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Take A Man

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 “Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur.”

Even a god finds it hard to love and be wise at the same time.   

 

 

The date had gone well any way he looked at it.  

Cameron, who fenced at a school the next city over, had asked Harvard out after their last match.  Harvard hadn’t known what to say at first, but Cameron had fought expertly. He was a good sport, cute, with a dimple in his cheek when he grinned.  Moreover, and most importantly, he seemed interested in actually dating and not just a meaningless hookup.  

So Harvard had said yes.

Since Cameron had driven in from out of town, Harvard had been in charge of where they were going.  Aiden had snorted when he told him his plan. He supposed it was pretty cookie-cutter, pretty traditional, pretty cliche, as Aiden put it.  The restaurant was nice, nicer than ones Harvard would have gone to himself alone or with a friend, and the walk along the downtown street, strewn about with Christmas lights, had been romantic, he supposed.  

When Harvard asked him out, Cameron had nodded, smiling brightly.  His dimple seemed carved into his cheek.

Harvard should have been happy.  

Instead he only felt a vague sense of unease, a feeling compounded when he opened the door to their room to find Aiden Kane at nine on a Friday night cross legged on his bed, hip deep in a Latin translation.  The lamplight gave his skin an amber tint, and when he narrowed his eyes at Harvard they seemed even greener than usual by contrast.

 “Didn’t you have a da--”

“No,” Aiden said shortly.  “You kept nagging me to prep for the midterm, I thought you’d be pleased.  I’ve been studying all night.” He glared at his edition of Wheelock’s as if it had dared to suggest otherwise, dragging his eraser over the page with much more force than necessary.  “Not that it’s going spectacular at the moment,” he muttered, flipping through his dictionary and grimacing.

“I’m never going to finish this in time if I have to stop and point out every single dick allusion.”  

Harvard doubted that.  Aiden, for all his pretense at indifference, was one of the top Latin students in their year.  He had always loved the language, even when they were small, and when no one else could figure out the translation, it was Aiden who got called on.  

Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t Catullus.

“I brought you a cupcake,” Harvard said.  “It’s chocolate with toffee filling.” Aiden liked vanilla best, but the restaurant had run out, and he had figured--  

Aiden looked like Harvard had asked him how to conjugate an adjective in the fifth declension.  “I’m not hungry,” he said, nudging his hair behind his ears. Most of it he had shoved back into a messy bun, but several tendrils had escaped.  When he bent down over his workbook, one of them fell out again.

Harvard’s fingers itched with the urge to push it back.  He occupied himself instead with putting the cupcake box on his dresser.

“How did the date go?” Aiden asked, writing furiously in the margins of his textbook.  There was a tiny snap as his pencil lead broke; Aiden swore under his breath and got out a pen.

“It went alright,” Harvard said.  He had been hoping Aiden wouldn’t ask.  A part of himself that Harvard didn’t want to examine too closely felt sick at the thought of talking about his date with Aiden.  “I asked him out next Saturday and he said yes.”

“Of course he said yes,” Aiden huffed, rolling his eyes.  “It’s you, Harvard.  Captain of the fencing team, Mr. All American who paid for everything, kissed him on the cheek, and sent him home to mother at the end of it.  Dimples could hardly contain himself.”

“Don’t be like that,” Harvard said, frowning.  “He’s nice.”

Aiden’s mouth tightened.  “I never said he wasn’t nice,” he said.  “I’m sure he is.” He crossed out a line of translation with a particularly vicious slash.  “And I’m sure you’ll make the perfect couple.”

“It was just one date,” Harvard said.  

“You never go on dates,” Aiden said.  “This guy must be something special.” He went over an entire passage with the pen this time, scratching through each stanza with a fierce satisfaction that made Harvard extremely uncomfortable.

Harvard winced.  “Well, I mean,” he said, trailing off, and scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t really know him yet.”

“Really swept you off your feet, didn’t he?” Aiden said.  The arch expression on his face was tempered by the sneeze that immediately followed, but only just.

“Aiden,” Harvard said, nettled.  “Could you not? I like this guy.  Why are you trying to ruin this for me?”

Aiden’s mouth twisted.  “I’m not trying to ruin anything,” he said, putting his pen down firmly on his notes.  Whether he was trying to convince himself of this, or Harvard, was impossible to guess.  “He doesn’t go here, and no one really knows him. I think you should be careful, that’s all.  I just— ” He paused, fiddling with the pen. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

There was, no doubt, a subtler, darker undertone to Aiden’s jabs besides protectiveness, but that was nothing new.  With Aiden it would be strange if he wasn’t hiding various (and sometimes conflicting) motivations for his every move.  

If Harvard tried to puzzle them all out, he’d never get anything done.  

Even so, it prickled at him for his best friend of all people to be lecturing him on being responsible.  Ordinarily it was Harvard’s role to warn Aiden of whatever reckless thing he was heedlessly walking into.   

He didn’t much like the reverse.   

“All of a sudden you’re the expert now? How would you know?” Harvard asked.  “It’s not like you’ve ever dated anyone.”

As soon as he said it, he regretted it.

Something flashed across Aiden’s eyes, too quick to be recognized, and his mouth twisted again before it flattened into a taunt, thin line.  His shoulders slumped, and all at once Harvard noticed what had been niggling at him before: the circles under Aiden’s eyes, the tension playing across his face, the jaundiced tint behind his normally clear skin.  “I--”

“I take it back, that was mean,” Harvard said, putting a hand on Aiden’s arm.  “I’m in a bad mood. Don’t listen to me.”

“You’re not wrong,” Aiden said softly.  He shifted under Harvard’s touch, pulling out his workbook.  His hair fell back into his eyes again, and this time he didn’t bother to push it away.

“It was a shitty thing to say,” Harvard said.  Under his hand Aiden’s skin was burning like a brand.  “Did you ever get the vaccine?” Harvard asked suspiciously.

“You know I don’t get the flu,” Aiden said.

“That means no,” Harvard said, sighing.  He opened his desk drawer, pawing through the papers until he found the (empty) bottle of Nyquil and swore under his breath.  “It’s going to be hard for you to ski with a fever of a hundred and two.” One of the Kane’s family traditions was to jet off to their Colorado cabin during December-- and the only thing that kept Aiden from killing his dad was Harvard’s presence, on the slopes and off.    

“I’m fine, Harvard,” Aiden said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

Not a chance.   “I’ll be right back,” he called out to Aiden, marching off to Kally and Tanner’s room with purpose.  

When he came back he was in possession of a nest of blankets, tissues, various over the counters, and an orange he managed to wheedle away from Kally’s latest care package.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Aiden said, hunched over his papers.  

Had he gotten paler in the last fifteen minutes?  

“Someone has to take care of you,” Harvard said, setting the glass of water and tylenol on the bedside table.  Aiden took the pills without prompting, which made Harvard even more worried. He set FDR by the water and the tylenol bottle, turning the bear so that he was facing Aiden’s pillow.  

“He’ll know if you don’t take them tomorrow, Aiden.”

“Thanks, Harvard,” Aiden said, his face tired and drawn.  He didn’t look up from his notes.

Harvard had a paper due the next week, and he really needed to finish up A Separate Peace, but although he read until lights out, he only managed to get through two chapters.  He couldn’t stop stealing glances at his best friend, who hadn’t touched his cupcake, and whose eyes were a listless green behind his glasses.

And whose mouth didn’t move from its pained set the rest of the night.

 

*******************************

Chapter Text

 

                   

“I’m tired of waiting!  I was never good at sports

Leave your games for the girls on the tennis court”

--Beach Bunny, Sports

 

Harvard slept through his alarm the next morning.

When he got up, Aiden was already gone, but the glass by his bed was empty.  Maybe he had actually followed Harvard’s advice for once and taken the medicine before he went to class.

Aiden must be feeling awful if he was listening to Harvard of his own accord.

Harvard’s free period lasted until ten.  Usually he got up and went to the library to study, but today he felt far too distracted for that.  For a while now he had been meaning to get his old fencing gear out and go through it, maybe give some to Nicholas if he needed any extra.  Might as well do it now.

He squatted down and began poking tentatively under the bed.  The bag was crammed in between the headboard and the wall, and Harvard decided to wriggle it free.  It was nearly there when he heard a loud thunk.

When he turned over the fallen frame Harvard smiled.  It was an old picture, taken around two years ago, during their annual charity polo match.  It wasn’t such a bad one of him, he supposed. And Aiden… Aiden was Aiden, his eyes the deep, striated color of an alpine lake, a complicated, subtle green, and he was smiling his real smile, the muted one, soft around the edges.  

Was it any wonder no guy at Kings’ Row stood a chance against him?  

Harvard remembered the first time they had played the charity match, when they were fourteen.  That was the day he had begun to realize that Aiden’s looks were going to be trouble.

Aiden had dragged Harvard into polo when they were nine, during the height of his horse phase.  Harvard hadn’t had the slightest interest, but the polo pony Aiden’s dad had gifted him out of guilt had been the first thing he had shown any sort of excitement about since the divorce, so Harvard gamely went along.  He had ended up enjoying it despite himself, however, and he and Aiden had acquired a loose group of friends that they played with during small tournaments like this one.

The day dawned calm and clear, and the playing field smelled like fall and sunlight, freshly mown grass extending out into the horizon.  Their teammates had gotten to the field early. Harvard could hear Ash with his high pitched laugh and Jace with his dry chuckles milling about with the rival team, exchanging various well meaning insults and heartfelt promises of revenge.  Most of the boys Harvard knew, but the opposing team had a new face, a lanky boy with eyes the color of the pitch whose posh British accent set him apart. When Harvard shook his hand, he had looked him up and down and gave a small nod, as if Harvard had met his satisfaction, but only just.

Harvard usually liked green eyes, but this boy’s had a cruel cast to them that set him on edge.

“I’ve heard loads about you, Harvard,” he said, while those sharp eyes darted over Harvard’s shoulder, as if searching for someone.  “You’re best friends with Aiden Kane, right? I’ve heard about him, as well.” The glance he gave Harvard then, like his veiled remark was an open secret they both shared, made Harvard instantly despise him.  

Naturally he didn’t show it.  A captain couldn’t just cut an opponent off on the field, even if they were richly deserving of it.  It was bad form.

Instead, Harvard bit his tongue and endured meaningless small talk while praying for Aiden to hurry up.  His survey of the stands proved fruitless. There was one tall woman, with the same honey blonde hair as Aiden, so much so that Harvard had a moment of hope that-- but then she turned, and her eyes were brown, and Aiden’s mom hadn’t come after all.

Apparently Peter Whims III had spent the summer in the states, though he’d soon be back to Eton.  He had heard there was a tourney and they needed a fourth, was happy to oblige, and say, is that Aiden? No one told me he was this fit.

Despite his best efforts, Harvard could feel the strain in his smile as the group wheeled to greet its final member.  Ever since the final custody hearing, Aiden had been acting strange. It had taken forever for Harvard to pry out of him that his mom had relinquished all visitation rights.  Harvard knew he hadn’t been close to her, but even if the ruling was more to get back at his father than anything to do with Aiden, it must have hurt him terribly.

Too bad Aiden would rather die than admit that, even to his best friend.

He had grown taller over the summer, taller and more handsome than ever, and as Aiden approached the stables to join their team, in crisp khaki breeches with his riding boots on, their usual gang fell silent.  

“The prodigal returns,” Ash said, letting rip one of his braying laughs as Jace hurried to be the first to greet him, with a arm across the shoulders and a hug that lasted just a little too long.  He had been nursing that crush since early summer, but glancing at Peter, Harvard thought Jace was ill prepared for the competition.

Peter ran a casual hand through his hair, striding up to Aiden like there was no question of his welcome.  “Peter,” he said, giving Aiden a blatant once over with those shrewd eyes. “You must be Aiden.”

“How’s life across the pond?” Aiden asked, smiling.  Aiden had taken to wearing his hair long, and when he flicked it back, glancing up at Peter from under his eyelashes, the layers fell down into place effortlessly.  Even to Harvard, who knew his expressions better than anyone, he looked almost interested.

Harvard had watched him practice that exact move last weekend, which he had spent at Harvard’s house.  Aiden had been excited about his new haircut, until the phone rang.

It was his mom.  

It had been a short call, and afterwards he had spent half the night in front of the mirror, fixing his hair first one way and then another, his face pale and taut around the eyes, but lovely, even so.  Eventually he was still.

“She’s not coming to the match on Sunday,” Aiden had said to his perfect reflection.  A muscle jumped in his jaw. “Not that I care.”

Harvard wrapped his arms around Aiden before he could protest, gathering him into a hug.  “I’m sorry,” he said, a feeling heavy as a stone settling in his chest. “It will get better, I promise--”

“Harvard Lee,” Aiden snarled, elbowing him aside.  “You should be sorry. You think you know everything.  You’re only a month older than me, but you act like my big brother.”  Aiden glared at him, his eyes electric with rage. “You said they wouldn’t get divorced, Harvard, remember?  You promised it would be OK .   That shows how much you know, doesn’t it?”  Aiden’s mouth curled into a sneer, but it was hard to take much offense when his eyes were filled with tears.  

When Harvard held him close that time, Aiden hadn’t shoved him away.  

His green eyes were clear now, considering, as he looked from Jace to Peter and back again, before pulling fast the strap on one of his precisely fitted boots.

Maybe he’ll ask them to lick one next, Harvard thought irritably.   They probably would, at least in Jace’s case.

“I’ve played with Prince William,” Peter was saying.  There was what could only be interpreted as a significant pause.  “I could give you some pointers..?”

Harvard bit back a laugh.  Though Harvard had by unanimous decision become their captain, Aiden was actually the best horseman on the team.

“Much appreciated, but I have an excellent seat, thanks,” Aiden said.  He winked and turned around, strolling off to saddle his mount while deliberately offering an unobstructed view of the seat in question.  Peter blinked while Jace stared unabashedly, eyes like saucers.

Harvard quickly turned away, making his way toward his own pony, Elise, a chestnut bay with impeccable manners.  She was a quarter horse, and nothing exceptional in the looks department, but she could absolutely be relied on in a clinch, and her ability to turn on a dime was a thing of beauty.  She held out her leg for Harvard to wrap, nickering and blowing at his face.

Harvard wondered how Aiden was faring with Shadowfax.  A grey Arabian with an impeccable pedigree, Shadowfax was unstoppable-- when he wanted to be.  He was also incredibly high strung and sensitive, and required delicate handling. Most players were quick to yank the reins, and Shadowfax was too intelligent and sensitive to be persuaded with force.  

When Aiden came out of the stables, hair windblown and polo unbuttoned, Shadowfax with his sleek lines following behind him, Peter and Jace both jerked their heads up from their respective mounts, following his progress like hawks.  Aiden must have been aware of their regard, since they were hardly subtle about it, but he didn’t even spare them a glance as he and Shadowfax joined Harvard and Elise.

“What’s the plan?” he asked Harvard, pulling his hair back into a ponytail.  “Am I your number two or is Jace?”

He wasn’t going to bring up his mom, then.  

Harvard opened his mouth, but thought the better of mentioning it.  “Why don’t you consult with his lordship over there? I’m sure he’d have some advice for you.”

Aiden smirked, tugging his bangs out to frame his face. “They’re both staring, aren’t they.”  It wasn’t a question.

Harvard stiffened in his seat.  “Yes, you know they are,” he said, absorbing himself with checking Elise’s bridle.  

Aiden had been a flirt his whole life.  In the last few months, though, as his dad’s latest marriage imploded, he had begun pursuing guys with an avidity that bordered on recklessness.  Aiden seemed bound and determined to take none of them seriously. He was never with one longer than a few days at best.

Not that Harvard was paying attention.  

“You’re my number two,” Harvard said.  “Jace never listens to me, but you usually manage to listen maybe half the time.”

Aiden beamed.  “I always listen to you, Harvard.  I just don’t always take your advice.”  He gave Harvard’s chest a tap with his mallet to emphasize his point, looking up at him with mischievous eyes.  Even though Aiden had grown several inches in the past year, Harvard was still taller, a fact which caused a pleasant ache in his chest when he thought about it too much.  

“Are we talking on the field, or off?” Harvard asked.

“That’s exactly your problem,” Aiden said, smiling even more broadly, and Shadowfax nickered, giving Harvard a playful nudge with his head.   “You’re not captain off the field, and it drives you crazy.”

“Someone needs to call the shots,” Harvard said defensively.   Especially in your case, Aiden.   “You can’t just coast by without any kind of plan.”

“Why can’t I call the shots?”

“Someone responsible ,” Harvard amended, and Aiden rolled his eyes.  

“You’re such an older brother sometimes, Harvard Lee.”  Harvard pretended to pick a pebble from Elise’s hoof so Aiden wouldn’t see the expression on his face.  

Aiden had teased him about being overprotective ever since grade school.  For the most part he meant it affectionately, Harvard knew. And it was true, Harvard did feel a certain responsibility towards Aiden, whose own parents were content to let him run wild when they weren’t using him as a pawn in their custody battles.

Lately, though, Harvard had felt the usual urge to guard his brash yet sensitive best friend widening and deepening into something that he carefully ignored.  Harvard was the one person Aiden could depend on, after all.

The last thing Aiden needed was another guy clamoring for his attention.  

“Who else is going to look after you,” Harvard said with a rueful grin, ruthlessly smothering his disappointment.  Aiden’s green eyes were dark when they met Harvard’s, and the side of his mouth quirked up.

“Harvard--” he began, but there was a shrill whistle from the sidelines.

“Harvard, Aiden, hurry up and mount up,” Jace yelled from the center of the field.  The umpire was already on horseback, as was the opposing team. “Come on, we’re all waiting on you!”    Aiden swung onto Shadowfax fluidly, and Harvard followed suit, feeling the heady rush of being in the saddle with his best friend by his side.

The teams faced off at centerfield, each of the four position facing their rivals square on.

Peter was apparently third, acting as the rival captain to Harvard.

“Looks like it’s you and me, Ivy,” Peter sang out sunnily.  Harvard could sense rather than see Aiden’s amusement, bright and unrestrained at his left side.  

