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Coming Home Part 3
Coming Home Part 3

Coming Home Part 3

Broken_HeartedBroken_Hearted

-----------Charlie Holloway has hit rock bottom. He's come out in the worst way possible and will soon have to switch schools, where he will have to see his ex Theo Broussard in class every day. Charlie just wants to find happiness, but the world seems to be conspiring against him. Meanwhile, Theo must figure out some things for himself, as he weighs what he wants in life and what to do after graduation. The two are no longer on speaking terms and each will have to find their own way in the world, before either can ever find love again, together or separately.---------------

Chapter 17

Pine Wood didn't go very far in the playoffs, which Charlie honestly couldn't be too sad about. He'd always preferred hockey over football and state rules prevented him from playing both at the same time. Pine Wood's hockey team had started practicing back in October and the month he was unable to join them was excruciating. He found some solace in the fact that Nolan and Jude were in similar situations.

Charlie could hardly pay attention throughout the school day as he waited for the final bell to ring so he could go to practice, finally. But, even after the bell had rung, he'd need to wait another hour before the rink would open up. Back at Saint Seb, some players just went home for that break or got fast food together and loitered in some random parking lot. Charlie wondered what exactly Pine Wood did. It still felt weird being a senior in high school, but also new to everything.

Nolan soon gave him his answer during lit class. A few of the guys were going to Wendy's between school and practice. When Charlie showed up, there were only a few teammates there, Nolan, Jude, Theo, and two other guys. Charlie couldn't quite remember their names, so he tried his best to avoid having to say his best guesses.

Charlie had learned from experience back at Saint Seb that pre-practice meals should be kept to as little food as possible. Back in freshman year, he and Scott had been invited by a few upperclassmen to join them before practice at Wendy's. They'd all had large frosties, which was unfortunate because Coach DaSilva decided to focus on conditioning that practice. Everyone who'd had a frosty ended up vomiting either on the ice or just outside of the rink.

That memory filled him with a twinge of nostalgia. It'd felt so good as a freshman to be included by the upperclassmen and, before all that stuff went down, he and Scott were actually friends. Charlie tried to suppress whatever memories were resurfacing as he entered the Wendy's and ordered chicken nuggets. He'd been a bit late and the other five guys had already gotten their food and were horsing around in the parking lot by their cars. Jude and unidentified teammate #1 were throwing a football around.

Theo spotted him coming out of the fast-food restaurant and waved him over, beckoning Charlie over to him. Charlie leaned against the hood of Theo's car next to him. Theo smiled at him and they watched as Nolan and unidentified teammate #2 joined the others in their little game of catch, both having already finished their meals. Theo was still working his way through his fries.

They didn't say too much to each other at first, mostly just commenting on the athletic prowess (or often lack thereof) of their friends. Then, Charlie caught Theo swiping one of his nuggets, causing Charlie to let out an inadvertent yelp of protest.

"Here, you can have some of my fries," Theo offered, after downing the nugget in one mouthful with a satisfied smile on his face. Charlie playfully bumped Theo's shoulder with his own, but nevertheless took the other boy up on his offer, grabbing a fistful of fries. Theo tossed him one of his ketchup packets to go along with it.

"Wow, Theo, I never knew you as someone who lives up to stereotypes," Charlie said as he stuffed his face with fries.

"What do you mean? I don't think I've done anything particularly flamboyant recently," Theo replied, jokingly.

"No, not gay stereotypes; the other one. You're eating french fries, my guy."

"Fuck off!" The exclaimed, shoving Charlie so hard he almost lost his balance and his upper body was briefly parallel with the pavement. "God, I can't believe how corny you are."

"As I said before, you love me for it."

Theo looked like he was about to respond, but Nolan yelled from across the lot, "Hey, I think we're running late to practice!" The guys all clambered into their respective vehicles and made their way over to the rink, which wasn't that far away.

Turns out, much like football, practice for hockey doesn't really change much from one high school to another. It's still mostly the same drills and format. Charlie's new coach seemed much more generous with giving the team time to scrimmage for fun at the end, but it was still early in the season, before any games, so he'd have to see how long that would last.

Years had elapsed since Charlie and Theo had played on the same team together and it was a bit scary how well they still worked together as if they had this mental link on the ice. Theo always knew exactly to pass the puck so that Charlie would be in the best position to score and vice versa. They worked as this weird tandem so well that everyone else quickly took notice.

In the locker room after practice, Charlie slowly undressed and got changed in the far corner, as had been his practice at Pine Wood. His old habit from his time in the closet still persisted unconsciously. Most of the guys were quickly clearing out, not wanting to spend more time in the rink on a school night than necessary. Only a few were left, including Theo, who was chatting with Nolan, when Charlie slung his bag onto his shoulder and made his way out.

As soon as he stepped out of the building and into the chilly November air, he was approached by a man in his periphery. A moment of fear passed through him before he realized it was his father and then a different strange feeling replaced fear.

"Hey, son, how're you doing?"

"What the hell do you want?" Charlie demanded angrily. His father wasn't even supposed to be contacting him at all technically and he hadn't seen him since his parents' divorce was finalized last year.

"I came here to apologize, Charlie."

That stopped the younger Holloway in his tracks. "You what?" He asked, dumbfoundedly.

"I didn't handle your... situation like I should have. I messed up and I want to try to make things right."

"You do?"

"Yes, I know now that I should have been more understanding of what you're going through and tried to help you. I was wrong to react the way that I did."

"You really are, actually apologetic?" Charlie was in a state of shock and images of a future in which he had his father back flashed through his head.

"I am. Now, I know I should have been there for you years ago, but I want to be there for you now. We can get you the help you need..."

"Wait, what help?"

"There are places for people like you. Father Michaels..."

