The first time Aaron met Alexander Hamilton it was barely two weeks into the Princeton school year, and it was like being hit with a small explosion. He ambushes Aaron outside his last class of the day, when Aaron is tired, hungry, and already mentally working on the response paper he has due on Thursday. Before Aaron’s said a word, not even one, Alexander has somehow managed to tell him that he’s a freshman (to Aaron’s Junior), his major (the same as Aaron’s), his life plan to be a lawyer (like Aaron) and change the world, that he wants Aaron’s help figuring out how to get into graduate courses (like Aaron), and that he’s an orphan (also like Aaron).
For a second after the flood of information stops Aaron can only blink stupidly at him. He’s staring at Aaron hopefully, his face bright, and his expression so open. Absurdly, stupidly so. Within this first minute of meeting him Aaron can see five different things he could say that would hurt him, wounds that he could stick his fingers in and twist. It makes Aaron’s stomach twist like maybe he does want to hurt him, to say one of the awful things that would crush out that hopeful expression.
Aaron doesn’t do that. Instead he suggests they get dinner from the cafeteria and talk. He’s willing to give this kid advice, even if it does shake him to look at his open expression for too long. Alexander talks a mile a minute, but when Aaron tells him what he knows about courses and professors he nods eagerly, and has a series of follow-up questions.
As they’re about to finish, crumpling napkins on the trays and arranging used silverware, Aaron breaks into Alexander’s inexplicable tirade about students who don’t do their own laundry to ask, “Do you want some advice?”
Alexander’s face lights up, “Of course.”
“You need to be more careful. Everything you say people can use against you.”
Alexander doesn’t answer this aside from a confused headshake. He’s staring at Aaron with large dark eyes, eyebrows drawn together in a query.
Aaron says, “People are going to judge you. Maybe just don’t give them ammunition.”
“Are you judging me?”
“People are always judging. That’s what makes them people.”
Alexander shakes his head again, more firmly, “That’s not how I see it.”
Aaron just shrugs, gathering up his tray. “That’s your choice. Good luck, Alexander.”
Aaron doesn’t turn back as he leaves the cafeteria, but he imagines he can feel Alexander’s intelligent gaze on his back all the way out.
After that first meeting Aaron doesn’t have any more run ins with Alexander, but somehow he seems to be everywhere. People talk about him in class in the minutes before lectures, in the moments of class time intended for group discussion, in the halls. Somehow there’s so much to say about this one freshman. He’s involved with some sort of student government power struggle that Aaron studiously ignores. He’s in a feud with the crusty old professor that teaches intro to politics, that everyone else just humors to get their A. Not Alexander. Apparently lectures have been transformed into debates, and the rest of the class is torn between irritation and elation. He’s either friends or enemies with Angelica Schuyler, the Senator’s daughter that rules supreme over the science majors. He’s dating John Laurens. He’s dating Eliza Schuyler. Everyone knows he has major plans to change the world for the better, and most people have an opinion on if he’s a genius or an idiot.
It’s not just that people are talking about Alexander all the time, campus seems suddenly to have shrunk because everywhere Aaron goes he sees him, as bright and open as ever. There he is laughing with his friends. Arguing with Angelica. Kissing Laurens. Kissing Eliza. Laurens again. He seems to be dating both of them at the same time, and that definitely makes something twist in Aaron’s stomach, remembering last year and Theodosia. Theodosia who promised she was breaking up with her boyfriend until he came back from his study abroad in Tbilisi and it was Aaron she was breaking up with instead. However, this case is surely different. Given the prominence of Alexander in campus gossip neither of them can be under any illusions, so if it makes the three of them happy it’s not any of Aaron’s business.
It’s also not his business that Alexander is apparently bisexual, could have chosen to stick to women. That’s the smart choice, but Alexander doesn’t seem to worry about the smart choice, guided instead, as always, by his passion. Aaron looks away when he sees him roughhousing with Laurens, pressed in a kiss that breaks apart as it turns instead into laughter. Aaron always makes the smart choice.
His one refuge on campus from the flood of Alexander gossip and sightings had been his work study for Doctor Washington. As Washington’s undergraduate researcher he could compile literature, arrange references, and transcribe interviews in the quiet peace of Washington’s front office. The work was both interesting and good for his law school applications.
At the beginning of the spring semester this peace is broken when Washington announces that Alexander has been added to the project and that they can work it out between the two of them how they will divide the work. This announcement is accompanied by Alexander himself who looks excited to be there, smiling his open bright smile at Aaron. Aaron feel his heart sink, but he smiles back, carefully polite.
His politeness is severely tested over the next few weeks however. It isn’t just that Washington clearly likes Alexander, joking with him and offering him advice on classes and research papers, when after a year and half of working for Washington the best Aaron could say is that the man acknowledges the proficiency of Aaron’s work. It wasn’t really that, because of course Washington would be drawn to Alexander, who could ignore him? Even the people who hated him talked about him constantly. It’s that Alexander seems to have decided that he’s going to be friends with Aaron. Alexander being himself, this mostly seems to consist of trying to get Aaron involved in passionate debates about the right and wrong path on everything from race relations on campus, to farm subsidies, to the right way to decline a party invitation. His frustration with Aaron’s carefully neutral answers is amusing but frustrating, because there’s no need for Aaron to alienate people by having strong opinions on corn subsidies when he’s already too smart, and too dark for most people.
Now Aaron spends his work hours torn between being reluctantly entertained, and terribly annoyed, with no respite from Alexander on campus. Eventually he tries to quash the flood of conversation during work hours by being short and distant, letting go of his careful politeness, but Alexander seemed unfazed, maybe even happier when Aaron snaps back at him.
Aaron is a week into trying to enforce a new strategy of insisting on silence (which is not going well overall), when one Friday he realizes that Alexander has been there an hour and hasn’t spoken once. Aaron pauses his work, studying him. Alexander is working busily, but his light seems dimmed, and there are circles under his eyes. Something is definitely wrong, but Aaron’s unsure what to do. Alexander seems to sense him watching and looks up, trying to smile, but it’s halfhearted and sickly.
Aaron is still working on what to say when Alexander shrugs and volunteers a single word, “Breakup.”
Aaron finds himself responding before he quite thinks about it, “Oh. With-” and then he cuts himself off, ashamed of his pointless curiosity.
Alexander huffs a small bitter chuckle, “Both.”
“Oh,” Aaron says again. “I’m sorry.”
Alexander shrugs. “It was my fault. I thought- I thought they were happy, but they weren’t.”
Aaron watches, unsure if he should say something, or what he would say. Alexander’s pointlessly moving papers around his desk, but finally stills, and breathes out another small, sad laugh, “They wanted me to chose. How could I chose?” He gazes beseechingly at Aaron as if he might have the answer.
Aaron just shakes his head once, still not not sure what to say. Of course Alexander couldn’t be tied to just one person, how could any one person be enough for someone with enough passion to set a whole campus on fire. After a second Alexander nods, as if Aaron has answered the question somehow, and turns back to what he was doing.
Aaron, also returns to his work, but he finds it hard to concentrate. Finally he comes to a decision, and unearths a cookie from his backpack. Normally he doesn’t indulge in cookies, but it was Friday and he had done well on a presentation, and had plans to spend the whole weekend studying for a midterm. One of the large chocolate chip cookies from the best coffee shop on campus had seemed like just the right reward and motivation. But, it seemed now that Alexander needed it more. He pushed the plastic wrapped cookie over to Alexander’s desk, refusing to make eye contact.
He didn’t see what Alexander did, already turned back to his work, but after a second Alexander said softly, “Thanks.”
Aaron doesn’t look around, just gives one tight nod, focused again on his work.
The rest of the year goes by in a blur of tests, and work. Alexander slowly returns to himself, although perhaps more willing to allow for occasional silences between them. Aaron’s not sure if that’s a good sign or a bad one, but it’s undeniably easier to take.
