“Where do you want this box?” Morgan asked.
“Um, anywhere over there is fine.” Harlan gestured vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. He had no idea what was in the particular box they were holding, but he was feeling too flustered to check. He knew his ‘system’—or, rather, complete lack of one—would bite him on the ass later when he was actually trying to unpack and organize, but putting it off felt better than dealing with it at the moment.
“You know you don’t have to help with this part, right?” he told them. “Moving my stuff, not the business stuff? I mean, you didn’t really have to help with that, either. It’s not part of your job description—”
“Please. The ‘business stuff’ was like three boxes. And I write my own damn job description—unless you’ve come up with a written statement of what my duties entail?”
Wide-eyed, Harlan shook his head.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” they laughed, setting the box down on a pile.
Charles swooped in and glanced at it. “Mm-m, that’s a bathroom one.”
Morgan frowned at him.
“I’ll take it,” he assured them.
Harlan sighed. Of course Charles could keep track of everything.
Harlan knew it was stupid to move his business out of his apartment—all three boxes of it, as Morgan had just pointed out—immediately followed by moving in with Charles. But that was how the timing had worked out with renting an office and Charles’ lease on his old apartment running out. Technically there was no hurry on his end—Harlan’s apartment was his as long as he wanted it—but it had seemed silly for Charles to move all his things and get them all unpacked, only for Harlan to dump a fresh pile of boxes on some nebulous future date. Not that Harlan had that many personal possessions… At least he’d thought he didn’t, but there had been a surprising amount to pack up and load into the truck Charles had borrowed from a friend.
“Hey, does that mean I didn’t have to help, either?” Hamilton—now Harlan’s business partner at Laid to Rest Investigations—laughed.
Shit. Harlan swallowed hard. “Of course not. I’m sorry—”
“Hey.” Hamilton clapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry… I was just kidding. I’m happy to help you two out. Matthew would have been here, too, but he had to work.” He hurried back outside, probably to grab more boxes.
“Are you okay?” Charles asked, setting down the plastic tote he was holding.
Harlan noticed that Morgan was also giving him a concerned look. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m fine. It’s just—a lot.”
Charles nodded, giving Harlan a quick hug. “I know. But the end is in sight!” He turned in a slow circle, taking in the boxes covering every horizontal surface. “Well, the end of moving. Then it’ll just be unpacking—and we can go at our own pace.”
Yeah. As long as we don’t want to sit on the couch or find anything, Harlan thought.
He just nodded at Charles, doing his best to smile.
“I think it’s just a few more, then we can go for beer and pizza.”
Harlan nodded again. He turned to leave the apartment to at least get some air and pretend to be useful by carrying something back inside, but his path was blocked by Hamilton, who was carrying a stack of boxes.
“Did I hear beer and pizza?”
“You did,” Charles agreed. “As soon as the truck is empty.”
Hamilton set the stack haphazardly by the door. “Then it’s beer and pizza o’clock. These are the last boxes.”
Charles whooped, grinning at the room. “Good work, team! I thought it would take us at least a few more hours.”
Morgan snorted. “It would have gone a lot more quickly if you didn’t have so many BDSM toys.”
“Ha. Just be glad Harlan hasn’t really started collecting his own yet or there’d be twice as many.”
Harlan found that difficult to imagine. Charles already had one of every kind of whip, flogger, paddle and cane imaginable—if not multiples.
Charles mimed dusting his hands together. “All right, if that’s it, let’s get out of here. Why don’t you just take one car?”
Harlan’s stomach sank. He was already feeling really peopled out—which was sad, because these were the people he was closest to in the world—and there would only be more people at the restaurant. He’d been looking forward to at least driving over with just Charles.
“You guys go ahead. I’m gonna drop the truck off. Phil can give me a ride, and I’ll meet you there. Harlan, you can order for me, okay?” Charles gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze.
Great. Now he wouldn’t even have Charles in the car with him? And he would have to order not only for himself but also for Charles as well? Usually, it was the other way around. It made him feel like an immature jerk and a hot mess, but their system worked for them.
