The following story was written for SubtlePen for the winter cycle of the Twilight Gift Exchange, hosted by GinnyW31 and sshg316. Now that the gifts have all been posted and the authors have been revealed, I can tell you how much I enjoyed writing this story! It felt almost stress-free to write for someone I know and who has already been so supportive of my work. :) I hope you enjoy it!
"Thank you for your help, Jahspah," said the elderly Mr. Minh in his gentle voice, adding graciously, "You stay, have tea."
"I wish I could, Mr. Minh," I smiled. "There's a new tenant moving in upstairs, 3C. I have to go see how he's doing."
"Next time you come, then," he said.
"I'll bring cookies," I grinned, "and you make the tea." I waved goodbye and closed the door behind me. As I strode along the hall toward the stairwell, I smiled to myself. I really did wish I could stay. Mr. Minh was a kind, very pleasant gentleman of about seventy who served a jasmine tea that was one of the best things I'd ever tasted. We would sip the nectar out of the teacups he'd brought with him from Vietnam, and he would tell me stories about his memories of his home country before it was invaded by the Vietcong.
He had been born the year WWII began, 1939. When he was ten, a Chinese army invaded and began the conversion of the northern part of Vietnam to communism. At age fifteen, he and his family left North Vietnam, fearing communist persecution based on their Catholic beliefs. He told me about the day he stepped onto an American navy ship they sailed on, festooned with banners that promised to be "Your Passage to Freedom". They sailed to South Vietnam and for five years they had peace, until the Vietcong invaded.
There his story would end; or at least it would skip ahead twenty years, to 1979 when he decided to immigrate to the United States. He gently but steadfastly refused to discuss the war, saying he had lived it long enough and would not relive it now. All he would provide was that he had taken care of his parents until they died; and once they passed away he had nothing to keep him in Vietnam. He told me about trying to learn American customs and make his way around in San Francisco. And, my favorite of all his stories, he told me about meeting his partner, Leon, at a grocery store where he worked. Mr. Minh was already forty when he came to the US; yet he'd never been married, never had a girlfriend. He knew why he wasn't interested in women; he also knew that to openly live as a gay man in Vietnam, though not explicitly illegal, would expose him to harassment and censure from the business community, and bring humiliation to his family.
All these things I contemplated as I walked up the two flights of stairs to the top floor of the walk-up building. At age thirty, I'd been out for eleven years. Being born in the Deep South I had certainly had my share of challenges after coming out, but it didn't stop me from living my life. Mr. Minh was not only closeted, but celibate, until he was forty. I couldn't imagine such a thing.
I stepped out of the stairwell and into the hall of the third floor. The apartment had been empty nearly a month. The building's owner, Mr. Masen, was beginning to despair that it would sit vacant for another month. The last week of September, though, he'd gotten a call from a man who was interested. I was away on holidays that week. Mr. Masen showed the apartment to the prospective tenant himself; it was a successful showing as the tenant signed the lease on the spot. As it was already quite close to the end of the month, Mr. Masen agreed to allow him to have the key a few days early in exchange for the new tenant painting the apartment himself.
All this added up to me not yet having met the new tenant, a Mr. Cullen. I knew from Mr. Masen that he would be living alone. He was quite a bit younger than many of the residents, though I was unsure just how young. The building was mainly occupied by seniors, many of whom had lived here for decades. I'd been working here five years and the residents treated me like a son – or perhaps grandson would be more accurate. I found myself wondering why a young, single male tenant would want to live in a building that had no one close to his age. More than just being their superintendent, I felt a duty to keep an eye out for these people who had all but adopted me as their own. If there was someone I didn't see around the building over the course of the day, I made sure to knock on that person's door after dinner, just to check in. Sometimes they'd just been busy puttering around the apartment; sometimes they weren't feeling well. Once, I found Mrs. Johanssen on the floor of her living room. She had fallen and broken her hip, passing out from the pain. When I found her she wasn't very well, in a lot of pain and suffering from a bad case of shock. I called an ambulance, and once she was in the hospital they quickly got her stabilized and her pain under control. She eventually made a full recovery.
Some of the tenants told me that this Mr. Cullen had come to the building several evenings to paint. Since my apartment was at the front of the building I couldn't see people coming and going from the tenants' parking lot at the rear. All in all, I was quite curious to find meet the new tenant and size him up, and if necessary, make sure he knew that I kept a close eye out for all the tenants in the building.
The door to 3C stood open, and I heard furniture scraping on the floor inside the apartment. I knocked on the door then stuck my head in. "Anybody home?" I called.
"In the bedroom!" a deep bass voice responded. I stepped in and made my way around the piles of boxes on the living room floor, noting that an inordinate number of them were labeled "Books". When I got to the bedroom I was surprised to be greeted by a massive man, taller than my 6'2", twice as wide and pure muscle. He smiled pleasantly when he saw me. His cheeks were pitted with dimples and his dark curls and deep brown eyes added to the cheerfulness of his demeanor.
"Mr. Cullen?" I confirmed.
"I am," he said, shaking my hand.
"I'm Jasper Whitlock, the super," I replied. "I was away when you came to look at the building."
"Oh," he said. "You want my brother, Edward. He's the one moving in. I'm Emmett. He just brought me along for brute strength. His hands are too important to move furniture." He grinned broadly again.
"I'm sorry – your brother has important hands?" I repeated.
"Yep," he replied. "Worth millions."
"It's really not about the money, Emmett," came a quiet voice from behind me. "It's more the whole 'saving lives' thing."
I turned toward the voice to find Emmett's polar opposite. Edward was slender, with straight, reddish-brown hair and light eyes of an indistinguishable color, and probably about 5'11". Rather than being jovial like his brother, Edward seemed much more reserved. He gave me a half-smile as he offered his hand to shake mine. "I'm Edward Cullen."
"I'm the super," I replied, trying not to stare at the hands that were apparently worth millions of dollars. "Jasper."
"Right, Jasper Whitlock," he said, picking up a folded document with a post-it note stuck to it. "Mr. Masen gave me your name and phone number in case any issues arise."
"You've done a good job with the painting, Mr. Cullen," I remarked, looking around the room at the fresh, clean walls.
Emmett snorted and I turned to him as my new tenant corrected, "Please call me Edward. And Emmett did the painting." Emmett held up his hands and waggled his fingers, then rubbed his thumbs over his fingers in a gesture that indicated money.
"Oh, right," I replied. "What do these hands do, anyways? Saving lives…?"
"I'm a surgeon," Edward replied simply.
My face betrayed my shock. He didn't look as old as me – what was he, a wunderkind?
Emmett came closer, slinging one arm over Edward's shoulder and holding Edward's hand up in front of him. "He's a pediatric heart surgeon," he elaborated. "That's why his hands are worth so much – not many men have such dainty little fingers—"
"Thank you, Emmett, really," Edward replied sharply, interrupting. "You've been most helpful. Why don't you run down to the corner store and get us some beer to go with the pizza?"
"Hell, yes," Emmett agreed wholeheartedly. "You don't have to ask me twice."
Edward rolled his eyes at Emmett's retreating back, then turned back to me. "Emmett's unique," he said, almost apologetic.
"He didn't bother me," I said with a shrug. I turned and headed back towards the main living area of the apartment, Edward following me. "Anyways, Edward, you have my number if you need anything. Oh, by the way – have you lived in a building with steam radiators before?" He shook his head and I continued, "I know it's not chilly enough for it yet, but when the time comes I'll show you how to adjust the heat. It's an old system and it needs a little TLC. Call me when you're ready to turn it on, okay?"
"Call me when you're ready to turn it on?" Emmett's deep voice boomed behind me, and I jumped about a mile. "Oh, I've heard pickup lines before, but that's a new one."
"Emmett!" Edward chided. "I thought you went to the store?"
"Forgot my wallet." Emmett grinned directly at me as he reached for the kitchen counter where a brown leather wallet lay. "But hey, don't let me interrupt you, Doctor Tiny Hands. Seems like you two were about to make a date." He held up both hands and backed slowly into the hall before turning on his heel and disappearing again.
"Look, I'm so sorry about him," Edward apologized. "He thinks just because he's a gay ally, that everyone is. If he offended you—"
"No, no," I stopped him. "I'm not offended." Far from it. Thank you, Brother Big Mouth. "Don't apologize for having a supportive family."
Edward sighed. "Yeah, well, there's supportive and then there's beating up every homophobe who's unfortunate enough to make a comment in Emmett's presence."
I grimaced. "Hell, when I came out to my brother, he beat me up."
Edward's entire aura visibly relaxed as he realized I was gay too. He looked sympathetic, though, as he replied, "I'm sorry about your brother. What about your parents…?"
I shrugged. "Haven't seen any of them since I was nineteen." People in Amherst, Alabama hadn't taken too kindly to their star running back returning from his first year of college to announce he was gay. My father's reaction had been to inform me that he only had one son – the one who beat up 'sissy faggots'. On my way out the door, I'd reminded him that the 'sissy faggot' had recorded more rushing yards in my final season of senior varsity, than any other running back in Alabama state history – shattering my own dear old dad's record, set 25 years earlier.
"Well, Emmett's the only family I have," Edward replied. "If I had to choose a brother, I couldn't find a better one, despite his, uh, abundant energy." He grinned, the first real smile I'd seen that wasn't just for the sake of pleasantry.
"Your parents?" I asked, figuring I was allowed to inquire since he asked about mine.
He spoke matter-of-factly. "We lost our dad when Emmett was a baby; then our mom 15 years ago. He was fifteen then, I was twenty-two. He became my ward until he came of age."
It didn't take much mental math to figure out that Edward was quite a bit older than he looked – seven years older than me – and Emmett was my age. As surprised as I was at that, I was impressed as hell that he became responsible for his teenage brother while he was still a college student. I was about to ask more about it when Edward abruptly said, "Well, thanks again for coming by and checking in. I have your number. In case I have any problems." The smile gone, cool, reserved Dr. Cullen, pediatric heart surgeon, was back.
I guess we're done here. "Sure thing. Good to meet you."
"Bye," he said and closed the door.
As I made my way slowly back downstairs I wondered why Edward had suddenly gone from pleasant, nearly friendly, to cool and business-like. Had he felt I was prying by asking about their parents? Was he the kind of rich person – I assumed as a surgeon he had a good chunk of money – who only spoke to the "service class" when absolutely necessary? I shook my head as I considered this; that didn't seem to be the case, especially since he'd shown compassion about my family, and his brother certainly seemed to have no such reservation. But his parting comment…I have your number. In case I have any problems…Was the last part a calculated addition designed to illustrate the differences between us? Did he feel the need to add it in case I thought he might call me for some other reason?
I shrugged as I reached the door of my own unit. I was reading way too much into what was surely a candid, straightforward statement. Besides, why else would he call me? I rolled my eyes at myself. Being in this building, as much as I enjoyed it, gave me a lot of free mental time – and that wasn't always my ally. Much of my job involved physical work that didn't require a great deal of my concentration, allowing my mind to wander to other things as I worked. Always having enjoyed the study of people, and having a vivid imagination, I tended to create intrigues in my head, particularly about the tenants and neighborhood residents who were more reticent about sharing the details of their lives.
Mr. Wallen on the second floor, for instance. He was easily seventy-five years old, and yet every single weekday, without fail, he dressed in a suit and tie and left the building with a briefcase. Not just any briefcase – one of those metal ones that armored car personnel handcuff to their wrists when they're making deliveries. I knew he was retired. The other residents told me he'd only been in this building fifteen years – a short period in comparison to other tenants – and that he'd moved here from New Hampshire after retiring as the president of a large bank. Why move to San Francisco for his retirement, instead of Florida or Arizona? And why choose a small building like this one when he could very likely afford a condo in a gated community somewhere? Where did he go every day? I imagined him living frugally so he could afford the cash payments he delivered each day to a crime family. The crime family would, of course, have loaned him money many years earlier after a run on the bank left him in danger of having to close. With the usurious interest rate demanded by the mob, he would still be paying it off today; but with the knowledge that he had protected the livelihood of many valuable employees.
Or there was Miss Agatha. No one knew her last name – she simply went by Miss Agatha. She lived in the apartment over the bodega down the street. She passed our building each day on her morning walk, her dignified, graceful gait belying her advancing years. The whispers I heard about her indicated some great heartbreak in her youth that had left her quite mad; she had apparently never gotten over it. For her I created a military coup in her native country which caused her family, the newly-deposed royalty, to flee to the refuge of the United States. The beautiful young princess – Miss Agatha – was forced to leave behind her true love; and because of the peril to her family, she didn't even get to tell him they were leaving or where they were going.
