After work, I went home and took a shower, ran a load of laundry, and changed out the contents of my overnight bag. I also stopped at the grocery store before going back to the hospital. I got another packet of blueberries for Justin, plus a bottle of the juice he liked with apples, bananas, and various berries in it.
In the hospital room, Justin was talking animatedly with his mother; he brightened up even more when I walked in. There was a new, larger bag of nutrients hanging on his IV rack, which looked like it had been going for hours already based on what was left of it. He hugged me tightly, and just about chugged the juice I gave him.
“That was so good!” he exclaimed, and immediately started eating the blueberries. “Thank you so much!”
“Did they not give you dinner?” I laughed as I sat down.
“They did,” Ms. Anderson said, seeing as how her son had already stuff his mouth with berries, “but it was a couple hours ago, and he didn’t like parts of it.”
“They said they would try to bring me stuff I like,” he added, “but they brought roasted chicken instead of grilled.”
Justin did not care for bone-in chicken at all. Sometimes, Killian or I could get enough of the meat free that he’d have something to eat, but the parts closer to the bone tasted bad to him, so he didn’t get much by the time he picked around it. We traded pieces if we could, but there were times
he’d lost his appetite by then.
“You can have my salad if you want,” I offered.
He eyed it curiously. “But that’s your dinner.”
“You should be flattered, honey,” his mother said. “He’s willing to give you the food right off his plate.”
Just then, her phone rang. “Finally!” she said as she looked at the screen. She answered the call and immediately put it on speaker phone. “Raymond?”
“Lisa, hi!” the voice on the other end said. “I got your voi–”
“Listen, Raymond,” she cut in, “you’re on speaker phone right now, so whatever excuses you try feeding me for not answering my calls for two days, your son and his friend are going to hear, too.”
She was definitely in mama-bear mode; she usually was when it came to interacting with Justin’s father.
“Lisa,” he said, trying to sound calm, “I’ve been working.”
“Non-stop for two days?!” she snapped. “You can hardly even keep a job, let alone work that many hours.”
“It’s a new job,” he said, “and it pays really well. It just demands a lot of my time and attention.”
“Ha, that’s more than you’ve ever given your son!”
“Mom,” Justin said, laying his hand on hers, “can you not argue right now? Can I talk to him?”
As much as Justin knew that his father was rarely there for him, when they did get to talk or visit, he got a little hopeful and excited. Sometimes he seemed more like a kid around his dad, which I knew was because he’d seen him so rarely growing up. It was hard to see him so excited to talk to somebody who had done little to support him, but I also knew he couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t take that little light from him.
Ms. Anderson handed Justin the phone, and he grinned down at it as he pressed the video button. “Hi dad!”
His dad also switched over to video call, and Justin leaned in close to me so that I could be seen, to.
“Hey!” Raymond said. “I know that guy! Long time no see, Emmy.”
“It’s Emory,” Justin corrected with a laugh.
Truth be told, I was surprised that Raymond remembered any part of my name. He saw Justin so rarely, and I was with him only some of those times. Then again, I guess I was his most consistent friend over the years…
“Right, hi, Emory,” Raymond said. I waved briefly. “Justin, your mom said you were in the hospital.”
“I…” He sighed. “I couldn’t understand everything in her messages. What happened? Are you okay?”
“I’m still in the hospital,” Justin replied as though to say that no, he wasn’t entirely okay. “I fainted.”
“You fainted?” Raymond sounded almost incredulous. “What else is going on that they’re keeping you instead of letting you sleep it off at home?”
“He was starving, you idiot!” Ms. Anderson shouted at the phone. “Did you even listen to all of the messages? He hardly eats, and he was so stressed out that he was throwing up in the middle of the night!”
“Mom, stop it!” Justin told her. Then he went back to talking to his dad. “I saw a lot of doctors today, and Emory helped me stay calm so I could get this.” He showed his father the central line.
“Really?” Raymond replied. “You must have been really brave to go through that.”
