It was a strange feeling when Luke realized it was natural for him to reach for Christopher's hand. It was more strange for Christopher to see that he wasn't uncomfortable in the slightest to hold another boy in his arms. Stranger still was the comfortable contentment that settled over the two as the seasons began to change.
In March, the second semester of school was in full swing and Christopher was swamped in homework. The announcement of valedictorian was a formality. Barring a situation that made him incapable of writing his essays or doing math homework, Christopher had no competition. However, no matter how much Luke repeated that to him, he wouldn't hear it. He was studying harder than ever, working harder than ever. It was all Luke could do to drag him out of the house on the weekends.
Some part of Luke admired him, but mostly it was annoying. He was tired of Christopher having his nose in a book or a pencil in his hand all of the time. He resolved to take him out one Tuesday after his final basketball practice.
He picked him up from the practice, and a lot of the other senior players were talking outside on the benches, but Christopher didn't even acknowledge them. Luke sensed that as much as he loved playing basketball, he was glad to be done. Luke found himself feeling the same way about band.
They drove to Christopher's house talking about the valedictorian-hopeful's plans for an upcoming science project. When Luke pulled into the driveway, he ordered him to run up to his room and change before Sammie even realized they were home. Luckily, she was engrossed in a movie and both he and Luke slipped past her. Luke detoured into the kitchen where Charlotte was making dinner.
"Is it okay if I take your son out to eat? I think he's more upset about basketball being over than he's letting on and he could certainly use a break from hitting the books..." Luke said, cutting himself off when he realized he was rambling.
Charlotte laughed quietly, more to herself than Luke. "You know, I think you see more of my boy than I do."
"That's okay, though. As long as you make sure he's home for his birthday, you can do whatever you want with him this week."
"His birthday?" Luke wore his confusion on his face. "When is his birthday?"
"I should have known he wouldn't tell you." Charlotte scowled, "It's just like him. His birthday is on Friday. We're making his favorite dinner and a cake. Would you like to come over that night?"
"Y-yes," Luke nodded and smiled, still a bit stunned. He'd just gotten over the stress of buying a Valentine's gift and now he had a birthday to think about, and on such short notice.
"All right then! Make sure you whip him for not telling you sooner," Charlotte advised, turning back to the stove.
"What am I being whipped for?" Christopher asked as he bounded down the stairs, smelling of too much deodorant and with his hair and face glistening with water. He had changed into a comfortable pair of jeans and dress shirt under a cotton tee. He had even left the collar sticking out the way he knew Luke liked.
However, his fresh-faced handsome appearance did not distract Luke long enough to derail his growing irritation towards his boyfriend. "For not telling your boy-best friend that your birthday is this Friday!"
Christopher grinned at Luke's slip. "It's not that big a deal. Wanna come over?"
"Your mother already invited me, seeing as you failed to do so." Luke turned his nose. "But we can talk about that later. Right now I just want to pull you away from those books and towards some cheap milkshakes."
"All right. Love you, Mama," Christopher punctuated his affection with a kiss on her cheek and followed Luke out the door.
As it turned out, cheap milkshakes were exactly what Christopher needed to loosen up. He talked excitedly about graduation and spoke fondly of his years on the basketball team. It was peaceful and comfortable and when he and Luke had finished, they drove to Luke's house and sat quietly outside in the car.
"Is there a problem?" Christopher asked. Luke had been just a little off the entire night, like there was something he needed to say.
"Why didn't you tell me about your birthday?"
"Because I don't like birthdays," Christopher replied honestly, "None of my friends knows my birthday but Cal and Tyler. And that's only because my mom called them one year for a surprise party."
"I guess she thought that I would like it. I'm not really sure..."
"No, I mean, why don't you like your birthday," Luke amended.
"Because every year something happens on my birthday that makes me angry. I don't want you or any of my friends to be around me when it happens," Christopher let the weight of his head fall on the headrest and he closed his eyes. He looked to be in pain.
"What happens?" Luke looked Christopher quizzically. Usually he was the one with baggage, not Christopher. It was strange.
"My dad comes to town."
