So, I get a lot of questions about one particular couple and what they could possibly be doing now…
What could they be up to?
Well, I think we all agree that they’ve been through enough trouble that we hope their lives are full of Grace…
“C’mon, Xan—if we want to go walking before everyone gets here, we need to go now!”
Xander groaned and hid more in the covers. For a guy who was 6’9” tall, you’d think he would learn he couldn’t hide at all, but then, there were a lot of leftovers from Xander’s shitty childhood that he couldn’t quite get over.
The night before had been his worst nightmare in quite some time.
Last night, Xan had been screaming his name—not like Chris was in trouble and Xan needed to help him, which had been pretty standard in those awful, pain-filled days after Chris had first arrived home—but like Xander was lost and he needed Chris to find him.
Chris had loved Xander for seventeen years—since they were fourteen years old—and waking up, heart hammering, legs aching, soothing his hand over Xander’s sopping wet back and kissing his temple to sooth him only got harder with time.
“C’mon, Xan,” Chris said, making his voice happy. They both needed happy. “Everyone’s coming today—it’s Thanksgiving, remember?”
Xander rolled over and groaned. He had a long-boned, Slavic face, handsome because of the cheekbones and the blue-gray eyes and lean, often brooding mouth. Chris was the only person in the world who had ever seen him rumpled and dear, stretching like an old dog, crossing his legs at the hips before he lifted his long body out of the bed to make sure he hadn’t strained his back too much in his previous day’s workout. All of him—long-boned legs, almost gangly arms, surprisingly wide chest—made Chris yearn to touch. They had only been given the go-ahead to make love in the past year, and every morning Chris woke up, he checked his memory to see if they had gotten any of that missing time back.
Last night Xander had fallen asleep propped up on the pillows, watching a romantic comedy after he’d spent nearly four hours running and swimming laps in the pool. Usually he worked out next to Chris, who did his PT every day, but Chris’s sister Penny and her boyfriend (Chris’s old nurse!) were staying for the two days of Thanksgiving, and Chris had used the time to work out with Penny and catch up.
Xander had used the time to run away.
Chris had made him promise they’d spend that morning walking. Xander would give Chris anything—he’d already proven that. Walking the trail that wended through the starthistles and foxtails of the indigenous weeds of the Folsom area outside the landscaping was one of his favorite things to do.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” Xander slurred now, in the middle of a stretch that had him arching over the bed. “Why are we getting up early again?”
“So I can talk to my husband before the great ravening hordes get here?” Chris asked, and he was striving for light, but Xan looked at him sharply.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m awesome.” He would never walk without pain again—but the fact that he could walk made pain irrelevant. “I want to talk about you.”
“Bring a book,” Xander said, raising a skeptical black eyebrow. “It’s going to be a short conversation.”
“Ha ha. Now get up before Max needs to take a dump.”
Max, the most gaseous of their two golden Labrador retrievers, raised a puzzled eyebrow from the big dog nest at the foot of their bed. It was a lame story, and even the dog knew it.
“Christian?” Xander asked, concerned.
“We need to talk,” Chris said, and then could have kicked himself—if he had that much mobility in his crippled legs. If he’d thought Xander looked terrified the night before, vulnerable and shaken, that had nothing on the look on Xander’s face now. “No! I’m not leaving you! I’m never leaving you! Now Jesus, let’s just take the end of the world off the table and start from there, okay?”
“Okay, okay,” Xander grumbled, affecting indifference, like the beginning and ending of his entire life hadn’t just flashed behind his eyes. “I’ll put on some sweats and brush my teeth.” Chris knew him that well—knew that what he was really going to do was pull himself together. Xander had gotten good at pulling himself together in the past year and a half.
It was time for Christian to pull his own weight.
He didn’t need the cane for the short walk to follow Xander into the bathroom, but he was slow enough that Xan was done with his morning pee and brushing his teeth by the time Chris got there.
Unabashedly, Chris leaned up against him, rubbing his stubbled cheek on Xander’s back, cursing the T-shirt that got in the way.
“Hey,” Xan said gently, clasping his hands as they twined around Xan’s waist.
“What are we supposed to be talking about? So, you know, I don’t, uhm, take this too seriously.”
Chris sighed, smelling his soap and the sweat from last night. “Outside,” he said tightly. “Let’s go outside and we can take showers when we get back.”
“Why outside?” Xander asked suspiciously.
“So you can yell.”
“I don’t yell.”
“No, but you do talk excitedly with your hands, and you’re 6’9”. You’ve got a reach like a condor. Now move it.”
“I would but I’ve got a fully grown man leaning on me.”
Chris rubbed his cheek against his back again. “It was a bad one last night, wasn’t it?”
