Chapter 1: Piece of My Heart
The apartment door slams and I drop my head against the back of the couch and stare at the ceiling. Three days this time. Not a single call, text, anything.
I should have broken it off the first time I came home to find Anders in bed with someone else. Definitely should have broken it off the second time. After the third time, I’d thrown my work clothes in a pile, shoved a pillow over my head to muffle the sound of the man I loved fucking someone else on the other side of my wall, and started to wonder what my life had become.
“Nate?” Anders sticks his head around the corner. “There you are. I thought you might be out somewhere for once.”
No. Just sitting here waiting for you to come home. As always. I shrug and don’t bother looking up.
Anders drops beside me on the couch and crushes his lips against mine, grabbing the back of my head and winding his hands through my hair. The next thing I know, I’m flat on my back on the couch, Anders on top of me—the bulge in his pants pressed against my leg; my own erection straining the zipper of my jeans.
“Don’t be mad at me, Nate. I need you. You know I need you.”
That’s all it takes. That’s all it ever takes. Anders’ breath, hot and wet against my chest, golden hair and amber eyes melting around me, hands unfastening my pants and sliding under the waistband of my boxers, and those words, I need you, repeated against my skin as we move together.
I run my hands through Anders’ hair before stripping off my own shirt and helping Anders out of his. He moves down my chest, biting and licking and stroking. Warm, wet mouth against a now erect nipple, hand sliding through the hair covering my chest and trailing down to my waistband. Anders slips my pants to my knees, and I oblige him by kicking them off as he frees my erection from the confines of my shorts.
A hot tongue swirls around the tip of my cock then darts into the slit and Anders returns my moan, throat vibrating against my length. He puts one hand on my hip then runs his tongue up and down my length; eyes fixed upward, playful pleasure on his face.
“Were you good while I was gone?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Anders.”
Anders grins before he envelops my cock in his hot, wet mouth and buries his face against my thigh. He remains there for a moment, cock throbbing against the back of his throat while he massages my sac with one hand and pins my hips to the couch with the other.
“Oh, hell.” My voice comes out in a breathless rasp. “Please never stop doing that.”
He moves his head faster, working the tip with his mouth as he uses his free hand to stroke the base. White hot pleasure surges through me and I scream Anders’ name through my release, Anders sucking down every drop until I’m spent.
He pulls back and drops to his knees on the floor, eyes meeting mine as he glides his tongue across his lips.
I shake my head and pull him down for a kiss. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Anders grins at me, still lying on the couch with my boxers around my ankles. “Now. I’m starving. Let’s go out.”
I sit up and pull on my shorts then grab Anders and collapse back to the couch, Anders’ head resting atop my shoulder. “Sit with me. I’m in the mood for takeout and a shitty movie. We can make out through the boring parts.”
He snuggles into me for a moment then leans away and stands up, hand extended to help me from the couch. “Honestly, if it weren’t for me you’d spend your whole life sitting around this apartment. One drink, maybe two. Then straight back upstairs and in bed by ten, I promise.”
I sigh. Whenever Anders says ‘two drinks,’ it always turns into three, then four, then five, until I have to half–carry a drunken Anders up the stairs, dump him in his bed, and lay beside him until he passes out. Problem is, if I say no, he'll go out anyway. And if he goes out alone, he’ll either disappear for three more days or I’ll get to spend another night listening to him fucking whomever he’d brought back upstairs. At least if we go out together, I might get a chance to spend the night pressed up against him in the dark.
I smile up at him as I pull on my pants. “For you, Anders . . . the world. And a few drinks, I suppose.”
Chapter 2: Boom Boom
Bass thumps and synthesizers wail as the awful club song Anders had picked as his ringtone jars me from a deep sleep.
“Anders.” my voice holds more gravel than usual and I clear my throat, trying to shake myself awake. “What’s going on?”
“Naaaate, come downstairs and have a drink with me.”
“I’m in bed, Anders, and from the sounds of things you don’t need another drink. Come upstairs, okay?”
“Don’t be like that. You’re always like that. Always trying to ruin my fun. I’m just having a good time. I need to have a good time before I become a working stiff like you and go to bed at 8pm and never have any fun.”
“I have fun.”
“Then come downstairs. I miss you. You don’t have to wear pants.”
“I have to wear pants
“No you don’t. The sign on the door says nothing about pants.” The phone goes dead.
I groan and climb from my bed. 1 am. Work will be hell in the morning, but at least I don’t have a court appearance scheduled. I’ll have to grab an extra cup of coffee and hope I don’t pass out in the mountain of post–trial paperwork on my desk. I pull on jeans and the first shirt I can find, then shove my feet into my shoes and head downstairs.
The Crown and the Lion is one of the worst establishments I’ve ever frequented, but their drinks are cheap, their food isn’t awful, and my apartment is upstairs, so it's somehow turned into my default bar of choice. I’d even worked there for a while, back when I was in law school. Bartender at the seediest establishment in town wasn’t even in the same vicinity as any Rendon Howe pre–approved life plans, but after my family was disgraced and whatever money we’d had left disbursed to the crown as reparations, I hadn’t been left with much choice. I’d taken the job, used the tips to pay off some of my loans, and tried to look at the positives. I was alive, I was still working toward a career, and spending nights tending bar allowed me to meet some of the people I’d no doubt be defending in court, someday. Besides, the bar was where I’d met Anders.
I’ll never forget that night for as long as I live. It was pouring down rain, but my childhood friend and more, Aedan Cousland, who worked nights as a bouncer, had gestured for me to meet him out back for a smoke break. I didn’t smoke, but I often joined Aedan just to get away from the noise and lights and chaos of the bar. I’d yelled to Mhairi, the other bartender on shift that night, to cover me then followed Aedan out back.
Most nights, the back alley was deserted save the rats rooting about in trash piles, but not that night. That night, as Aedan and I stepped into the orange glow of the dirty light above the bar’s back entrance, I heard a shout, then the sound of metal scraping against metal. I peered around the dumpster to see a man on his knees on the ground and a dark–haired female police officer snapping a set of handcuffs into place.
“Not that you’ll believe me, you never do, but I didn’t do it!” the man yelled. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not that broken up about it, but—”
“Save it,” the officer said. “Let’s go.”
