Roads

Chapter 8

Part 23

They stayed like that on Alex's bed for awhile before Ren realized he'd better share Alex's story while it was still fresh in his mind, although he didn't think he would be forgetting what his friend had told him any time soon. Alex looked so tired as Ren left him, like every kind of energy had left him from pouring out his heart like that, and Ren didn't blame him. He felt emotionally exhausted and he had only just listened. He hoped that Alex would take another nap, but he knew he wouldn't, not until he knew everything was ok with the rest of their family.

Neither Ren nor Alex were worried about what Yue would think about Alex murdering Wes, he had already made his wishes that he had done the same exact thing clear to both of them, that he thought it was just, they were sure he wouldn't judge Alex for it. Shadi had sounded perplexed when he had called to tell him they needed to come home asap, but he had confirmed they would be there in twenty minutes. In the kitchen, his mother was still working on dinner, taking her time in cutting up vegetables.

"Hi, sweet heart," she greeted, splitting her attention between dicing zucchini for the stir fry she intended to make, a documentary that was playing on the kitchen's television, and her son, "the chicken is marinating in the refrigerator, I can start to cook it if Alex's ready to eat."

"We're going to have a really late dinner tonight, Mom," Ren told her somberly.

His tone made her stop and place the knife down on the counter. She studied Ren's face and didn't like what she saw. He looked like he had been crying for a long time, his eyes red and his face pinched with anxiety and a deep tiredness.

"Ren, what were you two fighting about?" she asked softly.

"You heard us?" Ren blushed a little, just then realizing how loud they must have been.

"Just your voices, not what was being said. I made sure not to eavesdrop," she assured him, gesturing to the television, "what's wrong?"

"Alex told me what happened to him when he was abducted," he said. Name abruptly shut the television off, giving him her full attention, "He wanted to tell you, too, but it took too much out of him and I didn't want him to go through that again. He asked me to tell you, Shadi, and Feo for him. I already called them, they should be here in about five minutes."

Name sat down at the kitchen table and Ren followed her lead. She had a thousand questions for him all at once about where Alex had been, what had happened to him, and why he had lost his voice, but out of all of them, only one truly mattered to her at that moment.

"How is he?"

Ren's tired, almost dreary sigh told her all that she needed to know.

"Bad. He could be a lot worse, but it's bad. What happened... he's worried that you'll hate him for it. I don't know what's hurting him worse right now, the anxiety that you and Shadi and Feo won't be able to forgive him for what happened, or how much he hates himself."

"Are his feelings warranted?" Named asked, already intensely worried with that admission and she didn't even know what exactly the problem was yet.

Ren paused, thinking that question over. He had put aside his own feelings and look at what Alex had confessed to him with an unbiased eye. It was incredibly difficult, and painful.

'My best friend murdered a man, not because his life was in immediate danger, but because he was angry and hurt, and at the end of his rope. Can they understand that or will they lose faith in him because of it?'

Ren's stomach twisted, imagining either of his friends, or God forbid his mother, turning their backs on his best friend. If Shadi or Feo looked down on Alex, it would hurt him terribly and make his guilt over killing Wes all the worse. If his mother did the same, it would kill him. Ren didn't even want to think about the damage that would do.

"Yes," he said reluctantly, "I already told him that nothing has changed between us and I understand and forgive him, but I can't speak for anyone else. It would devastate him, but given what he told me... I can't say that you or Shadi or Feo won't think or act different towards him."

"You forgave him," Name said matter of factly, "so whatever happened, it isn't so terrible that I wouldn't forgive him for it. And there is nothing he could have done that I will stop loving him for."

His mother's confidence relieved Ren and he wished that Alex was down here to hear her say that so he would stop worrying so much. He startled when he heard the front door suddenly opened.

"That sure was fast," Name muttered.

Shadi looked like he had run all the way there, his normally white face flushed and his whole body practically vibrating in eagerness. He flung himself into one of the kitchen chairs and stared intently at his blue-eyed friend.

"Ok, we're here, now talk," the blonde demanded, "what did Alex tell you?!"

Feo was his usual patient and calm self as he strode into the kitchen. He shook his head at his boyfriend's hyper behavior and handed Ren a freshly bought coffee.

"You said on the phone that it was a long story, so I figured you'd want something to drink," he said.

Ren was immediately grateful for Feo's grounding presence. In that moment, he just couldn't imagine him judging Alex for what had happened. Feo seemed to understand Alex even more than Ren did sometimes, and his Italian friend had become a great pillar of support for his American one lately. Even without any romantic feelings between them, they were like kindred spirits. For the first time since Alex had told him what had happened in that closet, Ren dared to think that this might work out.

Through most of Alex's telling of what had happened during his five day disappearance, Ren had remained quiet, scared that if he made the wrong sort of comment, or asked the wrong question, Alex would lose his nerve and refuse to go on. Ren's audience had no such qualms.

Ren's re-telling seemed to take twice the time that Alex's had. While his narrative didn't stop at all because of emotional distress, Shadi, Feo, and his mother asked him a nearly endless horde of questions. Some he was able to answer, but most of them he couldn't. Through all of it, Ren gained a new appreciation for Alex and all the times he had told them painful things about his past like this. By the end of it, he felt such agony in his heart, he thought he would choke on it. He couldn't imagine how hard it had been for his friend who had lived through it.

When he detailed every terrible detail of Wes' death, all those questions ceased. Shadi, his mother, and even Feo listened to him with pale, wide-eyed faces, looking both horrified and like they couldn't believe what he was telling them. He finished with Alex's hazy account of leaving the apartment with the knife in hand, and even how he had found him in his bedroom that night, including Alex's belief that no one had seen him.

Ren expected his mother to barrage him with questions about the murder, but Shadi was the first one to speak.

"Then... Wes is dead? Really dead?" he said like he couldn't believe it, making Ren, hauntingly, remember Alex's sentiment that Wes was the Boogieman, a monster that no one could stop.

"I don't think that even Wes could survive being stabbed through the throat," Feo said in dark humor and turned his attention back to Ren, "Is Alex positive he stabbed him that deeply?"

"He was positive," Ren nodded, taking a sip of his coffee only to remember that he had finished it a long time ago, "He lashed out at him as hard as he could and the knife went into his throat, all the way to the hilt."

"Did he tell you that?" Name asked, her face not betraying how she was taking all of that and her question made him want to snap at her, but he wasn't sure if she was asking that because she didn't believe Alex's story or she just wanted to make sure.

"No," he confessed, "but I know him well enough to know that he was panicking. It was his last chance and he was weak, he didn't trust his own strength. So if he really wanted to hurt Wes, to kill him, he would have used what strength he had left. Also, when I took the knife from him that night, the blood on it was dark, and the darkest of it was near the hilt where it pooled. Even if that wasn't true, Alex said that Wes pulled it out a his blood poured out. With the amount of blood that was on the knife and soaked into his shirt, there's no way Wes could have survived."

They were all silent for a moment as that fact sunk in.

"I always wished that Wes would die," Shadi said in a small voice, "After everything Alex told us he had done to him... I had wished over and over that he would die in the most painful way possible. I thought that, if it did come to that, it would be because of the police, or some third party like one of his associates, hell, even one of us. But never Alex. He's the only one of us that has never wanted Wes dead. He's the only one who has had any feelings for the bastard besides hate."

"Which is exactly why it happened," Feo said as he leaned on the kitchen wall, his arms crossed over his chest, "and it's always been more possible than for any of us."

Shadi stared at Feo in shock, but neither Ren nor Name were surprised by what he had said.

"Feo, Alex is-" Shadi started to protest.

"Conflicted. And he always will be. He loves Wes. Even after he killed him, he still loves him," the taller boy said, "and he hates him, more than any of us can claim to hate him, and he always will. Loving a person and hating a person that much, someone you know that you shouldn't care for, does things to a person," Feo paused and Shadi reached over from where he was sitting in one of the kitchen chairs next to him to hold his hand, knowing full well that his lover was not just talking about Wes and Alex, "Eight years. That's how long Wes has spent brainwashing him, breaking him down, it's how long that all that hate has been building up," he looked at Ren, "It took you sixth months after your father died for you to beat up one of your classmates. I know you understand, better than any of us, a taste of what Alex has gone through."

