Now That You're Here - The College Years

Chapter 26


By the time Eric pulled his SUV into the condo parking lot, it was well after six. The empty spot where Steve normally parked told him he couldn’t have planned it better if he tried. He knew his brother was going to have a million questions, and rightly so, but he just wasn’t ready to answer them. Not after watching Cooper’s body being laid to rest early that morning. It had left him feeling very sad and alone, which was ridiculous. They had broken up more than six months earlier and he was getting on with his life. He had felt bad for Dane. The long ride was made in silence, mostly due to all the thoughts and memories floating around in his head. The poor guy was at his beck and call all week and had to be thrilled to be home and able to go back to his normal life.

“I’m sorry the drive home was so quiet. I just have a lot on my mind,” Eric explained as he killed the engine. He didn’t make a move to get out.

“Hey, no apologizing. I know how hard this morning was for you. How hard the whole week was. I’m fine. It’s you I’m worried about. How are you really?”

“I wish I knew. I’m still so fucking mad at him. How could he do this to Betty and Gracie? He watched Gracie’s mother die right in front of him from drugs. How could he follow down the same road?”

“I don’t know, Eric. That’s the big question when it comes to addicts. They all know the risks, yet they can’t seem to stop,” Dane said with a sigh. “Do you need anything? I feel like you shouldn’t be alone right now. Do you want me to come in for a little bit? We can just watch TV or something. No talking involved.”

“No, that’s okay. I know how anxious you are to see your daughter. I’ll be fine. I’m going to go inside and do some laundry. Get ready to go back to work. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, I’m in at five, but I’ll be here before that if you need me.”

“I know.”

“I’m serious, Eric. If you need anything, even if it’s just someone to talk to. I want to be here for you,” Dane told him.

“I know, and you have been. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this week without you. Thank you.”

“Hey, there’s no need to thank me. That’s what friends are for.”

“Is that what we are?” Eric asked.

“For now,” Dane replied. “I’m hoping that one day it’ll be more, but you still have some things to work out and there’s absolutely no rush.”

Before Eric could say anything else, Dane’s phone went off, signaling a text message. He pulled out his phone and looked at it. “Well apparently my daughter is over at Brian’s. They’re having a barbecue and want me to come by. I sent Sandy a text message when we got on the road. I guess someone thought to call her and invite her and Julia over. That was really nice of them. I guess there’s no chance you’d want to go, right?”

“No, I think I’ll pass this time,” Eric said. “But you go and have fun. Don’t worry about me.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to not worry about you,” Dane admitted. “But yeah, I’m gonna go…as long as you’re sure you don’t need me.”

“I could actually use a little time alone. I have some plans I need to start making. The silence will do me some good.”

“Plans? Should I be worried?” Dane asked, only half teasing.

Eric laughed. “No, nothing like that. Last night…well, early this morning while I couldn’t sleep, Betty came to talk to me. She asked me to take Gracie.”

“Take Gracie?”

“Yeah, as in take care of her. Raise her. She wants me to officially adopt her.”

“Oh my God, Eric. That’s huge! Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was still trying to wrap my head around it. Now that Coop…now that this morning is over and I’m back home, it’s starting to hit me, you know? I’m so excited just thinking about having her here with me, but I have so much to do. I mean, I live in a two bedroom condo with my brother. I don’t have room for a four year old here. I need a house. Preferably one that I can buy, not rent. I don’t want to be one of those parents that move their kids around year after year whenever their lease is up. I also need to think about schools and childcare. I need someone to watch Gracie while I work and it’s not like I have a stable day job. I usually don’t get home from work until midnight, or later. Who am I going to get to watch her that late at night?”

“You’ll find someone, I’m sure. And until you do, you have a huge group of friends that will help whenever you need it.”

“No, I don’t. Most of my friends moved away for college and never came back.”

“Really, Eric? Tell me you did not just say that.”

“Oh,” Eric said softly.

“You’ve been back here for six months. Tell me you’ve figured out that you are part of our little group.”

“Your little group seems to be growing by leaps and bounds,” Eric laughed.

“Exactly, that’s the whole point. We don’t leave as we get older and develop relationships. We just bring more people in. You know Steve would be more than willing to watch Gracie for you. I’ll help on the nights I’m not working. Hell, even Chris and Zan would help if you needed someone. We’ll find a way to make this work, I promise. As for the living arrangements, what’s the lease like on your condo?”

