The rest of that week was just as rough on Justin. His mother didn’t get any hopeful or useful information from the school. They seemed unmoved by the bullying, reiterating that he should have gone for help instead of turning to violence. They weren’t doing anything special to keep him safe; what good is telling him to run to the office if he’s trapped somewhere?
They accepted that Ms. Anderson wasn’t going to let him onto school grounds if he wasn’t safe, but wouldn’t budge on the graduation requirements. His transcripts had transferred from his high school in Portland, which showed that he’d lost a couple credits from his freshman year– it had been a difficult time for him, so he hadn’t cared about failing a couple classes. If he didn’t finish the classes he was in now– or at least some of them– he wouldn’t have enough credits for graduation. There was no tutoring available, but if he could get the classwork done as it was sent home, that would be good enough.
“It’s like they want me to fail,” he groaned as he gestured to the pile of textbooks on his desk.
He turned his desk chair to face away from them and look to where I sat in his armchair. It was Friday evening. I’d been invited over for dinner again, then up to his room to talk and relax with our full bellies. Ms. Anderson had been arguing with the school and the district office all week, trying to get some better arrangements made for her son, but they wouldn’t budge, and she ended up coming home with stacks of work. The principal had told her that once Justin was done with that, she could bring it back and get the next couple weeks’ worth of work.
“You know I’ll help you with it,” I reminded him. “I can be here every day after work to help you.”
“It’s just dumb, though,” he replied. “They want me to do busy work in order to graduate? Even if I do all of this, and the crap they send home later, I’m not going to know anything more than I do now. I won’t remember what’s on these papers after I turn them in.”
“I can’t say you’re entirely wrong,” I told him. “But you’re so close to being done, maybe you can just get this work finished and graduate, then put all of this behind you.”
He shrugged. “Did you know that they want me to go and take the finals too? Mom says they made it sound like it was a big deal that they were going to allow me to take the tests in the office or something like that.”
I sighed and wiped my hands over my face. “Look, Little Moon, I hate to suggest stuff like this, but you’ve got to do what’s going to cause you the least amount of harm, and this is stressing you out way too much. How much of this work do you have to actually get done so that they’ll let you graduate?”
He shrugged. “I wish it was zero.”
“Yeah, I agree, me too. But it’s not, so we’re going to have to approach this differently. Look at it this way: what would happen if you were to get all of these papers done and turned in, but didn’t get a perfect score on every single one of them? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. The point is, if you do the work, they can’t expect you to do it perfectly. I mean, I’m sure there’s plenty of people graduating who haven’t done it perfectly. When it’s time, just do as much as you can on the finals, and then you’ll be done.”
Justin shrugged again. “I don’t want to think about this work. Did you know that at least one of the bullies was in every one of my classes? If I told them to stop bothering me, I’d get in trouble for disrupting class. If I tried explaining myself, I’d be told to not talk back, or the bullies would just be told to stop, but nothing else would happen.”
I scooted the armchair closer to his desk and took his hand. “I wish I could have been there to stop them. For now, will you let me help you make sure they don’t ruin the rest of the year for you?”
“I guess,” he said with another sigh.
I opened up the math book. “We can do a little bit now, and then on Monday you can go through stuff and see what you can get done on your own, and set aside what you want my help with.”
It looked like the math teacher had sorted the papers in among the textbook pages that they were most related to. I took out the first paper and glanced it over. “This one doesn’t look too bad. It’s just calculating volume of a few different shapes. They even list the formulas at the top.”
Justin accepted the paper from me and glanced it over. His hands were shaking, and so did the paper. He shook his head slowly. “I already did this one,” he told me.
“Oh, did you? Okay, maybe he just didn’t grade it yet. We can set that one aside and you can remind him that you already turned it in.”
He shook his head again. “That’s just it. I did the worksheet, but I didn’t turn it in.”
“Is it in your backpack? We could start filling a folder or something with work that’s already done.”
“I was going to turn it in, but the bullies stopped me that morning and took it from me. They copied my work onto their papers and then threw mine away. They even ripped it up and threw it in the trash can with the breakfast trash. The bullies got to class first and lied to the teacher. They said I threw it away on purpose. When I told him what it really happened, he didn’t believe me. When I got beat up a couple days later, I told him again what had happened with that paper, and the principal told him to just let me redo it. Apparently they thought that was a big step up from just giving me a zero for it.”