Ren nodded, far from hurt at Feo for telling the truth about his anger problems.

"I hated the world for taking my father away from me," he admitted, smiling a little when his mother squeezed his hand, "I let that hate simmer in me for sixth months before it came out. I didn't talk to anyone about it and I didn't try to stop it, I just kept feeding it. All it took was just one more of my classmates talking about my father's death to make me snap. I can't imagine the kind of rage that Alex has kept inside all these years, what it's done to him. It stayed hidden for so long, even from him, because he tried to be better, better than Wes and better than just a 'street kid'. He knows what real pain is like, so he tried to shy away from any violence himself, but only made that anger worse. But Alex isn't me. He didn't lash out at some random kid. He attacked his abuser and saved himself. Even if he hates himself for doing it, how can I?"

"He thinks that, doesn't he?" Shadi asked sadly, "That we are going to hate him that he killed someone, even if that someone is Wes."

"This is Alex," Feo said bitterly, "Of course he does. He thinks that killing someone is something horrible, something that Wes would gleefully do, so it must mean because he took a life, he's a terrible person, also. Therefore, anyone who knows what he did must think he's terrible too. It's no wonder he went mute and hurt himself, he always let's his guilt kick him in the ass. Besides, you know Alex, he always assumes the worse, that he can't keep anything good in his life."

"And can he?" Ren asked him sharply, giving him a searching look that was piercing, almost a glare.

"Don't be ridiculous," Feo flashed him his own almost-glare, "You said it yourself. He saved his life. Maybe Wes wouldn't have killed him in that exact moment, but he would have eventually. Like Alex said, his entire life with him, he was always waiting for the asshole to go too far. Bottom line, Wes is dead. He can't hurt Alex anymore. He won't be hurting anyone anymore. Even if Alex lashed out of him because of anger, that anger was put there because of Wes. Why should I hate him for that?"

"How can any of us blame him?" Shadi said, "Every single one of us would have happily slit Wes' throat if we had been in that closet, even Yue. He might have been unable to pull that trigger, but he still wanted to. The only person Alex hurt when he killed Wes was himself. There's nothing to blame him for, I just wish that we could make him understand that this doesn't make him a bad person."

"It will take a long time," Ren said, "but he has to come to terms with it eventually."

Name stood, her face still expressionless, and started to walk out of the kitchen.

"Mom?" her son asked accusingly. She was the only one left that hadn't answered his question.

Name shot him an annoyed look.

"Ren Akibana, don't you dare ask me that question. You already know the answer," she said in exasperation.

Ren smiled as he watched leave and heard her walk up the stairs.

Was it possible for, not just a person's stomach, but their entire body to be in knots? Alex sure felt like it, from his head to his feet. He was curled up on his side on his bed, one of his pillows clutched to his chest as he laid on it like it was a stuffed animal. He could feel Shiva curled up against his legs, but didn't try to pick her up or pet her. He had tried that earlier, but it hadn't helped his anxiety like it usually did.

He wished that Ren was still here. Right now, he was the only person he knew where he stood with. When he had been here, holding him, he had felt so much of his worries and fears fade away, but now they were back. Of course, it was because of his inability to deal with those fears that Ren had left. He told himself that everything would be fine, Ren had forgiven him, so maybe everyone else would forgive him, too. He had watched some TV and picked up one of his books for a little while. Nothing had helped.

He couldn't hear anything from downstairs. Just because there was no screaming, it didn't mean it was going alright. Name was like Wes, when she got really, truly mad, she didn't yell, she just got very quiet and cold. That silence seemed to go on forever, and it only made him feel worse, like his insides were cannibalizing themselves. He wasn't exactly sure how, even in his worst nightmares, he had expected this to go. Shadi would yell at him, he supposed, but Mom and Feo would just be quiet, completely quiet with just a look of disgust or shame or disappointment, and that would be a lot worse than being yelled at. Whenever Mom said that she was proud of him, he felt better about himself than he had in his entire life, like he actually had worth. Even if it was just to her, that had always been more than he could ever want to hope for. If he lost that, would he lose all of the strength that he had gained, all that confidence? He wanted to believe that as long as Ren cared for him, he wouldn't revert to that scared, self-loathing person he had been all those months ago, but if his mom stopped loving him... could his new self survive that? He could stand her being angry at him for the choice he made, and for the choice he struggled to make, but it would kill him if she was disappointed with him.

Alex tensed as he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. It was time, and he didn't want it to be. He felt unbearably cold and his chest felt tight with anxiety. It was just one person coming up the steps and listening to those footsteps, he knew exactly who it was. Facing her alone was better than facing all of them at once, he supposed, but right now, he didn't want to face her at all. The footsteps stopped in front of his door and stopped. He hugged the pillow tighter to his chest and buried his face in it, waiting for her to come in. Several minutes passed, so long that Alex thought she might have left and he hadn't heard it. If it had been anyone else, he would have thought they were hesitating.

He flinched when he heard the knock.

"Come in," he called out and untangled himself from the pillow, sitting up on the bed.

He curled his hands into fists as they started to shake and he felt like he was going to vomit. He heard Name come into his bedroom, walk over to his side of the bed, and felt her sit down next to him, but he kept his eyes firmly focused on the floor, not daring to so much as glance over at her. She was as quiet as he was, which only made him more and more nervous. He almost wished she would just yell at him, tell him that what he had done was horrible and she couldn't believe he would sink that low. Was she waiting for him to say something? He didn't know what she wanted to hear from him.

"I'm so sorry," Alex finally managed to find the courage to speak, but he still didn't know where he stood with her, so he struggled to find the right words, "Nam-"

"Don't you dare, Alex," Name interrupted him.

The green eyed boy looked at her when she spoke in disbelief. Her voice wasn't stern, but filled with pain. He realized in remorse that he had just hurt her very badly by reverting back to her first name, but also felt a deep relief that she still wanted him to call her Mom. Did it make him an ass that he felt so happy, felt so much love for her simply because he was able to hurt her like that? He still didn't dare to believe that she wasn't furious with him, but if she still cared, that was more than he deserved.

"Mom," he amended and it felt good to say, "I'm sorry... what I did..." he looked down again in shame, "I never wanted to do anything that would make you disappointed with me. I tried so hard to be better, to be someone you could be proud of, but I couldn't," he said bitterly, feeling his anger at his actions rise again.

"Why do you think I'm not proud of you?" Name asked sadly.

Alex shyly glanced at her from under his bangs, trying to really gauge her. She was looking at him in that soft, worried way she often did when he said something about his past that upset her. It made his heart flutter with hope.

"I took someone's life," he said and the grief in his voice tore at Name, "I... I murdered another person, all because I was angry with him, because it was what I wanted. You always told me that you admired me for trying to move on away from him, and you always told me that life is sacred, that Wes and all men like him have no right to destroy or take away life. I tried so hard to live by that my whole life, and especially now, to be a better person, someone you could be proud of, someone stronger. But in the end, I reacted like he would have. You took me in. You gave me everything, and I repaid you by throwing away everything you ever tried to teach me."

Name grasped his hand, not liking how cold his skin felt.

"Sweetheart, you have it all wrong. I do admire you. I have admired you since the moment you woke up in that hospital all those months ago. I saw this scared, sick boy overcome such terrible injuries and show such strength, and that was even before I had known what had happened to you. I will continue to admire you every day, because not once have I seen you lose that strength, even if you believe you have.

"I didn't have to teach you that life is sacred, you have always believed that. Killing Wes didn't change that, and it never will. That's one of the reasons why you feel so awful about this. You think that taking Wes' life makes you a killer, that it makes you this terrible person. I think that your guilt over it shows that you aren't," she said.

Alex shook his head, still unable to shake the idea that she needed to hate him for this, and that she didn't simply meant she didn't understand. He didn't dare believe that he could do something like murdering a person and not be damned for it.

'Wes never was and he should have been.'

