Flash Fic Friday

**Okay, yes, I know it’s actually Saturday but sometimes life…and my own brain…gets in the way. So, let’s visit with Deacon and Rory from A Timely Gift, out now. (buy links in the books tab at the top) This takes place immediately following the end of the book. From Deacon’s POV. Enjoy!**

The warmth from the fire, and the spiked hot chocolate, had lulled me into a pleasant lassitude. I’d intended to go home once I dropped Rory off, but after our kisses and conversation, I hadn’t wanted to leave. Rory was curled up against me. He had his ereader in his lap, and when I’d asked earlier what he was reading, he’d told me it was a Christmas romance. I was flicking through channels, never settling too long on one thing. I kept the volume low so as not to disturb him. It was nice, just being together, with nothing but the tree, fire, and TV for illumination.

Rory heaved a sigh, then pushed himself up. I quirked an eyebrow at him, and he grinned.

“I’m just gonna settle Apollo for the evening. It’s late, and he needs to go to bed.”

I nodded and watched as he walked over to the perch in the corner of the room. Apollo immediately stepped up onto Rory’s hand, then made kissy noises. Rory chuckled, and I saw him kiss Apollo’s beak as he turned and headed out of the room.

He wasn’t gone long, but in the time he was out of the room, I started to overthink things. Was I supposed to leave now? Stay another night? I would love to stay, but I wasn’t sure if I should ask. I definitely didn’t want to assume. We were going out to dinner tomorrow night, and maybe Rory expected us to be apart till then.

 

“Are you staying?”

I startled at the sound of Rory’s low voice, and jerked my gaze to his. He bit his lip, then let it go to take a deep breath. From where I was, in the low light, I couldn’t really make out his expression.

“That’s up to you,” I answered cautiously.

Rory took a step toward me, then froze. His hand moved, and it took me a second to realize he was playing with the hem of his sweater.

“I think it’s up to you,” he whispered.

My mind raced, trying to figure out what he wanted from me. But then I realized that was stupid. If I wanted to know what he wanted, then I just needed to ask.

“Come here, baby.”

Rory grinned and jogged across the room, and when I opened my arms, he sank down against me and snuggled in close. I took a deep breath, and smiled at the scent of him. Body wash and chocolate and just a hint of wood smoke. He smelled amazing.

“I’d love to stay, if that’s what you want. But if it’s too much, too soon, just tell me. We’re meeting for dinner tomorrow, right?”

He nodded, and huffed out a breath before burrowing closer. After a minute, he tilted his head back to stare up at me.

“You said I was your Christmas present right?”

“Yes. I meant it too.”

Rory’s grin turned wicked, and he licked his lips. “Well. It’s still Christmas for another–” he pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. “–two hours. And you have yet to unwrap me.”

My blood rushed south, and my breathing picked up. Good God. Was there anything sexier than Rory, turned on and wanting me? I didn’t think so.

“You’re right. Merry Christmas, Rory.” I bent and kissed him, hard and consuming, until he was panting for breath. Then I gave him a nudge so he’d get up. “Get in the bedroom. I want to unwrap my present.”

He laughed and ran, stripping off his sweater as he went. I followed.

This really was the best Christmas ever.

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Flash Fic Friday

**Hearts and Hazelnuts is available now! (You can find all the buy links at the bottom of this post) Let’s visit with Beckett and Jordan as they get ready for their first Christmas together. This takes place after the last chapter of the book, but before the epilogue. Enjoy!**

The living room smelled like fresh cut pine and peppermint tea. Beckett couldn’t help the small smile that played on his lips as he set down yet another box. He’d been searching through the attic for the past several hours, locating his mother’s Christmas decorations. The tree was ready, he had a playlist of carols queued up, and now all he needed was his boyfriend.

Beck’s smile grew a little at the thought. He and Jordan hadn’t seen each other for three weeks, when Jordan drove back down to Medford the Sunday after Thanksgiving. They’d texted frequently and Facetimed every night. But it wasn’t enough. Beck knew they had many, many more months of this. Years, maybe. No, that thought was too depressing. This was their situation for now, and since he was finally confident in Jordan’s feelings, Beck could handle it.¬† He would handle it. He didn’t have a choice.

