A/N: I decided to write a continuation-ish type thing to Exit Stage Left. Parts of it are really really REALLY crappy, but then again, I really like other parts, so it gets posted. =) That's really all I have to say about this. And if you're so inclined, please review. Thanks!
In the winter, everything seems to be more peaceful, but it's just an illusion. The glistening, multi-faceted white coat that settles over the city is deceptively calm and quiet. Really, all it does is to heighten the stress of the harried public, slowing them down in their frenzied race from one useless place to another. They scrape ice from their car windows with red-knuckled hands, blowing out clouds of steamy breath and cursing Mother Nature's unwanted bounty. Then they hop into the vehicles and try to direct them down the slick streets with an abundance of honking and skidding. A few don't make it far before they get caught and are left behind, spinning their tires in a bank of snow, the exhaust pipe belching out grey smoke that stains the white powder. Some citizens, however, don't view the coming of winter with such dismay. These people – and Aidan is one of them – like to celebrate the season with twinkling lights and festive trees come the first of December. And at this very moment, he is doing just that.
Aidan throws the last of a string of green and red lights onto the bush outside his rental house. He hums Christmas carols to himself as he carefully arranges them, nestling each bulb into a twig or branch to ensure it won't move or blow away in the harsh storm winds that are sure to come along. Jeremy would have laughed at him for being so 'sappy', as he liked to call it. Jeremy didn't think that things like Christmas lights were important, and he would have hollered at Aidan to come inside and stop being so frivolous. But of course, that is the last thing Aidan has to worry about now.
After ages of being on his feet, Aidan trudges indoors and kicks off his wet boots in the mudroom. The warmth of the house immediately envelops him like a cozy blanket. He drops his coat, which is covered in a multitude of patterned icy crystals, and shuffles into the kitchen with a smile on his face. He can smell cooked apples and nutmeg even as he pauses in the doorway, and knows full well what those scents promise.
"Cider?" He smiles and without realizing it, puts a hand to his now growling tummy.
Porter lifts the spoon from the pot he's stirring and takes a taste. "It's not ready just yet. Let's give it a few more minutes."
Aidan obliges and retreats to gaze out the kitchen window. It overlooks the street, and sometimes he catches himself spending more time than he ought to gazing out at passers-by and cars. "The lights look nice," he says, feeling proud of his accomplishment. "You should come out and have a look afterward."
"I will," says Porter, and the wooden spoon stills for a moment as he gazes fondly at Aidan. "How long did it take you to string them up? It looks positively frigid out there."
"Not too long." In fact, he can't remember the actual number of minutes – or was it hours? "And I'm not all that cold, really. I've warmed up now that I'm inside."
"Poor darling. Your nose is all red. Lie down in the living room and I'll bring you something to drink."
Aidan laughs aloud. "You worry about me far too much. You know, I'm not made of tissue paper." Secretly, though, he appreciates Porter's concern and is happy to have someone to look after him. Jeremy was always far too wrapped up in his own business to give Aidan a fleeting thought. Once, when Aidan had been confined to his bed with the flu for a full week, Jeremy had actually accused him of faking the illness to gain attention. Only now does Aidan realize the irony of that statement.
"I just don't want you to be sick for Christmas, you ungrateful brute." Porter pretends to be hurt, but Aidan knows he's only playing. Aidan knows more about Porter than he'd thought it was possible to know about anyone.
"Okay, okay." After a pause, Aidan adds, "How about the cider?"
Having been reminded, Porter rushes back to the stove and pours the steaming amber liquid into two mugs. One is decorated with holly wreaths – the one he presents Aidan with – and the other is the same mug Porter always drinks out of. He had gotten it as a present almost five years earlier from one of his students. It's chipped at the edge and slightly worn from being cradled in Porter's hands, but the design is still clear. 'World's Best Teacher', it declares, accompanying a drawing of an apple with a smiling worm in it. Aidan has always found the picture slightly unappetizing, but he supposes that it is the type of gift that kindergarten-age children like to buy.
