Aasif seemed restless today. He squirmed on the bench, and his eyes kept darting to Daniel’s face and then away. After a few minutes of this, Daniel asked quietly: “What’s wrong, Aasif?”
The bartender jumped and shot him a rather wild sideways look. To Daniel’s interest and puzzlement, his cheeks turned red under his light-brown skin. “Nothing is wrong, Daniel,” he replied hurriedly.
“Are you sure? You seem pretty restless today.”
Aasif did some more squirming, before he burst out: “I do not want to be here anymore!”
Daniel looked at him soberly. “Here? In the park? With me? Do you want to go home?”
“Yes! No! Oh, I’m not making myself clear!” Aasif cried. “I don’t want to be in the park anymore, Daniel, but I DO want to be with you. I want to…take you to my home.” Color surged even more wildly up in his face as he said this.
Daniel relaxed at these words. “I see. So you want to get out of here? Is it too public, is that the problem?”
Aasif stared down at his shoes, but his head came down in a small nod. “I want you to…” he trailed off, and his face was now so dark-red that he looked like he was going to explode. “B-but not here,” he choked, his eyes running over the park and the children playing nearby.
Daniel felt a surge of excitement go through him. Aasif wanted to be away from prying eyes with him, indicating that the bartender wanted something more intimate to happen between them and didn’t want any witnesses too it. Satisfaction welled up in him. “All right, Aasif. If that’s what you want. We’ll go to your house.”
The large eyes came up to rest on his face. “Really?” Aasif asked in a small voice.
Daniel nodded. “Really. I’d like to see where you live. Come on, let’s go.” He carefully removed his arm from the back of the bench and got slowly to his feet. He held out his hand to Aasif.
Eyes wide, the bartender reached out and took his hand with one that shook a little. Daniel pulled him to his feet, and neither said anything as they started down the sidewalk toward where his truck was parked. Aasif seemed shocked by his own boldness, and Daniel wasn’t going to do anything to break the mood and send Aasif scurrying away in a panic. This was a huge breakthrough for him.
Aasif climbed into the passenger’s side of the vehicle. He didn’t have a car of his own; he generally took the bus to both his job and the park, and walked to places like the grocery store. Daniel got in behind the wheel, and paused. He turned his head to glance at Aasif, sitting so stiff and silent in the passenger’s seat beside him. “You have to tell me where to go, Aasif,” he remarked gently.
Aasif jumped as though he’d been pricked with a pin. He gave Daniel his address in a voice that sounded strangled, and his fingers were twined together in his lap hard enough that the fingers were turning white. Daniel nodded and started the truck, pulling away from the curb.
He said nothing as he drove, waiting for Aasif to break the silence. But the other man was huddled in his seat, clearly trying to calm his breathing and relax even a little, so Daniel left him to it. When he pulled up in front of the apartment building where Aasif lived, he turned off the motor and looked over at the bartender. Aasif’s eyes had a decided glaze to them, and Daniel wondered if this had been such a good idea after all. Maybe it was still too soon, no matter what Aasif thought.
But before he could offer to take them both back to the park, Aasif put out a shaking hand and opened the truck door. He clambered out stiffly. “Come this way,” he said, his voice so tense and hollow that he actually sounded a bit like Lurch from the Addams Family. Daniel didn’t protest, but merely got out of the truck and followed Aasif as the other man walked stiffly upright toward one of the units on the first floor.
How Aasif managed to unlock his front door with his hands shaking like that was a mystery to Daniel. He had to fight his almost overwhelming urges to tell Aasif ‘never mind’, and that they’d do this another day when he was feeling stronger. This decision had been Aasif’s, and if he changed his mind Daniel would go along with it. But he wanted Aasif to have the chance to do something brave, something that he’d chosen to do on his own.
Aasif finally got the door open, and he turned to Daniel. “Please come inside,” he said, and his teeth were chattering a bit. Daniel had to force himself to hold back yet again. He felt as tightly strung as a man on point patrolling in an area where there had been deadly ambushes. He stepped after Aasif into the apartment, watching as the other man skittered down the hallway and turned at bay near the end.
Aasif stood there struggling with himself, his hands balled into fists at his sides and his chest rising and falling with his panting breaths. Daniel waited patiently by the open door, not moving, giving Aasif time to overcome his instinctive fear. Finally, Aasif stirred and unclenched his fists. “I-I’m sorry, Daniel,” he began apologetically.
“Nothing to be sorry about, Aasif,” Daniel replied quietly. “This is a big step for you. Of course you’re afraid. But you’re overcoming your fear. That’s courageous, Aasif. I admire you.”