"How I feel about it doesn't matter," he insisted, his voice twisted with mental pain, "Wes raised me to be like him, to think like him. Your needs are the only ones that matter. Take what you need, what you want. Any life but yours is worthless. Only those who are powerful and ruthless and don't care about others survive... I fought against that my entire life, but I'm just a product of his upbringing. I failed. I failed you and I failed myself. I slipped up, I let him win."

"He raised you to be a pet," Name said, wincing at her own words, but she couldn't avoid the truth of them, "He wanted you to be perfect for him, and when you weren't, he tortured you. That's mental conditioning, Alex. That you've managed to fight against it shows your strength, but it will always be there. A part of it gives you your drive to succeed. I remember how you used to be, how scared you were of being anything less than perfect. But no one is perfect, you know that, and I certainly don't want you to be. Slipping up in your ideals or mine does not make you a bad person, it makes you human."

"This isn't a failed math test or even me losing faith in my family like I used to!" Alex protested, "I failed in the worst way I possibly could... I became him, just a monster who had no problem killing someone out of rage."

He felt her hand on his back, rubbing him gently, just like Ren had earlier.

"You in no way became that... that man, love," her gentle voice was soothing, and it was a dagger in his chest reminding him of how close he had come to losing her and making him again wonder if he deserved her, if he should just accept her forgiveness or continue to try to make her understand his actions, "The sum of a person... their worth and what truly defines them isn't a single action, the one time they were kind or the one time they were cruel, it's what they bring into their lives every day, and what they bring to the lives of the people around them. Wes brought death, decay, destruction, and madness into his home, and that was exactly what he received in return. He has no one to blame for that but himself, not even you. A single action can never define a person, and those brief, small acts of love he showed you during your childhood and before his death were meaningless. They were never who he really was."

Alex looked down at his hands and for the first time in two weeks, he didn't see the hands that had held that knife. He saw the faint scars on his fingers from when Wes had struck him with a glass beer bottle in the shoulder and then had made him pick up the pieces with his bare hands. He saw the much deeper scar on his left arm from when Wes had broken it in anger so badly the bone had broken through his skin. Both Name and Ren had confirmed what he had tried to make himself believe, that Wes hadn't really loved him.

These scars... these painful memories were proof of the real Wes. If he felt miserable about killing him, it couldn't be because he had destroyed the other path his life could have taken, his future with Wes. If there was any good that had come from killing him for himself, he could believe now it was taking that choice away from him. For better or worse, he had saved himself, something he had never thought possible. And before Name and Ren had come into his life, it had been impossible. But if that rage he had felt didn't define him, and being a whore didn't define him, then what did? The weakness that had kept him under Wes' thumb for so long? The strength that had gotten him out of that place and into this one eventually, or something else?

Now that Wes was dead, would that anger eventually dissipate like steam, or would it only grow and come to define him? Ren had managed to overcome his rage, Alex didn't know if he was capable of that yet.

"And what did I bring into your life?" he asked Name with a painful shyness.

He was scared to know her answer. Alex thought of everything that had happened since he had left the hospital six months ago. He had overturned the lives of five wonderful people, put Name through the strife of dealing with all of his emotional problems, and she had changed her life to accommodate him. She had done it willingly, but he still knew that things around her, and in her job, had to have changed because of him.

He had unwittingly put her son in danger at least twice, probably more than that considering how much Wes had hated Ren. Mizu had been given the opportunity to attack her because of her decision to take him in. She had sacrificed for him, hurt for him, and what had he done for her, what had he brought to her life to make all of that worth it?

Name smiled warmly at him and picked up Shiva, the cat mrowling in annoyance until the woman placed her on Alex's lap.

"This is what you brought into my home," she said, giving the black cat a scratch under her chin, "love and life. You risked your life and safety to visit your animals during a time when you were still very sick, and feeling very vulnerable. That says a lot more about you than what you did in that closet. You care about life, you always have. I know the lengths you would go to for your cats, and for us. You did not just kill Wes because he hurt you or you were trying to protect yourself. I know you well enough to know that a very big part of what drove you to stab him was his refusal to kill you. You knew exactly what he would do next, what he would take away from you to punish you and try to further force you to go with him.

"After you tried to trick him, he couldn't trust you not to run away anymore, all he could do was take away the one thing you had to run away to. He had already made the decision not to kill you, you said so yourself. Given what you have told us about him, I have no doubt Wes' next move would have been to try to kill us, and I definitely have no doubt that that is what you believed right then. In that one moment when you were desperate to stop him, to make him stop hurting you and us, and so angry at him for everything he did to you and intended to keep doing to you, you took a life, but that isn't the sum of who you are. You are the person who kept all that anger bottled up to begin with, partially out of fear of fighting back against your abuser, but mostly because you didn't want to be the sort of person that he was, a person that catered to their anger with chaos and violence."

"I wish I could see it like that," Alex whispered, lightly petting Shiva, "but I just feel like I let his hate, all the things that I couldn't stand about him, to infect me."

"I can't see it your way," Name told him, "and no matter how much you try to convince me and Ren of it, we will never be able to see it that way. You think that you slaughtered a man, that was all your actions amount to, but I see it differently. For the very first time in your life, you truly stood up to Wes. Maybe you did it in anger, but you didn't just let him continue to abuse you like you have in the past. You have said this to us before, that you were tired of the abuse, the way he treated you, and you felt like he was breaking you. But you always lived with it passively and chose to believe it was your fault, that you couldn't do anything about it so you might as well not even try. For the very first time in eight years, he hurt you and you acted. You didn't just run away, you stood up to him. Not many people can do that, Alex, especially not against a frightening man like Wes. You might hate yourself for it, but all I care about is that you made it home, not because we saved you or Wes let his guard down, but because you made that choice not to be a victim, to save yourself."

Alex felt the weight of her words, the truth of them that he had already accepted, that no matter the consequences, he had chosen not to allow Wes to abuse him anymore, to be the kind of strong person that Name and Ren wanted him to be. He felt tears stream down his face and he bit back a sob, hating crying so much, but he couldn't stop it. He buried his face in his hands, his fingers curling around his bangs and tugging at them sharply in his grief, as though the pain could make the tears stop.

"Then why do I feel this way?! Why can't I stop hating myself and feeling horrible that I killed him if everyone else thinks it was justified?!" he cried.

Name pulled his hands away from his face, his red rimmed eyes and the heartbroken expression on his face making her tear up, too. She wished in that moment that she could take this all away from him, just make him forget it had ever happened, even if she truly believed that, ultimately, it would help him.

"You loved him," she said with a great deal of emotion in her voice, with no judgment of that love, just truth, "and killing someone you love, even if that person is terrible, is one of the worst things in this world to live with," she wiped his tears from his cheeks and brushed the hair that had escaped from his braid away from his face, "I wish this never had happened to you, that we could have found a way to stop him without you having to do this."

"You couldn't have," Alex said hoarsely, "he never would have gone to jail and he never would have been caught. I didn't know how else to make him stop..."

"You told me that I believe that life is sacred, that you killing him is a terrible thing you deserve to be punished for, something that I have to hate you for, because it is something I would never do. I wish, so badly, that that weren't true," she confessed, Alex looking at her in confusion, "You weren't the only one that held on to that ideal for so long, Alex. I held on to it longer than I should have. Holding on to it the way I did may have very well caused your kidnapping. If I had let go of my morals early on, I might have stopped Wes before any of this happened, before he even shot you.

"At first it was simply because I overestimated him. I thought of him simply of a rapist who had hurt you. I told myself that I would find him one day and get you the justice you deserved, but that your health was more important, making you feel at home and safe was more important. It was, but even when you told us more and more about him, and I realized just how dangerous he really was, I still chose not to act. I believed that simply because I was involved, he wouldn't try anything.

"I should have realized, after hearing all the horrible things he did to you, the sort of man he was. That he wasn't going to stop torturing you or stop posing a threat to us simply out of fear of what I would do. I underestimated him every step of the way and because of that, you suffered and had to take things into your own hands. It never should have come to that. If you have to blame someone, don't blame yourself, blame me. I made a choice between your personal safety and my conscience," she said bitterly.

