Excerpt for Steven's Heart by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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For Betsy – never has a parent done more to foster the

life-long love of reading that became the joy of writing.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Epilogue

About the Author

Other Books by Ashavan Doyon



Chapter 1



STEVEN LOOKED AT himself in the bathroom mirror. He’d managed to hide it well, so far. The circles under his eyes didn’t look that unusual for a college student. The redness in his eyes could just be a lack of sleep. They weren’t, but they could have been. No one would ask questions. They would see his blond hair, dark from the wetness of the shower. They would see the blue in his eyes, never the red. They would stare at his muscles, with lust or envy, that didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wouldn’t see.

Steven leaned down, ran the water, and splashed it against his face. He patted his face dry and slung the towel over his shoulders. His breath came in guarded near-gasps. Too much breath and he’d start sobbing again, and all the effort of bringing his appearance under control would be for nothing. Steven returned to his room, moving as quietly as the institutional doors of the dormitory would allow him, and stepped carefully through the darkness over the snoring form of his friend, Tim, on the floor.

Steven’s fellow rower had spent half the night in a desperate effort to console Steven without really even knowing what had broken Steven apart. Steven had vague recollections of alcohol the night before. Of falling asleep after puking his guts out. Of desperately wanting everything to end. Tim had stayed through it all. Would he still have stayed if he knew? It could break up the team, and they’d blame me. Right now I’m not even sure I care.

Steven dressed quickly, pausing only for a moment at the door. He squeezed his eyes shut, his sightless gaze directed in the darkness at Tim. Steven felt a quiver in his stomach, an uncertainty, gnawing at his insides. The rhythm of his breathing stumbled, and it took all of his effort to quell the sob that tried to emerge. If he sobbed now, it was over. He’d be lost to the despair again.

He focused on his breathing for a moment. Let himself regain that control. Then, with great care, he shut the door, skipping downstairs as fast as he could. The cold air stung his skin, and the light coat he’d brought with him wasn’t enough. That was good. The sting was his ally, his hope to focus on anything but the pain and uncertainty.

Steven ran for his car, glad that he’d left it nearby. Once inside, in the closed environment of the car, alone, it was hard for the temptation not to hit. To cry again. To despair again.

Steven gulped and sought out his wallet. He pulled a picture out—a young boy with golden hair—and he kissed it. He wedged the photo into the seam where two pieces of the dashboard met. He stroked the photo lightly, as though he could brush the boy’s hair from his eyes. Then he started the car and he drove. He quickly left behind the campus buildings, speeding along a road he’d used too often the past few days. He didn’t need the blue signs with their bold H declaring the route to the hospital. He knew this road well.

It didn’t take long. A sea of lights soon lit the sky nearby in a familiar glow. Steven parked, replaced the photo in his wallet, and entered the quiet, sterile halls. This route, too, he knew. He passed nurses and doctors and security that ignored him when it was clear he knew his way. Steven’s step faltered as he reached the door. Peeking in, he could see Adrienne, already here, sitting primly next to her brother. She was short and professionally dressed, her clothes strictly business, but warmth radiated out from her all the same. Perhaps it was the soft browns of her hair and eyes, or maybe the way she held her brother’s bruised hand.

What right do I have to disturb them? I barely know them. Steven swallowed. That wasn’t really true. Maybe they’d only known each other for a week, but it had been a week of her brother beaten, in surgery—of her brother about to die. Of Steven being her only support, because Aidan was falling apart just as badly. And yet it’s still so awkward. He was about to turn around and walk away when Adrienne looked up and smiled. She beckoned to him, and when he didn’t enter, stood and came to the door.

“Steven?”

Steven gulped. “Yeah, sorry, Addy. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

She set a hand lightly on his. “You’re not disturbing me. I can tell what Aidan sees in you. Thanks for coming.” She glanced down the hall. “Where’s Aidan?”

“He’ll be by later,” Steven said, comforted that he managed to keep his voice level. They hadn’t talked about it, but he knew Aidan had planned a rigorous schedule of visits. “I had some time before class, I thought... I’m sure you must be so tired. You could get some sleep. I’ll sit with him for a while, if you want.”

Adrienne gazed up at him. He didn’t mean to tower over her, but he couldn’t help it. She lacked her brother’s height, and even that was just a shadow of Steven’s stature. “That sounds wonderful. I could use a proper shower, at least.”

Steven smiled at the petite woman. “Aidan wanted him to know there were people concerned about him. I think he was reaching out to Michael’s other friends. He said Michael wasn’t really comfortable with the community on campus, so he was trying to get in touch with the other skaters.”

Adrienne patted Steven’s arm. “Well, he knows you’re here. And Aidan. And that means the world to him, Steven. I know it does.”

Steven managed a half-hearted smile in return. “You should get some rest. I can stay with him until you get back.”

Adrienne stepped back to Michael’s side and spoke quietly to him for a moment. She squeezed his hand and slipped by. “He’s all yours for a few hours,” she said. “You have the number at the hotel if you need to call?”

Steven nodded and watched as Adrienne walked slowly down the hall. When she was gone, Steven moved next to the bed and sat down. The machines provided a steady drone of beeps and wheezes. Michael lay in the bed unmoving. Michael was an attractive young man, though it was hard to see that through the gauze wrappings. Steven still knew. There had been a glimmer of it in the beaten young man that he’d seen that first night—the night they’d picked up Adrienne at the airport to bring her to the hospital. Somehow, in that night of trauma, Aidan’s closeness had gotten transferred to Steven. Not transferred. Expanded. She associates me with him. And she trusts him with Michael.

Aidan had a picture next to his bed of Michael and Aidan together. That’s really how Steven knew what Michael looked like. They’d looked happy. Steven felt the stirrings of jealousy, even though he knew that happiness had been an illusion. It was that sense of togetherness, that sense of happiness however false it may have been that had driven Steven to the hospital in the middle of the night. Michael was the man that Aidan had never quite let go, the only other man Aidan had ever dated. The one person who might, just maybe, understand what it was that Steven was feeling.

