Author's Note: ATTN: I'm so freaking sorry. Are you guys ready for my list of excuses? I didn't think so, and it doesn't matter because there really is no excuse for leaving you guys hanging with one chapter left to go, but it's about to happen again because this is only half a chapter lol. I just figured I better go ahead and post something because I've been stressing about it super hard, and I don't want to be an asshole. If you all will allow me just one excuse, I will say that I've recently bought my first house and been busy doing a ton of work on it, but all of that HAS to be done by the end of the year when I have to move out of my rental, and I'm planning a designated writing area in my new place that I HOPE will encourage me to be a little more active with it, so maybe the final (hopefully final) chapter will only be like, one month away?

I really am just so sorry, life has been running away with me lately and I haven't had the energy to actually put words on the page, but my brain spends every spare moment it can get running off into imaginary worlds and coming up with new ideas, so I know the creative juices are still there. It's just a motivation issue, but as usual the series of recent guilt-tripping reviews that I received spurred me into action yet again. My reviewers are THE BEST, you guys are what keep me going, so please let me know your thoughts on this chapter, or if you don't have any thoughts just drop a line and let me know that you're reading and want to see this story finished. From the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry.


~ Jessie

Chapter 49

Part I

24/77 = 0.31169 = 31.2% dead

I wake up to the gentle chirping of birds, a warm sort of glow through my eyelids, and a sense of vague discomfort that I eventually identify as having a very full bladder. Jase's arm is slung low across my abdomen, putting several more pounds of pressure right in the worst possible place, and I grimace and quickly push it away, rolling towards the edge of the bed, my eyes still closed.

I've barely made it a couple of inches before I feel his hand sliding across my stomach again, and he scoots closer to me, wrapping his entire arm around my torso and pressing his chest to my back.

"Stop it, I have to pee…" I grumble, wriggling out of his grip again.

The only response I get is a soft snore, and when I finally open my eyes I find him fast asleep in the very middle of the bed, his head taking up more than half of my pillow.

I laugh a little to myself, and then twist around to kiss his temple before slipping out from under the sheets.

Bed hog.

When I get back from the bathroom, now feeling much more inclined to cuddle, he has his arm draped all the way across, his hand hanging off the edge of the mattress. "Jase…" I whine, as I crawl back under the covers and give his shoulder a gentle push. "Move over, you're taking up the whole bed."

Again, without even waking up, he wraps his arm around me and snuggles up close, so I give in and just let him. I kiss his bicep, hook my knee over his hip to get just a little closer and then draw in a sharp breath when I feel his hardness against my own groin. His body is warm, it feels comforting and familiar under my hands, and I can't help myself from running my palms over his back, up his chest, through his hair.

I feel his breathing start to change, it gets a little faster, a little shallower, his arms tighten up and he presses forward with his hips. This time when I kiss his neck he reciprocates with one to my forehead.

"Oh, you're awake?" I inquire, leaning back to look at him.

He still has his eyes closed.

"I'm not really sure," he mumbles, which I take as a pretty airtight confirmation, although his dimples would have given him away anyway.

"Well, good morning then," I tease, digging my fingertips into his back and starting to gently grind against his thigh.

"Mmm, good morning," he replies, all smiles. "I like this much better than the first time I woke up today."

"What?" I demand, pushing myself up on one elbow. "When was that?"

I'm pretty certain I was close to comatose all morning.

He yawns and rolls onto his back, stretching both arms above his head. "Like, eight or something. I woke up and you were still asleep on my shoulder and my whole arm was completely numb, I couldn't move it at all."

"Oh my God, didn't I tell you that was going to happen?" I exclaim smugly.

He just shrugs. "I mean, yeah, but it was worth it."

"Would it have been worth it if your arm had been irreversibly damaged?" I challenge. "What if my stupid, fat head cut off all your circulation, and then your arm cells couldn't get any oxygen, and then you got gangrene and had to have the whole thing amputated?"