“But… I’m surprised the teacher even believed they’d done the work.”
“Joke’s on them. I think I got most of the problems wrong.”
“And now I’ll help you get them right. Where are your pencils?”
He kept shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have to re-do this.”
I could tell he was shaking more. He was also breathing harder. I put an arm around his shoulders. “I know. But we can get it done fast.”
“What’s the point?”
“We can do a different one if this one is bringing up to many bad memories.”
Justin slammed the paper down onto the stack on his desk.
“We don’t even have to do math today,” I suggested.
I started to reach for the books, but something seemed to have tipped him over the edge, because a split second later, he’d gotten up from his chair and shoved the books off of his desk. They thudded onto the floor, and many of the papers between them flew through the air like a flock of birds disturbed from their perches.
“I don’t want to do any of this!” he shouted– screamed, really. I hadn’t heard him that loud in a very long time.
Before I could say anything, he was running out of the room. “I’m not doing it!” he declared as he ran down the stairs.
I followed after him at a calmer pace. As I came to the top of the stairs, the front door slammed, and Ms. Anderson stepped out of her room.
“Emory? What’s going on?”
“He’s upset,” I informed her as I headed down the stairs; I needed to make sure Justin was safe.
“Did you two have an argument about something?”
“I’ll be back shortly,” I assured her as I opened the front door. I really didn’t have time to explain.
“Justin?” I called once I’d stepped outside. I closed the front door gently. “Little Moon, I never intended to push you too hard.” I looked left, then right; no sign of Justin. But it was dark outside and he was wearing black, so he’d be hard to see. I focused on trying to hear him, but all I could hear were crickets and distant cars.
“Where did he go…?” I breathed.
Finally I heard it: the muffled sounds of crying, sobs covered up by something or other. I stepped along the path, straining to hear where it came from. It seemed to be straight ahead, where my car was parked. The closer I got to it, the more sobbing I could hear. Definitely from my car, I thought as I got up to the passenger door. I opened it up and found Justin curled into a ball on my passenger seat.
“There’s my Little Moon,” I cooed as I leaned on the door frame (I kept my car clean enough that I could do that without covering myself in dirt and grime). “I was worried about you.”
Justin didn’t say anything. He was still a quivering ball in my car.
I laid a hand on his back. “How’d you get in here, anyway?”
“You didn’t lock it,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.
“Didn’t I? Well… Okay. I’m just glad you’re safe. Can we talk?”
His eyes glistened as he peeked out at me. He gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Let’s sit in the back seat, okay? Then I can hold you, and your mom will know I’m not about to drive off with you.”
Another weak nod, and then he was climbing over the center console to get to the back seat, as though he couldn’t deal with getting out and then back in.
“Is my mom mad?” he murmured once I was next to him in the back seat and all the doors were closed.
“I don’t think so,” I assured him and I pulled him into my arms. “We didn’t really get to talk before I came out here to make sure you were safe.”
“Oh…” He paused for a few moments, then made himself comfortable against my body. “I didn’t mean to get that mad.”
“Does anyone, really?” I replied.
“I… I’ve been a lot more upset at everything lately,” he admitted. “I keep getting in trouble for slamming doors and knocking stuff over.”
That really wasn’t like him– not because Justin never got upset, but because lashing out wasn’t how he dealt with his emotions. He’d always turned inward; he got quiet, sometimes hid, sometimes cried, and all of that was if he hadn’t given in to what the other person wanted, or if doing so hadn’t ended the issue. Killian and I had tried encouraging him to stand up for himself more, but we also let him know how much we appreciated that he wasn’t aggressive.
“Your life has been turned upside down, Little Moon. And you’ve been hurt. It’s no wonder your temper is on edge.”
“I don’t want to be angry,” he whimpered. “I… I just want… I…” His voice was shaking, and he couldn’t finish the sentence.
I held him closer against me. Just as he rested his cheek over my heart, I heard someone knocking on the car window. I maneuver around so that I could open the door without letting go of Justin; not that I could have put him down, the way he was clinging to me.