The half of Michael that wasn’t bandaged was a gruesome mix of blue and purple and black, bordered with sickly yellows. Here and there a pale bit of skin betrayed the pasty color of Michael’s flesh. His face was entirely bandaged, and there was an alarming bit of red-tinged wetness near one eye. Steven gulped. It could just as easily have been Aidan.

Steven took a deep breath. What am I even doing here? He glanced at the monitors and then back at the skinny body on the bed, at the man still struggling to breathe. Steven leaned back in the chair, and waited. He’d considered bringing his homework, but right now there was no chance he’d be able to concentrate on it. Instead Steven focused his attention on Michael’s injuries.

There might have been wiry muscle on the young man once. But Steven marveled at the young man’s fragility. It was like someone had stretched the mottled flesh tight over bone. There was no meat to Michael’s body at all. Steven closed his eyes and whispered a prayer. Thank God it wasn’t Aidan. Thank God it wasn’t me. Heaven help this boy. Steven tried to look away. He couldn’t help feeling guilty. The men who had done this had failed in an earlier attempt to bash Aidan and Steven only to be chased away by Aidan’s sheer bravado and force of personality. There was no way for Steven to know they’d go searching for someone else. Why did he even care anyway? Because Aidan loved this man once.

Steven catalogued the injuries. Broken leg. Collapsed lung. Kidney damage. Michael had been beaten half to death. Under the bandages was a face beaten bloody, both eyes swollen shut. He’d had brain swelling and they’d had to drill a hole in his head to relieve the pressure. Steven looked at the oozing liquid by the eye. The doctor had mentioned the possibility of infection, and the sickly yellow of the fluid staining the bandages wasn’t encouraging. Whoever Michael’s assailants had been, they’d clearly not meant for him to recover.

Steven looked away. It was meant to be Aidan. Or me. Meant to punish us for dating out in the open.

Steven couldn’t keep his breath from hitching. The thought of Aidan like this was more than he could bear. All he’d wanted was to take Aidan on a date. Steven felt the panic coming on. He felt the rush and the disorientation and the shortness in his breath. He felt the pressure as his body tried to force him again to cry. He couldn’t help the choked sob that erupted. His body trembled as he struggled to control his breathing.

“A-Aidan?” Michael’s voice was a hoarse whisper.

Steven closed his eyes, trying to ignore the hand that was fumbling about the bed, searching. He managed a deep breath, then set a hand over Michael’s. The skinny young man stilled completely, and there was a sharp tick in the beeping of the monitors as Michael’s heart raced.

“Who?”

“Steven.”

The beeping didn’t return to normal, but it did calm. The hand Steven had covered was shaking even more than Steven’s.

“What—”

“He left me.”

The beeping of the monitors raced again, but Michael didn’t speak.

“Aidan, he believes you loved him,” Steven said. “The way he... he really loved you, you know that?”

Michael’s hand wrapped around Steven’s and squeezed.

“You did know.”

Michael squeezed Steven’s hand again.

“Did you love him?” asked Steven. He wasn’t sure what response he was expecting, but the squeeze was unexpectedly strong.

“Ouch!” Steven said, pulling his hand away. He shook it and cursed. “That hurts!”

“Y-yes. Hurts.”

“To love him?”

Michael grunted. “T-to lose... hurts to lose.”

To lose him. Steven closed his eyes again. “You do understand.”

Michael’s hand sought and found Steven’s, and the squeeze was hard.

Steven thought about Michael’s answer for a moment and turned an angry glare on the man. A useless glare, since Michael’s eyes were still covered by bandages. “You knew.”

“S-sus... suspected,” Michael said.

“Why?” demanded Steven.

“Loved someone. Someone else. Said you...” Michael choked and coughed, taking several breaths before he continued. “He said... said you knew.”

Steven gulped. Hearing someone else say it, that Aidan had loved someone else, was harder than he’d expected. That it was Sammy, one of his closest friends, only made it worse. “I knew,” he admitted. The words were soft, barely an exhalation, but Michael must have heard, because the squeeze was reassuring somehow.

“I love him,” said Steven. “I love him, and I’ve lost him.” Steven choked on the words, tears coming again to his eyes. The flesh of his cheeks was fire, the tears molten. “I can’t—”

Michael squeezed Steven’s hand. It was sudden and surprisingly strong. “You can. You will.”

“I wanted him to love me.”

“Was close.”

Steven managed a brief hysterical laugh. “Close. Close to loving me? What good is that? What good is anything? I lost him.”

“In love.”

“Yeah, I am. Have been, I think, for a while. He’s so sexy. I think you know that.” Steven paused. “He was always so confident. Out and proud and not caring what anyone else thinks. He was so...”

“No. Not you. Aidan. In love. S-someone else.” Michael’s words came out in heaves, and when he finished he started coughing and the pressure on Steven’s hand grew tight and painful.

Steven winced at the grasp, but he watched carefully all the same. “You shouldn’t be talking.”

Michael’s answering laugh was clearly pained. “What you c-came to do. So talk.”

“Why couldn’t Aidan have been in love with me?”

Michael laughed again. “Was trying,” he gasped out, taking several breaths afterward. “Wanted to set it aside. Couldn’t.” Michael’s head shook and he was forced upright by the coughing. “My fault. Told him... h-he had to...”

Steven pulled his hand away. “You could have told him I was worth it! You could have told him to try for the love that was just waiting for him!”

Michael was trembling from the force of his coughing fit, but he shook his head. “Have to let him go. Think it’s easy”—Michael swayed for a moment, as though dizzy—“easy for me? To know I’ve lost him? L-loves me. Still. After what I did, he still loves me. But I’ve lost him.” Michael gulped and the gasping stutter of his breath made clear the pain he was in. “Know how you feel. I do.” Michael gasped again and took several more heaving breaths. “Important question. Is he happy?” Michael collapsed awkwardly back against the pillows, dropping his hand near the rail. Near Steven. It was palm up and open.

Steven grabbed hold of the hand and held it, choking on a sob.

“So, is he?” asked Michael.

Steven’s answer was the loss of his control. A surrender to the sobs that had threatened all morning. Not a momentary loss but a complete one. He dropped Michael’s hand and fell against the cushions of the bed, hands tangling in his hair, pulling in a desperate effort to distract himself physically from the turmoil that threatened within. It was a battle he lost, and lost quickly. He sobbed desperately into the hospital bed cushions, vaguely aware of a hand against his shoulder.

