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Authors: Courtney Milan

The Year of the Crocodile

BOOK: The Year of the Crocodile
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The Year of the Crocodile
a Cyclone series short story
Courtney Milan
The Year of the Crocodile

The Cyclone Series, Book #1.5

Tina & Blake, with a bit of Adam

Tina Chen and Blake Reynolds have been together for almost a year. In that time, they've grown closer on just about every front. The one exception? Blake's father has never let anything stop him. Tina's parents have never let anyone push them around. And they've never met.

That's about to change. But don't worry—fireworks are traditional at Chinese New Years.

Note: This short story (10,000 words) assumes you've read Trade Me already.

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ant
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http://www.courtneymilan.com
.

1
TINA

February, eleven months later

I
feel
like a walnut rattling around in a mason jar up here in the expensive part of the plane. The seats are a little too wide and the flight attendant a little too helpful. He took my coat when I got on board. He's offered me champagne and refilled my iced tea three times in the last hour. All this subtle attention isn't unpleasant, but it leaves me on edge. I'm used to being anonymous and unseen. Now, I feel like everyone is looking at me.

This is what happens when I let my boyfriend buy me plane tickets.

Truth is, even flying home seems like an unspeakable luxury. Every time I've made the trip down to Southern California from Berkeley, it was by car—either my parents' aging Volvo or a ride that I picked up on a ride share forum. More recently, I've traded shifts driving with my boyfriend.

But here's the thing. My boyfriend is Blake Reynolds.

I sneak a glance over at him. He's tall and thin, but over the eleven months of our relationship, his
thin
has fleshed out into a mere lanky. He's still scruffy—our flight left early enough that he skipped shaving—and his stubble is a shade darker than the messy blond hair he's sporting.

He's concentrating on his laptop.

It isn't school stuff. If Blake spends more than an hour or two on his college coursework a week, I haven't noticed. He's doing Cyclone work. Of late, he's been tinkering with things for his dad's company more and more. And no surprise; Cyclone is a huge part of his life. It's the source of the wealth that had him buying these plane tickets without so much as a blink of an eye.

Blake has lost himself in whatever he's working on. When he's intent on a problem, he gets this look of intense concentration in his eyes—this steel-blue well of determination that reminds me of his father. Blake frowns at the screen and taps his fingers against the armrest, as if he could vanquish whatever problem he's been presented with by means of a single, well-placed curse word.

The flight attendant brings warmed mixed nuts.

“No, thanks,” Blake says absently.

“Blake.” Just one word. A light touch of my hand against his wrist.

He blinks. He comes back to himself from behind his laptop screen, inhaling, looking around his surroundings almost blearily, like a zombie brought back to consciousness. He glances at me, then focuses on the ceramic container that the attendant holds out.

“Uh, right. I changed my mind.” He gives the attendant a bright smile. “Thanks.”

He shuts his laptop, slides it into the seat pocket in front of him, and picks up the nuts. He's not really a picky eater, but he does take his time about things. He examines an almond, as if selecting precisely the right nut is a matter of grave importance, and pops it in his mouth.

“Habit,” he tells me.

Habit indeed. I can measure his changing habits by his wrists.

“You doing okay? I didn't mean to ignore you. There was just a little fire to put out, and I got sidetracked into…” He trails off and frowns. “Son of a bitch. That's what my dad would do. Am I turning into my dad?”

I hold out a hand. “Definitely not. See? No shaking. I'm not scared witless. So you're not your dad.”

God, his smile rocks me back. His smile broke me first, that bright splash of warmth that thawed all my secret fears. When he smiles, I can't help but smile in return.

“Besides,” I continue, “I've ignored you for work, before, too.”

“True.” He shrugs. “And it's just a flight.”

Just
a flight. “To you.
I've
never flown first class before.”

He shrugs. “You still haven't. This is business, and it's basically business lite. Domestic business is sketchy as hell.”

My eyebrows rise.

“I'm just saying.” He chooses a cashew. “Twenty years ago, this was what economy looked like. Once you've flown Singapore Airlines first class,
then
we can talk.”

I reach over and flick the palm of his hand. “Stop ruining the experience. I was trying to enjoy it.”

“Oh.” He blinks. “Sorry. Didn't think of that.” He frowns again. “But this totally doesn't count for the month, and you know it.”

Doesn't count.
I know exactly what he means by that. Over the course of the last year, I've come to realize that, well…

That I play things really safe. I don't take risks. Hell, I don't even like taking mild chances.

Last May, I decided I needed to stretch myself. I promised that I would do one somewhat risky thing every month.

Some months, I've even managed two.

“Even I would not classify flying first class as a risk,” I tell him. “Especially since I didn't pay for the tickets.”

Two days ago, I'd mentioned that I was sorry I wouldn't be able to spend Chinese New Year with my family. We had Traditions, capital T. Some were quintessentially Chinese. Some were not. They were all fun.

Blake had looked at me quizzically. “You can,” he had said.

“But…” My protest had been both half-hearted and ineffectual.

He'd called Patty—his assistant, because of course he has an assistant—and she'd booked us tickets before I could squeak out, “coach is fine!”

Here we are.

“Even you,” he says with a smile.

“No,” I tell him, “my risky thing this month is that I'm skipping classes on Monday.”

He freezes, then his lip twitches. He turns to me with the grin of a man who doesn't care about schoolwork. “Tina.”

“What?” I demand. “I haven't skipped class since…”

His lips twitch again, and I sniff.

“Don't leave me hanging. You haven't skipped classes since when?”

