Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
Eleven years later, they will remember it like this:
Maddy will dig out an age-old card from her suitcase, and Lucas will see Denny's fingers holding it.
Denny will glance up at the afternoon sky, and will promptly look away because it's not quite the right shade of blue.
Lucas will take off his leather gloves in the middle of a winter night in Durham, because he wants to feel the cold seeping into his fingers.
Denny will see Mending Wall pinned to the wall of a dilapidated library, and will stop on his way to the hospital to read it.
Lucas will buy Cuckoo clocks and needle-felt carpets and polyester bed sheets, and when his roommate asks, he will only smile and shrug.
This is how it starts.
There is something of a charm to a broken home.
It's defined, he muses, by a morbid sort of symphony to the cries originating from downstairs—accusation, counter-accusation, shout, sob, yell, rinse, repeat. The footfalls in the hall outside are heavy, heavier than they should be. The slam of the front door is—not loud, no. It's ear-piercing. It hurts like an eardrum bursting. Their house is isolated; the rest of the world is the universe, dark and undefined and irrelevant. Their home is gone. If he looks around, he won't see it.
"Where's Maddy?" Lucas asks. His whisper rings too loudly amid the quiet of the attic. Denny flinches.
"Don't know," he murmurs. "Holed up in her room, probably."
"I'll go check up on her."
"Mm," Denny grunts, a vague approval. Lucas doesn't really care for it; he already has one foot out the doorway, his back to Denny's shadowed form.
Denny doesn't care, either. They're in worlds of their own, he and Lucas and Maddy. Their mother and father, too, although their worlds are all stark grays and drawn lines and dreamless eyes. Denny's own isn't quite pinks and oranges, but it'll take a long time for it to get where theirs are. He wonders, sometimes, what Lucas' would be like, if Denny was ever allowed to step foot in it. Then, closing the attic window against the morning fog, he dismisses the thought.
If you were to ask any of her peers, the first word that comes to mind when describing Maddy Shale is 'innocent'.
Maddy doesn't think so. Maddy thinks she's a rather selfish child, a daughter who asks for too little but resents too much for not being given enough. Even when Luke holds her to his chest and whispers, 'it's okay,' and, 'everything will be fine,' and, worst of all, 'it's not your fault,' the tears never stop. They turn her inside out, make a mess of her. She's a mess all the time, and she hates herself for it.
"Maddy, Maddy, hey," Luke murmurs into her hair. "Hey, don't do that. Stop crying now, yeah? Come on, there's a good girl."
Her sobs are hiccuping to a halt, but her little heart feels as heavy as it always is. Crying never helps, despite what the grown-ups will tell you.
"D-Denny?" she croaks out.
"He's not—" Luke starts to say, "he's in the attic, Maddy. He—"
"He doesn't want to see me," she whispers.
"It's not—Maddy, it's not your fault, okay? You're not—you're our sister. Don't listen to what anyone else tells you, you're our sister, got it? Don't listen to anyone."
"Not even Mum?"
"No," he says firmly. "Not even Mum. You understand?"
She nods shakily. She doesn't believe him, but she nods anyway. Maddy doesn't want Luke to stop loving her, too.
He kisses her once more, on the top of her head. It's warm and firm and spreads slowly through her, breathing a little bit of herself back into her heart again. Luke leaves her with a last pat on her wet cheek, and the click of the door gently severs the connection between their worlds. Maddy isn't content, not quite, but she's getting there.
"Maddy thinks you blame her for it."
Lucas stands rigidly in the doorway of Denny's bedroom. Denny spares an idle thought to how unusual the sight is, before he says, "Blame her for what?"
"For the shit-hole that our house is. She thinks you fucking blame her, Denny."
For a moment, Denny just stares at him. His shoulders are tense, his jaw clenched, long fingers fidgety, lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed, eyes stony, voice cold, breathing slow, deliberate—ah. "You're angry," Denny says, dog-earing page 116 of his poetry book and setting it down. He stops on Mending Wall.
Lucas doesn't say anything, only narrows his eyes. Really angry, then, Denny thinks with an inward sigh.
"Lucas," he starts, "what do you want me to say?"
"I am not in the mood for your shit, Denny."
"What," Denny repeats emphatically, leaning forward, "do you want me to say?"
He meets Lucas' steel-blue eyes squarely with his own—they both have their mother's eyes. Lucas steps forward, the bedroom door clicking shut behind him. His footsteps are heavy, but not deafening. Denny isn't afraid.
"Would it be so hard for you," Lucas says, "to just go to her and—and sit with her, talk to her, just once?"
"I'm sure you can do a better job than me."
"She's your sister," Lucas hisses, "and she thinks you hate her."
"Well, why don't you correct that misconception, then—"
"When will you stop playing games, Denny?"
"Lucas," he snaps. "I don't care enough to play games, you understand?"
"She's just a girl," Lucas says, the soft, low timbre of his voice startling Denny more than his anger. "She's not even thirteen yet, Denny, and she's losing herself to—to all this."
"We lost ourselves to 'all this' years ago, and we turned out fine."
"So, what? We did, so why not her? Is that it?"
"She's not," he says slowly, "your responsibility. Stop making her one."
"You know Mum and Dad won't take care of her—"
Denny's tone is unnervingly final when he says, "Yes, I do."
They pause. The Cuckoo clock keeps ticking. Lucas would always find it unsettling where Denny would be soothed by the steady, immutable tick-tock of it.
"You're better than that," Lucas says softly.
"Shut the door when you leave, Lucas."
He is all pine and I am apple orchard, Denny reads, hours later, and thinks, our worlds will never entwine.
The next day, though, sees Denny knocking on Maddy's door.
"What did he say to you?" Lucas asks her later, vacillating between wary and hopeful.
"He didn't say anything," answers Maddy. "He only gave me this."
She buries her hand under her bed covers and fishes out a crumpled note—no, it's a card, Lucas realizes upon closer inspection. The edges are frayed, half of the yellow ribbon at the bottom has unraveled, and a few of the beads cheerfully spelling the 'B' in 'Happy Birthday' have fallen off somewhere.
It's the card Maddy made Denny for his twelfth birthday, Lucas remembers with a shock. She'd lost it a couple of weeks before the day, and she'd been hysterical in her search for it. Maddy never did find it, as far as Lucas can recall.
Attached at the back is a note that says, Found it a month after my birthday. Not the prettiest I've seen, but thanks. I kept it.
Maddy keeps staring at it. Her lips are a straight line and her fingers aren't trembling, but her cheeks are flushed. I kept it, is what she's reading again and again. He knows.
He leaves her with a light pat and rub on the back. Maddy doesn't look up.
"'Not the prettiest I've seen'? Really, Denny?"
He's standing in his doorway again, all bright and golden. Denny can feel himself squinting.
"Is it me, or are your trips to my room becoming more frequent lately?" Denny replies absently, tracing the line of freckles across the bridge of Lucas' nose with his eyes.
"Since when do you have freckles?" he asks impulsively. Lucas blinks, surprise etched in the line of his brows. He brings up a hand to self-consciously brush against his nose.
"Must've been last year," he mumbles. "Played a lot of footy."
Lucas' smile is inscrutable, welling up from somewhere a little sad and a little bitter. "You rarely do."
Denny looks at him; just looks. They have the same eyes, the two of them, but they're fundamentally different in the material of their souls. Lucas' is jagged and soft all at once, dark and golden, unknown and transparent. Denny looks upon him and marvels.
"How long are you going to keep standing?" he says. "Sit down."
Lucas shakes his head, opens his mouth and then closes it, breathes. Denny just listens.
"Did you really keep it?" Lucas asks, finally.
"Four years," Denny replies, the upturn of his lips not quite a smile.
His brother laughs—a laugh, a chuckle, a puff of air from between his lips, what does it matter?
"I wasn't sure," Lucas says. His eyes are trained on the corner of Denny's needle-felt carpet. He hates that carpet, Denny remembers. He hates nearly everything in this room.
"You, about you," Lucas says. His voice is a notch louder than it need be. "Wasn't sure if you were being nice or, or just..."
He looks at Denny, then. "Yeah."
"I'm not always the bad guy, you know."
"I can never tell with you."
When Denny smiles, he knows his smile is just as inscrutable as Lucas'.
It starts, Denny supposes, on a rooftop. It's a Thursday, he acknowledges with a curl of his nose, and Thursdays are always exceptionally gloomy during November. The attic is sunless and typically depressing, right out of a movie about mistreated stepchildren, and so he grabs one of his striped jumpers and makes his way to the roof.
That he finds Lucas there is something of a curse disguised as a blessing, in hindsight.
"Tired?" Lucas asks him.
He nods. "Headache." Lucas winces in sympathy.
The screaming from downstairs is muffled, but Denny catches 'unwanted' and 'money', and maybe 'daughter' flung in there somewhere anyway. His headache intensifies.
"Paracetamol?" Lucas offers.
"Paracetamol? You can do better than that for a conversation-starter, Lucas," Denny laughs.
"Jesus, never mind. No pleasing some people."
"Not going to check up on Maddy today?" Denny says, just to see the disapproving frown curl gently around his lips.
He doesn't get the chance. "No," Lucas says quietly. His eyes betray nothing. "No, she'll be okay."
"Let's hope so, for your sake," Denny replies immediately. It slips out easily, automatically. It's an itch he has to scratch, this need to hurt, and it irks him—but Denny's learned never to let it deter him. Lucas is a steady pillar, though. He doesn't rise to the bait, and Denny is pleased and disappointed all at once.
"How come you're up here?" Denny ends up asking, a few minutes after.
"My earphones are busted."
That wrestles a laugh out of him. "Let me guess, Three Days Grace? Or is it Breaking Benjamin?"
"How many points would it win me if I said Mozart?"
"It would win you a disqualification."
"I've heard a bit, though," Lucas protests, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "Piano Sonata No. 12 and, what was it, Rondo—"
"Rondo No. 2, yeah," says Denny. And then, "Mum and Dad used to play it."
Lucas just breathes—in and out, in and out, in and out. There's something irrefutably him in everything that he does, even in the way he breathes—in the slow, purposeful drag of air against his teeth, the rise of his chest and the strain in his shoulders. Denny's methodically counting the breaths when Lucas says, "They used to—you remember, they used to play Brahms together, too. On weekend mornings, I think. I—" he pauses, clears his throat. "I miss it, sometimes."
After a small eternity, Denny replies, "Yeah."
They sit there, then, leaning against the railing. Sun's coming up soon, Denny remarks off-handedly in his head, and decidedly does not think about how many years it's been since they last sat together like this, or how the morning winds don't feel as cold anymore, or how his headache's no longer pounding relentlessly against his skull.
The shouting's stopped, he registers vaguely. Denny brushes the dust off his knees, stands up and walks away and doesn't look back—
—and hears, "You ought to laugh more often."
He opens his mouth, and says nothing at all.
(Later, much later, Lucas will watch Denny laugh and feel like crying.)
There he is again. Denny blinks, almost (but not quite) used to the sight.
"Today's the third day," is all he says in reply. "Should I be worried?"
Lucas smothers a laugh behind his fist, shoving a hand into his pocket in search of something. Denny cranes his neck, curious, before he spies the jumpy flex of his fingers behind denim, the shuffle of his feet. He's nervous.
"You can come in, you know," Denny calls.
"Yeah, well," Lucas digs out a CD case, holding it between his fingers and turning it over repeatedly. "Found this in the store-room. I thought I'd have a listen, but I don't have a CD player."
Denny's own CD player isn't quite state-of-the-art. It's an old, bulky thing, shoved into a corner of the attic to collect dust before Denny stumbled upon it one day.
"I was hoping you'd let me use yours."
"S'not really mine," Denny says, pushing himself off the bed with a characteristic languidness to his limbs, "but, yeah, go ahead. I'll be in the attic, let me know when you're done."
"It's not like I—you can stay," Lucas says. "I'm not kicking you out of your own room, mate."
Denny pauses. His feet are inches above the carpeted floor. "You sure? It's not like I mind."
"Yeah, I—actually, why don't you just—" he licks his lips, looks at Denny and shrugs, "I don't mind you listening with me."
The air in Denny's room is always stagnant. It magnifies everything—the wide shape of Lucas' eyes is wider, the bright gleam in his eyes is brighter, the tense line of his shoulders is tenser, the tight grip of his fingers on the CD case is tighter, and Denny wonders how he didn't see it all before. The things he could say are innumerable.
