Author's Notes: So I've gotten myself into one of these positions (again) where I'm so utterly, completely, absurdly late in updating something that there's basically no way to apologize for it. The weird thing is that I've had most of this chapter written for ages; I worked on it fairly intensely over the summer, and then read it over when I was done and felt like it just wasn't right. Then I got distracted for a long, long time, and I just didn't have the energy to fix it.
I've still had this story in my head the entire time, though, so it's just been a matter of getting the details right. I've finally beaten it into submission well enough that I feel like I can continue, but at this point it still just feels a little weird to me because it's been so long since I had all the original ideas. I've also realized that I am completely lacking in the ability to cut scenes short when they need to be cut short, but that's something that I basically didn't bother tackling when I was editing this. My writing style is (hopefully) getting a little better, but I'm just chalking this chapter up to sunk costs, and (hopefully) the next chapters will be a little less ridiculously long-winded and aimless.
Thank you so, so, so much to everyone who's reviewed. It makes me incredibly happy just to know that people are reading this, and I hope that my absence will not have deterred you completely from continuing to read it. I know I kind of suck, but I promise that I will try to suck less in the future.
It took until Saturday night for Matthew to remember that his parents were supposed to be visiting him the next day, when he'd told Caleb to come over. He cursed under his breath, then bit his lip as his hand reached out automatically, hesitating over the phone on his coffee table as he debated internally.
On the one hand, having his parents over was one of the few things that let him completely relieve himself of the responsibility of childcare for a while. Even if they were all just sitting around together, it was different; for a few hours, he didn't have to be the grown-up. He was just their kid, and Julie was their granddaughter, and that made everything alright, somehow.
But on the other hand, it was Caleb, and Matthew couldn't really bring himself to turn down a chance to see him again, even though he had spent most of the day alternating between nervous guilt and anticipation. He'd started off worrying that Caleb might have gotten into trouble with his girlfriend for going out the night before, from which he'd progressed to worrying about what he and Caleb were going to do when they met again, at which point he'd realized that what he was really worried about—what he deserved to be worried about—was that he was dangerously close to falling for a guy he had no chance at all with.
He picked up the phone and called his mother.
After a few minutes of apologies about the next day's plans and discussion of how Julie was doing, his mother remembered to exclaim, "Oh, and happy birthday! I tried calling you last night, but I guess you were out. I left a message on your answering machine, though."
"You do have my cell phone number, Mom," Matthew said, sighing. "I always forget to check the machine."
"Well, I thought about that, but I didn't want to bother you if you were out with friends. Is that why you weren't home?"
Matthew hesitated. "Yeah, kind of," he allowed.
"What did you do?"
"Just... went out," Matthew said. "Saw a movie."
He could almost hear her frown. "By yourself?"
Matthew hesitated, although he couldn't say why. "No."
"With your friends from home?" she prompted.
"What? No—Mom, I keep telling you," he said. "I haven't seen them in years. I was just... with this guy I met."
"Oh," she said, placing just enough emphasis on the word to make Matthew blush.
"We're just friends," he said quickly. "He's not... you know. He has a girlfriend."
"Oh," she said again, and—was it Matthew's imagination, or did she actually sound disappointed? "Well, I'm glad you have one friend out there, at least."
"Yeah," Matthew said, sighing softly. "Me, too."
By the next day, Matthew had managed to quiet most of his irrational fears and had even made some progress on dampening the rational ones. He had woken up before his alarm clock had gone off, but he had attributed that to a healthy excitement at the prospect of social interaction. He had also dusted the entire apartment shortly after waking up, which he had attributed to boredom.
"Where are we going?" Julie asked as Matthew got her into a pair of maroon corduroy overalls.
"I'm not sure," Matthew answered. "The bookstore, maybe. We're going with Caleb."
"Caleb?" Julie asked.
"You remember him, right?" Matthew finished fastening the buttons on her outfit and stood up. "He came down here right before you went and spent the night with those neighbors. Remember that?"
Julie thought for a moment, then nodded. "Uh-huh."
Matthew smiled. "Let's go eat breakfast before he gets here, alright?"
They ate cereal and did dishes, after which Matthew decided to wash the kitchen counters and kitchen table and dining room table, and eventually the coffee table and computer desk, as well. Julie, meanwhile, got out the miniature keyboard Matthew's parents had given her for Christmas and amused herself by trying to play as many notes at one time as she could. It was about as far from music as Matthew could imagine, given that she was starting with a piano, but he had to admit that he was lucky Julie was usually able to keep herself amused for long periods of time without much assistance. It was also convenient that the small piano was loud enough to be heard from all corners of the apartment, so he didn't have to monitor her too closely as he moved onto various other cleaning chores—making the beds, putting toys away in Julie's room, even scrubbing down the bathroom.
By 11:00 in the morning, Matthew had cleaned every inch of the apartment, and Julie had moved on to a coloring book.
"When are we going?" she asked, when Matthew finally flopped onto the couch beside her.
"I don't know," he answered. "Soon, I hope." Caleb hadn't actually said that he would be over immediately after coming home from work, but Matthew hadn't figured it would take him this long. He sighed and turned on the television to distract himself.
Four hours later, he had watched a Lifetime movie and a half, Julie had moved on to playing with her blocks, and Caleb still hadn't arrived or called. Apart from making sandwiches for lunch, Matthew hadn't done anything all afternoon except sit in front of the television. He sighed, sitting up and running a hand through his short brown hair as the movie credits began to roll. Maybe Caleb was sick, or he'd gotten hurt, or—or he just didn't feel like coming over. With some embarrassment, Matthew realized that this possibility bothered him most of all.
He took out his cell phone and stared at it for a moment, considering. If Caleb didn't want to see him, Matthew didn't want to bother him. But on the other hand...
On the other hand, he was going to lose his mind if he waited around any more. He stood up and went to retrieve the card Caleb had given him, then dialed and hit the green button before he could talk himself out of it.
The phone rang for a long time—four, five rings, and for a horrible moment Matthew was afraid that Caleb really had been hurt. But then the ringing stopped, and there was silence for a moment before Caleb answered.
