Now That You're Here - The College Years
Zander knocked softly and waited. He heard a faint sound and opened the door cautiously, unsure of what he would find on the other side. Jason was curled up in a ball on the bed, his eyes damp with unshed tears.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” he asked softly as he approached the bed.
“Okay, I guess. A little freaked out, a little stupid for freaking out,” Jason replied honestly as he sat up. “I’m really sorry.”
“Oh Jason, please don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s sorry. I feel terrible that I caused you to react so strongly. If I had known…”
“You couldn’t have known. I couldn’t have known. It’s kind of silly, actually. To think, even for a moment, that Chris would…God, I can’t even say it. You told him what happened, didn’t you? Please tell him I didn’t mean what I was suggesting. I know he would never, ever do anything to hurt you. He’s one of the sweetest, gentlest people I know. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched him carry spiders outside because he didn’t want to kill them even though he doesn’t like them. He would never…I feel so bad.”
“Shhh…it’s alright. It’s not too surprising that your mind jumped to that place under the circumstances. We both know that it had nothing to do with Chris,” Zan assured him. “In fact, he feels really bad about what happened, too. We’ll be more careful from now on.”
“No, please don’t do that. I’m fine, really. I just didn’t expect…look, I’ve known Justin my whole life. I know how easily you people bruise. I don’t expect you guys to change the way you are to accommodate me. Now that I know what to expect, it won’t be so bad.”
“Well, it’s not like we fool around like that much anyway,” Zan said. “So, by any chance did you get any phone numbers at your support group meetings?”
“Any phone numbers?” Jason asked, his heart rate picking up slightly. “What do you mean?”
“You know, in case you needed to talk to someone between meetings.”
“Oh,” Jason sighed with relief. “Um…I did get one number.”
“Maybe you should call him…or her. Maybe they can help you, I don’t know, be a little less freaked? I know when it comes to support groups for alcoholics and drug addicts, they’re supposed to call someone when they’re feeling really overwhelmed. You seem pretty overwhelmed. Maybe talking to someone can help.”
“Um…yeah. Maybe. Did you talk to Zac?” Jason asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah, he understood, but he was really worried. You’re going to call him later, right?”
“Yeah, of course I am.”
“Look, I know you’re dealing with a lot and I don’t want to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong, but do you have to keep pushing Zac away? He’s only trying to help.”
“I know,” Jason said softly. “I don’t know what it is, but I just don’t feel comfortable around him anymore. I know it’s stupid. I know that he loves me and is only trying to help. I love him, too. It’s complicated. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Alright, I won’t push. Just try to go easy on him. He’s really struggling with knowing you’re hurting and not being able to help.”
“I’ll talk to him. I promise.”
“Good. Now why don’t you call that person from your group? You’re obviously still upset. Maybe they can help.”
“I will. Thanks Zan. And again, I’m really sorry.”
Jason just nodded his head and waited until Zander was gone before grabbing his phone. He had picked it up several times since he’d been back in his room to call Aiden, but kept telling himself he was fine. But he wasn’t fine. And he wanted to talk to Aiden. He wanted Aiden to tell him that his reaction was normal and that it didn’t mean he was losing his mind. He wanted Aiden to tell him that he’d be okay. He just wanted to hear Aiden’s voice.
And for that reason, and possibly a few more, something deep down inside told him that calling Aiden was the last thing he should do. Aiden had made it a point to let Jason know from the beginning that he was attracted to him. It shouldn’t unnerve him, but it did. Maybe it was because he was attracted to Aiden, too. Every time he talked to him or thought about him, it made him feel guilty, like he was doing something wrong. His guilt wasn’t helping his situation with Zac, either. How was he supposed to open up to his boyfriend and let him in when he felt guilty every time they talked and Jason didn’t tell him about Aiden?
And why was he feeling guilty in the first place? Aiden had made it clear that as long as Jason was in his group, nothing could ever happen between them anyway. And it’s not like Jason wanted something to happen. So he was attracted. So what? He found a lot of people attractive. He didn’t jump into bed with them. And it wasn’t like he was going to be jumping into bed with anyone anytime soon. Hell, he was still wondering if he’d end up living a life of celibacy after what had happened to him. Aiden ran a support group. He shouldn’t feel guilty talking to someone who might actually be able to help him. Pushing every thought he had to the side, Jason followed his instinct and called Aiden.
“Hey, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. Is everything alright?” Aiden asked as he answered the phone.
“No,” Jason whispered as the sound of Aiden’s voice brought on fresh tears.
“Alright, it’s gonna be okay. Where are you? Are you at home? Do you want me to come to you? You’re obviously not up for a public meeting.”
“I don’t know…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be bothering you with this.”
“Hey, we talked about this, remember?” Aiden asked softly. “This is exactly what I’m here for. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be there, alright?”
“Um…yeah…okay,” Jason agreed hesitantly. “Thanks, Aiden.”
“No need to thank me. See you soon.”