He barely noticed the nurse come in. The ubiquitous checking of vitals. All he saw between sobs, through blurry eyes that were certainly puffy and red again, were flashes of scrubs. Michael’s hand missing for a moment. And then it was back, patting and stroking his shoulder as he cried. Soft footsteps retreated. There was a click as the door closed.

Steven’s face was wet. His breath came in stuttering gasps, in heaving, short breaths. His breathing was as tortured in its way as Michael’s. Steven closed his eyes and focused for a moment. I’m on the water. Pull the oar. Pull. Breathe. Pull. Slowly his breathing came under control. He could feel tears still flowing freely. Michael moved the comforting hand from Steven’s shoulder to his chest.

“He is?” Michael asked. His voice was raspy and raw.

Steven fought a sudden surge that begged him to sob again, to cry again. Another tear followed the trail of others down his cheek. “Yeah.”

Steven didn’t speak for a long time after that. Hurting Steven had made Aidan sad. Steven knew that—trusted it. But he’d still done it, still dumped Steven for Sammy. You told him to do it. Told him if he ever had a chance at Sammy that he should take it. It was what he wanted. Steven let out a long breath. But Sammy was supposed to be straight.

Michael patted him on the shoulder, sought and found his hand, squeezed gently, and then just held it. Slowly the grip got looser, and Michael’s breath grew steady and slow. The beeping and wheezing of the machines replaced the coughs and gasps that had accompanied Michael’s efforts to talk.

Steven looked at the man in the bed. Aidan loved you, Michael. Why?

Steven leaned back in his chair, shifting uncomfortably. Aidan would come here eventually, to see Michael. Steven had to wonder if anyone else had really realized how affected Aidan still was by that love for Michael. Because that was clearly what it was, love. Steven had watched them together, had watched Aidan break down when there were complications in Michael’s surgery.

Steven felt the twist in his gut. The gurgle and tightness and anger. Aidan had loved Michael, still loved Michael. So why aren’t they still together?

Steven knew, of course, why Aidan said they’d broken up. But the care Aidan had shown Michael since suggested the feelings were still deep. Aidan had been upset and emotional, determined to help. Addy’s presence was Aidan’s doing. No one else would have called her. Aidan had made sure that she got called, had made sure Michael had family here and his care didn’t wait until it was definitively life and death. Aidan had fought the dean to get Michael’s care covered, his tuition recovered. Aidan still had feelings for him. Strong feelings.

Michael cheated. That was all Steven knew. It made him angry. Protective. This man that Aidan loved so much, this man had broken Aidan’s heart. Steven gulped. And Aidan broke mine.

Steven had to fight tears again. All that careful work in the morning had been for nothing. He knew that now. The rawness of his cheeks alone was enough to tell anyone looking at him that he’d spent the morning in tears. Maybe not the extent, but enough to know that he’d broken down. Steven threw his head back and stared at the ceiling. Why am I even here?

But he knew. Michael was important to Aidan. And so Michael was important to Steven. Aidan dumping him... it hadn’t changed that. “I love you, Aidan.” Steven whispered the words, squeezing Michael’s hand gently.

Michael’s breathing stuttered for a moment, then returned to normal. Steven watched the skinny young man’s bruised and beaten chest rise and fall. So vulnerable. Steven carefully slid his hand out of Michael’s and stood up. He should go to class. He should be worried about his course work.

The beeping got suddenly fast, Michael’s breathing frantic. His hand was searching about the bed.

“Shh, Michael. Sleep. I’m here,” Steven said, sitting back down and grabbing hold of Michael’s hand in both of his.

“S-sorry,” Michael said. His chest rose as he clearly struggled to find air to breathe.

“It’s okay. I just have to take a piss. And maybe get some breakfast. You’re not alone.”

Michael nodded. The gesture was half-hearted and incomplete, but it was good enough. Steven patted Michael’s hand and went down to the cafe.

This time of day there weren’t many people in the cafe. Even with all the time he’d spent with Michael, for most, the hour was still early. The blinds in Michael’s room had been drawn against the lights of the parking lot, but here wide windows exposed a dawn only beginning. Steven stood dutifully in the brief line, ordered a sandwich he knew couldn’t be too badly mangled—he’d done his time in food service as a teen—and sat down to eat. He felt an odd guilty twinge at sitting here and eating with Michael alone in the room, but he pushed it aside. As an athlete, Steven understood the need to eat on a fairly regular schedule.

Steven ate the sandwich, enduring the overcooked eggs and burnt bits of ham, and watched the sky slowly brighten. He’d always loved the sunrise. It felt like a renewal, the line of sunlight slowly moving until he could stare the sun in the face. Not that he could do it for very long, but Steven loved to close his eyes and feel the sun. On any other day it would make him feel alive. But not today.

Steven gulped. “Oh, Aidan,” he whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. He sat for a few more moments, letting the sun slowly fill the cafeteria with light. But it didn’t warm him. His soul, his heart, it’d been ripped from his chest, and Steven barely felt anything. Duty, maybe. To take care of Michael. Because Aidan had wanted it done.

Steven pulled his coat tighter. Inside he should be hot, especially in the sunlight, but the institutional chill of the hospital settled in his bones, and Steven hugged his chest tight. Numbly, he stood and bussed his cafeteria tray, then headed back up to Michael’s room.

Steven had to give the nurses credit. In the brief time Steven had been gone, they’d managed to get Michael washed, change his bandages, and get him back settled under fresh blankets.

“Mr. Everett?”

“Yes, Doctor?” said Steven, taking note of the tag that gave the man’s name as John Simmons.

“Ms. Rossier left instructions before she left the hospital that if she was unavailable I should update either you or Mr. Flemming.”

“Yes, thank you, sir,” Steven said. The sir was automatic, it was a part of how he’d grown up. “You tried her cell phone?”

“I realize it’s uncomfortable, Mr. Everett. But this is a serious injury. She was concerned about missing anything important.”

“All right. How is he?”

