Wednesday morning was easy-going. Stefan and I made a full Irish breakfast for everyone, and we got to catching up on things. Not that there was much catching up to do, since we met up online so often. I was just relieved to see that whatever was bothering him last night seemed to no longer be weighing so heavily on his mind. Killian and Larsa woke to the smell of food, and by the time breakfast was eaten and cleaned up, we had our day fairly well planned out.
We played video games for a while — long enough to make sure our food was digested and we weren’t tired from being full — then headed up to our rooms to grab our hiking backpacks. We filled our bags with snacks, helped one another make sure we had hats and everything else we’d need for a safe and fun hike. Then we headed out the back door, locked up, and started walking down the trail that passed along the back of my property.
It was nice for an autumn day, not too cold, not too hot, and the air was fresh and clean. There were only a few clouds in the sky, and a light breeze blew through the branches above us. We passed in and out of the shade of the trees, eventually heading uphill. Larsa ran ahead of us with Killian. I tried calling after him to warn him against getting separated from us, but Stefan let me know that Larsa was used to being out in the wilderness; he was good at tracking, and besides all that, he had a good GPS device in addition to the one in his phone.
Larsa absolutely loved hikes and nature and animals. Even though part of his chores back in Sweden involved going out into the wilderness, sometimes to collect wood, other times to collect berries or other such things, he loved being outdoors. If he got to be outside, it no longer felt like a chore to him. I really appreciated his sense of adventure and his love of nature.
“I think we’re getting a little too far from them,” I told Stefan as we took a more divergent path. “Maybe we should head back in their direction so we don’t get separated.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Stefan said. “It’s not just that he’s a good tracker; he and Killian also have a couple… plans as to what they want to do outside.”
“Are they gathering something?” I asked. “We could help them.”
“No, no, no,” Stefan laughed, “nothing that you’d want to help them with.”
I stared at him for a long moment. My mind raced– then I realized what he was getting at. My cheeks turned deep red. “Is that– is that safe out here in the woods?”
“Trust me, Stefan said, Larsa knows what he’s doing. Back in Sápmi, he and his boyfriend at the time used to always go out to remote areas to do whatever chore their parents needed done. They had their fun while they were out there, I can assure you. It wasn’t all just love of nature.”
My cheeks felt even hotter. “You’re kidding!”
Stefan gave me a wily grin. “I’m not kidding, Leila. For all the innocence he seems to have, Larsa is plenty knowledgeable and experienced for a young man his age.
“But when it snowed–“
Stefan laughed again. “I’m telling you, he knows what he’s doing. Warmth, safety, privacy– he has everything accounted for. Let them be.”
“But Killian– I don’t think he’s ever done anything like that before.”
“So many questions about what those boys are up to!” Stefan said in mock admonition. “If you must know, I think Killian’s excited to learn a thing or two from Larsa. Besides, didn’t he do something or other with Justin back in high school?”
There’s a name I hadn’t heard for a long time. Justin was Killian’s boyfriend back in high school. He was in the same grade as us, and I think they started going out together when they were sixteen or something like that. Justin was an only child, and his mom was a little on the young side for a parent; I think she was eighteen or nineteen when she had him. His dad had been a few years older than her, and from what I gathered, had basically taken advantage of her naïveté and ended up hardly being in his son’s life.
Justin’s mom struggled to keep an apartment and pay the most basic of bills. Actually, I think her home life had been hard growing up as well. She was hardly ever home, between working two part-time jobs and whatever else she was doing in her spare time. As long as Justin didn’t get into trouble with the school or police or whatever else, she didn’t seem to care all that much what he did. Some of the other kids envied his freedom, but if they listened, they’d hear him say that he’d rather have more time with his mom and feel more cared-for than have all of those freedoms.
Justin was as skinny as anyone could be. He was always hungry, but some days he just seemed too down to do more than pick at his food. Once he and Killian were together for a while, he seemed to start cheering up. He spent a lot of time at Killian’s house, or if Killian was with me or Stefan, Justin would usually tag along. It seemed to do him a lot of good to socialize, get out of his shell a little, and even eat healthy food with us. He was always welcome to have dinner or sleep over at one of our houses; until he was able to save up to get a really basic prepaid phone, all he had to do was leave a note on the kitchen counter at his apartment. Whenever his mom got home, she’d be satisfied with whatever he said he was doing on the note.