But tonight, after so many days, Beck would finally get his hands on Jordan again. Be able to hold him and kiss him, and really see Jordan’s eyes when they talked. They’d be able to have their conversation while snuggling on the couch. Beck had been looking forward to that since Jordan left. And now he only had to wait…

Beck’s smile turned into a frown when he glanced at the clock. It was later than he thought. Jordan should have been there nearly an hour ago. Refusing to panic or worry, Beck crossed the room and woke up his phone. No missed calls or texts. No messages of any kind. Beck reminded himself again not to worry, but a niggle crept in anyway. The weather was clear, and the traffic report free of construction or accidents. There should be nothing holding up Jordan’s progress. And if he got stuck at work, he should have let Beck know.

Right?

Okay, so Beck was definitely starting to worry. Things between them were new, and it had only been a few weeks since they’d defined their relationship and talked about he long haul. Had Jordan changed his mind about coming up for the weekend? Beck should have offered to go down to him. Things were slow enough now at the farm that he could have left Cory in charge and made the trip. But Jordan had seemed excited about coming back. Beck knew how much he loved the farm. Plus he could visit with his brother as well. Jordan had been the one to suggest he come up in the first place.

The sound of a diesel engine broke through Beck’s thoughts, and he didn’t realize how panicked he’d gotten until it all released. Dropping his phone on the couch, he hurried to the door, and threw it open just as Jordan jumped down from his truck. Jordan looked up, and his face broke into a wide smile. Beck had a moment to wish he still had his shoes on, so he could run out to greet Jordan, but even as the thought entered his brain, Jordan jogged across the expanse and engulfed Beck in a tight hug.

Beck tucked his head down against Jordan’s throat and inhaled the scent uniquely Jordan. A hint of citrus and engine grease overlaid the scent of warm male skin.

Jordan pulled away after a long moment, and practically shoved Beck through the door.

“Get inside. It’s freezing out here.”

Beck chuckled as Jordan took off his coat and boots. The moment he was done, Beck threw himself back into Jordan’s arms and kissed him hard, putting all the waiting and longing and worry and love he had into it. Jordan gasped, and Beck took advantage to press his tongue inside.

Eventually they separated, because breathing was necessary, and Jordan grinned up at Beck. “I’m sorry I’m late. I left a little bit later than I planned, and I thought I could make up time, but then it was one thing after another. By the time I realized I was going to be significantly late, I was on the road and I don’t have the hands free thing in my truck.”

Beck was getting the man a Bluetooth earpiece for Christmas. “I wasn’t worried.”

Jordan snorted out a laugh. “Liar.” He stretched up and kissed Beck again. “It smells great in here.”

“The tree. And the tea. You hungry, babe?”

Jordan shook his head. “I grabbed some food on my way out of town. Ate while I drove.”

Beck sighed and refrained from pointing out how dangerous that could be. One moment’s inattention and…nope. He wasn’t going to go there. Instead, he took Jordan’s hand and led him toward the living room. All the boxes were laid out, and Beck was itching to get started. It could wait until tomorrow, but there was something about decorating his home with the man he loved, that really spoke to him.

“Did you test the lights?”

Beck blinked. “What?”

“The lights.” Jordan walked around the couch and grabbed a string of lights, holding them up. “Did you test them to make sure they still work?”

“Not yet, I…” Beck trailed off as he watched Jordan proceed to do just that. His heart swelled. He loved watching Jordan confident and in charge. Beck moved to help, pleased to see that all the strings still worked.

Two hours later, the tree was decorated, the fire was blazing, and they sat together on the couch with nothing but the Christmas lights and the fire for illumination. Jordan was down to his T-shirt, and Beck caught the edge of tattoo out of the corner of his eye. He stretched out, and Jordan easily moved with him, lying down so Beck could lie on top of him. But when he lowered his head to start licking that tattoo, Jordan caught his face in his hands.

“Love you,” Jordan mumured, the words barely audible.

Beck sighed happily, the last bit of tension leaving him. “I love you too.”

Jordan pulled him up so that he settled right on Jordan’s chest. Together, they stared at the tree, with the soft music playing around them. This, right here, was what Beck wanted for the rest of his life.