Dr. Simmons looked at Steven for a few moments before speaking. “His condition is stabilizing. He’s going to cough, a lot. The lung that collapsed is still very weak, and he needs to cough. That’s important. Fluid will try to build up in his lungs. If it does, Michael will get pneumonia.”

“So we should just let him cough,” Steven said, arching an eyebrow and wondering how to keep from soothing those coughs after having witnessed Michael in pain.

Dr. Simmons nodded. “I know it’s hard to watch. Trust me, the alternative is worse.” He paused. “There are some encouraging things to report. His arm injury isn’t severe and should heal fairly quickly. The bruises will look worse before they get better, but other than being sore, he weathered the abuse well.”

Steven closed his eyes. It could have been any of us. “The leg?”

“The break is in his lower leg,” Dr. Simmons said. “It was a clean break and will heal more quickly than you probably expect, though he should expect to be on crutches for about ten weeks while he recovers. He’ll be in the hospital for most of that time, so it’ll seem shorter for him. It’s a small mercy.”

“There’s more.” It wasn’t a question.

The doctor nodded. “His cranial injuries were extremely severe, more so than we initially thought. We are not certain he will regain vision in his left eye.” Dr. Simmons made eye contact, an effort with Steven’s height. “He protected his face fairly well. I know the eye injury makes it not seem that way, but we could have easily needed to do a total facial reconstruction.”

“So when the swelling goes down—”

“Except for the eye, he’ll look much as he always did,” Dr. Simmons replied. “His eye, even if he recovers, even if he can see with it, it’s going to be cloudy. The iris color is no longer consistent, and I don’t expect that it ever will be. It’s likely even if the operation salvaged his vision that the result will be... imperfect.”

“And the infection?” asked Steven softly.

“Is very serious. Setting aside the potential of further lost vision, because of the proximity to the brain, if it spreads, it could cause lasting damage.”

“If it spreads?”

“It means we may have to remove the eye entirely to prevent worse injury. An infection in the brain is life threatening, removal of the eye is not.”

Steven hesitated. “How likely?”

“I don’t like to give those sorts of numbers. At this point? More likely than not. I’ll need to speak to Ms. Rossier and ask her to sign some papers. The medications he’s on make it impossible for him to give informed consent.”

Steven nodded. “I’ll tell her.” He hesitated. “Does Michael know?”

Dr. Simmons sighed. “We talked to him about it, but it’s not clear how much he understood. He’s still struggling to speak. It makes him cough. He’s afraid to cough, which I understand, it’s painful. The concern is, again, that the reluctance could result in more serious injury. If he gets pneumonia, in his weakened state, it could be fatal.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

Dr. Simmons turned around and started to move away, then stopped. “Your visits with Mr. Flemming have been helping, Mr. Everett. It’s important not to neglect the psychological part of Michael’s recovery. He needs to reestablish trust and normalcy. Having people who foster those feelings around him is an important part of that.”

I’m people he trusts? Steven looked back in the room through the long narrow window on the door. Was it vulnerability? Was that what Aidan saw in Michael? Steven shook his head. No, Michael wasn’t vulnerable, not this way. Not when Aidan fell for him. This is new.

Michael was on the bed, his face turned away. Perhaps he could sense the sunlight now that the blinds were up? Steven grunted. More likely, Michael had understood more of the doctor’s news than the doc gave him credit for.

Steven opened the door and stood in the doorway. “It’s Steven,” he said. “I told you I’d be back.”

“Aidan’s not coming, is he?” Michael managed to croak out. His voice was steadier. Maybe they’d given him something for it?

“He was planning to. When we left yesterday, I mean. There was a plan for him to come. For us to come together,” Steven said. The last part was spoken softly.

“Can you stay?” asked Michael.

“I was just waiting for Addy to get back,” Steven said. “Why would you want me to stay?”

“Helps. Afraid to be alone. Aidan trusts you. B-biggest—” Michael began to cough, and mindful of the doctor’s warning, Steven let him keep coughing. Finally, hoarsely, Michael continued. “Can trust you. Aidan trusts you.”

Steven sat down and looked up at the ceiling. “I should hate you. I do, a little.” Steven composed himself before he continued. “He trusted you. He loved you. He wanted to give you everything.” Steven turned an unforgiving gaze on Michael’s bandaged face. “And you cheated on him.”

Michael’s head flopped to the side. “Regret it, now.”

“It’s not why I hate you, though.” Steven knew his anger was leaking into his voice. “You betrayed him. He loved you and you betrayed him. And he still loves you. And I’ll never have that. But I know exactly how it feels. I know exactly why he does. Because I still love him. And he left me for someone else. But I love him anyway.”

Steven clutched his temple, clutching his hair in tight fists. “How can Aidan still love you? After what you did!”

“It was real. It’s what h-he has fo—” Michael burst out coughing. It took almost a minute for him to stop, and when he did he heaved in great breaths, obviously struggling against the pain. “He has it. With this other guy. That’s why.”

“You think what he feels for Sammy, that it’s the same?”

Michael nodded numbly. “And I threw it away. B-biggest mistake of my life. Didn’t want Aidan to feel this, what I feel when I see him. Didn’t wan...” Michael fell back against the pillows.

“Then why? Why did you do it?”

Steven knew immediately that his question had been a mistake. Soft wracking sobs had sparked a choking fit, and Michael was still trembling from the effort.

“I’m sorry,” Steven said. “It hurts that much? Still?”

Michael searched out Steven’s hand on the bed and once he’d found it, he squeezed hard.

“I know how that feels.” Steven let the tears fall. He was beyond caring if someone noticed. “It hurts me, too.”

Steven stroked the fingers of Michael’s hand. “I was pretending to be straight,” Steven said, the words coming slowly. They were soft, and spoken as much to himself as to Michael. “Up until a couple weeks ago. All my life, pretending.” Steven shimmied in the chair, trying to find a comfortable spot. “Until I met Aidan, I was content, you know? Just to look. Tried to pretend it was normal.”

Steven sighed. “I spent all my time with the crew team. We were a team. Sure, girlfriends came and went. Sometimes one of us would bring a friend into the group. But when Sammy started including Aidan, none of us knew what to do. I mean, this guy was... he’s really gay.”