"I mean, that could be pretty badass," he reasons, holding his hand up in front of his face and pumping his fist a few times, I guess just to make sure everything's in working order once again. "Would you still want to be with me if I lost my arm even after you had specifically warned me about the dangers of cuddling?"

"Of course," I tell him, "mostly because I'd just feel so fucking guilty for being the cause of your gangrene, but I'm sure I could get used to you being one-armed. It wouldn't be a big deal."

He grins. "Okay, fair enough. What if I had no arms though?"

"I mean, that depends," I answer. "If you lost your second arm for the same dumb reason as the first I think I would stop feeling sorry for you."

"Okay, okay, it was like, a freak accident or something. Totally unrelated."

"Then I think that would be fine," I say pensively. "I mean, sex would take some figuring out, and I would have to carry stuff for you all the time, but I could work with it."

"Okay, so then what if…" he begins, eyes twinkling, "I had no arms, and as a result of that was also unable to wax my unibrow ever again?"

"I thought Andrea waxed your unibrow," I point out.

I thought that's what friends were for.

"She does, but this is hypothetical. No arms and a unibrow, would you still want to date me?"

"I mean, even in this hypothetical Andrea-less scenario I'm pretty sure I could figure out how to wax your unibrow," I claim. "It can't be that hard."

"That's missing the whole point though," he argues. "I'm just trying to figure out like, what would be the last straw, you know? At what point would I be so unattractive that you just couldn't be with me anymore?"

"Well, the unibrow definitely isn't a dealbreaker," I assure him. "I saw it a few times during Andrea's video montage, there's still like, somewhat of a space between - "

"Not if you get up close, dude."

I roll my eyes. "Well, it doesn't matter anyway. I would definitely find it unattractive if you had some sort of like, insane personality shift, if you all of a sudden got really mean or something, but I'm pretty sure I would still love you no matter what you looked like," I determine.

And I expect him to come back at me with some even more wildly unlikely scenario, like if he also had no teeth and never clipped his toenails again in his life, but for several seconds he doesn't say anything at all. He just looks at me, little hints of dimples hiding behind his beard, eyes warm and sleepy and sweet, and then he reaches out to trace the edge of my jaw. "I would still love you with no arms and a unibrow too," he says.

And there's the usual playful lilt to it, but still his gaze is so tender, his voice so soft, that for a second I feel like I must be missing something. "I don't…I would never have a unibrow though, I wouldn't let being armless stop me from getting it waxed…" I defend, slightly bemused, but his smile just gets wider, until his eyes are crinkled up at the corners and the lines in his cheeks start to show, and that's when it dawns on me. "Oh!" I exclaim, pressing my fingertips to my lips. "I…did I just…?"

He gives a casual shrug, and his thumb brushes back and forth over my cheekbone. "In a roundabout way."

A warm, sort of bubbly sensation starts to swell up inside my chest, and I shake my head, slightly disoriented, because somehow that was just about as easy as it possibly could have been, so effortless that I didn't even realize I was doing it, and all those weeks of needless agonizing seem so silly now that I actually laugh out loud. "Well…yeah, I…" I look back up at him, right into his eyes, my heartbeat slow and steady and regular, my lungs strong and elastic and somehow full of just the right amount of air. "I love you," I tell him simply, calmly. "Of course I love you, you know that, you knew it before even!"

"I know," he agrees, still in that affectionate tone of voice, "but it's nice to hear anyway."

I smile back at him, positively elated, press my body even more tightly to his and pull him close so I can cradle his head against my shoulder. "I love you," I repeat, just as painlessly as the first time, feeling the way his arms tighten around me and his breath gets a little uneven against my skin.

"God, I love you too," he murmurs, peppering kisses down my neck.

I kiss his forehead in return, run my fingers through his curls and lightly scratch up and down his side, paying attention to the way he keeps his face hidden in my chest, the way he seems to shudder and melt against me when I wrap my arms around him again.

