The cursor blinked on, off, on, off on the blank document, daring him, taunting him to write something. Anything! But Erik had been sitting in front of his computer for the better part of an hour and could not get his fingers to type out one single word. Not one single word. Pathetic.
He stared at the blinking cursor, cheek resting on the heel of his hand, while he sat hunched over in his chair. If his old dance teacher could see his posture now…
Fuck it. He closed the offending blank document and opened a new browser window instead. So much for his no-useless-internet-surfing-when-he-was-supposed-to-be-working rule.
All his favorite cooking blogs were bookmarked and Erik slowly worked his way through the new posts, looking for inspiration for that night’s meal. Skillet-baked mac and cheese, lasagna with pork ragu, garlic wine and butter steamed clams, piri piri chicken, Indian-spiced cauliflower soup.
Ooo… I wonder if Ryan likes Indian food.
Erik sat up with a start. “Fuck.”
That wasn’t the first time in the past month that his mind had wandered to Ryan without his permission. It had been constant at first, every other thought was Ryan-this, Ryan-that. What’s Ryan doing now? Is he okay? Does he need help? Is he ever going to fucking call back?
Erik’s phone had been glued to his hand for the first couple of weeks, afraid that Ryan would call and he would miss it. He had even resorted to taking the phone into the bathroom with him, close enough that he could hear it ring over the sound of his shower. But nothing. No phone call. No text message. All of Erik’s attempts to get in touch went unanswered.
Last week, he even trekked all the way out to Brooklyn to try to ambush Ryan at his apartment. Erik managed to follow someone into the building, but when he banged on Ryan’s door, there didn’t seem to be anyone home.
Then he tried the bar. There had been some other guy manning the end of the bar where Ryan usually worked. Amanda was on her side, friendly as usual, but obviously pissed at Ryan. It was from Amanda that Erik finally learned that Ryan had taken off to Canada, gave them no notice and didn’t tell them when he’d be back. So, he basically quit, Amanda had said with a dramatic eye roll.
Erik had stayed for the rest of the evening, racking up empty beer bottles and tipping Amanda well. He had a vague memory of being surprised when Amanda gave the last call. He might have complained loudly, loud enough that Steve the bouncer had to calm him down. He didn’t remember how he managed to get home. He just knew that he had woken up the next morning, lying on top of his comforter, still fully dressed, with his shoes on.
Erik covered his face with a hand and leaned heavily on his elbow. That had been a rough night, he admitted to himself for the first time. He couldn’t remember the last time he had drank to get drunk, and he wasn’t proud of himself for having done it over some guy.
Some guy. Yeah, right. Ryan was just some guy. Pfft. He didn’t believe that when he was drinking himself into oblivion, and he didn’t believe that now.
Ryan was not just some guy.
Erik wasn’t sure exactly how or when, but Ryan with his chocolate brown eyes, and quiet grin and shrug, had become far more to Erik than just another porn actor he fucked. Maybe it was the way Ryan didn’t pretend to know all the answers to everything. Maybe it was the way Ryan was okay just being in the background, and the way he shied away from the spotlight. Maybe it was Ryan’s quiet confidence, unassuming, unpretentious.
Their last scene together flashed through Erik’s mind: the tense set of Ryan’s shoulders as they stood by the windows at the top of that hotel in Midtown; that look of wild panic in Ryan’s eyes; the way he’d literally run off the set. It had been clear that Ryan wasn’t okay during that shoot. Erik knew it, everyone there knew it. It was written so plainly in the way Ryan held himself and the way he had moved during the scene.
So why the fuck hadn’t Erik done anything about it? The question was moot now, but it was a question Erik had asked himself a million times since that day. Maybe if he had done something or said something… maybe he should have just stopped the shoot altogether. But no, he hadn’t done anything; instead, he told himself that that was the last scene they had been contracted for, so they were free after that.
Then they could get to know each other, really know each other without the cameras present. They could figure out if the onscreen chemistry was real. They would be free to be themselves.
But that hadn’t worked out quite as he planned, did it? No, it fucking did not.
The sound burst into Erik’s thoughts and he jerked himself upright to see who could possibly be disturbing him now. It was the last person he expected.
Ryan’s hair had grown out a bit, long enough that it was curling at the ends. And he had what looked like several weeks’ worth of growth on his cheeks. Erik decided immediately that he liked Ryan with a beard. It lent greater air to his mysteriousness.
He looked good. Well, Ryan had always looked good, but now he looked really good. Like he was rested and happy and at peace. Erik liked that look on him, too.
He was leaning against the doorframe, hands stuffed in pockets, legs crossed at the ankles. Erik suspected he had been standing there for a while. Oh god.
“Hi.” Hi? Real smooth, Fischer.