"That isn't true," Alex protested, horrified that she would actually feel guilt about this, "I know you made that choice for my sake. You were trying to help me, to show me what to do, how to act, and it did help me, more than you could know. Everything you've done has helped me to heal from my childhood, a little bit at a time. It's exactly what I've needed.

"You hunting after him would have just made him act faster, and even if you had managed to take him out, I never would have wanted you to compromise yourself for my sake. I wouldn't even have known how to feel about it back then, I still wasn't ready to deal with that, I don't even know if I'm ready to deal with losing him. My being kidnapped was probably inevitable, but it was my fault for taking such huge risks. I will never blame you for what happened, not ever."

"I don't blame you, either," she insisted, "I can't blame you because, if I had been the one in that closet, pushed into a corner like that and knowing that that man had every intention of killing or harming you, I would have killed for you."

Alex's eyes widened in shock. He imagined her as the one who had plunged that knife into Wes' throat and just couldn't equate the sweet, gentle woman who had saved his life, soothed his nightmares, cooked his meals, and gotten the best care imaginable with the same one who had just calmly told him she would not only be willing to kill for him, to deny her strict moral code, put her job in jeopardy, and become a criminal, but would have done so gladly, with the fierce one he saw now, with fire in her eyes and the expression of mother tiger on her face.

He couldn't deny the honesty in her voice, though, and he suddenly knew that she wasn't just assuming she could do such a thing, she had thought about it at length. She would kill for him. He didn't know how to handle that kind of love, that willingness to do whatever it took to save someone she loved, and that that person was him.

'Am I so different? She's right,' he realized, 'Maybe I killed Wes for myself, because I couldn't contain that rage anymore, and because I wanted to finally be at peace from him. But that was only a part of it. I was also scared of what he might do, the lengths he might go to destroy my new family. If I killed him for me, I have to also admit that I killed him for them, to protect them.'

Just like that, a very large portion of the guilt he had been feeling eased and for the first time, he really looked at what he had done, not through the eyes of the person who had done it, but impartially. He thought about what he would do if he had had actual control over the situation, if he had the opportunity to redo what had happened in the closet. Wes had let go of his throat, he had brought him back from certain death. Name was right, he knew Wes, more than any other human being on the planet could claim to know him, and he knew what his father would have done next, where he would have gone next.

Subconsciously, he had realized that, had realized the fear that had been plaguing him since his kidnapping, and it had only served to fuel the rage that had caused him to stab him. Knowing that, if he had found himself calm, without that anger, and still holding that knife, what would he have done?

'I would have done the same thing over again,' he realized with a mix of horror and a resolve that brought him a feeling that was very close to relief, 'To save Name, Ren, Shadi, Feo, and even Yue, I would have stabbed him. I would have stabbed him to save my family.'

"Shadi and Feo don't blame you either, although I'm sure they'll want to tell you that themselves," he heard Name say, her voice sounding worried at seeing the storm of emotions on his face.

That was the final blow to his heart. The only person who hated him for what he had done, after all of the agonizing he had done over it, was himself. He hated himself for letting that anger in, letting it control him, and he hated that he had let Wes into enough of his heart that such violence was possible for him... but he suddenly realized that he no longer hated himself for the outcome, merely his actions. That, in itself, was horrible. He should be overcome with self-loathing knowing he had killed the same man he called his father and had had such a hard time letting go of because of their history together, but he didn't.

Objectively, he knew that Wes dying was the best thing for everyone, especially himself. Maybe whoever took his place might come gunning for him, but his family wasn't in danger anymore, not from someone as crazed and homicidal as Wes. He had saved them. How could he feel bad about that? And objectively, he had to admit to himself that if someone had had to died at the end of all this, he was glad it was Wes. In weighing the lives of his rapist versus the lives of Ren and Name, well, there was no contest there. If he was the sort to be egotistical, he would say he had done the world a favor, but even just selfishly, he could survive without Wes in his life, but if Wes had killed Name or Ren, there was no way he could have come back from that.

He started to cry harder, squeezing his eyes shut. Name wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly, trying to soothe him. He tried to grasp at that guilt he had felt that had led him to mutilate himself and go mute, listening to all those voices in his telling him he was a murderer, but they were so faint now. Here, with his mother telling him that no one blamed him and that he had probably saved them, his own feelings of self-loathing seemed pretty small and insignificant. All that remained were his fears of his anger, his hate at what he had done simply because it was the same thing he had seen Wes do over and over and over.

"I can't stop feeling pain about it," he said between his soft cries, "I can't stop thinking that I need to be punished... that something terrible has to happen to me, even though I know that this is the way it had to have ended... with his death or mine."

"I missed you so much," she said painfully, stroking his hair and oblivious to how those words made his heart warm and comforted him at the same time they hurt, a reminder of his fears of losing them, either through Wes' actions or his own, "He took you from us once. I won't let him take you forever without a fight. I will do anything that I can to make you understand that killing Wes does not make you a killer and there is nothing for you to be punished for," she smiled down at him and kissed his forehead, which effectively halted his tears, "For now, you're safe. Wes can't hurt you anymore, please focus on that."

He nodded and rested his head against her chest, closing his eyes, not seeing her soft smile but feeling her hands stroking his hair. It felt so good, better than anything else in the world. He had spent five days locked away in the dark, and another week locked away in a psych ward, unable to go home or see his family for more than a few hours. During all that time, he had never allowed himself to believe that he would have this again, this sense of peace. He never thought he would hear his mother's heart beat again or feel this safe in her arms.

This was real. He was going to keep his family. He could hate himself as much as his conscience wanted, but he could keep all the things that were important to him. He promised himself he would do exactly what Name had asked of him, one way or another, he would find a way to forgive himself.

Neither Name nor Alex moved for awhile, long enough for Alex to start to nod off. Name noticed it as he started to lean against her a bit more, his breathing deepening.

"C'mon, love," she prodded, the sound of her voice rousing him again, "Let's have dinner. You haven't had anything to eat since early this morning and I made a stir fry."

Alex almost protested. He felt groggy now, all the emotional turmoil he had been through making him feel like a zombie, and he didn't want to face Shadi and Feo. But he had been fantasizing about his mother's cooking for so long now, and the sound of stir fry made his stomach growl. Besides, she had said that his friends weren't mad at him. He nodded.

"I'm pretty hungry," he confessed.

She let go of him, the two of them smoothing out their clothes. Alex thought about re-braiding his hair since it was starting to unravel, but decided that he didn't really care. When they walked into the kitchen together, Shadi and Ren were setting the table, lightly bickering about who was going to mow the lawn tomorrow and who was going to check the chlorine levels of the pool water, while Feo stood at the stove cooking the stir fry.

Alex just stood there in the doorway for a moment, unsure of what to do. The three of them, together like this, was exactly what he had imagined friends would be like, long before he had had any besides Aki and the other prostitutes. Looking at them allowed him to see into a past he hadn't been a part of, what they had been like before he had come into their lives. It hadn't been that long since he had felt like a fourth wheel between them... no, that wasn't quite right. Rather, he had felt that he should feel like the fourth wheel.

Ren had known Shadi and Feo for so much longer than him, he had always expected to be second best, but Ren had always treated him like his best friend. They just connected so well, so naturally. Now, he didn't even think of himself as the outcast, or the person that had taken Shadi and Feo's friend from them. He thought of the four of them as a tight knit unit. Shadi and Feo might not hate him for what he had done, but Alex still didn't know if the dynamic of their friendship would remain unchanged.

Name saw Alex hesitate and prodded him to get him to move forward into the kitchen. His three friends finally noticed him and went completely silent. Ren looked nervous, studying Alex and his mother's faces to try to get some kind of clue of what had happened upstairs. Feo was his usual, mysterious self, his expression not betraying how he was actually feeling. His boyfriend, on the other hand, looked at Alex as though he couldn't believe he was standing there and didn't know what to say. There were tears in his hazel eyes and Alex was so sure the blonde would ask him some question about the kidnapping or take note of the tear tracks on his cheeks.

"Did you sleep well?" the Arab asked instead, his usual confident voice wavering a little.

Alex nodded.

