We were laughing by the time we got to the door, a ground floor apartment. The apartment felt warm inside, almost too warm. I was probably sweating a little from carrying Cole, too. The living room had overstuffed furniture, art on the walls that featured partially disrobed men in classical styles. A man I didn't know sauntered into view. He had a lot of swish to his hips, a thick mustache and a wine glass in hand. He gave me a brittle smile.
“You must be the boyfriend,” he said.
I decided I wanted this guy on my side – and thus Cole's side. I held my hand out. “I'm Drew. It's really nice to meet you,” I said.
His eyes flashed with curiosity and he slowly took my hand, though his grip was non-existent. “Keith. Are you always so polite?”
“I like to think so,” I said. “Thanks for giving my boyfriend a safe place to be right now. It was kind of crazy last night.”
His smile was brittle again. “I know about crazy parents, darling boy. Trust me, she's not the only Mommy Dearest out there.”
“Mine is on meds for her issues, so I know something about that, too,” I said. “I like your apartment.”
His face relaxed a bit. “Thank you. It's a little more cramped than usual, but it's a sanctuary for me.”
“It's really nice. I like the art,” I told him.
The corner of his mouth turned up. “You're very lucky, you know. If I'd brought home my boyfriend when I was your age, my father would have beaten me. Not that he didn't already.”
I sensed the self-pity. I wondered if I was looking at myself in the future. Before I could say anything Cole's dad slipped his arms around Keith from behind and placed his head on Keith's shoulder.
“And yet, here you are. Independent, out and living life.”
Keith smiled more warmly and turned his head, instantly becoming someone else. “Well, I guess it hasn't all been bad.”
Emily emerged from somewhere, and she looked a little put out. Cole's dad said dinner would be ready in about thirty minutes and told Cole to play with his sister until then. We went into a bedroom and Cole teased his sister, trying to cheer her up, but it seemed to have minimal effect. We tried playing a board game with her, but didn't get very far before we were called to dinner.
We sat at the table, and Emily perked up upon seeing the meal – apparently a favorite. Keith looked at Cole and me, then pursed his lips. “I'm so jealous of you. Young and dating already.”
I smiled and said to him, “I'm jealous of you. Successfully on your own and living with who you want to.”
He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. “You're a smart one. I like that. Tell me, how did you end up with this little jock?”
Cole's dad sat down at the table and had a look on his face that said he wasn't sure if he should interject or not.
“He tricked me,” I said with a shrug.
“I what now?” Cole asked, poking me in the side.
I turned toward him. “Labs? You didn't need my help. We've talked about this, Mr. Sneaky.”
“Worked, didn't it?” he asked leaning into me.
“Okay, make out on your own time,” his dad said with a chuckle. Cole clowned, resting his head on my shoulder and I chuckled, looking at the adults. Cole's dad had a happy, love-filed expression. Keith actually wiped his eye. I don't think he hates having Cole around as much as Cole might think.
Dinner was really good and the mood at the table was better than I'd have thought. Afterward we gathered to watch a superhero movie in the living room, and Emily was wedged between Keith and Cole's dad on the couch. I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly. I was preoccupied with Cole, who was making good on his promise to cuddle the fuck out of me. While I was loving the affection, it also reignited my – well fear might be a little strong – but anxiety about Cole's expectations. I tried to block that out so I could just enjoy him being affectionate, and being curled into him was pretty awesome to be honest.
Cole leaned over and whispered in my ear. “You going to hold these labs against me forever?”
“You mean how you tricked me? Yes.”
I snorted, smiled and glanced at him. He was looking at me with such...wow. Nobody has ever looked at me like that. Like I was enough, all by myself. Warmth spread inside me and I snuggled a little closer to him, lacing my fingers between his.
“So. Brax stopped by. Spilled his guts,” I whispered.
He leaned in so his breath could tickle my ear. “About how cute I thought you were? For how long? How I drove him nuts talking about you?”
I shivered. Cole was twisting me into knots, and even trying to tease him was being turned back on me. He nibbled my ear, but stopped when his father said his name in a tone of mild warning. He settled in about as close to me as you can get, and I pushed into him and we watched the rest of the movie that way. I don't think I could have been happier.
Emily had fallen asleep and Cole's dad carried her to one of the spare bedrooms.
“I don't think I've ever had a full house before,” Keith said from his spot on the couch.
I turned my attention to him, trying to fight off the erection Cole had inspired in me. “Has it been a big change? I mean dating Mr. Thomas?”
Keith smiled and crossed his legs, knee over knee. “It's been different. Morgan is a good man, and I can see he's trying to be a good father. I don't know the first thing about kids, and I never wanted to be a step-mother, so it's all kind of...up in the air!” he said, raising his voice and dropping his hands to his thighs dramatically.
