I've been away from the blog for so long that I had to ask Lee what the rules were now on posting because I'm actually ready now to post my next chapter of Footsteps (I know, right? You even remember that story, let alone who I am?!). When I found out Fridays are for short stories and one-shots, I asked if I could post this. I'm aiming to post Footsteps on Tuesday 9th May, but if anyone wants to use that day, just let me know in the comments on this post.
I'll do a longer post on Tuesday to go with Footsteps Chapter 17, but just wanted to thank those of you who have left me nice comments, encouraging me to finish Footsteps. It's now finished, with a fluffy little Post Script also being written. is kindly going to give it a quick look over before 17 gets posted, so thanks ! I've got two more chapters of Footsteps left to post, so I'll aim for Tuesday 9th and 16th, and hopefully 23rd for the coda.
This is my first M/M story on the blog. It's non-explicit, and it features some dissociative (specifically derealisation) behaviour. And I'm choosy about when I reveal my names, so you'll have to indulge me and play the pronoun game for a bit… It's a story of a connection lost at a time of great change and trauma, and the power of reconnection a little bit later in life.
This one was really dear to me, and I loved writing it. Let me know your thoughts on it if you'd like to, and I'll see you on Tuesday! Rose.
A Short Story in Four Parts
He's going again. He can feel it happening, but he doesn’t stop it. A blankness creeps in around the edges and a wall of tiredness hits him. He just sits there. He can't do anything but sit there anyway, but he lets it happen. His hair is still wet from the pool, plastered to his forehead, chlorinated water running into his eyes, but he can't feel the sting. He can't feel anything.
There's a knock on the door. "Anyone in there?"
He snaps back from wherever he's been. Why won't his voice work?
"Hello? You alright?"
"Fine," he manages to croak.
"Ok sir, I just had to make sure. I hope you understand."
He runs a hand through his thick hair and finds that it's dry. He has no idea how long he's been there. A slight pang of fear runs through him and he reaches out for his phone. He looks at the white skin of his hand and sees his fingers are trembling. Is he cold? He has no idea any more. He's apparently been sitting there for over an hour. He's too tired to yawn. Tired down to his bones. He just reaches for a shirt and stuffs it over his head. Eventually he's dressed.
Exhausted, he rolls out through the foyer, eyes downcast, rucksack slung over the back of the wheelchair, and moves through the wide, disabled-only gate, unaware of anyone.
He doesn't see the tall man standing at the reception counter getting his new membership card.
The air outside is cold. He thinks it's hurting his lungs, but again he's not sure. It's not far to the apartment.
The door bangs shut behind him and plunges the hallway into darkness. The apartment is almost empty. It doesn’t look at all like he’s lived there since he was a boy. He knows he should make some food, but it's too much effort and the thought of it makes him feel sick. At least he feels that.
Sleep tugs at his eyelids as he pauses in the living room, but he resists as long as he can. He's not ready for the nightmares. Just a little while longer. Just...
Three knocks. Always the same. Just three. He waits. More knocking follows in groups of three. It won't stop. He grumbles, waiting for it to end, but it won't. Eventually he moves down the hallway, the tyres of his chair silent on the hardwood floor. He opens the door. First it's just blinding light. And then he sees the figure standing there. It's always him. He's tall with shaggy blond hair and a roguish smile that's never changed. Not since they were children. It's been years since he’s actually seen him, but he's always like this. His green eyes are always annoyed at having been kept waiting. Sometimes he's wearing a coat, sometimes a t-shirt, depending on what the weather outside has been doing. This time he's up in a parka. Guess it was cold earlier after all.
"You came back," he says numbly.
"I did." The blond figure reaches down for him and throws his arms around his shoulders, straightening, pulling him up out of his wheelchair into a massive embrace.
"Please, don't ever leave me again," he sobs into his huge shoulders, legs dangling uselessly beneath him. "Please. I didn't mean what I said."
And that's when there's a truck horn. It's so out of place but every time it sounds in his dream, icy terror blossoms in his chest and he clutches at the figure who's holding him. And then the figure lets him go at the moment of impact and they're flung apart.
He wakes with a scream, still falling, and briefly has time to wonder why. It isn't he hits his head on the low coffee table that he realises he's fallen asleep in his wheelchair, that name still ringing in his ears.
The place hadn't changed at all. Not one bit in six years. The old, Dickensian bookshop was still there, its green paint peeling just enough to make it look venerable but not quite enough to look shabby, and Mac's corner shop was still a hive of bustling activity. Kids were milling around before school started, wearing the familiar uniforms that he and his friends had all worn. He smiled, running a hand through his hair. "Wonder if any of them would recognise me now?" he murmured to himself. He’d nearly doubled in height since the age of sixteen.