As soon as the call ended, Jason started panicking. What the hell was he thinking having Aiden come over? What would everyone think? He jumped up, planning on getting dressed so that he could go meet Aiden down the street when the fear hit him. He couldn’t go out. It was too much. He just couldn’t…he thought about calling Aiden back, but he couldn’t do that either. He was screwed. Taking a seat on the bed, Jason took a deep breath and put his head between his knees, hoping to stop the dizziness. He needed to get a grip. He had to do what was best for him and right now he had no doubt that what was best was Aiden.
It took about fifteen minutes for him to get himself under control. Then he made his way down the hall and into the living room. Chris and Zander were cuddling on the couch watching TV. Chris noticed him first.
“Hey, Jas, how are you feeling?”
“Um…I’m not really sure. Zan, I followed your advice and called someone from the group. He’s coming over. He’ll actually be here in a few minutes. That’s okay, right? I thought about meeting him out somewhere but…”
“Hey, of course it’s okay,” Zan said, reassuring him. “I think it’s good that you’re reaching out to someone. Do you want us to get out of here so you guys can have the living room?”
“No, that’s okay. I think maybe we’ll just go down to my room. This way we won’t be interrupted. If that’s alright with you guys.”
“It’s fine. Whatever you feel most
comfortable with,” Chris answered. “And Jason, I’m really sorry about all of
this. I never meant to…”
“I know,” Jason said, interrupting Chris before he could finish. “It’s totally not your fault. I don’t know why I reacted the way I did, but I’m sorry about that. I know you would never do anything to hurt Zander. I don’t know why it even popped into my head.”
Chris disentangled himself from Zan, stood up, and took Jason into his arms. “I know. It’s okay. You’ve had a really rough go of it lately. There’s no need to apologize. I just wish there was something I could do to make this better for you. We all do.”
Jason held on tight while tears once again ran down his face. “Thank you,” he whispered. Before he could say anymore, the doorbell rang. “That’s probably Aiden.”
“Want me to get it? Give you a moment to pull yourself together?” Chris offered.
Chris went to the door and found a good looking guy on the other side. He was tall, muscular in all the right places, but not overly so, with curly brown hair with the most amazing green eyes. From first glance, Chris would say he was in his mid-twenties.
“Hey, you must be Aiden,” Chris said as he opened the door wide. “Come on in. I’m Chris”
“Aiden McAvoy,” Aiden said as he entered the foyer and extended his hand. “How’s Jason doing?”
“He’s trying to hold it together,” Chris replied. “Follow me.” Chris led Aiden into the living room just as Zander was rising from the couch. Jason was nowhere to be found. “Aiden, this is my partner Zander.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Aiden said as he shook Zander’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, too, although it would be a lot nicer if it was under different circumstances,” Zan replied. “Jason will just be a minute. Can I get you anything?”
“No thanks. I’m good. I’m sorry to intrude on your day. I just didn’t think that Jason was up to meeting out in public. He seemed pretty upset when he called,” Aiden said.
“Oh please, you’re not intruding. Jason and his well-being is all that matters,” Chris assured him.
“That’s nice to hear. Are you related?”
“Not in the traditional sense, but he’s definitely part of our family,” Zan answered.
Before anything else could be said, Jason appeared in the doorway. “Hey.”
“Hey, Jason,” Aiden said as he approached him. “I’m sorry you’re having a rough day. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“Um…yeah. Follow me,” Jason said as he glanced at Chris and Zan and then turned to lead Aiden down to his room. “I’m sorry, but this is really the only place I have. It may not look like it right now, but this is a very busy house. Anywhere else and we would end up being interrupted.”
“This is fine,” Aiden told him. “Now before we get started, forgive me for asking, but Chris…is he…”
“Christopher Kinney the author?” Jason chuckled. “Yeah, that’s him. Let me guess, you’re a fan?”
“Read everything he’s ever written…twice. He’s much better looking in person than on the dust jackets of his books. He needs a better photographer,” Aiden said sheepishly. “Sorry, but I had to ask.”
“It’s okay. I’m not sure how much talking I’m up for,” Jason admitted.
“I figured as much, so why don’t you just tell me a little bit about your life leading up to the attack. I know that you’re not related to Chris and Zander, but you’re living in their house. How did that happen?”
“It’s a long story, but I’ll try to condense it for you. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but a couple of years ago my best friend’s parents died in a car accident. He ended up moving out here to live with his cousin, Zander. I was looking to go away to college so ASU seemed like the perfect choice. Growing up, Justin and I had always talked about going away to college together, so that’s what we did.”
“Okay, maybe a little too condensed. How come you didn’t go home after the attack? You obviously didn’t go back to ASU? Do you have issues with your parents?”
“Not at all. I miss them, but I don’t know. Chris and Zander just make everyone feel so welcome. And I have friends here. Justin is dating Chris’s brother Brian, who also lives here and goes to ASU. My boyfriend, also part of the group, lives here in town. My life just isn’t in Pittsburgh anymore. Besides, I feel useful here. Chris and Zander took in Zander’s nine year old half-sister a couple months ago and it’s been an adjustment. I help out with her when I can. Steve lives here and helps out too, but he works at Zander’s bookstore full time so it’s just easier for me to be here.”