I had even begun to write down some of my odd little theories and plots, thinking that someday I would compile them into a novel based on the residents and happenings in the building. Imagination? Anne of Green Gables had nothing on me.
So the addition of a new tenant – a young, handsome one, and gay to boot? My mind's eye went into overdrive at the possibilities. Why would a practicing surgeon choose to live in a building like this one – modest rent, no elevator, no amenities (unless you counted the laundry room)? Was he dating anyone? If not, why was he single at age 37? Why was he so distant – shyness, modesty or snobbery? As a parental figure to Emmett, had he been strict or lax?
Often when I made up stories about people, I didn't want to know the realities. I didn't want to find out that the slightly greasy Hispanic man I saw passing with a plain brown paper package every Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. was simply embarrassed that he had to buy Metamucil on a weekly basis. Not so with Edward Cullen – I wanted as much information about him as I could possibly collect.
This, it turned out, was very little information indeed. As days and weeks went by and I didn't see him – which I considered odd since I could be found at any place in the building at all and sundry times of day – I relied on the wagging tongues of my senior tenants. They found him lovely, pleasant, helpful – if somewhat less than forthcoming when asked about himself. Only once did he seem to have opened up to one of the residents. It was when I had the weekend off – I alternated weekends with the superintendent of another of Mr. Masen's buildings a couple of streets over; whomever was on duty looked after both buildings – and the other super was dealing with an emergency in his own building. Edward had helped Mr. Minh put up a new shade in his living room window. The next time I had tea with Mr. Minh, he told me about how gracious Edward was. "He stay to have tea with me, Jahspah - we talk three hours. He tell me he go to Indonesia to help after the tsunami. If I was thirty yeah youngah…" he mused before correcting himself with a twinkle in his eye. "Even fifteen yeah."
As reassured as I was that there seemed to be no reason to worry about the residents' safety where Edward was concerned, I couldn't help being a bit disgruntled. Everyone, it seemed, had been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to at least say hello to Edward – everyone had some lovely thing to say about him. I hadn't so much as passed him in the hall since the day he'd moved in. The dearth of even superficial contact only added fuel to my speculation about him, and I was becoming desperate to see him or talk to him again.
I was almost sure that the fact that he was an incredibly hot, single gay guy had nothing to do with it. It was…human interest.
The first week of November arrived, bringing with it the damp, cool weather San Francisco was known for, after an unseasonably warm October. Tuesday of that week was positively dank, the Bay Area under heavy fog. I'd spent the majority of the day going to my residents' apartments making sure the radiators were working properly, that there were no blockages in the circulation. By evening I was tired out, and was just preparing to flop on my couch with a book when there was a knock on my door.
I opened it without looking through the peep hole, expecting one of my residents to be standing there. And he was…the best-looking tenant in the building.
Dr. Edward Cullen.
"Jasper," he said with a faint smile. "I'm sorry to interrupt your evening…"
"Not at all," I offered graciously. Only wish you'd interrupted weeks ago.
"You told me I should come see you when I was ready to turn on the heat. I believe that time is upon us," he said formally.
"It certainly seems to be," I agreed, slipping into my shoes and grabbing my keys from the hook beside the door. "What a change in the weather from last week." I locked the door and pulled it shut behind me. "October was crazy – I've never seen so many sunny days in a row since I left Alabama."
As we ascended the stairs together, he remarked, "Alabama. I've been trying to figure out where your accent was from—" He stopped as though he were strangling his voice with his own hands. I glanced at him as we rounded one of the landings – his mouth was clamped shut.
For my part, I could scarcely contain my surprise. He'd been thinking about me? My mind raced, trying to think of something to keep him talking. "I was beginning to wonder whether you actually lived here – I haven't seen you since you moved in." That was a normal, superintendent-y thing to say, right?
"My schedule can be erratic," was all he offered in explanation.
"I suppose you find yourself sleeping at the hospital quite a bit," I gently prodded.
"Quite a bit," he repeated.
By then we were at his door; he unlocked it and held it open, saying, "Come on in." His phone rang just as I stepped into the living room. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "Please excuse me a moment."
He answered on a cordless handset, walking down the hall into his bedroom as he did to afford himself more privacy. I took the time to study his living room. A massive shelving unit took up almost one entire wall, its contents comprised entirely of books. Now that the collection was out of the boxes I could inspect what his reading material was…which would of course give me clues to his character. Not to mention topics of conversation, since the ones I'd attempted were fruitless. It was clear that if I wanted to crack this nut I was going to need some inside information.
I was still scanning titles when I heard him say goodbye to the person on the phone. A moment later he was back in the living room, placing the handset back into its charger. "I'm sorry for the interruption."
"No problem," I replied, spinning to face him and flashing him my widest smile.
He stopped dead in his tracks as our eyes met; his eyes widened for an instant before dropping to the floor. He stuttered, "W-w-well…the r-r-radiators?"
"That is what I'm here for," I said, turning to the wall rad and kneeling so I could reach the shut-off valve near the floor.
It didn't take long to explain to him how the rads worked, that they didn't give instant heat the way many people were used to and that cranking it too high would only make it more difficult to regulate in the long run. He listened, nodding silently.
When I stood again he stood beside me, his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the radiator. After several seconds of silence I asked, "Any questions?"
"Did you lose your entire family?"
I was astonished and temporarily speechless. "I…I beg your pardon?"
"When you came out. Wasn't there anyone who accepted you?"
"Uh…my uncle…he paid for me to continue college after…my dad refused to…," I stumbled, still stunned.
"So you still have a relationship with him?" he continued.
"Well…no, he passed away just after I graduated," I replied.
"Oh. Sorry," he offered stiffly.
"We weren't particularly close, to be honest," I explained as my powers of speech returned. "I think he wanted a Whitlock to finish college…and maybe he thought my dad wasn't doing right by his own flesh and blood."
"So you did finish college?" Despite continuing to ask me questions, he still hadn't made eye contact since I'd stood.
"Yes," I replied, not offering anything further. I was starting to become a trifle annoyed. I couldn't imagine why he wanted to know any of this – or why he thought he was entitled to ask after not having spoken to me for weeks. I shifted my weight to one hip, crossing my arms over my chest…daring him to ask me another question.
He seemed to sense the change, perhaps noticing my body language, and finally looked at me. There was a softness in his eyes I hadn't seen before. "The tenants here seem to love you," he said gently.
"They're good people to work for," I replied. "I look out for them; and they've kind of adopted me."
He nodded. "They're all very nice; like having a building full of great aunts and uncles."
"You are the youngster of the group," I commented.
"Except you," he said quietly.
"Except me," I allowed.
An awkward silence descended then, broken when he cleared his throat and said in his normal, no-nonsense voice, "Well, I think I've got a handle on operating the radiators." He turned and walked to the apartment door, opening it for me.
Dismissed again. "Terrific," I said curtly, unsurprised this time by his mood shift.
I stepped past him and into the hall, intending to leave without another word. I was two steps down the hall when I heard, "Jasper…"
I stopped, turning back to him, and arched an eyebrow. He hesitated, looking unsure before saying, "Uh…thank you. I'm sorry again for interrupting you. I appreciate that you do such a good job here."
I softened a tiny bit at his last sentence, enough to say, "You're welcome." Then I turned again and strode back down the hall toward the stairs, hearing his apartment door close when I was almost to the top of the steps.
The rest of my evening was effectively ruined by the encounter with him, because there was no way I could concentrate on my book after that. The man was a walking enigma. He asked me questions about myself but didn't want to answer any. And yet there was the moment I flashed my smile at him – I'd have sworn it had an effect on him. Sometimes he seemed to forget his reserve, showing a brief glimmer of his personality; but he would suddenly remember himself and then he'd lock down, shut me out. I was surprised to find out I had been a topic of his conversation with other tenants – why? And what about his question about my college education? Was he surprised to find out that someone who was just a building superintendent would have a college education?
I had many questions about Edward Cullen; and very few answers forthcoming. I was starting to wonder whether the man himself was actually worth the trouble.
The next few weeks passed as they normally did for me – usual maintenance and insulating around the windows of the aging building to keep the cold, damp winter air out. My seniors minded the dampness more than younger adults did and they appreciated the extra care I took. Each unit had a working fireplace, so I also was the person who cleaned the fireplaces on a regular basis and saw to the safe disposal of the ashes.
I did my best not to think about Edward. I had no answers about him, and found myself quite unequal to dreaming up a background for him. If I was honest I suppose I'd have realized that I didn't want to invent his life because I eventually hoped to know more about the reality. Despite avoiding thinking about him, I did find myself brooding over my own situation – something I seldom did. Sometimes I wondered whether it was odd that my only real friends were more than double my age. As much as I appreciated their friendship and wisdom, on occasion I craved someone my own age to talk to. I wasn't lacking for sexual contact. I had an arrangement with a former boyfriend. We hadn't lasted long as a couple – very different interests – but always had great sexual chemistry. A phone call was all it took, and neither of us hesitated.
Nonetheless, at age thirty, the times when I longed for something with more permanence, more affection and tenderness, seemed to be coming more frequently. I knew it wasn't impossible to find your partner later in life – Mr. Minh's experience taught me that. I hoped, though, it would happen for me sooner rather than later; and I knew that unless I wished for an octogenarian as a partner, the life I was leading now was not conducive to finding the love of my life.
With Thanksgiving approaching, I was giving thought to the Thanksgiving dinner I always hosted for the residents. Most traveled to see their families for Christmas but some chose not to make the trip twice in the span of a month. Those who stayed had an open invitation to come to my apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. I did a traditional meal with turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce and glazed carrots; and pies for dessert.
The dinner was always an opportunity for me to do what I enjoyed most when in the presence of senior men and women: sit back and listen their laughter, their wisdom and the stories about their lives. In the previous five years attendance had numbered between five and twelve; this year I was expecting seven.
Around 5 a.m. that Thursday I got up to put the turkey into the oven, having prepared it the night before. I went back to bed knowing that when I woke again the apartment would be filled with the mouthwatering aroma.
Or at least, that was the plan.
Instead, I was awoken a mere hour later by an insistent hammering on my door. Groaning, I considered ignoring it until it dawned on me that if someone was banging on my door at 6 a.m. it must mean something was seriously wrong. I jumped up and, without bothering to grab my robe, ran to my door clad only in the clothes in which I slept – a pair of flimsy boxers.
Throwing open the door and expecting the worst, I was instead confronted with possibly the best sight I'd ever witnessed.
Edward Cullen, in a slim white t-shirt and a pair of flannel sleep pants, his hair tousled and a scruff of stubble gracing his jaw. The hem of the shirt didn't quite meet the waist of his pants, exposing a narrow band of skin and – I gulped – treasure trail. And, oh yeah – he was dripping wet.
Not just a little wet. The t-shirt he wore had become all but transparent with the water that soaked it. The sleep pants clung to his legs. A droplet of water fell from a lock of his hair onto his cheek and slid down to his jaw, hanging there precariously.
"Edward?" I gasped. "What the hell…?"
"Jasper," he said urgently. "I'm so sorry. I woke up to a fountain in my bathroom. There's a crack in one of the pipes and I can't find a shutoff valve in my apartment."
"Shit," I cursed, knowing why he couldn't find it. The building was old enough that when it was built, shut-off valves weren't installed within the units themselves; but rather downstairs in the basement. Though I had asked Mr. Masen several times to have this corrected, he had put it off, knowing that the plumbing would need to be upgraded within the next ten years anyways. He planned to do it then.
Of course that plan wasn't helping me now. Without another word I grabbed my keys and flew past Edward. At the locked door to the basement I stopped, quickly inserting the key to open the door. In seconds I was down the stairs onto the freezing cement floor in my bare feet, and across the basement to the other side of the building where the shutoff valves were. Fortunately each was clearly labeled with the apartment number, and it was the work of only a few seconds before I'd found the correct lever and rotated it 180 degrees to shut off the flow to 3C.
Whirling around to run back to the stairs, I ran smack into Edward. In my haste I hadn't realized he had followed me down the stairs and across the basement. I was fortunate not to knock him on his ass, or heaven forbid, damage one of those million-dollar hands; but the effect his wet t-shirt had against my bare chest was profound.
Instant nipple hard-ons.
Not surprisingly, the cold basement was having the same effect on him, as was clearly presented to me through the translucent fabric of his shirt.
"Jesus! Edward! Sorry!" I blurted, stumbling backwards. He made similar expressions as we staggered around, each managing to remain standing.
"Are you okay?" he asked once he was steadily upright.
"I'm fine," I gasped. "You?"