“Luckily, I shouldn’t have any problems getting out. I signed a six month lease, but I haven’t spoken to anyone since I moved in. I just mail a check every month. My six months is up now, so technically I can move out. I just need to find something else as soon as possible before I’m either forced to sign a new lease or get out.”

“My mom’s best friend is a real estate agent. I can give her your number and have her call you as soon as possible if you want.”

“That would be great. It all just feels so big, you know? And I still have to figure out what to say to Steve. I know he’s going to have a million questions and I don’t know how many of them I’m ready to answer.”

“Just stick with the basics for now. He knows a friend of yours passed away. That’s why we were gone for so long.”

“Yeah, but my brother’s not stupid. He’s going to figure out something’s up when I tell him Gracie’s going to be moving here with us. I haven’t felt too bad up until now because technically I haven’t lied to him. He assumed, just like you, that I was dating Gracie’s mother and I didn’t correct him. If he starts asking questions about Cooper’s death and how it’s related to Gracie, I either have to out and out lie or tell him about Coop and I’m just not ready.”

“You don’t have to say anything just yet. Tell him that Gracie has been staying with her grandmother, but it’s getting too hard for her. Maybe he won’t push for more than that,” Dane suggested.

“I wish it was going to be that easy, but it’s not,” Eric sighed. “I’ll figure something out. You go see your daughter. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, but call me later if you need to talk. Or if you just want to call, alright?”

Eric smiled before leaning in and kissing Dane softly on the lips. The kiss was quick, over way too soon for both of them. “Thanks, I will. But don’t worry about me. I’m good.”

“Liar,” Dane said teasingly as he climbed out of the SUV. He grabbed the small overnight bag he had stopped home to pack on their way to Flagstaff and headed to his car. As anxious as he was to see Julia, he really wasn’t ready to walk away from Eric. Not after what had transpired between them on Monday night and then the closeness they shared the rest of the week. He was afraid that things would go back to the way they used to be come the morning and that would really suck. He wanted their relationship to grow. It had been all he’d been able to think about all week. He just hoped that as the dust settled, Eric wanted the same thing.



Steve was sitting in the corner watching his friends and glancing at the clock. He was restless. He’d been on edge for most of the week, wondering what was going on with his brother. He knew that Eric and Dane had gotten close working together, but something didn’t sit right with him. How was it that Dane ended up in Flagstaff for the week? If Eric needed someone, shouldn’t he have called his brother? Not his brother’s friend? Maybe he was being childish, but Dane knew all about Gracie first. If not for him, Steve probably still wouldn’t know about the little girl who stole his brother’s heart. Now Dane got to see a whole other side of Eric. He got to experience a life that Steve had never been privy to. When Eric had first left home, Steve had been devastated. They had been pretty close growing up despite the seven year age difference between them. He hated losing his brother and was so excited when he moved back, but something was wrong. As close as they were, it always felt like Eric was holding something back, yet he didn’t seem to be holding it back from Dane. Somehow Dane seemed to be the only one Eric was really close to, and that hurt.

“Hey baby, what are you doing over here all by yourself?”

Steve shook off his thoughts as Charlie sat down beside him. “I’m sorry, Char. I was just lost in thought. I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

“It’s fine. Brian was keeping me very entertained with stories about you two in high school. I’m just worried about you. Have you heard from Eric?”

“No, but according to Sandy, Dane is on his way here so I guess they’re home.” Steve could hear the bitterness in his voice and hated it.

“Hey, you need to take a deep breath and relax. You’ve had yourself all worked up for days and it’s not good for you. I told you, just sit Eric down and talk to him. Tell him how you feel. I’m sure he’ll open up to you if you ask him.”

“But I shouldn’t have to ask him,” Steve replied angrily. “He’s my brother and he won’t even talk to me. I don’t know what I did to make him not trust me, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t. He trusts Dane, though.”

“Oh Steve, stop torturing yourself. I think you’re making something out of nothing. Eric and Dane work together. They’re spending a lot of time together. It’s only natural that they grow closer. It doesn’t mean that Eric doesn’t trust you, and once you talk to him, you’ll feel much better.”