And I understand what it means. He's been waiting for my love for what - to him, at least - must feel like so long, he's wanted it so badly, maybe even needed it a little, but he never demanded it, never asked me for anything I wasn't ready to give, he would never do that to me, never do that to anyone, he's too good, too kind…

"Hey," I say softly, stroking his cheek, then the corner of his eye, where the skin always stays slightly creased even when he's sleeping, I guess just from all those years of smiling, of somehow finding a way to keep on laughing even when he was at his most lonely. "Listen, I know it took me a stupidly long time to say it, and I'm sorry - "

"It's okay," he cuts in earnestly, lifting his head to look at me with wide, sincere eyes. "You weren't ready yet, that's okay."

"I know," I assure him, "but you were. You said it first, you went ahead and put yourself out there even though you knew there was a strong possibility you could get hurt, and that's…Jase, that's so brave of you!"

He drops his gaze and reaches up to fidget with a lock of hair hanging in his face. "I mean, I just said what I felt in the moment, it wasn't like, some huge, premeditated thing…"

"It doesn't have to be," I reply. "It's terrifying anyway, and I know you've done it before and had it not turn out so well for you in the end, so it's just…it's really brave of you to be willing to try again."

"I wouldn't say it's necessarily bravery so much as desperation," he jokes lightly, but I shake my head.

"No, it is bravery," I assert firmly, squeezing his shoulder for emphasis. "You are incredibly brave, Jase. You're strong, and resilient, and absolutely fucking heroic, and I'm so grateful to you for it because I couldn't have done that. I was too scared, I wouldn't have been able to fall in love with you if I wasn't completely sure that you loved me too, and knew how to take care of me…"

I trail off for a moment while I gather my thoughts, absent-mindedly tugging on a fistful of curls as I attempt to clutch him just a little bit tighter, just in case some catastrophic force of nature were to tear through this bedroom and try to rip him out of my arms, because I can't let that happen, not after all this, not now that I've seen how human he really is…

Because everyone, I think, sees most of him. He doesn't keep many secrets, doesn't hold back many of his thoughts. He's all over the internet, all the time. Every day he's posting new music, new professor videos, he's doing interviews, writing articles, working on some project or another, and through it all he appears nothing but happy, upbeat, and positive. He's utterly inspiring, to an almost super-human degree, and everyone knows that, everyone admires him for it, they all come to his birthday party and they laugh and talk and drink with him, they give him handmade cards and quirky little gifts, they listen to him sing and they cheer when he's finished and tell him he's amazing, and in return he loves them all, calls them by name, gives them big bear hugs and tells them he's missed them and asks how their parents are doing these days.

But I bet none of them have ever seen him like I have, at 5:00 a.m. with tears in his eyes and his head in his hands, desperate to help but terrified of not knowing what to do. I'm sure they've never heard his voice the way I have, low and unsteady and ashamed, yet still managing to thoughtfully describe in painful detail just what it felt like to realize he wasn't loved anymore. They've never felt his body like I have, never run their fingertips over the bumpy ridges of scar on his thigh, never asked where it came from, never listened to him brush aside the guilt and stoically explain that he just wished it could have actually been for something in the end.

I have a feeling that nobody else knows him quite like that, knows that really, deep down, he might be almost as fragile as I am, just in different ways, for different reasons, simply because he's a part of the human species and we're all too highly evolved, too cognitive and self-aware, not to crave closeness and connection and understanding.

"So thank you," I continue quietly, my lips gently brushing the shell of his ear as I speak, "for being brave enough to put yourself out there, and waiting on me to figure everything out, because I know it wasn't easy for you. I know that," I add pointedly, in response to his sudden intake of breath. "You can try to argue and say that it's fine, and it's not a big deal, and it doesn't matter, but I know it had to be scary. I know it had to be frustrating to keep being patient with me all the time, but you did it anyway, and I'm so grateful because I needed that so badly..."

"I know," he murmurs, rubbing his hand up and down my spine a couple times. He must be able to hear the tightness in my voice. "And I would have waited as long as I had to."

