I Wanted to be Wanted (And he was very beautiful)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
wanted to be wanted (and he was very beautiful)

Submitted: May 25, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: May 25, 2019

A A A

A A A


I wanted to be wanted (and he was very beautiful)

 “I know, Gran, I miss you too,” Avan says into the phone, scrubbing a hand along the back of his neck. “Mum and the girls and I are gonna come up to visit next week—well, not Doni, she’s staying to help Da in the shop, actually, since she has law exams to revise for and says we’re all noisy when we’re home for hols.” He falls silent for a moment, listening to his grandmother through the headset, cradled between his cheek and his shoulder.

Gran says she will be glad to have them visit. She says something about bribing that nice neighbour boy with gingerbread to shovel her front walk, and Avan snorts.

He knows her gingerbread leaves a lot to be desired, having had to choke it down with lots of cocoa during every visit to her house. He laughs to himself, imagining a little kid forced by his parents to shovel her front stoop, too polite to refuse when she offers him brick-hard cookies.

“He’s just so darling,” she adds when Avan tunes back in to the conversation, “very thoughtful, you know, someone’s really raised him right. Reminds me of you and your sisters, just so sweet.”

Avan rolls his eyes at that, accepting the compliment less than gracefully. “I can give the poor lad a break when we come up, yeah? I’ll shovel and salt the walk, shall I.”

His gran hums at this, again praising him for being thoughtful and kind. “I’ll have to get stocked up on sundries before your visit, maybe pop over to Sainsbury’s for some bourbon creams for Sania.”

“You honestly don’t have to, we can just swing by the shops on our way up. We don’t want to put you out at all.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re my grandkids. Of course I’m going to spoil you, aren’t I? Plus now you’re legal I can pop by the off-license and get some cider for you—or do you prefer wine? I know your mother likes that, whatsit, that spiced brandy I think?”

Avan refrains from pointing out that he has been above the legal drinking age for almost three years, simply letting his grandmother insist that she is going to buy him alcohol. Arguing about it is no use.

::

Two days later finds him shoving dirty clothing into the washer while his parents are working in the shop. He can’t seem to locate the jumper he swore he’d been wearing on the bus ride home at the end of term, thinks maybe he had left it in his residence hall, after all. He grumbles to himself, but quickly transitions into yelling at Sania when he notices she’s wearing it.

“Honestly, you lot are terrible to live with. I don’t know how I managed it for eighteen years,” he mutters.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you nicked Nafia’s Ramones tee out of the basket!” she calls loudly, pounding up the stairs. “Glass houses, Avan, honestly.”

“That shirt was mine originally, anyway,” he insists, locating his second-favourite jumper and figuring it will have to do.

His phone buzzes in his pocket and he pulls it out distractedly, thumbing open the new message. His stomach clenches when he sees the lit-up name, and it tightens further when he notes the forced-casual tone in the body of the message.

Avan doesn’t remember other break-ups hitting him this hard, like a kick to the gut that leaves him breathless. He doesn’t recall any other that left his lungs feeling like ice.

He thinks he shouldn’t still feel this way, not when she dumped him ages ago, and especially not because—well, she had been right to dump him. He hadn’t been as into her as he should have been, hadn’t been attentive to her needs, hadn’t really known that much about her. But he had liked her all the same, even if he could never bring himself to love her.

Her message merely wishes him a happy holiday and asks after his family, very normal and even kind of friendly.

It makes him feel like shit.

He types in a response and shoves his mobile back into his pocket before yanking the sleeves of his jumper down so they cover his hands.

::

Their car trip is uneventful, as far as trips to the house of one’s grandmother go. Avan’s mum drives most of the way and he naps appreciatively, the habit still intact from childhood. His mother claims he used to be a fussy baby, that the only way to soothe him to sleep some nights was to drive around their village with the radio on.

Thankfully, some things have changed since childhood.

Avan wakes slowly and stares out the window as they approach his gran’s, stretching out a crick in his neck. They drive up the narrow lane to her house and Avan listens to his mother hum Auld Lang Syne.

The walk outside her house is tidy and clear of snow, unlike the roads Avan’s mother just drove up. He rolls his eyes, thinking of all the gingerbread that had been consumed on the premises; once again he feels pity and amusement for the neighbourhood kids roped into eating his gran’s baking.

He laughs aloud when he sees her on her front step, waving both hands at them as they drive up. “You’re here!” she calls loudly enough that they can hear it through the glass of the car windows.

He feels his chest unclench for the first time in what feels like a month and his mouth curls into an easy grin.

His gran won’t care that his ex-girlfriend knew he didn’t love her, or that he might have actually failed his Comparative Literature exam, or that he has no idea what he wants to do when he graduates in a year and a half. His gran will just smile and hug him hello before sitting him down in the kitchen and cooking him a meal big enough for four. His gran will just pat his hair, call him handsome, and assure him that everything will be okay.

He and Nafia carry everyone’s bags inside, collapsing into a group hug as soon as everyone’s inside the door.

::

Sania and Nafia sleep in the guest room and their mother bunks with gran. Avan, relegated to the sofa in the front room, sleeps poorly but for once he doesn’t quite mind it. He stares at the ceiling as morning sunlight slowly brightens the room, filtering in through the shutters.

Though his eyes are a bit sore from lack of sleep, he feels strangely content, comfortable beneath the quilt his gran had given him to use. He’s unused to quiet with his sisters anywhere in his general vicinity, and the silence of the empty front room envelops him in lazy comfort.

