Then and Now
The Dastardly Trans-Continental Prose Society (DTCPS)
for Moirae on her birthday.
A lot has changed, but a lot hasn't. Once upon a time Jasper fell in love with a girl. Sort of.
Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight
By: BelieveItOrNot, DreaminginNorweigen, IReen H, & Thimbles.
Beta'd by Dragonfly336
Moirae - All the love and words! We wish only the best of all things for you on your birthday.
"Who the fuck is Alice?"
Jasper knows that voice, the words spoken softly despite the energetic noise pervading the bar. He finishes wiping the rocks glass with his bar mop, setting it rim down on the shelf before turning to her.
She's stunning. Her delicate fingers toy with the straw in her drink. Her eyes are huge, glistening in the dim light, and he sees in them a question, feels the question in his chest. His heart surrendering to the weight of it.
Sucking in his breath, he leans forward against the edge of the bar, close to her, her gaze watching his every move.
Together, they're suspended in time. Caught like animals in its trap. All the yesterdays and tomorrows syncing to become today. To become this inconceivable moment. This pinpoint in the mad rush forward of their lives.
"Do you know who she is?"
The girl seated at the bar smiles. A smile that hadn't changed. It would never change. Like his reaction to it.
"Of course I do. Alice is me."
It was Miss Cope, who ran the art department at his high-school, who had pushed Jasper to apply to AISF and to not be contrary, he did.
His acceptance to the Art Institute was a surprise only to his parents. His father had expected he would come to work at the restaurant, just like he always had. So, as it always was in the Whitlock house, his father's assumptions seemed like a given.
In a death defying act of self-preservation, though, Jasper did what no one had expected. He did what he wanted. There was no anger to face, just shock and amusement at his folly. Whit Sr. just shook his hand before Jasper got into his overstuffed Jetta and drove away. He had passed over a twenty for lunch on the road, but that was it. Whit didn't think he would last more than a semester without care and feeding. He had never expected much of him at all.
San Francisco was very different from Redwood City. And not just in the big ways. It was like realizing you had lungs for the first time, like taking that first incredible breath.
It was also expensive. Even with his tuition and some expenses paid for by the scholarships he had been awarded, without his parent's financial support, he still needed money. His rent, for what was essentially a closet in a wannabe Painted Lady, left him little for food, transportation and film. But every time he thought he couldn't possibly do it, he remembered that twenty his father had given him, and the total lack of confidence in his eyes. There was love there, but also pity, wrapped in the absolute belief that his son could do no more than he had plotted out for him. Jasper would think of that look, pull a breath that reached the bottom of his lungs, and tear open another package of ramen.
He found a job as a barback and busser at The Whirling Dervish—a small plates restaurant and bar. For the first time, he saw his restaurant experience as something he could trade on, and he quickly worked his way up, from busser, to waiter, to pseudo-assistant manager. And he got to eat pretty well.
This is also how he met Brandon.
"What are you doing here?"
Her smile softens, her face cautious as her eyes fall away, lingering on her drink. "I heard you were here."
Jasper forces himself to relax, tells his muscles to let go of the clench they all seem bound up in. He presses his heels firmly to the ground, waiting for her to look back at him. When she finally does, he exhales-the held-in breath coming out of him with words he didn't realize he was about to say.
"You're beautiful." The same face, so different. Some things you can't change, though. The laughter in her bright blue eyes. It's always been there. "I mean. You always were, but …"
"But now I'm me. Truly."
His nod is small. "What took you so long?"
Her shoulder perks up on one side, her head tilting to meet it. Such a familiar gesture, Brandon's shrug. Nostalgia squeezes at Jasper's heart.
"I needed more time than I thought."
"Coming through!" Emmett's big arm appears at Alice's side, making a window in the people surrounding the bar for two girls to get Jasper's attention.
Bella and Rose.
Bella's voice rings out over the din, placing their drink order. Jasper can see Rose's eyes shifting between him and Alice, as Alice returns her attention to her drink.
"I'm Rose," she calls out. She introduces Bella who catches up quickly, landing her friendly gaze on Alice just as she gives her name to the two strangers. "I'm Alice."
Jasper doesn't miss it. The brief shared look between Bella and Rose, both of them with eyebrows lifted. They've seen the tattoo countless times. Read it out loud as Alice herself did.
Who the fuck is Alice?
Brandon Alistair was a horrible waiter.
After one too many plates and glasses lost to his bumbling ways; after orders delivered to the wrong table or sent back, Amun, the owner, was ready to send Brandon packing. But there was just something about Brandon that made him impossible to fire. Even with his constant mistakes he drew people in, and incredibly his dissatisfied customers didn't leave angry, but charmed. So, instead of putting him on the sidewalk, Amun put him at the hostess station at the front of the house.
Five nights a week, The Dervish pumped frenetic, near-Asian house music into crowds of twenty to thirty-somethings from of all walks of life. But on Saturdays, their drag acts pulled in huge numbers.
First semester at AISF, Saturdays were Jasper's dedicated time in the darkroom. And as much as he heard about them at work, it wasn't until after winter break that he saw his first drag show. The depth of his surprise when the dark-haired beauty stepped up on stage was geologic. Just like the surprise of one's first earthquake, he felt off balance. He was left waiting and wondering about the next time he would feel that way—when he would see her again.
