Now That You're Here


Chapter 35


Time flew by and before Zander knew it, Thanksgiving was only one day away. Before he left for work on Wednesday morning, he packed an overnight bag. He told Justin that he would consider staying at the house, but he wasn’t promising anything. He was just going to play it by ear and see how he felt at the end of the night. He hadn’t seen Chris since their failed meeting at the book store three weeks earlier, and aside from a brief phone call the night before to find out what he needed to pick up at the store, they hadn’t spoken, either. Zander couldn’t lie to himself. He missed Chris even more than he thought he would. There had been so many nights that he paced the floor, fighting the urge to call or even worse, drop by the house just to see him. He fought the urge to interrogate both Justin and Brian every time he saw them just to see how Chris was doing. He was still sure that he needed some distance to work things out in his head. He just didn’t realize how hard it was going to be keeping that distance. He was so happy that they had agreed to spend the holiday together for Justin’s benefit. He was sure that he would’ve gone crazy if he’d had to spend the day alone in his small apartment.

Now all he had to do was force himself to focus on the work he needed to get done before closing time or he’d never make it to the house in time to do all that they had planned. Zander always closed up at four on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving so that Stacy could be home to do those last minute preparations without staying up half the night. It wasn’t like they lost any business. Most of the small town closed up early for the holidays. They’d make up for it on Black Friday when everyone in a fifty mile radius swarmed the shopping center and created havoc. Since the local schools had a half day, Brian was due in at noon. Maybe an extra pair of hands would help him finish up his to do list. He still had fifteen orders to pack up and a lot of overstock that needed to be put out on the shelves before the end of the day. On top of that, he still needed to put up the Christmas tree and hang the employee stockings. When Brian walked in just after twelve with Justin in tow, Zander was sure he was going to dance in glee.

“I am so happy to see you,” he said to Justin with a huge smile.

“I’m happy to see you, too,” Justin laughed. “Brian mentioned that you were stressing out yesterday so I figured I’d come by and lend a hand.”

“See, sometimes I can be helpful. When we close up though, I’m going to leave Justin with you. I have to run an errand with Zac. He’s got something that he has to pick up tonight and his car is in the shop,” Brian said, fighting to hold back a grin. His errand was to pick Jason up from the airport.

“Yeah, and apparently boyfriends aren’t welcome,” Justin teased. “But that’s alright. I’d much rather be with you.”

“Yeah right,” Zander laughed. “That’s okay though, I can use your help at the supermarket. I bought the turkey the other day so it’s thawed and sitting in my fridge, but I still have to pick up everything else.”

“Good, then it’s settled. So, what do you need us to do?” Brian asked as he looked around.

Zander put them to work and with the extra hands, they were all able to get out on time. Zan and Justin went shopping and then stopped by the apartment for the turkey before heading back to the house. A strange feeling washed over Zander as he pulled into the driveway. He pushed it away and forced himself to focus on emptying the car. Once they got everything in, he started preparations for the stuffing, and refused to allow himself to wonder where Chris was. He had been sure that the other man would’ve been waiting anxiously for his arrival. Justin had offered to help but when Zan had assured him that he didn’t need it, he went up to his room to work on the computer. He had some changes to make to the shop’s site.

Zander was lost in thought with his hands immersed in a huge bowl of stuffing when Chris walked in.

“Hey,” he said tentatively.

“Hey,” Zan replied softly. He didn’t like the sudden tension between them. “Where were you?”

“Oh, I was shopping. I went through the decorations and found out that we needed all new lights so I went out and got some. I figured that you’d probably be tired by the time you finished up here and would want to go home. I know how uncomfortable you feel here,” Chris replied sarcastically.


“Don’t worry about it, Zan. I finally got your message. You don’t want anything to do with me, our home, or our life together.”

“I never said that! God, why do you have to keep doing this? You fucked up…you, not me. Why can’t you just give me some time to work some things out in my head? I don’t think I’m asking for too much.”

“Give you time for what? So you can forget all about me? So you can figure out that you don’t need me nearly as much as I need you and move on with your life?” Chris was yelling now, his voice thick with emotion.