“Okay wait…Chris and Zander live here. Zander’s sister lives here. This guy Steve lives here. Brian and Justin live here, and you’re here? Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said it’s a busy house.”
“Well, Brian and Justin live in an apartment off campus and are only home on weekends. Chris and Zan converted the basement for them. And I’m only here because of the attack. I kind of feel bad, like I’m just in the way here, but Chris and Zan insisted I stay. This room is usually Chris’s work space, but he moved most of his stuff out for me.”
“That was really nice of them. They seem to really care about you. Told me you weren’t related, but that you were definitely part of the family,” Aiden said.
“Yeah, we’re all really close. I would do anything for them. We all would. That’s one of the reasons I feel really bad about what happened earlier.”
“Jason, you’re going to have to tell me what happened. You know that, right? I can’t really help you if I don’t know why you’re so upset in the first place. You don’t have to talk about the attack, but I need to know about this afternoon. You can do this. You can tell me,” Aiden encouraged him.
Jason took a couple deep breaths and then began. “It’s kind of stupid, really. After I talked to you, I called Zac. I told him that we could go out to dinner. I thought if we went to Gino’s early enough it wouldn’t be too crowded and I could get through the meal. Everything seemed okay, despite my nightmare last night. I went to the kitchen to get something to drink before I took a shower and Zander was sitting at the table, reading a paper. The house was so quiet. No one was home, which is unusual. Especially on the weekends when Brian and Justin are home from school. With seven people living here, it…”
“Jas,” Aiden interrupted him. “You’re rambling and delaying the inevitable. Just tell me what happened. It’s okay.”
“Oh, sorry,” Jason replied sheepishly. “Anyway, Zan and I were talking and I suddenly noticed bruises on his wrists. Bruises that could only be from…being held down. At first I thought that Chris had hurt him…no…that’s not right. I accused Chris of hurting him, but deep down inside, I know Chris would never hurt anyone. Especially Zan. But it freaked me out. I had bruises like that…after the attack…my wrists were…he held me down so tight…I couldn’t get away. I tried so hard, and it hurt so bad…but I couldn’t…I just couldn’t…” Jason broke off.
Aiden was out of the chair he’d been sitting in and pulling Jason into his arms within seconds, Jason’s sobs breaking his heart. “Shhh…it’s okay. I’ve got you. It’s okay, let it out. I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.”
“Please…make it…stop,” Jason sobbed. “I don’t want to…do this…anymore. I don’t…want to see him…every time I close…my eyes. I don’t want…to remember what it…felt like…when he…when he…”
“I know,” Aiden whispered, his own tears running down his face. “I know. I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could do to make it better for you, but there isn’t. I promise you though; it will get easier. I know you can’t see that now, but it will.”
Aiden somehow maneuvered them to sit down on the bed without letting go, and continued to hold Jason as his sobs persisted. He knew from his own experience that the crying helped. It was cathartic, letting out emotions rather than keeping them bottled up inside. Unfortunately most people, males especially, are taught early on that there’s no point crying over things you can’t change. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed before the sobs began to taper off, but slowly Jason started to come back to reality and just like Aiden had expected, he was mortified.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Jason said as he jumped up and turned his back on Aiden. “I’m so embarrassed. I didn’t mean to…I wasn’t…”
Aided jumped up, too, and laid what he hoped was a comforting hand on Jason’s back. “Hey, stop apologizing. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m here to help you, remember? And I’ve been exactly where you are right now. Do you honestly think that I didn’t expect you to get emotional? Hell, I used to cry when the bag boy at the supermarket asked if I wanted paper or plastic. Jason, believe it or not, crying is good for you. I actually encourage it. It’s just one step in the healing process.”
Jason sniffled as he reached for a box of tissues. Chris and Zan made sure he had a never ending supply. “I just hate this, you know? I never used to be so emotional. Being the son of a psychologist, I was always in touch with my feelings, but I wasn’t a big cry baby. I hate that he did this to me. I hate that he made me a completely different person. How do you do it? How do you get out of bed every morning and face the day after what happened to you?”
“Truthfully? What choice do I have? Jas, I could have easily chosen to curl up in a ball and hide away from the world, but where would that have gotten me? I have a life to live. I was seventeen when I was attacked. I could live to be 90 years old. That would have been 73 years of being alone and being scared. That would have been 73 years of being alive and not living. Don’t you see? We don’t have a choice. We have to get up every day and face the world because the alternative isn’t a choice. Not really.”
“You make it sound so easy,” Jason whispered. “And I know it’s not, but you make it sound like it is. Like if I do exactly what you tell me to do, I’ll be able to move on just like you did.”
“I’d like to think that I can help you like that,” Aiden admitted. “That’s why I do what I do every day. So that I can help people to move on from whatever happened to them and live their life.”
Jason wiped away the lingering dampness from his eyes and took a seat on the bed again. “I think I’d like to tell you about the attack.”
