Four Little Letters

December 25, 2006

I'm going through changes. I mean….everyone does at one time or another, I guess, but today's been too much, too fast. Since you've been gone, I've had a lot of time to think—I've done nothing but think—and I'm starting to wonder why you ever stayed with me. How does someone like me end up with someone like you? Did you really care about me, or were you only with me out of some sort of bizarre obligation, because I kept your secret for you? I'll never get the chance to ask you those questions now. I'll never know if I made it clear just how much I loved you.

I've never been much of a journal writer, but Mom says maybe it's time for me to start. She said writing it all down might help me feel better about get over things, and I figured I had to try. I can't stand feeling the way I do. I want it to stop.

Nikki's dead.

God, that was hard to write. I don't feel enough right now for anything to hurt. I'm just...numb.

Nikki's dead, and I can't even cry about it.

My God...how horrible can I be? How selfish can I be? Nikki's mother is sitting alone in her kitchen, organizing a funeral for her only son, and all I can think about is how much I wish I could find someone to spill all this out to. Everything about Nikki, and...us.

There's been so much in my head today. All these thoughts just...tripping over each other, and I can't decide which to focus on. I'm trying to keep on remembering the good, but it's so hard…. Half the time, there was more bad than good, anyway. I mean, this town….it's nothing like the big cities where people are tripping all over themselves and each other in their eagerness to come out of the closet. This is Milestone, Colorado. There's a very small gay population—four, to be exact—and we're being completely silenced by a bunch of Bible thumpers who won't stand for anything that's new or different or not specifically allowed by God. I mean, don't get me wrong….they're good people, they welcomed my parents and I with open arms, but….that's because they don't know what I am. If they did, I have no idea what they'd do, and Nikki and I were always terrified that one day we would get to find out, and then we'd have to say goodbye.

In a town like Milestone, Riley O'Neal considered it a miracle that he ever managed to find true happiness. He had found it, though, and in the person he had least expected.

Nicholas Kingsley was a New York City jock, a half-black, half-white eighteen-year-old from the big city, and rather unpopular in Milestone social circles—everything that Riley O'Neal was not combined with everything he wanted to be.

Riley never thought he'd be lucky enough to have the "city boy" look twice at him, but Nicholas did look, and more than twice. At was almost as some sort of magnetism, a gravitational pull of sorts, had forced them together from the very beginning and did not relinquish its hold until a stronger one pulled one of the pair away from the other half.

"God, I hate this town…." Riley muttered, shouldering his bag and removing his house key from his pocket.

Nicholas looked around quickly, then smiled and wrapped one arm around Riley from behind. "You do not," he murmured, his mouth against Riley's ear. "It's got me, remember? You can't hate it as long as it's got me."

The redhead laughed, opened the door, and turned to pull Nicholas inside by his collar. The taller boy—well, man, really—fell dizzily (quite literally) into Riley's kiss, kicking the door shut behind him, and they barely made their way up the staircase without killing each other.

The house was quite large and clearly belonged to one of the wealthier families in Milestone, and Riley knew his beloved usually couldn't help but mentally compare it to his own spare accommodations. The Irish boy did his best to lay that unease to rest, but it had never quite worked.

Neither was thinking of such things at the moment, however.

"Where's your mom?" Nicholas asked, tossing his bag down on the floor of Riley's tidy bedroom and throwing himself onto the bed with an easy air that told only too clearly of his frequent visits to this particular residence. To hide the grimace on his face, he stuffed his face into the pillow and breathed in its clear, crisp scent. The smell of clean linen and Riley's shampoo eased his headache and nausea about as well as any dosage of Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol did these days.

Riley shrugged indifferently. "Out somewhere, and Dad's probably still at work. Neither of them is likely to be home anytime soon."

A slow grin spread across Nicholas's face as he rolled over onto his back, and suddenly, Riley found himself flying forwards into a tight embrace. "Perfect," the taller whispered, pulling his little redhead into a long, slow kiss.

"I didn't say that was a license to maul me," Riley muttered as they parted, stretching out on the bed next to Nicholas. "We're here to study, and I won't have you failing your finals because of me. Now, come on, go get your books."

Nicholas sighed and hauled himself off the bed. "Yes, mother," he muttered, then forced a laugh as he felt a pillow slam against the back of his head. "….Ow!"

"Oh, don't be a baby, Nikki," Riley teased. "What, you can take a bull rush from a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound defensive lineman, but you can't take a big ball of cotton being tossed at your head?"

"….Riles….I'm not…." That was all Nicholas got out before he had to make a mad dash for the bathroom.

Riley was beside him in an instant, kneeling next to him and stroking his back soothingly as poor Nicholas heaved all the contents of his stomach, and then some, into the toilet. The redhead had no idea what to do, so he simply ran his hands comfortingly over Nicholas's vanilla-colored hair and his starkly contrasting neck, murmuring soothing words and trying to find some other way to help. But, having experienced this before, both knew that there was nothing either of them could do besides wait for the bout to pass.