Before Steve could comment, Dane walked in, saying his hellos as he made his way over to his daughter and took her right out of Sandy’s arms. It was obvious that he’d missed his daughter so Steve sat back and gave his friend a few moments with Julia while he thought about what he wanted to say. Once Dane put his daughter down on the floor to play, Steve approached.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Dane looked skeptically at Steve, as if he wanted to refuse, but nodded. Before Steve could continue, their attention was drawn to Zander.

“Now that everyone is here, there’s something that Chris and I would like to share with you all.”

“Babe, I don’t think this is a good time…” Chris began.

“Yes, it is. It’ll be easier to just do this once and have it be over,” Zan told him before turning back to all the faces that were watching him. “Chris has testicular cancer. We’re sure everything is going to be fine, but I felt it was best to let you all know because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. He has an appointment with a surgeon on Thursday. We should know a little more then.”

“Wow,” Steve said softly. “I’m so sorry, Chris. You know I’ll be here for you…for whatever you need.”

“I think that goes without saying,” Trent added. “You guys have been here for all of us through all of our drama. We’re all here to help in any way that we can. I can keep an eye on Sophia whenever you need a break. She and Kaleb get along great.”

“Yeah, and I don’t have much going on this summer. I’m going to look for a job or something to keep me busy until it’s time to go back to El Paso, but I haven’t started looking yet. I can put it off for a while if you need some help around here,” Matt said.

“And if you give me the name of the surgeon, I can find out if he’s the best person for the job. If not, I’ll fly in whoever is,” David spoke up.

“Okay, I really appreciate everyone’s desire to help, but I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, all I know is that I have cancer and I need to have it removed. It’s a simple operation and I might not even need any further treatment than that. You all need to go about your lives. Matt and Jason, you guys go find jobs if that’s what you want to do. Steve, put Brian back on the schedule at the store. David, I’d appreciate any information you can get on my surgeon, but if he isn’t competent, I’ll find someone else on my own. I don’t need to have some specialist flown in. This is not a big deal and I don’t need to have everybody putting their lives on hold. I’m going to be just fine,” Chris insisted. “Now, who wants burgers? I’m starving.”

As soon as Chris left the room, everyone erupted in conversation. They all wanted to know the details of what had been happening. Zan settled them all down and then explained everything that had happened up to that point. After he answered all the questions thrown at him, he promised to keep everyone updated on what was going on and then headed out back to find his partner. Chris was standing by the grill watching the burgers cook.

“Hey,” he said as he came up behind Chris.

“Why did you do that?” Chris asked distantly.

“Do what? Let our family know what was going on? Babe, they were going to find out eventually. I just thought it would be best to tell them all at once,” Zan explained.

“If they found out eventually, then they found out eventually. I don’t think you needed to ruin a barbeque by announcing it to everyone. It’s not only the guys in there. Charlie is here, Sandy, even Daniel. They didn’t need to know,” Chris pointed out.

“Babe, what’s really going on?”


“I know you’re not really upset that I told everybody. What’s going on?”

Chris sighed. “I don’t know. You’re right. I’m not upset that you told everyone. I think it’s just that I’ve been trying not to think about it, you know? I’m trying to forget all about what’s happening and the more people that know, the more real it gets. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“Oh babe, come here,” Zan said as he took Chris in his arms. “I know you’re scared. I am, too. It’s going to be okay, though. I know it is.”

“Oh yeah?” Chris chuckled humorlessly. “And how do you know that?”

“I know because there’s no way I’m going to let anything happen to you. You are the love of my life and we are going to spend the next fifty years together. I’ve already got it all planned out. I can’t live without you, so don’t you even think about going anywhere.”

Chris had to swallow the lump in his throat and fight to hold back his tears. “I love you so much. I’m so sorry that I’m putting you through this. I know how upset you’ve been.”

“Don’t you dare worry about me. I’m fine, and you’re going to be, too,” Zan assured him with more confidence than he felt. “Now we’d better get those burgers off the grill before they completely burn.”

“Thanks, Zan, for being my rock,” Chris said softly.

“Always,” Zan replied with a smile.



