Bit of a heavier chapter this time, but… Yeah. Enjoy?

"The Fighter" © In This Moment

Some Kind of Something

Chapter Nine

After lunch, the rest of the day had dragged itself out like a crippled, beaten, broken excuse of a man, clawing himself one agonizing inch at a time over jagged, volcanic glass terrain towards the cliff that promised to end his suffering. And although I'd looked, for all intents and purposes, like I'd been paying attention, my mind had decided that it had endured more than enough for one day, stormed out of the house without even bothering to turn the lights off, and slammed the door hard enough to shatter a window behind it. Much the same way my father had left his wife and only son, as a matter of fact… Minus my mother's snarls of the many colourful ways in which she'd inflict gruesome bodily harm upon him if he ever came back. I'd seen her for the lioness she truly was, then, even with her split lip and black eye, finally fed up with the behaviour of her foul-tempered, layabout king and willing to risk all to protect her only cub.

Once I'd gained a few years, she'd told me that she'd known that she'd just made both of our lives that much harder, but she'd never regretted it. Never mourned his abandonment of us. Even when she'd filed for divorce, she hadn't demanded financial aid, determined to scrub his taint from our lives once and for all. I admired her for that, and loved her for it even more. My memories of my father had faded – my sole recollections of his presence marred by water stains of residual fear and phantasmagorical screaming, often muffled through the door of my bedroom and the blankets I'd hidden under, pudgy hands crushed over my ears as I prayed desperately for the fighting to stop – but somehow, I harbored an inherent certainty that if he'd still been around when I'd realized I was gay, my life could have turned out much, much worse than it had.

However, that knowledge didn't stop me from hating what was going on in the here and now any less. That was, after all, a thing of the past. A "what if," that had lost its relevance to my present life many, many years ago. My dad was gone. My mom had reacted to my coming out with warmth and acceptance and wisdom. My friends were either open-minded or cordially indifferent. And now my sexuality was biting me square in the ass without the slightest intent of making the act enjoyable, even from the perspective of a hardcore BDSM addict. (Which I wasn't, although I could probably be coaxed into letting a future boyfriend tie me up and have his way with me.)

During class, it had taken every ounce of willpower I possessed to prevent myself from simply putting my head on my desk, and willing the nearest meteor to Earth to come crashing down through the roof of the school to annihilate everything then and there. That was really the only way I could possibly see my current problems getting any better without them driving me postal in the process, and inevitably ending with me burying a hatchet in someone's face.

Hell, maybe I'd just introduce said hatchet to my own face. Couldn't be that hard, right?

Even so, the day did eventually come to an end, my hands were still free of even the tiniest smattering of blood – to the exclusion of a hangnail I'd worried raw – and by the time the bell calling for the conclusion of the fourth and final period finally rang, I'd developed every intention of booking it out of there as fast as humanly possible to go home, crawl into bed, and wish – not for the first time, either – that I'd been born with someone else's life. Or at least their luck. I hated that my only instinct after the shitshow that today had been was to hide and mope and feel sorry for myself, but just then, it also seemed profoundly unfair that I had to fight so goddamn hard with both tooth and nail for even the smallest scraps of contentment that drifted my way, only for life to unfailingly swagger on over, yank down its pants, and take a rancid, steaming shit on it the second I actually had it in my hands.

If my mother was a lioness, I didn't even want to guess what I was, because I sure as hell hadn't inherited her ferocity. I just wanted the rest of the world to leave me the fuck alone so I could continue to go about minding my own goddamn business. One thing I knew for sure was that the day had certainly left me feeling like a particularly antisocial porcupine.

People were laughing and chatting and bitching all around me like a swarm of ants, flooding the hallways as students prepared to leave for the day, but I just stood there, a rock embedded deep in the river's flow, oblivious to everything as I stared blindly into the cluttered depths of my locker. I was still struggling to digest how my day could have gone so horribly wrong after the mood I'd woken up in that morning. Surely that must have been some sign from the universe that good things had been heading my way, and yet…

Fuck my life.

While Asher's arrival had been a pleasant surprise, it was hard to feel all aflutter about the possibilities he'd brought with him in the face of the shitstorm of drama it had kicked up with Joshua. Hell, that Joshua had reneged on his decision to switch schools in the first place was enough to put a damper on just about everything.

A breath that I hadn't even been aware I'd been holding leaked out of me, my posture deflating as I lingered at my locker, gazing dolefully at my things for a moment longer before I gave in and locked everything up for the day. At least this time, Joshua wasn't lurking behind my locker door as I closed it, ready and waiting with a snappy comment on his dryly slanted lips. After the "conversation" we'd had during lunch, I was beyond grateful for his absence, because the absolute last thing I needed to cap off my day was another fucking argument about… anything, to be honest. Between Joshua's anger and Bones's skepticism and Andy's meddling and my own treacherous, conflicted emotions, I was feeling broken and battered enough as things were.

Fingers snuck under the sleeve of my coat and the studded leather cuff of my bracelet, absently rubbing at the faded scars on the underside of my wrist for a second before I shifted the strap of my messenger bag, shoving it behind me as I wandered toward the doors at the end of the hall. Ensconced firmly in my cocoon of misery and self-pity, I breezed through the doors with my mind focussed entirely on the notion that my car – and my escape – was waiting for me at the other end of the parking lot.

Which was why Asher nearly scared the piss out of me when my name suddenly erupted over my shoulder. "Seth!"

"Jesus!" Flinch, pivot-stagger, hand halfway up to clutch at my chest, I could do nothing but gawk, eyes huge and startled, at the equally startled blonde perched on the red brick planter behind me. Christ, I hadn't even noticed he was there, and I'd walked right past him!

"Sorry sorry sorry!" Hands up, palms bared and frantically shaking themselves as I tried to prevent my heart from jackhammering its way out of my chest, a single dusty brown brow furrowed while Asher's voice softened, halfway to his feet as though preparing to rush to my aid. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. You okay?"

Eyes still huge, I heaved a breath, fingers clawing at the cramping muscle in my chest as I tried to coax the tension out of my body. "I think I just had a tiny heart attack," I wheezed, words taut with forced levity and leftover panic, "but other than that, yeah, I'm great. Fuckin' hell…"

If it hadn't been made official before, thanks to the many colourful ways in which my day had gone to complete and total shit, it sure as hell was now. Life was out to get me, and so far, it was coming perilously close to winning. I wasn't sure how much more abuse my poor heart could take.

The blonde's lips took on a more abashed tilt, shoulders hunched, hands sheepishly curled into balls, as he settled his weight back down on the planter's edge. "Sorry again…"

Fingers curling into a fist against my chest, I took a measured breath and carefully blew it out, and once I was sure I wasn't going to start hyperventilating or drop dead of an aneurysm, I managed a feeble grin and waved his apology away. "Nah, it's fine. It's just…" I sent him a fleeting glance, grin twisting into something wry and self-deprecating, still breathless from the scare. "It's been one of those kinds of days, y'know?"

Understanding was painted clearly across the blonde's face, but the faintly sheepish undertones were still obvious in the soft, crooked smile and the knowing drawl of his voice. "Yeah, no worries, I hear ya." In a not-so-literal snap of his fingers, however, Asher's expression smoothed itself, the drama put away and replaced with the clarity and nonchalant openness I was starting to come to expect from him. "But, anyways, um, I was wondering, if you don't have anywhere you need to be right away," those bright blue eyes peeked up at me from under his quirking brows and the thick, dark fans of his lashes, the knuckles of his fist absently rubbing themselves against an open palm, "could I maybe talk to you for a minute? Miles'll probably be here any second, so I won't keep you too-too long."

"Uh…" Absently rubbing at my chest one last time – my heart having calmed from its frantic jackhammering to something more familiar and fluttery – I took another deep breath, forcibly severing my thoughts from everything they'd been entertaining prior. The self-pity, the lurking problems with Joshua, the… fuck it, everything… I wrangled as much of it as humanly possible into a tiny, cramped space, jammed it down into a ball, drop-kicked it into the deepest, darkest corner of my mind that I could find on short notice, and hoped that it wouldn't explode for the whole world to see while I was talking with Asher.

That, of course, would bring problems of its own, and it really goes to say something about how the rest of my day had gone for me to actually welcome that particular breed of distraction.

"Uh…" I gave my head a short, tight shake to clear away the remaining cobwebs, lids flashing in a series of rapid blinks as I did so, before I focussed on the small, lithe blonde leaning forward onto his arms, head tilted coquettishly onto a shoulder. "Yeah. Sure." My feet conspired to bring me a few steps closer, hands fastening themselves around the strap of my messenger bag, lashed across my torso. "What's up?"

Blue eyes flitted about my countenance for a time before Asher took a breath, shifting his weight, gaze plummeting to the hands now worrying at one another in his lap. There was the slightest hint of a frown twitching at the muscles of his brows, and just like that, all of my worries from before came bursting back into focus, exploding into my mind like only the loudest and most flamboyant of drag queens making their royal entrance.

He seemed to be weighing his thoughts, rolling them around on his tongue, and when he eventually scooted himself back up onto the planter, pulling his legs up to cross them and fiddle with his fingers in his lap, a sudden flashbang of recollection of my conversation with Bones erupted in the back of my mind.

"You didn't want to talk in front of Blondie, fine, I get that."

I didn't like the way Asher was hesitating, choosing his words with such care that even the most oblivious of asshats would have caught it, and I was starting to develop the very distinct impression that, for once in my miserable life, I should have just done the asshole thing and kept walking. Sam and Mila were waiting for me at home, after all, along with a vast library of novels and video games and a petulant, capricious muse positively begging for my attention. I quite obviously didn't have time to waste. It was a matter of life and death, and my sanity was teetering on the precipice. The whole world had turned into the internet's most belligerent cat, staring at me while one soft little paw ever so tauntingly inched towards the delicate blown-glass figurine of my mental well-being, just waiting for the ideal moment to bat it – with all the wide-eyed innocence a cat was physically capable of feigning – right off the edge of a very high shelf.

"I know it's not any of my business or anything," Asher managed, eyes glued to the fingers he was still fidgeting with in his lap, "so if I'm being nosey or something, by all means," this time he did look up, just for a second, to meet my gaze, "feel free to tell me to back off and I will, but…" The blonde paused, taking a deep, shuddering breath before he wet his lips, committing himself to whatever was coming next as he peered up at me from under furrowed brows, concern blatantly evident in the way his eyes were flicking over my face. "Is everything okay? I mean, with that blonde and everything?"

Prod. Prod. Puuuush. Smash. "Oops. So sorry. Did you want to keep that?"

A stuttering breath sucked itself into my lungs, countenance going lax before everything scrunched itself up and I rubbed my face into my hand. When I finally allowed it to drop, it did so with the weight of a dead man at the gallows, and I could do little more than gaze helplessly and at a loss out into the parking lot where my car was waiting for me, and with it, the promise of solitude. I'm sure some fragment of yearning managed to manifest itself in my expression, because the next thing I knew, Asher's voice was filling the void again, soft and sympathetic.

"Like I said, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to. I just thought I'd ask."

I was still peering longingly at my car, my mind fixated on the notion of the safety and silence within the familiar confines of my home, but after a moment, whether it was the tone of his voice or the tender nature of the words it spoke, I felt compelled to linger, drawn one inch at a time away from all thoughts of flight. Contrary to evidence proffered by the nerves that never failed to find themselves fraying at the seams in his presence, something about Asher felt safe, just then. Warm. Unthreatening. He didn't have Andy's unrelenting nosiness, or Bones's rather… unique methods of expressing concern, and he certainly wasn't touting around the blatant, mind-scrambling hostility that Joshua had unleashed on me numerous times throughout the day.

Instead, Asher's inquiry was just that. A simple question that he had every intention of letting go if I chose not to answer it.

Maybe that was what made me stay.

"No," I murmured in resignation. "It's all right." My tongue instinctively wandered over to my lip piercing, nudging the ring back and forth, fiddling while I thought. Appreciation for Asher's consideration aside, how the hell was I supposed to answer that? My fingers twiddled restlessly at my sides, distractedly scraping blunt nails against the denim of my jeans, as my tongue switched targets and began prodding at the jutting peaks and grooves of my molars. I lingered for a moment in a peculiarly shaped caldera that felt suspiciously as though one of my fillings had disappeared, frowning just for an instant at the revelation. That can't be good… But I shunted the thought aside with a memo to ask my mom about it later. (After all, wasn't that what mothers were for? Lifelong spur-of-the-moment nurse service? 'Does this look infected to you?' 'Do my tonsils look like they've contracted gangrene?' 'I have a zit on my back that I can't reach. Can you pop that bitch for me?')