Over the summer they both stay on campus, Alexander taking as many classes as he can, and Aaron working for Washington and studying for the LSAT.
There’s something about summers that have always seemed particularly lonely to Aaron, even before his family died and he was truly alone. Campus seems empty in the summer, with Aaron’s usual acquaintances off traveling and with their families. The long days that stretch into what should be night leave him feeling unmoored, like he’s the only person in the world, especially when campus is so quiet and the library closes so early. On one of these empty, bright nights, early in the break, Aaron runs into Alexander. The yawning emptiness of the rest of the night, and the series of them to follow leaves him with an ache in his chest, and he finds himself willing to be distracted by Alexander’s jokes. His laughter makes Alexander turn and stare at him, eyebrows raised, but eyes crinkled with with matching laughter.
After that night they find themselves studying together, and eating together, and sometimes just spending time together. Aaron takes pleasure in shocking Alexander every once and awhile by taking a stance on whatever issue he’s fired up by at the moment, but Aaron also delights in frustrating Alexander by making sure this is never in front of other people. Alexander finally catches on, and from then on if they do spend time with other people he laughingly tells them that Aaron doesn’t have opinions.
For the first time in Aaron’s recent memory summer, even with the studying, goes by in a flash. In the fall Aaron is buried under senior classes, LSAT nerves, finishing his senior thesis, and starting his law school applications. He’s applying to a solid handful, but more than anything he wants to go to Harvard. Over the years his memories of his parents have begun to fade around the edges, but he still remembers the proud way they’d talk about him being a Harvard lawyer, and he’s not going to let them down now.
Between all of these factors Aaron is spending a lot of time in the library, and when he’s working at the office he doesn’t have the energy to spar with Alexander the way Alexander would like. After a while Alexander’s smiles fade away, and when Aaron does look up from his work he sometimes catches Alexander watching him worriedly.
This worry turns into Alexander occasionally finding him in the library with offerings of food. Just a granola bar, or a banana, but the gesture makes Aaron’s throat tight even as on the outside he only offers a brief thanks.
Alexander is the only person in Aaron’s life who would even think to do something like that, but it just serves to remind Aaron of his other problem. Namely, that since the end of the summer Aaron can’t stop thinking about Alexander. Not just his wit and intelligence, not how easily he wins over some, and just as easily repels others, but his hands, his mouth, his shoulders. Senior year is difficult enough without literally losing sleep wondering what it would be like to press Alexander into his bed, and to kiss that concerned line out from in between his brows. It’s not the smart choice, but Aaron isn’t sure how to stop.
Pining over Alexander is doubly pointless because he seems to have fully recovered from his breakups of the previous year. Aaron can’t go a single week without either hearing gossip about some new fling of Alexander’s, or seeing him engaged in purposeful flirting with some new person, never the same from week to week. Sometimes Aaron thinks about being that person, about one night with Alexander, but the idea of having to see him with other people afterwards always stops him from getting very far with that train of thought.
The gossip is doubly vicious the week Maria Reynolds’s boyfriend finds out she’s been sleeping with Alexander. Alexander shows up at the library under the guise of bringing Aaron a bagel, but Aaron suspects what he’s really doing is hiding and can’t help pointedly raising an eyebrow. Alexander throws his hands up in the air in exasperation, and too loud, “I didn’t know!”
Aaron watches him a moment longer, taking in his tired eyes and rumpled hair, and then clears a spot for him at the table.
Alexander relaxes, and says “Thanks,” now quiet. He opens a book as if to study, but within fifteen minutes he’s asleep, using the book as a pillow.
Aaron keeps working, but finds himself getting distracted by Alexander’s sleeping face. Even asleep he still looks like he could spring up at any moment with a fifty point list on why you are wrong on any issue you wish to raise. Aaron’s fingers itch to trace the line of Alexander’s brow, and brush that loose strand of hair in place, but he turns back to his book.
Aaron does well on his LSAT, and Alexander greets him at work with congratulations in the form of a cookie and a clap on the shoulder. Aaron feels the warmth of Alexander’s hand lingering through their whole shift.
Even with the LSAT behind him Aaron is still swamped, finals are on them, applications are due at the beginning of next semester, and the senior thesis still needs work.
He makes it through finals, but spends his winter break on campus drafting and re-drafting his application letters. Alexander goes home with his roommate, Hercules for the break, and Aaron hardly talks to a single person, except the CVS clerk when he comes down with a cold and needs to buy cough syrup and cough drops.
When spring semester begins Aaron is feeling better about his applications, but the cold hangs on as a distracting cough. At work Alexander is all smiles until he hears the cough, and then suddenly he’s right up in Aaron’s space, all concern and questions about doctors. Aaron brushes him off, it’s fine. He doesn’t need Alexander being worried for him.
It honestly is all going fine, applications going out one by one, he’s on top of class assignments, and the senior thesis is on schedule. Maybe he’s not getting as much sleep as he should, working late, and then sometimes the cough waking him up at night, but it’s not a big deal.
Alexander doesn’t seem as sure, every shift they have together begins and ends with him telling Aaron to go see a doctor, and Aaron pointing out that doctors don’t need people with perfectly untreatable colds showing up. Alexander argues with that, but it’s so well worn by the second week of the semester that Aaron just waves him off and goes back to his work, trying to ignore Alexander watching him with lips pressed tight in concern. His food offerings start to come more frequently, and they’ve become liquid in nature, orange juice, and herbal tea mostly, although once it’s chicken soup. Aaron just rolls his eyes, and doesn’t admit that the warm tea soothes his throat.
The day Aaron turns in his last application is the day it all comes to a head. It’s a Saturday around 2:00 when he finishes. There haven’t been many people in the library today, a few more in the morning, but they started to clear out before lunch. Alexander had showed up a couple of hours ago, and was in theory studying, but in practice was mostly watching Aaron. And sure, today was not a great day. The cough was worse than it had been, and all day his chest had felt thick and crackly. Most annoyingly he was pretty sure he had a fever, which was making him achy and on edge. He’s ready to go back to his room and just sleep until Monday, when maybe he’ll concede the point and make an appointment at the student health center.
He’s gearing up for the long walk back to his off campus apartment, packing his computer away, and thinking grimly about the, no doubt, loud party his roommates are throwing tonight, when Alexander starts in on him about going to the health center again. Aaron huffs a sigh, and takes a deep breath to say something too sharp, and too irritated.
This turns out to be his mistake. The deep breath turns into a coughing fit, and it’s deeper and harder than the ones that have come before, and then suddenly something in his right side, shifts, or cracks, or something, and there’s an unbelievable pain that would have made his whole body freeze if he wasn’t still trying to get his breath, fighting against the waves of coughs which are now sharply painful.
There’s a hand reaching out to him, and relief breaks through the fear that is trying to overtake him, Alexander is still there, whatever’s going to happen, he won’t be alone. He finds himself holding onto Alexander’s hand, probably too tight, but it’s his only anchor as he tries to take small, even breaths.
He manages, finally, to get the coughing under control, and is just standing there trying to inhale shallowly, fighting the urge to start coughing again. He realizes he’s still holding Alexander’s hand, and looks up to meet his gaze, and oh. Alexander is terrified. He hadn’t realized, because the hand in his is steady and firm, but fear is all over Alexander’s face as he’s watching Aaron try to breathe, and Aaron wants to say something comforting, but can’t quite get enough breath to assure him yet.
Finally, he’s able to grind out, “I’m okay.”
Alexander looks incredulous, “Okay, that’s clearly untrue. We’re going to the health center.” He leans over to grab his bag, but doesn’t let go of Aaron’s hand.
“It’s Saturday,” Aaron points out.