Lost in thoughts of his three one-time best friends, he strode along the main street towards the sports centre on the outskirts of town for his second visit in as many days. Kaori had been the loudest and the funniest of their little group. His mind's eye brought back her long black hair and black eyes, glittering and laughing in triumph as she'd beaten Matt in yet another arm wrestling match. Poor Matt. He'd blushed and stuttered and pined his way through school. He wondered how Kay could have been so perceptive with everyone else and yet so blind to Matt's feelings for her. Heck though, they'd all loved her. Tough and belligerent, she'd been their little princess. But whatever they'd done, so had she, and she'd had to do it twice as well as any of them. Beating Matt at swimming hadn't been all that hard though. He'd been in their club, but had never competed. But he'd seemed to enjoy it nonetheless. The rest of them had been under-sixteen national champions in their own strokes though. “God, those were good times.”
He crossed the road, long legs marching with an easy grace, his thoughts turning from Matt and Kay to the other person he'd left behind at the age of sixteen. The move to New Zealand in itself hadn't exactly been the worst thing in the world, though he had been angry with his parents for their timing. No, the worst thing in the world had been that argument before they'd left. The anger on his best friend’s face, his searing blue eyes blazing with hurt and confusion. That was the only time he could remember ever hearing him shout. He shivered.
God, he'd missed that boy.
The sports centre loomed and he tried to forget that face, but he couldn't. He swiped his new card and moved through to the men's changing room. The showers were freezing, but he didn't mind. The smell of chlorine hit him and seemed to get his blood pumping. They'd all lived for swimming back then. They’d been neck and neck, the two best friends, no one knowing which one would win a match between them, while Kay and Matt had shouted from the side-lines.
The pool wasn't busy, but out of habit he made his way to the fast lanes and as he dived into the water, he saw a black haired figure moving along in the open water of the free swimming section, dark goggles over his eyes. There was something about the strokes that seemed familiar, but while his arms were strong, his form was sloppy. He was too lazy with his legs, relying too much on the strength of his lean, muscled arms.
He shook his head and powered on, forgetting the world around him entirely as his chest pumped and his body pulled him through the water like a marlin.
Lungs burning a half hour later, he dipped beneath the floating lane markers and leaned his head back against the side of the pool to recover. He stayed there in the free section a while, catching his breath before deciding to get out. There were a few more people in there now, disturbing the peace, bustling and splashing up and down the lanes.
As someone finished with the little shower on the side of the pool, it struck him as a nice idea to sit on the searing hot wood of the sauna and let his muscles relax. He hauled his body out, lean muscles flexing as they bore his weight again on land. The shower was a bit of a pathetic dribble, but it had a view of the whole pool, and while he stood under it, he watched the black haired man working methodically up and down the pool. He found himself enjoying the sight of lean muscles and grim determination. His arms were clearly tired though, splashing.
As he turned the dial and killed the flow of water, he ran his hands through his shaggy blond hair and saw the other guy finish his set and cling to the side of the pool, panting hard, head bent low to the tiles.
There was something so familiar about the set of those shoulders, the angle of his head.
Then the man hauled himself out and sat on the side. He moved oddly, using his hands and arms a lot as he rotated to sit, legs dangling into the water, on the pool edge a moment and catch his breath. It all looked like a furious effort. His legs were thin under the long swimming and he kept his face down as he began to slide backwards on his arse, legs trailing, over the tiles towards the plastic loungers on the edge of the pool. It soon became abundantly clear that he was making for black wheelchair parked against the wall. He was disabled. Well, that explained why he was shuffling backwards instead of standing, but it didn't explain the odd pull he felt towards the dark haired, pale skinned stranger.
He stood there for a long moment, water dripping from his body, black and red swimming clinging to his thick, strong thighs, the cold air stinging. His mind was spinning, searching for clues, for traction, for anything to set the man in context.
The man with the black hair reached up for a low lounger and used it as a halfway stop between the ground and the wheelchair. He paused there a moment, breathing heavily again, his belly looking soft and slack compared to the steel tightness of his lean shoulders and arms. His skin was so pale it was like paper, and he was thin, half-starved. His arms shook as he heaved himself across to the seat of the wheelchair, and as he picked his legs up and set them down onto the footrest, he raised his face for the first time.
That face... It couldn't be.
From his position, stock still on the other side of the pool, he saw two people at once. He saw the sixteen year old boy he'd left behind at the door of his grandfather's apartment, tears streaming down his pale cheeks, blue eyes red from crying, his voice hoarse from shouting at him, and then he saw the cold, dead eyes of a fragile man in a wheelchair. He looked right at him but there was nothing there. No recognition. It was as though he hadn't taken anything in at all. He turned away and wheeled towards the changing rooms like he was in a trance. God above, it couldn’t be him. But it was. It was unmistakably him. What the hell had happened to him?
