To Care For
Aiden knew he was fidgeting. His leg was bouncing, his hands were tapping, and his stomach was in knots. He swallowed, his throat feeling dry as he fiddled with his phone.
He’d messaged Kellen asking him to hang out after school that day. It wasn’t like they hadn’t hung out before in the weeks since they’d exchanged numbers, but it was always impromptu. Kellen would simply stay after school to watch Aiden like usual, or they would jog the mile together in PE. Aiden felt like an idiot when Kellen told him that their PE classes sometimes did activities together and he had never noticed. But as Kellen put it, “Coach uses last names, so you probably heard him call me Konrad instead.”
Either way, they’d talked a lot whenever they could, but they hadn’t actually gone anywhere outside of school and it was driving Aiden crazy. As much as he wanted to have lunch with Kellen or walk to classes with him, he was scared. He still wasn’t out and he had no idea how his friends would react. He didn’t know how it would change things.
But Aiden was itching to do more than smile or have short conversations with Kellen at school. He wanted to spend more time with him without being worried about outing himself in the process. And today, today he had no practice. His parents weren’t expecting him until later. He’d told his friends that he was busy. Today was perfect.
If only Kellen would actually give him a yes or a no. It had been around half an hour since Aiden texted him to ask and still no response. Okay, so they were both in class and he was supposed to be listening, but he could only pay attention to the phone in his hand. Aiden supposed Kellen was doing a better job of paying attention in his class if he hadn’t responded yet.
He gulped at the nervous rumbling in his stomach, hoping it wouldn’t get any worse. It was honestly an act of mercy when Kellen messaged him back about ten seconds after he stepped out of the classroom. Aiden almost threw his phone at the ceiling when his hand jerked. He would be eternally grateful that Kellen wasn’t there to see that as he opened the message.
Sure, I’d love to hang out. We usually spend our afternoons together anyway. Meet you at the pitch?
Aiden shouldn’t have been so relieved. He didn’t even know why he’d been nervous in the first place with how casual Kellen was. Maybe it was because it had quickly become impossible for Aiden for look away from the other boy. Or because his heart beat quickly every time Kellen got too close. Aiden’s only solace was that Kellen didn’t seem to be shying away from him, which made his stomach flip in a much less painful way.
That didn’t mean that he felt any less nervous when he walked to the baseball pitch was after school. As always, Kellen was already there, sitting around with a book for class. He looked up when Aiden approached.
Kellen stood up with a calm smile. “Ready to go? Where are we going by the way?”
“Oh, uh…” Aiden had put so much thought into asking to see Kellen again that he hadn’t thought about where they would actually go.
Kellen didn’t seem bothered as he chuckled. “I know a place. How do you feel about ice cream sandwiches?”
It was a perfect late spring day for ice cream. The sun was beating down warmly with the approaching summer on its heels. There was just the right amount of wind for it to feel comfortable without it being searing hot. Aiden took a deep breath as he waited for Kellen to come back with their sandwiches, smiling as he breathed in the fresh air.
He’d told the brunette that he didn’t have to treat, but Kellen said that in exchange, he got to pick out a flavor for Aiden. The little ice cream shop let people build their own ice cream sandwiches, cups, and cones, which made Aiden wonder what he’d agreed to. He would have tried anything Kellen handed him though when the other boy came out with that infectious smile of his.
“Should I ask what this is?” Aiden questioned with a half-smile. His sandwich looked good enough, with large chocolate cookies keeping the chocolate ice cream inside safe. There were even rainbow sprinkles all along the outside.
“Oh, did I get too much on it?” Kellen asked sheepishly. “I have a bit of a sweet tooth.”
“I can appreciate a good chocolate cookie when I see one,” Aiden said with a smile, taking a bite. He hummed at the taste of chocolate, mint, and a little bit of salty peanut to balance it out. It was surprisingly good. “I like this… but now I don’t want to open my mouth too wide with all the chocolate in my teeth.”
Kellen barked with laughter as he usually did, his body shaking with it. He ended up smiling widely after he purposely took a bite of his peanut butter, chocolate, and vanilla sandwich. “Now we match, so you’re good to go.”
