Holden couldn't believe what he's just been told.
"Burnout syndrome? Come on... you're kiddin' me!"
It was weeks before that Holden arrived in his office for another long and exhausting day of work. It was an impressive room. Noble and yet simple, just the way he loved it. In the center the big desk of black smoky glass. White walls with colourful but at the same time calming paintings from local artists. Little models of houses or just parts of them everywhere. Let alone the view he had... the beautiful L.A. just woke up in front of him.
But he couldn't enjoy the morning. Actually he hadn't enjoyed much of his life over the last couple of months. The problem was, as much as Holden thought about it, he just couldn't figure out what the heck was going on with him. He didn't feel literally depressed – it was just this weariness that made it so hard to get out of bed in the morning. Thinking about today's schedule didn't make it any easier. It will be stressful again...
Of course it will be, he was the boss of the number one estate agency in town, W&H. He was the 'W' in it – Holden Wilson. Eric Hurt, his longtime partner, took care of the East Coast running their second bureau in New York.
'If Eric ever feels tired of all that?' Holden wondered while nipping at his coffee... the first of many that would follow. 'I should just cancel all appointments for today!' Holden liked this idea and started poring over all the things he could do, if he wouldn't be trapped in here.. with all those rich and mostly fake smiling customers... the bored wives of rich managers wandering around in his houses with their little toydogs trying to find a defect just to save some dollars... the snobby couples who wanted just about every extra technical feature for free... the philistines forcing him to rip the 8000 bucks italian marble out of the bathroom just to replace it with white tiles... white tiles! Can you believe that...
His employees ... 'No wait', Holden was mentally hitting himself. 'They are great! We are a huge family! How could you even think about... gosh... what kind of boss are you...'
Staring out of the window and wallowing in his inner misery Holden didn't recognize the knocking and the person entering his office. He almost got a heart attack when Kathy dropped the huge mass of paperwork on his desk. He sighed at it and looked up to his secretary. She was about 55 years old, a petite nicely dressed person, always a smile on her face... the good soul of the office!
"This is everything you need this morning, Mr. Wilson. Remember, you have a viewing at 2 p.m. with Mrs. McBride. She called again to make sure that nobody else but you would show her the house. And please think about the... "
"Yes, Mr. Wilson?"
"Have I ever told you, that you are the most wonderful secretary I've ever had?"
"Yes, Mr. Wilson." she replied, blushing.
She stood there for a split second, smiling at her boss and then decided to leave. But Holden just couldn't keep his thoughts for himself any longer.
"May I ask you something?"
"Of course, Mr. Wilson!"
"Do you think I've changed? I mean, you know me for so long now. I've always tried to be a good boss, haven't I? And I really love my job, well I used to... I mean..." Holden sighed, he had entangled himself in his own words and didn't know how to describe it.
Kathy looked at him. Holden could see the big question mark in her eyes. She was thinking about an answer. He would wait for it, was eager to hear. A few uncomfortable seconds passed by – he was her boss and he never got that personal. What was she thinking of him right now? Did she see the weakness behind his expensive tailor-made three-piece suit? Did she sense how tired he was behind his piercing blue eyes, which never seem to look weary? Did she know the answer?
"Well... Mr. Wilson... I don't know if I can..."
"Ok... ehm... you seem to be kind of sad lately. And... ehm... a bit disordered." She looked down and quickly added: "But you have so much work every day and have to manage everything, I mean a lot of people certainly couldn't handle all that."
Holden didn't look at her. He played with his pen absently.
"Can I do anything for you?"
"Hm? No, thanks Kathy", Holden said with a slight smile. And she left.
He thought about her words the whole morning. 'Disordered and sad... yeah, that's what I am. But how could she know. I'm trying so hard to not let the people see how I feel. Well Holden, she's a smart woman, otherwise she wouldn't work for you!'
"Oh my God, Mr. Wilson! This house is absolutely amazing.. I am so in love right now!" Mrs. McBride cooed at him. Holden stood in the kitchen of the enormous McPherson-villa and had put on his most charming face. He knew from their first meeting months ago that Mrs. McBride had a huge crush on him and he was willing to capitalize on it.
"Yeah, isn't it beautiful! If I wouldn't have my place I would move in here in a heartbeat!" He grinned and blinked at her and by what he saw he knew she was lost.
"I can imagine you live in a wonderful house. You just have to. And if I may say that, your girlfriend must be the happiest woman in the world. A nice home, a handsome and charming man by her side... oh, was that too personal? I'm sorry... I didn't mean to... " she was giggling like a teenage girl.
'She's good, really good in that role', Holden thought, he knew what she wanted him to say. Unfortunately for her that kind of game had no effect on him. Holden wondered if he would have a chance to make her buy this ridiculously expensive mansion if she knew he was gay. Maybe he'd tell her after signing the contract.
But for now...
"Aww Ma'am thank you, but I am in no relationship right now. Too much work I guess", he said with the cutest smile he had to offer.
Holden almost felt guilty for playing with her, but hey, he wanted to sell this damn villa and she was eager to buy it.
"Where's your husband by the way? Didn't you say he wanted to join us today?"
"He trusts me, and... whatever I want I get!" she said with a certain tone in her voice.
'Oh, I'm sure you do!' Holden thought.
"Show me the main bedroom again, will you?"
"Of course Ma'am, follow me."
Back in his office it was time to sign the contract. Finally! Holden was satisfied, at least for now. Mrs. McBride was a difficult client. Well, she was easy to handle, because she would do literally everything that Holden wanted her to do... on the other hand she was never really happy with the houses he showed her, well at least that's what she said. They were at about seven of the finest objects W&H had to offer. May be he fancied himself a bit too much right now, but he was pretty sure about why she wanted all those viewings... one after the other after the other!
"You know what Mr. Wilson, it is so sad that we won't see each other so often anymore."
See, there it was – the reason.
"Yep, it is. But we reached our goal, the perfect home for the McBrides."
"Yeah.. but... what I was thinking about was not houses and stuff", she leaned over the conference table and glanced at Holden. Whew, after what happened or better not happened in the bedroom two hours before, she still was trying her best to get him in the sack. Holden almost admired this determination.
