Blades & Barriers: Chapter 69

                As it turned out, Justin’s cooking class had not been preparing lunch for the whole cruise. All things considered, he was actually slightly saddened by that, because his version of paella had come out much better than what was served across the ship. He’d gotten a bowl, just for comparison, then tossed it away after a few bites. It wasn’t like he had time for two lunches anyway, not with so many more classes to attend.

                In the crochet lessons, Justin met a small group of people nearing their elder years, out on the sea for a big hurrah while they could still get around. One of the older women had smuggled in flasks of booze inside her over-sized purse and was happy to share every time the instructor turned his back. Justin didn’t learn much about the cruise or United Avalon, since that group was all heading for the nearest beach with lots of tourist attractions, but he had a good time nonetheless.

                During CPR training, Justin found himself alongside a cluster of dudes from a frat who had clearly been drinking heavily before the class started. Although he was braced for all manner of stupid male ego bullshit, to his surprise they actually took the lessons very seriously. Or as seriously as possible when one had obviously started the day with beer against their lips. Justin eventually found out they were learning because one of the brothers had a heart condition and collapsed during the previous semester, so they all wanted to be able to help if it happened again. Once more, Justin got nothing about United Avalon, but it was hard to call the experience a waste of time.

                Only in his last class of the day, a cocktail mixing lesson that had filled up within the first hour of sign-ups being posted, Justin finally encountered someone else going to visit United Avalon. In this case, it was a married couple, both young and cheerful. Although they were certainly talkative enough, and the husband was more than happy to mention their destination, both grew cagey when Justin tried to carefully probe why they were going to visit such a place. He backed off instantly, retreating to nice small talk and sharing a few (fake) personal details to take the focus off United Avalon. They parted at the end of class, and while Justin had said nothing more he’d also made a point of noting them for further investigation. Not like he had much else to do while on this boat.

                With his day of classes complete until later that evening, Justin headed back to the cabin. Dinner was coming up soon, and from all accounts it was an occasion to dress up, if one so chose. Having spent his entire day chatting with fellow passengers, Justin had picked up enough to know that most people were planning to don nice clothes, so he was going to have to make some effort if he wanted to blend in. Justin only hoped that Brett had thought to pack something nice, even though they were on a mission.

                As he shoved open the door, Justin quickly realized that there might be other issues to tackle.

                “…and then she grabbed my ass, right there in front of everyone.”

                “Wouldn’t have pegged you as the shy type.” Angela’s voice was coming from her room, yelling slightly to be heard through the door while Brett stood in the shared mirror of the living area, tucking in a shirt that had been recently ironed.

                “I’m not shy, I’m just not used to someone so… aggressive. She’s really working hard to sell this cover.” Brett glanced over to the closing door, giving Justin a quick nod.

                “Yeah, or she’s someone who just got dumped and is flirting her ass off with the nearest hot stranger she can find. Don’t tell me you think boys have a monopoly on that, we’re on a schedule but I’ll make time to kick your ass before dinner.”

                Clearing his throat to make sure Angela knew he’d arrived, Justin locked the door behind him before finally joining the conversation. “I’m going to assume I missed some developments?”

                “That’s one way to put it,” Angela called. “Some girl is putting the moves on Brett, who is convinced she’s actually just trying to investigate him. I actually agree, but when I say the word ‘investigate’ I add in a few eyebrow wiggles and a wink to get the message across. Anyway, she maneuvered herself into having dinner with us tonight, then going dancing with Brett. He’s being all skittish though, so I was about to propose you and I pretend to be a couple so we can keep him company.”

                It wasn’t a terrible idea. The cruise turned one of the ballrooms into a mock-club for people to drink, dance, and generally be stupid at. Justin had been planning to skip it since he couldn’t think of an inconspicuous way to attend solo, but if Brett and Angela were both on board that opened up new possibilities. Drunk and active was just how he liked people when he wanted them to let something slip.

                “I’m fine with tagging along, but let’s skip the awkward charade of pretending we’re together. We don’t have that kind of chemistry, and besides, just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean I might not want to prowl the dance floor while we’ve got time to kill.”

                “See, this is why Justin is more fun than you, Brett.” The door swung open, revealing Angela like they’d never seen her before. Despite the day in the sun, she was only slightly red on her shoulders, clearly much care with sunscreen and shade had been used. They could see the red though, because she was wearing a shapely strapless black dress with silver trim. Her hair was up and styled, with a delicate splash of make-up across her face. It was easy to forget that under all the cursing, blood, and chaos, Angela was actually quite lovely.

                “Bet you’re rethinking pretending to be my boyfriend now.”

                “And have to dress up nice enough to match that? Thanks, but no thanks. I didn’t pack a full tuxedo,” Justin replied. “I’m doing slacks and a tie, at most. We are still in our early-twenties, Brett and I can’t look too put together.”

                 Brett’s head jerked away from the mirror. “Wait, am I over-dressed?”

                Justin and Angela met eyes, both having noted the wrinkles on Brett’s slacks and the white socks tucked into his dress shoes. In the end, it was Justin who responded, if only because he was the more diplomatic of the pair. “You look perfect, Brett. I only wish we could blend in as naturally as you do.”

                “I realize you’re making a joke, but as long as I don’t have to change I really don’t care that much.” Brett adjusted the tuck on his shirt one last time. “Hurry up though, Justin. We’ve got dinner reservations to make, and apparently I have a date that I can’t keep waiting.”

                As Justin began digging in his suitcase, Angela let out a snicker behind him. “Are you sure you’re not anxious because you want to see your new gal? She’s cute, there’s nothing wrong with being excited for a night out.”

                “We’re on a mission,” Brett reminded her.

                “You’ll always be on a mission. That’s your world now.” For a moment, some of the laughter left Angela’s voice. “Don’t put off living until you think there will be time for it. There won’t be. This is it. This is all you get. So use it.” Then, as if the moment of seriousness had never happened, Angela was light on her feet once more. “And if she goes for a secret hand-job under the table, try not to let us realize it’s happening. This is a fancy dress dinner, so show a little class.”