Kellen had a way about him that made others relax. Aiden felt happiness bubble up inside him as they started walking, talking in between bites. He relished in each new bit of information that he learned about Kellen. Like that the brunette didn’t drink coffee or even have a lot of sugar usually, despite his sweet tooth. He said that he had enough energy already, and the few times he had coffee, he was up for almost 36 hours straight before he passed out for another 10 hours.
Aiden found it easy to share details of his life with Kellen too. He hesitantly talked more about his anxiety, which he’d never shared with anyone. Aiden was scared that he was revealing too much, that he would scare Kellen away, but the taller boy nodded sympathetically when Aiden told him about his stomach issues. He didn’t judge him or look at him with disgust.
“Actually, my dad used to have problems like that,” Kellen mused curiously. “I don’t think he was ever really obvious about it, but I remember that he carried around medicine with him all the time.” He made this face, like he was having trouble recalling the memory.
“You… were pretty young when you lost your dad,” Aiden said quietly, taking another bite of his sandwich to keep his mouth busy.
Kellen nodded in affirmation. “Yeah, I was five. It’s not hard remembering him. It’s more difficult forgetting.”
They’d texted about this before. The outright screaming match between Kellen and his mom had thankfully stopped, but the relationship was still stilted, and according to Kellen, it was partially because of his dad. Kellen was trying so hard to remember while his mom seemed to be working hard to forget. It was difficult to bridge that kind of gap.
Kellen looked up to the sky for a moment before taking another bite and humming in contentment. “I’m just glad I still have so many pictures of him. I can show you sometime,” he offered, a tender smile on his face.
Aiden didn’t know how to convey how much that meant to him. Kellen was willing to open up his heart like that, to show Aiden the man who meant so much to him. All Aiden could do was give him a grateful smile as Kellen went on speaking, “I just wish I could see my dad now—you know? My mom knows I’m bi, but I wish I could tell my dad too.”
Aiden blinked. They hadn’t talked about this before. Somehow, it seemed kind of obvious that the both of them weren’t straight, and yet neither of them had ever said those words out loud. Clearing his throat, Aiden clarified, “So… you’re bisexual?”
That was probably abrupt, but Kellen didn’t even give him a second to doubt himself. The other boy laughed aloud, the smile back on his face. “Oh, I didn’t tell you that? Yeah, I’m bi. I tend to prefer guys, but I go both ways.”
He said it so casually, like it was completely normal. It was completely normal. Yeah. Aiden forgot that sometimes, but being gay or bi wasn’t a bad thing. It was Kellen and his casual, accepting attitude who reminded him of that, even as Aiden holed himself so far in the closet that sometimes it was hard to see the light on the other side.
Aiden took a deep breath, steeling his courage. He wanted to say those words—the ones that he’d so far only admitted to himself—out loud for once. “I, uh, I’m gay actually.”
Kellen’s expression was soft when Aiden finally chanced a look at him. “Good. I’d be pretty devastated if a cute guy like you was straight.”
He said it with a straight face. Aiden’s ears went red, which caused Kellen to smile. Any tension was effectively broken, but Kellen still said, “I’m guessing you’re not out to anyone?”
“Er, no,” Aiden said in embarrassment.
Kellen bumped his shoulder, finishing off the rest of his sandwich. “Nothing to be ashamed of,” he mumbled as he swallowed. “That’s your moment, Aiden. When you feel comfortable coming out, that’s your moment. It’s up to you when you’re ready.” He gave Aiden a tender look. “And until then, I won’t say anything.”
Aiden felt his heart jump into his throat at the same time that relief flowed through his veins. That sweet expression on Kellen’s face, mixed with the knowledge that Aiden could really and truly trust him with his deepest secret was almost overwhelming. It made Aiden feel close to Kellen. It also made him feel way too warm, but at least he had one last bite of ice cream to help him cool off.
Kellen bumped his shoulder and gave him a smile. “You okay?”
Aiden realized that Kellen was actually feeling unsure. That he was worried he’d said something that was too intrusive.