Students were still filing past us, disgorged from the building's various exits to launch themselves up the stairs into busses, or meandering over to bike racks and beaten cars. Normal students with normal teenage problems, where I seemed to have been gifted with a generous surfeit. I would have killed for a cigarette just then. Just one. Something to keep my hands occupied and my nerves sated.

But as I kept thinking, that wasn't really an option, now, was it?

After a period of long, awkward silence between us – with Asher waiting, watching me, as I stared out at other people's vehicles as though they might provide me with some kind of scholarly insight – I eventually crumbled, shoulders sagging beneath the weight of my burdens, and looked back over at Asher. I aimed a crooked finger lackadaisically at the planter. "Mind if I sit?"

Asher straightened, expression blank for the most fleeting of instants. "Oh! Yeah, by all means." Even as the words tumbled out of his lips, he was dragging his bag off of the bricks to dump it on the sidewalk, scooting himself aside on the limited space available to make room for me.

I ducked under the strap of my messenger bag and settled it against the planter wall before slumping down next to him. Another sigh heaved itself out into the atmosphere, while I stared blindly at nothing in particular in the parking lot. Where do I even start?

Fucking Christ, I wanted a cigarette. But at least I knew that much.

"I mentioned that he was my ex, yeah?" The words escaped me unbidden, slipping from my tongue with a mind all their own as I continued to stare into oblivion, my entire brain itching with an urge I couldn't satisfy. Even so, that didn't stop me from noticing, just out of my peripherals, that Asher was still watching me, expression quiet and thoughtful, and if I'd looked, I probably could have drowned in those blue eyes of his. All things considered, I could think of worse ways to die.


When I showed no signs of elaborating on the matter, Asher saved me the trouble of trying to put the whole mess into words, his head tilting itself at just such an angle that his bangs fell into his eyes, catching in his lashes.

"I take it the breakup didn't go well."

A dark huff of laughter thrust itself from my chest, my hands absently chafing at one another as though such a simple gesture would erase the way my fingers were tingling, aching to twiddle that future diagnosis of lung cancer in a stick the way they used to. "That's one way of putting it."

"Were you the one to break it off?"

"Nope." My tone was just as dark as that of my previous answer. Given the melodramatic bullshit he'd already seen, it didn't surprise me at all that Asher had drawn the conclusion he did, but it did emphasize the irony of it all.

Josh had dumped me on the grounds of systematically annihilating his sense of self-esteem and self-worth, despite the fact that I'd never once uttered a condemnatory word against him with malicious intent. I'd never insulted him, or played with his emotions simply for the hell of it. I'd certainly never physically abused him, unless you were pedantic enough to count the love-bites I'd occasionally left in the heat of the moment – the ones he'd always said he hated, and yet had never failed to moan and shiver during the process of their creation. The times we'd had alone had been my cherished opportunity to tell him how gorgeous he was, how much I adored how he'd smile at me in that personal, particular way that had always flooded me with both affection and desire. Despite my own shyness, I'd loved how comfortable and confident and flamboyant he was – and I'd wished, on more than one occasion, that I could be just a little bit more like him in that area especially. After all, he'd never cared if anyone saw us cuddle or kiss or hold hands…

Kind of how Asher had been during our walk to the restaurant on the last day of the con, when Miles had launched his water bottle at that obnoxiously tuned-up car, whining along the street with its homophobic passengers. The memory had the faintest hint of a smile plucking at my lips before my mind returned to the subject that had spawned it.

Hell, given the circumstances, I should have been the one getting all bent out of shape over the notion of Joshua potentially cozying up to someone else, not the other way around, and one quick sidelong glance was enough to make it abundantly clear that I wasn't the only one struggling to wrap my head around that delectable little concept.

"So," Asher slowly ventured, a scowl on his face, peering off to the side, finger circling in the air as he sorted through the facts. "He dumped you… and now he's being a salty bitch about it… why?"

"Fuck if I know." I rubbed at my face again, muttering under my hand as I recalled the confrontations that had blown up in said face over the course of the day. "But somehow he's gotten it into his head that, all because you hugged me, that means I must have been cheating on him, with you, while we were still together. And, I mean, I didn't even fucking know you until a week ago, and I tried telling him that, but he just…" My hands flung themselves up as though warding off the logic of the notion. "'Nope, someone hugged you and you let them, so that must mean you were cheating on me.' Like… Are you fucking kidding me?! Even if I had been, you still dumped me, so why would you even fucking care?! I'd just be reinforcing the fact that, hey, you were right to dump me, because apparently I'm some unfaithful fucking douchebag who'll go after the first piece of ass that presents itself! Not… Argh!" Dragging clawed fingers down my face at the absurdity of it all, I didn't even realize how much of a vitriolic rant I'd gone on until I became painstakingly aware of the blonde sitting quietly beside me, wide-eyed, no doubt stunned into silence by the growing vehemence of every word that had tumbled through my lips and accompanied every sharp, histrionically agitated gesture.

Sucking a deep breath in through my nose, I held it for a moment as my hands flopped limply onto my thighs, and when I finally let that breath go, the rest of me seemed to deflate with it until I was slumped and empty, scowling blankly at nothing, still craving that inhalation of carcinogenic smoke that had always (mostly) soothed my nerves in the past. Eventually I managed to collect the scattered and torn remnants of my thoughts, giving a rueful shake of my head, fingers raking through my hair, and hooking themselves around the back of my neck as I slumped forward onto my knees.

A pathetic ersatz of a grin – which, just then, probably looked more like a grimace – tugged at the unpierced corner of my mouth. "Sorry," I murmured. "That kinda turned into a massive rant, didn't it."

Asher shook his head with a soft, "Mm-mm. Don't apologize. Obviously it needed the outlet." A warm, compassionate smile softened his expression. "And, just for the record, you're not a douchebag. At least, I don't think so. But, ah…" The smile faltered before fading entirely, blue eyes locked on the hands in his lap. "I'm sorry I made your situation worse."

"Don't be," I uttered, brooding as I stared at the vehicles in the parking lot. And let's not forget, all of this could have been avoided if only Joshua had stayed true to his word and changed schools.

Christ, the mere notion of having to spend the rest of the year dealing with this shit was enough to have me absently patting down the pockets of my jacket as though in search of even one cigarette I may have tucked away and forgotten about. I found nothing, of course. When I'd finally decided I was going to quit smoking, I'd been very thorough in ridding myself of any lingering temptations. Still, I'd had my hopes up that just maybe, in light of present circumstances, just one cigarette would have magically reappeared to help take the edge off of my nerves, and when I found those hopes dashed all to hell, my mood soured even further. I bit back a pissed off sigh and slumped back down onto my knees.

"Even if you hadn't hugged me," I started, "it was gonna go bad regardless. Besides, you didn't know. You couldn't have known. It's not like I was wearing a big fluorescent sign around my neck that I was two months out of a relationship and, oh, by the way, the guy bitching me out? Yeah, he's my ex, so please don't do anything that could be misinterpreted as signs of intimacy because he's a right jealous little fucker on even his best days. And, hell…" I gave an incredulous little chuckle at the absurdity of my situation, raking my fingers back through my hair again before both hands laced their fingers together over the back of my neck. "I'd pretty much managed to convince myself that I'd just been delusional and fuckin'… hallucinated the whole thing or something."

"What? The fact that I was gonna be coming to your school?"

"Yeah." A wry, self-deprecating hint of a grin twitched at the very furthest outskirts of my lips, unable to bring myself to meet Asher's gaze as I peered bleakly out into the parking lot. "Stupid, right?"

I could only observe out of my peripherals, hoping and praying that he didn't notice the way I was starting to blush, when he leaned forward onto his hands, head tilted, and regarded me with a small, warm smile. "I think it's kinda cute, actually."

Trying my absolute hardest to maintain my feebly constructed mask of stoicism and detachment when faced with that look, I felt my ears flush, and obstinately looked away from him – under the pretense, of course, that something else had caught my attention, despite the fact that there was nothing to see, and I was obviously nowhere near as casual about it as I liked to think I'd been. Unlike Bones, projecting an air of surly indifference had never been my forte, and I couldn't help but feel like I was trying – and failing – to emulate something that came to him as naturally as breathing. God knows I certainly felt like a bad actor giving an even worse impression of the archetypally apathetic bad boy, and when accompanied by that, I was instantaneously mortified and humiliated both by the corniness of the words that came toppling out of my mouth next. "You have a strange set of criteria for what counts as cute, you know that? You an' your brother both."

Christ, I could have died, I was so embarrassed of myself. I felt like a fucking eight-year-old, trying to hide the fact that I liked a girl I was interacting with by pretending that I still fully believed that girls were gross and had the cooties. Never mind the fact that, in the entirety of my life, I don't think I'd ever actually liked a girl that way since prematurely hitting the hell that was puberty – the analogy still stands. After all, everyone knew that up to a certain point, if you were a boy, it was almost an unspoken rule that girls were, by the simple virtue of being girls, gross and full of cooties. I just happened to take that one step further by realizing that once I was old enough to develop a legitimate crush on someone, that person equally just so happened to be a boy.

Sure, girls were pretty, and all in all, I got along with them and their cooties just fine, but my affection had always gravitated towards boys.

My mom liked reminding me how relieved she was that she wouldn't have to sit me down for a talk about flying feather-dusters and hell bugs. Instead, we'd had a long, informative – and on my end as a thirteen-year-old, quite horrifying – discussion about the importance of condoms, lubrication, relaxation of the anal sphincter, and having healthy, regular bowel movements or employing the use of an enema to ensure the emptiness of one's rectum prior to any penetration. I liked frequently retorting that I would've preferred the feather-dusters and hell bugs. (Although I had to hand it to her: she'd certainly done her research before sitting me down for this particular conversation. Either that, or she had a long history of firsthand experience, but that was one option I still had every intention of remaining vehemently and wilfully ignorant of. To do otherwise was practically instant terminal brain cancer.)

But Asher huffed out a breathy laugh, joining me in my renewed scrutiny of the parking lot, and blissfully unaware of the way I was beating the absolute shit out of myself in my head. "Yeah, I guess I can't really deny that," he breezily allowed. "We're both a little weird like that."

We sat there in affable silence for a while, both lost in our own private thoughts, before Asher glanced over at me again.

"About your ex, though… I mean, I don't know him," he conceded with a shrug, "so I've only got what I've seen firsthand and what you've told me to go off of, so I might be way out in left field with this, but… Y'know what I think it is? Or, at least," he amended, "what I think it could be? I think that while he may have been the one to pull the plug, he's not ready to actually let you go."

As I considered what he'd said, my brows crawling up into arches, I found myself toying with the coin Joshua had tied around my throat, and conceded the point with a tilt of my head and a tiny, throaty hum. "He did say earlier that he," my expression flattened, my hands raising themselves to crook my fingers into air-quotes, "'just wants to be friends.'"

The blonde gave a tiny snort. "Sounds more like he wants to keep you close in case he decides to want you back."

"You think so?"

"You said yourself that he's a right jealous SOB even on his good days, and I've known more than my share of guys who just couldn't seem to let the fuck go. Besides," Asher continued. "If looks could kill, I'd be about a thousand different varieties of dead as dead gets right about now."

And, despite my foul mood and everything that had happened today, despite my misgivings for the future and whatever it might hold, I couldn't help but laugh a little. It wasn't loud and exuberant. It wasn't hysterically out of control. It was faint and genuine, enough to make my shoulders shake as I bent my head with a smile that suddenly felt like the first heartfelt smile I'd worn all day. I was grateful to Asher for that, grateful beyond words, even if the joke had come at his own expense. All of a sudden, everything seemed just a little less gloomy, and I felt like a weight had been lifted, like Asher had stripped a seemingly impossibly complex situation down to its marrow and revealed something that – while still a far cry from pleasant – seemed, at the very least, to be a little less daunting and a little more manageable than it had before I'd left the confines of the school.

Did it reduce all of my despair and frustration with the situation with Joshua to ash? Far from it. But I could have hugged Asher at least for trying. I wanted to hug him for that, witnesses be damned.

But in true-to-life Sethtopian fashion, I did nothing, too consumed by my own uncertainties and insecurity to take a risk just this once to barefacedly express what I felt – and I think, for that, I kind of hated myself. Instead, the only thing I could do was murmur a faint, "Thank you," flash him a tiny, earnest grin, and hope that it would be enough.