He knew what she had in mind when they had a second look at that bedroom. He was gay but he knew women like her. Having seen many different tactics over the years in his job, her idea was a rather common one. The good old 'feeling faint'. He knew how to handle that, put her on the bed and got her some water. The trick was to just be quick enough to escape from the coveting claws... ehm... 'seeking help' hands. Holden waited for the ending of her performance on a nearby armchair and after she had 'recovered' and thanked him for his help - with a little bit frustration in her eyes - they left for his office.
And here she was, offering again.
"Maybe, we could have lunch or dinner some day... Holden!"
He couldn't tell how tired he was of all this. Not reacting to her at all he shifted the contract over for her to sign. A last smile and it would be done.. would be over. The ink on the paper was still drying, when Holden looked at her.
"I'm sorry Ma'am.. thanks for the offer, but I'm not really into women."
Her eyes gaped in surprise and she just stared at Holden.
"Oh... ehm... I didn't know... you don't look like... I'm sorry..." she blushed a deep red and was desperately searching for words. For the first time Holden saw real emotions on her face, and in an odd way he found it somewhat beautiful.
"No, it's fine. I just hope you and your husband will enjoy your new house!"
Since the weariness wouldn't go away over the next weeks – it had actually become even worse – Holden decided to accommodate and listen to Kathy. He'd never have thought this, but during their second more intense talk about his problems it almost felt like he was talking to his mom... well, not like his mother would have ever listened. Not that he knew where she was living right now... or wanting to know...
But anyway, Kathy was a great help and recommended Dr. Brown being the best address in town.
"It's worth a try", she said and Holden agreed.
A few days later Holden was walking into this amazingly snobbish medical practice. There were orchid arrangements everywhere and lots of wood and glass and light effects. Holden felt like in a spa hotel... fully expecting to see happy people strolling around the corner wearing fluffy bathrobes and cocktails in their freshly manicured hands. But there was just a medical secretary, who kind of stared at him, waiting for his amazement to be over.
"Oh... ehm... hi, Wilson is the name, I have an appointment at 3 p.m.."
"Yeah, please have a seat, the doctor will be there in a few minutes. You'd like some coffee or tea? Some fruits? A snack?"
Holden shook his head with a confused smile. "No, thanks!" He WAS in a spa hotel!
Dr. Brown was of Holden's age, a pretty brunette with lively green eyes. When she entered her office, Holden was studying one of the handouts on the desk.
"Soooo, how can I help you sweety?"
Holden was about to react with a proper answer, he was used to getting compliments but that was a bit over the edge for the first meeting. He turned around and... his jaw dropped down.
It took him a few seconds to realize, that Dr. Brown was nobody else than Melissa Jenkins (obviously she was married now), one of his best highschool friends. He now remembered that back then 'his sweet lil' Mell' had told everybody that would listen that she wanted to become a doctor. After highschool Holden lost the contact and honestly had too much to care about in his own life. But she made it, and she obviously did pretty well. He couldn't believe that he would meet her again under these circumstances and being honest he felt way more comfortable right away. He knew he could tell her everything.
"Burnout syndrome? Come on... you're kiddin' me!" he said, studying Mell's facial expression.
Way back in their schooldays she just loved to play little pranks on him.. but now her eyes showed nothing but seriousness.
"Come on Mell... ok I feel a bit tired and drained... and sleeping isn't the easiest thing these days... but burnout?"
"Holden, I just can judge from what I see and what you've told me. And all symptoms are pointing to it.
You know... there is this program. Normally they would put you on a waitlist and it takes months to get a place. But I'm trying to get you in soon. Many of my patients really did well after that."
"A program?" Holden raised an eyebrow, "you wanna put me into a psychiatry or something? I'm not crazy Mell... I won't go..."
"Holden! Shut up!" Melissa rolled her eyes. "Honey, you think I don't know what I'm doing? Trust me – it will help you! Look.. here is some material for you. Go home, read it! And I will see what I can do to get a place for you."
Holden felt terrible. He was about to call the stewardess to get him a phone so he could call Kathy, just to check that everything was ok. But Melissa had drummed this rule into his head: "No contact to the office!". Gosh, he hated that, this feeling of not being needed.
He would just close his eyes. Get some sleep. 'Sleep… what a nice thing that must be!' Holden sighed.
"You want some coffee sir? Milk..sugar? Some pretzels?"
'Yeah, what a nice thing it would be.' He forced his eyes back open. "No, thank you!"
Since he obviously couldn't sleep anyway, he started watching the other passengers. If one of them was in his program? That guy over there... oh… no… he's with his family. What about the young woman next to him. She hadn't said a single word since the formal 'Hi' when she took the seat to his right. But he certainly wouldn't ask her.
'Hey, you look like having problems with yourself and your life. I'm sure you're on the way to the 'Monaghan program', aren't you? So am I.'
Yep, always a good start for a conversation. Holden tried to focus on the little screen in front of him. 'Batman... well, fine with me', he put his earphones in, got as comfortable as possible in his seat and forgot the real world for a while.
Gosh, it was cold up here. Nights in L.A. can be chilly too, but this was something completely different. Thank God he had checked the internet for some weather facts and had put on some layers of clothes.
So this was Montana!
Holden had a look around and wished he could go right back into the airport and fly home. He just thought about how quick he would get a flight and...
"Mr. Wilson?", the young voice came from behind, "I'm Steven, I'll bring you to the starting camp. Let me take your backpack, you'll have it on your shoulders long enough soon."
So that's why Holden had to send a photograph with the application form, huh? So he couldn't escape once he was here. He was trapped now.
"Thank you Steven, but please call me Holden." - "Right sir... ehm Holden."
Holden wasn't sure how this kid would handle the huge truck he was heading for, but he promised himself to just let things happen here. No concerns. No worries. Everything was fine. Taking a deep breath, which he thought could be his last, Holden got into the car.
The nature they passed was just wonderful. And Steven was a funny little guy actually. He told stories about bears and an incident with a mountain goat – which Holden probably would dream of if he was lucky enough to get some sleep in his life again. For some reason his heart lifted a bit.
It took them about two hours to get to a place called Rising Sun at St. Mary Lake, Holden had never heard of both. But it was a beautiful place. The air was so fresh that Holden thought his lungs couldn't handle it... after a few deep breaths he was almost a bit dizzy. He chuckled and dragged his heavy backpack off the truck.
