Baggage

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This room is bare now. The stripped bedding lays at the foot of the bed, the curtains sit drawn back into their ties, and the thick pine wardrobe looms ominously as though it will topple at any moment.

My luggage is packed and out in the hallway, and the tied-up bin bag waits to be deposited in the refuse bin at the end of the gravel drive.

I sigh, and reach my hand down to the baggage at my feet.

“What are you doing with that?” you say, accusation in your voice.

I feel my throat seize up against the words that want to retaliate something snappy. I swallow, and settle for, “You know.”

My eyes are averted but I can feel you frown.

“I do know. That wasn’t my question. My question was, what are you doing with that?”

My fingers close in tight as if to grip a handle and I look down at my white-knuckled fist. “You know exactly what I’m doing with it. This goes wherever I go.”

I raise my eyes defiantly to yours; it doesn’t last long. You step closer, a gentle hand catching me just below my elbow and warming my skin as though I were standing out in the sun. But it’s not quite enough.

“We’ve been over this. It doesn’t need to go anywhere with you. You don’t need it, it doesn’t help you to keep carrying this around everywhere you go.”

“Oh yeah?” Now I’m angry, and rapidly justifying my reasons for it to myself. “I’m just supposed to leave this huge part of my life here and walk away, like it’s no big deal?”

Your face grows sad, your hand slips away from my skin, and now I feel nothing but guilt.

“That’s the point. You don’t need to keep dragging this with you. It doesn’t need to be a part of you anymore. Any loyalty you feel to it is unnecessary and you know that. Why won’t you let go?”

“Because. Telling me to leave all this stuff behind is a bit like telling me to cut off a limb or tear off my skin. I don’t know how.” I feel my voice breaking and hate myself for it, especially as tears threaten an appearance.

“You do know how. You do. You just keep giving it what it wants. You keep fueling this fire and you let it engulf you time and time again. Why do you need to keep burdening yourself with this? Why won’t you believe that you deserve better?”

The baggage, which up until this point has remained dormant, decides to make its point.

You don’t deserve better. You are worthless. And you know, you aren’t anything without me. I’m the only thing that stops you from being the complete retard you actually are. I’m the only one who knows you, the real you. And if you think for one stupid second that you can just discard me after all this time, you’re a bigger fucking idiot that I ever took you for. I AM you. You don’t get to let go of me.

I swallow uncomfortably, avoiding your gaze, but it finds me anyway. You hands are suddenly somehow resting on either side of my face and you hold me there as though I were something precious.

“I know that look,” you say. “I know you’re hearing something. I know something is belittling you and fighting with you. Your eyes flicker like there’s an alarm sounding every single time it happens. Don’t you think I know you well enough by now to know when it’s happening?”

What does he know about you? He knows fuck all about you, or how ridiculous a person you are. If he knew the real you for even a second he would turn and run away from you in disgust. You are nothing. A big fat waste of space nothing that has just managed to fool him into thinking you’re something you’re not. And you, you believe him. Fool.

The conflicting voices confuse me, as they always do. So I do what I always do in this situation: I say nothing, and hope the conflict goes away.

You sigh, and the sound of it pierces as though you had rained shattered glass down on me. I watch as you rub a tired hand over your face. I wait for you to tell me you’ve had enough, to admit I’m too much trouble, and that you’re finally, finally giving up on me like I always say you will.

But you don’t.

You smile, and nudge my arm with your elbow.

“Well. If you’re insistent on taking this with you, then I insist on carrying it with you.” You wag a finger in my face and wink, and I grab it, twisting it round so that your hand slides into mine. “For now,” you continue. “But it’s going. It’s getting left behind at some point. Deal?”

The baggage does something it rarely does; it feels panic. It feels fear, and for once, it knows what it is to be threatened with being left behind. But it’s cocky.

Yeah, but for how long? He won’t put up with your shit. And I can shout louder and scream harder than anyone. I’m not going anywhere. Don’t you ever, ever think you get to be rid of me. You don’t deserve happiness and you never did.

