House of Memories

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Israfil

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I think of you from time to time / More than I thought I would

You were just too kind / And I was too young to know

That’s all that really matters

I was a fool

“House of Memories”

Panic! At The Disco

Death of a Bachelor

***Five years ago***

There was a knock on the door, though it was more a warning of entry than asking permission to enter. Henry Ellesier looked up with a smile.

“Good news, I've solved the-” he frowned upon seeing not his wife, but a rather less welcome visitor. “Geoffrey, what do you want? I've got things to do.”

His middle son glared back at him. “We're out of milk,” he replied sullenly.

“Well what the hell do you expect me to do about it?” Henry snapped. On some days that would be enough to get rid of Geoffrey. Today, his son barely winced and defiantly held his gaze.

“It’s your turn to go shopping this week.”

Henry rolled his eyes. “So? Am I supposed to drop everything and go right this minute? I’m sure you can go without it until tomorrow. Kind of busy now.”

“That’s why you’re working from home today though,” Geoffrey argued, delivered with all the withering scorn of a thirteen year old.

This was actually beginning to ring a very unwelcome bell for Henry but his son’s condescending tone was getting on his last nerve. The little shit acted like he was so smart. Besides, Henry hated grocery shopping.

“For your information,” he replied with as much hauteur as he could muster, “the sun doesn’t revolve around your stomach. And, I actually have a conference call....” He made a show of checking his watch to see if he did happen to have one coming up. No such luck. “Right now.” Henry picked up the Bluetooth earpiece and began punching buttons on his phone, as if dialing a number. “Well? Get out of here.” He made a shooing gesture. “Ask Richard to take you.”

His eldest son had recently moved back from Cambridge to their house a little outside Boston. Apparently to save money, so whatever garage-band start-up he had going wasn’t getting off the ground, Henry suspected.

It was hardly an ideal development for Henry. He had little to say to Richard at the best of times and Geoffrey had lately become even more of a pain in the ass. Like asking him to go fucking grocery shopping of all things. It was Richard’s presence, Henry was sure. The kid always seemed braver when his big brother was in the house.

“He’s working,” the teenager replied.

“Well guess what? So am I!” Henry felt his patience finally give way. There was only so much he could be expected to put up with. “Hello? Hey, it’s Henry. How you been?” His son scowled again and in a single fluid motion, Henry scooped up the stapler by the keyboard and flung it at his son. That did the trick - Geoffrey ducked slipped out the door. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Did you get the report from Jim...?” He continued for another minute as he stood up and strolled over to the door, chattering all the way, and flung it open.

An empty hallway greeted him. Satisfied Geoffrey was out of earshot, he closed the door before taking off the Bluetooth and returning to his desk, where he put his feet up with a sigh.

****

Geoff trudged up the stairs to his room and flopped down on his bed. He didn’t need to listen outside the door to know his father’s “conference call” was complete bullshit. The light on the Bluetooth always blinked steadily when on a call, but it had remained solid the entire time Henry had been speaking.

He considered going to see Richard but decided against it. Unlike his father, his brother was actually working. The front door opened downstairs, announcing Jon was back from meeting his friend. As if to confirm his earlier suspicions, Geoff heard his father come out of his study, his voice carrying up the stairs as he greeted his youngest son. So much for a conference call, Geoff thought bitterly.

***Present day***

He was locked in the crypt again. No matter how hard he pounded at the door or how loud he screamed, he knew that no help was coming. In a perverse irony, the futility of his situation only served to lend strength to his arms and volume to his cries. With all the noise he was making, Jon almost missed the rumbling behind him. Falling silent, he whirled around and flattened himself against the door.

Side by side, his mother and father’s stone coffins occupied the center of the crypt. The yellow rose placed on each had fallen to the floor.

The stone lids were being pushed aside from within.

Jon sat bolt upright with a scream.

He was still in the dark, but it was a comforting darkness - one populated with the familiar shapes of his bedroom furniture, gradually being revealed in the pre-dawn light - rather than the menacing gloom and stone walls of the crypt. Jon lay back down with a sigh, only to almost immediately sit back up when his sweat-dampened shirt met the bed sheets. Glancing at the clock, he could see he only had five minutes before the alarm would sound. Turning it off, he heaved himself out of bed to face the day. And find a new shirt.

****

The thunder of cannons sounded far louder than should be possible from an iPhone speaker, the inside of his head pounding as if his skull was under actual cannonfire. Geoff growled and pinched the bridge of his nose, willing himself to sit upright, the motion making his head swim. The golden light of early morning streaming through his windows didn’t help any.

He reached out to tap his phone, silencing it before placing his head in his hands. Who was the idiot who thought it was a good idea to use Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” as an alarm?

Oh right, him. It had become a personal tradition of his over the last few years. What better way to start today than the score used to celebrate Independance Day? This was the anniversary of their independence after all.

The thought usually brought a smile to his lips but this year it felt like a childish joke. Now that he was up he may as well follow the yearly routine, to distract himself if nothing else, he thought, swinging his legs off the bed. All he wanted to do was lie back down but the time it would take to fall back asleep - if he could at all - would be time alone with thoughts he couldn’t deal with right now. Better to have them gnawing at the back of his mind than consuming it entirely. Rising slowly to his feet, Geoff yanked open a drawer and slipped on a frayed T-shirt before making his way downstairs.

****

The ninth of June was always a strange day in the Ellesier household.

Traditionally, Geoff spent it with Jon, dragging him to movies, video game shopping sprees, museums - anything to get his little brother out and about. Despite this, the best way past a teenage boy’s melancholy was through his stomach so whatever the activity, June ninth always began with a hearty continental breakfast.

This year, he had given exactly zero thought to any of those things but since he had set the alarm out of habit, Geoff reasoned he could make the breakfast and get away with going back to bed. By the fifth anniversary of their parents’ death, Jon could probably manage a day without him.

Geoff descended the stairs, blinking away the cold water he had splashed on his face and attempting to decide what to make. Pancakes? Easy to prepare and an established favorite. He had made them a couple years ago - when Damien and he hadn’t gone to sleep until late and slept through his alarm the next morning. The two of them had needed something quick and easy and had barely made enough pancakes before his brothers had rolled out of bed. He smiled at the bittersweet memory of that morning. No pancakes today then.

He began to compile a mental list of ingredients for omelets, maybe a side of bacon. Probably need some sort of bread. Toast? English muffins? Depended on what was in the fridge. And coffee. Coffee was essential to any balanced breakfast - especially if he wanted any hope of cooking it. He could almost smell it now.

It took him a moment to realize the scent wasn’t just his imagination and he could hear that a pot of coffee was indeed bubbling in the kitchen. But who-

“Morning, Geoff.” Jon stood in the kitchen, casually leaning against the island, a satisfied grin on his face and a steaming mug of coffee in front of him.

At the stove, Richard deftly scraped the fried eggs from pan to plates, three eggs to each. “Just in time,” their elder brother commented over his shoulder. He took a plate and seated himself at the breakfast table, already stocked with a plate of toast along with a tray of bacon and home fries. He reached out and popped a potato wedge in his mouth.

“Yeah, any longer and there might not have been any home fries left,” Jon smirked, taking a plate in one hand and his coffee in the other.

“Uh, thanks. This all looks great, guys.” Geoff reached the base of the stairs and padded over to pour himself some coffee. The steaming sable liquid was a beautiful sight in the morning. “You didn’t have to…”

“What, you think you’re the only one who eats in this house?” Jon replied cheekily. He ground some pepper over his eggs.

“No, we didn’t,” Richard agreed, ignoring their youngest brother, “But we wanted to.”

Geoff smiled but didn’t reply. He added milk and the requisite three teaspoons of sugar before skirting the island to collect the last plate, leaving the coffee on the table as he passed. Though his back was turned, he could feel his brothers’ eyes on him. That their gaze was fixed intently on their food when he turned around only confirmed this. He took his place at the table, taking a slice of toast and scooping up some home fries as Richard and Jon continued to glance at him sideways whenever they thought he couldn’t see them.

Geoff had been expecting this to a degree. He was touched by the breakfast, however, if it meant furtive glances and, once he was out of earshot, whispered discussions on his emotional state, a part of him would rather they just didn't bother. Good grief, is this what they used to do to Jon? The day had barely begun and he was already annoyed. Two years of this and he could imagine why his little brother had to be committed, Geoff observed wryly.

If anything, treating him as if he could break down at any moment was probably what Geoff had dreaded most about Damien’s first death anniversary.

“Damien loved you. You know that, right?” Unsurprisingly, it was Jon who broke the silence but Geoff hadn’t been expecting this particular opening gambit. Richard shot their younger brother a frown but otherwise remained silent.

Geoff took another bite of his egg, eyes fixed on the plate.

“And,” Jon continued, “I know that you loved him too. So imagine if you saw someone tagging his headstone, you’d be pissed off right?” He felt his fists clench. The motion did not go unnoticed. “Yeah, thought so,” Jon commented.

“Jonathan…” Richard warned.

Geoff put his fork down but refused to look up to meet his brother’s eyes. “What are you driving at, Jon?”

“That if you cared about his memory half as much as you say you do, you’d get your shit together,” Jon plowed on.

“Nice view from that glass house?” Geoff growled.

Jon was unperturbed. “Yeah, what do I know? I’m just repeating what some asshole told me after Mom and Dad died.” Geoff averted his gaze downward once more. He remembered having this conversation four years ago, Jon dripping water on the passenger seat beside him, driving home in the pouring rain. “He said when someone dies, a part of them stays behind with the people they loved,” Jon continued. He leaned forward, his voice becoming less strident. “He asked me how I’d feel if the best part of someone I loved was left with a total fuck-up. Said I might as well go and piss on their graves. I almost punched him in the face.” Geoff remembered that too - it had almost made him swerve off the road.