Following Steven to the meeting point, he recognized that he got really nervous. What would the other participants be like? They would be together day and night for the next two weeks now. They'd better get along! What if...
'Gosh, you are here to relax... let things happen for God's sake... they are here for the same reason. And even if one of them is a dickhead, you still have five other people and the guide to be with.' He tried to convince himself that everything would go well.
Holden had a quick look around to get a feeling for the group. It was kind of an odd situation. They were four guys and two ladies, each placed on a wooden pole to sit on – in a circle. Holden felt like in school, waiting for the teacher to come in and start a debating lesson.
Thinking about that and seeing the other guys' behavior it was somewhat funny actually, six grown up people... and they were acting like teenagers at their first dancing party... not talking and mostly trying not to stand out.
"Hey guys, my name is Dillon! I will be your guide for the next two weeks. I'll be your dad, I'll be your mom... I'll be whatever you need to survive out there and come back a better version of yourself... " the huge guy belonging to the massive voice positioned himself in the center of the circle. He was completely dressed in camouflage and there were some knifes and half a dozen little black pockets on his belt, Holden didn't want to know what was in there.
He was intimidated and a bit confused. Did he enlist for a war game in the wood? 'Thanks Mell, I'm gonna be dead within two days!'
Dillon got what he wanted. He laughed out loud, something they all would be soon get used to and actually love.
"No guys.. just kiddin' – I'm nobody's mom! Well, as far as I know..."
They couldn't do anything but laugh and the awkward tension switched to a rather relaxed feeling.
"Sooo, welcome to the "Monaghan program" in the awesome Glacier National Park! I'm not too much into talking. So we will have a quick round of introductions, I'll give you a bear training and then we're off heading for our first bivouac. Any questions so far? No, that's good. Oh and please tell the group, if there's something we have to know about you, that might be important... quirks and stuff. We want to get along out there! Let's start with you."
He pointed to one of the women. She introduced herself as Jenny, 36 years old, teacher in a school for mentally handicapped children. No quirks.
The guy next to her was Paul, a 40 year old manager who said he sometimes did some sleepwalking but he never went far from the bed.
The group was chuckling and Dillon sent Steven to put an extra rope in his backpack, just in case they had to tie someone up at night.
Mike was next in line. He was a huge guy, probably spending all his free time in the gym.
"I'm 33 and junior director at one of my dad's companies. And I know, we'll do some playing around with skill exercises and group stuff here. Let me just make it clear, I don't wanna be touched by a guy 'n stuff!"
Holden raised his eyebrows and stared at Mike with disbelief. 'So here we have the dickhead. That's what I need, a freaking homophobic who probably wouldn't hesitate to beat the crap out of me, if I look into his direction for more than 3 seconds.'
Well, it was his turn now. Holden thought about what he would do. Should he be honest and tell the group right away that he liked guys? Or just shut the fuck up and avoid unpleasant confrontations... He sighed.
"Hi, my name is Holden. I'm 35 and boss of an estate agency in L.A.. I didn't think this was important to someone anymore these days, but I guess that was naive. I'd like you to know... I'm gay. And Mike – I promise, I won't touch you!"
Mike blushed a deep red in an instant. Everyone else in the group was trying not to laugh, there was some chuckling and snorting to hear though. Holden didn't want to make Mike look like a jerk in front of the group, but hey, it had to be said, they lived in the 21st century for heaven's sake... so he was content with his decision.
Christine , the second lady, happened to be a teacher too. She was a pretty but very shy 38 year old woman.
The last guy hadn't said anything or even moved through this whole introduction thing and Holden hadn't recognized him until now. But then he put down his cap and sunglasses... and Holden couldn't stop staring at him. He was athletic and had some awesome broad shoulders. But Holden was more fascinated with his striking masculine face. Everything was just perfect in it. The blue eyes, the chin, the beard. Holden thought, that Montana was probably not that bad of a decision. Even just looking at that guy would make the two weeks of wilderness endurable.
"Hey. I'm Sean. 35. Football pro."
Sean's look to Dillon made it clear that this was all he had to say for the moment. 'Wellllll, he's not much of a talker', Holden thought, but that made him being even more attracted to the other guy.
Realizing, that he was still blatantly staring at Sean, Holden blinked a few times and tried to concentrate on Dillon, who just started to teach them seemingly important stuff about grizzlys and their natural habitat. He was sure, he should have listened better, but he simply couldn't focus. ' 'Hey. I'm Sean...' so cute.'
Finally, when Dillon was excitedly talking about a ripped off hand, Holden returned into the real world... and was pretty scared by what he heard. He had never been into camping trips and stuff like that – that's one of the many reasons why his dad couldn't find a way to handle him when he was a child.
But anyway, he was a grown up man now, he would survive... ehm... in a National Park... and with a guide by his side to save his butt when necessary.
'God, I will so mess this up!'
"So, you will share tents. Obviously the ladies will sleep in one. Guys, what do you prefer – rock, paper, scissors or drawing lots?" Not waiting for an answer Dillon pulled out four pieces of paper. "First and second go together and third and fourth are the third team. Well, lucky number one iiiiiiiiis... ... Holden!"
Holden sighed. He unconsciously was biting his lower lip when Dillon chose the second shred. 'Please, let it not be Mike, please... If heaven exists, it is not...'
"So we have our first male team – Holden and Sean!"
'There is a God, and he loves me!' Holden looked at Sean who grabbed his backpack and made his way over to him to stand as a team.
That was more than enough for Holden. Over the next couple of hours he had a hard time to restrain the grin that would pop up on his face every now and then.
They didn't talk very much while hiking along the huge and beautiful lake. Using the street for the first miles, they were making good progress. But once they left it, most of them proved to be total city slickers. Holden was so glad that he wasn't the only one stumbling over branches and stones and wincing at the sight of a snake... which turned out to be another branch or something.
Finally they arrived at the place they would spend the first night at and they started setting up the tents.
Holden felt pretty useless, he had never done stuff like that and more or less watched Sean's quick and skilful hands creating a tent out of a mess of metal rods and fabric.
"Done." Sean nodded to Holden and went to help Christine and Jenny with their tent, which they seemed to be rather grateful for.