Silence fell in the car again. It was off and beginning to heat up, but Luke couldn't will himself to move. He hadn't ever heard anything about Christopher's father. He had assumed the man was dead.
"A-and that's bad?"
"Yes, Luke. It's bad," Christopher said through clenched teeth. "I don't want to talk about this right now. I should get home."
Two days passed faster than Luke liked, and despite shopping every day after school, he was having no luck finding Christopher a birthday present. When he woke up Friday morning, there was a pit in his stomach and he decided that the best thing to do was skip school and shop all day.
To psych himself up, he called Kenny.
"So he just told you about it Tuesday?" Kenny repeated for the third time.
"His mother did. I have no idea what to get him. And what makes it worse is that he hates his birthday anyway..." Luke groaned and threw himself back on his bed.
"What? Who hates their birthday? Why?"
"Daddy drama. I'm not sure of the details."
"Well that sucks...what's he interested in? Basketball right? Get him tickets to a game or something," Kenny suggested.
"I thought of that but I don't think I could get them on such short notice and I don't even know what teams he likes," Luke closed his eyes in concentration, "I've gone through everything I could get in this town. It's too late to have anything shipped and even if it wasn't, I can't think of anything."
"You know, Lucy, the best birthday gift one usually gets from his boyfriend is free," Kenny said.
Luke thought for a moment. "I'm not sure he's ready for that..."
"Are you sure? That's not what you were saying before."
"Well...I mean, he's gotten a lot more comfortable lately, but he's so caught up in studying and stuff that I'm just-"
"Luke. Have you thought about that maybe you're the one that's not ready?"
The thought struck Luke like a bolt of lightning. "T-that's so ridiculous."
"Think about it though. Christopher is the first serious relationship you've had since everything happened. Maybe you're so scared of hurting him that you're holding back too much," Kenny thought aloud. "That can be just as bad as rushing."
"I don't know, Ken."
"Just try to get out of your own head sometimes. You overthink."
Luke grinned. "Yeah, and you under think. Together we form a rational thought, right?"
At three, Luke found himself sitting on the hood of Christopher's car, waiting for him to come outside. His shopping expedition had failed and he was feeling especially guilty.
When Luke spotted him, he was flanked two of his basketball-playing friends and he had an unpleasant look on his face. Luke wasn't sure whether to go to him or hide. He opted to stay put.
Christopher said something to his friends that looked unconvincing even from a distance and they left him, turning to walk a different direction down the parking lot. He flashed a half-hearted smile in Luke's direction that he couldn't help but reciprocate with the exact same level of enthusiasm. Once in earshot, Luke asked, "Bad day?"
"I could have found a hundred dollar bill on the ground and it would be a bad day," Christopher replied.
"Sorry..." Luke muttered, suddenly feeling even guiltier that he hadn't found the perfect birthday present.
"Don't be. Let's just go to your place and watch some bad television. I want to chill out for a little while before I go home."
"You got it."
Christopher opened his door and then turned and looked at Luke. "Where's your car?"
"It's like two miles to your house."
"I didn't have much to do today with no school."
"Yeah, that reminds me. Next time you play hooky, invite me," Christopher said as Luke slid into the passenger's seat.
"Couldn't. Had to get your...your birthday present ready."
"Luke, I really don't want-"
"Oh you want it, trust me."
When they reached Luke's house, they sat down onto the sofa and turned on the television. Luke however, wasn't watching and it was making Christopher antsy. He sat, stiff as a board, and held his hands in his lap. His eyes looked not at the screen but right through it.
"What is your problem?" Christopher asked, finally unable to take the tension any longer.
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about how you're sitting next to me like a fucking plant. Are you mad at me?"
"I'm not mad at you. I'm just...sitting."
"I know when you're lying. Tell me."
"I'm not lying. I'm really not mad at you," Luke corrected him with a heavy dose of exasperation.
"Then what's up? I know it's something," Christopher probed, trying and failing to make eye contact.
"Leave it alone, okay? I'll tell you later."
"Today is already shitty and the last thing I need to do is worry about you. Tell me what's wrong so we can deal with it now before I have to start dealing with other shit."