He had tracked down his brother intending to drag him home - literally if need be - and hadn’t expected him to come quietly. But when he had found him huddled under a bridge with a dime bag, Jon had been surprisingly cooperative, even as a couple of his stoner buddies had tried unsuccessfully to intervene. He had made no move to help them, retreating to a corner while Geoff pummeled his would-be protectors. It was only after they were in the car that his little brother had lashed out, and not because Geoff had questioned his intelligence, choices or sanity, though he had certainly done all those things, but the love of his parents’ memory.

“But he had a point,” Jon’s voice pulled him back to the present. “I get that now - even if he was a massive dick about it. Geoff, when someone loves you, you try and be worthy of it, right? Even after they’re gone. Richard and I, we miss him too and we’ll try to do right by him, but you, what you guys had was special. Don’t let it be for nothing.” Geoff looked up as his younger brother leaned back with a sigh, looking drained. He nodded slowly, wondering when exactly his little brother had grown up so bloody much in the last few years.

The greatest proof of Jon’s newfound wisdom, however, was that Geoff could not think of a single thing to say in response.

****

“Sorry, Alec. Chase and I are taking Linc to the park soon. You can come if you want, though,” Kale added. “Indulge your inner child?”

“What do you mean ‘inner’?” Alec sniggered as he stopped at the traffic light. “Nah, I’m good, Leafy. We’ll chill later. You have fun with the fam.”

“Cool, I’ll text you.” Kale hung up and Alec tossed the phone on the passenger seat. As happy as he was for his friends, it still felt weird that his best buddy couldn’t hang out because he was busy with his kid. Alec hadn’t been expecting to hear that for another ten years at least. They hadn’t even graduated college, for crying out loud! Drumming his hands on the wheel, he resolved that Sasha and he would definitely be waiting a bit before even thinking about having a family. At least they didn’t have to worry about starting one accidentally, he thought with a chuckle.

Waiting for the light to turn green, Alec ran down a mental list of things he’d wanted to do with his day off besides avoid helping Sasha’s parents with a house project. He loved his fiance and was willing to do almost anything as long as they were together but there were limits. It was one o’clock in the afternoon - who was around? Suddenly he remembered a text from earlier and grabbed his phone and started to type a response before deciding to save time and call.

“Hey, you texted earlier about a Heroes game?” Alec began by way of greeting, referring to the online game they both enjoyed.

“Of course,” Geoff replied, sounding puzzled as to why Alec hadn’t sent a text instead.

“Well, that means you’re free, right? I’m trying to get out of the house so just driving around. If you’re down I can stop by.” For a moment there was no response. Alec was about to check to see if he was still connected before Geoff replied.

“Yes. Yes, that’d be great.”

*****

“Who was that?” Jon asked as Geoff hung up.

“Alec. Vergil’s friend from Albany. The one who lives in town?”

Jon’s eyes narrowed. “He’s coming here? You sure that’s a good idea?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Because,” Jon took a beer from the fridge, “you’ve just started making progress with Vergil. He won’t exactly be thrilled when he hears about this.”

“Who the hell is Vergil to say who I can and can’t be friends with?” Geoff replied stubbornly. “Anyways, we’ve hung out a couple times before. He set some pretty clear boundaries and I kept my hands to myself just fine.”

“Yeah, but Vergil still knows you’re into him, right?” Jon rummaged through the kitchen drawer for a bottle opener before finding it on the counter. “Having him over could make things-” the cap came off with a ‘pop’ and the beer frothed, running down the side of the bottle, “messy,” he finished. Geoff raised an eyebrow.

“You know, that could very easily be taken as innuendo. Specifically-”

“Shut up.”

Geoff laughed. “Whatever. Believe it or not, I can behave myself around people I’m attracted to. Vergil should know that better than anyone,” he added with a smirk.

****

Pulling into the driveway, Alec wondered why he continued to hang out with Geoff. Vergil’s friend, and now possibly his friend - when did friends of friends become friends? Was there a rule about that? - was kind of a dick. Actually, there was no ‘kind of’ about it, he was a dick. Yet they had fun together. He didn’t take much seriously, to which Alec could certainly relate, and they shared a similar, slightly zany, sense of humor, even if Geoff’s could sometimes go a bit dark. It was also nice to have another gaymer buddy.

Then there was what Vergil had told them a couple months ago on the drive back from Albany. It was too similar to Alec’s own high school experience with the football team to ignore. They were both survivors, and he wanted to help if he could, even if he wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t exactly an easy thing to broach in casual conversation - “Hey, Geoff, your longtime friend told me and my fiance you were traumatically assaulted in your high school locker room. Me too!” Yeah, Alec could see that going over real well. “Hey, so I saw the video of you getting the shit kicked out of you. Then you kicked their asses. Want to talk about it?” Better...but not by much.

He still hadn’t thought of a plan when he got out of the car and strolled up the front steps, so he put it aside for now. Looking up at the house, he wondered if this was what they called a “McMansion.” Alec wasn’t an expert on architecture but it was easy to recognize the type of house that was brand new but built to look like an old style with pillars and bay windows. Was that what you called Victorian or Colonial? Sasha would probably know. It wasn’t exactly huge but it looked pretty big for just three people. Then again, he smiled to himself, three brothers probably needed the space if they didn’t want to drive each other crazy. Ringing the doorbell, he heard voices inside approaching.

“You know, I really wish I was opening a beer right now so I could show you exactly what your Karate Kid pal is hoping for, because it isn’t self-defense.”

“We’re just friends, Geoff!”

“See, now how come no one believes me when I say that?”

“You really have to ask?”

Alec’s eavesdropping came to a halt when Geoff opened the door with a flourish. “Welcome! To our humble abode.”

“Sup?” Jon greeted from the kitchen doorway.

“Please excuse our rude butler. He sort of came with the house, you see,” Geoff continued in an upper-class English accent. “Wilkins! Fetch us the white wine I left in the fridge!”

“Shall I deliver it by hand or via an overhand throw to the head, sir? Either way, it’s in the bottle,” Jon replied in an equally stuffy accent. Alec tried to stifle a laugh and failed.

“Thanks, man but I’m actually good on the drinks front,” he replied once he had his breath back.

“You sure? We got beer too. Jon’s got some IPA-”

“Hey, that’s my IPA,” Jon cut in.

Geoff shrugged and turned to Alec, “Or coffee? Juice?”

It was rare that Alec was not the most talkative person in the room. He took a moment to get used to it before answering. “Coffee?”

“Coming right up.” And Geoff was gone, leaving him standing in front of Jon who was obviously trying not to laugh.

This is so fucking weird, Alec thought.

“You know you’re allowed in the kitchen, right?” came a voice from the next room. Alec followed Jon through the door into a large kitchen. A full coffee mug and empty wine glass stood side by side on the island style counter while Geoff retrieved a bottle of wine from the fridge. “Milk, sugar, cinnamon, cocaine?” he asked, gesturing to a nearby cupboard. Alec walked over and took a look inside.

“Coke and coffee. Sounds like a punk emo album,” he commented.

“Doesn’t it?” Geoff poured himself some wine and took a sip. “On the album cover they’d probably be rocking the whole leather jacket and ripped skinny jeans ensemble.”

“Don’t forget the piercings and tattoos.” Alec took out a half full bag of sugar, reaching back in for a cinnamon grinder as an afterthought.

“God, I feel like I’m back in high school just thinking about it,” Geoff gave an exaggerated shudder.

Jon smirked. “Sounds an awful lot like an album you borrowed from me last week.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?” Geoff asked pointedly.

“Not till later. But I can take a hint,” Jon laughed and left the room.

Alec waited until Jon had closed the door behind him before raising an eyebrow at Geoff. “The emo punk secretly turns you on and you know it.”

“Well, nostalgia is sexy,” Geoff agreed with a wink.

“Story of our generation, man.”

“You mean millennials?”

“Yeah, the nostalgia.” Alec placed his mug in the microwave and, after the initial hesitation that preceded the use of any appliance outside one’s own kitchen, set it for three minutes. “You know, I always thought the name ‘millennials’ sounded way fucking cooler than it was. Like futuristic, like it meant something.”

“Then one day, you wake up and realize it’s just the name used by old people who hate you?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to go that depressing but yeah, it’s pretty boring,” Alec conceded.

“I like to think of it as a title for the unknown,” Geoff leaned against the island with his glass. “Like, what makes you a ‘millennial?’ Everyone argues about that-”

“Growing up with AIM and Pokemon,” Alec answered promptly.

“Wait, what?” Geoff asked. Few things derailed a train of thought better than an answer to a rhetorical question.

“If you were a kid when Pokemon and AIM were big then you’re definitely a millennial,” Alec explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, being careful to keep a straight face. It was fun watching Geoff’s expression while he tried to think of a response.

“Well, if you’re going by instant messaging and Pokemon then from now on wouldn’t everyone be...”

“Hold up, I mean just AOL instant messenger. The very first real-time chatting, before Facebook or even MySpace. Do you know anyone who still uses that?”

“AIM or MySpace?”

“Uh, both.”

“No, I guess not…”

“Exactly!” Alec declared triumphantly as the microwave began to beep. He took out his coffee, grinning at the timing, adding some milk, cinnamon and sugar before continuing. “And I’m not talking about all these new Pokemon games either - black, white, purple…”

“There’s a Pokemon Purple?”

“Hell if I know. I mean playing Red, Blue and Yellow on the playground - you know that one kid who’d have a gameboy and like ten kids would all be watching him?”

Geoff smiled at the memory. “Yeah, I think I was that kid.”

“Then six year old me would have hated your guts,” Alec laughed. “My point is, all the shit that kids today have, we were there when it was first getting started. Internet, cell phones, all that.”

“So...basically 90’s kids?” Geoff turned and led the way into the living room, collapsing into a recliner like a throne. Alec made a mental note to steal that chair at the next opportunity.

“Maybe late 80’s to early 2000’s,” he replied, warming to the role of Millennial expert.

“So… Baby boomers are born after the second planet-wide conflict-”

“You mean World War II?” Alec clarified, taking a seat on the couch.