"It was nice to sleep in my own bed again," he confessed, reminding himself that they knew everything now, he didn't have to lie or elaborate on his sleeping conditions during his disappearance, "I'm so sorry that I made you guys leave just because I wasn't feeling well, and I made everyone worry about me and take care of my animals..."

"You didn't make us leave, Alex," Shadi chided, "Feo and I had decided that back when you were still in the hospital and we wouldn't have let you talk us out of it."

"And I'm pretty sure you didn't kidnap yourself," Feo said cheekily, "so in reality, Wes was the one that made us worry about you, not you. We would all be pretty crappy people and friends if we hadn't taken care of your cats when you had been unable to."

The tall boy stopped stirring and enveloped his younger friend in a tight hug, a rare show of affection from him.

"We all missed you so much," he murmured into Alex's red hair, "all we have cared about since you disappeared is getting you back," he pulled back and looked Alex in the eye, "No matter what happened between you and Wes, we understand and we could never hate you for it. I am so sorry you had to do what you did, but we love you and we're so happy you're home."

Shadi nodded his agreement enthusiastically.

"We could never hate you for doing what you had to to get back to where you are safe and loved," the blonde said with a sad smile, "please don't doubt us."

Alex smiled back at him.

"I know, I shouldn't have. You're my friends and I love you, it's just so hard for me to believe that I've been so lucky to have friends like you and be allowed to keep you."

Feo and Shadi shared a look, the both of them humbled by the American's words. They both knew that Alex truly meant it, and how much their friendship meant to him.

"C'mon, let's get you fed," Feo broke the serious air with one of his almost non-existent smiles.

He picked out a bowl from the cabinet and loaded it up with the stir fry mix; seasoned white rice, chicken, beer, egg, and about every vegetable one could put in a stir fry, including grilled cucumber and bok choy, peapods, onion, peppers, broccoli, and mushrooms. Alex smelled ginger, garlic, soy, and teriyaki emanating from the food and thought his stomach might die from joy right there.

"Thank you," he said to both Name and Feo for the food, like he always did.

He tried to go get a glass of milk, but Name shooed him away as Feo filled four more plates with food. When Alex sat down at the table between Shadi and Ren, his blonde friend grasped his hand.

"It's so good to have you home again," he said with tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face.

Alex echoed his smile and waited for the rest of his family to sit down at the table before digging into his meal. It was the most delicious thing he had ever eaten, even better than the first meal Name had cooked for him after he had gotten out of the hospital or the first time he had ever tasted her blueberry pancakes or the salmon she would marinate in teriyaki sauce just for him.

They ate in peace, not speaking to each other, but every now and then, Alex felt Shadi's hand brush against his and Ren's hand on his back, just little touches from his friends, as though they needed to remind themselves that he was there. When they finished, Alex tried to start washing the dishes, like he normally did, but Name stopped him.

"None of that," she scolded with a smile, "Ren and I will do the dishes. You've had a very long and very stressful day. Go to sleep, watch some television, read one of your books. It's your summer vacation and I want you to relax."

"Ok," he nodded.

Alex had to admit, after everything that had happened, not just recently but this entire year, he ached for just that. Some time for all of it to stop, to just be with his friends and not have to worry about anything for once in his life. He should worry. Even if his family forgave him for what he had done, the man he had spent almost all of his life with was dead because of him. Chris was still alive. Wes' empire would keep running. But right now, Alex realized that he didn't want to care about any of that. He just wanted to be a teenaged boy, enjoying his summer vacation.

Name brushed his bangs away from his face and kissed his forehead.

"Think about what we talked about, alright?" she whispered.

Alex nodded. Name watched warmly as he said good night to Feo, Shadi, and Ren, each of them giving him a tight hug before he followed Feo and Shadi up the stairs. She hoped that he would just go to bed, he looked so tired after his long talks with her and her other son.

When she and Ren were done with the dishes, he hastily tried to follow his friends up the steps, but Name snagged the back of his shirt before he could even leave the kitchen.

"We need to talk about something," she said, her expression suddenly dead serious.

"Alright, shoot," Ren said, feeling his stomach twist nervously.

"You told us that the night Alex came back, when you found him in your bedroom holding the knife, you took it from him and tossed it under your bed, correct?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"Did you touch it? With your bare hands?"

Ren blinked at her, her brown-eyed gaze fierce as his face suddenly paled, realizing what she was asking.

"I had to," he protested, "He was confused, and covered with blood. I thought the blood was his, and in the state he was in, I just wanted to get that knife away from him. I wasn't thinking straight."

"What did you do with it? Is it still under your bed?" his mother asked, ignoring the implications of what he had done for a minute.

He was silent for a long time, not wanting to answer that question.

"Ren," she prodded sternly.

"When we came back from the hospital, I thought about throwing it out. I didn't know what to do with the thing, if I should just get rid of it or if Alex would want to keep it, if it had saved his life somehow. Then, when he was admitted into the psych ward, I took it to the creek across town and threw it where the current was strongest, so it would take it past the town line, wherever that creek ends up."

"Why did you think to do that?" Name asked, perplexed since back then they hadn't known anything at all about that knife, where Alex had gotten it from, or what had happened to him.

"All that blood..." Ren murmured, "and it wasn't his. The night we found him, I was too panicked to really think about it, but when Stark told us that Alex wasn't badly hurt, I knew then that that blood had to have come from someone else."

"Did you think that Alex had killed Wes, even back then?"

Ren shook his head.

"I tried not to think about it. I told myself that it didn't matter, because Alex wasn't hurt. And when I couldn't help but to think about it, I chose to believe that it wasn't serious. Maybe there had been someone else that Wes had hurt, maybe someone else he had kidnapped, one of his subordinates that had crossed him, or something like that. But I think I knew, if only subconsciously, that Alex had been the one to hurt someone. All that blood that was on him... and the way he was clutching the knife, like he was terrified to let go of it... but I never for a second thought that he had killed anyone. I couldn't have. Anyone else... but this was Alex. Still, I had no reason to keep the knife, I realized, and every reason to get rid of it, so I did. Should I have kept it?" he asked her, his voice filled with worry and fear.

"No," Name soothed him, "you did the right thing. I wish you hadn't touched it with your bare hands, but that was unavoidable. Keeping it close to us, even burying it near this house, would have been very dangerous. Eventually, someone is going to find Wes' body, the police are going to get involved, and someone, somewhere, is going to remember having seeing Alex with Wes at some point. The police might never suspect he had anything to do with it, but if they ever do, better that knife is never found, or is found very far away from here. If it comes out that Alex was living with Wes, that would explain his fingerprints, but not yours. We had better hope they never find it."

Ren felt a thrill of fear at that and marveled that his mother didn't look as worried as he did. Although, thinking about it, if the police could pinpoint the time of Wes' murder, he might have an alibi. Even if he didn't, his involvement with Alex, and Alex's involvement with Wes was the only thing that really linked him to the man, and no cop was going to make half-assed accusations at any member of the Akibana family, especially him, without concrete proof. He was far more worried about what would happen to Alex if they linked him to Wes.

"Should we do something... about Wes I mean?" he asked, feeling his fear start to be replaced with a fierce feeling of protectiveness for his friend, "Alex's right, if anyone had found the body yet, there would be a news report. It's probably still there at the apartment. If we got there before the cops do-"

"No," Name protested sharply, "If no one saw Alex leave that apartment like he says, then he was very, incredibly lucky. If anyone saw us go in there and a violent crime was suspected, it would only throw suspicions at Alex all the faster. Anything we do to alter that crime scene will be one more thing that might put Alex at risk. I'm sure people that live around that area have seen him and Wes together, so his fingerprints and blood being in that apartment won't be that big of a deal. He would be a suspect, but they would need more proof. Us being there and leaving any kind of trace evidence would be incriminating. Even if we got rid of Wes' body, there's no way we could get rid of all the evidence. It's best to let things be where they are."

"Then what do we do?" Ren asked, desperate for some way to fix all of this.

"We keep an eye on the news, and hope that no policemen or hit men come knocking at our door," she replied solemnly.

