I looked out into the yard through my bedroom window, gazing at the late spring afternoon. Thin stripes of sunshine crossed my skin as I peered through the blinds, unconcerned if anyone were to see me. I was conscious of the steady ache from my behind and struggled to sort out its consequences; a line I had crossed that couldn't be undone. It was a little surprising that I felt so analytical while at the same time feeling very much out of control. It was the strangest feeling of careening wildly and also being a spectator to the ongoing wreck that is my life. At sixteen, how could I be so screwed up?
I should be basking in an afterglow. I should be high on the emotion of having finally given myself to my boyfriend as he'd done so many times. I should be...a lot of things. Right now my brother was at his girlfriend's house getting laid for the first time. They'd planned it, knowing when her parents wouldn't be home. She wanted to sleep with my brother, and goodness knows Jamie wanted to sleep with her. So I'd planned much as my brother had, because I wanted to sleep with Ash, for him to fuck me. My reasons, though, were complicated. Desire, love, regret and punishment.
Since my mother had started her slide into the end of her life I'd been dealing with changes I wasn't prepared for, and I wasn't sure I'd handled any of it particularly well. I'm not sure how anyone really prepares for their parent dying. Even Ash, whose birth parents were crap, would probably still be upset to find out they were dead. My mother had been the center of my universe, though I hadn't really known it. Does anyone until it's too late? Or was it another black mark on me that I hadn't understood until she was slipping away from me? Was that lack of maturity? Had I not been old enough to get it or something worse? Some character flaw?
My mother had explained how she'd kept the identity of my father from me. I'd felt a tickle of resentment at the time. It was overwhelming to find my father, then Evelyn and my half-brothers. They'd all welcomed me as if I'd always belonged with them, especially Jamie. I don't know why. Maybe that's what bothers me, not really understanding. Why does Jamie love me so much? I know we're close in age and look similar. He liked the idea of a confidante and it was exciting to feed off that energy, but it's one thing to like the idea of a brother to share with and quite another to love that brother and share things. Everyone talks about sharing, but few people really like to do it.
I loved them back, though. I could probably list reasons, but reasons just don't seem to have a whole lot to do with emotions.
Ash. If anyone has a reason to hate me, it's him. Why does he love me so much? What does he see that makes him push on and work on our relationship? I know why I love Ash, probably one of the few things I think I really understand. Ash has been hurt and let down by so many people, me included. Somehow he seems to find hope. He didn't used to, not when we first started our complicated relationship. Even though he'd go without food and didn't have nice clothes or a decent home, he still had the courage to walk up to me to tell me he thought I was cute. It takes courage. Anyone who has ever been to a school dance knows about the groups of people hanging out together because they can't screw up the courage to ask someone to dance. Maybe that kind of bravery doesn't mean much to some people, but it's all relative. Later in life, if I have the misfortune to wind up in a war or something, I might think such bravery to be a trifle. But I hope not.
Asher is stronger than I am, though. I had advantages, yes. I'm beginning to understand that life experiences are subjective. I know that I've been on a roller coaster, accepting my father's love and alternately questioning why he'd love me. Questions still linger in my mind from my first days here when Kale raged at his father's indiscretion, of which I was a physical example. I came from money, more or less, and Ash hadn't ever had much. It made him more courageous to have approached me, given our class differences. Those things don't mean much to me, but I know others think a great deal about that kind of crap.
None of that was really the point, except that it illustrates what a complete train wreck I am. Out of everyone around me, I think I'm the weakest one. Mentally. I've discussed that at length with the therapist and he's reminded me time and again that I'm not competing against the world...but in some ways we always are. We can revel in our accomplishments and milestones, but the people that are ahead of us...it's hard to look at them and not feel the desire to match them or exceed them. Or at least not fall so damn far behind.
A shiver ran up my spine, and yet I continued to stand in place. A slickness between my cheeks reminded me of the need to clean up, but I couldn't muster the energy. Thoughts swirled in my head, a maelstrom of loosely connected ideas. Was I gay, now? Was I bi? Was I something in between or none of the above? I took a deep breath and tried to still my mind and take things one at a time.
I love Asher. That is clear and and solid. I love his strength and his vulnerability. I love his teasing and his affection. I love the days when we hang around doing nothing for hours, and yet it seems like it means everything. I love sex with him in its myriad forms. Jesus, I must be gay then, right? But I also...well, enjoyed I guess is closer to the truth than loved but...screwing that girl felt damn good, physically. Emotionally it left me a wreck. No matter how much I love Ash or the ways and reasons for that love, no matter how much I wanted for us to switch roles...there was something lingering beneath it all. The desire – no, need – to feel as he had. Of course, that wasn't what happened. Not even close.
Ash did a lot to get my muscles to relax – tongue, fingers, lube. I couldn't have been better prepared and it hadn't hurt that much. Not nearly as much as I deserved, but also not as much as I'd feared it would. I guess I'm kind of a wimp with pain. I was genuinely surprised when it started to feel good, though. His face looking down at me with all that lust and pleasure made a chill run up my spine and my dick twitch. It wasn't all good – my butt still ached but there was an undeniable pleasure, too. Ash seemed to really enjoy it. Enjoy me. That did make me glad. I still feel like I owe him.
That was the root of it, I guess. Trying to make us even, trying to punish myself by letting him do to me what I'd thoughtlessly done to him. It wouldn't ever happen, though. He wouldn't hurt me, never on purpose. I'd known that, but had refused to really think about it. Now that it was done, all I could think of was how much I'd hurt him when I'd been...rough. The ache I felt now must have been an order of magnitude worse for him, and that's before you count the hurt of betrayal I heaped on him. How could I ever feel like we were back on even ground?
I shivered as a slight trickle began to move down the inside of my leg and that finally broke my paralysis. I got cleaned up and dressed in my discarded school clothes. I felt restless and decided I needed to get out of the house and think. The last thing I wanted was for someone to come home, like my parents, and engage me in conversation. Awkward. I could see it now. 'Hi Sean, how are you?' one would ask, and I'd reply, 'Oh, fine. My butt hurts, but other than that....' Yeah, no thanks.