“Yeah but I call it the planet-wide conflict cause that’s more like what it’ll be called when Earth inevitably joins the intergalactic community,” Geoff explained with a wave of his hand. “Anyways, boomers were born after that, Gen-Xers are their kids who lost all their money in the dotcom bust and then millennials...are the dial-up internet generation?”

“Basically.”

“So, what does that make all the kids growing up now? Like, the twelve year olds on Twitter?”

“Selfies,” Alec had been expecting this for the last five minutes and had made sure he was ready with an answer.

“The selfie generation?”

“No, just ‘Selfies’.”

“Poor things,” Geoff contrived to look woebegone before they both laughed.

“You two old geezers talking about the good old days?” Jon teased as he entered the living room. He had changed into grey gym shorts and a black T-shirt that may have once had a band logo on it but had clearly long since been converted into exercise wear.

Alec, who hadn’t even noticed he’d left, gave a small start. Damn, the kid was quiet. He turned to Geoff and shook his head. “Kids today, I tell you. No respect. No respect at all.”

“They have absolutely no idea how good they have it,” Geoff agreed. “Cheers.” The two raised their drinks.

“So, Alec, how did you get stuck with my brother?” Jon draped himself across the loveseat, legs hanging over the armrest. “You can’t be a friend because he doesn’t have those.”

Alec glanced at Geoff to see him smiling indulgently at his little brother, but his fingers were twitching strangely, as if they longed to close around Jon’s throat.

“Through a friend of my boyfriend’s actually. We both got saddled into helping set up his art show-”

“Vergil’s exhibit, yeah.” Jon waved him off. “I know how you met. I mean why are you here?”

“Jon…” Geoff’s growled.

“He asked me to show him around town over break, I agreed. Now we talk about video games and stuff like that.” Alec shrugged. “Not much else to tell, man,” he added firmly. He liked to think of himself as an open book but something about Jon’s aggressive questioning rubbed him the wrong way.

“So what’s new?” Geoff asked suddenly, clearly attempting to interrupt his brother’s interrogation. Jon rolled his eyes.

“Well,” Alec ventured, deciding to ignore the subtext playing out in front of him, “I’m going to India in about a week.” It had the desired effect as both brothers turned to him in surprise. He proceeded to explain how Kale had been asked to photograph the Rickshaw Run event through India and had invited him along with Sasha and Chase to go with him. Geoff was the first to react.

“This is a dumb idea.”

“Geoff, it’s a trip to fucking India. How can that not be awesome?” Alec replied, surprised.

“Because it’s a trip to fucking India,” Geoff answered as he got up to pace the living room. He sipped his wine before pointing at Alec with his glass. “First off, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a hot, sweaty-”

“Those can be good things,” Alec chuckled.

“-dusty, poverty-stricken country,” Geoff continued as if he hadn’t heard. “You can’t even drink the damn water.”

“Come on, that’s-”

“Actually sort of true,” Jon interrupted. “But that’s why there’s bottled water.”

“Plus how important can it be? You do alright without water,” Alec glanced pointedly at the wine bottle. He half-ducked behind the couch with a laugh as Geoff downed his glass and made as if to throw it, instead settling for merely flipping him off.

“Anyways,” Geoff continued, “it’d be one thing if you were traveling normally but taking part in this, what, rickshaw race? Seriously?”

“Rickshaw run,” Alec corrected him.

“Whatever. Backpacking trips in general are pretty dumb but across a third-world country is just insane. Especially for a group of white Americans.”

“We’re not backpacking, we’re driving -” Alec paused. “Wait, do you drive rickshaws or ride them?”

“So not the point right now,” Geoff poured himself another glass. “India just isn’t the sort of place you go unless you have to.”

“Have you ever been there?” Alec challenged.

“Richard had a business trip a year or so back. Dragged me and Jon with him to ‘broaden our horizons.’ The country’s a hot mess and not in the good way.”

“Fun fact,” Jon interjected, reading off his phone, “according to Wikipedia, it’s the largest functioning democracy in the world.”

“Like I said, a mess. You think Manhattan traffic is rough? Wait till you see the streets of Hyderabad packed with cars, people and every kind of farm animal. None of whom, by the way, follow any kind of traffic law.”

“So that means everyone there drives like you then?” Alec quipped. Jon chuckled. Geoff cut his eyes at them but Alec continued before he could respond. “Geoff… I’m not sure the best way to say this but considering you probably spent absolutely as little time as you could actually, you know, experiencing the country, I’m going to have to take everything you say with a grain of salt.”

“More like a pound,” Jon murmured.

“But that’s just it,” Geoff exclaimed. “You guys will be on the ground level - unprotected.”

“Unprotected from what?” Alec cocked his head, sincerely curious.

“Um, everything? Mainly, they’re not exactly fond of people like us. It’s actually a crime there.”

Alec shrugged and grinned. “Wouldn’t be the first time I went somewhere like that. I’ll just leave the rainbow flag at home then.” He bounded forward and threw his arm around Geoff’s shoulders. “But it’s sweet of you to care. No, seriously,” he responded to Geoff’s scowl. “I’m touched that you’re worried, man, but I can take care of myself.”

“Well, you say that, but…”

“He’s not exactly going alone,” Jon reminded him. “I’m sure his friends can keep him out of trouble. That’s what they’re supposed to do, right?”

“Exactly!” Alec jumped in before turning back to Geoff. “You know, despite your whole ‘give no fucks’ attitude about everything, you’re actually almost as uptight as my friend Leafy. Have you always been like this?”

Geoff sipped his wine and grimaced, as if the taste had suddenly turned foul at Alec’s words. “Guess survival habits are kind of tough to kick.”

“Speaking of kick, I should get going. Meeting Jake for his self-defense lesson.” Jon rolled off the couch and stretched.

“When am I going to meet this Jake?” Geoff asked, seizing the change of topic. Jon shrugged and continued towards the door. “You’re spending a lot of time with him lately. Isn’t it about time I-”

“Over my dead body,” Jon snapped. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “It was nice meeting you, Alec.”

“You too, man.”

When they heard the front door close, Geoff sighed.

“What was that about?” Alec ventured.

“Meh, he thinks every time he makes a new friend I’m going to try and chase them off.” Geoff explained, as if he had no idea why Jon would think that. Alec had his doubts.

“Are you?” he asked bluntly.

Geoff tried to look surprised for a moment before he gave up with a shrug and smirked. “Only if I think they’re not good enough for him.”

“Because that’s not overly controlling or anything…” Alec frowned.

“Hey, he’s my little brother. I just want to look out for him,” Geoff replied, his tone more than a little defensive.

“I get that, man. I feel the same way about Lu, but the thing is, I know he can take care of himself and,” Alec held up a hand when Geoff opened his mouth, “I trust him to come to me for help when he needs it. I mean, things might be a little different in your case - Lu came to us when he was a bit older, so we didn’t exactly grow up together like you guys. You still see Jon as that little kid you had to keep safe. But he’s not so little anymore - he can make his own decisions.”

“That’s what worries me,” Geoff muttered and Alec had to laugh. “Look, I love my brother but he doesn’t always have the best judge of character when it comes to friends, you know? They come and go and just leave him with a mess I have to clean up. I am the constant here.”

Alec cocked an eyebrow but he could see Geoff felt he had said too much and begin to clam up.

“Just...he has a habit of falling in with the wrong crowd.” Geoff shook his head, tossing his hair from his eyes. “Anyways, now that he’s gone there’s something I wanted to ask you.”

“Answer’s still no,” Alec replied, going along with the change of topic.

“Excuse me?”

“No, I still won’t have sex with you,” he explained. “I mean, if you want to do a striptease I guess I could watch…” He took a sip of his coffee and leaned back in the couch.

“I wasn’t going to say that,” Geoff protested.

“Sure…”

“Dude -” He stopped himself and shook his head with a sigh. “Yeah, I suppose I deserved that.”

“Just a bit. So what’s up?”

“Okay, so my brother’s going to South Africa next month and he’s invited me and Jon to come with him-”

“Hold it right there, man,” Alec interrupted before he could stop himself. Not that he would have tried that hard. “You chewed me out for going to India and you guys are going to freaking Africa? I mean, that’s fucking awesome and all but isn’t the whole continent one big shit-show?”

Geoff laughed. “You’re starting to sound like me.”

“Yeah, well you’re a bad influence, but I still call bullshit.”

“When did I say that we’d be doing a roadtrip through the countryside? If that were the case you may have had a point.”

“May have?”

“Well, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a rickshaw, I’m telling you that right now. Anyways, we’re going to Capetown and flying out for a few days at some of the game parks, it’s going to be great apparently.” He got up and padded over to the kitchen for yet another glass of wine. Seriously, where did he put it all? Alec noticed his coffee had started getting cold and followed.

“So, what do you want from me?”

“Jon doesn’t know yet and I figured it was a chance to have a little...fun.”

“Should I be scared?”

“Come on, it deserves...something. How often do you get to just tell someone ‘pack your things we’re going to Africa’?”

“Point,” Alec conceded.

“I thought about kidnapping him and driving him to the airport in the trunk, but then I’d have to pack all his stuff ahead of time so that’s a problem.”

“Yeah, otherwise what could go wrong?” Alec replied sarcastically as he topped up his coffee and placed it in the microwave. “Still, you’re thinking big and I’m digging it. Just steer clear of the whole potential trauma thing. Could be kind of a downer. Think you could rent an elephant?”

“Where exactly would I get an elephant?”

“I don’t know. You’re the rich kid with shady connections. You tell me. I’m just the ideas guy.”

“But something safari-themed could work,” Geoff agreed.

“Pick him up from school in one of those safari cars? A humvee?”

“That’s for the army. You mean a jeep, but yeah, I could probably rent that.”

“And you could dress up like Nigel from ‘The Wild Thornberrys!’” Alec went on, grinning madly at the idea of Geoff with the cartoon character’s giant orange mustache. The grin turned to outright laughter at Geoff’s expression.