This stops Alexander for a moment, but then “It’s fine. I’ve got it.” Alexander herds him slowly to the elevator, and out of the library, sitting him on a bench while he orders an Uber. “We’re going to the ER.”
Aaron would argue, but his side is on fire, the cold air making it worse, and the small breaths don’t give him much air to complain with, so he just nods. Alexander seems torn between terrified at Aaron’s easy acquiescence, and relief that medical professionals will soon be involved.
When the Uber shows up Alexander first bundles Aaron carefully in the back, then himself, meticulously arranging their backpacks as if trying to hide how closely he’s watching Aaron. Aaron can’t worry about it though, he just leans against the window and focuses on his breathing, and bracing himself against the bumps in the road.
At the ER the admitting nurse listens to Aaron’s whispered explanation, but doesn’t seem concerned enough to move them up in the line. Instead she gives them a clipboard to start filling out and has them take a seat. Alexander sits right next to Aaron, his arm pressed warmly along Aaron’s side. Aaron can sense Alexander looking at him, but he’s too focused on the pain, and the fear that wants to take over and quicken his breath to meet Alexander’s gaze, and after a minute Alexander starts talking in a low voice. Not his prefered rants and arguments, just nothing gossip about various people on campus, discussions of classes he’s in that he knows Aaron took previously, empty soothing talk that helps to loosen the tension in Aaron’s shoulders.
Finally, they get called into an exam room. Alexander doesn’t seem to have any plan to leave Aaron anytime soon, which is more comforting than Aaron would admit. Alexander awkwardly steps out in the hall when they ask Aaron to change his shirt to the flimsy gown, but as soon as Aaron is settled in the bed he’s back hovering by Aaron’s side.
A doctor comes in and asks questions, and listens to Aaron’s chest before ordering a chest x-ray. Alexander sits small in the exam room as they wheel Aaron away.
The process of taking the x-rays is quick, although involving some awkward positions that briefly send Aaron off into another coughing fit, but afterward the doctor doesn’t come back for awhile and Aaron starts to drift in and out, propped up on pillows, in too much pain to really sleep, but tired and unfocused. Every time he resurfaces Alexander is there, texting on his phone, or smiling reassuringly at Aaron. Once Aaron doesn’t see him at first, but before he can do more than start to lift his head he realizes that Alexander is in the hall having a quiet argument with someone on his phone. Aaron drifts off, sure Alexander will be gone when he wakes, but when he does Alexander is still sitting by his side, looking tired.
It’s not long after that that the doctor bustles back in to tell him that he has walking pneumonia, which should clear up with a course of antibiotics, rest, and fluids. She gives him a prescription, suggests tylenol for the pain, and tells him to come back if it hasn’t begun to clear up after the full course of antibiotics. Aaron is just relieved to have a straightforward solution, but Alexander has a series of follow up questions, which Aaron just lets wash past him.
After signing forms, and a visit to the hospital pharmacy Alexander insists on getting another Uber. While they’re waiting for it, Alexander wants to know if someone at Aaron’s can look in on him.
Aaron starts to insist that he doesn’t need a sitter, when he pauses, suddenly hit by the terrible recollection of the party. He checks the time. Shit. They’re going to be well into the pregaming and loud music portion of the night.
His pause was too long and Alexander needles him until he tiredly admits the party. This gives Alexander pause, and he stares at Aaron for a long minute worrying his lip with his teeth before he says, “You can come back to my place. At least it will be quiet.”
Aaron shakes his head, “I’m not going to do that. What about your roommate?”
“He’s out tonight,” Alexander says with a hint of triumph.
Aaron starts to insist that he’s fine, but another fit of coughing hits him, and by the time he’s regained his equilibrium they’re in the back of the Uber, and the driver is staring at him in the mirror with extreme suspicion. Aaron ignores him, feeling shakier and more tired than ever, and isn’t at all surprised when they pull up in front of Alexander’s dorm rather than Aaron’s apartment.
On the short trip through the dorm to Alexander’s room, Alexander is greeted by at least eight people, most of whom have that happy, blurry weekend drunk look about them. Upon arriving at the room Aaron is relieved to see that Hercules truly isn’t there. Alexander darts around the room, making Aaron take his first dose of antibiotics and tylenol, handing him some sleep pants, and telling him to take the bed on the left, before stepping out into the hall.
Aaron changes with shaky hands, leaving his pants in a pile on the floor. He crawls into the bed, which smells like Alexander to a degree that would torment him almost any other day, but today he just finds comforting. For a minute, wrapped in the blankets, he feels warm and safe, but almost as soon as he has that feeling he starts to shiver. Suddenly it feels like he just can’t get warm, the chill in his bones turning the shivering into shaking, so violent his arms start to feel like they’re cramping up from how tightly he’s turned in on himself. His teeth are chattering, and any moment now he’s going to tip over into a coughing fit.
He endures it for what feels like ages, but is probably only a few minutes, trying to keep his breathing even, until the door swings open and Alexander is back, balancing cartoons of soup from the cafeteria downstairs. He takes in Aaron’s huddled, shivering form in one glance, and hastily sets the soup down on the closest desk, which is piled high with papers and books, clearly his own. He moves to Aaron’s side, reaching out as if to touch, but stopping before making contact, “Cold?”
Aaron nods jerkily, the muscles tight in his shoulders.
“Okay, hang on,” Alexander says, already turning away. Aaron lets his eyes fall shut, but feels Alexander pile one, then two, then three extra blankets on him.
Aaron shifts into the extra warmth, but he’s still so cold. He hears Alexander moving around the room, but after a minute he comes back to Aaron’s side. He doesn’t ask anything this time, just considers Aaron for a moment silently, before brushing a hand along Aaron’s forehead gently. Aaron doesn’t know if he’s checking for a fever, or offering comfort, but without even meaning to he finds himself turning his face into the touch, seeking more of Alexander’s warmth.
“Okay,” Alexander says again, as if to himself this time. The hand withdraws, and Aaron tries not to feel too disappointed, but then a minute later the bed dips and Alexander is next to him, wrapping himself around Aaron, over the blankets, but bracing himself so that he’s barely touching Aaron. “Is this okay?”
Aaron doesn’t speak, instead he wrests his right hand out of the blankets and takes hold of Alexander’s left hand which is lying loosely over Aaron, and tugs. Alexander’s breath catches, but he lets himself be pulled down, and presses himself more firmly around Aaron. Aaron relaxes back into the contact, burrowing into the warmth and the strength of Alexander’s hold as the shivers continue to shake him. The shaking doesn’t immediately subside, but Alexander stubbornly holds him through it, until finally, finally it starts to fade and with it Aaron’s ability to stay awake. He drifts off to sleep in a haze of banked pain, and Alexander.
Aaron is still asleep the next morning when Hercules comes back, but he wakes with a start as the door opens. Hercules has the look of a man who has just rolled out of someone else’s bed after an enjoyable night, and he’s smiling wide, perhaps on the verge of sharing awkward details when he notices that Alexander isn’t alone. “Oh, sorry man,” he says starting to back out, and then stops doing a double take at either Aaron, or the way that Alexander is springing up from the bed to follow him out the door.
“Go back to sleep if you want,” Alexander says, pushing Hercules out, and closing the door.
Aaron slowly sits up, a wave of dizziness coming and going as he adjusts to being upright. Now that he’s awake he has to go. Staying here was a bad idea, and he can’t compound it by pretending it wasn’t. He carefully changes back into his jeans, trying to ignore the soft argument taking place outside the door. He’s not sure what there is to argue about, Alexander must bring people back to the room often enough, but he’s not going to stay and cause more trouble.
He’s lacing up his shoes when Alexander and Hercules come back into the room. Unsurprisingly Alexander has won the argument. “Hey man, I hear you’re under the weather, feel free to hang out here. I’m gonna…” Hercules points with a thumb toward the hall and then gathers up a towel and a shower caddy, waving a sloppy salute on his way out the door.