"But you don't have to anymore," I reply, pressing my lips to his temple. "I know you've been lonely, for a long time, way longer than you deserved, but I…I just want you to know that I'm here now," I declare firmly. "I'm here, and I love you, and I'm going to take care of you just as well as you've taken care of me."

I hear a hiss of breath, and his body gives a slight shudder against mine, hand clamping down around my ribcage.

I squeeze him back with as much strength as I can muster, because I need him to understand this, that my love runs just as deeply as his even when I can't find the words to explain it, that he's safer from what he most fears than he has ever been before, that I've seen him, I've understood him, I've listened to his story and felt his pain like it was my own and I'm not going to let him be lonely like that again.

"Shh, it's okay…" I whisper, rubbing my hand up and down his back, trying to soothe out the tension in his muscles.

He shivers again, letting out a guttural sort of groan, and I feel his teeth lightly close down on my shoulder as his hips rock upward, pressing hard against mine. I let my forehead fall against his, hitching my knee up over his thigh again so we can be even closer together, gently tracing the contours of his face. In return he nuzzles his cheek into my palm and kisses down to my wrist, eyes still held tightly shut.

"Hey, it's okay," I repeat, my heart positively aching, as he curls down against my chest once more, arms locked around me and his face tight and contorted. "Everything's going to be okay, you'll see," I ramble on. "I'm going to take such good care of you, I swear to God…"

"Fuck," he exclaims weakly, sniffing and rubbing at his eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry dude, I'm really fine, just let me pull myself together…"

"No, it's okay," I insist, raising up on my elbow, one hand gliding back and forth over his chest. That now-familiar sense of fiery determination that tends to creep up on me whenever he seems the least bit vulnerable is back, that fierce, irresistible urge to protect him from whatever existential threat might be present, so I reach up to stroke his face again, firmly smoothing out the worry lines, saying, "Look at me."

He does. He wraps his hand around mine, pulls it down to his chest and places it right over his heart, and he gazes up at me with those warm, sweet eyes, open and passive and completely trusting.

"I love you so much," I tell him, starting to rub his chest again when I feel it hitch a little under my palm. "I know it took forever, but I'm so sure of it. So you don't have to worry about that anymore, you don't have to be strong all the time, you don't have to be perfect, you don't have to pull yourself together right now or anything like that because I love you anyway, no matter what." I lean down to kiss him, unintentionally letting out a moan at the careful, tender way his arms wrap around my waist as I do. "I'm all yours, Jase," I murmur against his lips, before diving in for another kiss. "You've got me, you fucking own me."

"Oh, fuck," he mutters again, shifting over onto me, until I'm flat on my back being pressed into the mattress by the weight of his hips against mine.

I moan and wriggle a little beneath him, trying to create some friction for myself, because I can't help it, I can't resist, his body feels too fucking good.

He groans appreciatively and pulls back to look at me again with a faint smile on his lips, slowly shaking his head. "Jesus Christ, Braden, are you out of your mind?" His eyes roam up and down my torso for a few seconds, one hand following suit, and then he leans forward to kiss his way back up my neck, growling, "You fucking own me."

I feel my face unconsciously relax, feel my whole body go slack in his hands, and my mind goes blissfully blank as everything else disappears, everything except for the sensation of his breath on my skin, the tickle of his beard brushing over my throat, the tingle that shoots down my spine when his lips find a sensitive spot.

"Oh, damn," I say with a breathy giggle. "That feels good..."

"Yeah?" I can hear the smile in his voice as he heads down my throat and starts scattering kisses across both sides of my uneven collarbone.


He surfaces for a moment, eyes moving up and down my exposed abdomen again, fingertips lightly tracing their way over my longest, ugliest scar, and despite the fact that this is the most perfect moment of my life, despite the fact that his gaze has never once felt remotely close to critical, I can't do anything to stave off this insidious anxiety that always seems to want to sneak up on me at the worst possible times.