By the time Matt and David got back to the hotel, it was after midnight. Daniel and Mark had decided to go to a bar and have a few drinks, but David knew his brother was just trying to give them some privacy. He really appreciated it. Ever since Zander announced that Chris had cancer, Matt, as well as the rest of the group, had been really quiet. David had made some calls and found out that the surgeon Chris was scheduled to see was, in fact, one of the best in Arizona. He had been hoping to ease some troubled minds with that information, but it seemed that everyone was too upset to be thankful. Now here they were, alone at last, and David was wondering if he should’ve taken Matt home instead.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty? We could order room service,” David suggested.

“What? Oh, no…I’m good,” Matt replied absently.

“Would you rather go home? I’ll understand if you want to be alone.”

“Huh? Why would I want to be alone?”

“Well, you seem kind of distracted and I know you’re upset about Chris. I just thought that maybe you’d rather not do this tonight.”

“I’m sorry, David,” Matt said as he pulled himself out of his thoughts. “I guess I just got a little freaked out by the news. I lost one of my grandfathers to cancer and I just hate that word. I’m sure Chris is going to be okay, though. And of course I don’t want to go home. We don’t have a lot of time together these days. I want every minute that I can get.”

“Good, I’m glad you said that because I feel the same way,” David replied. “Which is why we need to talk.”

“Um…that sounds scary. Should I be worried?”

“Of course not,” David laughed. “There’s just a couple of things I think you need to know. Why don’t we go to the bedroom and get comfortable and then we can talk?”

Matt agreed and they headed towards the bedroom. They climbed on the bed, fully clothed, and then settled down on their sides, looking at each other.

“So, what’s up?” Matt finally asked. He was feeling a little anxious as he waited to hear what David had to say.

“Um…well…to avoid sounding pathetic, the thought of being so far away from you this summer was too hard to even consider, so I rented an apartment here in Arizona for three months. I hope you don’t mind.”

Matt was stunned. “Mind?”

“Well, I know I probably should’ve talked to you about it first, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Of course, the more I started thinking about it, the more I started worrying that you might think that I’m being too pushy. Maybe you were looking for a break from me.”

“A break from you? Why would I be looking for a break from you? I love you, you dumb ass. I’ve been so bummed just thinking about being so far away from you. Why do you think I was moping? Yes, I missed you, but it’s only been five days. I could deal with that. It’s the future that has me so upset. Not only being apart all summer, but for the next three years. Going back to El Paso at the end of the summer is going to suck knowing that you’re going to be in New York, but at least if we have the summer....”

“Yeah, that’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. I’m not going to New York.”


“My meeting at Jackson Tech on Tuesday is to tell them that I won’t be starting in New York anytime soon. I took a position at the University of Texas. Come this September, I’m going to be a teaching assistant in their computer science department.”

“A teaching assistant? But…why?”

“Um…because you still have three more years left at UTEP? Babe, spending time apart now and then can be good for a relationship, but living on opposites ends of the earth? Not going to happen. Not when you’re tied up with classes and homework and family obligations and I’m tied up trying to learn everything I need to know to run a company.”

“But…but…you can’t just tell them no.”

“Yes I can,” David insisted.

“What does your father have to say about this? He can’t be happy.”

“He doesn’t know yet. The only person who knows is Dylan and that’s because he was upset about something else and I ended up confessing, but I swore him to secrecy. Everyone will know after Tuesday’s meeting.”

“David, you can’t do this. I won’t let you do this. As much as I love the thought of you being in El Paso for the next three years, I can’t let you put your life on hold for me.”

“Okay, first of all you’re not letting me. This is my decision. A decision I made after very careful consideration. Second of all, I’m not putting my life on hold, I’m living it. I will be living the next three years exactly how I want to live them, with you. My father, my family, and the board at Jackson Tech will either deal with it or they will be looking for a new successor to take Dad’s place when he retires. This isn’t up for debate. Unless you don’t want me in El Paso with you, I’m going ahead with my plans at the university,” David told him. “So, what do you say? Do you want me in El Paso with you?”

Matt didn’t have to think twice. “Of course I do.”

“Then it’s settled. I will be spending my summer in Arizona, the next three years in Texas, and as much time as possible with you in my arms.”

“I love you so much,” Matt said before kissing David deeply.

David mentally sighed as he kissed Matt back. He had been a little worried that he was moving too fast. That Matt would think he was too pushy, planning the next three years around him without ever discussing it with him. He was so thankful that wasn’t the case. He’d have to start remembering that he was part of a couple now and that any decisions that he made needed to be shared with his boyfriend. Of course, he could think about that at another time. Not while he had Matt rolling on top of him, trying to devour him. He had more important things to focus on and wanted to enjoy every minute of them. They could talk more later.



