Paul Duncan wanted to shout for joy. The only person he’d ever wanted to spend a
holiday with stood before him like a fantasy plucked from the most private portion of his mind. It
had been years since he’d bothered with any of the trappings of Christmas. When he had the
chance to be with his daughter for the holiday, he just took her to his parents’ house and let them
do the whole spoil the granddaughter on Christmas thing. He bought presents. He even wrapped
them himself, but he did it out of a sense of obligation really. It was something he was expected
to do, not something he really wanted to do. He’d never been much on buying presents because
he had to. He much preferred gifts to be spontaneous and from the heart.
As for New Year’s Eve and day, they had just been another day ever since he’d given up
partying and drinking. He never did anything special. Never went out with friends or a date.
Friends asked too many questions if he showed up without a date. And a date would be a total
disaster because they tended to have expectations if he asked them out for a holiday as special as
New Year’s Eve. Expectations of another date. Expectations of sex or more.
Having sex was okay, but afterward he’d want to leave and return to his own bed – he’d
never taken a date to his home – and most people tended to become offended by a man who
fucked and fled. With men, they became offended in a harshly verbal manner that usually
disparaged his sexual performance. With women, they sometimes became violent. He rubbed a
faint scar on his biceps where flying glass from a shattered lamp had nicked him years before.
Yeah, New Year’s Eve dates weren’t a good idea for him.
Yet, here he stood on New Year’s Eve in front of the house he’d bought for no other
reason than that he had some vague notion of wanting to feel connected to the man who had once
lived there. Since his life was filled with disconnects, the expense of the house seemed like a
monumental aberration in his life path. And it was, but the manual labor of renovating it made
him feel good and made him feel closer to someone he’d lost so long ago that he’d become
nothing but a fantasy.
He stared at Casey, seeing the white streaks in his once night dark hair and the faint lines
at the corners of his eyes, mouth and between his brows. He didn’t look happy. He looked beaten
and lost with his arms wrapped around himself, his honey brown eyes bleak and weary.
Paul’s stomach clenched and his heart thumped painfully. This wasn’t the man he
remembered. That man had spilled over with warmth and delight. The one before him seemed
shrunken and curled in on himself, cool and distant.
Anger began to rise within Paul. Who the fuck had done this to him? Who had sucked the
joy out of him and left behind nothing but a shell? Not for a moment did Paul believe Casey had
become this dark creature on his own, by his own choice or design. Paul had once known
Casey’s heart and that heart would never have gone dark unless someone had deliberately
extinguished the light inside him.
Without thinking, Paul reached for his earlobe, for the tiny gold hoop that no longer
pierced the flesh. The hoop now lay buried in a small precious wooden chest with the other
mementoes he had of Casey. He glanced at Casey’s ears and didn’t even see a hole there. He
wondered what had become of Casey’s gold hoop.
He realized then that Casey’s throat worked as if he wanted to speak but couldn’t. His
eyes held a nameless sentiment, a strong emotion that set his lean body to trembling visibly.
Paul’s body responded with a surge of desire and an ache that burned behind his breastbone.
“Casey?” Paul spoke his name softly, his silence making Paul wonder if he’d just
imagined him there.
Casey drew a shuddering breath and his name emerged on a faint sigh. “Paul.”
The sound of his voice sent a frisson down Paul’s spine, like a ghost finger caressing his
skin. The way Casey used to caress him. “You’re here,” he said, feeling stupid with shock that
Casey actually stood before him.
He stared up at Paul, shaking, his eyes wide. “I – I…oh, fuck. Yes, I’m here and you’re
here and…” His hoarse whisper broke off and tears sheened his dark eyes, a pair of them
trickling down his lean cheeks. “Fuck me! I promised myself I wouldn’t fucking cry!”
Casey’s angry rasp made Paul smile and it seemed like the most natural thing in the
world to set the big flashlight down and close the two steps between them to take him in his
arms. Casey shook violently and Paul pressed him tightly against his body, burying his face in
the long mint scented hair. A huge sigh escaped him and for the first time in many years, Paul
felt alive. He’d never acknowledged that part of his soul had gone missing when Casey had left
his life, but he knew with unequivocal truth that it had because now he felt whole.
Paul brushed his lips against Casey’s temple. “You came home.”
