Sean believes one thing about life: It’s not the hit that hurts; it’s the aftermath. The hit takes your breath away but it’s over before you know it. Now the aftermath? Concussions and broken bones, those you deal with for days or weeks or, for the unlucky few, the rest of your life. After playing football for as long as he can remember, Sean sometimes wonders if the aftermath of the hits he’s endured are actually the sinew that holds him together. Each recovery teaches him something—the most important thing it seems is how to hold it all together.
But the aftermath of this thing with Holden? It’s the first time he thinks he’s about to shake apart.
“By the way, how’d you get away with walking in here an hour late? I envy you. And it’s not the football quarterback-thing or the insane amount of money you make,” Holden’s voice drops even more, barely audible, “or your even more insane body. It’s the fact you got to arrive late and skip the boring conversation that happened during cocktail hour.”
Sean pushes his chair a little closer to Holden as the fourth speaker of the night reiterates what speakers one through three had already mentioned, only in an even more monotone voice. Yet, Sean finds himself not caring. Instead, and he's not sure how this happened, he’s whispering to the handsome guy on his right, first trading quips about the food (the steak was perfection on a plate; the rolls were awful. “I wish there was a dog under the table that I could give this roll to,” Sean muttered. To which Holden replied, “So you hate animals? Because that would just be cruel, man.”) and then moving on to everything and nothing at all. Sean feels himself flirting, really flirting, for the first time in...it couldn’t be years could it? The fact that he can’t remember the last time he flirted with someone who wasn’t a reporter or a publicist makes him amp up the flirting. To his surprise Holden holds his gaze, gives him a look that says, “Oh, we’re doing this? Okay.”
The morning after the event, Sean hears himself say, “Liz, I need you to do something for me.”
He's not sure how she does it, but a few hours later when she says, "Mr. Jackson, I have the number you needed", it takes everything in him not to whoop with joy.
Instead he says, "Too bad you're leaving me, Liz." He's sorry to see her go; as far as temps go, she's pretty good. But her cell phone goes off every five minutes and that, honestly drives him nuts
Two days later Sean paces around the kitchen for ten minutes before picking up the phone and calling Holden. When Holden comes on the line and says, all warm and welcoming, “Oh…hey, it’s you.” Sean forgets for a split-second why he was nervous to make the call in the first place. Then he remembers again and tenses up.
“Yeah, so, I, um,” Sean pinches the bridge of his nose mindlessly. Holden just waits for Sean to find the ability to speak again. That ability, much to Sean’s horror, doesn’t show up right away.
After a too-long pause, he scrambles for some words. “So…yeah…as I was saying.”
“And what was that?” Holden’s voice lifts, gently, and Sean feels himself relax a little.
“You seem to like steak, I mean the other night. You liked the steak. I mean, I thought you did. So maybe you’d like to have another steak. With me. A steak with me for dinner, I thought?” Sean begins mentally punching himself in the face. This is worse than the time he threw that interception because he got the opposing team’s away uniform confused with his team uniform. He never thought he’d surpass that level of dumb.
“I’d love to have dinner with you. What time should I come over? I assume your place because — what I mean is….”
“Yeah, here would be great. Does tomorrow work for you?” Sean lets out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding since he watched Holden walk away the night they met.
The fact that everything goes to shit during a discussion of his Aunt Claire’s Jell-O salad might have struck Sean as funny if at the end of the conversation Holden hadn’t said, “That’s it. I’m done. I get it, okay? Why you don’t—can’t—share that part of yourself with the world. It doesn’t bother me that we can’t go out, I’d rather stay in anyway. It doesn’t bother me that I’m sneaking around in a way I haven’t since high school. But, and this is my fault, when your aunt tells me that one day she hopes to teach your lucky lady how to make the Jell-O salad you love so much, I realize that not even your family knows who I am. Not even your family really sees me, I just can’t handle it. Sean, I’m sorry. I can’t anymore.”