It wasn't until he worked his third Saturday that he learned that the performer with the huge eyes and killer moves was Brandon. On stage he was Allison Wonderhands and his falsetto was incredible.
In a pair of Converse, he'd have trouble getting a single plate on a tray to a table without dumping it, but put him in a pair of three-inch heels and he was all grace.
To Jasper, her performances stood apart from the others. A small man, he cut a petite, demure figure on stage. He often styled his own hair into a pixie cut and his stage presence was coy and playful. Not the dramatic, flamboyant, shoulder and knee performances of the other ladies.
She sparkled as she made her way to center stage, illuminated it from where she stood, mic in hand, delivering her renditions of classics. From Echo and the Bunnymen to Billie Holliday, to Jasper's favorite, In My Life by The Beatles.
He loved the way the pre-recorded music built up the song behind Allison, backup vocals supporting a voice too pure to be understood simply with ears. The way her eyes seemed to find his amongst the crowd when she sang certain lines.
He loved how she smiled as she sang. Not pearly white showiness, but genuine pleasure.
Allison often closed the show for the evening, and Jasper would find her back in the dressing room. She seemed to shed her costume reluctantly, dropping silks and sparkles into her trunk before sliding back into jeans. At first it was a little jarring to watch Brandon peel the ruse from his body, revealing his flat chest and tucked manhood. But sitting back there talking as Brandon dabbed cold cream over his made up face, Jasper realized that the femininity didn't leave with the wardrobe.
Brandon and Allison were the same.
And Jasper liked both of them.
"Yes," Jasper says when Rose and Bella turn from each other and toward him. "That Alice."
He can still feel it, the needle, the vibration, the pain—not in his arm, but inside him, like electric shock waves that don't let up. Not the memory of the tattoo bearing her name.
Love, unreturned or ill-timed or irresolute.
It hurt deep inside, down in his gut and up to his throat where it bulged and made breathing hard, made living hard. Compared to that, the tattoo didn't hurt at all. It was a distraction from his real pain.
He turns his attention to Alice, a too-familiar but long-since quiescent burn behind his eyes. He blinks the sting away, like he had two years ago, the last time he almost cried, the day he'd expected Alice to return. She hadn't come home, not to him. Somewhere inside he had known she wouldn't, not after a year of no communication, but he'd hoped.
Alice smiles her smile, but right away it sinks, morphing into a down-turned nod toward the bar, a spinning around of her glass. Like the glass, like Alice may also be feeling, Jasper feels dizzy. "I needed the time." Her jaw pulses and her eyes close. "Please believe that."
It's apparent how hard Bella and Rose are trying not to look at him.
"Not here," he says to Alice, his voice soft, his fingers moving toward hers on the bar. He stops before they reach her, pulling back to face Rose.
Perceptive as ever, she can see him floundering.
"Tequila," she says with a smile and a nod.
Jasper's grateful for this excuse to turn away from Alice, to get his head together, to think. Even over the music, the beat thrumming through him, he can hear the women chatting, voices raised.
The women. Alice's voice higher than last he'd heard it three years ago. It's distracting, and the moment he takes to think, as he pours three shots, turns into a flood of memories. As liquid fills glass, nostalgia drowns him, becoming the beat of the band onstage, the beat that is running through him now, his heartbeat.
Taking a deep breath he slides the shots toward the women. He taps Alice's against the bar twice. "On me," he says.
She peers down at the shot, lifts it, but before bringing it to her lips asks, "Can we go somewhere? After your shift?"
Jasper gives her a simple nod. There's no way he can refuse. If she hadn't asked, he would have.
With a jerk of her head, she throws the shot back. "Thank you," she says, and Jasper catches the full meaning of those two simple words, the emphatic look in her eyes, the intensity of her stare.
The dim lights above them blink. Or maybe it was just Jasper. He can't be sure, but for under a second, everything was black.
It started in Dolores Park. It was one of those rare 88 degree days in the city. The sky was as blue as a Maxfield Parrish print, and from the heights you could see the city in crystal perfection.
Jasper was there with his camera, in search of light and texture, a plastic wrapped cheese sandwich bulging in his pocket.
Brandon was there with a couple of friends, a few guitars, and a huge picnic basket full of wine. He detached himself from the group to pull Jasper into it, and the afternoon was spent getting sauced in the shade of a big horse-chestnut.
One by one, people came and went until it was just the two of them sitting companionably in the thick twilight, an open bottle of Pinot Gris still being shared between them. The conversation turned to evening plans of which neither had any.
That was when Brandon has asked Jasper if he was gay. To which he gave the best answer he had at the moment.
"I don't know. Not really. Maybe."
"Confused much?" Brandon asked, still smiling.
Jasper studied the grass between them, trying to find the right words. Brandon didn't wait. "It's okay. I mean … well – I'm sorry … maybe I shouldn't have asked so ... abruptly."
"No. It's okay. I just don't really … I can't really say yes or no. I've never really been in love or anything."
Brandon tilted his head to the side. "Well, what about sex?"
"What about it?" Jasper swigged more wine from the bottle, smiling. For some reason his answer felt more like flirting than just talking.
"You don't need to have been in love to have demonstrated preference." The sentence was punctuated with a small shrug. One shoulder barely moving, and a tentative look from under thick lashes.
"I guess not."