"Yeah," is all he says, in the end.
"It's Mozart," Lucas says sheepishly, walking in and handing the CD case to Denny. The Complete Mozart Edition, it says in maroon cursive.
Denny smiles, and it's small and dry and not really like a smile at all, but it's enough. Lucas smiles back.
They end up making a habit of it.
Eventually, Lucas starts barging in instead of tiptoeing and Denny starts saying, "Beethoven today?" instead of, "How many days does this make, then?"
He berates himself for it, sometimes. Sometimes, when he thinks of Lucas' back to him and unrepentant blame and years, years of silence, Denny withdraws into himself. Sometimes, Lucas opens the door and sees the guarded quality of his gaze, and quietly leaves.
Other times, they sit beside each other. Other times, Symphony No. 7 or Rinaldo or Etude in C minor washes over the two of them. Other times, they share earphones and Denny doesn't mind. Other times, it is all he can do not to notice Lucas' warmth at his side, an anomaly amidst the dead air of his room.
Other times, the voices of his mother and father reach him against his efforts. These are the times when he slides off his bed and pulls his knees up against his chest, leans back against the bed frame and plugs in the CD player, closes his eyes against the noise and waits for his brother.
The accusations, counter-accusations, shouts, sobs, yells are beginning to blur into one indistinguishable cacophony. He almost doesn't hear the door creak open.
"I have to—" Lucas starts, vaguely gesturing towards the room across the hall. In the end, he only shrugs and says, "Maddy."
His eyes keep flickering towards the CD player. They're blue, open, and dull with regret; Denny knows them so much better, now.
"Alright," he says. Lucas' hand slips off the doorknob. He steps back, and the sound is a little bit like disappointment. "Bring her in, then."
His head snaps up. It's a shame Denny has to miss the reaction; he's too busy fiddling with the CD player.
"Bring—what? Bring Maddy in?"
"I told you," Denny says, shifting the antennae apart. "I'm not always the bad guy."
"I can never tell with you," Lucas replies, but he's laughing. He's laughing with his eyes forming crescent-moons and all his teeth showing, with that marked lack of self-consciousness—and he's golden.
Denny can't say anything but, "I hope she likes Chopin," then.
She doesn't, really. Denny can tell by the way she flinches every time a shriek sounds from downstairs, despite the earphones. Lucas prefers Chopin to Mozart himself, but he's miles away today. Today, neither Chopin nor Mozart will tune out the noise. Denny stops pretending when something breaks downstairs. It's probably the crockery set Dad gifted Mum on her thirtieth, he muses. The crash makes Maddy jerk, and Lucas' arm around her shoulders tightens. They're a bit broken, these two. Denny supposes he must be, too—just in a more bearable way.
It takes another hour or two, but the symphony recedes. There's a voice rising above another, a voice breaking, two voices breaking, the slam of the front door—and then, nothing. Lucas and Maddy relax into the silence.
Lucas pats Maddy's shoulder and mumbles, "C'mon, up you get. Time to go back."
"It's not finished yet," Maddy protests halfheartedly.
"Get up now, come on, or else it'll get too late out."
"Her room is across the hall, Lucas," Denny remarks.
"It's the principle of the thing!"
"Right. Alright, then, Maddy. Time to get going, you don't want to be classified as a deviant."
Maddy giggles, but takes a hold of Lucas' hand to let him pull her up.
It's not the most natural-sounding conversation, he'll admit. They're not entirely sure how to approach one another, the three of them; the banter is stilted sometimes, and the glances they shoot each other are uncertain at best and awkward at worst. Nonetheless, it's the first time in years that they've talked as siblings at all, and so Denny does not feign ignorance when Lucas turns to him and says, "Thank you," under his breath.
A week and a half later, Maddy's knocking at his door before Lucas is.
Denny can't say he's not surprised, but he pulls it open and ushers her inside, anyway. When Lucas throws the door open twenty minutes later, his owlish blink is enough to have Maddy in stitches.
"Oh, whoa," he says, dazed, and then laughs. "O-kay."
"Come on," Denny urges, switching on the CD player. "What've you got, Lucas?"
"Oh, you'll love this," Lucas says. There's a bounce in his step as he thrusts forward the CD case—Ravel: The Complete Edition.
Denny hums and turns it over. Ravel's a new one, they haven't ever played it before. He smiles in remembrance; it's been a good while since he heard Bolero and Alborada del Gracioso, in spite of his rather unusual fondness for them—
("Oh, you'll love this.")
"Oh," he says. Lucas' grin grows. "How did you—" Denny begins to ask, before its smugness inevitably piques his irritation. He sighs and turns back to the CD player, but not without a phantom smile creeping its way onto his face.
"No, go on," Lucas urges. "Ask."
"I'd really rather not."
"Come on, ask. Ask me how I found it."
Denny can't help the laugh that bubbles out of him, then. "I know how you found it." You idiot. "You snuck into Dad's room, didn't you?"
"Mum's," Lucas corrects. "You're no fun, mate. But if you knew, why'd you ask?"
That's not what I was going to ask, Denny almost says. He refrains at the last second, settling instead on one of those vague smiles he knows Lucas hates.
"Come on," he says again, softer than he would have liked. He jerks his head towards the CD player, and the two of them—his two siblings, his brother and his sister—are quick to tuck away their distractions. Denny's getting quite used to this, this newfound awareness of them, the footprints on the carpet, the sound of shuffling feet drowning out the clock's ticking.
Maddy falls asleep thirty minutes into the album. The light streaming in through the cracks in the curtain illuminates the dark circles under her eyes, but her head is tucked snugly under Lucas' elbow. Denny knows it's the most soundly she's slept in the last couple of weeks.
"How do you like it, then?" Lucas whispers.
"Been some time since I heard it. It's nice," he says quietly. "Too bad I can't say the same for Maddy."
"She has a hard time sleeping alone some nights."
"She doesn't have a burning passion for Ravel either, I take it?"
"Well, no." Lucas smiles lopsidedly. "She likes being here, though. She likes—this, you know, just—this."
"Yeah," Denny says. "Yeah, I know."
"I like it, too."
He props himself up against the bed frame, turning his head to stare at Lucas.
"Don't look so surprised, Denny, it's insulting."
"You're my brother," Lucas says suddenly, "Of course I'm—you're my brother, I can't not like it. This."
We've not been brothers for a long time, Denny thinks. He knows better than to say it aloud.
"You've never been so enthusiastic about brotherhood, though." It slips out, anyway. Denny almost winces.
"Yeah," Lucas sighs, pressing his palms against his eyes. "Yeah, okay, I deserved that."
"No, you—okay, well, you did. But it's not just you," Denny says. The need to grope for words feels foreign and stifling in his throat. "It was me, too. And I don't—I can't blame you, okay? Not anymore. Not now."
Lucas' laugh is an abrupt, bitter exhalation of air. "Mum and Dad really messed us up, didn't they?"
"We're messed up kids," Denny concurs.
"I never even played footy with you. I used to play with all these douchebags and I never played with you."
"I hated football."
"Mum would tell me, 'go play with your little brother,' and I'd be like, 'no way.'"
"Enough with the guilt-trip," Denny snaps. "It's done, okay? I certainly don't begrudge you for not dragging me into a football field." A pause, heavy with contemplation, before he says, "I blamed you once. I was bitter and alone, and I blamed you for it. I can't now."
"You can't or you won't?"
"I don't want to."
The heels of his palms are still pressed to his eyes. "I love you," Lucas says, and then, "You're my brother."
"I—yeah," is all Denny can say, belated and a little dumbfounded.
And if Lucas' eyes falter towards the end, Denny doesn't have to notice.
It's not something that happens overnight. It couldn't have been, Denny knows in retrospect.
It's a slow, painless tumble to the bottom of the proverbial hellhole, and the slide down begins on an appropriately pleasant, lazy afternoon. Lucas is lounging on his bed, relentlessly abusing the keys on his Nintendo 3DS, while Denny's leaning against the side of the bed frame, a textbook in one hand and an apple in the other.
"Jesus, what's with all the puzzles?" Lucas complains. "Just get on with it."
"Don't tell me a little brain-work's too much for you," Denny says. "Apple?"
"Thanks, no. And finding out which bit goes where is hardly brain-work."
Denny almost chokes. "Which bit goes where?"
"It's a puzzle. It's literally a puzzle, how boring is that?"
"Don't play it, then."
Naturally, this leads to Lucas elucidating the merits of murder mystery games, complete with emphatic gesticulation and rather impressive intonation. The inanity of their conversations is increasing gradually, Denny acknowledges with a curled lip. He doesn't think he's being particularly obvious about his distaste, but Lucas takes one look at him and starts laughing, anyway—throws his head back and laughs with that unapologetic, unrefined quality that Denny never tires of.
Denny sees the bared column of this throat, the unrestrained hitch of his shoulders, flushed cheeks and blonde hair in disarray (and it's really a shame that he can't see his eyes, so different from his own despite the shared colour) and he thinks my god he's gorgeous, once, just once, and thinks nothing of it.
But of course, that's not the end of it.
There come times after that, too—scattered, fragmented moments which start innocuously and end innocuously, but leave something fractured inside him somewhere in between.
The agents are laughably small things, easy things—easy touches, knees pressing, shared smiles—that end with warm and safe and soothe flashing through his mind for fractions of a second. Hazy mornings where Lucas comes in, yawning and scratching his belly under the Spongebob nightshirt, and implores Denny to please, please, won't you make some toast? I always burn it. Quiet afternoons where Denny lifts up the tattered cover of his book and it says The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Lucas doesn't laugh, no—just smiles and says, never read it all, but that Henry character always seemed kind of shady. The clock striking noon and Lucas striding into his room with a newspaper fan and a football under his arm and a sweaty undershirt which Denny always crinkles his nose at, but Lucas only laughs and throws him the football, and then laughs some more at Denny's admittedly challenged physical abilities. Only the nights are left and—and Denny doesn't think about those, no.
It's enough to bring it all to a head four days later—five—ten—fifty—(Denny's lost count).
Or, well, it's not quite dramatic enough to be called a 'head,' really. It's soft and hazy and blends right into the steel-blue background of Denny's memory.
The setting's become almost uncomfortably familiar—stagnant air that's not quite as stagnant anymore, gentle sunlight, blurred colours, door flung open, Cuckoo clock ticking quietly (so quietly), Mozart and Beethoven and Ravel and Brahms scattered on the carpeted floor. Lucas' hand-prints are everywhere.
They're both sitting cross-legged on the bed, this one time.
"Look here," Lucas is saying, "here you've got the goalie, right, and the defenders—"
He's gesturing (with nearly frightening intensity) towards this game he's set down between the two of them—this odd-looking pinball board, except with an ominously football-esque layout. It's sporting a tacky, harlequin-green carpet and little white triangles as players and a yellow line painted crudely across the center and Denny truly couldn't care less—
"—right here, yeah—no, wait, not there, they'll play right into a foul there—"
—but Lucas is in love with it. He's ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed like an absolute child, and Denny's gaze inevitably wanders. The sight of him is so familiar it sends something huge and almost beloved expanding in Denny's chest. Lucas' words blend into one another, a stream of boyish enthusiasm and everything that feels right in the wrongness of their home.
Denny takes it all in. He's desert sand imbibing rain as it soon as it falls, letting it linger at the edge of his consciousness just long enough to shift some part of him irreversibly.
"God, Denny, I'm going through all the trouble to explain this crap, would you at least listen?"
"I'm listening," Denny says. Smiles. "I'm listening."
And it's so familiar, so familiar, so ridiculously far from unusual that Denny will laugh his throat raw later at his own stupidity.
Because it's only later that he understands. Much later, in the enclosed stagnancy of his room, when the door is closed and the ticking echoes through his room again and his only company is The Great Gatsby. It's only when he leans back against his pillow, still warm from when Lucas sank into it earlier, only when he peruses the second-last chapter, when he reads, the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it ... high in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl—
—and then stops, because there he is. There's Lucas, right here, between the frayed pages of his book, between golden and green, between West Egg and East Egg.
"Fuck," Denny says. It's the first time in two years that he swears.
Therein begins the spiral.
If this were a romance novel, Denny muses one day, he would spend the next three hundred and forty pages in resolute avoidance of Lucas. The CD cases would be stacked onto one another and collecting dust in one corner of his room, the needle-felt carpet would be washed anew and cleaned of any footprints, the air would be still and lifeless. The closed cherry-wood door would be his world.