"Fine. Freezing," he stuttered, "but fine."
I led him back upstairs and after locking the door said, "I'll get dressed and grab the wet vac, and meet up in your apartment in a few?"
"Thanks," he said, his teeth chattering.
A few minutes later I was at his apartment door, wet vac in hand along with a heater that had a high-powered fan. I knocked but didn't bother waiting for him to answer, since he knew I was coming. I opened the door just in time to see him standing in the middle of his living room floor pulling an off-white cable-knit sweater over his head. He'd already thrown on a pair of navy fleece shorts. He grabbed a towel from his dining table and rubbed it over his hair, working it into an array even wilder than usual.
"The torrent has been stemmed, thank goodness," he said with a wry smile.
"Good," I replied humorlessly as I stepped past him with the vacuum. The water was more or less contained in the bathroom and the hall immediately outside it, as Edward had piled towels on the floor, essentially "sandbagging" the flood. I was fortunate that he had acted as quickly as he did, or the water might have spread throughout the apartment. At least the bathroom had tile floors instead of the hardwood elsewhere.
It was past six-thirty when I had vacuumed up most of the water, set the heater in the bathroom door and put it on full blast. I was grouchy and tired, not to mention still shivering cold in the shorts and t-shirt I'd thrown on, and I hadn't seen Edward in at least twenty minutes. I straightened up from positioning the heater and turned to go back down the hall to the living room, and damn near walked into Edward for the second time. This time, though, he was ready for me, and managed to take a quick step backwards without spilling even a drop from the two steaming cups of coffee in his hands.
"Coffee for the conquering hero?" he asked with a shy smile.
"Oh my god, yes," I groaned thankfully.
"I drink it black so I don't have any cream," he said apologetically.
"I take it the same way," I assured him, wrapping my icy fingers around the hot mug.
"You're shivering," he commented. "You should probably get home and get some warmer clothes."
Was this it? He gave me a coffee to appease his conscience, and now he was going to send me on my way? I was ready to hand the cup back to him and just leave when he added, "Plus it'd be a lot easier to talk there – no noisy fan."
I was surprised as hell – this was the first semblance of normal behavior I'd witnessed from this guy. I tried not to let him see my shock, however, simply replying, "I think you're right." He grabbed his keys and closed the door behind us.
As we slumped wearily down the stairs, he said, "Have you noticed that every time I see you I apologize and then say thank you?" I considered his comment for a moment then chuckled in spite of myself, because it was absolutely true. "Nevertheless, I'm going to do it again," he continued. "I am so sorry that I had to wake you up this early - on any day but especially on a holiday; and I am utterly grateful to you for acting so quickly to stop the water and get it cleaned up."
"You're welcome," I replied, then added, "The towels you put down to stop the water from running all over the apartment definitely made it easier."
"Maybe I can get a deal on drying them, then," he suggested as we approached my apartment door. I looked at him to reply that of course I'd let him dry them for free, I realized he was looking at me with a grin. A grin.
Rather than replying, I simply grinned back. I unlocked my door and opened it, gesturing for him to go ahead of me. At that moment the smell of roasting turkey engulfed us, and in unison we stopped in our tracks and inhaled deeply.
"Wow," Edward breathed. I looked at him and his eyes were closed, his chin tiled upwards as he sniffed the mouthwatering aroma. "You're cooking Thanksgiving dinner?"
"Always do," I replied, waving him in and closing the door behind us. I told him about the tradition I'd held for as long as I'd been here.
He seemed impressed as he listened. "You do that for them every year?" he asked with a gentle smile.
"Well, it's for me too," I admitted. "Otherwise I'd be alone on Thanksgiving."
He looked intrigued. "Do you do it on Christmas too?"
I shook my head. "No, pretty well everyone goes to wherever their families are – whether that may be here in the city or halfway across the country."
"So you're alone on Christmas," he said quietly.
I only nodded in reply. He already knew my family situation. I wasn't interested in rehashing it. "You're most welcome to join us today, of course," I told him. "Though I assumed you would be with your brother…?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "Emmett's been seeing someone for about nine months and he's pretty serious about her. Her family has invited the two of us to their home for dinner."
"Nice." I sank into my comfortable recliner and covered up with the afghan Mrs. Johanssen had knit for me while she was recovering with her hip. "Oh – I'll need to stop by your apartment later to check on the state of the drying. If you're not home is it okay if I let myself in?"
"Of course," Edward nodded.
"I'll call a plumber when business hours start…shit, there are no business hours today, are there," I thought out loud. "I suppose I'll call after nine."
Edward frowned. "If you call a plumber today it'll cost three times as much as it would any other day."
"It needs to be habitable as soon as we can have it repaired," I replied.
"I can wait a day," he said. "Seriously – I'm okay with it. I can shower at Emmett's or something. I'll pick up some bottled water – that should get me through for the day."
"There's the toilet, though…" I thought out loud. "I suppose you could always use mine, assuming you don't mind trucking downstairs."
He grinned. "Assuming you don't mind me invading your space."
"You're being more than accommodating – I think this is the least I can do." I stifled a yawn, then realized that he was still standing. "Hey, please make yourself comfortable," I told him and gestured at the couch.
"Thanks," he replied, "but maybe I should let you go back to bed."
"No, no," I insisted. Now that he was here – and acting like a human being – I wanted him to stay. "I need to baste the turkey in half an hour or so." I tried desperately to think of something to ask him about, something that would get him talking. Suddenly I remembered Mr. Minh's comments. "Mr. Minh was telling me that you went to Asia after the tsunami? That must have been a terrible and rewarding experience."
"That's an excellent description," he said quietly, and began to describe it to me. I sat listening, gradually regaining my body heat. He described delivering a baby in Indonesia. It didn't matter that he hadn't been present at a delivery since medical school - doctors were so desperately needed everywhere, his surgical specialty was seldom called upon. His voice dropped even lower as he recounted discovering that the baby was breech. He was terrified, he said – never mind that he held tiny hearts in his hands on a daily basis. Birth was so much more intense, much less controlled than heart surgery; the conditions were so primitive. Not being able to communicate with the mother in her native tongue was another challenge.
As I warmed up it became more and more difficult to keep my eyes open and listen to him. I fought to remain awake, wanting to listen to his experiences. They were fascinating and poignant, and he told them with such empathy.
Hence, it was with horror that I jolted awake and realized that I had closed my eyes and drifted off some two hours before. I looked around my apartment and Edward was nowhere to be seen.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," I muttered under my breath, throwing the afghan off. I grumbled all the way to the kitchen, wondering in what state I would find my turkey after having ignored basting it for the first four or so hours of the cooking time. Beside my oven mitts on the counter was a yellow slip of paper and a pen.
Jasper, it read, I basted at 7 and 8. Hope my dinner today is as great as yours looks.
It seems appropriate, today, to tell you again that I'm grateful for what you've done. Happy Thanksgiving.
The rest of my day was spent in a bit of a daze. Edward had stayed in my apartment even after I fell asleep, and he looked after the turkey. To say I was surprised would be a monumental understatement. As soon as I'd read the note I'd run upstairs again to thank him, but he was already gone. I was disappointed, and I felt awful that I'd fallen asleep while he was sharing with me more information than I'd dreamed he would reveal.
Throughout the day I did what needed to be done – made the dressing, cranberry sauce and carrots, pulled the pies I'd already made out of the freezer. I pushed around my living room furniture so I could open the dining room table to its fullest extent. I set it with a pristine white tablecloth and napkins, and the set of nice china I'd picked up the first year for this occasion. I had mulled cider heating in the crock pot and a bottle of white wine in the fridge. The floral centerpiece I'd purchased the day before looked perfect on the table. I went upstairs to borrow a few dining chairs – the only thing I asked my tenants to bring, as I didn't have enough for everyone.
Despite how busy my preparations kept me, I felt listless, empty. I wondered how Edward's day was going, whether he was as reticent and discomfited around Emmett's girlfriend's family as he seemed to be with me. How desperately I wished I'd been able to stay awake, learn more about him and perhaps tell him more about myself. Over and over again, I mentally kicked my own ass.
Only when my guests began to arrive did I cast aside my melancholy, welcoming each like the family they had become. They praised the music, the décor and my cooking. We had a great meal and the company was wonderful, as always. After we'd cleared the table and I put the table back to its usual smaller dimensions, Mrs. Katrokis and Mr. Minh got up to dance to the 50s jazz music I had playing; the others sat around my living room, drinking their coffee or cider and watching the floor show.
Mrs. Katrokis had taken it upon herself a few years ago to teach me "real" dancing, as she called it. "Standing in one place and turning around in a circle is no dancing, Jasper," she'd told me. "I fall in love with my Gus" – she paused to cross herself as she referred to her late husband – "to the rumba. You want a hahsbend, you learn to dance." She taught me a basic box-step and a samba, and at my request, the tango.
Now as Mr. Minh spun Mrs. Katrokis around my very small living room, I asked Mrs. Johanssen to dance. She flushed with pleasure at being asked but reluctantly said she must decline – since she'd broken her hip she moved very carefully.
"How about you, Miss Ennis?" I asked.
Miss Ennis was the oldest of all my residents. When I met her five years ago she was 83; I'd made the mistake of calling her Mrs. Ennis. She corrected me good-naturedly, saying, "It's Miss, dear. I'm still looking." Today she, too, declined, saying, "No, no – if someone handsome comes along I don't want him to think I'm taken."
"Okay – I've been turned down twice, now," I said with mock dejection. "I'm starting to take this personally."
Mrs. Katrokis said, "There's someone who might take you up if you offered, Jasper." With a mischievous smile she nodded behind me.
I spun around to see Edward standing in the door of my apartment, a shy smile on his face. From the living room came a chorus of, "Edward!" He returned the pleasantries with a friendly wave and then spoke to me in an aside. "Hope I'm not interrupting. You did say, though…"
"No, no! You're very welcome," I hastily assured him. "Please come on in. I'm afraid you've missed dinner."
"Good," he chuckled. "I'm already stuffed. But I couldn't pass up the chance to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving." He stepped into the living room, saying merrily, "Sounds like a proper party!"
In the living room everyone rose to greet him and he walked from one guest to the next, hugging or shaking hands and exchanging best wishes of the holiday with everyone. When he got to me, he hesitated for a second before thrusting his hand out to shake. I took his hand and as our eyes met he said, "Happy Thanksgiving, Jasper."
I nodded. "Happy Thanksgiving, Edward." I wanted to thank him and apologize for this morning as well, but definitely didn't want to do it in front of the other tenants – didn't need them to infer the wrong conclusions. "Come to the kitchen," I suggested. "I'll get you some coffee."
"Sure, love some," he replied and followed me to the kitchen.
Once we were away from the other guests I said quietly, "I'm so sorry I fell asleep on you – I woke up and realized you were gone and I just felt awful."
"No, please don't worry about it," he said kindly. "You were tired out, and cold. I completely understand."
"Thanks for basting the turkey, too," I added. "You didn't have to do that."
"And put into jeopardy the best party of their year?" he said, nodding his head in the direction of the living room. "No way." I smiled and he returned it; it was clear he had as much respect for these people as I did and I appreciated that very much.
"Hey," Mr. Fisher said as Edward and I returned to the living room. "Thought you two were going to show us some dancing."
Edward looked at me like a deer caught in headlights. He blushed and said, "Oh, uh…I don't really…"
"Uh-oh," said Miss Ennis, turning to Mrs. Katrokis. "Thea, sounds like he needs your help."
"You need dancing lesson?" Mrs. Katrokis asked him in her thick accent.
"I know how to dance," he said, his blush deepening into scarlet. "I just…that's okay with you all? If I dance with Jasper?"
I nodded. "They're cool, Edward," I reassured him. "Supportive and accepting."
"And gay," said Mr. Minh.
"That too," I said with a smile at Mr. Minh. I held out my hand to Edward. "Shall we?"
He looked at my hand for a moment, then reached out and hesitantly laid his hand in mine. Mrs. Johanssen started to say something to Miss Ennis who shushed her. "Shh, Inez – I want to see who leads."
I looked at Edward and struggled to hold back a giggle. Instinctively my right hand slid around his lower back, and his left hand rested on my shoulder. As we began to step slowly in time to Chet Baker's "Lover Man", I realized that the others had sat down and were watching us. Edward was a very good dancer, following my lead very well. His eyes would occasionally find mine, and then fall away, his eyelashes fanning out over his cheeks. I had to admit to myself that he was simply beautiful, and when he was like this, acting like a regular person, I found him enormously attractive.
