.

twenty-three:
sky of all-seeing eyes sample

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Just 'cause Danny made that one dig we weren't spending enough time together, I kicked back on his office couch while he scribbled away at his desk. My homework lay untouched on my tummy when my priority was scrolling through Insta. You'd think my dad would adore his daughter, but no, he soaked in my distracted presence until my phone dinged with a message.

WHORE: Bros are here. HELP.

I cackled so hard my dad asked what was so funny. He didn't interrogate on Elías's call for help and instead offered to drop me off on his way to his hyung's office. Meanwhile, I scrounged up the bare-boned deats on the Lopasnost boys. I'd spoken with Emil before, no problemo. For the youngest bros, in Elías's words, were way worse than the family's black sheep, more like the wolves in sheep's clothing. Whatever that meant, like, I only stored the twin's names as Mateo and Matías.

After promising Danny the usual safety shit, I skipped up the stairs to Elías's apartment and rang the doorbell. My answer was the jumbled sounds of someone crashing into something, colliding into something else, then the door banged open—

"A babe!" greeted me in two exclamations.

Two not-Elías faces grinned at me before their brows furrowed. As they scanned me over, I returned the onceover myself. Though they were both wavy-haired, wore fur-lined cargo jackets, and reeked of major fuckboy vibes, I noted their differences. The glowering one on the right didn't look as naturally brown, and the tanner brother flaunted fuller lashes, just like Elías's, and one of those noses that'd been broken before. From what little craziness Elías filled me in 'bout the twins, I'd believe it.

Before I could breathe a word in, leftie twin spat, "A chinito?" Rightie twin whirled around and shouted, "Elías, you fucking cocksucker!" But then they leaned against each other, shoulder to shoulder, surveying me over again. "You know," leftie spoke up, a wicked grin across his face, "I heard Asians are packing the tiniest meat." As they snickered together, rightie whacked leftie's arm and added on, "Yeah, no shit! We peeked the facts, one of them infographics. Reaaaal informational. Called Elías to fact-check this shit, fucking [British cigarette], but Asians. Rock fucking bottom. You chinos really into that down-under type-beat struggle, ain't it?" They raised their brows before sputtering into loud-ass laughter.

As soon as their howling died down, they grinned at me, and I replied, "Why're you looking at graphs of dingdong sizes?"

Their grins stayed frozen for a good second, before they were shoved out of the doorway. Breathless, and shower-fresh, Elías grabbed my shoulders and gasped, "Leefeld!" His black shirt and sweats clung to his soaked skin as his grip on me tightened. "Are you okay?" he winced, tilting my chin up.

"Man, stop being so fucking gay!" Uhhh, was he left or right? Well, someone shouldered Elías who death-glared and didn't budge an inch. The other twin shoved Elías's other shoulder and exclaimed, "He's fine! Ain't ya, chinito?"

Venom in his voice, Elías snapped, "She's not Chinese."

To my endless fascination, the twins blanked and blurted, "She?!" Their wide eyes zeroed onto my chest, Elías instantly scowled and hauled me behind him, before they rubbed their chins and murmured together, "...Chinita."

My time to slip out from behind my whore, I dubbed the one with the nose and lashes, "Matías?" He blew a raspberry and thumbed me down so I turned to maybe-Matías. "Matías?" I tried again. With a roll of his eyes, the correct Matías gave me a 'obviously-you-dumb-bih' look then back to the nose-and-lashes twin. "You're Mateo?"

"Step your game up," Mateo scoffed and strolled inside, Matías following behind.

I indulged in a proper look to Elías. Gucci bags under his eyes, he looked like he walked through hell and was still living the nightmare. "You okay?" I whispered and got back a small smile. Elías exhaled slowly through his nose then plopped his heavy head on my shoulder. Heavy, but also sopping frickin' wet, causing me to squeal. A funny lil 'oops' left his mouth before laughter trailed right after. Then, like I hadn't just enforced a restraining order, Elías enveloped me into his clingy-drippy arms. Great, now Danny's sweatshirt under my teddy jacket was wetter, colder, by the minute, and before I smacked this wet dog of a man away from me, a commotion a'started inside his apartment.

When we hurried inside, we set eyes on the twins. Matías perched on the sofa's back like a hawk while Mateo lounged upside-down, both were playing some violent video game. Then my gaze zoomed onto tall, dark, and handsome nursing a mug of coffee and reading some papers by the kitchen window.

"Hot daaaayum," I breathed as Elìas's oldest brother glanced up.

"AYYY!" Matías yelled. "Where's my damn!"

Elías scoffed. "Leefeld has a thing for older men."

Mateo chortled, "Chinita's one of them, yes daddy bitches?"

"Call her that one—"

I pinched my whore's arm, and my shut-up message was received. From across, Emil put his stuff down then, I shit you not, reached up to remove bright orange earplugs. As we finally met in the flesh, I pulled off my first impression, which went as, "Hiiiii, helloooo, sir." Accompanying that with a shy look from underneath my lashes, I could've bagged him.

But no, not the case, when Elías grumbled, "He's been looking at engagement rings, Leefeld."

"That I have," Emil coolly responded and stuck out his hand. "Charlotte Leefeld, was it?"

We shook, his palm warm from freshly brewed coffee, and I chirped, "Lottie's good!"

Acknowledging that with a short nod, Emil undid our handshake with a frown, mixed that with a grimace when the twins jumped the sofa and shouted, "Steal his ass! Then we can finally link up his banging bi—lady. Emily is to be betrothed to a fine-ass lady."

Perking up, I asked, "Can I call you Emily?"

Devilish grins sliced across the twin's faces as Emil scowled. "You shall not listen to a word these juvenile hellions will spout," he hissed with an extra-laser-like glare in their direction.

