Run and Hide Pt. 04byCC_Ryder©
In retrospect, it probably wasn't a good idea for Paul to sequester himself for a long weekend with nothing the meager contents of his refrigerator and a well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Three days. Three days of silence from Steven. Three days of messages from Ace. Three days of hating himself.
Paul felt like such a fool. And, worse, he knew better. He'd always known better. This was why he had rules. This never would have happened if he had followed his instincts as he'd always done.
Even if the path he'd been following led to an empty life.
Right now, though, that path looked mighty good. At least Steven was there.
Well, that damage had already been done. He hoped his brother would eventually come around and speak to him again, but his hope sank with each day of silence.
The despair would be bad enough if that was all Paul was battling. The jealousy over seeing Ace with that muscled gremlin was rubbing him absolutely raw. Tanner was touching his man like he had some sort of right to, and everything inside Paul went ice cold.
He didn't want to hear excuses. Didn't want to hear that he'd been taken for a fool. So he didn't do anything but hide -- the one thing he'd always been good at. He hid in his condo and hid in himself.
Paul hated how stupid he felt. He thought he and Ace were on the same page. He had never -- never -- felt so at home with himself before. There were times he looked at Ace and saw his love mirrored in those beautiful blue eyes.
For the first time, he really fit with someone and could be his true self. At least while they were alone together.
Apparently, he should have been worrying about the times they weren't together.
Fucking Tanner Caldwell. Paul had meant to talk over that clusterfuck with Ace, but then Steven had happened. And then it happened.
Paul peered down the neck of his nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels and swallowed the remainder in one gulp.
All those baby steps he'd painstakingly made weren't enough in the end. Ace obviously wanted someone who wasn't so much trouble to be with. Someone easy.
That college punk was the very definition of 'easy.'
Lacking any more liquor, Paul slumped on the couch and waited for night to come so he could go to bed.
None of these scrambled, bitter arguments changed the fact that he was still completely in love with Ace, and Ace clearly, visibly didn't feel the same way.
The doorbell shook him out of his thoughts. He opened the door and found his arms full of Holly, who squeezed him tight.
"Is it okay that I'm here?" she squeaked against his chest, still bear hugging him. "I couldn't wait any more. I mean, this has been killing me, knowing all of this -- oh, but I mean I know it's been killing you worse than it's been killing me, of course. You poor thing!"
Paul chuckled, the first laugh he'd really meant since that day at Ace's house.
"Well," he said. "I guess that makes us a couple of really sad corpses."
That made Holly hug him even harder before she finally pulled back. "Now, don't kill me," she said.
"Kill a corpse?" Paul arched an eyebrow. "Overkill much?"
Holly leaned out into the hallway and pulled Steven, looking sheepish and wary, into the foyer.
"Hey," Steven said in a small voice.
"Hey," Paul echoed, his face drawn carefully back to neutral.
Holly looked back and forth at the two men as the silence filled the room. Then she stepped in to mediate.
"Okay. It's time to make up," she announced. "Apologize if you have to -- and I mean both of you. Or, you know, don't apologize. You're guys. Fight. Punch things. Then make up. I. Mean. It. No excuses."
She squeezed Paul's arm and gave Steven a peck on the cheek, then darted out the door.
Neither man wanted to be the first to break the silence, so they both stood there, looking anywhere but at each other.
"So, you wanna?" Steven finally said.
"Fight. Punch things."
"Will that make me less gay?" Paul was still hurt that his best friend was acting this way, and he could feel his strained emotions fray further.
Steven winced at the word "gay."
Paul sighed harshly. "You're not ready to do this. Call Holly and tell her to come get you." He turned to go back to the couch, but Steven reached out to stop him.
"No," he said. "I can do this. I have to do this." Steven took a deep breath. "Holly is little, but she can be unbelievably scary."
"I hear that," Paul said.
Steven cocked his head. "Well, she can't be that scary to you, though, right? I mean, you had already told her about, you know..." He gestured toward Paul.
"Well, she didn't really give me a choice."
Steven frowned. "Would you have told her? I mean if she hadn't figured it out?"
Would he have? If Holly wasn't pushing on one side and Ace on the other, would he have stayed silent and alone? Probably. Although right now, silent and alone sounded like a paradise compared to this hell he was twisting in.
"I don't know," Paul finally said.
Steven was still having trouble meeting his eye. This was going to take a while.