Another violent shudder wracked Casey’s lean frame. “No. I came here looking for
home, but it’s not here. Home is not a place,” he told Paul as his hands tentatively grasped Paul’s
waist, holding him. “Home is people. All the people who made this place feel like home are gone
Casey’s pain reached out to Paul and he took it inside himself, holding it and Casey with
reverent hands. “Except me.”
A half-sob, half-growl vibrated against Paul’s chest. “Except you. But I didn’t know you
were here,” Casey admitted. He rubbed his face on Paul’s shirt, burrowing into him. “I thought
you were lost.”
Paul smiled against Casey’s hair. “I’m not lost, but I’ve felt like it over the last eighteen
years. Part of me was missing.”
Casey’s gloved fingers brushed Paul’s earlobe as if looking for the tiny gold hoop he
used to always wear. “Lost to me. We can’t get back what we had. It’s gone.”
The agony in Casey’s voice made Paul’s heart ache. “No, it’s not gone. And we don’t
have to get back something that we never lost in the first place. It’s always been there inside us.”
Paul pressed a kiss to Casey’s temple, the sensation of having him in his arms feeling as
natural as if the last time he’d held Casey had been only hours before. “Casey, I promised you
that I would always love you, that we would always love each other no matter what happened in
the future. I never stopped loving you. Can you honestly tell me that you stopped loving me?”
Casey pushed away, not free of the circle of Paul’s arms, but far enough that he could
stare up at him. “I thought I had. I was so cold, so numb, so unhappy,” he admitted. “I lost hope.
I didn’t believe. It’s been so long. So very long.”
The anguish on Casey’s face made Paul want to cry too. “You were always here.” He
touched his chest between his pecs. “In my heart.”
Casey swallowed hard, eyes sheened with emotion, his expression bewildered. “How
could I not know that?”
Obviously, whoever had sucked the joy from Casey had taken his belief from him as
well. He should have known that when Paul promised to always love him, that he would. He’d
never broken a promise to Casey. They’d shared an odd metaphysical connection that seemed
huge, inexplicable and scary and at the same time comforting and intimate. They finished each
other’s sentences, sensed each other’s presence and thoughts and even knew when the phone
rang if it was the other.
The last time they’d seen one another, ten years before, their connection had been off
kilter and when Paul had asked Casey to come home, he’d refused. When he left, Paul realized
he’d used the wrong words. He should have asked Casey to come back to him. And he should
have made Casey remember their promises to one another.
Gradually, over the intervening ten years, Paul’s sense of the connection had weakened to
a bare thread that held only his fantasies and memories. He hadn’t realized that the connection
had become damaged because Casey no longer believed in it. Their connection faded when
Casey stopped believing in the promises Paul had made.
Paul cradled Casey’s face in his palms and inside him joy began to flow like warm
honey. Wiping the damp tear tracks from Casey’s cheeks with his thumbs, Paul let his presence
strip away all the years that had passed. “I need you. Will you come with me?” he asked, his
voice gentle and coaxing.
Casey stared at him wide-eyed, a mixture of fear, disbelief and wonder making his eyes
shine in the dim light of the street. “I don’t understand, Paul. Why…? How can you…? After all
this time…?” His words stumbled over one another and he abruptly closed his mouth, shaking
his head as the bleakness returned to his face.
Paul smiled. Casey needed to be handled gently. He understood that without really
thinking about how he knew it. He had always known just how to handle the volatile Casey
except for that time ten years ago when he’d let him get away.
“How can I not, Casey? Especially after all this time?” he whispered. “Don’t you see that
us apart didn’t work? You’re not happy. I’m not happy. Don’t you think we owe it to ourselves
to just forget about everything except the fact that we still love each other?”
Casey stared at him as if he’d grown a second head and a twinge of doubt pricked him for
a moment, but he pushed it aside. He wasn’t wrong. He’d been wrong before. He’d been wrong
for eighteen years, but this time, he wasn’t wrong and he wasn’t afraid to put Casey on the spot
despite how carefully he needed to handle this new fragile version of his former lover.
“Are you going to tell me you don’t still love me the way I still love you?”
For a long, dark moment Casey didn’t move and his expression didn’t change. Paul
willed Casey to find what he knew lay in the depths of his heart. Finally, a shuddering sigh
escaped him and his words came out stronger than any since Paul had first seen him standing on
the sidewalk across from the house.
“No. I’m not going to say I don’t still love you. Because that would be a lie.”