Justin grinned and nodded. “They’re giving me food through that– well, nutrients and stuff. And I still get to eat normally. Emory brought me blueberries!”
“I thought blackberries were your favorite.”
“Okay, all right, I’ll remember that. So, Justin, how long do you have to be there?”
“I dunno… The doctors said I have to get a lot better before I can go home to keep recovering.” He talked a little about the doctors’ plans for counseling, re-feeding, and so on. It sounded like he and his mother had gotten a lot done with the doctors that day, and Justin was really happy about it.
“I’m glad you’re going to be okay, Justin,” Raymond said. “Listen, son, I got a new job, and I know you’re not really going to believe me, but I’m trying hard this time. I’m sorry I never did good enough before…”
Raymond sighed before going on. “Anyway, I can’t mess this job up. It’s the only way I’m going to even come close to making things up to you and your mom. Now, I know you’re almost eighteen and–”
“And you can’t come?” Justin asked weakly, practically whimpering.
“I was going to say that I can,” he replied. “The boss is really big on family, and he’s giving me time off to see you… If you’re okay with me coming to your birthday party.”
“Yes!” Justin said, without even a moment of hesitation. “I should be out of the hospital by then.”
“This isn’t going to be one of those things where you promise him an extravagant present,” Ms. Anderson said, not hiding any of her bitterness, “but show up with a box of used crap?”
That had happened a few times, some of them birthdays, others for various holidays, and sometimes even just for random visits. It was hard to tell whether Raymond would arrive with actual new gifts for Justin, or with used books, second-hand clothes, thrift-store toys, or something outdated or way out of Justin’s range of interest. There had been a couple times that he’d been spot-on on with his gift, but Lisa had complained that it was so small compared to the large boxes of more random stuff he’d brought before. Justin hadn’t mind that it had been simple, though.
“Of course not, Raymond told her. “Lisa, the boss his given me some good advice, and you know what, I’m not making big promises that I don’t already have the resources to keep. But I — Justin, I’m working hard for you this time, okay?”
The rest of the conversation went on as well as could be expected. Raymond agreed to be in Cody for Justin’s birthday whether or not he’d still be in the hospital. Until then, he’d be working hard. The job involved entertaining high-end clients at some of the boss’s fanciest venues, mostly bringing them drinks and chatting them up. He got wages plus tips, and the boss paid for them to travel to some of the major cities he owned venues in. As much as it sounded a little overpaid, I decided not to be the one to say anything that would burst their bubble.
Ms. Anderson left fairly soon after the phone call, and was replaced by a nurse with a tray of food for Justin. It was all food that would be easy on his stomach: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some crackers (he refused having any soup to go with them), a bowl of cut fruit, some chocolate pudding, juice, chocolate milk, and a tiny salad. He took his time eating in between telling me about his day.
A therapist had spoken to Justin and his mother for quite a long time. Losing his support system had really ruined everything for him; on top of that, the hatred he faced and the unrelenting expectations were too much for him to cope with. Ms. Anderson could hardly understand, and her sister even less so, knowing that people moved all the time in order to find a better life. The problem was, Justin lost more than he gained from the move, and between the combined stress factors and his already delicate state of mind and body, he’d succumbed to life’s perfect storm.
Justin had been as strong as he could through years of struggle, and if his circumstances were to change, he needed time to adapt. He also needed safety, which he hadn’t gotten at school, so education would be low-priority until further notice. Julia had felt that canceling his chores and schoolwork was just coddling him, but once the therapist explained that Justin’s cousins hadn’t faced all of the hardships that he had, she understood a little better. Besides that, even though Justin had helped around the apartment for his mother, it had been on his own time and in his own way, not with anyone telling him precisely when and how to do it like his aunt had.
Once Justin got out of the hospital, he would have few chores and more autonomy so that he didn’t end up going right back. He would have ongoing therapy sessions to help support him, and his nutrition would be carefully monitored; he would still be given parenteral supplements until he was at a healthy weight. Before he could go home, however, he had to gain some weight and show that he was strong enough for some basic tasks. One of those was walking, because if he fell, he risked hitting his head or breaking a bone.