"So, whiskey? I think whiskey," Steven said. He held up a bag he brought with him as a peace offering. "You still drink whiskey, right?"
Paul rolled his eyes. No, being gay has changed every single thing about me, including the type of liquor I prefer.
Steven poured two tall glasses of Jameson over ice, and the brothers sat on opposite ends of the couch to drink them.
"So," Steven started in a tight whiskey voice, "you're gay now."
"Yep. Just now."
"How long? I mean, have you known?"
"Kinda always." Paul had a feeling that wouldn't go over well.
And, right on cue, Steven's frown deepened. "So you've been lying to me kinda always?"
"I never wanted to," Paul said, a pained look twisting his face. "I'm just --" How did he explain this?
"Just what?" Steven snapped. "Just chickenshit? Is that it? You were just afraid?"
"Yes," Paul said quietly.
Steven's mouth dropped open, as if he wasn't expecting Paul to admit that. "How could you be afraid?" he asked, incredulous.
Paul stood suddenly, his frustration pushing his feet around the room. "Have you ever really listened to guys when they talk? Do you realize how totally homophobic most guys are? Especially in a locker room or even just in a group? You should listen sometime. Count the jokes about fags and pussies."
"Oh come on," Steven protested. "It's not that bad."
"Well, your radar's not tuned to it. I heard every one." Paul sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I was trying to not get my ass kicked in high school. So, yeah, I was scared."
Steven downed another big gulp of his whiskey and coughed at the burn. "And after?" he asked. "It's been twenty years since high school. What scares you now?"
Paul sighed again and sat down. "You."
"You think I would kick your ass? Over this?" Steven's face twisted in pain. "That's how you see me?"
"No, of course not," Paul said. "I know I can take you."
Steven shoved him lightly, but with a smile, which Paul was relieved to see. "Then what?" Steven said.
"I didn't want to disappoint you."
Steven's mouth dropped open again. "Disappoint me?" he squeaked. "My big brother the doctor didn't want to disappoint me?"
Paul rolled his eyes. "Come on, I've always known you looked up to me."
Steven ducked his head, acknowledging the truth.
"I didn't want you to look at me any differently," Paul said. "So, adding everything up -- plus Mom and Dad and how they would react -- I figured it was safer to keep this stuff to myself. I was -- I don't know." He took another sip of his drink. "It was cowardly, I know." He turned to look at his brother. "But then when I told you, you just left like that, and it was like my nightmare came true." He swallowed hard against the pain that was still fresh and on the surface.
Steven looked down for a moment, then back up at Paul. "You're not gonna cry, are you? Are you a crier now?"
Paul punched him on the arm and smiled. He could always count on Steven to tease him out of a bad mood.
"I am sorry that I bailed on you like that," Steven said quietly. "It was a lot to take in, and I just didn't know what to say."
Paul nodded and took a deep breath. "I'm still me, you know." He wasn't convinced that Steven really understood that, actually.
"Yeah," Steven said. "Well, sort of. But there's this big part of you I don't know anything about. Feels weird." He looked Paul in the eye. "Thought I knew everything about you."
Paul cocked his head. "Do you really want to hear about it? About two guys?"
Steven shifted uneasily in his seat. "Um, sure."
Paul snorted a laugh. "No you don't, liar."
"Okay, maybe not. Not yet." He finished his drink and gestured to Paul with his glass. "But I don't want you to hide stuff from me, bro."
"I'll have to figure out what to filter," Paul said. "Keeping in mind your squeamishness."
"You know what works on squeamishness?" Steven said, standing. "More whiskey." He refilled his glass and topped off Paul's. They clinked glasses and Steven plopped back down on the sofa.
"How you doin' there, B?" Paul asked after a few silent sips.
"Still processing," Steven murmured. "I mean, it's not like I have anything against gay people. Like Ace, for instance."
Paul's heart clenched at the name. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, he's great. Holly has practically adopted him. So it's not the fact that you're gay or anything."
Paul blew out a breath. "But there's a thing?"
Steven frowned, still processing. "I'm not sure how to say it." He paused and stared off into space. "It's like my world view has been knocked off its base. If I had this big thing about you all wrong, then everything could be wrong, you know?"
"Huh." Paul frowned. "I never thought of it that way."
"I don't know if I used the right words," Steven said. "It's a big thing I'm trying to work out. Just need more time to think about it."