“Hi, boys,” Ms. Anderson said. She opened the door wider and peered in at her son. “Did you hurt yourself storming out like that?”
He met her eyes and shook his head.
She sighed. “What’s gotten into you, Justin? I did everything I could, and it’s like it’s not good enough for you.”
“I’m not upset with you,” he murmured weakly.
She leaned on the door frame and shook her head. “Okay, fine. But you threw all your school work onto the floor after I brought it home for you.”
“It… I’m sorry. It was just a bad memory.”
“About the bullies?” she asked. “Look, you’re at home now; you’re not anywhere near them. You can start getting the school work done and focus on graduating.”
He nodded meekly, then looked up at me.
“I’ll keep trying to help him,” I assured her. “I think we just need to give him more time to heal.”
I had to be careful what I said to her, even if I thought she was expecting too much from him too soon. If I made it sound like I questioned her parenting, she would just get upset with me, and maybe even stop Justin from seeing me. Additionally, Justin didn’t want me arguing with his mother, and my own parents had taught me a lot about picking my battles.
“The bruises are almost gone,” she said, scrunching her mouth to one side. “Did he tell you that I took him to urgent care after I picked him up from school that day? He was a mess, just like you see in the movies. Besides, the other parents were taking their boys to doctors, too, and I couldn’t be the only one not giving the school copies of the medical records showing how he’d been hurt. No broken bones, thank goodness. Now you can hardly tell what happened.”
I wanted to remind her that there were psychological effects, too. They might take a lot longer to heal– and they were why he’d shoved all of his books and papers onto the floor. I wanted to tell her what a mild reaction that was compared to how he could have behaved. Perhaps I would have told her how I really felt if I’d thought it would have done any good.
“I’ll do whatever I can for him,” I assured her. That was truer than she realized; I would go to the ends of the earth for her son– and even beyond.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. You know what boys, it’s Friday night. Let’s quit worrying about homework for now; you can get back to it on Monday, Justin. Why don’t you two just focus on having fun?”
Justin sat up a little. “Really? Does that mean I can hang out at Blackthorne’s place?”
Ms. Anderson blinked, then thought for a minute, then shrugged. “Sure. I mean, if that’s what he wants.” She gave me an uncertain look, as though I’d be upset that he’d all but invited himself over.
“I don’t work again till Monday, so he’s welcome at my place all weekend if he wants to be there.” Except I knew he did, and I knew how badly he needed time away from his cousins.
Justin grinned up at me. “I finally get to see your new place!”
“Okay,” Ms. Anderson said with a half-smile, “just go clean up the mess in your room and get a bag with clothes and your tooth brush.”
“Okay, mom!” he agreed, and before I knew it, he was climbing out of the car and running up the path to the house.
“And don’t forget your shoes!” she called after him. “And a jacket!”
“Okay!” he replied right before slipping through the door.
Once he was inside, Ms. Anderson looked back to me. “Are you sure it’s okay for him to be with you all weekend? The boy hardly eats, so I doubt he’s capable of emptying your pantry, but he needs constant attention just so he doesn’t curl up in a ball and cry.”
Like I’d found him in the car a few minutes ago, I thought to myself. Besides, maybe he needed to cry in order to process his feelings. “He’ll be fine with me, Ms. Anderson. I just appreciate you letting me be there for him.” That much was true; she could have told me to mind my own business and made Justin get through this on his own. “It’s been a big change, not seeing him every day, between me graduating and him moving.”
“I just don’t want him using you as a crutch. He has to be able to do things on his own.”
There was a lot to be said for independence, but I also knew that nobody is an island. It might have looked like I pulled myself together after everything I’d been through, but the truth was that if my parents hadn’t gotten me therapy, or if my mother’s family hadn’t been so supportive and protective of us, I’d never have made it. Life only looked easy because I had a whole support system in place. I often wished that Justin and his mom had that, too.
“I’m happy to be there for him,” I assured her as I slid out of the car. “We practically grew up together, after all.”
“Well, as long as he graduates,” she sighed. “He can’t give up now.”
Justin came back outside a couple minutes later. His shoes weren’t tied yet, but he had his backpack with him, which was so full that it looked like he’d packed for a whole week.
“Where’s your jacket?” his mother asked him.
Justin gestured to his backpack.