Ryan’s grin looked sexier now that he had a beard. “Hi.”
Erik had almost forgotten how low and rumbly Ryan’s voice was, like a deep bass rolling out of a subwoofer.
“How did you find me?” That wasn’t really how Erik wanted to start their conversation, but the words just came out unprompted.
Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Your name and office number are in the University’s directory.”
Erik gave a short, abrupt nod. “Right.”
He wanted to know why Ryan was here. Why show up all of a sudden like this? But Erik knew his mental filter wasn’t great and he didn’t trust himself to not end up blurting out something rude. The problem was, Ryan didn’t seem to be volunteering information. So, what else was new?
“So, uh, I’d offer you a seat, but…” Erik followed Ryan’s eyes and they glanced around his small, windowless office that was really a glorified closet, just large enough for his desk, his chair and one bookshelf that was overflowing with books and papers.
Ryan grinned and shrugged. God, that could be so infuriating. “How about we go grab a coffee? Is now a good time?”
“Yeah, sure. That sounds good.”
They walked in silence and with every step, Erik’s skin itched with the need to ask questions. It was so potent that he could feel the words crawling across his skin and he had to clench his teeth to prevent his tongue from taking over.
With unspoken agreement, they headed to the Hungarian Café where their journey had first begun. It felt like ages ago that Erik had sat at that coffee table, convinced that Ryan was going to stand him up. It would have been a shame; all that research into porn statistics gone to waste.
He remembered that he had a copy of the New York Times that day; he had grabbed it from the art school’s departmental office on the way to the coffee shop. It had been something to occupy his hands with so he didn’t twist them in his lap and give away how nervous he’d been.
Erik remembered the skeptical look in Ryan’s eyes and the way he listened with that little crease in between his eyebrows, as if in deep concentration. He remembered wanting to reach out smooth the crease with his thumb, and how tightly he had gripped his coffee mug in response. Never in a million years did he think Ryan would say yes to his outrageous plan.
But then, never in a million years did he think Ryan would get under his skin so completely, far deeper than anyone else in his life.
Their table was free and he directed Ryan to claim it while Erik went and got their orders. Two coffees and two Portuguese tarts because they were delicious and Ryan had mentioned liking them the last time they were here.
By the time he sat down opposite Ryan, Erik could barely contain himself. Ryan hadn’t said a word, just that little grin, as if he liked torturing Erik with the suspense.
“Go ahead, you want to ask, I can tell.”
Erik forced himself to take a deep breath before he started talking. Slow and calm, he reminded himself. One question at a time.
“You were in Canada?” Easy, simple, good start.
Goddamnit. Ryan and his fucking one word answers.
“Amanda said you quit.”
Ryan’s eyebrows shot up before he shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I did. My intention had been to come back, but…”
“But… it’s not anymore?” So much for slow and calm—Erik felt his heart beat kick up a notch at the implication.
That grin again. “I don’t think so. At least, not for a long while.”
“What?” Erik just barely kept himself from shouting. “Wait. Can you start at the beginning, please? What are you talking about?”
Ryan grinned and took a bite from his Portuguese tart, his tongue sneaking out to swipe at stray flakes of pastry and leaving his lips wet and plump and ready for a kiss. Fucking Portuguese tart; Erik knew he shouldn’t have gotten that thing. Then a sip of coffee to wash it all down, complete with a distracting bob of Ryan’s Adam’s apple.
“I only meant to go back for a week or so. But my sister and her husband just moved to Toronto, so I decided to stick around and keep my mom company.” Ryan was toying with the rest of his tart, eyes downcast and his long eyelashes were like two fans across his cheeks. “And then, I don’t know. I just realized I didn’t want to come back here anymore.”
Erik felt his throat close at Ryan’s admission and he took a big gulp of his coffee to try to wash away the tightness. It didn’t work.
“So you’re leaving? For good? Just like that?” Erik said as he fought the dismay rising through his chest like a tendril of smoke twining around his lungs and squeezing until there was no air left. He forced his lungs to expand against the panic, relaxed his shoulders, straightened his posture, and schooled his face with a carefully practiced smile. Stay cool.
Cocking his head to the side, Ryan finally glanced up to meet Erik’s gaze. Those eyes, chocolate brown and much too expressive for Ryan’s own good. Erik knew he had touched a chord but he let his smile deepen as if he was none the wiser.
“Not ‘just like that.’” There was a bit of tension in Ryan’s voice, but the tone of regret rang stronger. “You of all people should know that.”
That took the air out of Erik’s little charade and he gave in to the that tense, suffocating feeling in the middle of his chest. He knew what Ryan meant—hadn’t he stood by and watched as Ryan descending deeper into whatever psychological mind fuck their porn was wreaking on him? And Erik didn’t do a single fucking thing about it. So yeah, he knew. Slumping over his mug of coffee he admitted as much, “Yeah, I know.”