"What the fuck? You got religion now? Dad, I never saw you go to church as I kid but as soon as you have a gay child? Give me a break, asshole."

"Don't you dare speak like that to me, young man," Charlie's father boomed as he began stepping closer to his son. Charlie had suddenly become aware that people may be watching their familial squabble, which was now playing out in public, making him tremendously uncomfortable. Charlie didn't know what to do. He was paralyzed in fear as painful memories resurfaced and he started shaking.

Just then, he saw Nolan and Theo approaching. His father made a comment along the lines of calling Theo the reason his son was a sinner or something equally ignorant. Nolan got right up in his face and started telling him off, but Charlie couldn't focus. He just wanted to get out of there.

He started making his way to his car out in the parking lot. His hands were shaking and soon his whole body was trembling, his breaking had become heavy, he was sweating profusely, his chest felt tighter, and his vision was disoriented. He fumbled with his phone and tried calling Lucas, which went to voicemail, and then once again, only to have that go to voicemail as well. He felt so isolated at that moment.

As he neared his car, he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Charlie, Charlie," Theo had been calling after him. "Please just hold on a second. Don't worry, Nolan's getting your dad to leave. Just focus on your breathing."

Theo held on to Charlie's hands and told him to focus on their hands and his breathing and eventually Charlie's anxiety levels came down, but he was still visibly shaking. "I need to get home," he said out loud, though to no one in particular. Charlie got out his keys and started making his way to get into his car.

"Hey, hey, I don't think you should be driving right now, buddy," Theo said.

"Then, what the hell should I do? I can't stay here!"

Theo thought for a moment and then proposed, "let's go to the deli and get a proper dinner? If you're okay to drive after that I'll bring you back here; if not, I'll just take you home."

Not feeling like he had much of a choice, Charlie reluctantly agreed. Theo took his bag and stick from his hands and placed them in Charlie's car before leading the boy back to his own. Charlie felt numb as he got into the passenger seat and then all the way to Reynoso's.

Chapter 18

When they got to the deli, Charlie let Theo order for both of them, not really feeling up to speaking in public at the moment, and went to go find a table for them. Theo came back after ordering and started up a conversation about nothing in particular. He got up to retrieve both their sandwiches, not letting Charlie get up.

As he was waiting, Charlie noticed he'd gotten a text from his boyfriend a few minutes prior, which read "sorry can't talk rn w ppl."

Theo was careful to avoid any mention of what had just happened, both regarding Charlie's father and his subsequent episode, but the other boy felt obligated to say something.

"Well, that wasn't how I expected my first practice to go," Charlie said, cutting Theo off mid-sentence and trying to inject some levity into the evening.

"I certainly hadn't planned on telling off your dad when I woke up this morning," Theo volleyed back, without thinking. However, he quickly got serious, "is your dad... always like that?"

"Wouldn't know, to be honest. I haven't seen him in a year. Mom got full custody and told him to fuck off. He'd respected that until now. He sent me a birthday card, though."

"That's messed up," Theo commented, but then retracted, "shit, I didn't mean to sound judgey or anything."

"Nah, man, you're good and it is messed up. He completely changed when I came out or I guess that's just who he's always been underneath. I don't know. I don't care. I'm just glad he's out of my life. Well, until now, I suppose."

"Are you going to tell your mom about what happened?"

"Oh yeah, she'll go ballistic. Hopefully, that scares him off for good. I never want to see him ever again. You know, for a second there, I thought he'd actually changed and was genuinely apologetic, but then he tries to get me to go to conversion therapy!"

"What about your, um, episode?"

"Oh, that. Well, I probably won't. I'll just talk to Susan about it. She might adjust my medication. I dunno."

"You're on medication?" Theo asked, curiosity in his voice.

"Yeah, I'm looney, I..."

"No, no, I didn't mean that. I just... well, I didn't know, but I'm proud of you."

"You're actually the only person I've told besides my mom."

"Really? Lucas doesn't know?"

"I don't really talk to Lucas about that kind of stuff. We mostly try to keep things light."

"That doesn't sound like you. When we were together," Theo began but cringed at his phrasing, "you were much more open about things."

"We just don't have that kind of relationship, I guess. We had one serious conversation in the beginning, though. It was about you, actually."

"Me?"

"Yeah, who else," Charlie tried to downplay the admission with humor, before clarifying, "well, it was more of a broader thing about moving on from past mistakes."

"You consider dating me a mistake?"

"What, no, of course not. That's not what I meant. My mistake was messing up what we had."

"You didn't mess it up by yourself. I had a part to play in that as well."

"Yeah, right."

"Charlie, I really did think I was doing what would be best for you. I didn't think I could give you what you needed."

"In all candor, what I needed at the time was you."

"When we broke up, at Dalia's party two summers ago, we'd just been using each other for release that whole summer and I thought eventually you'd get bored with me and..."

"I could never be bored by you..."

"You certainly found a more exciting partner in Lucas."

"Don't get me wrong, the threesome we had was nice and everything, but there's so much that we shared that Lucas can't even come close to matching."

"You had a threesome with Lucas and another guy!?"

Charlie laughed, "that's what you took out of that?"

"I'm just a bit in shock, sorry. The old Charlie I knew was so possessive. I didn't think you liked sharing."

"I don't usually, but the opportunity presented itself, I suppose."

"And, seriously, what could I possibly give you that Lucas can't?"

"I never realized how abysmally you devalued yourself, Theo."

"No, I'm being serious here. His body is better, he's more experienced, he's more open to trying things like threesomes, which I would never do I don't think. I just don't get it."

"Theo, I'll say this once and I won't have any argument about it: you'll always be the most beautiful person in the world to me and no one on this planet knows me as intimately and completely as you do. That's what you have that Lucas doesn't."