Tragically, Denny is neither a romance novel protagonist nor the average Joe with his mundane relatability. He's Denny, and Denny is the child who memorizes textbooks and wins every Shinkei-suijaku game and knows more intimately than anyone the acrimony of his parents' insults—and grows up wishing for forgetfulness. He grows up watching them from behind the banister and learning that avoidance and denial will be the tools of his ruin.
And so the CD cases remain scattered on his bedroom floor, the dust particles shying away when they see the fresh fingerprints on their surfaces, the carpet is still as dirty as ever and the sound of shuffling feet unrelenting. The stagnancy of his room still recedes day by day, and Denny still continues to do nothing to curb this strange tide flooding through his life at 950 kilometers per hour.
And when Lucas holds open his door, Maddy trotting behind him, and asks, "Brahms?" with no change at all in the rise and fall of his voice, Denny nods and says, "Brahms," with as even a smile as it ever was, and nothing has changed.
Except that, once, when Lucas knocks, Denny is staring at the faded brown print of his poetry book, looking fixedly at 'he is all pine and I am apple orchard' without reading it.
"Frost your favourite?" he asks.
"Keats," Denny corrects automatically. The shape of the words burn into his eyelids. "Reminds me of us a bit, this one."
It takes some time for Lucas to reply. "It would, wouldn't it?" he says. There is no waver in his voice, but then he says, "I wish it didn't."
Denny concentrates—no waver, no. But—he looks up, blinking against his unsteady vision, and spies something very heavy in the sweep of Lucas' eyelashes. His brother's fingers absently press against the edge of the plastic cover. His thumb creeps onto the page sometimes, too, as if he can't keep away from it. Denny knows the unthinking single-mindedness of his stare, knows that he could stare at the poem for hours, and he has known only himself to be able to do that.
Lucas doesn't, of course. He cheerfully asks whether Denny would prefer Bach or Debussy tonight, smiles that particular smile of his—the one that's everybody's, the one that everybody gets to share—and leaves Denny feeling terrified of the edge behind it. He leaves, and the weight of his eyes feels no lighter.
He leaves, and everything has changed.
(There's just one thing, though.
The stillness of his bedroom feels unbearably private in the middle of a winter night, when the dark shields him from all his introspections.
The CD player is switched off, but the Mozart CD is still inside—Denny supposes he ought to remove it, but his limbs feel sleep-heavy and his mind is pleasantly numb, and his back hurts only a little from the edge of the bed frame pushing into it for—a glance at his wrist-watch—five hours now.
So he's about to close his eyes again, but then he hears someone breathing—soft inhales and exhales that aren't coming from him.
It's Lucas. He almost laughs—of course it's Lucas, who else would it be? There's no one else.
He stares at his brother, propped next to him against the side of the bed, and thinks, there's no one else.
He doesn't think about how the set of his shoulders betrays his comfort, or how the haphazard slackness of his limbs gives away his sense of belonging, or how his slow, even breathing speaks of how there's nowhere else he'd rather be. Denny's mind is too sleep-drenched for that. He only thinks, there's no one else.
It feels so natural, then,to just lean forward and press his lips to Lucas'.
It's nothing spectacular—a brief, dry thing that lasts half a second, but it's nice and warm and Denny suddenly feels slumber cocooning him again. He leans back, closes his eyes, and promply falls back to sleep.
The morning after, he doesn't forget.
He stays in bed for just thirty-two minutes. Afterwards, he stares at his reflection and laughs and laughs and laughs until he cries.)
"You don't look so good," Lucas says to him. His eyebrows are plunged into a frown. "Actually, you look pretty bad."
"I'm fine," Denny says.
"You seem—are you sure? You seem kind of—"
"I'm fine, Lucas."
He goes quiet. Denny doesn't turn to look at him.
"Yeah," Lucas says eventually. "Okay."
The second time doesn't go over quite so well.
"Hello, anybody there?" Lucas peers in through the cracked-open door. "So, listen, I found this amazing game, right, I can't wait to show it to you—"
"I'm a bit busy, Lucas," Denny says.
"Oh," Lucas looks at him skeptically. "Uh, you don't seem busy."
Denny can't deny it—he's got nothing today; no books to pick up and flip through, no headphones, no clothes to fold and stuff into a closet. His room is spotless, bare.
"Could you leave?" is all he says. "I've got something I need to do."
Lucas' eyes tighten around the corners. "Yeah. Sure," he says. His voice is a shadow of the Lucas from two months ago.
He turns around when he's in the doorway, and the hunch of his shoulders says caution. "Are we having Mozart today, by the way?"
"Can we not, today?" Denny says.
"I don't feel up to it."
For the next three seconds, all Denny hears is a long, ragged exhale. He almost closes his eyes in trepidation.
"Denny, I don't know what's going on with you," Lucas says. His voice is even, calm, but his eyes are stormy. If Denny looks at them now, he wonders when he'll be able to look away. "I don't know what I did, or what you did, but can you not—this is just—" he sighs. "Talk to me, will you? Just—talk."
He waits for one, two, three seconds. When Denny doesn't move, Lucas leaves.
Really, Denny thought he was better than this.
Denny looks at Lucas and never thinks, 'I wish I could tell you.'
It's an idealized, romanticized notion, the formula of the 'forbidden' trope—stutter, fidget, glance up, then down, then up again. Smile.
He can't sympathize with it, not when the prospect of his own brother ever finding out terrifies him. It chills him to his bones, grips him and doesn't let go. He fears it like he's never feared anything before; the dark, stolen moments behind the banister are but faded, faceless memories in comparison. His room closes in around him day after day, and Denny is never brave enough to stop and imagine an open door again. He looks at Lucas and never thinks, 'I wish I could tell you.'
He only ever thinks, 'Please don't ask me.'
It's a quite obviously useless wish—but when Lucas comes barreling in through his door, the sheer futility of his situation still strikes him.
They've gone months without really speaking, without really listening. Their days are full of hesitant glances and searching fingers, uncertainty so loud it embeds itself in the drag of their feet against the carpet, in the sound of their breathing and the shift of their lips when they mouth words to each other.
They don't speak, though, and Denny's a taut thread in this tense state of equilibrium, just waiting for the moment when he's going to snap. Lucas is the natural harbinger, Denny supposes, looking up at his brother with a resigned sort of emptiness one Sunday morning.
"Maddy—" Lucas starts. "Maddy was calling me, wanted me to—she's asking for you."
"What does she want?"
"Nothing, she's just—doesn't want anything, she's just wondering why we're not doing," he vaguely gestures towards the CD player, "that anymore."
"And what did you tell her?" Denny asks slowly.
Lucas shrugs. His eyes don't cut into Denny anymore. "Was wondering myself."
"I'll lend her the CD player later," is all Denny can offer, because he knows this, knows the way Lucas leaves off the subject in his sentences, knows the nervousness behind the habit, and something's coming—
"Don't be dense," Lucas says, "It's not about the CD player, never was."
"I know," Denny says. He feels choked.
"No, you don't. You don't—" Lucas pauses abruptly, sighs. "You always do this, you leave us hanging, leave her hanging—"
"It's not always about her, Lucas."
"Then what's it about, Denny? Tell me, what's it about?"
Please don't ask me, Denny thinks. Please don't ask me.
"Look, I'm sorry," he lies, and doesn't. "I've got a lot on my mind right now, I can't, I'm sorry—"
"Bullshit. There's something wrong, Denny."
"There," Denny speaks slowly, "is nothing wrong. I'm sorry, there's nothing wrong."
"What's going on with you?" Lucas demands angrily. "I know, okay? I'm your fucking brother—"
There's a pause, four point five seconds approximately. Denny's counting in his head (it's all he has left).
"What," Lucas says, "is that—is that it? Is this some twisted form of punishment, because—because you still don't, because I'm not, I wasn't—"
His words are disjointed, shaken. It's almost painful to listen. "No, just," Denny forces out, "just go. I promise you it's not—I don't blame you, I don't, but you need to leave."
"Denny, please, you need to tell me—"
"No, I don't," he snarls. "I fucking don't, okay?"
"Do you even know what you've been doing? Maddy and I have just—we've just been sitting there, wondering—"
"For God's sake, could you leave Maddy out of this?"
"She's your bloody sister," Lucas shouts. "She's as much your sister as I am your brother—"
"You're not my brother!"
"Jesus, so that is what this is about? That's what—"
"No, Lucas, this isn't about my petty disagreements with you," Denny hisses, "this isn't about how we didn't hold hands and sing each other nursery rhymes when we were three, this is about how you're my brother and I don't want you to be, this is about how I fucking kissed you in your sleep!"
(It's eleven point two seconds, this time. But Denny's not counting.)
"I'm sorry," he says weakly, "don't—"
(don't hate me)
He never finishes. Breathe in, out, wait—a footfall, slam of the door, Cuckoo clock ticking—
This is when the days blur into one another—not out of misery, but out of anger. It's when Denny looks at himself in the mirror, looks at the steel-blue of his eyes, and his hands tremble with anger. He would have ripped himself apart with the force of it, if Lucas hadn't done a splendid job already.
Other days, he stares at his reflection for the better part of an hour. He doesn't flinch, doesn't feel anything at all except the undercurrent of misery beneath the rage, and it's acute and relentless, a knife in his chest.
He thinks of September, a dark attic, accusations and counter-accusations, shouting, sobbing, yelling, isolated houses, undefined universes, and where's Maddy and I'll go check up on her and stark grays, drawn lines, dreamless eyes, world after world after world that he thought would never entwine. Then the anger creeps in, because—how could he have been so stupid? They were so far-gone, the pair of them, so long ago.
There are Sunday mornings, still, when Denny trudges down the stairs and the smell of burnt toast wafts up to him. The sight of Lucas in front of the stove is foreign, awkward. Denny can't stand it.
He walks into the kitchen, anyway. He walks in to see Lucas' rod-straight spine and the stubborn tenseness of his muscles, to feed the anger. And because sixteen and cruel is a dangerous combination, he strides right up to the marble slab, reaches out to the toaster at just the right moment for their fingers to touch for just that one millisecond, just to see Lucas flinch. But Lucas gives him nothing. He gives him nothing, so Denny picks at his toast and drops it in his plate and turns the other way without seeing the look on Lucas' face. He plods back up the stairs without seeing Lucas' face crumple in what looks like some simultaneously fierce and hopeless kind of desperation.
It goes on like this. A month, two months, three, four—they suck the colour right out of a world that isn't his own anymore. He's never felt closer to his parents, lost somewhere in between the dust and debris of their resentment. But it goes on like this, and it makes sense.
It makes an unbearable amount of sense.
Or, well—it makes sense, until it doesn't. Until one innocuous Wednesday night brings with it the creak of a door, a stir in stagnant air again.
Denny isn't asleep, but he pretends to be. Sleep weighs heavily on his eyelashes in the dead of night, but that doesn't stop his brain from playing out all the possible scenarios in technicolour, doesn't stop him from waiting with his breath stuck in his throat for whichever one will come to pass.
None of them do. Lucas stands in his doorway with a stillness irreconcilable with his restless disposition. Denny feels strangely vulnerable with the knowledge of his presence a few feet away, suppressing the urge to shift under his quilt in the stark absence of sound, footfalls and quiet breaths in and out. And so he waits and dreads, and he waits and yearns, until Lucas steps away and the door's closed again.
It takes him until morning to go back to sleep.
It happens again, and again, and again.
He hears him (doesn't see, never sees, he's not brave enough yet—he doesn't think Lucas is, either) two days after the first time, a month after the second, a week after the third—Denny loses count soon after, but they continue, these erratic visits that fall out of focus as soon as morning light hits.
One time or the other, Lucas reaches as far as his bedside. He never makes a sound, but Denny feels the heat of his gaze for hours after he leaves.
It's during one of these times that the silence breaks.
"Denny," Lucas murmurs, almost mouths it. It's impossibly soft. Denny almost jerks from the shock of it.
He lapses into silence again. The next few seconds pass, jagged and dangerous in their uncertainty, and then, "Denny, wake up," Lucas says hoarsely. "Please. Please wake up, won't you—just this once, please."
He doesn't make a show of waking up. Something possesses him to forgo the yawning and confused eye-rubbing, and his eyes are startlingly clear when he opens them, he knows. Something wretched and irrational is burning its way up his throat—i'd give you anything you bastard you know that don't you—but he viciously pushes it down.