I feel another surge of anger. I look at you watching me, reading my face, waiting.

We’ll see, I tell the baggage, we’ll see.

I smile, brighter than I feel, and head out of the room, followed by both my past and my present.

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The Forest

Bark and branch and trunk and twig and leaf and phloem. Trees are more than these component parts, as are we. Skin and synapse and cell and cilia and membrane and muscle; the sum of us. And we as people become communities, societies, civilisations. Yet we are not trees. We do not flourish if we are not forests. We do not grow taller by blocking out the light of others. We do not suffocate neighbours with our roots. And yet we do. Weeding out what is different, then fighting with ourselves for what remains. We could be so much more.

No Way Out

The key turns in the lock of the front door and even from all the way up here, through wood, metal and plasterboard, it revs the engine of your heart, pounding it into fearful fight or flight life.

The duvet, moments ago warm and faking safety, now feels part clammy with fear and part shackled prison.

You’ve timed it. From key in door to foot in bedroom doorway takes around four minutes. So you have four minutes to go over your options.

One, lay there, pretend you are asleep. Sometimes that works.

Two, spring into elated partner-mode and greet them mid-stair, praying for a happy mood.

Three, just pray. To what, to who, you’re not quite sure anymore.

Four, check out. Go numb, passive, submissive, limp. You once learned in a talk on car accidents in school that you should never tense for impact. It only causes more damage.

Time does that cruel dance it often does where four minutes feels like both four seconds and four years simultaneously.

You’ve had time to go over your options and now you go over your whys.

Why is this happening?

When did everything go so wrong?

What did I do wrong?

Will tonight be the night that I…

A dry swallow is followed by a forced, shallow breath, and you screw your eyes up, wishing yourself away, anywhere, any other life.

Your mind races back to earlier, sunnier days when touch meant love, not bruises, and looks of promises for later meant cries of wanting, not of hurting.

When did it all go wrong?

When did you go wrong?

Memories of the way your left eye teared up and swelled, your cheekbone reverberating painful shoots up through your skull and down through your teeth. Of the agony of straightening up from the cramping bruising of your stomach and the Tim Burton-style rainbow of black, blue and yellow that you inspected later, wincing as the arnica you dabbed on got into your broken nail beds. Of how you should probably get that damp patch under the window at the bottom of the stairs checked; it’s funny what you notice when you’re winded, on your back, after falling down a full flight of stairs.

This is your fault.

You did this.

You made this happen.

There is no other way.

Memories of the vicious words in your ear reminding you to keep silent. Of pointed remarks in front of neighbours and possessive ones under the gaze of the A&E nurse. And your fake smile. Spread so wide you felt your cheeks might split open. Which they have done, from time to time.

No way out.

From the pillow through half-hooded eyes you watch as the handle on the door slowly lowers and the bottom of the door skims in deceptive gentleness against the soft carpet beneath it.

You hold your breath.

Please.

Let it be a good mood night.

(Originally on Inkiit and Tumblr)

Nothing More

It’s the wind. It’s the extractor fan rattling, a stiff breeze coming in through the closed front door. The cold whisper over your shoulders nothing more than a blast of cold air.

It’s the building. It’s the neighbours shuffling furniture, the brickwork expanding in the sun’s heat, poor workmanship that’s led to uneven, creaky floors. The knock on the desk beside you nothing more than its wood settling.

It’s you. Your overactive imagination sees shadows when there are none. Your irrational thought that’s conjuring disembodied sighs. And that prickling feeling over your skin is only because you’re overthinking. This feeling of not being alone nothing more than a trick of the mind.

But what if it is something more?

Who would you tell? Who would listen? Who wouldn’t scoff at the ideas that put an extra beat in your heart?

Out of the corner of your eye, the curtain twitches, a faint shimmer beside it looks like a person’s silhouette, and it feels as though it’s turning to you, and watching, just as hard as you’re watching back.