Porter and Aidan settle in on the living room couch together, fragrant drinks in hand. Porter pulls a furry knitted blanket over them as Aidan lets his head settle against Porter's shoulder.
"This is the best way to warm up," Aidan remarks.
Porter smiles and presses a kiss to his forehead. Aidan is reminded, yet again, of how opposite he is to Jeremy. Never did a gesture like that pass between them – unless they were before reporters or cameramen, and then Jeremy was all over him, fawning and holding hands and pecking him on the cheek. Aidan has never really understood the reasoning behind those actions, but he is content with his ignorance.
"I love you," Porter whispers. It's barely audible, a wisp of sweet breath against his ear. But it's enough, and the sentiment is loud and clear.
Aidan reaches for his hand beneath the blanket and finds it, lacing his sturdy fingers into Porter's slender ones. He has the hands of a piano player, Jeremy would most likely say. The hands of an artist or an ingénue. Certainly not the hands of someone who shows little children how to cut shapes out of paper and helps them learn their alphabet. Those are fingertips that appear never to have been covered in glue, palms that have never been touched with washable scented markers. Jeremy would probably consider Porter's position demeaning, so far beneath him that he would wince when speaking of it. But not Aidan…
"I love you, too." His tone is equally as soft and unobtrusive when he replies.
These were the type of things that Aidan never did with Jeremy. There was never a moment's peace where they could sit together beneath a blanket pulled fresh from the dryer and sip at soothing hot drinks. They were always off to some premiere or another, or else Aidan was watching one of Jeremy's plays. If he asked Jeremy to please listen to him, to talk with him, to hold him, he was always too busy. Jeremy never asked for anything – he demanded it instead, with such force and conviction that Aidan could never say no. And the one time he did, he was met with such formidable rage that he feared to ever try it again.
He hears Porter give an almost silent yawn, and the quiet sound dissolves his inward musings. Aidan feels guilty for spending so much time and energy comparing him to Jeremy, but he can't help it. The differences are so obvious, so very evident, that there's no ignoring them. Sometimes he feels as though he might be dreaming, his quality of life has so improved.
"I want you to come in to class with me tomorrow," Porter says. "The children managed to coerce me into letting them do an extra day of holiday crafts, and I need someone else around to make sure nobody gets injured."
Aidan twists his head around to look at Porter's face. He doesn't seem to be joking. Before he can say anything to protest, Porter speaks again.
"They don't have to know everything. I'll say you're my friend and leave it at that. Nobody will question me. They're just children, after all."
"But you ought to worry about your employers. You know that if the parents find out, they'll make a spectacle of it and administration will find some way to make you lose your job."
Porter waves his hand dismissively, as if to brush it off. Aidan knows that in reality, he cares more about his job than anything, and he would be simply lost if it were taken away. "It won't happen," he tries to assure him, though Aidan is unconvinced. "Just come. Please?"
Aidan shakes his head. "We'll see," he replies.
Porter responds with a classic puppy face. He's perfected it to such a degree that it's a deadly weapon, never failing to get Aidan right through the heart. Moved by the display, Aidan snuggles closer to him, but they aren't there for long before a knock at the door interrupts their quiet solitude.
"Who could that be?" Porter wonders aloud, and he stands up and walks out into the hall, leaving Aidan sprawled on the couch with a tangled blanket, two empty mugs and a full heart. He listens close as he hears the door open, wanting to hear the conversation.
"A package? For who?" There is a note of uncharacteristic confusion in Porter's voice that makes Aidan nervous.
"For Aidan Leahey. He does live here, doesn't he?"
Aidan wonders who would possibly be sending him a package. He doubts that it's his family or Porter's – they had promised to bring their gifts over when they came for Christmas Eve dinner. And their friends were coming for a party the weekend before that, so there would be no need for any of them to send something.