I walked slowly, the ache a constant reminder to me. I'm not sure if I'd have talked this stuff over with Ash when we'd finished or not. He'd made arrangements with his brother, Scott, to cover his chore so we could have our chance. The Ellis'es had gotten a puppy and Scott and Ash took turns with getting home and caring for the little hairball. Apparently Scott 'forgot' that he was covering today and Mrs. Ellis had called Ash in a bit of a snit. We had still been coming down from our exertions and he'd rushed off before he was in more trouble, apologizing as he did.
My thoughts were a little jumbled and I was kind of glad that Jamie was off losing his own cherry with Emily rather than trying to talk to me. One of Jamie's many attributes is a constant desire to help me. This wasn't something I could just shrug off, though. I couldn't just get a pep talk and be right with it. Worse, my struggle to identify myself wasn't something I was shaking off, either. I wish I could be like Robin and just take that attitude that I like what I like and right now that's a man. I always, somehow, feel like I'm coming up short somewhere with that.
Was I scared just to say I was gay? If so, why? Why couldn't I accept being Bi? I certainly can't call myself straight – can I? Why does it matter to me what I call myself?
I walked into Starbucks, not wanting to hit the independent where so many of my friends hang out. I wasn't sure that I'd actually get any thinking – or resolutions – accomplished, but I knew I wanted some space to think regardless.
I placed my order, paid and moved to the end to wait. My mind drifted back to Ash and me coming back to my empty house. I felt a thrill at the remembered nervous tension. We hadn't gone far for a very long time – five months at least. I was so ready for him. I wanted him. Even an hour and a half later I could touch that memory and feel the electricity run straight to my-
“Sean? Here's your drink. Enjoy!”
“Oh, thanks,” I said mindlessly. I took my drink and moved over to a counter, not wanting to sit on the stool. Or maybe I should, just to punish myself or as a masochistic reminder that I finally took a dick.
I sipped my drink and returned to my thoughts. How feverish we were to get undressed. How I finally had him in my mouth again. I must be gay; I love to suck his dick. That makes me gay, right? But my big mistake...that slut...I liked banging her, too. Fuck. Me. My infidelity always came back and kicked me in the teeth whenever I went down this road.
I sipped my drink and felt the foam sticking to my upper lip. Licking it off it reminded me how Ash had warned me not to finish him and how I'd reluctantly backed off. It wasn't fair, really. It had been months, after all. But there was no denying Ash, not for me anyway. He'd blown me before, of course, but he was an animal this time. Before I knew it he'd drenched both my nuts and moved on down, making me jump. Then...it felt so good. Then fingers. Then more tongue. Then fingers and lube before finally...yeah.
I sipped my drink and replayed the sex over and over. I felt a little sick in my stomach and lightheaded, my butt ached, and my dick was uncomfortably hard. What a fucking mess I am. My phone buzzed and I glanced at the screen. Ash was calling me.
“Hey, Babe,” I said.
“Oh my God! I'm so sorry about that. I know I said it but I'm going to fucking kill Scott!” Ash said in a tone that wasn't entirely angry sounding. “Are you home?”
“Uh, no,” I replied, smiling a little at his voice. “I went to Starbucks.”
“Oh, that sounds good! Are you sticking around? I can meet you there,” he said with enthusiasm.
“Yeah, of course,” I said. I felt happiness and I knew it was from his tone of voice, but I wasn't exactly sure why. Was he just happy he'd fucked me? Did he feel like we were even or equal now? Or was he thinking other thoughts entirely? I must have stood like that, in a mental whirlpool, for at least ten minutes, because that's how long it takes Ash to walk from his house. He grabbed me from behind and whispered in my ear.
“God, I love you!”
I smiled reflexively and turned to look at him. Everyone has their types, I guess. When Ash was still with his birth parents it wasn't just his clothes that had looked beaten. His expression was one of someone who had no hope nor any prospect of acquiring it. I feel like it makes me shallow to say that getting cleaned up and smiling at me the way he does makes my heart react in ways nothing else can. Now I know Ash is my type. There is no such thing as an Asher-sexual, but it's all those qualities that make up who he is that makes me love him. Right now, it doesn't matter, though.
“I'm going to get a drink. You want anything else?” he asked as he backed away.
“No. I'm good, Ash,” I told him. He turned and joined the short line. God, he loves me. Everything else didn't feel so godawful important anymore, not with him around. How the fuck does he make the world a better place for me just like that? For a little while my stupid mind would stop spinning and just...be.
He scooped up his drink a few minutes later and we slid over to some soft leather chairs. I wasn't in pain, just a little achy. Sitting wasn't the most comfortable thing, but it wasn't torture, either.
“I'm thinking ground up glass in Scott's food. What do you think?” he asked sweetly.
I guffawed at him. “Glass in his food? Jeez!”
He moved to the edge of his chair and leaned toward me. “He took me out of a fucking beautiful moment. I would happily fry his balls in butter and garlic and serve them to him for supper right now.”
I blinked at him in shock and the only thing I could think to say was, “But you don't cook!”
We both burst out laughing and each wave of mirth that washed through me made me acutely aware of the throbbing ache in my backside. There really was no escaping it; I needed to try and put it aside.
He leaned closer and I copied him. He picked at my fingers and brought his eyes up to meet mine. “Are you okay?”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. I'm good.”
“Sean...baby.” He looked at me steadily. “How do you feel?”
I waved a hand at him and started to sit back. “Stop worrying. Can't we just go back to you telling me how much you love me?”
He shifted off his chair, kneeling in front of me and maintaining our short distance. “I love you more than I can describe. You're my North Star, my guiding light, my...” he smiled dopily and I felt my face grow flaming hot. “You're my wonderful, Sean.”
I covered my eyes and laughed nervously. “Did you have to go that far? Jerk.”
He laughed and sat back on the chair. “Seriously. Are you okay?”
I took a deep breath through my nose and uncovered my eyes. “Aches a little. I'm okay.”
He looked at me intently and took a sip from his drink. He looked down at the cup lid and sighed. “When you first brought this idea up I was confused. I guess I always felt like, I don't know, you were sort of doing me a favor. Not exactly, but the feeling was kind of the same if that makes any sense.”
“Not to me, no,” I said honestly. “Every time we've been together I've wanted to.”
“Like I said, it's not exactly right. I just felt kind of something like that. I never thought you'd go for me ...topping. So I never brought it up.” He licked his lips and glanced at me. “I guess I felt like we had our roles.”
