Life as We Know It

Grocery Shopping

The parking lot of Al's Green Grocer is all but empty this time of night; lone, vast and reaching with only a handful of assorted vehicles. Truth is, it's a bit unnerving, until they cross the threshold of the automatic doors, the blazing lights overhead burning away every shadow. The glare is a hard adjustment from the darkness outside, but softens quickly enough to bring the various aisles into view.

Unsurprisingly, the inside is nearly as desolate as the parking lot. The only living being in sight, is a lone cashier, some twenty feet away, currently wiping down his station. He's oblivious, or willfully ignoring, the arrival of his new customers. Though, honestly, no one could blame him, either way. Who the hell grocery shops at 10:30 on a Friday night?

"You didn't have to come with me," Sylvan says, pulling the nearest cart from the corral. Finally, the cashier's eyes raise at the audible clanging of metal, and he nods with a friendly grin when Sylvan and Simon step through onto the stark white tile. "The list isn't that long."

Simon casts a sidelong glare in his brother's direction, smirking as he pries the cart from Sylvan's hands. "How else are we going to hang out? Hell, I've hardly seen you this week, unless your eyes are closed."

"I'm sorry!" Sylvan cries out, stalling momentarily before hip-checking Simon away from the cart and aiming it toward the canned goods aisle. "I didn't realize you'd be here when I agreed to the extra shift."

"Yeah, yeah." Simon smirks again, watching the red creep up his brother's neck. "Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, you fell asleep on me. Even after I agreed to watch one of your godawful horror movies."

"Shut up, butthole. You could've turned it off when I passed out. Go grab some green beans."

Simon chuckles, before stepping further down the aisle to do as commanded. A few moments later, he drops two cans in the cart and asks, "What next?"

"We just need some essentials for the weekend. I'll do the weekly shopping on Tuesday, when I get paid."

Simon watches his little brother for several moments, all too familiar with the concern etched into the man's features. While he may not live at home anymore, Simon still vividly remembers the struggle of budgeting for a large family and the stresses that come with it.

Standing, stock still, in some random aisle while scanning the list in-hand, trying to determine what's necessary and what can wait; pretty much exactly like Sylvan is currently doing.

Then, there's the debate of splurging on a family treat or using the funds for better-quality meat. A discussion which rarely ended well back then, with Simon encouraging Sylvan to "live a little" while he struggled to justify any "frivolous" purchase.

Then inevitably, once in a while, something had to be put back, either because it was too expensive or deemed "unnecessary". Which would wreck Sylvan's mood each time it happened, so sure he'd failed in some minute or odd way. Though, Simon always did his best to prevent such things, by adamant coupon usage and keeping a constant running total of prices and sales tax in his head. If only to keep the glower off Sylvan's face.

It's a whole process they perfected and utilized between the two of them for years.

And now, Sylvan must do it alone. "Syl, if you guys need-"

"We're fine, Sy."

Sylvan is a terrible liar, always has been. His right eye twitches, every damn time. Whether he's downplaying his stress or concealing state secrets, Sylvan's bright blue eyes darken just enough to notice, and that right eye narrows the slightest bit.

Simon loves it; loves that Sylvan is so goddamn honest, so completely forthright, his own body seemingly rejects any form of dishonesty.

Of course, Simon has never revealed this knowledge to anyone, least of all his little brother. Knowing Sylvan's tell is extremely advantageous, such a dominating the poker table, or simply when his little brother needs support, such as now. But, more than that, Simon likes having that little piece of Sylvan to himself.

"Brother, I'm serious. If you need-,"

"Simon, we don't want your money." There's no eye-twitch, only a thin irritation.

Instinctively, Simon's jaw clenches and his brows draw tight at the abrupt tone. Sylvan's refusal is nothing but pride and, frankly, it pisses Simon off. After years of struggling, Simon not only has the means to be comfortable, but also give back to his family and should be allowed to do so; Sylvan's pride be damned. However, he can't bring himself to press the issue, especially in the middle of the canned good aisle.

The friction is quickly forgotten when the men fall into the easy, familiar rhythm of divide and conquer. Sylvan concentrating on the cold items while Simon fetches all dry goods from the nearby aisles. Within forty-five minutes they're headed toward the front, where a second cashier has appeared. She's a lanky brunette girl with far too many, brightly-colored buttons on her lanyard, who smiles brightly as Sylvan guides their cart into her lane.

"How are you two doing this evening?"

"Good," Sylvan says in distraction, too focused on unloading the groceries onto the weathered conveyor belt.

"How are you?" Simon proffers with a smile, taking the time to make eye contact as he places several items on the belt. "Do you get to go home soon?"

"I'm well. Thank you!" Her smile widens, becoming brighter, if it's possible, while the beeping begins ringing out with each scan. "And yes, I've got just under an hour left before I get off."

The beeps are distinctly loud in the desolate store, ringing out into the stark, sterile air. Only the soft muzak playing overhead is any competition, but neither Simon nor the brunette pay any attention as they chat. Sylvan could care less about any of it. He's double-checking each item against the list, making sure nothing's been forgotten. Nearing the bottom of the cart, he halts.

"Damn it."

"What?" Simon leans in, looking over his brother's shoulder. "What'd we forget?"

"I forgot to grab bread."

"Run and get it. I can finish unloading this." Simon gestures in the general direction needed, but flails a bit more emphatically when Sylvan hesitates.

"Okay. Be right back." Sylvan drops the list into the child-seat and pivots around to half-run toward the bread aisle.

When he's safely out of sight, Simon pulls a hundred from his wallet and passes it to the cashier. "Don't let him pay, okay?"

The lanky brunette accepts the cash, plainly understanding the intention. "No problem."

"Thanks." Simon sets the last half-dozen items onto the conveyor belt and waits, as non-chalantly as possible, for his brother to return.

Sylvan appears seconds later, still at a quick pace and places the bread down behind the other groceries. " Got it! Oh, I have a coupon for that."

Gently grasping Simon's waist, Sylvan awkwardly shuffles behind to squeeze past in the tight space between his brother and the firm plastic divider of the next station. Sylvan lingers at Simon's back for a moment, though. Unsure if it's a logistical issue or simply his little brother being dork, Simon seizes the opportunity and pushes firmly back, pinning Sylvan to the board behind.

Sylvan laughs and pushes back. "Get off, jackass."

"Later." Simon teases, watching the red rush into his brother's neck when he finally muddles past.

"Shut up," he says quietly, before handing said coupon to the cashier. "Here you go."

Simon smiles and gently pulls Sylvan's head to his lips, pressing a kiss to his temple, pleased he's successfully embarassed his brother.

"You two are adorable," the lanky brunette states suddenly, bagging the last few items, including the bread.

"Thank you, Sarah!" Simon exclaims, wrapping arms around Sylvan's shoulders and hugging him close. "He gets so embarassed about PDA."

The red, which had begun fading, deepens once more but Sylvan's smiling regardless. "Oh, my god. Shut up. Please."

"You shouldn't be." She grins broadly, swiping coins into her palm then closing the register drawer. "Here's your change."

Simon smiles at the confusion on Sylvan's face, unable to play it cool or look directly at his little brother, stuffing the leftover cash into his pocket. He can almost hear the gears turning inside Sylvan's skull, straining to make sense of what just happened. Then it clicks.

"Damn it, Simon!"

"Too late, now!" Simon laughs, grabbing two of three bags with an exaggerated lift. Turning for the door, he calls over his shoulder. "Let's go home."

The only response Simon hears are shadowing footsteps and a softly muttered, "Asshole", as Sylvan follows him to the exit.

Morning Rush

The week has flown by in a blur.

Between gearing up for mid-terms, picking up a couple extra shifts to cover some unexpected expenses, and general house stuff, I've hardly had time to sleep; let alone hang out or 'commiserate' with my older brother.

Admittedly though, with Simon here household chores are significantly easier, and home has been relatively stress-free. I've even been able to sleep in a bit each morning, because Simon's taken to keeping Sydney's baby monitor in his room downstairs. Hell, he's had the little ankle-biter changed, dressed and fed by the time I make it down to the kitchen every day. It's been nice.

Bleary eyed and stumbling, I head toward the kitchen, hitting only two walls and a single doorjamb on the approach. New record.

"Morning!" Simon greets me happily, a spoonful of cereal poised in front of a groggy but bright-faced Sydney.

I grumble something close to a salutation, and shamble across the linoleum toward the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Simon babbles at a chattering Sydney, agreeing with whatever the baby is saying. And if the infant's face is any indication, it's quite important.

"You're up early." Simon suddenly addresses me, though he's still grinning at the baby, who squeals.

I gaze with narrow vision, mainly because my eyes aren't ready to be open yet, trying to see the clock. "What time is it?"

"About ten 'til six. I'm amazed you're even functioning."

Clasping the warm ceramic mug in my hands, I hover over the steam, inhaling slowly. Breathing in the stimulant certainly takes less effort than drinking it, but I take a sip anyway. "I'm not. I'm in safe-mode, running diagnostics."

Simon chuckles, pressing another spoonful of cereal into Sydney's rambling mouth. "Go back to bed then."

"I guess I'm used to getting up with Squeak."

As if on cue, Sydney chomps down on the spoonful of cereal with something akin to a growl, startling us both. Apparently, Simon wasn't delivering fast enough. We each laugh.

"Well, I got him. Go back to sleep. It's Saturday, you should be sleeping."

Rubbing more sleep from my eyes, I contemplate the offer but can't bring myself to climb the stairs again. "Nah, it's okay. I got to be at work in a couple hours anyway."

"Oh, the joy of chucking lumber." He jeers at me with a smirk. "You need to quit at least one of your jobs, Syl. It's running you ragged."

It's a familiar sentiment, and not just from Simon. Both Mom and Dad say as much at least once every other week, but I'm a bigger contributor to the household income than anyone wants to admit. Not that our parents are superfluous spenders -quite the opposite- but Mom's illness has eaten through most of my parents' savings and even some of their retirement. Household accounts are now mere shadows of what they were, even just two short years ago. What wasn't devoured by doctor's bills and treatment invoices, was spent to pay-off the mortgage and several debt collectors. Now, there's hardly more than a few hundred dollars left at any given time, no matter how much my father tries to put aside.

Obviously, money is a sore subject; especially for Dad. He's old school. The husband is the bread-winner, providing for his family financially. However, since Mom's unable to work, his income from the office and the small annuity from the US Naval service is hardly enough to cover month-to-month expenses. My three jobs provide a little more breathing room.

Simon helps plenty, but he has his own bills to pay. Plus, there's a wedding to his vapid, cunt-smack fiancée. Besides, my parents refuse his help more often than I do, which is why he puts a few hundred in my account every month. He always says, "Just for you", but he also knows that rarely happens. What isn't used to cover budget shortages goes toward a new toy for Sydney, or those weird designer jeans with six million pockets that Silas likes so much. I just can't spend it on myself; feels weird.

When I do think about the whole situation, it's a little depressing. On occasion, I obsess over the fact I probably could've afforded my dream car -a beautifully restored 1965 cherry red Mustang with black leather interior and a 350 V8- at least three times over by now. Then I remember, there are more important things. My family needs security more than I need a tricked-out ride.

Besides, in addition to financial support, each one of my jobs keeps me occupied; allows me to think about something else other than the perpetually fucked-up state of my life.

"I'm fine, Sy." I state simply, before swallowing a mouthful of stimulant and rubbing the twitch out of my right eye.

He just sighs, rolling his eyes in resignation. Simon knows it's useless to argue about it.

Several minutes later, breaking the silence suddenly, and quite possibly waking me from sleeping on my feet, Simon announces. "I'm leaving in about an hour."

I look up to meet his eyes, the muscles beneath my brow pulling hard beneath the skin, but he's hiding his gaze from mine.

The scoff bubbles up from my throat reflexively, "Well, thanks for the warning, butthole."

"I'm sorry." Simon glances up, face pinched tight with regret and bit of defensive. "Truthfully, I was supposed to leave last night when C.C. called to tell me she was home, but you and I were having fun watching that weird Japanese vampire movie. Then, by the time we got back from grocery shopping, we were exhausted. So, I figured what was one more night."

"Can you at least stay until I get home? Watch Squeak?"

His brows screw together in deliberation and I'm pinning every hope on a 'yes'. Otherwise, I'm going to have to ask Silas, -at 6 o'clock in the morning -after a rave night, and I don't like those prospects. It's my own damn fault. I'd assumed, stupidly, that Simon was staying through the weekend and told Becca, our semi-nanny, she had a free Saturday. She seemed thrilled about the idea and I couldn't change plans on her now.

"Ugh," Simon grunts, his forehead drawing in tight. "I would, really Syl, but I need to get home. C.C.'s already going to throw a bitch-fit as it is."

My entire posture sags, torso nearly bending in half over the counter as my coffee mug clinks loudly on the granite. "Shit."

"Can Mom-,"

"No, even if she didn't have therapy and Serenity classes today, I wouldn't leave Syd with her all day. It wears on her too much."

"Ah." He acknowledges, presenting another spoonful of cereal for Squeak, who ignores the food to stare at each of us.

The boy gets unusually silent when things become serious. It seems unnatural for a nine-month-old to be so perceptive.

Sighing, I aim my feet towards the stairs, reckoning that it's better to get the ordeal over with, so I can plan accordingly if Silas decides to be an asshole. Which, if we're being honest, is the most likely scenario. "I'll be right back…damn it."

"Gird your loins." Simon chuckles, only laughing harder when I flip him the bird without looking back.

Silas is not a morning person. Silas is barely a day person, and this is going to be dreadful. Asking a favor of my moody younger brother, right after waking him up to do so, when he's probably coming down off a hard roll? Not the ideal start to a good morning.

The pull-cord for the attic door is still tucked up inside the ceiling, has been all week long. I can either head back downstairs to grab the step ladder from the kitchen or…

In a momentary decision, I throw my slipper against the small square hatch above, earning a resounding thud. After a few seconds, when there's not sound from above, I scoop the fallen footwear from the carpet and repeat the action, receiving another resonant thud, even louder than the first. I'm poised for the third round when the door drops open harshly, Silas' steely glare peering out from behind the black bangs hanging in his face.

"What. The. Dick-sucking. Fuck. Sylvan." His voice is sour but clear. Eyes are alert and lucid, though the circles lining the underside of his darkened baby-blues are deep purple. I think he's been up all night again.

"Can you watch Sydney today?" It's too early to hold my neck at such an extreme angle. My spine is protesting the position and every muscle is straining with the effort, but I maintain eye contact. "I gave Becca the day off."


"Please?" I know he heard me.

"Ask Simon to do it." He retorts acidly, moving to close the hatch.

Rather impressively, I catch the board with little effort. Considering my current state of exhaustion, lack of sufficient caffeine and general haze, I'm surprised I didn't face-plant into the hardwood.

"He can't."

"Why not?" The sneer tightening his mouth is aggravating.

"I don't know, something about C.C. surgically removing his testicles and possibly cannibalizing them. I wasn't really paying attention." The joke is an obvious attempt to lighten his mood, but it works. There's the ghost of a grin outlining the edges of his pale pink mouth. It's the second one I've been allowed to witness this week, whether he intended it or not.

"I thought she kept them in a glass jar of apple-cider vinegar on top of their fridge."

I laugh. "No, just the left one, marinating in balsamic vinaigrette I think. Now, she's threatening to take the other one."

He snorts, and it makes me laugh harder. Then, still grinning, he says, "Wake me before you leave."

Without another word he closes the attic door, the pull-cord lowering to the normal position a moment later. Beyond pleased, and surprised as hell, I head back downstairs. Simon's cleaning up when I hit the linoleum again, slippers scraping across miniscule debris, reminding me - I really need to sweep the floor.

"How'd it go?" Simon asks warily, pulling a face that's rather comical with tense anticipation.

I chuckle at him before answering.

"Fine," I say, snatching up my mug of sweet caffeinated salvation. The coffee has cooled down quite a bit, my jaw tightening automatically against the growing bitterness in it, but I don't care. Because coffee.

"Wow, didn't expect that." Simon says, drying his hands on a dish towel. "Thought he'd tell you to suck cock, for sure."

"We underestimate him sometimes."

Simon lets out a derisive snort, conveying his thoughts all to clearly.

I don't know why, but it pisses me off and I snap at him, "Don't do that."

"What?" The consummate innocence on his face all but melts my icy resolve.

"Just don't ride him so hard. He's our brother."

Thoughtful scrutiny narrows his gaze as he settles a hip against the counter near the sink. Running the dish towel through his hands, he stares so long I have to look away, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

Finally, he sidles up next to me, bumping my shoulder with his. "You're right. I'm sorry."

I simply nod, sipping at the tepid coffee.

"'K," he announces suddenly, clasping a hand around my neck and kissing my cheek, "I've got to go."

My face flushes, though I don't think Simon notices as he squeezes between me and the counter. "Okay."

We chat idly while he gathers his clothes, music, and miscellaneous belongings, all stuffed haphazardly into his black duffel. Sydney squawks elatedly from his perch on my hip, curling his little fingers and toes at the flurry of noise and activity. When everything is packed away, we head to the foyer, where Dad is waiting.

Still heavy-lidded and half-asleep, Dad greets us with a tired smile and soft "Good morning", while fastening the last few buttons of his dress shirt. I didn't even hear him get up, which means Mom's probably still asleep. I'll have to wake her before going to work; otherwise she'll be late for therapy. I hate waking her, not because she's grumpy, -that honor belongs to me or Silas- but more often than not, there's the tiniest grin on Mom's face while she's sleeping. A small smile, as though she found some contentment in her dreams that, as she wakes and comes back to the world, shatters apart as reality crashes down on every side. The truth drags the corners of her mouth down and dampens the light in her eyes; and it breaks my fucking heart.

Simon hugs each of us in a flurry of good-byes, blowing a raspberry against Squeak's stomach causing an ear-splitting squeal from the infant and another heated blush from me when his breath inadvertently grazes over my stomach.

"Drive safe, son." Dad commands, while holding the door slightly ajar and kissing his oldest child's head. It's another common sentiment. Simon drives like a manic bipolar schizophrenic, high on Pixie Stix and Ambien. I swear he's spent more on speeding tickets than tuition.

After watching his eldest leave, Dad closes the door and follows me into the living room where I'm placing Sydney in his playpen. "When's Becca get here?"

"She's not coming today. I thought Simon was staying and told her she could have the day off, but don't worry. It's all good. SJ's going to watch Squeak."

My father's face hardly shifts at all at the explanation.

"Mm-'k," He answers simply, gathering his keys and wallet from the buffet table near the door. "In that case, I'm going head in early and get a couple extra hours. Plus, I have few billing reports I need to finish. You okay?"

I nod. "I need to take a shower, but I'll just put Syd in his saucer in the bathroom with me."

Kissing each of us on the head -Dad's favorite spot- and earning a Sydney squeal, Dad turns toward the foyer. "Sounds good. I'll see you when I get home. Try not to overdo it today; it's supposed to get into the high 90s later."

"You got it." Presenting thumbs up, I walk my father to the door.

He pauses at the threshold; features pinched together as his hands search his pockets. I know instantly what he's missing and step over to the buffet pulling the single drawer open. Nestled securely in its small velvet lined box is Dad's pocket watch, the one his father gave him. We never got to meet Dad's father -he died before any of us were born- but Dad has always had the watch. A graduation gift, his dad gave it to him then passed away roughly a month later, of a heart attack. Our father doesn't go anywhere without it.

"Here," I say handing it to him.

"Thanks, son."


Another head-kiss and he's out the door.

"BAH!" Sydney squawks behind me before babbling incoherently while holding onto the side rail his well-used play crib. His tiny finger points past me to the door, his meaning clear.

"Don't worry, Squeaker," I say strolling over to lift him out and settle him on my hip once more, "He'll be back. Let's go wake Mom. What do you say?"

"Mamamamamama." He babbles through a grin, his little fingers poking at my lips.

"Yeah, that's right. Mamamamama."

The door's slightly ajar at the back of the house, the morning light filtering into the dark hallway highlighting the swirling dust in the air. I whisper to Sydney as I tilt him toward the door, entreating him to push it open. It's a small gesture that thrills him down to his very toes, which are curling, and he's got a grin that could easily belong to the proudest adult. We gaze inside, chattering back and forth, to see Mom's already sitting up and gazing out the window.

The quiet creak of the door draws her eyes to us. She's smiling gently. Seems like it might be a good day.

"Good morning, sweeties."

"Good morning," I whisper with a smile, crossing the plush carpet toward our unusually bright mother.

"MA!" Sydney ear-splitting squawk cracks the air and he begins thrashing in my arms, stretching out abruptly and nearly spilling onto the floor. Mom simply giggles, reaching for him as I rush to close the distance between them. In the end, I lose grip on my squirming infant brother and he topples into the soft surface of the mattress. Unfazed, Squeak wriggles onto all fours and scrambles up the bed sheets into Mom's lap.

