Javier pointed at me, growing visibly more furious. “This is the problem with you two. How the fuck is anyone supposed to get close to either of you, to have any kind of a relationship with you, when you only care about each other, only trust each other?!”

Javier had a rare but memorable temper. He was a clear-headed, sweet guy ninety-nine percent of the time. He was sweet, gentle, and amiable, if a touch cool for my taste. But that other one percent was an emotional typhoon. I knew from their past breakup that when he got like this he said awful things, threw out ultimatums, and burned bridges. I got it. I understood that dysfunction all too well, but it had wounded Stephan once again, and I had a real serious problem with that.

I pointed right back at him. “I said, give him space.”

His upper lip quivered. He gripped both hands into his hair as though he wanted to pull it all out. I couldn’t tell if it was anger or pain that moved him, but I frankly didn’t care at that moment. Priority one was Stephan, always.

“He doesn’t need space! He needs to talk to me, instead of running to you every time he’s upset!”

I started to move towards Javier, to do what, I wasn’t quite sure. Push him from the room? Get in his face? I honestly couldn’t say, but it didn’t matter. Stephan stopped me, clutching me close.

“Leave her out of it, Javier,” Stephan said, his voice toneless and quiet. I hated that tone, because I knew it hid a deep pain.

“No, you leave her out of it—“ Javier shouted back.

“Go, Javier. I have nothing to say to you right now, and I’ve heard what you have to say. Now leave us alone,” Stephan said, still in that alarmingly dead tone.

Javier visibly deflated. He turned and walked away.

Distractedly, I noted that James followed him out, closing the door softly behind them.

Stephan pulled me to a low couch, hugging me to him. I clutched him just as tightly as he did me. If he needed comfort, I needed just as badly to give it to him. He was hurting, and I hurt with him. We had never been able to maintain any level of detachment from each other’s suffering, and we didn’t now.

I stroked my hands through his soft wavy hair over and over, not speaking, just comforting and waiting. If he needed to tell me, he would tell me. I wouldn’t pry.

We hugged like that for a long time, my face buried in his neck, his in my hair, before he spoke in a whisper into my ear. “I told him that I loved him yesterday,” he said finally.

I tried not to tense, tried to stay comforting, relaxing, waiting for him to go on, but I didn’t imagine he’d have good news after that. The I love you obviously hadn’t been met with a positive response.

“He told me that he needed more time to know his feelings, that I was moving too fast. He said he wasn’t sure he could trust me yet, with our history and all. I tried not to be hurt by that, even though it felt like a rejection.”

He didn’t speak for a while. I stroked his hair, rubbed his back.

“I shook it off pretty good, I thought. I could give him time. We have time, yanno? Maybe I was rushing. But then we went out tonight. To Melvin’s bar. Not my idea, but I didn’t figure there’d be a problem. And there wasn’t. At least not on Melvin’s end. Melvin was completely civil, friendly even. Javier took exception to the friendly. He asked me if I’d gone out with Melvin. I said yeah, briefly. He went into a jealous tantrum. I went to the bathroom. When I came back out, I found Javier pinned to the wall, being kissed by Vance. He wasn’t exactly putting up a fight. I left. Javier followed me here.”

“He was mad at me. He had the nerve to turn it around on me, said I was overreacting. I hate this. I just can’t take this kind of stuff, the jealousy and the disloyalty. I’d rather be alone than deal with all of that.”

“I can’t make him love me,” he continued, an awful quaver in his voice. My tear ducts responded accordingly, producing a dreaded tear like a button had been pushed. “I’ve been down that road. Before I met you, that was all I knew. I did everything I could think of to make my family love me, but in the end, they said that I was toxic, and un-savable, and they thought that I was scum. I won’t do that again, won’t be that pathetic kid who can’t make someone love them, not even for Javier.”

“Oh, Stephan,” I whispered, crying like a baby now, because he was crying, and because there was no distance between his pain and my heart. “You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. There is nothing ugly inside of you, nothing bad. If he can’t love you, if he doesn’t already, it can only be because he’s not worthy of your love. You don’t need to try to make anyone love you ever again. You’re the most lovable person I know.”

“I’m not, Bee. My own family threw me away. There has to be something wrong with me. They didn’t throw the other kids away. It was only me, and I tried my hardest—“ he was crying too hard to finish. I was right there with him. We held each other and cried like babies. The tears seemed to be flowing more freely these days. The stoic, hard-eyed street kids we’d once been would have been ashamed.

“I love you so much,” I said quietly into his ear when the tears had passed. “I wouldn’t have survived without you. You saved me in so many ways. You still do, every day. I’m not sure I’d even be capable of loving another person if you hadn’t come along when you did. I was so numb inside, so resigned to just watching my life play out in one horrible episode after another, until one of those episodes finally ended me for good.”