It did pass eventually, and Nicholas slowly rolled over to lean back against the sink. He was quivering harder than a leaf in a hurricane force wind, and his skin was clammy to the touch and paler than it was possible for an African American man to be under normal circumstances. His dark chocolate eyes, always so expressive in a way that had pulled Riley into them from day one, were fearful and pled for some sort of end to his pain.

That single look caused Riley to shake almost as hard as his lover (in every sense of the term but the physical intimacy portion), but he forced strength into his legs and stood to go over to the sink. For a moment, his gaze was drawn by his own reflection. His face was completely white except for the large, vibrantly green eyes staring back at him, the red hair that was scattered across his forehead, and the smattering of freckles that stood out starkly against his skin. Times like this were the only times when he looked and felt this thoroughly terrified. Bouts like this always felt like they would be Nicholas's last, and watching them sent a sharp pain through Riley's heart.

Forcing these dark thoughts out of his head, Riley filled a small paper cup with water, handed it to Nicholas, and ordered him to drink it. Then he rummaged through the cabinet and pulled out a small cloth, which he dampened and pressed to Nicholas's sweat-soaked forehead. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.

Nicholas shook his head wordlessly, not trusting his voice, before he rolled over and began the process again. This time lasted longer than the last, and Riley repeated his former actions just before a third wave hit Nicholas and the taller man hunched over the toilet again. It happened over and over, and Riley began to think it was never going to end. It finally did, though, after over half an hour, and by this time, both were shaking almost equally hard (although for slightly different reasons) and Nicholas looked as though he would never move again.

"Nikki, I…think we really should get you to a hospital. Something's not right."

"No…freaking….duh," came the hoarse reply, and Nicholas started attempting to pull himself to his feet. He managed it eventually and with Riley's help, and the two began towards the door. As they started to cross the threshold into Riley's adjoining bedroom, Nicholas stopped suddenly and his hand shot out to grab the door frame.

The room started to spin now, and Nicholas's body began to shake again. He stumbled blindly, his hand lost hold of the door frame, and the next thing he knew, the floor was rising up to meet him and Riley was yelling his name in a voice that bordered on hysterical.

I swear to God, that was the single most terrifying moment of my entire life. I've never felt about anyone the way I feel about Nikki, but this went beyond that. Things have happened to put my relatives and family friends in the hospital before, but as much as those times shook me up, they never made my heart stop the way Nikki did. My family can be heartless and cold and even though I love them, I feel more at home with Nikki and his mother than I do in my home. I've never had much to lose, and this time I had everything to lose.

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Nicholas had been in the hospital for over nearly three months, and he was most definitely not improving. In fact, his body had given itself over to a coma as the beast that had been clawing and eating away at him gained a stronger foothold on formerly semi-well defended territory. Riley didn't know anything more than that—he and Nicholas's mother had stopped trying to decipher the medical jargon that had been flung at them by the doctors.

As Nicholas's health steadily declined and the doctors spent less time trying to treat him, Camilla Kingsley stopped planning for her son's return home and started to plan his funeral.

Riley, however, continued to live his life in denial. He visited the hospital in Denver every day before and after school, leaving before dawn and returning late at night. He was seldom allowed to see Nicholas in the morning, but that didn't stop him from sitting anxiously outside the door in case his love needed or wanted him.

The doctors quickly learned to tolerate his constant presence. He was there every day in all types of weather, so when Riley was finally allowed in during visiting hours on Christmas Eve, the nurse who was taking Nicholas's vitals smiled knowingly and started to take her leave. She paused at the door, however, and turned slowly, placing a reassuring hand on Riley's shoulder to draw him back out into the hall.

"How is he?" Riley asked quietly, drawing the door closed.

"I can't give you any details, dear," the nurse stated, her voice tinged with an accent that Riley couldn't really place in his current state. "You know the drill."

"I don't care about all the medical crap. Just tell me….how much time does he have left?"

The nurse hesitated, looking rather more than a trifle awkward.

Riley forced a ghost of a smile onto his face. "They've been telling me for weeks that he doesn't have a lot of time left. I've been trying to….prepare myself." If his vocal cords hadn't fallen completely flat due to his lack of doing anything besides sit, worry, and grab a two or three hours of sleep whenever he wasn't stricken with insomnia, his voice would have cracked. As it was, though, his brain was barely on a functioning level, and he had no ability to let emotions show in his voice.

The woman sighed, looking crestfallen. "He doesn't have a lot of time, lad. The doctors think he may be down to his last hours, maybe days if luck is with him. His mother has decided to take him off the machines if he doesn't pass on his own soon. She doesn't want to see him suffer anymore, but she said to….give you a chance to say goodbye."