The close proximity of the others made for a rather uncomfortable five-or-so minutes, because they were almost on top of us – we couldn't even talk to each other without them hearing every word. Nevertheless, it was lovely to dance with him. When Lover Man ended and we released each other, our audience clapped. I wished for another song, but Edward had already stepped away to insist that Mrs. Katrokis take a spin with him. I held out my hand to Mr. Minh and we entertained the others for another song.
When it was finished, Miss Ennis stood, announcing that it was time to leave "the youngsters" alone. I insisted that they didn't need to; but the seniors all agreed with her, taking their leave with gratitude and embraces. When they were gone my apartment suddenly seemed very quiet and very empty – except for Edward who had begun to run hot water in my sink and was rummaging around under the cupboard, presumably for dish soap.
"May I ask what you think you're doing?" I asked, trying to sound stern.
"You've got dishes from eight people here," he replied. "I'm helping you wash them."
I shook my head. "You don't need to do that, Edward."
"I know I don't." He located the dish soap and added some to the sink. "Do you have rubber gloves? I figure since you know where everything goes, you can dry."
I reached under the sink and retrieved the gloves from where they hung on the drain trap. He started washing as I set up the drain board. "Have you been back in the apartment since this morning?"
I nodded. "I went up there after I woke up this morning. I was looking for you but you'd already left." I had also checked Mrs. Katrokis' apartment, below Edward's, to make sure she had no water damage to her ceiling or walls. Fortunately there was none.
"Yeah, I got my stuff and went to Emmett's early to shower."
"The floor was drying out nicely. Hopefully the water didn't wick too far up the wall. I'll have to have the restoration company in tomorrow with their moisture meters – they put them into the wall and it measures the moisture in the drywall. It'll let us know whether we need to replace any drywall." He simply nodded.
For a while we worked in silence, the only sounds the softly clinking dishes and the jazz which continued to play on my stereo. By the time we finished and had put my living room furniture back where it belonged – which he again insisted on helping with – it was nearly 7 p.m.
It had been a busy day, and had started much too early. Despite my nap, I was tired out. I flopped onto my couch, gesturing for him to make himself comfortable. He sank gratefully into the reclining chair. "I have an early shift tomorrow," he said with a groan. "I love what I do, but god, I wish I didn't have to go in tomorrow."
I'd been thinking about something as we did the dishes, and was trying to work up the nerve to ask him. I decided to try to sound as casual as possible. "You know," I started, "maybe you should just sleep on my couch tonight. That way you can shower and have breakfast here tomorrow morning, and probably by the time you get home the pipe repairs will be complete."
He looked thoughtful as he considered it. "That's a very generous offer – are you sure?"
I smiled. "I wouldn't ask otherwise."
"It would make tomorrow morning a lot easier," he mused. "I will gladly take you up on that, Jasper. Thank you."
It took massive effort on my part not to fist-pump the air at his response. "You're welcome," I said casually. Maybe tonight I'd be able to have a conversation with him, one that didn't end with me falling asleep in the middle of it. "Do you want to watch a movie or something?"
"Actually," he said, and he sounded so sheepish that I turned to look at him. "I should probably get to bed soon. I have to be at the hospital by five."
Fuck. "Of course. Wow, that is an early morning. Killer." Bugger.
"I'll run up and get my stuff," he said.
"Actually, perhaps I should come along. I'll check the walls, and I shouldn't leave the fan on all night long," I suggested.
"That's true," he replied.
Twenty minutes later we were back in my apartment, having completed what we needed to do in his apartment. The walls seemed fine – no soft spots, even down close to the floor.
I made up a bed for him on the couch, with cozy flannel sheets and several warm blankets. I kept my apartment cooler, especially at night, and I didn't want him to freeze. I showed him where my breakfast food was and got the coffeemaker ready to go so he only needed to switch it on. He thanked me again…then we stood there awkwardly, looking at each other.
"Well," I finally said, "pleasant dreams."
"I'm so obliged to you, Jasper, for everything you've done. Not just with the pipe, but offering to let me stay on your couch, inviting me to your Thanksgiving party…" He paused and looked down, self-conscious. "It started off as a disastrous day, but you made it into a great one."
From somewhere – who knows where – I felt a burst of courage, and almost before I realized it was happening I faintly replied, "If that's true then I'll gladly shut off your water anytime." My hand reached out to brush his face. His eyes closed as the backs of my fingers gently grazed his cheek. His skin felt so soft under my touch; he was completely enticing. My heart skipped a beat at the nearness of him, the magnetism of his allure. At once I had a desperate desire to kiss him. I resisted; somehow I knew it wasn't time.
Reluctantly I pulled my hand back, whispering, "Good night, Edward."
His eyes opened and he replied, "Good night, Jasper."
I forced myself to go to my room, closing the door behind me. I changed into my favorite pair of sleep boxers and climbed into bed, stretching my long limbs under the covers. I opened the book I'd been working my way through; but I couldn't concentrate. My body was keenly aware that Edward was in the next room; the draw to him was so strong. I began to curse myself for having offered him my couch, wondering if I would be able to sleep at all with him so close. I contemplated what to do; only one option really seemed to offer any real solution.
Silently I drew back the covers and pulled off my boxers. I grabbed a wad of Kleenex from the box on my night table and did what needed to be done. With Edward Cullen in both my living room and in my mind's eye, I started to stroke myself. I imagined what might have happened if I'd allowed myself to kiss him in the kitchen...backing him up against the counter, kissing the slender column of his neck, lacing my fingers through his wild array of hair…hearing him moan as I pressed my hips into his…watching him kneel before me and take my length into his mouth…
That visual did it – I instantly came in a writhing, thrashing, albeit silent, orgasm – possibly the strongest orgasm I'd ever experienced from a wank session. My breathing came in ragged gasps, and my entire body arched as I shot my load…into the Kleenex.
Classy, I know. I'd always hated the notion of jerking off, to be honest; so much about it seemed cliché. But sometimes it was simply a necessity. Tonight was a gold standard example of that type of occasion.
Regardless, it worked. The string that had pulled taut throughout my body was now slack. I lay absolutely still and relaxed, thinking about how diametrically different my life was tonight, compared with last night; and I quickly drifted off.
The next morning I awoke at seven, my usual time, and stretched deeply. I'd slept well and deeply, and I felt tranquil. I hadn't even heard Edward in the shower or moving around the apartment. I didn't rush to get out of bed as I knew he was already long gone. I planned to have breakfast, then call the plumber and get the work in Edward's apartment looked after.
When I got up to make my coffee I looked around, hoping for another note from Edward. The blankets and sheets he'd slept in were folded neatly on the couch and a coffee cup and small plate were in the sink. But no note. I was disappointed; but I knew I'd see him later when he got home.
By three o'clock the plumber was finished. ServiceMaster had been in to check the moisture levels in the walls and determined that the drywall didn't need to be replaced. I had turned the water back on in Edward's apartment and hoped the water in the hot water heater would be decently warm by the time he arrived home. I also washed and dried the wet towels I'd slung into his tub the day before, folded them and left them on his bed – a king, as I noted, with a massive four-poster bedstead. Then I left a note on his dining room table letting him know the repairs were all done and suggesting he give me a call when he got home.
Then I went back to my apartment and waited.
As I waited I tried to busy myself. I packed up the leftovers from yesterday's meal and put them into the freezer for a later date. I vacuumed my apartment and cleaned the bathroom. Finally around eight p.m. I took a walk along the hall to look out the back door that led to the parking lot. The light that shone over the lot was dim – too dim, I thought, though Mr. Masen had yet to replace it with something brighter – but even in the dim light I could plainly see a light silver car parked in Edward's space. It was definitely his Volvo.
I backed away from the door, dismayed till I realized maybe he'd just gotten home and would call me or drop by soon. So I meandered back down the hall to my apartment and waited some more. I checked my call display to see if he'd called while I was out. He hadn't.
By eleven I knew he wasn't going to call. I was disappointed – very much so – but knew I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he'd had a very tiring day – hell, maybe he'd slept poorly on my couch – and was just too tired for company. Perhaps he'd give me a call tomorrow. I didn't sleep well that night.
The next day was Saturday, my weekend off. I got up at seven and decided to walk to the corner store to pick up a newspaper – I couldn't help wandering by the rear door again to look out at the parking lot. His car was there. After I got home and had breakfast I wandered around my apartment for a couple of hours until I decided enough was enough. I went upstairs, my heart in my throat, and knocked on his door.
It took several moments for him to answer; when he did it was evident he'd been sleeping. His eyes were bleary and red-rimmed. His hair was sticking up in fifteen different directions. "Jasper," he murmured as his eyes focused on me. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, uh…nothing's wrong," I stammered. "I was…just…did you get my note?"
"Yes," he said dully. "Thanks for looking after the repairs."
"You're welcome," I replied mechanically. When it seemed he would make no endeavor at further conversation, I asked, "Um…are you okay?"
"Yes," was his sole reply.
"Really?" I looked at him critically. "You seem…not yourself?"
His eyes narrowed. Rather than acknowledge my question, he asked one of his own. "Is there something you need, Jasper?"
I was taken aback by the bluntness of his question. How could this be the same person who was in my apartment Thursday? The person who insisted on helping me with the dishes, who danced with me and who blushed when I brushed his cheek with my hand?
Suddenly I was irritated. Edward had been hot and cold since the day I'd met him; I never knew what to expect from an encounter with him and he seemed to have the power to set the tone of our interactions. I was annoyed that I let myself hope something had really changed on Thursday. I was exasperated with him for being so unpredictable.
I stepped back away from the door, and with as much steel as I could inject into my voice I answered. "No. I guess there's nothing I need here." After a last icy look I turned and left him standing at the door.
The early part of December wasn't great – I became more or less a hermit. When I wasn't working around the building I was in my apartment. I didn't socialize much with my residents, even turning down an invitation to tea with Mr. Minh, for no reason other than that I just didn't think I could keep up a conversation with him for three hours. I didn't see Edward, nor did I want to. I was hurt and angry; and I was angry at myself for being hurt. One day – one day was all he had truly given me, and I didn't understand how he'd managed to get so far under my skin so quickly.
The second week of December I made a booty call to my ex-with-benefits. It was fine, as it always was, but nothing truly spectacular, at least until he was leaving. I stood at my apartment door saying goodbye to him, and he leaned in for a quick buss on the lips, as he always did. Just as he pulled away I saw Edward at the bottom of the stairs, about fifteen feet away from my door. He clearly witnessed the kiss between Alex and me. I looked right at him, long enough to make it clear that I'd seen him, before he whirled on his heel and continued on upstairs. I felt neither satisfied nor ashamed that he'd seen me. We were tenant and superintendant, nothing more. Obviously he was clear on the extent of our relationship – I needed to be too.
It might have continued that way indefinitely, too, had disaster not struck the next evening.
Well, disaster is probably too strong a word. I had a knock on my door at around 7 p.m. and opened it to find Edward. Immediately I felt my posture stiffen. I leveled a steady gaze at him, and fortunately for him, he looked appropriately abashed. "Hi, Jasper," he murmured.
"Hello," I replied indifferently.
"Um…h-how's it going?" he asked, with that mild stutter that I'd heard manifest itself in his speech when he was nervous.
"Fine. Something you need, Edward?" I asked. It was childish, and I knew it; regardless, I simply couldn't help it.
"Y-yes," he said, holding open his hand. Resting in his palm was the knob from his radiator. "It c-came off."
I took it from him. "I'll purchase another tomorrow and come by to replace it. Is your heat on or off currently?"
"It's on," he replied. "I was trying to turn it down. The knob has been a bit stiff, and I guess I just wrenched it too hard. The apartment's really warm."
"Open your windows a bit for some cooler air," I suggested. If he thought I was going to invite him to stay again he had another thing coming.
He nodded. "So you'll be by tomorrow – do you know what time?"
"Whenever I get time to get to the hardware store," I replied noncommittally. I'd already seen what he was like after I knocked myself out in an emergency; I certainly wasn't about to put that same level of effort into something that was a mild inconvenience for him.
"I'll be home all day," he offered.
"Uh-huh. Well, I'll see you at some point. Goodbye, Edward," I concluded, stepping backwards and grasping my door handle to illustrate that I was ready to close the door.
"Um…okay. Bye," he said, looking as though he did not at all want to say goodbye.
The next day I did as I said I would. I took the handle to the small hardware store on the next block and asked the owner, Ross, for a replacement. As he examined it he said, "Jasper, did you look closely at this?"
"No – why?" I asked.
He held it upside down, showing me the part that had separated from the radiator. "Your tenant said this came off due to wear and tear? It looks like someone took a pair of pliers and twisted it until it snapped off."