Warm hands enveloped his own in the middle of the table. Erik had always liked how Ryan’s darker, olive skin contrasted with his own pasty white. He stared at their hands, now with olive and white fingers entwined; Ryan’s hands felt a little dry, a little rough from the cold winter air, but Erik found that he liked the slight abrasion against his skin. He wanted to kiss the pads of each finger, and trace the roughness with his lips, hold the palms against his face and nuzzle against them.
But he wasn’t going to do any of that. Because something as affectionate and intimate as that wasn’t in the cards for them. And that’s fine, Erik told himself. It’s not like they were a thing or anything. They were just colleagues at work, that’s all. Neither of them had said anything to suggest otherwise, neither of them had made any promises.
But that last time… his traitorous brain flashed back to how Ryan had said his name in their last scene, how the word had pierced Erik’s glossy armor like a sharp sword. And once inside, it had chipped, leaving behind a Ryan-shaped sliver of shrapnel.
A squeeze of his hand brought Erik back to their little coffee shop and he risked a glance up at Ryan. Sorrow, regret and worry showed in the way his eyes crinkled around the edges, in the thin set of his lips. For him, Erik realized. The sorrow, regret and worry were for him, for what they could have had, might have had.
So Ryan had felt it, too, their unexpected connection that ran deeper than either could have anticipated. Erik hadn’t imagined it all in his head. It was real, as real as something so intangible and effervescent could be.
“Don’t go.” The words slipped out of Erik’s mouth in a whisper, laced with a desperation he didn’t even know he felt. He almost flinched at the sound of his own voice: needy and forlorn.
Ryan’s hands squeezed his tighter but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Erik could read Ryan’s response in his eyes as plainly as it had been written in big block letters. He was leaving; despite whatever this was between them, he was leaving.
Pulling his hands from Ryan’s, Erik shifted in his seat and settled back. One ankle crossed on top of the opposite knee, one arm hooked behind the back of his chair. He took a sip of lukewarm coffee; it tasted like sawdust and felt the same way as he tried to swallow it.
Suddenly, the coffee shop sounded much louder than it had a moment ago, filled with the chatter of the people around them, the gentle clanging of cups against saucers and the scrapping of chairs against the floor.
“So when are you leaving?” Erik was careful to keep his tone light and casual, friendly and balanced. He let his gaze wander around the busy coffee shop, more to avoid looking at Ryan than to look at the people around them.
God. So soon. So fucking soon.
“And do you know what you’ll do when you get there?”
That signature grin and shrug. “Not yet. But I’ll figure something out. My sister wants me to move to Toronto. She and her husband have a baby girl, so it’d be nice to watch my niece grow up.”
Erik nodded. That did sound nice. But it wasn’t any of his concern. He wouldn’t be there to witness it, or even hear about it second hand. What Ryan did with his life from this point forward had absolutely nothing to do with Erik. And as much as that thought lodged like a jagged ball in his throat, that was the reality and the sooner he came to terms with that, the better.
It’s not the first time he’d been disappointed by life, Erik told himself. And it certainly won’t be the last. So what’s the point in dwelling on something he couldn’t change?
“So this is goodbye?”
The heavy sigh from across the table brought Erik’s attention back to Ryan. He still looked worried, with that crease in the middle of his forehead. Erik clenched his hands into fists to keep from reaching over to smooth out the wrinkle.
With his mouth parted, Ryan looked like he wanted to say something. Erik waited and the silence stretched.
“Look.” Ryan finally got the words flowing with another heavy sigh. “I wanted to say that… do you remember one of our first scenes? When you were talking about things being real but not real?”
The image snapped into sharp focus in Erik’s mind—they were on the couch, knees touching, Ryan with those fake reading glasses, looking so fucking adorable, and asking those question in that eager and hesitant voice. What had Erik said during the scene? He only had a vague recollection of his own words.
“You said that dancing or porn or whatever, that it was real because you were doing it, but not real because it’s all an act.” Ryan shrugged, fingers toying with his half eaten Portuguese tart again. “That’s how I feel, like I don’t know what’s real and what’s not real anymore. It’s all mixed together and I can’t get any perspective.”
“But why do you need to go to Canada to get perspective?” Erik cringed inwardly at his lack of a filter.
“Because… New York is too fucking much.” The words were the most emphatic that Ryan had spoken all day. Sitting back and pushing the half-eaten tart away, Ryan’s eyes darted back and forth as he shifted in his seat, the restlessness reminding Erik of that late night they’d spent at Ryan’s apartment talking. “New York’s expectations are too goddamn high, and I’m tired of trying to live up to them. I’m just so tired.”