He stands up slowly, peering out the window to note the fresh coat of snow dusting the ground. He tips his head to the side, considering whether he feels magnanimous or lazy. He knows instantaneously that he’s going to go out and shovel, of course he does, but he thinks he might need to rustle up a travel mug and cocoa first. He putters quietly around the kitchen, slightly unfamiliar with the layout of his gran’s cupboards.

Snapping a lid on the mug, he steps awkwardly into his boots and winds a scarf around his neck. Yanking a beanie down over his ears, he eventually manages to locate a shovel in the messy closet by the side door. He spies a picture of himself by the closet door, his cheeks chubby with childhood and too many of his mother’s samosas. He snorts, placing his thumb over the moon-shaped image of his face, smudging the glass.

Avan is so glad to no longer be a child. Even if he is still a bit shy, more awkward than he would like, and a little unsteady on his feet sometimes—well, at least he’s no longer a teenager. For that, he thanks every higher power there is.

He pats his pocket, making sure he has his fags and lighter, then drags the shovel and his cocoa out onto his gran’s carpark.

He decides that adulthood is about making the difficult choices, and he has heretofore decided to smoke while shoveling snow out of his gran’s front drive.

Setting his cocoa onto the step by the side door, he lights a smoke and sets the shovel against the snowy lip of the drive and begins to push. Cigarette dangling from his chapped lips, he manages one circuit of the drive before getting distracted.

He is terribly and breathlessly distracted by a boy—man? man-boy?—standing at the edge of the drive, peering at Avan curiously. And shit, anyone would be right to be distracted.

He’s dressed casually, normal for nine in the morning, Avan supposes. He’s got on baggy trackies and a large hoodie, but his lips are pillow-full and his brown eyes are bright. Brows furrowed, he considers Avan as Avan considers him.

Avan stops shoveling, ashing his cigarette and affecting a casual stance. “Hi.”

The other figure, whatever his name is, starts slightly. “Hey. Um. You’re shoveling.”

“I am.”

“Are you—do you live here? Do you live here now?”

“Visiting, like. My gran, innit.”

“Oh, you’re—” he begins, smiling widely, eye crinkling with genuine amusement. “You’re visiting your gran.”

“Yeh,” Avan says, like it’s maybe a question.

“That’s nice.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No!” he insists swiftly. “No, not ‘t all, promise.”

“No?”

“Not at all. I’d just—like, only seen photos of you as a kid, like?”

“What?”

“When—I mean, your nan’s really sweet, always sits me down and makes me tea, right. After I shovel or weed the garden or whatever. And she’s got a bunch of photos of you lot, but I guess most are older? When you weren’t so—” He gestures vaguely, waving up and down at Avan’s body.

“So what?” Avan raises a brow, amused despite himself.

“Adult? Yeah, adult. Grown-up proper like.”

“Not a chubby primary-school student.”

“Um.” He bites his lip. “You said it. Not me.”

“Right,” Avan drawls. “When my gran said a darling neighbour boy was shoveling her walk in exchange for gingerbread, I kind of assumed you were maybe twelve. So I reckon we’re even.”

“Twelve?” he asks in return, having the good grace to sound a bit offended.

“She called you a young boy!”

“She’s your gran.”

“You’re the one shoveling her carpark,” Avan points out, sucking deep on his cigarette.

“No, you’re the one shoveling the carpark.”

“And you’re the one staring at me, mate.”

“Sorry.” He backs up a step, chagrined. He shoves his hand into the front pocket of his hoodie. “I’ll leave you be.” He shrugs, pivoting on one foot.

“You really eat all that gingerbread, then?” Avan asks, lip curling up on one side.

“Um.” The guy, as Avan has taken to thinking of him, stops his slow retreat. “Some of it. I—take some of it with me, like. Back to my mum or whatever.”

“You do?”

He turns swiftly, cheeks flushed. Avan hopes it’s not just from the cold. “There’s only so much gingerbread one lad can bear, I mean really!”

Avan laughs, throwing his head back. “There we go.” He flicks more ash off his cigarette. “Avan. I’m Avan.”

“Leo.”

“Nice t’meet you. Are you jogging or sommat?”

“I—I was. I, um, swimming scholarship means I need to keep up on the cardio a lot even during hols. It’s, um. Yeah. In theory.”

“Bet you hate that I’m smoking right now.”

“Nah,” Leo— Leo —states, brows unfurrowing. “Don’t hate much, truth be told.”

“What do you like, then?”

And Leo shoots him a startling, wolfish grin that sends Avan rocking back on his heels. “Oh, you know.”

“Do I?” he teases—fuck, really, teases?—and grins hard. He leans against the shovel, precariously slotted against a patch of ice at the end of his gran’s drive. “Not sure, mate.” He inhales gently on his cigarette, giving his pout a chance to shine.

Leo’s— Leo’s —eyes flicker to Avan’s pouting lips before his gaze stutters to the side. and maybe you will be the end of me. “You were a cute kid, once, you know,” Leo says in lieu of continuing the thread of their conversation.

“Yeah. That’s what I hear,” he says, smile still playing on his lips. “Mostly from my gran.”

Leo startles out a laugh, looking confused at the noise from his own betraying mouth. He licks his lips and shuffles his feet.

“What, you need to get back to your jog, mate? Don’t let me keep you.”

Leo shrugs, looking reluctant—unless this is Avan’s imagination telling him lies. “Kinda got to the end of the line, actually.” He shrugs. “I live next door.”

“Leo who lives next door,” Avan begins, dropping his spent cigarette beneath his heel. “What are you doing this evening?”