Xander grunted. The scary monsters hadn’t come back in full force until after Xan had been pulled from the playoffs. At first, flooded with adrenaline and the freedom of being out, living their own lives and not the lives the crowd wanted to see, Chris had thought they’d seen the last of the dreams that had plagued Xander, even as a sober-eyed kid.
It had been the one bright spot in a really bleak time.
But the playoffs had come and gone without them, and Chris’s recovery had advanced, and training season had come and gone without htem, and Xander, for the first time in his life, had not had a place to go come summer.
They’d only gotten worse in the year since.
“I’m not seeing a shrink,” Xan grunted.
“Yeah. Because that would be sane.” Chris took a deep breath and stood on his own. “C’mon—it really is getting time to let the dogs out.”
Downstairs, Penny, Audrey, and Mandy were busy helping Lucia cook dinner.
Chris’s mom and dad were hanging back, watching the hilarity, because Lucia had brought her nearly grown grandson in to help her, and the well-meaning young women were pretty much getting in the way of the experts.
“Everybody’s awake?” Xander asked, surprised.
“Yeah,” Penny said caustically. “Apparently getting up early and putting the turkey in the oven takes seven people.”
Lucia grunted. “Only if you want bad turkey,” she said, sniffing. “You girls—get out of my kitchen. Go! If you want to do something, go decorate the table for your fifty-eleven guests. I have work to do!”
“But Lucia—I was looking for breakfast!” Audrey protested, her chubby cheeks pulled up in a winsome smile.
Lucia had a fondness for the guileless strays Xander had picked up when Chris was playing in Denver. And she adored Penny “Yes, okay. You all get out of my kitchen and Jorge here will make breakfast burritos to tide you over. But shoo!”
Mandy grunted, grabbed a box of crackers out of the cupboard before Lucia could stop her, and made her escape. She was still dancing for the Kings—she didn’t actually eat breakfast.
Penny was still sturdy and graceful, with wide hips and a workout regimen from hell. She snagged some crackers and Chris had no doubt she’d eat a burrito when she had a chance.
Good—there would be breakfast and coffee waiting when they got back. It was all he could ask for.
He tightened his grip on his cane in one hand, and on Xander’s hand in the other, and pulled the boy he’d loved forever into the chilly, foggy dawn.
“We’ll be back in half-an-hour!” he called, and then hurried Xan onto their walk.
Sometime before Chris could actually walk again, Xan had paved their usual pathway in a smooth strip of cement. He hadn’t developed the wildness of that part of the property at all because rattlesnakes and all, they liked the fact that it wasn’t a lawn or sculpted or superficial in anyway, but walking on the rutted dirt path was going to be a hardship for Chris, and so he’d taken that obstacle out of Chris’s way.
The resulting path was smooth, even, and Chris could manage it in approximately half an hour.
It was a thing they both took comfort in, that morning walk. It wasn’t the last of their physical activity by far, but it was their way of starting their day together, no matter what pulled them apart.
“So what’s the deal?” Xan asked after he’d thrown the ball for the dogs a couple of times. Chris liked watching him relax with them—unconditional acceptance was really important to Xander Karcek, and he only got it from a few places.
“I, uh…” God. “I think you should go back.”
Xander coiled his amazing body and threw the ball about fifty yards. Because he could.
“Back to the house? Because we just left—and it was your idea too, remember?”
“No, idiot. Back to the game.”
Chris watched, helpless to grab Xander’s arm and intervene, as one of the finest athletes in the country tripped on his own feet, did a roll on the concrete walkway, and came back up in a surprised leap on his own two feet.
“Repeat that,” Xander said, like that just hadn’t happened.
“That just happened!”
“I could give a shit what just happened! What did you just say?”
“You heard me, you big baby, now answer me!”
Xander started flailing with his hands, and Chris was glad they were outside for this.
“We had a plan, Christian!”
“I know we did.”
“The boy’s project, remember that? The sports camp for poor urban kids—it was your idea!”
“Still want to do it but—“
“And the shop, open in the summer? In Monterey? We could go teach people to hang glide? Remember that?”
“Also my idea!” Chris snapped back, exasperated.
“But we had a plan!” Xander snapped back. “Why would you wanna fuck with that by—“
“Because you can now.”
Xander took a deep breath, and then, worse than the tripping and the flailing and the bitching, came the look Chris had feared the most.
His face closed down.
“That chapter is closed,” he said sententiously. Chris loved him—loved him more than life itself. He also yearned to smack him.
“That’s what you told yourself when they said you couldn’t,” Chris protested, feeling his own back coming up. They didn’t fight. Oh God, they didn’t fight—but maybe they should have. Maybe all the bullshit, all the pain they’d dealt with when they were younger had been because they didn’t fight for the things they loved the most.
Or because Chris hadn’t fought for Xan.