Rather unfortunately, much the same way I had with Joshua, and the bitter irony of this was not lost on me.

-x- Asher -x-

I was all but oblivious to the passage of time while Seth and I sat there, chatting amiably about nothing and everything, and it wasn't until I really allowed myself a moment to consider the emptiness of the parking lot spread before us, foot absently swinging, that it even occurred to me to check my watch. 4:23, and still no sign of Miles. I smothered my rising concern and managed to keep my voice light and idle as I peered towards the road.

"Wow," I murmured, "I thought he would have been here by now." I suppose it was entirely possible that Miles had simply gotten delayed by rush-hour traffic – or maybe he'd lain down for a nap and hadn't woken up on time – but the fact that he was late and, to my knowledge, hadn't yet called the school… It wasn't like him. I tried to mask the slowly creeping anxiety beneath an apologetic smile and returned my attention to Seth. "I'm really sorry for keeping you this long. You can go, if you need to – I'm sure you've got places to be."

One of Seth's shoulders jerked in a shrug. "Nah, not really. Nowhere pressing, anyways. Besides, honestly?" Seth leaned forward onto his hands, eyes going wide as he sucked in a slow breath and blew out his cheeks. "After the kind of day I've had, being able to just… talk like this is kinda nice."

Seth never glanced my way, opting instead to study the nearly empty parking lot with dark eyes and a small, wistful smile, but I felt a smile of my own curling on my mouth, warm and languid as I, in turn, studied him. I'd found Seth attractive right from the beginning, after I'd tripped over him and restrained my initially murderous impulses long enough to actually get a good look at him, but while he'd been adorably harried and flustered and mortified beyond all possible ken back then…

Now? It was nice to see what he was like with his guard down, and nicer still to know that he'd been able to let it down in my presence. I liked the sharp contrast between the ragged, inky black locks of his mohawk and the ashen pallor of his skin; it made the well-defined lines of his infinitely expressive brows pop, made his lashes seem thick and beautiful around those dark russet eyes.

And I loved the way I could watch the flush blossoming in his cheeks and ears – especially in his ears – as he awkwardly fidgeted beside me, grin jerkily tugging itself wider just for a second while he stared doggedly at the ground.

"You're, uh…" Another spasm of a grin, head distractedly nodding itself, eyes flashing everywhere except up to meet my own. "You're a really easy person to talk to, you know that?"

God, I could have kissed him just then. Instead, I settled on a sly smile. "I try." What I really would have liked to try was a delicate nibble of the edge of his, by now, blood-red ear, but after the day he'd had, Seth probably would have had a heart attack, so I restrained myself as much as I was able to and contented myself with stretching out my little finger to stroke it gently over the back of his hand.

Seth's whole body twitched at the contact, but he didn't pull his hand away, and only looked slightly petrified as wide brown eyes stared blankly ahead, nostrils flared, lips pursed into a pale, nervous line.

Holy mother of Christ, why did he have to be so goddamn cute all the time?! One of these days I'd end up slipping my own leash and then Seth would really have reason to be nervous around me, so I tried to smother my smile – or at least dampen it down to something just a jot more innocuous – and turned my attention back to the road, leaving my pinkie where it was to idly marvel at the soft, smooth texture of Seth's skin beneath my fingertip, trailing lightly over the swell of veins that had risen beneath his flesh.

As enamored as I was with being allowed this small act of intimacy, that didn't stop a completely different part of my brain from fretting over the fact that Miles wasn't here yet, and although I tried to be subtle when I checked my watch for the second time in as many minutes, Seth took notice regardless.

"Do you… wanna try calling him or something?" Seth gave a minute tilt of his head, expression candid and inquisitive. "You guys only have one phone, right? You can use mine, if you want."

Cute, sweet, and considerate. How many years had I been willing to sacrifice one of my testicles for that combination, only to find the penultimate embodiment of all three suddenly sitting right next to me? It seemed almost too good to be true. "Really? You don't mind?"

"Wouldn't have offered if I did."

Christ, I could just… eat him. I willed the tension from my muscles and let my body wilt a little as a grateful smile plucked at my lips. "That would be awesome, thank you." As Seth flashed me a bashful grin and bent to retrieve his cell from the messenger bag at his feet, I glanced towards the road again, my fingers restlessly working themselves against the bricks, picking at the texture. "He's never this late. I mean, I know he was really tired this morning, so I'm hoping he just fell asleep and never set an alarm or something, but…" I couldn't help but worry at the inside of my lip with my teeth. But that wouldn't be like him, either.

Seth finally fished out his phone and extended it to me, and I managed only a fleeting smile of gratitude before I pried it open and punched in Miles's number.

I really, really need to talk to him about getting a phone of my own. It wasn't the first time the thought had occurred to me, and I was certain it wouldn't be the last, either, but while I understood and respected the logic behind my brother's decision, I could have just as easily made a convincing counterargument to the logic of us both having phones. Unfortunately, Miles always had been too stubborn for his own good, and this was one of the subjects that I knew he wouldn't budge on until he managed to convince himself that a second phone would do less harm than good. Given the nature of his reasons, though – the same ones that compelled him to never stay in one place for too long, or to never take the same route home twice in a row – I wasn't getting my hopes up.

No, they were saving themselves for the notion of finally setting down roots, and I'd be a liar if I denied Seth's involvement in that particular subject matter. Something just felt… different, this time. I couldn't quite put my finger on the what or why of it, but I'd felt the change after the events at the con – and while my brother had every intention of denying it until he was blue in the face, I know he'd felt it too. It was displayed loud and clear for anyone who knew where to look in every interaction he'd had with Seth thus far, and as I waited impatiently for him to pick up his phone, part of me couldn't help but smile a little on the inside.

After all, as I'd thought at the con, Seth had gotten under his skin without even trying, wedging himself both there and in Miles's brain with an ease that made me want to whistle in awe before ribbing Miles relentlessly over the whole thing. It was kind of funny, how our roles had occasionally reversed themselves since then, as though Miles were the younger sibling with a schoolboy crush and I the crafty older brother with a noted penchant for teasing him over it. Sure, Miles preferred to think he could brush it off like a pro, but there was no hiding the infinitesimal signs of attraction I'd found budding in his body language. The lingering stares, the profoundly uncommon displays of awkwardness… He was normally such a smooth operator in relationships that it became virtually impossible not to notice the way some of his mannerisms suddenly changed in Seth's presence. It was just so goddamn cute, I almost couldn't stand it.

That smile, however, was quickly snuffed out of existence when the dial tone finally gave way to my brother's voicemail. Tucking the Warm and Fuzzies away into their respective compartments, I ended the call and snapped Seth's phone shut, thoughts whipped into a much less positive sort of frenzy, all but oblivious to the dark eyes regarding me in curiosity.

Miles hadn't answered his phone.

He was asleep. He had to be. Miles always answered his phone. Always. It didn't matter whether he was working or writing or driving or using the washroom. Miles always had his phone either nearby or directly on him when we weren't together. Hell, I'm pretty sure I'd caught him on more than one occasion when he'd been in the middle of jerking off or having a little extra-fun Adult Time with his most recent squeeze. After all, most people don't sound quite so flustered when they answer a phone call if all they're doing is climbing a set of stairs or doing menial housework, like Miles preferred to claim. Even so, while my brother would never admit to some of his more… licentious escapades, he'd always answered his phone, regardless of the circumstances in which I'd inadvertently caught him. And like everything else, behind the rest of my brother's little "quirks," there was a very, very good reason for it. One neither of us would ever likely forget.

He's gotta be sleeping. I flicked the phone open again, redialled, and felt the first flutter of panic beating its wings against my chest. The dial tone droned on, and every time it paused for just that singular second, I prayed I'd hear the telltale click that would precede my brother's voice. C'mon, Miles, pick up…

Beeeep, pause.

C'mon c'mon c'mon…

Beeeep, pause.

C'mon Miles, where are you? Why aren't you answering?

Beeeep, pause.


"Hey," I perked up for one second before I realized it was his voicemail again. "You've reached Miles-"

"And Asher!"

"And," my brother drawled, "we can't take your call right now-"

"So leave your name, number and message after the beep-"

"And we'll get back t'ya as soon as we can."


"Fuck." I snapped Seth's phone shut again, worry careening wildly out of control as I clutched my hands together, phone still trapped between them, leaned my elbows onto my knees, and my mouth into my hands. Calm down, I uttered to myself. You're getting all freaked out over nothing. He's probably just having a nap and hasn't heard the phone. I don't think he slept at all last night, so just keep trying him and sooner or later he's gonna wake up and everything will be fine.

"Something wrong?"

Ripped violently from the whirlwind of my thoughts, wide eyes snapped over to the companion I'd forgotten about entirely, and I wrestled a parody of a grin onto my face. "Oh. No." I glanced down at Seth's phone as I straightened. The grin nearly wavered when I looked back at Seth, but I clung to it with every ounce of determination I possessed. Miles also liked to remind me how stubborn I was. "He's just… not picking up his phone, that's all. He's probably working or something. Swear to god a wrecking ball could come ploughing through his window and he'd never even notice it until it knocks him clean out the other side of the building. Once he's in the zone, there's no getting him out of it, y'know?"

Seth paused from prodding around the black ring piercing the left corner of his lower lip and conceded to something I'd said with a fleeting arch of his brows. Whatever it was, I'd never learn, because a moment later, I found him studying my expression, his own thoughtful and guileless. "Well," he drawled at length, russet eyes wandering around the edges of their sockets. "If Miles was s'posed to come and get you, and he's not answering his phone… I mean, you'd need to direct me and everything, but, uh," he distractedly scratched at the blushing rim of his ear before his touch wandered and absently tugged on the tunnel in his stretched earlobe, "I could probably give you a ride home, if you'd like."

"Wh-" My hands jumped up of their own volition to frantically wave their palms at Seth in refusal. "No, no, I can't. I mean, I appreciate it and everything, but you just live in town here, right? That's way too out of your way, and with gas being the price that it is-"

For once, Seth was the one to interrupt my rambling with a crooked grin, cutting my protests short and leaving me to simply soften under the warmth of his gaze. "It's fine, really. I don't mind. One tank of gas lasts me pretty much forever out here and I'm getting paid at the end of the week anyways, so…" He gave an eloquent shrug, surprisingly nonchalant about everything – except for the red in his face – in spite of the nerves I probably wasn't hiding anywhere near as well as I liked to think I was. "Besides," he succinctly added. "Consider it my way of saying thanks for putting up with all of…" He gestured vaguely at the building looming behind us. "This."

"You sure?"


"Well…" My smile relaxed into something less anxious, the tension melting from my shoulders an ounce at a time without ever fully leaving. "Thank you. I'm sorry for being such a pain in the ass, it's just…" I raked my fingers back through my hair, at a complete loss for one critical moment before I realized precisely what I was on the verge of saying and gave a tight shake of my head. Much as I liked Seth, I wasn't ready to tell him the truth behind the story of my brother and I – and frankly, as far as Miles's own story was concerned, I didn't even have the right. Maybe if we hung around long enough, if Miles spent enough time in Seth's company, he'd feel safe enough to lance that particularly nasty abscess on his own. "Anyways, I really appreciate it, and I can pay you back for the gas." Seth opened his mouth to protest and I obstinately raised my voice over his own before he had a chance. "I'm paying you back for the gas, period, end of story."

He lifted bared palms and hunched his shoulders into a shrug of acceptance.

Fighting to restrain the concern thrashing steadily nearer to breaking the surface of my composure, I levered myself onto my feet and collected my bag. "You don't have to thank me for putting up with your friends, though. I thought they were actually pretty awesome." And like that, with Seth's phone and my worries still clenched firmly in my fist, I'd found my way home. Beneath all of the amicable chatter, however, my mind never strayed far from the fear of what I'd find when we got there.


"You look nervous."

Ripped from the all-consuming bonfire of my fears, I tore my eyes away from where they'd been affixed to the numbers above the elevator doors, watching, waiting, begging the car to go faster with each floor we passed. "Sorry?" Seth's observation clicked a delayed second later, and a short, sharp breath sucked itself in as my eyes flew back up to the numbers. "Oh. Uh…"

There was no way I could explain the real reason why, but I'd realized Seth had been taking careful notice of my behaviour since we'd left the school, watching me with "a writer's eyes," as Miles liked to say – meticulous, analytical, contemplative – so I knew that any attempt I made to deny it or simply brush it off would only worsen his suspicions. Instead, I shot him a sidelong grin, acutely aware of the way I could all but see the gears cranking themselves in his head as I settled for a half-truth.