The two boys didn't talk for a long while after that. After they'd finished their meals, they made their way back to Theo's car. Theo wanted to drive Charlie home himself, after the ordeal that he'd been through, but Charlie had been insistent on retrieving his own car.

Once they reached the rink lot, Theo walked Charlie to his car. Along the way, the two had struck up an idle conversation about the upcoming holiday. The French side of the family didn't celebrate the holiday and Mr. Broussard was an only child, so the Broussards would be having a relatively low-key meal at home, his parents, him, and his older sibling, along with Mr. Broussard's parents.

Charlie told Theo that his older brother was studying abroad so it'd just be him, his mother, and his older sister for the holiday.

"I thought you had this big family? I remember you saying your house is always packed for the day?"

"It was. That's my dad's side. They don't really talk to any of us anymore after, well, you know. And, my mom's parents are dead, so just us."

"Shit, man, I'm sorry," Theo said, plainly, but an idea was already forming in his mind as he watched Charlie get into his car, pull out of his parking spot, and then drive off into the twilight.

Chapter 19

Charlie had actually convinced himself that he was looking forward to his and his mom's subdued, two-person Thanksgiving this year. Turkey Day had been one of Charlie's favorite holidays growing up. They usually celebrated it with his dad's extended family and there were regularly over two dozen relatives in attendance and often some plus-ones.

The whole day followed a schedule set by tradition. The day usually began with a pick-up football game in the vast field overlooked by the rather large home of Charlie's paternal grandparents. The guys played and the women in attendance were expected to act almost as cheerleaders. They would then all go inside and the guys would watch football and the girls would spend the whole day preparing the feast in the kitchen.

It was all very straight and very patriarchal and it's what Charlie thought he wanted in life. When he was younger, he'd even let his mind imagine that one day he'd bring his own significant other to this feast to meet his extended family, like in some often-played holiday movie. That dream was rendered impossible by the old-school homophobia of his father's family, who were old-money and fervently traditional Catholics.

Charlie thought he'd made his peace with losing all of that if it meant being true to himself, even if he missed it all dearly. He felt guilty about longing for the comforts of a family who didn't accept him, but the draw of family and tradition had a strong pull on Charlie. Lucas, on the other hand, seemed to despise having to travel out of state for his family's Thanksgiving celebration. What Charlie wouldn't give to have an extended family as loving and accepting as Lucas's seemed to be.

Again, Charlie had thought he'd made his peace with this lesser holiday, of just him and his mom probably ending up ordering take-out, but that all changed the Sunday before the big day when his mother dropped a bombshell on him. Mrs. Broussard had invited the two of them to the Broussards' Thanksgiving.

"And you said yes? Without telling me?" Charlie demanded, bordering on angrily.

"Well, yes, I know how bummed you were last year about missing the big feast and such, so I thought you'd be happy. Mrs. Broussard is such an excellent cook, you know."

"You don't think it'll be a little weird to spend a holiday with my ex?"

"Oh, come now, you can be more mature than that. And, Mrs. Broussard is my friend and she's done a very nice thing, so you're going to be on your best behavior Thursday."

Charlie couldn't manage the will to carry on an argument he knew he couldn't win any longer. Come Thursday, he'd be spending the holiday with Theo, in some strange perversion of that childhood fantasy that felt nightmarish.
________________________________________________

Wednesday night, Eva surprised Charlie just as he was about to heat up a frozen pizza for dinner. Without telling him where they were going, Eva got him in her car and they ultimately ended up at Julia's. He hadn't even known she was home yet. To his even greater surprise, all of his closest friends seemed to be there and then some.

Patrick, Tate, Jude, and Nolan were all huddled around the television watching some basketball game, while in the kitchen, Theo and Lucas appeared in deep conversation, which strangely unsettled him. Julia was busy hovering over the stove, tending to the meal preparations.

"What's all this?" Charlie finally managed to ask.

"Friendsgiving, of course," Julia told him as Tate entered the kitchen to pick off something to eat.

"Why'd no one tell me about this? I would've brought something. Now, I feel like an ingrate," Charlie said, as he noticed Theo's face contort in an indecipherable way.

"Because it was a surprise for you, dumbass," Tate replied.

"Really?"

"Yeah, Charlie," Lucas confirmed. "It was all Theo's idea. He was right. We need to spend more time together before we're all scattered across the country next year and we all know how much you love surprises.

Lucas knew by now how much Charlie did not like surprises, but he was tactful enough not to verbalize that the real reason for all this was so that Charlie wouldn't feel alone on the holiday.

"And, I haven't seen any of you since the summer!" Julia exclaimed as she momentarily diverted her attention from the food. Eva took over as Julia crossed the room to embrace Charlie in an all-enveloping hug. As she did so, Charlie kept trying to meet Theo's eyes but couldn't seem to connect.

______________________________________________

The food itself wasn't very traditional. Really, it was whatever Julia had learned to cook best from her three months in college and some contributions from Eva and Theo. The meal itself wasn't even consumed at a table, but instead in Julia's living room as they all watched the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special.

After dinner, Charlie found himself out on Julia's back porch. He'd stayed to help clean up, along with Eva and Theo, while the others scrambled home to their families and other obligations. Once Charlie's part was done, he'd excused himself to go outside and take in the night sky, something he'd rarely done recently.

"My God, you really are obsessed with the sky," Theo remarked from behind him as Charlie stared at the half-moon.

"You're such a meanie, Broussard."

"Oh, so we're on a last name basis now? Like we're two preppy bros at Saint Seb?"

"Screw you."

"You have."

"Is this really why you came out here? To tease me, for old time's sake?"

"No," Theo admitted as he pinched his nose, "I wanted to ask if you had a good time."

"Of course I did. This was great. I can't believe you did this."