“Why do some guys do that? Like, call themselves women?” Cole asked.
“Maybe from all the teenage boys calling us things like Nancy-boy. Do they still do that?” Keith asked, some acid dripping from his tone.
“I've never heard that,” I said, looking at Cole.
“Me either,” he confirmed.
Keith huffed a little. “Well, I don't know why. Probably because men like me get identified with being sissies – weaker. Not like masculine men,” he said. He sneered a little as he said it.
I frowned as something clicked for me. He didn't like Cole because he was more average – probably seemed like one of those guys that had made fun of him for so many years. That didn't mean he had to be mean to my boyfriend.
“Cole was kind of stand-offish before, but he never did things like that,” I said.
“I never said he did,” Keith growled and Cole looked at me. The conversation died there, though, as Cole's dad – Morgan – came back into the room.
“Of course she woke up as soon as I put her in bed,” he said with a chuckle and sank back into the couch with Keith.
“Okay. Because this is my house, I'm just going to say this,” Keith said, his tone getting very stereotypical. “Obviously you want to defend your jock, sweet boy. But let me ease your mind – it's not just him. I'm not comfortable with children, period – but yes. Especially teenage boys.”
“I know what I said!” he snapped. “I'm doing it. I'm just not comfortable, okay? It's bad all around. I'll deal with it.”
“Like this?” Morgan paused and let out a breath. “Why don't we go talk about this in the bedroom? Boys, the couch pulls out.”
For a moment I thought Keith wasn't going to go, but then he did. Obviously unhappily. “I'm not trying to be a bitch, Morg,” he said before their door closed.
I looked at Cole. “Sorry. I guess he got picked on a lot, but it's not fair to judge you.”
He smiled, pressing his lips together and moving them around randomly. “Well, I guess it's okay if my boyfriend defends me.”
We stayed cuddled on the couch, not really saying much of anything. It was super comfy and I didn't even want it to end for eating or sleeping. My phone buzzed. I dug it from my pocket reluctantly. Huh. I hadn't expected Teo to text.
You missed dinner. Do you want me to bring you a plate?
Sorry. I went to Cole's Dad's. I ate with them.
K. We should probably talk soon, yeah?
I thought for a moment. Probably all that crap from this afternoon. Okay.
“Who was that?” Cole asked, nibbling my ear. It tickled and I tilted my head toward my shoulder to get away without getting away.
“He can't have you back,” he muttered, his lips against my skull.
“He's my brother. Eww,” I said, giggling as he continued to try and nibble my ear.
He giggled into my head, and it was stupidly funny. He finally stopped trying to go for my ear and placed his hand over mine, lacing our fingers together. “So. Harvest Ball. Will you be my date?”
I turned to look at him. His lips curled a little, but it wasn't from amusement, I didn't think. I licked my lips and said, “I need to talk to you about something, first.”
He flipped over to mild concern immediately. “What's wrong?”
“I didn't say anything was wrong. I just need to talk to you first,” I said.
“Yeah, but I was only asking you to dance with me – hey, do you not want to be, like, out?” he asked.
“No. Will you stop talking for a second?” I asked, patting his cheek. His eyebrow flicked up and down, almost as if it were a tick.
“Okay. It's just that when someone says they need to talk, it's usually not good,” he replied.
“Fair enough,” I relented. “But this is important to me, so can we please talk about what I need to talk about?”
“Of course,” he said.
I nodded slowly. “Okay. So. After – or during – your first dance with Haylee, you guys snuck off and....”
“Yeah, don't say it,” he said with a groan. “We can't go to the dance because of that?”
“No,” I said with a sigh. “I just...I don't know what your expectations are, and I don't think I'm...ready, yet. I mean I am, and I'm not.”
He stared for a second. “You mean sex?”
I flushed. “Yeah.”
“Drew. Babe,” he said, squeezing my hand. “I'm ready when you're ready. But maybe not just yet, yeah?”
“That's what I mean. I...not next week, you know? I don't know if you were thinking dance, so sex...you know?”
He smiled at me. “Your mind makes funny connections. There isn't anything you and Haylee have in common. There isn't any comparing you and her.” He blushed. “It's not that I haven't thought about us like that, but I'm good with waiting until it's right.”
I felt relief. “I-”
“But to be clear, I want to. But anything you heard about me and Haylee? You're way more important than she ever had a chance of being.” He stared at me. “No contest, Drew.”
I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. “How do you always know how to say the exact right thing to me?”
He smiled slyly. “I talk to Brax a lot. Try to get rid of some of the dumber things I can say. You don't think that's bad, do you?”
I lowered my chin and stared at him. “You mean like he does with me about Alessia?”
