1. You’re still you

A/N: Betad by Charity

Chapter 1

He had finally been to the barbershop; his hair was quite thick, and he needed a model for them.

He took it as a sign that he wasn’t completely indifferent to his appearance, that the vanity of his former self wasn’t completely buried. Eelis did not analyze the matter further, he concluded that he did not want to look like a troll in the woods either. He allowed his hair to stay medium length, but so that they didn’t quite reach to a ponytail.

Autumn had progressed, October crept steadily towards November, and it undeniably haunted him. It was getting closer to those unpleasant anniversaries; Chris’ release from prison… The man crept into his thoughts involuntarily, it was one thing that was difficult to deal with. Those last moments with Chris, the last conversations. Everything could have gone differently… He had later heard that Chris had… He had had someone who could have… if Chris had given that person a chance and… his throat tightened at the thought.

”Find someone who will bring you back… the way you were, the part I broke… You should travel, you dreamt about it. Make those dreams come true, Joni… Promise?”

He was broken, it was true. And now he was trying to find and fix himself, at times that distressing thought surfaced; did he do this because he had promised? Promised to the man who had broken him? He never dared to think on it further until he already hurriedly forced the thoughts of Chris out of his consciousness. Suvi had told him that the man Chris had been with wanted to talk with him. Eelis did not understand why and was not ready for it. He didn’t want to think, closed it from his thoughts, and continued as he could.

Dima had visited him, spent an extended weekend in London. It had been a little troublesome because Eelis didn’t know how to behave around him. At the same time, Dima was clearly bothered that he wasn’t himself, how he remembered him, even though he understood the reason. However, Eelis did his best, the questions about Misha burning his mind and Dima did speak about his brother without him having to ask. Misha had no one else, he lived a rather boring life. “He loves you,” Dima had said seriously one night after he had persuaded him to a nearby pub. He felt the longing in his chest, of course, but was still convinced that this was what he needed to do.

”I’m not the same person anymore.” He had finally said before bringing his pint to his mouth without looking at his friend because he didn’t want to see the look that was no doubt frustrated. ”Surely you see that too…”

“Joni…” Dima had sighed.

“Eelis,” he had quickly corrected and faced his friend’s gaze stubbornly. Dima had been staring back at him and it had been easy to see how his mind was trying to find a suitable counterargument. ”Are you and Linda getting engaged again?” He had changed the subject, and Dima sighed deeply before he decided to give up on trying to pressure him and accepted the topics he’d rather discuss.

”You know, what happened was unfair and cruel, but you’re not lost, Joni.” Dima had said before leaving for the airport. “We’ll be patient and waiting. I’ll text you when I get home. See you around Christmas!” Dima had patted his shoulder in a friendly manner because he sensed he wasn’t ready to hug and then he had left.

Eelis felt uncomfortable. He had promised his family that he would go home for Christmas, when in fact he would have preferred to stay alone in London and skip Christmas altogether. Now he was tempted to do just that, he didn’t want his loved ones to wait, he knew they wanted back the version of him he had been, but they would all wait in vain! No, he could never be like before.

James had started staring at him more and more often. It made him feel uneasy, he did his best to avoid his gaze, not wanting to give any signals that it would be okay to approach him. He accepted Sarah’s company, feeling grateful, a little surprised that the woman was still willing to seek his company. They always went together for lunch. Eelis started to relax with her, he was even talking more, so that he was starting up the conversation as well, it felt surprisingly normal.

”Well, what are you going to do this weekend?” Sarah asked as they sat down for lunch at the campus canteen. Eelis looked at the woman and shrugged.

”I have a morning shift at work tomorrow, then I’ll do a short workout… If the weather is nice, I’ll go for a run, read, relax, that’s about it… Oh and I think it would be good to start Christmas shopping, to avoid the rush later.” He answered before taking a forkful of the chicken salad on his plate. He was happy that he was still able to run, although he had to be careful with his knee and avoid jogging on the asphalt. Sarah looked at him, raising her brow.

“Oh, come on Elis,” she chuckled. ”Don’t you ever go out?” She asked, somewhat amused. Elis frowned.