I looked, and indeed, it looked like pliers' bite marks were impressed into the soft metal. "He did say it was stiff though, Ross; maybe he was using a pair of pliers to turn it."
He looked dubious, but allowed it was possible. I didn't see what other explanation there could be. Ross gave me a replacement and added it to the account Mr. Masen had set up for this purpose.
Back at the building, I grabbed my tools and headed upstairs. Edward answered the door almost immediately when I knocked, and gave me a pleasant smile. I didn't quite return it. He asked if I would like a cup of coffee and I declined, telling him I needed to get to work as I had other jobs waiting for me. I didn't – nothing that couldn't have waited long enough for me to have a cup of coffee, that is – but I needed to keep the distinction clear, for myself as much as for him. Tenant and superintendant – nothing more.
I went to work on replacing the handle, furtively examining what was left of it on the radiator. Edward had sat down on his couch with a book as I worked, and I casually asked him over my shoulder, "You mentioned the operation was stiff?"
He looked up from his book. "Yes."
"Did you happen to use a tool of any kind to turn it?"
I know I saw one of his eyebrows twitch before he answered. "Last night when I was trying to turn it down I used a pair of pliers."
"Ah, that explains it, then," I nodded, and told him what Ross had observed about the old handle. I watched him closely as I talked; he was definitely not at ease. Then again – he was possibly the least laid-back person I'd ever met.
"I guess my hands aren't as dainty as Emmett would like to imagine." He offered this with a shrug, but his indifference seemed just a bit too studied.
By the time the handle was replaced, I'd come to the conclusion that I was trying to scrutinize the inscrutable. Besides, I had no real reason to suspect that what Edward had described was not actually what happened. I straightened up and stretched my back. As I turned to leave I remarked, "All fixed. In the future if it's acting up, please call me before resorting to pliers."
With a sheepish look he replied, "Thanks." I picked up my tool box and headed for the door when he said, "Jasper? Would you like to…stay for a visit or something?"
I didn't hesitate. "No thanks." No way was I going to go start down that road again, only to let him batter my hopes when he decided to turn back into a pumpkin.
"Oh," he said. There was no question he was disappointed; but in my mind he really could only blame himself.
"Good night," I concluded and was gone before I heard any reply from him.
The countdown to Christmas continued. By the time it was a week away, my tenants were preparing for the journeys they would make to wherever they'd be joining their families, some far away, some not so far. Nearly every day someone dropped by my apartment with some small token for me – shortbread cookies from Miss Ennis, homemade pakora from Mrs. Gupta, my own can of jasmine tea from Mr. Minh (though he made me promise that I wouldn't stop coming to have tea with him. I responded by making him promise that he wouldn't stop making it). I was looking forward to Christmas too, though I had no plans for the day other than what I usually did – prepare myself a little meal of appetizers and some imported cheeses and a bottle of wine, and watch a Christmas movie marathon all day.
Four days before Christmas I started to get a scratchy throat, and the next morning I woke up with a cold. By then nearly everyone had left and my services weren't nearly as in-demand as they would be on a normal week, allowing me to take my time when I did need to look after something and rest in between times. The morning after that dawned foggy and miserable – much like me. My cold was worse and my head was plugged up. I tried to make myself eat some breakfast and succeeded in having orange juice and toast, at least. Then I wrapped myself up in my afghan and decided the couch would be the best place for me to be all day. I curled up and was almost ready to nod off when I thought to myself, I hope no one needs me today.
No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than there was a knock at the door. I groaned pathetically, and hauled my virus-ridden body off the couch. Still wrapped in my afghan, I padded to the door. I pulled it open, and the instant I did I had an overwhelming desire to close it again.
For there stood Edward, awkwardly fiddling with his keys. He had on jeans and a t-shirt, his sockless feet in a pair of flip-flops. He took one look at my messy hair, my red nose and afghan, and his expression immediately changed from discomfort to one of concern.
"Jasper," he exclaimed, "are you okay?"
"It's called a cold, Dr. Cullen," I replied tersely.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, his tone softened. I waited for him to continue, to tell me why he was at my door this time; but after several seconds had passed without him speaking, I had to.
"Can I help you?" I asked, impatient.
"Um…yeah. I was trying to use my oven but the bottom element isn't working," he mumbled.
Without a word I turned from the door to slide my feet into a pair of slippers. I picked up my tool box which sat in its usual spot in my hall and grabbed my keys. He stepped back away from the door to allow me to step out and pull the door shut behind me. Silently we trudged up the stairs and along the hall to his apartment. In his kitchen, a baking sheet with globs of raw cookie dough sat on the stove top. An open package of store-bought cookie dough sat on the counter with two spoons. I knelt, my flashlight in hand, to look inside the oven. From what I could see, the element had no cracks or burned spots.
"When was the last time you used the oven?" I asked.
"I haven't used it," he replied.
I sat back on my heels and looked up at him. "Not even once?"
"I use the stovetop," he clarified. "Otherwise it's pretty much just the toaster oven or the microwave. Or takeout. I haven't had the chance to use the oven yet."
I stood up, slid the oven out of its place and unplugged it; then leaned back into the small space and pulled the element to separate it from the contacts at the back of the confined space. I pulled out an ohm meter and connected it to the element. The needle on the meter stopped where it should – the element was showing proper resistance. Then I examined the contacts on the element. They were blackened – not a good sign.
"The contacts have burned out," I said. "Both of them. I'll have to get a new element for you."
"When do you think it might arrive?" he asked politely.
"I'll call around and see if I can find someone who has the proper one in stock," I said. "If not, it might not be till next week. Christmas Eve is tomorrow."
He looked a bit disappointed, but nodded. "I understand." He glanced at the cookie dough and said, "I'll throw those in the fridge for a couple of hours – I'm sure it'll keep till we find out if an element is available." I nodded and gathered my tools. "You could leave those here for now…if you want."
I considered it. "Sure." I headed for the door when Edward said my name; but I spoke quickly, interrupting him. "The sooner I start calling around, the more likely I'll be able to find one before the holiday." He gazed at me for a moment before nodding his acquiescence. "I'll let you know either way," I said over my shoulder before closing the door behind me.
As it turned out, I found an element. Courtesy of Ross at the hardware store, in fact. He called a friend who owned an appliance repair business, and within a couple of hours I had it in hand. I climbed the stairs to Edward's apartment again. In short order, it was installed in his oven, the oven was plugged back in and upon testing worked exactly as it should.
Edward helped me slide the oven back into its spot. I bent to pick up my tool box, and when I straightened up, he laid a hand upon my arm. "Jasper, please," he entreated. "Can't we talk about this?"
"There's nothing to talk about," I replied, as evenly as I could with a stuffy nose and a croaky voice. "Your oven is fixed. I did what I was summoned to do. Now I'm going back to bed."
He looked confused and hurt, but released his hold on my arm. I continued on my way to the door, until all at once I felt I must say more. Maybe it was because I was sick and grouchy. Perhaps I'd simply had enough and needed to put an end to it. For whatever reason, I stopped and turned to him. "You know…we're not friends." He stopped short where he'd been following me to the door. "We have a business relationship. You pay my boss, and he pays me, and I fix things, and that's it, you know?"
He stared at me for a moment before quietly countering, "You're friends with the other tenants."
"Yeah." I nodded, acknowledging that what he said was absolutely true. "But I don't feel like I'm walking on eggshells with them. They don't blow hot and cold." He fastened his eyes to the floor, nodding penitently. I continued, "I feel pretty confident that if they're pleasant one day, they'll be equally pleasant the next day, instead of treating me like a stranger…or a hired hand." He looked up, his eyes wide and his mouth agape. He started to say something – I cut him off. "So let's just make this easy on both of us, and stick to those roles – tenant and super."
I grasped the door handle and pulled it open. I said over my shoulder, "Good night, Dr. Cullen." And then I was gone.
I didn't see him the rest of that day. I didn't see him the next day, Christmas Eve. I was glad. I still felt rotten and definitely not in any mood to verbally spar with Edward Cullen; besides which, my ears were so plugged I wasn't sure I'd be able to hear him well enough to answer him intelligently anyways.
Early in the morning on Christmas Day, I woke with a fever and a throbbing pain in my left ear. I knew exactly what it was. I had all the classic symptoms of an ear infection. Plugged ear, pressure, fever, pain…there was another symptom but I was having trouble remembering what it was. Whatever it was – it wasn't affecting me so I didn't care.
"Merry fucking Christmas," I said through gritted teeth – then winced because it hurt to grit my teeth. Obviously my doctor's office wouldn't be open today, and even if I could see the doctor on call, how would I fill a prescription for an antibiotic? I would just have to tough it out on pain meds until tomorrow. I took a couple of ibuprofen and went back to bed.
Unfortunately when I woke again about six hours later, it was to pain twice as bad as before. Everything on the left side hurt – my ear, my sinuses, and my throat. Fuck, I thought, realizing I was going to have to go to an ER. This wasn't technically an emergency but I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't let it go till tomorrow – I wouldn't be able to sleep at all tonight at the rate the pain was worsening. At least if I went to the ER, the doctors there would already be working today, rather than bothering the doctor on call from my practice.
I dressed slowly then put on my shoes and coat. I got my keys and some cash for a cab – my head was feeling far too foggy for me to drive – and left my apartment. I was almost to the front door when, coming down the stairs, was Edward.
Fuck my life.
It wasn't bad enough that I was a walking bacteria fiesta on Christmas Day. No, some karmic force had decided that I needed to be confronted with Edward Cullen, too. I lifted my head to look up to where he was rounding the first landing. The next thing I knew, I was staggering across the lobby floor and landing on my ass in front of the front door.
Dizziness. That was the other symptom.
"Jasper!" he shouted. He jumped down the remaining three steps and rushed to me, kneeling at my side. "Are you okay? What happened?"
I was still very dizzy, my quick shift in position not having improved matters at all. I put my hand to my head and groaned. Edward's hand followed mine and immediately he said, "Shit, Jasper, you're burning up. A fever like this doesn't accompany a simple cold."
"No," I mumbled. "It's an ear infection…and maybe my sinuses."
"Where the hell are you going when you're feeling like this?" he demanded.
"Emergency room," I moaned as the room pitched once again.
"No," he said firmly. "You're going to go back to your apartment, and I'm going to look after you."
"Fuck that," I said. I struggled to get up by myself – and failed miserably.
He sat back on his heels and watched my attempts to get up. When I gave up he said, "So, your apartment then?"
I sighed. "Okay." I was feeling much too rotten to really protest. He slipped his arm around my upper back, helping raise me to standing; then pulled my arm over his shoulder and held my waist. He slowly walked us both back to my apartment door.
"Key?" he said, holding out his hand, and I dropped the keys into it. He opened the door and helped me across the living room. "Careful now," he cautioned as I slowly sank down into a supine position on my couch. "Don't move too quickly or the dizziness might strike again." When he was satisfied that I wasn't going to fall off my couch, he said, "I'm going to run upstairs and get my bag." Before I knew it he was gone, and I was left wondering what bag he was talking about.
He was back in a flash, it seemed, and in his hand he held a black bag – the absolutely typical doctor bag you see doctors carrying in older movies. Duh. Of course he meant a doctor's bag. He put on a mask and a pair of latex gloves. After taking my temperature with an instant-read electronic thermometer, he pulled an otoscope from the bag and slid a disposable tip onto the cone. I was lying on my right side, leaving my left ear accessible. He murmured that he was going to tug it a bit; I knew the drill but still winced as he pulled the ear back to open up the ear canal. He looked in and murmured his disapproval. "Quite infected," he said, "though I'm sure I don't have to tell you that." I grimaced. "Can you roll over so I can see the other one?"
"Ugh," I answered, not wanting to bring another wave of dizziness.
"Okay," he said. "Well, I'd like to look at it later, next time you're up, maybe; but for now, the left is definitely infected. Let's get you started on some antibiotics right away. If you'll excuse me for a few minutes, I need to make a couple of calls."
"Edward," I said weakly. "Please…just go to wherever you're supposed to be…with your brother or whatever your plans were for today. Don't call and cancel because of me."
He came and sat beside me on the edge of the couch. "Emmett is in Italy with his girlfriend and her family," he said softly. "When you saw me I was on my way to the 24-hour video store. I don't think they'll mind." He gave me a gentle smile and reached out to smooth my dark curls away from my forehead. "Are you allergic to any medications? And do you have any medical conditions?" I shook my head at each question. He continued, "I'm going to call in a prescription for you; and I'm going to try to arrange to have it delivered, though I'm not sure if I'll find success with that part. I may have to go pick it up myself. "
"You're doing too much for me," I mumbled.