We both busied ourselves with our drinks for a moment and I glanced around the lightly populated room. No one was near us so, despite being in public, we could have a private conversation.
“I never really thought that, Ash. I guess...I didn't think much at all. You know where that led.” I looked away, shame filling my thoughts.
He looked at me with burning intensity. “Sean, did you really want to?”
My face sagged in a look of surprise. “Yeah.”
“There was more though, right? You weren't just aching to have me top you, right?” His eyes flicked from side to side, studying my face. Well, fuck me. Maybe talking to Ash was the way to go. I turned and looked out the window at the parking lot and the light traffic on the road beyond.
“You're going to get pissed at me,” I said steadily. “I had a few reasons.” I turned to look at him. “One of them was wanting you to top me. Like, actually wanting to try. Robin makes it sound like...I don't know. The best thing.”
Ash waited, looking at me expectantly. I lifted and then dropped a hand on my lap and let out a sigh. “He said it was important to know what the other person could be feeling. To have experience in both roles. I understood what he said.”
I glared at him. It was annoying how well he knew me, sometimes. “But...I feel pretty crappy, guilty now that I know better what I...what I did to you. How I hurt you. Physically.”
He pursed his lips and sat back, cradling his drink. He glanced around quickly and then back to me. “Okay. So is this it, then? Now that you have a better understanding it's going to rip us apart? You can't look at me without feeling guilty?”
“Don't you think I should feel guilty?” I demanded.
“I think you should have,” he snapped. “I also think you should have learned and worked past it in therapy. After six months, Sean, of us just working on us I thought we were ready. I just....” He threw his hand up, as I had before, and let it fall on the armrest.
I looked down. I leaned forward in my chair and, moments later, he copied me. “Sean, I've discussed us a lot in my own therapy sessions. I can't know exactly the confusion and upset you went through that led to what you did. I do know that I've been upset and confused before and made bad decisions. Usually I was the one that got punished. I'm past it. I just don't understand why you still beat yourself up.”
I started to bounce my leg on the ball of my foot. “I don't know why I struggle with some things. I don't know why they matter when I'm alone to think about them, and why none of it matters when I'm with you.” I glanced at him. “You're like some designer drug, perfect for me. There were a lot of reasons for me wanting to bottom for you. Some of them were kind of thought out. Reasonable. Like, yeah, you always did and we're in this together. Equals. You just said you thought I'd never agree. How messed up is that? Why shouldn't I do the same things you do for me?”
He snorted. “Bottoming isn't just for you. I liked pleasing you, being intimate. Whenever I'm not doing homework or being made to think about college or something, I'm thinking of you and wanting to spend my time with you.” He smiled lightly. “The last few months you've shown me, reminded me really, of everything that brought us together to begin with. You're my dork with all your internet challenges and dumb lip-synching stuff for YouTube right down to cuddling for a movie night.”
I smiled reflexively, but pushed forward with the conversation. “But don't you think we should be equal? Like one person not being the bottom all the time and stuff?”
“Well, yeah,” he said with a nod and then he blushed. “Maybe I was wrong, though. You know?” he asked, looking at me. “If I'd have asked you to bottom, maybe you'd have said yes.”
I tilted my head to one side. “I'd like to think you're right.”
He sighed and the corner of his mouth curled up in a smile and he tilted his head to one side. “I accepted your apology, Sean. It took me a long time to feel safe and loved by you. It helped that I wanted this. Having you today...God, that was so fucking amazing!” he said while grinning widely. “My first thought was that I wanted to do it again. But...not if you're using that to punish yourself.”
“I wouldn't say that, exactly,” I said and slumped back into my chair. “I know how much effort you put into getting me to relax. It was a little uncomfortable for a bit. Then it started feeling good.” I looked at him. “But when it hurt, I knew I'd hurt you way worse. And I feel a huge amount of guilt over that. It's one thing to kind of understand, and I guess that's what I did. Now, I know better and I can't help feeling like crap that I hurt you.”
He nodded quickly. “Yeah, you hurt me. I didn't forget. You've also earned my trust back over the course of the last few months. I know what happened was a mistake, but not like 'oopsie'. You had some complex stuff in your head and you made a crap decision. I know you've learned from it and I know it's not something you'd ever do again. As much as I loved being with you today, you have to get that dealt with before we do anything else. To me, sex is supposed to be the ultimate expression of how much we love each other. I mean, yeah,” he said with a grin and sticking a hand out. “Sometimes sex is just all about the hormones. I had a lot of hormones this afternoon.”
“Not as many as I did.”
He smiled at me indulgently. “Given where I started out with sex...it's way more than hormones. Sean, I'm in love with you. I don't want this to be about punishing yourself.”
“It wasn't, really,” I said earnestly. “But afterward, I just felt guilty when I thought about it. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, and it kills me to remember what I did.”
“Well, next time you fuck me, you'll be gentle and loving like you always had been. It'll be over, behind us.”
I sat back, a little stunned he'd even said that. “Ash...look, I know it sounds a little...pompous when I say we make love. I mean I love you and I don't think I could do this without loving you, first.” I hesitated. “After what we're talking about it feels a little weird for you to bring up switching roles, again.”
He looked a little from side to side and scrunched his lips, a silly look. He blew out a breath and smiled at me. “You know I love you. You've known that for a long time. I'm not going to say it doesn't matter who does what. You know, sometimes we'll want to switch things. I just got my first taste of topping and...I really liked it. As long as you did, I know I'm going to want you like that again.” He reached out and covered my hand. “But I also want back that safe feeling of surrendering myself to you. We have different desires at different times, don't we? Different preferences depending on the mood?”
I frowned. “Yeah. I don't regret what we did, not even a little. I was a little disappointed you cut the blow job a little short.”
He giggled lightly. “I was too excited to start relaxing you! I'll spend more time on you next time. Promise.”
I tilted my head and fixed him with a look. “You interrupted my blowing you.”
He registered surprise and then gave me a shy smile. “Well, I can make that up to you, too.”
“Damn right,” I said and sipped my drink. I looked out the window again and thought, 'That has to be the gayest conversation I've ever had.'
“So. If there is nothing else...?”
I looked at him and debated. “Nah. I think I've done enough damage for one day.”
“Sean,” he said in a tone of warning.