"My name is Emily," Mateo ridiculed. "I grind in publishing 'cause I'm on that white bitch shit." At first. he collapsed hysterically onto the countertop, but not even a second later, he straightened under Emil's murderous aura, mumbling, "Working in a publishing house is a respectable occupation, and we should all pursue some white bitch shit."

Right beside him, Matías jabbed a finger at Elías. "But our familia [British cigarette] is an actual white bitch."

As the twins fell upon each other, bubbled up in their twosome hilarity, Emil and Elías were equally aggravated in their own way. The older Lopasnost pinched between his eyes, lifting his glasses above his brows, as my middle man rubbed his eyes out with the heel of his hands. Both brothers radiated the fed-up energy of an octo-mom to two-year-old terrible toddlers.

Cool as a cucumber, I said to Elías, "Go dry off, my dude."

Water streaming down his skin, Elías opened his mouth with a fraction of an objection. After I heard his surrendering sigh and his bedroom door closing, I hopped onto the counter. Straightaway, Emil stuck by me like a bodyguard while the twins whirled around to face me.

They crowed, "Chinita!"

"About that," I said, my tone smoothing out. "I don't care for it. The next time you wanna holler at an Asian, southern, eastern, whatever, that's on you." The twins weren't too intimidated, which fair enough, I wasn't done just yet. "One last thing," I smiled and pointed toward Elías's door, "don't you ever call your brother the f-slur. Like, never ever. Not ever again, you little shits," I emphasized, and their brows raised. "Next time you wanna be on that homophobic shit, I have a baseball bat, and I have swung at balls before. Not just for sport." They didn't need to know the three times that happened, twice I accidentally flung my bat at my poor teammates crotches, and that last time was accidentally-on-purpose. With that, I sent the twins my most harmless, breezy smile.

Not according to plan, Emil lunged forward as the twins invaded my personal bubble. After being yanked by the scruff of their jackets, the twins guffawed, "Fucking shit, chinita!" They nudged each other, which quickly became a competition of who nudged the hardest, before Mateo smirked. "Sure got more balls than Elías. You top his frail ass, don't ya?"

At that moment, Emil yanked their ears back and the twins hurled Spanish swears. Since they were foul-mouthing him, thank Sweet Jesus I could hide my reaction, ruined by a pink-red-hotass blush.

Entering this catastrophe, Elías rubbed a towel through his half-wet waves and said half-heatedly, "We're not involved like that, you idiots." The twins' laughter burst again as Elías turned to Emil. "Are we leaving? Please say we're leaving."

In that hot man's way, Emil slid down his sleeve to check his watch. "Yes, we can leave."

I piped up, "Where we going?"

"Ya campus." Mateo rolled his eyes. "Fucking useless when we ain't considering that dumpster fire—all offense," he addressed Elías.

"My campus too," I seconded.

"My bad, chill." The corner of his mouth curling, Mateo scoffed, "Look, we all know the real reason we're Brady Bunch-ing is 'cause Mamá told Emily to do it."

"This is my idea," Emil retorted.

Thus began Lopasnost War I when Matías criticized in Spanish, which got Elías snapping back also in Spanish, Mateo Spanish-ly backed up his twin, and Emil retaliated in, what ya know, Spanish. Took all but ten seconds. I snatched Elías's thicc-est textbook from the table and dropped it with a pronounced thump.

Like outside-starved dogs catching a squirrel's chitter, the Lopasnost boys turned to me, and I brightly asked, "Can we go now?"

#

Once we reached campus, the twins erupted into exaggerated groans of boredom. Apparently, Elías volunteered to show his younger brothers around, even though they were the worst attendees in the history of university tours. Whenever Elías tried talking about literally anything, the twins bitched and moaned like finals-week zombified students. A vein bulging along his jaw, Elías called for a break and sunk down on some bottom stairs.

As the twins hooted at some sparkly Latinas, I flopped beside my whore. "How're you feeling?"

Elías moaned, "Death cannot come any sooner."

"You deserve an award for this," I giggled when Elías bumped his head onto my shoulder.

"Stay here," he murmured, burying into me. "Just for a minute."

As per his request, we stayed like that for a minute-ish. I would've allowed the sixty seconds had the twins not strolled up with twinning grins. When they noticed Elías's state of distress, Mateo and Matías simultaneously cracked up. 'Course they did. Pitying him, I squeezed Elías's shoulder and suggested, "Wanna see the Design building?"

In some stroke of Lottie's luck, the twins did wanna check out my area of expertise. That meant I fumbled through an explanation of my own major, which breaking news, the twins cross-questioned me back and forth. Emil disappeared a long time ago—on a fortuitous errand, Elías said—so I led us four where I should know my shit. Like Fashion Design, Textiles owned a bunch of sewing machines, and spectrum spools of thread lined, the walls, dangled down from the ceiling. There was also this one huge machine to handle the super intricate patterns, but if you'd listen to me ramble on and on, you'd know all about it.

So did Elías when he fingered one sample pinned to the student's textiles cork-board. "Leefeld," he called, "was this the one where you struggled with bamboo linen?"

Beaming, I clapped my fingertips together. "Oh, yeah! So, like, we gotta think about environmental friendliness, so stay away from viscose, which is a cheap silk substitute, and polyester is most popularly used but you don't even wanna know about the repercussions, so! Anyways—"

Mateo interrupted, "Yeah, anyways?"

I smacked his shoulder, earning me a mocked gasp. "Anyways, I was really struggling with bamboo linen," I pointed out as Elías unpinned my sample and passed it to me, "since the textile itself, in my opinion, is super ugly as a base pattern and to add my flair onto it was… hard as balls." A finger to my chin, I squished my face up and raised my fabricated work—a simple starry sky, but if you scrutinized closer, the stars were pinpricks of otherworldly, all-seeing eyes.

Over my shoulder, Mateo commented, "Creepin' me the fuck out."