Steve glanced at the clock the minute his eyes opened and sighed. It was already past noon. He was surprised that he’d slept that late, but he guessed it was inevitable. He hadn’t been able to sleep after hearing the news about Chris the night before. To say he was worried about Chris and the rest of the family he had always considered his own was an understatement. He knew that testicular cancer was very treatable, especially after all the research he had done the night before, but he still had grave concerns. It was the reason he chose not to confront Dane, to not search out his brother, and to drop Charlie off at home alone. He just wanted some time to himself. Then again, he had hoped to catch Eric when he woke up, but knew from experience that Eric would already be long gone. He grabbed his phone and sent a text message, asking his brother if they could talk that night. He got his reply quickly.

Eric: I’m probably not getting home until late. I can imagine the mess I’m walking into after being gone so long. Sorry. Another time.

Steve: But I think we need to talk. About a lot of things. How about tomorrow morning? I could rearrange my schedule.

Eric: Sorry, I have something I have to do in the morning before I go to work.

Steve: Bro, I’m starting to really worry.

Eric: I know, but I need you to trust me. I’m fine. Everything is fine. I’m just dealing with some stuff right now. Just give me some time and we’ll talk, alright? I promise.

Steve wanted to refuse, but he knew he had no choice. Eric was a very stubborn man. If he didn’t want to talk, he wasn’t going to talk.

Steve: Alright, I’ll back off. Just promise me we’ll talk soon. I’m really worried about you.

Eric: You don’t have to be, but I appreciate it. We will talk soon, I promise. Gotta go. Later.

Steve sighed as he put his phone down a little harder than necessary. He really didn’t want to push Eric too hard, but it was killing him to know that his brother wouldn’t open up to him. Or worse yet, that Dane knew what was going on. And he also knew that being jealous of Dane was ridiculous. A good brother would’ve been happy to know that Eric had someone to turn to, regardless of who it was. He needed to find a way to curb the green headed monster before the situation got out of control. He took a quick shower and then grabbed his phone. He sent his friend a text and then waited patiently for his reply.



Dane looked down at his phone and sighed.

“Who is that? Do you need to answer it?” Eric asked from across the table. He had missed Dane terribly the night before as he laid alone in bed. He called the younger man the moment he opened his eyes and asked for a lunch date. Dane seemed as eager as he was.

“It was your brother. He wants to talk to me. I don’t even think I want to know what he has to say after the way he acted on the phone the other day.”

“Didn’t you talk to him last night? I thought he was going to be at Brian’s?”

“Oh, he was there. He didn’t seem happy when I walked in and after giving me a few minutes to say hello to my daughter, he came right over to me and asked to talk. Luckily Zan took that moment to announce Chris’s cancer so we never actually talked,” Dane explained.

“Huh, I would’ve thought that he…wait…what? Chris has cancer?”

“Oh…yeah. I guess you haven’t spoken to Steve, either. Chris has testicular cancer. He has an appointment with a surgeon on Thursday. It was…I don’t know. Brian, Justin and Jason obviously knew, but the rest of us were kind of shocked, you know? I mean, it’s Chris. He’s usually the one holding the rest of us together. Even the thought of him being sick…it’s just too much to comprehend, you know?”

“Is that why you look like you haven’t slept?” Eric asked, his concern evident.

“Yeah, partly. It also kind of sucked, being alone in bed,” Dane admitted.

“I know what you mean. I spent a lot of the night tossing and turning. Between missing you and the endless list of things I have to do in the next few weeks, I was lucky to get any sleep at all.”

“I’m sorry. You should’ve called me. We barely had time to talk about Gracie moving here. Maybe talking about it with someone would’ve helped.”

“Well, if I had known that you were up, I would’ve called.”

“Eric, even if I was sleeping, you could’ve called. You’ve been through a lot in the last week. I told you that I’m here for you. That doesn’t mean only during daylight hours. If I’m sleeping, wake me it. It’s no big deal. I’ll get some sleep once you’re feeling better.”

Eric reached across the table and took Dane’s hand in his. “I’ll call next time.”