"Hello?" Caleb's voice sounded—strained, or angry, Matthew couldn't tell.
"Hey," Matthew said hesitantly. "It's Matthew. I was just wondering if..."
"Shit," Caleb exclaimed, cutting him off. "Shit—fuck, I said I would be over there today." He took a deep breath, like he was trying to steady his voice. "Fuck, Matthew, I'm sorry."
"It's okay—don't worry about it," Matthew said automatically. "Are you... alright?"
"Yeah," Caleb sighed. "I'm fine. And it's not okay—I'm sorry, I just completely—shit, use a turn signal, fucker!" he yelled suddenly.
Matthew paused. "You're driving?"
Another sigh. "Yeah."
"Where are you?"
"Indiana?" Caleb suggested, sounding pained. "I'm not really sure—I just got on the interstate... I'm not going anywhere." He laughed hollowly.
"...Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," Caleb said, sighing. "I'm just—Melissa's pissed at me, and I needed to get away, and I forgot—"
"Don't worry about it," Matthew said again, even though his stomach was twisting strangely. "I'll see you some other time, okay?"
"No—I want to see you... Are you doing anything?"
"Not really... I'm just here at home."
"Okay." Caleb took another deep breath. "Are you—can you—shit, I'm really sorry. Are you going to be there in another hour?"
"Yeah, I'll be here," Matthew answered.
"Okay, I'll be there soon."
"Alright—be careful driving," Matthew said, but Caleb ended the call before he could finish the warning.
Just over 45 minutes later, the doorbell rang, and Matthew went to the door to find Caleb looking slightly frantic.
"Hey," Matthew said, relieved that Caleb had made it without crashing his car. "What happened to you?"
Caleb dragged his fingers through his hair as he entered the apartment. "I'm not sure," he said, falling onto the couch. "Is it really almost four?" he asked, staring at the DVD player clock.
"Yeah," Matthew said, coming to sit next to him. "Have you been driving all day?"
Caleb leaned forward, supporting his chin with his hands. "Almost," he said. "I argued with Melissa for while when I got home, and then I just... drove around in circles for a while." He grimaced. "Then she called me, and I tried to get as far away as I could."
"So you went to—"
"Gary, Indiana," Caleb supplied. "Yeah. That's about where I was when you called."
"Sorry," Matthew said, not sure why he was apologizing.
Caleb shook his head and leaned back into the couch. "Where's Julie?" he asked suddenly.
"She's taking a nap," Matthew said. "I told her we'd go somewhere later."
"God, I'm sorry," Caleb sighed, tilting his head to look at Matthew. "I'm a shitty friend."
Matthew gave him a half-frown. "You aren't," he said. "You're just having a shitty day."
Caleb grinned tiredly. "Yeah," he agreed, closing his eyes. "So where are you taking Julie?"
"I don't know. I told her maybe we'd go to the bookstore. It's too gross out to walk anywhere."
Caleb snorted. "It's not gross out," he argued. "It's just cold. Gross is when the snow melts and gets all slushy."
Matthew smiled. "Yeah, whatever. Do you want to go?"
"Yeah," Caleb said, sighing and leaning slightly so that his shoulder pressed against Matthew's. "Thanks."
Caleb shrugged. "I don't know. For helping me not freak out."
"About what?" Matthew asked.
"Just... stuff with Melissa," Caleb said, burrowing back more deeply into the couch.
"Oh," Matthew said. Then he ventured, "What were you fighting about?"
Caleb shook his head. "All kinds of crap. The usual, more or less."
"Then why were you freaking out over it?"
Caleb shook his head again, more firmly. "It's nothing."
Matthew frowned. "...Was she mad at you for going out on Friday?" he asked.
"Yeah, but that's not—it wasn't about that," Caleb assured him. "Don't worry about it."
Matthew was worried, but Julie came out of her room before he could press Caleb any further. "Hey, Julie," he said. "You want to go to the bookstore now?"
"Okay," Julie agreed happily. Matthew went to help her get ready, and a few minutes later, they were leaving in Matthew's car.
"Have you eaten lately?" Matthew asked Caleb as they drove.
Caleb shook his head. "I had breakfast at the station... I forgot about lunch." He smiled guiltily.
Matthew raised his eyebrows. "Wow," he said. "You must have been upset if you forgot to eat."
Caleb made a face at him. "I'll get something."
By some stroke of luck, Matthew quickly found a parking spot along the curb, and they stepped out into the icy winter air. Matthew helped Julie out of her car seat, and they hurried through the revolving door into the large Borders.
"Go upstairs and get something to eat," Matthew instructed Caleb as they entered. "I'm going to take Julie down to the kids' section."
"You're not coming?" Caleb asked.
"We shouldn't stay too long," Matthew said, running a hand through his hair. "I'll get some books for Julie and meet you up there."
"Okay..." Caleb said. "Do you want anything?"
Matthew shook his head. "I'm fine." He smiled. "Go get food."
Caleb left for the café as Matthew and Julie took an escalator to the lower level, where the kids' books were. Julie ran to the picture books immediately, and Matthew soon had a large stack in his arms.
"Alright, I think we've got enough," he said, even as Julie handed him another. "Come on, we can go read these upstairs."
Julie insisted on grabbing a few more books to carry herself, but eventually Matthew got her up two escalators to the second-floor café, where he found Caleb sitting at a table with a toasted sandwich, a slice of coffee cake, and a large drink topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
"Hey," Mathew said, helping Julie into a chair and setting the stack of books in front of her. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to the drink.
"Hot chocolate," Caleb said, flashing a self-conscious smile as he glanced at his food. "You want any?"
Matthew shook his head and slid into the seat across from Caleb. "I'm fine," he said, and smiled.
Caleb pouted and pushed the drink in front of him. "It's going to get cold before I can finish it," he reasoned.