He whimpered, squeezing me so tightly that I had to pause for a moment.

“You saved me from so many horrible things,” I continued. “You kept me from having to make so many of the hard choices that a girl would have to make living out on the street. You were a teenage boy, but you provided for me better, and loved me better, than some parents do for their own children.”

“Oh, Bee,” he whispered.

“We met in the gutter,” I continued, “but even there, you shone like a light in the dark for me. You were the only good thing in my life, but you were so good that I knew it had all evened out. All of the bad was balanced because I got you out of it. Even jaded and abused and dead inside, I saw that clearly. If Javier can’t see it, trust me, he’s not worthy of your love.”

He kissed my forehead.

We didn’t talk about this stuff often, so once I started it was hard to stop. “I never met your family,” I continued, “but I can tell you that you were the best of them, not the worst. They did throw you away,” I said, and he made the faintest whimper of a noise. It killed me to hear that, to know that it still hurt him so badly, still affected him that much. “They did throw you away, but that says nothing about you, and everything about them. You would never throw someone away, never turn on someone that needed you.”

I had said my piece, and so fell silent. He hugged me to him for a long time, burrowing his face into my hair.

“I love you, Buttercup. You’re my rock. Best thing that ever happened to me,” he whispered.

I closed my eyes, feeling unworthy of those words, but relishing them all the same.

I didn’t realize I had drifted off until quiet voices woke me up. Stephan’s chest was my pillow. He spoke in a low voice to someone behind me as he stroked my hair.

“You have to understand how proud she is, if you’re going to keep her with you. It’s a resilient kind of pride. She had exactly one pair of pants and three tops in our junior year of high school, but no one ever would have suspected that it was because she was homeless, just because of the way she held herself. And that was just a taste of it, just a tiny piece of the superficial part of it. It goes so much deeper than that. It’s the kind of pride that would keep a person from ever saying how they feel, at the risk of being rejected. Do you understand?”

I heard a deep hum of noise behind me and knew that it was James.

Oh Stephan, I thought.

He was matchmaking, trying to bring two stubborn souls closer; two people who he was afraid were incapable of doing it themselves.

I felt a weight settle onto the couch beside us, a hand resting on my hip with a soft touch.

“I understand,” James said quietly.

I couldn’t begin to read his tone.

“Are you okay, Stephan?” he asked.

I felt Stephan nod. “I’m better. I vented, got it all out, and it actually helped.”

“Are you up to talking to Javier tonight? I set him up in another room, but he’s asked to speak to you at your earliest convenience. He swears he’s done yelling—swears he’ll be civil.”

I felt Stephan nod again. “Yeah. I’m ready to talk. Are you going to wake her?”

“I’ll carry her to our room.”

I felt Stephan kiss my head and then James was shifting me into his arms. I let him take a few steps before I rubbed my cheek against his chest. “I can walk,” I told him, my voice sleepy.

“And I can carry you,” he said, just gripping me more tightly.

And he did, carrying me upstairs and laying me on our bed. I let him strip me down to nothing without a word, just watching him. I couldn’t begin to read his mood. Was he upset? The evening couldn’t have gone how he’d been planning.

He shrugged out of his own clothes, lying on the bed beside me. I was flat on my back, and he perched himself at my side, one hand propping his head up, the other moving to my belly with a light touch.

It was a peaceful kind of standoff. We lay and watched and waited for the other to speak. I thought I was well suited to the contest.

James broke first.

“I listened to you and Stephan talking,” he said finally.

I was hardly surprised, so I didn’t react. “Why?” was all I asked.

“I led Javier to the furthest room down the hall from Stephan, and when I stepped out into the hall, I heard you sobbing. I couldn’t stay away. I couldn’t hear you crying like that and just let it go. You have to know that about me by now.”

I did know that. I just nodded for him to go on.

“I just sat outside the door and listened. I tried to give you space, but that was the best I could do. Let me start by saying that I’m grateful for Stephan. I feel like I owe him a debt, a debt that I can never repay, for taking care of you, for keeping you safe, body and soul, before we met. He’s a part of you. I see that. But Javier was right, in a way.”

I opened my mouth to speak.

He just covered it with his hand. “Let me finish. He was right in that, every time you get upset about something, you can’t only turn to each other. You can depend on other people. Letting someone other Stephan past your guard won’t diminish what you have with him, or what you are to each other. Your love for each other is a beautiful thing, but it shouldn’t be such a selfish thing. You’ve turned that love into a wall that keeps everyone else out, and that’s unfortunate, because you have so much more to give than that.”

“As we’re finding out together, relationships can be rocky. This thing that we have can be hard. But if you turn away from me, if you run to Stephan every time it gets hard, where will that leave us? Where will that leave Javier and Stephan? You need to make room in your heart for more than Stephan.”

Tags: R.K. Lilley Up in the Air Erotic
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