"Denny," Lucas says again. "Denny—" almost sighs it this time, compounding the dichotomy of his reverent tone and the impatient rudeness with which he pushes aside the quilt and crawls in. Denny distantly recognizes the present calmness of his mind as the gap between comprehension and chaos. He's running on automatic—and he won't be for long.
"Denny, Denny, Denny," Lucas is repeating. There's no alcohol in his breath. "You always do this."
He says nothing.
"You run away," Lucas continues, bracketing Denny's face with his hands. "Don't, yeah? Not from me, don't—just don't, please," he touches his cheek to Denny's, sighs, "please."
"What," Denny rasps, "are you doing?"
A non-committal hum is all the response he receives. "You never listen," he says. "That's the problem with you. You," he sweeps a thumb over Denny's brow, "you see everything, but you never listen. So many things I'd like to tell you, but you'd never listen."
"I'd listen to you," Denny says, as quiet as it is sudden.
Lucas smiles at him—sweet, secretive, like Denny's the most precious thing he could possibly be smiling at. His eyes are softened by sleep as he brushes a kiss against the corner of his lips. "Yeah, maybe," he admits. "Maybe that's why I don't tell you," a kiss against his cheek, "I run away, too," behind his ear, "but I wonder, sometimes, if you'd—"
"I'm sorry," Lucas whispers. His thumb traces idle circles over Denny's cheekbone. "I—"
"Please," Denny says—begs. "Go. You can't, I can't—please, God, just go."
"I will, I promise, I will, I'm sorry," Lucas says. "But—just this once, can I—" he leans his forehead against Denny's, eyes flickering to his mouth, then to his eyes, and then back again, "will you let me, I need—just this once, please—"
He was a fool to think he could deny Lucas anything.
Eventually, morning light comes. It illuminates an empty bed.
If Denny's world has been irrevocably shifted and inverted, he gives no clue of it other than the forty-six minutes he spends in bed.
"Want toast?" Denny asks. He's the epitome of nonchalance, leaning against the kitchen counter in his nightshirt and checkered trousers.
Lucas starts. He looks at Denny like a deer caught in headlights. "No, it's... it's fine. Thanks."
He's wearing one of those cotton shirts he loves so much, with the folded sleeves and upturned collar. His rucksack is worn with age; the pockets are threadbare and the colour is practically indistinguishable. It's thrown over his shoulder with a characteristic carelessness.
"Yeah, just," his grip on the strap tightens, "just around the corner. DVD store."
"Great." Denny soundlessly pushes himself off the counter, approaching Lucas with measured footsteps. "I'll come along then, shall I?"
"What, no—I mean, you don't have to—"
"Oh, come on, Lucas," Denny says, deceptively casual. "Don't run away now, yeah?"
"After all," he continues. "That's my job. Didn't you say so?"
"Denny," Lucas says, and nothing more. It's a warning and something of a tortured plea all at once.
"Mm, go on, I'm listening," he urges. His smile must look terribly brittle, but Denny can't bring himself to care. "Tell me. There are so many things you want to tell me, and I never listen, isn't that right? Well, I'm listening now."
"Yeah, okay, don't. That's your solution to everything—'don't, Denny.' Well, it doesn't work. I'm not stopping," he says viciously, revels in the anguish passing over his brother's face. "You didn't stop, and I'm not stopping either."
"God, I'm sorry," Lucas says. "I'm so sorry, please—"
"Whoa, no," Denny interjects. "That, there, it's all done. Please and sorry and don't—it's all done, yeah?"
"I wasn't—I thought—"
"You thought what?" Denny shouts suddenly. His voice echoes through the empty corridor, shakes up the walls and breaks through the sterility of their home. "You thought you were in a fucking dream? Thought, 'hey it's not like this is going to count when I wake up, why not skip over to my little brother's room and tear him apart bit by fucking bit'? What the hell could you possibly have thought, Lucas?"
"I wasn't thinking, okay?" Lucas says. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking at all, I just—"
"You knew—God, you knew everything, I'd told you everything, and you still—"
"I know!" He's yelling now, too. Denny could almost laugh; they're such a meager reflection of their parents, hollering in the kitchen of a muted home. "Yes, I'm an arsehole, I fucking know! You think I don't? You think I don't know what I did? I do, and I'm sorry—God, I'm so sorry, but I—"
"Will you at least tell me why you did it?" Denny says. He looks straight at Lucas, grits his teeth and doesn't swallow. The phantom echoes of their cries ring in his ears, collide with his arms and legs with a hollow ferocity.
"Denny, I can't—I can't tell you any more than I can tell myself, I—" he flounders, raking a hand through his hair. "I'm a wanker? I don't know, because I'm a mess? Pathetic? Fucking insane?"
"All you are," Denny says, "is afraid. And I just want to know of what."
Lucas is silent. In that moment, he's a mirror, staring at Denny with an expression profoundly familiar. Denny thinks of please don't ask me and feels his fingers twitching.
"Please," he says finally. "Lucas, I need to know."
"You don't understand—"
"I do, I do, that's the problem. That's why I can't let this go," he enunciates his words, weighty on his tongue, "because I understand."
"Then you know why I can't, I won't." Lucas says resolutely.
"For God's sake, look at us! You think this is going to get better?"
Lucas parts his lips, then shakes his head and looks away. Watching the uneven rise and fall of his chest, Denny falls back into September. He thinks back to a door flung open for the first time, thinks of you're better than that and he is all pine and I am apple orchard and our worlds will never entwine, and then—his shoulders are tense, his jaw clenched, long fingers fidgety, lips pursed, eyebrows furrowed—and thinks of all the things he didn't see. He thinks of all the ways in which he was wrong. He's been stripped of his skin, this boy before him, left bare and bloody by the rawness of their accusations. Denny watches, and decides.
"I can wring it out of you."
Lucas' head whips around to face him.
Denny's gait is easy, casual. Lucas knows better. He's the shorter of the two, Denny, but he knows how to keep Lucas' feet rooted to the ground. He's always known, even when they were strangers living in the same house. He makes it a point to look him straight in the eye, steel-blue to steel-blue. Their eyes are the only thing they share by blood, and it's more than enough.
"You'll tell me," Denny avers. "Or, well, maybe you won't have to, if I do this."
God, no. Please, no, Lucas thinks, pushing all his intensity into the plea, simply because he knows he won't be able to later.
Denny's hands are slow and careful, but not hesitant. He touches the bare skin of Lucas' neck tentatively, testing the waters with his fingertips. Then comes the length of his fingers, long and nimble, and suddenly, there's the whole of his palm. The cold of it sears into him, and Lucas shivers.
All the while, Denny never looks away. His gaze burns into him. He's never looked at me like that, Lucas catches himself thinking (feels himself slipping).
"It won't be the first time," Denny says softly, and for a second, for just a second, the solid veneer slips. Composure gives way to naked vulnerability, etched in the line of his brows and in the heavy glaze over his eyes. It's raw and almost painful, a punch to the gut, but this—this is when Lucas gives in.
"No," Lucas whispers. "No. Stay. Don't go, don't—"
"Not going anywhere," Denny leans into him, "not now."
The kiss is chaste, a mockery of innocence. It's not quite the kiss from last night—it lacks that edge of urgency and the vagueness from before. This time, the point of contact between their lips is thrown sharply into focus. When Denny catches Lucas' lower-lip between his own, the realness of it is jarring. He feels it reflected in Lucas' shudder, tangible just under the palm of his hand. Neither of them makes a sound.
The air is dry; Lucas' heat is crawling under his skin, slithering past every defence he has. When they break away, it persists, hot and coiled in the pit of his stomach.
"Denny," Lucas starts. He sounds tensed, but his muscles are lax and his eyes are still half-lidded. "How can we—we're not—"
Denny firmly presses his palm against Lucas' mouth and says, "Let's not."
And that's that.
It's not a thing to be named, so they don't name it.
He'd like to say that nothing has changed, but that's not quite true. The shifting and inverting and breaking is irreversible, and Denny wouldn't exchange it for anything, but it's an ingrained part of their worlds—world—now. His life started turning in on itself right after, "I'm listening," not after, "It won't be the first time."
The changes now are subtle, little tweaks in the stretch of their days. Easy touches, knees pressing, shared smiles; small things that start with warm and safe and soothe, and end with please and let me and you're amazing. Hazy mornings where Lucas comes in, yawning and scratching his belly under his Spongebob nightshirt, gently brushes his knuckles along Denny's neck and implores him to please, please, won't you make some toast? I always burn it. Quiet afternoons where Denny digs out his copy of The Great Gatsby in a fit of nostalgia, lifts up the tattered cover for Lucas to see, and Lucas doesn't laugh, no—just smiles and says, you keep reading that as many times as you do in a day and I'll get jealous of that Gatsby character pretty soon, Denny—and then Denny smiles back slyly, remarks, I prefer Nick, though, just to see Lucas' eyes darken, and they don't get the chance to say much else after that. The clock striking noon and Lucas striding into his room with a newpaper fan and a football tucked under his arm and a sweaty undershirt which Denny still crinkles his nose at, but Lucas only laughs and bear-hugs him to hear his disgusted protests. Only the nights are left and—and those are Denny's favourite.
Neither of them is surprised at the ease with which they eventually slip into physical intimacy. It's not really a 'romance' as much as simply a state of things—one that dictates their knowledge of each other as brothers, an emotional connection forged by blood that inevitably translates into physicality.
It's not even some sort of epiphany, some conscious decision they arrive at in the middle of a hushed night. There are no "Are you sure?"s and "I'm ready"s. It just happens, with neither a question nor an answer. They only feel and then act, because they've been careful for too long. Lucas' are you sure is the sting of his teeth on Denny's shoulder. Denny's I'm ready is the wet trail of his kisses along Lucas' jawline. Their want is in their impatience.
The mornings after are always the best part. There's daylight falling on their backs in the middle of winter, polyester sheets tangled in their legs while they're laughing good mornings into each other's mouths, and it's the best thing they've ever had.
It doesn't exempt them from their darker moments, though.
There will always be reminders; their parents will always say things, the world will always say things, even if it isn't to them. Some days—long days that will give them nothing to do but think for hours on end—Lucas will step into his room with shuttered eyes. Those nights will lead to mornings where Denny will wake up either cold and wanting, or physically hurting from the bruises on his hips and the string of bites down his spine.
But what Denny understands is what Lucas doesn't; the blood that damns them is also what binds them to each other. It's what makes this forever.
They both have their mother's eyes, and Denny never lets Lucas forget.
There's this one time (just one) when they lie in Denny's bed, still and without moving but not without feeling (never without feeling). This is one of the nights Denny will keep tucked away in his memory for a very, very long time (forever?).
It's fifteen past midnight, Maddy's asleep, their parents are out, the house is blessedly quiet. They're lying face-to-face, the two of them. The dark has pried them open with gentle fingers, letting them touch each other's wounds.
So Lucas doesn't seem surprised when Denny says, "You're getting scared again."
"You always seem to see into me," Lucas whispers. The I can never see into you goes unspoken, nestled in the breaths that pass between their lips.
Denny just smiles.
"We've gone mad," Lucas says one morning, and it sounds so earnest and honest-to-god regretful that Denny has to laugh.
"What—Denny, I'm serious."
"I know, I know," Denny placates, still recovering from his last chortle.
"Oh—oh, really, you know?"
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Lucas."
"Holding conversations with you is the most frustrating thing ever."
"You love me," Denny says breezily.
He goes quiet, then. It's the pensive kind of the quiet, not the content kind. Denny's learned to differentiate between the two.
"That's not normal, is it?" He says it like a statement, then throws his arm over his eyes and groans, "What am I saying, it's the farthest thing from bloody normal. We've got to be mad, Denny."
"Abnormal doesn't equate mad," Denny says simply.
"So we're abnormal then."
"Of course we are," Denny looks at him unflinchingly, "Lucas, I had sex with my brother and liked it."
Lucas' lips twitch upwards. "That sounds like something you'd say at group therapy."
"Well, we're not mad, but that doesn't mean we don't need help."
Lucas pauses. After a few seconds, he asks, "Do we need help?"
"Probably," Denny replies, folding his legs under his thighs and leaning over Lucas. "But would you take it?"
Lucas' answer is to grab Denny by the back of his neck and pull him down for a kiss.
You'd think it would be difficult. It's not. It's easy.
It's as easy as an untroubled, "Love you, you're fantastic," in the morning, as sweet as the raisin bread Denny brings him. It's as easy as a laughing, "You stupid—they'll see—" in the kitchen alcove, as easy as a good morning kiss and the slide of a warm hand into his.