"No," he said firmly. "I'm not even close to doing enough." He asked if I had ibuprofen in the house, then brought me a glass of water and a couple of pills. I swallowed them obediently.
As I drank the water I looked up at him. He had removed the mask and gloves. When I was done drinking, I set the glass on my coffee table and sank back onto the pillows. "Aren't you afraid you're going to get sick?" I asked.
"What you have now is bacterial," he answered. "You're probably still contagious with the virus but as it's just a cold and not something worse, like H1N1, I think I'm okay to rely on hand-washing." He smoothed my hair again. "Now, you see if you can sleep, and I'll see if I can get you some meds." I nodded wearily and closed my eyes. He covered me with my afghan and went into the kitchen to make his calls.
I slept for hours, not waking again until it was dark. When I did awake it was to find Edward sitting in my recliner reading a book, the lamp behind him having been directed to cast its glow onto his pages. I lay there for a moment without moving, just watching him. He didn't realize I'd awoken. A moment later, though, his eyes flitted to mine. A soft smile spread across his face, and he set his book down immediately and came to kneel beside me.
"Hey," he murmured. "How are you feeling?"
I winced. The meds had allowed me to sleep for a while but now the pain was back with a vengeance. "Not so great," I mumbled.
"Well, good news – I have some Amoxicillin here for you," he said, holding up a brown prescription bottle. "The thing is, you should probably have something to eat with it, and I'm guessing you haven't eaten today."
"No," I confirmed.
"Which is why I have a pot of chicken soup on the stove, all ready for you," he continued. "I'm going to bring you a big glass of water and a bowl of soup, and a couple more ibuprofen."
"You don't have to do this," I protested.
"I don't have to," he said. "But I'm going to."
Half an hour later I'd finished a steaming bowl of soup and had a cup of tea sitting beside me, along with my second glass of water. The ibuprofen was taking the edge off the pain again, and I'd taken my first dose of amoxicillin. Edward, who'd eaten some soup when I did, asked if I wanted to go back to sleep. I wasn't the least bit tired now, having slept most of the day; I felt like watching some TV. After all, I'd missed my Christmas movie marathon.
"No," I answered. "Actually, I was thinking I'd like to watch a Christmas movie. I usually spend Christmas day watching one after another…" I stopped, realizing how pathetic it must sound to Edward.
Until he replied, "I do too. Do you have some DVDs, or do you just want to see what's on TV?"
I was surprised but managed to reply, "Uh…yeah, let's see what's on."
He turned on the TV and flipped through the onscreen viewing guide, naming off some B-movies – most of which I'd never heard of – until he came to one I knew very well. "Oh…'It's a Wonderful Life' is just starting!" he said enthusiastically. "Do you mind watching that one? It's my favorite."
"It's mine too," I replied, cracking a small grin for the first time in several days. He held my smile for a moment, then looked back to the screen to select the channel as I settled into watch the movie. As it progressed, I would occasionally allow my eyes to wander to where he sat watching. His face was very expressive: a wrinkled nose when Mr. Potter came on, a smirk at Uncle Billy; and a broad smile as the gym floor slid open and the kids dancing in the Charleston competition began falling, then jumping, into the pool below. I also chanced to see his eyes start to move in my direction more than once; rather than meeting his gaze I would look back to the TV immediately.
As we watched I wondered why he was doing this, why he was showing me such solicitous care and had gone out of his way to procure some antibiotics for me today. Was it guilt, stemming from what I'd said to him the other night? Was it solely because I was sick and he was a doctor? Or, maybe, was it possible that he actually did know how a typical social human being acted?
Despite how alert I'd felt at the beginning of the movie, it wasn't even halfway through that I started fighting to keep my eyes open. The pain and the fever were really taking a lot out of me. As I lay there with my eyes closed, I heard Edward get up and take my dishes to the kitchen, then return to the living room. I felt his hand on my forehead again, and the edge of the couch sank beside me as he perched on it. I opened my eyes to see him peering at me with his lips pursed.
"Sorry, I couldn't keep my eyes open," I mumbled.
He smiled gently. "No apologies. Next thing you know you'll be thanking me."
"How did you know?" I slurred sleepily, to which he grinned.
"Do you want to just go to bed?" he asked. "I can help you in there if you're still feeling dizzy."
"Probably a good idea," I admitted. He pulled the afghan off me and I sat up cautiously. So far, so good. He put his arm around my waist and helped pull me slowly up till I was standing, supported by him.
"Okay?" he asked and I nodded. Slowly he guided me until we were in my room. Standing beside the bed, he pulled back the covers. I climbed in and exhaled a long sigh as I stretched out. He covered me up and asked, "Are you warm enough?"
"Yeah," I nodded. "Thanks."
"Be right back," he said and left the room. While he was gone I slid my off my jeans, tossing them on the floor by my bed. He returned in a moment with my glass of water, and a little bowl that held another amoxicillin capsule and an ibuprofen. "If you wake up in the night," he said, "take these." I nodded obediently.
He stood beside my bed for a moment longer before stuttering, "I-I c-could stay…i-if you w-want."
"Um…" I hesitated. The truth was I really did want him to stay. What I didn't know was why – what did I expect from it? Was I willing to try to befriend him again, after what happened last time? I knew I was well beyond deeper examination at that point. I really just wanted to sleep. So I said, "Are you sure? You don't have to…"
"No, I probably don't have to," he agreed. "You're an adult, after all; I'm sure you've been sick before without having someone stay with you. But…" He trailed off and I could see that he wasn't offering because he thought I shouldn't be alone. He wanted to stay as much as I wanted him to.
"As long as you don't mind sleeping on the couch?" I said.
"I've slept on your couch before," he replied with a little smirk.
"Yeah," I hesitated before continuing, "But then you stopped talking to me."
His face fell. He stood there looking wretched for a long time before leaning forward and taking my hand where it lay on the bed.
"Jasper," he said, "I know my behavior to you was detestable – especially when you were so kind. Nothing can excuse the way I acted, but there was a reason for it. I promise to tell you what it is; tonight isn't the night to do that, obviously, but please," he looked into my eyes with a most heartfelt expression, "please believe me when I say that it had absolutely nothing to do with you. How could it? You are the kindest…" He looked away, shaking his head. Remorse was plainly etched on his handsome face. "Well, you need to go to bed. I'll make up the couch."
"There are sheets and blankets in the linen closet beside the bathroom," I told him. "Pillows too."
"Okay," he replied, and his free hand reached out to smooth my forehead in the way he had already done numerous times that day. "I'll check on you before I go to sleep. I hope you feel much better tomorrow."
I managed a weak smile. "Good night," I said.
"Good night," he replied, returning my smile before turning to leave. As he reached the door I spoke again.
"Edward?" He turned back, his face expectant. "Thank you. For everything. It would have been a miserable day if you weren't here."
He smiled again and left.
I reached up and switched off my lamp. I lay in the dark listening to the quiet murmur of the TV in the living room. Before I fell asleep I couldn't help but wonder: despite what he'd said, which Edward would I wake up to tomorrow?
I did wake in the night, once to take my antibiotic and an ibuprofen; once when Edward had come in to check on me. I didn't open my eyes or in any other way let him know I was awake; I just lay there and felt his hand on my forehead. He smoothed my cheek a few times and hummed, then to my amusement actually sang a bit, an improvised song to the tune of "Rock-a-Bye Baby":
Rock-a-bye Jasper on the tree top
When the pills work the fever will stop
When the pain's gone I'll be your friend
I won't be so foolish ever again.
Of course it was sung very quietly so as not to wake me; he didn't realize I was awake and listening to him. After he left I broke into a huge grin; and I almost certainly fell asleep that night with that grin still plastered on my face.
In the morning I awoke still feeling pretty groggy. I rolled over to look at the clock. Nine a.m. It had been about 18 hours since my first dose of antibiotics. The pain and pressure hadn't subsided yet but I was hoping for big changes to come in the next six or eight hours.
Though the apartment was completely silent I could smell fresh coffee. I carefully got up, testing my equilibrium. Though not perfect, it was much improved from the sad state I'd been in yesterday. I walked slowly out to the living room. Edward was sitting in the chair reading the book he'd been working on yesterday. He put down the book when I came in.
"Good morning," he said warmly, and I returned his greeting in a similar fashion. "How are you feeling?"
"Much less dizzy, still a lot of pressure in my ear, still hurts a lot," I recounted my symptoms for him.
"You typically feel a big difference in the pain and pressure around twenty-four hours after you start the prescription," he said. Though I already knew, I just nodded. He said, "So, there's coffee made; I brought down some bacon from my fridge but thought I'd wait for you to get up before I made it."
"Sounds great," I replied, heading into the kitchen followed by Edward. He took the bacon out of the fridge as I got a coffee cup and filled it. He told me I should go sit down while he made breakfast, but I stayed in the kitchen chatting with him while he cooked the bacon. As the smell filled the air I realized I was absolutely ravenous. I'd had very little to eat the day before. I figured it was a good sign that my appetite was returning.
I couldn't help remarking that I didn't know many cardiologists who advocated the consumption of foods like bacon. He grinned broadly before replying.
"Well, I'm not actually a cardiologist – I'm a cardiothoracic surgeon. And I don't work on adults with clogged arteries – I work with children who have congenital heart problems," he corrected gently. "Not that any of that lets me off the hook. I don't have bacon often; I just got it for while I'm off work this week and actually have time for real breakfast."
"You're on vacation for a bit?" I asked, sipping my coffee.
He nodded. "I go back January 2nd," he said. We chatted about lighthearted things. He told me that Emmett had proposed to his girlfriend on Christmas Day. Edward had known beforehand what Emmett's plan was. He smiled as he told me that Emmett had asked him to be his best man; but I was sure there was a wistfulness in his smile – something I hadn't seen in him before. We continued talking throughout breakfast and when we washed up the dishes afterward.
After I settled onto the couch with my second cup of coffee he came back out to the living room, sitting this time beside me on the couch instead of the recliner. I sat quietly, waiting to see if he would broach what he had alluded to last night.
I wasn't disappointed.
Quietly he began. "I need to say, again, that the way I acted to you was disgraceful. I'm so sorry – I'm ashamed to think of it. I'll never forget your face that morning outside my apartment – baffled and hurt…" He paused and took a sip of his coffee, then a deep breath. "I was in a relationship for a long time. I met Chris in university and it was love at first sight. We were together for thirteen years. H-he died suddenly." His voice was strained with emotion. "We were grocery shopping. I asked him a question and he didn't answer me. When I turned around he was falling to the floor…" He couldn't continue. I reached out and took his hand in mine, silently waiting until he was ready to go on.
"He had cardiomyopathy," he said through a voice thick with tears. "He'd had it all his life, undiagnosed." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. "I operate on people like that. Every damn day – it's what I do. I never knew…" I set my coffee on the table and pulled him to me. He leaned against my chest and wept quietly for a few minutes, his face buried in my neck. I stroked his back as I held him.
When he lifted his face I handed him a Kleenex. "For a long time I thought I wouldn't be able to go on," he said, wiping his eyes. "I didn't get out of bed for three months; it was another three before I could even consider going back to work. We were young and healthy – I thought we had forever. Instead I was more or less a widower at age 35."
"I'm so sorry," I murmured into his hair.
He nodded. "Thanks. I'm okay now…I mean, I'm not great, but nothing like I was the first year. "
"I can understand why," I said earnestly.
"Yeah. Anyways, they say you're not supposed to make any big decisions in the first year, right? So I stayed at our house, even though it was torture to be there and be reminded of him constantly. Emmett moved in with me – I wouldn't have gotten through without him." I understood why Emmett was so special to Edward – he owed him his life. "By the time the year was up I was back at work and just trying to get through. As much as I didn't want to stay, I also couldn't bear the thought of leaving the place where Chris and I had been so happy." I nodded sympathetically.
"I was angry because I felt so powerless to stop something like that from happening to someone else. Eventually the psychologist I see suggested to me that I needed to channel my energy into doing something that could help change that. I gave it some thought and realized that if there had been a portable defibrillator at the grocery store that day, it could very well have helped Chris. It could have restarted his heart till we could get him to a hospital. I decided to start a charity that promotes and helps fund the purchase of AFMs for public places like grocery stores, shopping malls, stadiums, schools."
"You started a charity?" I repeated.
"I sold my house and used the majority of the proceeds from the sale, to fund the startup costs. Em had decided to buy a condo – I moved in with him for a while until I found this place. I wanted someplace frugal because a good portion of my pay still goes into the charity. I'm sure it will for a while yet," he remarked.
