Here we go again. Xander stared as the man he’d spent a few sweaty hours with walked away without a backward glance. He closed the front door as softly as he could before his guest reached the stairs leading to the street. With a sigh, he rested his forehead against the smooth wood. Weariness crept into his bones, swiftly followed by anger. He squeezed his hands into fists and raised one before lowering it again. The middle of the night was not the time to slam his hand against the door, no matter how frustrated he was.
“Don’t hold back on my account.”
Xander’s heart stuttered at the unexpected voice coming from behind.
Shit. Bollix. Fuck. Xander raised his hand again and forcefully hit the door, immediately regretting the action as pain seared through his arm.
“Another one bites the dust, I see.”
Xander spun around, fury and embarrassment battling for dominance, as he glared at his housemate, and most of the time best friend, Eric.
“What are you doing up at this ungodly hour?” Xander didn’t try to keep the frustration from his voice, in the hope that an attack would hide the discomfort he experienced.
“I’ve got no idea. Give me a minute. What could possibly have me awake at this time of night?” Eric remained expressionless as he stared at Xander. “It may have been the bed frame rhythmically hitting the wall between our bedrooms earlier. Or the noises from the shower. Or maybe it’s because you still haven’t done anything to stop the hinges on your door from squeaking every time it opens or closes. Take your pick.”
“I…” Xander swallowed, biting down on a smart retort as he realized his housemate had a point. He glanced at Eric’s face and was just in time to see his features relax and a small smile tug at his lips.
“Cat got your tongue? It’s not very often you’re lost for words.” A smirk appeared on Eric’s face but the sting had gone out of his tone and Xander allowed himself a small sigh of relief.
“I’d love to know what’s up with you, though. You’ve always been popular, but I’ve never known you to slut around like this in the past. Is this a new thing? Something you developed while I was overseas?”
Xander opened his mouth to give a flippant reply then pressed his lips together again. He might not like to admit it, but once again, Eric had a point. Instead of answering, he shrugged and shook his head, hoping it would be enough to make Eric drop the subject and allow them to go back to bed. It was three in the morning. Apart from the opportunity for a few hours of undisturbed sleep, Xander couldn’t come up with a possible positive spin to put on his guest’s early departure.
“Let’s have a cup of tea, seeing as we’re both up, anyway.” Eric didn’t wait for an answer but turned and walked toward the kitchen.
Xander watched his friend’s retreating form and sighed before reluctantly following him. He didn’t want to have this conversation but he’d known it was coming. It had been six weeks since Eric had returned from Canada where he had worked and lived for two years. It had made sense to offer his spare room to the man who’d been his best friend since they’d both been ten years old, just as it had seemed logical to tell Eric there was no need for him to hurry about finding a place of his own. Reasonably priced accommodations were next to impossible to find in Dublin unless you were prepared to live in a shoebox, and Xander had more than enough space in his apartment. Of course, Xander hadn’t stopped to consider what having a live-in guest would mean for his nocturnal adventures. He sighed as he realized he wouldn’t be able to fob Eric off with half-answers and evasions either. The man knew him too bloody well.
When Xander dragged himself into the kitchen, the kettle was on and Eric had two mugs waiting on the counter.
“It’s still the middle of the night.” Xander figured it was worth a try. “You need to get up for work in a few hours. We could have this conversation later today.” Or not at all. Xander didn’t hold out any hope for that possibility.
Eric turned from the counter and looked at Xander. All signs of levity were gone and replaced by concern. “It’s okay. I’m wide awake now, anyway, and I’ve been trying to find an opening for this talk for days. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity.”
“I don’t really want to—”
“Leave it, Xander. You know me well enough to realize I’m not going to let it drop, now that I’ve opened my mouth.”
Xander nodded. Eric rarely dropped an issue after he’d broached it—something he used to admire in him. He sat down at the kitchen table and waited in silence for the kettle to boil and for Eric to make their tea. Only when they both had a steaming mug in front of them did Eric speak again.
“So, what is going on with you? It’s shocking how much you’ve changed in only two years. If I remember correctly, you used to say how you couldn’t see the attraction in one-night stands.”
Bollix. This was not what Xander had prepared himself for. He’d been ready for a speech about him being a selfish bastard. He was happy and willing to apologize for not taking Eric into consideration when he brought people home and took them to his bed. He didn’t want to talk about why he did it, though.