Except, it's not what they will remember.
What they will remember is that it had to end. It has to end and, yes, yes, it does. It ends and it does so without a nuclear explosion, without fireworks and without being a reflection of their parents.
But it's all the same to them, isn't it?
"Your father and I, we've decided on a divorce," their mother tells them. Long time coming, her eyes say.
They're at the dinner table, but she's wearing straight pants and an impeccably wrinkle-free shirt—a long-running side-effect of her profession. Denny would be impressed, if he didn't know the haphazard working of her mind.
"Your father's decided to give up custody of you two to me," she continues, forking her spaghetti. "We'll move out sometime this month."
It's brief, clipped, and largely devoid of emotion. That's it, then, Denny thinks, and goes back to picking out the bits of capsicum and shifting them to one side of his plate.
"Will..." Lucas starts, hesitates. "What about Maddy?"
"Your father's taking her," she says immediately.
"But you can't—we can't let him take her, Mum, that's not fair." He's an alcoholic who can't tell his child from an animal half the time, and doesn't care the rest, he doesn't say.
"She's not my daughter," their mother replies sharply, "or have you forgotten?" I've wasted eighteen years of my life with this man, I refuse to sacrifice any more of it.
"She's my sister, though."
"You take care of her, then. I'm not taking responsibility this time."
"'This time'? You never have!"
"You have no idea how much I've given up for you," she snaps.
"Mum, she's a child. You know how she'll grow up if you let him take her, don't you?"
"Yes," she says simply. "I do."
Denny supposes he can't be as passive about that as he would like; despite everything, Maddy's begun to matter to him, too. Perhaps it doesn't compare to Lucas' attachment to her, but Denny's cared for very few people throughout his life, and that Maddy may be one of them is nothing short of astonishing.
Still, he's not quite as single-minded about it as Lucas. He can acknowledge the truth in his mother's words; she's sacrificed more than him, more than Lucas, and immeasurably more than their father—so he is silent where Lucas can't be to spare her the hurt.
"Can't you just—just this one thing? Just take her in, I swear you won't have to do anything—"
"Luke," she sighs, "you're a child. You're barely eighteen, you can't pay for her, you can't be her father."
"And you think Dad's going to do a better job?"
"What would you have me do? I can't be her parent, I can't—and neither can you."
"Let me go with Dad, then."
If his mother's eyes falter at that, Denny doesn't notice. He's too busy staring at Lucas.
"Let me go with him," he says again, and decidedly does not glance at Denny.
Their mother, she's a slight, waifish woman. She keeps all this hurt buried inside of her, and some of it swells up to her eyes now. Her steel-blue eyes lose some of their listlessness. They're still not Lucas' eyes, they will never be quite that bright, but they seem remarkably similar to Denny's in that moment.
"Alright," she says quietly. "Have it your way. Denny," she turns to him, "what about you? Would you rather go with your father as well?"
He rewinds, skips back to two years ago. He looks at the immaculate mahogany of the dinner table and thinks of scratches, glass shattering, beer bottles broken, shards on the carpet. He looks at his mother's hands, impossibly thin and marked with age lines.
Denny meets her gaze squarely and says, "No."
"I'm sorry," Lucas says to him an hour later.
"Yeah." Denny says, browsing through his closet. Maybe he'll leave the black button-down behind, it was never one of his favourites.
"I couldn't leave it like that."
"Okay, Lucas." The striped yellow jumper is a waste of space. It doesn't even fit him anymore.
"Denny," Lucas pleads. "You know I can't let her go through that alone."
"Yeah," Denny says, turning to face him. "Yeah, I know."
"—a girl. Not even thirteen yet. She'll lose herself to all this," he recites. "I know."
Lucas says nothing.
"Anything else?" Denny says, when the silence persists into a thick, suffocating glide against his throat.
His face twists up a bit, features going contorted. Denny distantly wonders if he's going to cry, but the moment is gone as soon as it came. He quietly slips out the door, the soft finality of the 'click' dispelling the heaviness and replacing it with something much more permanent.
Lucas is gone, and Denny is a spectre, lingering amidst the dead, stagnant air of their room and waiting for something he knows will never find him again.
Eleven years pass. Ironically, the world stays the same.
"Elevated intracranial pressure, nausea, vomiting, frequent headaches, and—" the shuffle of papers sounds, "stiffness of the neck, you've said? I suggest you register for an MRI scan on an urgent basis. Radiology's down the hall, to your immediate left. I'm signing you up for an appointment next week, if that's okay. Feel free to contact me if any issues arise."
"Could I have your number, then...?"
"Right," he says, tearing off a paper from his notepad and scribbling down his mobile number. He's penned it down so often now that the digits seem to blur into each other. "Here you are. Anything else?"
"I think that's it. Thanks so much, Doctor!"
He nods, noting the newfound tension in her bony shoulders as she slips out the door. Disturbingly thin, this one—almost emaciated. Perhaps he should have referred her to a nutritionist, too—Stacy's constantly harping on about his unhealthy dependence on take-out, she would have been delighted to have a willing specimen for her ramblings on the importance of a complete diet.
Next week, then. He shrugs off his laboratory coat and reaches for the intercom with aching fingers.
"Stacy. Do me a favour and bring up a cup of—"
He almost smiles. "Lemon."
"With a dash of sugar. On it, Doctor Dennis."
He sighs. Fifteen minutes—and then, back to work.
"Extreme fatigue, kidney inflammation, skin rashes, and...?"
"Swollen joints, too."
"Swollen joints. Okay," Denny says. He snaps the file close. "You misdiagnosed lupus for multiple sclerosis."
"Oh," is all the intern says.
"Check for lesions on the spinal cord next time. First-trimester miscarraiges, too, if applicable."
"Right," he says sheepishly. "Uh, sorry."
"Don't apologize to me, apologize to the patient," Denny reprimands. "Mistakes aren't uncommon, Mr. Gray, but learn to ask for a second opinion."
The intern nods. Denny knows exactly three things about him: his name is either Nathaniel Gray or Nicholas Gray, he consistently places in the top 5% of his graduating class, and that he has an unshakeable habit of diagnosing hastily in his eagerness to participate.
Denny sighs under his breath. He's not so bad, not really—annoyingly impatient, yes, but considerably talented.
"I, uh, I really am sorry, Doctor Dennis. I'll be careful next time, swear."
"Really," Denny says flatly.
He nods vehemently.
"Look, Nicholas, it's not as if I wasn't where you are some eleven years ago. These things take time, but this is a hospital, not your university laboratory. Remember that."
"I will," Gray assures, smiling tentatively. "I can't imagine you as a student, though."
"Doctor Dennis!" a nurse calls from the corridor. "Patient's here!"
"I'll see you," he excuses himself curtly. The proclamation lingers faintly in the air, but Denny's not dwelling on it. He's not a fan of nostalgia, these little, unwelcome flashbacks—him in a uniform, him in a littered hallway, him as a student.
Eleven years ago, he was much more than that. Eleven years ago, he was many things.
The invitation card is a surprise, although he feels like it shouldn't be.
He chances upon it one innocuous Saturday morning. His cup of morning coffee is on the table, and he's frowning at the stain it's left behind on the glass when he catches sight of the gold-encrusted cover, peeking out from beneath the pile of newspapers and weekend magazines.
The yellow ribbon in the corner takes him back, just a bit. Curiously apathetic, he flips the card open.
Madeleine Shale & Anthony Felix Evans, it says in loopy cursive, request the honor of your presence to celebrate their wedding. The date, succint and capitalized at the bottom: WEDNESDAY, EIGHTEENTH JANUARY TWO THOUSAND THIRTEEN.
Well done, Maddy, Denny thinks, with more warmth than he'd anticipated himself capable of.
He catches Stacy by the elbow on his way to his surgery.
"Cancel my appointments for the eighteenth, will you?" he says.
"I have a wedding to attend." He clears his throat. "My sister's."
She blinks. "I didn't know you had a sister."
He feels ridiculously out of place in the suit, stiff and stretching across his back and so different from the soft cotton of his doctor's coat.
His neighbour whistles when he sees it, though. He's twenty and still tangled in a tragic love affair with cigarettes and cheap beer. Denny's sigh is disapproval embodied.
"You sure clean up nicely, mate," he says. "And here I thought you were surgically attached to your white coat."
"Nice to see you, too, Alexander."
"It's Alex, Jesus, how many times do I have to tell you? Alex."
Denny's smile is perfectly pleasant and a broadcasting mockery of the word 'no'.
"Get laid, brother!" he hears from the porch. His scowl is one part exasperation and many parts disgust.
His grip on the steering wheel is firm without being tight, but Denny doesn't need physical reminders anymore to recognize anxiety. He's nervous—scared, even. His flat is bare, empty of any halfhearted family photos or token reminders or memorabilia, and here he is, racing towards one of his most indelible memories at sixty kilometres per hour.
Twenty-five minutes into the drive, and the wedding hall is in sight all too soon. Just the immediate feel of it, the 'gold-and-roses' typicality of a wedding reception, does injustice to the space it's taken up at the back of his mind—a giant amid burned blacks and whites that he can't reconcile with uncomplicated brightness.
Denny braces himself for a throng of forgotten faces, and steps inside.
Maddy is still very much Maddy, he's pleased to discover.
She's no longer Maddy the child, no, but she's not quite Madeleine the lady, either. She's just Maddy, and he can still see the uneclipsed femininity of her in the way she crooks her elbow and lifts her chin when she smiles, just like back then.
He's never seen her this radiant, though, a grinning bundle of charm in her wedding dress. The groom is a reflection of her in his joy. The crinkling eyes and freckled nose strike a familiar chord in him, although Denny's quite sure he's never met the man before.
The vows pass him by in a blur. Minute after minute, and the surrealism closes in around him. That's Maddy, he finds himself thinking, Maddy, the little girl who gave you a birthday card and probably cried when you gave it back. The decade separating them slams into him like a brick wall, then. At the end of the ceremony, when the boom of applause sounds all around him, he can only think, You'll be happy. I know you will, in the same way he says, "You'll have to be operated on, but it's going to be fine. You'll live the life you want to."
"Haven't seen you before," a girl—woman, really—says to him coquettishly at the reception. "I could swear I'd remember a face like yours."
A fleeting glance at the glass of wine in her hand—half-full. He smiles. "The maid of honor. It's a pleasure."
"Likewise. I'd rather be called by my name, though. I'm Catherine."
Before he can reciprocate, though, another voice calls out to him.
It's been impossibly long since anyone's called him that; the familiarity is a stretch of time bridged too suddenly, too messily. Denny turns around, and there's an armful of white silk and waist-long hair pressing up against him. Maddy's thin, gloved arms squeeze around his torso in a fierce embrace, and suddenly, he's welcoming the vertigo of eleven fast-forwarded years with a bubble of laughter that's embarrassingly unrestrained in his surprise.
"I can't believe you came!" she exclaims, nearly vibrating with excitement.
"Sorry," he says, "sorry I didn't—"
"Hey, no, we're not doing that—not today. Yes, okay, I wish you'd have—a phone-call would've been nice occasionally but," her smile softens, "it's amazing that you're here. I wouldn't give this up for anything, you know."
"I'm glad. Also," he says, patting her netting-clad shoulder. She seems to take it as a signal for another bone-crushing hug—but Denny takes it in stride. "You look beautiful, Maddy."
A choked sob, muffled against his shoulder. "Always so emotional," Denny murmurs into her hair.
"It's my wedding day, I'm allowed!"
Her eyes dim. "No. She didn't come."
"I saw Dad, though. How you convinced him, I'll never know."
"It's my wedding day," she says simply. "Will you—he's in the courtyard, you know, if you want to..."
"Rather not," Denny waves the suggestion away with a casual tilt of his mouth. He feels the depths of his eyes growing colder.
"Can't say I didn't see that coming," Maddy sighs. "Go meet Luke at least, will you?"
"Lucas," he repeats. The name sounds empty on his tongue. "I—yeah. He must've—he's here, of course."
She looks at him oddly. "'Course he's here, Denny. With Becca on his arm and everything." She blinks, then. Shifts uncomfortably. "Becca's his fiancé. I'm not sure if you...?"
"Right. His—yeah. I didn't—no. I didn't know. Becca, you said?"
"Denny, are you sure you're fine?"
