(Two men, an abandoned village, and a baby. I hope you enjoy today's flash ficlet. Happy Sunday and happy reading, love Ellis)
Tyler hadn't understood much when he'd come out of the dilapidated house and stared into those adorable brown eyes, but right then he’d given his heart away. "Who do you belong to?" he whispered to the muslin-wrapped baby. The nothing that it weighed was immense.
"Tyler." Aiden Velise, the reporter who'd followed his team on the trip, came tromping across the pitted, potholed road. His clothes and mop of blond hair were disheveled, the look on his face weary and full of hate. The ride to the hospital had gone badly.
Tyler tucked the baby under his arm as Aiden approached. "She didn’t make it? I'm sorry."
Aiden's frown deepened. "You have a baby."
Tyler couldn't help but smile down at the quiet, wide-eyed little thing. "I have a baby." He pointed toward the direction Aiden had come from. "Do you have bottled water? He seems okay, but I should hydrate him. And it would be good to find a store that sells formula."
The look on Aiden's face suggested Tyler had gone insane. This from the man who followed animal researchers through the wild for a very poor living. “Shouldn’t we be finding his parents?"
Tyler's molars slid over each other with maddening intensity as he gestured around the empty, broken-down village. He jabbed a finger at the last house he'd searched while Aiden and Terri were gone to the hospital. "I found him on the step of that house after I'd already gone in. Option 'A' is that he belonged to one of the poachers we ran off. Option 'B' is he belonged to one of the villagers the poachers killed. Maybe that poor woman who was dying in the field when we arrived. Either way, that someone left him on the step for the 'nice American' to find...’" Tyler simultaneously made air quotes with one hand and drew the child closer to his chest with the other. He gave Aiden a pointed look.
Understanding dawned. "So the parents aren't coming back," Aiden finished for him.
"No," Tyler said. "I highly doubt it." He would probably have to turn the kid in to someone, at some point. Best not to get attached. But he couldn't stop himself from rubbing his cheek against the baby's soft skin, and was gratified by a rooting response and some whimpering. The little one had been so quiet.
Tyler's research partner, Terri, waved to them from up the path. Aiden waved back. "All right then," Aiden said. "Let's get the kid some food."
"You're very good with him," Terri said over Tyler's shoulder. With one hand he helped the baby drink a bottle, with the other he fastened a diaper.
They'd found a roadside shop that sold diapers and formula. Good gravy, talk about ka-ching. In the states diapers came in massive cases for comparatively minimal amounts of money. Here, it was the exact opposite. And the formula? Hell, the kid spit most of it up. Tyler couldn't remember how much was normal.
He masked his anxieties with a smile and looked over his shoulder to where Aiden was setting up camp. "Aiden? Nah. He's cranky but he manages himself just fine."
Terri laughed and sat next to Tyler on the wooden picnic table, which didn't sit evenly on the ground. The whole thing creaked and rocked. "I'm just surprised. I would never have pictured you with a baby. I've seen you photograph tigers. I've seen you chase poachers through the tall grass."
Tyler smiled, more at the baby than at Terri. "I was the oldest of seven." Once finished with the diaper, he pulled the little one back into the crook of his arm. "I could do this in my sleep. I probably have done it in my sleep."
She cocked her head to the side. "Huh. All this time we've spent together, you never mentioned siblings."
"No reason to." He shrugged slightly, not wanting to disturb the baby, now sleepy from his bottle. "I haven't seen any of them in about twenty years. "When I came out they took the whole 'tough love, get out of our home' approach. Told the sibs not to speak to me."
Terri looked up. A footstep scuffed in the dirt behind Tyler.
"Just when I think I'm getting to know you," said Aiden.
Tyler smiled at him. Dusk had fallen and the play of light and shadow sharpened his already handsome features. "It was a long time ago."
Aiden nodded, smiling sadly. "I could use some help with the tents. Holding up the poles." He gestured with his hands. "Kind of a two-person job."
Tyler turned to his partner. "Terri, would you--"
"How about I hold the cute sleeping baby, while you big strong men set up the tent?" She reached toward him.
"Oh please, I'll give him back," she chuckled. "My cat would disown me if I brought home another person."
Tyler forced himself to let go, and walked beside Aiden to the tents.
Tyler stamped the last stake into the ground with his boot, trying to ignore the looks Aiden cast his way. "Okay, what?" he asked finally.
Aiden smiled and shrugged vaguely. "You keep surprising me."
Tyler came around to the front of the large tent, zipping the flaps to keep insects out. "Yeah. I get that a lot." He stood again, ready to turn back toward the eating area.
"Yeah," Aiden continued, unaware that Tyler was ready to end the conversation. "I remember the first time I saw you take your shirt off. Those full-sleeve tattoos." He shook his head. "No foolin' around, Dr. Stephenson. I thought you were just a loner nerd, turns out you're a loner nerd with MMA training, tattoos, an estranged family, and a secret fondness for babies."
Aiden's expression was tough to read in the near dark, but Tyler bristled at the odd tone and what he interpreted as a hint of judgment. "I'm not sure how any of that is any of your business."
"The child. What's going to be done about him? Does finding a place for him not become an issue for all of us?"
"No." Tyler's chest burned. "You have your return ticket. The poachers have gone, I doubt they'll be back since we didn’t find any tigers. You're free to head home anytime. I will stay and sort things out with the baby."
"You want to keep him, don't you?"
"No." Yes. Very much. Tyler was thirty-five. Single. Ready to settle down. He'd just been offered a very nice position with the National Zoo. Why not?
"Well anyway..." Aiden drew closer. "I find what you're doing admirable, but in a way it's too bad." Not quite nose to nose, the curve of Aiden's smile was just visible in the dark. "I have to confess, I'd been hoping that if it was all-quiet tonight, maybe I could finally make a pass at you."
Oh. Tyler's face heated.
"We're going back in a few days," Aiden continued. "I figured if it got weird, I'm returning to DC and you're heading back to Philly. No need to make it awkward. No strings."
Their hips pressed in the dark. The hum and throb of Tyler's body betrayed his logical brain's resistance. "I'm...actually transferring to the zoo in Washington DC soon,” Tyler said. “Species Survival Program."
"Really." Aiden's palm burned Tyler's shoulder. "That's fantastic."
"In that case, why don't I stick around? See if I can't help you with your baby situation."
Tyler turned in surprise. Their lips brushed. "You said no strings."
"But this is even better. Friends. Maybe more. We'll see where it goes. Could be fun. Huh?"
"Aiden, I do want to keep him."
Their lips brushed again, and when Aiden's tongue slipped into Tyler's mouth, Tyler met the kiss with equal passion. The kiss was not friendly. Not at all.
Tyler didn't care. "Fun. Okay." He could do fun. And he was thirty-five, single, ready to settle down. Why not? They held hands as they walked back to Terri and the baby.
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