Aidan rested his hand on the cool metal of the banister and listened. Around him, the Golden Hills School for the Blind felt somnolent. He lifted the tip of his white cane so it wouldn't make noise against the stair risers, and started down to the first floor.
"Get out of my room."
Aidan winced at his ex's remembered voice. He'd never seen lightning, but he understood its split-second, destructive power. If the fork of a deadly lightning strike from earth to sky took on human speech, Erik's voice would be its twin.
The moment Aidan reached the first floor, his pace doubled. With the tip of his cane still not touching the floor, he sensed rather than ran into the wall across from the western staircase. Reaching out, he brushed the fingers of his left hand over a topographical map of Golden Hills. Turning his head slightly, he listened. No one knew he was out of bed. Just like the last ten nights.
Aidan faced his right shoulder to the map, touched his cane to the floor, and started for one of the few places he might find peace. It was unseasonably chilly tonight--too cold to sneak into the clock tower without a jacket.
As if woken by his thoughts, the electronic bells in the Santa Maria clock tower shattered the silence. Midnight. He'd gotten an earlier start than usual. That wasn't safe. If his roommate woke up, realized he was gone, and notified someone, Aidan's times to be alone would all but disappear.
"I'll set my watch for one tomorrow," he muttered as he reached the end of the hall and turned right. "I can wait an extra hour." His lips twitched. "I'll be damned if my relationship with Erik is going to fuck up anything else." Wasn't it enough that he'd become an insomniac and more on edge than a Goth girl in a sundress?
A sound like rough-grained sandpaper rubbing against wood, or maybe shuffling feet, reached his ears. Aidan paused, again lifting his cane tip. The noises emerged as frightened messengers from up ahead and to his right.
The training room. He approached on the balls of his feet, trailing his free hand along the wall just in front of him. If the door was open, he wanted to know. Who's in there?
He paused when his fingers rested against the still-closed door. Now he could hear ragged breathing punctuated by quiet grunts. The students' curfew varied from eight thirty to eleven, depending on their ages, but all the public areas, except the lounge, were off-limits after five.
Which means I shouldn't be here either. That idea brought no guilt. Since Erik had broken up with him, Aidan had gladly taken to wandering the grounds in the small hours of the morning. How else could he be alone to figure out what he'd done wrong? On the other hand I'm pretty sure my little habit rounded the corner between helpful and annoying last week. Now the insomnia's getting to me.
His brief and sensational brush with politics was two months gone. Erik's angry words were nearly a month cold. Neither truth changed this simple fact: Aidan couldn't sleep. He didn't exactly blame his insomnia on Erik...but if Erik hadn't gone so far in his "I'm not gay; Aidan Kelly was lying on national television" campaign, maybe I wouldn't be so... What's the word Minamoto-sensei used? He snorted. Tense.
He refocused on the half-strangled sound bleeding out of the training room. Whoever's in there sounds as hurt as I feel. Since Minamoto-sensei said sometimes the best way to heal is to help others heal...
With his karate teacher's motto foremost in his mind, Aidan pushed the door, unsurprised to find the lock taped open. He slipped inside, settling the door silently closed behind him, and took off his shoes before stepping onto the training mat.
He smiled humorlessly. I guess habits die hard, even at midnight.
Whoever was training didn't hear him. The labored breathing went on. Now Aidan heard the hitch of a repressed sob in every third or fourth breath, and his heart tightened in sympathy. If this is who I think it is... He clenched his hands in an effort to hold in his rage. If this was Kyle, the younger student might not understand the anger could never be directed at him. Kyle's father deserved all of Aidan's rage, as well as the physical punishment Aidan longed to dole out. Aidan crossed the mat, not making any attempt to soften his footsteps. Voice quiet, gentle, he asked, "Who's in here?"
A startled cry answered him. "I'm...I'm armed. Stay away from me."
He stopped walking. "Kyle, it's me. Aidan."
"Remember? Minamoto-sensei asked me to sit in when he talked to you last week. We had green tea in his office, and you said it tasted like chalk. I agreed, but didn't have the courage to admit it."
He heard the other student running toward him, heard Kyle was slightly off to his right, and stepped in that direction. He caught the fourteen-year-old in his arms and held him.
"I know I'm not supposed to be in here," Kyle said. He shuddered once and pulled away.
"You're here looking for something. So am I. We both have the right. Sit down with me. Let's talk." He settled on the mat, listening to Kyle do the same. "What's up?"
Kyle laughed a little. He sounded nervous. "I thought I could pound out my anger on a BOB."
Thinking of the roughly man-shaped rubber dummies they practiced on during class, and remembering how many times he'd made his knuckles bleed until their teacher had taken him aside, Aidan asked, "How's it going?"