"Sorry," he presses a fist to his mouth. Presses it hard against his lips until it hurts—a dull, useless throb, pressure against his teeth, anything. "Sorry, I'm just—"
"Maddy? Where'd you go?"
He scarcely has time to think, Denny, you idiot, how did you not realize—before his mind conveniently blanks out. He breathes in and out the perfumed air, catalogs all the things he associates with that voice—all kinds of apologies, all kinds of Love yous and Pleases, picks them out and tucks them away with a swift, practised touch. It is only then that he can turn around and smile the way he does.
"Lucas," Denny says.
The sight of him is worse than a sledgehammer. His freckles haven't faded, Denny notes, a careless sort of self-condemnation.
A beat (three seconds), and Denny's inadvertently watching the soft curl of blonde hair over his ears. His shoulders are wider, but they still droop and become rounded at the first sign of surprise in just the same way. He's stayed the same more than he's changed, Denny realizes. The cruel twist of his mouth softens into something vaguely affectionate.
"Oh," Lucas breathes.
Denny turns his attention to the woman beside him. "Rebecca, is it?"
"Yes," she says slowly, kohl-lined eyes flitting to her fiancé.
"I'm Dennis, Lucas' brother."
"Oh!" Her face transforms instantly. "It's great to meet you!"
"Likewise. We haven't met before, I'm afraid."
"Denny's a bit of a recluse," Maddy chips in. "Seeing him here was my best wedding gift, I'll admit."
"It's funny, actually," Becca says. "My fiancé's brother and I didn't even know."
Denny smiles slowly, disarmingly. He pretends, for a lacklustre moment, that he does not feel the burn of Lucas' stare as surely as Lucas feels the weight of his smile. "I'm surprised he never mentioned me."
"Excuse me," Lucas says abruptly, shooting a quick smile at Maddy. "Washroom."
Denny watches him go, and does not follow.
If Lucas comes back after that, Denny wouldn't know. He takes his leave soon after, bidding his farewell with irreproachable courtesy. Rebecca's smile when he dips down to kiss her hand is true and earnest. She's quite the lady—well-bred in her gentility, appreciative of good humour, porcelain face and straight-backed posture all wrapped into one fine package.
When the smell of her perfume becomes cloying, he slips out into the courtyard. It's blessedly empty.
Not many stars out tonight, he observes idly. He's shed the coat, although the winds blow ice-cold against the side of his face.
Trees line the edges of the courtyard. There's something secretive about the languid sway of sycamore leaves. If he closes his eyes and listens, there's a steady rhythm to the swish-swoosh of them—like the steady tick-tock of a clock, counting down the seconds, counting down to—
"I didn't think you'd come."
He opens his eyes.
"She's my sister, right?" Denny says, like voicing an after-thought.
The shuffle of Oxfords; blonde hair in his periphery.
"I don't know, Denny, you tell me," Lucas says. "Do you stop contacting your sister for eleven years?"
"So this is how we're going to do it? Pretend this is about Maddy and not about you?"
"You can't come waltzing back whenever you—"
"She called me," he says, "and I came."
"Oh, because you're just that generous?"
"Contrary to what you may believe, she is my sister, and I do care for her," he looks at him, then, "I certainly didn't come here for you."
Lucas' eyes flicker. If there is pain in them, Denny certainly can't see it in the darkness.
They slip into silence. Denny's waiting for Lucas to leave—maybe after remembering Rebecca, maybe after growing tired of Denny's non-answers. He has many things to grow tired of.
But Lucas stays, stands impatient but immovable, as if his feet are rooted to the earth.
Eventually, he sighs. He crouches down to the ground, loosens his limbs and crosses his legs and plops himself down like the boy he once was (and maybe still is), and they're back at their wasteland of a home. The barren ground is their needle-felt carpet.
Lucas says, "How've you been?" and Denny's first reaction is to think, I loved you.
His second is to laugh—he follows it blindly.
Lucas hardly looks offended. "Yeah, okay, I know," he sighs. "Can't believe you're a doctor."
"You're one to talk; you'll be made an honest man out of soon."
Lucas sits up, says, "Ah—" and nothing more. The echo of his voice fades, razor-edged and elusive. He looks down, looks up, breathes in but doesn't quite open his mouth. Denny smiles, a little sadly, and Lucas sees.
He's blinking rapidly. The lost glimmer of his eyes peers out from underneath the darkness that shrouds them, now. They're not so different, the two of them, in their uncanny adherence to their past selves. Denny could reach out so easily, physically and emotionally and in everything that he is, and he wants, but—no. There are no needle-felt carpets here, no Cuckoo clocks and polyester bed sheets.
Lucas' fingers are twitching (wanting), too. Denny can almost think, You don't get to do that anymore. You don't get to touch me, you don't get to—
"You haven't changed much," Lucas says. His voice is hoarse.
Denny closes his eyes and breathes. Tick-tock. "Yeah."
When he opens them again, he is alone.
Life goes on. Stacy brings him lemon tea with a dash of sugar every morning, eleven o'clock sharp. His interns continue to bumble their way through patient diagnoses and the occasional surgery. Denny still has to lean forward in his cushioned chair and interlink his fingers, wait for the world to narrow down to his consultation room before he can will away the listlessness in his patients' eyes.
All is as it should be, until it isn't. His home is empty of family photographs, until a knock on his door brings with it something infinitely more enduring.
"Hullo," Lucas says. He's soaking wet and a little bit doe-eyed.
"What," Denny says, rendered inarticulate.
"Mind if I come in? Think I've caught pneumonia."
He turns his head and peers over his shoulder, scrutinizing his flat with a critical eye. The bookshelf seems about ready to fall over itself, given the haphazard arrangement of his books. The coffee stains from yesterday morning cling persistently to his table, but he has a new bottle of Windex waiting to be used in his store-room. The kitchen is clean, save for the unwashed dishes in the sink. All in all, his flat is relatively habitable.
He turns back to Lucas. "How did you find this place?"
"Asked Maddy where you worked."
Denny looks at him patiently.
He shifts uneasily. "I may or may not have pretended to be one of your patients in a medical emergency."
"Right," Denny says, remarkably composed. "Come in, then."
"'Scuse me," Lucas mutters, ducking his head and hunching his shoulders in a futile attempt to avoid dampening Denny's carpet.
Denny fetches him a dry towel from the nearest washroom. "Here, dry yourself off."
"Ah, thanks. Sorry for the, uh," he sniffs, rubbing the towel onto his wet hair, "sudden intrusion."
"Bit late for that, isn't it?"
Eleven years ago, perhaps Lucas would have flinched. Now, his brother curls his lips into an apologetic frown, and maybe his eyes betray a hint of contrition—but the line of his shoulders is steady and unyielding. Shame, Denny thinks. It hits his heart with a hollow sound, like the clang of rusted metal.
"You wouldn't have any tea, would you?"
"Ginger or lemon?"
"Either. Just need something to warm me up."
The conversation is on just the stilted side of casual. He's twenty-seven, grown into his limbs and into his well-earned position as a medical practitioner—and yet, here he is; a teenager again, shaky and unsettled in his skin, in a bed which was never big enough for two, in a pair of headphones too old and inelastic to share.
Lucas isn't much better off. He is not a boy; he's twenty-eight, engaged to be married, a young man with bright prospects ahead of him. He isn't the Lucas from eleven years ago.
But this isn't what Denny sees. What Denny sees is this: he sits down with a cup of ginger tea and his fingers are tapping the china in a nervous, erratic non-rhythm. He sips it and says, "Mm, warm. Like it," and leaves out the 'I'. He leans forward and his bangs, unkempt, fall into his eyes. His collar is wrinkled, his tie just a little bit crooked.
This is what Denny sees, and it gives him just enough courage to say, "So, then? What brings you here?"
Lucas takes another sip before he answers. "Can't I just miss my brother?"
"After eleven years, convenient."
He looks at him sharply over the rim. "Don't blame the eleven years thing on me, that was all you."
"I'm not blaming the 'eleven years thing' on anyone," Denny says. "It was what it was."
Lucas' lips thin into a tense line, but he says nothing. The frown between his eyebrows deepens.
"How's the tea?" Denny asks offhandedly, after a while.
"And how's Rebecca?"
The cup pauses on its way to his lips. "Great. Brilliant."
"Am I invited to the wedding?"
"Stop," Lucas says. He sounds tired. "Just stop, Denny. You always do this."
Denny thinks back to, "You run away," remembers an impossibly long stretch of time and the wounds it's cauterized—and then, there's his brother with a woman on his arm and a ring on his finger. Denny thinks, 'No. You do,' for the first time in eleven years, and not a breath escapes him.
"Of course," he says. It's cold and quiet, completely devoid of sarcasm. The tea's gone cold, but he says, "Should I get the sugar?"
"No, don't—" Lucas sighs, "don't bother. I'll just be leaving."
"Right." He gathers the tea-cups, makes his way to the kitchen. "Close the door on your way out, please."
He hears Lucas pause in the doorway (it's not the first time). One, Denny counts, two, three—
The door clicks shut. I thought so, he thinks, and turns on the tap.
He's wrong, though. That's not the end of it.
When Stacy pokes her head into his room and announces, "Doctor, there's someone here to see you," the realization crashes into him like a freight train. Denny takes care not to look up from the prescription he's writing.
"One of my usual patients?"
"Hardly," Stacy says cheekily. "Blonde, and rather handsome."
"Are there any other doctors open?"
"He's specifically asking for you," she sighs. "How lucky."
Lucky. He turns the word over in his head. "Send him in," he says.
A minute later, Denny hears him thanking Stacy just outside the door. He does it suavely, with just the right brand of urbane charm and boyish joviality. It's unreasonably irksome. Stacy's giggle is the last thing he hears before the door cracks open.
"Erm," Lucas starts, suddenly worlds away from his self-assured image. "Hi."
Denny nods, gesturing to the chair on the other side of his desk.
"Everything okay?" he asks, once Lucas is seated.
"More or less," he says. "It's nothing serious; Becca's been getting these migraines. They've been growing more frequent lately, I thought I ought to make sure it's nothing too serious."
"Have they been accompanied by any other symptoms? Nausea, dizziness, blurry vision—anything like that?"
"Nothing but the occasional bout of weakness."
"Any head injury you can recall?"
"I don't think so, no."
"Migraines are rarely indicative of a serious illness. I don't think you need to worry," Denny says. "But if she experiences anything you think she shouldn't—shortness of breath, vomiting, numbness, even occasional personality changes, let me know as soon as you can."
"Yeah, okay," Lucas says. "Also, I think I saw a couple of twenty-somethings huddling near your window."
"You're twenty-something, too," Denny says dismissively. "They're probably my interns. Don't mind them, they're non-existent."
Lucas smiles lopsidedly. "That's nice. I can tell you must be a very nurturing teacher."
"They're not here to be nurtured."
"Don't be a Nazi, Denny."
Denny grimaces. "Don't quote Grey's Anatomy references at me."
"Oh," he perks up, "you watch it, do you?"
"The woes of popular culture," Lucas says, the wry lift of his lips transforming into something brighter, more recognizable. There's a distant hum at the edge of Denny's consciousness, an ever-present reminder of things unacknowledged.
"You didn't have to come here," he finds himself saying. "You know where my house is."
Lucas shrugs. The smile turns brittle. "Wasn't sure if I'd be welcome."
He thinks it best not to reply.
"I'll be going, then," Lucas murmurs, after the silence grows strained.
He pauses in the doorway, turns back to Denny. The shift of his muscles is cautious, the line of his neck rigid.
"For the record," he says. "I really did miss you."
I give up, Denny thinks, long after the door's clicked shut. I give up.
Maybe, a week or a month or a year later, he will remember the unfinished prescription lying on his desk.
He will remember the way he grips the receiver tight in his hand when he calls Maddy to ask for Lucas' number, the way he types in, 'For the record, it wouldn't have been unwelcome,' all perfect punctuation and faultless grammar, the way he hits send with fingers that don't shake but feel curiously steady in the inevitability of the moment.
He will think back to the way Stacy glimpses the last name in the Send to: bar and asks, "Your brother?"
And the way he looks her in the eye and says, "Yes."
"I got your text," is the first thing Lucas says when Denny opens the door.
His lips are pressed into a habitual frown; the softest downward curl of his mouth. But his eyes seem large and unguarded against the snowy backdrop of November Durham. Denny hasn't forgotten.
"Brilliant," he says. "Come in."
The air around them is different this time; fragile still, but out of something delicate, something soft and wispy as smoke in its affection, but distinctly lacking the brittle, jagged edge from before.