Harvard gritted his teeth, wheeling Elise around and waited for the bowl in with uncharacteristic impatience.  Elise gave an irritated stamp to indicate what she thought of the proceedings, and Harvard clicked his tongue. “Are we playing today or what?” he said.

“Clamping at the bit,” Aiden said.  “Very unlike you, Ivy. ”  

“Aiden,” Harvard said warningly, and Aiden snickered.   

“You want to know the best part?”  Aiden whispered.

“No,” Harvard said.

“He meant it as a compliment,” Aiden said, snickering again.

Then the horn blew, and the world dwindled to a tiny plastic ball flying amid a thunder of hooves, to Harvard’s vast relief.

The first chukker was a massacre for the opposing team.  Jace got a couple of bats in, but mainly it was Aiden leading the drive, bringing the ball down the field toward their opponent’s backline.  Aiden posted up in the saddle like he was born to ride, rising up on his slim, athletic thighs like a tightened bow, dangerous and graceful. Harvard suspected half the reason the other team was playing so poorly was because they were too mesmerized by him.  

He couldn’t really blame them.  

Peter kept trying to ride him off, chasing him down and trying to pass him so he could gain control of the ball, but Shadowfax was far too swift.  Switching tactics, Peter tried checking his horse against Aiden’s every opportunity he got, slamming hard enough against Shadowfax’s flank that it made Harvard wince, but as usual any sign of aggression only served to encourage Aiden more.  

The next play he cut in front of Aiden illegally, without riding him off or bumping him out of the way.  The umpire didn’t call it, and he made his team’s first goal of the match.

As they changed ends, trotting together to the opposite side of the field where their new goal would be, Harvard could see Aiden’s shoulders tense.   “He crossed the line,” Aiden said, bringing Shadowfax around and standing tall in his stirrups, glaring down the field at the rival number three.

“It was a bad call,” Harvard agreed.  “But it’s also a sign that Peter is getting desperate.  We’re still dominating this game, and since he keeps trying to go after you, we should exploit that…”

Aiden slowed Shadowfax to a walk as he listened to Harvard, the frustration on his face easing to curiosity, and then to a vicious glee.

“I’ll tell Jace,” he said, kneeing Shadowfax into a trot to catch him before he got to the midline.

The next play Peter bumped hard into Aiden, spoiling his shot, but then Harvard swooped in, hitting the ball offside to Jace, who carried it down the field to their final goal.

Aiden had pulled Shadowfax to a halt next to Elise, and now stood tall in the saddle, raising his mallet and smiling triumphantly at Harvard.  He was close enough that Harvard could see the fading sunburn on his cheeks, and the last of summer’s freckles dusting the bridge of his nose. “Excellent work, captain,” Aiden said.  

“It was all of us,” Harvard said, feeling oddly breathless.  “We’re a team.”

Aiden raised an eyebrow.  “A team is nothing without a good captain,” he said.

By the time the horn blew for halftime, their team was ahead by four more goals.  

Harvard dismounted and headed down the stables with the others to switch out ponies.  He rubbed the sides of his forehead wearily when he saw who was surrounding Aiden.

“What do you like, Aiden?”  Peter was asking, as though he was the ultimate arbiter.  

“I like guys that are taller and stronger than me,” Aiden said, leaning into Shadowfax’s neck, back to Peter and Jace.  “It makes me feel safe.” Yes, Harvard thought irritably, turning away to brush down Elise and take off her wraps.   Because you’re always so concerned with your safety.  

“Naturally,” said Peter, who was roughly the same height as Harvard.  “I’d be more than happy to take care of anyone that’s bothering you.”

“Oh, that’s nice, Patrick,” Aiden said absently.  Over the sound of Aiden currying Shadowfax, Harvard could actually hear the shrill whine of Peter’s ego deflating, like a pricked balloon.

“I’m a green belt in Taekwondo, you know,” said Jace, who stood at 5’ 6’’ at best.  “Muscles matter more than height.”

Harvard fought an incredibly strong urge to roll his eyes and concentrated on unwrapping Elise’s leg.  At last their voices headed over to the stables proper, Aiden having begged off as he wanted to walk Shadowfax around and cool him down, and Harvard finally stopped pretending to be occupied.

When he turned Elise to the field, his gaze searching for Aiden, he found a pair of green eyes staring at him.

Aiden immediately dropped his gaze and bent over, hands working at the tape around Shadowfax’s leg.  From that position his polo offered a glimpse of his collarbone, which was flushed a rosy pink.   

“Aiden, you’re not seriously considering going out with that guy, are you?”

“With what guy?”  Aiden said, and then, when Harvard gave him an incredulous look:  “Oh, you’re talking about the brit.” His eyes were wide, surprised, as if he hadn’t been thinking of Peter, but someone else entirely.

“He’s just such an asshole,” Harvard said.  

Aiden laughed.  “It’s not like you to be that blunt, but yes, he is a massive prick.”

“Why would you want to be attached to that ?”  Harvard asked.    

“Who said anything about being attached?”

Harvard fidgeted with Elise’s wrap.  “Maybe you won’t be dating him, Aiden, but one day you might want to date someone.  I just don’t want you to get tangled up with a jerk like that.”

Aiden shook his head.  “Not gonna happen, Ivy .  Dating is a waste of time.”

“What if you fall in love?”

“You mean, like my dad loved my mom?” Aiden countered dryly.  “Or more like how he loves Connie?” He crossed his arms over his chest, and his shoulders were high around his ears.

“Lily,” Harvard corrected automatically.  

Whatever , Harvard,” Aiden snapped, waving his hand dismissively.  “Once again, you’re missing the point. For most people, what your parents have is an exception.  It’s just not worth it to me to deal with all that.”

Harvard frowned.  “You’re not even going to try?”

Aiden pressed his lips together, giving Harvard a sharp look.  “You’re not my dad, Harvard. Knock it off.”

This time, he wasn’t kidding.  

“I’m sorry,” Harvard said.  “I just worry about--”

“Yes,” Aiden said flatly.  “I know. You’re always worried about me, but I can take care of myself.  I realize I’m not you,” he paused, grimacing, “but it sucks that even my best friend thinks I’m useless.”  

“I don’t think that,” Harvard said.  “I know you’re very capable, and clever, and you deserve someone who recognizes that you’re more than just a --a pretty face,”  Harvard finished quickly, before the blush beginning to burn his cheeks could show. “That’s all.”

Aiden smiled, his real smile, muted and slow and beautiful.  “I told you, Harvard, they don’t mean anything. You don’t have to worry.”  He turned Shadowfax to the stable, ready to switch to his second pony, Astrid. “I’d never trust any of them, the way I trust you,” he said.

Harvard leaned into Elise, stroking her sides as he watched him go.   Won’t it hurt you in a different way, to be with all these guys who don’t care about you?  Won’t it be lonely? But maybe Aiden didn’t get lonely like Harvard did.  Maybe he didn’t dream about taking someone’s hand, or letting someone rest their head on your shoulder, or holding someone you loved in your arms, making them feel warm and safe and happy.

Maybe those were only things that Harvard dreamed of.

Once everyone had gotten their new mounts, the last half of the match started off with a bang.

The opposing team swooped down on the ball right away, and though Aiden and Jace tried to run them down, and Ash made a valiant attempt to defend the goal, they scored right away.  They switched sides, and Harvard noted with pride how his team immediately came together as they did so, taking advantage of the brief down time to talk plays. Harvard had taught them that.  

“I was thinking,” Aiden said, “that Peter tends to pass to his second as soon as he gets the ball, if anyone is up close on him.  He’s afraid to hold onto the ball for too long. If we get him boxed in, in a position where he can’t pass, then I can take him and get a goal.”

“I don’t know,” said Jace.  “I mean, no offense, but are we really going to take strategy lessons from you, Aiden?”

“Aiden usually has a better read on our opponents than any of us, me included,” said Harvard, sternly.  “Let’s try it.” He nodded at Aiden, who smiled at him sidelong, kicking Astrid into a canter. The sunburn made it hard to be sure, but it looked like he might be blushing.

They executed the play, and it ran just like Aiden said it would.  When he galloped triumphantly around the goal post, the wind in his hair, Harvard was right there behind him, solid and sure.  

The second half flew by.    

All too soon the afternoon light was fading and they were victorious, they were finished, they were stabling their ponies, and Harvard was setting off across the field, helmet under his arm, sunset in his eyes, coming to rescue his best friend.

Aiden was off to the side, standing aloof from Peter and Jace, who were now arguing over handicap ratings.  “One goal player, eh?” Peter laughed, a shrill and very unpleasant sound. “That’s impressive. I’m two goals, myself, but I have been playing since I was a small child…”  

Jace scowled, crossing his arms over his chest.  “If I had better horses, I would have been two goals a long time ago,” he began.  Harvard immediately tuned him out.

Aiden was a 3-goal player, possibly the only one that had played that day.  He had been, without question, the best on the field, and it had been obvious from the first chukker.  Harvard waited for him to put the two back in their places, but his eyes were on someone in the stands.  Harvard realized, the moment Aiden’s shoulders slumped, that he had made the same mistake with the blonde woman that Harvard had earlier.  

“That last goal was amazing,” Harvard said loudly, and Aiden jerked his head around, startled green eyes finding Harvard’s.  A corner of his mouth tilted up at the praise. “You really think so?” he asked. “I should have gotten down the line quicker, I let Astrid get away from me a bit.”  

“If you had brought her around any sooner, you would have overshot the ball,“   Harvard said, taking Aiden’s arm and leading him farther into the field, away from the stands.  “You played it out perfectly.”

Aiden’s mouth quirked up further, and he looked down as a faint tinge of red crossed his cheeks.  He was sweaty from the match, and his face glowed with exhilaration, the strip of skin visible under his polo glistening with exertion.

“I mean it, Aiden,” Harvard said.  

“Thanks, Harvard,” he said, the blush deepening, and he leaned forward to clap Harvard on the shoulder.

Harvard took a deep breath as the familiar woodsy scent of Aiden mixed with the cut grass smell of the wet field.  “Come back to my house later?” he said, before he thought the better of it. “For a sleepover, I mean,” Harvard added quickly.

“You aren’t sick of me yet?”  Aiden asked, nudging him in the side with his elbow.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Harvard said, giving him a playful shove.  Aiden fell back, surprised, but then he walked right back up until Harvard’s hand was pressed against his collarbone, the exact place where the shirt unbuttoned, wordlessly daring him to do it again.  

“Everyone thinks you’re this polite, straight-laced boy scout, but I know the truth,”  Aiden said, with his crooked smile. “Perfect Harvard Lee has a dark side.” His skin was warm under Harvard’s fingers, and Harvard could feel his heartbeat, still racing after the excitement of their win.

Harvard moved his hand, curling it around Aiden’s neck, bringing him close, thumb resting in the hollow of his throat.  Aiden smelled like a forest in sunlight, sharp and clean, and Harvard’s fingers tangled in the damp hair at the nape of his neck.  Harvard had been going to shove him again, pull him off balance and push him away, but now Aiden was very close. His eyes were the color of a lake in shadow, round and big on Harvard’s, and when he swallowed, Harvard could feel the shift in the delicate skin under his fingertips.

“H-Harvard..?”  Aiden asked, hesitantly.  Harvard began tilting his head, bending down just a little, and then Aiden’s lips parted as he licked them, and Harvard could see the light summer freckles dusted across his nose, and he was close, so close—

“Aiden,” a nasal voice drawled, “are we on for dinner or what?”

Harvard jerked back like he had been burned, while Aiden looking up at him with a dazed expression on his face, green eyes wide, like he had just woken up from a dream.

Harvard had forgotten about Peter and Jace entirely.  Apparently Peter had established his dominance for once and for all, for Jace was nowhere to be found.  Harvard narrowed his eyes at him, but all Peter’s attention was for Aiden, whose head was cocked toward the stands again.  When he turned back around his eyes were flat, and his crooked smile was gone, replaced by something gleaming and brittle.

Harvard felt like one of the horses had just kicked him in the stomach.  He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Sorry Harvard,” Aiden said, already looking away.  “Maybe next weekend.”

And Aiden pivoted out from under Harvard’s hand so easily, he might never have been there at all.  

 

Chapter Text


Bad ideas, ay (oh!)
I know where they lead (hey, oh!)
But I got too many to sleep
And I can't get enough, no
I wanna kiss you standing up
O-oh, no!
And if tomorrow makes me low (no!)
Well it'd be worth it just to know
'Cause I can't get enough, no
I wanna kiss you standing up
O-oh!

Smitten's a bad look on me
And if I'm talking honestly
It takes everything I got not to text, and
I just want a kiss to get me through
'Cause now all my bed-sheets smell like you, so

If you think you miss me
Come on back and kiss me
I just gotta know what you and I would feel like, oh!
No, hey!
Yikes

-Tessa Violet, Bad Ideas

Once Harvard had separated his old gear into two piles, one of which was usable, and one of which was not, he realized he didn’t have enough time to drop off the bag at the clubhouse and eat breakfast without being late to third period.  He snagged one of the oranges he had gotten from Kally last night and walked out, bag on his arm, checking his phone for any response to the text he had sent to Aiden when he woke up:

(“How are you feeling?”).

There wasn’t any, although there was one message from Cameron:

(“Had a wonderful time last night.  Can’t wait to see you this weekend 😊”).  

The rest of the morning Harvard was busy with his two hardest classes, Calculus and Biology, neither of which he shared with Aiden.  During Calculus Harvard found it next to impossible to concentrate. Every time he checked his phone, there were no new messages, and by the time Biology rolled around, Harvard had given up all pretense of paying attention.  He sat in the back of the class, his phone hidden under his notebook, aimlessly toggling between his RSS feed and Evernote, where his task list for break loomed large and unchecked.

In the middle of the period, Aiden finally texted him:

(You worry too much, 🐻.)  

(You didn’t answer my question.) Harvard immediately sent back.  

He spent the rest of the class waiting on a reply that never came.

At lunch when Harvard sat down at the team’s usual table in the cafeteria, Kally and Tanner were the only ones there.  Tanner was waving a banana in one fist and clutching a ham sandwich in the other, his face turning a brilliant pink, which was never a good sign.  He was gesturing furiously to Kally, whose nose was wrinkling in the expression of gentle concern he had perfected after three years of sharing a room with the Junior Class’s resident hothead.

“Hey, Harvard,”  Kally said. He cocked his head, and the light glinted off his glasses.  “Are you feeling OK, you look a little--”

“Harvard!” Tanner shouted, in a voice that would have carried across a polo field.  “Can you believe what they’re doing for the Winter Formal this year?!” His cheeks were red enough that his freckles had nearly disappeared.   Best not to engage directly.  When Tanner pointed his banana at Harvard in a menacing fashion, Harvard held up his hands and shrugged.  “No, what?” he asked.

Kally turned back to Tanner, placing a hand on his arm.  “Tanner,” he said, “Try not to fly off the handle…”


“I’m not flying off the handle,” Tanner said, now-crimson face clashing horribly with his hair.  “Remember freshman year and the Glee Club incident?”

Both Kally and Harvard winced simultaneously.

That was flying off the handle,” Tanner said cheerfully.  He still had not put down the banana. “This is me being moderate.  Remember, like how we talked about, Kally?”  He polished off half his sandwich in one bite, giving Kally an enthusiastic nod.

“Er, yes,” Kally said, pausing for a moment as he pushed up the bridge of his glasses, “but I think that--”

“Tanner, that’s like saying because a plane crash wasn’t the Hindenburg, it went well,” Aiden said, setting his tray down next to Harvard.  “However you put it, it’s still a disaster.” His eyes were clear today, and he was much less pale, his hair arranged in its normal meticulous layers, except for one sleek strand sticking out above his left ear.  Harvard picked up his milk carton and took a sip, ignoring the temptation to smooth it down.

He would have almost thought things were back to normal, except for the fact that Aiden had, besides a brief glance of acknowledgement, managed to avoid looking at him altogether.

“Aw, come on, Aiden!”  Tanner shouted, as a piece of his ham went flying onto the table, “you were totally behind me with the Glee thing!”

“He totally egged you on for his own amusement, you mean,” Harvard said with a grin.  He meant it teasingly, but Aiden’s shoulders tensed and he shook his hair out over his shoulders, letting it fall like a curtain between them.  

“Not everything is a game to me, Harvard,” Aiden said, precise and sharp as a knife, stabbing a straw through his milk carton.

There was an awkward silence.  Harvard put his own milk down, feeling something wet under his elbow and realizing he must have laid his arm on the ham Tanner had just spat out.  Tanner and Kally were both staring at them now; Tanner had dropped the banana to the table where it rolled to the edge of his tray, unnoticed.

“Aiden,” Harvard started to say,  “I didn’t--”

“Harvard!”  A hand tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around to see Nicholas beaming at him, an unimpressed Seiji behind him.

“Hey, just wanted to let you know that this morning I found some of your gear in the clubhouse.  You must have accidentally left it there. I put it in our room cause I didn’t want to lug it around, but I can give it to you at practice.”

“Oh yeah,” Harvard said slowly.  “I thought I had taken it down to the dumpster, but I guess I got sidetracked and forgot.”

“You don’t want it anymore?”  Nicholas asked, big brown eyes wide, like a rescue mutt just tossed a steak straight from the table.  Not for the first time, Harvard wondered what kind of home life Nicholas had had to put up with before he got his scholarship.  “There’s some really nice stuff in there.”

“Nah, I have more than I can use, and some of it doesn’t fit anymore.  Actually, if you don’t mind, could you drop it off for me?” Harvard asked.  “I’d owe you one.” He turned back to his tray, picking up his apple. “And If there’s anything you want, just take it,” he added over his shoulder, as if in afterthought.

“Sure,” Nicholas said, the grin on his face somehow becoming wider.  “No problem.”

At Harvard’s right, Aiden caught his eye, his mouth quirked up just the slightest bit.  His eyes flicked over to Nicholas’ back and he tilted his head. “Nicely done, captain,” he murmured under his breath, low enough that only Harvard could hear him.

