MALACHI WOKE himself up falling out of bed.
He lay on the floor for a moment staring at the ceiling, the wind knocked out of him. Bran’s startled face peered over the edge of the mattress, tousled brown hair falling over his eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Malachi assessed the situation. “Think so,” he finally said. “Jarred my wrist, but I’m okay.”
Bran winced and held out a hand to help him up. “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”
Malachi accepted the hand and stood, brushing himself off.
“I’m fine, Bran. Mother hen not required.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed. “Stupid bed.”
“I’m pretty sure the bed doesn’t have the required equipment to be stupid,” Bran said. “Were you dreaming?”
Malachi lifted a shoulder. He had been, but he didn’t remember details. It was a confused blur of images, a choking feeling of terror, of being pursued. Nothing he could put into words. He shivered, suddenly freezing.
Bran’s hand between his shoulder blades startled him out of his reverie. “Come here,” he murmured.
Malachi obeyed, sinking down onto the mattress next to his lover and letting Bran’s body heat soak into him. Bran wrapped a long arm around him to tug him close, and Malachi shut his eyes.
Let this last, he prayed. Don’t let him see me for who I really am.
When he woke up again, the sun was up, weak rays of Vermont’s winter light stealing across the blanket that Bran must have pulled over them both after Malachi fell asleep. He lay quietly, enjoying the warmth, until Bran stirred and nosed the back of his neck.
“Morning,” Bran whispered.
Malachi hummed and leaned into Bran’s lips, enjoying the feeling of his mouth against his skull. Bran slid his hand down, beneath the waistband of Malachi’s pajama pants, and Malachi sighed, lifting his hips to help push his pants down as Bran clasped his length and began to stroke.
The world narrowed to the slide of Bran’s fingers, and Malachi closed his eyes as the sensations rushed over him. For being asexual and a virgin when they met, Bran had proven himself to be a very fast learner. He knew exactly how Malachi liked to be touched, and he seemed to take great delight in driving Malachi to the edge over and over and then backing off each time until Malachi was gasping and writhing, tiny broken pleas catching in the back of his throat.
Malachi could feel his orgasm coiling in the pit of his belly, wrapping around the base of his spine. He reached back, pulling Bran closer to him as he groaned and came over Bran’s hand, pleasure shuddering through him.
Wrung dry, he relaxed and Bran held him tight.
“Feel better?” he whispered.
Malachi nodded. He pulled his pants back into place and wriggled around until they were nose to nose. From this distance, he could see the ring of gold inside the green of Bran’s eyes, and he leaned in for a kiss that Bran gave willingly.
“Thank you,” he said when he pulled back.
Bran smiled at him. “What do you have planned for the day?”
“Class,” Malachi said with a groan. “Kill me now.”
“It’s been tried,” Bran said, eyes dancing with amusement. “Didn’t take.”
Malachi snorted. “What about you?”
“Work,” Bran said. “Have a couple of new recipes I want to try.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Malachi loved to hear Bran talk about his job. His green eyes lit up as he told Malachi about the cinnamon buns he wanted to make, and the zebra cakes he’d been thinking about experimenting with next. Malachi had no idea what half the terms meant, but the way Bran talked was always worth listening to.
Finally he wound down, and Malachi smiled and kissed him. Bran wrinkled his nose. “What was that for?”
“You’re making me hungry. You’re going to let me be your taste-tester, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” Bran said. “Gotta actually let me up so I can get ready for work if you want food, though.”
Malachi checked his watch. They still had a few minutes. He sat up and pulled at Bran’s shoulder until Bran was facedown, head pillowed on his arms. Malachi swung a leg over and settled on Bran’s hips. He pushed his shirt up and sighed at the smooth expanse of skin that appeared.
“God, you’re gorgeous,” he murmured, and he bent down to kiss Bran’s spine.
Bran wriggled a bit, getting comfortable, and smiled. “You are such a contrary little shit,” he mumbled.
“What, me?” Malachi said, grinning. “I don’t know what you mean!”