"Look, Whitlock. If you don't want to discuss it, just tell me to back off."
From the street a horn blared, punctuating the silence that had risen between them. Jasper looked towards the sound before trying to explain.
"It's not that. At all. I just ... I've been attracted to both women and men. Mostly women, I guess. Women I liked. But, men I liked too. And beyond that ... I just don't have a lot of experience with that stuff."
"So. You're bi?"
He shrugged - still not satisfied with that definition. Jasper found it hard to explain that he'd never been preferential to one gender. His experience was that nudity, male or female, could excite him, but what truly aroused him was character.
Sometimes the view through his lens showed him a world he thought didn't exist, his artist's eye finding possibility to be the most titillating concept. Touch could be made up of humanity as a whole, in single servings of sexuality, savored for what it was.
He'd found many florid descriptions for the simple fact that when he daydreamed about intimacy, it wasn't about the parts that made up a woman or a man, but something that encompassed both. More.
Not looking at Brandon he asked, "What about you?"
Brandon laughed. "Seriously? I'm a drag queen. I live in the Castro. I drink Pinot Grigio in the park–"
"Me too. Except the drag queen part. But you still asked me."
"You just seem really straight. Like … not like macho-straight. I don't know. It's hard to explain. Masculine."
"That's what I thought, too ... it's hard to explain."
Jasper passed the bottle at Brandon's behest and looking down at it, Brandon said, "For me too, actually." His head snapped up. "Hey. You hungry?"
They packed up and walked to a Pizzeria near Jasper's apartment. They agreed on a sausage and mushroom pizza which they ended up taking out, instead of eating in. It was late by the time the pie was finished, Jasper having consumed the lion's share, and he invited Brandon to crash on the couch.
Jasper didn't have cable, but he did have a Monty Python box set. Brandon wanted to watch Silly Walks, and once the discs were out the marathon began.
The next morning found them both sprawled on the sofa, the DVD menu quietly repeating the same one-liners over and over again as the two slept.
Two weeks later they were roommates.
They step out of the back entrance to the bar into the deepest part of night. The fog is gathered about the city, blurring traffic lights, street lights, headlights. All of them smearing their glow against the shadows of the street.
Alice's shoes echo against the pavement as they walk, her hollow steps filling the silence between them. Jasper wonders if he should take her arm, or offer his coat, considers asking her and then rejects the idea.
The overtures have to be hers. She stayed away, she came back.
She needed to be the one who set the tone. Whatever it was to be, whatever the next few hours held for Jasper, he had to let her lead.
The gallop of his pulse added to the clop of her shoes, both sounds filling him, anxiety fraying his nerves.
He can't let her go. Fears it. Fears the moment when she will reveal her purpose in showing up. To close old wounds, to say a proper goodbye. He grips the fabric inside his coat pockets.
She takes his arm, uses it to pull herself close to him, for warmth or for comfort he doesn't know. But her desire to be near him, not keeping distance, that must be a good sign.
Though they shared an apartment, slept in beds separated by one thin wall, passed each other coming in and out of the bathroom, ate together many evenings, it was at The Whirling Dervish where their eyes began to linger on each other longer than usual.
Clearing dirty dishes and crumpled napkins away, Jasper could feel Brandon several tables down the aisle, seating guests. As his head lifted, Brandon's turned. Their eyes met and hung on. They locked. Even from this distance, and in the faint light, Jasper could see one corner of Brandon's mouth curve. Jasper shook his head, letting out a breath of a laugh.
On his way back to his station at the front of the restaurant, Brandon approached Jasper with that same sideways smile on his face. As his friend grew nearer, Jasper could no longer meet Brandon's eyes. Not until Brandon's thumb and forefinger wrapped his wrist and gave a light pull. Tingles raced up his arms and his eyes shot to Brandon's. But now, Brandon was the one who wasn't looking. He continued his walk down the aisle, Jasper left in his wake to watch. He let his breath go, tucked his towel into his apron pocket, picked up his full bucket and headed to the way too bright, much too loud kitchen.
The cooks' shouts, the clanking of tableware, pots, pans, simmering meat on stoves, fused into a single, obnoxious buzz. With the lights shining down on him, heating him up, he moved the dishes and cups from the bucket to their proper places on the steel counter for dishwashing, and he thought about how Brandon made him feel with that touch, how aside from the initial bolt upon their skin contact, the sensation it left was still stirring in his stomach, and he was sure he wanted to feel it again.
Stacking cups, he recalled the conversation about attraction they shared in the park. Jasper hadn't been able to answer the question, not concretely, not regarding gender. But since then, his attraction to Brandon had reached an undeniable height. And where it stood in that moment, in the kitchen, it was more than just attraction. Wiping his forehead with the back of his hand he asked himself if bringing this up to Brandon was the right thing to do, or if he should wait and see what happened. Maybe Brandon didn't return the feelings. And how could he be certain?
He thought back to their last shift together, how Jasper had placed his hand on Brandon's back as he navigated around him with a tray full of drinks, saying, "Behind you." The touch wasn't necessary, the warning had been an excuse for it, an opportunity to feel the planes of Brandon's back under his palm. Innocuous, he had thought, until Brandon—Jasper's hand still resting on his back-had looked over his shoulder, blue eyes full of mischief, and said, "So you are."