Matthew rolled his eyes and picked the cup up, eyeing it for a moment before carefully trying to take a sip. He ended up with a mouthful of whipped cream and chocolate shavings, and only a brief taste of the hot drink underneath. He frowned at it and tried again, this time managing to take a decent sip of the hot chocolate. "Thanks," he said, quickly handing Caleb the drink and wiping his mouth on a napkin.
Caleb smiled, then eyed the books. "Wow," he commented.
"Yeah," Matthew sighed, grimacing tolerantly. "I'd go broke if it weren't for the library."
"Read this book?" Julie asked, holding out one of the books from the stack for Matthew to see.
Matthew reached out and took the book—something about a fish—and opened it to the first page. "A long way out in the deep blue—"
"Do you want me to read it?" Caleb interrupted.
Matthew looked up, automatically annoyed that he'd been cut off. Then he registered what Caleb had said, and his expression immediately softened before giving way to worry. "That's okay," he said, after a moment. "I don't mind it."
"Come on," Caleb said. "You should go get something to read for yourself. Read a whole magazine in peace, remember?"
Matthew hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"You waited for me all day," Caleb reminded him, raising an eyebrow. Matthew felt his cheeks warm faintly. "Go get something to read."
"Okay, okay," Matthew agreed, pushing his chair from the table. He headed for the escalators and returned from the first floor several minutes later carrying a sizable pile of magazines on topics ranging from amateur stargazing to politics to home decorating.
Caleb was still reading out loud to Julie when Matthew got back to the table, and Matthew noted with a mixture of amusement and jealousy that Julie was being unusually attentive. Caleb glanced up to smile at Matthew as he finished the last few lines of the story, then set the book aside. "This is just something that runs in your family, isn't it?" he asked, looking pointedly at the magazines as Matthew set them on the table.
"Maybe," Matthew said, grinning slightly and keeping his eyes fixed on the pile as he sat down next to Julie. "I look through magazines a lot for work, so..."
"Is there anything you do entirely for fun?" Caleb asked, pursing his lips a little.
"I like magazines!" Matthew insisted. "It's multi-purpose. Fun and educational."
Caleb wrinkled his nose. "Don't tell me you were one of those kids who bought into all that learning-can-be-fun stuff." He frowned suddenly. "Wait, no, you totally were. I can tell. Ew."
Matthew blushed outright. "Shut up," he muttered, picking up National Geographic (not helping his case, he realized too late) and propping it up in front of him on the table. "I liked the Discovery Channel."
Caleb let out a bark of laughter. "Of course you did."
Julie came to his rescue, asking to be read another book, and Caleb obliged (although, Matthew noted out of the corner of his eye, Caleb continued to glance at him every so often and smirk).
Matthew worked his way through the magazines efficiently, glancing through most of them in their entirety and stopping to read interesting articles as he came to them. It was nice to be able to read without interruptions, but it was also nice to have a backdrop of Caleb's voice enthusiastically narrating and dramatizing the books Julie had chosen. Matthew mostly kept his gaze on what he was reading, but he couldn't keep his attention from wandering occasionally, and at several points he caught himself with an wide smile behind his magazine.
By some coincidence (or perhaps by a subconscious pacing effort by the two of them), Matthew finished his last magazine just as Caleb was finishing the last of the books Julie had picked out. Matthew watched, smiling with thinly-concealed affection, as Caleb read the concluding lines with a comforting tone of finality. Caleb smiled at Julie, then turned to look at Matthew, the smile quirking on one side. "You want to go?"
"I guess we should," Matthew said, glancing at his watch. It was past 6, and the sky outside the full-wall windows surrounding the café had long since turned black. "We need to eat dinner."
Julie was upset. "I wanna stay," she complained.
"We've read half the store," Caleb remarked, laughing. "Maybe we should save some books for next time."
"But I want you to read more now," Julie said.
"Caleb needs to go home," Matthew told her, sorting the books into a pile. Caleb gave him a brief, guilty look. "Or—well, he can come with us," Matthew amended, smiling faintly. "But we all need to go."
"You're probably right," Caleb said to Matthew once they had gotten Julie away from the table and onto the escalator. "I should probably go home. I just—" He looked away, worried or angry or both. "I can't handle talking to her right now."
Matthew gave him a small smile. "Well, you can eat dinner with us, if you want."
Caleb looked relieved to be given this excuse to procrastinate. "Okay," he agreed, "Where are you going? Home? Do you want help cooking?"
Matthew looked away so Caleb couldn't see him grin. "Sure, if you want," he said. "We should probably stop and get some groceries first, though. There's nothing to eat at home."
"Alright," Caleb agreed, zipping up his coat as they pushed through the bookstore's revolving glass door onto the sidewalk. Matthew went to the car and got Julie into her car seat, then drove the three of them to the nearest grocery store—the same one he had first met Caleb at, he remembered with a twitch of a smile. Caleb lifted Julie into the shopping cart seat and began leading them confidently down the nearest aisle.
"Do you need to get anything?" Matthew asked, quickening his pace to keep up.
Caleb slowed down. "Not really," he said. "Well, maybe a few things." He grinned sheepishly. "What do you need to get?"
Matthew shrugged and nudged Caleb aside to take control off the cart. "I should get some pasta," he said. "Julie usually eats anything with pasta in it."
"Does she eat shrimp?"
"Maybe," Matthew said. "She likes them when they're breaded and fried. Why?"
"Scampi alla linguini," Caleb said, enthusiastic once again. "With asparagus. And lots of garlic. Ooh, and garlic bread. I make great garlic bread."
Matthew smiled and started pushing the cart toward the seafood department. "Okay," he agreed. They collected the ingredients they needed—shrimp linguini, asparagus, garlic, a loaf of French bread, and butter (after Matthew asked, to Caleb's horror, whether the third of a stick he had at home would be enough)—and then moved on to things they didn't need: a box of Trix cereal and some rainbow-colored popsicles, requested by Julie, a bag of pretzel sticks that Matthew slipped into the cart when Julie wasn't looking, and a tub of rocky road ice cream and a six-pack of beer that Caleb selected, to Matthew's mostly-feigned indignation.
"Caleb," Matthew admonished.