“Doesn't anything bother you anymore? Can't you bitch at me about something?” I grumped.
He held up his fingers and ticked them off one at a time. “I want to kill my brother, I love our puppy, my parents are driving me nuts about looking at colleges and figuring out a major and something is still eating my boyfriend.”
I frowned and looked away. “Aren't you sick of my damage by now?”
“Sometimes it gets a little old,” he said and I looked at him quickly. He shrugged. “I'm only human, Babe. I don't love you any less if you aggravate me or if I lack patience sometimes. Don't I aggravate you, once in a while?”
“Not you, really. The circumstances, sometimes.” I hesitated and then decided it was just better to say it now. “Do you think I'm gay?”
He pulled a leg up and set his cup down on the small table beside him. “I honestly don't think about it. I don't really care, for myself, what you are as long as you love me and you're willingly, happily with me. I care about it only as much as it bothers you. But if you want my opinion...?”
I hunched a little and nodded at him.
“I'd classify you as wonderful.”
“Damn it, Ash!” I growled and he laughed.
“Look, simplest? You're Bi. I think if a guy came on to you and wasn't a jerk, you could be interested. It might not be your first choice – maybe Bi leaning female? Like as far as basic attraction?” He put his leg down and leaned forward. “But right now I have your heart and I'm going to hold it close as long as I can.”
I felt a smile curling my lips and I moved just my eyes to his face. I sighed. “Yeah, you have my heart. That's for sure.”
“So! How is your parents' anniversary party planning going?”
“Ugh,” I said and put my head in my hands. “Kale is driving me fucking insane. I don't know why this has to be a big secret. They know it's their anniversary!”
“Yeah, but it's like a surprise party. Think how happy they'll be that you guys did all this for them,” Ash said and grinned at my scowl. Then he laughed. “I know, it's a pain. Anything I can do to ease your suffering?”
I rolled my eyes at him. “No, not really. Jamie and I are just trying to come up with something to get them over to the restaurant without letting on what we're doing.”
“What's Jamie's idea?”
I shook my head and chuckled. “He had this big elaborate plan about all these online places saying it was great and giving them this list of things and begging them to take us there.”
Ash tilted his head. “But it's their anniversary. Pretty sure they'd tell him to go stuff it and that you could go another night.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“So do you think you and Jamie will get separate cars or will they make you guys split one, the way your dad threatened?” Ash asked.
I snorted and smiled at him. “Practically, I think two cars make sense, but then I'm not paying for them. Jamie keeps pushing it, though. He says he's the baby and he's supposed to get a sports car!”
Ash laughed and tapped his empty cup on the arm of the chair. “What kind of car do you want?”
I shrugged. “I guess I don't care that much. I mean, I don't want something big like Lu's bus or Hamster's truck. Robin's car got him around pretty good, but I'm not him.”
“I guess I'll just get a job so I can help with gas in case you get a gas guzzler, huh?”
I glanced at Ash and felt something relax in me. I don't know what it was and had had no idea I'd been holding on to something, but there it was. I wonder if things like this happen to anyone else or if I'm just a freak? I go through so many situations where I feel like a huge loser. I wish I could just understand myself better.
“You aren't saving for a car?” I asked.
“I can borrow my parents' if I really need to,” he said and shrugged. “I'm looking forward to you picking me up for school.”
I smiled and shook my head. “You just don't ever give up on me, do you?”
“Duh,” he said with a laugh. He glanced at his phone and sighed. “Well, I have to feed the puppy and take him for his walk.”
“What did you do before?” I asked, since he'd just been home for the pup.
“Mom says puppies don't really hold it so we have him on a schedule for going out to do his business. Plus, he's a puppy so he's got to learn the leash and get some exercise outside. Want to come?”
“Sure,” I agreed. We exited the building and fell in beside each other. “Parents still on you about colleges?”
“Oh, my God,” he said and then laughed. “I'm like, people – I'm going to be a junior. I'm not leaving yet.”
“Any idea what you want to do?” I asked, clearing my throat.
“You,” he deadpanned and then laughed.
“Jerk,” I grumbled good-naturedly.
“I don't know. Hamster says he wants to go to dental school. I hear the hygienists do pretty well and I think you only need two years of school for that. It'd be nice to help people and be financially comfortable myself. One thing I know,” he said taking my arm and leaning into me. “I don't want to live in a trailer.”
“Right,” I agreed. Life had sucked for him living in one of those, I'm sure he didn't want to feel like that again. “Hey, speaking of that...time. Did you ever hear anything about your birth mom? Like, you got adopted and stuff so, didn't they need her consent?”
His fingertips ran down my arm and slipped between my fingers. He looked straight ahead as we walked. “Yeah. They found her. She signed her rights away.”
“What? When?” I stopped and he was pulled around to face me by virtue of our hands being laced together.
He looked away slightly. “It wasn't a big deal. You and I were just getting started and, like you said, that's part of the whole adoption thing. Why are you bringing it up now?”
I didn't answer right away and he pulled me along toward his house. On arrival any other thoughts were banished by the playful ball of fur with the needle-sharp teeth who wanted to chew and play with everything. She was a pit bull mix from a rescue, named Luna. Ash and I took her into the back yard and played with her a bit before Ash put her harness on and we took her out for a walk around the block. Luna kept pulling at her leash, getting it in her mouth and treating it like a chew toy. We kept teasing her, telling her she was taking herself for a walk.
We stopped along the side of the road while Luna attacked a small fallen branch.
“So what made you think of my birth mother? That was kind of random,” Ash asked.
I let out a small breath. “After you left I got to thinking is all.”
“About your mom?”
He moved his face into my field of vision. “Is that where all this stuff is coming from, worrying what to call yourself?”
I frowned lightly. “I don't think so. I mean, I was thinking about her and just how unprepared I was to lose her. I was thinking about...if there was something wrong with me that I didn't know she was the middle of my world.”
“Nobody knows that,” Ash said severely. “Most people don't think about that kind of shit until they get confronted with it and then some people still shove their heads up their asses to avoid dealing with anything.”
I leaned back and looked at Ash. “Whoa. Where is all that anger coming from?”
Luna growled and yanked on the tree branch.