Aiden was taken aback by that. “Are you sure? I know it’s been a rough day for you. We don’t have to go back there right now if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m never going to want to talk about it, but if it will help…I think maybe you should know.”
“Alright, just take your time and tell me in whatever way you feel most comfortable. I’m listening.”
Aiden moved to go back to the chair he’d been sitting in, but Jason stopped him. “Can you just sit with me? I’m sorry, but I just thought…”
“It’s okay. I’m right here,” Aiden assured him as he took a seat on the bed and held Jason’s hand.
And then Jason told him. He told him everything from how he was feeling the morning of the attack to those awful moments when someone he’d never met beat him and took something from him that he’d never be able to get back. He held on tightly to Aiden’s hand, but the older man didn’t seem to mind. He would just squeeze it during the moments when it felt like Jason was about to lose his composure, helping him through it. He talked about how he had thought he was going to die, and about how his first thoughts were about how everyone around him would feel if he didn’t make it. He even talked about how he had been waiting for intercourse and how he now felt like that special moment had been stolen from him, possibly forever. And the most surprising thing was that through it all, he never broke down. He had cried. There was no way anyone could relive something like that without tears, but he didn’t break down. For the first time since the attack, Jason had been able to open up to someone and tell his story. Not someone…Aiden.
Aiden had listened to Jason tell his story with a heavy heart. Even though he had known in his gut that rape had been involved, he had been hoping that he was wrong. A small part of him was trying to cling to the idea that maybe Jason’s attack wasn’t as bad as he imagined it to be. But of course it was. The attack wasn’t just some loser with an anger problem that was going around beating people up for sport. Jason’s attacker was a rapist, and worse than that, he was still out there, looking for his next victim. Shaking off his thoughts, Aiden cleared his throat before speaking.
“You did really well,” he offered. “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but every time you’re able to share your experience, it loses some of its power over you. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You did nothing wrong. I’m sure you’ve been second guessing yourself since it happened. If only you had fought harder, if only you had walked a different route…it wasn’t your fault. You shouldn’t have had to fight harder. You shouldn’t have had to walk a different route. You had every right to be exactly where you were. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” Jason whispered. “I know, it’s just…”
“No, it’s not just…it wasn’t your fault. And it will get easier,” Aiden insisted and then he smiled at Jason. “And you will have intercourse one day and it will be incredible because it will be loving and gentle and consensual.”
Jason blushed. “Right now I’d settle for being able to kiss my boyfriend without feeling like I’m suffocating.”
“That will come in time, too,” Aiden smiled, refusing to acknowledge the pang of jealousy he felt. Instead he focused on the time. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s so late.”
Jason looked at the clock, surprised that it was already after six. He’d kept the blinds closed most of the time so he rarely noticed when the sun went down. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you so long.”
“Keep me from what? Sitting home alone staring at the TV? Trust me, you’re not keeping me from anything,” Aiden said. “Besides, I’m glad I was here to help you today. I usually spend most of my Saturdays out of town doing seminars. Today was a rare day off.”
“And you got to spend it here, holding my hand,” Jason pointed out.
“Trust me, I like holding your hand.” Aiden smirked.
“You’re flirting again, aren’t you?” Jason narrowed his eyes teasingly.
“Sorry, I’ll behave.”
“Is that even possible?” Jason was beginning to wonder.
Before Aiden could answer, there was a knock at the door. Jason called out, knowing it was either Chris or Zan, checking up on him.
“Hey guys, how’s everything going in here?” Chris asked tentatively.
“It’s good, Chris. I’m alright,” Jason assured him. “Oh, and here’s another one of your fans. It seems you’re getting so big that they keep popping up everywhere.”
“That’s fine by me,” Chris laughed. “I’m glad you enjoy my work.”
“It’s really amazing. I’ve read everything you’ve done. You’re very talented. I also heard a rumor that you’re going to expand your children’s book into a series. Is that true?” Aiden asked.
“I’m in the final stages of discussions now. With any luck, they’ll start rolling out the end of next year,” Chris replied. “I’m looking forward to it. It should end up being a five book series in all.”
“So, you enjoy doing fundraisers?”
Chris looked at Aiden closely. “Why do I get the feeling that your question isn’t just a fan’s curiosity?”
Aiden laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t come here to solicit money. I’ll just shut up now.”
“Relax Aiden, it’s okay. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I’m the head of the LGBT center in town. The founders are the parents of a…um…friend of mine. They used their own money as start up, but I try to raise money when I can to help with the expenses. I just thought that maybe…”
“I’m sure you have a fundraiser information packet. Bring it by when you can and I’ll look it over. I’m sure we can work something out,” Chris said.
“Really? That would be great.”
“It’s no big deal. I’m always looking for good ways to help. What a better organization than an LGBT center? Especially after what you’re doing to help Jason. I have no problem giving back,” Chris said. “Now, I came down here to see if either of you were hungry. I know Jason hasn’t eaten today. We ordered pizza and there’s plenty left. Also, Aiden, you are welcome to stay for banana split night.”
“Banana split night?” Aiden asked.