Flash Fic Friday

**This week’s prompt is a first Thanksgiving for a new couple. Enjoy!**

“Maybe I shouldn’t go with you.”

Liam chuckled, and reached out to grab my hand. “I told you, Charlie. Its–”

“But we’ve only been together for six months. It’s our first holiday together. Real holiday I mean, and maybe it’s too soon.”

“Charlie.”

“I mean, maybe they won’t like me, and then I’ll ruin everything.”

“Honey.”

“Thanksgiving is a big deal!” I shook my head, nerves threatening to overwhelm me. I had to swallow fast, or else I’d throw up. “And your family does it right, and it’s important and I just–”

“Charlie!”

His shout startled me, and I turned to look at him. Liam’s expression was a mix of affection and exasperation. Which, if I was honest, was not that unusual when it came to me. He got me like no other person, and I was fortunate that I’d stumbled into him at the bookstore six months ago. Literally. I’d tripped over a low display table and slammed into him. He’d kept us both upright, and then asked me for coffee. The past six months had been amazing, and I loved him with everything in me. But this was a big step and I wasn’t sure I was ready.

“Baby. I know you’re nervous.” Liam leaned into my space, and cupped my cheek so I couldn’t look away.

“Nervous is an understatement,” I croaked.

He smiled sweetly. Then pecked my lips, and stayed close enough I could see the flecks of gold in his brown eyes.

“I know your family isn’t like mine. You’ve had to make your own way for a long time. But I swear to you, you won’t mess up. And my family will love you. Almost as much as I do.”

I melted, and some of the tension left my body. Not enough though, because I was still vibrating with it. Knowing he loved me helped, but I was still scared.

“Still,” I whispered. “Maybe I shouldn’t go. Christmas might be better.”

“Baby,” he said, laughing again. He used his hold to turn my head. “We’re already at my parents house.”

I gulped and nodded as much as I was able. “I’ll just stay in the car.”

He raised an eyebrow. “For four whole days.”

“Yup.”

Liam chuckled again, and the sound soothed me even more. He had a great laugh. It was the first thing I noticed about him.

“It’s going to be fine. I want you with me. Our first Thanksgiving together.” His eyes went dark. “The first of many right?”

I let out a swoony sigh as I nodded, because really, how could I not? After three weeks together, he told me he wanted exclusivity. He said the thought of someone else touching me wanted to make him commit murder. At six weeks he told me he loved me. It took me a little longer to say it back. But it was clear from early on that we were made to be together. And I loved him so much I couldn’t imagine a future without him.

“Okay,” I said quietly. My voice shook and I tried for a smile. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

***

Three hours later, I was sitting at the huge table between Liam and his younger brother. I swear, the table actually groaned with the amount of food piled on it. And there were at least twenty people squished around it. Liam’s parents and siblings, and their kids, and a few aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone talked too loud and teased each other. But the love pouring off these people was amazing. I’d never had anything like it, and I didn’t even know it really existed. Not outside of movies anyway. But here it was.

It was awesome and terrifying at the same time.

After everyone had eaten their fill, the noise quieted some. Full stomachs would do that. I’d eaten so much I had to discreetly reach down and unbutton my jeans.

“All right, now it’s time for my favorite part of he festivities,” Liam’s father Joe said. He smile widely, and I couldn’t tear my gaze away from him. I now had a good idea what Liam would look like in thirty years, and it was good. “Let’s go around the table and say what we’re all thankful for.”

There were a few groans, but they were playful. I, on the other hand, started to panic. I shot Liam a scowl, but he just grinned back. How could he not have told me about this?

“I’ll go first,” Joe said. He took a second to gather his thoughts, and then smiled again. “I’m thankful for this amazing, loud, messy, loving family I have gathered around me. And I’m especially grateful for Charlie’s presence this year. It does my heart proud to see my son so happy and settled, and that’s down to you, Charlie. Thank you.”

I gaped at him, eyes wide and cheeks hot. I was sure I looked ridiculous, but I couldn’t seem to stop. If Joe noticed, he didn’t show it. He just gave me a tiny wink, and turned to Liam, who was seated at his right.

Liam cleared his throat. “It’s been a great year for me, and I’m beyond thankful for the blessings I’ve had. In particular, this man who came here with me, even though he was nervous. I’m thankful for your love, Charlie.”