From my other shoulder, Matías also commented, "Like a Big Brother creep-show, but they got all they eyes up there?" His finger jabbed upward, and I glanced up at the eye-less ceiling.

"What's Big Brother?" I asked just as Elías shoved the twins away.

Flipping off Elías, Matías said, "1984?"

I sniffed. "I'm not that old."

The twins cocked their heads in opposite directions as Elías said, "She doesn't read like that."

"Meaning we do?" Mateo crossed his arms with a knowing smirk. "Anywaaaays," he drew out. "This book—y'know, a story made of dead trees—" I elbowed Mateo this time, which got Matías guffawing, "—damn, girl! Anywaaays, it's 'bout this society that's all about government surveillance, can't do nunin' without the feds along yo ride, but our own shit ain't far from it."

My face of total bafflement said enough when Elías whispered to me, "They're conspiracy theorists."

With dog-like hearing, Matías swooped his finger around and replied, "Say that now, but when our government is pulling the wool, y'know, hyping every clueless citizen to get the chip, yo dumbass included, Mat and I are gonna slip on through."

Riveted, I asked, "How?"

Mateo surveyed our surroundings and lowered his voice. "Ain't no surefire way to cheat the system than to be the masterminds." Then with a casual straightening of his shoulders, he loudly declared, "Aww hell nah, why, I'd never betray the government."

"I looove the government," loudly echoed Matías. "The government's the beeesst."

The last wall to my keepin'-it-cool dam collapsed, evident when I squeezed Elías sleeve before muffling my long-held laughter into his jacket.

"Better watch out," Mateo smirked with Matías. "'Bout to steal yo bitch."

"Not his bitch," I piped up pointedly.

"She's neither," Elías mumbled after me.

An awkward silence ensued before Matías broke it. "Okaaaaaayy." Hands in his jacket pockets, he rounded on Elías, "Sheesh, pick up yo shit!"

"Oh," breathed Elías and he checked his vibrating phone. "Emil said to meet up."

Color me surprised when I knew where Elías was leading us next—we traversed through the shortcut from Design to Engineering I used countless times before. When we spotted Emil at the front entrance, he was mid-convo with a grinning girl in an UNCY sweater.

"Welcome to Bell Haven!" she greeted then addressed the twins. "I heard you guys are high school Seniors and are interested in Engineering?"

"Anything but Biomedical," Matías replied.

Snickering at that, Mateo leaned in and said, "Ain't nunin' here. MIT already kissed our ass, begged on their knees for this B." He winked as he tapped his temple.

The guide's cheery charisma cracked. "MIT?" she gasped. "What're you doing here?"

While the twins were more than happy to complain, Elías wilted with an exhausted sigh. I whisper-asked, "What's MIT?"

"An prestigious university Elías would not like to reminded of," answered Emil. Then to his brother, he asked a favor, "Will you please attend with… them?" Elías slumped against the brick wall behind him and slowly sagged down. The melodramatics of my whore. "I require a moment's privacy with Lottie Leefeld." From his hands, Elías glanced up at me, and I gave him my most self-assured smile. "Por favor, Elías," Emil tacked on.

Sighing again, Elías straightened and fist-bumped Emil's shoulder. Still touching his goodbyes, he ruffled my hair, before jogging after the guide who'd rounded the twins into following her.

"Follow me."

Since the weather was prepping for winter, we stayed inside the Engineering building where Emil found a secluded corner. He motioned toward an empty chair. After I flopped down, Emil took his seat with one hand holding up his stubbled chin. Oh, yes, did I love me a mature man mirroring 'The Thinker' in a dark overcoat. As I tried to listen to hot man's words, Emil said, "Elías refuses to tell me." Not the go-to icebreaker I'd use, so the confusion contorted my face. "You and Elías have agreed to some unofficial version of an agreement?"

Ohh yeaaaaahhh. "Kinda," I started, "I wouldn't call it an agreement—"

"Have you not proposed a set of terms, considered those terms for negotiation, and came to a mutual assent by both parties?" Impressed, I nodded with my lack of fancy-schmancy words. "You retain an agreement with my brother, Lottie."

That must be painfully obvious to him, but to me? "Yeah, it's not a big deal—agreement, really." My hands sinking into my lap, I told Emil, "I made the deal to get your brother away from me, no offense, like. I know now that Elías is pretty—he's pretty and chill and I like having him around." The more I thought about my friendship with Elías, the more mindless my words gushed out. "Maybe that deal is failing on me. Maybe I'm not too mad, but hey, the agreement, right?"

"If you please."

My nose scrunched. "Wait, why didn't Elías just tell you?"

So casual, yet so befitting, Emil shrugged. "If I knew, I would not have come to you."

Sketchy if I was the one to spill the tea, but my own mysteries needed some detective-work done, so Emil might possibly, pretty please, clear up my messy-ass side. "Basically, Elías is… Uhh." Emil's steely stare inspected my nervous details, and I toyed with my sweatshirt for this embarrassing reveal. "Elías is helping me find a guy. Like a boyfriend. Since I don't, um, have much, see, in the men's department. Ya'know. Well, Elías doesn't date guys. Like that… But he knows how to, like, do the thing, not do men, but well, he does do—doesn't do… Yeppers."

After that car crash left my now permanently sealed lips, Emil replied, "I see." Then he questioned, "You have agreed to help Elías with his separate condition?"

A grin sparkled across my face. "Oh, yeah! Elías is in love with Erik!" Okay, Emil didn't really need to know who exactly starred in his brother's wet dreams, but he asked. "I'm in charge, kinda, sorta in supporting Elías how to confess his truest feelings. Something like that," I gushed then shrugged.

With an ending like that, how could an older bro not pat my shoulder and tell me I was the bestest bestie his younger bro dreamed of? Yeah, not at all, when Emil's expression told me maybe, just maybe, my wordy filter let a whole lotta minor words pour through. Before Emil could voice his plain-face disappointment, my whore rounded the corner.