“Well… Didn’t I just say that I was going for a run and maybe shopping,” He replied with a teasing tone of voice, a tone which surprised him himself. Sarah spent so much time in his company that he was starting to relax. Sarah shook her head, grinning, and squeezed the light salad dressing from a small bag over her salad.

”You know I didn’t mean that.” She noted. “Don’t you ever drink any alcohol? Even though we are now studying such a health-focused profession, surely it doesn’t mean that we should be absolutists. Hm, of course, you don’t have to drink alcohol if you don’t want to, but you can still go to the bars. It is normal! Please come to the pub with me tomorrow. Just for one drink at least?” Sarah asked and as he was silent for a moment thinking about it, Sarah continued to tempt him. ”You can even order a soda if you don’t want alcohol, but come on, they’re playing live music.”

Eelis tilted his head slightly, chewing his food quietly. Sarah looked at him intently, almost pleading. ”I’m not an absolutist, but I rarely drink these days.” He finally replied, offering a small smile. I guess he could try the kind of normal a young man his age would do. Would that be so awful? And Sarah, well… they had become friends, it was good to have friends, even one in this strange city.

”Brilliant!” Sarah clasped her hands together. ”Can we pretend that it’s a date?” She asked just as Eelis was drinking water from his glass, which made him almost choke on his drink and his momentary worried look made Sarah giggle. “You’re not interested in me, yes I know that. I just want to win the bet.” Eelis looked at the woman in confusion.

“The bet?” He asked cautiously.

“Yeah, I guess I’m not even officially involved in it. But I would be the wild horse, rising from the shadows, and win! I have a feeling you would like it if I won.” Sarah smiled softly. ”Okay, I don’t know, you’re somehow adoringly clueless about how fucking hot you are, or something?” Sarah cocked her brow and Eelis went even more confused, speechless, and maybe even blushed?! – His former self would have been shocked by his reaction. ”You’ve been voted the hottest male first-year student, and can you imagine I didn’t even get ranked in the women’s category?” Sarah grinned at how confused she still looked. ”Anyway, you’re also pretty mysterious, and you’ve never attended these student parties before, so now there’s reportedly a competition over who’s going to take you on a date and guess whether it’s a woman or a man.”

Eelis felt uncomfortable once more by the thought, he had already been quite happy that he had been allowed to be relatively at ease. He didn’t know what to say. ”So, here I am, your friend offering help,” Sarah said. “I’ve gotten such a vibe that you might not be very excited about the attempts to woo you. Am I right?”

Eelis looked into the woman’s eyes, they were deep blue, her hair was honey blonde, cut to her shoulders, a small, pretty nose, her smile was open and gentle for the most part. If he were straight, Sarah would surely be his type. ”Why would you do that?”

Sarah smiled and shrugged. “Because I like you as a friend, and as I said, I’ve noticed that you don’t enjoy it when someone tries to get too close. I guess I push your boundaries too from time to time. I think I can read people quite well.”

“Hmm… I can’t argue that” Eelis finally said, looking at the woman, grinning slightly. ”So, we have a date.” It was the first time in his life; dating a woman! Although, they both knew it wasn’t real. Still, a small part of Eelis wondered if his new self would succeed in getting interested in Sarah, that way?

** ^^ ** ​​^^ **

The man circled him, horror squeezing his chest and he tried in vain to pull his hands free. Despair swept through him, the man standing in front of him, not wanting to look him in the face. But the man bent down, closer and closer, the grin on his face was cruel. “The fate of a whore, to a whore… I would find a buyer… trust me…” The man’s hand reached for him and Eelis woke up to his cry.

He stared out of his dark bedroom breathlessly. Reached out to turn on the lamp on his bedside table. Everything was fine, it was a dream, it had just been a dream. He trembled still, his heart pounding fiercely. ”It was just a dream.” He repeated to himself out loud. He had begun to hate the nights, hardly any without these nightmares.