It’s your imagination. Nothing more than a trick of the light and an overactive mind. Nothing more than that.

The Sea

Crash and crest and crash and crest, and so it goes on. Waves, lapping at the beach and tasting samples of the sand that it needs to feast on. Stripping it away in thick salted licks leaving seaweeds and periwinkles in its place. The Sea takes only what needs to be taken, then replenishing with offerings that cannot replace but can enhance what life is already there. Shards of shells glisten and twinkle in the sunlight as canny-eyed seagulls swoop down to feed on what is left behind. Crash and crest and crash and crest, and so it goes on.

When

When the floorboards creak he freezes, tells his heart to cease its racing, reminds himself it’s an old house, with an old soul. Cracks and creaks are nothing but to be expected.

When the sigh breezes over his neck he cuts off the gasp that fires unchecked from his lips. Blames it on an open window, a cracked pane, a door ajar downstairs.

When the brush of an invisible hand skirts along his arm leaving goosebumps in his wake, he ceases fooling himself. Stumbles forward toward the doorway, holds his breath along the hall, down the stairs, intent on getting outside.

When the handle won’t turn, the door won’t budge, an invisible stare burns into his neck, he knows. His time is up, his moment has come, he is about to come to an end.

The question is, when?

Coming Home

Debra had learned to hold on to her emotions. Keep them so tight to her chest that they festered there, sending cruel words spitting out her mouth that she could use to safely mask what she was really feeling.

Emily felt nothing but sadness every time she saw Debra reining her feelings in. She watched, helpless as Debra’s walls flew up and her words flew out, channelling the only emotion Debra allowed herself to feel, which wasn’t even an emotion at all: ‘doing the right thing’, because in as long as she’d known her, Emily had never known Debra to give in to something she wanted if there was the slightest hint it might upset someone else.

With Emily, though, it was an entirely different thing altogether, it was getter harder and harder, to the point where she didn’t want to hold onto what she was feeling at all. But where to start?

Emily put up her own walls too. She had to, to keep herself in check. She couldn’t watch Debra seem to gear up to reach out then withdraw just like she’d been burned, without these walls to fix a mask on. And if her own walls were up, her own feelings couldn’t leak out. Not too much, anyway; at least, she could hope they wouldn’t.

Emily made her feel things. Made her want things Debra had told herself she would never be entitled to have, or even to want; that she’d never had the right to. Things that, in the darkness of night, she’d reveal in secret to her dead parents, imagining the outcome in any number of ways. Rejection. Disgust. Dismissal. But never in acceptance, or happily ever after, or just simple happiness.

Emily knew that Debra would deny herself anything she truly wanted because she didn’t feel she deserved it. All Emily wanted was for Debra to be happy. She wished Debra would let her be one of the things that made her happy but told herself over and over how selfish that was. Debra deserved the best of everything, and she, Emily, she had nothing really to offer Debra.

She wanted Emily. All of her; her friendship, her trust, her time. And though she had to whisper it to herself because this was a volatile emotion that did its best to erupt every time she saw her, she also wanted her love. All the kinds of love that were possible.

Emily wanted Debra. Beyond anything. She’d never known want quite like she did until she’d met Debra, and from that moment on, she’d never known not to want. Debra’s friendship was something she cherished, and her trust too, even if she had to keep breaking and re-earning it until it was a patched and leaking thing, because on days when they felt too close it felt too difficult to have to hold back. Sometimes it was so hard to not blurt out the obvious. To not tell her why she was drawn to her, and why she always stuck around.

Debra looked at Emily, and she felt the rage that brewed within her still to peaceful quiet. She looked at Emily, and the jolt of desire that flooded through her was so violent, she didn’t know how she was still upright instead of drowning in it. She looked at Emily, and the love that burst in her just for seeing her animated her every thought and movement made her believe for a moment it was something she could have before doubt put it out again.