"I'm probably just being a worrywart, but it's not like him to not answer his phone." And god knows I'd made more than one attempt during the drive into the city to rectify that particular problem, preoccupied enough that I'd gotten us lost on several occasions because I simply hadn't been paying attention. I sucked in a shuddering breath. "And it's really not like him to pull a no-show when he knows he's the only way I have of getting home."

"Ah." Brown eyes flitted up, and Seth joined me in watching the numbers light up, one after the other, the faintest hint of a troubled furrow marking his brows above the shields of his sunglasses.

Please be okay…

It took everything I had not to bolt out of the elevator at a run when we finally reached the tenth floor, forced instead to wait impatiently, hating the doors for not opening faster as I dragged my bag around to fish out my keys. Even so, I didn't waste any time in marching out of the elevator as soon as I could, seizing my keys from their hiding place and shoving my bag behind me onto my back, only a very minute fraction of my thoughts sparing themselves for the companion trailing behind me like a ghost as my legs ate up the meters between me and my brother. That was, assuming he was still in the apartment. And if he wasn't…

I thrust the thought from my mind as though it were a rabid, drooling leper, groping and leering with depravity sparkling in its eyes.

If he wasn't, and if I hurried down to the parkade to find the 4Runner absent from its usual parking spot, my tenuous grip on my panic might evaporate entirely.

Were it not for Seth's presence – and, god, how I was starting to wish I'd bid him farewell at the front entrance instead of giving him ringside seats to all of this – I would have covered those last few meters in a sprint, urgency pounding through my veins, my pulse hammering in my ears, as I approached the door to our apartment and smothered the obscenities yearning to paint the air blue while I fought with our petulant locks.

The second the deadbolt clicked open, I burst through the door, slinging my bag onto the floor as I called my brother's name into the hush. "Miles?" Without even leaving the entrance hall, I could see that he wasn't at his drafting table. I leaned to the right, craning my neck as I toed off my shoes to see the balcony empty, the doors shut. A hasty glance around the corner of the wall to my left informed me that he wasn't in the kitchen, either. Nothing was out of place, which was good. Miles's apparent absence, somewhat less so.

I'd almost booked it down the hall towards the corridor leading to our bedrooms and the single bathroom we shared before freezing at the last possible second and turning on my companion. "Sorry," I breathlessly murmured, hands lifted and splayed as though I could root him in place with sheer willpower. "Can you just… wait here a second?"

Seth faltered in the process of tucking his sunglasses onto the crown of his head, eyes slightly wider than usual, everything about him radiating questions – but instead of asking them, obviously left ill at ease by my displays of anxiety, he simply settled his sunglasses and hooked his thumbs around the strap of his messenger bag. "Sure."

I could still feel his eyes on me as I breathed my thanks and hurried from one corridor into another. Both of our bedroom doors were open, and I could already tell that Miles – with his room being the one at the end of the hall – had not, in fact, crashed on his bed for some much-needed sleep. What ultimately stopped me was the hiss of water escaping from the washroom, and the fact that that door had been left only slightly ajar. There was no steam escaping into the dim confines of the hall, however, and more importantly, it didn't sound like Miles – if he was in there – was moving. There was no slosh or slap of water cascading off of his muscular body while he washed, no faint melody absentmindedly rolling off of his lips while he lathered his hair, and when my tentative knock on the door went unanswered, I took a deep breath and fought to steel myself for whatever scene awaited me within.

I remembered all too well another day, just like this one, when I'd finished studying with a friend, and wound up taking a bus home because my brother hadn't shown to pick me up. Hadn't answered his phone. Only, that day, I'd turned down the offer of a ride from the latest friend I'd made at school. I'd figured the bus would be fast enough, and I didn't want to risk exposing my friend to the hell I'd gone to such great lengths to hide from the world. Miles had been… changing, ever since we'd started living with his boyfriend. I knew that theirs was a turbulent, volatile relationship. I knew that I didn't like him, and I'd made a point of telling my brother exactly what I thought of his beau when he wasn't around to hear it. I'd seen the bruises on Miles's arms that he tried to hide, and I'd pleaded with him to end it and leave, tried to persuade him that we could find another place, a cheaper place, to live – a place that we could afford, just for the two of us. But Miles had insisted that everything was all right, that we couldn't leave, that his boyfriend was the only thing keeping us fed and sheltered.

I remembered the way my brother had started wasting away before my very eyes, fading to a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow of who he'd used to be. And I remembered the day I'd come home to a seemingly empty apartment because he hadn't come to get me from my study-date, only to find him curled into a ball in the shower, every inch of his naked body beaten, bloodied and bruised. Blacks, browns, purples all over him; angry red welts bubbling under his skin. A tapestry of inflicted violence. Hair hanging in his face, not quite long enough to hide the way his right eye had swollen shut, his lip split, the back of his shoulder mottled with burn scars. Needles on the bathroom floor. A blue latex tourniquet draped over the edge of the tub.

And I remembered my heart breaking in my chest when he finally realized I was there, frozen and staring with tears welling in my eyes, and I remembered the way his face clenched up as it turned itself away from me, something unintelligible fumbled by cracking lips. The way his name was barely a whisper under the steady hiss of the shower before he exploded with more violence than I'd ever known him capable of, screaming at me to get out as he threw the nearest object at hand towards where I'd been hovering in the doorway. But I'd already bolted, leaving something to crash and shatter in my wake as I'd slammed my bedroom door shut behind me, trembling uncontrollably, terrified, confused, drowning in despair, before I crumpled to the floor and broke down sobbing.

I tried to convince myself that those were nightmares from another life, one that we'd abandoned years ago, one that we'd finally managed to escape – but deep down I knew that some part of my brother was still trapped there. Still suffering, far more than I ever had. Physically, perhaps, we'd found freedom, and though I'd never cease fighting tooth and nail to provide my brother's mind with that same liberty, that didn't change the fact that I knew those ghosts had never stopped haunting him. Both what had been done to him, and who he'd allowed himself to become. And, hell, for all my bluster and cheerfulness, maybe he wasn't the only one carrying scars. Maybe the only difference between us was that I was simply better at hiding them.

I choked back the knot of emotion the memories tied in my throat, but the fear was still there, embedded in my mind, manifesting in the tremor of my hand as I eased through the bathroom door. "Miles?" Through the veil of recollection, nothing appeared out of the ordinary – and I took a generous helping of comfort in pointedly noting to myself that there were no needles, no ligatures. Just an ordinary bathroom, housing the ordinary contents of two ordinary people. My brother had shucked his clothes into the corner behind the door, and his glasses had been left on the counter.

That left the shower, curtain closed, with no sign of movement evident beyond. Despite my best efforts to ground myself in the present, however, my heart was pounding to a suicidal beat against my ribs as I padded across the bathroom and apprehensively curled my fingers around the edge of the curtain. "Miles…?" I took a steadying breath, reminding myself for the last time that we were not where we'd been, that Miles had healed in his own peculiar way to some degree, and no matter what state I found him in, it had to be better than the time I'd realized just what his boyfriend had been doing to him when I hadn't been around.

I peeked around the curtain, and my gaze immediately plummeted to the naked body leaning against the wall under the shower's spray, furled into an upright fetal position. I cursed under my breath, thrusting the curtain aside and dropping to my knees like a sack of rocks as I turned off the water, stray droplets and trickles kissing my skin like liquid ice before the flow finally ceased.

"Miles?" My brother's skin was frigid to the touch when I reached in to give his bicep a gentle shake, muscle and bone cold and slick beneath my fingers. "Miles!"

He wasn't responding, his head lolling against the tiles of the wall, drenched black hair plastered down and obscuring most of his face, but even so, even though I could see him breathing, when I raked his hair back from his face, my hands were trembling violently, and whatever relief I felt at the sight of his eyes moving under their lids was negated by the ashen pallor of his lips. Christ, they were almost blue.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

"Miles? Miles, wake up." I gave him another shake, rougher this time, a shake to match the waver in my voice. "C'mon dammit, wake up!"

-x- Miles -x-

It was the shaking that eventually managed to drag my mind free from the cold, bleak mire of slumber, dispassionate and disembodied, floating in the abyss, reeled in one ounce of consciousness at a time back into the corporeal confines of my body. A slow, somnolent breath drew itself in through my nose, eyes rolling blindly beneath my lids as I became acutely and quite uncomfortably aware of the arctic chill that had settled into my very bones – particularly in contrast to the searing warmth of the hands on my naked shoulder and bicep. As though triggered by the presence of that heat and the warmth that was missing entirely from the rest of me, my body began shivering violently in protest, frozen muscles trembling, my joints seemingly cemented in place. I couldn't lift my head from where it had settled against the tiles of the wall, but while instinct demanded that I curl tighter into myself to preserve what few embers of body heat I had left, I dimly realized that I was already furled into as much of a ball as I was capable of.

A familiar voice swore beside me in the darkness, the hands fleeing from my body and taking their blessed heat with them. I still couldn't quite manage to pry my lids open, ice-water beaded on my lashes and carving frigid paths over the contours of my face and body, my hair plastered to my skull, but my lethargic mind seized that familiarity and clutched it close. "Ash…?" My brother's name escaped stiff, quivering lips in a drowsy, shuddering croak, my brain still trapped in a wintry haze while it struggled to make sense of my current situation. The last thing I remembered was having my smoke on the balcony, going over the details of the 'Fires…' commissions, and then…

And then…

"I'm here." A towel flung itself over my back, heat radiating in waves off of my little brother as he leaned in to wrap it as well as he could around my shoulders, the passive warmth of merely being covered leaving me painfully aware of how cold I really was. Cold, and wet, and left with next to no idea how I'd come to be that way. But that towel was a balm for the chill, and a second towel was slung over my head, trapping whatever heat I still possessed as Asher returned to the first towel and began rigorously rubbing it over my back.

As confused and foggy as I was, there was no mistaking the angry tension that lent itself to my brother's voice. Anger, and fear. "Jesus, Miles, what the fuck were you doing? You trying to give yourself hypothermia?"

Unable to do much more than bask in the overwhelmingly simple pleasure of the warmth my little brother's ministrations began scrubbing back into my flesh, his words registered only for a fleeting fraction of a second before they slipped from my grasp entirely. I tried to reclaim some sense of focus, of recollection, from the cold, heavy fog that had settled within the confines of my head. There was a gossamer flicker of something, a sputter of ghost-light within the haze. Maybe it was some strange sense of incredulous amusement, a reminder of the ways in which Asher and I were more than conventional siblings. After all, surely most normal siblings would balk at the notion of merely seeing their kin in the nude, much less handling them that way – and yet, here Asher was, tending to me despite the fact that I was as naked as the day I was born, like nothing at all was amiss with our current situation apart from the notion that his older brother clearly couldn't be trusted to be left to his own devices.

And just like that, the memories began creeping in.

I'd been drinking, trying in vain to drown the resurrected ghosts of trauma, and when the copious amounts of booze had proved to be ineffectual, I'd dragged my sorry carcass into the shower, intent on scouring myself clean under a spray of water nearly hot enough to scald. Trying to wash away the memories. Trying to scrub my skin raw in an attempt to erase the lingering film left on me from a lifetime of abuse.

I'd stayed there, drowning in the steam and the humidity, until eventually something inside of me broke, and I'd abandoned the pumice stone and the suds, and curled up into a miserable little ball in the bottom of the tub, hugging myself, brow crushed to my naked knees as trembling fingers traced the old, puckered mass of scars mottling the space on my back between my neck and right shoulder. Remembering every burn, every strangled cry of pain that had locked itself behind my teeth when I hadn't done something just right. Remembering every time Ethan had looked down on me through the pall of smoke seething through his lips, eyes utterly bereft of humanity as he regarded the creature at his feet, panting and choking with his come on its face, before stubbing out his cigarette on my naked flesh. Sometimes hard and fast, like his knuckles across my face; sometimes slow and torturous so he could watch me tremble, squirming in anticipation of the burn.

He always had enjoyed watching me squirm. Sex, violence, waiting for a plume of blood to blossom in the fluid of the syringe with its needle buried, promising oblivion, in one of my veins. Gaze boring gory holes into me while I panicked over what I'd done this time to earn such intense scrutiny. Wondering whether he'd deign to fuck away all the pain afterwards, only to leave me shuddering in the grip of a completely different breed of pain after that. Desperate to earn even one small kernel of praise, in whatever form it might take. Debasing myself time and time again in search of that one infinitesimal display of approval. A soft, rasping, "Good boy," as his fingers combed through my hair; a rare show of consideration as he cleaned the semen off of my face with a tissue. Anything.

