AN: NOT my typical fare (i.e. it's kinda sad), but needed to be written
Hands fell motionless in the middle of tying his blue, silk necktie. His gaze rolled over the image the bathroom mirror presented. Sandy hair lay as neat as his freshly-ironed shirt—a white button-down reserved for interviews and funerals. Despite how nice he appeared, it'd been a long time since he'd observed that haunted expression in his hazel eyes, not since his father informed him he was no longer welcome at the Walsh home.
He startled when two arms slid over his shoulders. Large hands finished pulling the tie end and, then, adjusted the knot before turning the collar down once. Those palms then came to rest, one each, over his sternum and abdomen.
"Feeling a little off this morning, Nathan?" the low voice wove through his ears to wrap around his heart.
Nate smiled, his gaze shifting to appraise the head now resting against his shoulder. As always, the face made his heart attempt to race—not only because it was handsome, but because Nate loved the bearer so very much. "I little I guess."
The dark-eyed man behind him said nothing, simply kept his arms around Nate's shoulders as his warmth spread through Nate's back. A stray lock of coffee-hair draped over an arched brow from where the rest swept away from his face. His appraising gaze, unbending as steel and piercing as a child's wail, locked on Nate's eyes. At last he spoke: "You know, babe, you don't have to go if you don't want to. It's okay to change your mind."
Nate smiled. "I know, Jay. I want to go."
Another pause. Jay sighed. "Or I could stay home if it'd be easier."
Nate frowned and turned in the loose embrace to look upon the real face instead of the mirror's likeness. "Why would that be easier?"
Jay smiled, simple and understanding. "I imaging that it might not be the most comfortable thing in the world to attend your first love's funeral with your current lover there to watch. I can see where it could be rather restrictive."
Nate flushed and glanced away. "He wasn't my first love."
"You liar," Jay chuckled. "Regardless, if it would be easier for you, or even if you simply feel like it, I'll let you go alone. I won't even throw a fit—so long as you promise that when you get back, in order to alleviate my loneliness, we get to have various forms of sex all over this apartment."
Nate chuckled, knowing that Jay wouldn't 'throw a fit' even if Nate said he had no intension of agreeing to the sex—though, really, why would he? How in the world had he ever found someone like Jay? Oh yeah, he'd puked in the street, right on some stranger's shoes, passed out, and then his rescuer had, in Nate's opinion, stupidly, given the hospital his contact information. The only redeeming factor in their meeting was that, despite appearances, Nate had not been drunk or high; only very, very ill. To that day, Nate was certain those were the only reasons Jay had decided to give him the time of day to apologize and try to make amends.
He shook his head and closed his eyes. "No, Jay; I need you with me."
"Alright." Jay leaned down to press a quick kiss over Nate's lips. "Hurry up then. You don't want to be late."
The roaring voice of a hundred happy birds rang through the air, and Nate cursed them for their unreasonable joy. His chest tightened with the sting of tears he refused to cry. This was ridiculous! He hadn't seen Dave in years—sure they talked every now and then over the phone and each time was like the distance between high school and the present simply hadn't happened. Why hadn't the moron, in even one of the many phone calls, told him that he had a heart condition? That the doctors only gave him a year to live without a transplant—three years ago? What kind of crap-justice was it that he'd died while his new heart was en route?
While the musty smell of autumn leaves pressed around him like a cage, he concentrated on the shifting twinge of pain in his palm while he alternated which finger pressed against it within his clenched fists. Nate watched the other attendees filtering away from the graveside—pretty good turn out. Not surprising. Dave attracted people around him like those stupid bug-zapper lights summoned a good sparker. He'd always been like a magnet—some kind of amazing, people-magnet. It must have been his smile. Or his laugh. Both dazzled like the sun, stole breaths, and drove away any notion of bad things. Nate had long been convinced that Dave lived within some sort of barrier that excluded misery, sorrow, and anger, and anyone lucky enough to call him friend, got to share in that barrier whenever he was close.
Nate watched the men and women and a few older children as they all strolled towards their shiny cars in their nice suits—no doubt to head to lunch and, ultimately, on with their lives since, Mrs. Patterson wasn't holding an after-funeral gathering until this weekend. Of course, their shoulders were appropriately bowed, and their heads honoringly lowered. However, Nate couldn't forgive them; they were as bad as the singing birds. They were alive, breathing; they would continue to breathe and live while his best friend lay beneath the unconcerned ground—below the grass that would continue to grow—with only a cold stone to mark the life that burned as bright and intense as sudden lightning.