“I said let me up, so you promptly pin me down. Yeah, you’re contrary.”
Malachi feathered kisses up Bran’s spine, enjoying the roll of muscles under his skin. “Shut up and let the expert work, would you?”
Bran snorted but kept his mouth shut. Malachi smiled and dug his fingers into the knots that Bran seemed to carry permanently in his shoulders, smoothing and stroking the tension out. The lingering stress and worry from his formless dream began to bleed away as he worked, leaving his mind clearer.
“You need to see someone,” Bran murmured, and Malachi stiffened.
“Other than you?” He was deliberately misunderstanding, and from the glare Bran slanted over his shoulder, he knew it.
“You know what I’m talking about,” he rumbled.
Malachi stilled. Bran squirmed beneath him until Malachi lifted enough for him to roll over and gaze up at him with earnest eyes.
“Don’t,” Malachi said quietly.
Bran’s brow wrinkled. “Don’t what?”
“Don’t give me the puppy-dog eyes,” Malachi said and rubbed his face.
Bran caught his wrists and pulled them down. “I wasn’t aware that I was giving you any ‘eyes’ in particular,” he said, “but I mean it. You need to talk to a professional. You’re not sleeping well. You haven’t even touched your pencils and sketchpad since what happened with Blake. It’s been nearly three months. I miss your drawings, love.”
Malachi glanced down at his hands, looking small and defenseless in Bran’s large paws. He couldn’t think of anything to say.
Bran squeezed his good hand and took pity on him. “How are your visits with the physical therapist going?”
“I’ve only seen her a few times,” Malachi said. “And she’s evil. My wrist hurts more than ever when we’re done.”
“All the good ones are evil,” Bran said. “But I’ll help you with the exercises if you’ll show me what to do.”
Malachi looked down at him, wonder washing through him. How had he gotten so lucky? He didn’t deserve Bran. Any day now Bran would realize he was wasting himself on Malachi and he would walk away without a second glance. Terror swamped Malachi suddenly, washing over him so quickly that he couldn’t breathe. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.
Bran’s eyes widened. “Mal?”
Malachi jerked away so hard he nearly fell out of bed for the second time that morning. He scrambled backward until his shoulders hit the wall and he could draw his knees to his chest. He was shaking and his vision was beginning to blur, sparkling at the edges. He gasped for air. There was an anvil on his chest and he couldn’t get enough oxygen.
Bran was on his knees the instant Malachi’s weight left him, following him up the length of the bed. He reached out and laid his hands on Malachi’s shins, the warmth of his hands seeping through Malachi’s thin cotton pants, his eyes worried.
“Breathe, baby,” he said. “It’s okay, you’re okay. Just breathe for me, okay?”
Malachi shook his head. “Can’t….” He dragged in another desperate gulp of air and clutched his knees harder.
“Yes, you can, love,” Bran said. “It’s just a panic attack—we’ve done this before. It’s okay. Breathe in for four seconds and hold it, let it out for seven seconds. Come on, I’ll do it with you.” He demonstrated and Malachi fixed his gaze on Bran’s face with the intensity of a drowning man, struggling to follow Bran’s lead as he pulled in a deep breath and then let it out.
They did that for several minutes, until Malachi’s trembling began to ease. Finally he was able to loosen the hold on his knees, and Bran smiled at him.
“You’re doing so well,” he said gently, and Malachi had to blink back sudden tears. He shook his head instead of answering.
“You are,” Bran insisted, and he scooted closer, pulling Malachi’s legs away from his chest so he could drag Malachi into his lap.
Malachi went without a fight. He wrapped his still trembling arms around Bran’s broad shoulders and pressed his face against Bran’s throat, taking deep breaths and smelling cinnamon and saffron.
Bran held him tightly, rubbing his back. “You’re doing so well,” he repeated. “This one was the shortest yet. Just keep breathing for me, okay?”
They stayed that way for a while as Malachi got his bearings. Finally he stirred and lifted his head. Bran smiled up at him, nothing but love in his eyes.