Alexander gestures to Aaron’s shoes, now fully laced, “You don’t have to go. At least eat some breakfast.”
Aaron shakes his head, “No, I’m going to head home.” He pauses, fiddling with the cuffs of his sweatshirt, “Thank you.”
Alexander brushes that aside, “Then at least let me walk with you.”
Aaron shakes his head again, this has gone far enough. “You’ve done plenty,” he says firmly.
Alexander stoops to pick up Aaron’s backpack, “No, it’s fine. I could use a walk anyway.”
“Come on, it’s not a big deal, it’s what friends do.”
And maybe Aaron should just let that go, but he’s exhausted just thinking about the walk, and now that Alexander is holding the backpack he realizes that Alexander’s been carrying it since yesterday, and somehow that just makes him feel worse, trapped by Alexander’s kindness. Aaron doesn’t rely on other people, not since his parents died, and he’s not going to start to rely on Alexander who is constantly moving from one idea, and one person to the next. Not when he can still remember the strength and warmth of Alexander’s arms around him. So Aaron does something he shouldn’t, he presses right into one of those open vulnerabilities that Alexander has been showing him since day one, “I’m not your friend.”
The words themselves are stark and harsh, but Aaron thinks it might be more the ring of absolute truth they have that makes Alexander fall back a step, the smile gone from his face, and his eyes hurt.
Aaron takes the backpack from Alexander’s slack grip. He wants to say thank you again, but he knows if he opens his mouth all that will come out is I’m sorry, and he’s not going to do that, so he just leaves.
When he gets outside the dorm, he stops for a minute. He can’t quite catch his breath. He tells himself it’s the pneumonia. He doesn’t believe it.
Finally he slips the backpack on his shoulders and begins the long walk to his apartment. It seems to take forever. He keeps having to stop at benches to gather himself for the next few feet. When he gets to the apartment his roommates are still asleep, as are a few random people in the living room. He ignores them, gathering two boxes of cereal and some water. Then he collapses into bed, covered in a cold sweat, waiting for the room to stop spinning. Once it does he changes, crawls under the covers, and eats a meal of dry cereal before falling asleep.
The rest of the day is pretty much just a cycle of cereal, sleep, and coughing, punctuated by pills. Monday turns out to be just the same, he hates to skip class, but the idea of getting out of bed and going to class seems impossible. However, by Monday night he feels more on track, and on Tuesday he resumes his normal schedule. No one seems to have noticed his absence.
Aaron slowly recovers. He schedules more time to walk places, and takes elevators when he can, but in a few weeks he feels like he’s back to his old self, physically at least. He should feel fine, but instead he feels off kilter all the time, as if something fundamental is gone, changing his balance in the world. He doesn’t see why that should be. It’s true that Alexander no longer seeks him out at the library with offerings of food, and stolen moments of shared humor. It’s true that their shared shifts for Washington are silent in a way they’ve never been, even when they mostly argued. But, Aaron was fine for years before Alexander, and just because he’s lost whatever connection they had doesn’t mean he shouldn’t still be fine.
Aaron tries not to think about it, instead focusing on his final semester of school, and, most importantly, checking his e-mail every two minutes to see if he’s heard back from any law schools. This is a pretty all consuming distraction, and he’s almost able to ignore the strange silence of his work shifts.
However, it turns out that Washington has noticed. He in particular notices when it emerges that Aaron thought that Alexander was doing the summaries needed for Washington’s grant proposal, and Alexander thought that Aaron was doing them. In fact, they aren’t done, and the grant is due in two days.
Washington is wearing a disappointed expression, which reminds Aaron guiltily of his parents, “I don’t know how it is, but you two worked better together when you were arguing.” Alexander is looking at the floor, hands pulling nervously at the edges of his sleeves. Washington asks if they have any papers or tests due tomorrow and when they don’t he says, “Here’s what we’re going to do. You two will finish this up tonight. Whatever extra hours you go over, you’ll skip next week. I expect two things by tomorrow morning. One, that you’ll have this project done like you were supposed to. And two, that you’ll get past whatever it is that caused this in the first place. Does that sound acceptable?”
They both agree, somewhat sheepishly. After Washington leaves, Aaron considers the issue. “This is going to take a while.”
“What if we take all this back to my place, and then we can order a pizza or something for dinner, and spread out. I have my own room, so my roommates won’t be a problem.”
Alexander looks suspicious, “Why?”
It’s Aaron’s turn to shrug, “I just think it will be easiest that way. And then when Doctor Washington asks if we’ve bonded or whatever, we can say we have.”
Alexander still looks somewhat suspicious, of what Aaron isn’t quite sure, but nods, turning to gather up the articles and books that they need.
It actually goes pretty well. It’s a lot of work, but they manage to be civil and coordinate in a fairly effective way. The pizza keeps them going, and maybe by the end they are a little more comfortable around one another, Alexander losing some of the pinched tension he’s had since Aaron- since recently.
Even so, it’s a little bit after one in the morning by the time Alexander is typing up the e-mail to Washington with the completed document attached. Aaron is lying crosswise on his bed watching him, before remembering there’s still some cold pizza left. He leans off the bed to retrieve the box from the floor and offers it to Alexander. Alexander clambers on the other end of the bed and takes one slice, and Aaron takes the last one, tossing the closed box back on the floor. They lay there sleepily finishing the pizza in silence before Aaron remembers that he hasn’t checked his e-mail in nearly six hours.
He fishes his phone out of his pocket and flips through the new e-mail. He’s not really expecting it to be now, but there it is, an e-mail from Harvard Law. He freezes for a minute, and then opens it, reading through it as fast as he can, and then again slower, and then once more. He looks up and realizes that at some point he’s sat bolt upright, and that Alexander is watching him in the dim light of the desk lamp, worry written all over his face.
Aaron feels like his whole body is thrumming with energy, he can’t imagine that he was tired a moment ago. A laugh is bubbling up in his throat, he drops the phone, who knows where. Alexander is pushing himself into a sitting position too, opening his mouth, when Aaron grabs his shoulders, stopping the question, “I got in!”
Something relaxes in Alexander’s face, but he still looks confused, “Where?”
“Harvard law. My number one choice. It’s a good funding package, I can actually go.”
A smile breaks across Alexander’s face, open and genuine, “That’s wonderful!” And then he’s pulling Aaron in for a hug.
Aaron doesn’t even hesitate, sliding his arms around Alexander in return. Having something he’s always wanted in Harvard has made him for a giddy moment think that maybe he can have this too.
He holds on for what is probably too long, because eventually Alexander is the one to pull away. He stops, still so close, just far enough to look into Aaron’s face, puzzled, and Aaron still wants, wants even more than this. He brings one hand up to Alexander’s shoulder and then, carefully further, still watching Alexander’s face he brushes a thumb just under Alexander’s mouth, not quite touching his lip. Alexander’s eyes widen, surprised, but not...not, Aaron thinks, displeased. “Can I,” Aaron asks.
Alexander’s eyes dart to Aaron’s mouth, and then back to meet his gaze, “I didn’t think you slept with men?”
Aaron wonders what specifically gave him that impression, “I’m not out, but yeah.”
Alexander looks at him for a long moment, seeming to weigh something and then nods. Aaron’s not sure sure if that was a yes nod, or not, but maybe it wasn’t because then Alexander says, “Do you want to?”
Aaron huffs a small laugh, “I asked you, of course I do. Do you want to?”
Something flickers over Alexander’s face at that, maybe surprise, but it melts quickly into a sort of rueful expression, “You must be joking. You have to be the only person on campus that hasn’t noticed that I want you.”