“Let’s file that idea under ‘not fucking happening,’ okay?”

“You say that now...”

****

Jake Thayer was not one to worry overmuch about clothes at the best of times. So he knew he shouldn’t even be considering what looked best to wear to the gym. Let alone stressing about it as much as he was. It was just the gym. You wore clothes that let you move freely and that you didn’t mind getting sweaty. That’s it.

He knew all this, and yet was paralyzed at the choice between a red or white shirt.

It had been almost two months since he had started this arrangement. Two, then three, days a week, Jake met Jon Ellesier for martial arts practice at the local gym where he learned the basics of self defense as a slightly “watered down” as Jon called it, version of Tae-kwon-do. There was nothing watered down about the training however. After the first few sessions, it was clear there was more to it than simply learning to block and punch. He ran drills and laps in addition to sparring. It had to become a reflex, Jon explained, or whatever Jake knew would be next to useless in a real fight. He had been working hard to get in shape and lose weight before but the intense training was already showing greater results.

Which was just as well, since Jake was helping Jon improve his baking skills, a process that almost required gaining calories. One to two days a week they met up at either of their houses and proceeded to cover the kitchen in a layer of flour and cooking supplies. After the gym, it was a welcome change to turn the tables and be the teacher. For his part, Jon took to the role of student surprisingly well.

It wasn’t surprising then, that they had become fast friends and started hanging out beyond each “lesson.” Jon had begun to open up a little more about himself, though rarely answered a personal question directly and if he did it was the bare minimum. Instead, he would dole out information in bits and pieces, leaving Jake to put it together into a more complete picture of his friend. Anyone else, he would have lost patience and given up - if they wanted to be mysterious then let them - but for some reason he enjoyed trying to solve the puzzle that was Jon Ellesier.

Who was he kidding? He knew the reason. It was the same one that had him agonizing over what color workout shirt to wear. Over the last few weeks there had been a pleasant kind of tension between them - enough that Jake couldn’t dismiss it as wishful thinking on his part.

He glanced at the clock. Shit. It was at least a fifteen minute walk to the gym so he would have to leave now if he didn’t want to be late. With a deep breath, Jake grabbed the red shirt before he could over think it any more. Red for luck? Why not.

****

Jon dropped down and kicked out, sweeping Jake’s legs out from under him. His friend’s eyes widened before he caught himself, still wincing as his elbows hit the padded floor.

“Dammit!”

“You’re getting better, man. Seriously,” Jon grinned down at him, breathing hard, before extending a hand to help him up.

“Every time I think that, I end up flat on my ass,” he grumbled as he regained his feet. They stood facing each other for a moment, before Jake seemed to realize he was still clasping his hand and quickly let go.

“You were trying to watch too many things at once,” Jon explained. “Remember, focus on your opponent’s upper body,” he gestured to his head and shoulders, “they can’t do anything without moving it somehow so you’ll always have a clue what’s coming.”

Jake frowned. “That makes sense, but what if you can’t read their movements right? I mean, I don’t think I could predict your moves like that.”

Jon shrugged. “When you get down to it, that’s basically what fighting is - trying to read the other guy better than they read you. It takes practice. Second, don’t sell yourself short, you’re already getting it.” Seeing Jake’s skeptical expression, Jon smiled. “Look at me - my face.” He made to swing his fist at Jake in a right hook and his friend reflexively raised a hand to block it. “See? You were defending your left side before you even saw what I was doing. You read my movements.”

Jake grinned. An instant later he was flat on his back.

“But you can watch someone’s face a little too much,” Jon continued conversationally.

“Fucker!” Jake laughed as Jon pulled him up.

The two of them strolled to the edge of the training area and sat down with water bottles and towels. The gym was quiet aside from the hum of fans permeated by faint pop tunes.

“I’m seriously impressed though,” Jon commented, taking a swig from the bottle. Jake’s ears seemed to redden slightly, but that may have just been the exercise.

“I was pretty nervous in the beginning. Wondered if this might not have been such a great idea a few times when I saw how much I sucked.”

“Hey, everyone has to start somewhere,” Jon reminded him. “And you didn’t suck, you were just new - there’s a difference. You’ve come a long way in a pretty short time.”

“Well, the bar was set kind of low,” Jake groused. “But I’ve been taking private lessons and had a pretty good teacher.”

“Really?” Jon replied, playing along. “Personal lessons? How’d you afford that?”

“Turns out he had a hell of a sweet tooth. Bribed him with food and baking lessons.”v

“Can’t imagine a strung out sugar junkie could teach you much,” Jon smirked.

“Yeah, he actually knew a thing or two. Who’d have thought?”

“Ever think that maybe you were just a good student?”

“Might not have been as good a student for someone else,” Jake replied, what sounded like an edge of flirtation entering his voice. Jon cocked his head as he registered this and, against his better judgment, replied in kind.

“Oh? So this guy must have been really something,” he teased. “Probably damn sexy too.”

“Hey, I wouldn’t go that far.” Jake chewed his lip as he turned to face Jon, as if he were uncertain of his next words. “He’s still kind of nice to look at, though.”

There was something different in the way Jake was looking at him, the way he held eye contact, the intensity of his gaze that bespoke a serious question behind the flirting. Jon knew what his answer would be and that it would end their game, but hesitated to give it. A wicked, childish part of him enjoyed being the focus of such attention and wanted it to last just a little longer.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” he heard himself reply, surprising himself as much as Jake.

It was fun watching Jake’s face flush but Jon knew he had taken it too far. This was beginning to feel too much like leading him on. Jon held his friend’s stare for another few seconds, trying to find the words to explain, when he felt a warmth on his hand.

He looked down to see Jake had covered it with his own. They both stared at their joined hands for a moment and Jon realized he hadn’t moved. This should be awkward, he thought. I shoulds say something, get up to stretch, grab my water bottle - anything to break the connection.

So why aren’t I? That wasn’t hard to answer. It was a simple gesture but made him feel secure, comforted and cared about - like receiving a strong hug. Jon couldn’t help but smile.

That’s when Jake leaned in and kissed him.

His lips were soft, yet slick with sweat. It was really no different from kissing a girl, aside from the fact that he was less likely to be kissing girl at the gym after an intense workout. There was a familiar warmth in his chest as his heart beat faster - but it was weaker and he realized even as Jake pulled away that it was more the rush of being desired than the sweet, kind boy in front of him.

That had been expected. What hadn’t been was that a part of him was disappointed.

Almost as disappointed as the expression on Jake’s face as they held eye contact for a split second, before the spell was broken and he turned away to hurriedly gather his things.

“I’m sorry, that was a mistake. I don’t know what came over me-” the words spilled out. “I should go.”

“Wait-” the word had scarcely left his lips before Jake was halfway to the door. Jon rose and followed him. “Jake!” He darted into the hallway after his friend. There was no sign of him but he couldn’t have gone far. Jon hurried to the entrance to head him off.

****

Jake waited for the sound of Jon’s footsteps to fade away before stepping out of the restroom. He wasn’t sure what Jon wanted to say but he was too humiliated and disappointed to hear it right now. Cautiously, he made his way to the building’s rear exit.

****

After Alec left, Geoff returned to his room and flopped down on his bed with a contented sigh. That seemed to have gone alright, he reflected. As disappointing as it had been at first, he was glad Alec had turned him down. If they had hooked up earlier they likely wouldn’t be becoming friends now. He had been right, it was good to make some new friends - actual friends - who weren’t wrapped up in his drama. Vergil and Patrick were irreplaceable, they were family, but that was just it - everyone knew it was only healthy to have some friends outside your family. Yes, he had acquaintances, various types of “buddies” - drinking buddies, fuck buddies, whatever, but no one else he could simply be himself around, who he could trust in any meaningful sense. Surely there was some kind of middle ground - someone he could relax around without their knowing all the sordid details?

Apparently there was, he thought with a smile. It wasn’t a question of trust, not at all. There were simply some things that others didn’t need to know. Today had proved that - it had been like hanging with Vergil used to be…

Before he started finding out things Geoff had thought he didn’t need to know. He got up and crossed the room to his desk. It was a sleek two panel wood piece primarily for his computer, the keyboard on the lower level with the monitor situated above. However, at each corner between the wood panels was a tiny drawer, just large enough for small yet integral supplies such as paper clips, staples and post-it notes.

Geoff reached for the leftmost drawer, which had not been opened since the desk had been reassembled in this house. Inside was a small silver frame, holding a photo of a young man with short, bright red hair and deep green eyes. A slight, five o’clock shadow highlighting his strong jaw, combined with his serene smile, provided an air of maturity that made him seem older than he was.

Geoff drank in his appearance, as if refueling his memory with every detail. “You used to say I didn’t trust enough,” he spoke softly. “Then again, I never was very good at learning from my mistakes, was I, Dame?”

****

“Hey, you guys need any help-” Vergil froze at the doorway mid-sentence. Both Geoff and Damien stumbled backwards as they hastily separated, fixing hair and straightening jackets.

“Vergil! You’re...” Geoff began.

“We can explain-” Damien picked up.

“I, I think I get it, thanks,” Vergil stepped back through the door, looking away. Geoff and his boyfriend exchanged glances before turning back to face their friend.

“Verge, we were going to tell you,” Damien tried again.

“No, it’s whatever,” Vergil held up a hand, still refusing to make eye contact. “Obviously I didn’t need to know.” He took another step back and shut the door to Damien’s room, leaving his friends embarrassed and confused.

Silence reigned for a moment before Geoff made to follow him. Damien put a hand on his shoulder. “Wait. He needs a little time.” Geoff wasn’t so sure. Something like this had to be dealt with as soon as possible, not left for Vergil to stew over, whatever his problem with it may be. His thoughts must have been clear in his expression because Damien merely shook his head. “We fucked up on this, Geoff. He has to process this before we can explain.”

“So we just let him go?” Geoff demanded.

“Right now he won’t listen.”

“Then I’ll go and make him listen,” he snarled.