“I haven’t been that bad.” As he said the words Xander realized that not only did he sound childish, he also wasn’t being honest.
“Really?” Eric raised an eyebrow. “You reckon ten one-night stands in six weeks is unremarkable?”
“You’ve been keeping count?” Indignation swept through Xander.
“I told you, your nighttime activities have been hard to miss or ignore.”
Indignation evaporated and was replaced by shame. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m still getting used to sharing my house. I’ll try and be quieter in the future.”
“No!” Eric shook his head. “That’s not why we’re having this talk. I want to figure out what happened to you. Where’s the Xander I used to know and what have you done with him?”
Xander hesitated. He understood exactly what Eric meant but didn’t want to consider the question or try to formulate an answer so he attempted to buy himself some time. “What do you mean? I’m the same Xander I always was.”
“No, you’re not.” Eric almost sounded sad. “If you had ten casual hook-ups in the decade between coming out and the day I left for Canada it was a lot. Do you remember that talk we had before I went? I could have sworn you told me you were ready to settle down, be responsible and hopefully find a long-term partner. That is what you said, right?”
Xander could only nod.
“And you did some of it. You established yourself as an artist and illustrator and managed to snap up your own apartment. So what happened to creating stability in your love life?”
Xander picked up his mug and took a sip of the still too-hot tea, buying himself some more time as well as a burned tongue.
“Hey,” Eric’s voice was soft and gentle, “it’s me you’re talking to. Remember me? I’m your friend. There’s nothing you can tell me that would make me love you less. Just spit it out.”
“Men.” Xander stopped talking and swallowed. “Men happened. If there is anybody our age out there looking for a relationship I’ve yet to find him. I tried, trust me. I really did.” He thought back and had no problem remembering how it had all unfolded. He’d gone out, and more often than not, he’d end up talking to a man he liked. They’d spend the evening chatting, drinking, flirting and laughing and by the end of it there never seemed to be a good reason not to bring him home.
“Those first few times, I hoped that sex would lead to breakfast together, an exchange of phone numbers followed by more dates, more nights and maybe a relationship.” Xander was surprised to find it still hurt. “It never worked out like that. Those men would leave as soon as we’d both gotten off. Some might take a shower first, but with one or two exceptions they never stayed long enough for scrambled eggs.”
The few times a man had stayed until morning, the atmosphere had been so uncomfortable even Xander had been glad when his hook-up had decided it was time to leave. And all of that didn’t even take into consideration the selfish bastard he’d brought home three months or so ago. For that man, it hadn’t been enough to just leave. He’d humiliated Xander first. Anger bubbled up again as Xander remembered how he’d ended that night crying in the shower—disgusted with himself and angry with the world.
“I guess you could say I gave up on the whole idea. After a few months, I’d gotten the message. I was good enough for some hot sex but not interesting enough for anything beyond that. So now I just take what I can get. There’s no point in continuing to set myself up for disappointment.” Xander clamped his mouth shut. He wasn’t going to go on and tell Eric about that prick who’d made him cry. Just because Eric was his best friend didn’t mean Xander was happy to share all his humiliations with him.
Xander put his now empty mug on the table and rested his hands next to it. When Eric reached across and squeezed one of them, Xander realized he’d been far less successful at keeping the hurt out of his voice than he’d hoped.
“Are you at least enjoying these one-night stands?”
Eric’s question made perfect sense, and yet it pulled Xander up short. He’d never asked himself that, and now that the issue had been raised, he wasn’t sure it was something he wanted to pursue.
“It’s fun while it lasts.” Xander realized he once again said a lot less than he might have. He didn’t want to admit these nights left him feeling increasingly empty and alone, and he definitely didn’t want to tell Eric that his confidence had all but disappeared once it had become clear that the men he encountered never saw him as relationship material. These days, picking up men was almost a necessity—a confidence boost he needed to convince himself that he was still attractive in the eyes of others. If he wasn’t good enough for a relationship, he needed the reassurance that he could at least still connect on some level.
“Have you ever considered that you might be going about it the wrong way?” Eric sounded almost hesitant when he spoke.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” Eric shrugged. “Seems to me that if you take every man you meet straight to your bed they could be excused for concluding you’re not in the market for a relationship.” Eric grinned. “And now I sound just like my father when he tries to talk some sense in to my baby sister.”