"Well, good morning to you too, my Squeaky love."

"How you feeling?" It can be a dangerous question, but her cheery greeting suggests a positive outcome.

"Good," she says tickling into Sydney's neck, earning a flurry of bright giggles. "I must've had a good night's sleep and some sweet candy-coated dreams."

I smile, relieved. "You better start getting ready. You have to leave in a half hour or you'll be late."

"Surely." Gathering Sydney up, I follow in close step as she continues bouncing him, waving me away when I offer to take him and continuing to coo at him all the way to the kitchen, where Silas is meditating over a bowl of cereal.

"Morning," Mom and I greet in unison.

Silas just lazily nods a grunt, eyes pinned to his bowl.

"Here, Mom, let me." I cut in front of her, grabbing a mug and the decanter, pouring her a cup so she doesn't have to disturb the infant currently enthralled in her copper hair.

"Thanks, baby." Gratefully, she accepts the refreshment, sipping carefully.

Eyeing Silas, I wonder if he's slept at all because he is millimeters from drowning in his Lucky Charms. Generally, I have a decent idea of when he sleeps because I hear him clunking around his room above mine; but last night I fell asleep on the couch next to Simon during our movie marathon. When my auburn-haired brother pushed me off his shoulder I was hardly aware he'd spoken, let alone told me to go to bed. Yet somehow, I'd navigated the stairs, found my bed, and passed out again as soon as my head hit the pillow. I have absolutely no idea if Silas was still awake or not. I'd bet he was though, given the state of him. He looks half-dead.

Maybe I should call in; it would shock the shit out everybody, but it's an option. Even Tim, my Inventory Dock Lead couldn't resent me for taking an extra day off, regardless of his old-school work ethic. Granted, he'd still be pissed and give me an earful during my next shift, but he and nearly everyone else knows I've got three jobs, plus school (not to mention, swim team in the spring). Still, we could use the money.

However, that's always true but, for once, it's not absolutely vital this month. Between Simon -the sneaky asshole- slyly paying for the groceries, his insistence on 'lending' us an extra couple hundred bucks and my additional shifts, the cost of Mom's car repairs didn't hit our budget as hard as expected. We can afford an extra day off.

I'm calling in, simply because Silas looks thoroughly exhausted. Then just as I'm about to call his attention and announce that I'll be staying home, Silas rouses from his seat. He scoots past the three of us and rinses his bowl, which I highly appreciate, before setting it the sink. All the while, Squeak is watching him, calling "La-La-La" and nearly back bending over Mom's arm whenever his brother comes within reach.

Kissing Mom's cheek, Silas slides his arms around our flexible little brother and scoffs as the baby ragdolls into his embrace. "Give me the brat. C'mere, squirt."

"Don't call him a brat. He's a much easier baby than you ever were," Mom chides playfully, lightly tapping Silas' cheek.

Silas dismisses her comment with a derisive snort, giving me an incredulous look as he walks past. "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

"Hey, SJ?"

He turns at the doorway, Sydney's fingers firmly tangled in his bangs. "Hmm?"


Silas rolls his eyes, turning toward the living room, his voice fading with distance. "Yeah, yeah. Ouch! Damn it, Syd!"

"Don't curse at your brother!" Mom scolds loudly after the pair, shocking my ears and forcing a wince. "Ooh, sorry Sylly."

Her hand is cool and comforting against the side of my face. She's the only one allowed to call me "Sylly", without threat of bodily harm or imminent death.

"It's okay."

Another sip of her coffee and she kisses my cheek, breath scented with Arabica. "Well, I'm going to hop in the shower."


The next hour passes is a flurry of warm smiles, cheerful chatter and Sydney's enthusiastic squeals as Mom flutters, truly flutters, around the house getting ready. Sydney loves Mom in every mood but especially loses his mind with Joyful Mom. His eyes shine bright green and he runs his fingers through her hair, chatters nonsensically. His face shifts through a gamut of emotion, surely matching whatever thought is crossing his brilliant little mind. Mom simply responds in a kind cooing voice, asking questions or merely agreeing with the little squealer, all in the special language the two seem to share.

We all love it. Not only is the house brighter and filled with obnoxious, elated noise, I breathe easier for a little while and Dad positively floats around in happy haze. Hell, even Silas perks up when Mom's on a happy binge. He smiles a bit easier and glowers slightly less; though, it would take an act of God to fully erase the scowl from his face. However, try as he might to convince us otherwise, when Mom's happy, Silas is happy.

Yet, amongst all the glee and smiles, I always remember that while she's happy now, it's only a matter of time before we'll be thrust back into the gloomier -though, sadly, more comfortable- version of our lives. I hate myself for being the cynic, but it keeps me grounded. The knowledge keeps me wary and prepared. Whether it be hours, days, or possibly weeks, Mom will come crashing down off this high like a detoxing addict; just as she has every time before. It will be brutal and taxing, on all of us, as always. It's simply a matter of time. So, I'll try to enjoy the light in her eyes, while I can.

After Mom nearly flies out of the house, Silas heads back to the living room and returns to lounging on the couch while Squeak quietly chomps on one of his plastic toys. There's some god-awful cartoon playing, about a bizarre metal band that kind of rules the world, even though none of them could tell their ass from their elbow. Silas is nearly fanatic about watching it and DVR's any episode he may miss. Whenever any of us rag him about it, he spirals down into some ridiculous defense about the post-modern commentary on our society or some shit. I don't get it, but hey, to each his own.

I shower quickly, opting to shave in the stall, and while it saves time, I nick myself three times and hiss against the burn of aftershave. I pull a comb through my still-quite-damp hair, not bothering with more than a towel dry. I'll probably regret it later because my hair tends to spaz out when it dries in humid heat. Doesn't matter too much, I'll end up wearing a bandana anyway, if only to keep the mop off my forehead.

Slipping into Built-Right's ludicrously lime-green polo, I push the 'mandatory' uniform guidelines, and go for khaki-colored cargo shorts, since the weatherman is claiming a high in the nineties. My boss will say something, but with half the crew dressed exactly the same way -and they will be- there isn't much he can or will do. Besides, ever since one of the teenage clerks passed out from heat exhaustion a few weeks ago, wearing the required polo and full-length pants while unloading a stock truck, the higher-ups haven't exactly enforced the dress code.

"If I can manage it, I'll come home for lunch." I announce to Silas, who is still lounged on the couch.

He knocks two ring-studded fingers into the air, a simple peace-out "V".

With that acknowledgement, I lean into Squeak's playpen where two tiny hands come to rest on either side of my face, and a little mouth prattles quite lovingly in mid-tones. I imagine he's telling me to have a good day and not to work too hard. So, I blow a raspberry into his neck and earn a sweet giggle.

When I stand up and turn around, Silas' eyes dart furtively back to the TV screen. There's a tension in his features, as though he's been caught at something. At what, I have no idea. It's a strange sort of look on his face and I gaze at him for a long moment, wondering. He shifts uneasily under my gaze and seems unwilling to look me in the eye. Several moments later, I shrug it off, chalking it up to Silas being weird and rush out the door.

The Good Doctor

Nine o'clock in the morning and the sweat is already pouring down my face, neck and pooling at the base of my spine. There's enough humid moisture in my ass crack, the EPA would qualify it as toxic swampland.

Soaked with perspiration, my polo is more of a sage green than a lime, and it is clinging uncomfortably along every line of my torso. Each time I raise an arm, to direct the damn delivery trucks, or unload a pallet, or wipe my face -which is fruitless and somewhat idiotic, because outside of keeping sweat from streaming directly into my eyes, all I'm doing is pushing salt and moisture into my hairline- the fabric always twists and cinches tighter against my body. Fitfully, I keep yanking the cloth straight, only to have it coiled and pasted against my skin once more, minutes later.

Regardless, I continue directing each driver to the appropriate dock and unload numerous pallets. It's monotonous, dull, and I've done it so many times, I could do it in my sleep. Lumber to the north end, home décor and do-it-yourself toward the middle, tools and machinery to the south. My brain goes on autopilot constantly, which probably isn't the best idea when dealing with eighteen-wheeled behemoths, and large forklifts charging in and out of a narrow roadway. Especially considering, I've confused at least two drivers this morning with the fitful spaz-attacks against my damp polo. Still, amazingly, I haven't been run over yet.

Despite the safety concerns, I've found myself lost in thought at least a dozen times this morning. And, of course, Simon is at the forefront of my mind, torturing me with half-smiles and soft kisses to my face. When the memory of this morning's hasty departure seeps in, my complete frustration bleeds in along with it.

Why he couldn't stay and watch Sydney, at least until I could get home, is beyond me. If he'd stayed, we could've had a proper good-bye, instead of the hectic rush of this morning. Hell, I saw no reason why he shouldn't have hung around for dinner. It's not like Cecilia is an invalid. Though, sometimes it seems like the only thing occupying the space between her ears was just that, space. How she managed to leash Simon, let alone tighten the collar so much as to swindle a marriage proposal out him, remains a mystery to this day.

For Christ's sakes, he's always been shifty about his girlfriends, or his fuck-buddies, or whatever he chose to call them at any given moment. Yet, here we are, nearly two years later and he's still under her thrall, of some inexplicable spell-like concoction of pheromones and P.M.S.

Honestly, I'm baffled because Simon complains about her as much as he extols.

"She's incredibly attentive." So attentive, she looks through his phone, his mail, his computer so she knows exactly what he's doing and where he is.

"She's so fucking beautiful." But spends so much cash on her damn cosmetics that, more than once, they've been resigned to eating ramen noodles until the following payday. In fact, the overspending occurred so often that Simon keeps an account to pay their bills and a small savings account, both completely separate from their joint account. All because Cecilia needs mascara engineered by NASA, blessed by the goddamn Pope and six-inch stilettos to hoist her stubby, little hobbit-ass into the air.

Yet, of all the flaws she possesses, Simon seems to admire her most for the fact that, "She knows what she wants and will do anything to get it, consequences be damned." Which, in my opinion, verges on a Fatal Attraction-level of insanity. Though, I suppose when one thinks on it, that is exactly how she managed to domesticate my philandering brother.

I don't know why he puts up with her shit. She's a temperamental Chihuahua, cracked-out on espresso and Thorazine. She may be cute, until she decides to chew off your face.

"Quit slackin', Wolf!" Tony's jeers break my line of thought which, if I'm honest, is for the best. He's standing at the edge of the dock, smirking with a quirked eyebrow. "We got work to do, you lazy fucker!"

"Eat me, Pace! Quit playin' with your dick and unload the damn trucks!"

He laughs. "I'm not playing with it, just pushing it out of the way."

"That's not your dick, Pace. Those are your saggy, withered balls."

He simply laughs again, shoving the hydraulic dolly beneath a pallet before taking it inside the warehouse.

I direct another lumber-laden truck bed to the north end. A hot wind streams of the tires, relieveing some of the mid-morning heat, only to swell unbearably when the truck has passed. Moving toward the dock, I start to climb the access ladder, situated flush against the wall and Tony's there lending a hand to help me up the last rung. We head, shoulder to shoulder, toward the north side to unload the latest arrival.

Tony Pace was hired the week after me, and quickly became known for two uncanny, almost contrary, abilities. The first: selling specialized, high-powered equipment and tools to any starry-eyed soccer mom or amped-up, weekend-warrior dad that happened to walk through the doors.

Using a mixture of "active listening" -which, according to Tony, translates to nothing more than subtle innuendo and outright flirting- he smiles and compliments, appeals to their interests and strokes their egos. I've personally witnessed him sell many table saws, planers and various other large equipment items to various men and women who've come to Build-Right for nothing more than a hammer or a box of wood screws.

However, the second talent is where he truly excels; getting paid to slack off. If there's a method for appearing on task when in reality very little is being done, Tony has not only found it, he's perfected it.

The thing about that is, none of us mind much. Simply put, Tony Pace is a fuckin' charming guy. And if he's on shift, there will be jokes, anecdotes and trash-talking. There will be random observations, amusing quips and pranks -that are usually too dangerous for the workplace- that will keep us enrapt and laughing all day.

Tony Pace, with his deep-brown eyes and stick-straight, deep black shoulder-length hair -used effectively to stupefy the female population on a daily basis- doesn't accomplish much on any particular shift, but the rest of us achieve a hell of a lot more when he's around.

Don't get me wrong. Every so often, someone will whine or complain, usually a newbie, but each is systematically shut down. Because, yes, Tony Pace is a resident freeloader, but he's our resident freeloader.

Curling an arm around my neck, effectively head-locking me as we stroll, Tony asks, "What's up with you this morning?"

I fight from his grip, pushing him playfully away. "Nothing."

"Well, that's a lie." His deeply tan arm shoots out, fingers flicking wildly at my face to catch the tip of my nose, despite my flinching away.

"Oh, game-on, fucker." Retaliating with a jab to his ribcage, I dodge another attack and, with a dry chuckle, land a swift kick to his ass. "It's nothing," I state, taking off at a dead run toward the north dock, which is more of a marked-off loading zone, if we're being honest.

"Oh, bitch…" Tony hisses before pouncing into action. He's caught up after only a few feet, his fingers grasping the neck of my polo and yanking back, hard.

A rather embarrassing yelp issues from my throat, and I nearly topple ass over tits. "Cock-knocker!"

Twisting more gracefully than even I expected, I manage tackle his midsection and set off a wrestling match that I'm sure, from an outside perspective, looks something closer to mentally-handicap squirrels dry humping. Each of scrambling for advantage, our co-workers holler and laugh until Tim's gruff, age-worn voice cuts through the din, from somewhere to our left.

"Hey! Knock that shit off, you two!" Our supervisor chides loudly, immediately halting our actions.

We stand upright and smooth the lines of our respective uniforms, chests still heaving from the effort. I need untwist my polo again, mainly to get the damn collar out of my throat, but it comes free easy enough. Grinning, we resume a normal pace toward the north dock with nothing more than quick jabs at each other.

"So, are you going to tell me what's actually bothering you?"

"No, because there's nothing bothering me."

"You're zoning. You don't zone unless there's something on your mind."

"I'm just tired."

"Boy trouble?" He smirks at me, and I smack him hard. "Ah-ow."

I roll my eyes and grin at his wounded pride.

"I'm flattered. Syl, really, but you're just not my type."

Rolling my eyes once more, so hard I think I see my own frontal lobe, I punch him harder than before. "Shut your mouth, Pace."

Tony laughs out the pain, rubbing his chest where I struck him. "Jesus, sorry."

Minutes later, we wield our box-cutters with practiced hands, slicing at thick layers of cellophane binding the lumber together before sorting the pieces by dimensions, weight and quality.

I work silently while Tony regales us with his latest sexual conquest, receiving deep chuckles of amusement as he describes "this whale of a woman" and the slapping noise their skin made whenever he slammed into her. His deep-brown eyes light up when the half-dozen roughnecks, currently milling around the dock, all groan and laugh. Past that, I don't pay much attention; my mind, once again, too preoccupied. However, just like directing the delivery trucks, is monotonous and easy.

I'm not an idiot, at least not cognitively. I'm pissed and it's because of ridiculously petty jealousy. I know this.

Simon skipped out this morning with hardly a backward glance, all because she called him home. Simon lives with her, he's no longer living with me. She gets to see him every day, if she chooses, and I'm made to wait and miss him, hoping he'll remember I exist. For Christ's sake, I'm his brother and he's thrown me over for a vapid, cake-faced cliché. But that's just it, isn't it? I haven't been thrown over; to Simon nothing has changed. I'm still his brother, she's still his...god, his fucking fiancée, regardless of whether I think she deserves the title.

I'm aware it's ridiculous to cling to such an idea; to think that the engagement is temporary, that he'll leave her. I understand, perfectly, that he's not mine alone or that he could ever love me like he loves her or how I love him. Every single day, I remind myself of that fact, and question my own wanting. I consistently ask myself: Would I cling to Simon, so adamantly, if there were someone else? Someone I loved, as much as he claims to love the little hobbit? Despite her hairy feet and vagina of death?

I've never found an answer though...or maybe I don't want to. I'm aware of that, too. In all honesty, I can't see past him, and can't conceive of anyone that could replace him. And that's the root of the problem.

Regardless of how I feel about Simon, Cecilia is not replacing me. She's meant to be an addition to his life, not an obstacle to mine. We're both meant to love him, and he's meant to love us both, but in vastly different ways. I know all this. I understand all this.

Yet, I'm stuck in a perpetual cycle of anxiety and heartbreak. An endless parade of self-inflicted misery because he loves me, exactly as he should, with hugs and teasing and inside jokes. All the while, the love I should give him is lost in filthy fantasies and false hopes.

He loves me. I love him. That should be enough, but it's not and it's tiring.

I can't think on Simon anymore. I need to focus on my job, as monotonous as it is. Two more hours until lunch, then I can run home for a few minutes to relax and see my uncomplicated siblings.

Not that I'm concerned, Silas is fully capable of handling Sydney. He'll grumble and bitch the whole time, but honestly, I think he enjoys caring for the little ankle-biter. Silas may call him "brat", chunk, fats, poop-machine, or -my personal favorite- puke-cannon, but I always see the slight upturn on his lips whenever those chubby little hands reach out for him. Silas loves the little puke-cannon. Besides, no one can resist Sydney's big doe eyes gazing up at them in wonderment.

However, the thing of it is, regardless of Silas' begrudging affection, Sydney has the impeccable ability of discovering inedible objects, all of which fit neatly in his tiny mouth. Not to mention, now that he's toddling, Sydney's become quite adept on his tip-toes. He's developed an inhuman ability of stretching up and reaching new heights, so long as there's something to hold on to. And I suspect the boy has some form of telekinesis, because items well without his reach magically appear his little hands, only to be chomped on the next second.

It's not a common happening, but the little adventurer has already been to the ER a couple of times. The first time being a few months back, when on one of his usual crawling excursions through the house, he found a pen and cut his gums, after chewing on it for God knows how long. Mom discovered him, covered in ink and gnawing on a bit of hard plastic. Then, only weeks later, as he was beginning to toddle, Sydney stepped on a carpet tack which had worked its way out from underneath the Berber. His tiny, little throat let out the most blood-curdling screech. Consequently, he spent the next few days regularly curled-up in someone's arms, tender and sore from the tetanus shot.

I didn't even know they could give babies tetanus shots.

After all that, just last week, he nearly pulled one of Mom's heavy antique copper kettles from a display shelf. If Dad hadn't caught it in time, Sydney would've ended up with a nasty bump on his head, if not another ER visit.

Silas isn't neglectful, but it's hard enough keeping a watchful eye on Sydney when everyone is home. I know my brother wouldn't purposefully put him in harm's way, but I also know how Silas gets distracted. It's common for him to immerse himself in one of his shows, a book, or even one of his art projects -should the mood strike him.

I shouldn't doubt him, but I can't help envisioning a bruised, battered Sydney held by a remorseful, yet indignant Silas as I walk through the front door. It's an exaggeration, I know. But...

"Sylvan? Syl?" Tony exaggerates his lean, nearly bending in half to stare intently at my face, his brows arced in confusion.

Still takes a moment to realize he's talking to me. "Huh?"

"Are you coming out tonight?"


"We're going to Ralph's around eight. Drink, play darts, you know...hang out. You comin'?"

Ralph's is the local watering hole for blue-collar Joes. Cloaked in an unfailingly smoky haze, an ever-present aroma of sweat, tears and alcohol, and food greasy enough to incite a coronary, it's the consummate neighborhood bar. I like it though, especially when my friends manage to sneak me a few beers.

"No, I got to work at Mod-AHH, FUCK!" A sharp slicing throb erupts throughout my hand. The flesh of my thumb splaying open from the tip to the pad of tissue at the base, wrenched open by the wayward boxcutter.

"Holy shit-cock! Fuck, Syl. No, don't-Here." Tony rushes over, batting my unwounded hand away before pulling a clean handkerchief from thin air, quickly and easily wrapping the injury.

"Thanks." I say, dazed and a bit lost. My blood's already soaking through the fabric but that doesn't seem to matter, right now. "I'm fine."

Everyone is staring at me, eyes wide and mouths silent. Repeating the reassurance, I nod and my head swims, but I move to snatch up my forgotten box-cutter. Tony has other ideas.

"C'mon." He says, and points me toward the warehouse with a gentle hand pressing at the small of my back. "It looks deep."

"Tony, I'm-,"

"Just shut up and get it looked at."

I sigh and glare from beneath my brows, but don't object as he leads me along the safety-lines, painted in fluorescent yellow on the smooth concrete floor. Within a minute, we're at the company's clinic door, kept on grounds for occasions such as this. Tony pulls the door open and props it with his foot, allowing me through unhindered.