My stomach clenches up and, as usual, I have to look away first.

"Jase, I just - " I begin in a small voice, "I mean, you're going to hate me but I just have to like..."

"I can think of very few things less likely to happen right now than me all of a sudden hating you," he comments, amused, when I find myself unable to form a coherent sentence.

"Okay, I know, but you're going to be like, annoyed, and I just don't want - "

He shuts me up with a pointed kiss, eyes crinkly and sparkling. "What is it?" he asks patiently.

So I guess things are back to normal if I'm the basket case again.

I suppose that's good…

"I just...I know we've had this discussion before but I still can't like, not worry about it," I fret. "And I'm sorry, I don't mean to be like this or waste your time or anything - "

"You've never wasted my time," he counters, "and you don't need to apologize for existing. Just tell me what's wrong."

I sigh and start to rub my own hand back and forth over my stomach, screwing my face up into a grimace because even after almost 25 years I still can't stand the way it feels, all ridged and uneven and objectively, indisputably ugly. I don't know how to not feel ashamed of it, I don't know how to not be a little bit sad and a lot angry, because it's not fair, not to me or him. He deserves someone beautiful, someone whole and unmarred, someone bold and sexy and confident that he doesn't constantly have to reassure, and as hard as I may try I know I will never be that.

As long as he's with me he will always be getting less than he deserves, and I don't know why he would settle for that.

"Just...are you sure all this is like...okay?" I inquire softly, waving a hand over the general unsightly mess that is my body.

"What do you mean?" he asks, brow tightening in concern.

"'re really okay with this...this situation?" I press, still somehow unable to believe it. "You really want to be with me even though I look like this?"

His frown deepens and he shakes his head dazedly. "Braden, I - of course I do! I want to be with you more than...I mean, more than anything, I honestly don't want to be with anyone else for the rest of my life if I can help it, and I don't mean for that to freak you out," he adds quickly, "this isn't like, a binding contract or anything, I know I'm getting way ahead of myself, but I just...I don't understand." He reaches up to touch my face again, his expression troubled. "I love you exactly the way you are. I think you're so beautiful, and I just want you to feel sure of that - "

"No, I know," I cut in, frustrated. "You tell me all the time, I don't know why I can't just believe you!"

"I'll tell you as many times as you need to hear it," he promises. "Fifty times a day if it'll make a difference."

"You shouldn't have to do that," I grumble, unconsciously starting to wiggle my way back under the covers.

He grabs the edge of the sheet and holds it firmly in place. "I mean, it's not like it's a hard thing to do. All it requires is just taking a thought that's already in my head all the time and expressing it out loud."

"Yeah, but…" I let out a long, forlorn sort of sigh. "Ugh, I'm so stupid…"

"You're not stupid," he counters calmly. "You're very intelligent."

"If I'm so fucking intelligent then why am I even worried about this?" I gripe.

He gives a gentle laugh and reaches out to stroke my face. "Because you just tend to worry about things a lot, and that's…I mean, Braden, it's not like, a surprise to me," he explains. "I never thought that you were not like this. I know you, and I love you, and I just want to reassure you whenever you're worried, and make you feel better, and…and maybe help you realize that you don't need to worry so much when you're with me."

"Oh God…" I cover my face with my hands, practically drowning underneath the weight of this overwhelming sweetness that I didn't do anything to earn. "I just…I feel so self-conscious," I admit ashamedly. "And I know you say I shouldn't, but I mean…Jase, you were with Scott of all fucking people. I've never seen a real person that gorgeous in my life, I - I can't compare to that!"

"It's not a competition," he informs me, like that's supposed to fucking help or something.

"I know that, but - "

"Hey, hey, calm down." He shifts off of me and raises up on one elbow instead, making gentle circles over my scarred-up abdomen with his other palm. "Look, I understand," he assures me. "Scott is a very good-looking guy - "

I let out an unintentional snort of cynical laughter. "You don't say…"

"He's also," Jase continues, with a reprimanding look, "a grade-A narcissist who took advantage of everything I'm most insecure about."