Xan had been the one to call a halt to “third home game of the month”, their horrible, sordid, soul-killing beard to convince everyone that no, they weren’t gay, they were just friends.
Xan had been the one to out them on National television and dare the world to jump on their backs.
And Xan had been the one to get the phone call, the one that told him that, yeah. He’d made his choice. He’d chosen Chris.
And that meant he couldn’t have basketball.
So Xan had chosen Chris—he’d made Chris his livelihood, and Chris was sure he wouldn’t be walking now if Xander hadn’t chosen him.
But dammit. It was time to fight for Xander—even if it meant he had to fight Xan himself in the process.
“Well, I can’t have it now!” Xan burst out, sounding hurt. “I’ve been gone for two years!”
“Yeah, but you’re in awesome shape—even better shape than when you left, because now you eat like a grown up and not like a little kid. And Wallick is gone and the commission gave you a settlement cause he was a prick and people are coming out all over the place in sports—“
“And we see what a favor that did Michael Samms, don’t we?” Xander said bitterly.
“Well they’ve got no excuses with you,” Chris snarled back. “Cause you weren’t just starting out, and they can’t claim you were a liability. They gave you up and lost the fucking playoffs, Xander—not a soul can argue that. And they’ve sucked on ice since—“
“Who leaves basketball for two years? Who just… retires from basketball and then comes back—“
“I can think of one person,” Chris said, smirking, but Xander was too hurt to smile back.
He crossed his arms, there on the highest point of their overlook into the spit-in-the-mud that was now Lake Folsom, and gazed out over the flats that led to the water.
“MJ is a god,” he said with dignity. “I think we’ve covered that I’m not. C’mon. Let’s go back.”
Chris sighed, but his hips and his back hurt, as well as his legs, which told him he’d overdone it showing off for Penny. The first time they’d come walking out here, Xander had needed to carry him back, and he’d been drugged for three days afterwards. Chris refused to do that again.
They walked back together silently, two bitter figures in the bitter day—or at least that’s what Chris thought. But as they rounded the last corner and could see their home, Xander grabbed his hand and brushed his lips over the back of his knuckles.
“I chose you,” he said throatily.
Chris leaned against him and said the obvious. “You shouldn’t have to choose.”
At that moment, carloads of people that looked like Cliff, Alicia, their baby girl and two more people from the Nuggets showed up, followed by the three players from the Kings that Xander had invited. And the Lincoln Towncar must be Leo.
Discussion tabled, peace restored, it was time for them to greet their friends and then clean up. The good news was, they knew who their friends were now, because they were the folks who stayed.
After turkey, before pie. Half the family was inside watching the football game, but the extra-tall half?
They were outside having a pickup game, because basketball was what they breathed.
Chris watched as Xander, his face open in joy, caught a pass from Chris’s father (who was treated with absurd sweetness as a non-athlete in late middle age) and then turned on the heat. He spun, he leapt, he slithered across the regulation sized half-court, and in the end, he stuffed the ball in the basket with what could only be described as glee.
Without stopping to accept the accolades of his colleagues, he trotted across the court, high-fived Chris’s dad, and got in position for the next play.
“He’s still beautiful,” Leo said softly, sitting primly down with Lucia’s pumpkin cheesecake in a plate on his lap.
“Yeah,” Chris said softly. He was remembering making love two nights before. After waiting so long for the go-ahead whenever they were together now there was a tenderness, a fierceness about Xander’s expression. He wanted every touch, every breath, to count—for both of them.
“What did he say?” Leo asked, his voice gentle.
“It doesn’t matter,” Chris told him, eyes all on Xander as he made an impossible leap. On the couch, he heard Leo suck in a breath, telling him all he wanted to know about whether or not Xander Karcek was enough of a god to go back after two years.
“Cause when it’s worth fighting for, we always win.”
Xander made another point and whooped.
And then ran back to do it again.
When Chris had played, he’d learned all his best moves to from the boy he loved. He figured this was no different. Xander had showed him how to fight, and Chris would put that knowledge to use.
Next to him Leo breathed, “Amen,” and Chris knew he wasn’t talking about the pie.
Amy Lane is giving away two e-book copies of Beneath the Stain to two commenters. Leave a comment to enter. The winner will be chosen on December 1st.
Amy Lane has four children, two cats, a love starved Chi-who-what, a crumbling mortgage and an indulgent spouse. She also has too damned much yarn, a penchant for action adventure movies, and a need to know that somewhere in all the pain is a story of Wuv, Twu Wuv, which she continues to believe in to this day! She writes fantasy, urban fantasy, and m/m romance–and if you give her enough diet coke and chocolate, she’ll bore you to tears with why those three genres go together. She’ll also tell you that sacrifices, large and small, are worth the urge to write.