“That’ll just make it worse. You know that,” Damien took him by both shoulders. Geoff regarded him for a moment, hating the fact that he was right. He shook off his boyfriend’s hands and turned away with a frustrated growl.

“This is a goddamn mess.” The sense of powerlessness gnawed at his insides with teeth of fear and impatience. Compounding this was the fact he simply didn’t understand Vergil’s reaction, being nothing like what he had planned for. Surprise? Definitely. Anger? Maybe a little. Confusion? Disbelief? He had even been prepared for a small dose of homophobia. Though Vergil had never given any sign of it, acceptance was a different thing when it involved those closest to you, manifesting as asinine responses of “You’re really gay?” or “but you both seem straight…”

“He just found out in the worst possible way,” Damien explained reasonably. “Think about it, he just found out two of his best friends are gay and together. People get pissed when you lie to them about just one of those things. If they get both you need to give them space.”

“He looked...sad,” Geoff commented, half to himself. More than anything else, he seemed hurt, which Geoff couldn’t understand. This had nothing to do with him - in fact it wasn’t even his business! The fact they were going to share it with him at all was - A frightening thought froze him in his tracks and he whirled around. “What if he outs us?”

Damien biting his lip with uncertainty was all the confirmation he needed. He turned and darted to the door before his boyfriend’s voice stopped him.

“He won’t.”

“We can’t risk it. Not when he’s like this.”

“So what’re you going to do?” Damien challenged.

Geoff paused again, hand on the door knob. “I just want to talk to him. That’s all.” The words sounded weak even to him.

“Bullshit,” Damien spat, finally losing patience. “If you go after him now, you’ll lose him. We will lose him.” His voice softened to a pleading note. “Please. Don’t do this.”

“Dame, we’re sophomores! It’s not like we’re graduating at the end of year. If this gets out we’re stuck with it for another two and a half years. I don’t know if we can get through that.”

“He won’t do that. And even if he does...we’ll deal with it - together.”

That was just it, but Geoff couldn’t find the words to explain. They would face it together and he was afraid what they had between them wouldn’t survive it. He had promised himself he would not screw this up and he would see the world burn before he let anyone else come between them.

“I have to protect us,” Geoff wondering if Damien would catch the double meaning of “us”. “Whatever it takes.”

“No. Not whatever it takes. There have to be some things we won’t give up - otherwise what’s the point of there being an ‘us’ if we’ve lost everything else? We have to draw the line somewhere.”

“And then what?” Geoff snapped. “What about if we get to that line? We just give up?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Damien backtracked. “I’m just saying that this happened because we didn’t trust Vergil in the first place. The best thing to do is trust him now.”

****

Trust. He loved Vergil as much as a part of himself, yet when he had agreed that day to wait it out, it had not been so much trusting Vergil’s discretion as it had been Damien’s intuition. If he had trusted him just a bit more - told him the truth before that night - perhaps things would have turned out differently. Maybe he would be here today.

****

The car was in the driveway and a few lights could be seen on the ground level. He was home. Geoff parked in the driveway at a haphazard angle but was in too much of a hurry to notice, let alone care. He opened the door before the car even stopped moving and pounded up the front steps. Reaching the door, he stopped and cursed before running back down the steps to dig in the flowerbed beside the door. Returning a few moments later, he fumbled with the spare key, acutely aware of each passing second, before finally flinging open the door.

The house was silent. A single light could be seen at the end of the hallway. The kitchen. For the first time, Geoff paused. He had found him, now what? What was he going to say to him?

Probably something he should have considered on the way over.

He steeled himself and started down the hall in the dark. He knew this house as well as he knew his own, he could navigate it in his sleep. He just had to hope that Damien hadn’t done anything that couldn’t be undone.

His boyfriend was staring out the window with his back to the entryway, the darkness outside allowing for a near mirror-quality reflection. A bottle of wine and a half-drunk glass stood on the counter.

“Is it true?” Damien’s voice was flat.

“I can explain-”

“It’s a yes or no question, Geoff.”

Geoff paused a beat. He took a breath - “Yes.”

Damien’s shoulders visibly slumped even as he gave a dry chuckle. “Just when you think you know a guy.” He turned around shaking his head. “You know how they say that people our age can’t fall in love? We’re too young, it’s too soon, we don’t know what it means and all that shit. But you’d think four years is long enough to have a pretty good idea. You’d be confident you knew who someone was, what kind of person they were.” He picked up the glass and drained it. “So try to imagine what it feels like, when you learn something that makes the whole thing fall apart.” He focused on Geoff, as if seeing him clearly for the first time, and his voice seemed to crack. “When you realize this idea you’ve built of them - isn’t them. Now I have to ask - do I even know you at all?”

“Better than you even realize, Dame,” Geoff replied. He risked a hesitant step forward, crossing the threshold into the kitchen.

Damien shook his head as he took a corresponding step back. “I’m not so sure. I never thought you capable of murder.”

“I didn’t kill anyone!” Geoff exclaimed through gritted teeth. Seeing his boyfriend afraid of him was an alien feeling, coiled in his chest like a viper, an unsettling, cold sensation that only served to fuel his frustration.

“You know what I mean!” Damien shot back. “You helped him-”

“I protected my family!”

“You protected a murderer for four years. Jesus fucking Christ,” Damien leaned against the counter to steady himself. “Ever since I met you - you knew the whole time?”

“Dame, he had no choice...”

Damien interrupted by hurling his wine glass at the kitchen table, shattering it. “For fuck’s sake, Geoff, I heard you last night, remember?”

“You didn’t know them,” Geoff replied hotly.

“I know that lots of people have issues with their parents. They don’t become killers.”

“Don’t call him that!”

“Then what would you call him, Geoff?”

“My brother.” Silence stretched out between them, broken only by the hum of the air conditioner.

Damien seemed to deflate slightly. “Why didn't you tell me?”

“Would it have changed anything?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? If I had heard it from you…”

“And when could I have done that? When’s the best time to clean the skeletons out of your closet? Prom night? Graduation? College? Once we’re married with two kids and a dog? I thought it would be better to move past it.”

“Does Jon know? Is he ‘past it’?” he asked, repeating Geoff’s words with acidic derision.

“He’s...recovered.”

“Does he know?”

Geoff closed his eyes for a moment. “No,” he replied finally. “He doesn’t.”

Damien turned away, crossing his arms and began to slowly pace. “He spent almost a month in a mental hospital because of what you did. And before you say anything, yes, I am holding you both responsible. You’re what they call an accessory, Geoff.”

Geoff looked away, meeting his own gaze in his reflection on the glass cabinet beside him. He couldn’t help but notice he looked guilty as sin. “That- that was the worst part of it. Hurting Jon. I would have given anything,” he felt his voice catch briefly, “to spare him that.” He felt Damien’s eyes on him and he looked up to meet them. He knew a part of Damien understood - the part that could always know when he was lying and when he was sincere. The part that knew him, even as the rest of him questioned it.

“Why? What am I missing here? This is Richard we’re talking about, what would drive him to do something like this?”

“Richard did it- he,” Geoff fumbled for the right words, “he did it to save us.”

“To save you,” Damien repeated. “Save you how? You’ve only ever told me that they were horrible to you and Richard. It definitely sounds like they were abusive but you’ve never given me much to work with. What was going on? Explain it to me, Geoff.”

“He - they,” Geoff felt his mouth open and close as his words continued to fail him. He would have to explain everything, he knew that. Where to begin? The first punch? The first time he blacked out? That time he ran off into the woods? Each time, the words died on his lips.

He could see Damien watching him struggle to find his voice, even now giving him a chance to explain himself, waiting patiently. That this boy, this man, could still give him the benefit of the doubt, even in some small way, was amazing and made Geoff’s heart simultaneously break and swell.

“They would have destroyed us - ruined us - as people. Everything they touched just...rotted. Growing up with them, the kind of people we would have been…” Geoff shook his head. “That night - Richard was protecting me. Henry and I were fighting.” The memories flooded back and he felt his throat begin to close up, as if he were drowning beneath them. He stumbled forward and leaned against the kitchen table for support. Damien moved to his side, instinctively placing his hand on Geoff’s shoulder. “It was worse this time though. Henry just...wouldn’t stop. I thought I was going to die. Then…”

“Richard. He saved you,” Damien completed his thought.

“Yeah. Yeah, he did.” Geoff took a gulp of air and steadied himself. Damien gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze.

“What about your mom?” he asked after a few moments.

Geoff felt his hand curl into a fist on the table. “She came in around then - only because she heard the gunshots though. Probably heard the whole thing - she would have ignored all of it.” He took comfort in the familiar anger - it could always be counted onto take the fear away, however briefly.

“And he murdered her too?” Something in Damien’s tone made Geoff look up.

“He had to. She would have killed us both.” He unsuccessfully tried to suppress a shudder as her enraged screams and curses echoed in his ears.

“Why didn’t you go to the police? Afterward?” his boyfriend asked. “It was self-defense essentially, even if your mom didn’t back you up.”

Geoff shook his head vehemently. How could he suggest that? “No! They would have separated us. We had to stay together. We couldn’t risk it.”

“Did Richard tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to. I could see it for myself,” Geoff snapped, feeling the heat rise in his chest at what Damien implied about Richard’s motivations. He desperately fought back the anger, telling himself the question wasn’t meant maliciously. Damien didn’t have all the facts yet. He just had to make him understand…

“Geoff…” Damien began, “What you went through growing up, I can’t imagine but-”

“You don’t believe me,” Geoff blurted and Damien froze.

“No, it’s not that,” he protested, “I believe everything you said. I trust you, just not-”

“Tell me this isn’t about Richard!” Geoff snarled. “You’ve never liked him and I don’t understand-”

“Neither did I but a double murder sure as hell isn’t helping” Damien shouted back. “I’m scared, Geoff. For both of us.”

Geoff took a deep breath. “I get it, I’m sorry. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you-”

“What about you though?”

“I’m fine. Richard made sure-” He realized it was a mistake the instant the words left his mouth.