“Yeah, Zan’s sister was in the mood for banana splits so we decided to make a party out of it. Jas, I know that Steve’s going to be home soon, and Dane’s bringing his…boyfriend.”
“Dane has a boyfriend? Since when?”
“I’m not too sure. But they’ll both be here. I didn’t know if you wanted to call Zac or not. But anyway, Aiden, you’re welcome to join us.”
“Um…thanks. I don’t know if…”
“He’s staying,” Jason jumped in. “Thanks Chris, we’ll be down in a few minutes.”
Once Chris was gone, Aiden focused on Jason again. “Getting pushy, aren’t you? One minute you’re apologizing for making me spend my day here and the next you’re forcing me to stay?”
“Sorry, I’m just not quite ready for you to go yet. Do you mind?”
“No, I don’t mind. I am kind of hungry and like I said, I really don’t have anything going on today.”
“Cool, just let me run to the bathroom and then we’ll go get some pizza.”
As soon as Jason was gone, Aiden pulled out his cell phone and sent a text to Grayson.
Sorry buddy, I have to cancel our plans for tonight. Something came up. I’ll call you tomorrow.
He’d figure out what to tell Grayson later. Right now there was no way he was going to pass up an opportunity to spend time with Jason.
“Ready?” Jason asked, appearing in the doorway.
“Absolutely.” Aiden got up and followed Jason with a smile. He couldn’t help noticing that Jason hadn’t called his boyfriend. As days off went, it wasn’t turning out to be too bad.
Dane killed the engine and just sat there staring out the windshield. He was in absolutely no rush.
“Baby, are we going in?” Michael asked from the passenger seat.
“Yeah, in a minute,” Dane answered softly. “I just want another few moments of peace.”
“Um…I don’t think it’s going to be that bad. They’re your friends, remember? It’s not like you’re going in front of a firing squad,” Michael laughed before sobering. “Unless you’re embarrassed to be seen with me. I’m sorry, have I overstepped by pushing you to come here tonight?”
“What? Oh no, I’m sorry Michael. Of course I’m not embarrassed of you. I’m just a little nervous about…you know what? Never mind. Let’s just go in. Everything will be fine,” Dane replied. He just wished he believed it himself.
It was already after seven so there was no doubt that the gang was all there. Well, except for Matt and Trent, which actually made Dane feel a little better; two less people to pass judgment. He had no intention of telling anyone that Michael was his professor or married, but he knew that he was still going to be teased. It was so obvious that Michael wasn’t anywhere close to their age. And when they asked what he did…well, he feared that someone, probably Brian, would put two and two together. He couldn’t believe he agreed to the night to begin with.
“So…we’re going in?”
Dane didn’t bother knocking. No one really did unless their arrival was completely unexpected. As he walked through the foyer, he could hear everyone’s laughter coming from the living room. He took Michael by the hand, took a deep breath and jumped into the fire. They were spotted as soon as they walked in so Dane took the time to make introductions and then the conversation around the room turned to the upcoming holiday and what everyone’s plans were. Dane wasn’t stupid enough to think that everyone just accepted Michael. He just sat back and waited. He actually waited a whole thirty minute before Brian cornered him alone.
“So, where’d you meet him? Assisted living?” Brian teased.
“Oh bite me,” Dane replied irritably. “He’s only 29.”
“Um…you do realize that he’s almost as old as Zan, right?”
“So? Look how hot Zan is?”
“You’re right, Zan is hot. But I wouldn’t want to date him,” Brian pointed out.
“Bri, please…give me a break. Not everyone can find the love of their life in the bedroom next door. Some of us are tired of being lonely,” Dane said softly.
“Seriously Brian, do you realize I haven’t really been with anyone since you? That my life was in utter turmoil for a while there and it would’ve been nice if I had someone who cared about me at my side.”
“Okay, that’s not fair. I’m here for you. We’re all here for you and we all care about you,” Brian said.
“I know that,” Dane sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that. Bri, I love him. I am absolutely head over heels in love with him and he loves me, too. Can’t you just be happy for me?”
“If you’re so in love, how come we’re just meeting him now? How come you kept him a secret all this time?”
“It’s…uh…it’s complicated.” Dane knew it sounded lame, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“It’s complicated? How is it complicated? How hard is it to say ‘hey, I’m seeing someone’? I thought we were friends,” Brian threw at him.
“We are. Fuck Brian, what’s gotten into you? If I had known you were going to act like an ass, we never would have come here!” Dane exclaimed, losing his temper. He didn’t bother waiting around for an answer. Instead, he walked away and went over to join the others.
Brian felt horrible. He never meant to give Dane such a hard time. He just couldn’t help himself. He was a little annoyed when he learned that Dane had been seeing someone and hadn’t told anyone, but he was fine with it. He was actually looking forward to meeting the guy; until he showed up with someone eleven years older than them. Maybe eleven years wasn’t a huge age gap, but what would a guy who is almost thirty have in common with a kid? Dane was just out of high school. What could they even talk about? It just creeped him out.