"Nate?" he whispered. There was a rushing in his ears. He couldn’t see. His knees went from underneath him and all six foot three of him came crashing to the tiles in an unconscious heap.
He heard the commotion as he wheeled out of the echoing pool, but, glancing to his left, he saw that three people were already crowding around the person who had fallen over, blocking the unconscious body from view. Not like he'd be any use anyway, he thought, shoving the door of the disabled changing room open and rolling through. He locked it mechanically behind him and looked at the shower. He knew he should get the chlorine out, but the effort just seemed too much. Then he remembered his episode from the day before, and something told him he should be ashamed of himself for letting things get that out of hand.
The water was cold but he didn't really mind. He could only feel it on half his body anyway. But the effort of heaving his body first out of the pool, and then from the floor to the lounger, from the lounger to his chair, from the chair to the shower stool, and finally from the shower stool back to the chair, hit him like a truck to the face. And he should know. He nearly passed out.
Naked, he let his clean, wet body sit, shivering in the wheelchair, a white gym towel still crumpled and wedged awkwardly beneath his broken form, feet resting on the floor, arms flopping down beside his wheels. He felt the numbness begin to seep into his mind. He toyed with the idea of letting it settle, but this time he knew he had to go home. He had work later. Kay was depending on him to be there. Dredging up the last of his reserves, he fought his clothes on, not really bothering to see if they were even the right way round or not, and slung his rucksack over the back of his chair.
The other door to the only disabled changing room in the sports centre led out into the foyer, and as he made his way out, the smell of coffee and cooked food hit his nose from the little café to the right. He didn't look up as he rolled smoothly past the big, squashy sofas, and made his way out into the cold again.
The route home wasn't busy, but it had been raining again while he'd been inside, and huge puddles riddled the roads and pavements. Only a few hundred yards from the front door of his block of flats, a car raced past him and sent filthy water arcing through the air to drench him. "Why do I even bother?" he hissed as he pushed across the tiled entrance towards the lift, leaving dirty tire tracks on the pristine floor behind him.
He was too tired to change or shower, so he wiped his face and arms with a towel and thought vaguely about having a nap on the sofa. He wasn't due in work until twelve. He glanced at the clock. Half nine. Not caring if he stained the upholstery with his now-dirty clothes, he plonked himself down on the sofa and felt his body go instantly heavy as lead. He didn't really want to sleep. Sleep was awful. And cruel.
And because it was cruel, it reached up for him immediately and dragged him under, like a shark.
Three knocks. Always the same. Just three.
He stirred and sighed, wondering where the nightmare would take him this time. The knocking started again and he levered himself up. His subconscious seemed to have remembered the incident with the puddle, because his jeans were still dirty, though barely damp now. He nearly missed his chair as his arms buckled. God, he was tired even in his dreams. Sighing, he rolled numbly down the corridor to the front door and reached for the handle.
He rolled the wheels backwards and turned his face up a bit. The guy was huge, taller than in his previous dreams. Wearing pale, scruffy jeans and a green t-shirt, with a darker green zip-up hoody gripped tightly in the fingers of his right hand, the man towered over him in his wheelchair. He craned his neck up to catch his face.
"Nate?" he whispered. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," he said, looking away. He couldn't say he was surprised to see him. It was always him. It still hurt though.
"Nate?" the guy asked again, sounding worried.
"Don’t you remember me?"
He looked up again. Come to think of it, he did look older, and a little different from usual.
"Don't you know me?"
"I know you," Nate said without inflection.
"I'm back now... I... saw you today."
That was a new one. "What?"
"I... at the pool... You were swimming. I didn't recognise you at first, but then, then you got out, and I... And when you looked up, I knew it was you, but..."
Nate stared at those green eyes. Was he crying?
"Nate, say something!" he gulped. His whole body was shaking. "You're not still angry with me are you?"
"This isn't real."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm going to wake up and you're not going to be here. You want to come in until that happens?"
"Nate, you think this is a dream?" he asked incredulously, stepping in behind him as he retreated back into the apartment.
Nate heard the fear in his friend's voice, but he figured it was just his exhausted, messed up brain pissing around with his emotions. He was surprised at the creativity of it all though. Borderline impressed. He made his way to his bedroom, thinking that if he went back to bed in his dream, maybe he'd wake up in real life.
"Where are you going?"
"But it's the middle of the morning."
"Nate, stop, please... look at me."