"I keep missing. Or overbalancing. Then when I do make contact, it's so hard it's like... There's no grace in it."
You're going to be the poet you told us you want to be. Fury burned the back of Aidan's throat. I'm glad the sick bastard didn't ruin that for you.
Kyle said, "I can't figure out why I keep missing."
"You're focusing on what you feel instead of how the air feels around you."
"Yeah, well, it's kinda hard to focus on the fucking air when I know the court's going to let him go."
Aidan didn't raise his voice. "How do you know?"
"Look at me! I'm a stereotypical faggot! Short, quiet--"
"Who says you're quiet?"
"Fuck you." But Kyle laughed. A little. "I've got delicate features like a girl. He said so."
Aidan clenched his hands until his nails dug deep into his palms. "Have you ever had a dream? About anybody?"
"Like who? A supermodel?"
"Or anyone in your classes?"
Kyle didn't answer for several long seconds. Then, almost too soft for Aidan to hear: "I had my first, you know, wet dream about Eunique Rivers. She's, um, a purple belt too. We were sparring once, and I accidentally grabbed her ti--boo--breast."
Aidan repressed a grin, partially because he didn't know Kyle's level of visual impairment, but mostly because he thought the expression would come through in his voice. "I'm cool with you calling them tits."
"But aren't you, uh, you know..."
"Yeah." Kyle coughed. "I didn't mean to say, you know, faggot before. It's just that if all f--gay guys are like him, I don't want to ever be one. Or be near one. Except you, Aidan. You won't hurt me. You've been helping teach my class since I was a white belt. I know you."
"Do all straight guys rape women?"
"Oh. Shit, I'm an idiot."
"No, you're not." That was easier than I thought. Here comes the hard part. Maybe.
He paused as a sound, maybe just a phantom creaking, attracted his attention. If he'd been sitting with anyone else, he would have asked if they'd heard it too. Kyle didn't need to be put back on high alert. It's probably just lack of sleep. "Forgive me for this, but I promised you I'd never tiptoe around you or use euphemisms."
Aidan spoke as gently as he could. "Like saying 'touch' when what I mean is sexually abuse or 'hurt' when what I mean is rape. What I need you to know is this: rape and abuse don't change your sexuality. If you're gay, you were already gay. If you're straight, you were already straight. If you're bisexual, you're bisexual. Do you understand?"
He thought he heard another noise, this one much closer. Paranoia or not, he couldn't ignore it. He shifted slightly so he was between Kyle and the door.
"Do you believe me?"
Kyle took a moment to answer. "That's not what my sister says."
"I'll send you the scientific proof if you want."
"Okay." He sounded more relaxed. "Can I ask you a question?"
Aidan heard a third sound, but it seemed to be retreating. It's my imagination after all. "Anything."
"No one hurt"--his voice dropped--"r-raped you? Before you realized you were interested in guys?"
"No one's ever raped me. Or sexually abused me. And I knew I was gay when I was fourteen." He felt unaccountably sick. It wasn't fair that he hadn't been attacked and Kyle had. "Kyle, I--"
But it seemed Kyle had made the emotional leap. He was crying all out now, his sobs echoing off the walls. "Why did he--Why?"
Unable to answer that, Aidan only held him until two teachers found them.
The next morning, Saturday, Aidan waited for Kyle in the training room. "If you like training so much," Minamoto-sensei had told them the night before, "you may practice two hours every school day and four hours on Saturday and Sunday. Don't start until one of the teachers is present."
Aidan arrived ten minutes early, but the training room door was open. He took off his shoes and began his stretches. He knew what a four-hour training session meant: physical and mental exhaustion.
"This is more of a punishment than anything the principal would have done to us," he told the silent room.
He yawned. But maybe it will help me sleep.
Two o'clock had come and gone before anyone escorted them back to their rooms the night before. I don't know about him, but I still couldn't sleep. Maybe being so tired I can't move at the end of every day will help.
The sound of running feet startled him out of his thoughts. Aidan remembered something his older brother had said, "Running in a school for the blind is rare as snow in May."
Aidan pushed himself up, strode off the mat, caught up his cane where he'd left it leaning against the wall by his shoes, and slipped out into the hall.
"Damn it," said a voice Aidan didn't know, "he stepped on my--"
Another voice echoed hollowly. "Shut up."
Erik? He shook his head. Everyone just sounds like him because I can't get him out of my head. Maybe that was true, but now Aidan could hear shuffling noises and the muffled sound of someone trying to speak. He set his cane soundlessly on the floor and started forward, trailing one hand lightly along the wall.