"There you are!" Grasping Emil's arm, Elías confessed, "I don't know how, but they've given us the slip!"

In a late-night stream I'd heard before, Emil swore up a Spanish storm with a hand pressed over his glasses. Then, hand down, he declared, "I know where they are."

#

As Emil entered a nondescript, two-story building, Elías and I waited outside. When the doors closed behind his brother, Elías sighed for the millionth time. "I'm so sorry, Leefeld. We're all over the fucking place."

I smirked. "Bet you're used to the twin's shenanigans."

A humored smile graced his pretty face. "Even I think the twins are going easy on us." Could've shocked me. Chuckling a lil', Elías said, "They can do much, so much worse. I'd believe if they're on their best behavior." Super hilarious when we both eyed at the shady-looking house.

In the best timing, Emil exited and dragged the yelling twins outside by their ears. Undeterred, Emil roughly released them. Funny how Elías's instinct was to nudge me behind him as Emil snapped, "When will you two miscreants learn to weigh these matters seriously?"

"Fuck that! We ain't nunin' but serious business." With that, Mateo sneak-peeked his jacket where stacks of crisp Jacksons were tucked inside. "Give us thirty minutes, we'd clean the motherfucking house."

As Emil Spanish-ly lectured their asses, I whispered, "Gambling?"

"On second thought, I never know with them," whispered Elías.

A giggle escaped my puffed cheeks as a voice cut through another battle of Lopasnost War I. "That you, Mat?" someone interrupted. "Ayy, Matty! ¿Que bola, asere?"

A Hispanic dude came through and shook the twin's hands, dude-bro style that included a cheek-kiss. Curiouser than any cat, I watched as he chatted with the twins, and soon, all five Hispanics were trading secrets or family recipes or something in Spanish, don't ask me. My confuzzled ass wasn't too out-of-place when Elías pulled me into his side.

Back to the whispering hour, I asked, "What's happening?"

Hunching over me, Elías explained lowly, "Their Cuban friend was on his way and is now inviting the twins to play fútbol. Emil isn't agreeing, but the twins are begging in their own way of no way that's veritable begging." When I guffawed, Elías rested his chilly cheek against me and further translated, "Their friend doesn't seem to move Emil either. He's impressive like that, impassive and immovable as ever. Hah. Should I leave the twins to their fútbol-less fates?"

I snickered, "Didn't you say they were on their best behavior today?"

With my vote tossed in, Elías straightened and interjected in Spanish. Emil glowered for a hot second, before grumbling something. A chorus of masculine whoops shot off from our circle. Then we were moved toward my university's outdoorsy area—Pensland Park. Unlike the fútbol meet-up with Erik's friends, the boys here were a cultural salad bowl. A couple slapped Elías's back, before they all pumped up for the day's athletic activity. We already knew if my whore was offered a position to chase after a sportsy spherical, he's a goner. Thank the Lord when Emil declined, so I volunteered to be his fellow benchwarmer.

As we got comfortable on a park bench, Emil leaned forward as an autumn breeze mussed his business-man do. "From what I understand," he picked up in his deep, steady voice. "It appears for your bound relationship with Elías, you have undertaken the stipulation to assist his romantic pursuit with Erik Hope?"

"Um, I gotta tell you something." When Emil lowered his head, a block of nervousness clamped my chest. "I'm stupid," I admitted with a splay of my sweaty hands. "So I understand, like, this much." For reference, I held up my index finger and thumb, barely separated.

His hands pressed together. Sweet Jesus, even his veiny hands looked yummy. "My apologies. It is to no fault of yours, Lottie. To put it plainly, and quite bluntly, I don't support this agreement at all," Emil admitted too and fixed his unflinching stare straight at Elías. "You cannot comprehend the dire consequences of your actions, and it is necessary that Elías cannot tell you so."

At that moment, Elías lit up with a handsome grin and high-fived his teamie. A heaviness anchored a fuckton in my chest. "Cannot," I repeated and, for once, I thought. "Elías can't or he won't?"

"I'm saying this out of the best interest for the both of you. End this arrangement now," Emil ordered in a weirdly gentle tone that clashed with his natural glower. "They're better off on their own. At the very least, Elías has grown accustomed to a life without Erik. "

Curiosity seeped into my voice as I shot question after question, "But why? Why does Elías have to stop seeing Erik? Why'd it have to be Erik? They're meant to be! Why can't they be together?" Lightbulb moment—I gasped, scandalized, and pointed at Emil like a detective who caught a cluing whiff. "Oh, the twins are total crap, but you don't want Elías to end up with a man, is it?"

My clue not only missed the bulls-eye, but lit up and flared a wildfire. "That is a preposterous presumption you've already known to be erroneous," Emil shot down instantly.

Remind me to never point fingers at Emil, or he was gonna launch SAT vocabulary flying at my dumbass. The land-mind churned overtime, 'cause Emil didn't appear nowhere convinced when I grappled at crazy straws. "Okay, so. We have something in common here. You care about Elías. I care about him too. And Elías cares about Erik. I just can't wrap my head around splitting them as a good idea," I tried making sense. "Like I might not know Elías as well as you do—"

"It is ideal," interjected Emil, almost tired, "that you will never know Elías as well as I do."

The heaviness in my chest liquefied to downright dread. "That sounds… not great," I mumbled.

"That is what I have been telling you. There was no need for their reunion, and it is injudicious to prolong this madness."

Again, I had to emphasize, "I would end this if I knew why this was madness?"

"If Elías has not divulged to you then neither will I."

Ughh, we were running in mind-boggling circles, so this called for my one last shot. "I think," I started off and confidently twiddled with my thumbs, "I know you said Elías is fine without Erik, but no, I don't agree. I know Elías feels a lot like himself now that he's got Erik back. It's totally different, how he was pre-Erik and post-Erik. I can vouch that the difference is a hugely happy one. For them both. I don't have their history book, but right now, in the present, their happiness together can't be worth wiping out all over again."