He didn't. He just went to his room, slammed the door behind him and flopped down on the top of the duvet. He was surprised at how quickly the blackness came for him.
He woke with a start to an unpleasant noise beside him. The harsh burr of his phone vibrating on the bedside table grated in his ears, but he knew what it meant. He was either late for work or Kay was checking up on him to make sure he wasn't going to be late for work. He groaned and picked it up. "What?" he muttered.
"Nate, is everything ok?"
"Where are you? Did you space out again?"
"No." He looked at the clock on the table. 11.45. "I'll be late."
"I'm leaving here in five."
"Ok. Take care,” the message was relayed to someone else, and then she added, “Matt says he'll wait for you to get here before he goes."
As he put the phone down, there was a noise from the apartment. Had someone broken in? He bit his lip, fear blossoming in his lungs, and swung his legs down off the bed, and, stupidly ignoring the head-rush, drunkenly reached for the chair. And missed. Way off mark, he fell with a crash in front of it, the chair tipping over onto its back, and he cursed. He knew he had to take his time. Especially since he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
Footsteps hurried to his door. "Nate?"
His stomach lurched. That voice. He couldn't still be dreaming?
"Nate, I'm coming in."
"Don't -" he cried, but it was too late, and the doorway was suddenly filled with his enormous figure once more. "God, I can't take it any more. I can’t. I just want to wake up."
"Nate," the voice was so pained. He rushed over to him and crouched beside him. “Please. You’re not dreaming.”
He tried to see the face properly. He was different.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, looking helpless. Nate stared at him. He was older, obviously. He had a short, stubbly beard now, and there were creases around his eyes that hadn't been there when he'd left for New Zealand.
"Adam?" he croaked. "Are you really here?" His chest was convulsing in dry sobs, feelings rushing in on him for the first time in a very long time. Tentatively he raised his shaking hand and touched Adam’s huge shoulder.
Adam's muscled arms opened and he found himself being crushed backwards into the side of the bed while his friend grabbed at him, clutching him to his body by the neck and shoulders.
Adam was crying too. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I'm so, so sorry. I had no idea."
"You never called or wrote," Nate replied as well as he was able through the chokehold he was in.
"I thought you made it clear you didn't want me to," he said, easing back a little. His handsome face was splotchy and red.
Nate stared. "I..." he looked down at his broken legs where they had tangled in a heap beneath him. "What I said before you left... I didn't mean it."
"I know. I was angry. I was angry you didn't tell me. I...” he choked. “You waited you were on the way to the fucking airport to tell me you were leaving. You were my best friend," he said, biting his lip hard to stop himself from saying any more, and shoving him hard in the chest.
Adam sat back on his haunches and said, "That was why. I couldn't bear to tell you. I couldn’t bear to leave you behind. I just left it too late. Way too late." He was quiet for a long time before he looked from the carcass of the chair lying on its back to Nate's legs. "What... happened?" he finally asked.
Nate blinked and stared at his legs too. "Hit and run."
"When?" Adam's breath trembled on his lips. He was sitting very close to him still.
"A week after you left."
Adam looked like he was going to pass out. "God, Nate. If... if I'd known..."
"What?" he challenged suddenly, "You would have felt guilty and flown back?"
The bitterness in his own voice surprised even Nate, but when it hit Adam's ears it stung like acid. "I don't know what I would have done, Nate. I just wish I'd known. I wish the others had told me."
"That's my fault. I told them not to bother."
Adam looked worried and then asked, "When I first showed up you said...?"
"Thought I was dreaming again," he said simply. "I need to get up off the floor now."
“I need to get up.”
"What? Oh. Fine," Adam blustered. "You need a hand? Can I help?"
"No!" And he reached for the chair, righting it with a grunt of effort, and, after gathering his legs up beneath him, he shoved his backside into the air, landing in the seat. Spasms juddered through his legs but he choked them quiet with strong hands, and then said, "I'm late for work."
"Work? Where do you work? What do you do?" He sounded hurt that he didn’t know what his friend did for a living.
"I'm a chef for Kay at her café."
"A chef? And Kay? How is she?"
"Why don't you come along and find out?" he asked venomously. "Or is it just me you've come to haunt like the ghost of childhood past?"
“Nate, I’m sorry,” he insisted. “Please, you have to believe me.”
“Whatever,” he mumbled, grabbing his phone and pushing out of the room, not caring if he nearly ran Adam over in the process. He wasn’t real anyway.
“You want to hitch a lift with me?” Adam asked as Nate slammed the front door behind them.
“How far is it?”
“Mind if I come?”
Adam sighed and trotted along behind him into the lift.
Nate felt his green eyes boring into him but he didn’t react. He’d wake up soon. If he just pushed on with his routine, it'd eventually grind to a halt and he'd wake up. Alone. Again.