Emily looked at Debra, and she felt at home. She felt all the best and worst of emotions in Debra’s presence. Jealousy when anyone looked her way. Lust when she caught glimpses of Debra changing her clothes, or changing the coffee filter, or changing lane. Anytime, really.

When Emily wasn’t there, it was like all the lights had gone out. She withdrew into a hollow, grumpy shell that barked at anyone who would listen, wounded because Emily had left yet again.

When Emily left she felt as though she was missing a part of her, which she told herself was stupid. But she felt empty, and unsettled, and on edge, unable to focus or do anything with full certainty until she was back with Debra. It hurt her to leave, but what hurt her, even more, was that Debra never asked her to stay. If Emily thought for one moment that Debra felt even a fraction of what she felt, there would be nothing to ever keep her away.

Debra couldn’t work out what was more painful; when Emily left unexpectedly, with Debra having all kinds of things on the tip of her tongue that she was denied the chance of saying, or when she knew Emily was going and those same words refused to come to the surface.

Emily was always torn when she left. She could only make excuses to stay so long. She could only build up hope that this would be the time Debra would ask her to stay. She was always disappointed. Sometimes she left without even so much as a goodbye, and other times she made her intent to leave obvious, giving Debra time to tell her to stick around. She was disappointed and hurt every single time.

This particular time Emily was leaving, Debra knew the second she walked in.

On this occasion, Emily told Debra when she was leaving.

Emily had announced on arrival that she couldn’t stay long, that she had places to be and problems to fix. Debra’s heart pounded, and ached, and longed to be able to have Emily around for longer. For Emily to just stay.

When she’d first arrived, Emily had made it clear there was a timescale here. She had fought with herself, trying to stay away longer and longer, but it hadn’t worked. She’d talked herself into giving Debra yet another one more chance, to see if she’d ask her to stay. To see if any of the feelings Emily had for Debra, Debra would return. Debra looked tenser than usual, and Emily had the sinking feeling that really, Debra didn’t want her there at all.

In the end, it was Debra’s brother Howard that forced the issue, having come over for dinner and already there when Emily arrived. Why was it always Howard?

Howard dragged Debra outside to talk. It seemed that Howard didn’t want her around either, and although that hurt, it didn’t ache nearly as much as the thought of Debra sending her away.

Howard had rounded on Debra and demanded that she pull her head out of her ass before stomping and driving away. It took Debra several minutes to realize that Howard had even taken her car keys, and she was now alone with Emily and would be forced to talk.

Emily had long ago decided not to eavesdrop if she could help it, and so she heard the muffled yet raised voices of Howard and Debra outside, but wouldn’t let her ear strain to make out a single word. There was a crunch of gravel that indicated footsteps, and the slamming of a car door before she heard it being driven away. Emily felt herself crumple; Debra didn’t even want to say goodbye. Emily felt nothing but foolish; how could she have fallen so hard for someone that would never, ever be able to love her back?

Emily was stood where she and Howard had left her when Howard had dragged her outside to talk. Emily leaned against a long cabinet that doubled as a kitchen counter, arms crossed across her chest. She watched as Debra returned to the room and shut the door with her back, leaning against it in mirror to Emily.

Emily did her best not to look surprised when it was Debra, not Howard, who walked back in. She watched as Debra leaned back uncomfortably against the door in silence, tried hard to ignore the digging in her lower back from the counter she was leaning against.

Debra took in a long, shaky sigh, closing her eyes to the rejection and pain she saw dancing in her imagination.

Emily watched as a wave of emotions warred across Debra’s face, and she breathed out awkwardly, eyes shut. Emily’s heart beat loud; was Debra working herself up to ask Emily to leave for good this time?

“Stay.”

Emily heard Debra speak, but it took a moment for the word to sink in.

“Debra?”

Emily’s eyes flew up to Debra’s, doubting yet hoping that she’d heard that one, magical word that she’d been longing to hear for so long.