He didn’t fight as she hauled him to his feet, metal of the cuffs digging into his wrists, then shoved him into her patrol car, not bothering to mind whether his head was clear of the door. I winced at the thud that resounded down the alley as head struck steel, but the man didn’t so much as flinch.
Aedan finished his cigarette as the car drove off. “You should consider a move, bro. Neighborhood’s going to shit.”
I still can’t tell you what made me drive to the police station that night, but before I knew it, I was pulling up in front and hoping the Howe name still held some small amount of weight in this town.
“A man was brought in earlier,” I told the desk sergeant. “Around midnight. Tall, about as tall as me, I guess. Decently built. Blond hair. Ponytail. Nice clothes.”
“I know the kid. Rylock brings him in every other day, seems like. You a friend of his? You don’t look like his usual friends.”
“I’d like to post his bail.”
“You don’t want to help him.” The officer from the alley—Rylock, I assumed—approached the desk. “Kid’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous? What did he do?”
“This time? Punched a couple of cops then took off. Would have tried it with me too, only he knows better. I’m his meal ticket.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Kid like that, pretty face and expensive clothes, he knows he won’t last on the street. Whores himself out once in a while to get a bed, then winds up in trouble with one client or another and needs a place to be. Does just enough to get himself here, but never enough for me to hold him. I bring him in, he spends a night, couple weeks later we do it all over again. Wish I could hold him, just once. Kid’s a menace. Streets are better off without him.”
“Sounds to me like he just needs somewhere more permanent to spend his nights,” I said. “How much is his bail?”
Anders sits at the bar with a drink in his hand. He’s dressed in the blue shirt I’d bought for him a few weeks ago because it made his golden hair shine and the amber in his eyes pop. He topples from his stool as he tries to stand and I rush forward to catch him before he hit the floor.
“There you are,” Anders slurs, draping himself across my chest. “Come have a drink.”
“How about I finish this one you’ve got and then we go upstairs?”
Anders grins. “Upstairs, eh? You want me, don’t you? You miss me. You want to . . .”
I cut him off. The whole bar doesn’t need to know what we are or aren’t going to do when I get Anders upstairs. “Of course I do. I miss you. I want you to come upstairs with me.”
“Good,” Anders says. “Good.”
I pay the tab then wrap an arm around Anders and help him toward the door. He flings one arm around my shoulder and jams his mouth against mine. The kiss is sloppy and comes complete with the aftertaste of lime and tequila.
“Not here. Wait a bit, okay?”
“No,” Anders says. “I want you now. Right now, right here. I want everyone to know how much I love you. You know I love you, right Nate. You know there’s no one else for me but you?”
“I know, Anders,” I say as I usher him out the door and up the stairs. “I know.”
Chapter 3: Isn't It A Pity
“He treats you like shit,” Aedan says, taking another drink.
“Not all the time.”
“That’s what you think. You’re not in this bar every night watching him rub himself all over anyone who might be stupid enough to fall for that little helpless, charming, needy routine he fed you.”
“He didn’t feed me any routine, Aedan. When I met him he really was all those things.”
“Well he’s not anymore, thanks to you. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He’s got it good. The best. He fucks the hottest man in town whenever he damn well pleases and what does he do about it? Comes down here to get drunk and rub on strangers. It’s time you kicked him out.”
“I can’t kick him out, Aedan. If I kick him out I’ll be no better than everyone else in his life. Besides, he doesn’t have anywhere else to go except back on the street. What good would I be if I let that happen?”
“Bullshit. He’s not another one of your charity case clients. Kid’s got you convinced he can’t live without you, but let me tell you, it’s all an act. You kick him out and I promise you within a day he’ll find some other poor sucker to leech off of. You know it too; you’re just too scared to let him go.”
I slam the rest of my drink and order another. What does Aedan know? He works in a bar. He always sees people when they’re at their worst. What Aedan doesn’t see is the way Anders looks at me when we snuggle up on the couch in our boxers eating pizza, drinking beer, and watching shitty movies on cable. He doesn’t see the way Anders holds me close when we lie together in the dark. He isn’t there for all the hand holding and the gentle kisses and the way Anders leans into me every so often just to, as Anders always puts it, ‘make sure you’re still there’.
“I don’t recall asking your opinion,” I say.
“Dammit, Nathaniel. It’s time you realized there are people in this world who care about you. Who don’t want to see you get treated like shit and pretend you’re fucking happy.”
“I am happy.”
“Yeah. Happy. As long as the kid tosses a few fucks in your direction.” Aedan grabs his coat and stalks off, leaving me alone at the bar.
Aedan doesn’t understand. He can’t. I knew when I brought Anders in that the man was bruised and battered and broken. He needs space to heal and I give him that space. While his physical wounds have long since vanished, the emotional ones will take time, and even then, they always leave scars.
Raised on a farm in the Anderfels, Anders’ childhood had been light years from anything I’d experienced as the eldest son of a powerful Ferelden family. Anders still swore he and his parents had been happy together, but happy parents don’t just send their kid off to some boarding school in another country on his twelfth birthday and never look back.
I figure Anders remembers his childhood as happy because it's better than realizing everything in your entire life has been complete and utter shit. Maker knows I’ve done that enough times myself over the years. Insisting that I’d gone to Starkhaven because their pre–law program was the best in Thedas sure sounds nicer than admitting I’d been sent away because Rendon didn’t like my attitude or the way I ran my life. It sounds a hell of a lot better than the truth: That my father had caught me kissing Aedan Cousland, son of the family’s biggest political rival, under the big oak tree in the woods, and couldn’t even look me in the face for the months before I shipped off to the Free Marches.
Better still, Rendon hadn’t stopped at taking out his anger on me. Instead of admitting to himself that his son might be capable of having feelings for another man, he’d used my relationship as yet another treachery to pin on Bryce Cousland—as though somehow Cousland had used magic to control my mind and convince me to shag his son. Two weeks after I left, Rendon staged an attack on the Cousland estate and had most of the household murdered in their beds for nothing more than revenge and a demonstration of political power.
I laugh to myself. I haven’t met anyone who isn’t living with the ghosts of their past—throwing themselves into life and doing what it takes to work through the scars left behind. If that means our lives are tragic once in a while, maybe that isn’t so bad. If Anders needs to back away from me when things get too serious, maybe it’s because he’s afraid of losing anything he holds too close. If Aedan worries too much about me getting hurt, maybe it’s because he still lives every day with the pain of being unable to save everyone he loved. And if I let Anders take a little more than he gives, well maybe I’m just doing what I can to make up for the sins of my father. And the way I see it, none of that is so bad.