"What?" Caleb asked, looking up innocently. "I'll pay for it."
"What are you going to do with it?" Matthew asked, somewhat stupidly.
Caleb gave him the look that his question deserved. "What do you think?" he asked. "I'm not going home tonight without some kind of alcohol."
"Oh," said Matthew, surprised by the reminder that Caleb would be leaving.
"What?" asked Caleb, looking at Matthew with an oddly gentle inquisitiveness.
"Nothing," Matthew said, grabbing the cart and heading toward the checkout. "Just don't get yourself thrown out of your apartment again."
Caleb snorted. "Yeah," he sighed, leaning on a corner of the shopping cart's handle as Matthew brought it to a stop in one of the checkout lines. The corner of his mouth twisted up into a wry smile. "Or I could just chicken out and stay with you," he said. "Until you kick me out, at least." He grinned guiltily.
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Go make up with your girlfriend, Caleb," he said, hoping no reluctance was audible in his voice. "Before she leaves you for someone with a spine."
Caleb laughed, then put on a hurt expression. "Fine," he sighed. "Leave me to fend for myself."
Matthew gave him a small, awkward smile. "I mean, you can stay with me if you want to," he said. "I'm just not going to be responsible if she breaks up with you."
"Yeah, okay," Caleb said, looking away briefly. "Maybe." He smiled. "Here, let me take my stuff." He reached past Matthew to take the ice cream and beer, cradling them in his arms before setting them on the conveyor belt and putting a divider behind them. "So they don't card you," he said, grinning.
"Aren't they supposed to card you if you look like you're under 40?" Matthew wondered under his breath.
But they didn't—something to do with confidence, probably—and a few minutes later they were back in Matthew's car, the groceries secured in the trunk. When they got back to Matthew's apartment, Caleb went to work immediately, taking over Matthew's kitchen with the kind of authority Matthew himself had never quite been able to manage.
"Do you want me to do anything?" Matthew asked, pressing his back to the kitchen wall.
"Can you start boiling water for the linguini?" Caleb asked. He found Matthew's knife drawer in two tries and began cleaning the shrimp. "And Julie can break the ends off the asparagus if she wants."
Matthew placed a pot of water on the stove and set Julie up with the asparagus, then sat at the kitchen table and watched as Caleb did the rest—frying the shrimp and asparagus in garlic and butter, boiling the linguini, and using nearly half of Matthew's powered garlic to make garlic bread in the oven.
Finally, Matthew got up and set the dining room table, and Caleb brought out the food a few minutes later, serving it with a slight flourish.
Matthew stared at the table. "Do you cook like this at home?"
Caleb grinned, looking pleased with himself. "Yeah, sometimes," he said.
"Wow," Matthew said, smiling. He went to get Julie and seated her at the table, and the three of them ate. Julie refused to touch the asparagus, but she ate more of the pasta and shrimp than Matthew had ever seen her eat before. "You really like this, don't you?" Matthew asked her as she precariously scooped a final noodle into her mouth. She nodded, and Matthew smiled. "If you ever get tired of your job, you can work for me to cook for her," he told Caleb. "She never eats like this when I cook."
Caleb smiled broadly. "I'll keep that in mind," he promised.
When they had finished eating, Caleb insisted on helping Matthew with the dishes while Julie flipped through library books at the kitchen table.
"Can she actually read that?" Caleb asked, glancing back at her.
Matthew turned to see Julie staring intently at another Magic School Bus book. "No, she's probably just looking at the pictures in that one," he said. "She can read some little books, though. I'm trying to teach her."
"Wow," Caleb said. "They don't teach that stuff in preschool?"
Matthew shook his head as he wiped off a dish. "They just practice the alphabet a bunch," he said. "I figured if she knew that, she might as well learn to use it." He shrugged, then turned to Caleb after placing the last plate in the cabinet. "So are you going home now?"
Caleb grinned. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No," Matthew said, frowning. "But you said—"
"I know," Caleb sighed. He slouched back against the counter and was silent for several seconds. "I just don't know what to say to her," he murmured, possibly to himself.
"To—Melissa?" Matthew asked, unable to stop the pause that came before Melissa's name.
Caleb nodded and grimaced. "I'm running out of excuses," he said, and this time Matthew was fairly certain that Caleb wasn't speaking to him anymore. "If I go back there, she'll just—I don't know, but I can't—" He looked up at Matthew, his eyes suddenly filled with panic. "God, I don't know," he said, sighing and folding his arms.
Matthew glanced at the microwave clock. It was late, almost Julie's bedtime—the trip to the grocery store had pushed their dinner later than usual. "I have to get Julie ready for bed," he said. "But if you want to stay for another half-hour, you can tell me what happened."
Caleb hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah, okay."
Matthew gave Julie a bath, then quickly read her the book she had been looking at and tucked her into bed. He entered the living room to find Caleb sitting cross-legged on the couch, looking like a guilty puppy expecting to be scolded. "Sorry," Caleb said when Matthew approached.
Matthew sat down next to him. "For what?" he asked, a little wearily.
Caleb shrugged slowly. "For forcing you to be a good friend?"
"You're not forcing me to do anything," Matthew said, sighing. "And I think the 'good friend' thing to do would be to make you go home, but I'm curious."
"Or else you just really suck at saying no to people," Caleb said, giving him a crooked smile.
"Maybe just you," Matthew muttered, and Caleb grinned briefly. "So what happened?" Matthew asked. "Why is she mad at you?"
Caleb let out a long-suffering sight. "Well, first she was mad because I went out without telling her where I was going," he said. "So she was in a bad mood about that, but that wasn't anything new. She was still talking to me before I left for work. It was when I got home this morning..." He sighed again and pushed a hand through his hair. "She got this invitation to our high school's 10-year reunion in the mail," he explained.
Matthew frowned. "It's already your 10-year reunion?"
"Yeah," Caleb said, grimacing. "We graduated a few months after she and I got together."
The idea of a high school reunion struck Matthew as something distant and middle-aged, but he realized, to his alarm, that his own 10-year reunion would be in just three years.