“Don’t worry.” Charles leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I wrote my order down for you.”
Well, that’s something, anyway.
Charles did that magical thing Harlan still couldn’t figure out how to do that sent something directly from his phone to Harlan’s.
“We can take my car,” Morgan offered. “Hamilton’s smells like thirty-year-old Tim Hortons.”
Harlan wrinkled his nose. They weren’t wrong.
Hamilton laughed. “Hey, I’ve spilled lots of other kinds of coffee in there! I don’t think the stuff at the precinct is even ‘no name’. It’s…somehow even sketchier than that. It’s probably not even real coffee.”
“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t be drinking that.” Morgan shook their head, laughing.
Harlan found himself swept out the door and into Morgan’s car. He barely had a chance to wave goodbye to Charles before he was gone.
* * * *
Morgan and Hamilton put in their beer and pizza orders almost as soon as they sat down at the restaurant, leaving Harlan frantically flipping through the menu. He chose the first thing that sounded edible and didn’t have too many weird specialty ingredients. He ordered Charles’ pizza, and he was about to tell the waiter what beer Charles wanted, but Hamilton shook his head.
“Nah, wait till he gets here so it’ll still be cold.”
Harlan nodded, feeling his cheeks flush a little. He was relieved when their drinks came. It meant that he had something to do with his hands, and he didn’t have to talk.
He’d ordered Pepsi. He didn’t drink alcohol—or only rarely. It tended to mess up his mood the next day.
He downed his first drink quickly and accepted a refill when the waiter came around again. Having that much caffeine so late in the day would probably fuck with his sleep, but he didn’t want to switch to Sprite or something else. With a dark-coloured drink, he could at least pretend he was drinking beer like the others.
For the most part, Morgan and Hamilton were happy just talking to each other and leaving Harlan alone, which Harlan appreciated. Even knowing that they knew him and wouldn’t expect him to carry the conversation, he still worked himself up sometimes.
He slowly relaxed. Luckily their booth was in a quiet corner, away from other groups, so he didn’t feel completely overwhelmed.
The pizza arrived before Charles did. Harlan wondered if they should wait for him, but the other two started eating right away. Of course, they’d been helping move boxes for hours, whereas Harlan felt like he’d just sort of drifted around getting in the way.
He was starting to worry that Charles’ food would get cold when Charles slid into the booth beside him, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before grabbing a slice and inhaling it.
Of course Charles’ mouth was full when the waiter came around for his drink order.
Harlan fumbled in his pocket for his phone, which he’d put away because he knew it was rude to have it out while socializing. Though, again, he didn’t think Hamilton and Morgan would really care.
Hamilton waved a hand at him. “It’s okay. I’ve got this.” He ordered for Charles, glancing at him for confirmation.
Harlan wasn’t sure if it was even the right thing, but he gave up trying to get his phone.
Charles nodded, his lips slightly parted as he tried to swallow the too-hot sauce and cheese.
Harlan groaned inwardly. Hamilton could remember what his boyfriend liked to drink, and he couldn’t?
Everyone else wolfed down their food while Harlan picked at his pizza and drank soda after soda.
“Oof, I’m stuffed.” Charles leaned back with a groan, his hands folded on his stomach. Making sure Harlan was looking at him, he cocked his head in the direction of the door—his silent way of asking if Harlan wanted to leave.
Harlan nodded, moving his head as little as possible and hoping the others wouldn’t pick up on their little exchange. That would have felt rude. He appreciated that Charles had come up with this little system for them. Again, he was pretty sure Hamilton and Morgan wouldn’t actually mind, but this way he didn’t have to say it himself. And he really did want to go home. Well, back to the box-choked apartment. Ugh.
At least he didn’t have to work the next day. Laid to Rest didn’t have any open cases, which was great for having time to move and unpack but not so great for his wallet or peace of mind.
What was I thinking, trying to start my own business?
* * * *
“Knock knock!” Benjamin Xun, one of the two remaining Toronto police mediums, stepped into the tiny Laid to Rest office, his hand raised as though he were about to knock. The door was open. The office got really hot and stuffy with both Harlan and Hamilton inside, and the solitary window didn’t open.