Chapter 4: Baby Let Me Follow You Down
“Naaaaaaaaaate.” Anders is squeezed into a booth in the darkest corner of the back of the bar, a man to his left and a woman to his right, both of whom are making no small show of putting their hands—or mouths or tongues—on every part of him that can be touched. “Have you met my friends?”
Anders had talked me into coming downstairs for a drink, and for once, it hadn’t been a desperate call at 1 in the morning, so I’d agreed. Little did I know that would mean sitting alone in an empty booth for two hours while Anders spent time with his friends—a term which seems to include everyone in the establishment except me.
“Anders, get up.”
“No. Why? Sit down. We’re supposed to be out together and you’re not even sitting with me.”
I rub my hand across my forehead. “Whose fault is that? Get up.”
“Anders, I’m tired and I don’t want to play this game with you right now. Get up and let’s go upstairs.”
“You’re so boring, Nate. You should sit down here and have fun with us. You always ruin everyone’s fun.”
“I don’t want to sit down, I want to go upstairs. Now get up.”
His eyes flash at me. “I don’t want to. You go upstairs if you’re so tired. Mister working man. Paying the bills must be awfully boring. Good thing I don’t live like that. I hope I never do. I hope I never end up as boring as you.”
That’s enough. The five drinks I’d had pound through my head and I feel my face flush hot. “I. Said. Get. Up.” I grab his arm and haul him to his feet, spilling the girl on the outside of the booth to the floor.
“Owww!” Anders yells. “Naaate. Oww. You’re hurting me. Let go.”
“Ugh. Maker. What’s your problem?” The girl starts climbing to her feet. “We’re just trying to have a good time here.”
“Yeah, Nate. We’re having a good time. Or we were until you showed up. Let go of me. You’re hurting my arm!” Anders pulls against my grip, but I squeeze his arm tighter.
“Anders, I swear, do not make me pick you up and carry you out of here.”
“You don’t get to tell me what to do. You think I have to do whatever you want just because you supposedly rescued me? Well you know what? I never asked you to do that. I never asked you to give me anything. I was perfectly fine until you came around and decided you wanted to fuck me every night and then gave me stuff so you didn’t feel bad about it. Well I don’t need you and I don’t want you or your money or anything, so you don’t get to tell me what to do anymore. Just leave me alone.”
The man climbs out of the booth and puts an arm around Anders’ waist. “You heard him. Leave. No one wants you here.”
I clench my hands into fists. “I don’t recall asking you.”
“He said he’s not going with you. Why would he? He’s got everything he needs right here, don’t you gorgeous?” He gives Anders a squeeze and Anders leans into him and nips at the man’s earlobe.
My vision goes black, then white. “Get your hands off him. Now.”
The man steps forward, arms out to the side. He isn’t as tall as I am but he’s built, as Aedan would say, like a brick shithouse. “Fucking make me, asshole. He’s not your fucking property.”
My mind goes blank. The world moves at a standstill, my fist edging forward on its own until a hand closes over mine from behind.
“Bro, think this through. You do this and we both lose our jobs. Think about it. You know damn well how an assault charge is going to hold up in court.”
Aedan’s voice shakes me from my fog and I drop my arm. The big man takes another step forward, closing the inches between us, until Aedan puts a hand on his chest. “I wouldn’t. Just because I won’t let him hit you doesn’t mean I won’t throw your ass out of here.”
The man steps back and Aedan wraps an arm around me, dragging me into the alley then leaning against the door.
I shove at him. “Move, Aedan. I need to get back in there. I promise I won’t hit anyone. Just let me back in. I need to see Anders. I need apologize. I hurt him. I never wanted him to think that. I didn’t want it to be like that. The look on his face. I hurt him. I lost control and I hurt him. I shouldn’t have. I should be better. Stronger. I shouldn’t let those people get to me. When I was a kid, my dad, you know . . . I just, I don’t ever want to be that way. I don’t ever want anyone to see that side of me.”
Aedan grabs me by the shoulders and spins me around until my eyes meet his. “For fuck’s sake, Nathaniel, those people aren’t worth the shit you scrape off your shoes. You didn’t do anything wrong. After all the shit he’s pulled over the years. If you ask me, it was a fucking miracle it took this long for things come to blows.”
He lights a cigarette and takes several drags, blowing the smoke into a blue haze around the orange streetlight. “I know you don’t want to hear it, Nate, but—”
“You’re wrong. Tonight I want to hear it. I want to hear about how stupid I am. How absolutely idiotic it was of me to bring a complete stranger off the street and then somehow fucking fall in love with him and expect him to change. I basically did everything I tried not to do. I gave him a place to be, and then I made him fuck me and I expected him to like it. I tried to run his life. Tried to make him the way I wanted him to be. So yeah, Aedan, tell me about it. Tell me how my whole fucking life is one big fucking disaster.”
“You can leave him you know. Move in with me. Or, I don’t know, I can sell the house and you and I can get a place together. Uptown a ways, maybe.”
“You know I can’t. What would happen to him if I left? He works at the free clinic, which means he might as well not get a paycheck. The money he brings in barely pays his bar tab. He’d have to quit school. He’d lose the apartment. If I leave him, he’s right back where he was when I met him.”
“He’s there anyway, Nate. Only difference is now he’s got a free roof over his head on a permanent basis. He’s still a street whore. More or less.”
On another night, I might punch Aedan for a comment like that, but not tonight. Tonight, I’ve had just about enough of everyone and everything. I lean across Aedan’s body, pulling the cigarette from his lips, and press our mouths together.
Familiar smells wash over me. Cigarettes. The lingering scent of alcohol. The leather of Aedan’s coat. That stupid Orlesian lavender soap he insists on using even though he’s the biggest dude’s dude I’ve ever met. I lean in and let the memories those smells bring back take over.
“The last time I was happy was when I was with you,” I say into Aedan’s shoulder. “Why did I ever leave you? Why did you ever let me go?”