So, Aiden smiled at the other boy. “More than okay. Hey, uh, maybe next time, you can teach me to dance.” He doubted that he would ever be able to really dance, but Aiden wanted to be near Kellen. If they were dancing, he had a small hope that Kellen would hold him close.
Kellen returned the smile. “Next time, huh?” He didn’t say it: that Aiden was already thinking about a next time. It didn’t need to be said. Instead, he countered with, “Only if you show me how to hold a baseball bat.”
From the serious tone, Aiden knew one thing: Kellen was looking forward to whatever time they spent together just as much as he was.
Aiden probably looked like an idiot smiling to himself as he walked Nikki to her ballet class on Tuesday, the snow buffeting them and the wind slamming into them like a ton of rocks. He had to keep Nikki’s hand in his for the entire way so that he didn’t lose track of her, and asked her to walk in front of him when the wind was so strong that it pushed her backwards.
It was slow going with the ice tripping them up and the wind pushing them back, but Aiden was still smiling. He was going to see Kellen again.
The other night at Nikki’s recital had been the first time they’d had a real conversation since they’d broken up. It had cleared a lot of the air between the two of them, bridging the gap of time that had been lost. Or well, at least closing some of the distance. They couldn’t cover everything in one night after all. But now, Aiden had the chance to get to know Kellen again and he sure as hell wasn’t going to waste it.
He’d already started texting the other man. The residual awkwardness faded quickly as they fell into old habits, sending pictures, emojis, and keeping up conversations for days at a time. Each message made Aiden smile, even when it was a simple “hello” or a picture of the snow Kellen had just fallen into. There was that same familiarity between them. Sometimes, Aiden felt as if no time had passed at all.
Then he walked into Kellen’s dance studio and he was glad that time had passed; glad that Kellen had achieved something so wonderful, something that made him so happy. He only wished that he’d been there to see it.
Aiden shook off the snow as he and Nikki stepped inside, huffing as the warm air hit him. A few other parents were already there, helping their kids get themselves together for B’s class. Olivia was typing a few things into her computer with that usual smile of hers while she addressed someone’s concerns.
By the time Aiden had said goodbye to Nikki, who excitedly bounced through the doorway in the back, everyone had cleared out. Only Aiden and Olivia remained. The silence stretched between them for a few moments as she continued typing away at her computer. The clacking of Olivia’s fingers on the keyboard competed with the slight sound of the heat to be the loudest sound in the room. He didn’t even know if she was aware that he was still in the room.
Aiden frowned to himself. He’d intended to say hello to Kellen before he found some way to spend the next two hours, but the other man hadn’t appeared. Aiden thought he might be moving around in the back somewhere when Olivia said, “He’s not here today.” Well, she knew he was there. She also apparently knew why he was there.
“O-oh,” Aiden mumbled, embarrassed that she’d seen through him so easily. He felt his ears go red.
Olivia looked up from her computer. “He’s having one of his bad days, actually.” She frowned to herself, looking concerned as her fingers stopped their furious pace.
Aiden’s eyebrows narrowed in confusion. “Bad days? Like… depression?” he ventured. He honestly couldn’t imagine someone like Kellen being depressed, but maybe he’d missed something. No, of course he’d missed something. He’d been gone for seven years; he couldn’t expect Kellen to be the same person that he’d been in high school. Thinking that he knew Kellen as well as he did before after only one nice conversation was only wishful thinking.
But Olivia raised her eyebrows, a frown marring her usually cheerful face. “Oh, no. Migraines,” she answered succinctly, distractedly looking for a file on the computer. “He’s had them ever since the accident.”
“Wait, accident?” Aiden hadn’t heard anything about an accident from Kellen. He felt his heart skip a beat in worry. He would have already been hounding Olivia for the details if he didn’t know that Kellen was fine.
Olivia finally looked up from her computer with a confused expression. “It was before I met him, but he was driving back to college when some idiot sixteen-year-old driver slammed into him. He told me that he was unconscious for a few days. No major injuries, but he has chronic migraines now.” There was that concerned expression on her face again. “Usually B or I check up on him when he can’t come in to work. The migraines get so bad that he throws up or passes out.”