Debra opened her eyes then, walking slowly towards Emily.

Debra walked towards her slowly, and Emily began to fear she’d made another mistake. She was so sick of getting things wrong, of feeling things wrong, she couldn’t take it much longer if—

“Stay, Emily. Please. Can’t you just stay?”

Surely Debra didn’t mean what she thought she meant. Surely she meant something else entirely, and Emily was misunderstanding yet again.

“Do you still need my help with something?”

That’s all Debra could mean. She needed something from her.

“No, Emily. No help. I just need you. To stay. I need you.”

This was too much. Debra… Debra couldn’t need her. Not like she needed Debra. Not like she wanted Debra. It just couldn’t be possible.

Emily remained silent, watching Debra come ever closer to her.

Emily didn’t want to move for fear of breaking the moment, and so she watched in silence as Debra stepped closer, and closer.

Debra let out another shaky breath and reached her hand out, hesitantly threading her fingers through Emily’s. Emily startled at her touch, but when she jolted in response, Debra gripped harder and brought her other hand up to hold onto Emily’s shoulder. She leaned her full length against her until they breathed the same air.

Emily looked down with a gasp at their entwined fingers, felt the heat from Debra’s other palm radiating across her upper arm. That feeling of home flushed through her entire being as Debra leaned into her completely, in one solid, warm, grounding line.

“I need you, Emily.” Debra’s voice cracked and croaked, and her breath came out staggered as Emily’s eyes widened in understanding.

Finally, finally, Emily allowed herself to believe that what she wanted most was happening. And it was happening right now. Debra wanted her. Debra needed her. Just as much as she wanted and needed Debra.

“Please…” was Debra’s final plea as she rested her forehead against Emily’s, noses bumping as she dipped her chin so she could offer the lightest of kisses.

Emily closed her eyes at the feel of Debra leaning her head down, the soft touch of her lips as gentle as she’d ever imagined.

“Please, Emily. Stay with me.”

Home. Finally, Emily was home.

Point of No Return

“You remember when we-”

He says, a reminiscent smile on his face as he leans on the terrace railing and stares out over the water. His voice fades away, but you don’t need him to finish the words, because you do; you do remember. A small boat, white with a navy blue trim around its flank. Sea spray striking your skin as wind whipped up your hair. Your hands on the steering wheel, though he was the one steering; pressed up tight against your back with his hands around your middle, gentle fingers slipped between your own.

A lifetime ago, you think, but it isn’t really. Can it only be three years since? Three years, for the love of your life to morph into barely an acquaintance? You don’t even know this man stood there in front of you, not really, not anymore. Not the lines of his back, nor the warmth of his skin beneath yours; nothing. You barely know yourself anymore, you defend, but it’s empty, as empty as you feel.

“I do,” you say, anyway, wincing at the words, because not so long ago, you thought you’d be saying them in front of witnesses. The ring still sits in its velvet prison, buried deep at the bottom of your sock drawer. You should have taken it back months ago, when you first accepted it was never going to happen, but you’ve talked yourself into and out of it so many times, clinging on for hope, which is what this weekend is all about.

You watch him in profile, and it brings the slightest amount of comfort seeing that reminiscent smile turn wistful before finally settling on just plain sad. You both did this, you tell yourself, though it’s nothing but fiction. Because some days it’s easier to pretend it just happened. Easier to act like you didn’t bring it all on yourself.

That small boat, with that deck so small, that you barely had room to step around one another. But that hadn’t stopped the wandering hands, the smiling faces, the teasing kisses under the fading summer sun. A lake house, a long stretch of decking to which that boat had eventually been tethered, and love made on a mess of blankets on that decking underneath the light of the stars.

You took that from him, you think, your stomach churning, as it always seems to be churning of late; you did that to both of you. Took something sacred, sweet, and centring, and turned it stale, and sour. And this weekend away, you hoped would claw it back. But how can you claw back what you took for granted? How can you regain the trust that you so viciously shred apart?