"I know how much you missed Julia and Tate and Lucas is right we won't see each other as much next year."

"But that's not the only reason and you know it. You felt sorry for me. You pity me."

"Trust me, Charlie, pity is never an emotion I've felt towards you."

"I don't believe you. I told you my mom and I were going to be spending Thanksgiving alone."

"You told Eva that, too. She really came up with this whole idea. We were talking and..."

"So Eva pities me? Great."

"More like, she feels guilty. I don't think she's realized until recently that she didn't like how she handled things between you two."

"I mean, I was the origin of all that mess."

"She thinks she overreacted."

"Probably."

"I handled the whole thing wrong too."

"No, you didn't."

"I tried to force you out."

"I needed a push."

"I shouldn't have pushed you."

"Theo, I thought I was staying in the closet for survival, but it wasn't survival. It was for comfort. I could've had this amazing life I have now, likely an even better one, if I hadn't been such a coward back then. I should've fought for us."

"I played with your emotions, Charlie. I didn't know you felt that way. I'd convinced myself that you didn't really like me and that I was just what was available to you. Deep down, I thought you'd leave me if I didn't leave you first."

"Stop trying to make me feel better. Us ending is on me. I didn't have the courage to stand up for us when it counted."

"Charlie, you were fucking assaulted when you were out. I could never live with myself if I had caused that."

"I think a concussion for living my true self is a pretty good bargain." Theo just huffed, so Charlie changed the subject, "I'm thinking about going back to my natural color. What do you think?"

"Shouldn't you be asking your boyfriend that?"

"I have. He loves the bleached look, but I'm not sure about it anymore. I'm thinking about shaving my head."

"I miss when you looked like a preppy Tik Tok boy."

"I was sixteen! I won't ever look like that again."

"But seriously, you'd look hot with a shaved head."

Chapter 20

The drive over to the Broussards' house with his mother was strange for Charlie. He hadn't been to that house for over a year now, after becoming intimately familiar with it when he was with Theo. Now, he would be celebrating the holiday with his ex, while his current boyfriend was hundreds of miles away.

Charlie had sent Lucas a fairly perfunctory "Happy Thanksgiving" text and in return received one that was equally devoid of passion. He didn't quite know where he stood with Lucas, or Theo for that matter, which just only made this whole thing even more awkward.

The Broussards' Thanksgiving was a low-key affair, with only Theo, his parents, and his older brother Marc. Well, now Charlie and his mom were added to that, he supposed. When they arrived, it was already the afternoon and it appeared like they hadn't missed anything.

When Charlie and his mom walked in, Theo, Marc, and Mr. Broussard were in their living room watching the Godfather marathon on the television.

Mr. Broussard got up to greet his guests quickly before going into the kitchen to relieve his wife, who came out to greet Charlie and his mother, taking Mrs. Holloway's contributions to the feast (a pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes). A few appetizers were served as five of them continued watching the mob movie, while Mr. Broussard took his turn in the kitchen.

Charlie had somewhat awkwardly sat down next to Theo, as it was the only spot left available. The whole thing felt sort of weird to Charlie, but he supposed this is what the Broussards did every Thanksgiving. He knew from Theo that his mother's side didn't celebrate the holiday and his father's family was quite small so it wasn't a big deal for them either. He ruminated on this as the wedding scene in the first Godfather unfolded on screen.

"Not a Godfather fan, Charlie?" Theo whispered, having leaned in and caught Charlie off-guard.

"More of a Sopranos guy if I'm honest."

"He is risen," Theo deadpanned, a surprisingly quick-witted reference. Charlie had to stifle his laughter but earned a reproachful glare from his mother. "C'mon, Charlie, I know you'd rather be watching football right now. My room has a TV."

Charlie nodded and followed Theo dumbly as the other boy led him up to his room, a place he'd been frequently but not in many months now and under different pretenses. Charlie was careful to take Theo's desk chair as the boy plopped down on his bed and turned his television on to one of the games.

"My mom probably thinks we're hooking up right now," Theo observed plainly, about ten minutes after they'd arrived in the bedroom.

"Mine probably does, too. God, my mom keeps telling me that you were the best thing to ever happen to me."

"Marie Broussard wants nothing more than for me to get back with you."

"I will never understand that woman. You don't think they did all this as some sort of conspiracy to get us back together, do you?"

"No, I don't think so. I mean, it was my idea to invite you."

"Wait, really?"

"Yeah, I wanted you to have a good holiday. I know you said it's fine, but I feel really shitty about you not being close to your family anymore and, I don't know, I thought I could try to make up for some of that."

"For what it's worth, I like my chosen family better than my biological one, save my mom and brother and sister, of course.

There was a lull in conversation as both boys looked intently into each other's eyes as if trying to gauge where this conversation would turn next. Charlie felt something on the tip of his tongue, ready to be blurted out without forethought when Theo beat him to it.

"Were you serious about wanting to shave your head?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I have an electric razor. We could do it right now. It'll save you a trip to the barber."

Charlie grinned, "let's do it."

________________________________________________

The reaction to his hair change was much more subdued than Charlie would have anticipated. His mother had tried and failed to suppress her reaction and carry on as if nothing was the matter. Mrs. Broussard simply commented, "oh, so that was what you two were doing up there."

The meal itself was as uneventful as most of the day had been, sans Charlie's haircut, until after pie was served.

"Charlie," Marc began, which was strange because the two rarely spoke, "can I just say how happy I am that you and my brother are back together? He was such a mope for months after you two broke up, both times, and I..."

At that point, Marc was stopped by a swift kick under the table from Mrs. Broussard who was seated next to him. Charlie didn't know what to say, but could clearly see that Theo was mortified.