"Want anything to eat?" Denny asks.
"No," Lucas says, and then laughs. "Or, actually, I haven't had breakfast yet. You have any toast?"
"I do," Denny says—smiles and feels that something expand in his chest again.
"Put some coffee on while you're at it?" Lucas calls from the lounge, while Denny's shuffling about in the kitchen.
"Also, can I turn the telly on?"
"Yes, Lucas," Denny says emphatically, "you can turn the television on."
He brings out two plates of toast, balanced on a tray that's been collecting dust behind his sink for the past six months, and steps out to a documentary of two baby elephants tussling in a river.
"Animal Planet," he says, flat and disbelieving. "Animal Planet, Lucas?"
"They're being poached," Lucas declares, inching forward on the sofa to hold a hand out for his plate. He's staring at the screen with a near eerie fixation. "For ivory."
Denny gingerly places the tray atop a little round table—a good three feet away from Lucas' position.
Naturally, Lucas notices. "Their herd is a leaderless juvenile," he defends indignantly.
"You'd think people would be more concerned about global warming."
"Eat your toast," he says, shoving the plate under Lucas' nose.
They compromise (eventually) on Doctor Who re-runs. They sit in silence for the most part, occasionally debating the merits of David Tenant versus Matt Smith's, knees not quite touching but just about. The air between their sides is quiet and unbroken.
For a moment, it's enough.
The day after, he wakes up to the cheery tweet of his cell phone, flips it open and reads up to 'Sherlock on today, mind if I—' before he starts laughing.
Two and a half hours later, he's in Aisle 7 of the supermarket, dumping a packet of raisin bread into his basket.
"Come on, no," Lucas says, "no, he can't do that. He can't, right?"
"Mm," Denny grunts noncommittally. He winces at the crack of the gunshot. "Oh."
"What," Lucas says, arms going limp.
"Well," Denny says, one part disconcerted and three parts amused.
He's still a far cry from Lucas, though. He's in shock, Denny observes. The amusement threatens to overshadow his discomfiture overwhelmingly, betrayed by the poorly-suppressed twitch of his lips.
"Can I have some more raisin bread, please?" Lucas says faintly.
"Comfort food?" He sympathetically slips another slice onto Lucas' plate. "Of course."
"Are you making fun of me?"
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"It wouldn't be the first time," he says darkly.
"Wouldn't be the first time you cried over a movie, either."
"Excuse you," Lucas objects, cracking apart his self-induced stupor to glower (ineffectually) at Denny.
"Here," Denny placates, dumping another slice of raisin bread onto his pile.
"Are you going to feed me all this and then accuse me of hogging?"
"Would it matter if I did?"
A beat. "I s'pose not." And then, a careless bite into his third piece.
"It's not the best I've had," Denny admits.
"S'fine," he says. "We'll get some from Queens' next time, their stuff is heavenly."
(The time they do, it goes something like this:
"My God, you were right. How do they make this? It's bloody divine."
"I told you—hey, let me have some of that—"
"You ate all of it last time, too. Lucas, you hogger."
"Are you joking?"
A shrug. "I never said I wouldn't.")
Queens' isn't the last of them, either. There's Tastebuds and Alice's Bakery and the occasional Starbucks and a bunch of others, the beige walls and ambient lighting blending into one another until all he remembers is the lemony scent of fresh tarts and croissants as warm as Lucas' laughter.
One Sunday morning or the other, they chance upon a particular coffeehouse. It's a quaint little establishment nestled right next to a bookstore, with a chirpy bell at the entrance and walls navy-blue instead of beige and Mozart playing in the background, and maybe it's that last bit that makes them pause at the window and glance inside.
Amidst the tinkle of piano keys, they find a myriad of regrets to mourn by themselves, open to be heard in the forced evenness of Lucas' voice when he says, "Mozart was my favourite, you know."
"I know," Denny says. His laugh is a sharp, ragged exhale of air. "I know."
"I remember you liked Chopin."
"I liked all of them, more or less." I listened to them for you.
"Did you have a favourite?"
It takes Denny a while to answer, a moment or two which the music takes to wedge its way between their eyes. "Not really. I only ever listened to them with you and Maddy."
"What about other stuff? You must've had something to listen to when—" —when the voices from downstairs took their toll on you.
Did he? He's only listened to one or two, but— "Life in a Glasshouse," he recalls with a mild jolt.
Lucas' eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. "Radiohead?" he says incredulously. "I didn't know you listened to Radiohead."
"It was only once or twice."
Uneasiness stirs foreign in his gut. He's not one to revel in defying expectation; he prefers to lurk under the surface and dignify his choices with privacy.
But there's a shift in Lucas' eyes, then. He's seen it before, the subtle spike in intensity, a reassessment, an unconscious demand of himself woven into his inherent transparency. It's a flutter against Denny's memory—a torn, yellow ribbon and did you really keep it?
"I didn't know anything about you," Lucas says, soft to the point of near-inaudibility.
Denny smiles, and he knows it immediately—it's starkly familiar, the curve of his mouth, the slow lift of one corner before the other. He knows, instinctively, the opacity of it—the one thing Lucas has always hated. His childhood rushes past him in a flash of colour; comes and disappears. He's left with that one moment, that one I can never see into you, meant to be experienced and forgotten in a world that isn't solely theirs and held sacred only in its transience—and soon, not even in that.
"You knew enough," he says.
There is a change in the air, afterwards.
He's not sixteen anymore, and so it's not quite the irrevocable shift and inversion it might have been once. He feels it acutely nonetheless, a charged point of awareness at the back of his neck, at the corner of his eyes, in the small of his back, all over his body. And Denny wonders, sometimes, if Lucas can see the invisible fingerprints scattered across his throat, and down his back, and up his thighs—and if he could see them on Rebecca when he met her, too.
"How do I turn this thing on?" Lucas asks, scrutinizing Denny's electric kettle with a comical gravity.
"Never you mind," Denny says, striding into the kitchen. "Let me have that, before you cause permanent damage."
"No, I swear I've got this, just let me—"
The kettle makes the kind of high-pitched whine Denny's quite sure isn't supposed to come from an electronic device and promptly fizzles out. He switches it off and on again. Nothing.
"Ah," Lucas croaks. He clears his throat. "You must hate being right all the time."
"I could hit you."
He lightly flicks Lucas' ear and sighs. "Don't be an imbecile," he eyes him disapprovingly, "again."
He dismisses the apology with a flick of his wrist and diverts his attention to the upper drawers next to the stove. "There should be another one somewhere," he murmurs, rummaging his way through the numerous pots and pans, most of them unused.
He feels Lucas' eyes on him, that same quality of transparent intensity prevailing over the dullness of their surroundings.
Lucas laughs, then. There's a heaviness to it. "This feels so familiar, seeing you in front of a stove. You were cooking every morning, weren't you?"
"Owing to your tendency to burn everything you came into contact with."
The smile in his voice is lighter when he replies, if a little wistful. "Mm, yeah. Not sure what I was doing wrong, but—well, I had you, didn't I?"
A moment. "Yeah."
"S'pose I still have you to make me food occasionally."
"Yeah," Denny says again. A second; regrets coalescing, hanging heavy in the air—and then, "Not for much else, though."
The words feel too raw to take back, to smooth over with a silver tongue. The look in Lucas' eyes, when he jerks his head up, is wounded and startlingly reminiscent of another time they were in a marble-floored kitchen, toast forgotton and burning in a frying pan.
"I—" Lucas swallows. "I'm sorry. I never wanted—" he stops abruptly.
"There were many things I didn't want either, to be honest," Denny says. Long line of regrets there. Let's not touch those. "Not many things that I did want, though." He turns his back to the counter to face Lucas. "Just a few."
"You never wanted much of anything."
A huff of air slips past his lips, a mockery of laughter. "Oh, you think so, do you?"
"It's not as if you asked me to stay, Denny."
Instantly, all the dark humour bleeds out of him. "When did you ever ask that of me?" he demands, voice trembling just beneath the surface of his self-possession. "Are you saying I should've begged you to come with me? That I didn't say anything, so I was okay with you leaving?"
"You know that's not what it was—"
"You were the one that left," Denny says. "I left the house, but God knows you left everything else."
"We couldn't—" Lucas starts. He breathes in, breathes out, swallows as if the words are being ripped from his throat. "We'd have lost everything, Denny. We wouldn't have had anything."
"Lucas." His laugh is a bitter, pitiable thing. It makes Lucas want to cry. "We already had everything."
"Why won't you understand?" he pleads. "I had to, for—you know, you know it all, don't you?"
Maddy. A wedding dress, gloved arms around him, a smile that hasn't died yet—he can't begrudge her this.
"I do. God help me, I do." He laughs, then. "Doesn't mean I have to be charitable about it."
"It didn't mean that I didn't—that I don't still—"
"You were never good at this," Denny interrupts. His shoulders are cracked glass; it's a battle to keep them upright when exhaustion urges them to slump forward. "You could never—you always had to say things. You're not like me, I—" he sighs, gives in and lets them fall, "I can't be like you."
Lucas collapses on the sofa. His head hangs between his shoulders, the blonde fringe obscuring his face. Denny's not far behind—the corridor wall is the only thing that keeps him up. Their eyes are rich with things long-borrowed and never returned, but their bodies feel empty.
"If you could have one thing, what would it be?" Denny asks. It's an inane question, almost flippant, and so quiet it could go unheard.
"I'd bind you to me," Lucas says anyway. He laughs it out, but it's shaky and distressed, afraid of its own looming truthfulness. "I promised myself that if you were ever in front of me again, I would never let you leave."
God damn you, Denny's thinking as Lucas steps towards him. God damn you. I never left.
They kiss like it's an inevitability. The soft and unhurried brush of their lips speaks of patient longing, not urgent desire. They were never urgency, Denny supposes, never ferocity and carnal hunger. They had the world to themselves, spinning slow at their pace and constructed solely of violin bows and the whiteness of winter.
"Love you," Lucas murmurs in between quick kisses, "so much. Never stopped—"
Denny wants to cut him off with a bite to his lower-lip, wants enough air to say, "No, not yet," but he knows Lucas will never stand for it. He'll whisper it against the curve of his neck, nibble it into the dip of his hipbone. Denny can do nothing but wait for the invisible fingerprints to be traced and mapped out along his body by learned hands. His mouth opens under Lucas' and he thinks, first, Promise me what you promised yourself, and second, what you didn't promise her.
"Please—" he breathes.
But Lucas recognizes the nature of his desperation. He silences it with a hand over Denny's mouth, looks hard at him and says, "Let's not."
It's that easy.
In the coming hours, they have infinity to themselves.
There is no Maddy, no Rebecca, no decade stretching across the distance between them. Their knowledge of each other is whole and fresh in their minds.
Denny's bed sheets are silk and his windows don't let in the sunlight in quite the same way, but it scarcely matters. Their hands and lips are the same; Lucas is the same, in the way he holds and loves without reserve. Denny is selfish in the same way, single-mindedly secure in the knowledge that his brother has never touched anyone quite like this, gentle and sure and unrestrained.
And yet, when he's sated and sore, Lucas sleeping like the dead next to him, his mind is drenched in post-coital languor and he's thinking of all the things they had no room for an hour ago. Empty houses, years and years of never forgetting, waiting and not waiting, moving on and staying still.
"Hey, Mum, Dad," Denny murmurs into Lucas' pillow. "Where'd you leave us, huh? Where'd you leave your two sons?"
He rolls onto his back, and keeps his eyes open till the morning sun rises.
The morning after, Denny calmly walks into the lounge, fully dressed, and says, "We can't."
Naturally, this spawns twenty minutes of debating the pros and cons of what is essentially an extramarital affair, Lucas. It's ridiculous and insensible and the most difficult argument Denny has ever had to engage in.
In the end, Lucas concludes it with a breathless, "Just one day."
"Give me one day," he says. "Give this one day."
"You won't make me change my mind, Lucas."
"I don't care," Lucas says immediately, "or, well, I do. But I'd rather have this than nothing at all."
"A day that's not going to count for anything a year from now?"
"You're wrong," he says. The conviction of it unsettles him. "God, you're so wrong. It'll count for everything."
He can't help but laugh at that. It's frigid and caustic, but Lucas' eyes are steady on him. "Do you even realize how ridiculous that sounds? You'll have a wife—hell, you'll probably have a kid by then—and you're going to want this back? This—one day, or whatever it is?"