My face spasmed as the savage undertow of my own mind dragged me back beneath the black, churning surface of those memories, and I felt gratitude for the towel Asher had left draped over my head come crashing down on me like a concrete slab. But it couldn't mask the hoarseness of my voice, low and slurred as it was, my lips still numb with cold. "Sorry." I wasn't even sure who I was apologizing to anymore. Myself. My brother. The phantoms who'd punished me relentlessly for even the slightest of perceived failures. I fought to wrench my mind back from those demons, struggling to ground myself in the here and now, where Asher was burning with too many emotions to name while he dried the moisture from my skin, and rekindled the extinguished warmth in my bones. "Must've fallen asleep…"

"Under ice-cold water?" Ash scoffed, the anger in his touch lessening a mite as he rubbed the towel over my burned shoulder, but its hold on his voice was still strong as iron. "Yeah, right." He switched over to my left shoulder, working his way down my bicep, and when he tugged my arm out from where it had been nestled in the valley between my torso and legs, he abandoned the soft terrycloth entirely for bare, trembling fingers to brazenly examine every inch of it, paying special attention to smoothing his thumb over my inner elbow, my wrist, the back of my hand – anywhere that a prominent vein could be accessed. I didn't need to see to know that he'd hunched closer, a frown beetling his brows as he searched for even the slightest implication of bruising or puncture wounds.

I couldn't have resisted less if I'd tried, remaining meek as an abandoned kitten in his hands when he finished his inspection of my left arm and gently discarded it to repeat the process with my right. Anyone else might have gotten pissy and defensive, but in the increasing warmth and the cozy darkness of my towel, still incapable of doing anything more than letting my head loll on my neck, my sole form of protest escaped in a somnolent, slurring mumble. "I haven't shot up in five years, Ash…"

"Yeah, well," his voice was taut, curt, as he inspected my veins. "When you start pulling this kinda shit, can you really blame me for wondering?"

It was a fair point, even my cold, starved mind could admit that much. "S'pose not…"

He finished his exam of my arm and heaved a carefully managed sigh as he returned to towelling off my back and chest, some of the briskness fading. Utterly uncaring of the fact that I was naked, and consumed by the task of caring for the only hurts he could. "You been drinking?"

"L'il bit," I slurred. "Not 'nough to get me drunk." Unfortunately. If it had, maybe I would have been content to simply black out on the sofa for a few hours instead of trying to give myself third degree burns before unconsciously flirting with hypothermia.

Asher huffed out another breath, abandoning his efforts to revive my circulation and raise my body temperature to settle back onto his heels, exasperation and relief both colouring the air between us. "Christ, Miles, you nearly gave me a goddamn heart attack. What were you doing?" Pleading, now, hands no doubt hanging limp in his lap.

I hated that I could read him so clearly without ever needing a glance, and for some reason, that left me feeling so distinctly vulnerable that even with my bones still frosted from the water I'd left to go ice-cold, I managed to reach up and claw the towel a little tighter around my shoulders. Maybe it was the unwelcome reminder of precisely why the relationship between Ash and I had always been a touch unconventional, and the fact that he'd been adopted had absolutely nothing to do with it.

My heart was cramping into a tight, painful knot of muscle in my chest, and even with my head swimming – a slow warmth beginning to smoulder under my skin, leaving my extremities prickling under an onslaught of malicious pins and needles – I tried to convince myself that the tremble in my hands was still entirely the result of sitting under a torrent of frigid water for only god knew how long. Memories of my father hovered in the deepest, darkest shadows on the outskirts of my thoughts, cinching my throat shut in utter spite of the fact that all that was left to me was the blurry, nearly featureless mask of his phantom's face, his pale skin and raven hair a mirror of my own.

It didn't seem fair, just then, that while I clung to the tiniest scraps of his memories, each year warping them, eroding them, details trickling through my fingers like sand, I could recall every greasy, clogged pore and every abject shade of brown in the bloodshot eyes of the man who'd sought to replace him. And I couldn't help but wonder, as I had for decades, how much of a difference it would have made if only my father had stayed. How much of this could have been avoided, if only he hadn't…

Numb, quaking fingers tightened into a fist around the clutch of fabric at my chest, and in the amniotic darkness of the towel Ash had draped over my head, I choked down the sob suddenly trying to tear itself out of my throat, feebly blinked back the tears pooling in my eyes as I curled in on myself. I could feel it now, every quivering strand of muscle, every tremble I fought to still and couldn't, every beat of my heart fluttering like a hummingbird's wings against my ribs, every breath as shallow as the joint graves of our childhood.


My whole body flinched when Asher tentatively touched my shoulder, and his fingers winced away as though I'd burned them. A scarce second later, they returned, gingerly smoothing themselves over the curve of my shoulder and only then rendering me completely aware of how much I'd tensed up.

"Hey…" My brother's voice was faint, familiar, and unspeakably compassionate as his hands slid across the breadth of my shoulders, guided me over to his side of the tub, and pulled me close into a warm, protective embrace, gently rocking me the way my mother used to before everything had gone irreversibly to shit. "Hey, shh… It's okay, I'm not going anywhere."

And although I was cold, naked, and probably still half-drunk at the absolute least, I clutched at him, buried my face and its accompanying towel into his neck… and I cried.

-x- Seth -x-

When my phone gave another insistent buzz in my pocket, I dug it out, flipped it open with a frown, and scowled down at the message displayed on its relatively tiny screen. I really shouldn't have been surprised to find that it was from Andy, but considering how long it had taken her to getting around to sending me this particular message, I couldn't help but begrudgingly applaud her rare show of self-restraint. That, and the fact that while she had been giving me suspicious looks aplenty during lunch, she had refrained from commenting on Asher's appearance almost entirely, which had left me feeling slightly less inclined to throttle her over the rest of the course of the day.

'So what's the deal between you and Miles's little bro? Is that why you didn't wanna tell me about what happened at the con? Gasp! Don't tell me you two hooked up and had at it like horny bunnies when I sent you to get that commission!'

Still, that didn't change the fact that my scowl darkened as a fresh wave of heat blossomed under the skin of my face and ears while I punched in my reply. 'We didn't hook up, period, end of story.'

I had barely sent it off on its merry way when my phone vibrated again, lighting up in my hand with another message from Little Miss Motor-fingers. 'Nuh-uh, don't think so, this story's just getting started. You two seemed way too chummy, and Asher was looking at you like he wanted to eat you. Spill.'

Restraining the aggrieved, long-suffering sigh suddenly yearning desperately to escape from its prison in my chest, I tightened my lips into a pale, severe line, and punched repeatedly at the keys with all the haste old cellphones and their antiquated messaging system permitted. 'They took me out for lunch when they found out about your BS commission run. Found out Asher was going to our school. Seriously. End of story.' I snapped my sleek little phone shut and stuffed it back into my pocket, pointedly ignoring it as it buzzed annoyingly against the uppermost sliver of my thigh a moment later.

When Asher made no signs of reappearing anytime soon, I thoughtfully gnawed on the inside corner of my lip and glanced around the brothers' apartment. For a self-employed artist and a high schooler, I had to admit that they'd managed to snag a nice little place for themselves. It wasn't huge or elaborate by any stretch of the imagination, but just roomy enough for two occupants with no qualms about sharing personal space. I leaned around the corner of the wall immediately to my left, peering into a tidy little kitchen with what looked to be a similarly tidy – if empty – adjoined dining room just beyond the doorway on the other side of the enclosed space. To be totally honest, I was actually a little surprised by how clean everything was. At first glance, one could have easily been forgiven for thinking that the place was uninhabited. Hell, if it weren't for the half-empty bag of bread sitting next to an old toaster, or the pack of smokes sitting on top of the fridge – which I couldn't help but eye with barely-restrained yearning – I certainly would have thought so.

Either Asher was a clean-freak – his brother certainly didn't strike me as the type – or neither of the Strife brothers believed in garnishing their apartment with the usual odds and ends that actually made a space a home.

Still mulling this over as I retreated to the entry hall, and left with little else to do, my gaze wandered to the end of the corridor where a narrow rectangle of the den could be seen, and of everything exposed by that opening, it was the drafting table in the corner that really caught and held my attention. More specifically, the walls around said drafting table. I couldn't make out much in the line of details from my current vantage point at the front door, but there was barely an inch of naked wall to be found underneath all of the drawings and sketches plastered there, and I stared at them with blatant and growing curiosity until I finally crumbled beneath its weight.

I could vaguely make out the soft murmur of voices from the hall Asher had fled down in search of his brother, but he hadn't come back yet. Hadn't even poked his head around the corner to see whether or not I was still there. Loitering indecisively in the entry hall, fidgeting and wrestling with my conscience as I looked back to the drawings, my lip found itself trapped once more between my teeth, worrying at the black steel ring piercing my flesh. Part of me wanted to mosey over there and take a look at the talent on display until Asher came back – because, yes, as weird as his brother was, there was no denying the overwhelming evidence that Miles had talent to spare.

Another part of my brain felt the need to pointedly remind me that, while I liked Asher, this was my first time in a stranger's home, and to casually snoop around without either invitation or host was the very pinnacle of a breach in etiquette that my mom probably would have cuffed me upside the head for entertaining in the first place. After all, Asher had made it explicitly clear that he wanted me to remain where I was while he did whatever needed doing with his brother, regardless of the fact that he had, on the drive here, asked if I could help fill him in and catch him up on whatever homework he'd missed due to his belated enrolment. And I, for some masochistic reason, had agreed – while making every possible effort to ignore the many times Joshua had made a similar request, only for us to end the night flushed and breathless with absolutely no homework or studying otherwise accomplished. We were usually too busy satiating the needs of our rampaging teenage hormones. (Although, to be fair, Joshua was typically the one who started it.)

But seconds had started turning into minutes while I stood dutifully in the entrance hall, and Asher had yet to reappear.

Surely they wouldn't mind if I just wandered over to admire the art while I waited… would they? Miles had had binders full of the stuff out for display at the con. Granted, those were seemingly finished pieces, while the ones pasted to the wall looked more like sketches and concept art and studies, with only occasional splashes of colour throughout, but did artists really care if someone saw their 'first drafts,' so to speak, or did they guard them as zealously as we writers did?

Mind you, my brain idly noted for me, if he really didn't want anyone seeing them, he probably would've put them somewhere a little less conspicuous than all over the goddamn wall.

Except for the fact that these walls were in his home. A private residence. Perhaps put up for ease of reference, rather than as an active display for the viewing pleasure of others.

I glanced back over to the mouth of the hall Asher had disappeared down, chewing on the corner of my lip, fingers twiddling at my sides. I could have called for him, I suppose, but that was probably just as rude. Besides, if it was taking this long, I was pretty willing to bet that the brothers weren't just exchanging gossip, and that was the last thing I wanted to blindly stick my nose in. There were obviously things neither one of them wanted to talk about – that much had been made amply apparent when the three of us had gone out for lunch during the con – and if they just so happened to be in the midst of discussing the skeletons in their collective closet… Well, I didn't want to interrupt.

My eyes flitted back over to the drawings on the walls, absently working my jaw while I debated the issue.

Well, maybe just a brief look would be okay. One quick glance and then, with any luck, I could scurry back to the door and have my shoes on again before one of the brothers even so much as thought about leaving their little conference in the washroom. (Of course, I would have been a liar if I'd said I wasn't curious as all hell about what that was all about, as well. With the way Asher had been acting on our drive in, and the near-panic he'd been trying extraordinarily hard to mask once we were in the building itself…? '"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice.')

Setting that particular conundrum aside for another time, I resigned myself to my curiosity's least intrusive subject of interest, toed off my shoes, and perhaps with a touch too much mindfulness, softly padded – or borderline tiptoed – across the apartment to Miles's drafting table, feeling for all the world like any minute now, I'd be the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But while my eyes initially lingered on the door that had been left ever so slightly ajar, I resisted the further urge to creep in and eavesdrop, and instead dragged my gaze away to take in the walls of masterful skill before me. And although I hadn't been able to make out much detail in that sea of lead and charcoal from the entrance hall, up close, I saw that it was masterful indeed.