Hamilton grinned at him. “Hey, Benjamin. It’s been a while.” Benjamin had visited them when they had first opened a few weeks earlier, but they hadn’t seen him since—though Harlan had called him once for advice about dealing with a ghost. No. Not ‘dealing with’. That wasn’t what Laid to Rest was about. Helping a ghost. “Oh, please tell me you have a case for us.”
Harlan leaned forward. He was glad Hamilton had said it, because he’d sure as fuck been thinking it.
Benjamin shook his head. “No, sorry, guys. I just wanted to drop off some ‘congratulations on starting your new business’ presents. I know it’s a little late, but they were on back-order and… Anyway…here.” He set four gift bags down on Hamilton’s desk, which was closest to the door. “They’re for you two, Morgan and Charles. Charles told me what kind of phones you all have.” He cleared his throat, looking away from Harlan. “They’re, uh, from Beth, too, but she wasn’t sure if you’d want to see her.”
She was right, but Harlan didn’t say it out loud. “You’ll have to, um, thank her for us.”
Hamilton pounced on the pile of presents and started rooting around in one of them. He frowned as he held up its contents. “Oh, great. A weird-looking phone case and a flashlight. Thanks.”
Harlan got up to take a closer look. “Really? Thank you!” He picked up the bag with his name on it and held it against his chest.
Hamilton snorted. “Jeez, kid, if I’d known you were that hard-up for a phone case, I would’ve gotten you one.”
Harlan shook his head. “No, these are special.”
Nodding, Benjamin pulled out his phone, which was already in a similar case. “The mesh on the back keeps ghosts from draining the battery, and”—he plucked the package out of Hamilton’s hands—“it also comes with a warded screen protector so they can’t get in that way, either. The flashlight is protected by the same mesh.”
Hamilton whistled, leaning back in his chair with his hands laced behind his head. “Wow. Those must’ve cost you a pretty penny.”
Harlan gulped. He hadn’t realized that a warded screen protector was part of the case. Warding was expensive. “You really shouldn’t have.” He put the bag back on Hamilton’s desk.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I was there when you learned how much it sucks for a ghost to drain your phone and light. I—we’re—happy to help.”
“Thank you so much.” Realizing he should probably say something more and that he actually knew very little about Benjamin outside of their shared mediumship work, Harlan asked, “How are things going for you two?”
Benjamin let out a soft huff of laughter. “Well, I won’t lie. It has been busy without you and Leo.” Leo had been the Toronto Police Service’s fourth medium until she’d lost her abilities six months earlier. “But we’re managing.” He smiled at Harlan. “It has helped that you guys are handling the less serious cases and we can just concentrate on murders.”
Harlan shuddered. He definitely did not miss that part of being a police medium. Most of the ghosts he’d dealt with through Laid to Rest had died of natural causes or accidents. They tended to look more intact than murder victims, even if their deaths had been fairly gruesome.
“Anyway”—Benjamin patted the top of a gift bag with one hand—“I’ll let you get back to it. Keep up the good work!”
Harlan and Hamilton glanced at each other. Harlan could see that Hamilton’s computer screen only had a game of Solitaire on it. Harlan had been looking at Tumblr before Benjamin had come in.
“Thanks, we will!” Hamilton assured him, already trying to work open the plastic clamshell package on his new phone case.
“Say…say hi to Beth from us,” Harlan added. He wasn’t sure that he really meant it, but it seemed like the polite thing to do.
“I will.” Benjamin waved at them and left.
“You’re going to cut your finger off!” Harlan laughed, watching Hamilton saw at the packaging with his pocketknife.
“Mm-m, that sounds like someone who doesn’t want his new flashlight and phone case,” Hamilton said airily. “Besides, I’m just the muscle. I don’t need all my fingers. In fact, I’m probably scarier without all my fingers!” He held up his left hand, his ring finger tucked against his palm so Harlan couldn’t see it and wiggled his others.