But that didn’t mean he had a right to attack his friend. If Dane loved the old man, then Brian had to accept that. It was the least he could do. He sighed deeply and then jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“You alright?” Justin asked.
“No, not really. I just fucked up,” Brian admitted.
“Babe, I was only on the other side of the room. What could you possibly have done?”
“I pissed off Dane,” Brian sighed again. “I gave him a bunch of shit for Michael being so much older. You know he’s 29?”
“I didn’t know he was 29, but I knew he wasn’t our age,” Justin replied. “But, babe, it’s Dane’s decision who he dates. It’s not up to us to judge. Until you pissed him off, did you notice how happy he looked? Aside from when he’s with his daughter, when was the last time you’ve seen Dane that happy?”
“I know…I told you I fucked up. I just don’t want to see him get hurt,” Brian said in his defense.
“None of us do, but who says he’s going to get hurt? Hell, he could be the one doing the hurting. Either way, it’s his choice who he wants to spend his time with. Now you’d better apologize before you’re not on that list.”
“Yeah, I know.” Brian walked away, leaving Justin behind shaking his head. He smiled when Jason walked over. “Hey, how’re you doing?”
“Okay for now, I guess,” Jason replied honestly. “It was pretty bad this afternoon.”
“I heard. I’m glad you were able to call Aiden. He runs the meetings?”
“Yeah, he went to ASU. He’s got his bachelor’s in Psychology and is in their master’s program. He’s on the board or something at the GLBT center. I’m not really sure how it all works. I just know that he’s been a big help to me so far,” Jason said.
“Good, I’m glad. He’s really hot, too. Gay?”
“Yeah,” Jason sighed.
“And that’s a problem for you?” Justin asked.
“No, of course not,” Jason laughed. “It would just be easier to not notice how hot he is if he was straight, you know?”
“Oh, got it. He may be hot, but you have Zac, right?”
“Yeah, I guess. Look, Jus, can we not talk about this right now. My brain has been running in so many different directions lately and I just…don’t really want to deal with anything right now.”
“Hey, that’s fine. Just remember that I’m here if you need to talk. You’ve been pulling away from me lately, and that’s fine. You have to handle this in whatever way works best for you. But I’m here and I’ll listen if you need me to,” Justin assured him.
“I know and I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately. I promise I’ll call more.”
“Jas, you don’t have to promise you’ll call more. You just have to promise that you’ll call if you need to. I’m glad that you have Aiden, though. I was more worried when I thought that you were keeping it all in. As long as you have someone to listen, it’s cool. And in a couple of weeks, Bri and I will be back at home and then we can spend some time together, just the two of us.”
“That’s sounds great. I’ve missed you,” Jason smiled, ready to change the subject. “So, what do you think about Michael?”
“I think I have no opinion about that right now,” Justin chuckled. “Come on; let’s go get some more ice cream. I’m still hungry.”
“What else is new,” Jason groaned as he followed Justin towards the kitchen. They stopped when they heard voices inside. “Is that Chris and Michael?” Jason whispered.
Justin nodded and held a finger up to his lips, and then leaned in closer to the doorway to listen.
“I’m just not sure what a twenty-nine year old man would want with a kid,” Chris said.
“Chris, you and I both know that Dane isn’t your typical kid. He’s funny and smart and much more mature than his eighteen years,” Michael replied.
“He is, but he’s still only eighteen. And one of your students. Isn’t there some kind of law about that? Dating a student?”
“There are rules against it, yes. Dane and I have been very careful about not being seen together.”
“Really? Now is that to protect your job, or to keep your wife from finding out?” Chris sneered.
“Look, Chris, you’re obviously not too pleased with the relationship I have with Dane, and I get it. I swear, I never imagined this would happen. But I promise you, I’m not going to hurt him. I really do love him. I’m leaving my wife as soon as the holidays are over and then Dane and I will be on better ground,” Michael assured him. “Besides, Dane and I have spoken many times about this. He’s okay with the way things are right now. He’s happy. Isn’t that worth something?”
“That’s all I want for him, but Dane has a lot on his plate right now between school and his daughter and trying to find a way to balance it all at eighteen. I don’t want it to become too much for him.”
“Chris, he’s fine.”
“Did you know he tried to kill himself?”
“I guess that never came up during all the times you two have ‘spoken’, huh? Last year Dane swallowed a bunch of pills. He was home alone and if his father hadn’t forgotten his wallet and gone back to the house for it, he wouldn’t be here right now. Are you still sure he’s fine?”
Michael was silent for a few moments before responding. “Um…I didn’t know that. Wow, he seems so…”
“Together? Yeah, he had us all fooled last year,” Chris replied. “Look, Michael, I’m sure you’re a great guy, but you have to look at this from our point of view. Dane’s a part of this family we have here. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure he never feels as bad as he did the day he swallowed those pills. And I will kick the ass of anyone who makes him feel that bad. Do we understand each other?”
Justin gasped as he backed away in horror.
“Are you alright?” Jason asked.