"Nate? Little Nate Walsh?"
Nate jerked his head to the left in surprise. He hadn't heard anyone approaching, and the title startled him. Very few people in this town should know him, much less know him as 'little Nate Walsh'.
"Mrs. P," he breathed after a moment to allow himself time to sort through what it all meant. She wore a simple black dress and clutched a small, white hanky. "I… I'm sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, sweetheart." The woman smiled a little, sad and lonely at the corners, though her eyes said she was genuinely happy to see him. "It's been such a long time."
He nodded and swallowed hard. "It has." A quick glance around gave him his answer before he asked the stupid question that jumped to his mind—Mr. Patterson stood with Dave's siblings: Rachel and her family; James and his wife Leah; and young Benjamin and Gracie. They all glanced at Mrs. P and Nate before turning back to their conversation after smiling sadly when Nate made eye contact.
"How have you been, dear?" Mrs. P pulled him back to her.
"Oh…" Nate shrugged, suddenly feeling very awkward. Why was she asking him how he was when she'd just buried her eldest son and second child? "I guess I'm making it."
Mrs. Patterson smiled. "I'm glad to hear that. Your parents told me you went a little wild in college."
Nate stiffened and frowned. How much and what exactly had they told her? After all, he thought he'd been rather well-behaved—ranking in the top twenty of a graduating class of seven hundred would be impossible for someone who'd gone a 'little wild'. Coming out didn't mean—
"Of course, David told me they were out of their minds. I'd always thought they were a little off. You'll forgive me for such ungenerous feelings, won't you?"
Nate's eyes snapped back to her face.
She smiled again as she slipped her arm beneath his. "Walk with an old grieving mother?"
"Of course, Mrs. P."
For a while, neither said anything as they passed headstone after headstone, each one reminding Nate of the reason he was there in the first place. Felt like twisting a knife in his chest.
At last, Mrs. Patterson started again. "That young man you came with, Jason, I believe you wrote in the funeral log?"
"Is he your boyfriend?"
Nate flushed a little at the straightforward question and swallowed hard. He was glad she'd started the conversation with what his parents thought of him and what she thought of them, otherwise, the question probably would have floored him. "Well… uhm… my partner, actually… I hope you don't mind that I…"
"Say anything else and I'm going to slap your wrists." She squeezed his arm. "David would have been happy you felt comfortable enough to bring him, just as I am."
"I… I see. Thank you." Why couldn't his parents have been even a sliver as understanding about his life?
"Don't mention it. For all the time you spent at our house as a boy, I feel like you're practically one of my own brood." She smiled up at him. "You really need to visit more often, sweetheart."
Her gaze turned slightly chiding as she shook her head. "Did you think that all those invitations for the holidays were politeness?"
"I guess I did. I'm sorry."
"Will you take them seriously from now on?"
He smiled. "I'll certainly try."
After a few minutes of smooth silences, she started again: "Nate, you were David's best friend. Perhaps you can help me with something I've been trying to decide."
"Well, you see, in his last few days, Dave told me about how throughout high-school, he loved that Elizabeth Holms girl… the druggist's daughter. You remember her?"
"Yeah." Nate nodded. He did. She was just the sort of girl that Dave deserved: pretty, intelligent, strong enough to hold her own in any given situation, but savvy enough to let her man take care of certain things—not squish his pride like some kind of raving feminist psycho. Still, the idea that Dave been in love with the blue-eyed beauty hurt. Why hadn't Dave told him? Sure, they talked about dates and who they'd take to which dances, with Nate aching every time he had to nod and say Dave should take this or that girl, when he wanted to scream that Dave should take him. Dave had never shown any particular regard for the town beauty. Why hadn't Nate guessed for the way he watched Dave like a love-sick puppy? Was that why David never married or even had a serious girlfriend throughout and then after college?
"I'm trying to decide if I should tell her or not."
"I guess I figured that if David wanted her to know, he'd have told her himself."
Nate shrugged a little. "Dave was always a little quiet about his feelings."
"Not at the end," Mrs. Patterson laughed and reached up to wipe the tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.
Nate wasn't sure he wanted to hear this—hear what Dave apparently never thought he needed to know. But Mrs. Patterson obviously felt the need to talk about it. He squeezed the hand wrapped around his upper arm. He would let her.