And Harvard felt something that had been tight in him all morning finally start to relax.  

“Are you feeling better or what?” Harvard asked again, kicking the side of Aiden’s loafers under the table.  

“Yes, Harvard, I’m fine,” Aiden said, shaking his head, but the corner of his mouth was still curved up, and his green eyes were warm on Harvard’s.  

Nicholas sank down in the chair on Harvard’s right, dumping his book bag on the table and fishing through the resulting pile of pencils, notebooks, crumpled papers, gym socks, and a (mostly) yellow banana peel.  

Seiji gave him a disgusted look before setting his own tray down next to him.  

“I knew I had a spare in here somewhere,” Nicholas said after a moment, sliding a black carabiner attached to a key over to his roommate.  

Seiji picked it up by the very corner of the carabiner, as gingerly as if it were the pin in a grenade.  “You can keep it as long as you need,” Nicholas said easily, sweeping the rest of the pile back into his backpack.  

“Thanks,” Seiji said, his face as sour as if Coach had just told him to run 200 suicides in the snow.

“There are other ways to get into the dorms, you know,” Aiden said, smirking. Before he could elaborate on what they were, and how he would know, he was interrupted by the arrival of the final member of the team, much to Harvard’s relief.

“Hey, check it out,” Eugene said, tossing a bright blue wrapper on the table in front of Nicholas and Seiji.  

“They’re giving out ice cream again?!” Tanner yelled, springing up to his feet, but Eugene shook his head.  “Sorry bro, they ran out,” he said.

There was a collective groan.

“Well, why’d you even mention it then!”  Seiji snarled, raking a hand through his hair so that it swept across his forehead, messy and wild.  Harvard blinked, surprised-- he hadn’t seen Seiji look this heated (or having visible feelings about much of anything, really) since his match with Aiden.

“Sorry guys,” Eugene said, hangdog.  “I’m sure they’ll have them again soon.”

“Relax, Seiji,” Nicholas said.  He dug around in his backpack some more before his hand emerged with an identical plastic wrapper.  He tossed the drumstick to Seiji, who caught it neatly in one hand. “You can have mine.”

“It’s not part of my regimen,” Seiji said, lips still pursed in that seemingly permanent frown he wore, but his fingers were in the middle of tearing off the wrapper.

“You’ll survive,” Nicholas said, laughing, in that way he had of being sweet and arch all at once.  He turned to the rest of the table. “What do you guys think of our chances to make the Fall Tournament?”

“It’s in the bag,” Eugene chimed in, licking the last of his popsicle.  

“Sure.  But what about the formal?”  Nicholas asked. “Isn’t that the same day…?”

Tanner’s entire face lit up.

“YES.  THANK YOU FOR REMINDING ME,” he bellowed, while Kally, who had been attempting to cram for his Spanish final, put his head in his hands with a sigh.  “THE THEME--”

“Does it really matter?”  Seiji asked, rolling his eyes.  “Who here has a date, besides Aiden?”

“Aw Seiji, just because everyone is too intimidated to ask you to the dance,” Nicholas began, before Seiji’s french fry hit him directly in the eye.  

Nicholas gave a squawk of protest.  “Hey!  You chewed me out last week when I did that to you!”

“I’m doing it to make a point, not because I have no manners or self- control,” Seiji said delicately, before nailing him with another fry.  “It’s a different situation entirely.”

Tanner opened his mouth and then shut it again, before mumbling at what for him was a very low volume, “I might have someone in mind.”

Kally lifted his head from his book, his nose wrinkling at the corners, but Tanner didn’t add anything more.

“I certainly don’t get as much action as some people do around here,” Eugene said good-naturedly, his eyes meeting Harvard’s in a look that made a prickle of sweat run down his back.  

“We can’t all be me,” Aiden said, preening next to him, as he posed with his chin on his hand, tossing his head so that his hair fell in a cascade down his neck.

“For once, I wasn’t talking about you, Aiden,” Eugene said, raising an eyebrow.  “I was talking about our beloved captain.” Here Eugene paused, relishing the attention as the entire team stared at him, while the smirk dropped off Aiden’s face like it had never been there.  “He went on a date last night!”

Everyone at the table stared at Harvard with various expressions of confusion or surprise, which he might have been more annoyed over if Aiden hadn’t just pushed his tray away, untouched.  Aiden didn’t love eating, not like Tanner did, but he had low blood sugar, and for the most part he made sure to eat enough so that it didn’t mess with him.  

“It’s really nothing,” Harvard said, giving a pained smile.

“Take him to the clubhouse next,” Eugene said.  “He’d love the decorations you guys put up.”

“No one’s allowed in the clubhouse unless they’re team,” Aiden said flatly.  He had gotten out his Latin workbook, and was writing something down with a red pen.  Harvard had personally seen Aiden sneak out to the clubhouse with at least two different upperclassmen last year, but now didn’t seem like the right time to point it out.

“Aiden did all the work, anyway,” Harvard said instead.  “I was just there as moral support.” He slid his french fries over to Aiden, who instantly slid them back.  Harvard empathized. Thinking about the day they put up the decorations was enough to make him lose his appetite too.  That day Harvard had believed, for one shining moment, that Aiden had wanted…that he had wanted…

It doesn’t matter.  Harvard had been wrong, and he had realized it before he made a mistake he couldn’t take back, and now he was dating Cameron, and everything was fine.  

Time to change the subject.

Nicholas was on it, thank god.  “Speaking of moral support, Aiden, remember what I told you about--?”

“Your moon theory?  Yes,” Aiden said, highlighting something in his textbook.  “Luce lucet aliena.”

“Umm, Aiden, I don’t…?”

“‘It shines with another’s light,’” Aiden translated, nibbling on the tip of his highlighter.  “It can’t be trusted. I’m agreeing with you.”

“Oh!”  Nicholas said. “Awesome!  Well, look, Harvard getting this date is just more proof of that.  No offense, Harvard,” and Harvard gave Nicholas his most unamused expression, which to his credit he barely faltered under, ”but you have to admit it’s not normal for you to have a date.  It’s a further sign that my theory is legit.”

Seiji fixed Nicholas with that impenetrable stare of his, looking both like he very much wanted to ask, and at the same time, really, really didn’t want to know.

Nicholas stared back, his smile growing by the second, cresting when Seiji flared his nose and asked, as though it had been dragged out of him, “What theory?”

Nicholas leaned over the table so that he was practically in Seiji’s face, his shaggy hair flopping into his eyes.   “Look, the ancients knew all this stuff about the cycle of the moon, and its impact on people. Did you hear what Aiden said?  It all makes sense if you take into account the--

“Is this like last night, when you asked me about the inevitable entropic collapse of the universe and our ultimate insignificance in the face of it?” Seiji asked dryly.

“No!” Nicholas said, his cheeks tinged red.  “No, that’s totally different.” He tried to snatch his ice cream back, but Seiji was prepared, dodging him with reflexes honed over a lifetime of discipline.  “Ingrate,” Nicholas said, throwing one of his french fries back at him.

“Quit being ridiculous.  I’ve licked it,” Seiji said, batting the fry away.  “It’s not like you’d want it back.”

Nicholas shrugged.  “Whatever,” he said, and Seiji made a gagging noise.

“I get that.” Tanner shared a fist bump with Nicholas.

“I feel like I’m watching Bear Grylls,” Aiden said, turning the page of his workbook.  “Is one of you going to eat a bug next?”

“We’re not exactly roughing it in the wilds of Borneo over here,” Nicholas said.

“Eating next to you is basically the same thing,” said Seiji, curling his lip, though Harvard noticed that he made no move to leave.

Seiji and Nicholas squabbled the rest of lunch, and there was no more mention of dating.  Harvard was grateful for the distraction. He couldn’t help feeling the tension radiating from Aiden like a high voltage wire, causing a corresponding ache deep in his chest.

When the bell finally rang and Aiden dumped his tray out it was still full of food.  He hadn’t eaten a single bite.

 

***************************************************

 

As Harvard walked to practice later that afternoon, a chill wind was blowing across campus.  He pulled his scarf tighter around his neck, sinking his fingers into the lush cashmere.

The scarf was dark green, a Burberry that was lavish and indulgent and something Harvard would never in a million years have gotten for himself.  It had been a present from Aiden last year, and Harvard had worn it the whole winter through. He had been wearing it, in fact, that day in the clubhouse, and just like that, the memory he had been trying to avoid all day came flooding back, impossible to forget.

 Aiden had been acting squirrelly that whole week, sneaking off at weird times and refusing to say why.  

He was hauling a giant cardboard box to the clubhouse when Harvard caught up to him that Friday.

“What are you up to now, Aiden?”  Harvard asked, hands on his hips as he faced him.  “And how did you get that box over the fence?”

“This was supposed to be a surprise, Harvard,” Aiden said, his breath puffing out in a cloud of smoke.  “Of course you’re too much of a worrier to let it happen.”

“That would be more reassuring if your surprises didn’t have a tendency to periodically blow up in your face.  Spill it.”

“It’s easier to let you see it,” Aiden said, and so Harvard followed him along the secret path through the woods.

It had begun snowing, making the forest quiet and reverent, and they walked in comfortable silence for a time.

“We haven’t hung out just us for a while,”  Harvard said finally. “This is perfect timing, because I was wanting to ask you something important, actually, and--”

Aiden tripped before he could finish, dropping the box on the ground.  Luckily Harvard grabbed his arm before he fell.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Aiden said, huffing a laugh, his neck turning red, tilting his head down so that his hair covered his face.  Harvard bent over, searching for what Aiden had caught his foot on so he could avoid it, but nothing jumped out at him, and Aiden was jittery all of a sudden, tugging at Harvard’s grip, anxious to get going.  The whole thing was weird, and set Harvard on edge. He didn’t take his hand from Aiden’s elbow until they got to the clubhouse.

When Aiden opened the door, Harvard stepped through, and then stopped short, taking it all in.  The smell of fresh fir hit him first, and no wonder. Every available surface was crammed with garlands and holly branches and God only knew what else.  

Aiden had even draped some across the room like streamers.

Aiden dropped the box on the table, opening it and tossing something to Harvard who caught it before he realized what it was.

“Ornaments too?”  Harvard said. “You’re decorating for the newbies?”

“This is our last year.  I want it to be different.  Special,” Aiden said. He lifted one shoulder and then dropped it.  “I thought it would be fun to surprise them. Nicholas is so excitable, he’ll probably bust a gasket.  Maybe Seiji will even smile.”

Harvard smiled down at Aiden, who was untangling a string of light-up glass icicles.  “That’s really sweet of you,” he said, fingers tangling in Aiden’s as he tried to help him with the knot.

Harvard wasn’t exactly sure of what happened next, only the end result, which was the glass icicles shattered as they hit the floor, spraying shards in all directions.  Aiden yelped, hopping onto the table.

“Did any get on you?”

“No,” Aiden said, “I’m good.”

“You stay there, and I’ll take care of this,” Harvard said.  He didn’t think he had ever seen Aiden this clumsy before.

“Sorry, Harvard,” Aiden said, his voice slight as the snowfall.  

“Don’t worry about it, Aiden,” Harvard said.  “Really, it’s not a big deal.” He squeezed Aiden’s shoulder, and Aiden ducked his head, avoiding his eyes.  “You always have to clean up my messes,” Aiden said. “I guess you’re used to it.”

“That’s not true,” Harvard said.  “We help each other out.”

Aiden crossed his arms over his chest, hugging himself.  “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”

“Mistletoe?”  Harvard asked, pointing at the sprig over the door with the broom handle.  Maybe distraction would get Aiden out of whatever thing he was undoubtedly overthinking in his head.  “You really do want to watch the world burn, don’t you?”

“Just trying to help things along for Kally and Tanner,” Aiden said, but his usual smirk seemed forced, somehow.

“Since when are you a romantic?”  Harvard asked.

“I’m not,” Aiden said, ducking his head again.  “They make sense together. That’s all.”

No matter how much Harvard teased him, he refused to elaborate.

Aiden had already made impressive headway, so it didn’t take long before they were making the finishing touches.  Aiden had found more fairy lights in the bottom of the box, and they had draped them over the rafters. The clubhouse looked like a natural extension of the forest when they were done, all needles and shadow and quiet wonder.  

Harvard expected Aiden just might get that smile out of Seiji after all.

The one thing the decorating hadn’t accomplished was getting Aiden out of his own head.  The closer they got to being finished, the more wound up he became. Putting the unused decorations in the bag, Aiden straightened his shoulders, and asked, without turning around, “What were you going to talk to me about, Harvard?”

“Oh, college stuff.  But actually, it might be better to talk about it in the dorms, so I can show you the housing stuff on my laptop.”

Aiden’s shoulders slumped.  “Right,” he said. “That makes sense.”

Harvard unlocked the door, but before he could open it, Aiden stopped him, a hand on his chest.

“Wait,” Aiden said.  “Your scarf is undone, Harvard.”  He stepped closer. “Let me fix it.”  Aiden had deft, slender fingers, and he tied the scarf in a flawless knot around Harvard’s throat so that it nestled around his skin, not too loose and not too snug.

Harvard shouldn’t feel like he couldn’t breath.  That didn’t make any sense.

Aiden’s fingers were still wrapped around the scarf, even though he was finished tying it, and that didn’t make any sense, either.  His eyes were dark as the forest outside, dark and quiet and beautiful, and Harvard felt himself start to spin out of control, the edges of his restraint slipping out of his grasp, so that he began imagining things, like a gentle pull on his neck, like green eyes pleading with his, asking for more than just a kiss, asking for--

Aiden had the start of a blush on his face, spreading across his nose, and because it was winter, there were no freckles, and Harvard remembered the day on the polo field, that Aiden didn’t date, that Aiden hated commitment, he remembered the way Aiden had stepped lightly out of his arms like he had never been there in the first place.

Aiden’s neck was flushed a rosy pink when Harvard came to his senses.  He covered Aiden’s hands with his and squeezed them before separating them from his chest.   

“This isn’t a good idea, Aiden,” Harvard said, his throat dry.  He did not say, You don’t do relationships, and you know I don’t do hookups, or You never wanted me before, why now? or any of the other thousand questions burning on his tongue, and Aiden didn’t ask for clarification.

In fact, Aiden didn’t talk the rest of the way back, or indeed the rest of the night.

The next week Cameron had asked him out.  And Harvard wanted to say no, but he had thought about the mistletoe, and he had said yes.

 

***************************

 

In the locker room, the trouble began as soon as Harvard walked in.

“What’s the guy’s name again?” Eugene asked.

“Cameron,”  Aiden said before Harvard could, his shoulders high and stiff.  He didn’t look up from putting on his shoes.

“What’s his actual name, Harvard?” Eugene asked again, laughing.

“No, that’s right,” Harvard said.  He ignored Eugene’s puzzled glance, lacing up his own sneakers and feeling queasy.  Maybe the ham sandwich at lunch had been a mistake.

“See?” Nicholas said to Seiji.  “I told you today was weird.  First Harvard’s date, and now Aiden remembering people’s names?  It’s the full moon. Gotta be.”

“That is a stupid superstition which I am not at all surprised you believe.”

“We’ll see if you feel the same when I’m beating you in our bout today.”

Eugene snickered at Seiji’s scowl as he tried to figure out if Nicholas’ comment was an insult or a compliment.  

While Seiji was still thinking, Nicholas closed his locker, dropping his phone on the tile.  His headphones popped out, leaving a tinny voice singing, in the middle of a backdrop of synthesizers:

 

“In the middle of the night, in my dreams

You should see the things we do, baby”

 

Nicholas dove for the phone but Eugene got there first, snatching it free.  “Who are you thinking of in the middle of the night, bro?”  Eugene asked, ruffling his hair, holding the phone right out of reach.  Harvard didn’t miss the way Seiji went still at the question, though his face was as cold and reserved as ever.  

Harvard was sure Aiden had a theory about that.  

Nicholas turned pink, but true to form refused to back down, which made him go up another notch in Harvard’s estimation.  “It’s actually a good album. I mean, it’s no Red, but…”

“Red?”  Seiji asked.

“You’re not even going to mention 1989?  And for a minute, I thought you had taste,”  Aiden said. The sole memory Harvard had of fall sophomore year was Aiden making “Blank Space” his personal anthem.

“Come on,” Harvard said, before anyone could say anything else about Cameron, and bring the frown back on Aiden’s face.  “Coach hates being kept waiting, and I know none of you want to do suicides in 20 degree weather.”

The team grumbled, but made their slow way to the piste, and Harvard felt a sense of relief that was all too short lived.  

Practice ended up a disaster, but not because of anything Harvard could have anticipated.

All Harvard could remember later was a thud, and an awful cry, cut off at the midpoint, that barely sounded like Aiden at all.

When Harvard dropped to the ground by his side Aiden’s wrist was awful, red and an angry black color.  He was rubbing it at the elbow obsessively, and his eyes were huge and almost all pupil, dull and unfocused, moving all around the room until they met Harvard’s.  “Harvard,” he gasped, “Dizzy, can’t, it hurts…”  Harvard put his arms under him and got him up.  They staggered slowly to the locker room, Harvard taking most of Aiden’s weight.  

Coach was saying something to the rest of the team, but Harvard couldn’t understand a word of it.

They sat down, Harvard keeping his arm around Aiden for safekeeping. Nicholas threw Harvard the first aid kit before he left, brown eyes wide with concern, promising that Coach had gone herself to get the nurse and she should be here soon.

Aiden’s wrist was swollen enough now that it was forced against the cuff of his jacket, the vivid purple bruise blanching under the pressure.  He couldn’t stop moving, rocking his body back and forth, his shoulders shaking as the fingers of his good hand splayed out and fisted together over and over.

Where was the nurse?

“Take off your jacket, Aiden,” Harvard said, striving for calm.  “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Harvard,” Aiden said weakly, shivering under Harvard’s arm.  His skin was as pale as his fencing whites, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.  “You’ll hurt me, please, please don’t make me, please don’t…”

“Aiden,” Harvard said, pulling his arm close around Aiden’s waist.  “I’m going to cut the sleeve, OK? And then we can take the rest off, and you’ll feel much better.”