Now Aaron must be the one looking surprised, because he is. He’s trying to think back to any specific moment that would have made that clear, but Alexander’s laughing and he leans into Aaron, still laughing a bit as he presses his lips gently to Aaron’s. All other thoughts flee Aaron’s mind as he cups Alexander’s face, surging into the kiss.
It just as good as he always thought it would be. Alexander is a wonderful kisser, and the moment stretches on and on, Aaron’s thumb brushing along the edge of Alexander’s jaw and up to trace the hairline at his temple. Alexander meanwhile has pushed his hands under Aaron’s shirt holding onto his waist with one hand, while the other slides up his back.
They have to stop for breath, and Aaron takes advantage of the moment to lay back into the bed, stopping only to pull his cellphone out from under himself and toss it towards the desk. Alexander smiles, now kneeling in between Aaron’s legs. He reaches back and pulls out the hairband holding his hair up, and then drapes himself over Aaron, starting the kiss up again.
Aaron eagerly threads his fingers through Alexander’s hair, and revels in the feeling of Alexander pressed all along his body, chest to chest, and as Alexander shifts slightly, oh, cock to cock. They’re both hard and that momentary contact makes Aaron’s hips jump. Alexander smiles into his mouth, and then leans back pulling off his shirt. Aaron watches, mesmerized for a moment by the dark hair on Alexander’s chest and stomach. He traces up Alexander’s hand, dragging his fingers through the hair on the back of his arm, and then over to his chest, feeling the muscle there, and thumbing across his nipples. He leans up and presses a kiss into the spot over Alexander’s heart, and pressing his cheek into the hair there.
Alexander tilts Aaron’s face up and then they are kissing and kissing and kissing. Alexander works Aaron’s shirt up, breaking them apart long enough to pull it off, and then dives back into the kiss, pushing Aaron down into the bed and grinding their cocks together through the layers of clothes.
Aaron is almost unbearably turned on, touching every part of Alexander he can reach in turn. Finally, panting Alexander breaks them apart, “Pants.”
They both hastily work their way out of their pants and underwear, and then Alexander pushes Aaron back into the bed, kneeling again between his legs not touching, just looking at Aaron slowly up and down. Aaron makes a noise of frustration and reaches for him, but Alexander stops him with a smirk and a shake of his head.
Aaron reluctantly pulls his hand back, and then hitches a breath as Alexander leans forward grasping Aaron’s hips. Alexander pauses there for a minute, only touching him at the hips, and then slowly, almost too slowly, brings his hands up Aaron’s sides, stopping to press his thumbs deliberately over Aaron’s nipples before continuing up to the undersides of his arms. Once there he pushes, not forcing Aaron to do anything, but suggesting, and Aaron lets his arms follow Alexander’s suggestion up over his head. Alexander continues to smooth his hands up the undersides of Aaron’s arms, along the soft skin at the wrists until he’s reached Aaron’s hands, lacing their fingers together, and pinning Aaron’s arms over his head.
He pauses there, “Okay?”
Aaron nods, “Yes. Very okay.”
Alexander smiles again, and then leans in for another kiss, this one slow and a little sloppy. Then he’s letting his body settle on top of Aaron’s again, aligning them just so, grinding into Aaron and letting Aaron grind into him. Aaron thrusts up, chasing the friction he needs. With his hands pinned up above his head Aaron can’t quite get enough purchase and it’s driving him wild. The kiss becomes faster and sloppier, until Alexander pulls back, letting Aaron’s hands go. “Like this?” Alexander asks, thrusting once against Aaron.
“Yes,” gasps Aaron, pushing back.
Alexander moans and then reaches down, pulling them more firmly together. Aaron, his arms free now, does the same, and then they are grinding, grinding together. It’s sweaty, and slippery, and Aaron loves it, loves being covered in Alexander as tightly as he can. Alexander is kissing his throat, but within a few seconds he’s just panting into the crook of Aaron’s neck, and Aaron is breathing open mouthed into his skin as well, and then Aaron can feel his orgasm building. He’s holding Alexander’s hips tight, and rutting up, up, and then it breaks over him with a groan, and he’s riding it out surrounded by Alexander.
When he opens his eyes, Alexander is still over him, still hard. He tightens his grip on Alexander, and stretches up, kissing Alexander’s neck, up to his ear, where he whispers, “Come on, for me.” Alexander’s breath hitches, and then he’s thrusting against Aaron, once, twice more and he’s coming with a warm rush against Aaron’s stomach, collapsing on top of him, their come mixing together in between them.
They lay together for a few moments, just panting, Aaron smoothing a hand up and down Alexander’s back. Alexander eventually props himself up so they can look at one another, stopping to drop a kiss on Aaron’s shoulder, “Okay?”
“Very okay,” Aaron says and then, unable to help himself leans forward to kiss Alexander once more. Alexander kisses him back, a tension going out of him that Aaron hadn’t even known was there until it was gone.
Aaron ends the kiss, and then places one more at Alexander’s temple before getting up to find something to clean up with. He finds a washcloth and a bottle of water, thanking the universe that he doesn’t have to try to sneak out past the gauntlet of roommates, and they take turns cleaning up as best as they can.
Alexander is yawning, but reaching towards his clothes. Aaron feels his stomach drop, but maybe…”You can stay here if you want.”
Alexander pauses, not looking at him, “Yeah?”
A rush of relief, “Yeah, of course.”
Alexander drops the shirt, and crawls into the bed, clearly exhausted. Aaron turns off the light and slides in next to him. There’s a moment of awkward adjustment, and then Alexander is pressed along Aaron’s back, just like that night weeks ago, although now instead of cold and pained, Aaron feels warm and content. As he’s dropping off to sleep he feels as much as hears Alexander’s soft, “Night” whispered into the back of his neck. He tries to respond, but he’s already drifting off and all that comes out is a soft, “mm.”
The next morning when Aaron wakes, Alexander is already awake, propped up on one arm and watching him. Aaron’s heart momentarily jumps happily at seeing him still there, before dropping, realizing that this is probably the last time he gets to see this. If he thought that he would want Alexander less after having him once he was very wrong, because all he wants to do now is bury himself further in Alexander, to have him again, to keep him forever. Instead Aaron excuses himself for the the bathroom. After he washes his hands he stares at himself in the mirror for a long moment, trying to push all of those thoughts back. When he returns he’s able to smile at Alexander, and simply say “Good morning.”
Alexander smiles hesitantly back, and then seems to be building up to saying something. He’s opening his mouth, and who knows what he’s going to say, but Aaron can’t imagine it’s anything he wants to hear. He cuts him off by reaching over and brushing a strand of hair behind Alexander’s ear, and then, going with what worked, he brushes a thumb along Alexander’s mouth, this time over his lips, “Can I?”
Alexander’s gaze darkens. “Yes,” he says, firm.
Aaron holds his gaze and swipes his thumb over his lips again, harder this time, pressing slightly into Alexander’s mouth and coming away wet with spit.
Alexander seems to take this as a suggestion because he gives Aaron possibly the best blowjob he’s ever received, and then Aaron returns the favor to the best of his ability.
Afterward, they lay together kissing lazily until hunger becomes too much, and Aaron goes out in search of food, returning with a box of poptarts which they eat sitting in bed, legs tangled together, checking e-mail. Washington seems satisfied with their work for the grant, and says that since they’ve used their hours for this week he doesn’t expect to see them until next week.
After the poptarts are gone, Aaron can feel the end of this creeping up on him again, but he’s willing to admit that at some point they’re both going to have to leave this room. He does have class this afternoon. He finds an extra towel and offers it to Alexander, telling him that he can take a shower if he wants. Alexander seems about to say something again, looking from the towel to Aaron’s face, and back. He lets out a long breath, and seems to change track, pulling the towel, and then Aaron into him, “Why don’t you join me?”