I took him on a couple walks before he went to bed for the night, just around his room and the nearby hall. He did okay with my help, but I hoped he’d be even stronger after a good night’s rest. Justin fell asleep with me rubbing his back and humming to him, then I turned down the light and lounged back in the recliner, where I fell asleep almost right away.
Morning seemed to come all too soon, and I woke to see Justin already having breakfast. He grinned at me and pointed to the tray next to his.
“Nurse Jasmine brought food for you, too,” he said. “She thinks you’re really nice for coming to stay with me. Oh, and she said if I do good on a walk after breakfast, she’d take out… you know.”
“Ah, I see,” I replied as I sat up. “Does that mean you’re feeling stronger?”
He nodded, giving me a wide grin, and held out his arms for me. We embraced for a long while, and I could feel the strength in his arms returning. It was a relief to see him getting better, and to know that his family planned to be supportive of him.
After breakfast, Nurse Jasmine came in and unhooked him from some of the tubes and wires so that he could get out of bed and walk around a little. He had a much easier time getting to the end of the hall and back, which he seemed really happy about. He seemed to have a lot of energy, which I reminded him to conserve so that he didn’t go right back to being weak or tired.
Once we were back in his room, Nurse Jasmine followed through on her agreement, the covered his central line ports so that he could take a shower. Justin’s relief was more than I can explain; I swear I’d never seen anyone so happy to be able to take a shower. The nurse brought in a soap kit, tested the water, and made sure the shower chair was steady before leaving him alone with me.
“You really don’t mind?” Justin asked, him tone suddenly more more timid.
“Do you want me to mind?” I asked with a soft laugh.
He smirked and shook his head. “It’s just that you’ll get all wet,” he pointed out.
“That’s the least of my worries. Come on, let’s get you clean.”
Justin locked the door and shed his hospital gown and socks. Somehow the lighting in the hospital made it seem so much more obvious how thin he was. I tried not to draw attention to the way I looked at him, and instead focused on helping him into the water.
“That feels nice,” Justin told me as I shampooed his hair.
“Good; I want you to be happy.”
“I am,” he told me. “Just having you with me helps me feel better.”
I smiled and rinsed the soap out of his hair, then put in a little conditioner. He relaxed under my touch as I rubbed the little bar of soap over him. His skin was smooth and pale, and I wondered whether a little extra time in the sun would give him the boost in vitamin D that he really needed. Maybe I could get him to go swimming with me when he was strong enough…
“Blackthorne,” he whispered as I washed his belly.
“Are you okay?” I ask him softly.
Justin leaned closer to me. “I will be. I just…” He laid his hand over mine and guided it downwards.
“Justin, maybe we shouldn’t…”
“I know,” he murmured. “It’s not that– not exactly. Just…”
He helped me work up a thick lather of soap between his legs, then showed me the gentle rhythm he wanted me to use on his most sensitive area.
“Little Moon, you said you weren’t–”
“Please,” he whimpered, urging me to caress him more. His breathing quickened, and he leaned back.
If that was what he needed, how could I resist? I gave in and did just as he wanted. After a couple minutes, however, I realized that his body wasn’t reacting the way I was expecting it to.
“Am I doing this right, Little Moon?” I murmured. “What do you need so I can make you happy?”
“It’s perfect,” he gasped, burying his face in my chest. “Mmmmm… You’re doing exactly what I wanted.” Then Justin twisted around and looked up at me, his eye shining and full of worry. “This is what the stress and malnutrition did to my body.”
“Little Prince…” I breathed. “You mean you can’t–“
“I can!” he insisted. “I just have to get better first. I… When I slept over with you on Saturday, it worked perfectly. I was so relieved! But after Sunday night…” He shook his head.
“Oh, my sweet Little Moon,” I said, holding him tighter. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I– Has this happened before? Does the bullying have anything to do with it?”