The tears welled up faster than I could stop them, and I cleared my throat, trying to find my voice. Everyone waited, and a quick glance around let me know there were mostly smiles. And in Liam’s mother’s case, a few tears as well.

“That,” I whispered, forcing the words out. “That’s what I’m thankful for too.”

Liam put his arm around me and tugged me into his side. I hid my face in his shoulder and just breathed in his scent.

I had a lot to be thankful for. But this moment was at the top of the list.

Flash Fic Friday

**In honor of my new day job, the prompt given to me this week was a new job. Enjoy!**

I was early, but the excitement, nerves, and anticipation pushed me out of bed an hour before I needed to be. And then I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get to the office a little early. It was my first day, and it would give me a chance to get set up and learn the lay of the land.

My office was small, and the walls were bare, but it wouldn’t take me long to fill them. I had a few prints I couldn’t wait to hang up. The desk was shiny and clean, and two monitors graced the top. Stepping into the former managers shoes, I knew the computer was already set up with everything I needed. And I also knew it wouldn’t take me long to get acclimated with the workings of this particular office. I’d worked hard to get where I was, and I was determined to do the job well.

After taking a few minutes to just absorb the atmosphere, I picked up my favorite travel mug and headed for the break room. One of the perks was a fully stocked kitchen, and I’d been assured throughout my many rounds of interviews that there was always coffee. I met a few people on my way down the hall, and received polite nods and “good mornings” in response to my greetings.

Settling back in at my desk, I took a big gulp of the steaming brew, and barely refrained from moaning out loud. Damn, they didn’t spare any expense. The coffee was the good stuff. Sighing happily, I booted up my computer and loaded my task list. I had an hour to get myself acclimated before the meeting with the VP and my team.

Barely fifteen minutes later, a knock on my door had me looking up. And I nearly swallowed my tongue. Six feet of sinewy muscle, bright smile, and careless good looks. I cleared my throat, and then had to do it again. I hadn’t met this man on my interviews or tour, and it was probably a good thing I didn’t. He was gorgeous, and I would have stumbled and stuttered instead of presenting my best self.

“Hey there. Colin right?” The man took a step inside and held out his hand. I hastily stood to shake it, and felt the zing of electricity shoot up my arm. His dark eyes widened a fraction, so I knew he felt it too. But he gave a slight head shake, and his smile grew. “I’m Jude. Welcome to the team.”

“Thanks.” My voice came out a little croaky.

Jude just smiled even wider. “I’m the acquisitions manager, so our teams will be working closely together. I wanted to take a minute and introduce myself before our meeting this afternoon.”

“I appreciate that.” I shuffled my feet uncertainly, and hoped my smile didn’t look as maniacal as it felt. “It’s not easy being the new guy. And teamwork is important.”

Teamwork is important? Really? That was what I came up with? I wanted to kick myself. But Jude chuckled, and his smile turned a little wicked.

“Yes it is.” He pitched his voice low, and I fought a shiver. I knew I wasn’t mistaking the innuendo in his tone.

Jude took a step back. “I’ll let you get back to work. And I’ll see you this afternoon.”

I waved as he turned to leave, and felt like an idiot, but the man had addled my brains. And the way his ass looked in his dress pants was enough to be my undoing. Just before he stepped through the door, he looked back over his shoulder and caught me staring. He licked his lips.

“And maybe we can meet after work for a drink. You know–” he gave me a meaningful look. “–to welcome you to the company.”

All I could do was nod. Jude winked and left. I waited until I was sure he was gone, then sat down hard in my chair. I couldn’t contain my grin.

I just knew I was going to love working here.

Flash Fic Friday

**This week’s prompt is homecoming. Enjoy!**

Six months.

184 days.

Four thousand, four hundred, twenty-two hours and seven minutes since I saw him last.

Being military was hard for a lot of reasons, but until this last deployment, I hadn’t minded being away so much. But the wheel’s up call came in the middle of the night and I’d had no time to do anything other than kiss him goodbye, grab my go-bag, and walk out the door.