Dane looked around the diner quickly and then looked back at Eric. “Aren’t you a little nervous about PDA's?”

“Dane, I lived for almost two years as a gay man. PDA's are no problem. The only people I’m really worried about right now are Steve and the gang and since they’re not here, I’m okay.”

“Oh…okay. I just kind of thought…”

“Look, I know I’m putting you in a bad position, once again making you sneak around and I’m sorry for that. You don’t deserve it, but I promise you it isn’t going to be like last time. I’m not ashamed of being gay…if that’s what I am. I’m just really confused and I don’t want to have to explain it to anyone until I understand it myself. Does that make any sense?”

“Yeah, I get it. And it’s fine. Really. I don’t mind keeping quiet about us right now. Seriously. I know you’re nothing like Michael. If you were, I wouldn’t be here. I just expected you to be a little more reserved when it came to PDAs. It surprised me, but you won’t get any objections from me.”

“That’s good to know,” Eric smiled. “Now, did you talk to your mom about her real estate friend?”

“Oh yeah…sorry. My mom called her this morning and gave her your number. She’s going to give you a call later today, after her open house.”

“Awesome. I want to jump on this right away. As crazy as its going to be, I can’t wait to have Gracie here with me.”

“I know, I’m so happy for you,” Dane gushed. “She’s such a sweet little girl and very lucky to have you.”

“I hope she feels that way when I move her away from her grandmother and the only home she’s ever known,” Eric sighed.

“Eric, it’s not like you’re stealing her away. Betty can’t take care of her anymore. It’s completely different.”

“Yeah, but will Gracie see it that way? I suggested that I just move back to Flagstaff,” Eric told him.

Dane looked at him in horror as a lump formed in his throat. “You wanna move back to Flagstaff?”

“No, I don’t want to move back. My life is here, but I suggested it so that I didn’t take Gracie away from Betty. Betty refused, of course. She knows how happy I am that Steve and I are close again,” Eric replied and then smiled. “Besides, I’m sort of seeing this guy and I want to see where things go.”

“You’re seeing someone?” Dane exclaimed.


Dane smiled sheepishly as understanding dawned. “Oh, you mean me. Sorry about that. For a minute there I thought…never mind. Look, I’m sure that Gracie is going to miss Betty, but she’s going to love living here with you. She adores you. And if you want, when it’s time to go pick Gracie up, I’ll come with you and get Betty all set up with Skype. This way they can see each other whenever they want.”

“I think I’ll take you up on that. You know me, I’m not a big computer guy. I spend all my free time in the kitchen,” Eric laughed.

“I know. It’s a wonder you’re not fat.”

“Trust me, I work my ass off not to be. Thank God for the gym.”

Dane made a point of looking closely at Eric. “Yeah, thank God for that.” He laughed at the blush that spread across the man’s face.



By the time Thursday rolled around, Zander was a nervous wreck. He tried to be positive, and when he was around other people, he was. It was when he was alone that his worst fears tormented his brain. He tried to tell himself that Chris was going to be okay, but the fear of cancer was just too strong. Luckily, he had Aiden on his side. His new friend talked him down off a ledge almost daily, giving Zander someone to vent his fears and frustrations to. Having someone to listen is what kept him from going crazy all week.

But the moment had finally come. Chris and Zan were in the car, heading towards the doctor’s office.

“Hey, are you alright? You’re awfully quiet this morning,” Chris asked as he took Zan’s hand, pulling him from his thoughts.

“Well, I could tell you I’m fine, but I know you wouldn’t believe me so I’m not going to bother. I’m kind of freaking out a bit. I thought that after worrying all week, I’d be ready for some answers. Apparently I’m one of those people who like to live in the dark,” Zan chuckled nervously. “How about you? How are you doing?”

“I’m doing okay, surprisingly enough. I think I’m just ready to get it out, you know? I’ve been walking around for a week and a half knowing that I have cancer in my body. That’s what’s been freaking me out. Whatever happens afterwards will be okay once I know it’s gone,” Chris replied. “Does that make any sense?”

“Of course it does. It makes perfect sense. I guess I was looking at it differently. I didn’t consider the cancer being inside of you. I was just thinking about the future and what it’s going to hold for you. This whole thing is scary no matter how you look at it. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, babe. If there was some way that I could…”

“Hey, I know,” Chris said, interrupting Zan. “But it is what it is and I will get through this…we will get through this. Everything is going to be fine.”

