"Do I look ok?"
I turned away from putting the finishing touches on my hair to give Evan my full attention. Tonight was awards night at Patterson High and Evan had been getting ready for what seemed like hours. This suit? That suit? Which tie? Wing tips or loafers? I was about to throttle him, but when I turned around, my irritation vanished at the somber expression on his face. He looked fabulous -- tall and lean in a charcoal suit -- but it was his eyes that held me. As dark as his suit in the moody bedroom light, they held every bit of the pain that this night would remind him of.
Awarding scholarships to kids who would otherwise never have the opportunity to attend college was an excellent use of the accident settlement `blood money', but it was hard on him. He'd told me before that he'd cried through the presentation the first couple years, but eventually was able to focus on the joy of the scholarship recipients to keep the tears at bay. Looking at him now, I wasn't so sure about tonight. He was quiet and edgy, moving restlessly around the room, and I wondered how Rafael and Kenny were doing. We were picking them up in thirty minutes.
"You look wonderful."
"I don't look like a funeral director? That's what I always feel like in this suit."
"Not with that tie, no." He'd chosen a dark, intense floral, mostly black and white, but shot here and there with deep purples, reds and blues.
He glanced down at the tie as he smoothed his hand over the silk. "You gave me this."
I stayed silent until he looked up at me. "It'll be ok, Evan. Raf and Kenny'll be up there with you, and I'll be in the audience."
He held my eyes for a few seconds, then dropped his head back and blew out a deep breath as he stared at the ceiling. "I know. It's like this every year, but..." He met my gaze again, licked his lips, pressed them tightly together for a moment, then added, "Sit where I can see you, ok?"
I nodded, and we finished getting dressed. Chewy eyed me when I came down the hall into the living room. I don't think he'd ever seen me in a suit, and when he came over to sniff my trouser leg, I kept an eye on him in case he expressed his possible disapproval by lifting his leg on me. But he just gave me a good sniffing and then licked my shoe before going back to his bed under the little table by the door.
A couple weeks ago, I'd caught Evan rummaging through my side of the closet, flipping past t-shirts, flannel shirts, jeans.
"Don't you own a suit?" he asked, and I laughed at the disbelief in his voice.
"No, I don't. Before I met you, my lifestyle didn't much require suits."
"Well, you'll need one a couple weeks from now, so we're going shopping."
That sounded about as much fun as spending the day plucking my nuts bald one hair at a time, but suit shopping with Evan turned out to be fairly painless. Left to my own devices, I would have headed for Sears, or maybe the mall. But no - we went directly to the most expensive men's store in Patterson, where he spent a quick fifteen minutes pulling jackets off the rack and holding them up under my chin. After studying each selection with a careful eye, he discarded many possibilities before sending me off to the dressing room with four suits, five or six shirts, and several ties. Each time I emerged, Evan and the salesman would go into a consultation about things like drape and cut, and the salesman would tug on the jacket hem or the snug up the tie. Between the two of them, I left the store with two suits, four shirts, three ties, four pair of socks, a new pair of shoes, and a lot less available credit on my Visa.
So, actually, it wasn't entirely painless.
"Where am I ever gonna wear all this stuff except once a year to the awards thing?" I whined.
"You never know," he replied firmly, totally unsympathetic to the fact that he'd just cost me double the price of the Pan's custom paint job. "Maybe you and Kenny'll hit the big time and need to meet with investors or something."
I just snorted and followed him to the car, staggering under the load.
We took Evan's car with me driving, and during the ride to Raf's, Evan gazed silently out the window. I left him alone. He'd been a little quieter than usual the past few days, and today he'd come home early from work and spent a sweaty hour weeding the garden, which was where I found him when I got home around 4. When I gave him a raised eyebrow, he just said he felt like some exercise. We showered together; Evan let me soap him up, but didn't develop even a suggestion of an erection from my slick hands, so I stuck to just getting him clean, figuring we needed to get through tonight, and, in a couple weeks, the anniversary of the accident, before things would get back to normal.
I pulled into Raf's drive and the three of us climbed out as Kenny opened the front door. Like Chewy with me, I'd never seen Kenny in a suit and gave him a long wolf whistle as we walked in the door. His broad shoulders filled out a suit coat nicely, and he chuckled when I stuck my face down in his neck, growling as I chewed on him. He smelled nice, too.