"We're not back together, idiot," Theo told his brother, with a real venomous emphasis put on that last word, before getting up from the table and storming out of the room. Mrs. Broussard quietly excused herself a few moments later and followed her son out to their backyard. She returned after what must have been a long talk and said that Theo just needed a few minutes.

Charlie couldn't stand it any longer and went after Theo, finding the boy sitting in a lawn chair looking up into the night sky.

"Now who's obsessed with the sky?" Charlie queried, trying to lighten the mood.

"Still you," Theo answered back.

"Families can be the worst, huh?"

"You said it."

"Do you want to talk about...?"

"Not really," Theo interjected, curtly.

"Is it bad I feel a little bit good that you were affected by our breakup, even a fraction as much as I was? I mean, like, I hate that you felt that way, but at least I wasn't alone in mourning the end of what we had."

"You've got a really queer way of looking at things, sometimes."

"Well, I am, so it makes sense."

"I was a wreck. I guess what happened with us was just confirmation for me, in my own twisted way of seeing things, that I really would never be enough for someone to love."

"How can you say that?"

"I wasn't enough for you, Charlie. I wasn't strong enough to support you when you needed it."

"That's bullshit, Theo, and you should know that. I wasn't letting anyone help me, least of all you. I wanted to be strong for you, but I... I just couldn't get myself to where I needed to be for you."

"You deserve the best, Charlie. That's not me. That's Lucas. He's perfect for you."

Charlie sighed, "he may be perfect, but that doesn't mean he's perfect for me. It sounds cliche, but I think I really do believe in the whole soulmates thing like there's this one person out there who's perfect for us. And, I think for me, that's you."

Theo was stunned, "so does this mean...?"

"But I messed it up. I wasted my chance with you. Now, we're seniors about to go our separate ways in a few months. I can handle knowing my relationship with Lucas has an expiration date, but I can't pick up again with you only to lose you again a few months later, even if we make it that far," Charlie said, tears streaming down his face as he did.

"You don't even want to try?"

"I just don't see the point of putting us through hell again, for nothing in the end. I want to see you happy, Theo, and I know that at this point in our lives, we're obstacles to each other's happiness."

Chapter 21

The rest of Thanksgiving break came and went in a blur for Charlie. He hadn't really understood why he hesitated when Theo brought up the subject of getting back together. If he'd been honest with Theo and followed his heart, he would have said yes immediately, but something was holding him back, a hesitancy that he both could and could not explain. Yes, the reasons he told the other boy were part of it, but more than anything else he still really cared about Lucas and didn't want to see the other boy hurt.

Their relationship wasn't an end-game type of love, but it was maybe another form of love and, even though both knew their time together wouldn't be eternal, they still felt a deeply spiritual bond. Or at least, that's what it felt like from Charlie's end of things. This whirlwind of emotion caused him to look towards their return to school on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. (Of course, the state gave a school holiday for the first Monday after Thanksgiving for the first day of hunting season, which was for everyone even if you personally weren't participating.)

The idea of harming an animal made Charlie feel ill, but perhaps not as ill as imagining having to interact with both Lucas and Theo at the same time in school. He'd almost-completely stopped responding to texts from either of them. So, he really should not have been surprised when Lucas approached him Tuesday morning before Charlie had even gotten out of his car.

Lucas told him they needed to talk and, reluctantly, Charlie welcomed him into his car.

"You've been avoiding me."

"What? Don't be ridiculous. Just because I don't respond to every text right away doesn't mean I'm avoiding you."

"If I hadn't cornered you like this, how long would it have been before you talked to me?"

"Probably our first class together."

"Do you even believe you're saying that?" Lucas asked and, when no response came, he pressed on, "I see you actually did shave your head."

"Don't you like it?"

"I'll miss the slim shady look, but I'm more peeved I wasn't the one to do it."

"Honestly, it was a spur of the moment thing and Theo was just there and offering."

"And I wasn't around. That's what's implied there right? We've been over this, Charlie. I'm sorry I wasn't available when you were going through shit with your dad."

"None of that was implied by what I said. Maybe you just still feel guilty."

"You can't tell me you haven't been holding that against me this past month."

"I'm not holding anything against you," Charlie said, as if willing it to be true but not entirely believing it to be.

"You hold against me that I'm not Theo."

"Don't be silly. You're just acting paranoid now. Just because Theo shaved my head doesn't mean anything is going on."

Lucas let out an exasperated sigh, "this is supposed to be fun, Charlie. I don't like the position you're putting me in. We're supposed to make each other's lives more enjoyable, not less."

"Don't I make you happy?"

"You did."

"Ouch," Charlie said, his ego properly wounded from that remark.

"We had fun, didn't we? I certainly had a great time with you."

"You keep using the past tense."

"Very perceptive, future English major."

"There's something you're going to say so just do it already."

"Charlie, I don't know if you've started hooking up again with Theo or not, but clearly you're back to being completely infatuated by him. And, I'm just not anyone's consolation prize."

"I never—"

"Let me finish, Charlie. I've earned that, because honestly, I don't care about exclusivity or monogamy or whatever, but I don't want to become an object of resentment for you, an obstacle to your ultimate happiness. I know we talked about riding through our senior year together, but I think this thing of ours has run its course."

"Don't say that," Charlie pleaded, even if he wasn't sure why exactly.

"Why? Please tell me why you think we should stay together. Give me one good reason that's not about our sexual chemistry."

Charlie was at a loss for words, mouth left gaping.

"You can't, but you still want to stay together, because you have this complex where you always want people to know you're the good guy in everything. Ya know, good for you, if you actually did turn down Theo's advances—don't think I didn't notice, I'm not stupid—but, that doesn't make you a good person. Staying with me just for the sake of staying together hurts both of us and it's really shitty to lead me on like you have been."

"Lucas, I don't know what to say. I'm just sorry that I... I never meant to lead you on."