Michael choked on a laugh and squeezed at Steven’s fingers.

“He’d wear top hats, ascots, honest-to-God rose-colored glasses.” Steven hung his head. “I teased him about it the first time I met him. Picked on his vest. He gave me this look, utterly confident, and corrected me. Told me they were called waistcoats. I asked him why he was dressed like a fag. He... he gave me this look, so fierce it was like it freakin’ burned. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘I am a fag, why shouldn’t I dress like one?’ And then he looked me up and down like I was a piece of meat. And he smiled a little and walked away. I’m six foot eight, and Aidan was completely unafraid.”

Steven looked at the ceiling. “Sammy reamed me for calling Aidan a fag and went after him. But that final look... I’d been looked at like that by girls my whole life and it had made me feel good, sure. But it never turned me on. When Aidan looked at me that way, even though I knew it was just done to get a rise out of me, I got all hot. I felt sexy. I blushed and everyone thought I was embarrassed, but I was so turned on.”

Steven inhaled deeply through his nose, closing his eyes, and then let the breath out slow. “I knew I was different. I knew I found boys attractive. I always did. But I tried so hard to pretend it was normal. I mean, girls know which girls are attractive, right? As soon as I was old enough, I found myself a girlfriend. That was easy. Even at fifteen I was the boy all the girls lusted after. So I let one take me home and the things she did... I felt so good and I came, so I had to be straight right? But I didn’t feel anything for her. I thought it must just be that girl.” Steven gulped.

“You f-found another girl,” Michael said.

“Yeah. And another.” Steven sighed. “Sex felt good. I mean, it’s just friction, right? But I still didn’t feel anything for them. So I kept looking. Trying to find the right kind of girl.” Steven covered his face with his hands, pulling his hand from Michael’s tentative grasp. “There wasn’t a right type of girl, but I kept looking for one.”

“He made you doubt,” Michael said.

“I’d never seen anything so sexy. To challenge me like that, all alone and he’s such a tiny little guy, you know? But there he was, barely over five feet tall and glaring up at me. And then to give me the once-over on top of it? I started having dreams. The kind I’d tried to ignore in high school. Dreams about him.”

“You found a new girl.”

How did he know that? “Yeah. A different one. She was a hot, Latin girl and she did things with her hips during sex that...” Steven gulped. “But I still didn’t feel anything for her, nothing real.”

Steven stood up. “Then I found out that Aidan was attracted to me. For real. That it wasn’t just making a point or trying to make me uncomfortable. Stupid fucking game of truth or dare.” Steven paced across the room. “Suddenly I could tease him. I could flirt with him. Because of the game, no one questioned it. And Aidan thought I was just teasing!” Steven laughed a little hysterically. “I gave him so many opportunities. And yeah, maybe I backed off a few times when he... I mean, I was so scared.”

Steven banged his head against the wall. “By this time, I was with Sarah. I liked Sarah. I was trying a new kind of different. Hoping if I got to know and like the girl that it would make a difference. So I stayed with Sarah. I made sure she felt good. I made sure she felt wanted. It made a difference. But not a good difference. Every time, I felt so guilty after.” Steven rested his forehead against the wall. “I made more obvious hints. I was so confused. I just wanted to know. I was distracted all the time. I would see Aidan and I’d want... just want. But Aidan wouldn’t.”

“You did something stupid.” There was amusement in Michael’s voice, and it came through despite the raw, hoarse delivery.

“I got blown by a guy at a party. Had to get myself drunk first. I didn’t want him, I just wanted to know. I needed to know. It was one of the closeted lit geeks. And it felt so good, better than I ever had with a girl, but”—Steven banged his head into the wall again—“it made me even more confused. I felt so dirty.”

“You were cheating,” Michael said. He cursed, shifting as he adjusted the bed so he was half upright.

“On Sarah, yea—”

“No. Not on Sarah. You were d-dreaming about him. Teasing him.” Michael grunted and continued. “You fell for him a long time ago. You knew who you wanted. It was cheating.”

Steven trembled, fisting his hands to try to stop the shaking. “I was with Sarah,” he said weakly.

“Where was your h-heart?” asked Michael.

Steven cried against the wall, holding a quivering fist against his mouth.

“Know how you feel,” Michael said. “Lost him, too.”

Steven spun around and glared at Michael. “But you cheated on him!”

“Think that m-makes it easier?”

“Why? You had him. He was with you and he loved you. Why would you—”

“Needed to know,” Michael croaked. “If it was just him. Or if I was gay. Wasn’t... I was high. It was easy not to see how much he’d hurt. How much I’d hurt.”

Steven stared at Michael. He swallowed against the sudden dryness in his throat.

“Was afraid. Aidan’s so gay, you know, f-flamboyant.” Michael sighed. “I took him home. For the holidays. Just a friend. That’s what I said. But Addy knew. As soon as she saw, she knew.”

“You were embarrassed.”

“Think I’m proud of that?” Michael sighed. “There was a guy. Sold me weed. S-sometimes other things. Bryant. He was more like me. He was a skater. We had more in common. He told me he’d gotten some good shit. Offered me some. We were under the street. Late, in the passage to south campus. It was dark. Just a glow at the ends of the tunnel. Never tried serious shit before. But he was offering and I was messed up. He blew the smoke into my mouth. Kissed me. I was so high. Never flown like that before.”

“You kept kissing.”

“He took another hit and passed me the pipe. God, Steven. Ever wanted to be happy? I was so fucking happy. I felt so good. I barely noticed he’d stripped me bare. I’d wanted to kiss him. So I’d know. But I thought, what Aidan wanted to do was fuck. Could I fuck a guy? I had to know. So I fucked him. Oh, God, I fucked him so hard. He was b-bloody, but I was so high, and I kept fucking him.” Michael began to cough again and took several long breaths.

“Afterward I was happy,” whispered Michael. “Knew I could have sex with Aidan. Knew I was gay. Knew it felt right. And I knew, I was so s-sure, I loved Aidan. Didn’t feel anything for Bryant.”

Steven looked at Michael. “How’d he find out?”