“What? No, that’s not what I’m doing. Chris…”

“Sure it is. It’s what everyone does. At some point, everyone realizes how much better they are without me around and then they’re gone. I have to admit, you stuck around a lot longer than I thought you would. Hell, even Brian’s going to leave me soon and then I’ll be here all alone, just like my parents said. A lonely old man with no one to love him.”

Zander stared at Chris in horror, his brain at a loss as to what to say next. He saw Justin standing in the doorway, obviously just as speechless.

“Look…um…the lights and stuff are in the SUV when you need them. I’m just going to go lay down. I’ll stay out of your way,” Chris said softly, the fight suddenly drained out of him. He walked past Justin without acknowledgment and disappeared, leaving both Justin and Zander in the kitchen in shock. Justin recovered first.

“Zan, is that really what he thinks? I mean…he can’t actually think that…wow.”

“Yeah…wow,” Zan replied. “I didn’t realize that he…he’s always seemed so together, you know? I knew he had a hard time dealing with his parents rejection when it first happened, but I thought he was over that. How could I be with a man for so long and not know what demons were lurking just below the surface?”

Before Justin could reply, the front door opened and Brian called out to them. Zander had completely forgotten about Jason, and quickly wiped away the dampness from his eyes. “We’re in the kitchen,” he called out.

Justin turned, expecting to see Brian walk through the door and was stunned when Jason appeared. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s good to see you, too,” Jason teased as he walked over and gave Justin his customary kiss on the cheek.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Justin smiled as he forced Chris to the back of his mind for the moment. “I just didn’t expect to see you. Brian said that Zac had to pick something up…oh, I get it.”

“Sorry Sweetheart, but I couldn’t ruin the surprise,” Brian smiled as he leaned down and kissed Justin. “And for the record, Zac’s car was in the shop. I just dropped him off to pick it up. He’s going to come by later tonight.”

“Sorry, Jus, but when I offered to fly out here you told me not to. Sneaking was my only option,” Jason said. “My parents send their love.”

“God, they must hate me by now. I keep dragging you away from them,” Justin laughed.

“I actually think they were happy to get rid of me this time. My sister went away with friends for the weekend so they’ve got the house to themselves.”

“Well, you’re always welcome here,” Zander said as he wiped off his hands and straightened up a bit. “Listen guys, I’ve got to go talk to Chris. Why don’t you go…um…pick up something for dinner? Maybe pizza from Anthony’s?”

“Anthony’s? That place is like three towns over. Why don’t we just call Romeo’s and have them deliver?” Brian asked as he reached for the phone.

Justin looked over at Zan and knew he was just trying to get them out of the house so that he and Chris could have some time alone. “Bri, let’s just go to Anthony’s.”

Brian looked at Justin and then Zander and knew something else was going on. He was about to ask when he saw Justin shake his head slightly and decided to let it go. “Okay…um…I guess I’ll drive.”

Zan breathed a sigh of relief and then waited until they were gone before going down to the bedroom. He was actually shaking inside at the thought of going into the bedroom that he and Chris used to share, but shook it off and knocked lightly before going inside. Chris was lying on the bed facing the windows, his back to Zander.

“Hey, I think we need to talk,” he said softly as he sat down on the edge of the bed. He couldn’t seem to stop himself from placing a hand on Chris’s hip and tried not to feel slighted when Chris pulled away.

“There’s nothing to talk about, is there?”

“Would you at least roll over and look at me?” Zan waited until Chris was facing him before continuing. “Chris, regardless of what’s happening between us, I love you. I don’t ever want you to doubt that. I’m trying so hard to find a way to forgive you and save our relationship. You’ve got to believe that.”

“But you said…”

“I said that I didn’t know if I could give you another chance, not that I didn’t want to. And I also told you that I’m scared of us getting back together because I don’t know how to trust you. I don’t want to be in a relationship where I question every move you make. That would eventually tear us apart. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m sorry, but I won’t make promises to you unless I’m sure I can keep them. I just need you to know that loving you has never been in question and I need you just as much, if not more than you need me. That’s one of the reasons this has been so hard on me. You know, you told me at the store that morning that you don’t know how to live without me. Do you think it’s any easier for me? God, Chris, I gave up everything to be with you. I was twenty-one and still in college when we met and from that first kiss, I knew that I’d follow you to the ends of the earth if I had to. You have to believe that I’m going to do everything I can to work this out so that we can get our life back. It’s just so hard when I think about what you did. I just keep thinking that…you know what? Never mind. Listen, tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. How about if we put this all aside for now and just focus on our family. Let’s just be thankful that Brian and Justin are still with us, okay? Maybe we can have dinner on Saturday night and talk more then. How does that sound?”