“No,” Aiden said.  “No, Harvard, no, please don’t…”

But when Harvard set his wrist across his lap he let him, even though Harvard could feel all the lean muscles in his arm standing out, vibrating with the effort to be still.  “I’ll be really careful,” Harvard said, “and I’ll make it quick.” While he worked the scissors under the cuff Aiden whimpered uncontrollably, muffling the noise with his other hand, but otherwise he didn’t move a muscle.  

As soon as Harvard could he made the cut, tearing the sleeve open, and Aiden let out a strangled moan and put his head between his legs, breathing heavily.

Harvard tugged the rest of his jacket off and threw it on the floor.  He started working the skin close by the sprain, squeezing the sensitive underside of Aiden’s forearm to distract from the agony of his wrist.  Aiden shuddered next to him, lifting his head and leaning his chin on Harvard’s shoulder.

“It does feel better,” Aiden whispered, as Harvard pressed his thumbs firmly into the skin of Aiden’s inner elbow.  He gave a long, hitching exhale, relaxing so that the full weight of his head fell onto Harvard.

“Good,” Harvard said.  Aiden’s skin was clammy, and slick with sweat, his hair a mess from where he kept dragging his good hand through it.  All Harvard wanted to do was take him in his arms and make the pain go away.

He was still holding Aiden when the nurse came in.

The ER was only twenty minutes away, but those minutes were some of the longest of Harvard’s life.  They wouldn’t let him back with Aiden for the X-ray, and so he paced in the waiting room, flipping through the news on his phone, reading and re-reading the same paragraph, his heart in his throat.

Finally the nurse came back, a pale and wan Aiden in her wake.  There was no fracture, so they could go back home. The nurse had elected to dress Aiden’s wrist herself, since the ER was so slammed that they could be waiting until the early morning to be seen.  She kicked Harvard out of the infirmary once they got back, and he waited by the door, not even bothering to look at his phone this time.

When the nurse finally let Harvard back in, Aiden was lying down on the bed, his arm in a sling, the wrist wrapped up in bandages and a splint.

“Harvard Lee,” he announced, sitting up straight.   Aiden’s eyes were glassy and wild, but his tan had returned, and his face was smooth, with no lines of pain.  “Now I know how you get all the guys.”

“What?”  

“You rescue them,”  Aiden smiled. “Like you rescued me, when you carried me to the locker room so I wouldn’t get hurt.”

“I didn’t actually carry you,” Harvard said, blushing.

“You could have,” Aiden said.  “You have the biggest muscles on the team, you know.  Whenever you’re mad at me you cross your arms in front of your chest and it makes your biceps flex.  It’s very distracting.” The line of Aiden’s shoulders and his collarbone were a creamy pink where the t-shirt rode low on his slim frame, and how could he ever call Harvard distracting when he knew, he had to know what he looked like right now, all big green eyes and crooked smiles and wild silky hair that begged to be touched.  “You should really do something about that.”

“I’m not that strong,” Harvard said, his pulse singing.  He hadn’t known what to expect from the pills, but it sure as hell wasn’t this.

“Yes, you are.  When I throw my arm around your neck it’s like hugging a bull.  Remember when we wrested in gym class in fifth grade? I bet you’d win if we wrestled now-- your shoulders are solid iron.  I bet you’d pin me down and I wouldn’t be able to get free, no matter how much I struggled,” he said. Aiden’s face had taken on a dreamy cast.  He didn’t look like he much minded the thought of losing.

If Harvard didn’t know any better, he’d think Aiden was flirting with him.  

It was just the drugs, of course.  That didn’t make it any less devastating to have Aiden looking like he had that night at the clubhouse, like he was everything Harvard had ever wanted but forever out of his reach.

“I can’t take these around you,” Aiden said, seeming to read his mind.  

“Why?”  Harvard asked, even though he was afraid of the answer.

“I might tell the truth,” Aiden said, then broke into giggles.  

“That I’m the worst, you mean?”  Harvard asked, trying to steer the conversation into safer waters.

Aiden’s eyes had turned dark, the pupils still so enlarged that they looked black in the low light of the room.  “That I was really proud of you when you made captain. That you’re so smart and capable and good that you can fix anything , make anything better, like how you made my wrist better.  You take everything on your shoulders but you can handle it because you’re strong and noble like a lion.  That you’re my best friend for always, and when you look at me and tell me you believe in me I believe in me too.”

By the time Aiden finished Harvard could feel his cheeks, bright red and burning.  Aiden was staring at him with a wide, soft smile, waiting for him to respond. “A lion, huh?”  he asked, picking the least embarrassing thing to focus on. He knew Aiden had a bit of a hero worship thing for him when they were younger.  Apparently he had never gotten rid of it, just hidden it away along with all the other things he liked to hide about himself.

“My lion,” Aiden said, his smile widening.  “You’re always growling at me for something but if anyone tried to hurt me you’d rip them to pieces.  You’re very overprotective, Mr. Lion.” He giggled again. “Want to know another secret?”

Harvard swallowed.  “Aiden, I’m not sure that--”

“I really like it.”  Aiden looked thoughtful.  “Remember in science class when we watched that documentary about the cheetahs in the zoo who have dog friends that live with them forever and they have fun adventures together all the time.  Do you think lions have that too? That could be me and you! Then I’d never have to worry about you going away.”

“Why would I go away, Aiden?”

“Well,” Aiden said, and the smile faded from his face.  “If we go to different colleges, you’ll make new friends, and probably like them more than me.  And… and even if you don’t, and we stick together, one day you’ll meet someone, like Cameron,” his mouth twisted, “and you’ll fall in love with them, and you won’t need me anymore.”

“Aiden, you’ll always be my best friend.”  Harvard took Aiden’s shoulder, trying to look into his eyes, but Aiden wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“You won’t need me anymore,” he repeated quietly, his words slow and slurred.  “But I guess you’ve never needed me, not like I need you.”

Aiden closed his eyes then, and lay back down, Harvard brushing his hair from his forehead.  Not very much longer, and he was falling asleep.

It was only once Harvard had gotten back to his room, and was setting his phone alarm for the next day, that he realized in all the excitement, he had never gotten around to texting Cameron back.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m only happy when I’m on the run

I broke a million hearts just for fun

I don’t belong to anyone

I guess you could say my life’s a mess

But I’m still lookin pretty in this dress.

I’m the image of deception.”

-Mariana, Homewrecker

 

 

Aiden stayed in the infirmary overnight because the nurse wanted to keep an eye on him.  

Alone in the dorm, Harvard sat on his bed in the dark, staring at his phone screen.  He hadn’t bothered taking a shower, just stripped and fell onto the bed. The room had been pitch black when Harvard unlocked the door, and he had left the lights off, using his phone to navigate.  

Cameron had replied less than five minutes after Harvard had texted him.

(Please don’t feel bad about not responding!  That sucks about your friend! Get some rest, and we’ll talk in the morning.)

Harvard sent back a smiley face, and lay flat on his back, hands folded on his chest, eyes on the ceiling.  It was much too quiet without Aiden, the silence filling all the space in the room, making it hard to think.  He finally managed to go to sleep somewhere around 2 AM, but when he woke up the next morning he felt restless and drained, even though he couldn’t remember having any dreams, bad or otherwise.  

In the process of dragging himself into the cafeteria in search of some coffee, he bumped into Kally.  

“Harvard, I heard about what happened with Aiden.  How is he?” Kally asked, his worried eyes conducted a thorough inspection of Harvard, no doubt tallying the circles under his eyes and the lines on his forehead and adding them up to nothing good.

Harvard was too exhausted to even attempt a smile.  “I don’t know,” he said, slumping against the wall and rubbing his temples.  Aiden’s face flashed in his mind, racked with agony as he clung to his wrist, or blurred with painkillers, disbelief stark in his green eyes while Harvard explained that they’d always be friends, always .

Kally’s brows furrowed.  “You went to the ER with him, didn’t you?  What time did you get back? Listen, Harvard, there’s some bad stuff going around campus.  Tanner is in bed right now, sick as a dog.” Harvard blinked, taking in the prescription bag in Kally’s hand, and the shadows under his own eyes.

“That’s for Tanner, isn’t it?”

Kally blushed.  “He’d never get it for himself, and if you don’t start antivirals right away, they’re pretty much useless.  I told the nurse I was coming down with flu,” he said, as his fingers nervously crinkled the fold of the bag.  “I tried to see Aiden but she wouldn’t let me in. I think he’s still asleep. Tell him we’re thinking of him, won’t you?”

Harvard nodded.  “Don’t forget to take care of yourself, Kally,” he said, narrowing his eyes.  “You can’t help Tanner if you’re out for the count.”

“I could say the same for you,” Kally said wryly.  “Maybe you could get some sleep once in a while?”

“I slept last night,” Harvard said, straightening up from the brick.  

It wasn’t a lie.  Four hours still counted as sleep.

“It’s all right, Harvard, I understand.  I’ve only been friends with Tanner since Kings’ Row, but you’ve known Aiden your whole life.  I can’t imagine how much he means to you.”

Could you tell him that for me?  Because he doesn’t seem to get it.  “Thanks, Kally,” Harvard said, giving Kally a quick hug.  “You’re right. I’ll try to get some sleep tonight.”

The coffee barely made a dent in the headache Harvard was rapidly developing, and he quickly discovered he had even less of an appetite than Aiden had had yesterday.  Given that and his fragmenting state of mind, class seemed like a bad idea.

That’s what Harvard told himself, anyway, as he skipped Calculus to wait outside the nurse’s office.  

By lunchtime she had finally broken down and agreed let him in again.  “Let me check to see if he’s awake first,” she said, shaking her head at Harvard’s persistence.

When she came back, there was a strange expression on her face.  

It was only after she told him that Aiden didn’t want to see him that Harvard realized it was pity.

 

*******************************************

 

Aiden’s wrist took its time healing.  

By the third week he was finally out of the splint, and the bruises had faded from a nasty violet black to a muddy lime green, but when Harvard asked the nurse, she said he should still be wrapping it every day and icing it at night.  Aiden had promised Harvard that he would, but Harvard wondered if he was telling the truth, particularly in the morning, as Harvard got up after him and had no way of knowing if he had or hadn’t put the wrap on until lunch. He had considered getting up with Aiden to make sure, but things between them had been strained ever since the night at the ER, and Harvard didn’t want to put any additional pressure on their friendship right now.  

The only lucky thing about Aiden’s accident was that he had hurt his left wrist, not his right one.  Coach had forbidden him from any sort of bout, but he was still meant to be drilling with the rest of them.    

The trouble was, for two weeks in a row he hadn’t shown up for a single practice.   Aiden had never been one for consistency, but even for him this was over the line. Not only did it set an awful example for their new teammates, but Harvard could only cover for him for so long before it looked like he was playing favorites.

Yesterday had been the last straw.  Coach had pulled him aside at the end of practice, and when he met up with her in her office, he already knew what she was going to say.

“I know he’s your best friend,” she said, pushing the sleeves of her hoodie up to her elbows and laying her arms on her desk.  “But you’re not just his captain.  You’re the team’s captain.  And sometimes that means making hard calls like this.  If you’re ever going to be a coach someday, you’ll have to get used to it.”

“How did you know I…?”

“Don’t look so surprised, Harvard.  You remind me of me at your age. And for what it’s worth, I think you’d make an amazing coach.   If you can stomach these kinds of decisions.”

Harvard nodded and stood up, taking that as the dismissal it was clearly intended to be.  

“And Harvard?”

“Yes, Coach?”

“Do it tonight.  In my experience, these kinds of things only get worse the longer that you put them off.”

Unfortunately, Harvard hadn’t been able to do what Coach had suggested.  He had stopped by his locker to get his Calculus book and some Aleve, swallowing them dry, and when he had gotten to their room, Aiden was nowhere to be found.  

Lately he had been absent from their room more often than not, often sneaking back in after curfew, or sometimes not even coming back, period.

Harvard wondered who Aiden was going out with, and why he was spending the night with them, when he never had before, but he knew if he asked, that would open the door to more questions about Cameron.  

He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to discuss less.  They had only gone on two more dates, and Aiden hadn’t asked about either one.  Harvard should have been relieved, but he couldn’t shake a curious feeling of guilt, thick and crawling on his skin like mud.

The whole situation was a miserable mess, one that left Harvard wandering around the edges of campus the day after his talk with Coach, wondering if he should try and catch Aiden at lunch or after class.  He had almost come to a decision when someone laced their hand in his own, pulling him face to face with a dimpled smile.

“Cameron,” Harvard said, his palms beginning to sweat.  “What are you doing here?”

“My class came into town for a field trip.  I didn’t say anything because I wanted to surprise you,” Cameron said.  

He took a step closer to Harvard, pulling on his scarf, and Harvard felt something lurch in his stomach.  

“That’s great,” he said, forcing a smile on his face.  

“We don’t have to go out,” Cameron said, clearly picking up on his mood.  “I know this is last minute.”

“No, I was just surprised, that’s all!  I’m glad you came.” Harvard took a deep breath, looking into dark brown eyes.  Cameron had dropped his hands to Harvard’s waist, and he hadn’t stepped away. He was handsome, and sweet, and when Harvard kissed him he kissed back eagerly, his hands tight on Harvard’s hips, lips pressing hard onto Harvard’s own.  

When Harvard pulled back Cameron was flushed, smiling so deeply that there were tiny creases around his dimple.  He was easy to kiss.

Probably easy to love, too.

Unbidden, an image came to his mind:  Aiden next to him in the locker room after Harvard’s loss to Seiji.  Aiden had promised to lay off the freshman on Harvard’s say so alone, smiling up at his captain crookedly, green eyes with the faintest striations running through them, like pale fire.  

When Aiden’s face looked like that, all naked trust and devotion, Harvard couldn’t pretend, even to himself, that his best friend was anything but the most beautiful guy Harvard had ever met.  

Cameron was smiling even bigger now, cool fingers splayed on Harvard’s cheek.  Harvard’s cheeks burned under his touch, and he realized abruptly that he must be blushing.

“Just let me go back to the dorm for one second, I need to get my wallet,” Harvard said.  His stomach lurched again, and he felt a wave of sweat bead up on forehead. God, I hope I’m not getting what Tanner had.

Cameron let go of him reluctantly.  “Hurry,” he said, the pink on his own cheeks deepening.  

Harvard jogged over to the dorm, wondering how on earth he was going to manage to make it through lunch.  He wasn’t paying much attention, and when he opened the door to Castillo he slammed into Aiden full tilt, sending him to the floor in a flurry of books.  

Aiden rolled when he landed, and ending up curling over onto his side, his head dropped to his chest so that his hair swept over his face, hiding his eyes.

Only his mouth was visible, the corners of his lips turned sharply downward, and Harvard must have knocked the wind out of him, because he was making these convulsive gasps, like he couldn’t quite get the hang of breathing yet. Harvard stood stock still in horror for a moment before dropping to his knees, hands immediately finding Aiden’s shoulder, only to be flung off unceremoniously.

Before he could say anything, Aiden shoved him again, hard, enough to send Harvard off balance and onto the floor himself.  

“Your wrist,” Harvard said stupidly.  Aiden had just used that same wrist to knock him directly on his ass--it obviously hadn’t been hurt.  He was using it now to rise to his feet easy as taking a breath, and when he flicked his hair over his shoulder Harvard finally saw his eyes, and felt his heart stop.

“A little distracted, aren’t you?” Aiden asked, looking down at Harvard.  “I wonder, why could that be?” He moved his words around like a sword, probing for the perfect place to thrust.

Harvard, hot and itchy with remorse, made no move to get up.  “I’m sorry, Aiden,” he said. “That was all my fault.”

“Harvard,” Aiden continued, ignoring this entirely, “I understand that you haven’t had nearly the experience I have.  Or, if we’re being honest, hardly any experience worth mentioning.  But, a word of advice-- if you’re going to get this worked up over one kiss, you might want to practice pacing yourself.”  He loomed over Harvard, his green eyes taking in Harvard’s flinch with a cool satisfaction.

“Or it might be somewhat… anticlimactic down the road.  For all the parties involved,” Aiden finished, the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile his eyes didn’t share.

Harvard flattened himself on the floor, feeling his face turn a scalded, ugly red.  He had, between being wrapped up in fencing and Aiden, barely done more than make out with a few guys back in middle school, and he’d never, well.  Gone any farther.

It was only… he was the Captain of the fencing team, and a senior, and practical, level headed Harvard Lee.  He wasn’t supposed to be romantic, and he wasn’t supposed to want to wait for someone he was in love with, of all the ridiculous things.  But he was, and he did, and Harvard had long consoled himself with the fact that the right person wouldn’t care, the right person would be--would be kind.  

The right person wouldn’t crack his chest open and prise out one of his deepest insecurities, dissecting it warm and twitching in front of him for their own amusement.

  “I-- I--”  Harvard said, and stopped.  It was no use. He could feel the serrated edges of Aiden’s smirk, a visceral pain throbbing somewhere in the vicinity of his heart.  

“Right, I’d better be off,” Aiden said briskly, pushing himself up with his hands on his knees.  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Harvard. What are friends for, after all?”  His face did something complicated and terrible when he said that last, and he grabbed his hurt wrist as he stalked out the door, fingers clenched white around the wrap.

It took a good ten minutes for Harvard to get himself together and grab his debit card, and another five to go back and face Cameron, who stood waiting on the quad, smile long gone, with a question in his eyes that Harvard had no answer to.

 

*********************************************

 

Aiden didn’t come back to the room that night.  He had to come back at some point the next day to change his clothes, but he must have been timing it to coincide with when he knew Harvard was away.  When Harvard came back in the afternoon to pick up his gear, FDR was missing from his usual place on Aiden’s pillow, but everything else in the room appeared untouched.  

Harvard sat on Aiden’s bed, his hand skimming the pillow and the covers, but the sheets were cool and crisp.  He fell back onto the mattress, turning his head to rest against the pillowcase. It still smelled faintly of Aiden’s stupidly expensive conditioner, the one with the rosewater and the crushed pearls.  Aiden hadn’t been away long enough for it to fade.