At the door chime, a petite, sweet-faced receptionist smiles until her gaze settles on my wounded hand, the blood seeping steadily along the length of my forearm. Immediately, her deep green eyes widen in horror as she scrambles from her chair behind the curved, gargantuan desk.

Panic is evident in her voice, as she shrieks for, "Dr. Rowe!"

The shrill cry crackles in my ears, and if Tony's squinting expression is anything to go on, he's just as shocked by the sudden yelp.

A moment later, Dr. Douglas Rowe appears from behind the dividing wall, wide-eyed at his receptionist's piercing tone until he follows her gaze to me. Then, surprisingly, he chuckles. "Calm down, Penny. It's looks worse that it is, I'm sure."

The comment does nothing to pacify her, green eyes still expanded and full of a wet shimmering.

A comforting graze to her shoulder, he says, "Go take a break, Pen. Get some coffee." She doesn't linger at all and disappears behind the dividing wall as Dr. Rowe strolls over, a moment later.

Acknowledging Tony with a nod, his deep-blue eyes narrow and gaze at my oozing thumb, before looking directly into me. "Runaway box-cutter?"

I nod, cheeks burning slightly and feeling a tad woozy.

"Thank you, I've got him from here," he says to Tony, his soft finger tips coming up to support my elbow.

Tony nods, casting one last supportive look my way and heading toward the clinic exit. "I'll see you later. Okay, Syl?"

Once again, I nod, my head swimming slightly more than before.

Laying a guiding hand between my shoulder blades, Dr. Rowe calls my attention. "Keep the pressure on and your hand up. This way."

Led past the dividing wall, we enter the first of two exam rooms situated to our left. Once inside, the white paper crinkles underneath me as I'm seated on the exam table, and, again, instructed to keep my hand up with the pressure on firmly. All but curled against my chest, I can feel my thumb beginning to throb and pulse. Still, I watch while Dr. Rowe begins gathering various items from a small set of cabinets.

"When's the last time you had a tetanus shot?"

It takes at least a full five seconds for me to answer, though I'm unsure whether it's because I'm so damn wobbly or because I heard "shot" come out of his wide-set mouth. "Awhile…" I respond, warily.

"Longer than five years?" He asks over his shoulder, moving to a glass cabinet which appears to be housing several glass vials.

"Yeah…" I'm not going to like his response.

"You're going to need one, then." Dr. Rowe pulls the cabinet door open, surveying the contents quickly before snatching a vial from the second or third shelf.

"Terrific." I feel my shoulders sag. I'm not a big fan of needles.

"Oh, it won't be so bad." His dark blue eyes light up with an expressively kind sympathy. I'm sure he uses those same eyes to soothe scared children.


Rowe's smile widens with his chuckle, but says nothing and leaves me to my moping. Though, I swear he's making an exhibition of preparing the tetanus vaccine. Surely, he doesn't need to use a needle that big, let alone show me the damn thing. The man must be a sadist. Who knows? It could be within the realm of possibility. After all, I don't know much about him.

Before today, Dr. Rowe and I have spoken a only handful of times. Usually we cross paths in the break-room, either at lunch, when he's pulling a full day at the clinic, or when he's escorting one of the accident-prone newbies to the lockers before sending them home. Typically, the conversations are short, both of us too preoccupied with other duties at the time. Though, occasionally, we've run into each other on the sales floor after shift, which has allowed us to learn a few deeper details about each other. He's nice, but I wouldn't call us anything more than friendly acquaintances.

I'm rambling. Damn, I am out of it.

Still, through the thickening haze inside my head, I remember he's waiting for an answer about an application, or something. "Have you heard back, at all?"

Dr. Rowe gazes over his left shoulder, with a bemused grin. "How's that?"

Oh, that's right. He can't hear inside my head. "The, uh, application? Or was it a scholarship?"

Pulling open a cabinet to his right, he chuckles and gathers something from inside, placing it neatly on a tray that's appeared to his left. "Yeah. Yes, I did. Wow, I can't believe you remember that."

I hear the faucet open and watch his back shift; obviously washing his hands.

"We just talked about it the other day." The room shifts a bit, tips a little. I need to take a deep breath to balance. Thank Christ, I'm sitting down.

He chuckles again. "Actually, that was nearly a month ago."

That doesn't seem right...but admittedly, I'm not a reliable source, at the moment.

The wheels squeak softly underneath the stainless-steel tray as he steps toward the exam table. The noise sounds remarkably like Sydney, which makes me grin.

"Okay. Let's see what we've got, shall we? Lay back for me."

The question is rhetorical; he doesn't require an answer, but I find myself nodding absently anyway, obeying the command while offering my wounded appendage to his gloved hands. My head is still hazy, so I'm only vaguely aware of what he's doing, even as I watch him work. But, I don't feel any pain anymore, which is oddly comforting. There's a crinkly blue paper across my torso and he's positioned my hand as needed with a firmly cautious touch. Then, that comforting numbness wavers a bit as he begins to slowly strip the blood-soaked handkerchief from my hand. Permeated with drying blood, the cloth pulls at my skin, stretching the wound open slightly, but the good doctor's movements are slow, his touch barely perceptible as he removes the last of the fabric.

Underneath, it looks like a massacre.

I hiss softly, in equal parts pain and revulsion.

"All right?"

Gazing against the glaring fluorescent light, Dr. Rowe is little more than a silhouette, but I can see the concern in his eyes. I simply nod.

"Ever received stitches before?" He asks, squirting a clear solution along the wound and wiping away some of the carnage with gauze.

Letting my head fall back with the spins, a less-than-dignified groan presses out of my throat.

He chuckles. "You won't feel a thing."

Slowly the cut's true edges emerge, laying only millimeters apart. Blood continues to seep from my wound, though it's slowed significantly. Still, beneath the glaring fluorescent spotlight, currently radiating heat onto my hand, it looks relatively grotesque. I think I see white. Even I know, that's not a good thing.

"Is it bad?" Letting my head fall back again, the question squeezes out of my throat. I sound small and... whiney. I'm rather disappointed in myself, right now.

"Not really." Dr. Rowe answers softly, amidst the quiet clatter of his various supplies on the tray. "Don't get me wrong, it's deep; but it's a clean cut, so to speak, so stitches will be nice and easy. You won't even break double-digits."

I feel like I should laugh, but I don't. This man is going to puncture me with several needles today. All I can do is fall silently into thought and let it happen.

Dr. Rowe's younger than I'd expected when I heard we were getting a new on-site doctor. However, in one of our first conversations, he informed me that he's actually a third-year resident. Further explaining, at my obvious confusion, that basically, he's a doctor but kind of "interning" to learn more within a particular field under the guidance of an experienced physician. In Dr. Rowe's case, he's specializing in emergency medicine. He works at Built-Right Urgent Care as a part of a scholarship program. A small scholarship which proved to be a boon for him.

In exchange for lending their talents to the in-house clinics, each recipient receives a paid position that works around their schedules, and counts toward their required clinical hours. He'd been elated to accept the grant, having worked most of his way through med school at "shitty customer service jobs" to pay expenses, which his already substantial loans didn't cover.

Even now, I barely understand the medical schooling process, but figure he knows what he's doing.

"You'll feel a sting, at first." Dr. Rowe calls my attention. Even in silhouette, I can his deep-blue eyes pinning me with an expectant look. A moment later, I realize why. He's brandishing a syringe, filled with a clear fluid.

I'm about to ask, maybe object, when he swiftly injects the damn thing three or four times around the wound. It does sting, at first. By the third puncture, I can't feel a thing; not even the dull throb in my hand.

Amazingly, I don't look away when Dr. Rowe pulls out the stitching needle and thread. Whether I'm in shock or simply on an endorphin high, I couldn't tell you, but I watch his every movement from pressing the instrument through my flesh, to drawing the edges of my wound closed, to the gracefully quick loops he ties. It's a strange sensation to see one's own body being sewn together, to witness the inflamed raw rim of an open wound cinch together, all while unable to feel the pain that should be felt. There's nothing but a bearable pressure; enough to make it real and tangible.

I find myself wishing for some type of emotional anesthetic.

Dr. Rowe does quick work. Or at least I think it's quick, because I feel like I've been away for a thousand years. I'm yanked from my stupor when the physician's voice bounces against my temples.


He snorts, eyes lighting up as he snaps the gloves off his long-fingered hands and discards them in a nearby bin. "I asked if you're going to Ralph's tonight?"

I blink, realizing my hand is wrapped lightly in gauze. "Uh, no. I have to work at Modified. You've been to Ralph's? I've never seen you there."

"My schedule is a tad insane, so I don't get out often. I'm sure you can understand that, more than anybody. Maybe we'll see each other next time." With a smile, he adds, "Well, you're all set."

"What about the tetanus shot?" I ask, shocked that I'm volunteering to be stuck again.

"Did it." His softly pointed chin tips up, indicating my shoulder, while pulling a small notepad from his breast-pocket.

And, sure enough, underneath the obnoxiously lime-green sleeve is a tender intrusion, covered by a band-aid. "Wow. I don't even remember that."

Rowe chuckles again, eyes pinned to the pad in his hand as he scribbles. Suddenly, I realize he's left-handed. Though I don't know why it matters. "It happens. Some people just daze out, could be the trauma or the anesthetic."

I hop down, holding out my hand. "Thanks, Dr. Rowe."

"No problem," he returns, clasping my hand firmly, "Just remember, try to keep it as dry as possible and an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory should be good for any discomfort or swelling. Anything happens, come see me, otherwise I'll just see you next week."

Before letting my hand go, his color deepens, in both his eyes and his skin. There seems to be a debate in his mind, but it quickly resolves as he hands me a small note from his script pad. "And call me Doug."

I smile. "Sure. Thanks, Doug."

"You're welcome, Sylvan."

With that I leave, gazing at the note in my hand when I realize there's actually two. The first is a simple message to excuse me from work for the next few days, but tucked neatly behind it, on an identical piece of paper from his script pad, written in a neat print is a phone number. A different number than the two pre-printed at the top. I can't even contemplate what it means because my feet catch on a stray box, torn and abandoned in the middle of the aisle. My butt meets concrete before I can compensate or catch myself.

I hear Tony's unmistakable chuckle from somewhere behind me. "You okay?" His hand reaches out to help me up from the floor.

"Yeah." I scoff at myself, and the absurd shit I keep doing to myself, as my face flushes with blood. My ass hurts.

"You must have a lot on your mind, man. I haven't seen you this distracted in a while." The pure joy at my expense brightens his deep browns.

Little does he know, what he so expertly perceived this morning has nothing to do with what is currently cranking through the gears of my mind.

I shrug, discretely tucking the second note inside my pocket. "It's nothing."

Home Early

Tim gruffly accepts the note, all but ripping it away with his weathered gargantuan hand. His voice is thick, like wet sand when he says, "So, what? You want a sick day or somethin'?"

"No, I can do other stuff."

He scoffs, the harsh gesture rocking his torso a bit as though he's holding back a laugh. "Like what? Everything here involves using your hands."

Tim's got me there, but I'm determined to keep the hours. Though, I'm not sure why. I'd nearly called in this morning, with little guilt about it. Still, I wrack my brain, thinking what I can do to stay, but find myself at a loss. Other than cashiering or the customer service desk, both of which I despise, every other position requires full use of both hands. Tim's dull browns, reflective of the hard living he's done, gaze at me while his lips curl, knowingly amused.

My eyes roll up in defeat and I groan.

Finally, he chuckles, clapping a hand to my shoulder, "Look, go home and relax. If you want, pick up an extra shift sometime during the week. That is if you can find the time."

I punch a heavy breath into the air, following Tim as he guides me back out of the warehouse. I return the chorus of good-byes echoing overhead as I exit, giving a single wave aimed at Tony, in particular. Tim grumbles a farewell before patting my back and sending me on my way.

In my frustrated haze, the walk from the locker room to the parking lot is short, but it's certainly enough time to remember the enigmatic paper in my back pocket. Pulling out the small note, I can't help but muse over its meaning or intention.

Are the neatly-written digits, scrawled plainly in the blank space, Dr. Ro- or rather, Doug's private number? Or maybe his contact number at the hospital? Is it just in case there's an issue with my hand? Then why not say as much?

Was it meant for something more personal? We've danced around the idea of grabbing coffee sometime, to finish one of our many stunted conversations. Did he finally get tired of waiting and pull the trigger on exchanging numbers? Again, why not say as much? Fuck, did he even mean to give it to me? I mean, Penny, the receptionist is kind of adorable, I guess. Maybe it was intended for her. Oh, hell, I don't know. I'll think about it later.

Not even lunch time yet and it's a sauna inside my car. As I open the driver's-side door, a wave of heat rolls out so thick it's suffocating, and I must step back, allowing for the interior to breathe it out. I'm anxious for the weather to cool down, and it should in a few weeks, but this ass-sweatingly oppressive heat seems determined to hold on with tooth and nail. It's maddening. The mercury dips into the fifties at night only to continually spike in the nineties during the day. Even as fall approaches and the leaves change color, the local climate spirals up and down quicker than a manic-depressive on speed. Hopefully, by the time Halloween rolls around it will even out, and the air will be crisp and clean. My favorite time of year.

But for now, I'm stuck in a '93 Volvo with no air-conditioning. Thank God for windows and a breeze.

The drive isn't difficult, though turning isn't a joy when done one-handed. Out of instinct, I keep grabbing the wheel with my wounded palm, sending white hot pain up my arm. Finally, by the second to last turn I learn my lesson and whip around the last two streets before pulling into our driveway to see the house is still in one piece. I'm more worried about the state of its occupants. Rather gracelessly, I grab my bag from the passenger seat and head toward our small concrete porch. Sliding the key into the deadbolt, I can hear the TV blaring inside, so the minimal creaking from the front door easily goes unnoticed.

Laying my bag next to the sideboard in the foyer, I step toward the living room and see there's some random episode of Supernatural playing out across the screen, but no one is watching. The sight shouldn't be alarming, but it is. Where the hell is Silas? The question is immediately answered though, when Sydney's blond head bobs up from behind the sofa back. Saturated with static, his hair is stuck up in all directions while his gleeful giggles echo into the air.

Now, I feel like a jackass.

Sydney's tiny hands reach out toward Silas, all but unseen, lying on the sofa. Quietly, he asks the baby sitting on his chest, "So what do you think, Squeaker? Huh? It's twisted, right? I'm totally fucked-up, aren't I?"

Sydney chatters away, his curious eyes roaming over each corner of the room before catching sight of me. Then those small, inquisitive eyes shoot wide, and his pudgy little fingers point in my direction as an incredibly loud squawk bubbles out of his mouth. Our baby brother is better than a home security system.

I'm not sure why, but I duck behind the wall in preparation of Silas looking up to see what's caught Sydney's attention. He doesn't, though. Instead, his fingers slide up to our baby brother's ribs, tickling and causing another riot of giggles.

"What do you think? Huh? Huh? Huh? You better answer me."

The delight in Silas' voice is...startling. Sydney giggles every single day, but this a wholly different side of Silas and it makes me smile. For the life of me, I can't figure out why he's so insistently sullen. He should be silly more often; it suits him.

Relaxing a bit, I lean my head against the wall, just listening and ignoring the sliver of guilt in my gut. I know it's wrong to intrude on their bonding time, but I want to hear more of this. Even if it's only for a moment, even though Silas will return to his sarcastic-asshole ways, I need to listen, if only to remind myself, Silas isn't a raging bag of dick-tips all the time.

Dean Winchester's rampant yelling overtakes the room, drowning out Sydney's giggles momentarily. I can't see from this angle, but I'm sure the little guy's smile is still cracking his face wide open, a smattering of white teeth shining brightly against pink gums. Then his tiny ramblings kick in, a discussion unto himself though I'm sure he thinks Silas understands every word.

I chance a peek around the corner to see Silas is propped-up a bit higher on the deep purple pillows used as accent decor. His entire head is now visible, from white-blonde crown to pointed chin. He's merely nodding along as Sydney explains the situation, chubby digits pointing toward the screen, the ceiling, poking at his own protruding belly. All the while, Silas simply grins and agrees with everything the baby has to say.

"You like Dean? Yeah, he's exceptionally hot; but I got to go with Sam, my friend. Just something about a tall, ripped nerd."

The words are all but whispered to the nine-month-old, but I still hear them and the weight of it strikes me hard in the chest. Though, I'm not exactly sure why.

Sydney voices a customary squeak at his older brother, before cooing and spitting several raspberries in his direction. Silas exclaims with a laugh, before stretching his shirt collar to wipe the spittle from Sydney's face, and then his own. The next moment, as if Silas' confession were some kind of cue, Sydney mumbles and crumbles onto our brother's shoulder, still chattering softly.

I guess I'm shocked. Though that doesn't quite seem like the right word, because the fact that Silas is gay -or at least finds guys attractive- isn't unexpected. But, there is something else scratching at the back of my skull. I just don't know what it is.

I've wondered on Silas' preferences for a couple years now. While most of his closest friends tend to be female, he's never had a girlfriend, or at least not one he's introduced to us. Plus, he's always seemed to fawn more easily over men than women. To be fair, neither of those examples are inherent proof. After all, he's never had a boyfriend he's introduced to us either. However, when that fact is paired with the memory of him staring at some random guy passing by the food-court, so intently that he literally turned around in his chair until the guy was out of sight; it arouses suspicion.

Why else would he insist on associating with that degenerate, Derek McFarland? Since they met, Derek has brought little else into Silas' life except trouble, including his first arrest. Yet, even I admit, Derek's a good-looking kid. He's got the dark, smoldering glower working for him, but he has the personality of a rectal polyp with the IQ to match. If Silas' is attracted to him, that would explain a lot. Still, Silas' confirmation is unbalancing.

Ugh, it doesn't matter. My brain is wrecked, my thumb is throbbing, and I just want to vegetate.

Deciding not to think on it anymore, I reach behind me to quietly open then abruptly close the door. "I'm home!"

Silas is up like a shot, Sydney securely cradled to his chest. Eyes closed, and thumb tucked neatly inside his mouth, the baby doesn't even stir.

"What are you doing home? It's not even lunch yet." The words tumble out of Silas' mouth, tension inexplicably replacing the tenderness from a moment ago.

I just hold up my bandaged left hand as explanation.


Clutching Sydney tighter, Silas nimbly moves off the couch, all but running up to me. "Jesus, are you okay? What happened? Does it hurt? Do you need anything?"

The strain lacing his voice warms me a bit, but I still laugh lightly in disbelief that he's concerned at all. "Calm down, Junior, I'm fine. Just some stitches. No big deal."

"Are you sure?" He hitches Sydney into a better position allowing him to reach out, examining my wounded hand. "Your thumb looks like a jumbo-sized tampon."

I snort. "Nice visual, Silas." Without thinking, I bend down to grab my bag with the same hand.

Silas abruptly grabs me. "Don't lift anything with it! Jesus."

Snatching the strap away, he hoists the green canvas bag onto his shoulder, all without disturbing the sleeping infant clutched to his chest. I'm kind of impressed. I can never move that easily with Sydney, not without waking him.

"I'm going to go lay Chubs down and I'll drop your bag in your room. Go sit." He orders me to the couch with a soft head jerk, and then starts climbing the stairs.

"Don't call him Chubs." He heard me, but doesn't acknowledge it.

I do as he commanded, mainly because it's what I was going to do anyway. The sofa is soft, welcoming and still warm from Silas' body heat. Burrowing into the deep purple pillows, I'm suddenly feeling every second of this morning's events. My body finally relaxes, my muscles unwind, and my breath deepens while Supernatural continues to play in the background.

Honestly, it's more Silas' show than mine. I've fallen behind in seasons, but I do like it and watch it with him on occasion. I've seen this episode before, though I have no idea which season it is. Sam, the youngest Winchester, is explaining the latest ghoulish monster they'll slay by the end of the hour. I think it's a vengeful spirit; that's what it usually is on this show. Regardless, Silas is right; Sam's the best one.

"Are you hungry?"

I startle awake at the sound of my brother's voice, eyes shooting wide open. Silas is sitting on the opposite end of the sofa with an open expression. I don't remember falling asleep. "How long have I been out?"

He shrugs. "Fifteen, twenty minutes. Your eyes kept opening, but you didn't say anything. Are you hungry?"

An exaggerated blink helps clear the fog from my eyes. "Uh, yeah, I could eat."

"Good. I'm reheating the lasagna. It should be ready in a few minutes."

"Cool. Thanks." I try to hold it back, but a yawn distorts the last word. Silas grins and I half-chuckle in response.

We watch the last few minutes of Supernatural. The Winchester brothers effectively dispatch the latest monster, only after some additional trials, of course. I don't know if Silas planned it or not, but no sooner do the credits end that the oven timer sounds softly from the kitchen. Pushing off the sofa, with the foot which had been tucked beneath him, Silas pivots toward the kitchen.