I immediately shut up, fixing him with my full attention. "I'm sorry," I whisper, instantly regretful.

"It's okay," he says. "I just - look, the whole Scott thing was…pretty weird, and I haven't really told you the extent of it, which I probably should. We were never officially dating or anything, but he actually, um…" He pauses for a moment to scratch his head, a sheepish expression on his face. "He was actually living with me for a few months," he confesses. "Like, here in this house. I mean, it was as roommates," he mimes quotation marks in the air with his fingers, "or whatever, but it's not like he paid rent or anything. He laid around on my couch and drank my beer and smoked my weed, and we did have pretty frequent sex, it was even pretty good most of the time, but he would always go back and sleep in the guest room when it was over, and then some nights he would go out and come back really late looking all hot and bothered, and I mean, I knew what he was doing but it's not like I could say anything."

I just stare back at him, open-mouthed, too stunned to think up any sort of response.

"And I shouldn't have let that happen," he adds after a moment. "I should have had more self-respect, and I should have known better, because I had already done basically that exact thing for two years with Oliver. I mean, Oliver and I were actually officially dating," he revises, "but still…he lived in my apartment for free and smoked my weed and spent a ridiculous amount of my money and looked so fucking gorgeous doing it that I barely even cared, and when he started getting all quiet and mysterious and going out without me and coming back with bite marks on his neck I just deluded myself into thinking it wasn't what it obviously was, because I didn't want to believe it."

I draw in a slow, shaky breath, reaching out for his hand and lacing my fingers between his. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry…" I murmur.

"You don't need to be sorry," he informs me, lips twisting into a wry smile. "I dug my own grave in both cases, I'm just saying I…I understand your concern." He takes a second to swallow and rub at his brow. "I tend to kind of…lose my sense of rationality," he decides, "around really, really beautiful guys, and it's something I'm very aware of, and something I had been seriously, consciously thinking about ever since things ended with Scott, and that's the whole reason I was so upset with myself for falling for you so quickly."

"What - what do you mean?" I ask, bewildered. "I don't see what that has to do with it…"

"Braden, you're a really, really beautiful guy," he explains, fingertips still lightly tracing my skin. "I guess you just honestly don't see it, but I sure as hell do. I mean, the very first time I saw you walk into that studio I was completely blown away, and that was when I had just seen you from the front too," he adds, eyes flicking up to meet mine as his dimples sink deep into his cheeks.

I let out a reluctant laugh and land a weak punch to his shoulder. "Shut up."

"And then," he continues, twinkly-eyed, "I got a view from behind, and we've discussed how I feel about that - "

"Stop it!" I protest. "Scott totally has a better ass than me, I checked it out last night."

"No, he doesn't," Jase argues. "Oliver didn't either. I like it nice and cushiony."

"Well, I have got plenty of cushion…" I remark dryly.

"I love it," he says. "I love you."

I sigh again and reach up to run my fingers through his hair. "Yeah, but you just…you just don't know how amazing you are," I try. "You don't have to settle for a mess like me, you could have anybody you wanted."

And I expect him to keep arguing with me, because that's undoubtedly what I would do in his position, but instead he just gives a little shrug and says, "I know."

My stomach clenches up again and I just look at him wordlessly, very taken aback.

"Look, I'm not trying to be cocky," he clarifies. "I think I'm generally a pretty self-aware person, I think I have a good sense of who I am and how other people perceive me and I'm just saying that…" He trails off and chews on the corner of his lip, like he's sifting through his thoughts. "I mean, I realize that despite not being conventionally handsome I have a lot of other things going for me, and I've never really had trouble meeting guys who were interested in me on some level. At least not since I started college."

Yeah. Judging by that list of exes Andrea rattled off yesterday he hasn't had any trouble at all.