But if I thought Evan and Kenny looked good, Rafael was a walking wet dream when he emerged from their room. His suit was, as I knew from my shopping expedition with Evan, a European cut, slightly tapered at the waist to set off his tight body to perfection. The color was simply a dark brown, but it was made from a material that certainly hadn't been in stock at the best men's store in Patterson. Although the fabric wasn't a smooth weave like mine, it still had a sheen to it.
"What's that made of?"
He stopped and struck a pose, hand extended, nose in the air, then winked at me with a grin. "Raw silk."
The tie I'd bought Evan was silk and it had cost way more than I thought a tie oughta. "The entire suit is silk?"
"Not just silk," he corrected me. "Raw silk. That's what gives it the great texture. The little bumps are called slubs."
I just blinked at him for a moment. "You know way more about that suit than you should," I told him, and then remembered that I had recognized it as being European cut. "How much was it?" Crass, that's my middle name.
"You wouldn't believe it if he told you," Kenny replied. "You've found out his darkest secret -- he's a closet fashion queen."
"Well, regardless, he looks fuckin' gorgeous."
Watching Raf walk away from me into the kitchen, I thought that the suit was worth every cent he'd spent on it. The fabric moved with a subtle shimmer that would have looked pimp-ish in any other color, but the brown was understated enough to pull it off, and he simply looked marvelous. When he came back into the room, he walked up close to Evan and looked him in the face.
"You doin' ok?"
It had been months since I'd been reminded that I was the odd man in this foursome, and I didn't like it any better now. I turned away to give them some space, knowing that this was one area in which I would never fully belong. When I reached the front door, I glanced back. Raf was holding Evan's face in his hands, they were almost forehead to forehead, and Raf was talking too softly for me to hear. After a moment, Evan nodded and managed a little smile, Raf kissed him lightly on the mouth, and we all headed out the door.
We left Chew with Elvis gnawing on a couple big rawhide knots, and piled into the car for the ride to the high school. The lot was about half full, but with Kenny's handicap permit, we parked right up front. As always, people sneaked looks to watch a guy getting into a wheel chair, something I still hadn't gotten used to. As we made our way along the sidewalk toward the auditorium, we were greeted by a few people who knew Evan, Raf, and Kenny from when they were in school, but most folks just watched us pass.
Evan made me come backstage with him until the lights dimmed to indicate that things were about to get started. When I got back out front, I realized I'd forgotten to save myself a seat. The place was packed, and as I took a seat in the next to last row of the large auditorium, I hoped Evan wouldn't notice that I wasn't front and center like I said I'd be.
A row of school officials and local dignitaries sat on the stage, with Evan, Raf, and Kenny at one end. Many athletic awards were handed out first, and since I didn't know a soul, I amused myself by mentally undressing the various athletes as they crossed the stage. When the principal's voice took on a more somber note, I thought `here we go,' and tuned back in.
"...survived a terrible accident. They're here tonight to award full college scholarships to four students who otherwise would not have the opportunity to take their education to the next level. Please welcome..."
He named Raf first. He came to the mike, talked briefly about the importance of learning, announced the student's name, handed the certificate to a joyously tearful girl, and took his seat. Kenny did basically the same thing, except he introduced two of his previous recipients who were in the audience. The guy who'd received Kenny's grant the first year had just graduated from med school and was doing his residency at Patterson General. The girl who'd gotten it three years ago was well on her way to a business degree that she never would have attained without the scholarship. This year's lucky kid was a hunky Hispanic boy whose mother sobbed quietly a few rows ahead of me. Growing up the way I had, college had never even crossed my mind, so I hadn't really appreciated what it meant to the winners of these scholarships. It made me proud that my friends were doing this.
Then it was Evan's turn. My hope that he wouldn't miss me went up in smoke as I watched him scan the first few rows of the audience as he came to the microphone. He shuffled his notes a couple times, stalling, looking for me, and I almost stood up and waved, but the place was quietly waiting for him to talk, so I just sat still. Finally, he took a deep breath and began to speak.
"This night has always been difficult for me, but for a deeper reason than most of you know. That reason has never been publicly stated, but tonight... tonight I need to do that. My life has come full circle, and so I need to tell you what I really lost that night."
Raf and Kenny had turned to stare at him, and a couple of the school officials were shifting in their seats. What the hell was he up to?