"Wow." I was in awe.
"And then the day I moved in, you came along; and I swear, it was the first non-work or non-charity-related conversation I'd had with anyone in months, other than my psychologist," he said. "I told you about us losing our parents, without even thinking about you being a complete stranger. And you immediately told me about your family – it felt like it was the most natural thing in the world to share all that stuff with you. For months I'd been forcing myself to interact with people, forcing myself to have conversations. But talking to you…it just happened, without me deciding to tell you about it. And then I realized – when it hit me how much I'd already said, I just…panicked."
I nodded, understanding dawning. His behavior, so baffling at the time, made perfect sense to me now.
"I ended the conversation because I didn't want you to ask me anything more about my life. The next time I saw you, too; it was the same. Except I was the one asking you questions…"
"Yeah," I agreed. "That was surprising."
"I'd been meeting the other tenants and they all talked about you. Constantly. They loved you; and more than once I got the distinct impression that I was on trial; they were making sure I was suitable before they considered encouraging something between you and I." He shook his head with a wry smile. "I don't even know how they knew I was gay."
"Mr. Minh would have known," I said. "He's got the most accurate gaydar of anyone I've met."
Edward smiled. "Ah, yes," he said. "Mr. Minh. I went in for five minutes to put up a window shade for him, and stayed for three hours. Damn, he makes good tea."
"He's also an excellent listener," I replied softly.
Edward agreed earnestly. "He was the next person I found myself blathering to. I told him about going to Indonesia – I hadn't talked to anyone about it, except Chris." He stopped, looking at me. "And now you." I smiled.
"Anyway," he continued, "I talked to you that day and again I clammed up because I was afraid you'd start asking questions I wasn't ready to answer. And you already know what happened Thanksgiving Day, of course."
"Of course," I agreed. "What I don't understand is what happened next. I thought we had a good time that day…I thought we had a connection…"
"I felt it too," he replied. "Burst pipe notwithstanding, that day was the best day I'd had in two years – being here with you and all the seniors, dancing with you, even doing the dishes. It felt so easy and natural. When you touched my face…" Here his voice lowered to a whisper. "I was caught up in what I felt developing. If you'd kissed me I would have kissed you back, willingly. I fell asleep on your couch that night and slept better than I had since Chris died."
"So what happened?" I implored.
He sighed deeply. "I woke up."
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"I woke up the next morning, snug and warm here, and I felt happy. And then I realized that I hadn't thought about Chris even one time since I'd shown up here the day before for the Thanksgiving party," he said, the pain reappearing on his face. "It was like being stabbed with a knife. A knife made of guilt. I wanted to throw up."
"I'm sorry," I said, gripped by empathy for him. "I moved too quickly…"
"No, no," he replied, shaking his head fiercely. "This was my issue, not yours." I held his hand for several moments, gripping firmly, and he squeezed right back. "To summarize the rest of my day: it had been two years that day since Chris died. And then I went to work, and I lost a patient. A beautiful, sweet little boy who was six months old. He had blonde curls," he mused, "and these long eyelashes that actually pointed out to the sides like someone had combed them that way. He always gave me the biggest smile…but his little heart wasn't strong enough…and then I had to tell his parents…and they thanked me for everything I'd done for their son…when the truth was I just wasn't good enough to save him…" Here he broke down again and once again I pulled him to me, rubbing his back as his body shook with his grief. Many long moments passed before he regained his composure to speak.
When he was able, he continued, "I stopped at a liquor store on my way home that night. I'm not much of a drinker, Jasper – I never have been, really. But that night…"
"Of course," I said. "It was too much for anyone to have to deal with in one day."
He pulled away and laughed bitterly. "How about the people who had to deal with arranging a funeral for their six-month-old son?" I didn't answer, knowing his response was the result of his continuing grief. He apologized almost immediately. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm doing it again." I nodded, letting him know it was okay.
"So then I got home that night and saw your note. You'd spent your day getting my apartment back in order. The pipes were fixed, the drywall was fine…you even washed and dried my towels. And you asked me to give you a call. And honestly, Jasper, if it had been either the anniversary of Chris' death, or losing my patient, I think I would have called you instead of opening the bottle of Grey Goose. I thought about it for a while. Just sat there staring at the bottle…" He rubbed his hand over his face wearily. "Well, obviously, you know what I chose." I didn't answer, looking down at my hands which now rested in my lap. "You came to my door the next morning, all sweet-faced and hopeful…and in the state I was in, I resented you."
"You resented me?" I repeated.
"You looked like you were ready to step into happiness…that you were this close…so little standing in your way," he expanded. "I knew I had miles of crap standing between me and happiness. I was grieving and angry and jealous of you. And I treated you so badly. The look on your face – if I live forever I'll never forget the confusion I saw there, and the hurt; and then the coldness. And I knew I had put them there, all of those things. You said, 'I guess there's nothing here for me.' The steel in your voice – it made my blood cold, and I knew that was my fault too. That was when I knew that I had no business pursuing a romantic relationship of any kind. And I stayed away; I didn't come see you again or talk to you anymore."
"Until you had to call me because the rad handle was broken," I supplied.
"Um…yeah," he said. "About that." I raised my eyebrows, waiting for what he wanted to tell me. "The night I saw a guy coming out of your apartment?"
"Right?" I prompted.
"He kissed you," he said, his hand clenching in his lap.
"I did not like that." With each sentence his voice had dropped and this was nearly inaudible.
"What does that have to do with the rad?" I asked, truly baffled.
"I wanted to run over there and pull the lips off his head," he said through gritted teeth, as though he hadn't heard my question. "I didn't want you kissing anyone. I went up to my apartment and I wanted to smash something."
"Wait…did you? Did you break the handle off the rad on purpose?"
"Yes," he admitted. I gasped, horrified, and he quickly continued. "I didn't do it that night, and I didn't do it in anger. It was the next evening, when I was trying to think of a reason to come see you. I was embarrassed about the way I'd acted after Thanksgiving and that I hadn't done anything to try to apologize for it, and I just didn't think you'd talk to me unless there was a reason to."
"So you vandalized the building?" I demanded.
"I figured since it'd be added to my next rent check anyways…"
"Jesus, Edward," I sputtered. "That's not how it works! You don't own the apartment - when something breaks, the landlord replaces it at his cost! Mr. Masen will have to eat the expense of replacing the handle."
He now mirrored my look of horror. "What?! I thought…"
"I can't believe you did this!" I was appalled. "For the sake of getting me to talk to you? Don't you think I'd have been a bit more receptive if I thought you were at my door because you wanted to talk to me, not because you needed me to fix something?" Again his head fell into his hands. He sat there, silently absorbing my words as I railed on. "What about the oven? Did you burn the contacts too?" He nodded his head miserably, not looking up. "This is too much! I-I…"
I had reached the point where I was at a loss for words. The revelations about his prior relationship and having lost his partner were awful, and I felt terrible for him; but I was having trouble processing this information. I needed to stop talking before I said something I would regret.
We sat in silence for long moments - me in shock, hi in abject mortification.
Finally he sucked in a long breath and quietly resumed. "I understand if this changes things. If I was sitting there listening to the things I've told you I can't begin to imagine what my reaction might be. But I ask you…I beg you: please, let me finish what I need to tell you. I have no excuse for what I did; but please allow me this." His words were so heartfelt, so genuinely rueful. I considered them for a moment and then silently nodded, bidding him to continue. "Thank you," he breathed before continuing.
"The oven…I did that thinking that once it was fixed, it would be a segue for me to ask you to join me for Christmas dinner – you'd said you typically spent Christmas alone. But the things you said when you came to fix it completely shocked me. I mean, I knew I'd acted like an ass; I understood when you said I blow hot and cold. But when you said I treated you like a hired hand, I was aghast. I didn't understand what I could possibly have done that gave you that impression. You left before I could really reply; but that was probably good, because it gave me an opportunity to consider what you said. When did I ever come to your door? Once, when I was invited for a party – which you cooked for – and all the other times were when I needed something done. You let me sleep on your couch, when my own apartment was perfectly livable with the exception of the water. I never invited you to my place, except the one time I asked you, so eloquently, to 'have coffee or something'. God, you did my laundry and I didn't thank you for it – didn't even acknowledge it. Over the course of the interactions we had, I went from bad to worse – started off being ungracious and ended up being just plain insulting – like a spoiled, entitled brat." He paused to draw a long breath.
"Jasper, I understand that almost every instinct I've had, every impulse I've followed since I met you, has been flawed. I know you're angry with me for what I did to the building. I've possibly never been as mortified in my life as I am right now, sitting and talking to you about the damage I inflicted on your boss's building so I could get your attention. I'm sure you're wondering whether I even know how to act like a human being."
"Um…well, the thought has crossed my mind, once or twice," I admitted. "But the doctor who treated me yesterday isn't the same person as the one who pushed me away before. Anyone would be lucky to be treated by you - you were calm, you did what needed to be done, you didn't put up with any shit."
"Did I seem calm?" he asked pensively. "I was panicking on the inside."
"About an ear infection?" I asked.
"When I saw you fall I had no idea why," he clarified. " I saw a healthy young man collapse...like what happened with Chris...and all I could think was, Oh my god, it's happening again…"
"Shit," I breathed, understanding what effect that must have had on him. "Of course; I didn't think of that. Well, it didn't show – I guess when you're being Dr. Cullen you've got it under control. But Edward," I added, "I need to know whether that translates into real life – life outside the hospital. I know you've talked a lot today and it's been difficult and uncomfortable for you. Are you going to continue to talk to me when I need to know something? Or are you going to pull away again?" I shook my head. "I don't expect you to answer that; but please think seriously about it." He nodded slowly, still looking at his hands.
"There's something else I need to say to you," I continued, and he looked up with trepidation. "Thank you for looking after me. I was glad you were there...well, okay, not at first..." He grinned as my initial reaction to his help yesterday had been to rudely rebuff him. "But I might have had to resort to crawling back to my apartment if you hadn't come along when you did. And getting me the antibiotics...wait, did you have to go out to get them?" He nodded and I sighed. "And then you sat here with me and made sure I had something to eat, and looked after me. You checked up on me before you went to bed. I would have been alone and miserable otherwise. Thank you."
"You're welcome," he replied warmly. "I'd do anything..." He stopped and I looked at him sharply. His eyes were downcast at his lap, avoiding mine.
"You'd do anything...?" I prompted, hoping he would continue what he meant to say.
He took a deep breath and looked at me. "I'd do anything," he continued softly, "to show you that I really want to get to know you. I want to spend time with you. I want to learn all about you...I w-want to k-kiss you."
I sucked in a sharp breath. "I want to kiss you too," I said. "I wanted to, on Thanksgiving day. And I want to now...the only thing that's stopping me is that I'm a bacteria potpourri."
He threw back his head and laughed - beautiful, glorious peals of laughter. I found myself chuckling along with him. When it had subsided, I murmured, "Well, maybe just one..."
He looked at me, and the expression in his eyes wasn't one of distaste, but of longing. His soft green eyes shone as he looked at my lips then back up at my eyes. I leaned in; he moved to meet me; and our lips pressed together. Despite the chasteness of the kiss, it was searingly intense. Three months of build-up and denial and doubt and desire were fulfilled by it. Edward pulled away first, but only so he could bury his face in my neck again. As I had done when he was crying, I wrapped my arms around him and held him close. I didn't know what would happen to us or whether we would turn out to be right for each other; but I was grateful that Edward had finally taken a chance and allowed us to explore a future together.
Since Edward was on holidays, we pretty much spent every free moment together from then until he went back to work. When my tenants started to return from their Christmas celebrations and would come by the apartment to say hello, I'd invite them in for tea or a visit and their faces would light up to see Edward there, quietly reading a book or working in the kitchen. He had become so good at hiding the tragedy in his past that he found it terribly difficult to open up; but I could see him trying so hard not to shut down when someone asked him a question about his work or his past. I knew they were intrigued about my relationship with him too; to their credit they didn't pry when he was there, though I knew they would want the scoop later on if they found me alone.
My cold and the ear infection cleared up nicely, so I was back to my regular jobs around the building pretty quickly. In the evenings when I was free Edward and I would hang out at his place or mine. We talked about a million different things: our high school years – he was brainy, of course, but the kind who got excellent grades while wearing leather jackets and heavy metal band t-shirts, which shocked the hell out of me; our college experience – him at Cornell, me at San Francisco State University; our families, and he actually made me tear up when he was asking about my coming-out experience; and I admitted to him my embarrassing habit of creating stories about the residents of the building and the neighbourhood. That conversation took an entire evening; but when I told him how I'd started writing them down he was very encouraging. "You've obviously got a vivid imagination," he reasoned. "You should work seriously on it. God, you could probably get it published." When I told him my major in college was English, with a concentration in creative writing, he was even more insistent.