“You know why. There was still too much between us. Still things we needed to work out. You know we both needed it to end. It’s not that I didn’t love you or that you didn’t love me, it’s that . . . it just wasn’t the right time.”
“Maybe now’s the right time.”
I melt against Aedan, hands sliding up the back of his thin shirt, and kiss his neck, biting and licking at the spot I know will make him writhe beneath me. My hands find his belt and begin unfastening the clasp, rubbing and stroking the bulge beneath the fabric until I pull his cock free.
I drop to my knees in the filth of the alley and grasp Aedan’s length, swirling my tongue around the tip. Aedan moans and writhes as I bob my head, concentrating on the tip and using my hand to stroke the base. I wrap a hand around his length, my other hand cupping his backside as we move together. Within moments, he tenses and I open my throat to drink down his release.
When it's over, I help Aedan back into his pants, hand on his hip to hold him upright, then climb from the ground and pull him close. “Thanks.”
He blows out a sharp breath. “Why the fuck are you thanking me? I call your boyfriend a street whore and then get blown in a back alley. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining in the least, I’m just not exactly sure what the hell’s going on with you these days.”
“If he can do it, why can’t I?”
“Whoa there. Is that what this is about? Revenge fucking? Just so you know, as much as I adore your mouth on my cock, I’m not here to be your random fuck whenever you need to get some shit out of your system.”
“I know. I don’t want it to be you. Not that . . . I mean . . . not that I don’t want to fuck you. I just . . . I don’t. Not like that. You’re not like that. And I’m not. And . . . Fuck.”
He wraps me in a hug. “I know, Nate. I know.”
“I can’t go home. I can’t. I can’t face him after what I did to him. He deserves to be with someone else tonight. I hurt him. He hates me right now. He has every right to hate me.”
“Stop. Stop acting like he’s a fucking victim. You’re damn right you’re not going home. He doesn’t deserve you crawling back and telling him all about how you were wrong, and it was all your fault, and Maker only knows what other shit.” Aedan digs in his pockets and tosses me his keys. “I’ll grab you a cab to my place. We’ll sort this out in the morning.”
Chapter 5: We're Going Wrong
“I have to go home,” I say as I roll over in the king–sized bed and stare at the sun shining familiar patterns across a ceiling I haven’t seen in far too long.
Rendon’s city house. The place he’d kept in town because he needed somewhere to conduct his business. Which mostly meant boozing and prostitutes. I’d never set foot inside this house until the day I returned to Amaranthine. As soon as news of my father’s death reached Starkhaven, complete with the rumour that my former lover and best friend had been the one to pull the trigger, I had ditched school and headed straight for the Howe estate. When I arrived, I’d found the huge, old house overrun with soldiers, all of them awaiting the arrival of Commander Aedan Cousland. I’d been forced to creep into my own house under cover of darkness, face down my former friend, and demand the return of my property while swearing revenge for my father’s death. Aedan hadn’t backed down and we’d slugged it out, then hugged it out, then done considerably more than hugging in the same bed where Rendon used to bring his whores. This bed, where I lay once again, limbs tangled in Aedan’s for the first time in more than two and a half years.
“Bullshit. You don’t have to go home.”
I reach down and pick up my jeans, knees stained with whatever alley filth I’d knelt in the night before. “I do if I want to wear pants.”
“Give me those,” Aedan says, climbing from the bed. “I’ve got a washer, you know.”
“So, what? I just wear this set of clothes every day and then bring them home and wash them at night? I don’t think anyone’s going to be thrilled the next time I show up in court wearing stained jeans and a t–shirt with a griffon on it.”
“Wear some of my stuff for now. Shorts or something. I doubt my pants are long enough. We’ll go get the rest of your clothes while Anders is inevitably out getting shitfaced and blowing people in the men’s room tonight.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. My throat tightens and my chest feels like someone’s wrapped a leather strap around my lungs and is slowly pulling the slipknot.
“Don't. There’s no proof that he did anything with either of them. They were in a booth together, that was all. I was drunk and tired of sitting in a dirty bar booth by myself waiting for him to remember I was there. I overreacted. I shouldn’t have grabbed him. I’m better than that. I let my emotions get the best of me and what I did was wrong.”
Aedan snorts. “You ask me, kid deserves to be tossed around a little. Maybe it will finally help him realize that things aren’t all sunshine and roses and that he can’t treat you the way he does, then expect you to not get pissed once in a while.”
“He doesn’t think that.”
“Wanna bet? He thinks everything is great as long as he comes home and makes you think he needs you to fuck him every couple of days. Think about it. Every time he does something that he knows might hurt you, all of a sudden he’s all ‘Nate I need you’ then the next thing you know, his tongue’s in your ass and you’ve forgiven him all his sins. I mean, come on, bro. Kid can’t be that good.”
I laugh then shrug. “I don’t know. He’s pretty amazing.”
“Better than me?”
“Better than us?”
“Different than us.”
Aedan hands me a mug of coffee. “Move back in. Last night, for all the shit that went down, had a pretty incredible ending, you have to admit. I miss you. You’re living up there in that piece of shit apartment with someone you’ll never be happy with, and I’m down here in this big ass house that should technically belong to you trying to pretend like I don’t want to kick that kid in the teeth and toss him out every time he walks in the bar with that shit–eating grin on his face like I should be his fucking best friend.”
I sip my coffee then set my mug down, tip my head back, and sigh. “Aedan. I can’t. What will Anders do if I leave?”
“Bloody, Anders.” Aedan slams his mug down, sloshing coffee into a puddle on the wooden table. “He’s never going to change, Nate. You put all this time and money and fucking effort into someone who’s just using you as a meal ticket and a guaranteed fuck. Why? Why do you care so much?”
“You don’t know him. He’s got so much good inside. So much love and passion and brilliance and for once he needs someone to just be there for him and love him and not ask for anything in return so he can figure out how to be brilliant. We’ve all got our scars, Aedan; some of us just work through them faster than others.”
“You’ve given him plenty of time to work through his shit. Close to three years now and he still hasn’t changed. How many chances does a guy get?”
“As many as he needs.”
“As many as you gave me?”
“That’s not fair, Aedan. Things between us . . . that was different.”
“Last night was perfect Nate. You and I back in bed, remembering how well we fit together. You’ve got a job; I’ll be done with school next year. Where’s our second chance?”