The air outside was thick and humid, but it wasn’t raining any more. Little splashes cooled his forearms as he pushed his wheels forward through town, Adam striding along beside him. Kay’s little café was busy as usual, and as the bell rang and Nate shoved the door open hard, he heard her give a shout when she saw who was with him.
“Oh my god! Adam!” she shrieked again, and came pelting round the counter, oblivious to the surprised and intrigued patrons.
Adam laughed and swept her up into an enormous hug. “Hey there, ,” he grinned. “Wow, this place is amazing!”
“Thanks!” she grinned. “How long have you been back?”
“Flight landed at the weekend,” he said. “I crashed at my uncle’s place, and then went to find Nate at his apartment.”
Nate was just disappearing into the back and he let the conversation die as he headed to collect his apron and pushed past Matt with nothing more than a half-arsed wave.
“Hey,” Matt said, sounding tetchy. “I hung around for you. The least you could do is apologise.”
“-what the hell’s gotten into you?” he asked, his irritation spiking through his stutter. “You n-never used to be like this…”
“Sorry,” he said again. “What’s my first order?”
“A dose of g-god-damned g-giving a shit!” Matt thundered.
Nate was actually surprised at the sharpness in his voice. Kaori must have heard them, because she barged in a moment later and demanded to know what the hell was going on.
“Nate’s just being a god-damned arsehole again,” Matt complained. “I’m late for an appointment in town because he didn’t have the gr-grace to show up on t-time again. Oh my god, Adam!” he said, seeing the huge figure of his childhood friend lurking awkwardly in the doorway behind. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“You’ve picked up a bit more colour in your language since I last saw you,” Adam chuckled, striding into the kitchen and embracing the smaller man warmly. He practically lifted the skinny, waif-like blond off the floor in the process.
“Holy fuck,” Matt breathed when he was released. “You’re huge!”
Adam laughed. “Yeah, it’s the food in New Zealand…”
“You should try Nate’s cooking then,” Matt said, nudging Nate in the shoulder while he whisked up some eggs. "His food is the reason this place is so busy." Matt had never been able to stay angry with anyone for long.
“Maybe he’ll cook something for me if I ask him to?” Adam asked, casting his green eyes down at the figure in the wheelchair.
They all looked at Nate, but he was lost again, oblivious to his surroundings as he picked up the orders and set to cooking. Kay sighed. “Forget it, Adam. Come on, come out front and we can have a catch up while I take orders.”
They left Nate alone in the kitchen.
This couldn’t still be a dream, could it? Was Adam really back?
By the time he was done with his shift and the café was closing, he had heard most of Adam’s stories second hand through the hatch. He'd heard how he’d gone to college and kept up swimming, even winning national and international competitions. Kay tried to probe him about his love life, but he shut her down quicker than Fort Knox in an armed robbery. Adam though had not been surprised to hear that Kay and Matt had been together since the end of high school, and expressed his happiness at the news. “And what about Nate?” he’d heard Adam ask in hushed tones. “He seems… different…”
“In more w-ways than o-one,” Matt agreed, having come back to join them again after his appointment.
Kay sighed. “He cooks amazing food, so I’m happy to have him here. Otherwise, I don’t know what he’d do with himself.”
“He seems distant…” Adam suggested.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Matt said darkly. “He spaces out for hours, g-goes somewhere else… you know? We keep an eye on him, but he won’t come out with us, and he never lets us in if we go over to see him…”
“He always was private and quiet,” Adam observed fondly.
“Yeah,” Kay barked, “But this is something else entirely.”
“When did it start?”
“Hard to tell,” Matt said. “I mean, the accident happened like a week after you left, and then he just… I don’t know… Like I said, it’s like he goes somewhere else…”
Adam sighed. After a pause he said, “I thought about him all the time…”
“You know, he was really messed up when you left,” Kay said thoughtfully, slurping the remainder of her drink up through her straw.
“I would have written, or called, or something, but I just kept seeing his face, and hearing him screaming at me to fuck off and never come back…” He shuddered. “I’d never seen him angry before,” he added. “It freaked me the fuck out…”
“Maybe you c-can patch things up now you’re back?” Matt suggested. “How l-long are you here for?”
“Foreseeable future,” he said cheerily. “Got a job working three days a week at a tech company just round the corner actually. be doing some software stuff for them.”
“You always were a massive nerd,” Kay grinned. “You didn’t have us fooled with all your sports, you know?”
He laughed and said, “I can come and get my lunch from here, catch up with you guys and Nate…”
“I hope so,” Matt said.
He spent every possible minute there, and gradually, Nate seemed to believe that it was real.