The other thing about Justin was that he was really into the goth scene. His hair was naturally black, and he took full advantage of that. It used to be thin, stringy, and in need of more washings than he’d been giving it. I think between a rough sleep schedule, trying to keep up with school, and the random guests that his mom sometimes had over, it was hard for him to have a consistent routine, even for self-care. Once Killian spent long enough encouraging him to take better care of himself– even if it meant showering at his house– Justin started to do better and better. He never abandoned the goth scene, but he was starting to come out of his slump, and seemed to want to try more in life.
His mom wasn’t all that bad, but I could really tell that they struggled. Working for hourly wages at companies that didn’t really like to give raises was tough, and since it was just the two of them, she qualified for a lot of government benefits. Even then, the food benefits only went so far, and the free school lunches only helped if Justin would actually eat all of them; I think he was just used to hardly getting enough to eat. Sometimes Killian was able to get him to eat more, but he didn’t really force the issue.
His mom didn’t seem to notice if he brought home a bag of food here or there — she usually wasn’t even home when he was, so if he brought something home that we gave him, whether it was clothes or stuff for the bathroom or whatever, she didn’t know, so we were able to share with him. Sometimes she’d get a food box if she was able to get to the food bank in between jobs, but that wasn’t as consistent as it could have been, and even then, some of the stuff was not something he could cook or knew what to do with. If Killian or his brothers grew out of something that was more or less Justin’s style, he would accept it from them.
Since he spent so much time at Killian’s house– or Stefan’s or mine– Justin would help out with the chores like he was part of the family. It certainly made raking the leaves a lot easier! He tried getting an after-school job once he was old enough, but it was hard to find anything that wasn’t food service that would hire a teenager, and he didn’t have the cash up front to get a food-handler’s card, or even study for it really. He helped out here and there around the neighborhood, if people would let a teenager dressed in black actually help them; he was nice, and he didn’t mind putting in the time and effort to do a job right, but not everybody was willing to look past the chain necklace or the studded bracelets or whatever random black pants he had on that day, and some of his t-shirts kind of creeped out the older population.
One of the few times his dad showed up in town, he took Justinto get his ears pierced. It was just these tiny titanium studs, but his mom was really upset. At least he could cover them with his hair, which was more or less shoulder length. He tried to grow it longer, but it was hard to maintain, and he kept having to trim off the split ends. Killian thought the earrings looked nice on him, though, and for one of his birthdays, he gave him a pair studs that looked like black crystals.
Killian lost his virginity to Justin. By the time they were seventeen and had been together for several months, Killian felt ready for that next step. He knew that Justin had been with a few boys since middle school, none of them serious, and none of them long-term. He didn’t mind, though, and he respected the fact that Justin had safeguarded his health in that regard. Killian said that he couldn’t have had a better first experience. He was over the moon, and for months they were both happy together.
I don’t know what would have happened to them if they’d been able to stay together. Justin was shy and kind, but it was easy for him to lose hope if adversity reared its ugly head; life had let him down so many times already. Killian didn’t mind helping him through things; it’s not that Justin was dramatic or self-defeatist, just that he needed a good chance and the right encouragement.
The thing is, it’s hard to talk about Justin because his mother uprooted them not long before graduation. One of her jobs had let her go, and she couldn’t keep the apartment on one part-time job, so she decided to move in with her sister a few states away– somewhere rural and really close to Yellowstone National Park. Justin didn’t want to go; he wanted to graduate with us. Killian’s parents even offered them their spare bedroom for the last couple months of the school year. But Justin’s mom had made up her mind; her sister had helped arranged for her to start at a new job right away. She wouldn’t even consider the idea of leaving Justin with the Riordans so that he could finish the school year.
Killian was heart-broken when Justin said good-bye. They tried to stay in contact, but almost as soon as Justin sent a message that he’d arrived at his aunt’s house, he seemed to drop off the face of the earth. There was a message or two about the house being kind of big, and he had his own room, and his cousins were nice, but the kids at school were all bullies. And then there was complete radio silence from Justin’s end. They didn’t have a fight, there was no warning that he was on restriction or anything, just no response at all.