Zan brought Chris’s hand to his lips and kissed him softly. “I know, you’re going to be just fine.”

Two hours later, Chris and Zan walked out of the doctor’s office feeling completely overwhelmed. The doctor explained, in detail, what Chris’s test results meant and the most likely course of treatment. Zan stood by his side and held his hand through the entire appointment, wishing he could wake up from the nightmare his life had become. Nothing was said between them as they walked outside. Chris didn’t object when Zan took the keys out of his hand and led him to the passenger’s side of the SUV. Neither one of them were really in the right frame of mind to be driving, but Zan knew that he’d feel safer is he was the one behind the wheel. The ride was made in silence while both men tried to wrap their minds around all the information they had just learned. Nothing was said until Zan parked the car and Chris realized where they were.

“Um…what are we doing here?”

“I thought that we could use a few minutes to ourselves before having to go home and answer everyone’s questions. Brian and Justin swear by this place when they need to be alone. I figured we could give it a try.”

Chris chuckled as he climbed out of the SUV and started walking towards the river. It did seem like a quiet place to think…considering there weren’t teenagers running all over the place. At night, when half the town swarmed the area to hang out and make noise, Chris was pretty sure he wouldn’t want to be there.

He stood by the water and waited until Zan appeared at his side and asked if he was okay. “I think so. I mean, I was anxious to get this over with, but tomorrow morning? I guess I just thought I’d have a few days to mentally prepare, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” Zan replied softly. “Maybe it’s better this way. Like you said, you just want to get it over with. By tomorrow afternoon, the surgery will be over with and we can focus on getting you better.”

“It is better this way…but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. What’s your schedule like for tomorrow? I know you didn’t plan on this to be happening so soon.”

“It’s not too bad, and Aiden knew that I might need off at a moment’s notice. I’ll swing by the center later and do what I have to do to rearrange things. It’s not a problem. What about you? How has your writing been going?”

“Surprisingly, it’s been going well. Despite the fact that I haven’t been able to think about much other than having cancer, I’m actually quite a few chapters ahead of schedule. I don’t have to worry about writing for a while if I’m not up to it.”

“Good, although I’m sure you’ll be back to your old self quickly. At least you won’t be stressing yourself out worrying about falling behind.” Zan looked out over the river and let his mind wander. He didn’t know what to say to Chris to try and calm him or make him feel better.

“I’m really sorry about this, babe.” Chris said softly.

Zan looked at him in confusion. “You’re sorry?”

“Yeah, I know it isn’t my fault, but I’m sorry that I’m putting you through this. When I think about what’s happening, I can’t help but be thankful that it’s me and not you because if it was you…I can’t even say it. And then I try to put myself in your place…I know that you’re scared, more scared then you’re letting on and after everything that we’ve been through in the last couple of years, I hate that I’m causing you so much upset and fear.”

“Babe, please stop worrying about me. Of course I’m scared…I’m terrified for you, but I’m fine. You need to focus on yourself and getting better quickly. That’s all that matters, you getting past this and then putting this whole mess behind us.”

“But if you hadn’t taken me back…”

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?!” Zan exclaimed as he took a step back and glared at Chris. “You listen to me because I’m only going to say this once. I love you, you big jerk. My ‘taking you back’ as you put it was the best thing I’ve done since agreeing to spend my life with you in the first place and nothing is going to change that. I don’t ever want to hear you suggest…how could you even…”

Chris was horrified as he watched Zan collapse into a fit of tears. He reached out and grabbed his partner, pulling him into a fierce hold. “Shhh…it’s okay. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. And I’m going to be just fine. I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”

Zan couldn’t seem to stop the tears. Struggling to hold back his emotions day after day had been so hard…too hard. His anger and fear just kept building and building until he couldn’t take it any longer. The end result was a sobbing mess that he couldn’t control. So much for being Chris’s rock. “I’m…so…sorry.”

“Shhh, don’t apologize,” Chris whispered as he wiped at his own tears. He continued to hold Zan in his arms. “Babe, I know you’ve been keeping your true feelings about this from me, but you don’t have to. You can lean on me…we can lean on each other.”