Adam didn’t really realise that Nate was dissociative though until he witnessed it himself. Sitting by the door as usual, he smelled burning before anyone else did, and ducked in through the hanging plastic strips to find Nate staring into space.
“Oi,” he said, shaking him hard, taking the burning pancakes off the heat and chucking them in the sink, pan and all before the fire alarm could go off. “Oi, Nate!”
“Come back to me.”
“I…” then he smelled the smoke and came crashing back. “Oh god,” he said in a rush. “What…?”
“I sorted it. It’s ok. Are you ok?”
Huge hands caressed his shoulders and the back of his head. They were warm. He clung to the sensation. Eventually his blue eyes found Adam’s green ones and he said, “I… yeah. I’m fine. It’s nothing.” He sounded breathless and unconvincing, even to his own ears.
“When do you finish?”
He looked at the clock on the wall. “Now, actually,” he muttered. Adam still had his hand on Nate’s shoulder, and he looked at it. His sapphire blue eyes lingered on the strong lines of his wrist and the bones of his hand, and he felt the urge to touch it, and to have his friend hold him and never let go. He didn't move a muscle though.
“Ok,” Adam said calmly. “Listen, why don’t you make those pancakes again for whoever ordered them, and then we’ll get out of here, ok?”
“You’ll stay while I do it?”
He cracked the eggs into a mug and added the milk and flour, and a pinch of sea salt. “Where are we going?” he asked a little while later as the butter sizzled.
“Anywhere you want to go.”
“Swim with me?” he asked suddenly. “Like we used to?”
Adam’s face lit up. “I’d love that.”
Adam had been back a month, and in that time, Nate had had precisely two episodes. Just two. He was eating properly, actually enjoying cooking for two. It was nice to have the spare room occupied for a change now too.
One night, after one too many beers, he fumbled with the TV remote and dropped it.
“I got it,” Adam grinned. He switched the TV off and set the remote on the table and looked up at his friend. “You’re drunk, aren’t you?” he laughed.
“No,” Nate blushed, his voice sullen and youthfully resentful.
“Yes you are,” Adam insisted.
“Fine, maybe,” Nate grinned. “But so what?”
“So what?” Adam laughed. “It’s the first time I’ve actually seen you let go since I got back. I’m glad.”
“I missed you,” Nate said impulsively.
Adam fixed him with a slightly bleary, green eyed stare. “I missed you too.”
“Did you ever think about me?” Nate asked, his hands running along his slender, numb thighs where he sat on the sofa. He couldn’t feel the movement as such, but the little tingles that came from somewhere along his legs made him imagine he could.
“Every day,” Adam said, his tone honest as a church bell. “I wish I’d told you sooner about leaving. I just didn’t know how to bring it up.”
“I understand,” he said quietly.
“Yeah.” His voice was hoarse, his thick black hair flopping into his eyes.
Adam reached up from his position next to him on the sofa and drew a section of it back so he could see those sapphire eyes more clearly. Nate didn’t object to the touch. “I’m sorry,” Adam croaked.
He sighed. Nate was doing much better now, and he said so. “I’m glad you seem to have perked up a bit… you know… come out of your shell a bit.”
Nate looked up at him and said, “Sometimes I still think I’m dreaming.”
Adam’s face clouded. “I know. But you do know you’re not, though, right? You do know this is real?”
“Yeah. I do. I think.”
Adam shuffled closer and hooked his arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Come here,” he said. After a while he felt Nate soften under his touch and he sighed deeply. “You want to head to bed?”
“I’ll get your chair.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled, blushing a bit.
When it was lined up, he heard Adam ask him something, but he didn’t really hear what he said.
"Nate, can I help you?"
"I don’t need you to help me," he snapped suddenly. "God, there's enough I can't do! Will you let me get on with the things I can do?"
"I know you don't need me to help you," Adam said, stepping back, his voice dropping in pitch and volume. "But sometimes I need to help you."
"What?" he asked as he froze in the act of shuffling forwards on the sofa, and his voice suddenly drained of all emotion.
Adam's lip trembled. Suddenly the huge man didn’t look half as big any more. "I know there's nothing I can do to make up for what happened, for what I did, but sometimes – hell, most of the time – I feel so helpless. I don't know what to do, what to say. I've been watching you just existing. I know you're getting better, but you're still not really living... Some days there’s nothing I can do at all. I can't reach you..." A tear actually rolled down his face and his lips jerked into an anguished grimace. "I'm going to lose you before I ever find you again."
Nate sat perfectly still, his heart clanging.
"Why won't you let me get close to you again? Did I hurt you that badly? Do you still trust me so little?"
He couldn't say the words.