“I wouldn’t go back, you know,” he says then, quiet though firm, soft enough to make your heart both ache and pound, “I mean, I wouldn’t change it. Wouldn’t… guess I’m saying is, I don’t regret it; not a minute of it. Not even if this is where we’ve ended up,”

This, you think, tears choking your throat, then pricking in your eyes, as his hand reaches out to press over yours, slotting his fingers between your own as he once did, as he has done, so many times. This is over; there’s no point denying it, no point sprinkling it in sparkle and pretending the end isn’t happening when so obviously, it is. It has been happening, for months now. You’ve just finally run out of time.

Waiting For the Right Time

When Evan’s brother is in an accident, he’s terrified, and doesn’t know where to turn, or who to ask for support. Which is stupid, really, since Peter’s been in his life for longer than he hasn’t, and has always been a rock.


 

It isn’t fair, Evan thinks, staring down at Tom laid pristine white in a hospital bed, willing himself to concentrate on the slightest evidence of his chest rising up and down. Tom’s the baby of the family, eight years younger than Evan is himself, and all Evan can think staring down at him then, is that he’s failed him for letting this happen.

It’s beyond not fair, he adds, eyes closing in anguish at the sight of the apparatus set around the head of that bed, proof that Tom’s only there because there’s machinery keeping him alive. The bandage wound around his head speaks of swelling that hasn’t shown any sign of lessening, and there are enough smaller ones dotted to his neck and arms to make him look tiny, fragile there in that bed.

Tom’s a good guy, the best of them, never done anything but try to live a good, honest life, and do the right thing, every chance that he gets. And okay, so maybe Evan’s a little biased because Tom’s his little brother and he’ll never see him as anything but a hero. But he’s also never willingly hurt anyone, and that’s a heroic quality Evan feels a lot of people in the world are lacking, turning a blind eye where Tom is always sticking up for people. Always jumping to the defence of others without any regard for himself, without ever being asked.

Which is apparently how he got himself into this mess in the first place.

Just a day ago, Evan had been putting the finishing touches to a customer’s garden, enjoying the many perks of outdoor work in the late summer sun, when he’d received the phone call. A quick glance around, his careful eye checking for any small details that needed fixing, was interrupted by the scream of his phone, and Tom’s near-hysterical friend Steven announcing he’d been hurt in a fight.

Evan had driven directly to the hospital, the mantra that Tom was against mindless violence doing nothing but terrify him even more, for all the images and possibilities it stabbed into his mind. Steven’s broken words when he’d collapsed into Evan’s arms, once he’d found him wide-eyed and startled on a hospital corridor outside the operating theatre, spoke of Tom standing like a fortress, when a guy at the table next to theirs in a beer garden had been attacked. Of course he did, Evan thinks to himself for the hundredth time as he reaches out to pointlessly straighten Tom’s blanket, of course he’d done that. Without even hesitating. Without even giving it a thought.

There’s only the two of them, Evan thinks then, his stomach knotting over and over, half-glad that their parents are already long gone and not having to share this burden with him, yet also desperately missing their support. What happens next? Who does he need to call? What can he do to fix this? There’s a thousand things he needs answers to, but no one there to tell him anything.

Thank god, or whatever is out there, he thinks, that Peter is there with him.

Peter is a calming, steady presence beside him as Evan stands watch over Tom, twitching, trying to anticipate whatever Tom might need, or want, even though he hasn’t yet opened his eyes.

“I’m here,” Peter says, seeming to sense how badly he needs him, not offering any platitudes about Tom being okay, knowing it will do nothing to soothe Evan’s nerves. Instead he drapes his arm around Evan’s shoulder and allows him to shuffle closer, the only acknowledgement paid to Evan’s frustrated tears being the circling of his thumb repeatedly against his upper arm.