Zander took a couple of deep breaths, willing himself to pull back some of his emotions before replying. “I don’t want to have to lean on you. I want to be your rock. I want to be here for you.”

“Babe, you are my rock. Don’t you see? Having you by my side is what gives me the strength to go through this. I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I didn’t have you to turn to. If I didn’t have you in my arms each night, giving me a reason to fight whatever happens next. Being my rock doesn’t mean that you can be scared and upset. It means that despite your fears, you’re still by my side.”

“And I am,” Zan said softly. “I’ll be right by your side no matter what happens. There’s no place else I’d rather be.”

The two men continued to hold each other for quite a long time until Zan finally pulled away. “We should probably head home. The boys are waiting to hear what happened and I’m sure they’re starting to worry. Do you want me to go to the hospital with you for your pre-admission testing?”

“No, that’s okay. I’m not afraid of some blood work and a little x-ray. While I’m doing that, you can go to the center and arrange your schedule for tomorrow. I’m sure you’re dying to talk to Aiden,” Chris replied.

“Why would I be dying to talk to Aiden?”

“Please, Babe, you’ve been very quiet through all of this and that is so not you. You’re one of those people that feel the need to talk everything to death. There’s no way you’re not talking to someone and I figured Aiden is probably the most likely confidant. It’s okay, I’m glad that you have someone to talk to about what’s going on. I just hope you know that you can talk to me. I know you’re trying to be strong through all this, and I appreciate it. I really do, but you don’t have to hide your feelings from me. Not about this, not about anything.”

“Look, the last thing I want is to add my anger and concern to yours. You’re the one who is sick. You need to be able to express your fears without worrying about me, and you can. You’re right, I’ve been talking to Aiden a lot and he’s been a big help. I know that I can talk to you, but having someone on the outside has been good for me. I can open up without having to worry about making things harder on you. I’m sorry if I made it seem like I thought I couldn’t talk to you. I know that you’re always here for me. It’s just one of the reasons I love you so much.”

“I love you, too. There’s no need to apologize. I don’t care who you talk to, as long as you’re talking. I just wanted to reiterate that I’m here if you need me. Now let’s get out of here. Brian is probably climbing the walls right now.”

“I’m sure he is,” Zan agreed. “Hey, have you had a chance to talk to him about your mother?”

“We talked for a few minutes last night. He agreed to keep contact with her to a minimum until after the surgery. I just can’t think about her right now. Not while I’m dealing with all of this. As far as I know, he hasn’t spoken to her since the night he first called her. I don’t know…a part of me wants him to be able to repair his relationship with her, but the other part…”

“The other part?” Zan prodded when Chris didn’t continue.

“Maybe I’m being selfish, but the other part wants him to forget he even has a mother. I’ve been both a mother and father to him for five years. What right does she have to try and worm her way back in? I don’t care if she was afraid of that old bastard. She had a job to protect her children. She failed over and over again. She doesn’t deserve any more chances.”

“Babe, you know that no matter what happens between Brian and Joan, he’s not going to leave you, right? Even if they find a way to have a relationship, he’s still going to be your brother, he’s still going to call our place home, and he’s still going to turn to you when he needs someone because he knows he can count on you. He may be willing to forgive her for abandoning him, but he’ll never forget. The bond you and Brian formed during the last five years is what matters most to him, which is why he’d shut her out of his life if you ask him to. I just think that it might be good for him to let go of some of that anger and hurt. Thinking that his parents didn’t love him is what gave him his poor self-esteem. Finding out that his mother cares might help him to get past some of his issues and see what an amazing young man he is.”

“You’re probably right, which is why I haven’t told him not to talk to her. I just don’t want to make any decisions for either of us until my mind is clear. Is that a bad thing?”

“No, it’s not. Deciding whether to forgive the unforgivable is a tough decision. There’s no need to rush things. Let’s just get through this whole mess one day at a time, starting with tomorrow. Everything will work out in the end.”

“Yeah, it will.”

They drove back home in a comfortable silence, mentally preparing for the following day and what was to come. Nothing mattered to either of them at that point beyond the surgery and finding out what the next course of treatment was going to be. The surgeon had explained that the blood work showed radiation was most likely going to be needed once the affected testicle was removed. They needed to put Chris’s recovery ahead of everything else. That was all that mattered at the moment, to Chris, Zan and the rest of the family.

End of part 26

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