“Yeah, I just never heard Chris threaten someone before,” Justin explained. “What the hell? Michael is Dane’s professor? And he’s married? Damn, what the hell is wrong with Dane?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s our place to judge,” Jason pointed out.
“I know. I just…wow. I’m not telling Brian, either. He already doesn’t trust the guy.”
“That’s probably a good idea.”
As the two of them stood there, Michael came out of the kitchen looking a little stunned. If the situation was different, Justin might have actually felt sorry for him. Once he was out of earshot, Justin turned to Jason. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to go talk to Chris for a minute.”
Chris was wiping down the counter when Justin walked in. “Remind me to never get on your bad side?”
“What?” Chris asked in confusion.
“I sort of heard your conversation with Michael,” Justin admitted.
“Shit,” Chris sighed. “I didn’t mean for anyone to hear that. I just couldn’t stand by and not say anything. Look, Justin, I’ve known about Michael since Thanksgiving weekend. He and Dane were having issues and Dane confided in me. I’m trying to stay out of it, but I’m not going to sit back and do nothing if I think Dane’s going to get hurt.”
“Hey, you don’t have to explain it to me. I worry about him, too. I can’t believe that he’d date his professor. A married one at that.”
“I know, just don’t tell my brother. You know how he is. I may have threatened Michael, but Brian would be likely to just punch him out,” Chris laughed humorlessly.
“Are you kidding? I’m not saying a word. I’d be afraid he’d punch the messenger,” Justin teased.
“Now let me guess. You were looking for more ice cream?” Chris asked as he walked over to the freezer.
“Maybe just a little,” Justin admitted sheepishly.
“Coming right up,” Chris replied, and just like that, the subject of Michael was changed.
By the time everyone was gone and the house was cleaned up, it was almost midnight. Zander wiped down the kitchen counter for the final time and then went into the living to get Chris, who had started dozing off on the couch. They were turning off the lights to go to bed when Steve appeared, coming down the stairs.
“Guys, I know it’s late, but do you have a minute? I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Sure,” Zan replied, leaving the final light on. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s great, actually,” Steve said with a smile. “I just wanted to thank you guys for letting me move in here. It was really cool of you and I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
“Steve, I told you the day you showed up on our doorstep that you’re always welcome here. That’s what family does for each other,” Chris said.
“Not all families, obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have needed a place to stay to begin with,” Steve pointed out. “Anyway, I’m going to be moving out in a couple of weeks. I talked to my brother earlier today. Apparently my parents haven’t told him what’s been going on. He’s pissed and asked me to move in with him,” Steve explained.
“Oh…so you’re moving away?” Zan asked curiously.
“No, actually my brother landed a job right here in Sierra Vista. He rented a condo in that new development downtown. He said he has plenty of room for me.”
“That’s great,” Zan said. “I hate to see you go, but I know how much it’ll mean to you to be back with family.”
“Well, kind of, I guess. You guys are family, too. I just…there are so many people here, and Brian and Justin are moving back soon. And I think it’ll be cool living with Eric. We haven’t been as close since he moved away.”
“Hey, you don’t have to explain yourself to us,” Chris told him. “We’re really happy for you. But for the record, we love having a full house. You’re welcome here anytime.”
“Thanks,” Steve smiled
“You’re still planning on working at the store, right?” Zan asked.
“Of course,” Steve assured him. “I’m looking forward to all the changes coming up.”
“Yeah, me too,” Zan agreed. “Let me ask you something. If for some reason I wanted to take some time off, would you be willing to step up as manager? I’d increase your pay greatly, of course.”
“Are you kidding? Of course I’d be willing. I’d love it.”
“Alright, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’m sort of considering a career change, but it’s definitely in the early stages. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but I wouldn’t even consider it if I wasn’t sure I had someone to take over things for me at the store. That’s always going to be my first priority,” Zan said.
“Well there’s no need to worry about the store. I’ve got you covered,” Steve assured him.
“Thanks. I’ll let you know what I decide once I’ve had time to assess my options.”
“Sounds good to me. Now I’d better get to bed. I told James that he didn’t have to worry about the clean up tonight. It was his first night closing alone and he was worried. I’m going to go in early and take care of everything. I also have to do some rearranging before Monday’s delivery. It’s going to be huge.”
“Damn, Steve, you sound like you’ve already taken over,” Zan teased.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said awkwardly. “Am I overstepping?”
“No, of course not. Steve, you’ve been amazing these last couple of months. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through the adjustment with Sophia without you, both here and at the store. I like that you take your job seriously and actually care about the business, not just your paycheck. It’s one of the reasons I feel like I can entertain the idea of doing something else.”
“Thanks, Zan. I really enjoy working at the store. I don’t know when I’ll actually be able to swing college, but when I do, I think I’m going to major in business and look into opening my own business one day. I love the thought of being my own boss and you’ve given me such free reign to do whatever I want with ordering and displays; I really like being able to do things my way.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. As for majoring in business, unless you have a set path, you can’t go wrong with business. Why don’t you check into the community college? It’s so much more affordable while you don’t have access to money and at least you can get some prerequisite classes out of the way. You can always get your two year there and then transfer later,” Zan suggested.