“And you cleaned up the mess in your room? You weren’t up there for very long.”
“Yeah, mom,” he insisted. “The kids were up there already helping me.”
Justin dropped his backpack into my backseat and closed the door. His mom fished around in her pocket and pressed part of what she found there into his hand, then gave him a tight hug.
“Make sure you get some food in your belly, okay? And help Emory around the apartment; don’t let him do everything for you.”
“Okay,” he said, trying not to sound impatient.
I opened the front passenger door for him– I could still be a gentleman, no matter how independent she wanted her son to be.
“Buckle your seat belt,” she reminded him. Then she watched me get into the driver’s seat. “If he’s having a hard time, I can come get him. You still have my number in your phone, right?”
“I do,” I agreed, though I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to act like I was babysitting an unruly kid. This was my best friend, the young man I’d driven across three states to– well, basically to rescue.
“You can still come over for dinner tomorrow and Sunday,” she added. “Just keep in touch, okay?”
“I certainly will, Ms. Anderson.”
I started the car once she was satisfied that Justin was buckled and had closed the door. She waved as we drove away, only going inside when I stopped at the corner and prepared to turn.
“Can I play music?” Justin asked. He already sounded like he was in better spirits.
“Of course.” I slid my phone out of my pocket and handed it to him, and before long he had the soundtrack for “The Crow” playing in the car.
“I brought the movie with me,” Justin informed me as he relaxed in his seat.
“You want to watch it tonight?” I asked. I knew it was one of his favorites.
“Can we?” he said with a grin.
I couldn’t smile right along with him. “Anything to keep seeing you happy,” I told him. “How about we stop by the store and get a few things to eat while we watch it?”
“You mean like popcorn?”
“Whatever you want.”
Justin held up the money his mother had given him. “I got ten dollars this time. We can get red vines and popcorn?”
“Save that for tomorrow,” I urged him. “Maybe we can visit some of the shops downtown and you’ll find something you like.”
There weren’t many grocery stores in Cody, so we ended up at Wal-Mart. I parked the car and reached into the back for my jacket.
“Did you get those shoes tied?”
“Yeah, I’m good; let’s go.” He was already out of the car and heading towards the entrance.
“Hey, did you want your jacket?”
“I’m good. Come on, let’s make sure they’re not out of popcorn!”
I chuckled as I followed him; he certainly was a man on a mission. Once we were inside, I headed over to the produce and bakery section to get some things. I must have been taking too long to choose the pastries I wanted, because Justin wandered off. I didn’t worry about it too much; he could usually be found in one of three or four aisles of any grocery store. I regretted letting him out of my sight, though, because no sooner had I started looking for him than I heard things that nobody deserved to be told.
“I thought I smelled trash!” It was a bratty teenage voice.
“Leave me alone!” Justin snapped; it really can’t be said that he only ever just stood there and took the abuse. Still, I moved faster towards the sound of his voice.
“Didn’t you learn anything from the last time I smashed your face?” another voice asked, cold and acidic.
“He can’t learn,” a third voice drawled. “He’s got too much dick on his mind.”
“Sounds like your own problem,” I heard Justin retort. “I was just looking for candy.”
I heard a smacking sound, a cry of pain, and then several items hitting the floor. I moved even faster.
“Oh, it’s on, trash boy. You gonna talk to us like that? We have no problem smearing you down the aisle!”
I got to the end of the aisle to find three teenagers surrounding Justin. One of them had his shirt twisted around his fist.
“Let go of him,” I demanded.
The bully looked over at me. “And what if I don’t feel like it?”
I kept my eyes fixed on him as I slowly approached. “I told you to let him go.” I could hear how much deeper my voice was as I commanded him. He wouldn’t understand it, but I knew exactly what I was doing.
“Just shut up!” another of the bullies snarled, trying to strike an intimidating pose– though he didn’t know the first thing about being imposing. “We’ll smear you when we’re done with him.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “None of you are going to hurt him. Ever. Again.”
The lights above us started to flicker.
“You can’t do anything to stop us.”
I glanced over at the third bully. “I don’t believe you know anything about me.”
“Blackthorne…” Justin whimpered.
“Wow, you’re a total freak,” the one gripping Justin said with a laugh. “What a dumb-ass name.”
I took another step towards him.
