feel obligated to help out. Which was good, because he heard his name from the crowd a moment later.
Tony knew practically everyone in town but not everyone knew him by name. It took him a few moments of scanning the masses before locating the smiles and waves that belonged to Coyote and his steady boyfriend, Marty. Tony rolled over to where the two were standing in the crowd, wearing obnoxiously adorable matching gay pride t-shirts. The shirts sported a rainbow flag flying above the words ‘The past is porn. My future's fucking hot' which was far worse than this year's theme but had a better amount of attitude. "Well don't you two look good together?" Tony refrained from kissing them hello, not sure if his balance would hold through the motions.
"Escaping from the store for a while?" Marty asked Tony, wrapping his arm around Coyote's waist possessively.
"Just for a few hours," Tony replied. "Thought I'd see the sights. And my crew has things well in... hand." He said with a wink.
"So I've heard," Coyote chuckled.
"But have you heard about Mickey and Linus and their little cold?"
"The same Mickey and Linus who nearly went hoarse yelling at each other during their breakup?" He turned to Marty. "Promise me that if you leave me, you'll do it before we combine our CD collections, babe?"
"I refuse to make any promises regarding a hypothetical breakup," Marty said with sugary sweetness.
Tony found this the perfect opening. I've got some news for you about a real breakup, then..." The story went on, broken up every so often with comments about the parade. "Rumor has it that Raymond was seen during his break at Cool Beans canoodling with Steve Bickerman."
Marty couldn't place him, but Coyote reminded him of the man at the department store down the street with the unbelievably tight ass who had almost caught them together in the dressing room a few weeks back. Marty went pale at the memory and nodded.
When Tony finished and left them, it took Coyote and Marty only a few seconds to lose interest in the end of the parade and start kissing. Tony skated backwards a few steps, watching the scenery. They were silly but so very much in love that he couldn't help but feel just a little envious.
There were more events than just the parade happening in Stokes that day. Several blocks from the town center, in the park, were some historical recreations. And smack dab in the middle of that was Rich. The Strokes security guard had been fascinated with the history of the gay movement just about since he'd discovered he was gay. Tony found him in the shade, doing some cleanup. Tony was glad for the opportunity to rest for a few minutes, and stretched out on the grass under a tree while they talked.
"You just missed one kickin' reenactment of the Stonewall Riots," he told Tony. "I got to spit at a fake police officer and den I got dragged away on my ass. Thrilling."
"Sounds it," Tony laughed.
"Got a new display up at da center, featuring... can ya guess?"
Tony could. There was one person, apart from Miss Pearl Washington, that the entire LGBT population of Stokes, Maryland needed to make their Pride celebrations complete. And that was "Harriet Stokes."
Rich grinned and held a fist out. "A'ight!" Tony pounded his own fist against Rich's.
From an early age Harriet Stokes passed for a boy named Harry, so well in fact that he was able to rise up in ranks to become a master bricklayer. She lived as a man for many years, even marrying a woman. However, his wife left him when she found out he was not a man. He ended up living with a widow who kept a pub. Though he enjoyed many years of success and even became a special constable during the Chartist riots, his trade of bricksetting for chimneys began to go downhill. When he was found dead, mysteriously, his gender became a question again and in those days there weren't the surgeries they have now and it was fairly easy to determine that he had been born a woman. Even though Harriet Stokes lived in 19th-century England and there was absolutely no research whatsoever to prove that he had any relation to the name of the town, the LGBT population of Stokes still rallied behind the fact that there was no proof the town wasn't named after the well-known transgender.
"I've got some history for you that it's quite so historical. I presume you know Mickey and Linus?"
"Know dem?" Rich replied, almost cracking up at the memory. "They practically killed each other in front of me. Had to pull Linus off the man. Learned a valuable lesson that day: wait until he's out of drag ta break up. Press-on nails hurt!"
Tony laughed and started back down the list of who slept with whom. "The store was closed for the night but apparently the light was on in the back and everything could be seen through a gap in the curtains in the display window. Now, I didn't see it first hand, but rumor has it that Steve's was the hand that had all the fun... with Marshal Lewis."
"Yes!" Tony replied. "And that's not all..."
Tony had every intention of going to check out the Harriet Stokes display. But on his way to the center, he caught sight of something he just couldn't pass up. "Julia!" he shrieked, waving his hand in the air as he skated towards the small outdoor stage being set up in the middle of the green.
At the sound of her name, she looked over, and he was somewhat stunned that it really was her. She bounded over, her usual tight black uniform replaced with a billowy, blue dress and her long, dark hair replaced by a wig of short, blond curls. "Ello there, Tony-boy," she said in her best attempt at an English accent, kissing one of his cheeks and then the other.
"What are you supposed to be?" he asked, too stunned to realize it wasn't exactly a nice thing to say. She cleared her throat and he quickly gave it another try. "You look gorgeous, Jules. So what's the occasion?"
That was passable. She replied, dropping the accent this time, "Emmy's doing her James Bondage drag king performance in a few, and roped me into being a Bondage girl." She glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then pulled the sleeve of her dress down to reveal the strap of a leather harness. "You really should stick around and watch."
He forced a smile. "Doll, I love you. But watching a bunch of lesbians doing bad drag out here in an alcohol-free zone? I don't think I'd survive that. Forgive me?"
"I'll be pretty busy with the shop, anyway. I'm just making the rounds to see what's going on."