Justin had never gotten into social media. His phone was the old fashioned kind, and was only good for calls and texting, not apps. We couldn’t access social media on the school computers, and he didn’t feel like trying to access it on mine or Killian’s, since he could just talk to his friends in person. If he ever created social media accounts after he moved, he didn’t tell Killian what his username was, so he was left with no way to get back in touch with him.
I used to think that Killian gave up on contacting him too easily, but there was also the possibility that something bad had happened to Justin and he didn’t want to know about it. I know it’s not exactly logical, but sometimes when you care about someone, logic goes out the window. Stefan and I weren’t going to press the issue though, and if he didn’t want to have a long distance relationship or track down someone who’d moved a few States away, we weren’t going to force him to. We were just going to be there for him and continue being his friends.
“Wait,” I said, stopping on the path to look up at Stefan. “What do you think Killian and Justin did that was so out of the ordinary way back then?”
“What–” Stephan replied, trying not to grin too widely. “You really don’t know?”
“No,” I told him. “It’s not like teenage Killian would have told me all the details of his sex life.”
“Oh, I guess you have a point,” Stefan said. “Well, I don’t think he’ll mind if I say this: there were a few times when Justin wanted to go to a cemetery with him late at night. You know how Justin’s mom didn’t mind how late he was out? Sometimes after an evening movie, they would head over to that really big cemetery up the hill. They didn’t do anything outright disrespectful, mostly just stayed in the car in a darker area to do whatever they wanted, but a couple times they walked out to one of the really old trees and the unused part of the land there.”
“Killian did that?” I asked my eyes wide.
“Yeah,” Stefan said. “I think it was mostly closer to when Justin had to move, not early in their relationship. He and Killian we’re getting more serious, and Killian was willing to do whatever made him happy.”
“Wow…” I breathed. “I really didn’t expect him to actually do something like that.”
“I know what you mean,” Stefan agreed. “Killian can dress up for the goth scene when there’s an event, but he isn’t the type to go full goth like Justin was. I don’t think you really saw it back then, especially since we more kept it among us guys, but Killian had it pretty bad for Justin.”
“It’s almost surprising that he’s with Larsa now,” I said. “He’s pretty much a one-eighty from how Justin was.”
“Well,” Stefan said, “there’s no replacing Justin– even if Killian were to meet another skinny little goth guy who needed a lot of love and attention, it wouldn’t be the same. Anyway, one of the great things about Killian is that he doesn’t go after a certain type of person; if he meets someone with a good personality, and they just seem to click, he’ll go forward with that. I told you I was going to introduce Larsa to Killian, remember? But they magically met on their own. I knew they’d like each other. Larsa is sweet and funny, he likes hugs and affection, and he likes to talk about all sorts of things, learn new things, explore… it’s like he was made for Killian.”
“You’re right,” I told Stefan, gazing off in the direction where I thought Stefan was. “Actually, Justin was somewhat like that himself. He was sweet and shy, he had a sense of humor– although it was kind of dark. He was glum a lot of the time, but he liked hugs, and he could actually be cheered up with the right amount of attention. He didn’t get in trouble or do anything rude, and he’d actually go places with Killian, even if it was the museum.”
Stefan nodded. “You see? It’s about characteristics, not the look.” He was starting to sound wistful, too. “That boy could have been so many amazing things if he’d had a better start in life.”
I was quiet for a minute, then I took his hand and asked him, almost in a whisper, “Do you think Justin is okay?”
He looked down at me, almost a little surprised, which surprised me in turn.
“What?” I asked him, a little confused. “You know something I don’t? Oh my god, Stefan, if anything bad happened to him, we can’t tell Killian!”
“Justin is fine,” Stefan said with a heavy sigh. “Do you remember Blackthorne?”
“Black– wait, wasn’t he that extremely goth boy who was a year ahead of us?”