I swallow the rest of my coffee. “At the very least, I owe him an apology.”
Chapter 6: Ring of Fire
I push the door to my apartment open later that evening after spending the day nestled on the couch with Aedan. We’d vowed to not mention Anders again, and we hadn’t, though the lingering ‘what happens next’ had hung unspoken in the air as we cuddled together, Aedan’s fingers twining in my hair and brushing across my chest while I traced the lines of the Ferelden special forces tattoo on his left bicep.
When Aedan had left for work, he’d asked me to stay behind, but I’d insisted on coming. I need to talk to Anders, to see him again, to apologize for hurting him and tell him why I had to leave for a while. I can’t just let Aedan clean out my stuff and walk away without an explanation. That’s not who I am.
“Anders,” I call out into the dark of the apartment, “are you here?”
No response. Every light is out and the apartment is bathed in silence. Did Anders ever come home? Is he downstairs right now getting someone off in the men’s room, just like Aedan had said?
I shake my head. Anders had been angry, and he’d had every right to be. All he wanted was the freedom to be himself and live his life and I’d made one stupid mistake and ruined all the trust we’d built up.
I put a hand on the door and it swings open with a creak.
“What do you want?” Anders’ voice is muffled. “Come to make sure I’d moved out?”
“No. Can I come in?”
“It’s your apartment. You pay the rent. You can go wherever you bloody well please.”
I ease the door open and pick my way across the clothing–strewn floor until I reach the bed then sit down on the edge, facing into the dark, careful not to brush up against Anders.
“Have you been in bed all day?”
“You weren’t here when I came back. I came home and I needed you and you weren’t here and it was all my fault. I told you I didn’t want your help any more and that I didn’t need you. I said all those things. Horrible things. All you’ve ever done is help me and I told you I hated you for it.” He buries his face deeper into the pillow. “You’ve been nothing but kind to me and I’m so terrible to you.”
I reach toward him and my hand finds soft hair, unbound from its usual ponytail and spilling across the pillow. I stroke it, making sure to keep my fingers light. “You know what? Sometimes people get drunk and they say and do things they don’t mean. I’ve done it. More than once. I did it last night, same as you. I lost control and I hurt you, Anders. You can’t imagine how awful that was. Knowing I hurt you because I couldn’t control my anger. After that, how can I begrudge you a few harsh words? Unless you meant them. Did you mean them, Anders? Do you want me to leave you alone?”
Anders rolls to his side and wraps an arm around my waist. “No. Being with you is the best thing that ever happened to me. You took me in without knowing a single thing about me and you gave me everything I have, and it’s not fair.”
“I give you what you need because I want you to have it.”
“I know. That’s the thing. No one does that. People don’t just give me things, no strings attached. They always want something in return. So why? Why do you do it? What do you want from me? Why are you doing all these things for me when I can’t give you anything in return? Why do you take care of me when I’m not worth a single second of your time?”
“Because I want you have the life you deserve.”
“I don’t deserve shit.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“Ugh.” Anders collapses back to the bed. “There’s no way you can possibly keep being so fucking fantastic all the time. So many times, you should have decided I wasn’t worth the trouble, but you never do. I don’t understand why you brought me here in the first place and I definitely don’t understand why you keep me here. It’s not normal.”
“So . . . what do you want, Anders? What can I do to make this better? What can I do to help you understand? Do you want to leave? Do you want me to leave? I will if you want me to, but know that I’m not going to stop loving you Anders, even if you ask it of me.”
“That’s the thing. I have no fucking idea. No one’s ever put up with me this long. I don’t want to leave and I definitely don’t want you to leave me, but I’m not making you happy and that’s not fair to you. So, I guess, I’ll move out and get another job and try to make money and pay some rent somewhere and you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
I lean down and press my lips to his forehead. “Anders, what I do for you I do because I love you. Because making you happy makes me happy. What kind of person would I be if I let you go back to that life after all this time?”
“A reasonable one.”
“I used to be reasonable,” I say. “Until I met you. I don’t want someone else, Anders. I only want you.”
“I’ll just keep hurting you. I don’t know if I can change.”
“We’ll work through it. Together. Because together, we can do anything. You work hard on believing that I love you no matter what, and I’ll work hard to show you that love’s not something you need to be afraid of. We’ll stay here, together, and we’ll build up the most amazing love in all of Thedas. Deal?”
Anders pulls me atop him on the bed and presses hot lips against my neck. “Deal.”
Chapter 7: You Know I'm No Good
I let the apartment door slam behind me after a miserable day in court. The trial ended with a loss for my client. Which, as usual, meant my client accusing me of not working hard enough because I got paid the same no matter the outcome. I should be used to it by now, but the words still sting every time. Instead of heading back to my office to fill out the mountains of post–trial paperwork, I just went home. All I wanted was to curl up on the couch with Anders and a stiff drink.
After changing from my work clothes to a t–shirt and a pair of sweatpants, I pour myself a scotch on the rocks, and head to the living room. No sign of Anders, which is a good thing for once. In the three months since our talk, Anders has made a dramatic change, throwing himself into his studies and working hard to repair our relationship. He’d turned his bedroom into a makeshift office and crawled into bed beside me every night. Although my friendship with Aedan has suffered for it, staying with Anders had been the right decision. I’m happy and Anders is happy, and in time, Aedan will be happy too.
I reach for my phone to send Anders a text about dinner, but it isn’t where I’d tossed it. I roll my eyes. This couch eats everything if you leave it there for more than two minutes. I set my scotch on the table and dig around in the cushions, shoving my hand down to reach deep into the cracks. My finger brushes plastic and I try to hook the object with my finger, but it slips further away so I grab the cushion, yank it from the couch, and toss it to the floor then stand there, open–mouthed, staring.
There has to be a good explanation for this, but I’m sure not coming up with one. As far as I’m aware, the only woman who’s been in my apartment any time in the last six months is my sister, and she certainly wasn’t in any state to leave her lacy underwear wedged beneath the cushions of my couch. Which could only mean one thing.
I grab my phone, carefully avoiding contact with the blue lace brushing the edge of it, and rub it on my shirt. Women’s underwear. In my couch. Touching my phone. Which I put on my face. I shudder and wipe my phone on my shirt a second time before grabbing my coat. It’s time for some explanations.