I love being a Marine. I loved serving my country and making shit go boom. I loved my platoon and the command that lead us. I was one of the lucky ones–a lifer that had a good spot, a good team, and choice assignments. And when Luka came into my life two years ago, I’d never been so relieved I was in the position I was, because it meant that I could show him off proudly without worry. My team had my back, and so did command.

For eighteen months, we’d never been apart for longer than a few weeks when I was sent to train. But then the call had come, and I’d had to leave him, warm and sleepy and sated, in my bed. The separation was hard on us both. I missed him like crazy. We messaged as much as we were able, with the occasional Skype call, but it hadn’t been enough.

I loved that man more than anything else, and I couldn’t wait to get home to him.

He’d moved into my house while I’d been gone. He’d already had a key to my place at that point, but I wanted more. At first, he was just house sitting. Checking in occasionally, picking up the mail. But I wanted him there, and it took a lot of cajoling, before he realized how serious I was. When I finally got to come home, I wanted him there waiting for me.

It was late before I finally made it to the door. The military flight back had been long, but I’d managed to wrangle my way onto an earlier transport. Luka wasn’t expecting me for another couple of days, when the rest of my platoon was scheduled to return. I had enough rank, as a Staff Sergeant, to pull a few strings. So I was stateside again a little earlier.

I hadn’t told Luka, because I didn’t want him to get his hopes up in case it fell through. Where the government was concerned, things could change at the drop of a hat. And when I touched down on US soil, I decided to keep it quiet. I thought the surprise was worth it.

Even though it was after eleven, the lights were still on in my tiny bungalow, giving the whole house a warm, inviting feel. Luka had hung a autumn wreath on the door, and I saw a few pumpkins strategically placed on the porch. Fall was heavy in the air, and the few, tasteful decorations reminded me that Thanksgiving was only a week away. Last year Luka had dragged me to his parent’s house, and we’d done the whole family thing. This year, things would be different. Just us and a few close friends.

I was quiet opening the door. The warmth hit me first, and then the scent of mulled cider filled my nose. I could hear Luka singing–he had an amazing voice–and I set my bag down carefully so it didn’t make a sound on the hardwood. Then I slowly toed off my boots, and used my stealth skills to sneak into my own kitchen.

Luka was washing the dishes, his back to me, as he sang and wiggled his hips to the beat he was creating. Two pies graced the counters. My heart filled, and my eyes stung.

“Hey, baby.”

Luka screamed and whirled around, his dark eyes wide and a soapy ten inch knife clutched in his hand. Then he went still, his chest heaving as he panted.

“Brady?” he whispered.

I grinned. I couldn’t help it.

“Hi.”

Luka’s mouth worked for a moment, all fish out of water, then he sobbed out a breath, flung the knife on the counter beside him and launched across the room. I barely got my hands on him, and I staggered back into the table under the force of his assault. But the second we connected, my entire world righted, and I hiked him up so I could hold him more securely against me.

“You’re here!” He was crying, his body shaking, but he sounded so happy I didn’t even care he was getting snot and tears all over the collar of my utilities.

“I missed you,” I whispered into his skin. I inhaled deeply, his familiar scent of mint and citrus and fresh laundry washing over me.

“I missed you. I can’t believe you’re here. It was supposed to be days from now and I’ve been waiting and now you’re here.”

I didn’t know how long we stood there but even after my arms got tired and I had to rest against the edge of the table to keep us both upright, I still held on.

Six months apart, and we were finally together again. I hated that we’d had to spend even one moment apart.

But this?¬†This was exactly the homecoming I’d longed for.

Flash Fic Friday

**This week’s prompt is amnesia. Enjoy!**

“Don’t know what happened. Found him like this…”

“The Nyx got him, looks like. It’d been hours…”

Everything hurt. Every muscle and tendon. Hell, every molecule in my body screamed with agony. I was vaguely away of noises–voices–but I couldn’t open my eyes. If I opened them, my head would explode. I was sure of it.

“Let me see him.”

That rumble of a voice had me opening my eyes. I was in an unfamiliar room–dark but cozy–and three people stood at the end of the bed. The two smaller guys wore their worry plain on their faces, but the big man was staring right at me. He noticed me looking, and quickly rounded the end of the bed.

“Ben, baby.”

I blinked–even that hurt–and tried to speak. It came out as a croak, and I cleared my throat and tried again. “Where am I?”