From the way Ryan’s eyes fluttered closed and his shoulders hunched over themselves, Ryan certainly looked tired. And as much as Erik sought to disconnect himself from Ryan, he was not so disconnected that he couldn’t detect the bone-deep weariness exuding off Ryan. Funny, that hadn’t been there when Ryan had showed up at his office door. And now, here he was…
Erik got it. He got it that Ryan was tired. And he got that what they had was confusing—was it real chemistry or was it porn acting? Erik didn’t like where all this was going, but he understood. And if Ryan needed to leave New York to figure it all out, who was Erik to stand in his way, never mind the distinct feeling that something important was slipping through his fingers. This wasn’t about him; this was about Ryan.
“New York will miss you.”
Ryan tossed a skeptical look his way. “Will it?”
“Well, at least one person will miss you.”
“Ha.” A short laugh and then a shrug. “Thanks.”
“You should go find Amanda before you leave. She’s pretty pissed at you.”
“You’ve been talking to Amanda?” Ryan sounded surprised.
“Yeah.” Now it was Erik’s turn to shrug. “I’d tried to find you at the bar.” He didn’t bother mentioning how that evening had turned out.
“Yeah, by the way, that’s kind of a dick thing to do… disappearing like that.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.”
Erik shrugged it off and glanced at his watch. “I should get back to my office.”
It was time to go. Ryan had said what he wanted to say. Erik didn’t like it, but he understood his reasons. They had to part ways eventually, so why put off the inevitable?
Ryan blinked at him for a moment. “Let me walk you back to your office.”
It was tempting to say no, but Erik was a sucker for punishment, and if that walk gave him an extra ten minutes with Ryan, he’d take it.
The walk back was just as silent as their walk to the coffee shop. They walked closely, and each time their shoulders brushed against each other, Erik had to force down a wave of panic crawling up his lungs. When they got to Erik’s building, he stopped. If Ryan came up to his office, Erik didn’t trust himself not to breakdown and beg Ryan to stay again. And no one wanted to see the level of ugly crying that might come with it.
Ryan stepped in close and Erik’s breath caught in his chest. He wanted a kiss with every cell in his body, but a kiss may destroy his last hold on his composure. When Ryan caressed his jaw and chin with those slightly roughened fingers, Erik squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the sensation.
He blinked at the sound of his name, spoken in that raw, unfiltered tone Ryan had. In the minutes it had taken them to walk back to Erik’s office, the sky had opened and a light snow had begun to fall, creating a halo of white around Ryan. And in Ryan’s eyes, Erik read all that they could have been together, all that he had hoped they would be. He committed the moment to memory: the delicate snow settling on Ryan’s hair and shoulders, the warmth of Ryan’s chocolate brown eyes, that lopsided smile with full, kissable lips.
And the smell of Ryan; oh god, the smell of warm sandalwood. Erik would forever associate the smell of sandalwood with Ryan. He took a deep breath, trying to draw in as much of that scent as he could; perhaps he could gather enough to last him a lifetime.
When Ryan leaned in, Erik whimpered, the sound emanating from a place much deeper than Erik had brain power to identify. It was just a soft kiss, almost chaste in its sweetness. Ryan’s soft beard tickled a bit, and Erik regretted that he would never feel the gentle burn of the hairs against his body.
“Goodbye,” Ryan whispered.
“Goodbye,” Erik answered. And it felt like goodbye.
He turned and walked toward his building without a second glance backward. They’d said their goodbyes, it was time to move on.
When he got to the door and put his hand on the door handle, Erik paused. His brain was telling him no, but his heart couldn’t resist. He turned.
Ryan was walking away, down the main walk that ran through the middle of campus. At the end of the walk, he would turn the corner, go another fifteen feet and descend into the subway station. Erik decided that he didn’t want to see that last part, didn’t want to see Ryan disappear; so right before Ryan got to the corner, Erik went into his building.
He never saw Ryan stop at the corner and look back over his shoulder one last time.
Please don't hate me, but this is the end of this part of Ryan and Erik's story. This wasn't how I imagined the ending when I started writing, and I tried many times to change the trajectory of their relationship. Ultimately, however, Ryan needed to leave New York, and there was nothing I could do about it.
This isn't the end for Ryan and Erik, though. I'm a firm believer in Happily Ever Afters and I believe that a HEA is possible for them. So I've been working on Part Two; it's been slow and there are plotting problems, but I'm determined.
I realized belatedly that Erik's character development didn't come across clearly. So if readers are interested, I'll write some extra scenes from Erik's point of view to give you a glimpse into what's going on in that cool, composed head of his. Let me know if that's something you'd like to read.