Aiden felt like the mess of emotions he was hit with was stronger than even the wind outside. First was concern. The desire to physically see Kellen, to make sure that he was okay, was overpowering. Then there was guilt. Aiden wasn’t there. When he was doing some stupid thing in college, Kellen was sitting in the hospital hooked up to a heart monitor and not waking up. It was almost enough to make Aiden feel physically ill.
Maybe that sudden sense of nausea showed on his face as Olivia approached him from behind her desk, putting her hands up like she wanted to help him. Aiden tried to smile at her, but all he could do was give her a pathetic grimace.
Aiden was left with a feeling of profound sadness. Olivia said chronic headaches. That meant that for the rest of his life, Kellen would be dealing with this, with headaches that were apparently so bad that Kellen couldn’t fully take care of himself. It made Aiden’s heart drop into his stomach and his stomach churn in that uncomfortable way.
He swallowed. “I… I didn’t know…”
Olivia gave him a curious look. “He didn’t tell you?” She sighed and shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Knowing him… he was worried about how you would react.”
Aiden got the feeling that he was missing a piece of this conversation, but his mind was still reeling with what Olivia had told him. “Is he going to be okay?” he asked in a small voice.
“Oh, yeah,” Olivia said with new energy, her eyebrows shooting up as she tried to reassure him. “He’ll be fine. Most of these last for about a day, two days sometimes, and longer than that only rarely. Kellen will be back in a few days at most. But until then…”
She bit her lip, as if she was making a decision. Olivia nodded to herself and went back behind the counter for a moment. “You really care about him, right Aiden?”
“Of course, I do,” Aiden answered seriously.
Olivia stared at him for another few moments, as if she was trying to gauge his genuineness. “Yeah… you do,” she mused. Finally, she hummed and picked up her keys, taking two off the keyring. “These are the keys to Kellen’s place. Gold for the outer door, silver for the inner door. He’s in building number 36, apartment 200. Usually B or I check up on him, and I was planning to go in a little bit after B’s class lets out, but if you’re up to it, I can leave it to you today.”
Aiden blinked at her. He could hardly believe that she would let him randomly show up to Kellen’s place. It seemed so personal, and he was the one who hadn’t even known about the migraines until a few minutes ago. “R-really? You would let me do that?”
“Kellen trusts you,” Olivia said simply, as if that explained everything. “But he’s going to need some help. Are you going to be up to taking care of him a little bit?”
“Yeah, I’d do anything to help him feel better,” Aiden said softly yet confidently. He wasn’t really sure what he could realistically do for something like a migraine, but he if he could provide even a small amount of relief, it would be enough.
Olivia gave him a small smile, as if that answer was the right one. “There are some things you need to know then, okay? Kellen probably hasn’t eaten today, so try and get him to eat something. Slowly too, or he’ll puke. He should be awake, but don’t wake him if he’s sleeping. Make sure he knows when he’s taken his medicine or write down the time that he took it somewhere for him; sometimes he’ll either forget or take an extra one by mistake. And if you have any trouble, you can text me.” She held out her hand. “Come on, I need your phone for my number and his address.”
Aiden jumped at her prompt and handed his phone over quickly, taking the keys she offered at the same time. As she typed the information into his contacts, Olivia said, “Kellen lives close, so you don’t need to drive there. It should only be maybe a fifteen-minute walk.” She handed his phone back. “I put the address in your GPS. By the way, remember to be back here to get Nikki in a few hours. I set an alarm in your phone for that to remind you.”
It was slightly disconcerting that Olivia had somehow navigated through his phone so quickly without him noticing, but Aiden didn’t care. Even though he was practically bouncing in place to get to Kellen, he made sure to look Olivia in the eye when he said, “Thank you, Olivia. I know you didn’t have to let me do this. Are you sure you trust me enough?”
Olivia gave him a small smile. “I’m sure. Now, go on. Be careful in the snow, Aiden.” There was something in her voice and expression that Aiden couldn’t identify, but he didn’t stop to consider it.