He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against mine. “I don't want to mess this up. I'm taking help from all sides.”
Jesus. Why don't I just spread my legs now?
“You're staying the night? Right?”
“Uh, I can,” I said. “What about Keith?”
“Dad said the sofa pulls out,” he reminded me.
“Oh, right. Um, yeah. Let me just text Teo so they know. He has to tell...my father.”
“It sucks what he did to you. I know it's totally asshole selfish to say, but I'm glad you're here and not gone in some foster home somewhere I'd never know you.”
Fuck. Me. I really am enough for him, aren't I?
I pulled my phone out and texted Teo, rather than my father. Staying over at Cole's. C U tomorrow. We moved the cushions and pulled the full sized bed out. Cole went to a closet door and retrieved a set of sheets, blanket and two pillows. We made the bed together, and it felt...good to do something so simple with him, but for us. We paused as voices suddenly became louder from the adults' room.
Cole glanced back toward the doorway.
“Think your dad has it under control?” I asked, more to draw him from staring at that door. I don't know if he was thinking about going in there, but I hoped not. Best to keep him talking to me.
He looked back toward me. “Keith didn't sign up for kids,” he said bluntly. “With what's going on with my mom...I think Keith will force him to choose between his kids and Keith.”
I frowned. “Are you worried about that?”
Cole sat down on the edge of the bed. “Yeah.” He looked up at me. “My dad has been miserable for something like twenty years. He did what he thought he was supposed to do – what was expected of him. Now he's free, sort of. But the thing is, he's always been a great dad. Now Keith is going to make him choose between people he loves and his own happiness.”
I walked around the bed and sat beside him. “Maybe it won't work that way. Maybe Keith just needs to be able to bitch about things. After all, he knew your dad had kids. That he was getting out of a long-term marriage. He had to know there would be complications, and that the kids would be part of that complication. Right? I mean, Keith isn't stupid. Is he?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I just don't think he saw this coming. He probably thought he'd see the kids on a weekend. Maybe he even thought he'd never meet us. Just...go shopping or whatever he does while my dad spends time with his kids. What mom did...I'm beginning to realize the situation may be a lot worse than I thought.”
My phone buzzed, but I ignored it for now. “Why don't we get ready for bed? Maybe we can watch some TV and cuddle up?”
He smiled gently at me. “Sounds like a plan. One thing first,” he said and fished his phone from his pocket. “I need a pic of us – for social media. I want everyone to know who I'm with.”
Ugh. The feelings. He got behind me and knelt, placing his cheek beside mine and his head on my shoulder. He took the picture, checked it, and took two more. Then he tapped his screen in front of me, since his arms were wrapped around me, and I watched him post the picture – 'My boyfriend. Never been happier.'
“I should get a picture of you for my background,” I told him. “The pictures you took before are silly – and what was that one with you leaning back in the chair all about?”
“I was putting my sexy on. Didn't you think so?” he asked, smiling at me and looking silly.
“I guess it sort of was,” I replied, bringing the image up on my phone again. Cole's lips were slightly parted in the image as he looked into the camera. His look was sort of smoldering. I went ahead and saved that as my background. As I did, I remembered that I'd gotten a text at some point. I checked the app and found one from Teo and one from Alessia. I opened Teo's first.
Please be smart, little brother. Let's talk tomorrow.
I replied that I would. Then I thumbed over to Alessia's message.
OMG. You and Cole look so f'ing adorable! Squeee!
I grinned and just gave her a thumbs up.
A door opened behind us and Emily wandered out.
“Em, you okay?” Cole asked, walking over to his little sister.
“I have to go bathroom,” she said in a sleepy, petulant voice. “I want my room.”
“I know, honey,” he said and took her hand to lead her to the bathroom. I stretched out to wait, but my phone buzzed again. Teo.
This is me being overprotective. You only get one first time. I don't want you to regret it.
I rolled my eyes and my cheeks heated up. We talked. That's off the table for now. We agreed.
I'm glad you guys talked about it. You're pretty damn smart, Drew. GN.
Cole came back into the room with Emily, walking her to the kitchen and getting her a drink. I watched him as he tended to her. She didn't want to go back to her room, so he let her climb up on the bed. With the little girl between us, we only shucked our pants before climbing under the covers. She got settled and went to sleep in record time, before we had even picked out a movie or TV show. Cole slipped out from under the covers and came over to my side of the bed and slid in next to me. We cuddled up and he put something on for us to watch. I slid down and rested my head on his chest while he played with my hair. I don't think I got ten minutes in before I was out.
I woke up kind of early. I was still lying on Cole, and he was sleeping in what I'd judge to be an awkward position. I climbed out of bed, trying not to disturb him, and went to the bathroom. When I came back out I realized that Cole's dad, Keith and Emily were all in the kitchen having breakfast. I went back over to the bed and picked up my jeans. Cole's eyes were open, but he looked tired.