“That’s exactly who I’m talking about,” Stephan replied. “He recently followed me on social media, but it was on my DJ Sleipnir account. I recognized the Blackthorne alias and looked through some of his stuff. It’s him all right. Then I was looking through some of his pictures, and you won’t believe who I saw with him and some of them.”
My eyes widened. I think my mouth did too. “You don’t mean Justin was with him?!”
“Oh, that’s exactly what I mean, Leila. I almost didn’t ask him about it, because I figured that couldn’t be him, but I did. Blackthorne said that he’d actually managed to stay in touch with Justin. Well, I think that was really only possible because he’d already graduated, what with being a year ahead of us. When Justin stopped sending messages by phone, Blackhorne wrote him a letter– he’d actually had the forethought to get his address right when he got there. Justin eventually wrote back, but he didn’t say much, just that he was extremely miserable. Blackthorne drove all the way out there that summer to meet him. Somehow Blackthorne found a cheap place to stay, and got a job so he could stay out there for a few months.”
“Wow… And neither of them could bother to tell Killian?”
Stefan shook his head. “It’s not that they couldn’t bother, just that they weren’t able to. You see, Justin was really, really badly bullied in the school he transferred to. One day, they took his phone and destroyed it. I mean really destroyed it. Justin didn’t have Killian’s phone number anywhere else, and Blackthorne didn’t know it either. I mean, he was nice to us and all, but we weren’t really close enough to him to have traded phone numbers level. When Blackthorne got there, Justin told him how the bullies had harassed him every single day about being gay. He eventually fought back, and got suspended. He didn’t go back after the suspension was over, and he ended up not graduating.”
“Stefan, that’s terrible! Does his mom realize what moving them out there did to him?”
“I don’t know,” Stephan admitted. “Remember, Justin had never been in trouble before. He just kept his head down, kept to himself, and he lucked out and going to a school that didn’t put up with bullying. So his Mom didn’t suspect that moving him would do this. His new school wasn’t doing enough to stop the bullying, and the way his emotions were in chaos from dealing with the move, he wasn’t going to put up with being treated like that, so he fought back for the first time. The school might have made an exception for him if everything had been self-defense, but he actually left some bruises and scratches, and caused a bloody nose or two.”
“He stood up for himself, at least.”
“Yeah,” Stefan sighed. “I don’t think his mom knew what to do about it all. She couldn’t punish him for being bullied and didn’t force him to go back there. She couldn’t even send him back to our town, what with not being able to contact the Riordans, so she gave Justin time to think things over. Blackthorne showed up around that time, and Justin spent that time with him instead of really making plan. He missed graduation, thinking maybe he could try finding an alternative. He got a summer job, he turned eighteen… and he decided that he wasn’t going to stick around out there.”
“And you heard all this through Blackthorne?” I asked, my brow furrowed.
Stefan nodded and led me further along the path. “Justin said he could tell me; he would have told Killian directly, but I was the one in contact, and he understood that it would be hard on Killian to talk to him.”
I nodded and let him go on.
“Blackthorne invited Justin to go with him. He’d gotten a scholarship to a University in Northern California and was going to study computer and electrical engineering.”
“Oh, that suits him,” I said. “Some of his friends tried calling him the techno-goth, didn’t they?”
“Heh… yeah. He’s great with technology, but he didn’t like the name. He dressed like it was the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but he has twenty-first century skills.”
“Are we sure he’s not a vampire of some kind?” I joked as he got to a clearing near the top of the hill. We sat down in the clover and started to get out our thermoses and snacks.
“Oh, he’d like that!” Stefan laughed. “Did you know he gave Justin some of his gothic stuff when he outgrew it or got a better one?”
“When they met up again?”
“That, too, but it’s gone on ever since high school. Don’t get mad, though– he only did so as a friend back then. In Blackthorne’s defense, he did offer Justin a ride to Killian’s house. They didn’t know the mailing address, but Justin knew how to get there from the school or his old apartment.”
“Then– then why didn’t he–” I gave Stefan a worried look. “What happened… why…”
“It’s okay,” Stefan said, taking my hand again. “It wasn’t an easy decision. Blackthorne said he was sure Justin would go straight back to Killian, or if not, find his way back to him in time.”