"The better it feels now, the worse it hurts when you leave."
Adam blinked. "What?"
"When you go, it's going to kill me."
"I'm not going anywhere!" he thundered suddenly, his voice cracking with emotion. "I'm not going to leave you, ever again! I love you, Nate. I love you. I always have. And I hurt you, and I'm frightened, but I'm not going to leave you until you tell me to." He shook all over.
Nate swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously in his throat. "Promise?" he asked.
"Ok," Nate breathed. He dwelt momentarily on the fact that Adam had told him he loved him.
Adam stooped down and clambered awkwardly into his lap, straddling him on the sofa so that he could hold him so tightly Nate couldn't draw breath. "Please..." he hissed vaguely.
"Ok," Nate said again. "I'll try and let you help me."
That night, as Nate lay curled in his bed, he felt the huge distance yawning black and blank between his and the room next door. Wearing his scruffy black sweatpants and a t-shirt with holes in, he swung his legs out of bed, waited obediently for the head-rush to pass, and then reached for chair beside his bed.
Adam was snoring when he pushed the door open, and Nate’s wheels made no noise on the carpet, but there was no way he could get onto Adam’s bed without waking him, so he stretched his hand out, heart thudding in his ears, and touched him gently.
He woke with a quick inhale, blinking in the dim light. “Nate, what’s wrong? What is it?” he asked, sitting up. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” he said, his voice gruff and tired. “Could… Can I…?” he faltered, unable to finish.
Adam smirked and shuffled in the bed, lifting up one corner of the duvet. “Come here,” he said.
Nate didn’t wait to be told twice.
By the time summer came round, the guest room was empty once more, and Adam spent his nights in Nate’s bed.
“You want to go swimming after work?” Adam asked as Nate slid the pancakes onto his plate and deftly turned his chair towards the sink. “Oi,” Adam added, “Come back here.”
Nate grinned and set the hot pan down on a trivet before turning back to him. Adam reached his hands out and Nate slid his into the bigger man’s grasp, allowing Adam to pull him forward towards him. Adam kissed him squarely on the lips, drawing a big smile from him that went all the way to his deep blue eyes. When green met blue, he pressed his hand into Nate’s thigh, leaned forward, and began to nibble at his lower lip.
“Needy, aren’t we?” Nate grinned when Adam finally let go.
“Yup,” Adam smiled back. “So? Swimming?”
“When do you finish?”
“I’ll see you there? Or shall I pick you up?”
Nate dumped the pan in the sink and looked out of the kitchen window. “It’s a nice day. I’ll see you there.”
The changing room was chilly, but Nate didn’t mind. He hurried as fast as he could, but he knew Adam would be ready long before he was. He didn’t mind that either. There was a lot he didn’t mind these days. He smiled.
Pushing the door open, he emerged into the pool and saw Adam sitting on a lounger waiting for him, wearing those god-damned gorgeous red trunks instead of his . He looked incredible in either, but the trunks sat low on his hips and made him look more relaxed.
"You didn’t get in?" Nate asked with a smile. "I thought you'd have at least twenty lengths on me by now."
He looked at Nate oddly for a moment and then shrugged.
"Hey, I'm the one with the handicap," Nate joked, hoping to shake the strange expression on Adam's face with a bit of humour. "You don't need to sit there and let me get ahead you know?"
His smile didn't go all the way to his eyes.
"Nothing," he said, standing and clearing his throat. His hands clenched and unclenched nervously.
He was feeling helpless. Nate just knew it. Some days Adam just felt helpless. "Hey," he said, reaching for Adam’s palm before it closed behind iron fingers again. "Do me a favour?"
"Anything," he said in a rush.
He let his blue eyes fall to his knees. They were shaking. That was actually a good thing. "Listen, I'm feeling a bit wobbly today. Could you..."
"Could I what?" Adam asked, his dark green eyes hesitant.
"Would you mind..." The spasms in his legs worsened and he battled the urge to make them stop. He let his left leg shiver itself straight, hating the way his foot flopped around at the end. "Would you carry me?"
Adam's green eyes bulged. "Carry you?" he breathed. "But... you hate that?"
He tried to smile but it came out as a half-smirk instead. "I don’t hate it so much if it's you..." He swung his chair into its usual alcove and waited for Adam to come and help him.
"How do you want to do it?" Adam asked nervously.
"Carry me like you would a princess," he grinned. "I'll put my arms round your shoulders, and you put one round my back and the other under my knees."
"Just like a princess."
The tension shattered and Adam began to laugh a deep, booming laugh that bounced off all the walls and all the tiles and then came back to them in their little corner. "Alright then."