"You have nothing to apologize for. I'm not heartbroken or anything. I'll be fine. I just can't do this anymore. I'm not going to be settled for as an afterthought. I deserve my own story."

"You're totally right."

"I hope that we can be friends sometime soon, but for now, please just keep your distance."

"I understand, Lucas."

"Thank you. It means a lot." At that, Lucas got out of Charlie's car and made his way to the school building, where two of his friends were waiting for him. He'd clearly told them ahead of time what he was doing.

Charlie took a moment to gather himself before propelling himself out of his car and into the crowd of fellow students making their way into the building. He didn't stop to talk to anyone as he collected what he'd needed from his locker and then made his way to his homeroom.

He realized in doing so that it was just so much easier to stay silent, so that's just what he did for the rest of the day. He didn't verbally respond to anyone except teachers and stopped answering his messages altogether. Theo seemed particularly distraught by this turn as it continued through the rest of the week. Charlie didn't know why but it just felt so good to block out so much of the world when he wasn't sure what exactly he wanted from it.

Rumors were abound throughout the school as news of Charlie and Lucas's breakup spread throughout the student body, but even Charlie's closest friends couldn't get him to confirm or deny any such rumors, whether they be scandalous or banal. Nolan tried coaxing him into talking several times, but nothing seemed to work, not even hockey talk. Charlie skipped practices that week and only showed up for the game at the last minute, earning bench-warmer status for the first period as punishment from the coach.

Charlie's mom grew increasingly more concerned as she worried that her son was quickly declining to his bad old days before coming out. Perhaps these past few months had been an aberration, a mirage of happiness amid a desert of despair that would be his life.

Chapter 22

Charlie's silent treatment became untenable after only a few days and, by the next Monday, he was back to talking to his friends, albeit he was slightly withdrawn. His breakup with Lucas had caught him off guard and threw him more than he'd have expected it to. For whatever it was, his five months dating Lucas represented the most stable relationship he'd ever had.

Okay, it was out of two and the other was historically unstable, but still. There was a monumentality that was felt when their relationship disintegrated that threw Charlie like a riptide and he wasn't sure how to respond so he just didn't.

He kept his distance from Theo, not wanting to have to deal with yet another painful conversation with someone he cared about. Charlie's coldness was reflected on the ice when his and Theo's usual chemistry evaporated during their first few games. Passes would be missed, going completely behind one of them; or they wouldn't see each other when the other was wide open in front of the net.

The team felt it and the coach felt the need to talk to Charlie about it. He'd never seen a grown man look more awkward than when this guy tepidly brought up his previous romantic history with his teammate Theo and how that shouldn't affect their play. He also threatened to demote Charlie to the second line if things didn't change.

This would have been a major blow to Charlie's ego, but he knew it'd be the right hockey move. Theo was a better player than him no doubt and he needed to be on the top line. More than that, though, Charlie sinking to the second line would mean that his and Theo's chemistry was irreparably damaged.

Thankfully for Charlie, this potential calamity was put off at least temporarily by the upcoming winter break, which meant that there would be a two-week reprieve from actual games. Somehow, he'd have to get his shit together in the meantime and not just on the ice.

For Charlie, though, it seemed like events conspired against him on this. He'd come to this realization the night before the last day of school before winter break, with Theo leaving the next day to fly off to France and reunite with his childhood crush. To Charlie, this felt like a betrayal, even if he had no logical right to feel that way.

When all else failed, Charlie facetime'd Julia. It was almost midnight, but Julia answered almost right away. She was in bed and Charlie could see the top tufts of Tate's hair as the boy cuddled up to his girlfriend in their Manhattan apartment. They were so in love and happy and rich it was sickening, though that last part was mostly on Tate's account.

Julia let out a shriek when she was Charlie's shaven head, then once she gathered herself, she remarked, "I saw your post on Insta but I didn't believe it was real!"

"They say never take your mental health out of your hair and yet... I've done it again," Charlie responded, trying to make a joke out of the situation.

"Was Theo really the one to do the deed?"

"Yep, actually, that's kinda related to what I want to talk to you about..."

"Oh, no," Julia's face fell. "You're not back together, are you? I heard Lucas dumped you." Charlie could hear Tate's stifled laughter in the background and saw Julia elbow him into submission.

"Gee, thanks for that, and no we're not and your response to that idea is a little concerning."

"Charlie, I know you'll always have a thing for him, but it's just not right for either of you."

"Well, I don't know what to do then, because this situation is untenable. I can't even talk to him for fear of what I'll say and there's no way we can last past going off to college. I mean, we're probably going to be on different sides of the country."

Julia made a face at that and looked like she had something to say, but didn't.

"What was that look for?" Charlie demanded, "Do you know something I don't?"

Julia sighed and resignedly said, "you clearly haven't seen Theo's Insta story yet today."

"I've been trying to keep off social media for fear of being drawn into lurking on his profile."

"God, you're in deep, but yeah, I'll save you the trouble: Theo got into NYU."

"Oh, shit."

"Yep."

"NYU is only like, what, a short subway ride away from Columbia?" Charlie asked, hopefully, yet blissfully ignorant of the woes of New York City mass transit.

"Charlie, when you get to New York, you'll learn that no subway ride is short, especially not uptown, but it's still only like thirty or forty minutes depending on luck."

"That could work."

"I can see the wheels spinning in your head now."

________________________________________________

Charlie could hardly sleep at all that night after he got off of facetime with Julia. His mind raced at the possibility that he and Theo could be spending the next four years in the same city. Maybe he was wrong to push Theo away before, maybe they could actually work out.

He hardly slept at all that night as thoughts raced in his head of whatever grand gesture he wanted to make the next morning and their eventual life together. He saw them trading nights in each other's dorm rooms, maybe studying abroad in the same city, sharing their first apartment, getting a townhouse together, maybe moving out to the suburbs when they had kids—god, did Theo want kids? Did he?