The woman patted his fingers. "Even when he couldn't breathe, he'd get this far-off look in his eyes, and start talking about high-school. Of course, it was a little hard to understand half of what he said, because of the partial stroke he had six months ago." She sighed and shook her head. "'Mom,' he'd always start as if he hadn't already told me, 'Did you know I fell in love in high-school? Betsy was the best. Always there for me. I hope Betsy's happy. Sounded happy last time we talked. Ah… Betsy…' It always got a little harder to hear him after that—running out of breath." She stopped speaking and wiped her eyes again.
Nate realized he'd stopped walking, eyes wide and tongue plastered to the roof of his mouth. No; it couldn't be what he thought. But yes; it had to be what he thought. Dave didn't call Elizabeth Holms 'Betsy'; he called her 'Lizzy'. Elizabeth Holms would skin anyone who tried to call her 'Betsy'—just like she had that middle-school boy who did so when they were all in the third grade. The only one who had a name even close to that was—him. Bitsy—the idiot who hummed kiddy-lullabies in the showers after ball practice—wasn't his fault his little sister had to have someone singing to her whenever he helped her bathed; it had just become habit…
Oh my god… He clamped his free hand over his mouth. Oh my god… Was he the reason that Dave had never married or had a serious girl friend? What kind of sick joke was this? No, this had to be some twisted mistake. He was misreading the situation and the words. What kind of horrid justification would this be to find out that they had both actually been in love with each other at the same time and simply missed their chance?
"You didn't know that he crushed for Betsy?" Mrs. Patterson prompted.
He glanced down at her, jarred from his thoughts, and shrugged. A slight chuckled made its way from his throat at her odd twisting of the terminology. "I think everyone had a crush on Betsy; even me," he acknowledged. She was amazing.
"I see. Well, what do you think? Would Dave want me to tell her?"
Nate shook his head, too stunned to say much. He realized he had to say something, give some reason for it. "I…" He sounded like a dying frog. "I don't think he would."
Mrs. Patterson nodded. "I suppose you're right. He did say that she had a lot of fine suitors, and by the time he realized it was real, he'd lost his chance: that she'd fallen in love with someone else—and by then, Dave had found out about his heart. Still, I think he wanted her to be happy. I think he was happy just to know her, and to know that she was still out living her life. That, somewhere, someone stronger than him was loving her."
Nate blinked against the stinging in his eyes when he realized they'd completed a circuit of the small cemetery and now stopped again. Elizabeth Holms, last he heard was still single—happily bouncing from lover to lover like a flower-hopping bee. When Mrs. P reached up to touch his face, he glanced over to the mother of his best friend.
"I did mean it when I said I felt like you were one of my own. Don't be a stranger from now on, my little Nate Walsh. I still remember how to make those muffins you like so much."
Nate choked on the lump in his throat when he tried to speak. The look in her eyes, the smile on her face—something in his heart whispered that perhaps she also guessed that Dave would never refer to Elizabeth Holms as 'Betsy'.
Mrs. Patterson shook her head and turned to her right. "Thank you for bringing him, Mr. Kline. I do hope we all get to meet again under happier circumstances."
"I would enjoy that, Mrs. Patterson. You have my deepest sympathy for your loss."
Nate slumped forward when her strong hand pressed against the small of his back to push him towards Jay. After a moment of silent staring, Nate dropped his forehead against Jay's shoulder and let the tears go when the taller man slipped his arms around Nate's trembling shoulders. While he could let himself cry beneath the comfort of Jay's rich cologne, he couldn't let himself make any noise, so he just stood there, shedding silent tears against the understanding presence of his ever-patient beloved.
"It's okay," Jay murmured as he slid his strong fingers through the wavy locks on Nate's head. "Everything's gonna be fine."
Nate tightened his fingers around Jay's suit jacket. "I love you," he murmured, his heart overflowing with the pure, honest sentiment. Yes, he'd loved Dave, and probably always would, but even that hero-worshipping Dave-could-do-no-wrong-love paled beside this unfathomable passion that roiled in his breast when he considered Jay's constant understanding and his selfless affection.
"Well, of course," Jay chuckled.
Nate frowned and looked up. "Don't be an ass right now."
Jay laughed again and leaned down to kiss Nate's temple. "Ask me how I know."
Nate pressed his lips together and looked away.
"How do you know?"
"Because…" Jay's fingers slid under Nate's chin to direct his face and his gaze back to meet his own. "You're crying on my shoulder instead of that gravestone. I'm not afraid of your regard for him, nor will I ever grow afraid of it. I don't have to compete with a memory when you're by my side, in my arms, and in my bed."
Nate closed his eyes before whispering: "Tell me that you love me."
"I love you."
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