His skin was warm and Nate almost nuzzled into his chest, but the fear of being dropped, of being helpless, of being entirely at someone else's mercy suddenly bloomed in his lungs and he latched onto Adam's thick neck in terror.
"I've got you, princess," he whispered softly, a cheeky smirk on his lips. "I've got you."
He gulped. He could trust Adam. “I should never have done that.”
“Done what?” Adam asked, freezing half way to the pool steps.
Nate chuckled and laid his cheek against Adam’s colossal chest. “Used the word princess. I’m never going to live that down now, am I?”
Relief washed through Adam’s body and he made the last few strides for the water with an easy grace. “No,” he said, stepping carefully into the chilly water and lowering Nate in gingerly. When Nate didn’t let go of him, Adam leaned his nose forward and kissed him on the forehead. “No, princess, you aren’t.”
A throaty chuckle rumbled out of Nate’s chest, and he rolled out of Adam’s arms into the water with a splash. His strong arms took him half the length of the pool away from Adam in a few short seconds, but Adam stayed where he was. He bit his lip and clenched his fists the further Nate got from him, but he stayed put. Nate was not a princess. He was not helpless. And it was not Nate who needed looking after now. Not any more.
From his new position at the other end of the pool, Nate’s fingers clutched the wall and he turned around, expecting to find Adam powering up after him, sleek body moving gracefully underwater, but he was shocked to find him exactly where he’d left him, now clogging up the stairs and stopping an older lady from being able to get in. “Oi!” he called, waving at him and pointing behind him.
Adam twitched in surprise and apologised to the woman, stepping further into the water but going no further than the end of the wide fan of steps. Nate frowned. He set his limbs back into motion, and shortly drew up in front of Adam, reaching instinctively for his arm to hold himself above the water. “Hey,” he said, squeezing his fingers into the muscle of Adam’s forearm. “Hey,” he said again, his tone sharpening. “Look at me.”
Green eyes met blue once more.
Adam softened a little, but his brows were still pinched in the middle. He dipped low in the water and Nate found Adam’s arms snaking around his torso, and his face buried in Nate’s neck in an instant. Water sloshed between them and he got some in his mouth. Coughing and fighting a little against the panic that had never been there in the pool before the accident, he clung to Adam and waited for him to peel himself off him. His hands worked over the tight muscles of Adam’s shoulders and back. “Talk to me,” he said, spitting out water. “Also, I’m going to drown in a minute.”
He pulled back sharply. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok,” Nate laughed. “I’ll forgive you, but only if you tell me what’s eating at you.”
“I…” his lip trembled. “I’m afraid…”
“Afraid?” he asked. “Of what?”
He reached up and stroked a section of Adam’s dark blond hair back behind his ear. “I’m not going anywhere. I'm better than ever, thanks to you.”
“I know, I mean, you say you don’t want to go, but…”
Where the hell was this coming from? “You think I’m lying to you? I thought I was the one with separation anxiety and the abandonment complex…”
“No,” his green eyes went wide. “No, I just mean… I’m frightened of something happening to you.”
“Like what?” he challenged playfully. “I’ve already been run over by bus…”
“Truck, bus, same thing. That’s not the point. What do you think is going to happen to me? Where is this coming from?”
Adam didn’t look at him for a while. “The other day…”
“What other day?”
“When I came back and found you on the floor…”
“That was weeks ago,” he scoffed. “And entirely my own fault. I pushed myself too hard and didn’t listen to my body. I learned my lesson.”
“Don’t let it spook you,” he said. “Please, don’t be afraid of me.”
His hand moved to where Nate still held him for support. “I can’t keep you from getting hurt,” he said. “I… I know I can’t wrap you up in cotton wool – it’s not right, and you don’t need it – but I don’t know what I’d do without you… I…”
Nate felt a huge grin dawn on his face. “You’re in love, ,” he said, releasing one hand and knocking him gently on the top of the head with his knuckle.
“Love sucks,” Adam grumbled, the tension leaking out of him a bit.
Nate let go with the other hand and floated on his back, drifting away from him for a bit before he glanced over to him. “Hold me,” he said. “Hold me up.”
Adam’s hand slid under his shoulders and he guessed the other was beneath his legs, but he couldn’t feel it.
Nate smiled up at the huge man above him. “You’re a big softie, you know that?”
He gave him a watery smile. “And you’re tough as old boots.” As an after thought, he added, “Princess,” and shoved him slightly in the chest so that he sank, spluttering. He pulled him up and dodged a splashing punch that Nate threw half-heartedly at him.
“Jerk.” Nate rolled over again and added, “Race you,” before the movement carried him underwater and he sped off for the end of the pool, leaving Adam in a wash of bubbles.