Xander stared at his friend, trying to figure out if he could be right. “That doesn’t sound right. I mean, picking up men is perfectly normal in the crowd I hang out with. Everybody does it. Some end up in a relationship, although they appear to be in the minority. Most men don’t, and as far as I can tell, they’re perfectly fine with that.”
“How can you be sure about that?” Eric asked. “Would anybody who doesn’t know you as well as I do be able to tell you’re less than happy with the situation?”
Xander contemplated the question for a few moments. “Probably not,” he eventually conceded. “I don’t want others to be aware of that. It’s bad enough I’m clearly not relationship material. I’m not about to advertise how much I hate that.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Anger crept into Eric’s voice. “Jaysus, if I didn’t see you as my brother I’d have a relationship with you myself. The problem is, you don’t give people the chance to get close to you. They’re probably all convinced you’re only interested in a quick fuck and they’re accommodating enough to give it to you.”
Eric looked away as if his outburst had surprised him as much as it had shocked Xander. “I’ve got an idea.”
“You have an idea.” Xander smiled for the first time since they’d started their talk. “Why does that sentence scare the shit out of me? Oh…wait, it’s all coming back to me. In the past, one of your ideas led to me being stranded in the middle of Paris without any money. And then there was the time I ended up being brought home by the gardai.”
Eric beamed back at Xander, apparently sharing Xander’s relief that their conversation had taken on a lighter tone. “Nothing like the ideas I had on those occasions. Besides, the gardai incident had far more to do with your poor impulse control than my idea. Anyway, I wonder… Are you up for a little bet?”
“What are we betting on?” Xander wasn’t sure whether or not to worry about what might be coming next.
“I bet you can’t go a whole month without bringing another man home.” Eric paused for a moment. “Or without going to another man’s place.” Eric grinned, clearly delighted with himself for closing the loophole before Xander had even spotted it.
“How’s that a bet?” Xander laughed. “If I just stay at home for a month there’d be no risk of me picking anybody up.”
“That would be considered cheating.” Eric smiled before his expression turned serious again. “The bet would mean that you’d live your life as you always do, be your usual sociable self, with the one exception that you wouldn’t have sex with anyone.”
Xander sat back and stared at his friend as he considered the proposal. He and Eric had always been competitive and he was tempted just to say yes and jump into the challenge but he detested losing too much not to take his time before replying.
“Spell it out for me,” Xander said. “I would still go out. I can still talk to men, and what else? Would I be allowed to kiss? Give or receive blow jobs? Is it just about lack of penetration or is there more to this bet of yours?”
“You’re considering taking up the challenge then?” Eric asked.
“Yes. I think so.” After all, Xander pondered, given how frustrating the meaningless one-night stands have recently become, I can’t imagine a month without picking anyone up being any worse.
“Nice one.” Eric’s grin was almost wicked. “Here’s the deal. You can date. You can kiss, but you can’t get naked, so blow jobs are off the table for a month, too.”
“Hey, it’s a bet. There’s supposed to be something at stake or it wouldn’t be worth it,” Eric said.
“While we’re on the topic of stakes, what happens if I win?” Xander hesitated before going on. “Or if I lose for that matter?”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Eric stared off into the distance, leaving Xander caught between excitement and apprehension. He’d already made up his mind to accept the challenge but he’d spent more than enough time around Eric to realize the man could come up with devilish ideas once he set his mind to it. Xander studied Eric’s face and recognized the moment he made his decision.
“I could suggest something silly or outrageous, but I’m actually serious about this so let’s keep it simple. Whoever loses takes care of the other and the house for the subsequent month. That’s the cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, the whole shebang. How about it? Are you in?”
“Fuck, yeah. It’s only one month. Easy win for me.” Xander laughed and was surprised when Eric didn’t join him.
“I hope you’re right, mate.” Eric got up from his chair and moved around the table before resting a hand on Xander’s shoulder. “I really hope you’re right. You haven’t been yourself since I returned and I want the old you back.” Eric squeezed Xander’s shoulder one last time and walked on. “I’m going to see if I can’t get a few more hours of sleep. You should do the same.”
Xander yawned as he watched Eric return to his bedroom. Getting some shut eye sounded like a good idea.