"So I told her—" Caleb was continuing, "I don't know why I even said anything; it's not for months—but I told her I didn't want to go to the stupid thing. I'd probably have to move my whole work schedule around, and if we went back home, I'd have to see my parents and her parents, and God, my whole life's a fucking high school reunion. She probably even wants to fly out there with all our friends, just so we can go to some stupid—" He stopped and gave a frustrated sigh. "And I told her that, basically."
"And she got mad?"
"Well, that was when she started getting mad. She said that she had to go, and that I'd embarrass her if I didn't go with her." Caleb leaned heavily onto the arm of the couch, digging his fingers into his scalp. "And I probably should have just shut up and said I'd think about it, but instead I had to go and ask her how the fuck that was going to embarrass her." He smiled wryly. "And that was when she got mad."
"Why?" Matthew asked.
Caleb didn't answer for a moment. Finally, he began, "Our friends out here—there are three of them from our old school—two of them married each other a few years ago, and the other one got engaged last fall..." He shook his head. "And apparently, Melissa's been getting upset about it for a while, and this finally—" He threw his hands up and let out a short laugh. It was a hollow, manic sound. "—pushed her over the edge, or something. She said she could hardly stand being around them with all of them wondering why we haven't gotten engaged, and having to see all our old friends at this goddamned reunion asking—and if I wasn't there—" He took a deep breath and let it out harshly. "And even if I am..." He shook his head again.
"She wants to marry you?"
Caleb nodded glumly. "She'd probably have proposed herself, if she believed in that kind of thing."
Matthew nodded slowly. "Sounds like she practically did."
"Yeah," Caleb said. "Basically."
Matthew hesitated for a few moments, then ventured, "You don't want to marry her?"
Caleb stared ahead at the blank TV, not seeming to acknowledge the question. "No," he finally said, several seconds later. "I don't want to."
Why not? Matthew wanted to ask, but it seemed too flippant to say. "But you don't want to break up with her," he said slowly, like he was trying to piece the situation together.
Caleb paused again, but shook his head. "No," he said.
"And you don't think you're ever going to break up with her," he said, remembering Caleb's previous remarks.
"No." Caleb finally turned and gave him a tiny, ironic smile. "See? I'm trapped."
Matthew almost saw, but it seemed blurrier to him the more he thought about it. "Caleb..." he said.
"What?" Caleb asked warily.
"I mean—it's just..." He sighed softly. "If you're planning on staying with her indefinitely, anyhow, what does it matter?"
Caleb looked troubled. "It does matter," he said. "I can't marry her."
"But if she wants to, and you're going to be with her—"
"Then she's probably going to start making my life fucking miserable about it," Caleb finished. "Which is why I don't want to go home."
Matthew sighed. "How long do you really think you can hide from her?"
"I don't know," Caleb said, staring sullenly in the direction of his knees.
"What did you say to her this morning?"
"Nothing, I just—I told her I didn't want to talk about it, and she started yelling at me, and then I left."
Matthew gave him a look that was almost bemused. "You just left?"
"Stormed out, kind of." Caleb clarified awkwardly.
Matthew stared at him for a moment. "Caleb—" he began.
"I know," Caleb said. "I just couldn't—I didn't know what to say."
"Does she even know you're alright?"
"I answered the phone when she called me," Caleb said. "I just told her that I got called in to the station and I'd talk to her later.'
"...And she's not going to call there to make sure you weren't lying?"
Caleb laughed shortly. "Geez, you really do know how to be paranoid. No, I don't think she'll try that. And they'll cover for me there if she does."
Matthew got the sense that this wasn't the first time Caleb had used this particular excuse to get away. "You're going to have to go home eventually," he said.
"I know." Caleb's voice was dull and lifeless once again. "And I'm going to have to tell her something."
Caleb sighed. "You think I should marry her?"
I can't tell you that, Matthew wanted to say, but instead he just said, "I don't know." They sat in silence for what felt like a long time, and then Matthew said, carefully, "I think... If you want to stay with her, then maybe... maybe you need to."
Caleb turned and looked at him for the first time, his blue eyes wide. Then he looked away and nodded. "I guess I'm going to have to, then," he said, after a moment.
Matthew felt a brief pang of—he couldn't be sure if it was sympathy or disappointment. "I guess," he echoed.
Caleb gave him a faint smile. "Thanks," he said, but without much enthusiasm.
Matthew shook his head, then sighed. "You're really going to?"
"I guess so." Caleb sighed in return. "Yeah. Yeah, fine, whatever. I'll do it. I'll ask her. It doesn't..." He shook his head. "It doesn't make any difference." He gave Matthew a sidelong glance and said, " It's looking like my only option, anyhow."
It wasn't his only option—of course it wasn't—but that seemed too obvious to point out. "Yeah," Matthew said instead, doubtfully. "When are you going to ask her?"
"Tonight?" Caleb offered, then shook his head. "She'll probably just get more pissed if I ask her tonight. Tomorrow, I guess." He burrowed back into the couch. "Can I stay here for a little while?"
Matthew frowned at this subject change. "I thought you were going to go—apologize, or something."
Caleb shook his head. "She won't listen. It always takes her at least 24 hours to forgive me for anything." He gave a smile that bordered on a grimace. "Which she does whether or not I apologize."
"Oh," Matthew said. "Well—yeah, you can stay... If you're sure..."
Caleb gave him a wry smile. "You can say no if you want, you know."
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know. I don't mind. If you're sure you don't want to go home..." He gave Caleb a concerned look, but Caleb was smiling.
"We can celebrate my last day of freedom," he said, stretching out slightly.
Matthew couldn't really see what freedom Caleb was talking about—it wasn't as if he were any more unattached now than he would be when he was engaged, or even married. "I thought that was supposed to be your bachelor party," he remarked.
Caleb perked up further at this reminder. "Bachelor party—I forgot about that," he said. "That'll be fun. You can meet all the guys from the station."
Matthew smiled thinly. "Yeah," he said non-committally. The thought of being involved in any way with Caleb and Melissa's wedding struck him as a bad idea, but he wasn't about to bring that up now.