Ash pursed his lips. “You know, I wish I'd known your mom. As nice as the Kirkwoods are, your mom did something great with you. That was all you'd known. You had nothing to compare it to until you didn't have it. You wouldn't be you if you hadn't realized the value of your mom right then, Babe.”
“Okay,” I said softly. “But why did you sound so angry? What did I do?”
He turned to face me and he sniffed. “Why are you so convinced you're so bad? I don't get that. Why all the guilt? Your mother knew you were wonderful, and she made sure you got the chance to keep that shit up. That thing between us that you keep beating yourself up about – okay, you know what? I was angry. I was hurt physically and mentally. When you asked me for a chance, I wasn't sure I could do it. I had to ask myself if I had any self respect or if I was just too stupid to walk away from you.”
Heat pricked behind my eyes and I looked away briefly to rub them. I turned back and steeled myself. “Did you ever get answers?”
“Yeah. I did. It took a while. Before, things were mostly good between us. I was a little afraid that...you'd do it again if I forgave you.” He swallowed. “When you told me about the cheating I...I kind of locked up, mentally. I couldn't turn you down, not in there. Then when you got out, you tried really hard. And I told myself if you started to hurt me again, I'd call it done. You always see that on TV or hear a story about some dumb fuck who just keeps taking it.”
I sighed and put my head down. I knew I'd had work to do then, still had work to do now.
Ash crouched down, forcing himself into my field of vision again. “That time, your faith was stronger than mine, though. Because you've done everything you said you'd do. I've been...drowning in your wonderful. For months. I've never felt better because this is a better us than we were before. I've thought about this a lot. Do you want to know what I think?”
“Yeah. I think I could really use your thoughts,” I said softly and lifting my gaze.
“I think – Luna! Not on my...shoe. Damn. Damn!” Ash scowled down at Luna who scampered around him and yapped. “Christ. Mom said when things like this happen, slap yourself in the back of the head because you weren't watching your puppy.”
I smiled out of the side of my mouth. “I guess we should head back to your place so you can wash that off.”
“No,” he said and picked up Luna who was surprisingly calm in his grip. Ash looked at me and then tilted his head and a smile broke out across his face. “I spend a lot of time thinking, especially about us. After the shit my birth family put me through, after that monster Edward raped me, after Kilmer Hills, after...everything. I don't want any of that back. I feel like I've been through a fire. Forged. I know you've struggled, but I think you're forged, too. Now...we're tempered. Stronger than you think and stronger than before.”
“I wish I had your confidence.”
“You do. I back you up, no matter what,” he said, stepping closer. “That's why I asked about your mom. You remember when we first got together? Before we were official? You used to cry.”
I looked away. “And you'd hold me.”
“Yeah. No judgment. You told me you thought a lot about your mom. Your expectations. Carrying on who she was in your life. I think you were talking about passing on her genes, one day. Having kids. Maybe you will, one day. Maybe it won't be you and me anymore.” Ash paused and looked away, blinking back tears. “But maybe we'll have someone carry your child. I'd be glad to help raise it. Maybe, because of my parents, you don't think I could, but I think I'd be a good dad.”
“Ash, no, I never-”
He turned to face me, eyes wet. “Or maybe carrying your mother forward is just living as the wonderful person she raised you to be. Damn it, your mother would have loved you if you were into humping water buffalo, much less me.”
I felt like shit again. I took Ash by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “I'm not saying you're the problem. I'm the problem. I-”
“You're not! You're just not!” Ash threw a hand up and Luna squirmed. He set her down and she attacked a rock. “Your mother wouldn't care if you're gay, bi, straight, queer, questioning or anything else. She loved you. Just like I do. We both love this,” he said, poking me on my chest, over my heart. “I don't care if you work fast food the rest of your life or become rich and famous. You've been through the fire of everything life threw at you, just like I have. Still, you choose me.”
My heart beat hard with emotion. “Yeah,” I said thickly. “I do choose you.”
“That's why the name tags – the ones other people use – I don't care.” He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “When they ask if you're gay or bi or whatever – I honestly tell them, Sean is wonderful. That's all.”
Tears pricked my eyes and I pulled him in tightly and he gave me a one armed hug, the other holding Luna's leash as she spotted something else to conquer. “You forgive me.” It wasn't a question.
“Yes. I did.” He hesitated and then said, “Now I hope you will forgive yourself.”
Jamie was out of sorts that night, but I chose to leave it alone. I'd had a pretty emotional day and I felt wrung out. In truth it wasn't much of a choice, because I fell asleep on the couch long before it was time for bed. We were out the door for school the next day, Robin making one of his final drives with us to Columbia High. Jamie left the car, probably going to look for Emily. He usually said goodbye or something similar, but not today.
“So, you feel better? You were kind of zonked last night,” Robin asked as I climbed out.
“Yeah, I'm good, actually. Just tired last night,” I told him. I was spared any of his eerie insights into my life by Lu showing up and hugging his boyfriend from behind. Robin started to smile as soon as he felt Lu's arms and it made me smile, thinking I should go find Ash.
This went on, more or less, for the next few days. Jamie was grouchy and not in the mood to talk. I tried a time or two, but he had a right to talk when he was ready, and I backed off. I didn't get much of a clue until I ran into Boomer that Friday at a local burger joint. I was filling out an application and he walked in, presumably for food.
“Hey, if it isn't my favorite twin,” Boomer said in greeting.
Without looking away from my application I said, “We both know you love Jamie. What's up?”
“I'm hungry. You?”
“Job,” I said, showing him the app. I walked to the counter with him and turned it in to the manager. The guy looked to be not much older than Kale.
“Want something? Fries?” Boomer asked.
“Coke?” I asked and reached for my wallet.
“Sure. Stake us a table.” He waved his hand at my wallet and got in line.
“Okay,” I agreed and found a clean table next to a window. Boomer joined me a few minutes later with a tray and handed me a large Coke.
“I like Pepsi, myself,” he said as he unwrapped his burger.
“So does Jamie,” I told him. “But you're out of luck, Boomer. He and Em are pretty solid.”
He lowered his chin. “Really? I kiss the guy once, y'all act like I'm wanting to get married.”
“Nah. Just hook up,” I said, sipping the Coke and trying not to laugh at his look of faux pain.
“You kill me, Sean. Besides, you know you're my twin,” he replied and grinned at me.
“Yeah, taken, bro,” I told him. I frowned lightly and then asked, “Things not improving with Philip?”