Charlie realized he was getting far ahead of his skis, but he couldn't help himself. Suddenly, a world of possibilities felt open to him and all of those possibilities included Theo. He felt giddy as he got ready and drove to school the next morning. This was not usually a process that inspired such an emotion. He wanted to seek Theo out before school, but he'd woken up late on account of only getting a few hours' sleep and was nearly late to school, precluding any pre-class rendezvous.

He felt like a zombie through the morning periods as he desperately waited for the time to elapse enough to bring him to literature, where he would find Theo. Yet again, though, he arrived too late to talk to Theo before class and, instead, he was forced to wait excruciatingly through class for a chance to talk to his beloved. He had to just sit there and pretend everything was normal as this beautiful boy sat there and gave perfect answers about the meaning of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The bell tolled to mercifully end the most excruciating class of Charlie's life and he scrambled to put his things away and chase down Theo, who was heading to lunch with Nolan. Charlie grabbed the boy by the shoulder and turned him around. Theo looked like he had almost been expecting this interaction and gave Nolan a nod to leave them in peace, which the other boy reluctantly did, heading off to the cafeteria.

Once they were alone in a near-empty hallway, Charlie was at a loss for words as Theo stared at him expectantly. Finally, he stammered out simply, "I just wanted to wish you a good trip before you leave. That's today, right?"

"Yeah..." Theo replied, obviously confused.

"Well, I guess we better head to lunch before they run out of sloppy joe."

"I think that's impossible."

"Well, you never know," Charlie replied, stupidly. He kicked himself for their entire walk to the cafeteria for not being able to utter the words, to cross the rubicon, which would unlock those possibilities that he could only dream about the night before.

He was a coward, always had been, always will be, Charlie told himself throughout the lunch period. He didn't see Theo for the rest of the school day but reasoned that he'd invite the boy for an after-school fast food run and finally find his courage there, away from the intimidating specter of a school building.

Seniors clogged their hallway of lockers after the final bell rang, but none of those seniors were Theo, at least as far as Charlie could tell. After ten minutes of frantic searching, he found Nolan and asked him, which caused the other boy to look bewildered.

"Theo left after lunch to make his flight. Didn't he tell you?"

"No, I, um, thought he was leaving tonight."

"Well, you'll see him in the new year. I'm sure your codependency will resume just like always even after a little time apart."

Charlie was crushed that this golden opportunity at the reunion he'd so longed for had managed to slip through his fingers. Rather, he had let it slip through his fingers through his own cowardice.

Maybe a reunion wasn't such a great idea after all. Theo deserved someone who was courageous enough to openly declare what he wanted and Charlie had never been able to do that. He was a piss-poor communication of his emotions and Theo didn't deserve that. Charlie felt broken at this realization like it finally hit him that those dreams wouldn't come true and he wouldn't have this happily-ever-after fantasy he'd always wanted.

Chapter 23

A few days into the winter break, Charlie was hurtling across the sky on his own flight away from Pennsylvania. Only, he was headed in the complete opposite direction of Theo. His flight was from Philly to Denver, from where he'd go to a Colorado ski resort to spend the holiday with his mother and siblings. This despite the fact that Charlie could not ski.

That didn't matter much to Charlie. He wasn't in the mood to be very active on this little vacation anyway. He planned to just stick to the resort, try to finish reading Just Above My Head, and see what else he could do to amuse himself. Charlie wasn't in a very festive mood, but he didn't want to detract from his mom's holiday. She'd had a tough year and she booked this vacation for herself, with her children simply tagging along, although in Charlie's opinion that was well-deserved.

Charlie tried his best to avoid the rest of his family for the duration of the vacation. He avoided his mom because he didn't want to ruin her vacation with his mopping and he avoided his siblings because he didn't want them to ruin his peace and quiet.

For the first few days of their winter vacation, Charlie's plan worked to perfection. He'd turned off his phone so he'd have minimal contact with the outside world and instead spent most of his time reading and listening to music, which was fine by him. He spent most of his time at a small cafe, doing his best to look like an occupied and paying customer, through buying several iced coffees, so as not to be kicked out for loitering. At night, he switched to hot chocolate so he wouldn't overload on caffeine.

There were only two exceptions to this. First thing every morning, Charlie would either go for a run or spend an hour in the resort's gym. He usually didn't like resort gyms because they were small and filled with novices, which he wasn't used to. However, the freezing temperatures and lure of a few cute boys he'd spotted his first time at this resort's gym drew him there more than going for runs.

Second, the resort had a pond ice rink that was more decorative and for leisurely skates, but Charlie took advantage whenever it was depopulated to get a few laps in to keep up his skating abilities. There, again, he kept seeing one boy in particular. Once the boy also started showing up at the cafe in town he frequented, Charlie was ready to admit to himself that he was full-blown crushing, hard.

Charlie knew he had a type, blond and a bit preppy, but unlike his usual objects of affection, this boy appeared a bit older than him, probably in college. Charlie liked observing the other boy but tried to keep his staring as discreet as possible.

This mild infatuation would only ever result in observation, or at least that's what Charlie assumed, and he was fine with that, really. But, then, he actually met the boy.

Charlie had finished Just Above My Head after only a few days at the resort, so he searched google maps and found a bookstore in town. He considered himself lucky because if there hadn't been one he'd have been left to pick through the cheap, tacky romance novels in the resort's gift shop.

It was Christmas Eve when Charlie made his way down to the town's bookstore. Upon his arrival, Charlie realized he had absolutely no idea what he wanted to read next, which was a first for him. He aimlessly perused the shelves, which didn't help much, until he was interrupted.