“Bryant bragged. Told everyone that we’d been fucking for months. Aidan confronted me. Asked if I’d had sex with Bryant. Tried to t-tell him. Just the once. Swore. Told him it didn’t mean anything.”

Steven returned to his chair and sat. He held Michael’s hand and squeezed it. “But it meant something to Aidan.”

Michael nodded. “Fought. Day after day. S-so angry. I just wanted the anger to stop. I loved him, I wanted to finally... I could have shown him! The way he wanted!”

“He didn’t trust you,” Steven said.

“No. Can’t blame Aidan for that. I went b-back to Bryant. Meant to curse him out. Didn’t. We smoked. And I fucked him again. I knew I couldn’t go back to Aidan. Not after...” Michael started coughing again, and this time the fit lasted minutes.

Steven rubbed his thumb against the back of Michael’s hand. It was the most he dared do after the doctor’s warning about the need to cough. Finally Michael fell back against the pillows, breathing in short gasps.

Steven held Michael’s hand and sat there with him, watching his chest move. Michael didn’t try to say anything else. He squeezed Steven’s hand.

After a while Adrienne returned. Steven reviewed everything the doctor had told him, making sure to do it in the room with Michael listening. Then Adrienne asked for a moment alone with Michael to talk about it.

Steven waited in the lounge for a while. Classes were waiting for him, but all Steven could think about was Aidan. So instead he sat, and he sipped his coffee. And he waited.

“Steven?”

Steven glanced up from his coffee. “Is he okay?”

“He’s asking to talk to you. Privately.” Adrienne looked at him oddly. “He says it’s helping him.”

Steven stood. “I don’t want to intru—”

“It’s fine. I need to call in to work. They’ll want an update. It could be a while, if you don’t mind sitting with him.”

Steven gulped. “All right.”

Adrienne smiled and patted his arm. “Aidan is coming today?”

“After his classes, I think,” Steven said. “I’m sure he’ll be here a little later.”

Steven forced a smile and returned to Michael’s side. The chair groaned under him.

“You’re b-back,” whispered Michael.

“He wanted you supported.”

“Duty?”

“Loyalty. It’s what he wanted,” Steven said.

“I do love him,” Michael said. “I did then. Never d-dreamed I could fuck up so badly.”

“It still hurts him.”

“You were with Sarah,” prompted Michael.

“We’re back to me?” asked Steven.

Michael nodded. He was still taking deep, wheezing breaths. He must need a break from talking.

“Fine. Yeah. With Sarah. I’d gotten blown by Andrew—”

“Lit guy?” asked Michael.

“That’s the one. Sarah didn’t take it well. No better than Aidan took you and Bryant. She broke it off that night. I had a meet the next morning so I was on the river. Sammy had gotten drunk, too. Whole team was pissed as hell at us, but we still managed a victory. I’d just gotten blown by a guy. I was confused and lost. And Aidan wouldn’t answer my texts.” Steven glanced at Michael. If it wasn’t for the irregular beeping of the monitors he could be asleep. “So I suggested we have the victory party in Sammy’s room.”

Michael offered his hand, and Steven took it. “Thanks,” Steven said, rubbing his thumb into Michael’s palm. “Aidan told me he had feelings for Sammy. Not that I didn’t know. Everyone knew. Everyone but Sammy. But he said he’d help me with my confusion.” Steven gulped. “I’m not confused anymore. Not about that.”

“It m-made Sammy jealous,” Michael said.

“Yeah. And he... he fought me. Told me Aidan was his.” Steven touched his cheek. The bruising around his eye was already fading. That was a small mercy. “Aidan doesn’t know, but I won. I won the fight. And I told him...” Steven choked on a sob. “I told him that Aidan needed him. It’s what Aidan wanted.” Tears welled at the corners of Steven’s eyes. “It’s what he needed.”

Michael squeezed Steven’s hand. “It w-was. You did the right thing, Steven.”

“It hurts!” Steven wailed.

“I know.” Michael squeezed harder.

Chapter 2



STEVEN SAT NERVOUSLY in the waiting room. His coffee wasn’t hot enough and it wasn’t strong enough. Steven stood up and paced, taking slow sips of coffee and never letting his glance stray from the entry for long. Sammy was with Aidan, in with Michael. They’re together. He’d never thought about what it would be like. To see them like that. Sammy showing affection. Sammy’s hand on Aidan’s waist. Fuck.

Steven took another sip, realized the cup was empty, and tossed it in the trash without another glance. His eyes were fixed on the glimpse of hallway. What are they talking about? Will Michael tell him that we’ve talked? What we’ve talked about? Tears welled in his eyes and Steven struggled to keep them from overflowing. Just now he did not want Aidan to see that. Maybe he should.

Footsteps. Steven trembled. My Aidan... Oh, God. He knew the emotion was written across his face. He fought the tears. If he could at least keep those under control. Please let me keep those under control.

It hurt. Just to see them together hurt. But this. Sammy’s hand was on Aidan’s back. God, Sammy’s trying. It was what Aidan wanted. It was what Aidan needed. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. Step by step Steven walked over. He had to focus. If he didn’t he might fall down.

“Steven, I—” Aidan said.

“Don’t.” Steven couldn’t help that it came out as a demand. He could barely keep from trembling. They mustn’t see it. Steven swallowed again, looking into Aidan’s eyes, and he cupped a hand against Aidan’s cheek. For a moment he was sure he would lose the tight reins he held on his control. For a moment he thought Aidan might see his pain.

Steven fixed his eyes on Sammy’s. He didn’t speak. He moved the hand from Aidan’s cheek and gently pulled Aidan against his chest. Steven mouthed the words so Aidan wouldn’t hear. “It better be real.”

Sammy’s affirmative nod, almost invisible, didn’t make Steven feel any better. Steven didn’t say anything else. He just treasured the feel of Aidan’s body against his chest, the way he’d done so often in their time together. The way he’d wanted to be able to do forever. Steven felt the tremors building. Soon he’d not be able to hide them from anyone. Already he suspected Aidan had noticed. His lips fixed in a tight line, Steven released Aidan and walked away.