“Heh. You want him?” he asked. “Try taking him from me!” He shook Justin roughly.
I gave him a stoic glare, but didn’t say anything. Then I stepped closer to him.
“Back off, you freak!” the bully squealed.
I offered Justin my hand. “Come to me.”
Justin started moving towards me, and I glared at the bully, daring him to try holding him back.
“Hey, come on,” another of them said. “It’s three against two; we can take them!”
“That wouldn’t be wise,” I told him, my voice going even lower. The lights above us went out, but I think they noticed that it was darker than it should have been with just a few dead light bulbs.
“What are you gonna do?” the third one chided. “Show us, freak!”
I gave him a look of disinterest and focused on holding Justin close against me. “Pick up the things you knocked over. Then leave this store and never bother Justin– or anyone else– ever again.”
“You can’t tell us what to do!”
“We’ll tell security!”
“By all means,” I replied. “Report your harassment of this young man. I have done nothing to you. I have said no threats.”
He stared at me, and his eyes widened. He started to back away.
“Clean up your mess,” I reminded them, my tone flat and even.
It only took the three of them a few seconds to put the items back on the shelves and rush down the aisle away from us.
“Stay away from us!” the first bully squealed, no longer able to hide his fear.
“Oh yes,” I agreed. “I hope that Justin and I never see or hear any of you ever again.”
Once they were completely gone, I cupped Justin’s cheeks in my hands and looked down into his eyes. “Are you okay, Little Moon?” I asked in my gentlest voice.
He stared at me for long moments, trembling at first, but then slowly starting to calm down. “I’m okay,” he croaked out. “But your hands are freezing cold. Were you getting ice cream?”
For a moment I worried that he was going to ask me what had just happened. I didn’t remember if he’d ever seen me talk to anyone like that before, and I really wasn’t in any state emotionally where I was prepared to give him a suitable explanation for it.
“No,” I told him, “but that’s an excellent idea. Let’s get the popcorn– maybe some chips– and also some ice cream.”
I grabbed the large bucket of red vines and a bag of soft mints and pretty much threw them in the cart, then led him to another aisle.
“Geez, it’s cold in here at night!” he said. His arms were wrapped around himself, and he was shivering this time.
I slid off my black leather jacket and helped him into it. “Once you put on a little more weight, you’ll be able to handle the cold better.”
“Oh, you think you can fatten me up?”
I showed him the packet of blueberries I’d put in the cart. “Who do you think taught Killian all the best things to feed you?”
His eyes looked a little wild at the sight of blueberries. “Those look really plump!”
“Only the best for you,” I told him. I knew that was his favorite, and I knew the way of serving them that he absolutely couldn’t resist. “Now then, we need vanilla ice cream!”
Justin followed me down to the freezer aisles and watched as I perused the wall of ice cream. He tried showing me the cheapest brand, but I shook my head and took him over to the shelves for Haagen-Dazs.
“Okay, vanilla bean for you,” I said as I handed him a container, “and green tea ice cream for me. Now let’s get the popcorn and head out.”
If I had a full kitchen, I’d get real vanilla beans and do what my dad often did to get even more flavor into the ice cream. He and Justin adored vanilla, the richer the better. Justin would be thankful for anything he got, which only made me want to give him more. Soon, I reminded myself; right now I just had to guide him through this dark time and make sure he didn’t sink.
“Yeah!” he cheered, then dashed off to another aisle.
I probably should have caught his arm and kept him close to me, but I found myself gazing over at the lights above the candy aisle. The bulbs were back on, but the area still appeared to be shadowy. I swallowed hard and rubbed my brow; I think I might have overdone it with the intimidation, and I worried what the repercussions of that might be. I glanced down at my phone, shook my head, and slid it back in my pocket. I could worry about that later; the important thing was that Justin was safe, and he wasn’t questioning how I’d scared his bullies off so easily.
Once we had the microwave popcorn and a couple bags of chips, Justin followed me over to the self-checkout. He tried offering me some of his money again, but I just shook my head and distracted him with picking out a drink and helping me bag. He clung to my arm as we headed out of the store, telling me again that he was cold; I made sure to put the food all the way in the back to that I could put the heat on for him in the front.