Chris sat up and looked into Zander’s eyes, his hand finding its way to the younger man’s cheek. “I really am so sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you. I don’t know what I was thinking when I…no, I obviously wasn’t thinking when I did what I did, otherwise it never would’ve happened. I was just feeling so lost for awhile. I should’ve talked to you about it, but there was so much going on and I didn’t want to add to the stress that we were both under. I just figured I’d deal with it on my own, but somehow I ended up with Ryan and…I don’t know. I just got in over my head,” Chris admitted sadly. “Look, you’re right. It’s the holidays and I don’t want to ruin it for the boys with all our drama. Saturday night sounds great. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”

“How about if you come to my apartment? I’ll cook and we’ll have privacy so we can talk. Alright?”

Before Chris could answer, his cell phone rang on the nightstand. Both he and Zan could see that it was Ryan calling.

“I swear, I haven’t spoken to him since I ended things. I ran into him at the mall the other day, but I just nodded and kept going and he didn’t follow me. I didn’t even realize that I still had his number. I thought I had deleted it.”

“Answer it,” Zan said as he stood up. Chris’s hand on his wrist prevented him from leaving. “Go ahead, it’s okay. I’ll just give you some privacy.”

“I don’t need privacy,” Chris said as he tightened his grip on Zander’s wrist, pulling him back down on the bed. “I don’t even have to answer it.”

“Go ahead,” Zan said, but this time he didn’t attempt to leave.

Chris watched him for another moment before reaching for the phone. His hand shook with nerves. He felt like he was finally making progress with Zander. The last thing he wanted was Ryan’s call to ruin it. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” Ryan replied softly. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t be calling you but I couldn’t help myself.”

“You’re right. You shouldn’t be calling me. We said our goodbyes a month ago.” Chris released Zander’s wrist and took his hand in an unconscious effort to offer support.

“I know. I just wanted to see if you’re alright. You didn’t look so good when I saw you the other day.”

“I’m fine. It’s been a tough month. Zander…he was really upset when I told him about us. He’s been staying in an apartment in town, but we’re trying to work things out,” Chris said honestly.

“I’m sorry, Babe. Is there anything I can do? Maybe if I talk to him…”

“And say what, exactly? What could you possibly say to him that would make what happened between us any easier for him to accept?” Chris asked incredulously. He felt Zan stiffen beside him, but didn’t let go of his hand.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I only want to help.”

“You could help by not calling me again,” Chris suggested tersely. “He’s sitting right alongside of me and we’re getting ready to celebrate the holiday with our family. I’m sure he’s not too happy that you called.”

“I’m sorry. Yeah, I’ll…uh…yeah, okay. I won’t call again. Take care of yourself, Chris. I love you.”

“Goodbye Ryan,” Chris said before disconnecting the call. He put the phone back on the nightstand and then turned to Zan. “I’m so sorry about that.”

“He loves you,” Zan said, having obviously overheard the conversation.

“I know,” Chris answered carefully.

“And you don’t feel…”

“No, I don’t,” Chris assured him. “I love you and only you.”

Zander nodded his head and gave Chris a small smile. “I’ve still got pies to make. Want to come keep me company?”

“Absolutely,” Chris smiled in return. “I heard Brian and Jason here. Where did they all go?”

“Oh, I sent them to pick up pizza from Anthony’s so we could have some privacy. They should be back soon.”

“Good, I’m suddenly starving,” Chris said sheepishly.

“Yeah, I’m kind of hungry myself,” Zander laughed. He squeezed Chris’s hand and then pulled the man off the bed. “Come on. Those pies won’t make themselves.”

Together they walked to the kitchen…hand in hand.



“I’d still like to know why Zan sent us all the way to Anthony’s,” Brian said as they sat waiting for their pizzas.