“Nah. We're done,” he said with a nod. “It's okay. We talked some, did a little hooking up, but nothing serious. He's getting kind of weird, anyway. I don't know what's up with him, but it's odd.”
“Eh. I told Jamie about this guy that went to my old school, right? Chris Licardi? I wanted to take that boy so hard,” he said and shook his head. “I looked him up, got on his Instagram and found out he's got himself a pretty cute boyfriend.”
“Jesus. You're on a streak, huh?”
“Well, maybe. See, I hopped around, looked at some of the friends he's connected with. Looks like there might be a single guy in the group. Well, sort of group. They know each other, anyway. Name is Bellamy, Bell for short.”
“Yeah? You going to reach out to him?”
“Well, not directly. I sent a 'hello' to Chris, just to take the temperature, you know? Not sure he really remembers me. I figure I'll see what he has to say, maybe try and work my way over to Bell if things look positive. All you couples make me sick,” he said with a grin and feigned throwing up.
“Yeah,” I said, stretching the word out. “I'd agree, but I like getting laid too much.”
My words hung there for a beat and then Boomer hunched closer. “You kidding me? Grats, brother mine!” he said with a grin and held his hand out. Sheepishly I slapped it and he laughed. “You lucky dog. You two look good together. No kidding, though, Ash is lucky to have you.”
“Stop. Please, none of this self-deprecating horseshit.” He set his burger down and stared at my confused expression. “I know it's popular as shit to talk about your other half like they are way better. I like Ash, he's a good, decent guy. But I see how you are with him, and I know that he knows what he has with you. Whatever good shit you guys got going, you've earned. You've put in the love and the dedication, no matter what else happened.” He pointed at me. “You're worth it, don't go pissin' me off with this 'aw shucks, he's the better one' bullshit. Unnerstand?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Good. Now, I'm going to need a short video of you guys getting it on – don't protest, I'm a single man and I'm desperate!” he said and we both burst out laughing.
“That's not happening,” I told him.
“Yeah, yeah. Guy can dream. I hear Jamie and Em finally cemented things, too. Twins, no doubt,” he said with a chuckle.
I bobbed my head. “Haven't talked to him about it, but that was the plan.”
Boomer paused and frowned lightly. “Now that you mention it, he's been a bit...touchy this week. Think things went all right?”
I sipped from my Coke. “As much as they like each other? They got laid. I don't know what's got him in a snit, though.”
Boomer shrugged. “Dad's giving me his old car this summer. I should have it for school, I think. How about you guys?”
“Jamie's trying to get them to give him a sports car.” I rolled my eyes. “I don't care that much, really. I kind of like Robin driving us to school.”
“Then again, you'll get some morning time with Ash, which just can't be bad, right?” he asked as he shook the fries onto the tray from their container.
“True, that'll be nice. He's not even that interested in a car since he figures I'll drive him everywhere,” I replied.
“Is he wrong?” Boomer asked with a knowing grin.
“No,” I agreed and laughed. “Going to football camp again this summer?”
“You know,” he said and pushed a fry in his mouth. “I'm thinking not.” I waited, surprised to hear that since Boomer was a football guy through and through. He hunched his shoulders and looked at me. “I've got to start thinking about school. I'm not going to make the NFL and likely wouldn't get a full ride for my football. So I have to start thinking about what I want to do, you know?”
I nodded. “Ash is groaning 'cause his folks are all over him about that, too.”
“What about you? Any idea what you want to go to school for?”
I pursed my lips. “Ash was thinking of a dental hygienist. Something to help people but still be comfortable. It got me to thinking about something in the medical field, maybe.”
“Paging Sean Kelly,” Boomer said and then lowered his voice, “The Doctor of Love.”
“Shut up,” I told him with a laugh and stole one of his fries. “Maybe an x-ray tech. I heard nurses get hurt lifting people and that's not even talking about the people that might come in drugged up in the emergency room.” I frowned and said, “I just don't think I'm built that way. If someone all coked up came at me I'd probably crap myself.”
Boomer laughed at me and I grinned, but it was true. I guess I'm not the bravest guy.
“I think you'd do what you had to. But it's smart not to put yourself in positions you think you can't handle.” He snorted. “Plenty of people think they can handle anything, and next thing you know they're hurting someone or themselves. Have to know your limits.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Jamie will be bummed you're not playing with him this year.”
He smiled. “Jamie knows where to find me, trust me.” He frowned lightly and said, “Don't feel compelled to answer me, but I just wonder...why do you knock yourself so much?”
I let out a breath and my eyes grew large for a moment. “I guess I just feel like it's the truth. I'm not trying to put myself down, but – like with the medical thing. I'm sure some people would think I'm a jackass for saying I'd like to help people, just not like that.”
“Fuck that,” Boomer said as he leaned back and turned his cup around in circles. “There are so many people that are just waiting to judge others – why do that to yourself?”
I shrugged. “I don't have a thing, I guess. You have football – and by the way, don't you think you should do what you like now, while you can? All I hear about is how nobody has time for the things they used to like doing once they get older.”
“Maybe, but don't change the subject. Everyone's got something. I know that some kids are the rich sort or the all around athlete. Some are the med school smart kind. Some are like that pianist kid. Elliot? Total artist.”
“So what am I?” I asked, a litany of crap running through my head. Like mistake. Ash's abuser. Cheater.
“You're the nice kid,” Boomer said as he leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “You remind me of this motivational poster that says something like you can be anything you want, so be nice. You always listen. You're not in-your-face about it, but you're there for anyone. I heard about you being there for Nate when his mom passed.” He pursed his lips a minute and said, “People can fake a lot of things, but you're the real thing.”
I coughed lightly. “I guess I...Uh, thank you.”
“You know I'm right,” he said casually and leaned back again. “No matter what you think, you have to admit if you were as bad as you think you are, you wouldn't have Ash. That, my friend, is the proof.”
I nodded slowly. Maybe he had a point. I was flawed, sure, but maybe not fatally so. I glanced over at Boomer and smiled. “So, you should have time to enjoy playing football while you can. Right?”
He tilted his head side to side. “Maybe. I would miss the locker room, that's true enough.”
I laughed at his dreamy expression and he grinned back. “If you're thinking about your future, where is that taking you? Any ideas?”