"But that doesn't…it doesn't really mean anything," he continues, when I don't reply. "Guys like me because I'm nice to them, and I'm not selfish in bed, and I'll take them out and pay for everything, and they would probably like anybody who treated them that way. Just because I don't have trouble getting a date doesn't mean I have the ability to automatically attract some perfect-looking person that also interests me intellectually, and relates to me emotionally, and wants to come into my life and do all these things that I like doing with me, and gives me the time and attention that I just crave so badly for some reason…"

Oh God, why does it physically hurt so much to see him this pained, why does it make my chest throb and my stomach drop out from under me and my eyes start to sting a little? "Jase…" I say softly, my fingers closing around his wrist, pulling him towards me so I can hold him close and kiss away the worry lines once more. "I will give you that. I promise."

"I know dude, that's what I'm saying." He fixes me with an even gaze and takes a deep, slow breath. "I remember the day we met perfectly. You came in looking super fucking cute with messed up hair and those glasses you're always so concerned about, and then you came closer and I realized that you were actually gorgeous, not just cute, and then you turned around to say something to your uncle and I just about lost it - "

"Stop it!" I order. "You're exaggerating, my ass is not that exciting."

He just laughs. "I'm serious, dude. Then we talked for a minute and you were funny, and kind of a smartass, and I could tell you were intelligent, and then I heard you play and I realized how incredibly talented you were, and I remember just being like 'oh, Jesus, here we fucking go again…'"

"You thought I was going to be another Oliver," I infer.

"That's definitely what I was afraid of," he confirms, "but I was just…I couldn't help it, I was so attracted to you, and the more time we spent together the more I realized how unlike both Scott and Oliver you were. You're just so sweet, and unselfish, and like - and that's the thing about you."

I can practically see his mind switching tracks as he leans back a little and starts to get his hands involved in the conversation.

"You always get so stressed out and worried that you're being selfish, and it's like, selfish people don't even have that awareness, dude! Actual selfish people don't worry about being selfish, that's an inherently unselfish thing to do because it implies that you do give a shit about other people's feelings, you don't want to do something selfish, and from what I've seen you really don't."

"Yes I do!" I protest, before I've even taken half a second to think about it. "I mean, I…well, here, last night I hid a couple of those snitches in places where I knew nobody would look because I wanted to be able to find them for myself, and I had like, four cupcakes - "

I can't even finish my sentence because he's laughing over me so loudly. "Dude, you are so hard on yourself," he declares. "You're ridiculous, both of those examples are so fucking minor, that's not what I'm talking about at all. You're such a genuinely kind, caring person, I mean, I've never met anybody else in my life who would have done what you did for Irene - "

"I didn't visit her enough," I cut in harshly, because if he starts going on about Irene I'm definitely going to break down and I don't want to do that right now. "We've already talked about this."

"Well, I don't know anybody else who gives a shit about drunk Phil then," he tries.

"He just - he had puke all over him, and then he looked cold, I couldn't leave him like that."

"Did you notice how everybody else but you did though?"

Well...I guess that's technically true.

"I'm not saying that like it's good," he elaborates. "The rest of us should definitely learn a thing or two from you, because you're the only one who did the compassionate thing."

"Well, it - it was mostly logistical though," I argue weakly. "He passed out on the bathroom floor, he was in the way."

"Why are you so determined to convince me that you're just as shitty as everyone else?" he asks, that same infuriatingly amused little smile playing on the corners of his lips.

"Because I just think you have this idea of me that's so much better than what I really am!" I tell him, starting to panic a little at how unseriously he's taking this. "And I'm scared - I'm selfishly scared," I add pointedly, "that you'll eventually realize it and want to take all this back and I'll be alone again - "

My voice breaks without warning, and Jase's expression immediately softens. "Hey…" he murmurs, knuckles gently brushing over my cheek. "It's not selfish to be scared of being alone. I've been scared of that my whole life, everybody else I know is scared of that too."

I just breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth, staring up at the ceiling unblinkingly, and certainly not about to cry again.

"You know when I knew that I for sure loved you?" he speaks up finally.

