At Oxford, John gets off with a boy on the running team two weeks into his first Michaelmas term. He’s a distance runner and looks a bit, if you squint, like Steven. He has a loud laugh and he’s unashamed of who he is, doesn’t think twice about smiling, calling him “Johnny.” It reminds him of Steven, burns all the way down. They get off together twice and after, when John sees him on campus, he pretends he doesn’t know who he is, pretends that he’s never seen him before.
He’s not very proud of himself, but Colin looks at him like he might be some sort of answer, looks at him like Steven had, and John still doesn’t know how to deal with that.
John meets Aiden at a pub night for one of the lads on the team. It’s March and rainy and Aiden’s a rower, got hair that hangs down into his eyes. He smiles at John and after the fourth or fifth pint he touches the thin skin on the inside of John’s wrist.
He says, “Come back to mine?” and it isn’t far from the pub.
It’s March and rainy and they don’t touch until they’re on the other side of Aiden’s door, Aiden anchoring John to the wood, thigh between John’s.
“I don’t usually – this isn’t –“ Aiden says, John’s mouth on his neck, his collarbone. He knows what he’s doing, though; his hands are sure on John’s skin. Once, just before he comes, he says, “Johnny.”
It doesn’t remind John of Steven. Not until later, at least. Around the time that John’s stumbling back to his own room, Aiden’s mobile number fisted tight in his left hand.
They don’t go out, not on proper dates. There is, however, a small Indian place across from Aiden’s and sometimes they end up there. Hilary term is ending and John has an exam or paper every other day, it seems like, but after the exam or the paper and after John’s gasped his orgasm into Aiden’s neck. After, they’ll sit for an hour or more and chat.
There is sport and courses and Aiden talks about his rowing, the annoying first year cox. And all the while John feels a suspicious warmth curling in his gut.
It shouldn’t surprise him then that Aiden stops returning his calls halfway through Trinity term, well into May. It shouldn’t, and it does.
Aiden had said, over and over, “I’m not even bent, man,” and there was never any explanation for it, but it was how they had both wanted it: secret. John hadn’t told anyone about the warmth and the easy way they were during pub nights or eating at what was nearly their table.
Kevin rings him a week or so after and John is still reeling.
“Johnny!” Kevin’s voice is loud, even over the line, and they talk for over twenty minutes, but John doesn’t remember what he says after hello, only that he promises he’ll be home after exams. He hasn’t thought about Basingstoke or Kevin – Steven, his brain supplies – in a month, maybe more.
It’s almost a relief, though, the thought of home. Kevin is normal and familiar and John will bask in it until the start of Michaelmas.
For a brief moment John lets himself think of Steven, of Aiden, and then there’s panic at the edge of his vision, closing in.
He blinks and it’s gone.
Break is easy. John spends most of his time with Kevin and doesn’t go anywhere near the woods. There is the ghost of Steven when he ventures close to his neighborhood, but John doesn’t ask, doesn’t ask after the queer kid, Steven something, right?
He pushes the memories away, down deep, and if he wakes up to the ghost of Steven’s laughter, well, there’s no one there to know.
It’s not until he’s back at school that John thinks of Aiden at all. He’s on a different floor in accommodations, but it looks the same, feels the same. He can almost picture Aiden sprawled out on his floor, studying for his bio-chemistry exam.
This time he isn’t surprised when he sees Aiden from across one of the quads. He’s angry, a little, and probably bitter, but there is no surprise and no warm feelings anywhere inside him. Aiden doesn’t see him and John is fiercely glad at that. There had never been any promises between them and John is feeling a bit like an ass, out of sorts and grouchy, when he runs into a tiny blond girl a moment later.
“Fuck. I am so – such a shite.” Her coffee looks untouched though and she’s smiling up at him.
“No harm done,” she says. “I’m Rosie.”
Her hand is dwarfed by his when they shake and over coffee – another for her and tea for him – they discover a shared course. After an hour John realizes that he actually likes her, that he isn’t just tolerating her insistence that he sit, stay, talk.