Whether it was in his own style, an adaptation of someone else's, or based entirely on realistic observations, there was no denying that Miles knew what he was doing. As my eyes wandered from piece to piece, struggling to absorb the munificent plethora of details they'd been presented with en masse, I was slowly starting to understand Andy's claims about his popularity, the mentioning of fangirls, and that panel at the con for which he'd apparently been an honorary guest speaker. These drawings of his, from the basest anatomy sketches to the breathtaking, intricately detailed architectural studies, were exquisite – perhaps even more so than the polished products he'd presented at the con. I stood there at his drafting table, the very tips of my fingers absently brushing its stained surface, gawping at the masterpieces, rough and refined alike, now surrounding me.

Photorealistic, multifaceted eyes sketched with painstaking attention to detail down to individual lashes and pores in the skin; faceless bodies wearing refined sculptures of muscle and bone over the soft, faded, simplistic guidelines, frozen in a single moment of dancing, fighting, embracing; whimsical portraits of floating islands with standing stones carved with ancient runes and patched with moss and exotic flowers, with water cascading from seemingly depthless lakes and transforming into mist in the atmosphere… Ancient oriental temples; giant golems blanketed in lichen presenting a single flower to a tiny girl; dramatic scenes that could have come straight from any number of professionally produced comic books; studies of facial expressions portraying their feelings and thoughts with more clarity than I'd thought mere art capable of; a sketch of an elderly couple sitting on a park bench, fingers twined, still wholly and completely in love while pigeons plucked at the breadcrumbs at their feet.

Every image, a story. Every concept sketch, a story waiting to be told, with characters so full of life and intrigue they seemed ready to burst off the page.

And hands. Hands, everywhere. Holding weapons, flowers, crystalline glasses of wine, curled seductively around someone's chin, furled into bloody-knuckled fists. Fine, long-fingered musician's hands; blunt, calloused brawler's hands; a babe's hand, curled tight around a single massive fingertip; hands conjuring magic and obscenities. Torn hangnails, painted claws, scars, the fluid, raised tracery of veins beneath the skin… All birthed from the ink-stained fingers of Asher's older brother.

As my gaze crawled from one drawing to another, wandering through this mostly monochrome landscape of artistic genius accompanied by hastily scribbled notes – taking keen, appreciative notice of the occasional study of planets and moons, and one exquisitely-crafted watercolour painting of a nebula I couldn't identify no matter how hard I tried – I found myself pausing on one piece in particular, hung opposite and just aside from the artist's seat. It was the only drawing in this sea of art that had been framed, and after a moment of staring at it, an intrigued furrow plucking at my brow, my gaze cast itself out once more over the rest of Miles's work.

And sure enough, I found the same face peppering the tapestry of his other drawings. A man, captured in perfect realism, who couldn't have been any older than his mid-twenties, despite a quality to his appearance that made him seem, somehow, older. A long and lean frame covered in lovingly detailed tattoos, who'd once had long dreadlocks tied back from his face before appearing again with his hair cropped short – or maybe it was the other way around. Hugely expressive eyes and eyebrows in a face sharp as a switchblade, but with such defined features that, at times, were almost enough to make him look gaunt. Slouched over at a balcony, fingers laced, wrists draped over the railing with his head tilted back, captured in profile, with a cigarette or a joint caught in his wryly slanted lips. Making a face and flashing his middle finger. Frozen in a melodramatic kung-fu pose I could almost feel the laughter rippling out of while, a few sketches over, he'd been captured riding a child's vending machine unicorn with a perfectly serious expression while throwing the horns.

My lips twitched into an involuntary smile, infected by the humour of the piece. A punk rocker riding into war on a babe's chubby, rainbow-coloured unicorn. I liked it, personally.

But my eyes wandered back to the drawing that had been framed with that seemingly devil-may-care man and his tattoos and piercings and enormously stretched earlobes inside of it, and I was struck by the abrupt change in the mood of the drawing. It was a portrait, this time, the man's face framed by the languidly tangled knot of his arms as he rested his chin on something within them, and staring out at the world from within his confines with old, pale eyes, his dark hair cropped close to his skull, just long enough to be tousled into an endearing mess. The harsh features of his face were softened by a tiny, dry tilt to thin lips as he peered sidelong at me through the glass, a smoking cigarette caught in his fingers, and I couldn't help but feel something about the whole portrait tugging at my insides. Even when I realized that, once again, he'd been captured seemingly giving the artist a prime, if discreet, showing of his middle finger from under his arm – the gesture almost lost entirely in a fold of the sheets he must have been laying on – the infinitesimal quirk that plucked at my lips withered, tempered by an inherent sense of gravity.

"Oh, there you are."

Snapped out of my daze by Asher's voice and the blonde's abrupt appearance in the mouth of the hall, the very first thing I found myself capable of was a pitifully stammered excuse for an apology. "O-oh. Yeah. Uh…" A nervous grin plucked at the corners of my lips, sheepishly kneading the back of my neck as my eyes flicked over to the wall of drawings for only the most fleeting of seconds before they flashed back over to Asher, monitoring his approach, the way his arms had wrapped themselves loosely at his waist. "Sorry, I was just… I wasn't sure how long you'd be, so… I'm really sorry, I don't normally do this, but, uh…" I gestured awkwardly to the walls blanketed in Miles's drawings before, not really knowing what else to do with them, I stuffed my hands in my pockets with a tiny gauche, lopsided grin, shoulders sheepishly hunched. "My curiosity kinda got the better of me."

Tearing his gaze from the walls, Asher made a small, noncommittal sound deep in his throat as he shook his head and gifted me with a subdued smile. "It's all right." Pensive blue eyes drifted to roam over the art on display once again, his smile twitching a fraction of an inch wider as he examined them. "They're pretty incredible, huh?"

Having deemed myself safely absent from the pages of the blonde's potential shit-list for leaving my post in the entrance hall, I directed my attention back to Miles's artwork, brows jumping in a momentary arch of utter amazement. "That's an understatement if I've ever heard one," I murmured, eyes wandering from one piece to the next. "I mean, I'm no artist or anything, but…" Discovering myself at an utter and abject loss for words that would do the display any justice whatsoever, I settled for blowing out my cheeks and shaking my head to myself in unbridled awe. "He's good," I finished lamely. "He's really good. Like… damn."

Asher gave a quiet hum of agreement beside me, his gaze never once leaving the walls around his brother's drafting table.

Casting a furtive glance at him from the corners of my eyes, I couldn't help but notice that the small, effervescent blonde seemed… deflated, somehow, hints of what almost looked like sadness dampening the usual puckishly effervescent sparkle he seemed to carry about him so naturally. And me, not knowing quite what to do with this somber shadow of the youth who'd happily tackled me this morning now that I'd been confronted with him…? I drew in a delicate breath – hands curling into fists in my pockets, thumbs restlessly chafing themselves over the backs of my fingers – and nodded at the piece in the frame. "He really liked that guy, huh?" Someone could have sneezed in the awkward break that followed my inquiry before I realized exactly what I'd just said and hastily added, "Drawing him, I mean." Eloquent as always. Christ. But I bulldozed on, restively rubbing a hand over my mouth before flicking a finger around the art on the wall. "I kinda noticed that he's used him in quite a few of these. Favorite character, or something?"

Asher's arms tightened into a knot against his diaphragm, another faint sound escaping him – this time in disagreement – as he shook his head and peered at the man behind the glass. "Old friend." A hand separated itself from the nest of his crossed arms to gingerly touch a finger to the picture frame, the dismal grey behind his eyes deepening. "This is the closest thing we have to an actual photo of him." Asher's touch lingered, seemingly oblivious to the way I was watching him, his expression falling yet further as his finger trailed down the frame. "The only thing we really have to remember him by," he murmured, almost more to himself than for my benefit.

The sorrow washing off of him in waves was infectious, and I felt my own heart sinking in my chest as he finally reclaimed his finger and re-crossed his arms against his chest, his gaze distant and glum. "He's… not around anymore, I take it."

A simple shake of the head was the only response Asher made, and I idly nodded my own in acknowledgment before it bowed, and I found myself peering down into the nothingness around my feet, lost in my thoughts as I sucked at my teeth.

We stood like that in absolute and utter silence for longer than I was entirely comfortable with, and by the time I'd managed to eke out the framework of something to say, I found my arms knotted against my chest in a mirror of Asher's own pose… With the exception that I was frowning down at the drafting table as though it had done something horrific and then insulted my mother.

"So," I awkwardly injected into the hush, eventually managing to drag my eyes up to send Asher a wary glance. "Is everything okay with your brother?"

"Hm?" He sucked in a sudden breath. "Oh." A stiff grin jerked crookedly at his lips. "Yeah. Yeah, he's just… not feeling very good, y'know?" The smile withered for a moment before it twitched wider again, his eyes not quite reclaiming their usual mirth as he sent me a long-suffering look. "Apparently he even fell asleep in the shower."

I made a noncommittal sound in my throat, absently nodding as I peered up at the drawings.

A moment later, Asher saved me from my admittedly futile and fruitless search for something to say by piping up into the silence, voice and expression both strained as he raked his fingers back through his hair. "Look, um, I hate to say this after you went to all the trouble of driving me home and everything, but, uh…" Never quite managing to meet my eyes, Asher's grip settled on the back of his neck, a slight frown beetling his brows before he shot me a contrite, sidelong glance. "Could we maybe take a rain-check on the studying, by any chance?"

Something deep in my gut started insisting that there was more to this story than Asher's older brother merely feeling under the weather, but regardless of all the many beneficial traits I had obviously not inherited from my mom, she had at least instilled in me the good sense of when not to press the issue, no matter how curious I was. "Yeah." I scrounged together a grin for the troubled blonde and nodded. "Yeah, sure. No problem. Do you want to maybe try again for tomorrow?"

"I think that would be best. Like I said, I'm really sorry, but-"

I lifted a hand to stymie the flow of Asher's apologies and any explanation he may have felt obliged to give me. "It's okay, really. I'll get out of your hair, then, and… Well," I could only hope that my smile carried as much reassurance as I could manage as Asher walked me back to the door. "Hope he feels better."

Asher tried for a grin, but it winced across his lips like it had caused him actual, physical pain as he watched me reclaim my shoes and pull them onto my feet. "Me too."

We exchanged the usual empty pleasantries as I readjusted the strap of my bag, but never once did the ashen grey pall lift from Asher's eyes while we did so, and when we bid each other good night, I slipped out the door only distantly aware of how softly it was closed once I'd left, because my attention had been seized utterly and completely by the sounds of every lock it possessed clicking into place behind me. I stood there a long moment afterwards, silently digesting everything that had just happened before I slid the door one last look, hefted my bag on my shoulder, and made my way to the elevators at the end of the hall, mind roiling like the time-lapse of a developing supercell in my skull.

Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

-x- Asher -x-

It wasn't until I'd quietly shut the door and locked it up behind Seth that I allowed my smile to falter, feeling it steadily wither on my lips until it had vanished entirely as I lingered there, posture wilting, until my forehead was bowed against the door. My lids sagged shut as I fought to will the uneasy tension from my body, surrendering myself to the silence swelling inside the apartment in a feeble attempt to still the chaos wreaking havoc in my mind, tearing at me like a hurricane.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Seth hadn't probed or pried when I'd fed him my half-truths and flat-out lies insisting that everything was okay, and although I felt terrible for doing it, I was also grateful beyond words that he hadn't called my bluff like so many others would have. Especially now, after finding Miles frozen and unresponsive, because if I'd decided to tell Seth one truth, I was without a shadow of a doubt that I would have wound up telling him all of them. But as sinfully sweet as that temptation was, I had no right to tell anyone – not even Seth – what Miles and I had endured over the years without my brother's explicit permission. The story was, after all, more his than it was mine, but… Christ, what I would have given just then not to have to bear that heavy burden on my own, straining under the weight of all those years and that horrific, heartbreaking story alone. I could only imagine how my brother must have felt, and even then, I knew that none of my imaginings – as unabashedly inventive as I was – would come anywhere even remotely close to the reality of it.

Fingertips slipping away from the smooth surface of the door, grazing the cold metal of the doorknob, I focused on my breathing only for a moment longer before I forced myself to straighten, looking back over my shoulder with a despairing glance to the mouth of the hallway even as my mind wandered yet further to the confines of my brother's bedroom. Once I'd managed to lever him onto his feet, helping him awkwardly clamber over the edge of the bathtub and committing nothing less than my all to remaining doggedly oblivious to the fact that he was nude – although, truth be told, under any other circumstances I probably would have marveled at the fine, muscular state of his body, especially considering how little he seemed to care for it – I'd sat him down on the cover of the toilet seat and toweled off his hair before wrapping him up in his warm, fluffy bathrobe and sending him off to bed while I dealt with Seth. My brother hadn't uttered a word the whole time.