“Oh, you know,” Leo says, smile light on his lips. “Whatever you’re doing.”

::

Avan clutches a scrap of paper in his hand, glaring stupidly at the number scrawled on it. He had texted Leo a message mere moments ago, no reason to assume he would receive it right away or respond to it immediately.

Avan is nervous. And, sure, he’s used to feeling nervous, but he still hates it. He hates it.

He gulps down a breath of air and takes a pull of the cider his gran had shoved into his hand—almost as if she had planned this. Almost as if.

::

He runs a hand through his hair, ignoring the thrum of his nervous stomach. He is fine, of course, even as Leo knocks on the front door.

Avan is nervous, just the way he is nervous about everything. Leo knocking makes him even more concerned. He licks his lips and he clenches both fists. He curses himself.

Answering the door seems like suicide.

He has no idea what to do with his evening other than pulling the sleeves of his jumper down over his hands. He has no idea exactly what exists nearby that doesn’t strictly cater to retirees and geriatrics.

He takes a deep breath and hopes his silence comes off as mysterious rather than anxious, but he has very little faith in his own ability to play it cool. He answers the door and smiles at the warm look on Leo’s face.

“You look nice,” he blurts, thankful his cheeks don’t show the flush he feels deep down to his bones.

“Thanks, that’s—thanks.” Leo runs a hand over the back of his neck, and his cheeks do flush.

“You’re welcome. Um. I probably should have planned this better,” he says next, cracking one knuckle inside the sleeve of his jumper. “I kind of don’t know what’s actually around here.”

Leo chuckles lightly. “Well it all depends on what you want to do. The world is at your feet.”

“I—I don’t know.”

 

 

Maybe that’s one of the issues, a part of him says in the back of his mind. He doesn’t know himself half the time. He never got the chance to know his own mind, maybe, or else he was too busy trying to please others. Maybe he spent too much time trying to sort out other people in order to be what they needed him to be.

And that thought leaves him breathless for a moment, that he has never been what anyone else needed nor has he ever been good enough for himself.

The thought shatters and fragments, and his tongue momentarily sticks to the roof of his mouth.

 

 

“Okay, well, lucky for you I know this town like you wouldn’t believe. Come on.” He grabs Avan’s sleeve and leads him outside, pressing the button on the remote-lock for his car and making the lights blink. “Car should be unlocked.”

Leo heads to the drivers-side and Avan is glad that this—whatever it happens to be—isn’t awkward, or at least not as awkward as he feared. “Have you lived here your whole life?” he asks as he settles into the passenger side, buckling up dutifully.

“Nah, just for about, what, eight years or so. Moved for my dad’s job awhile back.”

“Kind of a small town to move to,” Avan comments, pinching his lips in after he speaks.

“S’pose.” Leo starts the car. “Not bad, though.”

“No, I didn’t—didn’t mean that. Sorry, I’m bad at this.”

Leo smiles slowly, putting the car in reverse. “Bad? At talking to me?”

Avan laughs. “Clearly I am, though. Bad at talking in general.”

Leo is quiet for a short while. “No need for second-guessing, mate. I basically invited myself over, so you could be doing worse. Not quite normal meself.” He shrugs. “Normal’s not required.”

“That’s…encouraging.”

Avan sees Leo grin, bright and wide. “I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the important things in life. Like which sort of cheese is best. I reckon it’s Manchego. Can’t spell it for the life of me, though.”

He momentarily wonders if Leo was created in a lab specifically to destroy him.

Leo continues. “I broke my leg over the spring, had to take a break from uni for a while. Came home, got laid up, yeah? Then threw a blood clot and that was a whole big thing. But I just finished up with PT so I can go back to classes soon, I think. But yeah spent a lot of time watching shit films and feeling sorry for myself this year.” Leo snorts at his own expense.

“Shit, mate. That’s—really rough, I’m sorry.”

“Me dad keeps claiming it was good for my character, like. Hardship or whatever? I dunno. I’m babbling, sorry.”

“Nah, mate, s’cool. You’re not.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What’s your story?”

“Stupid kid from Bradford, s’pose. Studying literature. Trying to write the great British novel.”

“Shoveling your nan’s walk?”

“And talking to fit blokes who make the unwise decision to pop by asking if I’m new in town. You know.”

Leo laughs loudly, dropping one hand from the wheel to cover his mouth. “Shame you’re not sticking around then, eh? Coulda locked this down.”

For a moment, Avan’s ribcage feels like a real cage, keeping in his pounding heart. “I’m not entirely sure you’re real, you know. Fairly certain I made you up.”

“Well then this next bit’s sure to charm you.”

::

“Are those—is this a park filled with extremely zealous holiday decorations?”

“I’m saying, there are upsides to living in a small town. Not all of them involve getting discounts at the off-license because the owner is friendly with your mum.”

Avan shakes his head, gaping against his better judgment at the light display set out before him. Tinny music, piped through speakers set inside the sizable bandstand in the middle of the park, plays as the lights flicker in time to the beat.

He smiles.

Leo grabs his forearm gently, leading him toward a lit-up moving statuette of Santa.

“You are smooth as fuck, you know that?” Avan murmurs, trailing along all-too-willingly.

“Believe me, it’s a recent development.”

He purses his lips. “There is no part of me that believes you.”

Leo shakes his head, moving his (large, impossibly large) hand from Avan’s forearm in order to join their hands together. “Whatever you say.”

They walk through the lit-up park slowly, taking in the lights and music while amiably bantering. Avan buys them each a cup of mulled wine, which he is surprised but grateful to find being sold from a hot-drinks cart near a very large Christmas tree.