"I'm just...thinking about your birthday present. Okay? Happy?"
"That's a dumb reason to be all plant-like. I tried to tell you that I didn't want anything." Christopher's voice had picked up a few drops of acid.
"It's not dumb. People get gifts on their birthdays."
"I don't care what people get. Idon't want anything. I tried to fucking tell you that."
"Did you ever think that I just want to do something to make you happy?" Luke demanded, feeling his face heat up as his anxiety give way to frustration. "I don't know what it is about your father that ruins your birthday, but my parents suck too. I get it. I just wanted to try and make today as nice as possible for you so that you could look back and say, 'Well it sucked that I had to deal with all the bullshit, but at least my boyfriend made it a little bit better.' But that's okay. Do you want me to leave? Do you want to leave? Do you want me to hang out here tonight and call you tomorrow or something? Tell me what you want, Christopher, and I'll give it to you."
There was a tense silence for more than a few moments, and when Christopher stood, Luke thought he was going to walk out.
"I told you I don't know how to do this...this whole couple thing. I'm really trying, but I don't know how to handle stuff like today," Christopher said, his voice still strained, but softer. "I don't know how to let you do stuff like get me gifts. When I'm feeling pissy, I try to just be by myself."
"I just said if you want to-"
"It's not that I want to be alone, Luke, but the last thing I want is for you to get fed up with my bitching and leave. Like really leave. That's about the only thing that could make today any worse."
"I'm not leaving," Luke assured him.
"No one's leaving until they are. You could change your mind whenever you want. It's just scary, you know? You have all this power to hurt me and I'm supposed to let you see me on my bitchiest, nastiest day. It's nerve wracking."
"You have to trust me and I have to trust you. I think that's how this works."
"I do trust you. Do you trust me?"
Luke didn't even have to think. "Of course."
Christopher let go a shaky exhale. "That's good."
Luke's mouth had dried up. How had he missed that his boyfriend was so scared? How had he come to think that Christopher had no fears and Luke held them all, secretly and sinfully. In truth, both boys were equally scared that they would get hurt because they were both putting themselves on the same line. The fact that they shared that fear somehow made Luke feel it was a lighter load to bear.
"I really want to give you your birthday present now," he said breathlessly.
"Right now. Come upstairs with me," he extended his hand to Christopher, and though he had feared that it would shake, it didn't. He had grown confident and sure through Christopher's affirmation, and when their hands locked, the conflict of just moments before dissolved into thin air.
Luke grinned. "A bed."
"So...it's that kind of birthday present?"
"Didn't have time to shop for anything else. I only had two days," Luke reminded him. "Besides, I figured you'd prefer that over, like, another collared t-shirt or something."
"The t-shirts were nice," Christopher admitted, "but I won't say that, uh, this idea isn't good too."
So Luke led him up the stairs and into the bedroom where the bed was made and candles were burning and everything felt right for Christopher before he had to go face all of the wrong of the day.
The pair made it back to Christopher's house at six-thirty sharp, just as Charlotte had asked. They wore happy smiles and found it increasingly difficult not to stand too close or brush fingers or exchange lopsided smiles. Before the food was done, Christopher asked Luke to come upstairs and help him with an essay due the next day. Luke knew there was no essay due but followed his boyfriend anyway.
"If you're looking to go again, this is neither the time nor the place," Luke advised.
Christopher flushed. "That's not it. I was just thinking of something I think we should talk about..."
"It's...it's getting harder and harder to keep us a secret, isn't it?"
Luke nodded his agreement.
"So I was thinking that maybe we shouldn't anymore," he muttered, staring his his thumbs. "I'm not ashamed or anything, and the only thing I'm really afraid of is how people will react. But it's senior year and we're on the way out so who gives a fuck? I want to walk down the halls or the streets holding your hand like every other couple does. I figure we could tell the guys first, you know, our friends. Then maybe some other kids at school; we probably wouldn't even have to say anything. You know everyone would notice. By the time it would get back to Mom, we could just tell her ourselves. Say, before prom?"
"How long have you been thinking about this?" Luke asked, struck by the way Christopher had mapped it out.