"I guess this means I have to go to this reunion, too," Caleb said with a sigh. "Damn it." He gave Matthew a faint, ironic smile. "It's in May, too. It'll just figure if I'm in Texas for the one nice weekend a year we get here."
"I'll send you a postcard," Matthew promised, his smile a shade more natural.
Caleb grinned. "That's cruel."
"I'll take Julie to the beach," Matthew said, yawning and pulling his legs up onto the couch. "It'll be great." Caleb grumbled indistinctly and gave Matthew a dirty look, and Matthew grinned, relaxing against the arm of the couch. "You'll survive," he said. "High school can't have been that bad."
Caleb looked at him skeptically. "You really believe that?"
Matthew considered the question for a moment. "Well, I hated high school," he allowed. "But... I don't know, I didn't think you would have."
"Why not?" Caleb asked, laughing softly.
Matthew shrugged awkwardly. "You seem like you would have been popular," he explained, his face heating slightly.
"I was popular," Caleb said, and made a face. "I was captain of the soccer team my senior year. I was the freaking prom king." He shook his head, then smiled at Matthew. "If it's any consolation, popular kids can hate high school, too."
"Huh. I guess that's good to know," Matthew said. He smiled abruptly. "Prom king?" he asked.
Caleb blushed. "It was awful," he said. "Melissa got nominated for queen, but she lost, so she was mad at me for the rest of the night."
"Why was she mad at you?" Matthew wondered.
Caleb shrugged expansively. "Who knows?" He shook his head. "God, I don't want to talk about her."
Matthew bit the inside of his lip and gave Caleb a troubled look.
"What?" Caleb asked.
"You're going to marry her," Matthew said, almost as a reminder.
Caleb looked away and sighed. "I know," he said.
"What?" Caleb asked again, slouching irritably away from Matthew.
Matthew didn't know what to say, or how to justify his indignation on Caleb's behalf. The right thing to do, he figured, would be to let it go. "Are you ever even happy with her?" he found himself asking instead.
Caleb shrugged into the corner of the couch. "Sometimes," he said. "I guess." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
Whatever self-restraint Matthew had been trying to exert slipped several notches. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, annoyed.
Caleb glanced up at him, looking embarrassed. "It's just—I've been with her for so long..." He shifted a little, angling himself toward Matthew. "I can't really imagine not being with her now."
Matthew's anger deflated a little, but when he looked away, he said softly, "That's not really a reason to get married."
"Sure it is," Caleb argued. "You're the one who said it—I have to if I want to stay with her."
Matthew didn't speak for a few seconds. "Do you love her?" he asked. It wasn't what he had meant to ask, and he found his heart constricting strangely with what might have been regret as soon as he spoke.
Caleb stared at the carpet, expressionless. "She's not that bad," he said finally.
"That's not an answer," Matthew objected, his voice rising in exasperation. "Caleb—"
"What the hell else can I do?" Caleb asked. He sat up, suddenly animated. "God, what else—" He flung his hands at the couch and clutched at the seat cushion with his fingers. "What else is there? All those guys who think they're too damned good for relationships, who don't want to settle down—do you think they're happy when they're old and alone, with no family, with—with no one?" His grip on the couch tightened, and he lowered his head. "I just want a goddamned normal life," he said. "Is that too fucking much to ask for?"
"This is how you want to be normal?" Matthew asked softly. "Staying with someone you don't even love..."
Caleb stood up in an abrupt burst of kinetic energy and ran a hand through his hair, then let out an angry sigh and started to walk away from the couch. "It's none of your fucking business," he said.
Matthew bit down slowly onto his tongue and took a deep breath through his nose as his hands twisted anxiously at his t-shirt. He let out the breath and stood up, following Caleb into the kitchen. "Caleb—I know, I'm sorry—"
Caleb stopped at the counter and rested both his hands on it for a moment, then turned and shook his head. "No, don't apologize," he said. "I'm sorry for being an asshole again." He sighed and folded his arms, leaning back against the counter and staring at his feet. "I know it's stupid," he said softly. "It's just—this is what I want." He glanced up at Matthew and gave him a small, rueful smile. "Thanks, though."
Matthew hesitantly matched Caleb's smile and nodded briefly. I just want you to be happy, he would have said, if he were the type of person who knew how to say things like that. But he wasn't, and Caleb probably knew, anyhow.
"I need some pretzels," he muttered instead, kneeling down to retrieve the bag of pretzel sticks he had bought earlier from underneath the sink. He stood up to find Caleb staring at him.
"Is there a reason you're keeping those there?" Caleb asked.
"Julie won't eat any other snacks if she knows we have pretzels in the house," Matthew explained, a little tersely, as he opened the bag and poured some of its contents into a bowl. "She needs to eat more fruits and vegetables."
Caleb snorted. "What about you?"
Matthew looked up at him, smiling reluctantly. "Shut up," he said. "I like them."
"That's a pretty sad guilty pleasure," Caleb remarked, grabbing the bag from Matthew and glancing over the back of it. "They're hardly even bad for you."
"My parents always got the big pretzel rods," Matthew explained defensively, "but the sticks have more surface area, so there's more salt on them."
Caleb grinned and shook his head. "You're pathetic," he said affectionately.
"Yeah, well," Matthew said, pursing his lips. "Do you want some?"
"Unless you have something that's actually deep-fried, sure," Caleb agreed.
"Sorry," Matthew said, his mouth twisting into a smile as he retrieved another bowl for Caleb.
"Thanks," Caleb said when Matthew handed him the bowl.
"Do you want something to drink?" Matthew asked, reaching into a cabinet to get a glass for himself. "I think there's just water and milk though; I finished the soda last night."
Caleb took a glass from Matthew and rolled it contemplatively between his hands. "What happened to my beer?" he asked.
Matthew paused to remember where he had put Caleb's things. "It's in the refrigerator," he said.
Caleb gave him a sheepish look. "Can I have that?"
Matthew frowned. "It's yours."