“It’s like a film, you know?” he says as he hands Leo the warm paper cup. “Shiny.”

Leo nods quickly, shooting him a bright smile. “I was just thinking that! Had a lotta time to watch films when I was laid up, not that I wouldn’t do it anyway. But it’s true, you’re right, mate.”

And Avan thinks that maybe Leo is from a film, that he might be a fictional character. Rather than mentioning it, he takes a sip of his wine. Something makes him brave or foolish and he says, “Was it nice, though? Watching lots of films seems like a good way to spend time, like. If you have to be laid up.”

“Yeah, I could be a movie critic at this point, really. Especially critical of the rom-coms.”

He nods, chuckle light in his voice. “I get that. Those are, like—you know how those films are almost always about the new bit, the meeting and the falling in love bit?” he asks, breathless, his palm warm from clutching the paper cup of wine. “I used to think that was the crux of it, that that was all there was. I fell into that habit of thinking, like, just about the before and not about the—during bit, the part where you keep going because it matters to you. That they matter to you.”

Leo is silent for a long moment, and Avan worries he’s made a wrong step. But then Leo nods slowly. “You’re just out a breakup then,” he says decisively.

Silence. Avan knows silence better than he knows his own face in the mirror.

“Less recent than you might think,” he allows, frowning slightly.

Leo hums slightly, and takes a sip of his wine before responding. “Does it hurt less than it used to?”

“Um. Yeah.”

Leo nods. “Chances are you’re gonna be okay, then. Getting hurt can be worth something.”

“Character building?” Avan asks quietly, gripping his cup tightly.

“Sure. If you do something with it.”

“Something?”

“That’s what they say, right?”

Avan rolls his eyes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger?”

Leo laughs. “If it’s gotten to the point you’re quoting the Joker, mate, it might be time for a change of scenery.”

Avan is unsure whether Leo means physical or mental or some combination thereof. Rather than responding, he takes a lingering sip of his warmed wine.

::

Leo pulls into a slush-filled parking spot outside a diner he swears is his absolute favourite spot for a burger. They tumble inside, brushing snow off their shoulders and hair, and sit down.

“You’re not chatty, are you?” Leo asks.

“Not—not really. I kind of just, you know. Smoke. Write. Chill out. My sister calls it brooding, though.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

“Three sisters.”

“Hm. I’ve got two, older than me.”

“I imagine you fight with yours less than I fight with mine, then. Youngers sisters, mate—you just have no idea,” Avan says with a light laugh. “I mean. I’m kind of an arsehole to them. Kind of an arsehole in general. Be an arsehole to you if we’re not careful.”

“You sure?”

“Dunno. Talking out my arse as usual, maybe.”

Leo bites his lip, considering. They sit in silence for a long while. “Are you gay?”

“No.”

“Me neither.” Leo shakes his head. “But my friend from school, right, I met him when I first moved here. And he—he was the first person to really reach out to me at all, who was fun and into the same stupid crap as me. And like, that felt really important. And it was really important. But he would make these remarks or these stupid jokes or like just keep being—ignorant about stuff, or like worried about someone secretly being gay and it rubbing off on him. And like, as a fourteen-year-old in the middle of this tiny place, like, how do you handle that? When you’re keeping a secret from your best friend and he keeps giving you new reasons to keep it a secret?”

Avan blinks rapidly, tongue heavy and slow.

“That’s ignorance, right, and it looks a lot like arsehole-ishness. But it came out of him being scared about his father, like. When his uncle came out, my friend’s father was—horrible. And so he was just doing what he’d been shown to do.”

“Okay,” Avan agrees in low tones.

“And it was scary, yeah? To be around him sometimes, knowing he might actually hate that part of me. Only he didn’t know he was doing it to someone he could hurt. He didn’t realize he was being a dick to his very best friend.”

Avan nods, resolutely silent.

“And, like, it wasn’t my job to educate him or whatever, but it got too hard to stay silent, you know? And it was messy and it sucked, but he’s not like that anymore. And the things he’d said before made me sad and scared and I second-guessed myself a lot, but I forgive him. He’s not an arsehole, he just didn’t—have that understanding that he was hurting people. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, and then he stopped.”

“I don’t—that is,” Avan begins, at a loss.

Leo interrupts him. “We’re all doing the best we can. And I kind of doubt you’re mean on purpose or, like, go out of your way to be a jerk. Maybe it’s just that sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing. And that sucks but it’s not—not always malicious.”

Avan is silent for thirty seconds put-together, simply staring at Leo. “You’re a goddamn treasure.”

Leo grins, crinkle-eyed and bright.

::

And if they kiss later in the car, if they kiss on the doorstep of Avan’s gran’s house—well, it’s okay, it’s all okay. If Leo’s hand snakes up to grab Avan’s cheek, rubbing at the line of his jaw, pressing in and kneading at the bone beneath his skin—if Avan moans into Leo’s mouth as they kiss, no one cares to judge them, and no one needs to know. If Avan enjoys it more than he can explain in words, all he needs to do is smile.

 

Ch. 2

His gran gives him small, knowing glances for the rest of their short—short, much too short—trip and Avan tries not to blush.

The thing is, they don’t really do anything, him and Leo. They don’t have sex, they don’t make promises, they don’t leave the village. Instead they drink each other in. They sate themselves on each other.

And then Avan leaves with a fierce hug from Leo and a pout he thinks might be especially for him. Something inside of Avan splinters a little bit when they promise to stay in touch.