Completely out of his natural surroundings Holden headed to Dillon and asked if he could do something. It seemed the guide had just waited for him. He was sent to get water from a nearby creek and on his way back he could catch up some wood for the campfire.
It still was cold and now that the sunset was near it became even more chilly. Lots of wood for the fire might be a great idea! Holden arrived at the creek. He knelt down to fill the canister with water. Just having his hand in the stream gave him goosebumps. But it was a nice peaceful place here, really...
"Hey, Dillon send me to..."
Holden startled and abruptly turned around. The last thing he saw was a glimpse of Sean's face before loosing his balance. The creek wasn't very deep, but enough for a man to completely disappear when falling flat into it. The second he hit the water Holden's breath was gone, his lungs would refuse to work. It was soooooo bone-chillingly cold! His back dashed against the ground, a fact that wasn't really helpful with the breathing. There was however enough life in his body to force himself up somehow.
Sean of course had immediately rushed into the creek and reached Holden as he popped his head out of the water.
"You're ok?", Sean got Holden on his feet. He seemed to have more strength in one arm than Holden had in his whole body right now. He was slightly confused and just dimly recognized being dragged out of the stream. Sean sat him down so he could lean on a tree and looked into his eyes carefully.
"I'm sorry man. I didn't want to freak you out. Dillon just told me it's better for us rookies to not move in the wood alone, so I came to search for you."
"Yyyyyou fffound me." Holden could barely speak through the chatting of his teeth. His body was shaking and he started to feel his bruised back.
"Man, I'm really sorry. Let's get you back to the camp, come on up!"
Back in the camp and with dry clothes on his body, Holden - though being concerned of his aching back - started to feel revitalized. In addition to that he was the first of the group who had to share a story at the campfire. Yayyy...
After a short while Dillon suggested they should all get some sleep now, tomorrow would be a long day with a lot of group stuff playing around things. Saying that he glanced at Mike who chose to not look up from his feet.
They all headed into their tents and sleeping bags.
Holden couldn't see anything, but he could hear some quiet chatting out of the other tents. He also heard Sean breathing, a calm rhythm. And he heard his own teeth chatting now and then.
"Hey... Holden," according to the rustling Sean had turned around. It was the first time he had said his name and it made Holden's stomach leap a bit.
"You're still cold, huh?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Ehm... you know... I read somewhere that there's nothing more effective than warming up on... ehm... on another body."
Holden's eyes shot open and he stared into the darkness. Did Sean just...
"I mean... I feel guilty. I wanna do something. Let me at least... warm you up." Holden could sense a certain insecurity in the other man's voice.
He finally replied. "Sean, I see what you mean. But... I don't want you to think that I'm taking advantage of this... I mean... being gay and stuff..."
"Hey, I offered it, so you can be sure it's fine with me. Come on..."
Holden sighed. He was still shaking. And the freaking hot man lying beside him offered the warmth of his body.
What the hell.
There was an awkward moment when both men tried to figure out how their bodies would fit together best. Finally Holden took the initiative. He was the gay guy after all. He put his sleeping bag atop of them and snuggled up to Sean's chest. The next second he felt Sean's arm being put around his shoulder. Gosh, he was so wonderfully warm. Not only could he hear but now actually feel Sean's rhythm of breath. Holden closed his eyes and wondered, if he finally could get some sleep.
"Holden – how's your back? Is it very painful?", Sean whispered.
But Holden didn't answer. He had fallen asleep right away.
Holden was slowly waking up but his eyes were still closed. He heard some birds chirping. Wait, no honking cars... no air con... Birds?
'Ohhhh right... I'm in the outdoors. With six strangers. To get my life back in order.'
He finally opened his eyes... and realized where he was - he still had his head on Sean's chest. Impossible, that they hadn't moved a bit through the whole night! Holden turned his head to have a look on Sean's face. He was still sleeping. Looked so peaceful.
Holden brooded over how he could sneak out of Sean's arm without waking him up. He decided to slowly put his left leg off the other man's thigh first – good start.
And now a little turning and...
'What the fuck...!'
It felt like someone was stabbing a hot knife into his back. Holden groaned in agony.
Of course Sean woke up and immediately realized what was going on. He called Dillon to have a look at Holden, who couldn't move at all anymore. He was lying on his back, just wanting the pain to clear away. But it wouldn't. This damn knife was still in his spine.
Dillon said he couldn't check him up in the small tent, so he and Sean got Holden out as carefully as possible. He almost hyperventilated when trying to breathe the pain away.
They laid him face-down on a sleeping bag on the ground near the fireplace. Dillon lifted his shirt and the group standing all around him breathed in sharply.
Holden wondered what his back might look like. According to the reactions it certainly wasn't a pretty sight. Dillon started to palpate his spine starting with the neck.
He slowly worked his way down. Holden was wincing and groaning here and there. But when Dillon reached the small of his back he couldn't hold back the scream.
"Ok... I can adjust the dislocated vertebrae... but if you're still in this pain after that, you're out of the program and on your way to the next hospital."
Holden buried his head into the sleeping bag, preparing for even more pain to come.
The group was suffering with Holden. Especially Sean. Being a football player he was used to being tossed around and living with the injuries and the pain. But it wasn't easy for him to see that poor guy lying there. It was his fault for God's sake. He felt so guilty! The moment he saw Holden for the first time, he knew that this guy's greatest outdoor experience was probably a bike ride in the Hollywood Hills. When Dillon picked his name to team up with Holden, he decided to take him under his wings to 'stay alive' in the wilderness. Sean now lived in the city too, but as a child he just loved being out in the wood and the outdoors in general. So, he just wanted to take care of Holden.
'Great job, Sean! Well done so far! You almost drowned him and now he'll end up in a wheelchair at worst. No no no... stop it! Dillon will get him on his feet again. And I will apologize again!'
Sean started thinking about last night. He had never seen a man shivering like that. Well, he had never seen a man falling into freezing water. Of course he was shivering. He was really glad when Holden gave in and accepted his offer to warm him up.
'What did he say... he doesn't want me to think that he's taking advantage of that. Funny thing... but well... how could he know, that it was actually me taking advantage. It just sounded so logical – he was cold, it was my fault so I just wanted to help.'