As Alexander is packing up his computer, he seems to come to some decision, “Do you think you’d want to do this again?” He focuses on zipping the power cord into his backpack, “You know, with me.”
Aaron feels his heart leap, to be more than a once? “I would like that.”
Alexander looks over, computer forgotten, “Yeah?”
Alexander smiles, that brightness back, filling the room. “Okay, great. Let’s do that.”
Aaron laughs, and repeats, “Great.”
On his way out Alexander presses Aaron up against the wall for one final kiss, and Aaron hooks two fingers into the waistband of Alexander’s jeans, pulling him close for a long minute before Alexander has to rush off to class.
It turns out Alexander meant, would you like to do it again tonight, and then the next day, and for a week they spend a lot of time in Aaron’s room getting to know each other.
When they return to work at Washington’s office he scrutinizes them for a minute before seeming satisfied with whatever he sees. Their working style returns to old form, arguing over how to do everything, but there’s something both perfunctory and fond about the disagreements now.
For a little over a week everything is wonderful. Aaron is having more sex than he’s had in a long time, he’s going to get to go to Harvard law school, his sheets constantly smell like Alexander, and he’s becoming more familiar than he ever hoped with Alexander’s quiet, intimate smiles. Then on his way to class he sees Alexander the way he always used to see Alexander on campus, flirting with someone that Aaron doesn’t recognize. She’s looking up at Alexander from beneath her eyelashes, truly an expert move since she’s at least an inch taller than him. Alexander is smiling his wide, bright smile at her, and as Aaron watches he reaches forward to grasp her shoulder and whisper something in her ear. She laughs, her chest accidently on purpose grazing the inside of Alexander’s arm.
Aaron has to look away at that point. He forces himself to continue on to class, to listen to the lecture, and to take careful notes. He doesn’t think about whoever Alexander was flirting with. He doesn’t think about how he’s always known that Alexander was too much to be tied to any one person. He doesn’t think about how he’s always known that he couldn’t be enough for Alexander, and how he isn’t a big enough person to just accept being one of Alexander’s many. He doesn’t think about these things because they don’t matter. Nothing has changed.
That night Alexander shows up at Aaron’s apartment. His roommates let him in, more than familiar with him at this point. Aaron hadn’t really expected him, a part of his mind sure that Alexander would be spending tonight with the woman from earlier, but here he is at Aaron’s door, while Aaron is sitting in bed, already in his pajamas and surrounded by textbooks, and class notes. Alexander smiles fondly at him, leaning over the pile of notes to kiss him.
Aaron doesn’t immediately lean into the kiss like he has been, and after a few seconds Alexander pulls back, “What’s wrong?”
The moment seems to spiral into something much longer than it really is as Aaron considers his options. He considers the idea that this is his chance, he can get out now, say he can’t do this before Alexander’s easy affection can destroy him. But. He can’t. This isn’t that moment, that moment has passed. Aaron isn’t even sure when it was, but it was almost certainly long passed by the time they first kissed. All he can do now is to hold on for as long as he can. For as long as he can be with Alexander without dragging him down, Aaron wants this. So he pulls a smile onto his face, and says, “Nothing.” He presses a quick kiss on Alexander’s lips.
“Just let me finish this outline.”
Alexander watches him a moment longer, before seeming satisfied, worried line smoothing out from between his eyebrows, “No problem. I’ve got to do some reading anyway.”
Aaron smiles again, clearing him a spot on the bed. They work together in silence, Aaron ignoring the churning in his stomach. Afterward they have sex, and Aaron can almost believe that this is everything he wants.
They continue this pattern for the rest of the semester. As graduation approaches Alexander seems to get quieter. Aaron doesn’t ask why because he’s sure that Alexander is just working on the right way to say that this is over. Finally one night, as they’re lying together in the dark, in theory trying to sleep, Alexander says, “Harvard, huh.”
“Harvard,” Aaron agrees, trying not to think about where this is going.
“You know,” Alexander says, “I’ve been thinking about getting a car.”
Aaron’s heart seems to skip a beat, does he mean? “A car.”
“Yeah. I mean Harvard isn’t that far if you have a car.”
Aaron wants to be sure, “Cars are expensive.”
“I’ve got some extra money coming in with that writing prize I won,” Alexander says dismissively, and then, “And you could always help with gas. I mean if- if you wanted.”
Aaron’s heart is making up for that skipped beat by pounding double time, “I want to.”
“Yeah?” Alexander sounds like he’s smiling.
“Yeah.” Aaron finds Alexander’s lips in the darkness and kisses him, “Yeah.”
After graduation Aaron spends the summer working for Washington one last time, saving up money, and saving up time with Alexander. Just like the previous summer there are few people on campus, and they spend most of the time Aaron isn’t working, and Alexander isn’t in class holed up in Aaron’s apartment, having sex, arguing about issues great and small, laughing, and just existing together. They spend too much time together for even Aaron to think that Alexander is seeking someone else out, and, even knowing that this is going to end soon, it’s probably the happiest time of Aaron’s adult life so far.
However, fall comes eventually. Alexander helps Aaron pack up his belongings, which fit easily in the small hatchback that Alexander bought, and then drives them to Harvard. The roadtrip is melancholy, both of them aware that things are about to change irrevocably, even with visits already planned. Alexander helps Aaron move into his new grad dorm, and then helps him christen the bed. When Alexander has to leave, Aaron sees him to his car, watching it drive off until he can’t see it anymore, and then watching the spot where it disappeared for another minute. He goes back to his room, looks at the books that Alexander carefully arranged (“Topic, then author!”), and sits on the edge of his bed, trying to keep his breath steady.
Law school is just as much work and stress as everyone promised, but Aaron is still thrilled to be here, to be making strides towards his dreams. There are some nice things about law school too. First, his single dorm, and equally stressed neighbors make a nice change from the party happy roommates he’s had for the last two years. Secondly, he’s somehow been adopted into a study group of fellow first years. Marissa, undeniably the group leader, had collected him along with four other students she decided were worth her trouble. They’re all smart, and studying with them makes the heavy workload much more tolerable. Additionally, they can be fun during the breaks in studying. Marissa and Naveen take great joy in debating everything, which reminds Aaron bittersweetly of Alexander. So Yeon is the social coordinator of the group, and thanks to her they occasionally do things other than study and sleep. From a certain perspective law school is going well.
Of course the drawback is how little Aaron gets to see Alexander. He comes up on weekends when he can, but it’s not easy because he’s just as busy as Aaron, if not more so. Alexander being Alexander, he’s blazed through college, and is planning on graduating this year, so not only is he taking a heavy load of courses, but he’s studying for his own LSATs, finishing his senior thesis, and working on his own law school applications.
When he’s there they tend to spend the whole time locked away in Aaron’s room. The sex is frantic and wonderful, neither of them seem to be able to get enough of each other. Aaron thinks he feels most alive when he has Alexander pinning him down, skin on skin. In between orgasms they spend the weekends studying, pressed up against each other as they work on their separate projects, and talking about everything that’s happened since they saw each other last, even the things they’ve already talked about over the phone, just to hear one another.
Every time they have to say goodbye Aaron worries it will be the last time. When Alexander isn’t there Aaron’s mind wants to turn to all the people Alexander’s probably meeting back at Princeton. He tells himself it’s not his business, that Alexander has every right to do what he wants. Since this is true, it almost keeps the thoughts at bay.