Again, I need to blink a few times to clear my bleary eyes, but manage to propel myself upright and follow the sound of Silas' socked feet. The pan is already on the cooling rack by the time I reach the kitchen and Silas is shuffling between the island and cabinets, gathering plates and silverware. He casts a narrowed glare my way when I sidle up to the counter, his brows tensing together slightly.

"I told you to sit down. I can get this." There's a tincture of irritation in his voice. He's in "bitch-mode", for some reason.

I scoff. "I'm not an invalid, Junior. I can get my own food."

"Says the man who can't work a box cutter without receiving stitches."

"I've done far worse."

Silas heaves a heavy sigh, chucking a spatula in my direction. "Fine. Serve yourself. Whatever."

The bitch is back in full swing.

I just slide around behind him and dig in, doling out a sizeable portion of lasagna onto the plate Silas left on the countertop. I try to cut a piece for him but he simply elbows me out of the way, snatching the spatula from my hand. Unfazed, I lean around him to grab my plate, though I do bump his back with my chest for good measure. He pushes back with his shoulders, sneering at me.

"Ass," he says, though there isn't much of a snap behind the insult. No true bite.

"I have more of one than you do."

"At least my dick is bigger."

I just laugh.

We head back to living room and collapse on the twenty-five-hundred-dollar sofa to eat. If Dad walked in now, a luxury SUV could fit inside the new assholes he'd tear into us. Yeah, we're rebels.

"I'm watching another one. You can deal with it." Silas grabs the remote, pointing it at the DVD player and pressing the play button. I hadn't even realized we were watching a disc. Hell, I'd forgotten we owned any seasons.

"It's cool. I like this show." I answer, shoving another bite into my maw.

Silas' gaze focuses on me, a honey-colored eyebrow arcing, hinting at his skepticism. A second later he acquiesces, to stab his own lasagna with his fork. Wrapping his lips around a mammoth bite, I watch with disgusted amusement while he chews nosily, mouth motioning like a cow chewing cud. I swear if he doesn't close his mouth, there's going to be a murder scene of half-masticated noodles on his plate. However, somehow Silas manages to hold it all inside and swallows it down with a strident gulp. It would be disgusting if it wasn't so oddly amusing.

"Dude, chew with your mouth closed!" I bark out, my nose scrunched while I'm half-laughing.

"Eat me." The next gargantuan bite is poised at his lips, his eyes locked to the TV.

I can only sneer and chuckle.

We finish in silence. Though with Silas virtually inhaling his food, I'm left to dine alone. Well, not alone. Once he's finished, Silas curls into the corner of the sofa, feet tucked underneath him, plate in his lap until I finish. Then without a word he easily pushes up, leans over, pulls the blue ceramic dish from my hands and shuffles to the kitchen.

Instinctively, I snatch the remote and press the pause button. Silas will rewind it anyway, even if he's seen it ten times. This way he won't have to.

There's a soft whoosh as the faucet opens and the soft clinking of dishes as Silas rinses off each one. He is the only one who consistently does so. Though he never puts the dishes in the actual dishwasher, I do thoroughly appreciate the initial clean-off. More than once I've stuck my thumb in some indefinable mass of wet mush, which always makes me gag. Even when he lived here, Simon wasn't especially consistent about rinsing off his plates. I've yelled enough about it. I've bitched, complained, and even whined. Yet, within days, everyone is back to leaving their gross-ass food to rot in the sink, amidst a stack of dirty plates. Except for Silas. Maybe he just has control issues, like me.

After a few minutes, Silas is back, tucking his feet as he burrows deeper into his corner. When his hand slips between the cushions, clearly in search of the remote, I suppress the grin itching at the corners of my lips. Silas continues searching with narrowed eyes, his brows drawing steadily tighter as his hands slid between the cushions once again, then beneath his own butt. Amazingly, he hasn't noticed I've got it. Though to be fair, it is in my good hand and currently tucked beneath the opposite bicep. When he stands, lifting pillows and the couch cushion, I press play.

Supernatural kicks back into motion, with an immediate and resounding crash. Silas startles, nearly falling into the couch and I laugh.

"Asshole." With a glare, he chucks a light-grey pillow at my head and collapses back into his corner, tucking his feet.

Laughing, I toss the pillow back to him. "I didn't know you were so damn jumpy."

One of his feet kicks out in a flash, connecting hard with my thigh. "Asshole."

"Ah-ow, damn it! Don't kick me!" Kicking back, my foot meets his knee. There's a sharp sting in my heel from the contact, but he winces with a hiss.

"Fucker, that hurt!" Silas smiles, genuinely smiles and slams his foot sharply into hip.

"OW! Goddamn it!"

It's been at least a year since we've wrestled in any way, but it quickly escalates into a full-out war of legs, much like it always has. Our limbs tangle together as we retaliate against each other, mostly just catching each other's feet or ankles, exclaiming when we hit bone or barking with laughter when the other yowls. Honestly, it's a wonder Sydney hasn't startled awake, because we are drowning out the TV. But damn, this is fun. That is, until somewhere in the chaos, Silas manages a sneak attack with his heel, slamming squarely into the lower part of my ass, his toes grazing my jock. I yelp, more out of shock than injury, but swiftly concede while trying to block several more frenzied kicks.

"Okay, okay, okay! Fuck, fuck, fuck! You win!"

Silas' fists pump into the air in victory. "Yeah, I do. Now, say it."

"Silas is the ultimate bad-ass, while I, Sylvan Jameson Wolf, am nothing but a pathetic loser." Reciting our family's concession speech, in the flattest tone I can manage is difficult, because I've got no breath and a smile pulling at my lips. "I will forever wallow in misery because I will never be anything other than a giant, flouncing candy-ass bitch."

He laughs, though it feels more obligatory than genuine. "Pussy."

It's the expected response.

Retreating to our respective corners, we relax into the sofa cushions, our legs outstretched and still twisted together. Hunkering down, I let my head loll back against the sofa and watch the show play across the screen, though I'm not really paying attention. I doubt the anesthetic is still in my system, but I'm comfortably numb and can't feel much of anything, except the softness beneath me and the heated weight of Silas' legs interspersed with mine. I hardly mind that his shin is digging into my calf.

My younger brother needs to eat more, he's waif-thin. Or at least I assume he's waif-thin. Silas is always swathed in clothes that are at least a size too big. Slender as he's always been, it became glaringly obvious this last year when he had a growth spurt and shot up four inches. At 6'1", he's now as tall as I am, and may end up taller if he continues to grow. That's going to suck if I end up the shortest of my brothers when I'm the second oldest. Simon only has two inches on me, but he's seems so much more when he's right in front of me.

Behind my eyes, I can see his deep greens crinkle at the corners, smiling at me. His pink lips pulled back to flash his brilliant white teeth. They move, forming languidly around words I can't hear. I laugh anyway because he's amused with himself, and that alone fills me with warmth. I can sense his hands on me, the heat of his palms burning through the thick fabric around my thigh, his fingers digging in a little and crawling upward. A path of nerves sparks from the touch, lighting up in anticipation. I know it's foolish, because the touch is inconsequential, not meant as anything except to emphasize his point.

Then his hand lingers, palm curving around the site just above my knee followed by a short, loving stroke. My breath quickens nervously while the heat rises in my face. I try to remain calm and keep my features relaxed, though my mind is begging for Simon's hand to remain there. Thankfully, he seems oblivious to my panic, full pink lips still shifting sweetly and enticingly in silence.

Suddenly serious, he casts his darkened eyes at me, completely contrary to the wide grin playing at the corners of his mouth. There's something menacing there, and I feel like a raw nerve exposed to the open air. The tenuous hold over my body is lost as the electricity settles in my groin. All Simon needs to do is glance down and my sickness will be apparent. Please, don't let him look down. If he sees... Then, the world will shatter and fall to pieces. Because, as pathetic as it is, Simon is my world and he won't accept me like this. He can't, no matter how much I hope and believe there's a chance.

I collapse upon myself, try to cover up my shame, but Simon pushes me back into the cushions with a firm hand. Hovering close, his breath breaks across my face, washing me in a brand-new scent. Usually, he's crisp like mint or citrus or cool water, but now I'm overtaken by something earthen, warm and vaguely metallic. There's a comfort in it, a familiarity I get lost in. I startle when his hand moves but Simon simply shushes me, balmy lips brushing the icy flesh of my neck. His hand snakes achingly slow along my thigh, fingernails catching on the cotton fabric, lips at my throat as he breathes. It's becoming too much. I can't inhale deep enough, and my blood is racing at light-speed.

I never thought this could happen. I hoped for it, prayed for it but knew, at the most basic level, it couldn't, wouldn't, and shouldn't happen. Still, Simon is touching me, breathing me in and I'm spinning. When his fingers graze my crotch, I groan and Simon smiles because he knows what he's done. Again, a gentle graze of fingers, then his palm and I'm nearly undone.

Then, all at once, I know this isn't real and it never will be. This is as good as I'll ever get and I'm ready to give in, to let go, when a screeching chime rips through the air. The next moment, Simon's hand is gone. His lips disappear, along with his breath, and I'm left with nothing but crackling nerves and a lagging hard-on.

As our living room materializes in front of me, I blink furiously to clear the haze. The TV is still on, blaring scripted lines and violence into the room. An innumerable amount of Sydney's brightly-colored toys are strewn across the floor, while Silas is still curled into his corner of the sofa. Knees held to his chest, Silas' eyes remain locked to the TV screen, but there's a tension rippling along his forearms as though he were trying to collapse into himself.

The phone blares again, drawing our attention.

"Don't worry. I'll get it," I state sarcastically when he makes no move to answer it, even though it's directly behind him.

Grasping the cushions for leverage, I propel forward to stretch past him and grab the handset. As the phone rings once more, he jumps back so violently that I swear he's going to fall over the sofa back.

My brows anchor down sharply in response. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

Silas says nothing, but his eyes widen and dart quickly downward and back to my face. With a startling realization, I fall back into the corner and fold around the flagging, yet noticeable, bulge residing in my khaki shorts.

Eager for a distraction, I answer the phone just before the machine picks up. "Hello?"

"What the fuck took so long?" Simon's joyful teasing both unnerves and warms me.

"Sorry…sleeping. What's up, Sy?"

I'm vaguely aware of Silas pushing off the couch with a huff before storming from the room. I have no idea why he's upset, but he's out of sight before I can stop him to ask.

"Oh, didn't mean to wake you. I called Built-Right and Tim told me you fucked up your hand. You okay?"

"Yeah, just sliced it with a box cutter. I got a few stitches but it's fine."

Simon snorts into the phone. "Dumbass."

"Yeah, yeah. Eat me. What'd you call for anyway?"

"Come over tonight. I'm bored. C.C.'s doing some wedding stuff with her girlfriend and leaving me alone for the night."

He wants to hang out and the thought makes my stomach flip with excitement. However, it plummets to its death in the next moment. After running out on me this morning, at Cecilia's demand no less, he's only calling because she's abandoned him. I'm the back-up plan. Besides, I work at Modified tonight. So, I say as much.

He scoffs. "Skip it. Call in and tell Jimi you fucked-up your hand. It's true."

"Simon, I can't. Today puts me down two shifts this week."

His voices tenses, becoming insistent. "With the cash I gave you earlier this week, that shouldn't be a problem. It's just extra. Come over."

A twinge of irritation is growing inside my head. Why the hell is he yelling? Or damn near, anyway. I grip the phone tighter. "Simon, it's extra we could use."

"I'll cover you, man. Just come over."

Obviously, he hasn't forgotten how strapped our finances can become, or how quickly. It's only been six months, but truth be told, since moving out Simon tends to take money for granted. Without the added burden of Mom's doctor bills and random household expenses -not to mention, getting Cecilia's spending habits under control- Simon's lucrative job virtually flooded his bank account. A fact he's thoroughly enjoyed, with shopping sprees and splurges over the last few months, not only on himself but us, too. And while I more than appreciate the help he sends our way, more often than not, Simon uses it as leverage. Almost like a payment for either his guilt or an expectation to do as he asks. I don't think he even realizes he does it.

Regardless, I want to see him. So, why am I fighting him on this?

"I'll come by after work. I'm only scheduled to nine."

"Cool! Though I wish you'd just chuck work and come by now. I have no idea what I'm going to do until you're here. Maybe play on Xbox...or just masturbate until you knock on the door." He laughs like he's the funniest man on Earth.

I groan at the obscene images scrolling through my mind. "Simon. Don't tell me that."

Simon guffaws, thoroughly amused with himself. "Oh, you love it. Besides, you make it too easy. See you later."

I hang up the second after he does and re-cradle handset, discreetly readjusting my groin. It'll go away, or I'll deal with it later.


The moment he hears Simon's tinny voice echo through the handset, it's all Silas can do to not rip the damn phone from the wall. After months of terse conversations or just plain arguing, he and Sylvan manage to talk, even play, without yelling or throwing things. And of fucking course, Simon must interfere. As always, his presence is suddenly there, blocking any bridges Silas and Sylvan build between themselves. The intrusion is enraging. Even more so because Sylvan simply allows it. The moment Simon is available, Silas is dropped and forgotten, which only creates more terse conversations and arguments.

So, determined to keep his temper -and save any goodwill created between Sylvan and himself- Silas storms from the room, toward the staircase. And, as expected, the entire exercise is ignored. Sylvan hardly looks up, that is if he noticed at all, which feeds further into Silas' resentment. Yet, despite his darkening mood, and his brother's apathy, Silas struggles to climb each step; regardless of his frustrations, Silas is anxious to hear the conversation. And as usual, where Sylvan's concerned, Silas' curiosity wins out over his anger.

Near the second-floor landing, Silas crouches low with each hand wrapped around a spindle, safely hidden from sight but well within earshot.

Silas assumed correctly. Simon called to invite Sylvan over, but he doesn't seem to be going for it. He's insisting on working tonight. Which, in Silas' opinion, is fucking ludicrous. Yes, Modified is the least physical of Sylvan's three jobs and therefore, most likely the safest. But the fact is, Sylvan sliced his fucking hand open today. He should call off for the goddamn night, but he won't.

For a moment, before the damn phone rang, Silas considered asking Sylvan to stay home tonight. Not only could his brother do with the rest, but Silas was eager to see if this afternoon was a fluke, or if they could build on it. Ultimately, though, he couldn't muster the courage because the answer would've been a solid "No". Oh, there would've been credible excuses to spare Silas' feelings: they need the money or Jimi needs the extra help. But the truth is, Silas doesn't rate high enough. So, there's no point arguing about it.

Tender love-making Christ, Simon is loud. Damn dude, reign it in. Silas rolls his eyes when the man's voice carries across at least twelve feet of space, to his ears near the second floor. The words are muddled, little more than gibberish, but his inflections are sonorous. Silas can almost hear Sylvan's teeth gnashing in response to their brother's ridiculous volume.

Tossing his head to clear the black from his eyes, Silas readjusts to allow some blood flow back into his right ass cheek and slouches further forward, pressing against the rails. There's a smile itching at his lips, because Sylvan is irritated, verging on pissed and he's not the cause for once. More than that, it's Simon's fault. At the back of his mind, Simon feels vaguely guilty finding any joy in Sylvan's annoyance, but Simon can suck a rotted tit. Silas is rarely the innocent party, he'll take the pleasure where he can.

A seed of optimism is struggling to germinate within Silas' slender belly. Sylvan may not be willing to stay home with him, but the brief silence from the living room suggests Simon won't be receiving the pleasure either.

Ha! asshole.

However, any hope is boot-stomped to dust the next moment, when Sylvan caves and agrees to hang out after work. Instinctually, Silas' hands tighten around each spindle, turning his knuckles white. He wants to lash out with every ounce of strength, to kick the balustrade, and to destroy the bannister. He doesn't, but dear God, how he wants to.

Grow a fuckin' spine, Van. Christ! Silas rages, as he spins up from his seat near the second-floor landing.

He veers right to the end of the hall, yanking harder than necessary on the attic cord. The hatch opens with a whisper, the results of Silas taking the time to oil the hinges this morning, which he now vaguely regrets. The noise would be a welcomed expression of his anger. Regardless, he attacks the ladder, scrambling into the sanctuary of his bedroom and slams the entry shut, with a satifying BANG!

Silas will never understand Sylvan's obsession with their eldest brother, never. He can't fathom the reason why someone as caring and gentle, yet resilient, as Sylvan can continually pander and fawn over an asshole like Simon. The man may not berate and scold Sylvan, as he does with Silas, but he exploits Sylvan's good nature, at every turn. Why can't Sylvan see that?

All but leaping across his mattress, situated on the floor, Silas pries at the floorboard directly beneath the single bay window illumining. The wood is tattered and worn from frequent removal, as a result the board pops up easily to reveal the wooden box hidden beneath, equally battered and used.

Two Christmases ago, Sylvan had hidden it behind the tree, ensuring it would be the last gift Silas would open. At the time, the box had been onyx-black with a high-lacquer shine and decorated with amazingly intricate celestial patterns. It was fucking beautiful and Silas loved it, only to be told to open the lid. Inside, wrapped in soft purple velvet was the tarot deck Silas had admired a few weeks before, during a random visit to see Sylvan at Bound. He'd been so transfixed, loitering in front of the display case, that Sylvan's arrival had startled him. Then, with a knowing grin, Sylvan had unlocked the glass cabinet, pulled the tarot deck out and placed it delicately in Silas' fourteen-year-old hands for inspection.

Commissioned by some save-the-arts foundation, one of Silas' favorite artists had designed and created seventy-eight unique pieces of artwork, all to be rendered for the deck. Each card was more beautiful than the last, full of surrealist, dreamlike images that flowed effortlessly from one to the next. Silas ached to own it, but there was no way he could afford the ninety-five-dollar price tag, even with Sylvan's discount. And he couldn't bring himself to ask Dad or Mom for the money, not for something so trivial. Defeated, he'd handed the deck back to his brother with a murmured thanks, and headed toward their parents.

Silas can still remember the sympathy etched between Sylvan's brows, but never suspected the man cared enough to spend that kind of money on him. So, when the lid fell open on Christmas morning and revealed the deck laid squarely inside, Silas lit up and wasted no time pulling the cards from their packaging to give Sylvan the first reading. Truthfully, Silas had very little idea what he was actually doing but knew enough to seemingly impress his beloved brother. However, when the Lovers appeared, Silas knew exactly what it meant, and his heart stuttered a little bit. Symbolic of choice and desire, only doubled by the card's position in the layout: Hopes and Fears. Silas couldn't help his grin.

"So, am I going to meet my true love, huh?" Sylvan asked, beaming the sweetest smile.

To this day, Silas hates that he blushed, but he did. With his face burning bright crimson, he mumbled, "I don't know."

For two months, Silas pulled those cards out every day to admire the artwork, to practice readings, to think about Sylvan. For eight glorious weeks, Silas smiled so often his cheeks hurt and Sylvan always grinned back. For sixty sublime days, Silas knew his admiration, perhaps his love, was reciprocated. After all, the cards kept confirming it with every read. Silas felt maybe, just maybe... Until the sixty-first night.

Silas heard Sylvan through the vent, the rustling of bedsheets echoed by soft groans. At first, he thought Sylvan may be having a nightmare. That happened sometimes; the result of too many worries and too little care. So, Silas crept from his bed with no exact plan in mind, simply the need to help, to comfort his brother. He eased down the ladder and snuck along the hall to his brother's bedroom door, which already sat ajar by a few inches. Within moments, Simon's name passed Sylvan's lips in a deep moan of obvious euphoria. The following moment, Silas' heart sank and drowned in its own blood.

At the time, he'd considered tearing up the cards, shredding each one to infinitesimal pieces but, of course, he couldn't go through with it. No, instead Silas ripped them from their wooden nest and tossed them, velvet cloth and all, to some random corner of his room. Though moments later, guilt forced him to pick up and restack each one, to delicately wrap the the deck with velvet and place them safely upon a shelf. Still, Silas couldn't look at them after that. Now, the deck lay forgotten on the corner bookshelf, tucked behind a stack of books, collecting dust and time. Out of sight, out of mind. That is, until Silas' eyes drift to the corner bookshelf each day.

The box, on the other hand, being the perfect size to house his revolving, yet ever growing, collection of stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens, was quickly regulated to the dark cove underneath Silas' floorboard. And in no time at all, the sharp, black edges became rounded and greyed, splintering from frequent whacks against the rim of the floor. The intricate comets and stars cracked and chipped, leaving behind a smattering of tattered holes, covered with bits of duct tape to prevent baggies slipping out and getting lost. To Silas, it felt…sacrilegious to use the box for such a purpose, the guilt nipping at his chest each time he removed the floorboard, but also distinctly satisfying. A useful, daily reminder of Sylvan's thoughtfulness, as well as his betrayal.