He'd walked to the table, setting drinks down in a daze, not daring to find Brandon across the room. His heart beat loud in his chest, and he could imagine his shirt stretching cartoonishly out, heart-shaped, throbbing visibly for all to see. When he had finally dared to look at Brandon, he was distracted with newcomers, pulling menus and smiling engagingly at them, as Jasper replayed the moment between them—the So you are—over and over.
Over and over. All night he had thought of it.
Was it an invitation? Was it innuendo? Was he exaggerating the exchange into something it wasn't?
Brandon had been cut early that night, had joined some friends at a dark corner table, and Jasper's consternation had grown each time his awareness shifted to Brandon's. Sitting in the shadows, every time Jasper had looked he found Brandon watching him.
Something was brewing between them. He needed to give it voice.
The last thirty minutes of his shift seemed to last a lifetime. When ten o'clock hit, Jasper was outside waiting for Brandon in the brisk wind, four words reeling in his mind like a line from a film played on repeat.
I'm attracted to you. I'm attracted to you.
He swallowed. His heartbeat picked up. He waited.
Jasper had wondered if he'd imagined this feeling. If his memory had coated it with the gloss of nostalgia; first love remembered with a warmth that put those fuzzy vignette borders around the images as he flipped through them in his mind. Smiles wider than they were, eyes brighter, laughter louder. He'd questioned the intensity of feeling he remembered.
As he stumbled his way through a series of flings with men and women, he enjoyed their company, admired their minds, lusted for their bodies, but he could never find anyone who affected him the way Brandon had. With him, Jasper had found true eroticism, true connection. There had been none since who made his heartbeat speed and his words catch in his throat. None whose simplest touches set his skin afire.
He'd been going through the motions. Doing what he thought was expected of him. Trying to find something to wake him from his slumber, but nothing did.
Jasper had begun to chastise himself, sure that he was romanticizing what he and Brandon had, remembering it with more passion than had actually been there. He was just being sentimental; perhaps everyone's first love would always be lit in memory with a warm glow that made anything new seem somehow less by comparison.
But as Alice's hand brushes against his, reaching for the sugar, he knows—just as he knows she'll stir three spoonfuls into that tiny cup of coffee—that he hadn't exaggerated those memories at all. He'd underplayed them.
He watches the way her fingers curl around the spoon, trails his gaze up her arm, across her shoulder, up her throat. He doesn't meet her eyes, not yet. He focuses on the corner of her mouth as she smiles.
Three young women in short skirts and sky-high heels fall into the booth beside them. They sleepy-laugh; alcohol making their words seem to slur and slide into one another, syllables mashing, pauses in odd places. The harried-looking waitress pours three mugs of coffee and bustles off, her pot of bitter, over-brewed liquid held like a lantern leading her way.
Alice's eyes slide sideways toward them as she sips her sickly-sweet brew. She sets the mug on the laminate surface of the table and the clunk it makes sounds like an unvoiced "So."
Jasper squares his shoulders, breathes deep through his nose. He'd considered this moment in his mind so many times, play-acting how their reunion would go down. He'd imagined anger and recriminations, he'd imagined tears, laughter, even fierce embraces.
The possibilities had teased him relentlessly, painfully.
But he had never imagined this.
"Jasper." She commands his attention with a gentle voice.
Every cell in his body seems to shift its alignment. The feelings—remembered and rebirthed—threaten to consume him, to drown him.
The walk home started with a rush of conversation and laughter. Just like always, divulgence of the best and worst moments of the evening bouncing between them.
"Did you see...?"
"And then I found them in the cloak room..."
But pinned between each exchange was the cadence of Jasper's frantic inner monologue.
I'm attracted to you. I'm attracted to you.
This thought bred in his mind—sticky and turgid—extending the pauses between stories with each block they walked. The further from The Dervish they got, the longer the pauses were, until finally they walked in pregnant silence.
Shit, what do I do? I'm attracted to you.
Waiting at the last corner before their apartment, Jasper felt chance slipping away. Brandon stood at the edge of the curb, wobbling on the flats of his Converse. His hands shot to and fro as he tried to keep his balance.
When he bent suddenly, his left hand arcing up over his head to compensate, Jasper reached out to steady him, realizing as he did it that this was what Brandon meant for him to do. He knew it the moment his hand grasped Brandon's t-shirt, fingers skimming the ribs underneath, the soft jersey bunching under his grip. He yanked gently, and the two of them were suddenly very close. Jasper could feel Brandon's fingers clutching at his own shirt.
"I wanted you to grab me," he whispered, his words barely more than breath. Jasper pulled his eyes from the blinking neon of the tattoo parlor across the street, realizing inside the short moment it took to do so, that he was going to look down into Brandon's open face and kiss him.
Their lips touched, barely, skimming, both of them choking back the pent up breaths aching to escape, their fingers still gripping each others' shirts. Jasper felt lightheaded, opened his eyes to orient himself, just as Brandon did the same.
Jasper melted into those eyes, not able to keep his lips from curving into a gentle, bewildered smile. "I wanted to grab you. I just didn't know how."
The barely-there kiss dissolved and Jasper wanted it back, wanted more of it. He lowered his mouth to Brandon's, their lips pressing together harder this time, mouths opening, tips of tongues touching. Breaths that had been forced back before poured out and into the night, their kiss becoming almost rough. Jasper's fists released the shirt, his palms sliding around Brandon's sides to his back, folding him in close, chest to chest, the rise and fall of their breaths synchronized.