Half an hour later, I storm in the door to the nursing school and march right past reception and through the middle of the library until I find Anders—his lips pressed to the neck of the blonde haired, blue eyed girl perched in his lap.
“What the fuck is going on?”
Anders jerks his head up, eyes wide, and the girl nearly topples to the ground. “Nate. Ah. I can explain.”
“Save it. Even you can’t talk your way out of this one.”
The girl climbs from Anders’ lap, straightens her bun, smooths the wrinkles out of what I assume she thinks passes as a dress, and begins gathering her belongings. “I’m going to go,” she says, “and let you two sort this out. Anders, I . . . I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”
Anders doesn’t meet my eyes as he grabs his bag, shoves in his scattered papers, and heads out to the parking lot without saying a word. I trail behind him, doing everything in my power to not strangle him while we walk.
“How long has this been going on, Anders? Is this why you’re so dedicated to school all of a sudden? Why you’re so fired up about staying late and ‘studying’?”
“No. Yes. I mean, not all the time. Anna’s in my epidemiology class. I thought she hated me. Wouldn’t give me the time of day all year, then all of a sudden I start showing up here to study and she’s my best friend. She’s pretty much failing the class and she asked me to help her out, so I did.”
“Can you explain to me how helping a girl study leads to fucking her on my couch?”
“I didn’t . . .”
“Don’t. Do not lie to my face right now.”
“Bullshit you’re not. Look, even if the one useful skill I got from my lawyer–turned–politician father wasn’t being able to tell when someone is lying, I have evidence. Do you know how evidence works, Anders? Show it to the jury and they find someone guilty. Well, how’s this for evidence? Women’s underwear in my couch. Do you even know the last time I saw a girl in her smalls? Sometime in Starkhaven when I was still trying to convince myself that I wanted to fuck girls because my daddy said I had to. So don’t fucking lie to my fucking face, Anders.”
Anders looks down at the concrete of the sidewalk. “What do you want me to say, Nate? I told you I’d just keep hurting you. I didn’t mean for it to happen. Anna needed my help and I gave it to her and she was really grateful. She asked if I wanted . . . Look, I didn’t know how to say no to that. She’s persistent and she was thanking me and then the next thing you know she climbed on my lap and . . . I didn’t mean to hurt you, it just happened.”
“It just happened. Good. Fantastic. Fucking fantastic, Anders. For the past three months, I’ve felt happier than I’ve been for years. You’re studying hard and we’re together every night and finally I felt like maybe we were a real fucking couple . . . and then this just happens. I don’t know what do to anymore, Anders. I don’t know how to make you happy and I don’t know how to give you what you want. So, tell me, Anders. Tell me how to be everything you need so you don’t need to go find it with other people, Tell me, okay, because I just don’t fucking know anymore.”
I drop my head, fighting against the swelling in my throat and the pressure behind my eyes. I feel moisture on my cheek, rolling down from behind my eye, and my whispered words come out as a choked sob. “I don’t fucking know what to do.” I suck in a breath. I can’t breathe. My body’s weak, ready to collapse as the pressure builds behind my eyes. Don’t. Don’t cry. Don’t lose it. Not here. Not over this. You’re better than this. What would Rendon say if he could see you now, sobbing like a baby over something like this? There’s a loud crack as I slam my hand hard against the wall, then the world goes white and pain explodes up my arm. Next thing I know, I’m laying on the pavement, tears in my eyes, clutching my arm against my chest.
Anders drops to the ground and grabs me, one arm around my waist, the other at my wrist. His hands feel like white hot steel against my skin and I try to shake him off, but the pain lances through me and I stop. “Nate! Maker, that was stupid. Let me see your hand. We’ll need to ice it and splint it before it gets worse.”
I yank away from him. “Let go. I don’t need your help.”
“Look, hate me all you want right now, but I’m not going to let anyone drive home with a broken metacarpal. Ice. Then an x–ray. Then a splint. Up you go.”
Anders hooks his arm tighter around my waist and flings my left arm around his own shoulder as he hauls me from the ground. I shove him away and duck out from his grip.
“No. Don’t touch me right now. You don’t get to touch me.”
“I’m done, Anders. Done. I can’t do this anymore.”
I stalk back to my car and yank the door open, biting my lip to hold in a scream as my hand brushes the steering wheel. Dammit, Anders was right. There’s absolutely no way I’m going to be able to turn the key, let alone drive all the way home. So much for making an exit. I fumble my phone out of my pocket and balance it on my leg while I dial.
Aedan’s voice is short on the other end, his words clipped. “I’m on my way to work. What do you want?”
“I’m up at the university. Nursing school parking lot. I need you to pick me up.”
Silence on the other end then a sigh. “Fine. Be there in fifteen.”
Chapter 8: I've Been Loving You
“Hey,” Aedan says as I step into his kitchen. “You get what you needed?”
I shrug. “Yeah. Enough for a while. Anders is going to stay there until he’s done with school, so I told him I’d crash at your place for the rest of the month. Hope that’s okay.” I dropped my duffle bag on the floor and collapsed into a chair, elbows resting on the kitchen table, chin in my good hand.
“It’s all for the best, you know. Things were spiraling. One of you needed to figure out when to walk away.”
“He’s leaving at the end of the month.”
“Yeah. I thought that was the plan all along.”
“No. Leaving leaving. Going to Kirkwall. Something about an old friend and a job opportunity. He’s running the fuck away. I couldn’t be what he needed me to be and then I abandoned him and now he’s leaving. For good.” I drop my forehead to the table. “He’s leaving me, Aedan, and I’ll never see him again.”
Aedan pulls his chair up next to mine and rubs his hand across my back. “Don’t look at it that way. You gave him so much. Bent over backwards to give him a good life and he threw it back in your face more times than I can count. I know it hurts, but it’s for the best, really. I know you don’t believe that right now, but you will. For now, I’m here for you, however you need me to be.”
“I hurt him again. All I ever do is hurt him. I’m no better than anyone else. I couldn’t deal with him and I sent him away, just like everyone else in his life. I wanted to be better than that. I wanted to show him that there are people out there who can love him unconditionally.”
“I think, considering the conditions, failure was inevitable. You held on a hell of a lot longer than I ever would.”