Harvard really should get ready for practice.

The knock startled him badly enough that he almost wound up on the floor.  When he opened the door Bobby Rodriguez stood outside, twirling his braid, a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows.

“Is Aiden here?”  Bobby blurted out before Harvard could say anything.

Harvard stiffened.  “No,” he said. “He’s not.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

Harvard pictured yesterday at lunch, Aiden on the ground, Aiden sneering down at him, and he bit his tongue before he said any of that to Bobby.  “Yesterday, but that was a while ago, and he seemed--” vicious  ”--OK.  Why?”

Bobby’s face had gone pale.  “Something’s wrong with him,” he said, and Harvard froze.  “I went to the clubhouse, Nicholas was showing it to me, and when we opened the door Aiden was already there.  But--”

“What?”

“He hasn’t talked to you?” said Bobby, worrying the tip of his braid.  “I mean,” he paused, kicking at the ground. “I didn’t ask too much, so I don’t know what happened, but yesterday.  You know.”

What ?” Harvard said, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands.

“What happened after lunch,”  Bobby said, puzzled. “When Aiden was crying? He really didn’t talk to you,”  he said, taking in Harvard’s expression and shaking his head in disbelief.  “I told him he should but I think I only made him feel worse about it. Whatever it was.”

“He was crying,” Harvard repeated, the words heavy and wooden on his tongue.  

“Yeah, it was pretty bad, Harvard.  I’ve never seen him look like that before.”

“You said he was at the clubhouse?”

“Yeah, I mean, that was yesterday, but that’s where he was the last time I saw him.”

Harvard took a deep breath, shrugging his bag off.  It hit the floor with a dull thud. “Bobby,” he said, “thank you for telling me.  I need you to do me a solid, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, Harvard,” Bobby said. “You’ll talk to Aiden, won’t you?  I know you’re going through a rough patch, but he needs you. You’re his best friend.”

“Don’t worry about Aiden,” Harvard said, as worry solidified into an unyielding mass in his stomach, weighing him down like concrete.  “I’ll take care of him.”

Bobby promised he’d let Coach know that Harvard couldn’t make it to practice, and Harvard took a quick shower and put on his sweatpants and his old t-shirt, and dug up some of Aiden’s favorite snacks, putting them in his bag.

Then he couldn’t put it off any longer, so he steeled himself and made his way to the clubhouse.

Somehow the way seemed much quicker than usual, probably because of how much he was dreading what could lay at the end of it.

When Aiden opened the door, though, his face was blank with shock, too surprised to be mad.  It didn’t last long.

“What are you doing here, Aiden?”

“I could ask the same of you, Harvard, but I suspect I know.  Cameron kicked you out of bed, huh?” Aiden said. “That didn’t take long.  I could give you some lessons, if you’d like,” he said offhandedly, like it was nothing.

Harvard blushed, his face an aching scarlet, but refused to rise to the bait.

One of the things Harvard had learned about Aiden was that the more he wanted to distract you from something, the pricklier he became.  It didn’t mean that his arrows didn’t land their targets, but it did mean that Harvard knew enough to take them in stride and keep his eyes open.

The tip of Aiden’s nose was red, a sure fire sign that Bobby was right, and he had been crying, not only yesterday but today as well.  More concerning than that, even, were the sheets on the couch, and the heap of clothes on the coffee table, which all seemed to point to the inescapable conclusion that…

“You’ve been spending the night here ,” Harvard said, in a tone of mingled alarm and fury.

“Aren’t you meant to be at practice?” Aiden said.

“Aren’t you?” Harvard shot back.

“Touche,” Aiden said.  He studied Harvard with narrowed green eyes and  sighed. “Look, how about I won’t talk about Cameron if you won’t talk about,” Aiden gestured, encompassing the entire room and himself in one elegant move, “this.”

“Deal,” Harvard said reluctantly.  That unfortunately left one major topic of conversation, the team and Aiden’s position on it, which he most definitely did not want to wrestle with, but it had to be done.

Aiden had different ideas, apparently.

“When were you going to tell me you got that acceptance letter to Princeton?” he asked, sitting back down on the sofa.

Harvard sat next to him, his arm on the sofa back behind Aiden.

“I was going to show it to you,” he said.  Aiden eyed him, one eyebrow raised sky high.  “I was, it just wasn’t the right time,” he finished lamely.

“Uh-huh,” Aiden said, eyebrow still firmly in the air.

“We could both go,”  Harvard said. “To Princeton, I mean.  We could both be on the team.”

Aiden laughed, but his smile was flat, and his shoulders folded together like wings.  “Harvard, you’re ranked and I’m not. There’s no comparison.”

“You’re not ranked,” Harvard said, frustrated.  “But you could be. If you’d actually commit to practice instead of blowing it off,” he said, sharper than he meant to.  

A muscle in Aiden’s jaw jumped.  “I’m not blowing it off.”

“Really?” Harvard asked, his eyebrows sky high.  “Because it sure looks like a repeat of last year to me.”

“Just because I’m not single mindedly devoted to fencing doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously.”

“That’s just it!”  Harvard said. “You don’t take anything seriously, Aiden!  Not this, not Princeton, nothing!”

“That’s not true,” Aiden said, his mouth a mutinous line.  “I take you seriously.”

Harvard reached out, his fingers encircling Aiden’s hand and turning it palm up, where the purple still stood out vividly on his tanned wrist.  “If you took me seriously,” Harvard said, rubbing the edge of the bruise with his thumb, “then what the hell is this? You haven’t even wrapped it today, and I’m sure you didn’t ice it, either.”

“I was going to,” Aiden said, yanking his hand away from Harvard and cradling it against his chest with his left hand.  Harvard didn’t miss the hiss when he moved it, or how his fingers traced the outline of the bruise unconsciously, the way they had been doing all week.

“No, you weren’t,”  Harvard said.  All of a sudden he felt terribly tired.  “Give me your wrist and I’ll grab the bandages.”

Aiden scowled, but he sat on the edge of the couch, holding his wrist out when Harvard sat down beside him with the Ace wraps.  

Harvard set Aiden’s hand in his lap, holding it firmly but gently with his left while he wound the bandage around Aiden’s wrist and palm with his right.  Next to him, Aiden stared over his right shoulder as if there was something infinitely fascinating behind it. No time like the present.  

“I need to talk to you,” Harvard said grimly.  

“Yes?” Aiden said, pointedly not looking over.

“It’s about the team,” said Harvard.  He could feel the sudden tension in Aiden’s muscles, the heartbeat racing in the thin skin of his wrist.  He felt a pang of guilt for initiating the confrontation when he knew Aiden couldn’t run away, but Harvard also knew if he didn’t, they’d never have one, period.  

“I don’t like making this decision, but you forced my hand.  It’s not fair to the team for me to play you right now.”

Aiden’s eyes shone with a eerie green fire, reflecting the Christmas lights around the mantel.  It made it harder to read his expression than normal. “What are you saying, Harvard?”

“I talked with Coach,” he said.  “We’re benching you next game and bringing out Eugene.”

What?”  Aiden said, his eyes wide, face turning gray.  He tried yank his hand away, but Harvard held it in an unshakable grip.  

“No, let me finish,” Harvard said, winding the wrapping quicker now.  “It’s only for this game, OK? Just rest your wrist and get your head straight,”  he pleaded. “Everyone will think you’re not playing because of your injury, and I won’t say anything different.”

“The team will think it’s for my wrist,”  Aiden said. “I’ll know it’s because you don’t trust me, Captain.”

“No,” Harvard said flatly.  He had finished the bandage and now he held Aiden’s wrist in both of his hands, cradling it while he examined the wrap for soundness.  “I’ve always believed in you, Aiden,” he said, flexing Aiden’s fingers and watching the wrap to see if it held firm. He could feel Aiden’s eyes on him, heavy and burning.  “You don’t trust yourself, so you won’t commit to the team.”  

“Ah, I won’t commit,”  Aiden said, his voice smooth and dangerous, and Harvard felt the back of his neck tingle.  His fingers stilled on Aiden’s wrap, except for where his thumbs drew soothing circles into Aiden’s wrist, where tension thrummed under his skin like a live wire.  “I bet Cameron’s the commitment type,” Aiden said, eyes like green fire searing into Harvard. “I bet he’s already picking out china for your wedding.”

“Cameron doesn’t have anything to do with this, Aiden.”

“Oh, but I think he does.  I think he’s the one you want, not me.  I bet he never misses a practice. I bet he’s never afraid he’ll fuck something up.  Maybe you should just make it official.”

“No one is taking your place, Aiden,” Harvard said.  “No one could ever --”

Aiden jerked his wrist away, wincing in pain.  “Spare me,” he said, voice low and simmering with rage.  “Isn’t it about time you left, Harvard? You need to get enough sleep for your Calculus test tomorrow.”

Harvard stared at him.  “You’re really not coming back with me,” he said slowly, realizing.  “This is ridiculous! Fine, we’re having a fight, don’t talk to me, but for god’s sake you don’t need to sleep in the forest.”

“I want to sleep here,” Aiden snarled, “anything is better than lying around waiting for you to--” His mouth crumpled and he bit off whatever he was about to say, but Harvard could guess.

“I wouldn’t bring Cameron back if you were there,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose, feeling his headache rebound back.  “I have some consideration for my roommate, which is more than you’ve ever had for me,” he snapped, feeling the fraying thread of his temper break at last.

“Too bad,” Aiden sneered, “not all of us want to live like monks.  Maybe you’d be less of a bore if you’d loosen up a little.  Maybe I should thank Cameron ” --his mouth twisted on the name, like he was biting on something sour--“for removing that stick from up your--”

Fuck you, Aiden Kane,” Harvard said, his forearms aching with how hard he was clenching his fists.  “Just, fuck you.”

“Always one with the clever comebacks,” Aiden said quietly.  “You should be so lucky, Harvard Lee.”

Harvard left.   

He made his way to the dorm, crossing the river slow and careful, and he didn’t move from the bed once he got to their room for a long while after that, even though he still hadn’t finished his Calculus homework.  

He was remembering the first time he had met Aiden.

Harvard knew the Aiden Kane everyone at Kings’ Row was in love with-- the beautiful, cocky, spoiled rich boy Jay had hated for not being his.  He fucked who he wanted, when he wanted, and let them go as easily as dropping the string of a kite.

Harvard knew the other Aiden too.  That Aiden held a vibrating line of anxiety tucked up tight underneath his smirk, and lied about losing his matches because he hated to look anything but perfect in front of anyone, especially Harvard.  That Aiden spent an hour each day fixing his hair because he used his attractiveness as a weapon against anyone who would dare to hurt him.

That Aiden, the lonely one, whose parents had treated him like some tedious obligation ever since he was small:  Harvard had met that Aiden first.

It was loud in the preschool classroom.  Some kids were throwing tantrums, some laughing and playing, some wailing for their parents, but almost everyone making some kind of commotion, as Harvard’s dad would say.

The boy with the sad green eyes didn’t say much of anything, though.  He just sat in the corner with his stuffed dog, alone. It took a while for Harvard to realize he was crying, because he was doing it quietly, like he didn’t want anyone to notice.  Harvard had never seen anyone cry in that way except grownups, and it had made him feel something very strongly, even if he wasn’t quite sure what.

When Harvard sat down in the corner next to him, setting Roosevelt by the dog, the boy wiped his face off and scowled at him.  

“Hi,” Harvard said.  “Why are you crying?”

The boy scowled harder, his cheeks turning a splotchy red.  “I’m not crying,” he said, glaring at Harvard.

Harvard frowned.  He could tell the boy wanted him to agree, but Harvard was not good at lying, even the nice lies his mom said you had to say to people, like when his aunt asked him if he loved his little cousin and he had said no, thank you.  

The thank you had not made it better.  Harvard’s mom had a long talk with him after that about a word she called “TACT”.  

Harvard was still learning about that word.

“Yes, you are,” he said patiently.  “Why don’t you hug your doggie? That always makes me feel better.”

“I hate him,” the boy said fiercely.  “My mom gave him to me for my birthday, and she said she’d be home for my party.  But she wasn’t.” He gave a sniffle, the loudest sound Harvard had heard from him all morning.  “She wasn’t, and she promised .  You’re not supposed to be able to break a promise.  Right?”

He looked up at Harvard, and his bottom lip began to wobble.  

He was going to cry again, Harvard realized, feeling sick inside.  

“I don’t break my promises,” Harvard said quickly.  “But maybe there is a different rule for grownups?”

The boy didn’t reply, only his eyes got big and round and shiny and Harvard grabbed Roosevelt and shoved the teddy into the boy’s arms before anything bad could happen.

“This is Roosevelt,” Harvard explained.  “He always makes me feel better, no matter what.”

Roosevelt had fluffy brown fur, and black button eyes, and he was the perfect size to hug.  The boy took hold of the bear, clutching him to his chest. “I’m Aiden,” the boy said to Roosevelt.  He looked at Harvard. “He smells nice. Like the water when I go to the beach.” Aiden buried his face in the bear’s fur, taking a deep breath.  “What’s your name?” he asked, his voice muffled.

“I’m Harvard.  Do you want to come play with me?”

Aiden nodded, not letting go of Roosevelt.  He followed Harvard to the playground, no longer sniffling, his arms wrapped around the bear.  “Let’s play tag,” he said.

And for the rest of the afternoon Harvard had a shadow with green eyes and a sly smile, who won every game of tag and shared his little Debbie Cake without being asked and didn’t let Harvard or Roosevelt out of his sight for a moment.  

At the end of the day, Harvard’s parents were unusually late.  After a while, he and Aiden were the only kids left.

Harvard heard someone yelling from outside.

Through the window, a man with sharp, mean mouth was standing next to a lady who looked like a princess.  The lady who looked like a princess had the same color eyes as Aiden. She was busy arguing with the man. The longer they argued, the smaller Aiden got.

Aiden’s eyes had started going round, and he turned around, shoving Roosevelt back into Harvard’s arms and then crossing his arms over his chest like he was hugging himself.  “I have to go soon,” he said.

Harvard looked at his green eyes, which had turned sad again.  “Roosevelt told me something today,” he said. “He really likes you.  I think he wants to go home with you, instead.”

“He wants to stay with me?  What about you?”

“I can visit him right? Because we are friends?”

“Yes,” said Aiden.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s fine,” Harvard said.  He pushed Roosevelt into Aiden’s arms.  His green eyes were wide still, but they weren’t shiny any more.  

One side of Aiden’s mouth turned up.  

“Harvard,” he said, but his mom and dad came in then, and the yelling was so loud , and they dragged him off by his elbow before he could finish.

Harvard watched him go, trailing along behind his parents, Roosevelt locked in his arms.  Roosevelt would take good care of him and help him not be so sad. And Harvard decided right then and there that he would make sure it would get better still, that he’d do whatever it took, for his new friend.

For Aiden.

In the clubhouse earlier, Aiden’s face had been full of rage, but his hand had trembled in Harvard’s the entire time they had fought.

And when Harvard had told him he was benched, in the split second before he had buried it away, Aiden had worn that same expression he had in kindergarten, had looked at Harvard with those same sad green eyes that didn’t understand.

 

 

Chapter Text

I had a dream, or was it real?
We crossed the line and it was on
We crossed the line, it was on this time

 

-Carly Rae Jepson, Cut to the Feeling

 

 

Practice was sheer torture.  

Coach kept giving Harvard sympathetic looks, Eugene had a pinched, thoughtful expression when he glanced at him, and even Nicholas picked up on his distress, and he had the emotional awareness of a stump, as Seiji could attest.  

“The gear you gave me’s great, Harvard,” Nicholas said at the end of their match.  He clapped Harvard on the shoulder, his mask tucked under his arm, giving Harvard his usual smile.  When Harvard could manage only a small one in return, Nicholas came over and swept him up in a sweaty, enthusiastic hug, the mask dropping, forgotten, on the ground.  “Cheer up, Captain,” he said, his face painfully earnest. “Saturday, Exton won’t know what hit them.”

Seiji, who had been watching their match with his arms folded, the usual expression of vague irritation on his face, made a loud harrumph, his frown deepening as he stared at Nicholas’ hands on Harvard’s back.  “That’s hardly realistic, Nicholas,” he said snidely, nose in the air, his own back ramrod straight. “Exton swept state last year. It would take a miracle for us to beat them.”

“Is that so?”  Nicholas said, letting go of Harvard and striding over to where Seiji stood waiting. “First off, I don’t recall asking for your opinion, and second, you are the most arrogant--” he began, meeting his roommate glare for glare, but before he could finish Coach clapped her hands together.  

“Speaking of the upcoming match,” she said.  “I’m calling on both of my reserves. Nicholas, Eugene, start packing.  You’re coming with us.”

Nicholas yelped with glee, but Eugene wore a confused frown.

“What about Aiden?” he asked.

Coach gave a significant pause, raising an eyebrow at Harvard.

“Aiden’s still recovering from his sprain,” Harvard said.  “I talked with him yesterday and he--” would like nothing more than to rip me limb from limb-- “wants to make sure that he doesn’t re-injure it again before Nationals.”

“Enjoy it while it lasts, boys,” a dry voice said, right behind Harvard.  “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Aiden strode up next to him, one hand on his hip, not a hair out of place.  

Even though he had undoubtedly slept on the couch at the clubhouse last night, you’d never be able to tell.  Except for the smallest of circles under his eyes, he was his customary flawless, and, true to form, even that imperfection just served to humanize him, making him beautiful as ever.  

When Aiden turned his head, gazing at him sidelong with a cool indifference that betrayed none of yesterday’s rage and despair, Harvard resolutely ignored the ache in his chest.  “Welcome back,” he said.

“I thought you needed to rest,”  Eugene said.

“I’m OK to practice,”  Aiden said. “Just not to compete.”

“Your dedication is admirable,” Seiji acknowledged begrudgingly, giving the tiniest nod in Aiden’s direction.  

“That’s awesome, Aiden,” Nicholas said.  “I feel bad getting sent in because you’re hurt, but I’m sure you’ll get better real quick!”