Once we got to my place, I could see that the owner of the main house was having his own gathering. Justin seemed impressed by the guest house as well as the fact that the owner seemed so laid back. He could hardly contain his excitement as I unlocked the door and let him inside.
“Wow, it’s really cool!”
Justin ran inside and started looking at– well, everything. Then he disappeared into the bathroom while I was busy putting the food away. I started a packet of popcorn in the microwave and got out a large bowl, and when he came out again, he was in pajama pants and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as fresh socks to keep his toes warm.
“You look cozy,” I told him, then handed him his root beer.
“Yeah,” he replied, setting his backpack on my dresser. Then he grabbed my leather jacket from where he’d put it in my bathroom and slid it back on. “Can I keep wearing this? It’s really comfortable.”
“Sure,” I replied. “Whatever you need in order to stay warm.
Before too long, we had the lights out, the movie on, and lots of popcorn to share. I settled into the recliner and let Justin sit more or less in my lap, since there was really nowhere else comfortable. He was so small and light that it hardly felt like he was there.
“You’ve gotten a lot bigger,” he said in between handfuls of popcorn.
“Haven’t I always been bigger than you?” I chuckled. “I’m a year older than you, after all.”
“A year and three and a half months,” he corrected. “But you’re way stronger now, too.”
He patted my chest and I tried to pretend him pointing out my muscles didn’t make me blush.
“I glad you are,” he went on. “Those bullies were terrified of you!”
So he really thought that was the extent of it. In the past, I’d considered telling him some of the things I’d never told another soul before. He already knew a few things I didn’t tell anyone else; I really couldn’t think of anyone else whom I’m told things he didn’t know. He loved goth culture and style as much as I did, and we both enjoyed even the darkest of dark stories, so I suppose he might have accepted the only detail (or set of details) I’d ever kept from him. But there was no taking back words, so as long as he didn’t need to know, I could put off sharing that with him.
“Well, I’m glad carrying around all those computers and servers worked out in your favor,” I said. “I don’t even have to lift weights anymore.”
He snuggled closer against me. “Plus you’re really warm now.”
We went on watching the movie together, sharing popcorn and red vines just like we might do a the theater. Once we’d had enough of that, I got out the ice cream and some spoons. Justin carved out the middle section of his little carton so that he could pour some of the blueberries in; he enjoyed the contrast of the fresh berries and the rich, creamy vanilla, and I was only too happy to see him eating with actual vigor.
“This is so good!” he said around a mouthful of berries.
“I think I should have gotten you two boxes of blueberries,” I noted as I wiped a drop of cream from the corner of his mouth.
“Hold on!” He grabbed my hand and licked the cream off my finger. He must have realized a little late what he’d done, because he blushed and lowered his eyes before explaining, “I didn’t want it to go to waste.”
“It’s okay,” I assured him.
He turned around to watch the movie and focus on his ice cream. He got through about half of it before declaring that he was stuffed and couldn’t eat another bite. I put the containers back in the freezer and we finished the movie. By the time the credits started rolling, Justin was curled up and nearly asleep. I carried him over to the bed and laid him down.
“I just need a few minutes, Little Moon,” I whispered. He was trying to cling to me, but I needed to get changed before I could lie down.
Justin mumbled something, but eventually let me untangle his arms from around my body. Once in the bathroom, I slid off my shirt and dropped it into the tiny washer. I tossed Justin’s clothes in there, too; he’d left them on the floor in his excitement to get changed earlier. Then I slipped off my belt, hung it on a wall hook, and put my pants in the wash. A few minutes later, I emerged from the bathroom, put my jewelry away on the dresser, and slid into the bed.
“I missed you,” Justin murmured, wasting no time in wrapping himself back around me. “Mmmm…. how are you so warm when you’re only in boxers?”
I pulled the blanket close around us. “I have to be, don’t I? There’s no way I can leave my Little Moon cold and alone.”
His cheek nuzzled against my chest, and I thought in that moment how much we felt like two puzzle pieces perfectly snapped together.
“You smell good, too.”
That had me chuckling. “I might have put on a little too much cologne earlier.”
“Noooo… It’s just right. You always do it just right.”
“Sweet-talker. I think I gave you too much sugar.”
“Mmmm…” He smiled and held me tighter. “I love you, Blackthorne.”