He bobbed his head. “Yeah, quite a few. Physical therapy, personal trainer, sports medicine. Then,” he said and held a finger up. “I started looking at what Ortho's do. That shit sounds super interesting.”
“Ortho? You want to put braces on pimply kids?”
“No!” he said and threw a fry at me. “Orthopedist. Bone doctor. I could fix some Cy Young candidate's rotator cuff.”
I pulled up a corner of my mouth in a smile. “Paging Doctor Boomer.”
He rolled his eyes. “Only you guys call me that.”
“If I hadn't known why, I'd have thought it was a sexual thing. I can spread that rumor, if you want,” I said teasingly.
“Yeah, Philip would love that!” he said and laughed hard.
“I'm going to stop there,” I said, joining him in laughter.
That Sunday Jamie, Robin and I started phase one of Kale's big plan. We'd already told my parents that we were making them a special meal and they seemed politely amused, but that was just the setup. We then had to completely ruin the meal in order to spring the second part of phase one which was to abjectly apologize and tell them we had a gift certificate to the Tyler House. It was an historic inn that did catering and casual to fine dining and they were all smiles when we told them. I think they liked that we'd thought of them and we had to ham it up a bit that we were sorry for screwing things up when they did the totally good-parent thing we knew they would – they decided we should all go out together.
On our arrival we were escorted to a large room where Kale and Chase awaited along with a room full of our parents' friends and family. They were properly surprised and impressed. The bill was a little more than Kale had thought, but Dad helped him out.
We headed to bed that night, Monday being the official start of the last week of school. Jamie had his thinking expression on and, between his bouts of crankiness that week, I'd seen it a lot.
“If you don't stop smoking, I'm going to ask for Kale's old room for myself,” I told him.
He turned as if dazed and then seemed to process what I'd said. “Smoke? What are you talking about? That's nasty.”
“Your ears. You're trying to think again,” I said and smiled at him.
He rolled his eyes and smiled back. “Yeah. I feel like I'm stuck in the mud.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked and turned on my bed to face him and leaned back against the wall. He turned on his bed and crossed his legs.
I frowned. “Did things not...go well the other day?”
His face contorted in confusion for a moment and then he smiled widely. “Oh, hell no! She's already planning out when we can sneak in some more time.”
“Oh,” I said more because I didn't know quite how else to respond.
“Nah, see...how would you feel if Ash wanted to see you do something?” he asked.
“Can you please be a little more vague?” I asked with a snort of laughter.
He sighed. “How do you feel when Ash asks for you and me to kiss?”
I blinked. “Well, I just laugh it off.”
“Really? His eyes get all big and he says 'every man dreams of twins' and you shrug it off?”
“Well...I don't want to kiss you, so I guess that one wish goes unfulfilled,” I said and then burst out laughing. “I mean, really. There have to be limits and one of mine is making out with my brother.”
“Just because I'm better looking,” he said with a sniff and then laughed.
“What does this all – or does it have anything to do with you being crabby all week?”
He hung his head a little. “We've been...engaged in some weird talks. Fucks with my head a little.”
He sighed. “You think Boomer still has a thing for me?”
I thought for a moment. “I just saw him the other day. We joked about it a little – you know how he likes to tease.”
He nodded slowly and then blurted, “Em wants to see me kiss a guy.”
I sat still for a moment in shock. Jamie lifted his head and met my gaze. I asked, “Why does she want that?”
“She thinks...guys kissing is sexy. She still has all those pictures you jerks made up – so this is your fault, really,” he replied.
“Yeah, no. Your girlfriend's kinks aren't my responsibility,” I said with a laugh. I paused and then asked, “So wait, you're going to kiss a guy for her?”
“I don't know!” he said and threw his hands in the air. “I mean, what next? Will she want me to blow someone?”
He nodded his head. “If I do this...I was thinking Boomer. He's single and a buddy, but I don't want to skull fuck him, either.”
“He said he and Philip had hooked up a little, so I guess he's mostly single,” I replied. “Still, I can see wanting to make your partner happy, but do you really want to do this?”
He snorted. “Did you want a dick in your ass? How'd that go, by the way?”
I frowned at him. “Yes, I did, and it was good, thanks.” No need to go into any details while he was being contrary.
He shrugged and then flopped back on his mattress. “Sorry. I don't know. You know I don't really care too much about my history. Kissing a guy – it's not like it would be the first time, right? It just feels different because I'd be doing it to wind her up.”
“Oh, I think I see,” I told him and he turned his head so he could look at me. “Before, when you kissed a guy, you either were exchanging affection or getting your tonsils removed by Boomer. So now you're thinking it's not fair to the guy? Is that it?”
“A little,” he conceded as he sat back up. “I kind of don't like the situation. I feel like I'm pressured to kiss a guy as opposed to, you know, it happening naturally.”
I nodded. “Boomer would totally kiss you. Maybe he'd even get into a three way if you'll bottom.”
I felt a giggle sneaking around my insides as Jamie's eyes narrowed and he asked, “When did you get so devious?” My giggle escaped and he rolled his eyes at me. “Seriously. That all went okay with Ash?”
I settled down and nodded. “Yeah. I mean, he had to leave because Scott blew off taking care of Luna, but we met up at Starbucks after. Talked about it a bit.”
Jamie sat up. “Did it hurt?”
I flopped my head side to side. “It took a little getting used to.”
“Will you do it again?”
Jamie looked at me thoughtfully. “I was worried you'd go through another rough patch once you and Ash started up again. You know, having sex.”
I looked away from him. “There were a few things that came up. I'm dealing.”
“Are you? Why didn't you talk to me?”
I snorted. “Because you've been a bear all week.”
I glanced at him and he nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I never expected her to bring something like that up. I mean, I know some of that is interesting to her, but after we talked about my history I kind of thought she'd rather keep eligible guys away from me. Like she'd be afraid I'd stray or something.”
I shrugged. “Maybe she's just got that kink. Question is, do you? You fooled around with, what, two guys?”
I tilted my head. “Ash, Boomer and who?”
“Scott. At camp last year, remember?”
“Oh, right. I hadn't seen that coming,” I said and shook my head.
“Me either. You think that makes me bi or something?” Jamie asked.
