He hadn't been back to Jacksonville Landing since senior year of college. Almost fifteen years. Sadly, strangely, the excitement that pulled at his chest and dread that lurked in his gut were so very much the same. The New Year approached and he was back at square one, the future stretched out ahead of him. No clue. Nobody to kiss when the proverbial ball dropped.
"Here, I got you another yard of beer." Chad Tyler, Ken's roommate from freshman year, smiled brightly enough to light up half the landing. He pushed a long, tall plastic hourglass full of cheep brew into Ken's hands.
Wanting things he could not have.
"Thanks," he said. Ken sipped the beer from its plastic accordion-like straw without tasting. He paced himself just like he had all night. The past decade of getting Stone and Berkman off the ground had meant no drinking. Drinking made you soft and tired. God knew Ken had always been an affectionate drunk. Tonight, when he was deep in the pit of woe-is-me and looking for sympathy? Couldn't risk stupidity.
"So, what's the deal, man?" Chad startled Ken by slinging one heavy arm across his shoulders.
Ken licked beer from his lips, frowning even though he could guess what "deal" Chad meant. "What do you mean?" He had to close in some, it was that or shout over the throng of party-goers.
"Fifteen years you're gone without a trace, suddenly you're back." The guys's chapped hand made a flapping gesture. "Kind of a big thing, dontcha think? Shit, dude, if I hadn't run into you while you were moving into your apartment I wouldn't have known. Come on, weren't you going to tell anybody?"
Ken shrugged. Frankly, he hadn't figured on explaining. "Didn't 'know if anybody was still around. Like you said, I kind of lost touch."
Chad slugged Ken on the shoulder. "That," he said with a playful grin, "is why God invented Facebook."
Ken chucked and realized belatedly he'd been sipping that damned beer without paying attention. His head buzzed pleasantly. "I'm not so sure that's the work of God, Chad."
Chad laughed and gave Ken another one-armed "bro" hug. Their legs brushed side by side and even through their coats and cold winter clothing Ken could swear the heat of Chad's body got him warmer. "Well, whatever," Chad said. "Glad I found you again. Glad you're here now."
Chad's mouth was stuck on autopilot. Couldn't stop talking, couldn't stop laughing. Nerves. If he did he might puke. The nerves were going to make him insane.
"So listen, I'm not trying to get heavy and I'm not trying to pry, but what did bring you back to town all of a sudden?"
Fifteen years ago New Year's night was the last time he'd seen Kenny Stone. Ken. God damn, he'd aged well. That blond hair had gotten a little sandy, blue eyes a little lined. The body, if anything, was even better. Bigger, firmer. Plenty of times freshman year Chad had snuck looks when Ken wore nothing but a bath towel on the way to the showers, and Chad would lay down good money--hell, he'd put up the apartment building they both lived in--that Ken's body was something fantastic under all those winter layers. He hoped to find out sometime.
Next to Chad, Ken's firm arm rose and fell in a shrug. "Bad breakup." The strain of Ken's voice left so much unsaid.
Chad turned. Breath puffed between their lips, their noses were almost touching. The crowd was so noisy, they had to be close so they could hear. Chad hadn't decided yet if coming here tonight was a fantastic idea or plain stupid. He raised his eyebrows at Ken in question.
"A really bad breakup," Ken clarified.
Chad smiled. "I see." His chest burned with the effort of acting casual around the guy who still haunted his fantasies. Who he never thought he'd see again.
"Look." Ken's cheeks blushed red, maybe from embarrassment, maybe cold. Maybe both. "You don't want to hear this."
Oh yes, I do. "I asked, didn't I?"
Ken leaned in. "My breakup was with my business partner. He bought out my half of the business. I came back here to regroup." Palms-up gesture. "For lack of a better place." Ken, looking suddenly angry slurped the last of his yard of beer ad slammed the empty on the railing. "Happy now?" Hands shoved deep in his pockets now, he backed away from Chad.
In spite of Ken's anger Chad suppressed the urge to pump his fist in the air. He'd suspected. Hoped. He put his hand on Ken's arm. "Hey, wait."
Fifteen years ago he'd finally gotten the balls to tell Ken. They weren't roommates anymore, Ken would be moving, if it all went down badly nothing would be weird. They'd been here, Chad had hoped maybe they could find someplace private to kiss at midnight. Then Lara Hayes had grabbed Chad right before midnight, and Ken had disappeared. She'd wound up kissing Chad without asking. Chad, too polite to pull away, had looked from the corner of his eye right at midnight to see the guy he'd really wanted to kiss staring back. He hadn't seen Ken again. Fifteen fucking years.
Chad let his hand slide down to Ken's wrist, tightened his fingers. "I don't want you to leave. Not again."
Ken flicked rapidly between the sure fingers wrapped around his wrist and the bright shine in Chad's eyes. The man still held a nearly full yard of beer, and how was that possible? Ken, with his insistence that he would be so moderate, buzzed with beer and confusion and that same want he'd suffered under back in college. "I don't understand," he said slowly.
No, he wasn't that drunk. Still, this... vibe between them was weird. The cute, sweet, skinny religious kid he'd shared a dorm room with freshman year of college had turned into a smart-mouthed rugby player and debate champ by senior year and now he was all grown up and if Ken didn't know better by the way that thumb was rubbing back and forth over his palm he'd swear the guy was... "I'm a little buzzed. You're not hitting on me, are you?"
"Ew. No." Chad dropped his hand. "I'm doing this wrong."
But just when Ken thought he was back to figuring out the lay of the land, Chad nudged close to him against the railing. Too close. "I get that you just broke up with someone. I don't want to... If I was inappropriate, I'm sorry." Chad leaned close, lips brushing the edge of Ken's ear. "It's just that fifteen years ago when we were right here I was finally about to tell you how I'd been crushing on you since we were roommates, and then you were gone."
Fuck. Fuck. Seriously? "You're kidding."
The shake of Chad's head nuzzled his nose and goatee against Ken's jaw.
Why hadn't Ken seen the signs? "But you were so conservative."
"Which is why it took so long to get my head together, to admit to myself how I felt. Since we met, a lot has changed. I've changed."
Clearly. Ken turned to face his old friend. "I'd like to know more."
Chad's expression was cloudy. "I don't want to be a rebound guy. You mean too much."
Ken shook his head. "Bernard was cheating. The breakup took so long because of the business, but by the time we split I was already gone. And you and I have history. You weren't the only one with feelings."
Chad smiled, and from all sides, the ambient chatter swelled. People chanting. "10...9..."
Ken looked up. "Almost midnight."
Perhaps this could be a new beginning for them both. Ken's hand snaked around the back of his old roommate's neck, tugging. The skin of their noses and cheeks were cold, but their lips were warm.
Their tongues, even hotter.
"Happy New Year," Ken whispered into Chad's ear.
Happy New Year, Love Ellis