Since senior skip day in high school, and even then, Bethany had to threaten me.

I fold my arms. “I have decided not to finish that sentence on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”

“Have you
ever
skipped class in college?”

“I had pneumonia as a sophomore.” I look across the aisle. “They wouldn't let me attend until I stopped being contagious.”

“I thought so.” He looks far too amused. “I'm going to make a tiny suggestion. You want to do something risky? Invite my dad to join your family this weekend.”

Oh. Shit. All my good feelings evaporate.

I look at him. He's still smiling, but there's an edge to his smile. We haven't
exactly
argued about our parents. It would be stupid to argue about our parents, because our parents are not capable of change.

My dad, for instance, survived a brainwashing and reeducation camp in China that left literal scars. My mom organized his escape and our flight from the country. The Chinese government was unable to change my parents.
I
don't stand a chance.

Blake and I have been together almost a year. Through sheer luck and, okay, dogged determination on my part, our parents have yet to meet face to face. This has generated…tension.

Here's the thing. Some people might find Blake Reynolds intimidating. I did, when we first met. Until he made me mad enough that I stopped being intimidated. He's officially the vice president of interfaces at Cyclone Technologies, a position that he admits he obtained through a healthy dose of luck and a ridiculous amount of nepotism—namely, his father was the CEO of Cyclone as well as its largest shareholder. Blake is semi-attending UC Berkeley, but at this point, he's made it clear he doesn't care if he graduates.

It's not like he
needs
a degree. He already has more money than God, stock options that I don't want to hear about, and a ridiculous resumé.

Some people say, “I can do anything I want with my life!” and what they really mean is they can choose whether they end up a stock broker or a school teacher.

Blake could do literally anything. He could buy small countries. He could rule them, even. If he did, everyone would love him.

I can see how Blake Reynolds could be mildly intimidating to someone who didn't know him.

But his father, Adam Reynolds, is intimidating to
everyone
. Adam was the one-time CEO and founder of Cyclone Technologies. He stepped down from the point position about a year ago, but he's still—effectively—in charge of the company, even if he's no longer overseeing day-to-day operations. Adam—he insists I have to call him Adam—built one of the world's most respected, powerful companies out of his parents' garage, and he didn't do it by being
nice.

I have heard
stories
about the man. Cyclone employees call him
AFR
—it stands for “Adam Fucking Reynolds”—and they joke that he has two modes: Crocodile and T-Rex. If you're lucky, they say, you only get the crocodile. They love him. They fear him.

Adam defines intimidating.

He also defines jackass.

Blake loves his father. Hell,
I
like his father, now that I've gotten to know him a little. But Blake and his dad have a special bond.

I try to imagine my parents meeting Adam.

You know what they say about unstoppable forces and immovable objects?

Between Adam and my parents, I'm not sure who is the force and who is the object. But I'm damned sure that my parents—perpetual activists who hate the Chinese government—wouldn't let a little thing like their daughter's love life and future happiness get in the way of taking on a man who is at best, a collaborator. At worst, he's a perpetrator.

I like Adam. I'm not sure my parents are wrong.

Like I said: I don't want to argue about our parents. We can't change them. All we can do is get squished between those two unstoppable forces. Mushroom clouds fill my mind.

“Blake,” I say instead, “your dad is ridiculously busy. I'm not going to invite him to my family's weird Chinese New Year celebration on basically no notice. That would be disrespectful.”

Blake looks over at me. “We're not asking him to speak at a conference. We would be asking him to come spend time with the family of the woman I love.”

Shit, shit.

I speak more slowly. “Your dad is pretty intense. I'm not sure that…this is the way I'd want to introduce our parents.”

“Yes,” Blake says shortly. “Believe it or not, my father is capable of
not
being a dick on occasion. On very rare occasions, he does behave.”

One last ditch effort. “Come on, Blake. Can you imagine your father in my parents' tiny apartment?”

“Is that what this is about? You're embarrassed?”

No. Not really.

“For the record, my dad's best friend didn't start off particularly wealthy. The opposite, in fact. One of my earliest memories is going to his mom's for Thanksgiving. It wasn't
that
different. I assure you, my dad can cope.”

I exhale.
Not particularly wealthy
to someone like Blake could mean anything. I've seen his childhood home.
Not particularly wealthy
for him probably means the house is worth less than a million dollars.

“Seriously, Tina. You've managed to keep our parents from being in the same place at the same time for long enough. They're going to have to meet at some point, don't you think?”

I swallow. “I was thinking we could introduce them at my graduation.”

In a restaurant. A loud restaurant, preferably, one where my mom and dad would be separated from Adam by about twenty people.

He just looks at me. “Funny. I thought this was going to be the year of the monkey. Not the year of the chicken.”

I wrinkle my nose. “Hey, let me be a coward in peace. If things don't go well with this meeting, it'll be bad luck for the rest of the year.”

And for the two of us. Definitely for the two of us.

He takes my hand and gives me a smile with just a hint of teeth. “Bullshit, Tina. You're not superstitious.”

Technically, no.

“Look,” I say. “It's the year of the monkey, not the year of the crocodile. We'll invite him when it's the year of the crocodile.”

Blake stares at me a moment longer.

Our families are not going to get along, and that's an understatement. We'll do best if we maintain a Venn diagram that overlaps at Blake and Tina and my little sister. One day, everything will explode. When that happens, he'll figure it out, and we'll do damage control together.

Today… Today, we can put it off.

“There
is
no year of the crocodile,” he says suspiciously.

I shrug. “Oops.”

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