It was 2:35 a.m., usually, he also woke up pretty much at the same time. In those moments when he awoke to that shaking fear, he hoped he wouldn’t have been alone. And at the same time, on some level, he realized it would be good for him to continue therapy. He had lied to his family that he continued, but that was not true. And even now, he very quickly convinced himself that he was doing okay. So, like the other nights, he got up and went to get a glass of water.

He stood in front of the window and looked out onto the street where a few cars were driving past. The city didn’t sleep, it was kind of comforting that there were others that either didn’t sleep well or were otherwise just awake.

His head was aching, Eelis rubbed his temples. “They are dead. It was just a dream.” He whispered to himself. ”Everything is fine, just a dream.” He repeated and felt his chest tighten, thinking how good it would have felt to snuggle against a strong chest and feel the comforting hand gently stroking his hair and that whisper in his mind; “Everything is fine, it will be fine,” was whispered with his voice. Stubbornness, however, asserted that he needed to repair himself alone, and should not expect others, especially Misha, to repair those wounds on his behalf.

Eelis came to the bed and laid down on his side. He took a large pillow, which he pressed against his chest, and slowly he fell into more peaceful dreams that were cruel in another way when he woke to realize they had just indeed been a dream. And yet, repeatedly, he kept convincing himself that this was how things were supposed to be.

***

Saturday was ”the date night.” The thought felt strange, he went to work at the gym in the morning. The place was quite big, bigger than Elias’ place. He had not yet seen the owner very often, reportedly he had several places that he ran and kept busy with his other hobbies and his personal life, especially the latter. He wanted to dedicate time to his family, which was, of course, an admirable feature and perhaps even enviable, as financially it was possible for the man. In his absence, the place was run by a woman who had been given full authority to run the gym and who had also hired Eelis.

That Saturday, Eelis saw another glimpse of the owner. He was undeniably a handsome man, a blond which was apparently still his weakness, and he was immediately reminded of Misha, though there was little similarity on his face and the man must have been closer to forty. Still, he was very handsome, and Eelis could admit it to himself while acknowledging the unfortunate fact that his new self was no straighter than the previous one.

His job description was quite like before. He mostly served at the front desk, and it was agreed that he would be willing to go for help if any of the clients needed help or advice with the equipment. Later, his job description could be expanded, but so far Eelis was happy with that. It felt familiar enough. Most of the customers were nice, but there were always those few who were difficult and those who flirted, trying their best to get a reaction out of him, which felt unsettling. Before he had been able to handle it better, with humor, confidence, and joking back at them in a playful manner, but now he wasn’t able to do that anymore. Those who flirted with him were found from both sexes and were usually older than him. Middle-aged women had been more outspoken, while those few men were quite subtle, however, given just enough for him to understand their interest.

Almost an hour before the end of his shift, James stepped in with a training bag on his shoulder. James smiled as their eyes met and Eelis felt a little embarrassed because there was something hopeful in that smile that he recognized. “Hey, I didn’t even know you were working here! Quite a coincidence.” James laughed. Eelis smiled, or at least tried, hoping that his smile would look somewhat natural.

”Yeah, I started in September.”

James looked at him, still smiling, Elis took note for the first time that his eyes were grayish-green, his hair dark brown and short, there was a piercing in his left eyebrow. They were pretty much the same age.

“Yeah, well, I haven’t been here in a while either, that gym at the campus is cheaper, but…” James shrugged. ”There’s more equipment here.” He leaned closer to the counter and looked at him still, too attentively. Eelis moved nervously.

”That’s true.” He replied when he came up with nothing better to say.

”Yeah… should I renew my membership or… maybe one of those tenth cards?”

James spoke and cocked his eyebrow in a manner that seemed strangely suggestive. Eelis felt silly, he couldn’t take over the situation at the level of customer service that he should have.

”It would be valid for three months.” He finally replied and felt like he was in some awkward Finnish film, with equally awkward lines. ”Hm, the monthly card is 35 pounds… But it’ll be a little cheaper if you take more than one month at a time.”

“I’ll try it for a month, then let’s see…” James replied and Eelis nodded.

”Okay so you’ve been here before,  I can probably find your information from the computer. What was your last name again?” James scratched his neck.