“It wasn’t damaged in the fight,” he assured me. “In the stress and pain that followed, when I could hardly eat and everything was just…” He shook his head. “Saturday was the first time since I lost contact with Killian that it reacted like it’s supposed to.”
I held him close as he explained it all to me. There had been times when he was younger that he and his mother didn’t have much to eat, and he’d become so weak that he couldn’t enjoy intimacy with his boyfriend. It had been very rare, and Killian had only ever seen him like that once. Now that I was with him, Justin wanted to get better, to become stronger and take care of himself so that he never had to lose out on intimacy again.
“I’ll be there to help you,” I promised him. “I’m not leaving your side.”
“Except to go to work,” he pointed out.
I chuckled and kissed his forehead. “You must be getting better if you can make jokes.”
“Everything is better with you here, Blackthorne,” he told me. Then he grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me down for a long, passionate kiss. I could hardly breathe by the time we parted. “I’m in love with you,” he whispered.
“Me, too, Little Moon,” I whispered back. “And I’m going to make sure you know it every single day.”
Justin was in the hospital until Sunday morning. Dr. Hiro was satisfied that he’d put on a couple pounds and was eating well, responding well to the IV supplements, and now had better support at home. He’d taken Justin’s fear of hospitals into account, too, and as long as he didn’t get worse, he could rest at home. He would still visit the hospital daily to get a new bag of parenteral supplements and spend some time with the counselor.
He was given a special backpack that could hold the bag of supplements and its pump, which then allowed him to be mobile and sleep at home. In the evening, when the bag was empty, his mother or I could disconnect it from the port on his central line and help him cap the end so that everything stayed clean.
I was able to stay with him the first couple nights. Justin’s aunt brought a spare mattress into his room so that I’d have a place to sleep, but once she was out of the room, his mother closed the door to have a talk with us.
“You’ve both been friends long enough that I’m not going to question you two being together,” she said. She seemed a little nervous, but we all knew that she was making the right choice by not forcing us apart. “For my sister’s sake, I still need you to be respectful when you’re in her house. Her kids are still young, so… You don’t have to hide, but also don’t–”
“I know, mom,” Justin said. He knew what she meant, and how awkward it was for her to say it out loud. “I’m not ready for serious stuff yet, anyway. I just…” He looked over at me, affection in his eyes. “Cuddling him keeps me warm… he makes me feel safe.”
She smiled at is both. “That’s good to hear. I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for him, Emory. Changing your schedule, helping with his medicine, making sure he eats…”
“I’m happy to help,” I told her. “It’s worth it to see him smile and gain some energy.”
By the end of the conversation, we’d assured her that we meant what we’d said: no more than kissing and cuddling, but keeping things friendly when his cousins were around. I wasn’t ready for more than that anyway, and even when we showered together, it was more for me to look after him than anything else. There would come day when we did more, but I wasn’t going to rush anything.
For the next week or so, I took Justin to his appointments at the hospital so that his mother could go to work, and afterwards he had lunch and relaxed at his aunt’s house. He usually took a nap, and she looked after him so that I could put in a few extra hours at work, too. Justin was making good enough progress for his counseling and nutrition supplements to go down to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but his weight gain and blood work were still closely monitored.
About a week into April, Justin’s health had noticeably improved. He had a strong appetite– though he was still a little picky, but that came down to eating more of what he did like. He helped me at the electronics store some Saturdays, which now more involved light dusting and inventorying; I had taken care of anything that required a ladder or step-stool. He used his money to get his mother’s hair done, just as he’d promised, waiting another week before spending anything on himself.
The days leading up to Justin’s birthday had me more and more nervous. I’d spoken to his mother about the present I wanted to get him, and it was ready for Friday evening. He’d just been moved to getting intravenous supplements twice a week– Mondays and Thursdays– and he slept at my house more than he did his aunt’s. Every now and then, I spent the night away from him; it was hard, but I needed to see my grandfather as well.
I woke up that Friday in the middle of April to see Justin curled up in my arms, smiling contentedly. My bed felt so warm and soft that I was tempted to go right back to sleep, but I had a lot planned for him that day, so I contented myself with running my fingers through his hair and laying random kisses on his face.