'If he recognized that I just wanted to be close to him? I shouldn't have embraced him that quick, dammit!'
Sean wondered if he would ever have the balls to come out of the closet! Living the life like he did made it almost impossible to even think about that idea.
Yes, he was gay! But no, he couldn't tell anybody! The media would eat him alive... and the team... well. He was the quarterback and he had worked hard to get there. He certainly wouldn't endanger this with making public that he liked guys. There were a lot of douchebags around in that business and he would be kicked out in a heartbeat. A football professional is not gay! Sean sighed.
But God, this Holden was so captivating... and he obviously didn't even recognize it. Sean had a hard time not to stare into those huge blue eyes or at the adorable smile all the time. His gracious face with the sweet 5 o'clock shadow just matched up with the rest of his appearance – perfect... mesmerizing.
And Sean loved having him in his arms last night. Loved feeling the light movement of his body and the gentle moaning when he was dreaming. And then just peace.
'Wonder, what the dream was about... so cute!'
A scream ripped him out of his thoughts.
Holden had never been in that kind of pain before. It felt like Dillon wanted to ram his fingers through his back and rip his spine out.
"That was the first one, Holden. You're doing pretty well boy!"
Holden just gave him a hand signal to continue... just let it be over... Shit... that was the second. He groaned. The last, come on... Holy fuck! He almost passed out.
"Good boy!" Dillon patted his shoulder. "Have a rest for a few minutes and then we'll see how it's goin'."
Holden felt so vulnerable and weak. He could hardly keep his eyes open. He wanted to stay in the program so badly. Not just because of Sean... well, Sean was a huge part of it! But above all, he wanted to reorganize his life! And he was sure, this thing here was the base of that.
"How does it feel? Better?" Sean knelt down and dropped his hand on Holden's shoulder, slightly squeezing it.
"I don't know. Everything feels sore and stiff. The stabbing pain is gone though... maybe if I walk around a little bit..."
Sean helped him up and instinctively put one arm around his waist to support him. They left the tents behind and just moved around a bit.
"Holden... again... I can't tell you how sorry I am. I'm gonna make that up to you, promised!"
Holden rolled his eyes. "Sean, stop it. It's fine. And I'm gonna need your help anyway. I don't think I can carry all of my stuff on that sore back today." He groaned at the try to stretch. "... and maybe tomorrow."
"Sure, whatever it is, I'll do it!"
It was so sweet. Holder never could have imagined, that a football player could be so caring and soft-hearted. Every guy in that line of sport that he ever met was a total douche. But Sean was different, refreshingly different. Just a nice guy.
Back in the camp, he offered to tape Holden like they would do during a game when somebody had a fractured rib or something. He got the bandage out of his backpack and soon Holden felt stabilized enough and the group could start today's hike.
During the breaks they had first debates about some stress factors that are due to the strain of job problems. Somehow the group bonded already. It was nice to have people around who could actually understand.
Evening came and Holden was fairly proud of himself for having kept with the pace of the group. He had wanted to show Dillon, that he was strong enough to stay. And when Dillon patted his shoulder with a "Well done, you're a tough little fella!", everything was good.
Sitting at the campfire an hour later they shared some stories out of their lifes.
The others told sweet little episodes of their families or from vacations. Holden enjoyed all of them. But soon it would be his turn. He hadn't stories of his family to share, well no nice stories anyway. Neither any vacation adventures. Trying to find something to tell he became aware that he had spent most of his life working, trying to be better than his peers, gaining recognition. He raised an eyebrow. 'But that's nothing to share at a campfire!'
"Holden, you're so quiet. Tell us something... you said you are in the estate business in L.A., ever met a moviestar or something?" Jenny poked his arm.
'Hmmmm, that could work.'
"Well yeah, I've sold some property to stars here and there. One of my very first meetings with a VIP started as a desaster though." He chuckled, "I had just returned from New York after five years of pushing our business over there. Anyway, I had this viewing the next day. With none other than Sandra Bullock."
The others got excited and hung on his lips to hear what went wrong.
"My status was that we would meet at the first house at 1 p.m.! Unfortunately my secretary hadn't told me that Mrs. Bullock had changed her schedule and wanted to meet two hours earlier. So at 11.40 I got a phonecall. She's been waiting there for a while and wondered if I choose to show up sometime. So embarrasing... I told her to have a seat in the nearby cafe and order whatever she wants on my account, I would be there in 30 minutes. I would have arrived there in 20 – if I hadn't been stopped by the cops for exceeding the speed limit. Great. The ticket was fine with me, but the time! I finally reached the cafe 45 minutes later.. and got really nervous. She was a huge star and I had messed it up."
"Was she very mad at you?", Christine asked.
"Not at all, thank God! She said that she took me at my word and ordered something. One drink for everyone in the cafe! I guess I deserved that."
"What did you have to pay?", Paul was curious.
"About 200 bucks.. peanuts. But a nice idea to make someone show up in time at the next meeting." Holden grinned. "I was just grateful that she gave me another chance. The viewings went pretty well though. And I can tell you, she is one of the sweetest persons I've ever met, so funny and relaxed and down to earth."
Sean smirked at him: "Did she buy one of the houses?"
"Yep." Holden smiled back. "Oh, and she said, whenever she's looking for another home, she'll come to me. Just for one reason – to see, if I would be in time."
They were chuckling and soon decided that it was time to sleep.
Holden and Sean just got comfortable in their sleeping bags when the football player turned over, rested his head on his bent arm and looked at the other guy. Tonight the moon wasn't covered with clouds so they could actually see each other.
"You think you'll ever meet her again?"
"Hm? Who?" Holden was confused.
"Well... Sandra Bullock... I mean... God, that's so stupid... ehm... my mom just loves her and I thought maybe... ehm... you know, she always wanted to have an autograph..."
"Awww, your mommy!"
"Nahhh, forget it! I knew you would make fun of me... " Sean flopped on his back and was muttering something Holden couldn't understand.
"No no no... that's cute! I didn't want to sound mean. I'll see what I can do, ok? What's your mom's name? Just in case.."