He closed the door to Michael’s room behind him and managed two steps into the room before the full force of the emotions hit him. It was like a blow to the gut, and Steven reached for the support of the wall to hold himself up. He had one hand spread against the wall as if he could suck the strength out of the wall through his palm, the other covering his mouth to stifle the sound of the choked wail that he couldn’t keep in.

“Steven?”

Steven let out a series of stifled sobs and then stumbled the rest of the way to the bed, shaking uncontrollably. When he finally reached it, he sought out Michael’s hand and clutched it.

“You hadn’t seen them to-together,” Michael said.

“No,” Steven gasped.

“Oh, Steven. You can’t hide that from him.”

“Have to.” Steven pulled himself along the bed until he was close enough to tumble into the chair. “He can’t know how bad... he can’t know how he hurt me.”

“He n-needs to be open to Sammy’s advances,” Michael said.

“Exactly, and he wouldn’t. He’d be worried about me.”

“He loves you.”

“Not enough,” Steven said.

“No. Not enough,” Michael agreed. There was remorse there, perhaps even tenderness. “It gets easier.”

“Not better.”

“No. Still hurts, and I’ve h-had a long time.”

Steven squeezed his eyes tightly closed. “Thank you.”

“For being honest?” asked Michael.

“Yeah.”

“Hey. Thank you.” Michael said. “You p-put him first. It takes a special... He was lucky to have you.”

Steven sat quietly in the chair. It was only a few minutes before Adrienne walked in. She paused at the door before walking quietly over to Steven, her high heels clicking against the hospital floor. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“You saw Aidan.” Steven didn’t look up.

“Yeah, he was with his roommate.”

“You mean boyfriend,” Steven said. He couldn’t help that it sounded dejected.

“He was really into you, Steven. What I saw the last few days, it was—”

“It’s over.” Steven met Adrienne’s eyes. “He left me, Addy. I told him if Sammy ever gave him a chance, he had to take it.” Steven raked a hand back through his hair. At least that way, it wouldn’t seem so obvious that it was shaking. “He was in love with Sammy. Has been for months. Since they met, I think.” Steven laughed, and it wasn’t a happy sound. “Sammy makes him feel safe and protected.” Steven looked away. “He was in love. It doesn’t matter what it was that made Aidan love Sammy. I was never going to be enough.”

“Aidan said talking was helping both of you. Is it?” she asked.

“Yes.” Michael answered. “I didn’t dump Aidan, Addy. He dumped me. Deserved it.” Michael took a few steadying breaths. “Good to t-talk about it.”

“Mika, you shouldn’t be getting upset.”

“Please. Not a kid.”

“I can go,” Steven said softly, moving to stand up.

Michael grasped Steven’s hand tight. “Want you t-to stay.”

Steven glanced at Michael. “You’re sure?”

Michael chuckled. “I know. Black and blue boy isn’t exactly your best p-prospect for the evening.”

“Mika!”

Steven fell back into the chair. He mouthed the words to Adrienne. “Is it okay?”

She nodded. “All right, you two. I’m going back to the hotel to sleep. I have a feeling you are talking about things I’d rather not hear.”

“Don’t want to hear about your brother’s s-sex life?” asked Michael.

Adrienne glanced back at him. “Not really, no.”

“I’ll have to leave tonight,” Steven said, his eyes darting between Adrienne and Michael. “I skipped class to be here today. It’ll be fine, it’s one day and if I tell my professor I was here, I’m sure... they’re good about that stuff, you know? But I still have to be ready.”

Adrienne nodded. “I’ll be late, but I can come back tonight. I just need a few hours.” She stepped up to the bed. “Mika,” she said, waiting for a moment until she had his attention, “I’ll be back, okay? Steven may have to leave before I get back. Will you be all right?”

Michael nodded. “Fine.” He turned away, and the last bit seemed bitter. “Not a kid.”

“Oh, Mika,” Adrienne stepped past Steven to brush Michael’s cheek, what wasn’t bandaged, with the backs of her fingers. Then she stepped away, waggled her fingers in a wave to Steven and left, closing the door behind her.

They were both quiet for a while once she was gone. Finally Michael spoke. “You really skipped classes all day to t-talk to me?”

“Classes aren’t really the best place to be breaking down crying all day.”

“I broke down, too!” Michael said.

“It’s not a contest.” Steven leaned his head back, eyes closed.

“J-just meant that I understand.”

Steven kept his eyes closed. He tried to imagine himself on the water. The calm. Pull. Breathe. Pull. He had missed the steadying beat of the oars this morning. Had Tim covered for him? Had Sammy? He didn’t know and he felt... He didn’t care, and that worried him.

“He overwhelms everything, doesn’t he?” asked Michael. “Like you h-had him and now you don’t know what to do. He was just a part of your life, not the whole thing, but it feels that way.”

“But you had Bryant.”

“I had drugs. G-good drugs. Bryant was just convenient.”

“Don’t try to blame the drugs on Aidan.”

“Not. Came with me. From h-home. Aidan hated it.” Michael sighed. “Only time I felt good without being high, I was with him.”

Steven looked at him. It wasn’t hard to see the signs. “You still get high.”

“Not like that.”

“It was worse?” asked Steven. There were marks on Michael’s arms—obvious marks.

“Worse, better. Sometimes I’m n-not sure.”

Steven shook his head. “How could you want that, man?”

“Bottled happiness. The pain would just be gone for a while. I could fly so f-fucking high...” Michael breathed in. It was slow and deep and his hands shook as his chest rose. Michael let the breath out slow. He reached the hand tangled in tubes over to the marked bit of flesh inside the elbow. “They’re old.” Michael’s voice was soft. “Older than you think.”

He expected me to look. “But you still get high.”

Michael trembled. “Yeah.”

“Only smoked once. Just weed. Little brother found my stash.” Steven looked away. “Scared me half to death. Felt like a shit for bringing the stuff in the house.”

“Good family? They cared?”

“Yeah. They cared.”

“My dad didn’t. Alcoholic. Beat me and Mom. Addy, he liked pretty. I l-like to think...” Michael began to shake. The beeping of the monitor grew insistent. “I want to think he didn’t touch. But...” Michael coughed and began to choke. “Fucking bastard. Glad he didn’t come.”

