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Waking up feels like an ordeal. His eyes are heavy, arms a dead weight, he isn’t sure if his limbs are even in the right places, but eventually, Sander comes to.

Slowly.

The crust in his eyes makes it harder to blink them open.

He’s glad the room is plunged in complete darkness. Even with it being dark, his eyes still hurt. Glancing to the left is leaving a bitch of a headache.

Slowly, very slowly, adjusting to the dark, his eyes stop hurting and his head stops pounding. His limbs don’t feel like they belong to someone else’s and he can finally swallow saliva down his dry throat.

That’s when he becomes aware of his surroundings; the instant shame and guilt come crashing.

He thinks of bolting out, but has zero energy to do so. He’s also reminded of the sweet kiss Robbe gave him before he left for school this morning, and the sweeter promise he made.

Always.

He wants to stay, and deep down in his heart he knows Robbe wants him to stay, wants him, but that traitorous part of his brain is very good at convincing him otherwise. Normally, it’s easy to indulge with that part of him, convincing himself that he is not worth anything to anyone, that no one is capable of loving him unconditionally for all that he is. This time, he wants to fight it, but he isn’t sure he deserves to receive the comfort and safety Robbe is offering.

Ik hou van u.

Sander takes in a deep breath. He inhales until his lungs hurt and holds his breath. He can hear his heart pounding in his eardrums.

One two three.

Exhale.

Inhale.

One two three.

Exhale.

Repeat.

He isn’t sure how long he does this but is relieved when his thoughts finally quiet down.

Somewhere behind him, he hears a ping, and realises it’s his phone. When he turns around to look for it, he sees that it’s plugged in on Robbe’s study desk.

Somehow, that brings a smile on his face.

He reaches over, still not able to sit up, grabs blindly at the cable and yanks. His phone falls with a thud, to which he couldn’t care less about, because at least it’s within reach.

Checking his phone, he realises that it’s nearly noon. Then, he sees the multiple miscalls and texts from his parents and Britt. He ignores those and goes to open the ones from Robbe.


I don’t know if you remember, but I’m at school right now.

I’ll be back in your arms in no time!

Oh, I charged your phone. Hope you don’t mind

I think maybe you should call your parents?

Let them know you’re safe with me

I’ll see you in a few hours!

Love you xx


He smiles at the texts Robbe left sparsely within minutes and hours. The last one was sent an hour ago, and Sander stares at it. Warmth filling his chest.

He loves me.

He revels in that thought. His smile growing bigger, so much that it hurts his face. He hasn’t been doing that for weeks he thought he’d forgotten how to.

Taking a deep breath, he types.


I just woke up


Immediately he sees Robbe has read his text and is already typing a reply.


Good morning, sleepy head x

How do you feel?


Funny how when Britt used to constantly ask him that, he’d get annoyed, but with Robbe he’s just endeared.

He still hesitates with his reply. He’s still lying down in bed, half of his body dangling off the bed as he types with his phone still on the floor.


I’m still in bed


Robbe’s reply comes a second later.


Have you tried getting up?

Aren’t you hungry?


As if on cue, his stomach growls, startling him. He hasn’t felt like eating, he hasn’t even felt hungry for the past few days.


Now there’s a thought


He thought of leaving it at that, but then he remembers Robbe is probably stealing pockets of his time texting him when he should be studying for his exams.


I’m gonna find something to eat

You should go back to studying

I’ll be here when you come back


He hesitates on the last text, but presses send anyway. Heart in his throat.

The kissy face he gets in reply eases his worries and gives him the strength to finally heave himself up into a sitting position. The change in position has his head spinning and his stomach gurgling in protest for expending energy on zero fuel.

He doesn’t see his t-shirt, so he pulls on the hoodie draped over the desk chair that smells of Robbe and grabs his jeans discarded on the floor by the bed.

Once dressed to the best of his ability, Sander drags his feet to the door, pausing when he hears noise coming from the kitchen. He knows for a fact that it isn’t Zoe, so it could be Senne or Milan.

Suddenly he feels unsure again.

With Robbe at school, he has no place in this apartment; he’s practically a stranger.

They probably have a vague idea of why Sander is here anyway, Robbe must’ve let them know, which doesn’t make him any less anxious. But his stomach protests again, so he decides fuck it.

As he approaches the kitchen, he hears soft humming and immediately relaxes.

Milan.

Sander likes Milan; he thinks he can deal with it if it’s Milan.

Peeking over the threshold to the kitchen, he sees Milan is over the stove, cooking. The smell of whatever’s cooking saves Sander from saying anything but it doesn’t abate his shame as his stomach decides to announce his arrival.

The humming stops abruptly, Milan spinning around to face him.

Sander averts his gaze.

Milan lets out a soft laugh. “Jesus, you scared me!” Not waiting for a reply, Milan continues, “Well lucky for you, I’ve got French toast cooking.”

When Sander remains rooted to the spot, Milan turns to him again, an expectant look on his face.

“Come then, sit.”

So Sander gingerly sits down, hands in his lap.

“Coffee?” Milan offers.

“I —” Sander’s surprised by how croaky his voice sounds. He clears his throat and tries again. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Milan just hums, considering. He’s rummaging through the overhead cabinet. “Is tea okay?”

Sander stares at him, at a loss for words, before nodding.

“Chamomile?” Milan asks again, a kind smile on his face. “It’s all we’ve got.”

Sander feels himself choking up and whispers, “Sure.”

Milan continues to flip toasts and make tea, while Sander tries to hold down the tears that threaten to spill. He doesn’t know why he’s being treated with such tenderness. He isn’t sure he deserves it.

He appreciates it when Milan plops a steaming mug in front of him, grabbing onto it and scalding his palms but glad to have something to occupy his fidgeting hands.