He was getting worse again. Only, this time, I hadn't the faintest clue as to what had triggered his abrupt downward spiral, and for it to get this bad over the course of a single day…?

I supposed a lack of sleep was as good a reason as any, but even that morning, when he'd driven me to school, he hadn't displayed any indications whatsoever that his old demons had returned to haunt him. Even without that, sleep deprivation alone didn't seem like it would have been enough to push him over the edge. I'd seen him go longer without sleep than this, and while he was typically a far cry from being all sunshine, unicorns and rainbows, neither was he overly inclined to swing to the polar opposite. He was lacklustre, sure, and moody, definitely, but sleep deprivation usually left Miles hovering in a strange grey zone rife with forgetfulness, yawns, and trains of thought that were a touch more peculiar than the norm, even for him. It almost never reduced him to the pathetic, sobbing wretch I'd discovered huddled up in the washroom like a beaten child.

So what had happened? What had changed so drastically over the course of the day to leave him like that?

My shoulders wilted with the breath that leaked out of my lungs, and I took another – a deep, slow, shuddering inhale – to steady myself against whatever was coming next as I padded softly on bare feet towards Miles's bedroom. Fingers trailing absently on the wall as I went, I tried to empty my mind of anything and everything that wouldn't prove conducive to the task of taking care of my brother – my upcoming fight to still his own mind and drag him back from the brink – before halting in front of the door he'd tugged most of the way shut and lightly rapping my knuckles on the wood. I didn't wait for a response before I let myself in, and even though the sun was still high in the sky, Miles had drawn his black-out curtains shut, plunging the room into a twilit murk. Even so, I could see the lump of his form underneath his blankets, and crossed quietly to his bedside, dusting off the soles of my feet – Miles hated finding crumbly things in his bed – before I slid under the covers and wriggled my way over to nestle myself into his back. He'd ditched his bathrobe somewhere along the way, although I hadn't thought to look for it, and while it probably should have bothered me to be in such close, intimate contact with him while he was stark-ass bare, it didn't.

If anything, I found solace in the fact that – if he was even still awake – he didn't flinch away from me when I furled my arms up between my chest and his back, and nuzzled my forehead against the base of his neck, one thin layer of worry sloughing away when I felt the tepid warmth that had blossomed once more under his skin.

Well, at least he's starting to warm up again. Small favours, my brain sighed. Getting his body temperature back up to normal was a start, at least.

"Y'didn't hafta send 'im away, Ash."

When my brother's voice escaped soft and low into the murk of his bedroom, the rumble of it vibrating in his chest, I clawed my eyes open and readjusted my head on his pillows as I peered at the back of his neck. "You shouldn't be alone right now."

Miles's head tilted a fraction of an inch towards his shoulder, his expression hidden by both the angle and the murk, but while the words would have sounded sharp coming from anyone else, from Miles, they only sounded weary, and sad. "'m fine, Ash. I just…" His voice choked itself off, then, and I could do was watch as he turned away from me again, burrowing into his own pillow. As I pushed myself up onto an elbow, fingers tentatively resting on the curve of his shoulder, the softest murmur of his voice slipped into the darkness and the silence. "I just need some sleep."

"Yeah, well," I returned in an arch murmur of my own, "I'd feel better knowing you're not alone."

"I wouldn'ta been 'lone."

I pinned the back of his head, hair still damp from his shower, with an unimpressed scowl, head flopping onto the hump of my shoulder. "Yeah, you only would've been alone in here, in the dark, with whatever's been going through your head today that's managed to convince you that hypothermia sounds like a fine thing to experiment with, and that," I lightly jabbed the back of his shoulder with my finger for emphasis, "I am not okay with." Uncaring of how much the action caused the bed to jounce, I flopped back down onto the mattress, refolding my arms against my chest, and obstinately planted my forehead against his neck again. "Besides, you scared the shit outta me, so now you get to shut the fuck up and deal with the consequences. And don't you 'language,' me, young man," I petulantly added before he had the chance to.

It gave me some small glimmer of grim satisfaction that I could almost hear the way his mouth clicked shut after that, and the fact that I could easily imagine him gritting his teeth and working the muscles in his jaw as he fought that age-old impulse to chide me. After all, we both knew that he was in no position to be chastising anyone after the stunt he'd just pulled, and the brief moment of levity was one that I cherished, a fleeting glimmer of normalcy surfacing from beneath the dark, brackish waves that had dragged him under during my absence.

His back swelled against me as he pulled in a long, deliberate breath before abruptly deflating with a sigh. "What 'bout your homework?"

That tripped me up for a moment before I remembered that I'd mentioned everything about Seth and my missed schoolwork to him while I'd been drying his hair, and I immediately kicked myself for it. "I'll do it once you've had a chance to rest."


"I don't wanna hear it. You give me any lip and I am fully prepared to make this whole situation as awkward as humanly possible." And it honestly wouldn't have taken much, just then. After all, I was practically spooning my naked older brother, but I was hoping with every last ounce of hope left in me that he wouldn't call my bluff, because I didn't doubt for a second that it would end with him blaming himself for encouraging "inappropriate" feelings, even if I was only trying to make light of the situation. And that was, equally without a shadow of a doubt, the last thing he needed to deal with. Before all else, Miles was my brother and my closest friend, and while I may have thought him a handsome, if particularly eccentric, piece of eye-candy on more than one occasion, and loved him beyond words, there were just too many things that made me want to drop-kick him in the head to facilitate the development of any truly incestuous sentiments. In that, we were typical siblings to our cores. (He did things that sometimes exasperated me beyond words; I did things that made him plug his ears and "La-la-la" at the top of his lungs.)

Nudity didn't bother me overmuch because the man had practically raised me, and when we were younger, that included a fair number of shared baths and showers due to a limited water supply. Besides, it's not like he had anything I hadn't already seen more times than I cared to let him know, and beyond that, we'd shared beds since as far back as I could remember. He'd been mother, father, brother, and friend to me my whole life, and if the rather unconventionally personal nature of our relationship as siblings bothered someone, they could quite kindly take their judgment and shove it up their ass as far as I was concerned. You go through hell with someone, and it either breaks you completely or forges a bond stronger than steel. He'd taken beatings for me; I was entirely willing to dole out a few hundred more for him.

Thankfully, my comment spurred a faint, phantasmagorical hint of laughter from him, bubbling in his chest and I settled more comfortably alongside his naked back, quietly basking in the warmth of my accomplishment. Before that feeling had a chance to soothe the ache in my soul, however, a heavy, wintry silence fell between us, lingering long enough to make me wonder if he'd finally succumbed to exhaustion and fallen asleep, when a subdued murmur shattered the hush like a rock thrown out of white-hot fury at a mirror.

"Why don't you hate me, Ash? After everything I've put you through."

I smothered my immediate impulse to sigh – I'd always hated it when Miles started going on tangents like these – and instead raked my hair back off my forehead. If he wanted to drop face-first into self-hate/pity-mode, I felt almost obliged to turn into an absolute mule hell-bent on the effort of dragging his head out of his ass. "You didn't put me through anything."

"But if it weren't for me-"

"I would have been alone, Miles," I immediately bit back. "I would have been alone in that house after Mom remarried, and what do you think would've happened then, huh?" Realizing belatedly that I'd thrust myself up onto a single hand to glower down at my older brother in the gloom, the spark of frustration that had suddenly blown into a full-fledged bonfire just as suddenly guttered and went out when I saw the despair etched into his pale, drawn countenance. A breath whooshed out of me like a punctured lung, and I sagged down onto the rise of his shoulder, leaning my chin on the folded knot of my arms as I regarded him, more gently, now, in the hush. "You did the best you could under the circumstances, Miles, and Dad would've been proud of you for that."

When his face winced into a frozen grimace of suppressed emotion – mentioning Dad always had that effect on him – I let the tiniest of sighs leak out of me and gingerly smoothed wet, stringy locks of hair back against his head.

"I know I didn't get the chance to know him like you did," I continued in a murmur. "But I think you did exactly what he would have wanted. You protected someone too young and naïve to defend themselves, even if it was at your own expense. You went above and beyond your duty as my big brother. I just wish I could've returned the favour when you needed it most."

"You didn't know, Ash," the words grated out of him in a low, husky utterance, catching on razor wire the entire way up and out of his throat. "You couldn't have known-"

"I could've looked harder," I sternly insisted, "before life decided you'd hit rock bottom and decided that that was the time to rub my face in it. Look," I blew out an exasperated breath, ruffling my hair over my eyes. "All I'm saying is that you need to stop blaming yourself. Stop beating yourself up over all of this shit when you did the best you could with the hand life dealt us. Sure, you made mistakes," I allowed. "We both did. But as far as I'm concerned…" My voice dropped low in the hush, smoothing back my brother's inky black hair. "I could never hate you, Miles." My heart was breaking in my chest, capable only of watching as his lids flashed shut and tightened themselves against the tears that must have been prickling at his eyes, his larynx bobbing with an audible click under the smooth skin of his throat as he choked down the emotions, the memories, likely threatening to overwhelm him. "And I think it'd break Dad's heart to know we're even having this conversation in the first place. He was a cop, right? He wanted to protect people above all else. Isn't that what you told me?"

I resumed the soothing gesture of stroking my hand over my brother's hair as he managed a tight, jerky nod.

"Then you're honoring his memory and legacy both by having done everything you did, even if it doesn't feel like it." Christ, now I was tearing up, my sinuses stinging as my voice escaped me in a choked parody of what it had been. "He'd be damn proud of you for enduring everything you have. So don't ever, ever," I breathed, "let it break you. You've proven to the whole world that you're stronger than anything it can throw at you." Utterly against my will, I felt a single tear carve a cool, wet path down my cheek. "Dad may have been your hero, but you've always been mine, and I love you, okay? I will always love you. So stop torturing yourself over this stuff, okay? There's nothing you can do about it now but move on, learn from your mistakes, and never fucking look back."

Miles nodded again, a stiff, wooden gesture, seemingly oblivious to the way I smeared the heel of my hand under my eyes, but before I could even fully register what was happening through the veil of my own tears, he twisted onto his back with a muted, "C'mere," and looped an arm around me, dragging me tight against his chest, his mouth pressed to my hair as he held me in the gloom of his bedroom.

And I held him back, clutching at him like I was five years old again, my face buried into the warm, dark crook of his neck, scared of the entire world and the monsters under my bed, but unwaveringly certain that with him, at least, I would be safe.

His voice was hot and choked as it erupted in breathy bursts against my hair, his arms cool and strong around me while a wet, strangled parody of a laugh ruptured the hush. "You're a fuckin' brat, y'know that?"

And despite the fact that it sounded just as pathetic as his own had, I laughed, too.

-x- Seth -x-

'For I will always fall and rise again,
Your venomous heroine,
'Cause I'm a survivor,
Yeah I am a fighter

'I will fall and rise above
And in your hate, I find love,
'Cause I'm a survivor,
Yeah I am a fighter-'

With the trickling melody of the piano and Maria Brink's voice still echoing in my head even as I killed the ignition to my car, I thrust the driver's door open, unfurled from within the Nissan's confines and ducked back in just long enough to reclaim my iPod and drag out my messenger bag before I shut the door again. One quick, thoughtless press of the key fob locked everything up with a flash of its headlights and a soft beep, and I peered curiously at the faint hints of light within the cozy bungalow my mom and I called home. The sun had started to dip towards the horizon during the length of my drive home, and while true night was still a good two to three hours away, now, as I shambled across the driveway and loped up the small flight of concrete steps to the side door, I found myself struggling to recall if my mom had mentioned what her schedule was looking like earlier that morning. She'd been awake and in the kitchen before I'd even gotten up, so if she'd planned on going to work at all today, it stood to reason that she should have still been there.

Perks of running your own bakery, she'd told me once. Getting up at the ass-crack of dawn or earlier, and when she wasn't there helping to prep all the baked goods for the day, working hours longer than sin to take care of managerial duties. So the fact that she was home so early after such a late start to her workday…? It wasn't exactly normal, and I found myself hoping desperately that she'd had a better day than mine as I tugged open the screen door and let myself into the house.

I peeked first into the combined kitchen/dining room while I toed off my sneakers before swivelling to glance around the wall behind me into the den, where the drapes had been drawn against the failing light. And sure enough, there she was, the top of her head with its messy waves pulled into a bun just barely visible above the spine of the sofa. The TV was on, but muted, perhaps in response to the headlights she'd have been able to see turning onto the driveway – but she never greeted me if she realized I'd come home, and that in itself was a touch unusual.

