"You do realize that it's not about you," Terrence said, "Don't you?"
Ethan, who was sprawled across the sofa in their living room, white-socked feet propped against the opposite arm and a reader full of the Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine in his hands, glanced up with a raised eyebrow, but said nothing.
"What I mean is, it's not because of anything you've done, or didn't do, or...."
"You know I've never expected anything from you." Ethan's tone was mild, but he'd swung his legs down to the floor and set the reader on the end table, next to his half-drunk water glass.
"That's just it." Terrence followed patterns in the carpet with his eyes. "You've never pushed me, and I do appreciate it. I just want you to know that the reason why – that the reason why I haven't – it's not about you."
"Your reasons are your own, of course. You know I... care for you, and that I have no desire to change our parenting plans, regardless. Unless," and Ethan paused until Terrence was forced to meet his eyes, "Unless you do? Want to change plans?"
Ethan was holding himself very still, but Terrence needed none of his special gifts to read the tension now lining his body. Terrence could see, too clearly and too late, that any assurances he could offer would be taken as consolation and do nothing to ease Ethan's true fear. They were one social duty credit shy of qualifying for Terrence's designated alternate status. And once he could become Ethan's DAP, there would be children, first for Ethan to conceive and Terrence to help raise, and later, finally, for Terrence to create with what little he had left of....
"It's about Janine."
He hadn't meant to say it like that, plonking it down between them like a boulder to crash and shake the floor beneath their feet.
Ethan was sitting fully upright now, but his eyes were kind, as they always had been those few times Terrence had spoken of Janine. He nodded slowly, and Terrence couldn't stand it any more.
"I still love her."
"Of course you do, you always will," Ethan began, but Terrence held up his hand, clenched his gut, and gave in.
"Not like that. I still dream about her. I still see her face when I close my eyes at night, and when I think about, about anything physical," he swallowed around the word, "It's her I picture. Not women, not anyone, just her."
"Ethan, I hear her mind in my mind sometimes. Not often, but when I'm not paying attention to not thinking about her, she creeps in. The way she used to, back then."
"You don't believe she's still," Ethan waved a hand vaguely around the room, "Out there, do you?"
"No, no, I'm not – I don't pretend to believe. I know she's dead, and dead is dead, even for telepaths."
He grimaced, searching for words. "It's more that when we were together, we were tangled so completely that I honestly don't know how, or even if, really, I can make room for someone else. Anyone else. Even you."
Terrence almost wished he'd taken one of the tyramine pills. Ethan's face was unreadable, his eyes closed and lips pursed as if he were trying to hold in his thoughts until he could find one appropriate enough to speak. Terrence could hear his own breathing in the space between them.
When Ethan met his gaze again, his eyes were still kind, but his jaw was tight, and he stood as if bracing for a blow.
"So you want to dissolve our partnership, then."
"No! No, no, you don't – no." Terrence's heart thudded with the urgency of not getting this wrong. He stepped closer to Ethan, keeping their eyes locked, willing him to understand what he had so much trouble explaining even to himself. His smile came out twisted, a sick relative of its normal self.
"I wish this telepathy could go the other way."
Ethan laughed, a short, brisk laugh like paper tearing. "A problem we've ensured future generations of Athosians won't have."
"Our future generations of Athosians." His voice dropped to a whisper; the idea of a future one could not only plan but allow oneself to hope for still felt fragile and new. "Our grandchildren."
They'd never held each other before, not really, and when Ethan caught him to his chest Terrence felt the breath knock out of his lungs. His nose was smushed against Ethan's clavicle, and Ethan's chin rested lightly on the top of his head. His hands had gripped automatically where they fell, one twisted in the hem of Ethan's shirt and the other pressed against his ribs. Terrence could feel Ethan's heartbeat through his palm, and smell the clean sweat scent of the skin at his neck. Each of Ethan's fingertips was its own universe pressed into his shoulders. Neither of them spoke.
When Ethan released him, Terrence reached for his hands, clutching them in his to keep him close enough to say this, close enough not to let this conversation end in pleasant cowardice like so many he'd never begun.
"I don't want to leave you."
A nod; Ethan knew that now. He was waiting for more.
"I don't want to leave you, but I have no idea at all how to come to you. I know you've said you're happy as we are," he raised his chin against Ethan's automatic protest, "And I do believe you, but I know you deserve more. I want to be the man who spends his life with you, who raises children with you. I don't want it to be anyone else. I want you to have everything you want from me, too. I just – I need to know how to want it."
He took a breath, but Ethan's face was intent on his, and Terrence knew there would be no interruptions to rescue him.
"I loved – love – Janine because we grew into ourselves together, because we were two alone against many. You and I share some of that." The bonds of secrets kept even from those most loved, the sick euphoria of dangers shared and lives saved for each other in turn. "We'll share even more, once our children come to be."
Ethan smiled at that; it was hard for either of them not to smile at that thought, with the DAP so close. But there was something more Terrence had to say, and it had to be now; there was no way he was putting either of them through a repeat of this conversation.
"You have a bravery like hers, the kind that inspires other men to be brave, and I do believe that's the first thing I ever loved about you. I knew that about you before we'd even been properly introduced."
A soft laugh and a wry smile from Ethan made Terrence hold his hands tighter still. He forced his eyes up to Ethan's, praying his shame didn't show on his face. This was something he'd meant never to ask.
"For all the things I love about you, Ethan, I don't really know you. Not the way I knew her. Not how I knew her. Once was enough to bring me here to Athos with you, but I can't... I can't seem to manage it any other way."
Ethan's smile was broader than it had any right to be.
"Is that all?"
"I've tried – believe me, I've tried so hard not to ask this."
"Terrence, you fool," Ethan was standing closer to him now, so Terrence had to look up at him, and the smile had reached his eyes. "Beloved, dearest of all fools. Yes. Anything. As often as you need."
"It can be rather intense, over time, even for you. You'll know I'm there." Will you hate me for being there?
Ethan's hands, one by one, left Terrence's grasp and came together to hold Terrence's own hands firmly between his, pressed between them, and his head bent to whisper the swiftest echo of a kiss to his temple.
"I've dreamed of being naked before you. In any way you'd have me." Another kiss, leaving a memory of moist breath and soft skin in its wake.
"You have me, Terrence. You only have to ask."