***

When Evan gets Tom back to his apartment to watch over him as he recovers, Peter is still there beside him offering quiet support. He brings Evan coffee, swiftly grabbing the rapidly emptying whiskey bottle from Evan’s hands with a terse look that speaks volumes Evan doesn’t want to hear about, and replacing it with a large, warm mug he can wrap his fingers around as he quietly nods in thanks.

Peter empties the bowl Tom retches into sometimes, walks with him to the bathroom when he needs help getting there – when he’s sent Evan out on errands to force him into getting some fresh air, and continues his silent vigil over both of the brothers when Evan finally succumbs to much-needed sleep.

Peter is also there, when Tom is screaming, crying out in the middle of a nightmare, and Evan is leaking silent tears of his own for all the things he can’t do for him. Peter rests a hand on Evan’s shoulder, and Evan breaks, grabbing Peter to him and sobbing wrecked into his neck, clinging on with a vice-like grip. Peter soothes with words spoken softly into his ear, and gentle hands rubbing reassurances into his back.

At some point about a week into Tom’s recovery, Evan thinks that in a fear-fuelled moment late one night, he’s kissed Peter, seeking comfort, reassurance, and escape. But his mind is so twisted in confusion with all that’s happening, and so bone-tired, that he can’t even remember if the moment was real, or just an unrealised fantasy that’s taunting him. That has taunted him, for as long as he can remember. Either way, Peter resolutely stays by his side.

***

Tom is strong, and begins to show good progress, with strength returning to his limbs, and wit making a reappearance in his words. Evan looks on, smiling proudly, reminded of a thousand times he’d watched over Tom protectively in sleep when they were growing up, repeating his mantra of thank you over and over for having him there to still do that.

As Tom gets better still, Evan begins to leave him alone for longer periods as a solution to his argument that he should go home, get out of his hair. He’s never far enough away to be out of shouting distance if Tom needs him, or wants to yell at him some more for being an overprotective mother hen; but enough to give Tom what is surely much needed space.

Peter is still there with him, and Evan finds it aches thinking about him eventually leaving when things go back to normal. His overnight bag’s become a feature of Evan’s living room, his favourite shower gel leaves a teasing scent of him in the bathroom, and his attempts to force nutritious food on Evan have filled his cupboards with strange new worlds of ingredients for all the recipes he’s got him trying.

Evan pauses outside Tom’s room, one time, hearing Tom’s soft laughter and a bemused, gentle mirth in Peter’s low, gravelly tone, leaving Evan stuck between listening and leaving, both curious and afraid of what he might overhear.

“Don’t tell him, Pete, ‘cos I can’t handle justifying all his fussing. But I don’t know how I’d have got through this without him,” he hears, and Evan feels a lump form in his throat, that he quickly forces down.

“You too,” Tom adds, and from the rustling sound that follows, Evan’s sure Tom’s reached out to pat Peter on the shoulder, or something.

“Evan wouldn’t leave your side, Tom, not for a second. When we were in the hospital waiting for you to wake up, I had to drag him out of your room to make him take even a five second break. He was terrified for you. Kept telling me, he wished he could take your place there, wished he could be going through it all for you. And though I would do anything for you, help you in any way I can, it’s been… difficult. To have to hear him talking like that. It’s probably selfish, but… I’ve felt so helpless,” Peter finishes with a sigh, and Evan wants to walk in and wrap his arms around his shoulders, tell him how vital he’s been to him throughout all of this.

“You’ve been here for Evan.” Tom answers, stealing his words. “That is far from being helpless,” Evan hears Tom reply, imagines his smile, and closes his eyes, grateful that Tom is finally smiling again.

“He’d be lost without you too, you know?” Tom adds, and Evan freezes at his words, desperate to know Peter’s response.

There is a pause, but finally Peter gives a soft, breathy sigh that sounds like acknowledgement, and answers quietly with, “As would I without him.”

“You guys need to talk stuff out, you know,” Tom tells him, and Evan thinks he can picture Peter shuffling in discomfort.