When storming from the living room, Valium had been Silas' intended drug of choice today. He wants nothing more than a relaxing calm, and perhaps a nap. But after witnessing Sylvan cave to Simon, yet again, Silas decides he's in need of something a bit more mind-numbing.

Snatching his cache of pharmaceuticals from its hidden place, Silas sifts through the excessive amount of baggies with determined fingers, until he finds the ketamine. In a split-second decision, Silas opts for pills over snorting, to elongate and mellow out the high. Popping two into his eager mouth, he swallows them dry where they stick at the back of his throat. He gags slightly, choking against the vague burn there, though it's easily remedied by a swig from the Jack Daniels bottle tucked underneath his mattress. Collapsing onto his back, Silas steals another snuff of whiskey, electing not to cap the bottle. He wants to nurse the last few ounces as the Special K creeps into his bloodstream.

He considers calling Derek, but isn't sure if the asshole would even come over. Besides, Silas knows by the time Derek would get here, the ketamine would be running full-blast in his veins. There's no way he could effectively sneak Derek through the house to his room, and the trellis doesn't reach his only window. Plus, there's the fact, Derek will want to get high in order to fuck around and the kid's a walking drug panel. It will take most of Silas' stimulant stash to get the guy buzzed, so fuck it. Silas will fuck himself stupid later. For now, pulling the shade and lying back with closed eyes to wait for the disconnect his body craves will do just fine.

The Box

Over two hours and Silas hasn't come back down. I meant to check on him after hanging-up with Simon, ask if he wanted to play Call of Duty or something. With my thumb, he could annihilate me easily, which always brings him immense joy. Then Sydney woke up and demanded a diaper change and has since been quite content following me around the house while I tidy-up and ready things for dinner.

Dad is grilling tonight. So, it's my job to ensure the vegetables and meat are prepped, then left within sight and easy reach. My father is a master at the grill, but he needs a roadmap to find his way around the kitchen.

While ever so slowly dicing peppers, onions and potatoes, Sydney chatters away at my feet, grasping at my bare calf with tiny, sharp nails badly in need of clipping.

"Ow, buddy. Quit it." Gently pulling my leg from his grip, Sydney seems to understand and crawls toward his blanket of toys, a few feet away.

Cubing the chicken and steak takes longer than the veggies and my left hand is beginning to cramp from the awkward grip. Though, to be fair, the pain from the actual cut is minimal. I power through, and toss the chicken into a barbeque sauce, while the steak goes into a homemade marinade. The ingredients of which, Dad still refuses to divulge. It's goddamn delicious and I'm a bit sad I won't get any hot off the grill. However, the kebabs do reheat well.

Washing my hands, as thoroughly as possible around the large wad of gauze enveloping my thumb, I listen to Sydney chattering behind me and resettle on Silas. I've got loads of time before work tonight. It would be nice to hang out, maybe build on what we started earlier this afternoon. A quick pat-dry with a dishtowel, I turn to the little monster currently gnoshing on one of his plush, green dinosaurs.

Crouching in front of him, Sydney gazes at me with curiousity. I tug the animal from his mouth, the foot coming loose with a soft pop. "You can't eat Rex. You'll spoil your dinner!"

The baby titters, all teeth and pink gums with bright, happy eyes. I scoop him up to my hip in a rush, receiving a patented squeal and barrage of giggles. All too happy to be in someone's arms, Sydney leans back against my arm, like he's lounging in a hammock and I laugh. Gathering several toys from the blanket at my feet, I head to the living room and throw them in his playpen.

Setting him inside, I explain. "I'm going to go get Silas, okay?"

"Bah! La-la-la-la!"

"That's right. I'm going to get La-la." I kiss his forehead, "Be good for minute."

I'm always paranoid when Sydney's not within sight. In addition to his uncanny ability to acquire injuries, I feel like the most neglectful brother in the world. However, I can't exactly climb the attic ladder with the ankle-biter wriggling in my arms.

Upstairs, I'm surprised to see the attic cord hanging at its full length. From the way Silas carried on earlier, storming the stairs and slamming the hatch shut, I would've bet my life the cord was all but non-existent. I pull it down, already cringing against the expected screech of hinges. The near silence is almost more shocking. Grateful Silas finally oiled the hinges, I climb the rungs slowly.

The dark hues of Silas' paintings and various posters, plastered along every wall and even the slanted ceiling, absorb nearly all ambient light, obscuring the room's details in a haze of black-purple-red. The air smells syrupy-sweet, like alcohol, though behind that there's a hint of something...earthy. Just as earlier this week, the floor is a chaotic pit of clothes, shoes and various other items. T-shirts and, possibly, knitting needles are poking out of his small dresser which is pushed against the far wall. In the dim light, it's difficult to discern what exactly I'm looking at.

Climbing further in, I gaze left, across the room, where Silas is lying flat-backed on the mattress. His face is turned toward the solitary window, and he's breathing quietly but otherwise: Jesus, he looks comatose. When I see the Jack Daniels bottle clutched to his chest, I realize why.

Incensed, I storm the last few rungs, sending a resounding thunder into the hall below. I clamber through the anarchy on the floor to the bed, seizing the bottle roughly from his hand. "Silas, Goddamn it!"

His blue eyes crack open, but seemingly can't lift any higher. Through a half-lidded, bewildered gaze Silas takes, what feels like, hours to realize who I am.

When it finally dawns on him and he attempts to run a hand across his face, but fumbles it. "What the fuck, Van?" His voice is coarse and rough, like he's smoked an entire pack of cigarettes.

I wave the bottle, eyes wide and expectant. He moves to grab it, but I'm too quick for his booze-addled reflexes. "What'd you take?"

"Nothing." Heaving a heavy sigh leads to several small coughs, but he says nothing more afterward. He has no intention of answering me.

That won't stop me from asking. "Bullshit. You only drink when you're high. Now, answer me, Silas."

"Fuck you, Sylvan. What do you care?"

"Were you high while I was working?" My voice is straining to keep from yelling. It's nothing compared to the effort needed to refrain from punching him. "Were you high while you were watching Sydney alone, this morning?"

"No!" He seems more alert now. His are eyes fully open but his pupils are dilated. Whatever he took, he's still tweaking.

"Don't lie to me, Less." I don't mean to use it, the label Simon uses when he's feeling particularly cruel toward our younger brother. I hadn't meant to say it, but I'm pissed. Beyond pissed.

Still, that's no excuse.

"No, you asshole!" Silas sits up violently, resentful and ready to fight, but loses some luster when he sways and falls back to his elbows. Instinctively, his presses into the mattress for balance before giving up and collapsing to the soft surface, eyes to the ceiling. "Just get the hell out of my room."

I shove his shoulder. He will answer me, damn it. "SJ! What the hell did you take?"

Silas knocks my hand away with a grunt, dropping the same arm over his eyes, but he doesn't respond. I stare, waiting with laser focus on the face hidden underneath his arm, but Silas won't answer. He's dug in his heels, he won't be moved; but neither will I.

After several moments of staring at my stubborn brother, my resolve sways and my eyes begin to wander, examining the room. Now adjusted to the dim light, it's much easier to see the utter chaos in which he lives. Amazingly, his room is messier than mine and that's not easy. Piles of clothes conceal piles of books, which overflow from his shelves that already sit in disarray. There are knitting needles poking out of his dresser drawer, along with several skeins of yarn. Which surprises the hell out of me.

Since when does Silas knit?

Nearby, a solitary hoodie is all that occupies the bar in his closet, amongst a smattering of well-used, empty hangers. The floor of the closet, while packed full, is the only area with any semblance of order. Two or three cups of drawing pencils set on top of boxes and drawers, each labled "Oils", "Acrylics", "Charcoal", "Brushes" and several other tags obscured by mounds of shoes or clothes. Half-done paintings are set aside, in a cleared area next to neatly-folded drop cloths, and several blank canvases filed against the closet wall.

At least he has respect for something. I find myself thinking, bitterly.

When my eyes flit back to Silas, I catch the corner of something familiar on the far side of the mattress. I clamber to my knees, incidentally shaking Silas from his repose abruptly, while bridging over him to grab the object from the floor. And, as I thought, it isthe box I gifted to Silas two Christmases ago...filled to the brim with several baggies. There's an assortment of pills, two small satchels of pot and a single medical vial of clear fluid. Silas' hands shoot out before I can read the label, snatching the container from my hands with a grunt.

"Where are the cards?"

Facing the wall, Silas' hands fumble the latch closed and hastily shoves the container toward the floor. He mumbles something, but the clank of wood slamming back into place drowns out the words.

"Where?!" I shout, unintentional and sharp, but I'm so far beyond pissed I'm approaching orbit. "Where the fuck are the cards, Silas?!"

"On the shelf, you dick! They're my fucking cards, it's my fucking box, and I'll use them how I want." Silas screams back, rising to his knees and pressing into my space with an emphatic gesture. Even in the low light of his room, the change in his eyes is visible: bright blue storming over into steel grey. He's ready for a fight and, frankly, so am I.

"To hide your fucking stash!"

"Piss off, Sylvan. It's none of your fucking business." He stabs a finger toward the hatch. "Get out."

I don't move. "What's the vial, Silas?"

"Nothing." When his eyes avert, casting down to avoid looking me in the eye, I can feel myself unraveling.

"Really? What, were two stints at rehab not enough?"

"Oh, kiss my-,"

"Decided to start shooting up, have you?" I interrupt, watching the lines sharpen in his face.

"I have never-,"

The rage is seeping from every pore now, and I'm just seeking pain now. Though, I'm not sure whether I want his or my own, but it hardly matters because I can't stop myself. "Wanted to be a proper junkie?"

"FUCK OFF! YOU SANCTIMONIOUS PRICK!" He roars, shoving my chest repeatedly. "GET OUT!"

I bat his hand away, but don't retaliate otherwise. Not physically, at least. "Strike a nerve, did I?"

Still determined to expel me from his room, Silas doubles the strength behind his push, but we're too evenly match. "Get OUT!"

"Why?! Do you need privacy? To dope yourself into oblivion? You didn't have a problem being high off your ass with only our baby brother in the house!"

I knock Silas to his ass with ardent force, but he's back up a moment later, retaliating with equal measure.

"I was NOT high this morning!" Silas' palms slam into my chest, inducing the desired effect as I'm knocked back. "I would never, you arrogant dick."

Despite myself, I believe him. The anger coursing through my veins doesn't want to, but I do believe him. And yet, "You have before. Why wouldn't you again?"

Silas scoffs a mirthless laugh, the smile that follows is hollow and full of gritted teeth. He says nothing, merely shaking his head with his eyes searching the room. He's lost for an answer or refusing to give me one. For some reason, the confusion pisses me off more.

"Well," I say, standing as far as the slanted ceiling will allow, "good to know the box I made you is so useful."

"What?" His eyes shock wide, the color clearing in an instant.

Throat tight, fists tighter, as I grasp at the empty bottle once again, I ignore his question. "Nice to know that those extra hours in shop class could contribute, at least in some small way, to your inevitable OD!" I'm all but screaming by the last few words, when I throw the whiskey bottle against the wall. On purpose, I aim away from him, toward the far corner but he cringes nonetheless when the glass shatters. There's a sickening satisfaction for me in that.

I hate when I'm like this, unfocused and on edge. Which is probably why I almost fall down the ladder in my rush to leave. I land surefooted enough at the bottom however, and throw the hatch closed with a resonating bang but, all at once, I'm overcome by a wave of nausea. Pressing into the wall, I gain some equilibrium and try to take deep breaths. My lungs seem determined to stutter around the incoming oxygen, unable or unwilling to take it in. It's all I can do to keep upright. I am fishtailing hard, thrown back and forth between rage and fear.

Throwing the bottle had been unnecessary, I shouldn't have done it. But maybe, just fucking maybe, Silas felt the terror I feel for him. If only for one fucking moment. Every fucking day. Silas can clean up the bottle or cut his fucking foot. There's a part of me that truly doesn't care, but my stomach is twisting into a rigid coil regardless.

God, I hate this. Tonight, can't get here quick enough.

Coming Down

When Silas wakes up, there's still light seeping in around the edges of his crimson shade. While likely still in his system, the ketamine was long ago processed by his liver and he's dropping quickly, back into the harsh, scratching reality of this afternoon. Everything is hazy, spiky and weighted. The memory of the fight floods his mind before he can guard against it, followed in swift order by a stinging line of tears. Silas blinks furiously to hold them at bay, determined not to cry again.

Between the two of them, especially when pissed off and frustrated with each other, throwing nearby objects is not unheard of. Nonetheless, Sylvan pitching the bottle against the wall had scared the hell out of Silas. He'd all but leapt away from the shattering glass and held his breath, waiting for another bomb to be lobbed in his direction, but none came. It was only when the hatch clanged closed a moment later, that Silas realized his brother had left. The air erupted from his lungs as he fell to his back, despondent and broken when the tears came.

Everything felt

Silas has always assumed Sylvan had simply bought the box, possibly at some eccentric local shop. The thought never occurred to him that Sylvan would make something like that, let alone make it for him. Silas can't imagine the hours his brother spent: planning the details, carving each star into wood, sanding the rough edges or being forced to start from scratch when mistakes were unfixable. All of it, done for Silas. And he doesn't want to think about those hours, all that time now wasted.

Each passing thought tightens the twist in Silas' stomach, scoring the shame and pain deeper into his gut. The burn of tears is becoming unbearable and his breath is beginning to shudder.

Silas rolls to his side, grasping at the well-worn floorboard with clawing and desperate fingers. This is all too much. The fight, the glass, the gut-deep grief and the heart-wrenching ache growing in his chest. He can't deal with this. There's a mind-numbing release under the floor, and he needs it fiercely. But when he pulls the box from beneath the floor, Silas loses his purpose.

Sliding the lid open, he gazes unfocused at the assortment of small plastic bags and the glass vial. Silas can't remember why these things are in here.

Before consciously deciding to, Silas overturns the box. The bags slip out in a slick, misshapen heap, while the vial topples and rolls along the floor until it thunks into the open subfloor. The sheets rustle when he moves, nearly coming loose from the corner of the mattress as Silas scoots down the bed toward the corner bookshelf. Careful of the shattered glass, he removes a small stack of paperbacks and grasps the cloth-wrapped cards from behind. When Silas slides the lid closed, the set still fits snuggly inside, as it should.

The rip-cord tight coil in his gut severs and Silas can't hold back the sob that erupts from his chest. Goddamn does it hurts, like every rib breaking at once as his heart collapses, as he tries to remember how to breathe. The air is too thick, stretching the walls of his lungs too thin as the sobs steal what little oxygen Silas can inhale. He can't fight it anymore. He's too damn tired, too heartbroken. So, he simply breaks down around the box clutched to his chest.

Fucking hell, how had they gotten here? Surely, this was more than just drifting apart. More than just Silas' angst and Sylvan's frustration. They used to love each other. They used to be so close.

When did their affection for one another mutate into this? Silas can guess at it. Though there is no pinpoint of time, more like a knot of moments and experiences; a tangle of Silas' pain and Sylvan's anger, Simon's arrogance and Sylvan's acquiescence. Finding the root to all this bad blood is problematic, to say the least. The deeper he looks, the more distorted the beginning seems. And, while Silas would love to claim innocence, he cannot honestly remember which came first: the drugs or the realization that he loved Sylvan.

Silas has never been one to deny an experience. If the idea is interesting or potentially fun, he's always the first in line to try. More than once, this mindset has resulted in a broken bone or a police escort home, so it's more than probable the drugs came first. But Silas is certain of one thing. After night sixty-one, mind-altering substances became infinitely more attractive and he leapt head-first into a pool of narcosis.

To this day, he feels thoroughly pathetic when pining away for Sylvan, even more when he doses himself into oblivion or fucks himself stupid to escape for a bit.

Why Sylvan would want to speak to me when I'm doped out of my fucking mind?

However, even now, crying in the dusky light of his room, Silas knows that's not wholly true. Sylvan sees him, speaks to him, hugs him, but the betrayal Silas always feels warps his mind about Sylvan's intentions. Despite clutching proof of Sylvan's love and attention, in his hands, not to mention, the greater proof from mere hours ago running through his memory, Silas must work to remember Sylvan does love him. He's not sure Sylvan likes him very much, but his brother does love him.

Just this morning, they'd eaten together, laughed, teased and played. Even if Sylvan had let him win the leg-wrestle, it had been fun. There was no anger or frustration, and no Simon to contend with for once. For a little while, it felt like before; when he and Sylvan used to play console games or listen to music and try to one-up each other on dance moves. When they'd been friends, they'd been close. Now, there's always a threat overhead. Every interaction could spin wildly out of control, devolve into insults, arguments and flying objects. Is a full-out war inevitable? Why?

Worse than his unrequited crush and his pitiful simpering over it, the truly pathetic cherry on top of this shit-sick sundae, is Sylvan's unrequited and pitiful simpering over Simon.

Seriously, what are the chances? Each of them in love with a sibling, but not each other? Talk about a glitch. A glitch capable of frying a fucking city-wide electrical grid and plunging them all into a ubiquitous dark hole, if the truth were known.

Silas and Sylvan, two fucking sad-ass peas in one fucking sick-ass pod. Though, Silas may have a one or two-point lead in the pathetic category.

Jesus Christ...Silas thinks, pulling a stuttering, but fully-developed breath into his lungs, the white-hot contempt settling heavily into his chest. It'd been stupid, so fundamentally and mindlessly stupid, touching Sylvan while he slept. Hell, Silas practically molested him, like those fucking sick-twist dentists that feel up their patients after putting them under anesthesia for procedures. Okay, that's hyperbolic. In truth, he'd only grazed Sylvan's belly with his fingertips. Still, that's what Silas felt like, a molesting sick-twist dentist.

When Sylvan's eyes shuttered down, their legs still tangled together and their collective heat pooling into an enveloping warmth, Silas had settled into the cushions and watched, unabashedly. He'd watched Sylvan's breathing even out, becoming deeper as it drew further into his lungs. Silas saw the deep lines around Sylvan's eyes, the lines which seemed to perpetually crease his brother's young face, relax a little and ease a bit.

Silas had been so happy to watch, perfectly content to gaze at Sylvan, to follow the gentle movement of his chest, as it rose and fell beneath that hideously green polo shirt.

Then, Sylvan shifted within his small space on the sofa, pulling one of his legs free where it had been tucked further beneath the opposite thigh, his un-wounded hand running a lazy course over his torso, lifting his shirt several inches in the process. The muscles rolled gently with each breath Sylvan took, highlighting the dusting of dark blonde hair on his belly. Silas' breath caught in his chest, like some awe-struck preteen girl. All he wanted to do was reach out and caress the delicate trail from Sylvan's navel to the waistband of his shorts. Then, before consciously deciding to do so, Silas' left hand stretched forward grazing the fine trail.

The path of hair was so soft and inviting, Silas ached to follow it further down, where it disappeared beneath Sylvan's shorts, but he didn't. When Sylvan shuddered, his miniscule belly pushed out against Silas' fingers, as though demanding more attention. Emboldened, Silas pulled himself closer, hugging a knee to his chest while laying a delicate palm flat across his brother's abdomen. Sylvan breathed deeply, each inhale filling the hollow of Silas' palm perfectly with softness and warmth that flowed up his arm radiating through to his core. Silas arched his hand, dragging delicate fingertips across the soft, downy hairs, grazing and toying with the sturdy edge of Sylvan's shorts.

Then the fucking phone rang.

Fear, anger, and shame flooded his head at the interruption, which only magnified when he heard Simon's voice cut through the reciever. Then Silas needed space, desperatelyk. Not to mention, he couldn't listen to Sylvan's simpering tone. Of course, the tone didn't last long and Silas had slowed to listen, hope blooming in his chest before being crushed seconds later. When Sylvan agreed to see the asshole, Silas couldn't take it. He'd needed to be numb. Then Sylvan came to his room and they'd…

Now, he's lying in the dark, once again verging on tears and resentment, roughly pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes because he will not cry again. Still, there isn't a damn thing he can do to fix it. Though, to be honest, Silas isn't sure he wants to fix it. Even if the entire situation is sickeningly worthless, fucking worthless.

He's tired…of feeling alone, of pining for someone who would never have him, of watching Sylvan pine for Simon, of being invisible. The more Silas thinks about it: the rejection, the pain, the constant cold stabbing jealousy cleaving his chest open almost daily, the tears well-up and fall again, forming a cold trail on his face.

That's it. Silas is calling Derek. He needs to forget for a while, to fuck until he's got amnesia.


Mom flits through the door at 4:15, a unquestionably genuine smile still plastered across her face. And just in time too, because I need to leave for work in roughly forty-five minutes and still need to shower.

"How was your day?" I ask, craning my neck to look over my shoulder.