“That’s not true. Look at all the shit between us and you’re still here, cleaning me up while I sob all over your kitchen table.” I lift my head and sit up in my chair. “What am I supposed to do, Aedan? He’s been my whole world for three fucking years and now he’s just gone. I can’t go home because everything in my apartment reminds me of him. Extra bedroom I won’t ever be able to use. A bed I can’t sleep in because all I can think of are the nights we spent there. My couch is worthless. Too many memories, good and bad. I keep looking at that cushion where I found . . .” My throat tightens and I cut off my words before I start crying again.
Aedan wraps me in a hug. “Trust me. I get it. I know what it’s like to come home to a house full of ghosts. Stay here. Move in. This place is huge, and technically it’s yours anyway. I sort of took it without permission, you know. Later tonight, or in a couple weeks or whatever, I’ll go get the rest of your stuff and bring it here. I’ll clear out the extra bedroom and you can sleep in there until you figure out what you want to do. If you want to keep this place then I’ll find somewhere else to be.”
“I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want to be alone.”
“Fine. You can call all the shots. Now come on, let’s find some space for your stuff.”
“I’m not going.”
“Nate. That’s ridiculous. Take a shower, get dressed, and let’s go. If we leave in half an hour we’ll only be a little bit late.”
“It’s supposed to be a happy occasion. A party. You think everyone at a party wants me sitting in the corner brooding because I cocked up my whole life and now I’m facing the consequences? I can do that just fine here without bringing anyone else down with me.”
“True. But you can’t say goodbye to Anders from here. He’s leaving first thing tomorrow. This is your last chance. You don’t have to be happy about it, but you should go. If you skip out on this and just let him leave without saying goodbye, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life. So if you won’t do it for Anders, and you won’t do it for me, then do it for yourself. Because if you sit here tonight, I promise you, you will spend years thinking about all the things you wish you would have told him before he left.”
I close my eyes and groan, then roll from the bed. “Fine. But I’m not going to promise I won’t just be miserable the entire time.”
“You sure do know how to liven up a party.” Anders slides into the back corner booth beside me. “Honestly, you could at least look like you’re having a good time.”
I toss back the rest of my drink. “Why should I? We both know I’m not.”
“Fine. I’ll do it for you.” Anders drops his voice to mimic mine. “Oh, Anders. I’m so happy you graduated top of your class. I always knew you could do it. And now you’re off to an exciting new life in Kirkwall. Your own clinic and everything. I’m so very proud.”
“Yes. Go with that.”
“I’m not going to say I’m sorry I’m leaving, Nate. I’m not. I’m sorry for what happened between us and for my part in it all and I’m sorry it had to end this way and I’m sorry you’re hurting right now, but I’m not sorry I’m leaving.”
I open my mouth to respond, but Anders cuts me off.
“Don’t talk. Just let me say what I need to say. Here’s the thing. You deserve better than me. You always have. You were my light in the dark, and I loved you for it, but it was killing you. I did love you. I still do. Maybe I always will. I love you and I love everything you are and everything you’ve done for me and everything you make me. And that’s why I have to leave. Because while you’re busy worrying about me, you’re losing little bits of you, and I’m not going to be responsible for that.”
“Well maybe you’re not sorry,” I say, “but I am. I’m Sorry I let you down. Sorry I didn’t try harder. Sorry I didn’t do more for you, Sorry I couldn’t be what you needed. Mostly, I’m sorry I never told you how much I needed you, Anders. I do. I need you. I know you think you make my life hell, and maybe you do, but I love you Anders and I’d rather go through hell with you by my side then live a charmed life without you.”
“Nate. Nathaniel. Stop. Stop talking. Look at me.” Anders holds my shoulders and pushes me to arm’s length. I keep my eyes focused on his chest.
“Look at me.” Anders puts two fingers under my chin and lifts my face until our eyes are level. “Is that really what you think? You think this is your fault? You think this whole thing fell apart because you didn’t try hard enough?”
I nod, but don’t speak. If I open my mouth, everything I’ve worked so hard to hold in for the past month will tumble out of me all at once and then I’ll just be the drunk guy crying in the back of the bar.
Anders stares straight into my eyes. “You cannot possibly know how wrong you are. Every time I screwed up, I knew how much it hurt you, but instead of shoving me out of your life you kissed me and you held me and you told me you loved me anyway. You did nothing but try and I did nothing but make you have to try harder and I cannot tell you enough Nate that none of this is your fault.”
“Then why are you leaving, Anders. Why don’t you want me? There has to be something we can do. Stay here in Amaranthine and we can work this all out. There has to be a way.”
Anders pulls me close and kisses my forehead. He slides his face down until our foreheads touch, noses sloping together as he holds me one last time. “Sometimes, Love, the best thing a person can do is know when to walk away.”
Chapter 9: Finally Made Me Happy
I pick my way through the dirt and grime of Kirkwall’s darktown, using my phone as a light while I consult a crude map. This is crazy. This whole trip is crazy.
I haven’t seen Anders in more than three years, yet here I am, crawling through Maker knows what to find him in his mysterious clinic hidden beneath the bowels of the city like some sort of secret lair. The way Anders talked before he left, you’d have thought this place was the promised land, not one step above living in a sewer.
A light up ahead catches my eye, and I fold my map back into my pocket. Look for the lamp to find the clinic. I stop outside the door, take a few deep breaths, run my hand through my hair to smooth the loose strands back into place, straighten my travel–wrinkled clothes, take one final breath, and shove the door open.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Anders calls from the back of a large, open room with exposed beams and long–worn wood floors. “Have a seat up front and I’ll get you logged in.”
His voice is different. Lower. He sounds tired. I watch as he finishes binding a splint onto the leg of a young boy with torn and patched clothes. Anders helps the boy from the table, hands him a small bottle, crouching down to explain the instructions, then stands and turns toward the door.
“How can I help . . .” his eyes widen and his mouth drops open. “Nate?”
“I . . . what are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood. Thought I’d check up on you. Nice place you got here.”
Anders rolls his eyes. “No need to be patronizing. It’s a step above a hovel, I’m aware. Hardy the booming career opportunity I made it out to be when I left. I might have exaggerated a bit to make you feel better about things.”
He heads to the sink in the corner and scrubs his hands and arms, then hangs his dirty apron on a wall hook. “So. How are you? What’s the latest from Amaranthine? You still helping defend the innocent and keep the criminals off the streets?”