"I lost a lot more than a buddy when Lucas was killed." Evan swallowed hard, then said it. "I loved him. He was my boyfriend... my lover." That sent a startled murmur through the audience, and he paused until they quieted a little. "When the settlement was decided, I almost refused it. No amount of money could replace what I lost that night..." long pause, "but then the three of us," he waved a hand at Raf and Kenny, "decided that scholarships were a way to put it to really good use."
He paused and searched the audience again, looking for me. Goddamnit.
"The winners of the two scholarships..."
He stopped, dropping his gaze to his notes, and I thought maybe he'd forgotten their names.
"The winner... the winner of Lucas Anderson's scholarship is..."
He went on to name the two kids who would benefit this year, and presented them with their certificates, but he didn't take his seat. His hands tightened on the edges of the lectern, and I could see the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed hard. Something was really wrong. Was he ill? Raf begin to get up, and I thought thank god, but then Kenny held him back with a hand on his arm. What the hell was happening?
I froze when Evan spoke my name. People were looking around the audience now, looking for me, but my ass seemed glued to the seat.
This time his voice held a note of urgency that brought me to my feet and into the aisle.
"Here, Evan," I called, as I walked quickly toward the stage. "I'm here."
His body visibly relaxed when he heard my voice, and when he spotted me, we locked eyes as he watched me walk toward him from the back of the hall. As I neared the stage, I smiled, sending all the reassurance I possibly could with my eyes and my mouth. I thought to just stand quietly near the side steps up to the stage, where Evan could see me and I'd be out of the way, but as I slowed to a halt, he shook his head.
"Come up here," he said, adding, "Please," when I hesitated.
I was uncomfortably aware that all eyes were on me, but when he held out his hand, I went up the stairs, past Raf and Kenny, straight to Evan. I'd never seen him like this, not even the night he came to me on the anniversary of the accident last June. His eyes were huge and dark, and shining with the tears I'd heard in his voice when he called my name the second time. When I got to him, I stood close and squeezed the back of his neck lightly, then slid my hand down to the middle of his back, keeping contact.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, leaning into him so that the mike wouldn't catch my voice. "All the seats were full."
He gave a little nod and closed his eyes for a few seconds. I could feel him gathering himself to get through rest of the presentation, and after a moment, he raised his head to the waiting audience. There were almost a thousand people in the room and the place was silent as a tomb. Evan's voice rang out clearly in the stillness.
"I said a moment ago that my life had come full circle, and in acknowledgement of that, I'm adding a third annual scholarship to mine and Luke's." He reached back and put an arm across my shoulders, turning me toward the crowd. "In the name of Jeff Caldwell, my partner."
There was a moment of silence while the words sunk in, then the room erupted in applause while I stared at Evan's profile. He had done many nice, even wonderful, things for me in the year we'd been together, but I'd never expected something like this. I'd resigned myself to the fact that I hadn't shared the tragedy that had forever linked Evan, Rafael, Kenny, and Luke to one another. By creating a scholarship in my name, Evan had bridged at least a part of that gap.
He finally turned to me, a smile curving his mouth as he saw my face. He tightened his arm for a moment before releasing me to cover the mike with his hand, then turned to one of the school officials seated behind us.
"Who's the next kid on the list?" he asked quietly. The man quickly paged through a sheaf of papers, stopping at one and circling a name before handing it to Evan, who took it and gave it to me, along with a third scholarship certificate that he pulled from his notes.
"Go ahead," he said. "Make that kid's day."
We stared at each other for a second, and then Evan stepped back a pace, leaving me alone at the mike. I'd never spoken to a crowd before and stood there mute for a few seconds. They were eager to learn the identity of the final student, but there was no way in hell I could manage a flowery speech just then, so I lifted the sheet of paper and simply said, "This honor goes to..." and I read the name.
The girl who came up to accept the certificate from my almost-steady hand was dressed in neat but shabby clothes, her well-worn shoes polished to a shine, and for an instant, I saw myself fifteen years ago. She clutched the paper like it would vanish unless she kept a hold of it, staring at it for several moments before looking up at me.
"Thank you," she said, voice choked with emotion, eyes glistening. "This was my last hope. I'll make you real proud, I promise. Thank you so much."