She sweeps into the living room after setting her purse on the sideboard near the door and swipes Squeak from my lap. Plopping down next to me on the sofa, she tickles his belly earning a wave of stunted chuckles. "Wonderful. Where's my third-born?"

My eyes roll of their own accord. "He stormed out of the house about a half hour ago."

Mom's bright green eyes -the source of Simon's color- narrow a bit, searching my face. "What happened?" She's not accusing but, without question, expects an answer.

"Nothing…Really!" I add when her reddish brow quirks up. "I sliced my hand at work…"

"Are you okay?" Her tone shift is immediate, all motherly concern and comfort. Cradling Sydney close, she uses her free hand to examine my wounded appendage. "Does it hurt?"

"Nah, not really. I'm okay, Mom. A little aspirin and I'm all good."

"BAH!" I think that's Sydney-speak for "Yeah!"

Mom grins, kissing a raspberry into his neck. He scrunches and giggles, tangling his fingers in her copper hair. When she pulls away, her face becomes serious almost immediately. "What happened with Junior?"

An exasperated grunt pushes from my lungs. I'm so fucking pissed, but I won't there's no way I'm telling. Silas' gluttonous stockpile of drugs, I can't even fathom it. I can't. Dad would lose his damn mind and Mom would most likely death-spiral into a depression. That is stress we don't need. I will not be the one to ruin her happy-binge. I will talk to Silas later, after I apologize. Maybe, just maybe I can get him to listen to me for once.

"I don't know. We had a good lunch and hung out for a bit, then Simon called, and he got all pissy and retreated to his room. Then, like I said, he stormed out a while ago."

"Maybe I'll talk to him when he gets home, see if I can get him to open up." She's addressing me but making funny faces at my infant brother, who's all too thrilled for the attention. I think Sydney loves her more than all of us combined.

"Good luck with that."

Her sudden glare is daunting, and familiar. It's the same one I give Simon when he's being a dick about our brother. The realization is sobering. Throwing up my hands in surrender, I move on to the next subject. "I'm going over to Sy's tonight after work. C.C.'s doing some wedding crap with a girlfriend and he wants to hang out."

"It's not crap," she chides with a frustrated sigh. Mom has no idea why I dislike Cecilia, but has no illusions that that woman and I will ever be friends.

I just roll my eyes again.

"Are you sleeping over?"

My heart quickens. I hadn't thought about it. It shouldn't be a problem. I don't work on Sundays -the cooperation of my three bosses to ensure I have a full day off. Otherwise, I tend to overload myself. But Simon didn't offer to spend the night. Though, that doesn't mean anything necessarily, because he seldom verbalizes the invitation. When he does, it's usually after I'm already there, and too drunk or high, or both, to drive. Besides, the fact that I won't arrive until after nine, kind of implies the need to stay. When we "commiserate" at his place, I never make it home before seven a.m., anyway. Sleep rarely factors in, if at all.

"I-I don't know, probably."

"Okay, well, give him a big kiss for me. Where's your father?" With that she stands and shifts Sydney, who is still tangled in her hair, to her hip while I feel the heat rise in my face.

"Um, in the kitchen, last time I saw."

Now alone in the room, my mind races with images of Simon's mouth and a cavalcade of damnation-worthy behavior. Anxiety wells in my stomach and I push the thoughts to the deepest recesses of my mind, locked away with all their equally wicked friends. Inevitably, one or more will resurface in time, likely at the least convenient moment, but as of this moment that deep and dirty abyss in my head seems to be holding fast. Pretty sure, with everything I'm repressing, I'm going to develop a tumor.

In the bathroom upstairs, I strip out of my dried, sweat-leaden polo and khaki shorts to hop in the shower, hoping to scrape away some of the dusty scum that comes from working on the dock. It's a more difficult task than usual when forced to keep one hand dry, elevated and clear of the water, but I manage. When back in my room, I ransack several heaps of clutter, searching for my favorite pair of jeans, which I saw just this morning. The mess swallowing my floor, inch by miniscule inch, is making the search absurdly difficult and frustrating. I should be used to it. I can't even remember the last time I was able to find any of my possessions easily. Yet, I continue to avoid cleaning my room and find myself sifting through piles of chaos almost daily.

Finally, I find the pair of dark wash button-flys I love. They are relaxed and well-worn with "Far too many holes...your ass is going to fall out", as Dad likes to remind me. Sliding into them and buttoning the fly, I slip a thread-bare t-shirt over my head, emblazoned with Massive Attack's Blue Lines album logo. The graphic is faded, all but invisible at the edges, and the fabric is nearly transparent in spots, but I love this damn shirt. I bought it at a show a couple years ago and have worn it at least once a week since then. The tickets were a birthday present from Simon, even though Silas was the one who actually went with me and convinced me to buy the shirt when I waivered at the expense. I'm glad he did because, it's comfortable and, not for nothing, it looks damn good on me.

Not to mention, after a week in slacks and button-ups, not to mention a sweltering morning in khakis and a lime-green polo, jeans and a t-shirt is a welcomed change. Modified's "uniform" policy is truly excellent. Namely because there isn't one.

Jimi, the owner and our childhood friend, could give less than a fuck what I wear, so long as I'm not naked. Even then, it's likely he wouldn't notice or care.

In fact, the only time he ever commented on my outfit was when a schedule mix-up left me no time to change between shifts at Bound and Modified. When I walked through the door that day, the bell echoed overhead, calling everyone's attention to my collared dress-shirt and slacks. In dead silence, Jimi arched an eyebrow at me while his lips curled into a sneer. When I told him to "Shut up" with a sheepish grin, Jimi snorted and walked toward the back office, chuckling while shaking his head. The asshole.

Still, despite the frequent razzing and nearly endless trash-talk -by every-goddamn-one- the relaxed, easy atmosphere at Modified is highly appreciated after the "professional" environment of Bound, as well as the body-wearing labor at Built-Right. Plus, Modified is a tattoo parlor, so my labret piercing is almost required to be worn.

Back when I first started working for Jimi, Silas suggested I pierce my lip, I think mainly as a joke. Turns out Jimi was all for it, mainly because I was a, quote- "puncture virgin" -unquote. I'd been resistant at first, but then Simon eventually convinced me, using the argument that I should look the part if I worked there. The final tipping point being that chicks would dig it because "it's hot." At the time, I'd foolishly hoped he'd indirectly told me he thought I would be hot with a lip ring. He was kind of right, though. It looked strange at the beginning, but now it's one of my favorite accessories. Which is unfortunate, because I hardly get to flaunt it.

Built-Right is mainly a weekend gig, with the occasional mid-week shift, and has a strict "no facial jewelry" standard. In contrast, Bound is relatively liberal when it comes to body modifications...if one happens to be an associate. Supervisors, on the other hand, are required to wear "business-casual attire, with no visible tattoos or piercings, aside from a tasteful number of piercings in each ear", i.e. less than three per lobe. So, on alternating weeks, I'm condemned to several continuous days of collared shirts, slacks and khakis, and little plastic name badges, with a flesh-colored plug digging irritatingly beneath my lower lip.

Don't misunderstand, I like each job, and each has its benefits. Bound pays well for a retail chain and Mr. Behr is a good boss. Especially when considering that, despite my chaotic schedule demands and not quite being the required 18 years of age, he still promoted me to Cafe Supervisor, two months ago. I would say, Mr. Behr is an amazing boss. Whereas, Built-Right has provided much-needed "emergency" cash, occupies my head when needed and has also given me a couple of great friends, who get me out of the house occasionally.

Nevertheless, Modified is my favorite. The atmosphere is laid-back but diligent, like whisky and hard rock; kind of like Jimi. Plus, the job is easy, so I'm essentially paid to hang out with weird artsy-types.

Fastening the broad leather strap of my watch around my left wrist, I cinch the buckle tight enough to keep it from sliding around obnoxiously along my arm, before slipping a silver band and pewter ring on a couple of different fingers. My labret is always a bit tight when I replace the plug with a lip-hugging hoop, usually needs a bit of encouragement to accept the jewelry. While turning the steel ring around my lip, encouraging the flesh to relax and loosen, I glance the digital clock on my side table in the mirror. I should've been out the door two or three minutes ago. In a slight panic, I snatch my khaki shorts from the floor and rifle through the pockets for my damn wallet, when Doug's number floats to the floor.

The blood rushes into my head as I bend, brain automatically kicking into overdrive. Did he mean to give it to me? If so, was it personal or professional? Did the attractive doctor hit on me? Wait, attractive?

Yeah, Doug's attractive...Well, that's new.

Grappling with that unfamiliar feeling, I've lost two more minutes and decide to muse on the phone number, and it's meaning, later. In the meantime, I just shove the paper and my studded wallet into my back pocket and run a quick hand through my shaggy waves, hoping for the best, but receive something closer to a limp Blue Lagoon mop. Christ, I need a haircut. Grabbing my hastily packed duffle and dashing down the staircase, I all but run from the house amidst a chorus of parental good-byes and a rather jarring Sydney squeal.

By some miracle, I arrive exactly on time and pull open the frameless glass door of Modified Body Shop, at exactly 6:00. The door chimes echoes into the lobby area, calling Jimi and Steely's attention, the dinging audible even over multiple tattoo guns buzzing into the air. The other two artists, however, Deke and Briton hardly glance up, much too involved in etching matching murals of motorcycles and flames onto the backs of, rather gruff-looking twins, seated in their respective stations. I quickly settle into my usual spot behind the counter, fist-bumping Jimi as I pass and winking at Steely when she blows me a kiss. Then her eyes settle on my hand.

"What the hell did you do to your hand, Syl?" Steely asks over the speed metal pounding out of the speakers, the teasing concern apparent regardless. Deke and Briton finally take notice, their guns momentarily pausing.

"Sliced it at Built-Right." I yell back, setting my bag down and beginning to scan the appointment book.

"Smooth." She laughs and returns to slumping over the client in her chair, digging color into the man's tiger piece with a broad set of needles. The giant bear of a man tries and miserably fails to hide his wincing. The fact that a petite, metal-studded, spikey-haired brunette is causing him significant pain is obviously a bitter pill to swallow.

Jimi's smirking, eyes focused on his station. He's setting up for his next appointment, likely one of the two co-eds sitting in the lobby. My money is on the young girl sat in the chair nearest the door, her knees tucked into her chest, rocking slightly back and forth. Opening the sterile pre-packages, he glances sidelong at me, "You going to be able to work the phone one-handed?"

The glare thrown back at him is not amused, but of course, he laughs anyway. Ignoring the teasing tone and continuing to peruse through the book, I simply flip him the bird.

It's mainly second and third appointments today, which means a lot of color fill-ins and touch-up jobs, except for a handful of first-timers, such as Nervous Nelly in the lobby. However, it is Saturday, which usually involves a lot of drunken walk-ins and inevitable confrontations with wannabe clients.

By law, we cannot pierce or tattoo anybody under the influence, but try telling that to some brain-dead asshole who "needs ink, man." At least with a full book I can simply tell them we don't have time, to come back tomorrow. The moronic stupidity tends to lose steam when Smirnoff-Soaked Sally or Whisky-Dick Derek sees a full shop and they leave in relative peace.

The phone rings. I scoop it up in one, eyes still fixated on the appointment book. "Modified."

"Um, hi." This girl doesn't sound a day over thirteen. "What's the minimum age for a piercing?"

Called it. "Eighteen without parental consent; Sixteen with parental consent."

The following whine only affirms my suspicions further, and it's rather funny. "Unh, really? That's stupid. If the parents are fine with it, who cares how old the kid is?"

"This great state of ours cares, so as to prevent a bunch prepubescent kids running around all tatted up, with their swiss-cheese faces and critical thinking skills. Have a great day!" I place the handset back in its cradle as she continues to whine her farewell.

"Twelve?" Jimi asks from somewhere over my left shoulder.

Without looking back, I chuckle. "Thirteen, I think. You ready?"

With a sharp clap, Jimi exclaims, "Yup! Send her back."


The knee-tucked, gently rocking petite blonde, glances up from her daze with pure shock in her wide, brown eyes; the consummate deer in headlights. "Y-ye-yeah?"

"Jimi's ready for you." I motion behind me with the pencil in my hand. Feels weird in my right, but I can't exactly use my left. Besides, right hand still gets the job done.

Samantha turns to her friend, who's gently smiling while the little blonde's face is etched with worry. The friend just caresses her arm. "It'll be fine. C'mon."

Finally, Samantha breathes a full breath and stands, feet shuffling past the counter and behind me to Jimi. He greets her warmly, shakes her hand and sits her down. I fade out of their conversation before it even starts, simply because I've heard it six thousand and eighty-three times. Outside of the actual individual design, it's all styles, time, money and safety talk. There's no need for my input.

The night moves along steadily, each client showing up and on time, which is a welcome change. On any given day, at least three clients will be late, one being ridiculously so. However, on busy nights such as this, with everything gliding smoothly along there's hardly anything for me to do, other than answer phones and take payment.

When I can get away from the desk, Steely or Jimi command that I not lift anything heavier than a cordless handset, so I can't do much of the back-of-the-house cleaning and, until the end of the night, there's hardly any paperwork to handle. It's kind of annoying, but whatever. I've had a shitty day, so I'll take an easy shift in exchange, especially because I think my tetanus shot is kicking in fully. I'm feeling a bit stiff and sore.

To be fair, the phone is ringing constantly, with a plethora of requests: from scheduling and rescheduling, to after-care questions and pricing inquiries. This part of the job barely takes two brain cells, not that any of it really takes a whole lot of brainpower since I don't tattoo or pierce any patrons. Still, it's important and just good business to handle each client with courtesy, no matter how inane the question. Jimi likes every client to feel like family, unless they're an asshole.

That's a shop rule: Don't be an asshole. The message emblazoned and stamped in aluminum and steel over his station, visible to all who stroll through the door. And that's probably the best demonstration of Jimi's character, hard metal with a crude but universal message. Don't be an asshole. He's always been like that, even when we were kids.

Jimi was Simon's friend first, to be honest. Placed on the same peewee football team, simply because of their ages, they'd bonded right away and essentially became a package deal on the field. The two had been thick as thieves off-field as well, that is until the first time Simon brought him over to the house. Within minutes, Jimi and I fell into an easy sync of interests and inappropriate jokes, despite the four-year age difference. Where Simon and I can sometimes…fall out of step, Jimi and I just laugh at each other's stupidity and move on. I think Simon gets a little jealous, still. He and Jimi are friendly, of course, always excited to see each other; but when Jimi quit football a couple years later, their bond cooled while ours strengthened.

It's eight-thirty and, finally, things have slowed down. Just another half hour and I get to see Simon.

"Syl." Jimi peers at me over his horn-rimmed glasses, perusing paperwork at his station.

"Yeah?" I ask, trying to keep count of the money in my hand.

"Why don't you go ahead and take-off. It's getting pretty dead."

Normally, I'd hate to leave early but Simon awaits. "You sure?" The question is mainly a courtesy. Jimi won't keep me, not once he's offered to release me early. As expected, he nods and waves me away. "Cool!"

Triumphant, I finish counting the deposit, fill out the slip, seal the bag and drop it in the safe. Shouldering my bag, I start a mad dash for the door. "See you Tuesday."

His laughs ring out behind me. "See ya."

The Night of...

The drive to Simon's is short, maybe five full minutes from Modified, located in Town Center, but the distance feels endless.

Seriously, five minutes and it takes every ounce of will not to press the gas pedal to the floor. Jesus, I just saw him this morning and I'm so excited I could have a goddamn aneurysm. When I pull in next to his late model Jeep, I'm out of my dated Volvo and darting toward his building before remembering my duffle bag is in the passenger seat. With a groan of frustration, I backtrack, taking care to slow my steps and calm down, because...fuck, I'm being ridiculous.

Breathing more evenly, I punch his code into the complex door pad and proceed to climb the four short flights to Simon's floor. He gave me a key to his apartment a while ago, but it feels invasive to use it; as though I'm intruding. One of the few times I've used it, I was met with Cecelia's shock-wide eyes, which quickly rolled with annoyance when she realized it was me. Simon had been ecstatic, but now I always knock.

When the door opens, his neon-greens go nuclear with surprise, a grin splitting wide across his face and pulls he me into a big hug. "Hey! You're early."

As he ushers me inside, I drop my bag by the door. "It went dead and Jimi banished me. Not that I'm complaining."

Simon eyes the full duffel, but doesn't comment on it. "Cool. Now, let me see the thumb."

I hold up the bulging stark-white self-adhesive gauze. It's the first time I've truly looked at my thumb since this afternoon, and the amount of bandaging implies something incredibly grotesque underneath. I think Silas was right; it does kind of look like a tampon.

Thanks, little brother.

Simon's hands gently wrap my wrist, examining my digit with discriminating eyes. "How many stitches?"

The touch electrifies a path of nerves along my arm, crackling through to my chest; residual images from this afternoon's dream floods into my memory. I need to take a deep breath to steady myself, to calm the nerves aching to reach for him. Besides, I don't have an exact number to give him; I barely have an estimate. "Five or six, I think. I kind of dazed out in the exam room."

"That's not too bad," he muses, releasing my hand and turning toward the sofa. "Did you have to get a tetanus shot?"

I follow closely behind, eyeing the shift of muscle beneath his shirt. "Yeah. How'd you know?"

"I know you haven't had one in a while and you always daze out where needles are involved. Yet, you love working for Jimi. Go figure."

"Wholly different kind of needles."

He drops onto the sofa, bringing the living room into full view; including the coffee table. A deep mahogany, rustic wood table, loaded down with a stack of at least 20 DVDs, playing cards and poker chips bundled on top of a couple board games and an obscene amount of hard liquor and snack foods. Though to be fair, the booze and food is most likely in anticapation of the munchies that will ensue from the ridiculous amount of pot set out in the middle of the table. Seriously, I think there's enough bud on the table to constitute felony trafficking.

Laughing out loud, I snatch up his black dragon-shaped bong from the table, its red undertones flashing against the light as I plop down on to the couch. It's his favorite, used so often that he's named it. If I'm being honest, it's my favorite, too.

Presenting it idly, I ask, "Drogon, really? Expecting a party?"

Simon's face flushes a little, his green eyes darting across the coffee table before answering sheepishly. "I didn't know what you'd want to do. So, I covered the bases."

I scoff, setting the glass dragon back on the corner. "When's C.C. coming back?"

Simon's eyes roll, a guttural groan of frustration bursting out from his chest. "Monday afternoon. She and Tara are going to some bed and breakfast to scope it out for as a venue for the wedding. That's literally the only reason she wanted me home today, to see this idiotic venue. It's two fucking hours away, Sylvan."

Pressing up from the sofa, he all but stomps to the fridge, popping the door and pulls out two beers, the bottles clinking sharply, as he continues. "Can you believe that? I told her that I'm not going to ask our guests to drive two fucking hours just to come to our wedding. Everyone we know is here in town; families, friends, acquaintances. Literally, everyone."

Making his way back into the living room, hands gesturing wildly in his irritation, Simon hands me a beer before falling back into the couch cushions, taking a sip from his own. "But because she saw the place in some damn wedding magazine, we just 'must consider it, Simon. It'll bring the whole theme together!'" He pushes quotes into the air with so much sarcasm I can almost taste the derision in the air.

Taking another draft from his beer, I do the same from my own and try to listen sympathetically. "What fuckin' theme?! It's a wedding, not goddamn junior prom! Jesus Christ, I swear, she's gonna drain our savings dry before we even get down the aisle."

"Some people like theme weddings." I offer with a shrug, attempting to lighten the mood...and give him shit. "Just sayin'."

"Oh, you can suck every inch of my dick." Simon grins, despite himself. Still, a moment later, his head collapses back letting another frustrated grunt loose.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, because he's tired of talking about this shit and I'm not sure what to say. Don't mistake me. I have plenty of opinions about his intended money-grubbing cunt, but nothing he wants to hear. It's no secret to anyone, least of all Simon, that I dislike Cecelia. However, after the last time I voiced my opinion, it started a week-long battle with the entire house, except Silas and Sydney of course.

Clearly, no one wants to hear me bitch, so I've learned to keep my mouth shut.

Suddenly, my brother perks up. "Aw, fuck it. I'll just tell her no. She can kiss my ass if she doesn't like it. What do you want to do?"

I shrug, looking to the coffee table, overcome by the plethora of options. "Movie, I guess?"

Simon cocks an eyebrow with a devilish little smirk. "Cheech and Chong style?"

I bark out a laugh. "God, I swear you just want me high."

He's so damn beautiful when he smiles fully. "Of course. I like you better that way."

Without warning, his hand comes down on my knee, fingers grasping for leverage as he bridges over me to grab the needed items. The nerves fire a direct line to my groin and a coil of heat tightens low in my belly and the panic is instantaneous. With a soft grunt, I lean instinctively forward, in hopes of stalling all growing arousal, but the abrupt move doesn't go unnoticed. When Simon turns to ask me what's wrong, his lips are within millimeters of mine; a fact that is not helping the situation.