Holden smiled. Looking over to the other male he was sure Sean was blushing – and his smile grew into a big grin. Gosh, could those damn butterflies in his stomach give him a break please! He sighed - he wasn't cold today.. no shivering... no nothing... he would have to sleep on his own. Too bad...
'Gosh, control your thoughts man. He wanted to keep you from freezing to death yesterday, nothing more. Yes, he put his arm around you in a split second, but that was... well... God! He is straight. He is a nice but straight guy, get over it.'
"Is your back better? You did pretty well today." Sean obviously tried to change the subject.
"It's ok.. your taping thing helped a lot. Thanks for that. I feel what I've done today though."
"Maybe we should take the bandage off at night, might be more comfy for sleeping. Also better for keeping the spine in motion."
Holden agreed and both men got up again. Sean helped him out of his shirt and started to 'unwrap' him. While watching him do that, Holden studied Sean's face again. He seemed very concentrated, he probably didn't want to hurt him.
'Nooooooo, did he just poke out the tip of his tongue? Oh my God... sweet!'
Holden started giggling but he was able to control it right away. According to his look Sean had no idea what had happened.
"Yeah, fine... thanks. You're pretty caring and protective, you know... your girlfriend must be a very happy chick."
Holden grit his teeth. He couldn't believe that this had just come out of his mouth! Dammit! Only the question 'You are straight, aren't you?' would point even more to it! He wanted the ground to swallow him up...now! Sean didn't answer. Maybe he missed that comment.. but how could he, he was sitting in front of him. Dammit!
"Done. Feels free huh?" – "Yeah..."
Sean reached him his shirt without looking at him and got back into his sleeping bag. Holden felt like an idiot.
'Of course you had to mess this up. A possibly growing friendship with a guy is not good enough... you just have to poke into it, right? Whew...'
Holden crawled into his own sleeping bag and thought about the right words to get out of this situation, when...
"I don't have a girlfriend."
There was a strange tension between them for the next two days.
They completely avoided mentioning that awkward little moment. They would talk about trivial things though and managed their tasks and stuff. But the familiarity from the beginning was gone. Sean helped Holden with his stuff, since his back was just slowly getting better. But the football player kept a certain distance. There was no supporting arm or other gestures anymore.
Holden missed it. He knew there were two possible reasons for Sean's behavior.
First – he was straight and didn't want a lovesick gay to stalk him.
Second – he was gay and just couldn't come out of the closet for whatever reason... and therefore kept away from him.
He wished it was the second cause, but then realized that the result would be the same. In the one or the other way, Sean would keep the distance.
'It would have been too good, man! Too easy..'
The group climbed up the cliffy mountain the whole day. Holden had a hard time to keep the pace. Sean still carried some of his things, but nevertheless his back was killing him. Especially today, the climbing was exhausting and it got colder with every single yard. But Dillon forced them up, they had to reach the snow line today.
'And then sleep in the snow and freeze my balls off? What a beautiful perspective!' Holden muttered. And he wasn't the only one.
"Hey guys – nobody said this trip would be easy. You all are here for a reason. And one of the tasks tonight will be to challenge and endure the cold. Alone or as a team, your choice, but there's no way back. If I were you, I'd move as close to my partner as possible tonight." Dillon had an awesome way to encourage them – not!
Finally reaching the snow line, Holden was so glad to get that pack off his screaming back.
This being their fifth night in the outdoors, they all were pretty harmonizing. Everybody knew their duties and fulfilled them to build up the camp.
Sean stared at the ceiling of the tent. Damn, it was frosty. He usually wasn't cold, but tonight would be tough. Unless... he looked over to Holden. He was shaking.
'He certainly won't do it, after how I treated him the last three days. Wonder what he's thinking of me now.. let's face it, he thinks that I'm a great douche! And he's right! But this girlfriend comment just caught me off-guard... It would have been the perfect moment, man. 'There's never been a girlfriend. I'm gay and I think you're the sexiest guy I've ever met!' This should have been my answer.' Sean sighed. 'But instead... we're talking about the weather in L.A. and gas prices... stupid. But how can I... whew... just start, fool!'
"Holden? You're sleeping?"
"Can we talk about me being an idiot?"
Holden snorted. That was a good sign. He turned around and just looked at Sean, obviously waiting for his explanation. His eyes sparkled in this intense and yet translucent blue. Sean averted his face, not a single word would come out of his mouth if he got caught in that gaze.
"You know, I don't know why I treated you this way the last days. Maybe I was afraid what you might think of me. My whole life was about being strong and showing no weakness. And I'm not used to talking about feelings, relationship stuff and things like that. Maybe someday. But for now, I just want us to be the team we were in the first two days."
This was difficult for Sean. He had never been so open to someone. Well, actually he had told Holden everything and at the same time nothing... because he still couldn't bring out the one essential word... gay.
He looked at Holden who was seemingly thinking about it. He then pursed his lips and nodded at Sean, he could live with that statement. Thank God.
"And you know what? I am soooo cold! You think we could..."
He didn't have to say anything more. Holden grabbed his sleeping bag and headed over to him. An army of butterflies fluttered in his stomach.
The other man placed his head on Sean's chest like he had done the first night. He curled up on his side. Sean felt the warmth spreading through his body right away. Looking down and seeing the warm bright smile on Holden's face, he knew that he felt the same.
The next morning Holden crawled out of their tent. He felt great... for just about three seconds.
"Hey hey Holden... good morning! You don't look very cold! Tell us... did you turn the tough football guy? Did he keep you warm? What was it like, huh?" Mike had set up his 'I-know-you-hate-me-for-this-smile'.
"Excuse me?" Holden wanted to response with a more appropriate answer. But this had caught him off-guard, he just could stand there and stare at Mike... and shake his head.
Sean immediately poked his head out of the tent and barked: "Do us all a favor Mike. Shut the fuck up!"
The whole group nodded and rolled their eyes. Mike looked around him and seemed to notice that according to this subject he had absolutely no supporters here. He stood there like a lost little boy and finally looked at Holden.
"Sorry man. I'm a douche, what can I say. That's why I'm here."
Holden, being the peaceloving man that he was, nodded at him. "You got a lot of work to do. Get rid of those prejudices, man. They hinder you in everything you do."
The rest of the day went by smoothly. Holden and Sean shared a great new energy. Their dispute, or whatever one would call it, was over, they were back as a team.