"Since Tuesday when you almost called me your boyfriend in front of my mom. I don't want her to find out like that."
"Well, I guess that would work, save for one minor detail," Luke mused.
"You haven't asked me to go to prom with you so you can't yet out yourself to your mother. You don't have a date."
"I have to ask?" Christopher cocked an eyebrow. "Who the hell else would you go with?"
"No one. But you still have to ask."
"Why don't you ask me?"
"We've established that I'm the submissive one in this relationship."
"Passive aggressive, more like."
"You must enjoy it or you'd have left by now."
"That's true," Christopher agreed. "So, Mr. Passive Agressive, would you like to go to prom with me?"
"I'd love to."
There was a sweet quiet for a few moments while Christopher took advantage of their soon-to-be scarce privacy and kissed his prom date. He lost himself so much in the moment that he forgot why he hated his birthday for a few seconds.
Then the doorbell rang.
Christopher's stomach lurched so hard Luke would have sworn that he felt it.
"Wanna stay up here?" Luke offered.
"Wanna hide in the bathroom?"
"Wanna sneak out the window, go to my place, and ruffle the sheets a bit more?"
"Yes, but I can't," Christopher ran his hand through his hair. "Gotta stay here for Mom and Sammie. You'll...you'll understand in a few. Come on."
So Luke followed Christopher down the stairs, trying to mentally prepare himself for the horror that was Christopher's father. Would he be a drug addict? A male prostitute? A child or wife beater? A drunk? Luke tried to prepare himself so that he wouldn't look too shocked, but when they reached the bottom of the stairs, Luke saw a sharp looking man in a suit that fit well. He looked remarkably like Christopher and he was holding a large bag of gummy bears in one hand and a neatly wrapped gift in the other. His smile was one that looked rehearsed and used often. He stood straight and didn't reek of body odor, sex, or alcohol, but rather a cologne that Luke could tell from years in expensive clubs with rich men was not at all cheap. Luke looked more shocked than if Christopher's father had been an obvious scoundrel.
"Who's this then, Junior?" he asked, and his voice was dripping with confidence and controlled authority.
"This is my friend, Dad. Luke. He'll be having dinner with us," Christopher said through clenched teeth.
"That's nice," he commented, obviously sizing Luke up.
"Come in, Chris. You're going to let the cold in," Charlotte said, taking the bag and gift from his hands. To Christopher she said, "You can open it after dinner, okay?"
"Sure," Christopher replied.
Sammie ran from the living room, her television show over, yelling, "Daddy!" She threw herself around him the way she often did Luke, but refused to let go. He picked her up and carried her to the kitchen.
"How's my baby girl doing?"
"We're studying rocks in science, Daddy!"
The rest of the evening went that way; Charlotte and Sammie had no animosity towards Chris, and Christopher's every word to him dripped with venom. After cake and ice cream, Christopher opened his gifts, an envelope labeled 'gas money' from his mother with a hundred dollars in it, and a laptop from his father. He was told with a wink that it was for school purposes only.
By the time Luke had to leave and go home, he was totally confused. In the driveway, after a quick stolen kiss under the shadow of the garage door, he told Christopher of his befuddlement.
"He's an asshole," Christopher said, "I don't care how he sugar coats it. He left my mom for some bimbo or something, went off and made a bunch of money that he doesn't use to help us out at all, and twice a year he drops by with smiles and presents and expects us to be happy. It's bullshit and it hurts. When Sammie's old enough to realize that Daddy could come around but doesn't, she'll be hurt too. It pisses me off. He's so fake and corporate and inconsiderate. Everything I don't want to be and I share his fucking name. That's why I get so pissed when people call me Chris, you know. I have this need to make a separate identity for myself because even when I get away from him, his name follows me everywhere. Christopher Michael Matthews Jr. It's a fucking outrage."
Luke took his boyfriend's hand, and though he could say nothing, he listened. He had a sinking feeling that Christopher had never given anyone the opportunity to listen on that particular subject before, because he had a lot to say. When they were finally done, all the lights in the house were off and the driveway was bathed in darkness.