The room smelt of laundry waiting to be washed and midnight air trickling through the minute holes in the screen of an open window. The long, curling tendrils of thick, grey smoke that had once poured from the end of a Nag Champa incense stick were gone, stolen by the breezes of early evening; but the scent remained, adding just another predictable layer to the aroma seared into everything Ambrose was: his clothes, his hair, his skin. No amount of soap and scrubbing could eradicate that smell. It was part of who he was.

Nag Champa: it had been a hard day. And judging from the sudden silence in the next room over, Sloan shared that sentiment.

He would come. This Ambrose knew. His twin's habits, unlike his moods, were as consistent as the tide; always waxing and waning to the persistent strum of a harp that would never be silenced. Sloan would enter his room unannounced and melt into the sanction of his brother's presence—because that's what he'd always done. And Ambrose would be ready for him, ready to battle the demons of the dark that only bared their fangs when Sloan entered the room.

And enter he did. Right on schedule: ten seconds to rise from the warm clamshell of his bedsheets, twenty seconds to tread the worn trail down the hallways, thirty seconds to hesitate at the door. Then the door opened, swinging easily on well-oiled hinges; and for a moment Ambrose would see his brother silhouetted against the light in the hall. Bare shoulders and messy hair stood out in sharp relief. Though any expression upon the beaten countenance was shrouded by shadow. Ambrose didn't need to see; he didn't have to speculate on what expression (if any) was tugging at his twin's features, didn't need to question whether or not the countenance was, indeed, battered. He never needed to wonder or hypothesize when it came to Sloan's behavior in his presence. He just iknew/i. It was nice knowing.

The outline was destroyed by the closing of the door, and Ambrose laid in wait, watching Sloan's approach in his mind's eye. The sound of his muffled footfalls upon the carpeting charted a course that Ambrose could follow with his blind eyes. He needn't have been blind. Their parents were gone; there was no reason for the boys to hide behind closed doors; they could afford to be clumsy. But that would have broken the cycle. Ruined the pattern. And that cycle, that pattern, was the only this keeping their feet planted in reality.

Ambrose rose slightly in the dark as his mattress compensated for the sudden disparity in weight distribution. It should have been used to it by now, but still seemed surprised. In the dark, he could just barely see—see, really isee/i, with his eyes—his brother sitting crow-like on the edge of the bed. The curve of his back and the slump of his shoulders stood out against the black backdrop of the room. Blacker in comparison. Almost too dark to be real. Ambrose felt that if he reached out to touch Sloan, his fingers would only slice through the black. And the black would be cold. He wanted to know how cold it was. But Ambrose never did anything first—touching included. That was Sloan's job: to initiate physical contact. His fragile sanity dictated just how much salvation would be needed that night. A good, hard fuck would call for just a fleeting brush of fingertips, while a disappointing, blood-free evening could require the heavy bandages of entwined limbs and chaste kisses.

Ambrose pulled his brother's hand to his heart as the latter joined him beneath the single sheet that was cast haphazardly over the bed. It was still August. Still hot. The bedclothes were still light cotton, and heavier blankets were still crumpled at the foot of the bed. An old afghan and a Buffalo Bills woven throw that had been purchased because it contained that very special color, that very special blue. In the dark it was black—forgotten. His hair clung to the back of his perspiring neck as he turned his face towards Sloan. Met with his brother's own unruly locks, Ambrose moved to place a kiss upon a hairline so similar to his.

Then Sloan was relaxing, drifting safely back to reality with Ambrose's presence there to cushion the blow. Alone, Ambrose knew his brother couldn't have survived the fall. Alone, Sloan was invincible; he felt no pain, knew no boundaries, and needed no concept of emotion. Alone, he was hardly human. Ambrose was well aware of his twin's dependence upon him, and accepted the responsibility without question. After all, it was his fault. All his fault. The bruises were real. The cuts were real. The hate, the love—they were both real. With his touch Ambrose caused Sloan pain, but he knew that it was a necessary evil; it reminded Sloan that he was alive.

Rolling slightly on his hip, Ambrose brought up his free arm to loop around his sibling's stomach, forming a comforting circle where Sloan and the world were no longer at each other's mercy. His fingers ran over the bruises—neither seen nor felt, save in spirit—before they settled lightly in the small of Sloan's back. Though it was sweltering even so late, his brother's skin felt cold. Fitting their bodies together like oft-used pieces of a favored puzzle, Ambrose only nodded as his name was spoken and left to reverberate in the heavy air. He was there. Sloan was there. They were there—together. And when he spoke his voice was no louder than that which had preceded it: "We're alive."