“Same,” said Eugene.

Aiden smiled sweetly, gathering his hair into a ponytail and shaking it out his bangs.  “Thanks, guys,” he said, his gaze never wavering from Harvard’s. “I’m glad you appreciate my commitment to the team.”  

Harvard gritted his teeth hard enough to feel his jaw twinge.  “Now that everyone’s here, I guess we should go ahead and begin,” he said.

Coach nodded in his direction.  “Right then, let’s split up into pairs,” she said briskly.  “I want you to drill each other on your weaknesses. No mercy.  Eugene, you partner with me for that, I have some pointers for your defense.”  

“I’m with Seiji,” Nicholas said, a dangerous glint in his eyes.  

Seiji’s lips curved in what was less a smile and more a baring of teeth.  “Excellent,” he said. “I’d love nothing more than to put you in your place.”

Nicholas snorted at that, shaking his hair out of his eyes.  “I’d love to see you try!”

Harvard laughed under his breath, turning to catch Aiden’s eye in the split second before he remembered they were fighting.  

Aiden wasn’t laughing.  He wasn’t even smiling anymore.

“Looks like it’s you and me, Harvard.  We’ll practice attacking in the low lines.  It will be fun ,” Aiden said, shoving by him to get to the piste.  “I just hope you can keep up,” he added over his shoulder, his expression indecipherable.  

Harvard put his mask back on, squaring his shoulders and following Aiden to the strip.   Is he gonna try to get inside my head?  Going up against the sharp edge of Aiden’s tongue was just as risky as facing him armed with a blade, if not more so.  

But it turned out that Harvard was worrying about the wrong thing altogether.

“Keep holding back and you’ll never get a touch,” Aiden said, slamming into Harvard’s side with a jolt.  Aiden had run into him twice in the first fifteen minutes alone, which was very out of character. He usually played a much more strategic game, detached and smug, taking his opponents down piece by piece with an unflappable smirk.

Today though, Aiden’s bangs were drenched in sweat as he charged after Harvard, anything but poised.  He prowled the piste, all savage looks and snapping green eyes and long, lean muscle.

He was painfully striking, and Harvard could not even pretend to harness the focus he needed to defend himself against Aiden’s flurry of attacks.

Harvard usually enjoyed practice, but he felt a weight lift off him as Coach called time, reminding them to put up their gear before she headed out.  

“Whatever happened to that ‘Princess Bride’ movie night we were going to do?”  Aiden asked. “Did I miss out?”

“No,” Harvard said.  “We haven’t done it yet.”

“What about tomorrow night?”  Eugene suggested.

“That won’t work for Harvard,” Nicholas said, before Harvard could stop him.

“Oh? Why not?” Aiden said, examining his fingernails.  Harvard swallowed, digging his own nails into his palms, a nervous habit he had never quite been able to break.

“Well, Harvard is going out with Cameron tomorrow,” Nicholas said.  “I’m sure we’ll figure out another time though,” he continued gamely.   

There was a long, painful pause, in which Aiden said nothing, just stared at Harvard.  

Eugene darted a glance between them.  “Just let us know what you decide,” he said, hooking his elbows around Seiji and Nicholas.  “We better head for the showers.” He turned to Aiden. “Hope you feel better soon.”

And Eugene walked out, dragging a protesting Seiji and Nicholas in tow, rather more quickly than was warranted.

Aiden turned to follow them, but stopped when Harvard grabbed his shoulder.

“What is wrong with you,” Harvard said, breathing deeply through his nose and letting it out through his mouth as he tried to get a grip on his temper.  “Leave the team out of this.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Aiden said, turning on his heel and glaring at Harvard.  “You’re the one making it awkward for everyone.”

“I know this is about me benching you,” Harvard said, sick and tired of playing Aiden’s games.  “Listen, I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“I’m not hurt,” Aiden said sharply, turning his face aside.  “Who says this has anything to do with fencing? Maybe I’m just sick of you bossing me around all the time.”  

“For me to boss you around would require you to actually listen to me.  You don’t listen to anyone,” Harvard said, feeling like there was a band tightening around his forehead.  “But go ahead and keep pretending like you don’t care, and acting like nothing is wrong. I’m over it. Honestly, I should be happy you deigned to show up.”  

Aiden flinched as if Harvard had slapped him, but before he could say anything, the nasty thought Harvard had been prodding at like a bad tooth all practice rolled right out of his mouth:  “I know it must be boring for you without your little groupies running around.”

“Yes, I’m such a terrible person for wanting to be liked,” Aiden said, a flush spreading down his cheeks.

“Oh please, the way they look at you, they don’t just like you, Aiden.  I’d never--”   

“No,”  Aiden said, his voice strained for the first time that day.  “No, you’d never look at me like that, you’ve made that crystal clear.”

“Right, that’s not what I meant, but whatever,”  Harvard said, thinking of the Bons trailing Aiden, their eyes filled with stars.  He bit the inside of his cheek. “You aren’t wrong. Unlike your fan club, I actually know you.  Sorry I don’t worship your every move like you so desperately crave.  I didn’t realize that was such a dealbreaker for you.”

“I don’t want--” Aiden began, his voice thick, and then stopped, his throat working.  “Is that how little you think of me?” he asked finally, somehow having the audacity to be hurt, and how exactly was that fair, when he had been insulting Harvard all afternoon?   

Harvard glared at him, feeling guilty and hating that he did.  Classic Aiden, to twist everything around and somehow turn Harvard into the bad guy.

I’m not going to apologize, I’m not.  

Aiden turned away then, heading for the showers.  And Harvard did lunges down the strip for an extra hour, well after curfew, trying in vain to convince himself that the waver in Aiden’s voice wasn’t his fault.

 

********************************

 

 

The latter half of November came and went, and soon finals were upon Kings’ Row, with all the accompanying stress and sleeplessness.

It snowed over Thanksgiving Break, and Harvard remembered last year, when there had been a blizzard the day before Thanksgiving.  Aiden had come over and they had had an epic snowball fight which had lasted all afternoon. Aiden had ruined his new leather gloves and Harvard had to put up with his exaggerated pouting until Harvard finally broke down and baked him cupcakes to make up for it.  

Aiden’s cheeks had been the brightest shade of pink, along with the very tip of his nose, which he absolutely hated .  

It made him look young, and disarming, and sweet.  

It made Harvard want to wrap his arms around him and never let go.  

This year, though, Aiden hadn’t come to the Lee’s.  He hadn’t even called.

“Is everything OK with you two?”  Harvard’s mother asked, exchanging a worried glance with his father.

“Aiden’s being ridiculous,” Harvard said, by way of explanation.  

“Aiden’s always been ridiculous,” his mother said.  “That’s part of his charm.”

“Not like this,” Harvard muttered.  He put the brownies in the oven and set the timer.  “So when are the cousins coming over?”

His mother pursed her lips but allowed the subject change to go unremarked. Harvard knew he wouldn’t be as lucky over Winter Break.  He was not looking forward to facing her questions.

But in the meantime there were still finals to study for, and papers to write.

And practice.  

Always, there was practice.  

Aiden hadn’t missed one since their confrontation at the clubhouse.  Harvard couldn’t remember a time when he’d been this dependable with anything.  It was paying off, too. In just the handful of weeks since he began coming consistently, Aiden had already nailed two new feints.  

Whenever Harvard complimented him, though, Aiden would nod, shoulders stiff and taunt, accepting the praise, but not relaxing until Harvard moved on to someone else.  He still hadn’t returned to their room. He had at least broken down and accepted the space heater Harvard had forced upon him, which was a victory of sorts.

The Monday night of finals week found Harvard passing up his usual routine of cramming at the library.  He had known for a while that Aiden was sneaking into the dorm just after dinner, but he had wanted to respect Aiden’s wish to be left alone.

Tonight, however, there was something he needed to ask him.  

When he opened the door, Aiden was in the middle of changing into his pyjamas, pulling on his blue shirt over the top of his sweatpants and offering a glimpse of slender hips before Harvard forced himself to look away.

“Got a sec?” he asked, keeping his eyes discreetly turned to the side until Aiden had all his clothes on.  

Aiden shuffled over to Harvard, yanked the edge of his shirt further down, even though it already covered his abs.  “What do you want,” he said flatly, fingers pulling at the hem. He was studying the shirt like it was a particularly tricky latin conjugation, like nothing Harvard could say would possibly hold his interest.

“The ski trip,” Harvard said.  Aiden’s chin jerked up, and suddenly Harvard was staring into green eyes for the first time in days.

“What about it?”  Aiden said. His fingers had clenched on the edge of his shirt.  If he didn’t watch out, he’d stretch it out of shape completely.

“You said that your dad was thinking about postponing it for January.  What happened?”

“Why do you care when it is?”

Now Harvard was the one avoiding Aiden’s eyes.  “I know you’re still mad at me right now, but I thought-- I just, I’ve always gone…”  Harvard stumbled over his words, trying to get them out in the proper order, but for some reason, they stuck in his throat like glue.  “But if you don’t want me to go, I get it.”

“I want you to go,” Aiden said instantly.

“You do?”  Harvard asked, and blushed at the eager, hopeful tone of his voice.

“Of course I do.”  Aiden frowned. “What does Cameron think?”

“You’re my best friend.  Cameron understands that.  If he didn’t, we wouldn’t be dating.”  Harvard had nearly said together , but technically they hadn’t had the exclusive talk yet.  Everytime Cameron tried to edge the conversation around to it, Harvard found some excuse to back away.  

“Oh,” Aiden said.  His fingers had let go of the shirt and hung down at his sides, as if he was at a loss for what to do with them.
“So, January then?”  Harvard prompted, nudging Aiden’s sock covered ankle with his sneaker.

“Yes,” Aiden said.  “I’m not sure when. I’ll let you know, though.”  He crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his eyes.  “Since you’re coming,” he added unnecessarily, staring at Harvard as though daring him to contradict him, as though Harvard hadn’t just made it pathetically clear how much he wanted to go.

“Since I’m coming,” Harvard echoed him, a half smile forming on his face, and as he turned to go he could see an answering smile quirk up on Aiden’s own before he managed to smother it.

 

 

****************************

 

 

Interestingly enough, that wasn’t the most awkward conversation Harvard had that week.  That title belonged to the one at the very last day of term, once Aiden had already gone home.

Harvard planned on leaving the next day, and he was in their room packing when someone knocked on the door.

“Hey, Harvard?”  

Harvard craned his neck up to one of the few seniors taller than him.  “Jay?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Harvard nodded, curious despite himself.

“You know,” Jay began, “I was a jerk to you during tryouts, and all you did was try to help me and give good advice.  I’m here to return the favor.”

“OK…?”  Harvard blinked, wondering if his lack of coffee this morning was causing him to miss some important point.

“I don’t know how to lead up to this, so I’m just going to give it to you straight.  Aiden really likes you.”

Harvard gave a startled, involuntarily laugh, more out of shock than anything else.  The carousel of Aiden’s flings played in his head, each one as they spun by neatly labeled with their name underneath.

Harvard hadn’t been able to forget any of them, no matter how hard he tried.

Jay frowned.  “Seriously, I think he might even be in love with you.  And it’s hard to handle, your crush going out with someone else,”  Jay said, with a sheepish grin. “I would know. So if you’re truly not interested, you should just tell him.  It’s painful, but it’s better than letting him go on believing he has a chance. After all, I hated what you said to me during tryouts--but in the end, it did help me get over Aiden better than anything else.”  

Harvard looked up at Jay, giving him his best no-nonsense Captain glare, but Jay didn’t even blaunch.  He was telling the truth, in so far as he believed it was the truth. That didn’t meant it was true, but Jay didn’t strike Harvard as particularly illogical, his ill-fated romance with Aiden aside.  He must have some evidence to back up his conclusions, however flimsy.

“What the hell are you basing this on?” Harvard asked.

“Harvard, I get that this seems crazy.  But Aiden told me something, once, in confidence, and I believe it revealed more than he realized.  He has it bad. Trust me.”

“Convenient that he told you in confidence, so you can’t share it with me,” Harvard said, rolling his eyes.

“I know how it sounds, but it’s true.  And Harvard, ask yourself, if he really did fall in love with you, would he tell you?”  

“I’m his best friend!  He would absolutely tell...” Harvard said, trailing off as Jay raised his shaggy eyebrows at him.  A picture came into his mind: Aiden’s face when he told Harvard his parents were separating, eyes full of tears he refused to shed, mouth pressed into a trembling line.  He wouldn’t even let Harvard hug him.

Aiden hates showing his true feelings to anyone.  

Fuck,” Harvard said eloquently.

“Exactly,” Jay said.  “Good luck.” He shook his head, clapping Harvard on the back and closing the door behind him.

 

**************************************

 

 

Winter Break started off long, and far too empty for Harvard’s liking.  His parents were visiting his cousin in New York to help with her new baby, and none of the rest of his family would be in town until closer to Christmas.

By the fourth day, Harvard had cleaned his entire room, top to bottom, finished his holiday coursework, and bought all the presents on his list.  

He sat at the dining room table, surrounded by miles of sparkly paper, tape, ribbons, and tags, trying to figure out how to fold the corners without making the whole present look like absolute crap.

Harvard stared at the crumpled wrapping paper in front of him and groaned.

He could not help dwelling incessantly on what Jay had said, and what it might mean if he was somehow ( impossibly ) correct.

If Aiden was in love with him, what would Harvard do about it?  What did he want to do about it?

And what about Cameron?

Harvard was holding a ribbon and a pair of scissors and staring into space when his phone buzzed.  “Speak of the devil,” Harvard said to himself.

It was a text from Aiden.

“Dad finally decided the trip will be Feb 10-20th.  Know we aren’t on break but I think I can get us out of class.  Is that good for you?”

Valentine’s Day was that week.  Harvard blushed, even though there was no one to see.

He typed out his response quick, before he had time to overthink it.  

“That sounds fine.  Also I know we’re technically fighting, but can we call a truce?  It’s Christmas, and I want to give you your present.”

Harvard watched the ellipses appear and disappear as Aiden typed and deleted, typed and deleted.  Finally after about ten minutes Harvard’s phone buzzed again.

“I can do tonight if you want.  What time do you wanna to come over?”

Apparently Aiden wasn’t doing much of anything over break either, which was fine by Harvard.  He needed to see Aiden as soon as possible so he could put the crazy ideas Jay had planted in his head to rest.

Harvard pulled into the long, winding driveway around seven, hands full of takeout lo mein and Aiden’s present tucked under his arm.

Victor, the Kane’s imposing butler--whose face might as well be set in stone and who was even taller than Jay--usually answered the bell, so when the big double doors swung open to reveal a pyjama clad Aiden Harvard was taken aback.

That must be why he felt on edge, almost nervous.

Anything else didn’t make sense.  

“Hey Harvard,” Aiden said.  “It took you long enough. Come on in, I’m starving!”  Aiden had his hair pulled back in a messy bun, but he still hadn’t gotten his bangs cut. As he turned to lead Harvard to the kitchen, he absentmindedly tucked the layers back behind his ear and Harvard felt his fingertips twitch.  

When Harvard made no move to follow Aiden looked over his shoulder, his hand on his hip.  “What are you waiting for?” Aiden said.

Harvard gave an awkward half smile, tightening his grip on the takeout and stepping inside.

The mansion was huge, but even the gigantic fireplace and all the holiday decorations scattered wildly about were not enough to thaw the stark white decor.  Aiden’s new stepmom was very fond of whites and the modern look, as she called it.

The kitchen had an island in the center that Alice Kane had been proud to inform Harvard was topped with Italian marble, cold and beautiful.   Aiden pulled out two high top chairs, casually draping himself over the edge of the table with an easy grace. He glanced over at Harvard, a lock of hair escaping the elastic and framing his face, all soft and blurred edges in his hoodie and sweatpants, the one spot of warmth in the whole house.

“First off, I realize we called a truce,” Aiden said, leaning forward on his forearms and looking deep into Harvard’s eyes, ”but I wanted to apologize to you for being such an asshole.  You’re my best friend and I guess I just got jealous of your time, you know?” he sighed. “But that’s no excuse for treating you like shit.”

Harvard sat down heavily in the chair, dropping the takeout on the table.  “It wasn’t just you,” he said.

Aiden smiled, shaking his head.  “No, Harvard,” he replied, cutting him off.  “I instigated this whole thing.” His smile widened to a smirk, the first one Harvard had seen from him in forever.  “Don’t think I don’t know every single one of your buttons, and when and where to push them.”

Harvard licked his lips before he could stop himself.  Aiden was so close he’d swear he could taste the faint sweetness of berries in the back of his throat.  “I provoked you, too, Aiden,” he said. Harvard’s mouth felt incredibly dry, so he grabbed his soda and took a sip, holding the cup in between them.  

Aiden propped himself back on his elbows, giving Harvard space.  The smirk was gone now, leaving a serious expression in its wake.

“Look, we both acted stupid,” Aiden said, waving his hand as if brushing the events of the past month aside.  “The important thing is,” Aiden looked down for a minute, biting his lip. “We’ll always be friends,” he finished, his voice low and sincere.  “I know that now. I’m sorry I didn’t, before.”

Friends .  Harvard felt his heart constrict.   Now was the perfect time for Harvard to round off what Aiden was saying.  Tell him that he treasured Aiden’s friendship, that being his friend would never make Aiden second-string in Harvard’s eyes.  

That Harvard saw him as a friend, and not a boyfriend, didn’t make Aiden any less essential.

“Aiden,” Harvard said, his heart somehow beating faster by the second.  He forced himself to put the drink away, to look Aiden directly in the face.  “I--”

In the glow of the fire Aiden’s eyes were dark, darker than Harvard had ever seen them, mysterious and wonderful, like the bottom of a lake.  There was a subtle ring of green and gold around the irises, and Harvard thought of freckles, and crooked smiles, and how Aiden always owned up to his own bullshit in the end, even when half of it was Harvard’s, and suddenly Harvard knew what he had to do.

“I feel the same way as you.”  And I think I always have.  

God, I hope Jay is right about this.  