Jasper's head grew heavy, a thick fog taking over, vaporizing his mind. His hands moved up and down and around Brandon's back. He inched his fingers underneath the shirt, finding skin—cool and smooth—stroking, the kiss deepening still.
Abruptly, as unwanted clarity struck through the fog, proclaiming that this was happening—Jasper and Brandon were kissing, touching, holding—Jasper pulled away. He opened his eyes, the neon light pulsing a soft red cast over Brandon, who was leaning toward him, lips asking for more. Jasper backed up farther.
Brandon's eyes blinked open. "What?"
Jasper brought a hand to his lips but didn't answer.
"What? Don't question it. Don't–"
"I'm not." His other arm was still around Brandon, his hand under his shirt. He let it fall to Brandon's waist, but he didn't let go, didn't remove his touch. "I … I'm attracted to you." He couldn't stop his smile when he heard his own words. His fingertips, followed by his knuckles, brushed Brandon's skin. "I mean, I like you, Brandon."
Brandon raised an eyebrow, his lips quirking. "Then kiss me."
Glancing up for a fraction of a second, Jasper noticed that they'd gained a small audience, a group of teenagers a few feet away who all at once, pretended not to be looking.
"Inside," he said, grasping Brandon's fingers. As Jasper tugged on him, Brandon seemed glued to his spot. Opening his hand so they were palm to palm, he linked their fingers together before allowing Jasper to lead him along. Their eyes met. Their smiles matched.
The table between them, their eyes, though different colors, match. Filled with questions.
Jasper lifts his mug to his lips, hiding his mouth. His lips can't decide what shape they want to form. His brain interprets the images he's seeing—Alice, here, back, sitting across the table from him—and tells his lips to smile. But he smells the unfamiliar perfume, gardenia and sandalwood, and it unsettles him, and his smile becomes a frown. And then her knee bumps his under the table and a lust burns in his belly, and he has to choke down a gasp.
He swallows a mouthful of too-hot, too-bitter coffee.
Alice looks at him over the rim of her own cup, and he sees just a glimmer of the same uncertainty he's feeling.
And knowing that perhaps she's scared, too, that perhaps she's taking a risk in coming here makes Jasper bold.
He sets down his mug. "You're here."
"So are you," she whispers.
He nods. Hope flutters, feeble but so very present. He pushes the word from his lips. "Why?" He steeples his hands, fingertips touching. Please don't let the word 'closure' spill from those painted lips.
"Because I still … Because I needed to know." She sweeps a hand across her hairline, pushing away strands that haven't fallen. "Jas, I took longer than I wanted. I had to – I couldn't come back until I … " She shakes her head.
Jasper watches her warily, on guard against rebuke, should it come.
She gives him a small smile, her gaze drifting across the girls snoozing in the booth beside them, the couple slumped against the window opposite. Her eyes stay fixed on the window, watching the glow of headlights as they streak past. "I haven't seen anyone, you know? No one who knew me before. It wasn't – I mean, I always knew, this is who I was. The surgery … that just made the outsides match what was already here–" she taps her temple "–and here." She places a hand on her chest. "But I didn't … I didn't know who I was."
Jasper leans closer, wanting to reach for her, to offer them both comfort.
"It wasn't about choosing between being Alice or Brandon. But that—it had become the big thing in my life. The surgery, yes, but the whole process … so much of my life was geared towards that, and I was worried that that's all I'd become. Sex, gender—who I am is more than that, but by necessity, so much of my life had come to revolve around it and I needed to find all the other pieces of me again."
Jasper stumbled backwards into Brandon's room. Calves hitting the bed, he went down against the comforter. Brandon was right there with him, pushing him back, pursuing his kiss through their mutual smiles.
It's more than this. So much more.
Jasper cupped Brandon's cheek, the pads of his fingers pressing the soft hairline behind Brandon's ear. Feeling more than skin, more than lust.
His mouth, hot and bruised, moved from Brandon's to find his chin, his neck, feeling it purr under his attention. Brandon's hand kneaded his shoulder, Jasper reached for it, threading their fingers together, squeezing.
Brandon was breathing hard as Jasper turned their hands, pulling Brandon's hand into his kiss, moving his lips from knuckle to knuckle, watching Brandon watch the gesture.
"I've never felt this way," he admitted aloud. "Not like this."
In the dim light, the open window letting in the moonshine, he saw Brandon's eyes glaze, his head shake. It was a gesture of no, but it was done in agreement. In some kind of commitment.
They both knew it.
Brandon reached for the buttons of Jasper's black work shirt. Jasper, propped up on his elbows with Brandon straddling his lap, watched as Brandon slid each button free, spreading the shirt open, pushing it back over his shoulders. He ran his hands over the exposed breast bone, up over clavicle and back down. He softly caressed Jasper's navel, then the prominent ridges of muscle leading into his pants, then the buckle of his belt, as he pulled it from its clasp.
His fingers found the zipper, tugged it down, opening the fly to reveal the thick bulge in Jasper's white jockeys. Brandon palmed it through the cloth, his eyes finding Jasper's, questioning.