"Emil!" Elías waved his black-clad arm, grinning like his brother and I weren't two exchanges away from a full-blown argument. "¡Ven a jugar!"

Standing up, Emil brushed nonexistent lint from his pressed slacks. Here came my verdict—"You know nothing," he said, eyes hard on the field. "Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

What did he saaayyyy? Before I could translate my thoughts into pterodactyl screeches, Emil already ditched me and left my lonesome self to attempt some English shit. Fools? Did he just call me a dummy? Yeah, so, a very stubborn one. Angels fear what? Did he know Erik was our resident angel? What'd that mean? What'd any of this mean? Seeing as I knew jack squat, I Googled and read a dictionary-page to explain Emil's mystery-line. It meant, "it is foolish to take action if one does not know much about what they're doing."

Story of my life, bro! Not a philosophy I should be practicing, but here we were. Adopting Elías's manners, I rubbed my hands into my eyeballs. Pitch-black fireworks sparked off behind my eyelids before I blinked back onto the fútbol field. My grainy vision trailed after the Lopasnosts. Off the far side, the twins' shifty stares were eying the nearest escape routes, even I could tell. Their oldest brother had the right idea to plant himself close-by, and even though he hated my guts, I still lingered on him. I lastly fixed onto my whore, a happy-ass fùtbol fanatic tracking the ball with his gaze aglow, before it crossed over and landed on me.

Huh.

A brilliant-ass grin bloomed across his pretty mouth before he said something to his brothers. The twins ignored him, Emil actually responded, and then in a heartbeat, Elías was kneeling before me. When I tilted down, I could almost feel my nose dripping blood and his sleeve blotting underneath, a soft yet firm brush on my upper lip. I blinked, no blood and no brush, just Elías settling his arms atop my jiggling thighs.

"Doing alright?" he checked in and peered into whatever expression I was making. "Are you feeling sleepy, Leefeld?"

Now that he mentioned it, maybe that heaviness of mangled emotions was just my body's cry for nappies. "Maybe a lil'," I yawned. "Didn't even do any ball-chasing today."

"It's the walking, thank the twins for doubling that," snorted Elías, and I laughed.

Then he push-urged me to lay down on the bench as he removed his own jacket to drape across my pre-nap figure. Even though I was perfectly a-okay with conking out, I foolishly fought a sleep sesh. Elías knew I'd barely put up a fight. By the time his hand practically sedated my cold-ruffled head, I'd already fallen into a deep, deep nap.

#

When I woke up, I was curled within Elías's blankets plus bedroom minus Elías. What kinda sick teleportation shit was this? Also, it didn't help that I getting comfy with his clean, warm scent so being surrounded in his whole package kinda, like, drifted me back into dreamland, almost, before the land-mind snapped mental fingers, like, hellooo, where you at?

Throwing the blankets aside, I called, "Elías? You out there, Elías?" Give or take three minutes, yelled-for-Elías opened the door with a light-blue mug. As he perched on the bedside and passed the drink to me, I sipped and asked, "I passed out? Aww shit, this is the best hot choco eveeeerr."

"You passed out," confirmed Elías. "That's Emil's recipe, cinnamon and orange." Like a little kid, I cupped my mug with sweatshirt sleeves and breathed in spice-y chocolate-y goodness. Smiling himself silly, Elías swept my flyaway locks down as he filled me in, "It's just me and Emil. The twins are allowed to be out, though they should've been scared shitless to return."

Gulping down belly-warming mouthfuls, I asked, "How were they scared shitless?"

Elías shrugged. "Emil said something about you and a baseball bat?" Got a good, hacking laugh outta me. Then, with a squeeze to my forearm, he said, "I'm going to finish my homework. Do you mind if I do it here?" 'Cause this was literally his room, I couldn't have minded. As if I was his three-year-old gremlin, Elías smiled and pinched my cheek. Mans would've been concussed by forehead flicking had he not informed me, "If you want more hot chocolate, Emil is in the kitchen."

I looked down at my mug. Drained of liquid gold. Before I ditched this Lopasnost for the hotter one, I stayed and thought, 'Wait a minute—Emil was not happy with me.' We weren't on good terms, but maybe I should sort this shit out. At his overflowing desk, Elías entered smartypants zone where his only actions were to read, write, problem solve, yeah, not my scene. With that, I grabbed my mug, left his room with the door's quiet click, and crept into the kitchen. Up against the counter, Emil read the same stapled papers from earlier.

Seeing as I got nothing, Emil spoke up without glancing up, "Would you like a cup more?"

It wasn't in my dictionary to say no. Emil plucked my mug and scoop cocoa-laced yumminess from the stove-top pot. When he handed me my newly-discovered liquid addiction, I brought up, "Who's the lucky lady?" Emil 'hmm-ed?' me, so I parked my ass on the counter too. "Elías said you were looking at engagement rings."

Something changed, though I couldn't tell exactly what when Emil didn't look up. "She's a novelist, quite an accomplished one at that. Oh, that's right." Setting the papers down, Emil strode over to the television where books were displayed underneath. Then, he came back with one and held it out to me while saying, "Her debut work is a Young Adult Nigerian-inspired fantasy romance."

My magical mug in one hand, I took the book that displayed a serious-faced Black girl on the cover. Look, I might not know how to read, but I could at least find the author's name. "Fehinti Amadi," I read aloud. Eyes back on his stack, Emil nodded and flipped to his next page. Inspired, I flipped through words that couldn't grab me unless they consisted of 'Gong Yoo' and 'kissed,' but in the midst of flipping, something fell out from between the pages.