For once, Alex didn't have any nightmares. He didn't know if it was because he was sleeping in his own bed again, he was somewhere safe, close to Name and Ren, or if it was because of the talks he had had with the boy he loved and the woman he considered his mother, but he didn't dream of Wes or darkness or any of his friends telling him painful truths. He vaguely recalled dreaming of something pleasant, but he couldn't remember what it was.

He rolled out of bed with a lot more energy than he had had in a very long time. Although he had taken a shower last night, he took another one, still reveling that he could take one, not only a long, hot one, but an unsupervised one. He still had a hard time believing everything that had happened in the last twenty four hours. He was home. No one hated him. It was summer vacation. Wes was dead. That last admission should have made him want to cry or shake like it had before, but even though it was a blow to his heart, the blow was beginning to soften.

There was a part of him that missed the man terribly, the same part of himself that would always hate him for what he did, but he blocked it out by remembering Name's arms around him last night. His family was safe, his own petty feelings of what he had done didn't matter. Missing Wes didn't matter. He quickly brushed his hair and got dressed in his bedroom before he remembered his wounded arms. He had taken the bandages off before his shower and now they were naked, the wounds glaring in the light of a sunny, summer morning.

He looked at each red cut with a clinical eye, the eye of someone who was used to such wounds. He hated them, just another piece of physical evidence of how close he had come to destroying his new life, to never coming back here. He grabbed the roll of bandages that Dr. Wei had given him to wrap his arms with and tried to do just that, but to no avail. He had been cleaning up his own wounds for as long as he could remember, but the cuts were all over both of his arms, making it practically in possible to wrap them himself.

He threw the roll of bandages onto the bed in frustration, feeling pathetic for not being able to do this one, small thing for himself. He couldn't help feeling that his old self would have found a way how out of sure necessity. Was this the price he would have to pay for this new life of his? That the more he came to rely on other people, the people he loved, the less he could rely on himself? Someone knocked on his door, dissipating the stray thought.

"Come in," he called.

Feo came in and closed the door behind him. Alex felt a burst of joy in seeing him and wondered how long he would be feeling these moments of utter happiness just at seeing his friends and mother, like a part of him couldn't conceive their presence. He supposed it was nice, to feel so much happiness, a feeling that had been a stranger to him for so long.

'I never felt like this around Wes,' he pointed out to himself.

Yet another door he could shut in his heart, another reason why he had made the right choice. And yet another thing that made him feel all the worse that he had been unable to make that choice until the very end.

Some of Alex's frustration must have shown on his face because the other boy quirked an eyebrow at him.

"Having trouble bandaging your arms?" he asked wryly.

"Yes," Alex sighed in defeat, "I used to be able to do this when I was a kid, but I can't seem to manage it now for some reason."

"What did I tell you?" Feo asked as he sat down next to Alex on his bed.

"Huh?"

"About depending on people," the grey-eyed boy clarified.

Alex blushed, remembering that conversation, and his promise to come to any of his friends if he ever needed their help with something, a promise he was obviously failing at.

"I understand," Feo tried to soothe his younger friend's guilt, "You have been on your own for a very long time. Even when you lived with Wes, you took care of yourself. It's scary, losing that independence, and losing something that has been with you for so long, a skill, a feeling, a memory, or a person."

Alex studied him shyly, knowing that Feo was talking about a lot more than him being unable to bandage his arms.

"Not being able to care for yourself like you had been able to as a child does not mean you're weaker or pathetic. Your arms are longer now, and years of malnutrition and anemia have messed up your coordination. Besides, you shouldn't have to need that kind of skill anymore It is frustrating now because you relied on it so much in the past, but you have people to care for you and help you when you need it," his eyes seemed to pierce into Alex's heart, "And killing Wes doesn't mean you've lost what made you, you. You haven't turned your back on who you were, where you came from, your entire past just because the man who molded you is no longer around."

Alex was startled by Feo's perceptiveness, like he really could see into his soul.

"How did you know I felt that way?" he asked softly.

"Because you aren't just sad that you killed the man you considered your father. You're scared," the taller boy said, "and because I once felt the same way. I was young when I was taken from my sister and given to my uncle, young enough to be susceptible to him, but old enough to be aware of it. Being with him changed me, mostly for the worse, but I became a different person and I became familiar with that new person. I was scared and angry, all the time, but I also learned to care for myself, to not trust or rely on anyone else.

"When my uncle went to jail and I returned to my sister, I still felt that fear. Not of being hurt, but that I would lose everything that had made me, me, and that I would be unable to adapt. I didn't even know if I wanted to, if I wanted to change, and I certainly couldn't rely on my sister's care or anyone else at the circus. Many people, including her, didn't know how to handle it, and it took me years to learn how to ask for help when I needed it, to trust somebody other than myself.

"I don't know why, but I had just assumed that my uncle's guardianship over me was going to be a permanent thing. At the same time that I felt I could only rely on myself, I didn't realize I had been relying on him to be a constant force in my life. When that stopped being true, it unnerved me, and I hadn't lived with him nearly as long as you had with Wes. I thought being without my uncle would make me weak, that his control and abuse had shaped me, that I needed it to keep my strength, my self reliance. But I was wrong," he smiled warmly at Alex, "You are who you are, no one can change that unless you let them, unless you want that change. Wes instilled a lot of fear and darkness in you, but it isn't who you are and it isn't anything you can't overcome if you want to badly enough. Your past will always be there, in your memories, you can't lose a thing like that.

"You know, you don't need Wes, Alex. You haven't for a very long time. He was the one who needed you."

Those words made warmth burst in Alex's heart. If someone else, someone like Dr. Stephenson or even Mr. Liev had said that to him, he would have felt pain, wanting to believe them but unable to. But Feo knew him, in some ways he knew him better than Ren and Name did or ever could. And when he said those things, he found that he could believe them.

When he searched himself, he knew Feo was right. He didn't need Wes. He didn't need him telling him what to do anymore, he had to rely on himself and his new family, not his past. He missed him, and in some ways he wanted him back, but he could survive without him. He had told himself as a child that he couldn't survive without Wes, because Wes had beaten that believe into him. It had taken all of these years, and much eternal struggle, to realize how strong he could be.

Feo gently grasped Alex's wrists and turned his arms over to look at his cuts. They were still red and raw, some of the deeper ones sluggishly bleeding like a paper cut would from washing them in the shower.

"These are looking much better," the Italian complimented, "they're healing very well. I think you'll only really need to keep them covered for today, for the sake of infections. They're going to be tender and will bleed easily until they fully heal, but we can put band-aids on the worst ones and they should be fine, just done' use them too much. They're going to scar though," he mentioned regrettably.

Alex shrugged.

"I have worse ones than these, I'm used to it," he said and instantly regretted it when his friend's gaze turned sad.

The longhaired boy became perplexed when Feo took a tube of bacterial cream out of his pocket and uncapped it.

"You knew I needed that?" he asked.

"I know you would try to take care of it yourself instead of ask us and would probably forget to do this," the taller boy said with a slight smirk as he started to put the cream on Alex's cuts, "You don't absolutely need to, but it will help reduce the scarring and keep them from being infected."

Alex stayed still as Feo finished with the cream and wrapped up his arms. He hated the feeling of the bandages, like he was a mummy or burn victim, but he didn't like looking at the wounds either and remembering he had done it to himself.

"Did Mr. Hastings call while I was gone?" he suddenly blurted out.

"As soon as we were sure you had been kidnapped, Name called him," Feo assured him, "She told him you had pneumonia and would need some extended time off. He said you would still have your job when you were feeling better, and it's only been two weeks, so don't worry about it."

"I'm not that worried," Alex said honestly, "With everything that's happened, I haven't actually thought about my job until now. I'm just so happy to be home, to be back here with my family. Even if Mr. Hastings fires me, it won't impact my life that much. I'll still have a home, a family, food, and an education. I don't want to inconvenience my boss after everything he's done for me, but I can always find another job. Mom told me to relax and not worry about things, so that's what I'm going to try to do, as much as I can. I'll call him in a couple of days."

Feo's features softened to a look of love and affection.

"I'm proud of you," he said, ruffling his friend's hair a little, "not all that long ago, you would have worried about it just as much as anything else and wouldn't have been able to just let it go."