On the car ride back to his parents’ house, he realizes he has one of Leo’s gloves in the bottom of his rucksack and he feels a little foolish. All the same, he thinks, yes, this was real, look, I have proof.

::

He drinks himself silly the first night back at uni, his kind-eyed goofy flatmate handing him a bottle of beer as soon as he walks in the door. He drinks himself stupid, unable to hold back words like beautiful boy, best smile, lifesaver.

 

He pens a series of terribly-spelled drunk messages to Leo, only to delete every one right away. Belatedly, he sends a photo of passed-out Henry, telling Leo Im a saint for not drawing a knobb on his face.

 

He cannot recall if he mentioned Henry to Leo during their marathon-long conversations, cannot recall much besides pillow lips strong jaw built like a lumberjack probably saves puppies from drowning.

The return text message from Leo is a series of ridiculous emojis, including one Avan things might be a prawn. There is also a crown, a smiling face, and a heart.

Avan cuddles up on the couch with the passed-out Henry, too tired to drag himself to his own bed, his face flushed.

::

He wakes with an aching neck and a groan. His mouth feels full of cotton wool and regret.

“Why did we drink so much last night?” he asks Henry, shutting his eyes tight against the morning light pouring in through their flat’s windows.

“Dunno. I think we were celebrating being alive or something.”

“Never let me do that again.”

“Hey, it could be worse. You could have drunk-dialed P—drunk-dialed your ex again.”

Avan groans again, limply throwing a pillow in Henry’s general direction “I totally should have drawn a knob on your face when you passed out.”

“My face is too pretty for knobs, Avan. We’ve had this discussion.”

“Right, knobs are reserved for your mouth, I remember.”

“Yours too, it seems.”

“I hate daylight. Make it stop.”

“Hair of the dog or water?”

Avan nearly retches. “Water. And death.”

“This too shall pass,” Henry says in grave tones.

“Whatever you say.”

He falls into a mid-morning snooze with phrases like beautiful boy and character growth and I wanted to keep him rolling around in the back of his head.

::

In his multimedia class, Avan feels a bit thrown by the fact that he is right-away expected to produce a masterpiece.

The margins of his notebook are full of doodles of soft eyes and broad shoulders, and Avan wonders if he’s turned Leo into a caricature to idolize from afar.

Then he receives a voicemail from Leo, telling him about an ice storm in Reykjavik, wondering if they need nice neighbour boys to shovel their walkways too. He rings off by admitting that he called rather than texted because he has no idea how to spell Reykjavik.

Avan’s chest hurts.

::

He pens a story—a short comic—about a pretty, pretty boy who thought he might like to be a firefighter, a strong boy with a nice smile who broke his body but made it into something better. He befriends someone all alone in the snow, someone who needed a little bit more sunshine and admittedly fewer cigarettes.

He pens in his gran’s knowing glances but leaves out the scenes of them kissing.

He dreams up grand romantic gestures he could have performed when he realizes he has no idea where Leo used to go to school, before he got hurt.

For some reason, he is too timid to ask.

::

He sees his ex-girlfriend at a coffee shop three weeks into term, and for the first time in ages he has no desire to run away. He approaches her, asks after her holiday. She invites him to sit down and they talk for almost an hour.

When she leaves to go to class, Avan realizes he might eventually be okay. In fact, he might be closer to okay than he has been in a long time.

::

It’s not that they make a habit of weekly phone calls or daily texts—except, in a way, they do.

Avan laughs to himself as soon as he realizes Leo is a tiny bit jealous of his friendship with Henry—only because they get to spend so much time together, he says quickly, not because he’s proper jealous. Leo says their lives sound like fun.

Avan assures him that, while Henry is a lovely friend, and while he enjoys his courses, there is more to it than fun. He wonders if it sounds condescending, and he bites his tongue hard.

So he asks after Leo’s plans to return to uni—delicately—and listens to him talk about what was his four-year plan and is now a five-and-one-half-year plan. He talks about music theory and sound engineering, using technical words and explaining patiently. He talks of an ace program he’s applied to and waiting to her back from, waiting to be told he can attend come the end of January.

Avan bites down on the inside of his right cheek.

Later he talks about his comic in vague terms, never explicitly telling him the topic or the inspiration or the inevitable fondness it inspires in his heart every time he thinks about it.

He has never felt this, the quiet sense of joy and contentedness that soaks into his core every time he even thinks of Leo’s name.

And it terrifies him, a bit, just as much as it delights him.

::

So when Leo texts him a picture of himself, his friend Conor, and his dog Loki one Saturday evening—one evening when Henry is dragging Avan to a club full of neon lights and cheap drinks—he is maybe a bit lonely. And perhaps a bit achey, and maybe a bit jealous.

And of course he is unutterably full of fondness.

Everything about this is inexplicable, nothing about this says yes this is a typical pattern that Avan would fall into. But it somehow digs him out of the strange dirty rut he was in, even with five shots in his bloodstream and a stupid pop song blaring through the speakers.

He and Henry dance like they were born for it, like their hips were perhaps made to touch or at least to rotate to the beat of the song coursing through the speakers. They keep little space between them during multiple songs.

Avan watches contentedly as Henry cat-walks to someone dancing by the side of the floor.

Returning to their table, Avan peers mournfully at his near-empty glass. He thumbs into his mobile, sending a neon-lit snaphat to Leo and a relpy to the text message from his sister.

He wonders if he might be drunk as he takes a deep drag from the vodka-tonic in front of him.

Henry swoops over soon and whispers in his ear, “You’ve got a lovely face there, mate.” He quirks a brow, only momentarily backing away when the sandy-haired patron touches his hip. “Oh, James, this is my flatmate. Avan.” He plops onto Avan’s bench, snuggling against his side.