“No,” John says, two weeks later as they walk to class. He maybe would have tried harder to say no to her back on that first day if he’d realized then just how bossy she was.
“John Dixon,” she says and something about it makes him think of Steven. The tone of her voice or the set of her mouth, and for the first time it doesn’t hurt. Suddenly he’s smiling, laughing, and Rosie goes from annoyed to confused to worried.
“You’re a strange one, John Dixon,” she says and he follows her to class still laughing.
She’s all blond hair and mocking wit and John wishes he could just fall in love with her. There could be tiny blond babies and a house, not like his parents’, but something small they could grow into.
John doesn’t honestly spend too much time thinking about it, but Kevin comes to visit in mid-February. John’s just starting to worry about end-of-term exams, too busy with running and papers to pay too much mind to Kevin’s “and you have to introduce me, Johnny. You’ve been spending a lot of time with her, yeah?”
It sounds identical to what his mother had said less than a week before. In the middle of some story about Rosie and a pub and how the two just don’t mix, she’d said, “she sounds lovely, dear.” John’s got a dozen or so stores, but he hadn’t realized quite what it could sound like until the innuendo in Kevin’s voice and his eagerness to meet her.
Worst of all, John’s not sure how to explain that it isn’t like that, they aren’t – so he leaves it to Rosie and the look on her face when Kevin asks her when she’s to come round Basingstoke.
She’s very nice about laughing in his face and John is left to soothe away the hurt with a pint.
“But why – “ Kevin says and John’s trying not to freak out because he can see where this is going. This is standing in a loo across from Steven and hearing about that stupid article and doing nothing except for his fists against Steven’s face. Kevin says, “I don’t understand. You’re friends? Just friends?”
And John knows it’s a foreign concept, makes no sense, and this is why he’s hidden it, told no one but Steven. Not even Aiden because they didn’t do that or Rosie, who must have figured it out all on her own. Even now, though, John can’t make himself say the words. He’s the worst kind of coward, he knows, even as he watches realization sink in.
“You,” Kevin says and there’s a look on his face. Like he doesn’t know John, like he’s maybe never known him. It makes John’s head hurt.
John slogs through the rest of Hilary term right into Trinity. He goes out when Rosie comes over to force him and it’s probable the longest he’s gone without hooking up.
Uni has made him a professional at fumbling one night stands, but he keeps seeing the look on Kevin’s face, the confusion and the betrayal.
Rosie at least gets him to laugh once in a while, gets him to climb out of his own head, but then Trinity is over too and John can’t remember sitting his exams but he’s back on the road to Basingstoke so he must have.
John spends most of the summer running. He runs through town and back and when he sees people he knows – from school or family friends – he waves and pretends he’s in a hurry.
Kevin doesn’t come by and John doesn’t call him.
Just before he’s to go back to school, though, his mother knocks lightly at his door, says, “Dear? Kevin’s here. I told him you were in.”
John panics, just a bit, before he finds the breath to reply, say, “Course. I’ll be down in a bit.” He takes the steps as slowly as possible and still the look on Kevin’s face makes it nearly impossible to keep going. He says, “Well? Come on up,” and it’s not as light as he was aiming for, but he can see the way Kevin deflates, like maybe he was a bit worried.
“Johnny,” he says, first thing, and John interrupts, has to. He isn’t sure if he’s ready to hear all of this.
“I’m gay,” he says, blurts. It sounds stupid, not enough, and Kevin’s still got his mouth open. John’s not sure if this is going better or worse than he’d thought it could do.
“Hah, yeah. Figured that one out.” There’s a joke somewhere in there, just at the edge of Kevin’s voice. He says, “Look, I wanted to tell you—Well, it doesn’t matter, all right?”
It does, John thinks, but Kevin keeps right on going. He says, “You’re my best mate, all right, and this is, well, bollocks. You shouldn’t—you should be whoever you want to be.
“You’re an idiot, John Dixon,” Rosie tells him the day he gets back from Basingstoke, and John grins and agrees.