And this proved to be very important for today's skill exercise, the motto was 'trust'. Each team had to pass an obsticle course. One of them blindfold, the other one directing him.
Sean took over the the directing part, since Holden was still learning how to place responsibilities on others and just let things go.
The interplay came so naturally to them. Holden totally relied on Sean's voice and soon that guy became his eye. He passed the course in no time.
"Have you ever done that before?", Dillon asked.
"Ehm.. nooo.. was it not good?" Holden looked over to Sean, who shrugged his shoulders.
"Your harmony was fascinating. Great job boys!"
On their way to the next camp for the night, Holden thought about what had happened over the last days. He had learned some important facts about himself and ways to handle stresses and strains adequately.
'Delegation' would become his mantra.
Later in the tent, since it was still cold, Holden took a deep breath and decided to skip the 'it-is-cold-you-think-we-could-sleep-together-phase' and directly laid down beside Sean. A quick look into the other man's eyes made it clear, that he was absolutely fine with it. He actually smirked at Holden and lifted his sleeping bag so he could slip in.
Was there a different vibe? Or was it just Holden's wishful thinking?
They quietly talked about the day. Every now and then Holden lifted his head so he could see Sean's face – since he kind of naturally had his head rest on the other male's chest.
With every look into the football player's eyes Holden lost more and more control over his feelings. He wanted to kiss those beautiful lips so badly... didn't want to care about the possible consequences anymore. Just one taste...
He moved up... and placed his lips on Sean's. After two seconds Holden opened his eyes. Sean was as stiff as a poker, didn't move at all. Has this been a big mistake?
Holden scooted away from the other guy who just stared at him. He blushed and tried to find an intelligent excuse for this.
"Sean, I'm so sorry... but I couldn't resist... I mean, you were so sweet... I thought that... God!" He couldn't even look into his direction, this was so embarrassing!
Sean was kind of perplexed for a few seconds.
'Did he just kiss me? What...!'
He couldn't move, couldn't say a word. He just looked at Holden who desperately tried to apologize. It was his decision now. Should he play the straight guy and make Holden and himself feel miserable for the rest of the program? Maybe for the rest of their lives? Or should he finally have the balls to admit... He sighed.
"You don't have to apologize Holden." Sean reached out and gently touched Holden's cheek. The other man had avoided the eye contact so far, but now those awesome eyes scanned his face. He was still blushing... so adorable.
Sean couldn't classify, what kind of expression he saw – disbelief, surprise, hope? Whatever it was, he couldn't wait and analyze. His newly found courage would be gone then. He moved closer to Holden and cupped his face. Gosh, he was so beautiful right now.
Sean leaned in and kissed him. It was a bit chaste in the beginning, but when the other man put his arms around his waist he relaxed and captured Holden's lips in his. It's been so long since his last kiss, he didn't want this feeling ever to stop.
He felt Holden's tongue hesitantly tracing his lower lip... Without any thinking he pressed himself against Holden and opened up.
Holden felt light and breezy during the next days. His back was better, the group had completely bonded and he knew he would be able to manage the stress back in L.A.. And there was Sean. He had to smile everytime he thought about him, which means he had a permanent grin on his face. It felt like heaven.
It was just so strange, since that very moment they couldn't stop snuggling and kissing in their tent at night.
But during the day they acted like nothing had happened.. at least that's what they tried. But when their eyes met they got caught into each other's gaze a bit too long. Sean's voice was just a tad softer when he was talking to him. The seemingly accidential contacts. Sean giving him a supporting arm when needed... and not needed...
But someone who wasn't looking for it probably wouldn't notice.
Holden opened his eyes. It was still dark. He felt a warm familiar hand trailing down his chest and tummy. What a great way to wake up. He smiled and started caressing Sean's head. God, he loved running his fingers through that soft short hair.
But something was different from the cuddling the nights before. Sean was more intense... kind of determined. The way he was kissing his neck was almost intrusive.
When his hand was about to disappear in Holden's waistband he stopped him. Sean muttered by the interruption.
"Come on Sean, you're not doing that, are you? Man, look around you. We're in a tent! And the others are less than two yards away. You're kiddin' me."
Holden tried to keep Sean's hands under control.
Reluctantly accepting that he wasn't allowed to dig any deeper, Sean now fully concentrated on Holden's neck – which was awesome. But no...
Ten days before he didn't even know that guy... just five days before he found out that he was gay... and now Sean was all over him. That was... quick. Too quick for Holden.
It was pretty obvious, that Sean wanted him. And he would be lying, if he said that he didn't want to give in and just enjoy whatever the other man would do to him. But not now. Not here.
He put his hand on the side of Sean's face and gently kissed him. "Not here." He placed a final kiss on those tasty lips and then embraced a pouting Sean so they could fall asleep together.
The next day, Dillon said that after twelve days the group was bonded enough to have a deeper look into their souls. That opening up to others was essential for the process of the program.
"I know it won't be easy, but I want everyone to tell a story about something that happened to him. A really dramatic experience... It sounds strange, but it's not, believe me. Trust me. This is about being open with the group... and it wouldn't have the same effect if you are open about your last funny birthday party, right?"
The group nodded.
Holden had no idea, what he could tell. Being honest, he didn't want to think about a dramatic incident in his life right now. He wanted to keep his good mood. But after the first two stories he was completely in the vibe and couldn't stop listening. The things some of them had gone through... whew.
Sooner than he had hoped all eyes were on him.
"Well, I don't have a story for you. Maybe one, but that's really very personal.", Holden stammered.
"Man, all of our stories were personal. Come on... tell us." Sean smiled at him and he sighed at this disarming look.
"Okay... sooo... you all told some sweet stories about your families the other day.
I was happy, that Jenny brought up my job, so I could avoid the 'family issue'. Long story short – I don't really have a family."
Sean frowned, "What do you mean with 'not really'?"
"Ehm... you know, my dad never really knew how to handle me. I didn't like camping, I had absolutely no interest in doing any team sports and basically all the stuff he liked. Well, I was into drawing and creating things – I guess that's why I became an architect and estate agent. But my dad... well he chose to more or less ignore me."