“I know you do,” Aiden said, smiling fondly at Harvard, unaware of his inner turmoil, and Harvard’s heart seemed to restart.

“And now that that’s over with,” Aiden said, “let’s get to the serious stuff.   Presents.”  Aiden gave an evil grin.  “I can’t wait till you see what I’ve gotten you…”

 

 

************************************

 

 

Harvard broke up with Cameron the next day.  

He took it much better than Harvard had expected.  

“Thanks for being honest,” Cameron said.  “And for telling me in person.”

“I’m sorry,” Harvard said again, kicking his toe against the tile of the Starbucks and feeling like a total heel.  “I had fun with you. You’re a great guy.”

“It’s OK.  I had a feeling this was coming.”  Cameron shrugged. “If he doesn’t treat you right, you know where to find me,” he said.

“If who doesn’t treat me right?” Harvard asked, alarmed.  He had been so careful not to hint in any way that…

Cameron smiled ruefully at Harvard, flashing a quick parting glimpse of his dimple.  “See ya around, Harvard,” he said, and walked out of the coffee house with a wave.

When Harvard got back home his mother was there to greet him, her arms folded across her chest.

“How’d it go?” she asked.  Harvard had called her when he had gotten home from Aiden’s house, to ask her advice about about Cameron and about-- other things.

Harvard shrugged.  “About as well as you’d expect.  He was really understanding, actually.”   More than I deserved, honestly.

“Did you tell Aiden yet?”  His mother asked, her eyes sharp on Harvard.

“No,” Harvard said.  “He’ll hear about it eventually, in school.  And-- and I’m not ready yet.”

His mother smiled.  “Harvard, I know you don’t want to hear it, but this is one of those things that you’re never really ready for.  You just have to dive in.”

Harvard winced.  “I just, I really want it to go right, you know?”

“I know,” his mother said.  “Believe me, I know.  Who do you think you get your worrying from?”

She handed him a cookie, and gave him a hug, and nothing more was said about it for the rest of break.

 

*****************************************

 

 

It didn’t take long for word to spread around Kings’ Row about Harvard and Cameron.  

In fact, it didn’t even take a full day.

The first Monday back from holiday, Nicholas was chattering away at the lunch table about the upcoming Winter Formal that Friday, checking to see who was going.  “I think it’ll be fun,” he said, his eyes sliding to Seiji, who was occupied with eating his banana one slice at a time and steadfastly ignoring Nicholas’ puppy dog face.

“Try to contain yourself this time, Tanner,” Eugene said, snickering.

But instead of the expected explosion, Tanner just laughed and shrugged, dragging his fork through his mashed potatoes, his cheeks going redder than his hair.  “I’m going,” he mumbled. When everyone looked at him in shock, he went an even deeper shade of red. “Kally asked me. And I dunno, maybe I was wrong about it being lame after all.”

Kally didn’t say anything, just laid a comforting hand on Tanner’s arm, but the small smile on his face said it for him.

Aiden caught Harvard’s eye.  “Told you,” he mouthed, raising his eyebrows, and Harvard hid his grin behind his hand.

“I keep telling Seiji he should come, but he won’t listen,” Nicholas barreled on, oblivious.  He elbowed Seiji in the side.

“Why should I go,” Seiji said.  “It’ll be stupid, and a waste of time besides.”

“I already told you, you could go with me,” Nicholas said, giving him one of his brilliant smiles.  “Don’t worry about not knowing how to dance--”

“I’m not worried,” Seiji snapped, “because I’m not going!

“Because I can teach you,” Nicholas continued, as if Seiji hadn’t said anything.  “Unless you’re afraid,” he said, in a singsong voice, “that I’ll be better than you?”

“Please,” Seiji said scathingly.  “That thought never crossed my mind.”

“Then you’re coming with me,” Nicholas said, making a pleased humming noise.  “I’m glad that’s settled.”

Seiji opened his mouth, then closed it again, frowning, but Nicholas had already moved on to other things.

He poked Harvard.  “Have you asked Cameron yet?”

“Ah, well, we broke up,” Harvard said.  “So, no.”

“Oh shit,”  Nicholas said.  “I’m sorry.”

“No big deal,” Harvard said.  “I was the one who broke it off, anyway.”  

Eugene started talking about who he wanted to ask, and the conversation wandered away from Harvard’s love life or lack thereof.  When Harvard let his gaze drift to his left, where Aiden was highlighting a passage in his Latin workbook, nothing about him seemed different than before.

Aiden’s neck might have been a little pinker than usual, but the light in the cafeteria was horrible, and Harvard couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking on his part.

 

********************************************

 

Harvard had planned on waiting till later in the week before asking Aiden to the Winter Formal, just to give his nerves a chance to settle down, but the longer he waited, the more anxious he became.  

He finally decided to do it that Wednesday, because they both had a free period in the afternoon after World Lit.  As soon as the bell rang and class let out, Harvard felt a jolt of pure adrenaline in his system, like he was about to step on the strip at Nationals against Jessie Cox.  

Like he was going to attempt the impossible.

Aiden pushed the outside doors open, holding them for the rest of the class.   The sun had made a long overdue appearance, and it shone on the outline of his blonde hair like a halo, making him look like some Renaissance painting come to life.  It would be spring soon, and Aiden’s hair would start to lighten from the sunshine, and Harvard was staring again.

He shifted his backpack to his other shoulder, forcing himself to look away.  He needed to keep it together until they got back to their room.

The breeze was cool and sweet, the air crisp and clean.  The sudden warm spell meant the snow had started to thaw, becoming a nasty, slushy mess, so making their way across the quad was a little trickier than usual.   They were nearly to the dorm when Aiden slipped and took a header into a pile of dirty snow.

Harvard squatted next to him, worried about his wrist, but Aiden just rolled onto his back and laughed, shaking the snow out of his hair.

He’d gotten mud smeared all over his shirt and the bridge of his nose, and his eyes were greener than ever, and Harvard felt an urge to kiss him so strong that he had to look away again.

“Harvard?” Aiden said.

“Let’s go,” Harvard said, giving Aiden a hand up and resisting the impulse to hold on once he got to his feet.  “You must be freezing.”

When they got back to their room, Aiden shrugged off his soaking wet coat and jacket, leaving him in jeans and his white v-neck.  

“Here,” Harvard said.  He dug a towel out of his laundry basket and wrapped it around Aiden’s shoulders.  

Aiden rubbed the towel on his hair, making the layers stick out something fierce.  He didn’t seem to notice. There was still mud on his right cheek, and Harvard reached out to wipe it away.

Aiden tracked the movement with his eyes, following Harvard’s hand up to his face while he stood motionless, waiting.

Harvard touched his face with the pad of his thumb, tracing along the edge of his cheekbones, and Aiden’s eyes grew dark, the pupils swallowing up the green until there was hardly any left.

“Harvard,” Aiden said.  The sliver of shoulders visible under his t-shirt had gone pink.  “I meant to tell you before, you were right. I don’t take things seriously… because I’m petrified of what will happen if I fuck them up.”  Aiden paused, curling his hand around his bad wrist, rubbing it in circles over and over. “But the cost of doing nothing is actually far higher than I thought and I--I’m done with that,” he said finally.

“I can tell.  Your fencing is only going to get better,” Harvard said, reluctantly dropping his hand from Aiden’s cheek.  “I’m proud of you.”

“I wasn’t talking about fencing,” Aiden replied.  

Harvard felt his pulse start to quicken in his throat.

“The thing is, this was supposed to be the year that you--”  Aiden stopped, pushing a hand through his hair.

“That you finally noticed me,” he finished quietly.

Harvard inhaled sharply, feeling every cell in his body come to attention.  “I notice you,” he started to say, but Aiden held up his hand and Harvard stopped.

“At first I thought,” Aiden said, eyes darting from side to side, like he couldn’t decide where to rest them, “when you joined the team, that I was just bored without you around.  Before, we had always done everything together, and then sophomore year it was-- it was lonely, without you. So when tryouts happened junior year, I figured, well, if I join the team, it’ll be like old times again.  That’s… that’s what I told myself.”

Harvard stood still as he could, afraid if he breathed too loud, or moved too much, that this would all dissolve into some sort of mad, beautiful dream.

“Now I think,” Aiden continued slowly, “that maybe I joined the team hoping,” he swallowed, his shoulders high around his ears.  “Hoping to impress you,” he finished in a rush, his entire collarbone flushing bright pink. “And my rule, about not dating guys on the team.  It wasn’t for you, it was— it was for me .”

“But you don’t believe in relationships,”  Harvard said.

“No,” Aiden said, wincing.  “I didn’t believe I could handle them.  I still don’t. But it seems like when you’re involved, I don’t have a choice.  The thought of being with you terrifies me, but being without you is...” Aiden squeezed his eyes shut, folding his arms across his chest and hugging himself, shivering like he was freezing.

“I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but I always thought you would , one day, that you’d look at me and think— and want—the same things that I--“

Aiden stopped.  He opened his eyes, his face pale, arms still wrapped around himself, like he was afraid he’d fall apart if he let go. “I guess I thought you belonged to me, the way I belong to you.

“I should leave you alone now, I know I should, but I just,” his mouth twitched, “I just can’t , even though I know after the way I’ve acted, that I’m the last one you’d want.  I still have to ask. If—if you would— go with me, I mean, to the dance. As my date,” he said, staring at the ground, voice so faint Harvard could barely hear him.

The pink was rapidly climbing his neck now. “But I understand.  If you don’t. I really do and I— ” Aiden clenched his wrist hard enough that the skin turned white around his fingers— “I won’t mention it again, if that’s what you decide.”

“I--” Harvard said, and stopped.  

Aiden’s hands were trembling again, like they had at the clubhouse.

“I understand— and I can forget about it, ignore it,”  Aiden said, still looking at the floor, his neck now flushed a painful scarlet.  “Nothing between us has to change.”

“You think you can ignore it?”  Harvard said, his voice ringing through the room, passionate and strong.  It was the voice he used to inspire the team, the voice he used to command as Kings’ Row Captain:  the voice he used to tell the truth.

“You can’t ignore being in love with someone, Aiden.”  

Aiden’s face turned an ashen gray, but there was no way Harvard could stop now.

“You can act like you don’t want him every day.  You can pretend that you don’t dream about kissing him.  You can fool everyone, maybe even him,” Harvard said.

“But you can’t fool yourself.  So you’ll date someone else to forget.  So you’ll go to another college, just to get away.  Because the truth is, you’re hopeless. The only thing you can do run.”  

There was a long silence.

“I thought you had fallen in love with Cameron,” Aiden said, his light tenor strangely thick.  It was only when Harvard looked carefully at his face that he realized he was crying.

The skin over Aiden’s nose, where the freckles would be come summer, was salty when Harvard kissed it, and he brought his arms around until they were resting around Aiden’s waist, right where they belonged.  

As soon as Harvard stopped moving Aiden grabbed his wrists with a grip like steel.

“Who said you could kiss me, Harvard?” he said, eyes wide, swallowing convulsively as another tear fell down his face.  “Maybe I don’t want to date you after all, who really would, you’re terribly dull -- so responsible and gentle , why would I want a nice , boring boy like you, when I could have anyone?”  

“Aiden,” Harvard said, feeling his voice coming from somewhere very deep in his chest.  His hand went back to Aiden’s cheek and Aiden instinctively leaned into the touch, his own hand coming up to rest on Harvard’s, fingers weaving together.

Aiden’s hand was still trembling.

“And if I do decide to date you, I’ll tell you one thing right off-- you can tear that admission from Princeton up.   You’re going to Yale, with me.”  

“I made sure that their Early Decision had an opt out clause,” Harvard said, fingers brushing the familiar planes of Aiden’s face like they were brand new.  “So I can still tell them no, and I will.”

“Wait, but the Early Decision deadline was in August.  If you did that, that means you applied for Princeton this past summer.  So….”  Aiden’s hand finally stopped shaking.

Harvard looked at him, but said nothing.

“Don’t tell me,” Aiden said, his green eyes huge.  “Don’t you dare tell me, Harvard Lee, that this has been going on since junior year.”

“Good news,” said Harvard, with an uneasy laugh.  “It hasn’t.”

“Harvard,” Aiden said warningly.

“But, ah….”

Harvard.”   This time it was more like snarl.

Aiden’s gaze burned like wildfire.  He looked like he simultaneously wanted to take Harvard out back and shoot him, and eat him alive.

“It was sophomore year, actually,” Harvard said, his cheeks flaming, and Aiden groaned.

“Not the whole year though!  Really,” Harvard said, his eyes sliding to one side as he thought about it more, “technically it was more the middle of fall semes--”

 Aiden’s hands came up to frame his face like they were drawn there by some inescapable force, and Harvard caught one lightning strike glimpse of green eyes before Aiden’s mouth caught his, warm and fierce and perfect.  

Aiden’s hands on his skin felt like the sky before rain, electric and rippling with energy, and he kissed like a thunderstorm, driving into Harvard with punishing inevitability.   “You’re gorgeous,” Aiden growled in his ear, “and you don’t even realize it.”  He worked his hands under Harvard’s shirt, making Harvard’s heart beat so fast he wondered if Aiden could feel it under his palms.  “I never wanted you to worship me,” Aiden said, sinking his fingernails into the tender skin in between Harvard’s shoulder blades while Harvard gasped like he had been branded.

“I wanted to worship you.

“And now you have the nerve to tell me that you’ve wanted to kiss me since sophomore year,” Aiden said harshly, incongruently, while his hands eased the buttons of Harvard’s shirt open one by one.  “What the fuck , Harvard, are you fucking kidding me ,” he kept on, not seeming to require a response, which was good, because Harvard felt like he had been hit by a bus.

Eventually though, Aiden stepped back to yank Harvard’s arms out of his shirt sleeves, and Harvard regained enough coherency to offer some clarification.  As little as he wanted to do it, the words just fell out of his mouth, like once Harvard stopped hiding how he felt, the whole humiliating thing inevitably snowballed out of control.

“I’ve been in love with you since sophomore year, Aiden,” Harvard said.  “I’ve wanted to kiss you… actually, I’m not sure when I started wanting to kiss you,” he admitted sheepishly.

Aiden made a sound like he was in physical pain, shouldering off his shirt as though it was burning his skin.  He pulled his briefs off and tossed them on the floor, rummaging in one of his dresser drawers while Harvard tried and failed not to stare at his perfect ass.

Aiden was unscrewing something now, he was getting something out of a tube and rubbing it in between his palms to warm it, he was reaching down and-- Harvard jerked his head up, taking a deep breath.

“You can look, Harvard,” Aiden said softly, his hand still busy.

Harvard sat down on the bed, hard.  “I know, I know, I will, I just--” he said, and stopped, closing his eyes, and marshalling his thoughts.  “I need to let you know,” he continued carefully, eyes on Aiden’s face, “that I don’t expect anything.”

Aiden climbed on top of Harvard and shifted his hips, deliberate and pointed. Harvard shivered , falling backwards onto the pillow.  “Really?” Aiden asked, delicately.

“Not that I don’t want,” Harvard said hurriedly, before Aiden could say (or do, god ) anything else.  “But I don’t-- there’s no pressure, is what I’m trying to say.”

Aiden’s eyes widened, something unreadable passing far off beneath the green depths.  He seemed, for the moment, temporarily speechless. One of his long blonde layers had fallen in front of his face.

Harvard reached out and tucked it behind his ear, feeling it slide like satin beneath his fingers.

His touch broke whatever spell Aiden was under.  He leaned forward, hooking his fingers on Harvard’s boxers, and yanked them down in one smooth motion, his eyes never leaving Harvard’s.  “That’s fine. You don’t have to look,” Aiden said, his voice deeper, rougher than usual. “You can just feel .”

When he pressed against Harvard, skin on skin, everything touching all at once, Harvard gasped, his hands clamping down on Aiden’s hips, stopping him right away.

“Too much?”  Aiden said, holding himself motionless above Harvard.

“No, I mean, yes,” Harvard said, awkward and shy.  “I mean, I don’t think I’ll be able to, ah, last long.”   I don’t want to disappoint you.

“You’re not going to disappoint me,” Aiden said, the snarl back in his voice, and Harvard must be flustered, because he had said that last bit out loud.  

His mouth seemed determined to ruin everything, actually, because Harvard could not stop himself from adding, without conscious intent:  “I’ve never--”

“Not with Cameron?” Aiden asked, enunciating each syllable of Cameron’s name with his nose flared, smiling in a way that showed his canines.

“Not with anyone,” Harvard said, his cheeks glowing, permanently red.

Good,” Aiden said roughly, his eyes lit with corresponding fire.  “I’m glad you haven’t,” he said, with that intense, feral look on his face.  “I like it.”  

“What happens now?” Harvard said, ducking his head and, impossibly, blushing harder.  “You gonna be my senpai?”

“Hell no,” said Aiden in a low voice, cutting him off.  He rolled his hips, body silky sweet against Harvard, warm and wet and so good that Harvard sucked in a breath like he’d been punched in the gut.  

Aiden leaned forward, his eyes blazing into Harvard’s.  

“Now I’m going to ruin you for anyone else.”  

“Oh,” said Harvard weakly.  

Aiden bent down over him again, his eyes dark and deep, a lush, verdant green.  Harvard closed his eyes as the smell of sunlight and amber washed over him, as Aiden’s lips found his and his tongue licked inside Harvard’s mouth, deft and sure.  As Aiden’s slender fingers wrapped around his own and held on tightly, desperately, like he was afraid Harvard would slip away if he didn’t.

Then Aiden started to move in earnest, and soon Harvard couldn’t think of much of anything at all.

 

 

**************************************************

 

 

Afterwards, after Aiden had cleaned them up and they had both gotten ready for bed, Harvard suggested “The Princess Bride”.

Aiden spread out in his usual sprawl, on his side diagonal across the covers with his head pillowed on his arm, but when Harvard didn’t join him he rolled over onto his back, looking at him quizzically (and a little worriedly).

“Can I hold you?”  Harvard asked, before he could think the better of it.  Immediately his face felt roughly 20 degrees hotter, and he braced himself for Aiden to say something teasing and dismissive.  