Faster than me, Emil bent down to retrieve the fallen thing from the floor and held it out. We both stared at the original photograph of me and my mom on my third birthday. An unusual, uncomfy squeeze around my throat, I snatched the photo from him and slid it face-down on the counter. Out of sight, out of mind! As I sweated bullets, I calmly opened the book again, at the end where Fehinti's profile beamed up at me, her happy-yellow dress popping against her dark skin, and owning her poof of lush curls. "She's the prettiest novelist, like, ever," I marveled.

"I'm well aware." But then Emil noticed her author's flap, and his stony-faced expression softened around the edges. "Faye worried over the author's portrait. The night before, she fitted every article of professional clothing she owned, and I provided my input with her for hours until we came to a consensus Faye would borrow from her sister's wardrobe."

I appropriately laughed then cooed, "Aww, you looooveee her."

Emil scoffed, though his gaze glinted easily now. "I'd make a terrible boyfriend if I do not."

"Nope, call yourself the perfect husband now."

He flushed up a tad and said, "Ideally, Faye would give me her yes first." I giggled and fizzed up with sparkly triumph now that Emil was loosening up. "Lottie, I must apologize for my hostile reaction earlier. It was not my intention to harm you with my words. I apologize for that. However, you must understand…" He trailed off and smacked the papers against his thigh. "With Elías… It's not… Not easy."

"Nah, it's okay." I found myself saying, sympathizing. "I know you, like, love Elías and all. All's good."

"I appreciate that." A loud slurp stuffed our pause before Emil spoke up again, "May I ask you one question, Lottie?"

Chocolate in my cheeks, I beamed and swallowed. "Do I get a question?"

Emil pushed his glasses up. "Not one that would bring light to the unnecessary." Cool with that, I jutted my chin out to welcome one major Q. "Where were you five years ago in August?" he questioned.

Weirdly specific yet glossy images surfaced to the land-mind's eye. Memories of sweet browned galbi sizzling on my tongue, of Danny's parents speaking to me in foreign yet gentle Korean, of spraying bottled scents to Raleigh's and Taeri's noses in Etude House, of mindlessly watching navy-blue waves crashing upon an island's charcoal-black rocks, of squishing the softest Kakao Friend plushies to my sparkly-eyed grin. Then I shuddered back into reality and I answered, "I was in Korea." Then specifically, "South Korea."

"Naturally," muttered Emil. My answer changed nothing to the statue-like stoicness he always wore. "I suppose you were offered a return inquiry?"

'What the fuck is going on?' was unfairly outta the question. The land-mind didn't employ enough mini-Lotties to think up an all-in-one question that'd wipe out the piling mysteries, therefore I smartly went with, "Where was Elías five years ago in August?"

Emil reacted with a huff-chuckle hybrid then an honest-to-Gong-Yoo smile of amusement. This question could've been my all-in-one until Emil shook his head, gelled strands wavering down his forehead.

"Spain," Emil answered. "Elías was in Spain."

Yeeeeeep, no wonder Emil was internally laughing at me. My world geography might be total shit but South Korea and Spain? Google didn't need to tell me those two countries were on wayyy two different continents. What did this new information mean? Same as before, absolutely noothh—

"Lottie. I do wish you to know." My palms rubbed my half-full mug in anticipation. "I'm immensely beholden to you. For your… hmm. Companionship to my brother, let's say." Thoughtful, Emil rubbed at individual joints of his fingers. "Elías was accustomed to relying on me for emotional consolation. With you, you've proven to be unconditionally considerate to his episodes, even without an awareness of his… his past undisclosed encumbrances."

"Yeaaaah, yessir, I sure did."

His forehead furrows smoothing out, Emil said, "I don't suppose you've been aware beforehand." I wasn't aware of a whole lotta, but Emil revealed, "Truth be told, before you, Elías was quite lonely."

But of fucking course! That cocky BBB (Bad Boy Bastard) was a fooled-me cover-up for how desperate Elías was for attention. Which wasn't a solution if I was the one giving it to him, but hey. I liked giving him attention, so I was the one collecting my W's here.

"I will leave you this, concerning Elías." I perked up, 'cause a girl's gotta hoard all the personal deats she could get. "My brother has been hurt, drastically so. I am in your debt that I can trust him in your hands. He's… He's learning to be happier your way." His voice softer, he said, "If you wish to help him, I ask you to please continue taking care of Elías. That is all."

The front door slammed open.

"We're baaaaaacck," sing-songed Mateo then caught sight of Emil and me. "Oh, shit!" he yelled and shoved Matías outside while swiping one hand over his crotch. "Don't let her loose on me!"

Spotting his watch, Emil remarked, "You're two hours late." The twins laughed it off. "Can you two delinquents stay put while Elías and I step out?"

"What 'bout?" Popping his head in, Matías gestured toward me.

Hmm, Emil didn't want me alone with the so-called delinquents, but he also didn't trust them by themselves. Therefore I piped up, "I'll stay. Just leave me a baseball bat." Right on point, Matías covered himself too.

"Are you certain about this?"

"I'm certain as a… a centaur?"

Emil nodded. After he left to interrupt Elías's Chill Lofi Beats to Study Hours on End Hour, the twins clambered to my side and whispered, "Yo, chinita." I blinked at each of them, hard work here. "You made the correct call." They accompanied that with a doubled wink-wonk.

#

Much, much later, my worst nightmare was updated and posted. A fútbol field with World Cup Hispanic try-outs was a walk in a literal park compared to a two-seater metal death trap with Hispanic twins driving on the highway to hell. My scream after terrified scream sounded like little burps underneath the devilish revving as Mateo smoothly swerved from lane to lane to bypass the oh-so-lucky cars abiding by the speed limit.

"Speed trap!" Matías warned and snuffed out my next shriek.