Alex flushed, but he felt more pride than embarrassment hearing those words from someone he looked up to and whose approval he desperately sought, probably just as much as his mother's. He knew his friend was right. A month ago, he would have nearly given himself an ulcer worrying about losing his job, about letting Name down. But not only was he learning to let go of guilt and get some perspective, he had almost just lost everything that mattered to him. He had survived fighting a lot of his inner demons and he was still dealing with Wes' murder. Compared to all that, losing a part time job seemed so vastly unimportant.

Feo's expression suddenly changed again to something pensive. Alex realized that the older boy hadn't just come in here to help him with his arms, there was something he wanted to say, but was struggling to find the right way to say it. Feo was always so quiet, but when he did say something, he always said it with eloquence and confidence. It was painful to see him nervous and fumbling like this.

"I want to apologize to you," the Italian finally said, looking at the floor instead of Alex, like he was ashamed.

"For what?" Alex asked, thoroughly confused.

"The day you got kidnapped..." Feo said with quite a lot of difficulty, his voice heavy with remorse and pain, "It was my fault that happened. I put you in a dangerous situation, all by yourself, and the worst did happen. You getting locked in that closet, and having to kill Wes, all of that is on my head. All the suffering you went through is because of me and my terrible choices."

"That isn't true," Alex insisted, "They were my choices. What happened was because of my own foolishness and no one else's. I just talked you into it."

"I was the adult!" his friend suddenly snapped and just like that, like watching a dam finally buckle and break, the normally stoic boy started to cry, "Name put me in charge, made me responsible for your safety and I failed her! I failed you! She never would have let you talk her into agreeing to something so stupid. I knew the risks, I knew what was at stake, what could happen to you, and I let you convince me anyway. You could have died in that closet, all because I made the wrong choice..."

Alex turned on the bed and wrapped his arms around his friend, holding him tightly like the much taller boy was no more than a child. Feo clung to him as though, in his heart, Alex was still in danger and his embrace alone could protect him.

"I never should have let you go that day," the grey eyed boy sobbed into Alex's shoulder, "We almost lost you forever... I'll never forgive myself for that..."

"I am so sorry," Alex whispered to him, rubbing his back like how Name and Ren had done for him when he had been this upset, "I thought that if I went home by myself, I could prove to all of you and myself that I'm not the same, weak, scared person I used to be, that I'm growing and getting better and Wes didn't have the same influence over me like he had. But my choice was still motivated by him, I was still letting him control me, just in a different way. My pride... needing to know that you guys believe in me and are proud of me aren't as important as my safety. I didn't think about the true consequences, how much you would suffer if something happened to me.

"I was so selfish, and a terrible friend. It was a risk I never should have taken, and all of you hurt because of it. And I learned that I don't need to take my life in my hands like that just to prove I'm strong, that I had nothing to prove because you were proud of me to begin with. All of you have been saying that to me for a long time, but I just couldn't understand why you would be proud, what was in me that you could love."

"And do you now?" Feo asked, untangling himself from the shorter boy.

Alex nodded.

"I... I don't like myself very much, Feo," he confessed, "I have never liked myself, so when all of you say you love me and are proud of me just for being here and trying to do better, it's hard for me to accept that. But I'm starting to understand that even if it's hard for me to see the good things in myself, all of you do. Just knowing that makes me try to see those things, too," his emerald eyes met Feo's tear-reddened emerald ones, "I promise, Feo, I will never put you in that position again, I'll never ask you to let me put myself in harm's way just to gain a little bit of confidence. I'll find that confidence another way, somehow. I know it's a little bit too late to promise that, with Wes dead, but I mean it. I'm done taking risks and forgetting that I'm not by myself anymore. I have people I can rely on and people who my actions can hurt."

"We love you, Alex," Feo smiled at him, "all of us. All we want is for you to be happy and safe. And we will try our hardest to get you to see why there is so much in you to love and be proud of."

When he heard Feo cry and what Alex said to comfort him, Ren felt his stomach squirm, realizing the private moment he was inadvertently eavesdropping in on while he stood in the hallway right outside Alex's door, waiting for Feo to come out so he could speak with him. In all of their years as friends, Ren had never heard Feo cry like that, but he certainly didn't judge him for it. He remembered the terror he had felt when he had realized Alex had been taken from them. He had even blamed Feo for quite some time for it, even though deep down he had known Feo had never meant for it to happen and it probably would have happened no matter Feo's involvement.

Back then, he had been too consumed with his own pain to think about his friends' or his mother's, but he certainly understood Feo's. He knew, from first hand experience, what that guilt felt like, to make a rash decision that had almost cost his friend's life.

"I don't like myself very much."

Those words spread pure agony in Ren's heart. He knew that Alex had a lot of problems with confidence and how he saw himself, and he knew the damage Wes had done after constantly telling him that he was unloved, stupid, and worthless. He liked to think that everyday their actions helped alleviate a little bit of that damage, but he also knew that they could never fully repair it, and that hurt. Still, Alex acknowledging that they saw good things in him, and that he understood they really were proud of him and not just lying to him was a kind of victory, wasn't it? Or at least a step in the right direction.

Alex's door opened and Feo stepped out, startling Ren from his thoughts. He almost tried to make it look like he had just been walking past Alex's door instead of standing here listening to their conversation, but he knew Feo would just see through him like he always did. If the tall boy was offended that he had heard what they had been talking about, he didn't show it, instead shooting him a questioning glance.

"I need to talk to you," Ren said softly, feeling a bit shy from his embarrassment. He looked past Feo into Alex's room and saw that his best friend hadn't noticed him yet, but was unpacking the box he had brought home from the ward, "not where he can hear," he said significantly, wincing a little at home it sounded like he was keeping things from Alex, even though that was exactly what he was doing. But Feo understood and nodded.

"We can talk in my room. Shadi is getting an early start on weeding the flower beds."

Ren followed him into his room. His two childhood friends, like Alex, had really turned this guest room into their own. The room was the bigger of the five guest rooms they had in the house, about the same size as the master bedroom his mother had claimed as hers. He wondered if she had chosen this house in hopes the two might visit since it was big enough for the both of them to occupy. She had even furnished it with two bookshelves and two desks when they had moved in, including a king sized bed instead of the full sized ones in Ren and Alex's rooms.

Ren could easily tell whose side of the bedroom was whose. Shadi's desk was covered in various papers, his laptop open and on sleep mode. Without looking at the papers or touching his computer, Ren knew that the papers were reports and data from his father's company and that Shadi had used his computer this morning to talk to either Layla or one of his other many, many sisters. His friend had been doing that a lot lately, catching up with what was going on with both his family, and the family business. Before his father had found out about him and Feo, Shahir Winner had been modeling his son to take after him when it came time for him to retire. Even after he had shut him out, Shadi hadn't been able to turn any of that off, taking in all of the news that his father refused to tell him through his sisters. His bookcase held a mix of all kinds of different books, mostly fiction, including some fairy tales anthologies from his homeland. Feo's desk, on the other hand, was completely bare, not a single thing on it to show that he used it at all, even though Ren knew he did. His bookcase was filled with informational books, mostly on veterinary medicine and various mechanical guides.

Feo closed the door behind them, waking up Cassy who had been curled up on the bed. She eyed them suspiciously, but when they made no move to go near the bed, she closed her eyes again.

"I want to apologize," Ren said to Feo, "for how I acted when you told us you let Alex walk home alone."

"Ren, it's fine, I understand-" the Italian started to protest.

"No, it isn't," the other boy said firmly, "I'm not saying that I like the choice you made. You told Alex that my mother wouldn't have made that choice, and I wouldn't have either," he took a deep breath, "but that was no excuse for attacking you. I let my fear and my anger take control of me again. I understand why you made that choice, that you were trying to do the right thing for Alex. I forgive you for that, and I never should have taken my feelings out on you. You didn't know what was going to happen. Hell, if that bus accident hadn't happened, he probably would have made it home safe. I still wouldn't have taken that risk, but you thought you were giving him what he needed, a chance to feel better about himself. I can't blame you for that. I would give anything to give him that, myself, but because of how I feel about him... I'm too scared to take those kinds of risks."