“I know you felt like they were great together,” Stefan went on, “but look how amazing things are with him and Larsa. Killian made Justin happy in high school, but they wouldn’t last being together as adults.”
“How could you say that?!”
“Leila, think about it. Killian has a big family, and he wants to adopt kids once he settles down with the right man.”
“That was seriously a deal-breaker for Justin?”
“Raising kids is a pretty big deal, Leila.”
“But– but…” I sighed and tried telling myself to calm down.
“Look at it this way: Blackthorne was the one who came to his rescue, like some knight in midnight armor. Not only that, but he was willing to deliver Justin right to Killian’s doorstep. He would have kissed him good-bye and moved on to life at the university.”
“Oh my… wow…” I whispered, nearly choking on my emotions. “You’re referring to that adage… ‘if you love them, let them go.”
“Sort of,” Stefan shrugged. “I have mixed feelings about that phrase, but it fits well enough. Justin had plenty of time to make his decision, and Blackthorne tried his best to give unbiased advice. It wasn’t Killian’s fault that he couldn’t be the one to rescue him from that small town. It’s not even that Justin faulted him for it, but Killian had his life and plans in order. Blackthorne had taken a year off to think and explore. He had the flexibility and independence to do whatever he wanted. He admitted to having a crush on Justin back in high school but respected that he was with Killian.”
I shook my head. The Blackthorne I knew often acted aloof about sex and affection. He’d let boys and girls flirt with him– some goth, some metal-heads, maybe even a couple of the skaters– but he didn’t take things further. Well, if he did, he did so privately. There was a goth girl who liked to sit on his lap and try to get others to join in for fun. Blackthorne kept up his image of a gentleman, though.
“So Justin went with Blackthorne?”
“Yeah,” Stefan said. “He got all his documents from his mom, thanks her for working so hard for him, and said good-bye. She got him a new pre-paid phone so they could stay in touch, and made sure he had everything written down in case something happened to the phone. Blackthorne cleared out the place he’d been staying, got his last paycheck, and drove off with Justin and all his stuff.”
“Wow… So where is he now?”
“Justin?” Stefan choked on a laugh. “He’s still with Blackthorne.”
“But– woah, even after all these years?!”
He nodded. “What can I say? When you have your knight in midnight armor, don’t let him go. Blackthorne helped Justin find an online school to finish out his diploma. He decided that college wasn’t for him and works at a local shop that sells goth and new age stuff– books, clothes, incense, jewelry, whatever. Blackthorne has a bachelor’s degree now and makes good money in his field. They have a house in… somewhere in the outskirts of Sacremento.”
“They have a house?”
“What?” Stefan laughed. “You have a house, too.”
“Y-yeah… but they have one together.”
“I think I’ve overloaded you with information. I’d better not tell you that they’re engaged.”
“Stefan!” I narrowed my eyes at him. “You let that slip on purpose didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” he shrugged. “What’s the big deal? Not everyone can marry their high school sweetheart.”
“No… No, I guess not. Just… Does Killian know all this?”
Stefan shook his head. “I found out right after my debut as DJ Sleipnir.”
“Oh– Stefan, were they at the club?!”
“No, no. Blackthorne had heard about it, but they couldn’t go. I’m not sure how to tell Killian that Justin is okay– more than okay, really.”
“How hard can it be?” I asked him. “It’s good news!”
“I’ve just been letting him focus on Larsa.”
“But Larsa’s not the jealous type!”
“I don’t want to distract him.”
“What– It’s not like Killian would leave Larsa and run back to Justin.”
“No, you’re right. I just–” he paused and sighed. “I thought I’d let the whole thing go, but there he was, following DJ Sleipnir. Blackthorne, I mean. Justin still doesn’t care for social media.”
“Oh… You’re still processing it yourself.”
“I’m sorry for bringing it up,” I said.
“You didn’t,” he reminded me. “I was the one who mentioned Justin. Yeah, I think I should just tell Killian; he’s not so fragile that it would drag him down or damage his relationship with Larsa.”
I squeezed his hand. “I’ll be right there with you if you tell him this week,” I murmured. “After all, if you’d moved away, I’d want to know how you were doing these days.”