Avan and James shake hands, surveying one another drunkenly—warily. Kindly, on Avan’s part. But warily.

“Hi, Avan. Pleasure.”

“Pleasure’s mine. You want a drink?”

“Whatever you’re having, babe.”

And maybe Henry tucks his body into Avan’s for a moment, saying he likes him, likes him a lot this James person, that this night is perfect perfect to the extreme, mate.

And Avan agrees in a way, but he wishes Henry weren’t quite so—wishes Leo were tucked into his side instead.

So Avan excuses himself to buy three more drinks and he thinks little of it.

He bites his bottom lip at the thought of Leo’s name.

But he buys drinks like a professional, schools his face like he has done this for years. He acts like maybe everything is fine.

Bringing drinks back, he whispers into James’ ear, “No fear. You, babe, it’s you he wants, it’s you. All you.” Because Henry has maybe been chatting about his love life or, at least, the people he likes, and topping the list is James. He sits the drinks down and perches carefully beside Henry, arching a brow in James’ direction.

Avan wants love. He thinks maybe he is made of love.

He stares at the spectacle Henry is making of himself—all star-eyes and curling lips—and he aches for it. He aches for the same feeling, the ability to look across the room and see the person he wants to hold and cherish for, maybe, forever.

And he watches as the frost in James’ bright-sparkly blue eyes melts, watches the way James traces the lines of Henry movements with careful adoration.

And Avan wants it.

::

think I lost my flatmate to the siren call of the men’s toilet, with its promises of blowjobs from a bloke named James. Console me? he texts Leo, nursing a countless cocktail alone in the booth.

Leo messages back that Conor is trying his damnedest to rap, promising to send him a video to cheer him up.

And Avan wants to wake up with the taste of Leo in his mouth. Maybe with the feel of Leo’s body heat beneath his hand. Avan’s not picky.

He watches the video with an amused look blatant on his face, refusing to look at James and Henry when they return from the toilets with flushing cheeks. “You two disgust me. But also, good on you.”

He refuses to watch James and Henry nuzzle one another because the mere idea tempts his gag reflex.

::

They clamber back to the flat Avan and Henry share, James’ cheeks still flushed with embarrassment and arousal. They head to separate rooms and Avan takes himself in hand as soon as he’s alone in his room.

He tries not to think of Leo as he does, but he’s too far-gone to really consider it.

::

Soon they take to calling one another every other day. They catch one another up on bullshit, utter bullshit, and Avan loves it. Avan looks into the music engineering at his own uni but never tells anyone about it. Every time he hangs up the phone, new words run through his head.

rugged

kind-hearted

calloused hands

broad shoulders

sloppy laugh

I kind of love you

::

He edits furiously, turning his real life into fodder for his education. Every new section earns a spot inside Avan’s sense of himself, inside his notion that he might be a semi-talented artist, after all.

He periodically sends doodles to Leo, mostly innocuous things like pictures of dogs and superheroes.

In return Leo sends little snippets of himself rapping or singing parts of top-40 hits. Avan barely refrains from collapsing in a filthy heap made up mostly clothing and fondness.

::

In a tea-fueled haze somewhere during the end of the first month of term, Avan decides to supplement his scholarship by getting a job in the library during late-night hours. Half bored and half enraptured by the calm silence, he spends most of his shifts drawing and working on coursework.

He tries not to obsessively check his mobile for stray missives from Leo. He sets his ringer to silent each shift he works, promising himself he will use the quiet time to read great works of literature.

He makes it through five Richard Siken poems before he is in tears and needs to furiously wipe at his eyes.

He yanks his mobile from the pocket of his jeans and thumbs open a message before dropping it again. Instead he grabs a blank piece of paper and inks out a message of his own:

you are a goddamn treasure.

He considers it with bitten lips and photographs the stylized words. Sending it before he can think better of it, he sighs.

::

Half the nights of a given week, Avan falls into bed with an exhausted appreciation. Other nights, he stares ceaselessly at the ceiling of his room, streetlamp streaming in through his blinds—the noise of Henry’s snoring seeping in from down the corridor.

::

Sometimes—maybe more often than he would like to admit—Avan wakes up wishing he could curl his body into someone else’s, press his palms against the planes of someone’s stomach, his lips to someone’s shoulder-blade.

And lately, he is much more particular about just who he would like to wake up to.

::

“Hey mate you’ve reached Leo! Leave a message and I promise I’ll return it. Make it a good one.”

“Hey, it’s just m—it’s just Avan. I’m bored walking home from work and thought I’d see what you’re doing. Besides pining for me, obviously.” Avan huffs out quietly, mentally berating himself. “Because my life is just so glamorous. I helped whole four people check out books tonight. Though I suppose I shouldn’t complain, this is the calm before the storm of exam time. Gave me time to work on my comic at least. Anyway, give me a ring when you get a chance. Cheers.”

Avan hangs up and shoves the mobile in his pocket, looking forward to the warmth of his flat. Hurrying, he hums to himself while, yes, perpetually questioning his life choices.

After shoving into his flat and dropping his belongings, he begins shucking off his clothes to take a much-needed hot shower. He hears Henry bustling about somewhere at the other end of the flat, presumably the kitchen, and he rolls his eyes.

His mobile rings and buzzes loudly, and Avan fumbles with it awkwardly. He honestly didn’t expect a reply—at least not such an immediate one—from Leo.

“Hey, mate, how’s it?” he asks in what he hopes is a normal tone.