"I appreciate that, Ren," Feo said, "and I understand why you reacted that way. If it had been Shadi, I would have done and said the same things. But that isn't why you wanted to talk to me, is it?"

Ren felt himself blush. He didn't want to discuss this with his friend, with anyone, really. But he needed to.

"I'm in love with Alex," he said in a weak voice. He knew that Feo and Shadi were already aware of that fact, Yue, too, but this was the very first time he had spoken those words out loud and both he and Feo felt the heavy weight of them, "At first, it was just lust. You know what I was like back then. I was somewhere new, somewhere I didn't want to be. I was bored and Alex was pretty, even back when he had been too thin and unhealthy, I had been attracted to him. When we first met, I thought he would just be something I could do to alleviate my boredom. Just another one of my... flings... you know?" Ren struggled, far from proud about how he had once seen his now best friend.

Feo nodded. The last few years, Ren had bounced from partners, although Feo hesitated to call them that since they only lasted a couple of days. Flings, just like Ren had said. Each boy, he had only kept around long enough to satisfy himself, then he hadn't wanted anything to do with them. Most of them had just been attractive schoolmates that had just gone along with it because Ren was rich and handsome, and it had been something to brag about to their friends, sleeping with the Akibana heir.

But a few of them had genuinely liked the Japanese boy, and his coldness had hurt them, which, Feo was sure, had been Ren's intention. He hadn't gone out of his way to cause pain, but rather had used that pain to distance himself from them. The old Ren had been a hypocrite, not wanting anyone to get close, but unable to truly cut off all his feelings, hence the flings. Physically, Alex was exactly the kind of boy that that Ren would have gravitated to for a short while. Pretty, shy, intelligent, and interesting enough to grab his attention.

He didn't especially like how his friend had acted back then, anymore than Ren himself did, but it just made him feel all the more grateful to Alex for pulling him out of it. That Ren was standing here, telling him that he loved Alex, actually loved him, was such a drastic change from that angry, bitter child he had once been.

"Even when we became friends and we kept hanging out, I felt attracted to him and thought that, one day, it would just happen that way. But when Yue kept throwing himself at him, I realized I didn't want that. Seeing how Alex was reacting to that whole situation, I felt so angry at Yue for being that disrespectful, so how could I think about him that way? And then when we found out what was really going on in his life, and I saw how strong he was, despite everything, I realized that it wasn't just a crush. I loved him. And every day I see him, every day he's here with us, I love him more and more. No matter what I try, these feelings never get anymore tolerable."

"Ren," Feo sighed, "you should tell him that."

"That's exactly the problem!" his friend snapped back, "I've tried to hide it from him! I've tried to push those feelings down, to stop letting them overwhelm me. I even tried to stop loving him, but I can't. I don't want to stop loving him," he whispered, "I like how he makes me feel, just by looking at me and smiling at me. I've never felt this way my entire life, and I don't want to lose it. But it hurts. Sometimes I just... I get so weak... I want too much from him and I almost tell him the truth. I've even come close to kissing him! I need to stop this, before I do something stupid! But I don't know how."

"You can't keep this bottled up inside," Feo said softly, "Just trying to ignore that much emotion isn't possible, trust me, I know. When I realized that I was in love with Shadi, I tried to keep it from him. His father didn't even like that he was friends with a nothing like me. Shadi already knew that he was gay, and he had been absolutely terrified of his father finding that out. How could I do that to him? I thought, if Shadi didn't love me, it wouldn't matter if he knew, and if he did, I would be forcing him to either keep it a secret from his family, or make a choice between me and what he had been raised to be. I couldn't be that selfish.

"So I hid it from him, as best I could. But Ren, no matter how hard you fight it, those things don't go away and they can't be locked up. I never told Shadi, he figured it out on his own, and I will always regret that. If I had just taken the chance, it would have helped him with his own feelings a lot sooner."

"Alex isn't Shadi," Ren protested, "and I am never going to tell him, no matter how much it hurts me. I just need to find a way to stop from losing control-"

"There isn't anything, Ren," Feo said in rare frustration, "You said it yourself. Every day you're with him, you realize how much you love him. Almost kissing him is worse than telling him that you love him, so what is exactly is holding you back? Do you think he'll hate you for it? Weren't you the one who just told him not to tell him how you feel?"

"No," Ren murmured, "he won't hate me. It would be better if he did."

Feo shot him a completely perplexed look and his friend sighed again.

"Right before Alex told me what had happened to him when he had been kidnapped, I was going to tell him. I was convinced that it was what I needed to do."

Feo waited for him to keep going, but Ren fell silent, his expression dark.

"And now you aren't going to," he summed up, not even needing Ren to tell him that he was right, "I can understand, he needed to talk to you, and he was so emotionally drained after all that, you couldn't tell him. But you were ready to tell him then, what huge thing has changed from then and now that you lost that courage?"

"He told me that Wes said he loved him," Ren said grudgingly, remembering the raw and unbearable pain in his best friend's voice when he had told him that, "and he told me what that did to him, every time he heard those words, how it killed him inside, how it made him want things and feel things he never should have wanted or felt. They made him confused and he made bad choices that he never would have made if the asshole had just kept quiet."

"You aren't Wes," Feo said forcefully, having the sudden urge to beat sense into his friend, "how can you possibly base your decision-"

"I know I'm not," Ren snapped, "I would never hurt him, and I would never say something like that to him just to tie him to me like Wes did! But how can I possibly know that telling him I love him won't have that same effect, that he'll make a bad choice because of me, because he'll feel like he has to, to make things better for me?!"

"And how do you know that it won't help him?!" Feo shot back, "How do you know that him knowing that there is someone out there, someone who he respects and knows respects him, who finds him attractive and loves him that much, won't give him some of that confidence that he's been desperately searching for?!"

"Because I can't handle that kind of responsibility!" Ren yelled, tears dripping down his cheeks, "because I cannot possibly know that, if I say those things to him, he won't feel pressured to lie and say that he loves me back just because he doesn't want to lose me as a friend, or because he just wants to be loved, even if he doesn't feel that way back. I can't do that to him! Maybe it would be good for him, maybe it would give him confidence, but that is just one thing in the thousand of things that could go wrong here! "He just lost someone he loved, and he did it for us, as well as himself. How can I risk taking our friendship away from him because of my selfish feelings? He is so emotionally fragile... how can I know that he can even handle knowing that I love him, that I see him as anything else than my best friend? He isn't ready for that, and I would be a piece of shit to force him to make a decision that huge after all the pain he went through just deciding what he wanted his future to be."

Feo looked at him sadly.

"He's strong. You know that, but you're making this choice on the worry that he isn't, despite everything your heart is telling you. You think he isn't ready to hear that his best friend loves him. I think he is. I think he can separate what Wes felt for him and what you feel for him, quite easily. And I think he has proven that he is fully capable of making these kinds of choices for himself. But it isn't my decision, it's yours."

"Yes it is," Ren said with conviction, "and I'm choosing to not tell him, and to find a way to keep my silence, even if don't want to help me do that. I'm just doing what you did when you let him go off on his own that day. I'm choosing what I think is best for him, even if everyone else thinks I'm making the wrong choice."

He turned and walked to the door, putting his hand on the knob.

"You're an idiot," Feo said tiredly, "You aren't sparing him pain. All you're doing is insuring that you're going to be miserable."

Ren glanced back at him, then opened the door.

"I know," he muttered under his breath, so low that Feo couldn't hear him, and walked out of the bedroom.

End Part 23

Author's Note: Well, here we are. This is the cut off point that I have been talking about for what seems like an incredibly long time. Before anyone says anything, no, this story is NOT going on hiatus (I'm still getting people thinking that is what this means). Now that Roads has gotten to this point where Wes' story line has been more or less wrapped up and no one is in immediate danger or any of that, I am going to start working on my other stories, in alphabetical order. Roads is still going to be worked on, but not until I get to it's turn in the lineup. This means you won't be seeing an update for quite some time, but I've neglected my other works for too long.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone who has been reviewing this story and given me the energy to work on this more and faster. Now I am going to go work on A Stagnation of Love :3