The big guy froze, and concern washed his features. After a second, he approached cautiously. “Ben?”

“How do you know my name?” Panic flooded my veins, but when I tried to push myself out of bed, I fell back against the mattress, too weak to hold myself up. “Who are you? What’s going on?”

“Shit,” one of the other guys muttered. I didn’t turn to look at which one. “The Nyx wiped his memory.”

“Leave us.” The other two scrambled to do the big man’s bidding, and I heard the soft snick as the door latched closed.

Fuck. Now I was trapped in the room, too weak to defend myself, with a big man who looked like he could snap me in half. He was gorgeous, all shoulders and muscles and scowl. But definitely dangerous. I wanted to be elsewhere.

“You’re safe here,” he rumbled, never taking his dark gaze off me. “I promise. No one is going to hurt you.”

And just like that, I believed him. I didn’t understand it, since my brain told me I should be terrified. But I wasn’t. His words, his voice, just soothed me. I relaxed a fraction, but I still kept myself ready. I needed to be ready, just in case.

He crossed the room, and I tracked him, but he only opened a small dorm sized fridge and pulled out a bottle of water. He made a show of cracking the seal, showing me it hadn’t been tampered with. I took it from him when he handed it over, and gratefully swallowed some. It felt so good, I took a larger drink.

“Easy now,” he murmured, stepping close to the bed.

I took another smaller sip, and then wiggled a little until I could sit up against the headboard. He slowly lowered himself to the mattress, perching on the edge. I appreciated the courtesy.

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

Odd question, but I searched my brain anyway. After a minute, I realized there was a hole in my memory. Definitely something missing. Had I hit my head? I reached up and felt around, but there was no bump. Had I been drugged? Oh god, was that why I was here?

“Ben?”

My name in his voice startled me, but I settled again. Something about this man comforted me, and I didn’t think it should be that easy, but there was no doubt about it. I took another tiny drink.

“Tuesday.”

He frowned. “And what happened on Tuesday?”

I couldn’t help the small, proud grin. “I aced Professor Millhouse’s midterm.”

His breath whooshed out and he squeezed his eyes shut. Then whispered, “Damn.”

“What?”

“Four years ago,” he muttered, half to himself. “Before the veil ripped and all the unnatural flooded into the natural world.”

What?” I pushed at the blankets, suddenly desperate to get up. He was fucking nuts.

“Ben, stop.” His voice was a command and a plea, and I obeyed instinctively, my body going still.

“What in the hell is going on?”

“Two days ago, you went after a Nyx. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but we lost contact. Peter and Remy found you a few hours ago, nearly dead.” He leaned in just a little, and I could see the pain in his eyes. “We thought it killed you.”

I couldn’t deal with the raw emotion on his face, in his voice. “Nyx?”

“A soulless, blood sucking demon. Vicious, nasty things. You’ve dealt with hundreds, though, so I wasn’t worried. But then you didn’t come back.”

“I…” I had no idea what to say to that. Even though his words didn’t make sense, there was something about them, the way they settled into me, that I just knew it to be true. But how? Why? I still didn’t know what was going on, and the panic that had been bubbling under the surface spilled over. I started hyperventilating, the edges of my vision dimming, and my heart pounded so hard it hurt.

He touched my wrist, and I jerked my gaze to his. I was lost in his deep, dark eyes. The worry and pain and love and affection there. They were so familiar. I knew those eyes. I didn’t know how, or why, but I knew this man who was staring at me like I hung the moon.

Unbidden, his name came to my lips. “Lucas?”

The grin that bloomed on his face transformed his features. And like a flood, memories crashed into me. The past four years. When the veil between the worlds ripped and a host of unholy, terrifying creatures came racing into our world. How nearly half the humans had died in the first onslaught, but Lucas and I survived. Banned together with others, and set about protecting those who were left.

“Oh baby. There you are.”

I started crying, because I couldn’t do anything else. I’d nearly left him to this world alone, and that was the one thing I vowed never to do. I clung to him, and he held me just as tightly.

We’d be okay. There wasn’t any other choice.

Flash Fic Friday

**This week’s prompt is a high school reunion. Enjoy!**

He couldn’t believe it had been so long.