I was grinding my teeth together in an effort not to tear up, so I just nodded. We shook again, and although I didn't know it at the time, it was a moment that would change the direction of my life. After she left the stage, Evan took his seat while I stood at the end next to Kenny and listened to the closing remarks. The moment it was over, Evan grabbed my arm and hustled us out the side door. We made it through the crowd and into the car without too much interference, and once we hit the street, I asked, "Where to?"
"I don't know about you," Raf growled, "but I need a fucking drink. Go to our place."
Evan didn't argue with that suggestion, so I hung a right to head in that direction. None of us spoke a word during the drive. I glanced at Evan a couple times, but he just watched the road ahead of us like I might make a wrong turn if he didn't pay attention.
"Look," Kenny chuckled as we pulled into their driveway. We all looked toward the house where two furry faces peered out the front window at us, ears perked. It was just what we needed to take the edge off, and when Raf opened the front door, Chewy and Elvis burst through it side by side. By the time we got Kenny in his chair and the dogs rounded up, Raf met us in the family room with four shot glasses and a bottle of Jack. He handed each of us a glass as he poured them, held his in the air for a second, then tossed it down his throat with a grimace. We followed suit with Evan grunting, "Jesus," as the liquor hit his stomach.
After Raf capped the bottle, collected the glasses and headed for the kitchen, the three of us loosened ties and took off jackets and shoes. Kenny transferred himself to a couch as I walked up behind Evan, who was standing at the patio door, gazing out into the dark back yard. Here and there, I could see a gleam of moonlight on the water of the pool. As always when he was troubled, his hands were deep in his front pockets. I slid my arms around his waist, kissed his neck, and then propped my chin on his shoulder.
"So..." I said softly. "You didn't tell me I'd need a speech."
He dropped his chin to his chest and sighed. "Sorry, I just... I don't know. It's been weird all week, thinking about getting up there to say the usual stuff. It just seemed so superficial. It's been so long that most of those people didn't even know me or Luke, and I needed to make it real for them, you know?"
He pulled loose and turned to face me, searching my face for understanding.
"Not just free money from some dead guy they never heard of. I wanted them to... to feel it, I guess. To put a face to it. And then when I couldn't see you... I should have had them save you a seat. I just didn't think about it."
"Yeah, the place was packed."
"It always is."
Rafael came back into the room just then with four beers, so we wandered over to the other couch and took a seat. As Raf handed Evan his beer, he said, "So you gonna make Jeff pay for that extra scholarship?"
Shit, the cost of the thing hadn't even occurred to me. I had just assumed Evan meant to cover it from his three-point-whatever million dollar bank account. He saw my look of dismay and smiled.
"No, I set it up yesterday. God knows, there's plenty of money."
"So when did you decide to add another one?" Kenny asked from his sprawl on the sofa. "Cause you had the certificate printed already."
"Couple days ago. It's all your fault," he added, nudging me with an elbow.
"Yeah, making me happy again."
Kenny grinned and Raf smiled slowly as I watched Evan take another long pull on his beer. Nobody had anything to say to that, but when Raf got up to take a leak, he ruffled my hair as he went past, the way he often did Kenny's, a gesture of affection and approval that he had never used with me and that meant a hell of a lot, coming from him.
Something occurred to me. "I think you told me one time that Luke's parents don't live too far away. Why don't they present his scholarship?"
Kenny snorted in disgust as Evan looked up at me. "It's not from them," he said. "I pay for both his and mine. And now yours," he added with a smile that faded as he continued. "They moved shortly after the accident and I've never spoken to them since."
"Assholes," Raf declared as he came back into the room.
Evan shook his head slowly as he scraped the label off his beer bottle. "They lost their only son... and they figure he'd still be alive if he hadn't had such an unhealthy attachment to me. That's what the doctor called it -- an unhealthy attachment."
"Same guy who told me my sex life was a thing of the past," Kenny added, watching Evan stare at his beer bottle.
"Dumb fuck. Thank Christ he was wrong about that," Raf said, as he leaned over and buried his face in Kenny's lap. That broke the mood and we moved on to discuss this year's various scholarship recipients.
"You'll get updates on how that girl is doing," Evan told me. "They have to maintain a certain academic level to keep the scholarship. Otherwise, it defaults to the next kid on the list at the end of each school year. That only happened once to one of Raf's guys. Thought it was a license to party. Mostly they're so grateful that they work their asses off."