“Avan! Hi, Avan.”

“Hi yourself.”

“I— hic —got your message! I didn’t hear my phone go off before. I was distracted.”

“Distracted?”

“Yeah, beer pong. I’m terrible at it, I am.”

Avan laughs. “How you feeling, then, mate?”

“Floaty and fizzy. Kinda like it.”

“You drinking water too, though?”

“Oh. Should do, shouldn’t I?”

“Probably so.”

“You take good care, you know. Of people.”

“So you do, Leo.”

“Nah.” He huffs out a breath. “Can’t help people the way I really want to, like. Not enough to make ‘em wanna stick around.”

“Leo.”

“Yes, Avan? Oh, have you ever tried beer pong, though? Because it’s harder than it looks, isn’t it? I don’t get the mechanics of it. Conor keeps trying to teach me, but mostly he just laughs and pokes me in the ribs. It’s not helpful.”

“You found some water now, mate?”

“What? Oh, yeah. Yeah, I have water. Unless it’s—” Leo’s voice chokes off with a sputter. “No, I think that might be Sambuca, actually. That—ugh.” He coughs loudly, the wet sound echoing down the phone line and into Avan’s ear.

“Hey. Hey babe, you okay?” He listens as Leo catches his breath, listens as the rhythm evens out.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Miss you though.” He says this softly, a touch of hurt in his voice.

“Oh, Leo. You have no idea.”

“Think I do, though. A bit.”

::

They don’t talk for three days after that, partly because Avan’s mum rings him and says Gran is sick—very. So Avan sets everything in motion to take a bit of time off school and work in order to visit her, knowing his mum isn’t the time to exaggerate something like this.

 

A dark, angry feeling settles into his gut as he catches the train to away from uni, away from his coursework and friends and his messy flat. As he goes towards his gran and, selfishly, Leo.

As least, so he thinks.

The train ride makes him itchy, not just for a cigarette but also for some reassurance that everything—anything, really—that anything will eventually be okay. He spends the ride scratching uselessly onto his sketch pad, not managing to create anything worthwhile but a hole in one page.

His mum picks him up at the station, telling him that his sisters were taking turns checking in on and caring for Gran. Avan nods, voice stuck in his throat like a piece of hastily swallowed sweet.

They hug. “Thanks for coming, pet. She’ll be glad to see you.”

Avan nods distractedly, heart feeling held together by bits of string.

::

Avan cannot recall a time he’s ever seen anyone look so poorly. Gran appears tiny and wan in her bed, bruised-looking dark circles under her closed eyes.

“How is she?” he asks Sania quietly.

“Putting on a brave face, I shouldn’t doubt. She’s tired but not—not complaining,” she responds, cracking a bit under Avan’s intent looks.

“Did we—have you talked to the doctor?”

“Yeah, apparently pneumonia’s not good for anyone but especially not for the elderly.”

“Don’t let her hear you call her that, she’d pitch a fit.”

“Not sure she’s got the energy right now,” Sania responds, ducking her chin in. “Shit.”

::

Later that night, Avan ducks outside to smoke, attempting to loosen the tight muscles in his shoulders and jaw. In his mind, he recycles the conversations he’s had during the day, trying to tamp down the worry and fear that sit heavily in his chest.

Discarding his cigarette, he starts to wander next door before he even realizes his intention. His nerves at possibly meeting some of Leo’s family are outweighed by the heady, angry fear about his gran. He knocks on the front door, biting the inside of his lip.

A woman answers the door; she looks a bit older than his own mum, and fairer to boot. She gives him a polite look, eyes wide beneath the porch light.

“Um. Is—is Leo here?”

“Oh, no, love, he’s not. You’re—oh but then you must be Avan, mustn’t you?”

“M-must I be?”

“Aren’t you, then?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s me. So Leo’s not here, then?”

“No, dear. We just moved him to uni this past weekend,” she admits gently.

“Ah.” Avan bites his lip. “I didn’t realize that was—this weekend, then.”

“So sorry you missed him. Think there must have been a miscommunication, maybe?”

“Yeah, must’ve got my dates switched. I was just in town and thought I’d see if he was in. Sorry to bother you.”

“Not a bother at all, dear. Come ‘round any time. Any time at all.”

 

Only, Avan knows he never mixed up his dates at all, because Leo never told him he was moving out.

::

He spends the next two days at his gran’s side, attending to her every need. He spends the time ignoring his mobile, shoving it to the bottom of his rucksack when the battery dies. When his gran is sleeping, he either sketches or does some reading for his literature classes.

He makes tea for his mum and sisters, cleans up anything in sight, does load after load of laundry, washes dishes under the incredulous Sania’s incredulous stare.

“What the hell is wrong with you, bro? You’re weird, like. Gran’s made an upswing. This is good.”

“Yep.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“There’s just a lot going on. Not just Gran. But like, I’m worried about coursework, aren’t I?”

“You’re always worried about coursework. It’s annoying actually.”

“Gee thanks.”

“Who is it? Is it Pezza again?”

“No it’s not.”

“I’ll get it out of you eventually. I rather think you’d prefer I don’t get you sloppy drunk on Gran’s sherry until you actually feel like the whole world’s not out to get you.”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle, yeah? Just your normal set of worries. From your run-of-the-mill sort of person.”

“Blasphemy,” she says, smacking his forearm with a roll of her eyes. “Hope you’ll figure that out sooner or later.”

::

 

He sleeps in fits and starts, rustling against the sofa cushions with every turn.