”Well, it was the kind of gift card thing back then, so… Probably can’t be found by my name, um Brighton.” James finally said and smiled a little sheepishly. Eelis began to suspect that this was not the coincidence that another had initially described.

”Okay, um, well let’s just fill out the information here, no worries.” Eelis smiled slightly and asked for James’ phone number, address, and marketing authorization. After paying, James looked at him hesitantly.

”Uh… There’s one student party today, are you coming?” He asked and now Eelis already clearly recognized the hope behind that question.

“ I have something else planned.” He replied, again a little embarrassed. ”A date with Sarah.” He said and swallowed, seeing a flash of disappointment in James’ gaze.

“Oh, well then, it definitely sounds more fun. Great! Have a nice evening, come another time… or if you’re up to it come together later… So… eh see you on Monday at the latest!” James sounded a little forced, perky, confirming Eeli’s suspicion that he had indeed hoped… He was grateful to Sarah and at the same time a little sorry for James. If they had met at another time, another life, when he hadn’t gone through what he had, even before Misha… He would have gone to the party with James, and they might have ended up having a lot of fun together. But now Eelis truly believed that it was a life he could no longer live. He would still look, appreciate masculinity, but that was all.

** ^^ ** ​​^^ **

He later met with Sarah in the city. She didn’t usually wear much makeup, which Eelis honestly preferred more in women as well, especially when she was quite naturally beautiful, but now she had clearly made an effort in painting her face … If Sarah hadn’t said that she understood that he wasn’t interested in her that way, Eelis would have been worried.

”You look beautiful.” He praised as she got closer and meant his words, even though Sarah would indeed have been beautiful without the makeup as well. Sarah smiled at him.

”Thank you and you’re handsome.” She grinned. Damn, Eelis really liked her accent. He smiled softly and thanked her

”You had a place in mind?” He asked.

“Yes, the best Irish pub in London, you can get good food there too! Today is my cheat day, so don’t judge anything you’ll witness tonight! ” Sarah laughed.

“I didn’t plan to, because today is my cheat day too,” Eelis grinned, letting Sarah lead them towards the pub. ”And in fact, I’m pretty hungry, I did a proper workout before I left work.”

”Well, I certainly believe that.” Sarah grinned as she glanced at him. “Now at least you have a day off tomorrow as well because I’m going to make sure you’ll drink yourself happy!” She declared.

Eelis rolled his eyes but smiled as they walked. He hadn’t drunk himself ‘happy’, as Sarah put it, for months …The last time… It had been in New York with Misha after they had been there at the club and… he didn’t want to think. It hurt too much. “You can always try,” he said.

”And the best I’ll try!” Sarah laughed.

‘The tipsy hill Tavern.’ Eelis was slightly amused by the name. The atmosphere was warm, old-fashioned, cozy. Warm colors and pictures, music, quite a lot of people, but not too much. The fact that the pub served proper  food as well made it different compared to those Irish pubs that could be found in Helsinki. Irish-style home cooking, but also burgers and chips as they called them in England. Eelis ended up ordering Irish stew that was served with potatoes and bread. He ordered Guinness for a drink. Sarah, on the other hand, ended up with a portion of fish and chips, the serving was huge.

 “I said, don’t judge! I’m going to eat all of this, just you watch. ” Sarah reminded him as they sat down at the table.

“Hey, I didn’t even think to judge,” Eelis smiled. ”I was also thinking of finishing my entire meal, bread, and everything, maybe I’ll even order a dessert.” He wondered and felt strangely relaxed. Sarah’s company did it, he thought. Sarah had no expectations in his direction, she didn’t know Joni’s past. For her, they were just classmates from different countries. He felt calm.

 ”Well, did you get any prize for this ’date’, since you won the bet?” Eelis asked amused as they ate.

”Not yet. They demand proof you see,” Sarah smiled, dipping her chips in the vinegar sauce that apparently was considered delicious by both the British and Irish. Eelis did not understand the appeal. ”I plan to get you drunk enough to pose in a selfie with me.”