The truly terrible thoughts, the ones that really haunt him on the nights that Alexander isn’t there, and law school hasn’t driven him to exhausted sleep, are the what ifs. What if Alexander felt just like Aaron, and what if he came to Harvard for law school, and what if they spent the rest of their lives together? They could be successful, Aaron would find a good job, and make enough to keep them comfortable, and Alexander could get down to the business of trying to change the world. They could live in New York, or DC, somewhere where Alexander would be able to argue all the most powerful people into submission. He imagines how terrible Alexander would be at every work function, starting fights about religion and politics, and accidentally flirting with the boss's wife, and how proud Aaron would be to have him by his side. What if they adopted a child, someone like them, without parents to care for them? He can’t bring himself to think directly about Alexander with a child, how he’d no doubt treat them like a tiny adult, and raise them to always fight for what they believe, but when he’s very weak he imagines growing old with Alexander. He tries to imagine what Alexander will look like as he ages. Smile lines around his eyes, maybe a wrinkle between his brows? His stomach soft? Hair graying? These are the thoughts that leave Aaron with an ache in his chest in the middle of the night, all the things he’ll never have, but can’t help wanting.
Over Christmas break Alexander comes up, and they get to spend over a week together. Harvard is almost as dead during the holidays as Princeton, but they go into Boston, exploring the history of the place, the parks, and the shops. It snows one of the days they’re in the city, and the snow over all those old buildings is a little bit like being trapped in some sort of picturesque snow globe. Alexander can’t help stopping to take photos, and Aaron sneaks a few photos of his own, of Alexander’s intense concentration up against the backdrop of white flurries.
On the night before Alexander has to drive back to Princeton he’s pensive as they lay in bed together, Aaron pressed into his side. He’s holding one of Aaron’s hands to his chest, tracing the fingers with one of his own. Finally he stops, and asks, “Do you ever think about coming out?”
Aaron didn’t expect this, and he hesitates trying to figure out what to say.
Alexander rushes to fill the silence, “It’s just that, I’ve never met anyone here, and you never really met my friends, and I just wondered what your long term plans are. I don’t mean to pressure you.”
Aaron can’t think of anything he’d like less than to be introduced to Alexander’s friends as one of his many lovers. Alexander clearly cares for him, but he’d cared for Laurens and Eliza too, and that didn’t stop them from getting hurt, and from the whole campus talking about it afterward. He doesn’t know quite how to say what he needs to say. “I would come out, if- if I was in a really committed, exclusive relationship. I mean, if I’m going to spend a future with someone, then obviously I would.”
Alexander is tense next to him, “We’ve never really talked about that. About being exclusive.”
Aaron feels sick, but he isn’t going to ask for something that will hurt Alexander to give or to deny. He keeps his voice even, “Well, that’s not really us, is it?”
“Right,” Alexander says, his voice tight, “Right.”
Aaron waits, but that was apparently all Alexander wanted to say. He’s still tense next to Aaron, and maybe he really wanted Aaron to come out, to meet his people. Aaron wishes he could give him that, but he’s going to be destroyed enough when this is over, without everyone knowing it forever afterward.
Alexander is still quiet when he leaves the next morning, and after Aaron walks Alexander to his car he climbs straight back into bed. He wraps himself in the sheets that smell of Alexander, and stays there until Marissa pounds on his door, insisting that they go to dinner. She studies him over the plates of cheap Chinese food, “You look terrible. You should have come home with me. Next time.”
Aaron just smiles weakly and nods. Next time he probably won’t have any reason not to.
All of January Alexander is busy finalizing applications, unable to visit. Aaron knows how packed this time is, and doesn’t read anything into his absence, but when February starts, and all the applications are in and Alexander still doesn’t visit, the dread starts to grow.
They still talk on the phone at least once a week, although these calls seem to be getting shorter. Toward the end of February during one of these calls Alexander asks him, “If I got into Harvard, would you want me to come?”
Yes, Aaron thinks, yes, please. But he can’t cling to what’s not really his, “Of course I’d like that, but you have to decide what’s best for you. It’s a good school, but I thought Stanford was the best fit for what you want to do?”
There’s a pause, and then Alexander says, “Yeah.” It’s soft and maybe a bit hurt, but Aaron isn’t going to hold him back.
Alexander ends the phone call soon after that.
Alexander doesn’t visit for the rest of the month and Aaron tries to stay focused on school. Marissa and the study group keep him busy outside of school, although Aaron is sure that he’s not very fun to be around right now, and Marissa pulls him aside once to let him know that if he ever needs to talk about something she’s available.
But Aaron doesn’t need to talk, he just needs to focus on moving forward, which is more or less working until the Friday he comes back from class and finds Alexander sitting on the floor outside Aaron’s door. His heart thuds in his chest, “Alexander! Did you call me?”
He’s pulling out his phone to see if he’s missed something, when Alexander answers, “No.”
Aaron studies Alexander’s face. Something’s wrong, Alexander is pale and tense. “Okay,” Aaron says slowly, and unlocks the door to let them both in. Aaron puts his bag down, and hangs up his coat, watching Alexander out of the corner of his eye. Normally they would have kissed by now, but something about Alexander’s body language says stay away, and so Aaron keeps his distance.
Alexander turns towards Aaron, and then away, and then back before seeming to decide something and marching to the bed. He sits at the foot and gestures for Aaron to sit as well, which Aaron does still watching Alexander, unsure, wary about what’s happening. He waits for Alexander to say his piece, but instead Alexander just pulls out a stack of papers and thrusts them at Aaron. Aaron waits for an explanation, but Alexander just pushes the papers towards Aaron impatiently, and Aaron slowly takes them.
They’re law school acceptance letters. It looks like Alexander got accepted everywhere he applied, and Aaron is torn between fierce pride and sadness. His hand trembles just slightly as he gets to the Stanford letter, and maybe a bit more as he finds the Harvard letter. There are so many wonderful opportunities in here, and this must be the moment he’s been dreading for a year. His chest is tight, but he’s been mentally preparing for this moment since the very first kiss, so he schools his face into a smile and says, “Congratulations. This is amazing.”
Alexander’s face falls. He looks down at the floor for a long moment, and back up. He watches Aaron for a second longer, and Aaron is aching, but manages to keep his face happy and proud. Alexander’s eyes are intent, his shoulders tense, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Aaron thought he was ready for this, thought he was braced, but it hits him hard in the chest, like someone’s punched him. For a moment he feels like he can’t catch his breath, his hands feel numb. He wants to just lie down, to hide, but Alexander is still watching him closely. Aaron can’t make himself smile, not to this, but he makes himself nod, jerky but clear.
Alexander’s face hardens, a look of determination taking over. He opens his mouth to say whatever horrible, final thing he has to say, but suddenly despite his resolve Aaron can’t hear it. He can’t hear what he was lacking, who Alexander found, none of it. He reaches forward, grabbing Alexander’s wrist, not tightly, just holding. He’s staring at where his hand is holding Alexander, unable to look at him anymore, but he can hear the surprised hitch in Alexander’s breath as whatever he was going to say is cut off.
Aaron has to say something, to explain that Alexander just needs to go, that he doesn’t need to tell Aaron why, but when he opens his mouth an awful ragged gasp comes out and he realizes, for the first time in years, that he’s on the verge of tears. This is even more awful than admitting he can’t bear to hear Alexander’s explanation, he can’t let Alexander see him cry. Panicked, he surges forward, burying his face in the crook of Alexander’s neck.
For a split second this seems like a solution, but then it becomes obvious that in fact this is a mistake. Alexander can’t see his face anymore, true, but now he can feel the uneven hitching of Aaron’s breath, ragged and clearly just on the edge of a sob. Alexander is frozen for a minute, but then he brings his arms up around Aaron, gathering them together for what is surely the final time, and that’s the last straw, Aaron is crying in earnest and the collar of Alexander’s sweatshirt is getting wet, something else he must be able to feel.
Once Aaron starts it’s like he can’t stop, even as much as he tries to be quiet, and muffle his gasps in Alexander’s neck. Alexander just holds him close, running one hand soothingly up and down Aaron’s back, and murmuring soft nonsense meant to comfort.