“Yes, very scary.” Harlan rolled his eyes. “You won’t be able to marry Matthew without that particular finger, though,” he pointed out.
“Oh, true.” Hamilton let his finger pop up again. “I’ll just have to make sure to cut off a different one, then.”
Hamilton and his boyfriend weren’t officially engaged yet, but Hamilton had confessed that he thought it was going to happen soon.
“And you’re more than just the muscle,” Harlan assured him, even though he knew Hamilton wasn’t completely wrong. Hamilton had lost his small mediumship ability at the same time Leo had.
Harlan cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject. “We should have some scissors around here somewhere… Maybe…” Harlan went back to his own desk and dug through the drawers. “I don’t. Do you?” Great. Another thing he’d have to buy for the business.
“Don’t need ’em,” Hamilton said without looking up from tearing the package open. He pulled out his phone, transferred it to the new case and applied the screen protector, which was completely transparent. Once they’d been painted, warding runes were invisible unless a medium was looking for them. “Eh. Not the most stylish thing, is it? Does this actually work?”
Harlan nodded. “They kept Benjamin and Beth’s phones from getting drained when mine did, and their flashlights still performed.”
Hamilton wrinkled his nose, tossing his phone down on his desk and beginning to attack the flashlight’s package. “Well, hopefully we won’t ever have to put that to the test.”
“Agreed.” Since it was unlikely that a rampaging ghost would appear in the office, Harlan decided he’d open his with Charles when he got home.
He and Hamilton had debated having the tiny office ghost warded but decided against it—in large part because of the cost, but also because they wanted friendly spirits to be able to come in. That was one of the main reasons they’d started Laid to Rest, after all. Harlan—and Hamilton and Morgan—wanted to work with ghosts as much as possible, rather than seeing them as a nuisance to the living and just getting rid of them.
Of course, it was unlikely that a ghost of any kind would show up. Most spirits were bound to the place they’d died, where they’d been buried or somewhere that had been important to them in life. Once they began haunting a place, it was very difficult for them to leave it.
Hamilton took out his new flashlight, loaded the batteries and clicked it on and off a few times…then a few more.
He groaned. “Would you mind if I take off early?”
Harlan shook his head. “No. I’m sure I can handle—”
“Don’t say that! You’ll jinx it!”
“I don’t think anyone’s coming in today. Better?”
“Besides, I told you that you don’t have to be here at your desk all day. I can just call you if—when—I need you.”
“Nope. This old workhorse needs to be in harness.” He rapped the desk with both hands in fists, presumably as hooves. “Besides…Matthew’s at work all day, and otherwise I’d just be kicking around the condo by myself.”
“Oh, yeahhhh. Because sitting around here with me all day in an empty office is so much less sad!” Harlan teased him.
“Shut up. It is. I’m leaving now, but that doesn’t change what I just said.”
“Uh-huh. Say hi to Matthew for me.”
“Will do. You say hi to Charles for me.”
Harlan nodded and waved Hamilton out of the office.
He sighed, seriously considering following Hamilton out the door. But where would he go except home, which was cluttered with all Charles’ and his junk, and if he wanted to sit down or find anything, he’d have to unpack. He didn’t want to do that.
Besides…he kinda wanted to be alone after spending the day with Hamilton and Benjamin’s unexpected visit, and Charles would be there until he left for work, probably six at the earliest.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Charles! He just wasn’t used to having someone else around all the time, and he hadn’t realized how much he’d gotten used to having his own space.
It was fine. He’d adjusted to living alone. But he’d adjusted to working with Hamilton every day too, so he’d adjust to living with Charles.
It was fine.
He looked at the clock on the wall. It had come with the office, but it made him feel more legit, somehow, so he’d kept it. It was only three-thirty, and they were officially open until five—later by appointment—but there hadn’t been a single phone call or anything all day. A few other occupants of the office building had stopped by, curious about the new agency. Harlan made a mental note to return the plate that someone had brought them ‘welcome’ cookies on. Hopefully Hamilton would remember who they’d said they were and where they worked.
He shook his head. Return a plate.
When had he become such an adult?