"Not too much more, I hope?" Paul didn't know if he could handle even another day without his brother still in his life. These last three days were torturously long and empty. Without dinners at Steven's -- and without any Ace anywhere -- Paul discovered exactly how little he had in his life.
"Nah," Steven said. "No more radio silence from me. I really am sorry about that."
Paul nodded, infinitely relieved at Steven's growing acceptance. "And I'm sorry for not telling you sooner," he said. "Maybe this would have been easier if I'd come out in college like everyone else."
Steven thought about that. "Nope," he said. "It still would have thrown me. But it would have been better without the years of lying."
They toasted to that and drank in unison.
"So, this is why you don't have a date for my wedding?" Steven smirked.
Paul groaned. "Oh man, I will be so glad to stop dodging that question."
Steven scoffed. "You're not off the hook yet, brutha. I know at least two bonafide gay guys -- well, apart from you, that is."
Paul gave a panicked start.
"I think I'll start with Ace," Steven mused. "He's a great guy, and he seems more like your type than my realtor. Well, not that I really know what your type is any-"
"Don't," Paul interrupted. He couldn't listen to anything about Ace right now.
Steven frowned. "What? What did I say?"
"There's kind of a mess there," Paul grimaced.
"You mean you already --" Steven stopped in realization. "Of course you already -- I always figured you for a ladies' man." Confusion crossed his face. "What's the gay version of that, anyway?"
"I'm not up on all the vocab," Paul muttered.
"Wait," Steven said, "a mess? There's a mess?" His face grew comically uncomfortable. "As in -- messy?"
Paul shook his head. "I told you you're not ready for this stuff. This is a job for a fag hag."
"Ah, I know one of those now," Steven said triumphantly. "I should call her anyway. Let her know that she was right, as always. She loves hearing that."
Paul went to the kitchen to gather some snacks as Steven called his fiancé. Once alone, he took in a deep, relieved, load-lightening breath. This was like having a fever break -- that blessed soaking sweat that drives away the shivering heat of the flu.
But he knew he wasn't out of the woods yet. He glanced at the calendar on the fridge and saw the Fourth of July circled -- when his parents would be in town.
Jack and Helen McDonnell. The next big hurdle. The next round of pain.
But Steven was back now. Those few days were among the worst he'd ever known. He honestly didn't think telling his parents could possibly hurt worse than when Steven walked out his door.
Now if only Ace --
He ruthlessly killed that thought.
Before he went any further, Paul needed to tell Holly about the whole situation with Ace. He didn't want to talk about it yet -- wasn't ready to forgive -- but there was no way he could keep this from Holly Shipley.
He gathered a bag of chips and some salsa and prepared himself for the upcoming conversation.
Ace wanted to play around? Fine. Paul was done playing.
"...so, anyway, if you could just ... just call me back. I miss you. Um, bye."
Ace sighed and disconnected the call.
Erik had silently come in just as Ace was finishing his latest message for Paul. Erik's face probably reflected his own, he thought -- sad eyes, downturned mouth, worry etched into every muscle.
"No word from Paul," Ace said. "On the plus side, also no word from Tanner. Think he's given up?"
"He's been quiet at work lately." Erik sat next to Ace on the couch. "But then again, I gave him a shitty, complicated assignment to punish him."
"Such a good friend you are."
Erik squirmed in his seat.
"He's not answering any of my calls or returning any of them," Ace moaned, back on his Paul obsession. "He must absolutely hate me."
"I doubt that. I'm sure he's just hurt. We all do stupid things when our heart gets stomped on."
"But I know I can fix this hurt," Ace fairly wailed. "It will take exactly two minutes, using small words even. I'm afraid he's going to cut me out of his life and start over in another Sparks, another back room."
"You don't really think that."
Ace made a face. "Fine. I don't think that. I worry that. I fret that. All I think about are the worst of the what-ifs. What if he never talks to me again? What if he's changed his mind about coming out? What if he tells Steven he's going to try to be straight, just so his brother will talk to him again and he starts fucking some slutty blonde who looks like me but with boobs? And then he gets trapped in a loveless marriage and starts trolling the back room for anonymous blowjobs?"
"Wow, that's..." Erik said slowly. "That's not the worst of the what-ifs. That's the weirdest of them."