The heat from his hand penetrated deep, into his blood, pulsing into his loins, making him feel an odd urgency. For more.
More of this.
All of this.
The touch and taste and smell of him, something unseen... inside both of them. Not their release, but their fusion. More contact, as much as was possible, as much as Jasper could touch of Brandon, he wanted all of it. His breath, his voice, his pleasure. Theirs together.
Brandon seemed too far away; Jasper closed some of the distance, shedding the shirt that was bundled around his elbows, before tugging Brandon's t-shirt over his head.
He was smaller than Jasper, lean muscles under soft skin, and Jasper revelled. Not in the light way Brandon had, but in needy handfuls, their kiss darkening, becoming a mutual demand.
Jasper rolled, pulling Brandon down to lay chest to chest. The impossible heat of a moment ago rose, ascending to a ringing siren in Jasper's veins. His neck burned, all of him heated by the skin contact, by the first brush of their erections. Jasper clutched at Brandon's hip, bringing him closer, turning the graze into a grind.
Brandon whimpered into his mouth and Jasper pulled back.
"What … what are you comfortable with?"
Brandon looked surprised. But his voice was fervent, breathless. "Anything. I want anything that you want. Everything that you want. Whatever you're comfortable with."
Jasper wanted to melt into Brandon, wanted to watch him dissolve as well. Brandon's pleasure, the consideration of it, made his heart race. He studied Brandon's face, thought of all the possibilities.
"I have some condoms, if you... I mean." Brandon, already flushed, dropped his eyes.
Jasper thumbed Brandon's chin. The universal symbol for look at me.
It came out sterner than he had expected and Brandon just pointed in response. Toward the bottom drawer of the stand by the bed.
"That first night. You couldn't know. I should've told you."
He knows what she means. That she hated her external self. That it wasn't her. That she had tried to take control of their intimacy—to be the pleasure-giver, to keep distance between him and the body she felt misrepresented her feelings.
Despite the intensity of their first night together, Jasper had sensed it. Something. A shyness, he had thought at the time. A hesitancy.
"You did tell me. Eventually."
She shakes her head. "I should've been honest from the start. I let a lot of people think I was gay. Including you. That wasn't the right way to... It was just false pretenses. I fell in love with you as a woman does, you didn't know that. You had a right to be angry."
"I was never angry. Never about who you are. Not then. Not now. I was angry that you thought you had to leave me. I was livid that you never came back."
Jasper scanned Brandon's face, not looking at the hand pointing toward the drawer. He could see something hovering behind Brandon's wide, blue eyes. Behind the surprise and lust, he thought he saw uncertainty—not of Jasper, but of himself.
He dipped his head and took Brandon's lip between his teeth. The dark fan of Brandon's eyelashes fluttered shut and he relaxed into the mattress. His breath washed over Jasper's face.
"I just want this," Jasper murmured, pressing his hips into Brandon's, eliciting a groan from both of them. "It doesn't have to be more than this right now."
The words were swallowed by the ensuing kisses. Gentle, yet fervent, Jasper fingered at Brandon's jaw, his hair falling in both their faces. Hands began to roam, tentatively at first, skimming shoulders and ribs, before becoming more urgent. Light touches became grasps. Mouths sucked and nipped. Heated groans tangled with their tongues.
Jasper reached down, pressing his palm against Brandon's cock, stroking it through the fabric.
Suddenly pulling away, Brandon lifted himself to his knees and moved to straddle Jasper's hips again. His focus was on the opening of Jasper's pants. He slid his fingers under the waistband of the boxer briefs beneath, as Jasper toed his shoes off, letting them fall next to the bed. The thud of the shoes hitting the floor was a sharp contrast to the hiss that leaked from Jasper's lips as Brandon wrapped his hand around him.
His touch was gentle, but sure.
"I want it all with you, Jas."
Sliding his hand all the way down to the base of Jasper's cock, Brandon whispered. "But can it just be this, tonight?"
Confused, but willing, Jasper nodded, lost in the pressure of Brandon's hand.
Brandon backed off the low bed, shimmying Jasper's pants down as he went. From his knees, he pulled the dark jeans to Jasper's ankles and then pushed them out of the way.
He peeled back the edge of Jasper's Jockeys. Jasper watched him. Watched as he lowered the snug cotton. Watched as his dick sprang forth, fully erect.
Watched as Brandon took him in his mouth.
It was just the tip at first. Brandon ran his tongue over the ridge of Jasper's glans—over the slit, soft and delicate—then engulfed him, stretching his lips around its girth, sucking and massaging him with his mouth.
Through lazy eyelids, Jasper watched Brandon slide down his length, until he could feel the back of Brandon's throat, tight and hot. He moaned, tipping his head back to the pillow before returning his gaze to Brandon.
For a moment it was Allison's wide eyes that he saw looking up at him with vehemence—Allison's mouth—and the thrill that pierced through him made him thrust reflexively.
"My God. Your mouth."
Brandon groaned, a strangled sound, and Jasper bucked slightly into the immersion, pace quickening, as Brandon went hungrily from base to tip, sucking, licking, laving. He dragged his hand up the inside of Jasper's naked thigh, caressing his tightening sack. The impassioned eroticism, marching Jasper towards orgasm, sharpened under Brandon's touch, and he cupped the back of Brandon's neck, lovingly thumbing his jaw. Don't stop.