We went home after we finished our beers. Tomorrow was a work day and I wanted a chance to talk to Evan before it got too late. It was a quiet drive home with Chew curled up in Evan's lap, and Evan watching the dark countryside slide past the windows of the car. At home, he headed straight down the hall to our room. I fed Chewy before following him. As I undressed and hung my new suit in the closet, I watched Evan brush his teeth, watched his soft cock waggle slightly with the motion of his arm.
"You going to bed?" I asked, since he was standing there butt naked. It was just after nine.
"No, just cooling off from the suit." He tugged on boxers and a t-shirt as I did the same, and we wandered back out to the kitchen. "Hungry?"
It was a rhetorical question -- I was always hungry. We pulled out a cold deli chicken and some potato salad that Sharon had brought by yesterday, grabbed two forks, and dug in. Around a chicken leg, I said, "Thank you."
He stopped chewing for a second, and then nodded. "Welcome."
"It means more than you think."
This time he swallowed his mouthful and looked up at me. "I know what it means to you, Jeff. I know it's not easy for you always being the new guy. We don't try to make you feel like that, but..." he shrugged, "it's true. No way to change it, but I wanted..."
He stopped talking to breathe carefully for a few moments and I wasn't sure if he was trying not to cry or just thinking what he wanted to say.
"In a few days, you and I will have been together for a year. A couple weeks after that, Luke will have been dead for ten. It just all got me thinking."
Put like that, I could see why. "So you decided on a scholarship."
"Well, yeah... I wanted to do something for you that had some impact, something that lasted, something that did some good." He paused to pick at his chicken. "You have no idea what you've done for me, Jeff. The scholarship is a small thing, really, but it seemed to fit. You didn't get a chance at a decent education, so... I figured you could appreciate it. I just didn't think I'd get so goddamned emotional about it." Another pause, then his eyes came up to mine. "I couldn't see you anywhere."
"I know, I'm sorry."
As we looked at each other across the chicken carcass and the plastic bowl of potato salad, I couldn't help but think that this conversation should have taken place in bed, or at least cuddled up on the couch, where I could hold him. But here we were, in the harsh fluorescent light of the kitchen, eating cold leftovers while having one of the most important talks of our relationship.
After a moment, he sighed. "You done?"
I nodded, and we cleaned up before checking the back door and turning out the light. As we started the walk down the hall, Evan slid an arm around my waist and tipped his head onto my shoulder. That small gesture touched me like nothing else this evening had, and I pulled him into a rough hug, holding him tightly to me while I did my own share of careful breathing. We stood there like that for several minutes, long enough for the old cherry clock to chime ten. As the last note died away, Evan gently eased back to look at me in the dim light.
"So you're ok with the scholarship? Cause you'll have to write a better speech for next year. Tonight's was a little short."
"Fuck," I grumbled, as we finished the walk to our bedroom.
There were a few more guys than usual in the weight room when I got there around four the next day, but still no Conrad, which didn't break my heart any. As I began to stretch out, my mind went back to last night. Raf's hand in my hair. Kenny's warm hug when we left. Evan's head on my shoulder. Small things when you just write them down like that, but I knew they'd stay with me for a while.
I was on the floor doing crunches when the level of light beyond my closed eyelids changed. As I looked straight up the leg of a pair of traditional gym shorts, past a hairy muscular thigh, to the pouch of a jock strap over-flowing with a half-hard (or maybe just huge) cock and two golf-ball sized testicles, I thought, Oh, shit.
"Recognize me?" Conrad smirked, as his handsome, smiling face appeared upside down above me. "No, no, don't stop," he added when I started to get up. "Finish those, and then you can spot me."
The only thing I wanted to spot was the back end of his car as he drove out of town and out of my life. Well, no more wondering when I'd finally run into him - there he was, larger than life, warming up with dumb bells, admiring his own biceps as they bulged with each curl. After staring at him for a moment (it was difficult not to appreciate that body), I went back to my crunches with a vengeance. I planned on telling him that I was in a committed relationship, didn't play his kind of games any more, and that there was no chance in hell he'd ever get another hand on me. There was a chance that Conrad would be cool with that, but there was also a chance he'd raise holy hell.
Guess I was about to find out which it was gonna be.
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