"Do you want everyone and his brother to hear us?" the second voice asked.
That is Erik. His stomach tightened. What is he doing?
"Hold him still," Erik said. Aidan thought his ex-boyfriend might be around the corner.
The sound of sneakers squeaking on tile was followed, and drowned out, by a stifled cry.
Several people laughed.
"Your rapist's right, faggot," Erik said. "If you didn't look so delicate, he'd never have wanted you."
Kyle. And a breath later: What does he mean "your rapist's right"? Kyle never talked about that to anyone but me. Maybe our sensei too, but... His scalp tightened. The son of a bitch was in the training room with us last night.
He rushed to the corner but stopped there. How many were watching Erik hurt Kyle?
Attack. No euphemisms, remember? You promised.
Why is Erik doing this?
Who the fuck cares? Kyle needs help.
But Erik was kissing me less than six weeks ago! Aidan swallowed. Maybe he wants everyone to forget he was dating me. Because everyone knew. You can't keep anything secret in a school as small as ours.
That other voice, the one that had suggested Aidan stop analyzing and do something, answered: maybe Erik wanted everyone to think Aidan had tricked or forced him into it.
More squeaking sneakers. This time, a moan accompanied the sound. "Shit, you made him bleed," a girl said.
Enough was enough. Reminding himself that Erik could see a little, that some of the other students might have even a higher percentage of partial vision, Aidan homed in on Kyle's moans. Probably the other students would take off; he just couldn't let them take Kyle.
He rested his hand on the corner and took a breath. Then he hurled himself into the next hallway, screaming, "Get away from him!" at the top of his lungs.
The overlapping echoes from his shout interfered a little with his directional hearing, but he didn't need that to know several pairs of feet were running away from where he stood, fists up and ready. "Kyle! Answer me."
He whipped to his right, reaching out at waist level. His fingers brushed cloth, and he yanked the body close, not sure if it was Kyle, praying it was. It has to be. All the others must have split.
The student he held spasmed away from him. "Let go! Let go!" Then, shrill as a siren: "I won't go with you again!"
An elbow caught Aidan in the stomach before he could speak. He grabbed the flailing arm and rasped, "Kyle, it's me."
Kyle jerked in his grip.
"Kyle, it's Aidan. You're safe now." A strangely calm thought echoed in his head as his voice had echoed moments ago. If I ever run into Erik in some deserted hallway, all the promises to use my training only for protection are off.
"He can't even tell fantasy from reality," a voice said. "He must be having lots of dreams about his big Daddy. You're wrong, Aid'. All the faggots of this world are raped into being. You almost made me like that, but I got away from you."
Aidan leaped away from Kyle, honing in on Erik's voice like a bat after its evening meal. Needing to judge how the other guy stood, he didn't come in with a kick or even a punch. Instead he chopped inward with his right hand, followed at once by a similar, lower chop with his left.
The first chop caught no more than air, but the second connected with Erik's wrist, and Aidan latched on, jerking him forward, off balance, and into Aidan's right hand, delivering a punch to the solar plexus.
"Oof!" Erik doubled up.
The sound would have been funny if Aidan hadn't been so pissed. Instead of jerking his ex's head down to meet a rising knee, effectively ending the fight, he shoved Erik back, keeping one hand on the kid's shoulder.
Erik tried to pull away. "Let me--"
Aidan stepped between Erik's legs and raised his knee, trapping Erik's crotch almost gently. "Shut up." He readjusted his grip, slamming both of Erik's hands up against the wall. He pinned them there with his right hand and took a fistful of shirt with his left. "You're not allowed to speak."
Erik laughed, but it trailed off almost before it started. "You can't tell me--"
Aidan took a step back, tugged Erik forward, spun him, and shoved him face-first into the wall. A satisfying crunch made him smile even as his stomach clenched.
Aidan grabbed the guy's right arm and twisted it up behind his back. "News flash. I'm telling you, and you're going to listen." He put a little pressure on the arm in his grip. "Do you hear me?"
Aidan added a little more pressure. "Do you hear me, asshole?"
"Yes! Fuck, Aidan, stop! That hurts!"
He let up slightly. "Listen. If you ever touch Kyle Morgan again, I'm going to break the other one."
"The other wh--"
Aidan twisted Erik's right arm savagely. The sensation accompanying this movement was half feeling and half sound: being kicked by a horse while a dozen thick branches snapped close to his head.
Aidan heard more running feet. He stepped away, releasing Erik. Whatever they do to me, at least Kyle will be safe. And maybe Erik will stop telling everyone--
"What's going on?" Minamoto-sensei demanded. "Aidan James Kelly, I know you're here. Answer me."