“Welcome back,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
Malachi lifted a shoulder, ignoring the question. “What’s your limit, Bran?” he asked instead.
Bran looked confused. “My… limit?”
“Your patience,” Malachi clarified. “When’s the point that you decide you’ve had enough of trying to fix me and realize that it’s not going to work, and you take off back to a normal life?”
Bran recoiled and Malachi swallowed hard at the hurt on his face.
“How could you even think that?” Bran asked. “You’re not some fixer-upper, Mal. You’re my boyfriend and I love you. I’m not trying to fix you. I can’t. You’re the only one who can fix you. Do you really think so little of yourself that you—” He cut himself off. “Of course you do. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about you, it’s that I’ve met pet rocks with better self-esteem.”
Malachi bit his lip. Bran reached up and cradled his face with both hands, forcing Malachi to look at him.
“I’m not leaving you, Mal,” he said gently. “You’re not a project. So to answer your question, there is no limit. There never will be, for you. Ever. Okay?”
Malachi searched those green-gold eyes. Bran cocked his head and smiled, then pulled him down for a deep, gentle kiss, their tongues sliding against each other with the ease of familiarity.
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Bran whispered when they broke for air.
Malachi pressed his forehead against Bran’s. They needed to get up, start the day. But Malachi couldn’t make himself move. Everything he wanted was in bed with him, there in his tiny dorm room, Bran with his long arms wrapped around Malachi’s torso, holding the world at bay. Nothing else mattered.
THEY WENT to breakfast at the Grind on the Champlain College campus together, and Malachi was delighted to see his group of friends clustered around the table by the front window, waving him over.
“Go on,” Bran said, smiling at him. “I’ll go get coffee and place our order.”
Malachi squeezed his hand and headed for the table, handing out hugs all around. Seth beamed at him, teeth flashing white in his dark face, and dainty blonde Kiera kissed him on the cheek. Lara smiled at him but didn’t rise to greet him, and Malachi didn’t push it. She’d been standoffish since her best friend had tried to kill him, and he understood why.
Charlotte flung her arms around him, her soft afro brushing his cheek. “Mal, baby, where the hell have you been hiding yourself? We’ve missed you!”
Malachi hugged her and sat down between her and Seth. “I’ve been around, Lottie. It’s not my fault you’ve been too busy banging that music major to stop and think about the rest of us.”
“Oh, like you blame me?” Charlotte retorted. “Have you seen her breasts?” She groaned. “Perfection. Utter… perfection.”
Malachi grinned, but only half his attention was on his friends. The other half was on Bran, who was talking to his coworker, Katie, at the counter, his big hands describing something in the air as he spoke. Katie looked vaguely bored as she flipped her shining blonde hair over her shoulder, but then, Katie rarely looked anything but disenchanted with the world in general.
Seth nudged him with a shoulder. “How are things?”
Malachi glanced at him. “Hm? Oh. Fine, dude. You?”
“Classes are hell,” Seth said, “but other than that, nothing major happening. I’m asking about you, though.”
“Have you asked out that girl from Ferrer’s class yet?” Malachi asked.
This time the deflection worked. “Yeah, she’s got a boyfriend. But there’s a new transfer student in—his name is Robert and he’s really cute. Just have to find out if he’s interested in bisexual black guys and then I’m in like Flynn.”
“Where did that phrase even come from?” Kiera wondered idly, twirling her coffee stirrer between long, slim fingers.
“What about you?” Malachi asked her. “How are things with August?”
Kiera flashed a smile at him. “Things are good. Well, mostly good,” she amended. “He’s been really busy lately.”
“Not spoiling you as much as you think you deserve?” Charlotte teased.
Kiera gave her a serene middle finger and took a gulp of coffee. “He spoils me plenty, thank you. It just feels like I never see him. He’s got family problems of some kind, but he won’t give me any details.”