“That he wouldn’t go to jail!” Damien exploded. “He saved you but took advantage of it os you’d help him get away with it. How can you not see that?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Geoff shook his head as much in disagreement as to clear the red haze that was creeping at the edges of his vision. “You don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“I know I’m talking about a person who killed two people. Geoff, once someone does something like that, they’re different. I’m begging you to look at this objectively-”

“Stop talking, Damien,” Geoff growled. The barely suppressed rage was bubbling under his skin, suffusing his body with a tingling heat that radiated from his pounding heart, as much from fear as anger. Fear of the rage he was feeling at Damien’s words. Fear of what that rage could make him do.

“If he decides you’re a liability-”

“Shut up!” Geoff roared.

****

“Richard? There’s a Mr. Ellesier here to see you.” Richard looked up from his desk in confusion. What was so wrong that either of his brothers needed to come all the way into Binghamton instead of calling?

“Thanks, Josh. Send him in.” The intern nodded and departed to fetch his brother as Richard swiveled around to grab his jacket, cursing himself for coming into the office today of all days. He had known he should have worked from home but Geoffrey had insisted he was fine. Donning his jacket, his back was to the door when he heard it open again. “What’s wrong? Why didn’t you call-” Richard froze.

“Would you have answered?” Standing at the door was a man in his late thirties, with a full head of dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, just beginning to show the slightest hint of grey. His emerald green eyes glittered with intelligence and humor, giving him a powerful air of charisma. He looked every inch a good man, an honorable man, who would look you in the eye while giving you a firm handshake.

As far as Richard was concerned, he was also an illustrative example of the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“Hello, Michael.” Richard smiled with his mouth alone. “This is certainly a surprise.”

“Jeremy is looking at colleges, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to see my nephews. Sorry if I gave you a bit of a scare.”

Richard took off his jacket and resumed his seat, watching his uncle warily. “So where is your ward now?”

“My son is doing an overnight stay at Bard for prospective freshmen.” Michael settled into an office chair. “The college search is no picnic, is it? So important to find the right fit, but I expect I don’t have to tell that to you of all people.” Richard leaned back, arms crossed to conceal his clenched fists. “How is Geoffrey, by the way?” Michael continued innocently.

“Fully recovered, thank you.”

“And the other boys?”

“Less so,” Richard allowed himself a small smile.

“He always did have a temper,” Michael commented.

“Yes, because a vicious assault by a group usually elicits such a calm and measured response.”

“You’re right. That was unfair of me. I’m sorry-” Michael began to apologize before Richard cut him off.

“Yes, yes of course,” he made a dismissive gesture, already feeling himself tire of family small talk and eager to move on to the heart of the matter. Though he had to credit the man for his acting ability - his uncle’s regret had almost seemed genuine. “Obviously I wish Jeremy the best but you still have not answered my question. Why are you here, Michael?” The question was delivered with a quiet force that while not shattering the facade of civility, certainly cracked it. Michael watched him for a few moments before responding.

“In a way, exactly what I said, I wanted to check in on my nephews. For most families that’s enough.”

“For most families, yes,” Richard agreed. He could tell Michael was waiting for him to continue but he stayed resolutely silent. Whatever their uncle had come to say, Richard refused to make it any easier for him. Michael seemed to realize this and took a deep breath before continuing.

“The last five years have been hard on all of us. In the aftermath of Henry and Eleanor’s passing, I said - and did - things that I regret.”

“I feel I could have handled a few things better myself,” Richard commented unthinkingly, remembering his conversation with Damon, the young man who had pulled Jon from the car wreck, regarding his laissez-faire approach to Geoffrey and Jonathan. He surprised himself as well as Michael, who glanced at him inquisitively. Richard looked away.

“You and I, we can never be made right,” Michael admitted. “I understand that. But that doesn’t mean we have to be enemies.”

****

The kitchen was silent except of for his sobs and the hum of the air conditioner.

Geoff cradled Damien in his arms, still searching for some sign of life through vision blurred by tears.

“Please, please. I’m so sorry - just wake up…” He was speaking nonsense, he knew, but it hardly mattered. Nothing mattered now. It couldn’t end like this. They had a future, a whole life together in front of them, only to have it disappear in the space of a few seconds.

Geoff couldn’t quite understand how it happened. The rage had descended in a red haze and he had lunged - what had he meant to do? Grab him? Shake him? Hit him? He wasn’t sure. Damien had sidestepped him, Geoff had spun around to grab him, had felt his elbow connect with something - and Damien had fallen back against the counter.

He shut his eyes and clutched his boyfriend to him tighter but that last image was seared into the back of his eyelids. Damien’s head connecting with the edge of the countertop and slumping down - those two seconds playing on an infinite loop in his mind’s eye, that awful crack ringing in his ears.

Geoff couldn’t say how long he sat there staring into Damien’s unseeing eyes. Waiting for them to blink or to wake up from this horrible dream, he didn’t know.

What did he do now? What would happen? He didn’t know. Contemplating even the next few minutes was overwhelming. Confess? Go to jail? A part of him wanted to. He didn’t deserve a future and it was pointless anyways without Damien to share it with.

No. He couldn’t do that to Richard and Jon. They needed him and Michael would no doubt find a way to use this to paint Richard as an unsuitable guardian…

Geoff already knew he would be found out. It was impossible to hide this in his state. Fresh sobs still shot through his chest every couple of minutes, crying both for what had been and never would be. He was in no condition to hide a murder - because that was what it was, the icy realization stopping him cold.

He was a murderer.

And there would be evidence, somewhere, no matter what he did. Unless… There was no evidence? It was a mad plan but the only way to be sure.

Holding Damien for a few more minutes, Geoff ran over the particulars, before standing up and dragging his boyfriend to the living room. Gently laying him on the couch, he closed Damien’s eyes before kneeling beside him and depositing a last, soft kiss on his lips. Fetching the bottle from the counter and a fresh glass from the kitchen cupboard, he returned to the living room. Filling the glass about halfway, he dropped it to the floor, letting it spill over the living room carpet and placed the bottle on the side table. Stepping back to view his work, he nodded to himself. Though it may have been overkill, he couldn’t be certain how much of the scene could be reconstructed afterwards. As it was, it looked as if Damien had fallen into a drunken torpor. He looked so peaceful.

Next, Geoff entered the garage. A brief search was enough to find the gasoline which he brought back to the kitchen, splashing it liberally over the stove, floor and any wooden surface he could find.

Taking what he needed from a drawer by the sink, he left the kitchen and ascended the stairs two at a time. Upon reaching Damien’s room he stripped off his T-shirt, stained with blood from where his boyfriend’s head had rested and, after a moment’s thought, shed his jeans too. They still smelled of gasoline. Opening the dresser’s third drawer, he donned the fresh shirt and pants from the cache they both kept at each other’s houses.

Geoff stopped at the doorway to gaze about the room for the last time in a silent goodbye, taking in every detail. The unmade bed, the Star Wars posters on the wall, the computer desk cluttered with papers, notebooks and college pamphlets, with multi-colored post-it notes stuck to the monitor. The acceptance letter from Cornell sat on the seat of the swivel chair, probably having been tossed there this morning as Damien rifled through the papers on the desk.

The dark wood bookcases brimmed with books belonging to both of them. They often borrowed from each other but rarely bothered to ask for them back. After all, they knew where they were. A few of the shelves displayed model dinosaur skeletons, some of the particularly fancy ones left over from elementary and middle school, too elaborate to be discarded.

His chest clenched. The room was saturated with personality, with soul and memories, to become so much more.

“Goodbye, Damien,” he whispered before shutting the door behind him.

Now came the last step. Geoff stopped by Damien one more time and ran his hand through that bright red hair. A part of him felt guilty that his lover’s parents would never know the truth but it couldn’t be helped.

Entering the kitchen once more, he took out the matchbox he’d taken earlier. Lighting a single match, Geoff paused at the threshold for another moment, where he had stood facing Damien just over an hour ago. That felt like a different life now.

With a deep breath, he tossed the match as far as he could and left the room.

****

Geoff found himself sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against the bedframe. He had been standing in front of his desk - when had he sat down? He caught sight of the silver picture frame lying face down a few feet away from him. His chest felt constricted, as if an iron ring three sizes too small had been placed around his ribcage. His vision was blurred and cheeks felt wet.

Deep breaths. Just memories. He should have known better than to take out the photo but it had been a moment of weakness. What was the point of knowing your triggers if you actively sought them out? Geoff took another minute to collect himself before grabbing the picture frame and scrambling to his feet. With barely a glance, he swiftly deposited it back in its drawer as if it burned to touch and fled the room.

****

“Michael, I have never considered you an ‘enemy,’” Richard lied. “An obstacle? Yes. A damned nuisance? Absolutely. But ‘enemy’ is just too dramatic.”

His uncle laughed mirthlessly. “You don’t have to pretend. I suggested you as a suspect in your parents’ murders. If that doesn’t earn me ‘enemy’ status, I don’t know what does.”

“So what exactly would this lack of hostilities entail?” Richard asked. “Somehow I can’t imagine you would approach me only to offer your approximation of an apology and a ceasefire.”

“Besides the possibility of some kind of relationship with my only living relatives?” Michael asked. Richard simply waited. His uncle sighed. “I mentioned Jeremy was at Bard. He’s been accepted and his mind is pretty much made up at this point so next fall he will be more in your neighborhood than mine.”

“And since you can’t give him a good reason to not go, you’ve come to extend an olive branch instead. A sweet gesture but unnecessary,” Richard steepled his fingers. “He could have started school here and we would never have known.” This was not, strictly speaking, true thanks to the wonders of Facebook but it came to the same thing. For the last couple years, Michael and his nephews had been content to ignore each other.