With the key to Kellen’s place firmly in his hand, Aiden set off. He winced at the cold air. At least the wind and snow had died out slightly. Checking his phone every few minutes to make sure that he was going the right way, eventually Aiden found the building.
It was an average-looking apartment complex. Not skyscraper tall or completely flat. Well-maintained with at least three floors. Aiden couldn’t make out much else about it with the snow, but the walkways were shoveled at least slightly as he walked up, the snow crunching underneath his feet with every step. He had to look around to be sure that he had the right door since the building numbers were small and hard to notice, but he did eventually find 36.
“Gold for the outer door,” he mumbled, opening it and pushing it in. It was heavy and closed with a loud thump. Aiden jumped at the sudden silence. He could feel the change in temperature, although it certainly wasn’t as comfortable as Kellen’s studio.
Hesitantly, Aiden climbed to the second floor and peeked out from the stairwell. He spotted apartment 200 immediately and walked over as if he belonged. The sound of his footsteps was muffled on the carpeting as he tracked snow in accidentally.
“And silver for the inner door,” he said to himself. Aiden took a deep breath. It felt weird to be letting himself into Kellen’s apartment without being asked over. Yet he was also profoundly relieved. He wouldn’t have been able to relax unless he saw with his own eyes that the other man was okay.
His stomach twisted slightly out of anxiety as he reminded himself to breathe. Whether he felt awkward or not didn’t matter; this was about Kellen, not him. And Kellen needed his help right now. No matter what kind of state the other man was in when he opened that door, Aiden would be there for him.
That didn’t make it any less nerve-wracking to open the door to a completely dark apartment. Only small slivers of light peeked in from the light-blocking curtains on the far wall. Every other light in the place was off. There was no TV running, no noise, no nothing. The only thing Aiden could hear for a moment was the humming of the fridge in the background and the noise the vents in the floor made when the heat turned on.
Aiden stepped in quietly, shutting the door without making any noise. “Kellen?” he asked into the near darkness.
A pitiful hum came from the direction of the living room. It took Aiden’s eyes a moment to adjust to the lack of light before he began walking. The apartment opened up almost directly into the living room. He spied a couch set up across from a tiny TV and with a cheap coffee table in front of it. Directly to the left was the kitchen. A digital clock, probably from a microwave, shone in the darkness.
As Aiden stepped forward towards the couch, he saw another hallway to the right. That was likely where the bedroom and bathroom was. But he didn’t need to search that far to find the person he was looking for, not when he spotted a human-shaped lump on the grey couch.
“Kellen,” Aiden breathed out, partially in relief, partially to get his attention. He trotted over quickly, sitting on the coffee table to get a better look.
When they’d dated in high school, there were times when they took care of one another, but Aiden had never seen Kellen look this miserable. The other man was lying on his side on the couch in a large white tee shirt and some sweats. He was wearing one of those face masks that covered his eyes, and was completely curled in on himself in a way that couldn’t have been comfortable.
Kellen shifted. “Aiden?” he croaked, his voice devoid of his usual energy and life.
Aiden swallowed, trying not to let his concern shine through in his voice. “Yeah, it’s me. Olivia said you might need some help?”
Kellen hummed, although it sounded more like a whimper. “Hurts…” he mumbled, clutching at his head as if that would help.
This was new for Aiden. He didn’t know what he should be doing here, but he did know that Kellen was right in front of him and in a lot of pain. Without thinking too much about it, Aiden reached forward to run his hands through Kellen’s hair, hoping it would calm him down.
The brunette’s breathing was harsh and unsteady, but his body relaxed slightly and the expression on his face calmed minutely. Aiden smiled tiredly, glad he could provide even the smallest relief. He kept up the calming motion for a minute before he asked softly, “Have you eaten anything today, Kellen?”
He was answered with a pained moan. Aiden ran his fingers over Kellen’s scalp and prompted calmly, “Just a yes or no, baby.” He winced after he said it. The pet name had slipped out naturally. Luckily, or unluckily considering how much pain he was in, Kellen didn’t seem to notice.
