He leaned in to kiss me, and we were still kissing when the plane's wheels bumped onto the tarmac. I startled away from the kiss, staring into his face from inches away, but we were on the ground and my phobia was over until the next time. The plane jerked hard, as if the pilot was shoving his foot as hard as he could on the brakes. We were thrown forward, and the brakes were still being stamped on; the plane slid a little to one side, as if we were leaving the runway.
"It's okay, Anita," Micah said, "it's a short runway. The pilot has to use the brakes."
My mouth was dry as I said, "Short runway; are you saying we're going to run out of runway?"
"No," Micah said, gripping my hand, "we'll be fine."
The plane finally shuddered to a stop.
Bram said, "I'm betting the pilot is fresh out of the navy."
"Why?" Nicky asked.
"He lands like he's trying to put a fighter onto a carrier deck. Now, that's a short runway."
I had to swallow hard to get past the dryness in my throat and to say, "Remind me to never try to land on an aircraft carrier."
"We'd first have to get you into a fighter jet," Bram said and shook his head.
"You're right--you'd have to drug me like Mr. T from the old A-Team to get me on a fighter jet, let alone a landing more exciting than this."
The seat-belt sign went off and the clicks of seat belts being unbuckled filled the plane as people got to their feet and crammed themselves into the aisle. Nicky and Bram got to their feet and blocked everyone else on either side of us so that Nathaniel and Micah could get to their feet and get the carry-ons from the overhead. I got my brief bag out from under the seat and stood up, still trapped near the window. I had to bend over or I'd have bumped my head. There was more than one reason that Nicky and Bram had aisle seats, or Nathaniel for that matter.
Nicky's broad shoulders acted like a wall to the people filling the plane behind him. People ahead of Bram waited as near the outer door as the flight attendants would allow, while we all waited for the door to open.
Bram got his oversize backpack settled into place and then glanced at me. "If you thought it was essential for you to get on a fighter and land on a carrier, you'd do it. No Mr. T bullshit needed."
"Define essential," I said.
"Oh, that essential," I said. "Well, yeah, if you put it that way and there was absolutely no other way for me to get to where I needed to go."
"I hope you never have to do a carrier landing, because you would hate it, but I know you could do it if you had to."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Because you can't let anything beat you."
"I was going to say because you're just that brave, but what Bram said works," Nathaniel said.
I wasn't sure what to say to all the compliments. I wanted to squirm with some vague embarrassment and wasn't sure why. "My grandmother would have said it was because I was just that stubborn."
"That, too," Micah said, and moved so I could wedge myself in beside him as the door opened and people finally got to deplane. He gave me a quick kiss before we started shuffling in line behind Bram. Nathaniel slid in behind us and Nicky brought up the rear like a movable wall. We were sandwiched between the bodyguards, safe as houses, but I was worried about Nathaniel. Micah and I could take care of ourselves, but our shared boy didn't train as hard as we did. He didn't need to for his job, so as we shuffled down the aisle with Bram and Nicky bookending us I felt safe enough, but for the first time my claustrophobia took a backseat to my worries about Nathaniel. The plane was a controlled environment, two guards were plenty for that, but once we were through the door into the wide world it would be anything but controlled. I was suddenly wishing we'd been able to put Rodina and Ru in the front of the plane near us, but that was silly, because we could only exit the plane one at a time. We'd wait on the tarmac for them to catch up with us, but it hit me again that I was unreasonably worried about Nathaniel's safety. I knew it wasn't logical, but some things aren't about logic; they're about feelings, and feelings are some of the most illogical things in the world.
Bram was in the doorway, the sun so bright it made a halo around his body. I realized belatedly that sunglasses would have been a good idea. I glanced back and found that the other three men had changed to dark glasses. It was just me fumbling at the top of the stairs trying to find my glasses in the big purse/briefcase combo that a friend had talked me into buying. It was supposed to be the perfect travel bag, but as always when it came to women's purses, it was a lie. Every purse comes with its own movable black hole that eats things and spits them back out later. Screw it. I could squint until we got inside the terminal.
WE WAITED ON the tarmac for Ru and Rodina to work their way free of the plane. It gave me time to fish my sunglasses out of my new purse/briefcase. R and R finally came down the stairs, laughing and looking relaxed, as if they'd enjoyed the flight. Glad someone had. They moved out to either side of us like they had at the Circus. Bram kept the front and Nicky brought up the rear. I felt like we suddenly had a sign above us that read Bodyguards! but it was probably less obvious than it felt. If it bothered Nathaniel or Micah, I couldn't tell.