“And I want to change that. You’re all growing up. Soon Jon will be in college and he and Geoff will be solidly on their way to adulthood. I want to be there for them, you’re my brother’s sons, I can’t just ignore that.” When Richard remained silent, Michael nodded. “I can’t expect you to answer that right away. Just please think on it.” With that, his uncle rose and saw himself to the door. Upon reaching it he turned around to leave Richard with a final thought. “Henry was not exactly cut out to be a parent and neither was Eleanor. I see that now and I think he did too. But you should know that he wished they could have done right by you. All of you. I think that should count for something.”

He closed the door behind him leaving Richard alone with his thoughts and worse, his memories.

****

“Faster, Scotty!” Jon demanded.

“I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain!” Richard replied, wheeling the cart down the aisle. He expertly hopped on the back of the cart as the momentum reached its peak and they flew past the canned soup display on their makeshift Enterprise. “Engaging warp speed!” he declared, much to the delight of the squealing four year old in the cart’s child-seat.

“Richie, watch out!” his little brother yelled, seeing they were headed straight for the frozen food counter.

“Have I ever let you down?” Richard asked as he dropped his heel and the cart ground to a halt with a screech of rubber.

“No,” the little boy answered happily.

“Exactly.” Richard’s smugness evaporated when a sharp pain shot up his neck from his collar bone.

“Richard?” The voice in his ear was calm but the fury was no less palpable. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, Mom...we were just playing…”

His mother further tightened her grip and Richard whimpered. “Really? Because it looked like you were being dangerously careless with your little brother’s safety.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll-” He was cut off as the pressure briefly increased.

“No talking. Just listening.” She relaxed her hold but kept her hand on his shoulder. “I have a very busy week coming up and literally a million better things to do than grocery shopping. I do not need you adding to it by causing an accident in the supermarket. Are we clear?”

“Yea-” The fingers on his shoulder twitched and Richard promptly shut his mouth and merely nodded.

“Good. We’ll continue this conversation later.” He felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach at these words even as his mother released him with a pat on the back. “Now, go grab some spinach from the frozen food section while you’re here. Jon, it’s time to come back to the other cart, sweetie.”

****

The branches scratched and ripped at his clothes. These pants were definitely not made for tearing through the woods in the dark. Or any time for that matter. His jacket was hardly faring any better but he couldn’t afford to slow down. Richard cursed himself for seven kinds of fool for not having put it together sooner. He had been too focused on work to notice what was happening. He should never have left. Damn his father, too, with his pathetic daddy issues. And his mother! She at least should have known better. Damn the both of them. He leapt over a fallen tree and slowed his pace, recognizing the landmark. He was close.

Even in the dark, it was only a few minutes of searching before he found what he was looking for. Several long sticks had been laid against an embankment a few feet below him, creating a rudimentary shelter. He was just in time to see a light go out inside.

There was scuffling noise and a figure darted out from the lean-to, headed deeper into the woods.

“Geoff, stop!”

His brother stumbled as he glanced over his shoulder and then Richard was on him.

“Let go!”

“Geoffrey, wait,” he commanded, maintaining his grip on Geoff’s arm. The younger boy jerked and twisted like a trapped animal before his fist lashed out toward Richard’s face. He batted it aside and swiftly pinned Geoff against a tree. “Listen to me.”

Geoff stopped struggling for a moment, breathing hard, and met his gaze.

“I know how you feel but you can’t run away like this. Where will you go?”

“You don’t know fuck about how I feel,” Geoff snarled. “Anywhere’s better than here.”

“I know more than you think,” Richard replied calmly even as he made sure not to relax his grip as Geoff thrashed again.

“I won’t go back. I won’t!”

“I won’t let him...”

“You heard him! Says how he only has two sons but has to pay for three. I’m not going to stick around and wait for him to-”

“He’s not going to do anything like that. Mum won’t let-” Richard tried again.

“You know she doesn’t give a fuck!” his little brother screamed. With that last outburst he broke down in tears, sobbing quietly as he sunk to the ground. Richard kneeled down to his level and pulled him into a tight hug. Hearing and feeling his brother crying into his chest, he said the only thing he could think of.

“It’s going to be alright. Come home now. Everything will feel better in the morning.”

“I can’t.” Geoff’s voice was muffled, his face still buried in Richard’s shirt.

“Yes, you can, Geoffrey. You can’t let him drive you out of the house like this,” he insisted, hating himself for playing on his brother’s pride. “You can’t let him win.”

“I don’t care. I can’t stay in that house.”

“I’ll be with you. No one’s going to hurt you.”

“What about when you’re not here?” Geoff challenged. Richard’s conscience echoed the question.

He made a decision in less than a moment. “Well, I’m going to be around a lot more now.”

Geoff leaned back to look up at him. “What do you mean?”

“I’m moving back home,” Richard explained, taking the opportunity to briefly extricate himself then ease into a more comfortable position of leaning against the tree like Geoff. Those twigs and pinecones had really begun to dig into his knees.

“What? But you love Cambridge! What about your work?” Geoff exclaimed. Richard shrugged in response.

“It’s only a town. Anyways, all of my work was remote,” he explained logically as if he had been planning this for some time. “Doesn’t matter where I’m living so might as well save some money too. Looks like you’re stuck with me.” Geoff turned to look at him and he could see the boy’s mind working. At thirteen he had already developed the famous teenage bullshit detector - or maybe that was a family trait. After a moment, he merely rested his head on Richard’s shoulder.

“I’d love that. But I don’t want you to come back just for me. You don’t have to-”

“No, I don’t. But I want to.” He put his arm around Geoff’s shoulder and squeezed. “Now come on,” he began getting to his feet, “Let’s go home. Jon’s been asking after you.”

“Brody?” He turned at the nickname to look back at his little brother. The moonlight seemed to hit him at just the right angle where he sat, illuminating his tear-streaked face. The light reflected in his eyes, almost like an animal. His oddly bright eyes, along with his tangled, curly hair and hunched, defensive posture, gave him an almost bestial, feral appearance.

“Is it always going to be like this?” His voice was soft and plaintive.

“No. I meant it when I said everything’s going to be alright. It will get better,” Richard assured him. “I promise,” he added with far more confidence than he felt.

“How can you be so sure?”

Richard cracked a tiny smile. “Have I ever let you down?”

****

“Geoff!” Jon burst through the door and strode into the entrance hall as he repeated the summons. “I need the car!” He inhaled for another shout before hearing a door open upstairs in response. His brother appeared on the stairs above him.

“Why? You’re still not allowed to drive,” he asked curiously.

“Geoff, please, it’s an emergency. Give me the keys.”

His brother frowned. “What kind of emergency? Where do you need to go?”

“To see a friend.” As worried as he was about Jake, a part of him still chafed at appealing to Geoff as his brother literally looked down on him.

“Oh, that kind of emergency. Yeah, no. I can drive you over in a few minutes if you want though.”

“It’s something I need to do alone. Please.” Jon realized too late how it could be interpreted. Geoff smirked.

“Right, a ‘friend.’ Can’t let chicks see you get dropped off by your big brother, can you?” He shook his head as Jon gritted his teeth in frustration. “I’m sorry. I feel you, man, but I still can’t give you the car. Even for sex.”

“It’s not… Look, I fucked up and I need to make it right, okay?” Something in Jon’s tone must have gotten through because Geoff cocked his head. “If that means you driving me, I’ll do it.” He would have preferred the independence but he was willing to put aside his pride if it meant not wasting any more time.

For a minute, Geoff was silent. “Wait here,” he commanded and stalked back up the stairs to his room. Jon was about to call out that he needed to take a shower before they left when he heard a jingle of metal and reflexively put his hand out to catch a set of keys. Geoff was leaning against the banister with a crooked smile. “This stays between us, alright? And bring some milk back too. We’re on our last one.”

Jon grinned. “You got it. Thanks, Geoff.”

“Get out of here.”

****

There was knock on the door. Jake considered ignoring it. Jon had called three times since he left the gym and left two voicemails, apologizing and asking Jake to call him, so he had an idea of who it might be. He just wasn’t ready to listen to the “I like you but not that way” speech yet.

But it would probably suck either way, so why not now?

It was indeed Jon outside. His hair was slightly damp and still gave off a faint scent of shampoo from the post-gym shower. As Jake’s had already completely dried, it occurred to him that Jon must have practically stepped out of the shower and into the car to get here as soon as he did. He held a coffee from Perk’s in each hand.

“Hey,” he said nervously.

“Hey,” Jake replied. Well, might as well say it. “I’m sorry-” He began, stopping when Jon started to say the same thing.

Jon smiled weakly. “Yeah, it’s a little more complicated than you think. Can I come in?”

Jake stepped aside before leading him to the kitchen. The two settled at the table, just as they had the first day they met, Jake observed. He was just as nervous now as he had been then, if more confused. This was not going according to his mental script.

“So...complicated how?”

“First off,” Jon began, “this is more my fault than anything else. Again, I’m sorry.”

Off script again and we’re officially into improv, Jake thought. “What do you mean?” he asked aloud.

“I...Christ, this is weird. Not you,” he hastily added, seeing Jake’s face, “I mean explaining this.”

“I just read things wrong. That’s not exactly your fault,” Jake commented, realizing he had indirectly outed himself in saying that. Hell, I kissed the guy, he thought, if that didn‘t give it away, I don’t know what would.

“It kind of is. Thing is, I think I might have - I did lead you on. I didn’t mean to - not completely,” Jon continued his halting explanation. “I sort of figured you were interested in me so I flirted back a little…”

“Wait, you knew I was gay? How long?” Jake interrupted.

“I didn’t exactly know that. Just that you were into me and...it was nice.”

“Nice?” Jake repeated.

“Like it felt good, you know? So it got me...curious.”

Jake sighed. Could this be more cliched? Aloud, he replied, “You could have just said. Why did you string me along like that?”

“I didn’t mean to, for what it’s worth. And it wasn’t just being curious about guys. That wasn’t even the most important thing. It was...” Jon sighed and ran his hand through his hair.

Jake wanted to be angry. A part of him definitely was. Whatever his reasons, Jon had been aware of Jake’s feelings and even let him believe he might feel the same way.