Eelis smiled and took a sip from his pint. ”You’ll probably get me drunk quite easily; I haven’t drunk much in months.” He said before taking another forkful of food in his mouth.

”So, I can trust that you’re not running home right after you’ve eaten?” Sarah asked and again Eelis was silent for a moment and thought. He watched other people in the pub, laughing people. The band arranged their instruments on the stage, the atmosphere was light. It seemed somehow unreal to be there, he felt like an outsider, a stranger who didn’t quite fit into the crowd, and the others might notice it before long. However, he looked at the woman sitting in front of him and smiled faintly. He wanted to fit in, he wanted to try.

“I can stay for another pint,” he promised.

”And then for the third and fourth.” Sarah grinned.

“We’ll see…” Eelis replied a little amused and brought the glass to his lips. Sarah chatted lightly, in her cheerful style, and Eelis was happy to listen to her. Sarah was a year younger than he; she was from a Catholic family and felt the atmosphere in London was much more liberating. At the same time, however, she missed her homeland and therefore enjoyed visiting Irish pubs. She had not yet befriended others so well and experienced spiritual kinship with Eelis, explaining that perhaps it was because they had both come from elsewhere. Sarah seemed so happy and bubbly that Eelis found it a little peculiar that she hadn’t made any other friends yet, while he himself… Well, they had only become acquainted thanks to Sarah’s perseverance.

They ordered another round of drinks. The band started playing, the red-haired male singer had an amazing voice and Eelis gazed towards the stage, then glancing around at the other happy people. Cheerful chattering and laughter. His chest gripped; it was like looking at it from behind a glass. It was weird to be there, it was weird to be alive, after everything.

 When their eyes met, Sarah smiled at him. The woman’s gaze wandered to his tattoo; Sarah had been looking at it before too.

”Okay, what’s the story with that tattoo?” She asked and tilted her head. Eelis was silent for a moment, not knowing what he was willing to say. ”I’m thinking, I’m sorry, maybe I’m too curious and maybe a little tipsy, but… well, it’s in your engagement finger.”

“It’s…” He touched his left hand with his right hand. ”Hm… a pretty awkward story I’m not ready to talk about.” He said and she smiled gently at him.

“I respect that, you’ll tell me when you’re ready,” Sarah nodded and grabbed her glass.

Eelis was grateful that Sarah didn’t put more pressure on it and soon changed the subject of the conversation in a lighter direction. Sarah made him laugh as she told amusing stories about his family, it was… He hadn’t laughed in months, not like this and it almost shocked him when he realized that the sound came from his lips and his cheeks felt weird and Sarah looked at him well, eyes shining as if she really could see somewhere deep inside him and guess some of the darkness of what he had experienced and how difficult it was for him to start living normally.

And soon he noticed that he had already agreed to a third drink. He was indeed quite tipsy after two large pints, Sarah had also persuaded him to take a picture with her. She asked if she could cheat her friends at home that they were dating and in love, and at that moment, enjoying normalcy after a long time, he had agreed.

Walking towards the bar, he still felt good, he felt like he could blend in with these other normal people. He felt like he would learn to accept this new life and identity. Felt that it was possible to leave that horror behind a closed door and forget.

Eelis Sairola studied to become a physiotherapist, practiced kickboxing and running, in addition to gym training, and worked at a local gym a couple of times a week. He had a friend, a beautiful and funny Irish woman, Sarah McCarthy, who told amusing stories about her family and who let him be who he was, even though he didn’t know exactly yet what it was. He was slowly building himself from the shattered pieces of Joni’s life and before long his new self would be fully prepared to face the world. Before long, his loved ones would accept that the Joni they had known no longer existed.

Annoyingly and in a rather awkward place; in the men’s room, washing his hands, he came face to face with the fact that it was impossible to escape his former self completely. Faced with the fact that sometimes the world was just curiously and frustratingly small.

”Joni?” The man asked behind him and as he turned, staring in confusion at the man behind him, who grinned in delight.

“Damn, it’s really you! It’s been a long time! How are you?”

Chapter 2

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