When Aaron finally runs out of tears he finds that they’re lying in the bed, Alexander propped up on his pillows, and Aaron still pressed into his side. The sun that had been setting when Aaron got home has fully disappeared, and no one has turned on the lights, leaving them in the darkness. It’s late, he should tell Alexander to leave, that’s what all of this about in the end, but Aaron can’t make himself let go of Alexander.
The minutes stretch on as they lay together in the dark. They’re so still they could be asleep, but neither of them bothers to pretend that’s what’s happening.
Finally Alexander speaks. His voice is soft in the darkness, but Aaron feels himself tensing anyway, braced for the words he’s been outracing for the past year. “I told you I can’t do this anymore because I can’t keep doing this when you don’t care for me and I-” He pauses. “When I care more for you. But,” Another break, seemingly unsure, “But, unless there’s something else going on in your life, that didn’t seem like the reaction of a man who doesn’t- who doesn’t care.”
Aaron doesn’t know what to say. He’s stuck on the gaps, what Alexander didn’t say. ‘And I-’ and I what? It seems impossible that Alexander could have been headed for something better than ‘care for you.’ In fact, ‘care for you’ is almost enough, and enough is for other people anyway. If the only reason is that Aaron’s getting left behind now is that he hasn’t been open enough, then he can bleed honesty for Alexander. He has to try if there’s a chance. He rolls to his back, staring at where the ceiling must be in the darkness, and takes a deep breath, “I’m in love with you.”
He can hear Alexander’s breath hitch, and then Alexander is struggling up, caught in the sheets, bumping into Aaron as he reaches over him to turn on the desk lamp.
Aaron blinks into the sudden pool of light illuminating the two of them in the black of the room. He focuses on Alexander who is kneeling over him, hair falling out of its band, and collar still damp. Aaron can’t read his face as he asks, “What?”
Aaron looks into the eyes he loves so much, and feels a sort of peace as he says again what he’s been trying not to say for far too long, “I’m in love with you.”
Alexander is still staring, his eyes darting over and over Aaron’s face as if trying to read the truth of what he’s just said. Aaron tries to let his face show what he feels, but he feels out of practice, or maybe he was never in practice with this sort of openness.
Whatever shows on Aaron’s face must satisfy Alexander because a smile seems to be starting to break over his face, and Aaron’s heart seems to rise in his chest, only to quickly fall again when the smile flickers out before it’s really formed.
“Okay,” Alexander says, which on the scale of satisfying responses to love confessions is pretty low on the list. “Okay, but when we talked about this before you said you couldn’t really see us being committed, or spending a future together. Is that still what you feel?”
“What?” Aaron says, sharp and surprised, pushing himself up into a sitting position. Alexander falls back, sitting on his heels, still watching Aaron so closely as Aaron tries to remember what he said. “I said- I meant-” he pulls a deep breath, and then, honest, “I didn’t think you wanted that. I wasn’t going to...” He trails off.
“What if I did want that?” Alexander asks voice soft, but gaze sharp.
“Then I want it too. I want- I want whatever you want to give.”
Alexander’s gaze darts away, and then back, just as intense as before, “What if I wanted to be exclusive, would you want that?”
“I didn’t think you would want that. I don’t want to-” Under Alexander’s watchful gaze he falters, but he owes Alexander honesty and clarity at this point, he can see that much, “I didn’t think that was something you would want, but it’s- I haven’t been with anyone else since the first time. I don’t plan to be.” That’s as clear as he can be.
Alexander’s intense gaze shifts into surprise, “I didn’t know. I thought that after what you said- Shit.” He takes a deep breath, “I hadn’t been, but after that conversation there were a couple of people. I- I was trying to move on I guess.” He laughs ruefully, “It really didn’t work.”
Aaron nods, that hurts a little, but he was the one who said they shouldn’t be exclusive, so he can hardly fault Alexander now.
Alexander’s talking again, “If we’re- I would like going forward if we were exclusive. That is, if it’s something you’d like too.”
Aaron nods again, he wants to kiss Alexander, but Alexander seems to have another point on his openness itinerary, “When we had that talk, you said that if you were in a committed relationship, with a future that you’d think about coming out. I’m not saying it has to be now, but is that something you’d consider for us?”
Aaron can’t stand it, he reaches forward and grabs one of Alexander’s hands, holding it tightly in his own, “Alexander, if this is happening I want to tell everyone. I want to tell my study group. I want you to tell your friends. I want to bring you to departmental mixers and watch you accidentally insult some stuffy professor, I want all of that.”
Alexander’s eyes are shining, and the smile has finally broken free, that open vulnerability back, making Aaron realize that he’d managed to cause Alexander to shutter it. Alexander pushes forward, and Aaron finds himself wrapped in a hug so tight it almost hurts. He hugs back, just as fiercely, and then he hears Alexander, right against his neck, “Hey, I’m in love with you too,” and he’s pushing out of the hug, he has to see Alexander’s face.
Alexander’s eyes are warm, and shining with love. Aaron leans his forehead against Alexander’s just breathing there for a minute, eyes closed, soaking it in. Alexander is cupping Aaron’s face, thumbs brushing along his jaw, “Hey.” Aaron opens his eyes and draws back enough to see him again, “Screw Stanford, I’m coming here next year.”
A small laugh, thick with tears, happy this time, escapes Aaron, “Yeah?”
And then they are kissing, and laughing together even though it makes it difficult to continue the kiss. The smiles stay, even as they move to strip each other out of their clothes. Alexander takes Aaron apart with his wonderful hands, and as he’s doing it he whispers all the things that they are going to do next year, together at Harvard. Aaron tips over the edge somewhere in a the middle of a mundane description of studying at the library, which is somehow rendered erotic by Alexander’s voice. After Aaron has returned the orgasm, if not the literary flights of fancy, they fall asleep wound around one another, hands laced together like a promise.
In the morning they have another round of lazy sex, before they agree to meet for dinner after Aaron’s study group session.
During the study group he feels light, laughing at Erica’s jokes, and Naveen and Marissa’s bickering in a way he usually doesn’t. So Yeon seems interested in his good mood, and asks him if he wants to join her at a dance club in town, something he usually avoids. He opens his mouth to say that he’s busy, but then pauses, suddenly giddy with the realization that he can be much more specific than that, “I’m having dinner with my boyfriend.”
So Yeon seems taken aback, “Oh.” Aaron glances around, realizing the rest of the group seems surprised too.
Marissa pokes him in the arm, “A boyfriend seems like the sort of thing you’d mention to your friends.” She’s joking, but he thinks he sees real hurt in her eyes, and Aaron realizes that he’s been unobservant here as well, that even though he’s only thought of them as a study group, these people are his friends. He knows about Marissa’s ex, and James’s fiancee, and even, regretfully, about the threesome Erica had last week, so of course they would expect to know about his boyfriend.
“Yeah, we uh-” Aaron regroups, “I’ve been being stupid, but we worked things out last night.”
Marissa smiles, a little of the hurt fading from her gaze, although he’s sure he still owes her, and the rest of the group congratulates him on his lessening stupidity. They turn back to studying, and everyone seems the same except for So Yeon, who is a bit distant.
Later Marissa drags him along to get coffee for the group, and explains that So Yeon has been trying to get him to out with her for pretty much the last month, “This guy must be pretty special for you to not even notice that.” She’s laughing at him, but he agrees seriously that Alexander is special.
Later he texts Alexander to meet them at the library, and introduces him to the group. Everyone seems to like him, even So Yeon who seems to have moved past her disappointment unflatteringly, but reassuringly easily. Within five minutes Naveen and Alexander are passionately debating gun control, despite the fact that Aaron knows that they share pretty much the same position on the issue. He smiles fondly at the sight, which has Marissa laughing at him again, “I’m glad to see you looking so much happier. Next year is going to be very interesting with him around.”
He can’t help but agree.