Justin sighed. He was sick of listening to Brian whine. “Jas, can you excuse us for a second. I’m sorry, but I need to talk to Brian.”

“Yeah, it’s cool. Why don’t you guys go out to the jeep and I’ll bring out the pizzas when they’re ready?” Jason offered.

“Thanks.” Justin grabbed Brian by the hand and dragged him outside. Once they were standing alongside the jeep, Justin told him about Chris’s outburst.

“Shit, I didn’t realize…I mean, I guess it makes sense in a way. God knows I’m still pretty screwed up from my childhood. It’s not surprising that Chris would be, too. I just always figured that he was stronger than me and handled it better.”

“Apparently not,” Justin sighed. “He actually thinks that everyone is just going to leave him one day. Poor Zander didn’t know what to say. Then you guys showed up. That’s why he wanted us to go so far out of the way. He wanted to make sure they had privacy and he probably didn’t feel comfortable saying that in front of Jason. Jason knows that Zan moved out, but I would never tell him the more intimate details of what’s going on.”

“Yeah, I get it now. Damn, I hope Chris is okay. Do you have any idea what Zan was going to say to him? Is Zan even the right person to help him under the circumstances?”

“Actually, I think Zander is the only person that can help him right now. Trust me, hearing the sadness and pain in Chris’s voice really shook Zan. He’ll find a way to help him.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Jason said as he walked towards the jeep, three pizza boxes in his hands. “But these are kind of hot.”

“Here, let me get the door open,” Brian said as he unlocked the jeep and opened the door. He took the pizza from Jason and placed it carefully in the back seat. “Alright, let’s get out of here. I’m starving.”

When they reached the house, Brian and Justin looked at each other momentarily, both of them wondering if they’d been gone long enough. Figuring that they didn’t have much choice, they slowly got out of the jeep and made their way inside with Jason oblivious to their trepidation. Justin walked in first and stopped short when he entered the kitchen and found Zander and Chris there together, laughing like old friends.

“Hey, is…um…everything alright?”

Chris looked at Justin and smiled. “Yeah, everything’s good. Can I talk to you alone for a minute?”

Justin was a little surprised. “Uh, sure.” He followed Chris down the hall to the bedroom, anxious to hear what the older man had to say.

“Listen, I just wanted to apologize to you. I never meant for you to hear my dramatic outburst. Hell, I never really meant to have it. I guess Zander leaving has made me dredge up a lot of insecurities that I managed to ignore for a very long time. It appears that Brian isn’t the only one with issues,” Chris chuckled.

“Chris, there’s absolutely no reason to apologize. Maybe your outburst was a good thing. It apparently got you and Zan talking again,” Justin pointed out. “But please tell me that you don’t really believe what you said about being left alone with no one to love you. I don’t know what’s going to happen between you and Zan, but Brian is your brother and he’s never going anywhere. And then there’s me. You know, when I was still living at the Johnson’s, I kind of felt like you. I felt like I was all alone in the world and that no one was ever going to love me again. Now I know better. Regardless of what you two say, taking me in was one of the nicest things anyone could ever do for me. You guys gave me a family when I never thought I’d have one again, and I love you both for that. You’ve told me before that no matter where I end up after high school; this will always be my home. The same goes for you. No matter what happens in the future, we’re family and I love my family.”

“Come here, you,” Chris mumbled as he pulled Justin to him and hugged him tight. “I love you, too and I’m so glad that Zander brought you home to us.”



Brian waited until Chris and Justin were gone before turning to Zander. “Is he okay?”

“Um…I think so,” Zander replied as he glanced over at Jason.

“Hey, I never took my stuff upstairs earlier. Why don’t I go do that now?” Jason offered. He could tell that Zander and Brian needed a few minutes.

“Just put your stuff in my room for now. We’re not sure of the sleeping arrangements for tonight,” Brian said.

“It’s okay, Bri. When Justin offered his room, he didn’t know that Jason would be here. It’s really not a problem for me to go home,” Zander said.

“No, it’s okay. I have the roll away. I picked it up from Stacy yesterday while Justin was with you and stashed it in the garage. You can still have Justin’s room. Jason can stay in my room with us. It’s not like he’d be interrupting anything. We still have rules to follow, remember?” Brian winked at him.