Bran arrived at the table with his hands full of pastries, greeting everyone but pulling Lara up from her seat for a hug and kiss on the cheek. She smiled up at him, lips a little tremulous, and Malachi swallowed hard. Bran had a bigger heart than he did. Why hadn’t he done that? Lara needed the encouragement that she was still part of the group—that no one blamed her for Blake’s actions. Stupid… thoughtless….
Malachi pushed away from the table. He could feel another panic attack threatening, making his throat close up and his breath come short. “I’m late for class,” he said abruptly.
“You haven’t eaten!” Bran protested.
Malachi grabbed a blueberry muffin and waved it at him. “There. Catch you later.” He had to get out of there.
He headed for the door, leaving a stunned silence behind him. They’d be talking about him the second he was out of earshot, he knew. Let them.
He made it around the building and out of sight before it hit him and he collapsed against the bricks, struggling to breathe around the crushing weight on his chest as he slid to the ground.
Bran… I need Bran. But Malachi couldn’t even breathe, let alone get up and go find him. He gripped his knees and gasped for air, squeezing his eyes tightly closed against the panic that beat frantic wings inside his skull.
He was only dimly aware of the strong arms that gathered him up, and at first he fought, but then he recognized Bran’s scent, the comforting warm smells of cinnamon and aftershave, and Malachi collapsed against him with a desperate sob of relief.
Bran held him tight, kneeling in the grass and crooning wordless comfort into Malachi’s hair. Slowly, achingly slowly, the trembling began to ease and Malachi managed to get his breathing back under control.
“I’m sorry,” he finally whispered.
Bran kissed the top of his head. “Shh. I’m here. It’s okay.”
Malachi burrowed closer, eyes still closed. Bran was right. He needed to talk to someone. He took a deep breath.
“Did you… have a therapist in mind?”
Bran’s arms tightened, but his voice was matter-of-fact. “Tristan actually recommended a couple of really good ones close by.”
“Will you go with me?” Malachi asked.
“Of course,” Bran said instantly. “To the ends of the earth, Mal.”
Malachi sighed as the last of the panic drained from his body, leaving him limp and exhausted. “I love you,” he murmured.
Bran pulled him to his feet. “Come on,” he said as he tugged him across the green in the direction of Cushing Hall.
Malachi followed without protest, too tired to question it. His brain didn’t kick into gear until they were climbing the steps.
Bran turned to face him. “Do you have any finals in the next week? Anything you desperately need to study for?”
Malachi shook his head numbly. He felt as though he were wrapped in cotton wool, a step removed from the world.
“Fine,” Bran said. “Then you’re taking a nap, and we’re playing hooky today.”
Malachi’s eyes widened. “But… your job….”
“Naomi understands,” Bran said, pulling Malachi up the steps and into the old Victorian house. “She told me to take whatever time I need.”
“What happens when she fires you because you’ve taken so much time off?” Malachi asked.
“Won’t happen,” Bran said, leading him down the hall. “But if it does, I’ll just find another job. There are a couple of nice bakeries not far away. One in particular right off campus I’ve had my eye on for a while.” He squeezed Malachi’s hand and unlocked the door. “Stop worrying about me and let’s focus on you. That’s your favorite thing anyway, isn’t it?”
Malachi smiled weakly and didn’t protest when Bran pushed him gently onto the bed and untied his shoes. He curled up on his side, looking out the window at the cold February landscape, the bare trees forming geometric patterns against the sky and the frozen grass stark and blue-green against the brown of the earth. From this angle he could just see the top of the library over the branches.
Bran lay down next to him, pressing in close. Malachi could hear the rustling of a book being opened, and then Bran cleared his throat and began to read.
Tam Lin. Malachi closed his eyes and listened to the familiar cadence of the words as Bran described the swordfight for the bust and Janet’s subsequent wild flight across the campus.
Finally Bran closed the book and kissed the nape of Malachi’s neck. “Sleep, love,” he murmured. “I have plans for you today, and you need to be rested for them.”
Malachi sighed, pushed his face into the pillow, and slept.