::

 

Avan returns to school having only missed one week of courses and work, his gran mostly nursed back to health and his mum deciding to stick around for another few weeks.

He pays only passing attention to his mobile, clenching his jaw every time he fishes it from his pocket.

I wonder where in the world you are right now mate he sends one evening before he can convince himself to stop.

 

closer than you think I reckon

 

didn’t take you for one to play games

 

just don’t like losing innit

 

didn’t take you for being a dick also Avan writes out, annoyed.

 

sorry sorry. I’m—fuck fuck. You just

 

Just?

 

make me nervous yeah

 

Avan shakes his head, staring dumbly at his mobile. don’t mock it, now

 

not mocking babe. Never that

Avan refuses to respond.

::

“Where were you? Fuck, even, where are you now? You’re in the wind or sommat, just wandering the streets like with one shirt and a guitar, and that’s silly, like, you should have a roadie. You should have a groupie but it’s like, instead you’re alone, mate. Call me back.”

::

Avan looks up as Henry knocks on the door to his room. “Someone at the door for you,” he says slowly, drawing out each syllable as usual.

“I’m revising,”

“Think you’re gonna want to answer this one, actually. I’m grabbing coffee with James so I’ll be—out for a bit, yeah?”

A cold, clenching feeling rises through Avan’s chest. “It’s that bad?” he asks, clambering to stand.

“I don’t know what it is, actually. G’luck.”

Avan follows Henry to the front door of their flat and loses his breath when he sees Leo standing in their entryway. He forgets how to speak—at least coherently. Instead he blinks repeatedly.

“Leaving you two to it, then.” Henry claps Leo on the shoulder and leaves the flat.

Leo looks good, of course, he always does. Wearing slouching jeans, a thin t-shirt, and a bright red hoodie, he glances nervously to Avan.

“What—why are you here?”

“I go here. I—transferred here.”

“Excuse me? You moved weeks ago to my fucking uni and never thought to mention it to me, even in passing? Didn’t occur to you? Didn’t even mention you were moving at all, even. Weird, no?”

 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t—see the thing is, when I applied here, I didn’t know that you, um, go here? And it was my top choice, right, I was praying to get in, and then I did and my mum mentioned it to your gran and she said that you go here and all of a sudden—it felt weird, like it would look like I was following you, like I was weird and codependent and I don’t—I didn’t want to put that pressure on you, for starters, but also didn’t want to make it look like I was stalking you or something? But then you were angry with me or it seemed like you were, so I had to find you and—set it straight. Because I really miss you.”

 

“You didn’t even tell me though. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“That this was my top choice? What if I didn’t get in, though, and then I’d got my hopes up and maybe yours and maybe I would look even more pathetic. If I didn’t get in.”

“You’re not pathetic. I don’t think you’re pathetic.” Avan huffs a quiet sigh. “If anything I feel pathetic, pining for you when you were planning vast, grand things and I wasn’t even really—included in your thoughts or plans.”

“I—”

“Not that I should be or have any right to be, really, because it’s not like you’re my boyfriend. It’s—it’s just silly, all the things I felt too nervous to say to you, and then it felt justified that I’d been nervous because maybe I was reading too much into it all along.”

“You weren’t.”

“My gran got sick.”

“I didn’t know, I just found out today. And—not like it’s an excuse or anything. But I really missed you. And I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. If you wanted me to be there.”

“I did.”

“I was worried I was reading too much into it, you know? Like, I was camped out in my parents’ house frantically applying to school while you were doing what you wanted to do and accomplishing things and it’s amazing. And I felt stagnant and, like, presumptuous.”

“No.”

“But then my mum said you’d come round asking after me, and I was so happy. But I didn’t want to—I wanted to establish some things here, right, to show I’m not trying to be codependent or crazy or whatever.”

“You could have told me.”

“I’m—kind of shit at communicating.”

Avan snorts. “You put a good face on it, then. Because I had no idea you felt all this. No idea what you were thinking at all, really.”

“Texting’s shit too.”

“It is. Yeah.”

“I really missed you,” Leo admits quietly, broad shoulders slumping.

“I really missed you too. Sucks not talking.”

“I thought maybe you wanted me to. To not talk.”

“There’s a good way to find out next time. Like, maybe asking me.”

“You kinda still make me nervous, though,” Leo says sheepishly.

“Might have to get over that if you’re gonna be my boyfriend.” Avan shrugs, finally shuffling forward to yank Leo into a tight hug.

“Really?” he whispers, breath soft against Avan’s neck.

“Well, now that distance won’t really be an issue,” he replies, backing up slightly. “If you want.”

“I do. I do want. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, I just—I don’t want to hold you back, Avan. You’re too good.”

“And you’re a goddamn treasure.”

And when Avan yanks Leo into his room to show him just how much he’s not being held back by Leo, that in fact Leo was and is the inspiration for his biggest project yet, Leo’s eyes go bright and shiny. He grins hard, nose and eyes crinkling with his enthusiasm. “You’re so good, Avan.”

“Oh, go on.” He flushes. “So—how’s the residence hall? Or are you in a flat?”

“Flat. Just a shoddy one-room thing, a studio or whatever they call it. An efficiency? I dunno. But I’ve got it cleaned up and looking fine. If you want to see it. Sometime.”

“Course I do. Gotta decorate my boyfriend’s flat with all my sketches, after all.”

“Boyfriend,” Leo sighs out, gracing Avan with another smile. “You’re my boyfriend.”

Avan laughs, loud and bright. “And you’re mine.”

And that’s that.

 


© Copyright 2020 S Pinkerton. All rights reserved.

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