"Run out of Baldwin novels?" A disembodied voice queried from behind Charlie. When he turned around, he saw it was none other than his mystery boy.

"Oh, uh, yeah, actually. How'd you guess?" Charlie replied, nervously, as he stroked the back of his neck with a mitten-covered hand.

"Just Above My Head is his last novel, so educated guess. I'm Jack, by the way, Jack Fulbright."

"You say it like you're James Bond," Charlie said, proud of himself for a somewhat witty retort.

"I suppose, but I'm probably closer to Daniel Craig in Knives Out than Skyfall."

Charlie stifled a laugh, but replied, "My name's Charlie Holloway."

"Nice to meet you, Charlie. So, are you actually in the market for a book recommendation?"

"Yes, actually, for once, I'm at a loss when it comes to this. I work at a bookshop after school, so I should know better."

"After school? As in high school?"

"Ah, yeah? Why?"

"Oh, no biggie. I just assumed you were in college, too. I'm a freshman at Columbia."

"No way! I applied there."

"A lot of people do."

"A lot of people don't have a 1580 SAT."

"Touche. So I guess we'll be classmates in a few months if Columbia's your first choice?"

"Oh, it definitely is."

"Want to be in the city?"

"Who wouldn't?"

"It's not like it was in Baldwin's day."

"I'll have to see for myself then."

"I suppose you will. Well, anyway, I'd suggest The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I think you'd like it, based on what I know so far."

"Thanks. I think I'll give it a shot."

"See you around, Charlie Holloway." And, before Charlie could reply, Jack swiftly disappeared out of the store, maintaining an air of mystery to him.

Charlie paid for his book and made the trek back up to the ski resort, but saw no sign of Jack for the rest of the day. That night, after dinner, Charlie's sister Stef coaxed him into going with her to meet up with some other college-aged kids she'd met while skiing.

When the siblings happened upon the midsized group, they were all huddled on an outside deck around a fire pit in heavy winter clothing, sipping hot chocolates. Charlie and Stef took the two empty chairs. It was only when he sat down did Charlie notice he was sitting next to Jack, who gave him a self-satisfied look.

Jack handed Charlie a cup of hot chocolate. Charlie blew on it a bit to cool it down before drinking but had not prepared himself for how bitter it'd be.

"Agh," Charlie choked out, "what's in this?"

Jack couldn't suppress his laugh. "It's Evan Williams. The college student's Jack Daniels."

"Oh, I didn't know this was that kind of get-together."

"Next year, you'll learn every get-together is that kind of get-together," Stef teased him.

Charlie paid attention to the group's conversation for a little bit but was soon drawn into a side conversation with Jack about the book he'd recommended. Charlie hadn't gotten through much of it before dinner, but he'd read enough to know where at least one plotline was headed. He'd also come to the conclusion that Jack must be at least a little queer if he'd read both Baldwin and Hollinghurst.

Soon, another girl joined the group and Charlie chivalrously offered up his seat. He stood for a while, but eventually, Jack made room for Charlie to join him on his chair and Charlie happily complied. Jack was taller and more muscular than Charlie, which was another first as far as attraction went for Charlie, but he found some comfort in it as the two snuggled close together. Charlie noticed his sister give him an approving nod and a discreet thumb's up at one point during the night.

A little after Christmas Eve officially became Christmas Day, Charlie and Jack's conversation again turned to The Stranger's Child when Charlie bluntly asked, "Cecil and George don't end up together, do they?"

"Well, the book's about the aftermath of Cecil's death at war, so obviously no and, I mean, it's the nineteen-tens. It would've been impossible."

"I know that in theory, but in practice it's awfully depressing. I suppose George doesn't get a happy ending with some other guy then?"

"This isn't a major spoiler if I tell you, but he ends up in a loveless marriage to a woman."

"It's a shame thinking about what could have been, between Cecil and George."

"Really? I think they were really just two college guys getting off together when it comes down to it. There wasn't a whole lot of emotional connection there, from my perspective."

"Maybe you're right," Charlie agreed, realizing to himself that he wasn't necessarily mourning the loss of what George and Cecil had, but his doomed relationship with Theo. It wasn't by any means the same, but like the story, it seemed as if circumstances were conspiring against him and Theo ever actually getting back together.

Charlie was lost in thought for a moment but pulled himself back when he realized Jack was observing him with a concerned look. As if wanting nothing more than to erase that concern, Charlie surged forward and kissed Jack. He heard a few yelped cheers from their gathered friends, one of which he could isolate as his sister's voice, and felt Jack's hand on the small of his neck, which felt unbelievably nice.

Charlie and Jack were all over each other for the rest of the night and, when the crowd started dwindling, Charlie invited Jack up to his room. The two made out the whole elevator ride up to Charlie's floor and then barely stopped between the elevator bay and his room. Charlie was thankful that he'd gotten his own room for this trip as sexiling his older brother would've been supremely awkward.

They continued making out on Charlie's bed, which was nice, but then Jack started to focus lower and Charlie felt a twinge of remorse. He couldn't get Theo out of his head, imagining it was Theo's hand grabbing his crotch and not Jack's.

Eventually, this became too much and Charlie stopped their making out and asked Jack to leave. The older boy seemed disappointed but reluctantly complied without saying a word. Once the door was closed, Charlie stared out the window at the full moon and wondered how it looked from Theo's perspective in Chartres. He was so gone he didn't even factor in the time difference and how the sun was probably out there already.

Still, the moon compelled him, as if he was water pulled by a lunar force into waves, to reach for his phone—well, maybe it was the alcohol and his own impulsivity, rather than the moon. Either way, he went to his contacts, scrolled until he reached Theo Broussard and hit the call button.

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Broken_Hearted
Broken_Hearted
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9 Nov, 2021
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