“I’ve thought about it. I’m just not sure if I can swing it yet. I don’t really have a lot of extra income right now,” Steve sighed in frustration. “I actually sent in an application to Cochise College weeks ago, but I was denied financial aid because my dad makes too much money. They don’t seem to care that he kicked me out and disowned me. It could cost up to a thousand dollars for two classes when you factor in tuition and books. I’m going to have to wait awhile before doing anything about school.”
“So you’re technically a student there, you just haven’t registered for classes yet?”
“I guess, technically. But it doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll be right back.”
Steve watched Zan walk away and looked over at Chris. “What’s he doing?”
“I have no idea,” Chris lied. He and Zan had already spoken about what they wanted for Steve. The guy was a genius. He belonged in school.
Zan came back into the room and thrust a credit card into Steve’s hand. “Two classes and books. No arguments.”
Steve looked down at the card in his hand in wonder. “Zan, I can’t take this. My education is not your responsibility. I’ll figure things out eventually.”
“Did you not hear the part where I said no arguments? Please, Steve, let Chris and I do this for you. It’s not going to cause us a hardship. Hell, we made plans to pay for Justin’s education and he doesn’t need our help. I don’t think a few classes at a community college are going to be a problem for us in place of four years at a university. Besides, you have been such a help to us lately. It’s the least we can do to show you how much we appreciated all you’ve done for us. At least get started…just two classes. Hopefully by the time the fall semester rolls around, you’ll have worked things out and will be able to pay your own way.”
“Hey, no buts,” Chris interrupted him. “Zan and I discussed this days ago and planned on approaching you about it. Since you’ve already submitted an application, it’s apparent that you want to go. Let us help you. It’s really not a problem for us.”
Steve could feel the tears building behind his eyes and blinked a few times to keep them from falling. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much…for everything.”
“You’re very welcome,” Zan said as he pulled Steve into a hug. “Trust me; we want to do this for you. If it will make you feel better, consider it a loan. You can pay us back once you’ve graduated with a four year degree and opened your own business.”
“Oh sure, that shouldn’t take more than twenty years or so,” Steve laughed as he hugged Zan and then Chris. “I’ll let you guys get to bed. Thanks again. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Once Steve was gone, Zan finished turning out the lights and then went down to the bedroom. Chris was already in bed, sitting up with his back against the headboard. He smiled at his partner as he stripped down and climbed in bed. He leaned over, ready to kiss Chris silly and was startled when a hand reached out and stopped him. “Babe?”
“I think you have some talking to do,” Chris replied as he looked deep into Zander’s eyes.
“Talking? About what?”
“This career change you’re apparently considering. How come this is the first time I’m hearing about it? I thought you were happy with the store?”
“Oh, that,” Zander chuckled.
“Yeah, that. What’s going on? Why didn’t you tell me that you were considering doing something else?”
“Babe, relax. I’ve only been considering it for a few hours. I haven’t had time to talk to you,” Zan explained. “You know I never make any real decisions without talking to you about it.”
“A few hours? What…okay, I’m confused,” Chris replied.
“Look, I don’t know if I’m seriously considering it or not. I planned on thinking about it tonight and then discussing it with you tomorrow. Aiden and I were talking about the GLBT center. He says that it’s growing more and more each year. Right now it’s only him and one other counselor, but he’s thinking about hiring a third. I happen to mention that I was a double major student in college and have a degree in Psychology and he asked me if I’d be interested. I don’t know. It sounds like it could be a nice change for me. I love the bookstore, but it’s not really challenging, you know? And I’ve really enjoyed helping Jason talk through some of his feelings. It wouldn’t be full time. At least not at first. 20 to 25 hours a week. If I have Steve to help out at the store, it shouldn’t be too hard to swing. What do you think? Would you mind? My schedule wouldn’t be as flexible and I’d be working some nights and weekends, too.”
Chris smiled at his partner. “I think that you should do anything that makes you happy. If this is what you want to do, then I’m behind you one hundred percent. We’ll work out all the details as they come up. It’s not like my job isn’t flexible enough to work around.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. The only thing you need to consider is if it’s what you want to do. Don’t let anything else factor into your decision, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Zan replied. “Thanks Babe.”
“Thanks for what?”
“For supporting me. You’ve always been there for me, encouraging me to do whatever makes me happy.”
“That’s because you make me happier than I ever imagined being,” Chris said softly. “I only want to return the favor.”
“You do. Every day, just by being you.” Zan leaned over and kissed Chris deeply, his career change far from his mind. The kiss only lasted a few moments before Chris pulled back. Zan looked at him in confusion. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I just wanted to look in those beautiful eyes of yours and tell you how much I love you.”
Zan felt the familiar flutter in his gut that he always felt when Chris declared his love. “I love you, too.”
Nothing more was said between them with words. Their actions said it all as they made gentle love to each other, thoughts of work, careers, and obligations pushed into the backs of their minds for another day.
End of part 15
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