Twenty goddamn years.

Setting foot back in his old high school was a mind trip. Justin had loved high school. Four years of unfailing popularity. He’d been Senior class president, prom king, and captain of the lacrosse team. He’d had boys and girls hanging off his every word, following him around, desperate for his attention. He liked to think he’d bestowed it gracefully. It would have been so easy to let that power go to his head. To be an asshole and a bully. Sometimes, he thought that would have been easier.

It would have made it a hell of a lot easier to hide the things about himself he didn’t understand, anyway.

Justin took a deep breath and grinned. The hallways even smelled the same. Books and metal and the cleaning supplies they used on the floors. He could hear the noise from the gym, where music from their years was playing and loud voices chattered over the sound. The black and gold streamers and balloons, and the banner proclaiming “Welcome Class of 1997” made it look kitschy, but there was even a charm in that.

He knew if he pushed through the doors, he’d be assailed with classmates. A few he still talked to occasionally on social media, but most he didn’t. They’d want his attention again. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they wouldn’t care about who he’d been all those years ago, their own lives and troubles and joys gaining a more important place in the intervening years. He wasn’t sure which one was worse.

“Why are you worried?”

Justin didn’t turn at the sound of the voice. He knew it as well as his own. Had spent the past fifteen years living with and loving that voice.

He shrugged one shoulder. “You know why.”

Dorian stepped up beside him, and his big hand enclosed Justin’s. The warmth and strength was immediately comforting. He squeezed Dorian’s fingers, but he kept his gaze fixed on the doors.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Dorian asked, his voice low and close to Justin’s ear.

“That they think I lied to them, and they hate me on sight?” Justin tried for amused, but his tone didn’t quite make it. Dorian pressed their shoulders together.

“I highly doubt that will happen. I’m sure the truth about you has already spread like wildfire through them all.” Dorian stepped in front of him, then used a hand to lift Justin’s chin. Their gazes met, and the love and affection Justin saw there eased his heart. “And you weren’t lying. You were still figuring yourself out. But at your core, you’re the same person.” Dorian let go of Justin’s face to press his palm to Justin’s heart. “But if the worst happens, we hold our heads high and walk out.”

Justin released a slow breath, forced himself to smile, and nodded. Dorian leaned in and kissed his forehead, then stepped to the side. He didn’t let go of Justin’s hand, and Justin was grateful. he took another breath, and with his chin up, he pushed through the doors.

The lights and sounds were overwhelming for a moment, and Justin had barely adjusted before he heard his name screeched in a loud voice. A second later, he was enveloped in a hug and got a mouthful of bleach blonde hair.

“Cassie,” Justin murmured, returning the hug. Head cheerleader and his prom queen. They’d been good friends, though she’d always dated football players and never looked twice at Justin. That had been fine with him. He adored her, but he hadn’t wanted to date her.

She stepped back and her blue gaze roved all over his face. She looked older–they all did, he supposed–but still good. He wasn’t surprised she’d taken care of herself. He smiled, and it felt tremulous, but he didn’t look away. She broke first, her gaze sliding to Dorian, and then back to him. Justin saw the surprise there.

“Who have you brought with you?”

Justin didn’t miss the slight confusion in her tone, but she didn’t sound derisive or apprehensive. It was now or never.

“Cassie, this is my husband, Dorian. Dor, meet Cassie.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Dorian rumbled, his smile wide.

Cassie blinked, and then a blinding grin took over her face. She grabbed Justin’s hand and started to tug.

“Come on. Let me introduce you to my husband.”

Justin let himself be led, his mind whirling. He’d been expecting the worst, because his mind often went there, and Cassie had taken it in stride. He wasn’t so naive as to think everyone would, but Cassie’s welcoming demeanor did wonders to assuage his worry.

He grabbed Dorian’s hand, pulling him along too, and when they stopped in front of a huge group of people, Cassie started introductions with her familiar perky attitude. With each one, he was warmly welcomed, and within a few minutes, they were reminiscing about old teachers and pranks and high school shenanigans Justin hadn’t thought of in years. Dorian was a solid presence beside him, laughing at all the right places. Justin leaned against him, just a little, and Dorian put his arm around Justin’s waist.

And Justin remembered why he loved high school.