“Okay, I’ll just go take my stuff up to your room, then,” Jason said before disappearing.

“So what happened?” Brian asked as soon as Jason was gone. “Is he really okay?”

“Yeah, he’ll be alright,” Zander replied. “He’s pretty messed up though. I think your parents hurt him a lot more than he let on. I don’t know how much I can do for him under the circumstances, so you’re going to have to look out for him. See if you can get him to talk to someone.”

“Justin said he was talking about being left alone. Does he really think that I’m going to go off to college and never come back? Just walk away and turn my back on my own brother?”

“You know, Brian; he still holds a lot of guilt for when you were gone from his life. He seems to think he should’ve fought harder to see you, even though he knows deep down inside that your parents would never have allowed it. He did the best that he could. He even used to sneak into Bisbee in hopes of catching you on your own somewhere, but it never seemed to work out for him. And after your father had him arrested…”

“He was arrested?” Brian asked in horror.

“He never told you that story? The last time he went in search of you, he was determined that he wasn’t going to leave Bisbee until he spoke to you. It was probably about a year before you came to live with us. I offered to go with him, but he wanted to do it on his own. I think a part of him figured he’d need me to bail him out of jail. He went to the school and sat outside, hoping to find you before you got on the bus. Apparently one of your dad’s drinking buddies saw you there and called Jack to warn him. He called the police and told them that Chris was a pedophile looking to snatch up little boys. Poor Chris was down at the police station for hours while they got it all straightened out. Luckily a few of the cops on the force had gone to school with Chris and vouched for him. They eventually released him but warned him to stay away until you were older. They said that your father could easily file some kind of stalker charges or something and get a restraining order if he wanted to. I managed to get him to listen to their advice, but I don’t think he was the same after that. Not until you were here with us.”

“That fucking asshole!” Brian exclaimed but then quickly calmed down. Getting mad at Jack Kinney once again wasn’t going to help his brother. “But what happened back then was completely different. Yeah, I was mad when he first left. I thought he just went away and forgot all about me, but now I know the truth. I know that it wasn’t his choice to leave me so why would he think that I’d leave him? I’d never do that. Hell, you guys are the reason I want to go to Arizona State. When I was younger, I used to want to go to UCLA. I always thought it would be cool living in California, you know? But now I realize that my desire to go away was based on wanting to get away from my parents. That’s not an issue now. It’s going to be hard enough living on campus and not having you guys in the same house. I can’t imagine not being able to at least jump in my jeep and drive home to see you whenever I want to. He’s got to know that I love him. He’s my family and that’s forever.”

“I do know that…kind of,” Chris said from the doorway. “I think I just went a little crazy in the last few weeks. Apparently I have some real abandonment issues and Zander leaving brought them all to the surface…not that it’s his fault,” he was quick to add. “I’m going to get them worked out, I promise.”

“Good, because I’m used to being the only one with issues around here,” Brian teased. “But seriously, Chris, you will never be alone. No matter what happens, you’re my big brother and I’ll always need you in my life.”

Chris grabbed Brian and pulled him into a big bear hug. “Thank you,” he whispered into his ear.

“You’re welcome,” Brian whispered, hugging him back.

“Well, I hate to interrupt, but I’ve got pies to bake and poor Jason is probably hiding upstairs, starving and thinking we’re incredibly rude,” Zander laughed.

“Shit, I’ll go get him,” Justin said sheepishly. “You guys get the plates ready. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

“Some things never change,” Brian teased as he grabbed Justin’s wrist and pulled him close for a quick kiss. “Now hurry up. Zander has pies to make and I promised Zac that we’d watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas when he got back here…as a family.” He glanced over at Zander as he said the last part.

“Sounds good to me,” Zander said with a bright smile.

“Yeah, me too,” Chris added cheerfully.

“You know, guys; I think it’s finally starting to feel like Thanksgiving around here. Thank you,” Justin said and then disappeared before anyone could comment further. Brian just looked at Chris and Zander and smiled before going to get the plates ready. They had a fun night ahead of them and he couldn’t wait to put away all the drama and enjoy it.

End of part 35

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