“It was what?” he asked, surprised at how calm his voice sounded.

“You, alright? I can literally count on one hand the people who have liked me for me. Who actually took the time to get to know me as a person, who wanted to be with me cause they just enjoyed my company, not for what it could do for them. I didn’t want that to end.”

“Why would it - wait, you thought I’d only stick around if I was interested in you?” Jake asked incredulously. “Dude, you said it yourself - I’m here because I like hanging out with you. Everything else came later. Sure, we taught each other stuff but that’s just how it started. Did you seriously think I was that shallow? I’m not mad because you’re not into me, I’m mad because you weren’t honest about it.”

“I know.” Jon stared down at his coffee. “I was still trying to get my head around it myself. I didn’t realize how much I wanted it to work. It felt like we were good together, you know? So I thought, why not give it a shot? I didn’t think of your feelings though and that wasn’t cool. I’m sorry.”

“If by ‘it’ you mean ‘us’ then your idea of giving it a shot is pretty lame,” Jake commented. He knew this was difficult for Jon but he was through playing games. If you didn’t call people like Jon on their bullshit they would walk all over you even if they didn’t mean to. He was going to have all the facts this time and he wasn’t going to be turned back by puppy dog eyes. “So where does that leave us? What are you saying?”

Jon shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m saying…,” he paused a moment and swallowed, “That you’re awesome and I hope that you still want to be friends. That I fucked up by not being honest and I want to make it up to you.”

An uncomfortable silence descended on the table as both boys recovered from the act of sharing their feelings. After a couple minutes, Jake had to ask.

“So, it’s not going to be weird for you that I like you?”

Jon sighed. “No. At least not for me. I thought that would be pretty obvious by now.”

“Nothing’s really obvious with you though.”

Jon winced. “Guess I deserved that. Look, I understand that you’re pissed. I would be too if I were you. I’m just asking for another chance.”

After a moment, Jake looked away. “You know it hurts.”

“Yeah,” Jon whispered.

“And you’re here anyways.”

“Guess so. Wonder what that says about me, huh?”

“That you’re an arrogant jerk used to getting his own way?”

“You let me in,” Jon retorted with what Jake had begun to recognize as false bravado. “What does that say about you then?”

Jake shook his head. “Still trying to figure that out.”

“Well, while we both figure that out, no reason we can’t be friends.”

“Wait, that’s not how this works...”

Jon smirked. “How what works? Last I checked there weren’t any rules.”

“It’s not about rules. It’s about feeling comfortable, being on the same page,” Jake floundered before he found the word he was looking for. “It’s about trust.”

“But I’m not asking you to trust me just yet,” Jon countered. “I’m asking for a chance to earn it back.”

“Why should I give you another chance?” Jake challenged.

“Same reason you gave me the first?”

“And that would be?”

“You know, I’m not sure. You tell me.”

Jake had to fight the urge to throw his coffee at him. Instead, he took a deep breath before replying verbally rather than physically.

“You know what? Fine. I gave you a chance because aside from a few people, I was pretty much alone. I needed friends. People were just starting to notice the new me but it didn’t feel right. It was shallow - now that I wasn’t a fucking tub of lard they didn’t mind being seen talking to me. You? Well, you’d probably be the same way,” he took a dark satisfaction in seeing Jon wince, “but at least it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. You didn’t know me before. It was a clean slate where I wouldn’t keep being reminded of how goddamn superficial people are.” Jake could hear his own voice rising and paused to take a breath. “Talking to you was easy,” he continued. “There was some kind of-”

“Connection?” Jon supplied.

“Shut up. And, well, the thing with Mullins didn’t hurt. Not a lot of people would have done that for someone they just met.” Jake locked eyes with Jon once more. “Now I have a question for you,” he went on more quietly. “Why are you doing this? Trying so hard?” Jon shifted in his chair and Jake could see he had struck a nerve. “You’re the kind of guy who makes friends easily. You have ‘popular kid’ written all over you - if you had met me before I bet you’d be leading the way in making my life a living hell. Are you just that bothered that someone might not think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread?”

Jon ran his hand through his hair. “Jesus, man. I… You…” He shook his head in frustration. “Why are you making this so hard?” he snapped.

“Dude, you made it hard when you…” Jake almost said “led me on” but something made him soften the retort. “Started this,” he gestured vaguely between them instead.

Jon gritted his teeth but didn’t object. “When I told you you were different I also meant as a friend. Those guys from school, the basketball team or whatever, they’re nice enough but they’re not exactly deep thinkers, you know?”

“You could say that,” Jake commented.

“You and I, we hit it off right away. That day I missed the bus and we hung out. It felt more...real, I guess. Me and the other guys, it’s more casual. Like, I wouldn’t go to them for help or if I was feeling down about something, or talk about personal stuff like we do. They wouldn’t tell me when I’m being an arrogant jerk,” Jon added with a smile.

Jake couldn’t help but crack a smile in return. “Also sounds like you can’t go to them for cooking lessons.”

“That too…”

When he first met Jon, he had the impression of a white picket fence - a pleasant but clear boundary to keep others at arm’s length. Jon had begun to open up somewhat over the last month but this was the first time it felt as if part of the fence might actually be coming down.

“Alright. As long as you promise to be straight with me. No pun intended. Okay, maybe a little intended,” he added when Jon quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Well,” Jon sat back with a wicked grin, “I think we both know what needs to be done.”

“What…”

“Find you a boyfriend.”

“Please don’t…” Jake groaned. Matchmaking advice from his confused straight friend was the last thing his love life- or lack thereof - needed right now.

“Fine, we’ll shelve that for now.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you say we head back to my place and play some games?” A strange uncertainty flitted across Jon’s face when he mentioned his house.

“Sounds good.” Jake pushed the chair back to stand.

“One thing - we’ll have to go in the back door.”

Jake raised an eyebrow but shrugged. Nothing was ever simple with this guy...

****

Richard opened the door to the sound of carnage.

“Geoffrey, turn down the volume!” he yelled in the general direction of the living room.

“What?” came the answering cry before the video game sound effects lessened.

Storing his shoes in the hall, Richard entered the living room to find Geoffrey sprawled across the couch like a great cat, clutching a controller while a red clad figure danced about on screen, tearing through scores of enemies.

“Lords of Shadow 2,” Richard observed. “You haven’t played that in ages.”

“Correction: You haven’t seen me play it in ages. I play it every now and again.” Geoff glanced sideways at him without moving his head.

“Right.” Richard settled into a nearby chair to watch the game. “What made you break it out today? Feeling nostalgic?”

“Do I need a reason to play one of my games?” Geoff replied tartly.

“Of course not,” Richard agreed. For a few minutes the only noise was the game’s gothic musical score and the clicking of buttons and joysticks.

“Remember when this game was announced?” Richard asked. “Damien came running into the kitchen waving a magazine and startled us both half to death. The two of you waited in line at the store on release day with coffee and croissants.” He shook his head with a smile. “I couldn’t believe you made a date of waiting to buy a video game.”

“Why are you- Ah, fuck!” Geoff’s character took a hit to the back and screen faded to red, “Game Over” appearing in bloody letters. Geoff tilted his head to look at his brother. “Alright, Brody, did you put a point in there somewhere or come home early just to torment me with a trip down memory lane?”

“You seem to be doing that just fine on your own. Perhaps I was worried. Imagine that.”

“I can try but the sarcasm makes it a little difficult. I told you, I’m fine.”

Richard snorted. “That was my first clue. I’m fairly sure when someone said they were ‘fine’ it’s been believed exactly once. And that was probably back when humans were still living in caves.”

Geoff shrugged. “Believe what you like.” He turned his gaze back to the screen.

Richard sighed. “Where’s Jon?”

“His room, probably. He came in the backdoor with a friend - as if I wouldn’t notice...” His brother stopped and bit his lip as he realized why Richard had asked the question.

Not wasting any time, Richard leaned forward. “Geoffrey, what you told me-”

“Richard, don’t.”

“Jon and I could see you were grieving but you seemed to be almost...fighting it. I was hoping therapy would help but I can see why you couldn’t tell a professional…”

“Please stop,” Geoff pleaded, pulling his legs up to his chest.

“You can’t go on like this. You have to deal with it before it tears you apart.”

“Maybe what would help me ‘deal with it’ is if everyone left me the fuck alone,” Geoff snapped but it lacked the necessary rancor to have any effect. Richard smoothly shifted from his chair to sit beside his brother on the couch. Geoff hunched his shoulders and looked away, the controller falling to the floor as he crossed his arms. In that moment, he was again the frightened boy Richard had found in the forest that night, fleeing from pain he didn’t know how to bear.

“You can mourn him, Geoffrey. It’s the way to move forward after a loss.”

“Monsters don’t mourn their victims,” Geoff whispered.

Richard put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe not but I don’t see any here.”

“Don’t you get it? What the fuck kind of sense does it make to cry about something you brought on yourself?”

“Love doesn’t always make sense, Little Prince. Same with grief. They just are - we deal with them as best we can and there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Someone you love is gone and it’s going to hurt. That’s all there is to it, no matter the how or why.”

Geoff hung his head. “What do I do now?”

“Move forward. I know the pain feels crippling right now but I promise you it will fade. Take it one step at a time - and the first is to acknowledge it.” He felt Geoff’s shoulders begin to heave and wrapped his arm around him, pulling his brother into a gentle embrace as he wept.

“I miss him so much. It hurts…” his words faded away into quiet sobs.

Richard resisted the urge to give a sigh of relief. It had almost been physically painful to tear down Geoff’s carefully constructed walls and open the floodgates of his grief. Now he would resume a process that had been frozen in place for nearly a year. However, the fact that it had not taken nearly as long as he expected told him that his little brother had already been near the breaking point. He didn’t even want to contemplate what might have happened then.

“Allow yourself to cry for him. You have a right to your grief, Little Prince. To your tears.”

Now, perhaps, he could finally save that boy in the woods.

End

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