"Yes, he does. I'll give it to him. Thank you." Porter shuts the door and walks back into the room, holding a plain brown box stamped with the words 'Air Mail'. He sits down beside Aidan on the couch, handing him the box.
"It's yours," he says with a small smile. "Open it up."
Aidan obliges, using his fingernails to tear away the tape that holds the top flaps shut. Inside there is another package, wrapped in glittery gold paper and tied with a red ribbon. It's small and squishy, the sort of random shape that warrants covering in cellophane or just throwing into a bag, but apparently someone has taken the more labour-intensive route. There is a sheet of folded notepaper attached to the parcel, which of course is feverishly opened and read aloud.
I thought I'd drop you a note and a little something to bring you some Christmas cheer. I know you're probably cringing as you read this, and the truth is, I don't blame you. But it's the holiday season, and if I can't be friendly and cordial now, then there's no sense in trying at any other time of year. Besides, it's not good to just let people who mean so much to you simply drift out of your life.
I suppose what I'm trying to get at, in my usual roundabout and inarticulate way, is that I don't want us to be estranged anymore. The truth is, Aidan, that I regret ever leaving you. I want things to go back to the way they were. I haven't moved on yet, and if I know you, you haven't either. You're probably pining for me just as I am for you, crying yourself senseless because you have to go to bed alone each night. I know I made a mistake when I left you for Kerry, and I realize it now. But there is a way we can change things.
Come to L.A., Aidan. I want you here. I miss you, I'm lonely, and nobody loves me. Not in the unconditional way you did, at least. They don't know anything about me; they don't care for me and do things for me. Only you can complete me, give me what I crave. I know this will be a hard decision, but I'm confident you'll make the right choice. I'll be waiting for you come next week, ready to sweep you into my arms when you step off that plane and back into my life. If all goes well, we can have that perfect fairytale again. We can rebuild ourselves. I know we can do it.
Attached to the paper, at the end of the letter, is a plane ticket to Los Angeles.
Aidan looks up at Porter with tears in his eyes. His partner stares back at him, a weak smile on his face.
"That was unexpected," Porter says, trying to muster a jovial tone. Aidan can hear how wounded he is, though. "I remember you telling me about Jeremy. He seems very…" but his voice breaks before he can finish, and he turns away to hide the fact that he's losing his composure.
Aidan chokes back a sob. He doesn't know why he's crying, really, but it seems like the only response he can give to the empty void that Jeremy's letter has torn inside of him. Reading the words, the presumptuous and conceited words that Jeremy has scrawled there, has done something to him that he doesn't know how to express or rectify. He doesn't want Porter to feel second best, doesn't want anything to intrude on the life they've built for themselves in this cozy house. He feels angry, insulted even, that Jeremy would dare to assume that Aidan depends on him. But he knows that is Jeremy's way, knows that he will always believe he is the center of everyone's universe. In reality, the center of Aidan's universe is sitting beside him on the couch, crying. Because of Jeremy.
Aidan folds the letter up with deliberate slowness, holds up the paper and tears it neatly down the center. Then he turns and tosses it into the fireplace - feeding the flames with a bit of someone that should belong to them. And without even bothering to peek beneath the wrapping, he throws the parcel in after it.
He feels cleansed, as though he has just done something very important and gotten rid of the one last piece of baggage that Jeremy had heaped on his shoulders. When he turns back to Porter, he sees that his partner's tears of sorrow have changed to those of joy. Porter leaps into his arms and holds him tightly, as though letting go would hurt him. Aidan reciprocates, shutting his eyes and taking in a deep breath to solidify his rite of passage.
"I would never leave you," he whispers. "Never. Not for anyone or anything in the world.
Porter sighs and shakes his head. "I would try and tell you how much I love you, but I don't think there are words enough."
"Who needs words?" Aidan responds, beginning to smile. "Words get in the way. They make things complicated." He lifts his hand and presses it to Porter's heart, feeling it beat evenly and steadily against his palm. The pulse of life.
"This," he says, "is everything I need."