"Yeah, but—" Caleb shrugged. "It's your place."
Caleb had a point, and Matthew was briefly tempted to tell him to go home if he wanted it. But that was probably a little uncalled for—Caleb deserved a break, after all.
"I don't care," Matthew said. He went to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of water, then left the door open as he headed back toward the living room. "It's down on the bottom shelf."
Matthew sat in the corner of the couch and was joined a few seconds later by Caleb, who was juggling his bowl of pretzels and three cans of the beer. He set two of the cans on the coffee table and fell onto the couch with the remaining can and the pretzels. Matthew let out a faint laugh. "How long are you planning on staying here?" he asked.
"Until you get sick of me?" Caleb said. He grinned and shrugged. "Or—you know, until you need to sleep. I don't have work until Tuesday."
Matthew nodded quickly and chewed on a pretzel stick. "I shouldn't stay up too late," he said.
Caleb smiled. "I'll make sure you get some sleep," he promised. He curled his feet up under him and reached for the remote, turning the television on to reveal the last channel Matthew had been watching. "Lifetime?" he asked, smirking.
Matthew blushed. "It was the only thing on this afternoon."
"I doubt that," Caleb said, but his eyes had latched onto the screen, and it wasn't long until they were both watching the made-for-television movie that was currently showing.
"We really don't have to watch this," Matthew remarked nearly 20 minutes later, carefully licking the salt off one of his remaining pretzel sticks.
Caleb shook his head. "I like it."
"Would you even know what to do with a movie that wasn't completely ridiculous?" Matthew wondered out loud, and Caleb grinned.
"Ridiculous movies are easier to watch," he said. "You don't have to bother caring about them."
Matthew frowned, but Caleb shushed him before he could say anything. "Scary music," Caleb pointed out. "The creepy guy's got to be spying on that girl."
Matthew sighed and leaned back into the couch, starring with some bemusement at the television screen. It took another hour, including commercial breaks, for the movie to finally reach its conclusion, by which point Matthew had finished his pretzels and had moved on to his water, which he sipped intently. "Can we please change the channel now?" he asked the moment the credits started to play.
"Alright, fine," Caleb said, smiling and handing Matthew the remote. "Do you want some of this?" He held up the third can of beer, which he had just opened.
"That's okay," Matthew said, frowning.
Caleb pouted. "Are you sure?"
"I told you, I don't really drink," Matthew said.
Caleb sighed heavily. "You're too fucking responsible," he complained.
Matthew smiled faintly. "I'm not that responsible."
"Yeah, you are," Caleb insisted.
"Well, I am responsible for Julie," Matthew argued. "I mean—if I had to drive her to the hospital or something..."
Caleb smiled and rolled his eyes. "You're not going to get drunk from half a beer."
"Then what's the point?" Matthew asked, smiling quizzically.
"To relax a little."
"I am relaxed," Matthew protested.
Caleb shook his head. "You always look worried about something," he observed.
"Worried about you, maybe," Matthew muttered.
Caleb gave him a strange, sad smile. "Well, see? You shouldn't let me stress you out."
It'll take more than a beer to make me stop worrying about you, Matthew thought, but he just sighed and leaned into the couch and didn't protest when Caleb poured part of the can—less than half, probably—into a glass for himself and placed the can in Matthew's hand. Matthew grimaced as he took a sip of it, but he didn't put it down.
"I mean it about you worrying about me," Caleb said abruptly. "You shouldn't."
Matthew frowned, not sure how to take this. Finally, he said, "I can't really help it."
Caleb shook his head. "I don't deserve it," he explained.
"I'm serious," Caleb insisted, his voice low. He gave Matthew a faint smile. "I'm kind of a fuck-up."
"You're not a fuck-up," Matthew said tolerantly.
"Yeah, I am," Caleb insisted. "Melissa thinks I am. Even my parents think I am.' He smiled thinly and amended, "Well, not as much as they used to, but still."
"Why did they used to?" Matthew asked, frowning.
Caleb laughed. "Because I was," he said. "I didn't do shit with my life. I could've gone to a real university, but I stayed at home and went to a community college with Melissa. I even got into Rice, where both of them teach, but I didn't go." He smiled. "God, they were pissed at me."
"Your parents are professors?" Matthew asked.
"Yeah," Caleb said, nodding. 'My mom teaches public policy and my dad teaches American literature." He smiled again, ironically. "So you can imagine how freaked out they were when I told them I was going to join the fire department instead of going to school."
"Why didn't you?" Matthew asked.
"I just... I didn't want to. I didn't want to do the whole college thing. I would have just taken the test for the fire department right away, but I wasn't old enough. And my parents might have killed me," he added.
"Is that why you moved out here? Because of your parents?"
Caleb shook his head. "They were alright—they kind of got over it... They weren't really mad by the time I left. I just moved out here because Melissa did."
"Oh," Matthew said, and frowned lightly. Then he ventured, "Why did she?"
"Because her friends were out here," Caleb said, grimacing. "A few of them were at Northwestern for college, and she couldn't stand not being able to see them."
"Wow," Matthew said softly.
"I mean—you followed her all the way out here."
"Yeah," Caleb sighed.
"You wanted to stay with her that badly?"
Caleb crossed his arms and shrugged. "I guess," he said, after a moment. "I don't know. I didn't mind moving much. I didn't really have any friends at home."
"I thought you had friends from your soccer team," Matthew said, but Caleb shook his head.
"Most of them went away for college. I didn't really stay in touch with them after that."
"Not even in the summer?"
"I hung out with Melissa and her friends during the summer."
"Wow," Matthew said again.
Caleb grinned. "What? I told you, I'm a fuck-up." Matthew gave Caleb a disapproving look, but Caleb smiled and shook his head. "Don't worry about it," he said. "It's my own fault."
"That doesn't really make me want to worry about you any less," Matthew pointed out.
Caleb frowned and looked away. "It should."
Matthew didn't respond for a few moments. Finally, he sighed softly and said, "You're right; it's none of my business."
