Freedom (The F-Word #5) - E. Davies



“I really hate you,” Jaden flatly informed Spence.

As always, his big brother crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. “Teddy bear don’t care.”

His brother might look like one, but as far as Jaden was concerned, the nickname was misleading at best. What kind of big brother would drag him out of the house to a gay club for a charity raffle?

Sure, the gesture seemed supportive, but Spence knew better. Or he should, by now. Jaden had been fighting back waves of anxiety since Spence brought up the prospect.

Jaden’s therapist would be happy he had taken a chance and gotten out of the house, but at what price? His mental state for a few days? A week? And then there was the even bigger problem.

He hissed under his breath, “What if I win?” That would mean going out somewhere.

Best case scenario, a nice cozy restaurant. He felt safe enough in his car to cope with the drive. As long as he kept his eyes on his feet when he walked between his car and a building, he could cope. Maybe. He’d nearly passed out between the taxi and the bar tonight.

Spence looked far more at home here, which just wasn’t fair since he was straight as an arrow. Jaden might have appreciated his willingness to come to Buckle with him if he’d felt as relaxed as his big brother. As it was, his nerves were frayed just trying to keep himself from running out the door.

Spence had always been a shield for him—on the rare occasions Jaden did leave the house for longer than a grocery trip, Spence was usually at his side. If not for his big brother moving to Denver after the second nervous breakdown, Jaden never would have made it this long.

Didn’t mean he should be meddling with anything that didn’t concern him, though—like Jaden’s love life. Or his mental health recovery. God, brothers could be so irritating.

Spence ignored his question with a good-natured roll of his eyes. Winning hadn’t occurred to him, apparently. “I just think you could do with a positive reason to get out of the house. Didn’t your therapist say that? The more you shut down, the more anxious you get? Like a spiral to the bottom of social interaction.”

Damn it, he was right. Jaden had been slowly pushing himself this year, trying to prove to himself that he was safe so he could use that as evidence to create a positive spiral. And he’d made the mistake of sharing some of his insights with Spence, who was pretty much his only visitor at home.

Jaden, rooted on his chair in the corner of the bar, glared at Spence. “For that, you owe me the next drink. The usual.”

Spence grinned. “Rum and Coke? Dude, that was your college drink. Aren’t you ever going to graduate?”

“I’m in a big, spacious bar with lots of… space. And people.” Jaden flatly glared. “Comfort drinks are fine.”

At least Spence knew when he’d pushed it a little too far. “Gotcha.” He saluted and headed to the bar. No sooner had he reached it than yet another guy approached Jaden’s brother with a hopeful smile.

Watching Spence politely reject them as onlookers tried to figure his type out, not even suspecting him of being a straight guy at ease in his sexuality, was normally hilarious. Or it had been, four years ago, when he was just-turned-twenty-one and Spence had brought him here.

Now, Jaden was too busy fighting back the dizzying wave of anxiety at the space, the noise, the lights and music. Luckily, the music had been kept low compared to the bars he’d once partied in—before his nervous breakdown. They could talk without yelling. If not for that, he might have left already.

His agoraphobia wasn’t a fear of strangers, exactly. But it had developed rapidly in just the last few years.

Jaden wasn’t sure if it was the rum and Cokes or the anxiety making his stomach rumble. Maybe he just needed French fries.

Nearby, a guy was raising his voice. “If you’re straight, what are you even doing here?”

That got Jaden’s attention—and his protectiveness. But the other guy wasn’t addressing Spence. The man he talked to looked unfazed as he grinned back. There was a handsome guy next to him—but damn, he was probably this man’s boyfriend. “Helping out a friend.”

“Oh, sure.” Someone tittered. “You better not be entering any raffles yourself, straight boy. No breaking one of our hearts.”

The other guy isn’t his boyfriend? Jaden’s hope rose as he stood up,