I shake my head silently, a little jerkily, mostly just focused on fighting back these stupid, pointless tears.

"Like, literally a few minutes before I told you," he informs me, with a roll of his eyes. "I can't keep anything to myself for very long, but anyway, I got a chance to talk to your granddad for a little bit at your uncle's party - "

"Yeah, because I walked off and left you with him, because I'm an asshole," I interject.

He just laughs some more, just like always. "Dude, I didn't care, your granddad's cool. He had some really nice things to say about you."

"Well, yeah, everyone's grandparents say nice things about them…"

"He said that when you were fourteen," Jase continues, ignoring me, "and your nana got cancer, you stayed with her and took care of her every single day."

Oh, shit. This is not a good subject to get on if I want to not cry.

"I didn't - I didn't take care of her," I object, voice starting to waver a little. "I just like, cooked for her and helped her remember when to take her pills and - and tied a scarf around her head…"

"Your uncles didn't do that," he says, like he was there and has any fucking idea. "Your brother didn't."

"They were busy," I choke out. "They were adults with lives and jobs and kids and stuff, and Riley just…he was too freaked out, she got all skinny and frail and lost her hair and he just couldn't deal with it, and my granddad was off flying planes all the time, and there was just nobody else to do it!"

"Doing a good thing out of necessity is still doing a good thing," he declares, "and you seem to have a pretty strong history of doing good things for people. It almost makes me think that you're like, I don't know, a good person or something…"

I gasp in a sharp, ragged breath, eyes squeezing shut, tears spilling over. "Don't…" I plead through clenched teeth. "I'm not as good as you think I am."

"Or maybe you're better than you think you are," he counters.

"Yeah, but…I'm ugly though," I attempt next.

"I don't think so. I think you're beautiful."

"I…smoke too much weed."

"Me too. Maybe we can both try to cut back together."

I sniff and press my fingers into the corners of my eyes. "I have like, major anxiety issues."

"I've noticed. That doesn't mean I don't love you."

"Well…some days I feel so shitty that I can't even get out of bed in the morning." Although now that I think about it, I don't believe I've done that since I met him.

"Dude, we're still in bed right now," he points out. "Clearly I'm a fan of lazy morning pillow talk."

And even though he seems to have a perfect rebuttal for every point that I bring up, there's still one card I haven't played yet, the one I'm so afraid to because it really might be the final straw, the ultimate dealbreaker, and I don't want to tell him, don't want to risk sending him running, but at this point it feels like a lie not to. My diaphragm starts to tremble as I draw in one more shuddering breath. "My dad is schizophrenic and it runs in families and I could go crazy at any minute," I rattle out in monotone.

It's all quiet for the longest, most agonizing second of my life, but then I feel his fingertips under my jaw, and he tilts my head a little to the side, until his searching eyes finally lock with mine and I find it impossible to look anywhere else.

"I'm not afraid of that," he tells me clearly, evenly. "You know I'd do anything in the world to keep you from being hurt, but if it's unavoidable, if it's something I have no power over, then I still want to be there. I want to do everything I can to help you get through it."

My whole body locks up, clenches in, quivers, and another round of hot, bitter tears pour from my eyes. The idea that he would do for me what I didn't do for my father is too much, is proof that I'm not good enough for him, that he deserves someone so much better, and it's not fair that I'm the best he can find, it shouldn't be this way…

"Braden, don't cry," he soothes.

I just shoot him a tear-streaked glare. "I can't help it!"

"Okay, fair enough, cry then," he agrees through a laugh. "Just come here and let me hold you, at least."

And as much as I know I should resist, deny myself the unjustified comfort of being wrapped in his arms, I can't stop myself from rolling over and curling up against his chest. He kisses the top of my head and runs his hand up and down my spine, and it feels so good, I feel so safe, I love him so much, I'm completely hopeless, and I just pray to God that this is really real, because I don't know how I could possibly survive being this weak and fragile and eviscerated without him.