Aiden didn’t say anything sarcastic, though.  

In fact, for a long moment, he didn’t say anything, period.  He ran a hand through his hair, his throat flushing a light pink that started to creep up his jawline in splotches as he pulled FDR from his normal spot on his pillow.  “OK,” Aiden said, his eyes downcast as if he was talking to the bear, and flipped back over onto his side.

When Harvard folded his arms around him, pressing Aiden’s back flush against his chest, Aiden was tense, coiled like a spring, and Harvard made a supreme effort not to fret.  Resting his face on Aiden’s shoulder, all he could smell was the rosey scent of Aiden’s conditioner, mixed with the woodsy scent of Aiden himself.

The movie started, and Aiden took a deep breath that Harvard could feel, weaving his fingers around Harvard’s own with a sigh.  Harvard encircled Aiden’s hurt wrist with his other hand, rubbing the tender inner skin with the pad of his thumb. Aiden’s pulse spiked under his fingers, far too rapid for lying down.

Harvard frowned, pushing the pause button.

“You fell in the snow, and you didn’t dry off right away.  Did you take--?” A bark of laughter interrupted him, which seemed to contain equal parts humor and relief.  

Yes, Harvard,” Aiden said, sounding exasperated and amused all at once.  “I took the Emergen-C. You overprotective bastard.” He wriggled closer to Harvard, giving him a fond smirk over his shoulder.  

When Harvard draped his leg over Aiden’s, hooking his ankle and bring Aiden’s lean lower half against Harvard, Aiden only tensed for a second, and then melted against him, twining his fingers around Harvard’s and sighing again.  

“Always so overprotective,” he repeated, his voice distant, with a note in it that Harvard found totally unreadable.  

“You should be used to it by now,” Harvard said.  

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it,” Aiden said, in that same faraway voice, and Harvard had no idea what to say to that, so he restarted the movie.

 

********************************************

 

Harvard passed out sometime around one in the morning, his arms folded around Aiden, face buried in silky, sweet smelling hair.

When he woke up, Aiden was still fast asleep, shifting in his arms and murmuring something incomprehensible before nestling himself deeper into Harvard’s embrace.  Harvard felt both a gnawing urge to get up and eat and a profound need to never let go of his best friend, who smelled like springtime and whose hair was tickling Harvard’s neck and who Harvard loved far more than was healthy or rational.

Harvard wrestled with himself for a half hour, and then gave up.  It’s not like the cupcake place was that far from campus, and so what if he wanted to spoil Aiden a little?  Considering the circumstances, he was allowed.

Harvard had his hands full when he came back, so after unlocked the door he backed on in, nudging the door shut with his foot.  “Harvard,” Aiden said shakily behind him. He turned around to see Aiden standing in front of the mirror, his eyes suspiciously bright, his expression clouded, his mouth pressed into a shaking line.  His eyes dropped to the box of cupcakes and then back up to Harvard’s face

“Aiden, what are you--”

“Nice of you to tell me where you were going,” Aiden said, squaring his shoulders and schooling his features into a scowl.

Harvard cocked his head, narrowing his eyes.  Aiden’s mouth had stopped twitching but his eyes were still shiny, almost like he had been about to start c--

“And you didn’t remind me to take the Claritin last night either,” Aiden grumbled, stalking past him to sprawl on the bed rather dramatically, an arm thrown over his face.  “My allergies are flaring up again.”

Harvard wondered at the chances of a grass allergy flaring up in a dorm room, but wisely decided to stay silent.  “I’m guessing you didn’t see this.”

He lifted FDR from his place on the dresser and sat him on Aiden’s lap, still holding the tiny post-it he had placed earlier that morning.  Aiden sat up, reading in silence while Harvard dug out the Claritin from his bedside drawer.

Harvard had drawn a tiny lion at the bottom.  “Went to get food, but didn’t want to wake you.  Back soon.” He had worried maybe too much about adding the heart at the end, but then decided it was ridiculous.  He had already told Aiden he loved him.

A tiny ink heart was hardly about to make things any worse.

Harvard finally managed to open the Claritin.  That’s when he noticed Aiden was hugging FDR with one hand, and had his other on the bridge of his nose, fingertips rubbing under his eyes, wiping his tears away.

Harvard squatted beside the bed, one hand on Aiden’s shoulder, the other gently moving his hand from his face.  “Aiden,” Harvard said. “Listen, I--”

Aiden scowled, glaring at Harvard while a tear trickled down his cheek.  “This is all your fault,” he said fiercely, his voice cracking at the end before he managed to steady it.  “I hope you realize that.”

“I know.  I’m sorry,” Harvard said, his eyes searching Aiden’s face.  “I shouldn’t have left without waking you up.”

Aiden’s scowl wobbled before he set his jaw resolutely against it.  “And reminding me to take the Claritin,” Aiden said pointedly, his shoulder rigid under Harvard’s hand.  

“Right,” Harvard echoed him.  “Reminding you.” Aiden’s shoulder relaxed a fraction, but his eyes were still dangerously wet.   

Harvard wrapped him into a hug.  “Stupid allergies,” Aiden muttered, sniffling into his chest.  

Harvard ran his hands hard up and down Aiden’s spine, feeling him lean all his weight onto Harvard as he nestled his face in Harvard’s neck.  

“You’ll feel better once you’ve had a cupcake,” Harvard said.     

 

 

*****************************************

 

Harvard had always known that dating Aiden would be different, that it would change things, and it did—- but not in the ways he would have expected.  

That afternoon Harvard got to the lunch table first, before anyone else on the team.

That meant there was no one there to share his utter bewilderment when the Bons came up as one unit and presented him with a simply enormous chocolate cake.

The cake sat before him on the table, covered in white frosting and topped with a simple message, in Kings’ Row blue:

#Haiden Forever.  

“Aiden isn’t here yet,” Harvard said.    

“Oh yes,” said the short one.  “We know.”

The taller Bon nodded.  “This cake is for you, Harvard.”

The middle one sniffed.  “You’re the only one good enough for our Aiden,” he said.  “Two words: Couple Goals.”

“Um,” said Harvard.  He could feel the capital letters.  “Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” the short one said.  “We’re really happy for you both.”

All the feels,” agreed the taller one emphatically, and they all three walked off, before Harvard could ask them to explain what “Haiden” meant.

Maybe that was for the best.

Nicholas was the next to arrive.  “Happy birthday, Harvard!” he said cheerfully.  

“It’s not my birthday,” Harvard said.  “My birthday is in June.”

“Oh,” Nicholas said.  “Then what’s up with the cake?”  

There was an irritated groan from Harvard’s left.  “I told them to ease you in,” Aiden said.  He was wearing Harvard’s varsity jacket with the sleeves rolled up, LEE printed across the back in big bold letters.

It was very distracting.   

“Ease me into what?”

“They ship us,” Aiden said, like that explained anything.

When Harvard continued to stare at him, he shrugged.  “Don’t think about it too much,” he said, hooking his arm through Harvard’s elbow and opening up his lunchbox.  “I never do.”

“Man, this cake is amazing ,” Eugene said in a muffled voice, his mouth full.  He and Tanner had already started in on the left side, so now the cake simply read “Aiden”.

“You guys official then?” Kally asked, giving Harvard a smile as he passed Tanner a napkin.

“Yep,” Aiden said, before Harvard could even open his mouth.  

“No way! You’re dating?! ” Nicholas blurted out, the shocked look on his face almost comical in its intensity.  “But how-- I don’t know what to think!”

“I do,” said Eugene.  Eugene looked back and forth between Harvard and Aiden and shrugged, a grin stretching across his face.  “I think I owe Jay 20 bucks.”

“You bet on this?!” Harvard said.  “What the hell, Eugene!”

Tanner gave a guffaw.   “I owe Jay too. And Harvard, good luck with that,” he said.  “No offense, Aiden, but you are pretty high maintenance.”

“Naturally,” said Aiden, just as Harvard was saying: “I don’t mind.”

Aiden gave him a curious look.  “Nice that my boyfriend doesn’t deny it,” he said, but he didn’t seem mad.

“Nicholas is right, though.  It doesn’t make any sense,” Seiji said, as Nicholas perked up, a faint blush stealing across his cheeks.  “You don’t date.”

Aiden held up a finger.  “Correction. I date. I just date men, not boys.  I was waiting for one to ask me out, that’s all,” he said, looking particularly smug.  

“Can’t fault your taste there,” Tanner said, winking at Harvard with a shit eating grin on his face.  “Our captain is an excellent specimen.” He gave an obnoxiously loud cat call while Harvard put his face in his hands and prayed unsuccessfully for the floor to swallow him up.  He could hear Eugene’s laugh cut off as he choked on his piece of cake, peppering Harvard with crumbs.

“What’s wrong with boys?” Seiji grumbled.    

“No need to be defensive, Seiji.  There’s something to be said for a certain sweet, mischievous, boyish charm,” Aiden purred.  “It’s just not my speed.”

“Who said it was mine?”  Seiji asked sharply, but Aiden just laughed.

“No one needed to say that,” he replied.  “It’s obvious.” Harvard didn’t have to look up to know Aiden was smirking again.

The bell rang, saving Seiji from further torment at Aiden’s hands.

It didn’t spare Harvard though, as Aiden leaned over and pulled him into a toe-curling kiss, frenching Harvard in front of the entire cafeteria without the slightest bit of shame.

When Aiden drew away, he didn’t go far, leaning his forehead against Harvard's.  “It’s true, you know. You’re in a class by yourself,” he said, his trademark smirk still in place, but his eyes were very dark indeed.  “No one else even comes close.”

Aiden gave Harvard a chaste kiss goodbye on the cheek then, his fingers resting lightly on Harvard’s neck, before he turned and headed for Biology.

Out of the corner of his eye, Harvard could see one of the Bons giving him a thumbs up.  The other two were making little hearts with their hands.

Whoa bro,” breathed Eugene.  “I don’t know whether to envy you or pity you.”

“Maybe both?” suggested Nicholas.

“As riveting as this is, if you don’t get a move on, we’ll be late for Latin,” Seiji said, glowering at his roommate.

“Sheesh, alright, alright,” Nicholas said, cramming the rest of his piece in his mouth as Seiji made a disgusted noise.  

“Hey Harvard,” Tanner said.  “Are you gonna eat the rest of this?”

“You can have it,” Harvard said, snagging a small piece with his fork before abandoning the rest to Tanner’s tender mercies.  

Harvard chewed it thoughtfully as he jogged to Political Science.  

He had to hand it to the Bons.  The cake was actually pretty damn good.

 

 

**************************************

 

 

And then there was practice.  

In the locker room Harvard put on his gear and half listened as Aiden and Eugene argued over Jessie Coste.  

“I’ll give it to you that he can be a dick,” Eugene said.  “But that blonde hair…! And those eyes!” He gave an exaggerated groan.  “Talk about hard to resist. I had to force myself not to hand him my number.”

“Oh please,” Aiden said disgustedly.  “Setting aside his obviously shitty personality, I can name two fencers off the top of my head way more attractive on our team alone.”

“And I suppose you’re one of them?” Eugene said, raising an eyebrow.

Aiden snorted.  “I’m not dignifying that with a response.”  He turned around on the bench, shooting a look at Harvard.  “It appears we need a second opinion.

“Tell the truth, Captain,” he said, tossing his hair over his shoulder and posing in a way that showed off his cheekbones to the fullest extent.  ”Me, or Jessie? Jessie’s more than a little overrated, no matter what Eugene and Seiji think.”

Seiji cried out in protest at this, his ever present scowl deepening.  Nicholas looked over at him in confusion, but Aiden ignored him, sinking down next to Harvard on the bench.

“Well?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t know,” Harvard said absently, fixing his untied sneaker and going over low line strategies in his head.  “I’ve never really looked at anyone else.”

The exact play he was thinking of was high level and complicated.  It was only after Eugene giggled that Harvard realized exactly what he had just said.  

Even stranger, Aiden hadn’t said anything in reply, just sent him a dark, meaningful glance and bent down silently over his own shoes.  

But once practice was over, he wound a hand in Harvard’s jacket and dragged him to the supply closet, yanking Harvard down and kissing him hard, with none of his usual finesse.  

That,” he said decisively, ten minutes later, after Harvard was thoroughly disheveled, unbuttoned, and red as a beet, “was for earlier.”

“But I wasn’t trying to--”

“I know you weren’t,” Aiden hissed, his eyes narrowing.  “That only makes it worse.” His hands curled around Harvard’s arms, nails digging into Harvard’s triceps as he leaned forward again.  

They hadn’t stopped kissing until Coach found them and kicked them out, handing them both detention slips with a smile and a shake of her head.

“I’d say get a room, but don’t you boys already have one?” she said.

 

*********************************

 

Later that night, when they had both changed into their pajamas, they sat side by side on Harvard’s bed, FDR in Aiden’s lap.

“So tell me, what was distracting you so much at practice,” Aiden asked, one corner of his mouth crooked up, arms around his bear.

“C’mere first,” Harvard said, patting the bed by his side.  The faintest tinge of a blush touched Aiden’s cheeks, but he laid down by Harvard, a curious gleam in his eyes.  

“Closer,” Harvard said, folding his arm around Aiden’s shoulders and tugging him until he was halfway spread over Harvard, his shoulder resting on Harvard’s chest, his head right next to Harvard’s, green eyes near enough that Harvard could see the darker ring of emerald around Aiden’s irises.  Aiden took a sharp breath when Harvard put his arms around him, the smirk dropping off his face.

His hair felt cool and sleek under Harvard’s fingers.  By the time Harvard had finished explaining his new strategy for defense in the low lines Aiden’s pupils were blown, and the blush had spread down his neck to the tips of his shoulders.

There was a knock on the door.  “It’s Kally, can I come in?”

Harvard could feel the line of tension in Aiden’s flank where it rested on his chest.  He stroked a soothing hand through Aiden’s hair, then gently disentangled himself to go answer the door, leaving Aiden burrowed into the sheets with FDR, staring after him with dark eyes.

Kally needed his history notes, and Harvard quickly located them and gave them to him.  When he laid down Aiden curled up on his chest again like he was made to be there, like it was the most natural thing in the world.  

“What did you mean, at lunch?” Aiden asked, a tiny wrinkle in between his eyebrows.  “When you said you didn’t mind that I’m high maintenance?”

Harvard felt his own cheeks turn pink, and he tugged gently on the ends of Aiden’s hair to distract himself.   “Well,” he said, drawing the word out, “not that I’m saying it’s the exact same thing, but…”

Aiden cocked his head, waiting.  

“I mean, it would be like you getting Shadowfax and complaining about his tack and room and board.  Of course it’s a lot of work, but he’s an Arabian, so…” Harvard felt all the words dry up.

Aiden stared at him.  

Harvard gave a weak laugh and continued digging what he suspected was his own grave.  “Not that I’m saying I own you or anything, or that you’re--”

“No, I know exactly what you’re saying,”  Aiden interrupted, talking over him, a look of glee dawning on his face that was terrible to behold.  “You’re saying I’m a fucking thoroughbred.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,”  Harvard said quickly, but it was already too late.

Aiden got even closer, green eyes sharp, studying his face, and what he saw made his smirk widen even further.  “Oh, yes you did, Harvard Lee,” he crowed. “You think I’m the best money can buy.” Aiden looked up at Harvard from under his long lashes.  “And you’re right. Of course I’m high maintenance, but it’s completely and utterly worth it, isn’t it?”

Harvard groaned.  He could already tell that he would never, ever hear the end of this.

“Have you thought about trying out for the Yale Fencing team?”  he asked Aiden, desperate to change the subject.

The smug look on Aiden’s face faded, and his gaze fell where his hands lay on Harvard’s chest.  “Maybe,” he said, the wrinkle between his eyebrows coming back. “I’m still not sure.”

“You’re such an amazing fencer, even more so now that you’re practicing consistently.  There's no way they won't consider you,” Harvard said.

The palest pink flush spread across the bridge of Aiden’s nose.

“Harvard,” Aiden said, an odd note in his voice.  “Could you-- could you say it again?”

“You’d be a lock for the team,” Harvard said, but Aiden shook his head, smoothing the edge of Harvard’s v neck with his fingers, tugging him closer.  

“No, not that,” he whispered hoarsely.  “Tell me, like you did before. Tell me that you-- that--”  He stopped at the touch of Harvard’s hands over his own.

“I love you,” Harvard said.    

When Harvard kissed him, Aiden went boneless, all but his arms, hands clinging to Harvard’s shirt, like he was afraid he might drown if he let go.  Harvard kissed Aiden for a long time, deep and slow, until the flush on his collarbone had turned cherry red and he was making breathless little hitching noises into Harvard’s mouth.

It was something else for Harvard to pull back, looking down at Aiden’s face tilted up toward his, liquid sunlight under his fingers.

He did it anyway, with a supreme effort of will.

“Harvard?” Aiden asked, opening his eyes.  Only a sliver of green was there; the rest was all pupil.

A stray lock of hair lay on Aiden’s cheek; Harvard pushed it behind his ear.  “We should get some sleep,” he said. “I’m still not convinced you aren’t half sick from getting drenched yesterday.”

Aiden gave him a look of mingled exasperation and adoration.  

When Harvard showed no sign of giving in, Aiden groaned.  “You’re impossible, Captain,” he said, before curling up and tucking his face in the hollow of Harvard’s neck.

It wasn’t long before he was asleep, his chest rising and falling evenly in Harvard’s embrace.  

Harvard wasn’t sleeping, though.  Harvard was thinking of something his mother had said, when he called to tell her about being with Aiden at last.

“I love Aiden,” she said.  “But you know how he is. He would break a heart without even meaning to do it.  Just promise me you’ll take your time, and won’t do anything hasty.”

“I’ll be careful,” Harvard had said to her, remembered Aiden’s trembling hands when he asked Harvard out, his collarbone and shoulders painted a dusky rose, how Aiden had said “I thought you belonged to me, the way I belong to you” shy and sweet, with eyes as deep and dark as a mountain lake.

“I promise.”

 

THE END