Sean looks up from the bed, waiting for an opening. Wants to tell Holden that he gets it. He gets how hiding eats away at a person. Understands why he’s upset. He wants to pull Holden onto the bed, press slow kisses into his skin, like he did that first night. Instead he hears himself say, “It’s just Jell-O. She would have taught you how to make it if you asked.”
Looking back, Sean knows that that moment, that moment, was the hit. He sees it on Holden’s face.
Two hours before Holden arrives for dinner, Sean considers canceling. One hour before, he picks up his phone and puts it down again at least five times. Fifteen minutes before, he does some jumping jacks to calm down.
Sean knows it’s a risk, inviting someone he doesn’t know over for dinner like this. He knows that Holden could run to the papers, Sean sees the headlines in his mind’s eye. But the same voice that tells him to run left and throw to Johnson instead of running right and passing to Bishop, tells him that it’s okay. He sees something in Holden that made him…well, it made him want. The nature of the desire surprises Sean. Sure, he's physically attracted to Holden but it's more than that. It was the connection that made Sean yearn. The simple banter, sharing a meal and the laughter, God, the laughter made Sean’s pulse quicken. For the first time in years, Sean decides not to deny himself.
Two hours after dinner, when the steak’s long gone, the wine drunk and a fire crackling gently, Holden kicks off his shoes, leans into Sean, says, “Fuck it” and kisses him. The next few minutes pass in a blur. It’s lips and hands and noses bumping and surging toward each other.
After a minute or two, Holden pulls back, smiling, and says, “I’m just really glad you didn’t punch me.”
Still hazy from the kissing, Sean says, “Punch you? Why would I have punched you?”
Holden starts laughing in reply, his eyes crinkling up at the edges. Sean wants to kiss those crinkles. “Forgive me for being relieved that I didn’t misread the signals, that’s all. This is one I would have hated to get wrong.”
Sean isn’t sure what to say to that, so he just begins to unbuckle Holden’s belt. Then he’s laughing, high on adrenaline and desire, like he felt the first time he made out with Kevin Grace under the bleachers during the Valentine’s dance when he was a junior.
The next morning, Holden squints against the bright light streaming in through the window and says, “I think I’ll go. Get out of your hair before your day begins.” The unspoken, “Before anyone sees me” hangs quietly between them.
Sean shifts, lightly grinding himself into Holden’s hip, “Stay?”
Holden brushes a light kiss to Sean’s mouth and stays.
Two days after the Jell-O incident, Sean feels like a walking a cliché. It’s not the big things that he misses the most, like someone to celebrate the fact that the team finally, finally made the playoffs. Or even the sex (and he really, really misses the sex)-- Holden did this thing with his tongue that actually made Sean’s toes curl and the small of his back lift off the bed—it’s the little things he misses. How Holden always nagged him to put the toothpaste cap back on the tube or how they’d sit together and just watch the fire.
Sean realizes that Holden was the first person that he could ever be quiet with. Holden was the first person that saw and loved Sean for everything he was.
Holden saw Sean. And nobody, not even Sean’s sweet Aunt Claire, saw Holden. Saw them.
Sean wants to fix this. This Sean needs to fix.
Five Months Later
“Voila!” Holden proclaims nervously as the Jell-O mold wobbles and bobbles out of the mold. The garish colors seems to gyrate with joy in the bright light of the kitchen.
Sean pokes at the plate to make the Jell-O dance even more vigorously. “I can’t believe you made a Jell-O salad.”
“Your Aunt Claire said it wouldn’t be the Fourth of July without it. You don’t want me to disappoint Aunt Claire, do you?”
“’Course not. I hope you bought the Cool Whip to go with it.”
Holden’s eyes crinkle. “Cool Whip? I draw the line at Cool Whip. I’m serving real whipped cream, thank you very much.” Holden begins to chuckle. “My masterpiece deserves only the best.”
“You know, this family can handle a little change now and again.”
At this, Holden smiles even more deeply— joy and pride breaking out across his face. “Yeah, it seems they can.”