My arms went around him then. It had been so long since we’d said that to each other. We really were like family, and we had promised long ago not to hesitate in telling each other how we felt.
I kissed the top of his head and whispered, “I love you, too little Moon.”
He was quiet for a while after that. I actually thought he’d fallen asleep, but he turned to look up at me– well, in a manner of speaking, since the room was now dark. But I could feel the movement.
“I… you know you’re like a brother to me– better than that, because we don’t fight like brothers do.”
“You’re better than any sibling I could have had.”
“It’s like having a brother and a best friend and a hero all rolled up in one.”
“Oh, so now I’m a hero, too?”
“You came and rescued me,” Justin pointed out.
“I’d cross the ocean to help you, Little Moon,” I told him.
“Oh… wow, when you say things like that…” his voice was starting to shake a little.
“I just need you to know that you’re safe with me.”
“Yeah.. but, umm…”
“What’s on your mind, little moon?”
He hid his face in my chest. “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything more.”
“You’ve got me curious now,” I replied as I feathered my fingers through his hair. “I don’t know if I can sleep if you don’t tell me.”
“Well…” his body was shaking too, now; whatever it was, he was nervous about telling me. “Blackthorne… you’ve been there for me through everything. You even gave me advice for dating Killian… and helped him be with me.”
“Of course I did; I want you to be happy. I’ll get you back in touch with him somehow.”
I felt him shaking his head. “I meant it when I said I should have given him a proper good-bye. He was such a good boyfriend; he deserved to know for certain that it was over when I left. But… it’s too late now. He and I are over.”
“If that’s what you want, Little Moon,” I sighed. “But listen, if you meet someone else, I’ll support you then, too.”
“That’s just it,” he whispered. “I don’t want anyone else.”
“Okay,” I whispered. I was worried that he planned on locking his heart away and isolating himself, but that really wasn’t the right time to argue that point. “You’ll always have a friend in me. No matter what.”
He nodded, but he seemed even more nervous. “Blackthorne…”
“I’m listening, Little Moon.”
“Umm… I wanted to ask you… would…”
“It’s okay,” I assured him, rubbing his back. “take your time.”
“I have to ask you before… well… Blackthorne, would it be… I–” he was breathing harder, and I hoped he wouldn’t shut down. “I think… Blackthorne, I think I’m falling in love with you, and I don’t know how to stop it.”
“Oh,” I whispered. Then I held him tighter. “Little Moon, did you think I would be angry at you if you– if you fell in love with me?” My heart was racing all of a sudden, and I was certain that he could feel it, too.
He shrugged. “You never date anyone. You’ve hardly even slept with anyone. I always wondered if you even wanted that kind of love.”
He had a point, I had to admit. In high school, I’d had a reputation for being stoic, almost stand-offish. There were only a handful of young men and women who could say they’d gone to bed with me. A couple of them had been an ongoing thing for a short time, sort of a friends-with-benefits situation, but we’d talked in the beginning about not being in a committed relationship. My experiences with intimacy had mostly been sensual, a few passionate, but we had always been focused on being safe and seeking pleasure, not ongoing relationships. I just hadn’t found anyone I really wanted to stay that close with for the long term, let alone pass the rest of my time with. But I was only nineteen; I had the rest of my life ahead me for that to happen.
Besides, I had secrets that required me to tread carefully.
“I could never be upset with you loving me,” I whispered back.
His grip on me tightened. “Okay… At least you’re not mad. But how do I stop? I’m scared to lose you as a friend if–”
I didn’t let him continue talking. I leaned in, pulling him up at the same time, until our lips met. I kissed him, one hand cradling the back of his head while my other arm wrapped around his waist to keep him close against me. He sighed blissfully and returned the kiss, clinging to me as though for dear life. By the time we separated, he was breathing hard.
“Oh my god…” he gasped, his voice still shaking.
“You don’t ever have to stop loving me,” I told him. “I care more about you than I can ever say, Little Moon, and even if your feelings change, I wall always be your friend and–”
“And brother?” he finished for me.
We laughed together.
“For lack of a better word, yes,” I told him. “I think you stole all of mine with that kiss.”
“Yeah,” he whispered. His voice was still trembling.