The slight pressure at the back of the head created new fervency in Brandon, his tongue stroking with each pass.
"I'm going to …" Jasper couldn't look anymore, the top of his head met the pillow as his back arched.
The words hang between them for only a moment. Her expression is a mixture of bewilderment and fear.
"It was best that way."
"You don't know that. You didn't give me the chance, Alice."
Her eyes are glossy, feverish eyes that burn their sorrow into him.
Jasper's heart flips over. He places his palm against the cool formica tabletop. Alice covers it with hers. He turns his hand over, threading their fingers together. They both watch their hands.
With his free hand he rubs his lips, trying to nail down his feelings.
"I know. I was … I was selfish. But I had to be." She gives his hand a little squeeze. "To go through that ... I just had to be. And I still have to be."
He nods. His heart skittering, his hand against his mouth, a little unsteady.
HER. Here. Explaining, but nothing more.
It hits him hard all of a sudden.
His hand leaves his mouth. Covers his eyes.
His chest is caving in, turning into a sob that he tries to choke back.
How long has he dreamed of a second chance, another moment, even just a glimpse? Thinking he could have one more moment and that would be enough. But it isn't.
Brandon hadn't let Jasper return the favor that first night. Instead, he let Jasper fall into a sated sleep. The next day broke with an awkward pall.
When Jasper awoke, his eyes immediately found Brandon who was already awake and watching him with big, sorrowful eyes. His hair was mussed against the pillow, his smile was melancholy.
Jasper reached for him, wanting to be close, wanting to feel the reassurance of Brandon's warm body—but not getting it.
"We need to talk. I'll make coffee." Brandon was out of bed, pulling on a pair of sweats and heading shirtless into the small kitchen. Jasper watched him go, feeling slightly rejected and more than a little perplexed. He found his Jockeys and his jeans, but couldn't find his shirt, so he pulled Brandon's t-shirt over his head. It was snug, and Brandon laughed when he finally walked into the kitchen.
"You look gay."
Jasper snorted. "I look gay now, in your clothes, but not last night with my dick in your mouth?"
Brandon blushed, flame registering in his fine cheekbones, as he gestured to the mug on the breakfast table.
He sat, sipping the hot coffee as Brandon gnawed at his lip.
"Brandon, is this one of those about last night conversations? If it is, I mean, just tell me. If you aren't into me-"
"Are you gay?" Brandon interrupted, his voice cracking and nervous.
Jasper was reluctant to answer this question, feeling like Brandon was looking for a specific answer, and the wrong one could cost him the gains he made into new territory the previous night.
"You asked me this before. I gave you the best answer I have. Sorta? I told you, it's hard to explain. I'm incredibly attracted to you. What … what kind of answer are you looking for here?"
Brandon was fiddling with the coffee cup, not drinking from it, not looking up at Jasper.
"I'm not gay."
Jasper's blood went cold; it pumped confusion into his already muddled brain. "What?"
Brandon just shook his head. For the first time, Jasper seriously contemplated the possibility that Brandon didn't want anything to do with him. The thought played dampener to all of the previous night's leftover excitement and triumph. In that quick moment, it became very clear to him that his feelings for Brandon were sharper than attraction, needier than friendship. He saw what had happened the night before—and he thought Brandon did too—as a first step in the direction of a relationship. One he greatly wanted.
Brandon took a deep breath, looked up from the table and said, "I'm transgender."
Jasper's heart beat several times before he was able to gather meanings and define the word Brandon had just said. In that space of time, he must've had a blank, uncomprehending expression, because Brandon went on.
"I'm a girl. My gender is, well ... I was born … wrong." He gave Jasper a pathetic smile and Jasper could see his fingers twitching against the cup.
"Are you going to … change?"
Brandon nodded. "Eventually."
"What does this mean? For me?" Jasper felt like an ass asking this question. It sounded selfish and self-consumed coming out of his mouth, but he didn't know what else to say.
"I don't know."
The conversation stretched into late morning, and when Jasper finally went to shower and get ready for class, he felt as though he had a good understanding of Brandon's life, but not any of their relationship.
If they even had one.
Days passed as they always had. Nights passed differently.
Despite Brandon's reservations and Jasper's uncertainty, they found themselves in each other's beds, in each other's embrace.
The sex between them was intense, intimate, and though Brandon had been guarded at first, he relaxed, receiving as much as giving. It wasn't long before Jasper realized he was in love.
It took him a lot longer to put a name on his own sexual identity, something he grappled with a bit during the time they lived together. As they grew closer, it became more and more obvious to Jasper that Brandon was, in fact, female. Yet he also, as the months went by, found he couldn't get enough of the physical intimacy they shared. It was a boy's body that Jasper was demonstrative with.
Long nights alone found him rehashing Brandon's goodbye, trying to find better words to explain himself, words that would help Brandon understand him. That he didn't love Brandon as a conglomeration of male parts, but as a person. That the person he loved would remain the same, despite all Brandon would do to remake himself into Alice.
That Jasper wanted to be a part of it.
But Brandon had to go. He said it was something he had to do alone. He would live in his chosen gender for a year before the surgery. He said that once it was done, he would come back.
And they would "see."
"Jasper. Please. I'm sorry. Please don't cry. Or I will, too."