The three of us walked hand in hand across the tarmac toward a long, low building that had large writing that read Welcome to the Conch Republic, as if we were entering a new country. As we got closer I could see there was much smaller writing saying Welcome to Key West underneath what looked to be statues above the doors leading into the airport. The statues, or whatever they were supposed to be, had what looked like parents with two kids on one side with the wife reaching out toward three people on the other side. The three were probably meant to be a family, too, but there was no mother figure, just an older man, a younger man, and a boy. The two older men were reaching out toward the woman. It was like they were trying to reach around a big thing in the middle that read 90 miles to Cuba, southernmost point. I guess everyone needs a selling point.
"What the heck is the Conch Republic?"
"Key West tried to secede from the Union once and even declared war on the rest of the country," Micah said.
"You're kidding," I said.
He smiled at me, his eyes hidden behind the prescription sunglasses. "You can even get a passport from the Conch Republic. It's not a real passport, but they still offer it."
"Did you learn all this on your business trips?" I asked.
"We went on the tram tour," Nathaniel said.
"Was it interesting enough to do it twice?"
"Totally," he said, and he swung my hand in his as Micah agreed.
"Anything the three of us can do together will be wonderful," he said. We were all smiles and happy, but I had a thought for the big man who was bringing up our rear guard. Nicky was my lover--we loved each other, not the same way I loved the two men holding my hands, but it still felt odd to leave him out of so much. We'd all discussed this ahead of time. Nicky would be working along with Bram, which meant while he was on the job he wasn't my lover, or Nathaniel's bro, or anything but a bodyguard. It had to be that way, or we would have needed more guards. But I still had a moment of feeling unfair to Nicky.
Rodina moved up so that she was behind Bram, and Ru dropped back to be with Nicky as we walked through the doors and into the airport. I glanced back at Nicky, but he was looking around the airport for danger. He was on the job; any longing looks I wanted to share needed to be aimed at Micah or Nathaniel until we were safe somewhere inside, and even then, it would depend on where we were and what was happening. He was a bodyguard first this trip, and everything else second. It had to be that way, but I still felt weird about it.
The four bodyguards were all searching the crowd for trouble, but since most of the crowd had just gotten off the plane with us from St. Louis, they'd already looked at each of them as they boarded the plane. Bram, Nicky, Ru, and Rodina stood around us like boulders of various sizes in the middle of a river, so that t
he crowd flowed around us, because there were suddenly more people than our medium-small plane could have held.
"Did another plane land ahead of us?" I asked.
"No," Nicky said.
"I told you, it's a small airport," Micah said.
I looked around and realized that the car-rental agencies, all three of them, were against the far wall. There was a small loop of conveyor belt that stuck out from the wall to the right, and a juice and drink bar in the middle of the room. The wall behind us, where we'd entered, was covered in advertisements and flyers for local attractions. I wondered what the Dry Tortugas were and why I would want to visit them.
"Where's the baggage-claim office?" I asked.
"Far left as we come in the door, past the other luggage belt," Bram said.
"The luggage isn't off-loaded yet," Micah said. "We have time."
"How do you know that? Maybe they're quick today," I said.
He smiled at me and shook his head. "I've flown in here three times in the last month and a half. It's a small airport with a small staff. They get it all done, but you might as well start adjusting to island time."
"What's island time?" I asked, instantly suspicious.
He smiled. Nathaniel laughed and said, "I loved the laid-back attitude here, but it irritated Micah after a while and you will probably hate it."
"How laid-back is it?" I asked.
"It's island time," Micah said.
"What does that mean?"
"That you better hope whoever you need didn't blow off their job to go diving or sailing or fishing," Bram said, and he sounded disgusted.
"That's not everybody," Micah said.
"It feels like it," Bram said.
"But we're on vacation," Nathaniel said, "so it doesn't matter as much."
"If we can come up with a way to help the people that live on Kirke, I am going to do some work, Nathaniel."
Nathaniel's face sobered. "I've seen the pictures now. If we could really help them, it would be worth sacrificing part of our first-ever vacation."
Micah pulled him in closer so he could give him a quick kiss. It was rare for Micah to be the one who elicited a public kiss from the other man. It brought the smile back to Nathaniel's face like sunshine after rain, as if there should have been rainbows in his eyes from the happiness.