He at least didn’t comment on it as he mumbled, “No.”
“I’m going to make you some toast, okay?” Aiden asked in the same soft tone. He looked around and spotted a throw pillow that had fallen to the ground as a casualty of Kellen’s twitching. “Here, let me make you a little more comfortable.”
Gently, Aiden helped Kellen rest his head on the pillow. The other man’s arms shook when he held himself up before he lowered himself in an unceremonious huff. Kellen curled back in on himself tightly. He was shivering. Aiden frowned and grabbed the blanket hanging over the back of the couch. With a flourish, he draped it over Kellen, pulling it up to his chin.
He was about to pull away when Kellen reached forward to grab his wrist weakly. “Thanks, Aiden,” he mumbled. Aiden couldn’t see his eyes, but it was easy to see that he was grateful.
Aiden grasped Kellen’s hand in return. “Give me a second and I’ll be right back.” He set Kellen’s hand back on the couch and moved away as quietly as he possibly could. For a second, he was reminded of when he used to sneak out to the kitchen in the middle of the night when Kellen slept over, trying not to wake his parents up.
As it was, he felt bad about turning the light on, but maybe that was what the mask was for. The kitchen was small and square-shaped, making it easy to find everything right away. Aiden grabbed the bread, found the tiny black toaster, and got to work. It only took a minute to be back with a plate of freshly buttered toast.
“Kellen,” Aiden said in a low voice.
Kellen huffed tiredly and made to sit up, groaning from both pain and exhaustion. He leaned forward with his head in his hands, sucking in a breath.
“Can you eat a little bit? Just a few bites,” Aiden coaxed. He gently placed the plate in Kellen’s hands, watching as the man grabbed a triangle and took a bite. Kellen’s breathing was still harsh and he was wincing every other second, but he at least was able to function somewhat normally.
He only got through a couple bites before he put the plate beside him and made to get up. Aiden pushed his shoulders down gently to get him to sit. “What do you need? I’ll get it.”
“Bathroom,” Kellen mumbled.
“Do you need to throw up?” Aiden asked in concern even as he helped Kellen stand.
“No,” Kellen said before he sighed. “Not yet at least.”
Kellen said he could get to the bathroom on his own, but Aiden insisted on supporting him since he was there. Kellen was a lot firmer though when he said, “I’m going in alone. The first time you see my ass in seven years isn’t happening like this.”
Aiden smirked. The mention of seeing his ass made Aiden’s ears go red, but he was glad that Kellen still had a sense of humor with his head pounding. Not that he talked much for the rest of the day. Kellen told Aiden that he could feel free to stay as long as he liked as long as he didn’t make much noise. He fell into a fitful rest for a while until the alarm Olivia had set went off on Aiden’s phone.
Aiden was so surprised that he dropped the phone and cursed before he could actually turn the alarm off. Kellen’s hoarse voice rang out, “Holy shit, don’t do that. I can’t have a heart attack at the same time I have a migraine. Horrible way to die.”
“Sorry,” Aiden apologized, “Olivia set it to remind me to get Nikki.”
“Tuesday—right,” Kellen mumbled.
Aiden stepped over to sit on the coffee table across from Kellen. He pushed Kellen’s hair back. “I need to get her then. Will you be okay here?” Kellen just hummed in affirmation. Aiden went on hesitantly, “If I came back here later to check in on you, would that be okay?”
Kellen shifted, reaching out blindly until his hand landed on Aiden’s knee. “That’s okay,” he slurred slightly. He groaned as another wave of pain hit him, his grip tightening for a moment. “But you don’t have to take care of me if you don’t want to.”
Aiden put his hand over Kellen’s. “I want to,” he said simply. He squeezed Kellen’s hand and draped the blanket back over him. “I’ll be back. I have some water on the table here. Try to drink some.”
Kellen hummed. “Okay, hun,” he mumbled.
Aiden blinked. That pet name; Aiden hadn’t heard it in years. It made him feel warm inside, but he knew it didn’t mean anything. Kellen was tired and in pain. That didn’t mean that he didn’t think about it all the way back to the studio like a lovesick teenager.