There’s more shuffling before he hears the resounding click of the stove being turned off; a plate full of French toast laid out on the table and Milan slumping down on the chair opposite him. Milan rubs his hands together, appreciating his own hard work.

Sander watches Milan carefully pick a few pieces onto his own plate, pushing the rest towards him. It’s too much, Sander thinks; he can’t possibly finish whatever’s on his plate.

Relinquishing the knuckle-tight grip he has on his mug, Sander reaches for the food but his hands are shaking so badly, he goes back to gripping his mug.

Sander sees it all in slow motion, the way Milan reaches over to hold his hand in comfort. He sucks in a sharp breath through his teeth; relieved when Milan freezes halfway, but doesn’t pull his hand away.

“Sander.” It’s gentle, the way Milan calls him. Sander doesn’t tear his gaze away from the hand still laid inches away from his, just swallows down the lump in his throat.

“Hey, you have to eat, okay?” Milan is pleading, he sounds extremely pained. Sander shuts his eyes to keep the tears at bay, disappointed in himself for hurting yet another person he cares about.

With trembling fingers, Sander reaches for a piece of toast. He takes a tentative bite, all the while aware of Milan’s watchful gaze. Once the taste hits his tongue, that’s when he remembers he hasn’t eaten in days, and ends up gobbling the whole thing down. Reaching for another and another until his plate is empty, ignoring Milan’s soft warning to go slow. When his plate is empty he downs his tea in one go and slumps over the table, completely exhausted.

Taking deep, steady breaths, Sander finally looks over at Milan. “Sorry.”

Again, with that same kind smile, Milan shakes his head. “No need to apologize, yeah. I’m just glad you finished everything.”

The silence that envelopes them is unbearable. Sander has never had trouble talking to Milan before, but now he seems to have lost the ability to speak: only staring at a spot on the table, pushing down the looming bad thoughts.

Guilt. For having Milan involuntarily playing babysitter.

Shame. For not being able to take care of himself.

“You know what I think?” Milan asks. His clear voice cutting through the suffocating air around them. “I think you, young man,” Milan points a finger at him, “are in dire need of a shower.”

“It’ll make you feel better,” Milan adds. He has that same expectant look as before, and Sander finally understands why Robbe is always whining about Milan being overbearing.

Feeling exhausted all over again, Sander just nods. He really does need a shower.

Avoiding looking at the mirror, or any reflective surfaces, Sander quickly strips and cranks the shower to the highest temperature.

It feels like penance, standing under the scalding water. For all the trouble he’s caused. His head bent as he stares at the swirls of water going down the drain; just letting water beat down over him. He doesn’t know how long he takes, but it’s long enough for steam to fog up the mirrors and Sander to choke on the humid air.

Milan was right; the shower did help him feel better. He feels like he’s scraped off a layer of grime off his skin. There’s also the added bonus of smelling like Robbe.

But he stands there, naked. Unsure of what to do. He doesn’t feel like being alone, but he doesn’t want Milan to coddle him either.

When he comes out of the bathroom, the difference in temperature in the hallway and the bathroom makes him shudder.

Sander can hear Milan giggling in the living room and contemplates joining.

He ends up in Robbe’s bedroom instead, staring at his phone, willing it to chime with a new message from Robbe. He stares for some time, before deciding that Robbe is probably still taking an exam and Sander needs to get his shit together before Robbe comes back.

Milan’s giggles have turned into full-blown belly laughs, and Sander grows curious.

He hovers by the hallway, flipping his phone over and over in his hand.

When Milan sees him, he looks pleasantly surprised, patting the seat next to him in invitation.

Sander sits a few feet away, listening to Milan’s occasional comments. He checks his phone again, reading his conversation with Robbe.


Maybe you should call your parents?


Swallowing yet another bout of guilt, he opens up his text thread with his mother.


I’m at Robbe’s

I’m okay


The reply comes a second later, his chest feeling heavier with every consecutive ping that comes.


Oh thank god

I was so worried

I’ve been looking all over for you

Can I call you?


He glances over at Milan, who seems completely engrossed with whatever he’s watching.


Sorry, mama

I don’t feel like talking right now

But I’ll call you when I do


As he reads his mother’s reply, his eyes glaze over with unshed tears.


Okay, baby

Please call me when you’re feeling better

I love you


Sander sends out a quick I love you too before locking his phone. All these emotions have taken a toll on him and he’s only been awake for less than a couple of hours. He mutes out the noise from the TV, grateful for Milan’s presence as he just sits there, eyes growing heavier by the second.

He’s jolted awake by the sound of the front door being shut in a rush followed by shuffling and the creak of another door being opened. At first, Sander isn’t sure what that means, but when he sees familiar messy brown hair peeking over the door to the living room, he feels an overwhelming sense of calm wash over him.

Robbe is here, looking at him with that tender look in his eyes, the one that leaves no doubt in Sander’s mind that Robbe is glad to be back with him.

“Hey,” Robbe calls out to him. A smile on his face.

Sander smiles back. “Hey.”

Robbe comes over, hand already reaching out to him before he even comes close, and Sander leans into his touch, sighing.

“Sleepy?” Robbe asks.

Sander closes his eyes when he feels Robbe’s gentle fingers carding through his hair. He nods, letting Robbe drag him up from the couch. He thinks he hears Robbe say a quiet thank you to Milan, he’s not sure.

By the time they are back in Robbe’s room, Sander is already half-asleep. He lets Robbe rearrange their limbs together; he has his head on Robbe’s chest, falling asleep to the steady beat of his heart.

Fingers are back to massaging his scalp and Sander melts even further against Robbe. Not a single stray thought linger.

He mumbles a belated, “Welcome back.”

The last thing Sander hears before he completely falls asleep is Robbe’s voice, muffled.

“Glad to be back.”