I let out a long sigh. “I don't know. I've been too busy struggling with what label I qualify for.” I bit my lip. “I don't think so, though. You're attracted to girls, I think you just don't mind if it's a guy.”
“Well, I mind a little,” Jamie huffed.
“Not enough to stop you. Even when Boomer kissed you, you weren't all mad at him,” I pointed out. “And Scott jerking you off? It didn't bother you, either.”
“What's a little sex between friends, I guess,” Jamie said and then snorted out a laugh. “God, that sounded weird.”
“Would you do that? Like, threesome with Emily?”
He thought for a moment. “Maybe. Might depend who it was with. I mean, it's a little early for that, right? We just broke the barrier a week ago. I mean, of course she wants more,” Jamie said suddenly sounding full of himself.
“Yeah, so much she wants another man there,” I teased and he stuck his tongue out at me.
“What were you just saying about labeling yourself? You're bi, right?” he asked, changing the subject.
I pursed my lips. “I don't know. Like, I'd say that maybe you were bi, but leaning really heavy toward women. For me, well,” I said slowly and took a deep breath. “I like sex with Ash. I know I love him. I've noticed other guys, but I mostly notice girls. It feels really complicated.”
“Shit. Did any of that change after last week? He'd never banged you before,” Jamie said, and his lips quivered with amusement.
“It's not that funny,” I said and turned on my bed to lay down. “I was being serious.”
“I'm sorry, I was too. It's just weird to think of you like that. Maybe it shouldn't be, but....”
“So that's it, huh? Things are different between us because he fucked me?” I asked.
“No. I mean...fuck, I was just being stupid. Still, it was different for you guys. Before it was just something you were thinking about. It's not good or bad or anything, just different to me. Did something change between you?”
I studied the ceiling, wondering if anything really had changed. I thought about how I felt with him, both sexually and just hanging out. I know Ash is good for me and to me. Was I really the same, as much as he said I was?
“What is it?” Jamie asked, settling on the edge of my bed.
“A bunch of crap,” I said and sighed. “After Ash left I just felt guilty about what I'd done to him. I feel confused about who I am because of my weird feelings. I have no idea what to do.”
Jamie nodded. “I think it was natural and probably right for you to feel guilty. You know how mad I was at you.” He placed a hand on my forearm. “Not just because it was a shitty thing to do, but because that's not who you are.”
I looked at his face. “And who am I?”
“Pretty much the kindest person I know. Look, I get the guilt, I still feel guilty about getting you punched out so long ago. I should feel guilty. But it's motivation, too, so I'm not making the same mistake again.” He squeezed my arm and let go. “Guilt is a reminder, I think, that you screwed up. A warning so you can avoid doing that again. I don't think you'd ever do any of that stuff again. It caused pain all over – straight through this whole house, too, not just to Ash. It was a mistake.”
I looked away. “Ash said he forgave me.”
“We all did, Sean. You forgave me for getting you hit. Doesn't mean it just goes away.” Jamie hesitated. “Ash has a lot more self-respect, now. If you hadn't been guilty, if you hadn't reminded him of who you really are, then we wouldn't be having this discussion. He forgives you, but he hasn't forgotten. I haven't forgotten just like you haven't forgotten. We all have to learn from it. We all knew something was going on with you, but nobody knew enough to reach out or how to get through to you.”
I shook my head. “No, I-”
“I know, I know,” he said covering my mouth to silence me briefly. “You didn't listen. If you think for a second it made Rob feel like he'd done enough and it was all on you, then you don't know Rob. Everyone felt like they hadn't done enough, hadn't seen where you were headed. Maybe not right away, but you're not the only one that had a lot of time to think about what happened back then.”
I looked at him steadily. “I'm sorry.”
“You don't owe me an apology. You don't owe anyone at this point. You've done the best you could to fix things, and did a damn good job.” He smiled and then a mischievous look crossed his face. “Please take good care of Ash before Emily gets it into her head that I should be kissing him.”
I barked out a laugh. “He'd probably like that.”
“Nah. He knows which twin is his,” Jamie said.
We were quiet for a few minutes. “What are you going to do about Em and her...request?”
Jamie shrugged. “All I can think is to put it off for a while. It's not like I'm on a timetable. If I'm honest, I don't mind all that much. Like I said, there were those things that kind of rankled me and I talked to Em about it. Well, we argued some, but we essentially talked about it,” he said and chuckled. “Besides, she's not asking for a threesome. She just wants to see me kiss a guy. She's weird.”
“Perfect fit for you,” I said with a laugh.
He looked down at me, amused. “Yeah, she is.”
School ended on Friday. We knew Monday would see the official start of vacation and Mom was already warning us about the chore list she was compiling. The weekend wasn't really a vacation because we had the normal weekend things going on – the parents were home, we had scheduled stuff going on and all that. Monday would also see us getting our summer buddy, Micah, for the first time. He'd seemed standoffish at the funeral for Nate's mom, but some people weren't that outgoing around new people. We'd all had some of Micah's background explained and had been asked to forgive him as much as we could.
I knew a thing or two about being forgiven and I wasn't dumb enough to let that go unappreciated. After church on Sunday I went over to see Ash and Luna attacked me at the door, growling and hopping on my foot.
“Hey,” Ash greeted me and flashed me a smile.
“Hey, Ash,” I greeted him.
“Come on, monster,” he said to Luna, and I followed him out into the backyard. We walked over to the picnic table and sat on the top, hands folded over each other's.
“You seem a little different today,” Ash commented.
“Yeah. Calmer. More like...you.”
I smiled at him. Ash is gentle soul. A good soul. One I could take care of, now. I felt a light of understanding, almost like a physical presence washing across my brain. Jamie was right, I was going to make mistakes. Sometimes they would be horrible. I can learn from them, though. Being forgiven lets me use my mistakes as tools to be better.
“Falling in love with me. Sticking with me. Letting me love you back.”
He chuckled. “Where is this coming from? Are you okay?”
I rubbed the back of his hand with my fingers. “Yeah. I actually am.”
We watched Luna play and joined her eventually. Maybe Ash was right. Maybe I was forged in some way. Since we'd gone through it together, I wonder if we were also forged – no – tempered. I felt stronger, more able to support Ash, and he was steadfast in his support of me. There was no doubt I was stronger with him. Yeah, we were definitely tempered – and we were ready for whatever came next.