Since we shared the passenger in Elías's stolen vehicle, I was suddenly claustrophobic whenever Mateo zoomed 80 to like 1000, I don't know, these assholes were insane-ium in the cranium. It was only by my screams of prayer that we bolted from the super-illegal-then-popo-busted street racing joint and now were unreasonably speeding toward a late-night eatery. Once freed, I kneeled between parking pavement and grass as I dry-heaved spittle. My tummy's contents refused to expel, probably 'cause they were traumatized from Mateo's ungodly driving. Moaning into my sleeve, I debated a fetal position and crying until a styrofoam cup pressed into my cheek.

"C'mon, chinita," grinned Mateo, wiggling an agua fresca against my face. "You ain't been in the worst of it yet."

Daunted by that 'yet', I hobbled onto my feet, sipped at the refreshing mango-flavored drink, and then sunk between the twins as they ate on a raised curb before Elías's car. Matías handed me my own take-out box, but they ignored any talk of payment. Rather, their eyes glazed over and they moaned, "This shit buuussssin'."

I beamed. "My Mexican bestie knows the best birria tacos around here."

Just like his driving, Mateo swerved the convo off-topic and grilled me, "You fucking my brother?" Sucking the birria from my stained fingertips, I shook my head. "Solid choice. See, mi hermano? You deserve better, babe. He's below yo paygrade."

Smirking, Matías joined in, "Not yo money's worth."

"He's a charity case."

"Good as volunteer work."

"Ain't ya graduate high school?" Mateo gestured with his birria-soaked taco. "Chinita, you ain't gotta do any more community service."

My traitorous lips squished together, 'cause gotta hand it to the twins, they knew how to crack me up like comedian-nutcrackers. "Leave him alone," I half-scolded, half-wheezed, and they rolled their eyes. "Elías is a good guy, like, anyone would be lucky to have him." As if rehearsed, the twins gagged on their tacos. "I might not be interested in him like that, but I am interested in, um." My boot-tips drummed on the pavement as they muttered how the food fucks. "Like, Elías was in Spain five years ago," I brought up. The significance flew over my head, so I asked to clear my confusion, "Why—Is there—What… What was he doing over there?"

When people say, 'There are no stupid questions,' they sure didn't hear mine. As Matías straight-up snorted, Mateo smirked and said, "You don't know?" No the fuck I did not, but I went with a simple nod. "Yo hombre was in rehab," he snickered and packed his gobber with his taco.

Mouth unfilled, Matías revealed, "Hermano was a yonki."

I frowned. "A yonki?"

"Poppin' the hard shit." Mateo clarified, "C'mon, chinita, like them junkies?"

For some reason, a drug addiction wasn't the revelation I would've scrapped together. No, everything I'd pressed for deats about Elías's past simply didn't add up to this, or maybe, I bombed at math. "How do you know?" I sniffed.

"Called it from the ways he was. Elías got waaaaaay fucked up," Mateo drawled out. "Here—" His hand dug into his jacket, before he froze and bolted onto his feet. "Shit, they're here," he hissed to Matías.

"LEEFELD!"

The one who called my name—or my surname slash designated nickname—knocked right into my backside and therefore tilted me forward, 'cause a whore was heavy as balls, causing me to accidentally kick my take-out box. The scrumptious taco-side flipped right onto the gross pavement.

I cried, "My tacos!"

The twins cried, "Her tacos!"

To make matters worse, I yelped as I was hauled into my whore's arms, my own wounding around his neck. My answers! My food! What frickin' else, dammit! Blind to my freak-out, Elías crushed me to his chest while he spoke with the twins in a biting tone I'd never heard before. Don't ask me, the Spanish was rendering me oblivious, but the twins were bizarrely quiet, only offering an annoyed 'tch.' I peeked over Elías's shoulder to observe Emil on the phone before he joined us with the on-call screen outward.

A woman's honeyed voice called out, "¿Elías, mi amor?"

All day, Elías been seething in his native language. To listen to his Spanish intimately soft around the syllables was soothing, almost. "Si, Mamá, todo está bien."

"¿Como esta tu amiga?"

Holy shit, my Google Translate computed, "How's your friend?" I allowed Elías to brush my sticked-on hair from my sweat-dried face and scrutinize every inch of my gobsmacked expression. "Creo que ella está ilesa," he said, his gaze still flicking around my face.

The twins grumbling behind us, their mamá murmured, "Ah, pobrecita. Tienes que estar cerca de ella, Elías." It sounded like she clicked her tongue. "¿Está ella allí?"

"Si, aqui mismo."

"Bueno. Ah, hola, hello, Lottie? ¿Como estas?"

If this was anyone else, I'd laugh it off, but since this was Elías's madre, I prayed my three years of Spanish was miracle-working my shit. After tugging this whore to let me down, I stammered through, "Hi, I mean, hola. Oh, wait, bien—buenas noches, right?" I helplessly glanced at Elías who nodded, his fingertips against the bow of his curved lips. "Um, so. Soy, no, es-estoy bien? Si, estoy bien. Y, uhh, ¿y tu? Um, no, ¿y usted?"

The longest beat then their mamá chuckled good-naturedly and rattled something off that widened Elías's smile and brought Emil to smirk. I just ignored the twins who drowned the night with grating laughter, till like a pre-storm thunder—"Mateo Blázquez Lopasnost!" All four Lopasnosts visibly flinched, and I was effectively amused. As his twin got his ass chewed out, Matías tittered. "Matías Blázquez Lopasnost!" she sharply turned onto, and he winced.

Probably feeling the fear of God, or just his mom, Elías whisked me behind his recovered ride and hunkered over me. "Jesus fucking Christ," he swore, fluttered his hands, before he hugged me all over again, all creaky leather arms, and he confessed into my neck, "When I couldn't find you at my apartment, Leefeld, I thought I was having a heart attack."

Muffled in his neck too, I said, "You knew it was the twins."