"I can't help it." Ace planted his face in his hands. Lola, as the official comforter in residence, twirled around Ace's feet and meowed up at him. It was almost as if she was saying, 'Snap out of it.'
"But you know what's the worst one?" Ace groaned. "The worst of the what-ifs is the one where Paul's so hurt that he gives in to goddamn Tanner. Who doesn't mind fucking in a closet because he's twenty-two and horny and doesn't give a fuck about anyone else."
Erik's face twisted with pain and guilt, but he didn't respond.
"Tell me I'm wrong," Ace said. "Tell me that's impossible."
Erik didn't respond.
"You can't, can you?" Ace cried. "Oh, God! Has Tanner said something to you? Is that why Paul won't call me back?"
"Promise you won't hate me?" Erik said in a small voice.
"Hate you? How could I hate you? You're my best fr-" Ace stopped himself. "Wait. Why? Do I have a reason to hate you?"
Erik stood and started pacing. "I might have accidentally let Tanner know about you and Paul."
Ace blinked. "What? What does that mean, accidentally?"
"It sort of slipped out once."
"It slipped out," Ace said flatly. "You told my freelance Web monkey -- the little stalker who's been bugging me for a second ride -- about my secret boyfriend? A guy who's taking tiny baby steps out of the closet and you told a 22-year-old perpetually horny fag about him?!"
"Remember that time when I said don't hate me?" Erik whispered.
Ace gaped at his best friend for a long moment while Erik squirmed.
"Why," Ace said finally. "Why would you ever --"
"I missed you, okay?" Erik interrupted. "You were off with your hot secret boyfriend having hot chiropractor sex and I was back to staring at my own walls on Sundays."
"So, you did this to get back at me?"
"No!" Erik barked, frustrated. "Just let me try to explain this. I don't have many non-Richard-related guy friends in this town. Just you, actually. My social life ended when I broke it off with Richard. So for months and months, it's been you and me on Sundays, working on your beautiful cocoon here, protecting ourselves from getting hurt again."
"Hey," Ace protested, "you never had to-"
"Let me finish!" Erik sighed deeply. "It's been great. Wonderful, really. Just you and me. I can't tell you how much I looked forward to every Sunday. And then it disappeared." He ran his hands over his face. "I was losing you to a guy who was still in the closet, just like your last asshole boyfriend, the man I've been verbally ripping apart with you for a year, and I had no one to talk to about how it was killing me."
"You sound jealous."
Erik ducked his head. "I guess I do."
Ace wasn't sure how to process that. So he did what he always did: ignored the stickier friend-or-lover issue and focused on his anger.
"So you told all this to Tanner, of all fucking people?" Ace growled.
"I didn't seek him out or anything! He kept asking questions about you. I don't know, I thought maybe if he knew about Paul, he'd back off. Like I --"
Erik stopped himself, but Ace knew how that sentence was going to end.
"I didn't know he was going to --" Erik broke off again. "I'm really sorry, Ace."
Ace squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head. "I can't talk to you right now."
Erik nodded and silently walked out the door, leaving Ace to process everything. Ace reached for Lola, but the comfort ambassador immediately sauntered out the kitty door in the kitchen.
Ace poured himself an unnecessarily tall glass of Jameson and took a long, burning pull from it.
It felt like everything was unraveling this week. The last time he'd felt this way, he'd quit his job and moved to Kansas. A brand-new thirty-year mortgage kept him from thinking seriously about doing that again.
But it was more than that. It wasn't just a whim that made him plant roots in Lawrence; he wanted those roots. Craved them. Needed them to help derail his usual pattern. His whole life, every time things got weird or awkward or painful for him, he ran. Every time.
He couldn't do that this time. Didn't want to, either. Not really.
So, running was off the table. The only option left was to clean up the mess his life had become. Starting with Erik.
A second gulp of whiskey went down a little easier than the first.
It was easy to blame Erik at this moment, but it didn't solve anything. Though it was comforting to have someone to blame other than himself.
At this point, Ace knew two things: He needed Erik in his life, and he needed Paul to forgive him.
The real question was: could he keep Erik as a friend -- and keep Paul as a lover? Without hurting his best friend?
Time to find out.
Ace went outside to head for Erik's place and found him on the porch swing with Lola curled on his lap.
"Well?" Erik said in a low, sad voice.
Ace sat down next to Erik and pushed them both in a slow swing. "I'm still kind of pissed, but I'm still here," he said finally.