He exhales, trying to regain control, keeping his lungs empty a moment before filling them again. Pulling his hand from hers, he rubs at his face—a childish gesture, but the only one that seems capable of bringing him from the brink. He can hear his father's voice at the back of his skull, telling him it's just pain. To be a man and deal with it.
When he feels steady, he cups his mug, finally looking back at her face.
Her palms are flat on the table, and she carefully looks him in the eye. "I thought I had been a fool to let you love me in that body. I should've waited … for after the operation. But I was so impatient. I should've waited, but I fell in love with you, so much, so fast. I thought it was Brandon you loved, Brandon's body. That's why I stayed away. I thought you needed to forget me as Brandon to love me as Alice."
She reaches for his wrist, and he lets her pull his arm and lay it on the table between them. Her fingertip curls across the swirls of ink, tracing her old name first, then moving her finger in reverse, tracing her new name.
"It's only now—seeing you now, as me, as I should be—that I realize ... I think you always did."
Jasper swallows, the words sticking in his throat. He pushes them out. "I did." He waits until her eyes meet his. "I do."
She smiles. "Jasper—will you... I said I was selfish, needed to be still. What I want is a second chance. Will you give me one? Can you?"
He blurts out a laugh. It's partially made of the sob he held in a moment ago. His hands quake and he looks to his lap.
His head is shaking in a gesture of no. But it's yes. His eyes overflow. He can't stop it. His whole body is flooded with relief, gone rubbery with exhaustion, freed of the tension gripping him since he first recognized her across the bar at The Cellar.
He's smiling through tears when he looks at her again, blurring on the other side of the table. She's crying too, a big silent tear running over her beautiful cheek.
He slides out of the booth, not letting go of her hand, pulling her to her feet and dropping a ten on the table. "Come home with me?"
"And don't leave?"
The fedora wearing tattoo artist turned the paper around. Over and then rightside up again. "Which way?"
Jasper reached for it, turning it so that the name Alice was clear. So that the direction of the ambigram showed her name and not Brandon's.
"Interesting," the guy said. "Who drew this? You?"
"Want to tell me what it means?"
Jasper had been at his lowest point the last several weeks. Time for Alice's return had come and gone with no word, and a blank darkness had taken his mood. He had abandoned the vivid color he normally captured with his camera, instead relishing black and white somber prints that reflected the monochrome quality of his life.
He had brooded. Waited. He had missed Brandon. Wondered about Alice. Found himself obsessed with both. Found himself feeling as though he was waiting to wake up, walking through his days in a slumber of longing and regret.
"What's anything about, man? Fucking fell in love with a girl."
The tattoo artist nodded, his hands busy wrapping rubber bands around his machine. "I know that story."
And then the evil buzz of tattoo came to life and Jasper let the physical pain blot out the emotional.
"You're different," Rosalie says, pinching her straw between her lips. "Happy."
Jasper smiles, big and unfettered, nodding. "Yeah. I am happy."
"I like it. You used to be pretty... let's just say ... grumpy. All the time."
He laughs. "I was. I–"
He doesn't finish the sentence, whatever he planned to say dying on his lips as the bar dims.
The stage lights up to reveal Midnight Sun, taking their instruments.
Bringing a ukulele to his chest, rather than his mandolin, Edward leans into the mic. "We have a guest singing with us tonight. She's a friend of Mr. Whitlock's, behind the bar." Edward points and people nearby turn and look at Jasper, as if they can't believe their cranky bartender has a friend. Rosalie wraps her hand around his tattooed forearm. Her smile assures him that though her experience of him up to this has been a grumpy one, she still considers him a friend.
Edward's voice drops as he huffs into the mic. "Please welcome Alice Brandon."
She steps into the sharpening spotlight, the stage behind going dark as she reaches up to adjust the mic stand. Edward plucks out the first tentative notes on the ukulele and Alice's eyes close, a radiant smile blooming on her face.
"There are places I remember... all my life, though some have changed, some forever, not for better..."
The crowd between them disappears, as do the years—those long years crammed between the last time he heard her sing, and this moment. Her voice, heartbreakingly beautiful, smoky and simple, stretches across space and time, flooding the cracks in his heart, filling them.
Her eyes open, beguiling him from a distance, she sings directly to him.
"But of all these friends and lovers, there is no one compares with you..."
He'd forgotten Rosalie was holding his arm until she squeezes it, letting go. Jasper's attention fixed on the stage, he asks, "Watch the bar for me?"
He catches the gleam of her smile in his peripheral vision as he steps around the bar, cutting through the throng. Alice's gaze follows him, her body turning slightly to match his movement. He draws up next to the small staircase to the left of the stage feeling everyone's eyes on him as the song fades away, Alice singing the final line amidst the roar of applause.
"I know I'll often stop and think about them, in my life I love you more."
A small laugh burbles out of her, picked up by the microphone, and she tucks her hair behind her ears, a self-conscious gesture new to her.
After a small bow, she turns, grasps Jasper's outstretched hand, letting him guide her down the steps and into his waiting embrace.
She turns her face up to his, her eyes bright and glossy in the dim light. "For you."
She nods. "Always. Always was."
"I wanted it to be for me. Then and now."
Staring down into her open, earnest face, he realizes that maybe the words aren't strictly necessary. Maybe she already knows.
"I love you, Alice Brandon. Then. And now."