"Nothing," I answer. "Stomach cramp. I haven't eaten since lunch."

The next second he's back in his seat and I'm both relieved and disappointed, in equal measure.

"Well, pig out, dude. I got plenty." He gestures to the table with a head nod, his hands much too busy grinding bud. "Or there's some taquitos and other stuff in the fridge if you want. Help yourself."

"I'm okay." I shouldn't move at all right now. The pooling heat has slowed but hasn't cooled. "I'll get something in a bit."

Simon's brow furrow with a sidelong glare but, thankfully, he doesn't press the issue. A few minutes of uneasy silence follow, as Simon's fingers continue to work at a fevered pace to break down the herb and pack the bowl, when he suddenly announces, "You'll be pleased to know, I managed to get all the nasty-ass residue out of the stem. So, your delicate nostrils shan't be offended this time."

"Oh, kiss my ass," I chide, incredulous. "As I recall, it smelled like a, and I quote, "dead elephant's asshole". You were the one gagging as we tried to air out the room."

He smiles, eyes crinkling at the edges, as he looks at me and I need to breathe a bit deeper. By fucking hell, I love him.

"Dude, I was freaking out!" He laughs, pressing the last bit of cannabis into the bowl and shifting back. His knee presses into mine as he pulls the lighter from his pocket. "C.C. fuckin' hates it when I smoke in the house and I knew she'd chew my ass if that smell touched her precious chenille pillows. Speaking of..." Punctuating his point, Simon snatches each grotesquely girlish pillow from the couch -including the one behind me- and forcefully tosses each across the room. In succession, a stream of sequined, ruffled and then feathered pillows are launched toward the far corner, to be forgotten wherever they land.

I chuckle as he settles back into the sofa, obviously pleased with himself. Clicking the lighter to life, Simon holds it steady against the bowl as he exhales and seals his mouth against the chamber. Staring intently, I watch my brother take the first hit with a full, deep inhale after opening the slide. At first, I don't realize he's passing the dragon to me until he snorts and coughs on the fumes.

"Forgot the ice," he wheezes, pressing Drogon into my hands and hopping swiftly from the couch. Racing to the kitchen a mere ten feet away, he continues clearing his throat the whole way.

"Jackass," I chide between laughs, the bong held fast in my hands. Ice rattles against glass and moments later he's shuffled back to the sofa. "How could you forget the ice? It's the only way you don't choke."

"Once again, suck every inch of my cock, little brother," Simon taunts with a sly grin. Pointedly, he stares at me with neon-green eyes while dropping three frozen cubes into the chamber, crashing back into the plush cushions of the sofa.

Pinned and dumbfounded, I stare back, the words crashing against me like a wave. It's not the first time Simon has directed those words at me. Hell, he teases me with some variation of them in nearly every conversation we have. However, I honestly can't recall ever being addressed as "little brother" in the same breath, and it feels strangely like a command. Shamefully, a command I am more than willing to perform; and the heat begins pooling again.

Simon continues to watch me, lounging nonchalantly against the opposite side of the couch with his mouth quirked up at the corner and the, now empty, ice glass clutched to his chest. It's only when his foot purposely bumps against my thigh that I realize I'm still holding Drogon. Pulled back from disastrous thoughts, I click the lighter to life and press it to the bowl. Releasing the vent, I deeply inhale the column of smooth haze that's building inside the glass. The burn is immediate, but soft and easy to hold. Almost instantly, one by one, each fiber of each muscle in every inch of my body, unwinds and releases while my brain slows to a near-halt. My eyes close all on their own, my mind reveling in the quick, undulating high soaking into every nerve. As smoke exhales smoothly from my throat, a vastly different wave rolls over me and I'm caught in the warmest, most soothing whirlpool.

"Fff-fuck..." I virtually breathe the word, to Simon's delight. I can hear his breathy chuckles. "What is this, Sy?"

When I manage to open my eyes, Simon is languidly shifting closer. His reaches out, grasping lightly around the hand which is holding Drogon. "I just thought we'd watch the Northern Lights a bit."

Scoffing, I scrub my free hand over my face, because I can't fully focus except where our skin is connected. "That fuckin' medical grade shit? Why didn't you warn me?"

"Wanted it to be a surprise." Gently prying Drogon from my grip, he smiles brightly at me. "Surprise!"

My own grin breaks widely, as all I can do is shake my head and watch as he pulls another hit off the chamber. With the addition of the ice, he's able to fully draw in the smoke and hold it. Barely.

Handing the dragon back, Simon presses into my space and exhales without warning before stepping away to the stack of DVDs. He only laughs at the trail of expletives I yell, in his general direction, when his wall of smoke hits my sinuses and sets off another spinning wave in my high. Focusing on the floor, a small knot in one of the wood planks anchors my attention and helps slow the spiral. A few deep breaths later, I set up and draw another hit off Drogon, when Simon's voice calls my attention.

"What do you want to watch?" He asks, examining the pile of cases.

The smoke billows thickly with my exhale. "I don't care. This shit will probably put me to sleep."

"Nope. Won't let you." There's a striking determination in his voice.

I watch Simon pull from the middle of the stack and survey the case in his hand. Too quick and far away to figure out what he's picked, my gaze simply follows his back while his feet cross the floor to the large and loaded entertainment center.

Complete with digital surround sound, Blu-ray and a 50-inch, high-definition flat screen smart-TV, Simon's elaborate -and fuck-all expensive- media console is a testament to my brother's tech obsession. An obsession further demonstrated when he, within the space of roughly six seconds, presses a sequence of buttons across four different remote controls with tremendous ease and little effort. Each remote clicks lightly against the lacquered coffee table as he gently lays it down before gripping the next, eyes never leaving the various menus that pull up on the giant TV screen. Finally, Simon presses two quick jabs on a long, thin silver remote, which he ultimately keeps in hand, and settles back down next to me, closer than before.

Admittedly, I'm not making a genuine effort to pay attention to the movie. At least a half hour in, I still couldn't name what the hell we're watching, let alone the summarize the plot. But I can describe every movement, in order, of the man next to me, as well as the frequency of each minute point of contact between our bodies. I'm caught between the warmth of Simon's legs, currently stretched across my lap, the gentle rocking of his foot as it grazes repeatedly against my forearm, and the soothing whirlpool of THC streaming through my veins, heightening every sense in my possession. If I concentrate really hard, I could probably see into the goddamn future. That's how open my head is right now.

Fffuck, I'm high...When did we shut off the lights?

The comforting weight and pressure of Simon's legs shift against my own. His foot moves more fervently, pressing twice against the flesh just above the inside my knee. "You stopped."

My attention caught, I gaze at him, thoroughly confused until I feel my leg jiggle once more. Simon's foot, the one fully stretched across my thighs -and within inches of my crotch- fidgets again, calling my focus. The sight is a bit perplexing, because I do not remember cupping my wounded hand around his ankle, or resting my thumb along the line of his shin. I do not remember placing my right hand his thigh, palm relaxed and rounded over the fullest part of the muscle. And I certainly do not recall being this enwrapped in him when the movie started.

The spin in my head picks up speed and keeps pace with a sudden pounding against my ribs. I don't understand anything I'm seeing. That is, until vague sense memories slowly spill into the gap in my mind: the cushions shifting gently beneath me as Simon settled in, the playful smirk he gives whenever he lays the firm but welcome pressure of his legs across mine, the feel of warm skin and fine wisps of hair beneath my palm, the rounded edge of an ankle bone against my fingertips, the outside of Simon's foot grazing against my forearm in lazy, gentle strokes. Each memory is less sensible than the last, until the pieces mesh and cling together in one jarring image at the front of my brain.

Without realizing it, my fingers had been running a course of circles around the joint of his ankle, roiling through the fine hairs just above his foot then tracing the outline of each bone. Again, and again.

"You stopped." Simon repeats, wiggling his foot again. "Fingers, please."

Without a word, I begin the series of touches again. Simon grins and sinks further into his cushioned corner, pressing his leg gently against my fingers.

Brushing upward along his shin, I skim my nails against the hard line of bone to pull lightly against the edge by curling my fingertips, and he exhales noticeably. If I weren't so high, I'd swear Simon's leg softens and rolls with the pull, coming to rest further up my thigh; while my unwounded hand seems further up along his own.

Did I move it? Did he?...Fuck, I have no idea.

He breathes audibly again with a long and slow exhale; his eyes are unfocused and hooded. There isn't an ounce of tension or concern in his body at this moment.

Stroking lightly down his leg, I return to the first position to press my luck and run the course all over again. With each pass, however, he relaxes further against me. He's truly not bothered by our proximity...and I don't know whether to be thrilled or ashamed. But I can't make myself break the contact, so I don't. I repeat the course, over and over again.

Several minutes later, I'm reminded how Simon's feet are always cold, when the foot braced against my thigh angles down to dig his to toes underneath the meat of my leg. Within moments, I can feel the fabric of my jeans begin to cool, followed by my skin as his toes wriggle further beneath my thigh, absorbing almost every degree of my heat. Meanwhile his legs, his legs are nothing, but warmth and comfort weighted across my thighs. The opposing touches throw me off balance with an almost...electric charge, heightening my high and deepening the swirl in my head.

Once more, heat is pooling low in my belly, and there's a panic rising in voltaic arcs through my spine. My brain is sluggish, too slow to quell the hammering that's liable burst through my chest, let alone the building want slinking further south; though, ironically, my mind is running at the speed of light. Breathing helps. It slows everything down; my thoughts, my blood, my want. Still, I need space. I need a few precious inches to breathe, to regain some composure.

However, I can't move without Simon's notice. He'll ask, out of concern or curiosity or both, and there isn't a single excuse swirling around within my spinning head that sounds remotely plausible. Though, to be honest, that may be because I don't want to move. Simon's heat, his weight, his presence is as soothing as it is unnerving. There is nothing I can think of or focus on that I want more than to sink further into him. Which is why I may not want to move, but I need to move. Finally, my mind focuses with an idea.

Gently clearing my throat, I tap his foot to call his attention. "Bathroom."

Without hesitation, he lifts his legs to set me free and I push up from the soft surface of the couch. Moments later, the bathroom door clicks softly behind me and I'm in a temporary haven. Instinctively, I gaze into the mirror with a small shock. My reflection is completely normal, all shaggy hair and casual clothes. I'm not sure what I'd expected, but everyday-Sylvan hadn't been it. There's no guilt written across my face, nor any dirty, dark notions scrolling across my eyes like a ticker-tape parade. There's simply my face, heavy-lidded and relaxed; the relief floods my skin.

After taking a leak, I wash my hands and splash some cold water on my face, trusting it will wake me up a bit and clear some of the THC haze from my eyes. Hands and face dried, I head back to the living room where Simon pulls his feet close to himself, inviting me back to the sofa. I swipe my beer from the coffee table and opt for the large chair near his head, answering his puzzled gaze with a non-committal shrug, hoping he reads it as nothing more than I want my own space. As confusion continues to play across his features, Simon stretches back out along the couch, and I settle into the plush chair with a growing relief.

Secluded in my own seat, without the warmth of Simon's body on mine, I can finally focus on the movie and realize we've been watching Shaun of the Dead. It's nearly over, which is a bit disappointing. It's hysterical and I love it, and I've missed most of it because I can't hold my fuckin' high or hormones in check. Regardless, I simply settle in and watch the remainder play out in front of me, finally relaxed and calm.

Somewhere around the time Shaun and company are beating a zombie with pool sticks, Simon sits up suddenly and begins clawing at his sweatshirt. As the fabric clings against the white t-shirt underneath, it pulls up several inches and the column of his lower spine appears. Knobs of the vertebra protrude, shifting beneath his skin as he moves, and I find myself staring. It's semi-ridiculous to be so entranced, because his body is nothing new. I know what he looks like underneath his shirt, completely; the consequences of living together and sharing a bathroom. Still, it doesn't stop me from fixating on the ripple of muscle along his ribs when he strips the thick fleece over his head.

When Simon pulls the white hem down, covering his skin and the traces of bone beneath, the spell is broken. Thank Christ.

I'm glad I decided to move. If he were any closer I may have reached out, done something regrettable.

My throat suddenly dry, I sip from the warming beer in my hand. It does exactly squat to parch my thirst. The ache in my muscles is gone but there's a current sparking along my ribs and deep in my gut, unnerving me more than anything. Reflexively, I clear my throat and shift further into the corner of the chair, putting Simon's laid-back form further out of sight. Maybe removing the stimulus will calm my nerves; almost right away, there's a new sensation.

I feel like my ass is lopsided. Even nestled in the soft cushions, the right side of my butt is sitting atop a brick-solid mound that will not go away. Shifting around doesn't help at all. In fact, when I cant my hips to relieve the unyielding pressure in my right butt cheek, the sensation worsens. No matter the position, the intrusive mass moves with me, as though it were attached.

What the hell am I sitting on? It's bothering the fuck out of me! Digging into my pocket, I feel monumentally stupid when I pull out my wallet. What the hell else would it have been? An actual brick?

I toss it on the table.

Without realizing it, and much too late to stop it, a stark white paper slips from between the bi-folded leather wallet and out of my fingertips. Almost floating, the folded script page flutters to the ground, catching Simon's eye before landing silently on the floor near the end of the sofa. In a desperate attempt to grasp the small note, I fling sideways at an awkward angle, catching my ribs on the corner of the arm-rest and nearly topple out of my chair; all for nothing. Simon is quicker gets there first, knocking my panicked hand out of the way.

Snatching the paper up from the hardwood, a sly grin creeps across his as he eyes the note with curiosity before opening it up, "What's this, little brother?"

The nickname ripples a shiver through my spine. I really do love when he calls me that. How screwed up is that?

Lurching forward, I grasp outward clumsily in a last-ditch effort to retrieve the script paper, only to have Simon evade me with little more than a push to my chest. When I try again, he just laughs, pulling his arm free from each of my ham-fisted attempts to pry the paper from his grip.

"Just give it back, please." I request, shifting forward with an open palm.

Simon's eyes have gone neon. "Why? What is it?"

Knowing he won't give it up without a fight, I lunge forward once more more deftly than before, catching my brother off-guard. As I manage to get grip on Simon's hand with my unwounded right, he yelps then cackles. His fingers are curled iron-tight around the small white page, though I still pry desperately at each one. We tangle and grapple for several seconds, but my reflexes are too slow. Not to mention, my balance is for shit due to copious amounts of THC. So, when I slip and land squarely on Simon's chest, neither of us are really surprised.

"Ah, fuck! Syl, watch your elbow!" He laughs, holding the note just out of reach.

"Just give it back." I plead, still reaching.

"Tell me what it is."

It's when Simon presses me back a bit, that I notice his fingers are touching bare skin. Somehow, in our clamoring, his grip slipped beneath my shirt and I hadn't felt it. Now, however, I feel it all too well. Four points of contact grazing my waist, while his thumb sits comfortably on the edge of my hip. I'm nearly laid out on top of him, straddled over his left thigh, and we're close enough to breathe the same air. It wouldn't take much to close the distance between us, to absolutely none.

Heat rushes my face, and my stomach flips. "It's just a phone number," I say, angling away from him to fall into the seat beside. It's less than graceful, but I manage.

Simon doesn't even seem flustered, let alone put-off. No, he merely pants a bit to catch his breath, all the while gazing at me with neon green eyes and a sly grin. I fucking hate it. Neither one of us should be this comfortable being so close, let alone laid out on top of one another and fingers touching bare skin. For Christ's sake, I'm relatively sure my groin was rubbing his thigh in our tussle. Granted, I wasn't hard or anything, but even a flaccid graze should give him pause. He looks completely unfazed. The asshole.

He chuckles knowingly, "Really? Little brother's getting some play, huh?"

Resituated amongst the cushions, Simon finally unfolds the small paper and reads the neat script with darkening green eyes. He stares at the note much longer than is necessary, as though examining every letter and digit. When his light brows begin to screw together, I know he's figuring it out.

"Syl, this is a script paper," he flips it to face me, "from Dr. Douglas Rowe."

"Yeah…he's the doc that stitched me up."

"From the clinic at Built-Right?"

I nod.

Turning it back, he falls silent...and it's deafening. Then, "Is this his number?"

My face must be scarlet by now, surely, because my ears are on fire. "I'm assuming so."

"So, this is a dude's number?"

Without meaning to, I let my face drop. He's not stupid; he just wants me to affirm it before he moves on to the next question. The question I'm moderately dreading. I don't want to answer it. I'm not sure I have an answer for it, at least not right now.

Thankfully, he reads my face and I don't have to answer the obvious.

"Did you ask for it?"

Once again, my face has a mind of its own. With furrowed brows, I feel my lips quirk in a scoff. "No."

Simon eyes the paper for a moment, his focus distant. He stares, as though he were looking through the note, not at it.

"Then, did you tell him you're not interested?"

The question catches me off guard, though I'm unsure why. Instinctively, I clutch my bottom lip between my teeth, completely insecure about how to respond. I opt for the truth.


Simon's gaze pins me the next second, light brows flexing up in surprise then cinching down into thought again. For several swollen moments he's silent, his features drawing in tighter than before. I can't tell if he's upset or merely over-thinking. Then he asks, "Are you interested, Sylvan? Are"

The two are related, and one kind of answers the other, but I don't know what that answer is...entirely. However, Simon takes my silence as answer enough.

"Why didn't you tell me?" His face is solemn, unreadable. "Syl?"

Simon's assuming a lot from dead air, but I'm not exactly broadcasting anything to the correct him. Mainly, I don't know if a correction is needed. I do know I need to answer, even though part of me doesn't want to. I haven't had time to process the idea that a man gave his phone number, not in the sense of being attracted to said man, or men in general, outside of the one sitting next to me. Am I put off by the idea?...No, and Doug is cool, but that's hardly an answer. Even if it were, I certainly can't tell Simon all that. It would only lead to more questions.

How do I explain how I feel, when I'm not even sure?

Simon shifts closer to me. I can't see his face, my eyes are pinned to the floor while I try to remember to breathe, but I can feel his gaze; and his growing impatience. The anticipation is rolling off him in waves, growing exponentially every second that I remain silent.

"Syl," he insists with alcohol-sweet breath breaking across my face. Pressing with a gentle but persistent hand, Simon jostles my thigh. "Answer me."

"I don't know," I state flatly, still unable to meet his eyes.

Simon's head cocks sideways slightly, a breath chuffed out in my direction. "What the hell do you mean you don't know?"

I should've known that wouldn't be the end of the questions. Though, his tone isn't venomous. It's harsh, but not...pissed; maybe more confused?

"I mean I don't know. I've never really thought about it," I shrug.

He laughs uneasily, standing suddenly and walking away. My heart stops dead and freezes in place, while my paranoia surges forward. Why is he leaving? Where is he going? He's never shown a problem with gay people before, but maybe it's different when it's his brother. Blood is frozen solid within my veins for a solid two seconds, until I hear the fridge pop open and the clink of beer bottles.

Simon's voice wafts over my shoulder, voice still sharp. "I find that hard to believe."

Seconds later, his feet are shuffling across the hardwood of the living room and he's thrusting another beer in my face. I can hardly focus as it is, but I don't know what else to do. So, I accept it and twist off the cap before taking a draft.

"I mean, you know who you're attracted to, right?" There's genuine curiosity in his voice, and something else. Though, I can't name it.

I sip at my beer and wipe a bit of spilled libation from chin before I answer. My chest is tight, worried. "Yeah."

"Well, dicks or chicks?" He laughs, the sound a tad hollow, like he's forcing it.

I groan, not at all amused. "I don't know, Sy. I've never sat down and thought about it. I've been kind of busy for the last couple years."

"Yeah, but you've had a couple of girlfriends."

"I've had dates with a few girls, Simon," I correct him. "And only a couple of those turned into second dates."

"But you liked them, right?" His mouth opens wide as he shoves a handful of popcorn in his gullet.

I sigh, "Yes."

"So you like chicks, then." He states this matter-of-factly, as though he's solved the dilemma, and snatching chips from the table and collapsing back into the corner. I'm surprisingly grateful for the distance.

This line of questioning is getting tiresome. I've been attracted to girls, yes, but obviously guys don't bother me. Fuck, I'm in love with the inquiring jackass, currently grilling me about my sexuality and I still don't have a clear answer. The truth is, Simon's the only guy I can honestly say I've ever been attracted to. That's not to say I haven't appreciated the looks of other men, but I've never had that…visceral response to the male gender. Only Simon. Of fucking course, I can't tell him any of this.

"What does it matter, Sy?" I bark, because I don't like where the conversation is going and hope he'll take a goddamn hint.