“What time is it?” he asked, his voice scratchy.
“Early, babe,” I said softly. “Go back to sleep.”
He whined a little, reaching out to me and I allowed him to tug me down to him. We had a little hug and when I made to straighten up so I could put my pants on, he grunted and asked for just another minute. Of course I relented. He rubbed my back slowly and I realized how starved for affection I was.
“What are you doing today?” Cole asked.
“Laundry and homework,” I told him. “I haven't done any laundry in a week, and I have stuff due tomorrow.”
“Oh. You need help?”
I smiled and sat up to look down on him. “I think you're more of a distraction, but sure. Come over if you can.” I leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on his lips. “Now go back to sleep. You look exhausted.”
“Okay,” he said tiredly and rolled over.
I pulled my jeans on and went into the kitchen. Emily was at the table with cereal and I saw a puff of smoke through the sliding glass door in the back of the room. Cole's dad greeted me and said he had to go get dressed as he was in his pyjamas. I said hello to Emily and she looked at me for a moment, crunching her cereal. I went to the sliding door and opened it, stepping out onto a concrete patio about four by six feet. Keith was sitting in a plastic chair in a coat and sweatpants, smoking a cigarette, a cup of coffee in hand.
I put my hands in my pockets and shivered in the cold morning air. At least I had socks on.
“Sweet boy, you're going to catch your death out here like that. What are you thinking with no coat or shoes? Go inside,” Keith admonished.
I pursed my lips and decided to take my shot. “I will. I was just hoping that you and Cole's dad worked things out. Cole is-”
“Let me stop you, darling boy,” Keith said, and the took a drag from his cigarette. “That boy is a heartache waiting to happen. He's a unicorn. Pretty? Sure. Athletic. Only semi-barbaric, for a teenage boy. But you should walk away before he breaks your heart.”
I let out a small breath and shivered. “Cole cares about me.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and gave me a pitying look. “Honey, I hope you're right. But he's also trapped between his parents, and let me tell you, he wasn't all that forgiving about his father being with me.”
“It's strange for him to see his father with someone other than his mother,” I said, frowning. “I think that would be tough for anyone.”
“Well, momma bear isn't happy about you two. He's going to catch a lot of hell from that side, and there's only so much you can do.”
“He wants to live with his dad,” I said and looked at him with as firm as gaze as I could, despite the increasing chills I was feeling. “Are you going to make his dad choose between you and his kids?”
Keith let out a sad laugh as he stood. “Darling boy, darling boy,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder and turning me toward the door. “I lose that fight in every version of reality. No, I'm not going to try and force something like that. It's just not what I expected or was prepared for.” He paused. Ahead of us Cole was across the apartment in the living room holding his jeans in front of him, getting ready to put them on. “He's going to have pressure. Athletes always want to be like the rest of the guys. Right now you guys are in your bubble, but tomorrow there will be school and bullies and people who will hate you because you're different or happy or just because it's Monday. It's a lot, darling boy.”
He reached for the door handle, but I blocked him. I looked up at him and at his confused expression. “Give him a chance. I know everything breaks eventually. Everything ends. But for you, would you please try to get to know him? I need to know he's safe.”
His expression softened. “You are precious. Yes. He'll be safe.”
I let out a breath, shuddering from the cold, and we went back inside. I walked over to Cole, who was just buttoning the top of his jeans, and I wrapped my arms around him.
“Shit, you're cold!” he said, rubbing my back. I pressed my cheek to his and held his face against mine.
“See you later. Okay?” I squeezed him tightly.
“Yeah. Let me find out what my dad has going on and I'll text you.” He leaned back “Are you all right?”
I smiled. “Yeah.” I pecked him on the lips and went to put on my coat and shoes. With a final goodbye, I was walking home. I made it about a block before my phone buzzed. I checked it – fifteen percent battery.
I think you should come back. I miss you already.
Jesus. How corny, and yet he twisted my guts up. I noted I had an update from his social media. I thumbed open the notification and saw he'd taken our picture after I'd fallen asleep. I stopped walking as I read his caption.
Look at my boi. He's cute AF even when he's sleeping
He was really not hiding anything. I mean, in a way it was a relief – he wanted to be out, and he wanted me with him. I was happy to be with him, but I wasn't so sure about the attention he was drawing. I scrolled down through the comments. There were some 'grats' and 'aww' comments, a few that were confused, and then they got weird. Like 'Wha? You fukkd? The meaning was clear, despite the spelling, and there were more comments that went a whole lot farther. I sighed and put the phone away, electing to deal with it later.