The bartender looked startled. “You do?”
Daniel nodded. “I’ve seen battle-hardened soldiers struggling with PTSD who can’t overcome their fear like you are. You’ve got guts, Aasif.”
“Ohhh,” this drawn out syllable made him smile a little, as Aasif stirred and turned toward an archway nearby. “Will you come into the living room?” he asked Daniel, like a good host should.
His lips twitched a little at Aasif’s formal phrasing, but he nodded and walked slowly toward the archway. Aasif darted inside before him, and rounded the couch to put it between Daniel and himself. His finger closed on the back of it, but he lifted his head proudly. “Will you have a seat?” he said.
Daniel sat down in the only armchair, his eyes resting on Aasif’s face. Fear warred with determination there. Determination finally won, and Aasif stepped out from behind the couch. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Sure. Anything is fine,” Daniel said soothingly.
Aasif bolted out of the room, leaving Daniel alone in his living room. He looked around, trying to get a feel for the other man. The furniture was all comfortable-looking, and the chair he sat in had a chintz floral covering. Prints of bucolic country scenes were hung on the walls. It wasn’t at all like he’d have pictured Aasif’s home. The only thing that spoke of his heritage was a small rug hanging on one wall, that Daniel suspected came from or had been made in Iraq. Still, did Aasif have to trumpet where he came from to the skies? It wasn’t as though his apartment was decorated in English countryside, after all. Actually, Aasif’s home seemed to be more in that style than his place was…
His lips twitched again as Aasif reappeared with two glasses of water in his hands. He came over to hand one to Daniel. Then he shied away again, going over to the couch and sitting down on it this time. But he looked so tense that Daniel knew that he was ready to jump up and run away at any time. Daniel sipped at his water to give Aasif time to relax again.
“I like your apartment, Aasif,” he said after the silence had deepened for a few minutes.
Aasif jumped a little, but he also looked pleased. “You do?”
Daniel nodded. “Yeah. It’s cozy. Not like my place. It’s a typical man-den. Which means it never gets dusted, there tend to be clothes lying on the floor until I get around to picking them up, and the décor is pretty much ‘dumpster chic’.”
Aasif giggled, a charming sight. Daniel’s lips lifted a little to see this. Then the bartender fidgeted, turning his glass around and around in his fine-boned hands. “I…asked you here…because I…want to…” he began breathily, obviously barely able to get the words out of his mouth at all.
Daniel lifted a staying hand. “It doesn’t matter why you asked me here, Aasif, if it’s making you this nervous,” he pointed out quietly. “This is the first…and biggest…step that you’ve taken; we can hold off whatever you had in mind for another day. Until you get used to having me in your apartment, that is. If you want, we could move our daily sessions to here from now on. Then, when you’re comfortable with having me around, we can try whatever it is that you want to.”
Aasif’s luminous eyes studied his face. “How kind you are, Daniel,” he marveled.
He smiled crookedly. “Not really. As I told you, Aasif, if I can’t help you overcome your fears then I can’t get with you. So this is almost entirely selfish on my part.”
“No!” Aasif cried, shaking his head sharply. “Someone who was utterly selfish would have given up on me long ago, Daniel. You’ve been so patient and caring with me. You are a good man.”
His sincere words made Daniel feel a little embarrassed. Seeing his expression, Aasif laughed softly. “Yes, Daniel, I would very much like it if we moved our daily sessions here to my home. When I am comfortable with you, it will be nice for us to have some privacy for…” his cheeks heated as he trailed off.
Daniel grinned. “Yes, it’ll be very nice,” he purred, just to watch the color in Aasif’s face deepen. What a gorgeous, splendid creature he was, Daniel marveled silently to himself. And how very lucky I am!
So that’s what they did. Every day that week, Daniel drove over to Aasif’s apartment building. For the first few days, he sat in the chair while Aasif sat on the couch, and they talked. After that, he moved to the couch and put his arm along the back, just as he’d done on the bench in the park. Aasif slowly became less nervous, and began to snuggle up against Daniel’s side like a trusting kitten.
He loved these times. Sure, he wanted to get with Aasif. Bad. But just sitting there holding the man while he snuggled up against Daniel’s side - that was good, too. Really good. He’d never had this before, since he’d been in the Army for so long. First there had been DADT, which hadn’t allowed two male soldiers to snuggle up together in public. And even after its repeal, he’d always been careful. He didn’t want to shove his homosexuality into his guys’ faces. So now, this gentle intimacy between himself and Aasif, was a first for him as well as the other man. And Daniel intended to enjoy it to the fullest extent.
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