"I did. Nonetheless." Elías peeled back, his hands warmly cupping below my ears. Bumping his forehead to mine, he said softly, "If anything happened to you, God, I'd… I'd just."

"You'd what?"

Elías smiled, "I'd probably face the wrath of your dad." Yeah, when it came to me, Danny would murder in cold blood. No hesitation. "You okay?" he asked and finger-brushed my hair.

"More than okay." I thumbed up. "The twins kinda know how to treat a girl."

"They're deluding you, Leefeld, don't get me started with the girls they've duped into dating," he scoffed then stiffened. "Don't—I'm not—"

"Geeze, you know my type."

"...Emil?"

Caught red-handed, I gave into another burst of laughter. "Oh, ya'know, the twins were trying to convince me I was out of your league."

"You are out of my league," joked Elías. Another snicker leaked outta me. "But you know…"

When he trailed off, he was supposed to deliver his witty punchline. Instead, my whore leaned into me until I couldn't focus on anything but the light of his eyes. Even in the dimmed lighting of the taco place, I could recognize his honey hue, like, point me to the paint section of a Home Depot, and I'd find the exact shade by my lonesome. Within these close quarters he created all on his own, I might've thought time slowed down just as he slowed too, only a kitten's breath of space between us. His hands were still in my hair, mine were against the countdown bomb in my chest, and I didn't really think about the fact this person was Elías in front, just the one and only Elías who—

"Chinita, juuuuu liar." Mateo startled me. "You said you weren't fucking—"

Elías's touch left me entirely before he stalked over to his brother and yanked his ear, Emil-style.

While Mateo cursed Elías to hell and beyond, Matías popped up beside me and snuck a slip to me. I waited until after Elías dropped me off, after I checked in with my dad, and after I climbed into bed with a half-asleep Fluffy Butts, I whipped out what appeared to be a business card, printed; Do you know an absolute SOB who should be revealed for their shitty fucking personality? Text 444-555-6666 and we'll expose their online crimes for the nasty-ass motherfucker they are ;)

#

Mateo and Matías assured me they got all the dirty-ass dirt on Elías I could ever dream of. But I didn't want that. The drug addict theory wasn't where I'd personally pool my beliefs, though the twins bragged they were never wrong. I had to think, which was hard when bedtime meant brain off, but I collected the little truths; Elías went through a bad time for an unknown reason, Elías and Erik used to be besties before Elías broke it off, Erik wanted his bestie back and secretly so did Elías, Emil didn't want Elías to be besties with Erik, Elías… Elías was in Spain five years ago, in August. And then I decided.

The twins didn't contact me, searching around, but shortly after, the twins sent back;

'Here's Elías throwing a tantrum at the damn bus like the bitch-baby he's been.' (Apparently, on Emil's first day of 1st grade, Elías was adorably upset that he couldn't tag along.) 'Here's streaker Elías offending the whole damn neighborhood.' (Apparently, five-year-old Elías was mid-bath when Matías yelled there was a turtle outside. Imagine as you will, but his sudsy squinty smile was the cutest thing ever.) 'Here's Elías acting up like—you guessed it—a fucking bitch-baby.' (Apparently, with a SPF under 70, Elías burned and peeled. So while his brothers played among beach waves, sun-burnt Elías sulked under an umbrella with his whole lower lip out and about. Adorable!)

My motto was fuck them kids, but c'mon, itty-bitty Elías was too fucking cute to pass up.

Finally, the twins sent over a pic that was a.) useful and b.) not some childishly embarrassing snapshot from Elías's childhood. Matías captioned this was the peak of Elías's yonki years, but Mateo informed that the pic wasn't five years ago as I requested but around six, making Elías fifteen, probably, who gave a rat's ass?

With my other hand, I yanked out my charging tablet from under Butts's fatass and swiped up a recent pic of Elías. From one of our many hang-outs, I snapped a cutesy cat-shaped dessert, and Elías smiled from above, his palm supporting his pretty-boy countenance. This whore was pleased as peachy punch, and at twenty-one, he bore almost no resemblance to fifteen-year-old Elías.

This was not my Elías.

This teenage angst was almost unrecognizable, like, his body was angled toward the camera, but. Looked like he glanced away at the last second, his honey eyes flicking to some disinterested corner, as his whole posture hunched with his faraway look. This Elías had a smattering case of acne (he was fifteen though), shoulder-length oily hair like he hadn't bathed in days (explained the acne), and the only similarity to his future was that he wore head-to-toe black. Standing out against his sickly skin were ripped jeans that revealed bruised knees, a hoodie with the hood up that'd seen better days, and just. Was it weird my tummy felt bloated as if my eyes gorged on visual misery? I glanced back to my Elías, dazzling the camera with his special squinty smile, then to past Elías, dead yet alive with a forced smile that'd immediately fallen apart. My gaze traveled down his little details before noticing his hands. One gripped his black sleeve as the photo was angled enough to show his open palm. Four little crescent moons, encased in rust-red, like he'd been forcing his fingers into fists for too long for a reason I didn't know.

This was not my Elías, but this Elías was hauntingly familiar.

Instead of peacemaking out with answers, I curled into my chunky Butts and fell into fitful sleep, tumbling with questions; What happened to Elías? Who or what the fuck did this to him, 'cause I'd murder in cold blood? Why was he recognizable to me? And, like, why did the thought unnerve me so fucking much?


a/n: i had soooooo many different scenes & convos lined up, but i squished as many plot-forwarding or funniest ones so you're welcome nd it's still this long-ass chapter lol. it's fast-paced and emil's lines prolly don't make sense, esp since i took some liberty with that fools-angel idiom, so hope y'all kept up with it nd my bad y'all, this ending does seem the exact same to LNE20, just overall lottie's carousal of confusion, but... i'm gonna peace out now LOL so until then, thanks for reading!

much thanks to the terrifically transcendent trio; Mango Pudding, Emoddess, & noveltealover :)