“Mmmmmm… that tickles,” he mumbled. Justin spent a couple minutes nuzzling my chest and squirming under the blankets before finally opening his eyes. “Hi.”
“Good morning, my sweet prince. Did you sleep well? Any good dreams?”
He nodded and snuggled in closer.
“Oh? What did you dream about?”
Justin blushed and hid his face in my chest. “I can’t tell you,” he murmured.
“Can’t you?” I said gently. “But then how can I make your dreams come true?”
“Mmmmm, it’s dreamy enough just cuddling you.”
“But what if you could be having cake? Did you dream about cake?”
“No,” he replied with a soft laugh. “I get cake later, anyway.”
“Okay… what about a Playstation 5? I might need to start saving up.”
Justin’s eyes got big. “Nooooo! Those are way too expensive. I’m not even done with the PS3 games I have.”
“Okay, Little Moon, so what did you dream about?”
His blush deepened, and he his face even more. “Umm… Well, we were out under the stars, and it was just us and the trees…”
“That sounds like something we could do,” I told him.
Justin gasped and looked up at me. His face was bright red. Then I understood what was going on.
“Ah, okay, Little Moon. I think I know what your dream was about.” I rubbed his back to help him calm down. “We don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. Did you enjoy it in the dream, at least?”
He nodded and mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out.
“What was that, my prince?”
He purse his lips and held me tighter. “I do what to do that,” he murmured. “But I want to start out slow.”
“Anything you want is yours,” I assured him. “You just have to let me know.”
I heard Justin’s stomach growling then. “My prince needs to eat first, though,” I laughed. “What sounds good for a birthday breakfast?”
“That’s a start,” I said as we sat up. “What else?”
Justin blushed and looked away. “Or maybe a bagel…”
“Anything you want. Eggs, ham, roast beef, macaroni and cheese, a whole turkey…”
He laughed and shook his head. “Oh, an omelet!”
“I think I’d get full on all that.”
“Yes, but I want you more than full; I want you stuffed.”
“We’re having spaghetti for dinner tonight,” he reminded me, “So I have to be able to eat a lot of that.”
We took our time getting out of bed and eventually made our way to the shower. Justin was especially affectionate that morning, and he even seemed more interested in washing me instead of letting me pamper him. Even afterwards, he helped dry and comb my hair, which took a lot longer than usual because he kept kissing near my ears and neck.
“It’s going to be lunch time by the time we get anywhere if you keep that up,” I warned him.
“That’s okay,” he replied, kissing along my jaw. “It’ll be worth it.”
We were sitting on my bed, I on the edge and him behind me. He tugged gently on my arm to have me turn around, and then pulled me in for a kiss. He held on tightly, not letting up, wanting more and more from me. I gave him what he wanted, of course, holding him close, sharing what he shared, practically forgetting to breathe. his fingers played in my hair, sometimes getting trapped in it and tugging to get free. He seemed excited by the moans that got from me, so much so that he pushed me onto my back, then laid alongside me to get more kisses.
His stomach growled again.
“My darling prince,” I gasped as I broke away from him, “I am more than content to continue this, but I think I should bring you a snack first.”
“Ummm…” He sat up a little and looked over my sprawling form. My towel had come loose from my waist, and he could tell clearly how excited he’d gotten me. His cheeks turned red again, and he pulled his robe closer around him. “I– ah… actually, I…”
I sat up and caressed his cheek. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“N-no,” he said insistently. “I’m not upset. I-I’m glad you…” He paused and took a few deep breaths. “I had a different kind of plan, actually.”
“Okay,” I grinned. “Does it involve that picnic you wanted to go on around lunchtime, or do you have bigger secrets in mind?”
His blush deepened, and he hopped out of bed. “Let’s get breakfast,” he said as he grabbed some clothes from his backpack.
I watched him head into the bathroom, admiring how lovely he looked in the red and black robe I’d given him a couple weeks ago.