"You say that as if it's some bloody fling," Lucas hisses, in all his debilitating anger. "I didn't sleep with my brother because I thought it would be fun, Denny."
"It wasn't fun eleven years ago, either," Denny says. "It was everything it is now, and—here we are, anyway."
"Things were different, then—"
"Things are different now!" Denny yells. He breathes in, then. Turns away, lets the simmering anger cool and harden into fatigue. Breathes out. "It's okay for you, isn't it? You think it hurts now, but you'll have a family. That counts for everything, Lucas."
A second (two, three, four, infinity). Time is a discontinuous stream of silences.
Lucas' lips are cool on the nape of his neck. His hands are warm—scalding. "You think you don't matter. You do."
"I'm not quite that insecure," Denny says, tired, "but I'm not going to matter forever."
"You think," he says quietly, hands stilling, "that it means more to you than it does to me?"
"Is that your way of saying I'm going to matter forever, then? To you?"
The smile slithers right past his defenses, creeps onto his lips unbidden. "Manipulative bastard."
But Denny's thinking, 'Our time's over,' as Lucas pulls him closer. He's so far-gone, back in a single bed not meant for holding two. The maple-white wood is sturdy and the mattress is creaking and he's thinking, I'd give you anything. The swell of frustration is gone, soundly replaced by the kind of resigned contentment that comes only with adulthood.
"No promises," Denny murmurs against Lucas' mouth.
This is a promise, says the punishing relentlessness of Lucas' mouth on his. My being here is a promise. My kissing you is a promise.
And it is. It is.
(But at 7:22 of the next morning, Lucas will still stand in the doorway and ask, "What now?"
And Denny, wearing the fresh bruises around his thighs close like a shackle, will still say, "I don't know.")
So, of course, his next course-of-action is to dial a call to his little sister.
"Lunch?" he suggests.
"Olivia's, yeah?" Maddy says, the rustle of her apron sounding on the other end. "I'll be there in twenty."
She's the perfect picture of domesticity, skin glowing and hair tied up in a messy bun. The smile stretches wide across her glossed lips when she spots him.
"Where've you been hiding?" she greets, taking the seat across from him. Her eyes twinkle with mirth.
"Here and there," he says noncommittally. "You know how it is."
She hums, unconvinced.
"How's married life treating you?"
"Oh, you know," she shrugs, bright-eyed, "it's got its ups and downs. We have our moments, Tony and I."
He smiles knowingly.
"What?" she draws the word out in exasperation, mirroring his smile with a sheepish one of her own. "I'm not allowed to be happy?"
"Did I say anything? I didn't say anything."
"That's you, never saying anything," she sighs, "and saying everything."
"You just need to know where to look," he says serenely, sipping at his tea.
"We've been trying to figure that out our whole lives, you know," she teases him, "Luke and I."
He pauses. "You've not been doing it right, then."
"You..." she hesitates and trails off. Swallows down her anxiety with a sip of her Coke and starts again, "You're coming? To his wedding?"
He looks at her and smiles. He wonders if he should even bother. "Yes."
"Has he mentioned it to you?"
I mentioned it to him, more like. "I don't think so, no."
She blinks. "No? That's surprising. He told me you two go out often."
"We do, occasionally. It must've slipped his mind."
"How is he, really?" Maddy questions. "I haven't gotten the chance to meet up with him lately."
"Same as always, more or less. You know him better than I do."
"I doubt that," she laughs. It's tinged with nostalgia. "He was awfully fond of you, you know. Even back then."
"I haven't known him for eleven years, Maddy. Even before then, I—" he stops. The empathetic perspicacity of her gaze sparks in him the embers of a thing fragile and long-buried. "I wonder, sometimes, if I knew him even then."
"You did, though," she says softly. "You always saw things, Denny. Never said much, but you saw. You'd see right through all of us."
Because he let me. He let me see everything.
"Why so worried? Did something happen?" he asks, with an empty sort of curiosity.
"No, but—" she sighs and falls back against her chair. "He's—is he happy, I wonder?"
"You think they're not ready?"
"I think what I'm wondering," she says slowly, staring up at the cove lighting, "is if they'll ever be ready at all."
His eyes flicker and narrow; the answer strikes a rebellious chord in some unnamed place inside of him.
"I love Becca, honestly I do. I think she's brilliant," Maddy leans forward, and her eyes beseech him to understand, "but Denny, some things are meant for forever. This just doesn't feel like one of them."
Denny quietly stirs in his sugar and smiles.
Maddy was always the smart one.
(Thirty miles away, Lucas stands in the middle of a room.
The air is stale, the carpet dusty. A CD-player lies broken in the corner. The bed is untouched.
He stares, and stares, and stares. Thinks of Becca and then of Denny, and the comparison is jarring.
It's in the way he says Lucas and never Luke, in the way his fingers are never warm, in the way he smiles and doesn't at the same time. I can't, Lucas thinks.
And that is all.)
Twenty-two days into March, green is sprouting between mounds of snow.
Denny's caught in that odd limbo between winter stagnancy and spring vitality, as is the rest of Durham. He's perfectly still and relaxed and just breathing, the wooden support of the park bench comfortably solid against his back, when the phone-call happens.
His cell's in his back-pocket, but his hands are bare and soaking in the needle-sting of a cold night. Still, he shakes himself back into the present, reaches for his phone with sluggish hands and a foggy mind.
The name flashing across the LCD evokes another kind of stillness in him entirely.
Denny holds the phone pressed to his ear, listens to the breathing on the other end. He's silent, alert and absent-minded, a mess of contradictions. "Lucas?" he rasps, finally.
"Um, no. Sorry."
He relaxes and tenses all at once.
"It's, uh," says not-Lucas, "it's Becca."
A beat, surreal and uncertain. "Right," Denny says slowly. "Becca. How are you?"
"M'fine, thanks. A bit sloshed, but—yeah. You free right now?"
"Yes," he says reluctantly.
"Okay. Okay, good." The second-long silence fractures over the static. "This is Denny, right?"
He closes his eyes. "Yeah."
"Yeah, of course. 'Course it's you. 'Course he'd have your number at the top of his bloody contact list."
"Becca, is everything alright?" Denny asks against his better judgement.
"No," she says. Her voice wavers. "No, look, your brother just told me he's not marrying me, and—and it's kind of hard, yeah? Bear with me."
He can't say anything to that. His thoughts desert him. The jagged, painful swell in his chest takes him over.
"I don't know why I called you," she laughs, suddenly sounding remarkably sober. "I think I just needed—I had to hear you, know any part of you that I could. Is that strange? I had to—you know, get why he left. It was all you, wasn't it?"
Did he tell you, Denny wants to demand. Did you find out or did he—
"D'you know," Becca continues. "That day, the day of the wedding, right, when he came out of the washroom—you remember that, don't you? He came out, and he'd been crying in there, I'm sure of it. I'd never seen him like that. He looked fucking miserable. I thought—I don't know what I thought. I didn't know what it was then, but—yeah. You did, huh?"
"I didn't," he says, numb.
"You did," she asserts, full of conviction. "I saw it on your face. S'what you said—what was it? 'I'm surprised he never mentioned me'. You said it. You knew." Her laugh is a sob. "You know him, don't you? You know all of him."
"I'm—" he swallows. He feels like crying. I'm sorry. The words are jammed, thick in his throat.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know," she says, a little faintly. "It's not—I'm not okay. I'm not okay, but I can't imagine you—you two—being anything other than what you are. Don't know what that is, but—you're you, and he's him, and it's all—it's just this thing, and I guess it makes sense, it makes—yeah," she exhales shakily. "Yeah. I saw it in your eyes. In his, too. It makes a lot of sense."
But all he remembers from that time are cautious glances, pretenses of strength forged from weakness. He's of a mind to ask her, 'What could you possibly have seen?' out of morbid curiosity, but he's listening to the dial tone before all the shocked numbness can bleed out of him.
The moment it does, he presses in Maddy's number with careful fingers. He's a newborn in his skin, trembling and exposed, feeling too much and too little.
As soon as Maddy picks up, he says, "What's happened?"
"I told you, didn't I?"
She sounds terribly sad. Again, they're ten and sixteen, and she's lost her Crissy doll, burned her bacon and eggs, can't find any butter in the fridge, doesn't want to do her homework. Her voice goes soft and meek towards the end, shrouding a ghost of his childhood which doesn't go away after she hangs up. It lingers like the dense winter air.
Denny takes a deep breath, and waits.
This is what counting the seconds in eternity does to you. It leaves you blank and wanting and waiting, the imprint of a forever you don't have the longevity to match.
Winter is almost gone when the knock on his door sounds.
"I don't suppose you've already heard," is the first thing Lucas says to him.
"Kicked you out, did she?"
His lips purse.
"I thought so," Denny says. "Come in, then."
They're quiet as they shuffle past the 'WELCOME'mat, heavy footfalls reminiscent of lighter days when nervousness was born of privacy translated into intimacy, time to themselves they didn't know what to do with and yet wanted too much of. The space between their chests was zero, a vacuum, uncomplicated nothing.
But maybe this isn't so different.
"Are you going to ask me what happened?" Lucas says eventually.
"Do you want me to?"
"I want you to," he admits, chuckling, "I really want you to. But you look like you already know."
"According to you, I've always looked like that."
"Yeah. Yeah, I suppose you—" always knew what I was thinking, didn't you? "—you did, yeah," Lucas finishes lamely. He clears his throat. "A couple of times I wondered—things, random things. What it was like for you to know so much and say so little."
Denny smiles dryly, and a little fondly. "I'm no mind-reader."
Lucas eyes him skeptically. "You read my mind plenty of times."
"Can't recall," he dismisses casually.
"You're kind of terrifying, you know?"
"And all kinds of awful?"
"And all kinds of awful." He collapses onto the sofa, shoulders slumping wearily under the wrinkled fabric of his shirt. His collar's been opened and his sleeves rolled up haphazardly. The dark circles under his eyes betray his restlessness. Yet, his eyes are bright. They're young.
"Where have you been staying?" Denny asks softly.
"Nowhere," he says. "Or close enough to nowhere, anyway. Don't ask."
He doesn't. It doesn't matter, he finds himself thinking—finds himself meaning it.
He sits beside him, shifts until he can feel the heat of him, solid and unimpeded. Their knees are touching. Denny relaxes.
"Can you read my mind now?" Lucas murmurs, staring up at the ceiling. He's loose-limbed, lolling on the sofa with his neck bent back.
What is it that you want me to tell you? Denny wonders.
"Will you?" Lucas is saying. "Please. Tell me anything."
"You loved her," he says, and it's like nails on a chalkboard. "You did love her."
Lucas smiles, as if it's a tidbit of unnecessary information and not the elephant that's going to rip apart their reality. "I didn't actually need you to tell me that," and then, "I loved her."
"You were going to marry her, of course you—"
"But I didn't, did I? Marry her."
He says nothing.
"Twenty-eight years, and I've never fallen short of people to love. But you're—" he sucks in a breath, "for me. You're for me."
I can't imagine you being anything other than what you are, Becca had said.
I'm for him, Denny says to himself. I'm for him.
He rolls it around on his tongue, mouths it again and again. Wants so desperately to get used to it.
"I was thinking," he starts tentatively, "about shifting. Getting a new place somewhere in the countryside."
That's all it takes. The grip of Lucas' hand on his is many things. It's Mozart, and Cuckoo clocks, and daylight pouring in, and pine and apple orchard, and the sting of winter. It's you always seem to see into me as much as it is he let me see everything. It's a lot like the last day of an eleven-year-old winter; no nuclear explosions, no fireworks, no reflections—just them, in all their hurt and affection, and nothing in between.
And maybe, two years from now, they'll not be here. Maybe they'll be in Italy, or Brazil, or India, making faces at their bills and laughing I'm homes and what's for dinners into each other's mouths instead of just good mornings. There will be no sweethearts or darlings, but maybe Lucas in place of 'Luke' and Denny in place of 'Dennis' will be enough. Maybe their bones will crumble to dust together, buried in the same graveyard with epitaphs in some strange, foreign language marked on their gravestones.
"How's Nailsworth sound?" Lucas says.
Denny smiles. "Brilliant."
A/N: Okay, well, I really shouldn't have to say this, but I'm sure everybody read the capitalized, glaring BROTHERCEST in the summary, so no flames, thank you very much. Constructive criticism is welcome.
Also, if anyone's curious, the above quote is by Rumi.
Thank you for reading!