“Yeah.” I shrug. “Same as always. Nothing new. Well. Uh. Some things. I’m an uncle now, my sister had a son. Aedan spoils that kid something fierce, but it’s pretty adorable. We’re still living in the house. Together. Aedan and I are together. You probably figured that. I . . . that’s why I’m here. Sort of.” I stare down at the dirt floor of the clinic, unable to meet Anders’ eyes.
“You came here to tell me you and Aedan are together. Phone call would have worked, you know.”
Anders steps closer, and I reach up and touch his right ear where his earring used to be. “You look different.”
“Yeah. Cleaned myself up a bit. I hated my hair this way at first, but it kept getting in my face. I’m kind of used to it now.”
“I like it. It’s redder, too. It looks good . . . you . . . look good.” I meet golden eyes for a moment then blink away.
I’d been a wreck for months after Anders had left. I’d thought about him every time I drove past the university or picked up Aedan from the bar. Police cruisers back in my old neighborhood reminded me of the night I’d met Anders in that dirty alley. I’d thrown myself into my work, volunteering to represent string after string of hopeless teenagers who’d gone too far because no one had given them a second chance. Maybe I could save this one, I’d tell myself, save this one the way I could never save Anders.
Aedan had been there for me, holding me through the nights when everything was too much. He’d been a constant through my darkness, and eventually he’d started plugging up the hole that Anders had left.
In time, we fell easily back into our old life together. Coffee and the paper in the morning before I left for work and Aedan for school. At night, I made dinner while Aedan studied, and then we’d lay together on the couch, my head in Aedan’s lap as we watched stupid police procedurals and baseball games on television until we headed to bed.
Anders had been right to leave; I know that now. I’m finally happy, and Anders is living the life he needs to live. Everything worked out for the both of us. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a tiny hole inside of me that only Anders can fill.
I stare into honey gold eyes and bite my lip against the desire to run a finger down that perfectly sloped nose or brush my lips against that soft, yielding mouth.
“Nate?” Anders asks. I drop my eyes, the enchantment broken. I’m with Aedan now. Aedan who loves me unconditionally and comes home with me every night and is everything I ever said I wanted. “Are you happy?”
Anders gives me a sad smile. “Not exactly convincing.”
“I understand why you went away, Anders, and in a lot of ways I’m glad you did. It was the right thing to do. But I’m not going to say I don’t still miss you sometimes. You leaving ripped a hole in me that nothing will ever fill. That’s the truth. I think deep inside, I’ll still always love you, Anders, but I realize now that you leaving, as much as it killed me, was the greatest gift you could have given me. So thank you.”
“Um. You’re welcome?”
I smile at him. “I never was any good at expressing myself. I came here for a reason. To tell you the good news; Aedan and I are getting married next month, and, well . . . we’d both like you to be there.”
Anders grins and claps a hand on my shoulder. “Great news. Fantastic news. Tell you what, we should celebrate. Give me half an hour, and we’ll all go for a drink. The Hanged Man . . . do you know it?”
I nod. “All too well. There’s a place I hoped to never see the inside of again.”
“I’ll bring my friends. Half an hour. Drinks on me.” He grabs his phone from a desk drawer and walks me to the door.
Chapter 10: I Put A Spell On You
My entire body hums with nervous energy, my face plastered into a smile I’ve long since lost control over as I stare into Aedan’s eyes, hold his hand, and slide a golden ring onto the finger of my best friend to a wave of applause from our friends and family.
I scan the crowd of familiar faces and new friends. Aedan’s brother Fergus made the trip along with my sister Delilah and her husband Albert. The three of them stand together, my nephew Byron nestled between them. Aedan’s army buddies mingle with Anders’ new friends from Kirkwall, all of whom were included in the invitations after our night of drinking at the Hanged Man had led to Isabela, a Rivaini shipcaptain, insisting that the entire ceremony and the party to follow take place on her brand new ship ‘to break her in proper’.
Most of all, Anders is here, charming in all black, standing hand in hand with Garrett Hawke. I meet his eyes and he returns my smile.
“I love you,” I whisper, pressing my forehead to Aedan’s.
“I love you, too,” Aedan whispers back.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Isabela yells out from where she’s draped across the helm. “Start snogging already and give us a good show.”
I grin and Aedan laughs. “Better give the crowd what they’re waiting for.” He presses his mouth to mine and I open my lips, letting his tongue brush against my own as our lips work together and we close the remaining distance between our bodies.
Whistles and catcalls ring out from our friends and I pull back and put a hand in the air.
“Friends. Family. Thank you all for being here. Thanks to Captain Isabela for the use of this beauty of a ship. Thanks to Garrett Hawke for taking care of all the arrangements and the more than generous hospitality. Thanks to Varric Tethras for all the drinks. Thanks to my beautiful sister and both my wonderful brothers–in–law for making the trip from Ferelden. Mostly, though, thank you to the one person who made all this possible. The man who had me under a spell for so long that I didn’t even know he’d worked his magic on me until it was too late. Who made me realize that no matter what, you can’t fix every problem, you can’t be strong as a rock all the time, and it’s okay to just be who you are, even if that’s not who you think you need to be. My best man, and one of my best friends . . . Anders come up here.”
Anders, his face flushed hot and his eyes ducked toward the floorboards of the ship, makes his way toward us. “What are you doing? I don’t want to . . .”
Aedan and I stand on either side of Anders and fling our arms around his shoulders. Aedan pulls him into a hug, then stands back and says, “You know, you’re a son of a bitch, but I owe you. So thank you, Anders. Thank you for fucking him up, so I could put the pieces together again.”
Anders laughs and blushes, then shakes Aedan’s hand. “Thanks for always being there to clean up my messes.”
Then it’s my turn. I kiss Anders on the forehead then turn to look him in the eyes. “You put me through hell and back for three years, Anders, but you know what, it was worth it. Because all roads led me here and because I think we’re both better people for having known one another.” I pull him close, whispering words no one else needs to hear. “I’ll never stop loving you, Anders. I’ll always be under your spell. But I’m happy, and it looks like you’re happy too. And that, I suppose, is all that’s ever mattered.”
I grin and shove Anders back toward the crowd. “You’re next, okay.”
Anders looks at Hawke, then at me, then back at Hawke and smiles. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”