Holden looked into the fire. The others could see that he was thinking about how he could go on, they had never seen him this serious and insecure and wished to see his lovable and nowadays everlasting smile again. He was biting his lower lip and finally looked up again.
"Soon after my 16th birthday I went to my dad and... told him... ehm... told... told him that I'm gay. In my mind back then that explained it all. Why I was so different from the boys in our neigborhood. I thought, he'd understand too. But he didn't..."
"What did he say?", Dillon finally asked.
"Not very much actually. Ehm..." Holden took a deep breath. He tried and failed to fight back the tears. This was twenty years ago, dammit. Why was he so emotional?
The group waited patiently, all of them could literally see his inner fight.
"I.. ehm... I woke up in the hospital the next day. I had a concussion, a broken nose, dislocated shoulder and two fractured ribs. Oh and a couple of welts and bruises."
He pointed to his head with a bitter smile. "The scars on my face are a sweet little memory of this."
Taking a deep breath again – this time a relieved one, because the story was out – he looked at the people around the campfire. They were all shocked. He tried to catch Sean's eyes, but the football player stared into the flames. He finally looked up and Holden saw so much anger in his eyes, it gave him goosebumps.
"Did you report him to the police?"
"What? No... he... he was my dad!"
Sean snorted and shook his head.
"What about your mom? Did she take you to hospital when she came home?" Christine had tears in her eyes.
Holden tilted his head and looked at her with questioning eyes, "Came home? She was at home."
They all stared at him with disbelief and exhaled heavily.
"What do you mean? She was there? What did she do?"
"Nothing... You know, my mother didn't like to have an own opinion... ever."
Holden shrugged his shoulders and tried to put on a smile. "But hey, it's ok. You know... I obviously had to stand on my own feet very early and... I probably wouldn't have made it to this point, if... if my parents would have loved me." He knew, this sounded ridiculous... but it was true.
Later in the tent Sean still was upset... like all this had happened just yesterday.
"Sean, I'm fine!" Holden spread his arms with a childish grin. "But that doesn't mean that I don't deserve a cuddle, hm?"
The football player shook his head again, but now with a smile. He ran his fingers through the other guy's fuzzy out-of-control bed-head that he adored so much.
"Don't ever stop being like this!" And he kissed him.
The last day was finally there. Sean would miss all this. But at the same time he was looking forward to go home.
He and Holden of course had talked about 'the life after the program', that it won't be as easy as here, where they actually had to sleep in the same place. He had explained his concerns about the media and the public, but Holden said that for now he could live with that and give their romance a try to maybe grow into a relationship. This was more than Sean needed, he was happy.
After the two-hour drive to the airport and a tearful goodbye everybody boarded their plane. Both living in L.A. Holden and Sean shared a flight and could even manage to get side by side seats. They were like chatting and laughing schoolboys returning from summer camp, however they calmed down after a while and Holden apparently got sleepy. Sean implied that he could put his head on his shoulder. God, he loved taking care of this cute guy.
Soon after Holden had drifted into dreamland one of the stewardesses came and leaned down to Sean.
"Excuse me Mr. Jackson..." Sean knew he was finally back in his old life, he would be recognized again. Funny enough, Holden had never heard of him before... that was refreshing! It was the first time in years that he had to tell someone his family name or explain who he was. And everything that guy said was 'Oh ok!'. Amazing! Sean smiled. Then he remembered the stewardess in front of him. She was looking at him... obviously waiting for an answer.
"Ehm... what was the question?"
"If that guy's adherence is bothering you," she pointed at Holden, "I would get him another seat or something."
Sean smiled at Holden and back at her. "No, everything's fine. Thanks!"
Holden was nervous. He had been back home since five days now and this would be his first working day since Montana. He adjusted his tie and suit jacket and entered the building.
"Good morning Mr. Wilson. Welcome back."
"Morning Eddie, thank you! How's the family doing?"
"Great sir. Thanks!"
So Eddie was still the same, good. He smiled at the doorman and headed to the elevator. Walking through the hall on the way to his office he thought that something was wrong here. It was so quiet. And... Kathy wasn't at her desk.
'Okay, this is strange!'
He opened the door to his office and couldn't believe what he saw. Kathy and all members of the staff were there and welcomed him back. Kathy had prepared some words and he had to fight back the tears during her speech. When she was done, Holden completely ignored the fact, that he was her boss. He gave her a big hug and a hearty smacker on her cheek. She blushed in an instant.
"Thank you Kathy. For everything..." He smiled at her.
"You're welcome sir, no need to thank me. But well... you could remember my name when you think about any pay raise." She smirked at him.
Holden threw back his head laughing out loud. "I will."
"Sir... it's good to hear that laugh again. It's been a long time!"
"Yep... it's back."
They had talked over the phone every day, but today it would happen. Holden was on his way to their first official date. The time at work had been a great way to distract him from the schoolgirlish nervousness. But now that he stood in front of the restaurant where he would meet Sean, Holden had a hard time not to hyperventilate.
'Breathe Holden, breathe.'
He looked through the window... there he was. Wearing dark blue jeans, a simple T-shirt and a suit coat.
Holden looked down on himself. God... was he overdressed?
He convinced himself that when Sean liked him with dirty hiking clothes and that awful bed-head, the three-piece suit and the slicked back hair wouldn't make it worse.
'So, this is our first date!' Sean chuckled. 'This is so surreal. Why am I nervous anyway? It's Holden, come on!'
He had a quick look on his watch. How could it still be 7:45? He sighed. Well... Checking the time every ten seconds wouldn't make Holden arrive earlier.
Sean just started thinking about what he would do if Holden didn't show up, when he saw a guy at the desk of the hostess waiting to be seated. He tilted his head and squinted his eyes. This couldn't be...
'Oh my God!'
Sean had expected to see the sweet bed-head again, that made Holden look so young and... well... a bit clumsy – but in an adorable way. But he definitely hadn't expected this! That dark gray suit really hugged Holden's body. The slicked back hair brought out the blue eyes even more, if that's possible!
This guy looked like an elegant business man, a hot male model or a moviestar.
He stared at Holden with his mouth open and just woke up from this kind of hypnosis when Holden stopped at the table. He was flashing this amazingly catching grin that Sean had missed so much during the last five days.
He decided that this man looked like the guy he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life.