“You have no idea how wonderful it feels to know that you feel this way. You’re a treasure, Little Moon. I… I’m open to seeing where this goes. Can we…” I sighed and took a breath; now I was the one unable to get out what needed to be said. “Can you understand that if I take things slow– maybe even slower than it was for you and Killian– it’s not because I don’t want to be with you? And it’s not because it’s hard for me to love you in that way.”
“I think so…” he murmured.
“I can’t imagine anyone better to try this with. I look forward to exploring these new feelings with you, Little Moon.” I couldn’t really pin down how new those feelings were; they hadn’t sparked just that night, and not even the week before. But could I say that I’d loved him even while he was with Killian? I didn’t want to try disentangling the different kinds of love that I felt.
“Do you… Do you think maybe we should have done this all along?”
I shook my head. “I could never wish that you’d been with me instead of Killian. He did things for you that I never could.” I kissed his cheeks and added, “And I never want you to regret your time with him.”
“Okay,” he whispered. “Ummm… Blackthorne?
“Can… can I kiss you again?”
I chuckled and rubbed his back. “I’d like that very much.”
No sooner had I said that than he had his arms around my neck. He pressed himself against me, chest to chest, belly to belly, our legs entwined, and then locked his lips with mine in a kiss that let me know just how desperately he needed to be loved. I could taste the blueberries and vanilla on his tongue, sweet and creamy. He sighed happily as we kissed, but after a time, I could feel his fingers dig into me. He moaned, clearly wanting even more from me.
“Little Moon,” I gasped when I could no longer resist the need for more air. I massaged his back and shoulders to comfort him.
“Oh my god…” he whispered in a shaky voice. “You taste so good.”
“Heh… I appreciate that,” I chuckled. “I’d like to ask something of you, though.”
“Anything you want.”
“Oh, I am going to teach you to be careful with statements like that. But first, if you’ll indulge me a little, I have to point out that God had nothing to do with that kiss.”
“You were incredible, though.”
“I’m glad to hear that you put me at that level, Little Moon. Still, although I am many things, I am no god.”
“I will tell you what would give my heart the greatest thrill though: say my name.”
“Blackthorne,” he whispered.
“Just like that,” I said, caressing his cheek. “It sounds so beautiful coming from your lips.”
“You’re beautiful,” he said, his voice quavering once again.
I laughed softly. “It’s much too dark for you to see me.”
“That doesn’t matter. The image of you is always in my mind, and you’re always big and handsome and strong.”
“I think of you just as often. You’re very precious to me.”
“Oh… that’s good. Can I… Can I practice that? Saying your name after we kiss?”
I can’t explain why his nervousness was so alluring to me. Anyone else who was that shy would have lost my interest– insofar as intimacy– ages ago. But Justin… Justin was someone I couldn’t resist in the least.
“We can,” I whispered. I could hardly hold back from telling him that I wanted to kiss him long into the night. Take it slow, I reminded myself. He’s delicate; he deserves only the best.
Justin’s lips captured mine while I was thinking, and then his taste was all I could think about. He kissed me as though he’d never be able to kiss again, and thought it had to be the best because it was his last. I gave in to his questing, his needs. I let him do as he wanted, let him know that he could have anything he needed, that I was there for him. I had to assure him that my goal in life was to make him safe and happy. He moaned and sighed as he kissed me, until his fingernails dragged down my back and a louder moan escaped me.
“Oh– Oh, Blackthorne,” he gasped as he lessened his grip on me slightly. “Are you– I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–“
“I think you did,” I murmured in my most tender voice. I caressed his cheeks gently. “It’s okay, Little Moon. I actually liked it.”
“That wasn’t a cry of pain,” I told him. Then I laughed a little. “Well, not bad pain. I didn’t expect you to do that to me, but you don’t have to be afraid of wounding me.”
“Blackthorne…” he whispered.
“I’m here for you,” I said as I kissed the top of his head. “Now sleep, Little Moon. Dream sweetly as I watch over you.”
Justin snuggled in and relaxed, and he was sound asleep before I could try to see if rubbing his back would help. I laid there with him in my arms and took my time letting my thoughts wind down. I almost expected my phone to start chirping with messages, but after a while of it staying quiet, I was relaxed enough to drift into dreamland right along with him.