The only noise that fills the air is his chewing, until something dawns on him and his gorgeous eyes shoot wide with shock and concern.

"Oh, shit! No, no! That's not what I meant." In a moment, he's next to me again; his hands laid gently across the back of my neck and my forearm, stroking in reassuring circles. "Shit, little brother, I'm sorry. Honestly, I don't care one way or the other."

The tension drains away and a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding pushes out of my relaxing lungs.

I scoff, a tiny grin curling the corners of my mouth, "Then what does it matter?"

"I'm just trying to figure out how, at nearly eighteen years old, you don't know who you'd know...uhn!" Simon's loose fist lifts from my arm and twists firmly into the air, to punctuate his point. "And why you wouldn't tell me about any...confusion you were having."

My face is heating up again. Indirectly, my brother is asking about fantasies that I can never tell him, all while expressing his love and concern about our relationship, our connection. It's both highly frustrating and…well, mainly frustrating.

"I mean, you jerk-off, right?"

"Jesus! Sy! What the actual fuck, man?!" Regardless of the shock, his words have a direct effect on my dick.

He just giggles, shoveling another handful of chips in his mouth. Mumbling around the half-chewed snack food, he continues. "C'mon. I know you do. Everyone does."

I hide behind my hands, knees drawn to my chest in a feeble attempt to stem the heat pooling behind my navel. All I can do is shake my head and ask, "Will you please stop?"

"So, do you think about dicks or chicks?"

He's not going to let this go. I know that now and I can't last much longer under his interrogation. Resorting to the last fucking thing I want to say, I answer him from behind my hands with truth. The words are muffled but decipherable. "Both…I guess."

"Like, at the same time?" I can literally hear the smirk on his face. He's just fucking teasing me now, hoping to incite a reaction. The butthole.

All I give is an exasperated groan, followed by puff of nervous laughs.

"Huhn," he offers, falling momentarily silent. "Good for you. Best of both worlds."

I drop my head back, hands on my chest. I swear my heart is beating so fast, it's humming. At least the interrogation is over... Or so I thought.

"Are you going to call him?"

"Sy! Can we drop this please?" The laugh I offer is nervous, but the sly grin and arched eyebrow from Simon only threaten more questions if I don't play along. Downing about half my beer, I answer sheepishly, but honestly. "I'm not sure. Maybe."

After a thoughtful silence, his face drops slightly, until he proclaims, "I say go for it," but there's no enthusiasm in his eyes. The color seems to have dulled a bit, too and the next second, he's up again, putting in another movie.

We switch up narcotic inhalation methods, burning through a couple bowls while Labyrinth plays in the background. Both Simon and I used to love this movie when we were kids, but now the puppets kind of freak me out. Simon feels the same way and we turn it off within an hour, choosing to play cards instead while drinking enough Jack Daniel's and Grey Goose Vodka to go into liver failure. We get four rounds into Texas Hold 'Em and I owe Simon my first born. Male or female, he's not picky. However, I kick his ass at Five Card Draw, managing to win every hand.

We call it even, so I'm allowed to keep my offspring.

Raiding the kitchen, we end up cooking nearly all the taquitos and quesadillas, because junk food is not nearly enough to stave off the monstrous munchies we've incurred. Leaning against adjacent counters, we each begin devouring nearly everything on the plates between us within minutes, while trading war stories from work.

Simon's mainly talking about this ludicrous older woman in his office that fancies herself something of a cougar. Apparently, Gail Holmes is 51 years old and currently dating her yoga instructor, Keifer, who's 32.

"And yet, he's never been to any of the office parties or social get-togethers. He's always on a "retreat"." Simon's face contorts with derision and doubt, before he continues, "Then she'll spend the entire time shoving her plastic tits in every guy's face, including mine! It's a nightmare, dude."

Simon shudders with a laugh and drains his beer. I watch the column of his throat work as he swallows, even though a tiny voice from the back of my head tells me to look away. Fuck, I want to kiss him. Then he snakes the last taquito.

"Oi! Fucker!" I cry out in protest, because he's already had five to my four and I'm fucking hungry.

Mid-bite he seizes, eyes wide, mouth grinning. "What? Did you want this?"

"Well, not now, you sneaky asshole."

He pushes off the opposite counter, where he's been leaning for the last several minutes, his grin quickly morphing into a Cheshire smirk. "It's okay, little brother. We can share. Here."

Simon pushes into my space, arms reaching out to enwrap me as his jaw goes slack, revealing a disgusting mix of saliva and half-eaten taquito. I yelp slightly, pushing him back when he's within inches of my face. Of course, he only continues to press into me, making grotesque noises with his fingers locked in my hair.

Shoving hard, I laugh loudly. "You're fucking gross. Get away from me."

"I only wanted to share." Simon feigns some heartbreak, looking the picture of perfect pain as he stumbles back a few paces, before chucking the remainder of the taquito at my head. "Just wanted to make you happy, little brother."

"Asshole!" I yell when warm, moist tortilla hits me square in the forehead. Simon wastes no time in launching another half-eaten food item -a chicken nugget, I think- at my head. I successfully avoid the hit.

Instinctively, I chuck a handful of quesadilla at him. He ducks it and charges forward, hooking an arm around the back of my neck dragging me to the ground. When we hit the linoleum, everything is all yelps and laughter. My elbows smarts from smashing into the floor, but Simon yowls when his knee hits. We lay playful blows on each other, my fist landing on his ribs or his fingers clawing my head. Our legs struggle in tandem to gain purchase off the floor, but neither one of us really succeeds. When one of us does manage some leverage, the other knocks him back to the ground, evening the odds and renewing the game. All the while insults pass our lips, only fueling the laughter and goading us to be the most inventive.

It's these little brawls that provide the perfect atmosphere for creative wordplay.

"Cock-knocker!" Simon bursts out; stridently attempting to pull his head from beneath the noogie he's receiving.

"Penis leech." I retort but am quickly thrown to the linoleum, stomach down and hands restrained above my head and a knee in my back.

"I think that's you, little brother." He whispers against my ear, sending a rush of electricity along every nerve, amplified by the restricted movement. Pinned down, I can hardly resist as repositions himself to use his freakishly-strong grip to hold my wrists hostage with one hand; leaving one free to start flicking my ears.

"Goddamn it, Sy! You know I fucking hate when you fuck with my damn ears!" I thrash violently, though it does little to buck Simon off my back.

Leaning close to my ear once more, Simon's breath brushes across the shell of it. "Oh, shut your vag and deal with it."

He flicks the lobe again and I lose my damn mind, half-laughing and half-pissed. I use every ounce of strength to pull my legs to my chest, toppling my brother and earning a hilarious yelp of surprise. Taking advantage, I pin his back to the floor with my weight. Knees straddling his hips, I manage to lock his wrists in my awkwardly wound grip. Simon struggles beneath me, but it's fruitless. I'm victorious.

"Ha! Say it!" I demand.

There's a long moment when nothing happens, then Simon's grin goes maniacal.

Without warning his hips buck, landing directly on my forgotten semi-erection. The touch is wild and aggressive, setting off a wave of arousal along my spine, behind my navel and deep in my groin. In the space of a moment, a wanton groan is pulled from my throat and I've all but collapsed on top of Simon. Then everything stops dead; my heart, Simon's laughter, all of time.

I am bolted in place, astride Simon's hips, unable to move and shaking, because I know he can feel it. I am rock hard and there's nowhere to hide. His wrists still locked tight in my grip, the only thing saving me from crumbling on top of him is my wounded hand, set at an awkward angle against his chest. His breath is as ragged as mine, his heart thrumming against his ribs.

Then as if I've been shot, I scramble away from him. I stumble back gracelessly, along the floor, on hands and heels; my wounded thumb protesting the movement. When my back meets cold steel, my knees draw to my chest and I squeeze down, determined to collapse into oblivion. The tears flood my eyes before I can stop them, and I can only curl further in on myself.

I can't see Simon, or what he's doing, but I do hear the shift of his body against the linoleum.


When he speaks my name, full of concern, my heart breaks and shame floods the cracks.

"Sylvan, look at me."

I jump when he touches my arm, though I'm not entirely sure why. I try to pull away, but he holds me in place.

"No, I can't." I choke out a sob.

"Syl, it's okay."

"No, it's not! It's fucked-up!"

Simon tries to shush me, comfort me with a gentle stroke to my face but I can't allow it. I recoil instinctually, even as he presses on, curling loving fingers in the hair at the base of my skull and tries to pry one of my arms loose from my knees.

"Syl, we're really drunk and high. It happens. It's not your fault, man. C'mon." His hands are firm, attempting to lift me from the floor.

When I feel the lift, the panic fills my chest and I deaden my weight, forcing my arms to slip Simon's grip.

"Damn it, Syl." Simon crouches once again, attempting to grab hold. Crushing my knees to my chest, I purposefully avoid his hands but he's having none of it. "Sylvan, stop pulling away."

When grasps my arms again, I press out against his biceps, a desperate move to keep his hands off me. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I don't know why I'm like this."

"Sylvan, you're fine," he says in a gentle tone. His hands slip past my hold, coming up beneath my jawline, forcing me to finally meet his eyes. "You didn't do anything wrong."

"I did, though. It's...disgusting."

Simon's mouth turns up at the corners, "Syl, you got an erection. You're hardly the only one in history. It happens, especially when friction's involved." His lips form a smile so soft, so full of affection, it makes my stomach turn; because he doesn't understand. He doesn't know why I'm resisting him, or why he should keep his distance.

How do I make him understand? What can I do? are the only thoughts running through my skull, on a continuous, nerve-wracking loop. There's nothing but molten anxiety rushing through my veins, feeding the panic and spinning the unending cycle of how, what, need, and want crashing around inside my head. I can think of nothing else and my arms go slack in the confusion. Consequently, Simon's hands fully envelop my jaw as his arms are allowed closer, as well as his body, and he looks almost relieved. Still smiling, his thumbs trace my jawline, his fingers curling into the hair behind my ears.

It's then, gazing into his sympathetic eyes and gentle smile, that my brain snaps into place. Reaching out to his face, I mirror his hold on me. Only I graze his bottom lip with my unwounded thumb and tell him the truth, "I love you."

Simon's gaze shifts, brows flickering at the movement across his mouth, but the smile doesn't falter at all. He merely cards a loving hand through my hair, grasping my neck once more. "I love you, too, little brother."

He comes willingly, when I pull him closer. Most likely, Simon expects a hug or crushing embrace, meant to solidify the end of my panic attack. When I kiss him, he doesn't resist at all; in fact, he kisses back. It's not uncommon in our family to give chaste pecks on the mouth, but that's all the kisses are...pecks.

Still, a handful of moments later, and Simon hasn't pulled away from the contact, lips fully on mine.

Even when my fingers slip to his neck, and pull firmly, Simon's body follows while his hands still grip my jaw. Our lips unseal with a soft pop and I can feel the small vacuum of space created as we both inhale, each needing the air.

I immediately kiss him again, harder this time, determined to make him understand. Also, I may never be allowed to kiss him again, especially like this. It's only when I ply his lips with my tongue, begging entrance, that Simon rips away, stumbling back, and falling to his palms before scrambling to his feet.

"Sylvan..." he breathes, gaze unfocused and darting at random. Looking at everything, except me. "Don't. Don' that."

The burn of icy tears wells all at once, and I can feel the pressure of heart-wrenching sobs building in my chest. Fit to burst, but I want him to know. "I love you, Simon."

"I know...I know," he sighs, still avoiding my gaze. "I love you, too, but not...we can't..."

I'm stuck, staring as his words trail off and his chest heaves out ragged breaths. I open my mouth to ask him to finish his thought, but my throat closes, desperately choking back a sob.

Finally, he looks at me. There's sympathy again, and concern but it's...cracked, broken. "We're drunk. You're...confused."

"No, Simon. I'm not confused, " I state by reflex, but with full certainty. Surprising, not only Simon, but myself with the surety. "I'm in lov-,"

"NO, Sylvan." He interjects, venom lacing his voice for the first time tonight. "Not like that. You can't-! We're brot-," His hands cut down in forceful gestures, aiding his point each time the words falter, with less enthusiasm each time. "...Christ, I don't know. Sick...Wrong..."

It almost sounds like he's asking.

When his shoulders fall and his posture sags, Simon covers his face in his hands. The rest of his body seems to have frozen in time, but finally, his breathing has slowed. Less sure in my actions than I was a few moments ago, I stand with the steadiness of a baby deer on ice. Simon doesn't seem to notice though, even when I call his name. Reaching out to touch his elbow, however, earns me a rough shove as he viciously bats my hand away.

Eyes sharp and features drawn tight, he growls, "Don't fucking touch me."

There's a cold, hard stab to my chest, and I turn my face in a feeble attempt to hide the pair of tears that fall; tears that leave a scorching trail along my cheeks. The pressure is building again, all the shame and embarrassment I feel pressing the air from my lungs, expanding out painfully against my ribs. Everything feels amplified, and so overwhelming, I'm not sure I can stand much more, especially with Simon standing so close.

Christ, this hurts.

Of course, Simon sees the tears, though he averts his eyes to pretend otherwise. An eternity seems to pass before he finally speaks again. The venom has dissipated, but there's no longer any comfort in his voice. "Just...go to bed." The next moment, he's stalking off toward the hallway, to the bedroom he shares with Cecilia.

When the door all but slams shut, I can't help the grieving sob that charges out of my throat; it's stifled behind my hand, but still feels as though it's ripping me in half. Air feels too thick to breathe and my legs are unsteady, forcing me to brace against the nearest counter.

Christ, this fucking hurts... Hurts so much more than I'd imagined it could.

My lungs pull for oxygen but can't find any. Whether it's because there's none to be had or the spine-rattling sobs are absorbing each atom of air, I don't know. But I can't fucking breathe. I just want to fucking breathe. Bent in half at the torso, I brace a hand against my abdomen, concentrating with every ounce of will I have into my lungs. Nothing seems to move, and the pain is relentless, lasting an eternity, but all too slowly, air reluctantly fills my lungs. Soon after, the tears begin to dry.

At some point, I collapsed back to the floor, my knees hugged to my chest, though I have no idea when that happened. Nor do I have any idea how long I've been sat here wallowing, but it's likely been awhile. My eyes feel swollen and my body feels wholly exhausted, but at least I'm not crying anymore. Glancing at the microwave above the stove, a light blue digital 3:18 a.m. shimmers at me, assuring that time is still moving. It's late, but I can't stay here. I won't.

With a new determination, I clamber up from the linoleum. My mind blanks for a moment once I'm upright, unsure of what to do next, but only for a moment. In quick succession, I step to the living room, swipe my wallet from the coffee table and my bag from the floor by the door. Opening, then closing the entry quietly -though I'm not sure if it's out of courtesy or cowardice- I lock it before tearing a path down the stairwell and out to my car. The motor turning over rips through the thick silence outside, each knock and chug echoing back at deafening volumes. I try not to care, but find myself imagining Simon waking at the sound, tearing from his bed and running out to stop me.

Of course, he doesn't.

Early Morning

When he hears the dull thud of a car door being closed, much too close to be the neighbor's, Silas gives a quick glance to the small black alarm clock by the bed. Dull red digits show 3:32 a.m.

Confused, rather more surprised, Silas hadn't realized the time had gotten so far away from him. At least he'd used it well. A moment later, the mild shock swiftly melts into curiosity when he hears the front door close, soft and muted by the multiple floors between.

Carefully setting his brush aside, Silas clamber-crawls to the paint-spattered Massive Attack concert tee a few feet away. He'd shed it somewhere around 10:00 p.m. when the fabric kept clinging to his ribs. Silas stooped to avoid a head injury on the slanted ceiling -the new reality of living in his bedroom since his growth spurt last summer- and shifted into his thread-bare t-shirt, pulling it on fully before unlatching the hatch.

It can only be Sylvan sneaking in at this hour; he's currently the only Wolf, beside Silas, not bedded down for the night. Though, Silas can't imagine what, short of a zombie-apocalypse -and maybe not even then-, would prompt Sylvan to creep back home during the wee hours of the morning. He always stays over at Simon's, at least when he went over on weekends. What the hell would- Silas' train of thought is broken by the creaking floorboards, and Sylvan staggering up the last step to the landing.

The sight of his older brother shocks Silas to a dead stop, still perched on the last rung of the attic ladder. Eyes red, face tear-stained and wavering on his own two feet, Sylvan looks as though a stiff breeze would knock him over. He looks so unsteady that, if Silas didn't know better, he'd assume the man if front of him had just gone twelve rounds with a heavy-weight champ.


At the sound of his name, Sylvan's eyes shutter down as his features draw tight while his hand grips white-knuckle tight to the bannister, and the sight is jarring. He's trying not to cry, and Silas is immediately panicked. Sylvan rarely cries, particularly when there are witnesses. So, this, whatever caused this, is fucking terrifying.

Finding his feet again, Silas drops from the last rung and steps, cautiously, toward his brother. "Van, what happened?"

Sylvan's gone in a shot, pushing into his bedroom with such force, the door rebounds from being slammed. Fractions of a second later, there's a loud, unseen, collision against the door from inside, causing another violent reverberation into the hallway. The thought occurs to Silas that Sylvan doesn't want him inside, that the brutal door slams had been meant to forbid him from entering.

However, Silas could give a shit and slides into the room anyway.

"Okay, you're scaring the shit out of me," Silas states plainly, pushing a large duffle -what he assumes was thrown against the door moments ago- from the path, before pressing back against the entry. It latches with a soft click.

Sylvan is currently slumped on the far side of his bed, fingers caught tight in his hair as he quakes with near-silent sobs.

"Jesus, brother, what's going on?"

"Don't call-," he chokes, voice swollen with wet tears, collapsing into soft sobs again.

Silas inches forward, sight glued to Sylvan's shaking form, feet shuffling through random, unknown debris littering the floor. When Sylvan suddenly shifts, Silas nearly pisses himself; surely his brother is launching toward him. He doesn't.

In one fluid motion, Sylvan strips his t-shirt over his head, gathering it up in a ball against his face. The sobs falling from the older man are...heartbreaking.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Silas discreetly edges around the bed until he's within reach of Sylvan's shoulder. The touch is light and gentle, hardly more than a graze but Sylvan jerks away as though he's been burned. Still, Silas persists, climbing on top of the mattress to bring them closer together. When Sylvan rocks forward, attempting to escape again, Silas presses firmly into the man's skin with his fingertips.

"Hey, it's okay." Silas whispers, pulling against Sylvan's joint, attempting to bring him closer. "Come here. Van...Come here, Van."

There's a brief pause, Sylvan poised to run; while Silas is poised to yank him back. Then, Sylvan all but collapses into Silas' chest with a choking sob. It takes all of a microsecond for Silas to wrap himself around his brother, chest pressed to the man's back, fingers carding through tangled curls, to brace his body against Sylvan's spine-rocking cries. He places chaste, comforting kisses to his head, while whispering vague assurances. "It's okay, Sylvan. I'm sure it'll be all right. I love you. I'm here. Just hold on, I've got you." He lets Sylvan cry, holding tighter when he struggles to catch breath, loosening the grip when Sylvan repositions to press harder into his chest. He lets him cry without interference, without questioning why. Sylvan needs this. Reasons be damn, Silas is going to give it to him.

After several minutes, perhaps closer to an hour, Sylvan's body quiets, his breath evens out and a vague calm fills the room. Silas waits, waits for movement, or words but none come. So, he risks it with his own.

"C'mon, lay down," Silas whispers softly into his brother's hair.

Dazed, Sylvan doesn't seem to understand, even as Silas loosens his arms to use his hands as a guide. Slowly shifting, Silas' legs burn from being sat too long in one position, but he ignores the sensation to move back several inches. "Lay down, Van."

Left arm and shirtsleeve soaked with tears, the fabric is cold against his skin, without the heat of Sylvan's neck nuzzled against it, but it doesn't matter. Finally, Sylvan is moving, robotically but moving, awkwardly moving further up the bed to lay along his right side. Their fingers stay laced firmly together, as though Sylvan needs Silas as an anchor.

There's a bit of difficulty added when Silas needs to pull the covers from beneath their bodies but, otherwise, he doesn't care. Sylvan can use anything he wants, to feel safe, or wanted, or loved. Only when he tries to unlock his hand from his brother's grip, Sylvan won't let go. In fact, he pulls, and Silas follows easily, understanding what his brother needs.

Unwilling to let go, Silas struggles to cover them with the blanket until Sylvan helps, pulling the duvet high around the pair of them. Settling in, Silas presses his chest into Sylvan's back once more, arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders. Silas knows he'll regret the position in the morning -he can, already, feel the pins and needles firing off- but can't bring himself to give a damn. Sylvan needs this.

Pulling Sylvan tightly against his chest, Silas nuzzles into his neck and whispers, "I've got you, Van. I've got you. I love you."