Having a nap, maybe? My mind idly murmured to itself.

Hooking my toes into the opening of one shoe and then the other, I set them aside on the shoe rack, shrugged out of my jacket, hung it up in the closet, and then hefted my bag back onto my shoulder as I shambled into the den. The first thing I noticed as I neared the sofa was the open bottle of wine and its accompanying, mostly empty wineglass on the coffee table. However, contrary to my initial assumption, my mom was wide awake, if not perhaps entirely aware of her surroundings.

"You're home early," I observed.

She snapped out of her dead-eyed trance as I circled around the side of the sofa. "Oh, hey." She shot me a wry, weary smile as she adjusted her cheek against the heel of her palm, arm propped up on one of the pillows. "How was school?"

"Uh…" My mom curled her legs a little tighter as I set my bag aside, giving me ample room to flop down onto the soft, welcoming cushions of our sofa, a long, slow breath pulling itself in while I peered at the wine with raised brows. Eventually, I clicked my tongue against the backs of my teeth. "Interesting, to say the least." I glanced over at her, absently scratching an itch that didn't really exist behind my ear. "I'm taking it you had quite an interesting day yourself."


I gestured at the bottle of wine.

"Oh. Yeah," my mom softly mused, reclaiming her glass and returning that flat stare to the TV. "Mine was fabulous beyond words." Large, dark eyes sent me a sidelong look, reminding me just for a fleeting second as she sometimes did of a more… plebeian version of Helena Bonham Carter. She had the same sharp elfin nose and square jaw, with a somewhat longer face and a substantially slighter frame. Maybe the comparison only came to mind because I'd practically been raised on Tim Burton movies – we both loved them, and I'd therefore had no small amount of exposure to the actress, whose eccentric characters had quickly made her one of my favourites – but the faint resemblance still stood, and it probably didn't help that on her bad days, I could very easily imagine my mother taking those who'd displeased her and turning them into meat pies. "I lost two of my best people today. Two." Her fingers shifted smoothly from the aforementioned digit to a sharp snap. "Just like that." She took a long, disgruntled draught of red wine, emptying the rest of her glass before she leaned forward to refill it from the bottle on the coffee table.

Now, considering the fact that my mom was hardly what one could call an undisciplined lush, I couldn't help but track the movements as she filled her glass nearly to the top and wonder precisely how much she'd already had. The dark glass of the bottle prevented me from getting a direct look at whatever remained of its contents, but the angle she'd tilted it at for a refill had me guessing that it was, at the absolute least, half empty by now. I was still eyeing it even as I asked, "Who'd you lose?"

Replacing the bottle on the coffee table, she sent me another glance from within the seemingly permanently bruised circles around her eyes, a physical manifestation of sleep deprivation that had come from her forever-fluctuating schedule. "Y'know Rashid?"

A small, throaty sound of acknowledgment escaped me as I nodded. Rashid was a cake decorator whose skills had frequently left me groping after my jaw while I'd marvelled at the sheer artistry of his work, while the man himself was always ready with a smile and possessed an easy, affable manner whenever he'd chided my mother for not providing him with a proper challenge… And then the handful of times when he'd gotten his wish, he'd spent his time grumbling, scowling, and threatening his latest project with increasingly amusing threats while he worked, fluidly slipping between English and Arabic. I'd always liked Rashid. We'd had many an interesting conversation while he'd put me to work whenever it was slow, tackling the somewhat easier tasks of things like cutting shapes out of fondant. (Because we both knew that if it didn't involve something as simple as using a cookie-cutter, I was certifiably a lost cause without compare.)

"Yeah. He's gone. Quit. Resigned today. Goin' back home to his family. And then," my mom drawled, the minute slur becoming more evident the longer I listened, "I had to fire Sophia."

I was still reeling from the loss of my favourite sarcastic, smartassed decorator and the notion of how quiet the store was going to be without him and his mile-wide smile when I realized the significance of the exact words my mother had used when referring to another, equally important employee, being her lead baker. "Wait, what? Why?"

"Y'know how th' books were always just that liiiittle bit off an' I couldn't figure out why?" She paused for effect, turning her scowl onto the still-muted TV as my brain filled in the gaps. "Yeah."

Hissing a breath in between my teeth as I grimaced, I crossed my arms against my chest, slouched down into the cushions, and propped a heel against the edge of the coffee table. "Yeah," I drawled, "that's pretty shitty, all right." Ignoring the rather unladylike snort from my mother, I waited a moment, chewing over everything she'd told me, before I hazarded another sure-to-fail attempt at being optimistic. "I mean, it sucks that Rashid's leaving, but at least now you've got the issue with the books solved, right?" I cringed into an eloquent and ever so slightly defensive shrug as my mom shot me a dry, sidelong look. "Hey," I protested, "no one ever said optimism came to me naturally, but at least I'm trying."

She heaved a sigh, tiredly kneading at her eyes. "I know," she breathed. "I'm sorry." Thin lips quirked into a weary half-smile as she slid another look my way and stretched across the couch to lightly graze the side of a knuckle under my chin. "Thanks, hun." She slumped back against the arm of the sofa again, brooding down into her wineglass. "I'm just not lookin' forward to havin' to find replacements for them, y'know? I fucking hate interviews." As though driven to resentful despair at the mere thought of it, she chased the notion down with another pull from her glass, swilling the wine around in her mouth while she scowled at the TV before finally permitting herself to swallow. "Fucking, fucking hate them," she uttered.

Not that I could really blame her. Granted, we'd always been on opposite ends of the process, but that was one of the many, many reasons as to why I was more than happy to slave away at the bakery as a cashier for her. Never mind the fact that I frequently got to end my afternoon/evening shifts with my choice of the baked goods that hadn't sold, because it always seemed like an outright sin to just throw them into a dumpster after one day on the shelves. (And I had curried more than a few brownie points – pardon the pun – with friends and the occasional teacher as a result.) A number of people had expressed sentiments of astonishment, bemusement, and flat-out incredulity that I managed to maintain my rather pleasantly lean physique as a result of the easy access I had to such fattening treats when by all rights I should have been about two hundred and fifty pounds more than I was, but… High metabolisms. Gotta love 'em. They are a wonderful thing.

Unless you possess the remarkably bad habit of not feeding them.

Speakin' of… As my stomach gave a malcontent rumble and resumed despondently gumming at my spine, I slung an arm over the back of the couch and peered across at my mother again, now nuzzling into the crook of the elbow she'd propped on top of the cushion she was leaning against, eyes shut.

Just then, it wasn't beneath my notice how much older she looked, huddled up on her end of the couch like that; how much more aware I suddenly was of the faintest etchings of crow's feet around her eyes and the faintest hints of silver peppering themselves throughout the inky brown waves of her hair, despite the fact that she was still a year short of her fortieth birthday. Then again, I idly reminded myself, she hadn't exactly had the easiest life.

I'd never known my maternal grandmother. Breast cancer had killed her before my mom had even turned sixteen, and although I'd never had much to do with my maternal grandfather, my mother assured me that I wasn't missing much unless I happened to be a masochist who enjoyed the company of the severely bitter and curmudgeonly. By all accounts – being my mother's, those of her six siblings, as well as their respective spouses – he was a profoundly angry and unpleasant man to spend any prolonged period of time around, that being the reason most of his children had flown the coop at the first available opportunity. She and her siblings were still close, but they all lived on the other side of the country, which made any kind of visit ten times more problematic than it had any right to be.

My dad's family, on the other hand, had shunned my mom utterly and completely after their divorce, as though she were the one with the anger management issues and a drinking problem. Mind you, they hadn't exactly been the friendliest of families even before that.

Momentarily distracted from the question I'd been about to ask, I propped my cheek on the knuckles of my fist and quietly wondered at the woman who had essentially raised me all on her own. Even when my dad had still been around, it had basically been just me and her against the world.

Maybe I hadn't inherited her ferocity, her tenacity, or her sheer, unstoppable force of will, but everything good in me, I certainly owed to her. It didn't look like much in comparison – my own flaws always had stood out so much more obviously to me than any of my redeeming qualities – but still… A tiny grin twitched at the very edge of my lips. "Hey."

Thank you, my mind warmly murmured.

She didn't budge, didn't even bother cracking an eye. "Mm?"

"Have you eaten yet?"


Then again, in other areas, we had more than enough in common. A tolerant snort thrust itself into the silence, and I gave a good-natured roll of my eyes. "Food," I dryly repeated. "Have you had any? And no," I added before those curling lips could make a smartassed reply. "Wine doesn't count. I don't care if it comes from grapes."

"Why not?" My mother whined, a crease forming between her brows as her face crumpled into a pout. "Grapes are healthy." She prodded at my thigh with one of her feet. "Don't diss the grapes, man. Deny them and they will unleash their unholy wrath and spare no one, no matter how cute you are."

Russet eyes rolled themselves against as I finally gave in, stretched over, and took the bottle from the table – and the first thing I noticed was that it felt virtually empty. There couldn't have been more than a quarter of its contents left, and when I rotated it to glance at the label, a soft curse escaped me unbidden. "Jesus. Wasn't this the really expensive shit?"

At that, my mom did peel open a single, solitary eye to peer at me. "Mm? Oh. Yeah." That lid promptly slid shut again. She heaved a melodramatic, woe-begotten sigh. "I was planning on saving it for when you finally brought a nice boy home-"

"Uh, no."

"But," she lazily drawled, rolling right over my protest. "I guess that's kinda overkill, so… I drank it."

"Yeah, well," thrusting myself to my feet, I snagged the glass out of her hand just as she went to take another sip – to which she protested with a childish, whining, "Hey…" – before I shambled into the kitchen. "You're officially cut off."

Suspiciously eyeing the remnants of her glass, I idly wondered, just for a moment, whether it was technically okay to pour it back into the bottle before I decided that I didn't care and carefully drained my mom's glass. I lodged the cork back in place with a thump of my fist before setting the bottle aside with a sigh, placing her glass in the sink, and crossed over to the fridge to look for some leftovers that I could just throw into the microwave. I went through all the motions of prepping a pair of plates for us in silence, watching them rotate in the microwave with my mind somewhere else entirely until the beep wrenched me from my thoughts, and lured me back into motion.

It wasn't until I'd taken our food over to my mom, rousing her from her doze by gently nudging the plate against her arm, and settled down on the sofa myself, distractedly unmuting whatever it was that she had been watching, that my mom broke the hush.

"Humor me if I'm just a little too buzzed to remember this properly," she started, absently prodding around a piece of pasta. "But you weren't wearing that necklace this morning, were you?"

Faltering just a moment too long as I realized that I'd been too distracted by the lights in the house to take the bloody thing off in the car, I spent the time it took for me to finish chewing and swallowing my piece of chicken parmesan repeatedly kicking myself in the head. Fucking hell, I was getting tired of explaining all of this, but, as I brooded down at my food, I supposed that if there was anyone at all who actually deserved to know what was going on, it was my mother. "Uh, yeah," I awkwardly cleared my throat. "About that…"

While I trailed off into the silence, she reclaimed the remote to mute the TV all over again, patiently waiting and watching while I tried to pick a rogue piece of chicken out from between my molars with my tongue.

Eventually I caved, but this time I allowed myself to let everything show – on my face, in the way I withered into a slouch, everything – as I prodded my food around on my plate. My voice came out soft, pained, and lost. "He's back, Mom."

"Who?" Her brows crinkled into a frown before smoothing themselves in revelation. "Don't tell me-"

"Joshua," I thickly uttered. "Yeah."

"Oh, honey..." My mom set her plate aside, scooting across the sofa to gingerly tug me into a hug, bringing me down into the crook of her neck – smelling of sweet wine and the warm, homey fragrance of flour and her bakery – as she leaned her cheek against the crown of my head, gently stroking my hair. "Oh, honey, I'm sorry…"

And I let her console me, thanking her for that small act of compassion as a hand crept up to curl its fingers into the shoulder of her shirt, my eyes cinching themselves shut while I tried to swallow past the knot in my throat, plate still sitting in my lap, utterly forgotten, as I surrendered myself to the comfort only a mother can give. Unquestioning, and unconditional. When I finally managed to pry myself away, I hated that I found myself blinking a sudden film of moisture from my eyes, and, knuckling at my tear ducts before they could betray me, I wet my lips, and I told her everything.


To Be Continued…


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