"...That's not true," Caleb objected, looking at him. "I mean, I complain to you enough about it to make it your business." He smiled slightly. "You can tell me what to do, if you want; I just don't want you to have to..."
"Care?" Matthew offered quietly.
Caleb fell silent. "Worry," he finally finished, but he looked troubled. "Sorry," he said, uncertainly. After another moment, he added, "Thanks." Matthew gave him a bemused look. "I'm glad you care," Caleb clarified, awkwardly and a little begrudgingly.
"I don't want you to be miserable," Matthew said softly.
"I'm not," Caleb said. Matthew looked doubtful, but Caleb smiled. "I swear," he said, laughing and shifting to rest his right shoulder on Matthew's arm. "I'm pretty happy now."
Caleb's head wasn't exactly on Matthew's shoulder, but it was close enough that Matthew could feel Caleb's hair brushing against his neck.
"That's good," Matthew said, his own voice suddenly sounding oddly distant to his ears.
"Mm," Caleb agreed, sighing against the skin at Matthew's collar. Matthew was suddenly aware that his face felt warm and tingly, but he couldn't remember how or when it had gotten that way. He wasn't even entirely sure if it was a blush or an effect of the beer. He hadn't even finished the partial can Caleb had handed him—he didn't even like beer, hated the smell, like college parties—but it was hard to underestimate his alcohol tolerance. "Sorry I'm such a loser," Caleb murmured. "You really don't have to put up with me."
Matthew sighed. "I keep telling you, I don't mind," he said patiently.
Caleb snorted, and Matthew could feel the warm puff of breath. "Is there anything you mind?" Caleb asked.
"Yeah, sure," Matthew mumbled, shifting in his seat and failing to change Caleb's position any. "I just... don't mind you."
Caleb lifted his head to look at Matthew, and Matthew looked away. He waited for Caleb to either speak or stop staring at him, but Caleb didn't do either—he just tilted his head a little to rest it against the back of the couch, his eyes still on Matthew.
"What?" Matthew asked, embarrassed, as he finally glanced up to meet Caleb's gaze.
Caleb shook his head, not looking away.
"Quit staring at me like that," Matthew complained half-heartedly, returning his gaze to the blank television.
"You've got freckles," Caleb observed abruptly.
Matthew frowned and turned to look at Caleb. "No, I don't."
"Yeah, you do," Caleb said, smiling widely. He pointed to the bridge of Matthew's nose, the lightly roughened tip of his index finger brushing against it briefly. "Right there."
"Those are birthmarks," Matthew argued. There were three of them, little ones, where Caleb had pointed on his nose.
"No, under those," Caleb insisted. "They're kind of pale."
Matthew's frown grew. "I used to have them," he allowed. "Sometimes they come back in the summer, but you can't see them in February."
"You can't," Caleb said. He squinted at Matthew's nose and grinned. "Little splotchy things."
"Gee, thanks," Matthew muttered dryly. He knew he was blushing now, and there wasn't much hope at this point of Caleb not noticing.
"Hey, it's not a bad thing. They're cute."
Matthew's blush intensified spectacularly, but he managed to grumble, "Glad you think so."
"What, my opinion doesn't count?"
Caleb pouted. "Why not?"
"It's my nose."
"You're ridiculous," Caleb said, grinning.
"You're one to talk," Matthew said, smiling reluctantly. "I think I'm definitely the sane one out of the two of us."
"Well, yeah," Caleb agreed with a sigh. He gave Matthew a wry smile. "You'd better not go crazy, either, or I'll be completely helpless."
Matthew rolled his eyes. "You've known me barely two weeks," he reminded Caleb. "You've managed all this time." Was that right? It seemed absurd—he felt like he'd known Caleb for years.
Caleb seemed to be similarly disconcerted. "Really?"
Matthew thought back. "Yeah," he confirmed, after a moment.
"Well, you're stuck with me now," Caleb said apologetically. "I'd be miserable if I didn't have you to complain to." He smiled fondly, then reached out and traced a line with his finger from Matthew's hairline to the tip of his nose. Then he withdrew his hand, leaned forward, and pressed his lips to the supposedly freckled spot on Matthew's nose. He pulled back quickly, but not far—they were close enough that Matthew could feel Caleb's breath on his face.
Unconsciously, Matthew tilted his head up to angle his face toward Caleb's, their breath meeting in the narrow space between them. He was suddenly more aware than ever of how imposing Caleb could be—his broad shoulders, sharp blue eyes, firm hands that were suddenly curled around Matthew's neck and waist. A wave of dizziness hit Matthew, and he found himself squirming slightly, not sure if he was trying to get closer or farther away. Caleb's grip on him tightened, and then somehow—
Somehow Caleb's breath was on his lips, hot and strange, and if he moved his head just a fraction of an inch, he could almost... He could...
He felt Caleb's lips touch his own so faintly that he might almost have imagined it, and then they both jerked away, Caleb staring blankly ahead and Matthew blushing so fiercely he thought he might catch fire.
"Caleb—" he managed to whisper.
"I should go home," Caleb said abruptly. His voice sounded unnaturally loud, but Matthew couldn't tell if it was just that his ears had adjusted to the silence.
"I'm sorry," Matthew blurted, his head finally clearing. Had he really—what the fuck had he just done? "I didn't—I don't..."
Caleb stood up and started to move away, a tight smile flicking across his face. "No, you know—I just—" He pulled at his hair as he pushed his feet into his shoes at the door. "You need to sleep," he said. "It's late... You have work tomorrow..."
Don't leave, please, don't be mad at me, Matthew thought, but he lacked the presence of mind to stand up or say anything other than a hoarse, "Yeah."
Caleb paused, watching him for a moment. "I'll see you later, alright?" he said finally, his voice low.
Then he pulled the door open and was gone, leaving Matthew to sit on the couch, frozen and confused.
Please, please take a second to review, even just to let me know if you're reading this. I'll appreciate it a lot. =) I have absolutely no idea when I'll have the next chapter done because I have something long and rambly written, but I'm not sure if it's the next bit or the bit after that. So we'll see. Not this long again, I promise.