“Michael?”

“N-never told anyone that. Not even Aidan. Needed it. Medicating my life.”

Steven stood up and sat on the edge of the bed. “Can I see?”

“You want to?” asked Michael. “F-fuck, man, ain’t pretty.” But he offered Steven the arm all the same.

Closer it was easier to see that the marks were old. But not that old. Steven felt the bruised, beaten flesh of Michael’s arm. It was turning a spectacular dark purple. They were trying to kill you Michael, and you’re trying to kill yourself. “You can’t stop, can you?”

Michael sniffed. “I try.”

“But you keep doing it.”

“People think you can just quit. Just like that—easy. But when you have a cure. Something that makes... the pain stops. It stops. N-not just a little bit. It’s gone. You think it makes me feel good to know I have to fucking stick a needle in my arm to be happy?”

“Then why do you try to stop?”

Michael chuckled at that. His laughing grew a little hysterical, and he kept at it for a while. Then he pressed a button and the back of the bed raised until he was sitting nearly straight up. His breathing was heavy and labored and almost wet as he rasped and wheezed and then seized Steven’s bicep.

“Michael?”

But Michael kept exploring, moving from bicep to forearm and then settling a palm against Steven’s chest. “You’re b-big.”

Steven laughed. “Pretty big.”

“All over?” asked Michael.

“All the important parts.”

“Fucking hell. Aidan was l-lucky.”

“Aidan felt lucky with you,” replied Steven.

Michael smiled a little, his fingers flexing against Steven’s chest. Finally he dropped his hand and leaned back. “That felt good. Thank you.”

“What for?”

“Reminding me why I wanted to stop.”

Steven shook his head. “I don’t get you.”

Michael laughed. “Touch me. Same as I d-did you. Go ahead.”

“You’re bruised, I’ll hur—”

“I’m not glass. Been beat before,” said Michael. “Please.”

Steven set a massive hand on Michael’s chest. Michael’s throat flashed as he swallowed. His skin was hot and sweaty, and his chest rose and fell and Steven’s fingers tingled from the touch. “Drugs, they’re selfish. Feel good, yeah. In your own world, so happy. Everything fire and heat and f-fuckin’ rainbows. But can’t feel this.” Michael covered Steven’s hand with his own and let out a little exhalation that might have been a moan. He was trembling. “You feel it? More than just you touching me. More than me touching you. It’s something... something... sh-shared.” Michael’s breath was suddenly heavy and he dropped his hand and pressed a button to lower the elevated bed. His chest pulled away from Steven’s touch.

“Drugs,” Michael said, his breath still heaving, “they make it so I can’t fucking feel that.”

“What about Bryant?” Steven asked.

“Didn’t last. We didn’t t-touch. Wouldn’t kiss. Not after that first time. Just fucked. Was always reluctant to let Aidan kiss. So stupid.”

Steven looked at the door. “The dean told Aidan you propositioned those guys.”

Michael gulped. “Yeah.”

“You did?”

“Was feeling brave. Not high. Just brave. The brunet had blue eyes. Love blue eyes. Thought I’d t-take a chance.”

“You asked them for sex?”

“No!” Michael bolted upright and then immediately collapsed, coughing.

Steven couldn’t help it. He reached out and pulled the coughing body into his and held Michael against him as Michael choked and sputtered. Michael’s breath, when he wasn’t coughing, had gotten raspy and wet and his body quaked in Steven’s hands. Finally the choking subsided. Michael’s hands fell, loosely wrapped against Steven’s waist.

With Michael against him, Steven could feel every breath, every shudder. “You okay?” he whispered.

“Wasn’t f-fucking like that!” hissed Michael.

“What was it like?”

“Asked him out for drinks. Gave him a look. Was a sexy look. Won’t d-deny that.” Michael trembled. “All I wanted was this.” His hand tightened on Steven’s waist. Michael laughed hysterically, sobbing at the same time.

“They beat you for that?” asked Steven.

“Yeah.”

Steven started to pull away and Michael cried out. “No, p-please!”

“What do you want?” asked Steven.

Michael’s body shook as he pulled them closer. “Hold me?”

Chapter 3



ROUTINE DIDN’T HELP. Somehow Steven had expected it to, without realizing what routine meant. More than the uncomfortable questions from Tim, it meant being near Sammy. While the whole crew team was close, none of them were as close as Steven had been to Tim and Sammy. And now there was this strained distance with both of them.

Tim meant well, of course. There was no faulting Tim for being concerned, not after he’d witnessed the immediate aftermath of Steven’s loss. Maybe Aidan had known Tim would simply comfort and not ask questions. Maybe that was why Aidan had called Tim to be there when it was so clear that Steven couldn’t be trusted to be alone. But now Tim was done comforting. Now Tim was asking all the uncomfortable questions that made Steven think. And thinking was just what Steven didn’t want to do.

Sammy was worse. He acted like there was nothing wrong. He was happy, and if he was nervous to be near Steven after spending a night with Aidan, he wasn’t showing it.

Did you sleep with him? Of course you did. And that was all it took to send his brain to that dangerous place filled with pictures of Sammy’s charcoal hands touching Aidan’s pale skin.

Classes were worse. There was no concentration; he was filling a desk and absolutely no more than that. His professors noted his presence, and from that standpoint being in class served its purpose. Steven tried to pay attention. He tried to take notes. He wasn’t convinced that any of his notes were remotely coherent, but he took them all the same.

When Sarah called him just before lunch, he knew it was important, had to be important. When Sarah had found out about his interest in men it had been in the worst way possible—with Andrew Tuttleman’s mouth over his cock. Sure he’d wanted it to be Aidan’s, and when Sarah found that out things had only gotten worse between them. He could hardly expect the scant time since to have healed that wound.

Even knowing it had to be important hadn’t prepared him for her message. He’d run as fast as he could to the dining hall, but all he’d found was sorority girls with smug expressions congratulating each other. The hall was buzzing with the details. They were spreading like wildfire, and it didn’t take long for someone to show him a picture, a picture shared already over a hundred times. Aidan in his customary waistcoat covered quite nearly from head to toe with dining hall slop.


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