"And what is going on?" she asked leadingly, knowing full well that Tony would take advantage of it.
"Well, rumor has it that Linus and Marshal were seen getting into your limo together last night."
Julia laughed. "You know I can't talk about that. My passengers are confidential." Her eyes sparkled and she held a finger over her mouth as a symbol. "Even the ones who happen to leave together and cuddle up together in the limo because one is feeling under the weather."
Tony laughed and walked her through the story as it stood, up to her part of it, which was pretty much all he knew... except for a single sighting of Linus that morning... with a cold. And when he was done, he told her to break a leg and moved on yet again.
* * *
Miss Pearl Washington did not disappoint. Her stage presence shown with diva-hood and from the moment she took the stage, she had the entire club captivated and transfixed. Strokes was no stranger to large events, but this was undoubtedly the most spectacular show ever put on there.
The group watched the show from the office as the floor was covered and the club was packed wall-to-wall with people. After the third encore, when the show was officially over and Turbo switched to slow dance music while Miss Washington's roadies struck the stage, the group moved down to the bar for a few drinks and some shouted conversation. Rich's duty for the night was watching over the bar anyway; with the increase of security and people of all ages attending the concert, they had to be especially careful about not selling alcohol to minors. But Ben-Ji was there as well, and Rich did his job with his lover pressed to his chest and wrapped tightly in his arms. Julia had changed out of the dress, but kept the wig on for kicks; however, no one was yet ready to leave the club or intoxicated enough to need a ride so she was available at the moment.
Tony sat down at the bar first, bending his finger at Pit until the supplementary bartender noticed and attended to them. At least half had seltzer water or soda, since they were working or, in Jamie's case, had something early to wake up for in the morning. But the others had a mix of beer, cocktails and, in Auntie Al's case, wine. And they all lifted their glasses in a toast, which was silent but understood, solemn with remembrance but joyous with hope.
The bar was circular and enormous, and it was Tony, naturally, who spotted Linus sitting on the far side, almost directly across from them. The man looked unmistakably miserable, hunched over at the bar, coughing and sniffling into a fist that was almost always up to his face. Despite his condition, he looked attractive, with tight jean shorts and a long-sleeved black shirt and a rainbow-colored boa around his neck, the ends draped over his chest and his back.
As Tony watched, he noticed a figure heading over, and his heart began to pound wildly as he realized the only empty place at the bar was beside sniffly-Linus.
He watched as none other than Mickey silently ordered a beer, holding up a finger and mouthing the word to the bartender. Then Mickey took a seat on the empty barstool to wait it out. He didn't look too hot, himself, but considerably better than the man to his left who, interestingly enough, he had not yet noticed. Mickey wore black pants and a canary yellow shirt so bright it was practically blinding and looked awful with his pale skin and dirty blond hair.
Linus had not noticed Mickey yet though, and the ex-boyfriends sat like that for nearly a minute, until Linus' nose struck with a vicious sneeze. Without looking, and because he was sick enough still to have a supply of them, Mickey immediately reached into his pocket to withdraw a small package of tissues. Mickey offered it over by sliding it an inch over on the bar, suavely, and looked over with an expression that said he intended to bless the man as though it were a common pick-up line.
One man flinched and the other one recoiled upon seeing each other. Even so, Linus' nose, which he kept hidden behind his hand, needed the offered tissues, and Mickey did not take them back immediately. So out came one tissue, then another, and Linus blew his nose into it, wincing. But it didn't repulse Mickey; the man actually leaned a little closer. They exchanged some words which Tony could not hear from his side of the bar, over the talking and the loud music. When Mickey stopped to cough, Linus pushed his drink on the man until Mickey drank it and nodded thank you. They continued talking, reservedly for a while, keeping to themselves.
But it wasn't long before Linus sneezed again. The build-up was slow and intense, taking hold of him entirely. His chest rose and face twitched, and Mickey studied him closely the whole time. Linus helped himself to another tissue. His hand trembled, his nose quivered, and his breath caught. He sneezed with great force, gripping the bar to keep from being thrown right into it. As he recovered himself, his eyes met Mickey's.
Mickey gestured towards the door. Linus shook his head and pointed emphatically towards the floor, staying put. Mickey's body language read like defeat, and he shook his head slightly with pity. Then he paused a moment, and suddenly gestured towards the dance floor. It was not a quick decision by any means, and inspired more talking. Tony could only observe their movements, which were exaggerated, though broken up by coughs into fists or rubs at noses. Their reactions seemed to range from sympathetic to heated. The way Mickey fingered the boa, it looked like he was either going to stroke it or strangle Linus with it.
In the end, however, Linus finally took his hand and they walked onto the dance floor. The song wasn't slow and romantic; in fact, the beats were extremely loud and fast. Nonetheless, Mickey held Linus, and Linus wrapped his arms around Mickey's waist. Both men were worse for the ware, with coughs and sniffles and of course sneezes. But it didn't take long for one pair of lips to find the other. At the sight of their quick peck, Tony sighed. Mickey sniffed and rubbed his nose, then he rubbed at Linus' nose for him. The two crashed together in a long, involved, unbreakable kiss. Tony broke into a wide grin.
He looked around, ready at once to spread the news. Then he realized everyone else was watching as attentively as he was. "Love..." he said with a happy sigh. "Love, and a cough, cannot be hid."