Riley felt something catch in his throat—something considerably more than a lump. He swallowed it stubbornly and replied quietly, "Thank you."

The nurse gave him a comforting smile and a light hug, and went about her business, and Riley pushed open the door to Nicholas's hospital room and stepped inside.

The lighting in the room was quite dim, but it was kept semi-cheerful by the myriad of flowers scattered over every available surface. Every vase and flower pot was kept well stocked by Riley, Mrs. Kingsley, and even Riley's parents. The O'Neal parents did have feelings, after all, and while they didn't understand or have a particular liking for Riley's relationship with Nicholas, they did understand with perfect clarity that their son was in unbelievable emotional pain.

The moment Riley looked over at the bed, the flowers faded from his mind.

There was nothing colorful about Nicholas now.

His skin was clammy and looked as though it was actually stretching over his weakened bones, and as dark as it had been before, Riley could have sworn—and it wasn't all imagination—that his skin had turned ash white. He looked as though a single touch would put out the small amount of life that was left in his fragile soul.

Riley swallowed another lump and moved towards the bed, forcing cheer into his voice as he pulled up a chair. "Hi, Nikki," he greeted his love, dropping into the chair and reaching, out of habit, for his lover's hand. Also out of habit, he avoided squeezing too hard—logic told him otherwise, but he felt as though he might break that bony hand with even the lightest pressure. "How….how're you?"

The usual lack of response met his question, and usually, Riley was prepared to handle this. But today was different. Today was his and Nicholas's favorite holiday to spend together. Today was the day that he had learned just how little time the other half of his soul had left in the world.

To say that it wasn't fair would be an understatement of the highest order.

"I, uh….talked to the nurse. She told me….about you. About how you….didn't have a lot of time left. And about how I….I should…." Riley gritted his teeth, and bit out the last two words. "Say goodbye."

With those two words came a horrible weight that he had never felt before. It settled in his chest, strangling his heart and lungs and making it very difficult to breathe. A strangled sob finally broke loose as the full weight of the last months crashed over him. He choked it down, however, forcing the knot in his throat and chest to loosen enough for him to speak, and all he could hope was that Nicholas could hear him.

He had to get this out before it was too late.

"I'm tired, Nikki," he said softly. "I'm tired of seeing you hunched over the toilet, spewing out stuff that I don't even want to think about. Watching you take your pills and deal with the effects. I'm tired of watching you get weaker by the day. I'm tired of…." The sob started to rise again, and he shoved it angrily down. "Of watching you hang onto your life….by a thread. I can't do it anymore, Nikki." He squeezed Nicholas's hand lightly—it didn't matter if it broke now. "I know you'll fight to come back to me, Nikki. And….you'd think I would want that. But….you and I are so tired, Nikki. We're not going to win this thing, and….I think it's time for us to bow out gracefully." His voice trembled now. Just a little longer, he told it. "So….I'm asking you….to do one last thing for me. Don't….fight. Just stop fighting. You've stuck around for longer than anyone expected you to, and I know you did it for me. And now I'm asking you to stop." He paused, and his body began to shake as hard as his voice. "I love you, Nikki, and I miss you. And….I'm hoping and praying that you don't come back to me." Those were the hardest words Riley had ever forced himself to speak, but he found that he meant them down to the deepest corner of his heart. The first tear finally spilled over, dropping onto his wrist, and another followed it to drop on Nicholas's hand. "I love you, Nikki. Truly, madly, deeply love you. Please believe that.

More tears came, and as Riley found himself powerless to stop them, he simply detangled his hand from Nicholas's, and stood. Nicholas's heart began to slow, giving out on him as the beast he harbored inside finally tore its way free of the prison it had been kept in, and rose up to claim its prey. The tears dropped onto the bed and onto Nicholas as Riley leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his beloved's temple. "See you on the other side, love," he whispered.

Nicholas died as the sun started to rise on Christmas Day. He lived to see Christmas. I wonder if he realizes that.

Nikki….you heard me, right? You heard what I was saying? And you're waiting for me, aren't you? Healthy, happy, and disease free?

AIDS. It's never ceased to amaze me just how much trouble four little letters can cause. But what is even stranger, is how those four letters can bring two people together in a way that I never thought possible.

It's weird, you know? I mean, you'd think something like that would drive us apart. You'd think that I wouldn't be able to understand, and that we'd cut each other off because we were both afraid of the same thing. But instead, it brought us closer together. How could I possibly fight with you when I know just how easy it would be for me to lose you?

That, to me, is the most amazing part, Nikki. Our relationship flourished through public disapproval, our own teen dramas, and a (quite literally) deadly secret. We did win, Nikki, in the end. Wherever you are now….I hope you know that.

Where are you now, Nikki? Heaven, right? It had better be Heaven.

Are you happy? Do you think about me? Do you miss me?

...Do you still love me?