Of course, by the next evening the obvious question had occurred to him, namely: "What did you imagine about me?" I told him the truth: I didn't want to dream up a life for him, because I really wanted to know the reality instead. As it turned out, he was relieved that I hadn't imagined a double life as a secret-trading spy or something.
And yeah, those evenings were spent doing more than just talking. We held hands, we snuggled, we kissed...we made out passionately. I wanted him more than I'd wanted anyone in my life; but always there was an unspoken, somehow-mutual decision to pull away before any clothing was removed. And we always slept in our own apartments. I'd have gone to bed every night with a massive case of blue balls; I was forced to conclude that my aversion to jacking off was not only silly, but possibly hazardous to my health in this case. As it was, I slept very well each night.
As the days went by and New Year's Eve drew close, we knew we'd spend it together. I hadn't been out to celebrate New Year's in at least five years, and it'd been longer for him, he said. We agreed that a quiet evening at home with some snacks and a bottle of bubbly would be ideal. He insisted on making a solo trip to the grocery store; he wanted to make some appetizers and other goodies. I didn't understand why that necessitated him going alone, but I indulged his whim.
We hung around his apartment on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, as he was expecting Emmett to call. I'd learned a great deal that week about the relationship between Edward and Emmett; I knew they were each other's best friend and closest confidante. Edward had been many things to Emmett over the years: big brother, male role model, parent, and finally back to brother again when they were both adults and had a more equal relationship. For his part, Emmett was the only one who could pull Edward out of his hole after Chris passed away. Shortly after three p.m., Emmett did call. It was just after midnight in Rome and I could hear the background noise on the line from where I was sitting, across the room from Edward. Edward told him we'd be spending New Year's Eve together and I heard Emmett's joyful whoop from Italy. Edward grinned broadly at me. "He says that's nice," he whispered.
We did have a great night. We put some music on, slow-danced a bit (which was much more enjoyable without an audience of a dozen or so octogenarians), had some food and some champagne, and just enjoyed being together. The coming year held so much promise for us now, and I was utterly content to be spending that evening seeing in the New Year with the person whom I hoped would be my closest companion, in the New Year and beyond.
As midnight drew close we turned on the television to watch the ball drop. We snuggled under a blanket on Edward's couch and watched as the sparkling profusion of light began to descend. In my chest I felt the swell of excitement I always did in those last few seconds of the waning year, and when the ball reached the end of its journey and "2010" lit up, I pulled Edward as close as possible and kissed him deeply and passionately. He moaned into my mouth and suddenly I was on fire. I grabbed his shoulders and rolled us so that he was lying beneath me on the couch. My face inches from his, I whispered, "I want you...tonight. I want to make love to you."
"Yes," he breathed and pushed his hips into mine. "Please."
I kissed him again. He opened his legs and wrapped them around me so I was resting between his hips. Despite our declarations we still took our time; his hands glided down my back to my ass and gently, experimentally squeezed. I raised his t-shirt just below his nipples and explored his abs with my tongue, dipping into his navel. Because we'd never even gone below the neck before, everything was new, a fresh discovery. He raised his arms, pulling his shirt off the rest of the way. I tongued his nipples and they became pebbles at my touch. He squirmed beneath me, moaning and arching. He unbuttoned my shirt and pushed it off my shoulders, then pressed the palms of his hands against my chest, pushing me away slightly so he could look at me. His eyes followed his fingers as they drifted down across my pecs, which were now flexed as I held myself up. He sighed rapturously, drifting down across my abs and down the little trail of hair that disappeared into my jeans. I gave a little grunt of longing when his hand proceeded no further than the button of my jeans, but he grinned, patting my zipper. "Soon," he whispered.
I lowered myself to him again and for the first time we were skin to skin. That simple act was, comparatively, so innocent; yet one of the most intimate things I'd ever experienced. He kissed my neck repeatedly, little sucking, nibbling kisses that drove me insane and made me painfully hard. I waged a constant battle with myself not to thrust against him; god, I wanted to.
Soon he whispered, "Hey." I lifted my head to look at him and he said, "Can you get up for a sec?"
Confused, I nevertheless obeyed, pulling back from him and sitting on the couch at his feet. He stood up and held out his hand to me. Taking it, I stood beside him. He started to back away from me, leading me down the hall toward his bedroom. A smile of recognition stole over my face as I understood. He didn't want our first time to be quick and dirty on the couch. In his bed we'd have space to manoeuvre, time to enjoy each other.
In his room, he released my hand, leaving me standing out in the middle of the floor. He flipped on a small lamp on the dresser, opposite the bed, which cast a soft glow throughout the room. He stood facing me, a few feet away, in his jeans and bare feet, and began to slowly undo the button and zipper. When he was free of restraints, the jeans dropped to the floor and he stepped out of them, leaving him in just a pair of low-cut briefs. He looked shyly at me before sliding his fingertips under the waistband and losing them as well.
When he stood before me completely, marvellously naked, I thought I might pass out from lack of blood to the brain. I'd seen him the day the pipe burst in his apartment, with his wet shirt plastered to him; but I hadn't had the opportunity to really appreciate how beautiful his body was. His hands were as delicate as Emmett said, and he was slim; there was truly nothing brawny about him. But god, for all that, he was so masculine, and his cock was glorious. Overall, he was spectacular and fucking begging to be worshiped.
I gawked at him for goodness-knows how long before realizing that I, too, was wearing some clothing that needed to go. I quickly doffed my pants and briefs in a single, probably-ungraceful motion; and held out my hand to him. He wasted no time accepting my invitation, stepping quickly into my embrace. When our naked bodies touched for the first time I could have cried; instead I pulled him tight, pressing skin against skin, glorying in the deliciousness of the sensation.
He began to back towards the bed, gently pulling me with him. When the backs of his thighs pressed against the high mattress he released me and climbed up on the bed. I joined him and we knelt facing each other on the smooth, snowy expanse of the white duvet cover. "You're so beautiful," I whispered to him as I stroked his face. He closed his eyes and hummed, a faint smile gracing his face. I kissed each of his cheeks, the tip of his nose and then his soft lips. He immediately opened to me and his tongue swept fervently across mine. This time I was the one to moan.
He released me and sat back on his heels, his fingertips gliding over my bare skin. He explored my shoulders and arms, my chest and abs, down the fronts of my thighs, and then slowly, teasingly, his fingers edged closer to my tumescent cock. I held my breath in anticipation of his touch on my sensitive skin. When he wrapped his fingers around my cock I had to brace my hands on his shoulders to remain upright. He stroked my shaft from base to head, licking his lips as he watched the foreskin slide back and forth over the head. I enjoyed the exquisite feeling for a few minutes before encouraging him to lie back on the soft pillows. "I want to suck you," I murmured.
"Hmm," he replied, "how about we suck each other?"
"Oh, yeah," I groaned and turned to straddle his face. Each of us swallowed the hard cock at our mouth, and oh, my god, it was literally the best thing I'd ever done in my life. I was never much for a 69 – I found it difficult to relax and enjoy what was being done to me when I was concentrating on what I was doing to my partner – but from where I was, I could see us in the mirror over his dresser and oh my god, it was so much sexier than I'd ever imagined. Having his rock-hard cock down my throat as he sucked mine was so fucking tantalizing that even thinking about it nearly got me off.
We licked and teased gently, drawing out the experience for a long time before he finally groaned, "Jasper, please – I need you inside me."
I released him and was turning to kiss him when I suddenly realized something very inconvenient. "Oh...fucking fuck," I cursed. "I have to run downstairs. I didn't bring any condoms up with me."
"Oh," he said. "I have some."
"Um," I hesitated. "No offense, but if it's been two years they might be expired."
"I bought these earlier today," he whispered, looking sheepish as he reached into his side table drawer and pulled out a box of condoms and a bottle of lube.
"When you refused to let me go to the store with you?" I clarified with a knowing grin.
"Yeah," he returned my grin.
"You're sneaky, Dr. Cullen," I murmured, taking the box and separating a single foil packet from the strip. I tossed the box back on the side table and leaned over him where he lay against the pillows. "Sneaky...sexy...intelligent..." I punctuated each word with a kiss on his face or neck. "And completely mine." I kissed him gently on the lips.
I knew I needed to take my time preparing him as it'd been over two years for him. I spread a generous amount of lube on my fingers and painted it on the area around his opening, then gently began to work my index finger into him. He hissed, though by the way he opened his knees as he did so, I knew it was a sound of pleasure. Deeper I went, slipping past the initial tightness easily. "More," he whispered. I obliged, adding a second finger and he whimpered. "Oh....fuck," he moaned. "Deeper." When both fingers were as deep as far as I could get them he pushed against me. "Please...oh, I can't stand it," he begged. "Please, I need you."
I couldn't resist his pleas, and I knew he was the only one who could judge if he was ready. I unrolled the condom onto my cock, which by that time was ready to explode. A bit more lube on the condom, and then I was ready.
I pressed my cock against his opening and leaned over him, one hand at the base of my cock and the other supporting my upper body. "Are you sure you're ready?" I asked gently. I knew he was physically ready, but emotionally, I didn't want him to rush into something and have him be upset or feeling guilty later.
He placed the backs of his legs against my ass. "I'm ready," he whispered. "I want you to look into my eyes as you take me."
I nodded, and slowly, gently began to push into him. His face betrayed a myriad of sensations and reactions as, in his words, I took him. A little wince, a soft sigh, a minute widening of his eyes, his mouth rounding into a silent 'o'...I was privy to it all. I'd never shared something so intimate. When I was completely engulfed within his tight, hot depth, he exhaled a deep sigh. Pleasure, relief, contentment – they were all contained in that breath, and I felt him relax around me. "I'm yours," he murmured.
"As I am yours," I agreed. He lifted his head and kissed me, and I began to retreat and fill him. We made love ever so slowly, pressing together, meeting and retreating as the sweat dripped from us. In my head the term I've never... was replayed frequently: I'd never moved in someone so languorously...despite the slow pace I'd never expended so much physical energy having sex...I'd never felt anything to compare with the emotion I had for Edward...I'd never wanted to be constantly kissing someone I was having sex with...I'd never, ever thought of having sex as making love.
And when we had at last drawn ourselves up to the top of the rock face which we had scaled together and flew from the pinnacle of that mountain, I found pleasure I never knew existed. I cried out as I spilled deep inside my lover; he shuddered beneath me and pulled me deep, as close as two could possibly be. His cries of release and the feel of his semen flooding warm and wet against my stomach wrought still more pleasure from me. For long moments after the peak of our delight had passed, I couldn't bring myself to move from him or let go; nor, it seemed, could he. In fact, I had no desire to ever let go of him again.
"I love you," I whispered, barely audible, into his neck just below his ear.
His arms tightened around my shoulders and he murmured in my ear, "I love you, too."
I grabbed a handful of Kleenex from the box on the side table and cleaned us up, disposing of the condom while never breaking contact with him. When I was finished we slid back into each other's arms. Another I've never was pillow talk – I hadn't understood the concept before. It was just one more item on the long list of things that were revealed to me that night: that it was not just pleasant, but also necessary to check in with your partner afterward when it was someone you truly cared for. The soft murmured endearments, the promises and caresses that bound two hearts together – I would never trade them now. I would never choose again getting up and leaving or being left.
When we fell asleep wrapped up in each other, it was with the knowledge, the stated understanding, that our lives were then irrevocably entwined; and with gratitude that, when it came to love, it didn't take a surgeon to heal a sick heart.
I have to tell you that SubtlePen gave some of the best prompts. Here's the one I used for this story:
"A character has a crush on their apartment maintenance man and keeps sabotaging things around the apartment as an excuse to make them come over, including over a long lonely holiday weekend when the maintenance man is on call..."
My brain kicked into overdrive when I read that. :) Thanks to Bethie for her mad skillz as a previewer; and thanks, I suppose, to the Purolator delivery dude* who bypassed my house three days in a row, all the while carrying on his truck the new power supply for my modem, while I was without internet. Being unable to connect, for nearly a week in total, definitely left me with nothing to do but write. Since it was three months ago, I can laugh about it now...sort of.
To read the rest of the fics in the Gift Exchange, visit community . livejournal . com / twi_exchange /
*No Purolator delivery dudes were harmed in the writing of this fic.