“It’s not really the time, Tom. We need you to concentrate on getting better, more than anything else.” Peter’s tone is decided, and firm, adamant he’s right in his thinking. He is right, Evan agrees, but it doesn’t stop his heart sinking a little, even if he’s not worked up the courage to do anything about this – them, himself.

“Pete,” Tom’s talking in that gentle, patient, explaining-to-an-idiot tone of his, and Evan kind of loves him for it. “I’ve known you for… it feels like all my life. You two have been friends since forever now, and it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that there’s something between you even if you pretend that there isn’t. If you keep thinking about it like that, that now’s not really the time, there’s never gonna be a right time. So why not make it the right time now? What is it the two of you are waiting for?”

Evan doesn’t want to hear Peter’s answer, too scared it will be the confirmation of rejection, so chooses that moment to go in with the tray of food he’s prepared. But it’s not like Tom’s words don’t play over and over for Evan, or stop him sneaking continual glances in Peter’s direction for the rest of the day. Or deny him any chance of sleep later that night.

When he’s admitted sleep is just not going to be happening for him, Evan gets up, sighing heavily at the early hour glaring back at him on his phone, and pads through to the living room, expecting to find Peter stoically asleep on the sofa where he’s taking up what feels like just as much permanent residence as Tom. But Peter is sat at the dining table, his face illuminated by the screen of his laptop, and his eyes raise at the sound of Evan entering the room.

“Can’t sleep,” Evan offers in answer to Peter’s silent question, “What are you doing?”

Peter pauses, then reaches over to flick on a lamp on the table, and silently closes the laptop lid.

“Nothing much,” he says, coming around to lean back against the table, his hands wrapping around the edge, as he watches Evan. “Couldn’t sleep either,”

Evan watches back.

The silence remains heavy, loaded with unspoken questions. And Evan decides he can’t stand just watching anymore, so takes a courageous step forward. He bends slightly to cup Peter’s face and tilt it up, slow to give him time to resist if that’s what he wants to do. And then Evan leans down, claiming Peter’s mouth in a kiss that feels very, very long overdue. Peter’s hands are immediately around his waist, gripping Evan as he adjusts the way he stands between his legs, and pulling him as close as he can get.

The silence between them might not be filled with words, but there’s soft gasps and gentle exploration in their place, and that adds more to the sense Evan has of them finally getting somewhere. Evan feels hopeful, and humble, and more than anything, home. And when they pull apart to catch their breath, Peter’s smile for him repeats the same thing back.

***

When Tom walks through in the morning, rubbing a tired hand down his face, he comes to a stop at the foot of the sofa, his head tilting to one side as he considers the view in front of him.

On the sofa lays Peter on his back, with Evan tangled between his legs and wrapped up in his arms, fast asleep in the crook of Peter’s neck.

Peter looks at Tom, and Tom looks on back at Peter, and where Peter’s smile is small and a little timid, Tom’s is wide, and beaming happiness.

They nod at each other in unspoken acceptance of the change in circumstances between them all, before Tom turns and heads into the kitchen, a spring in his step and a hum in this mouth. He rinses the cafetiere, measuring out a generous amount of coffee, then settles it down on the side, fingers drumming as he considers adding another spoon.

Tom pulls down two mugs from a shelf, leans over to put water on to boil, then leans back against the counter, a gentle smile lingering around his lips for how ecstatic he feels for his brother. And with that smile, and a barrage of teasing already forming in his head, he turns around, and reaches for a third.

The Next Step

In the whirlwind that is after their first kiss, he knows that he’s got to keep making the decisions that count. There’s too much at stake here if he flounders; it’s like now he’s allowed himself to feel even a fragment of what he thinks he truly does for him, that all the blurred images that were once his rigid world, have been wiped clear, and everything is a sharper, brighter contrast than he’s ever dared imagine.

But what’s more important, what’s become bigger than all of that, in all that time after, is the responsibility he now holds in his hands; maybe, he corrects, more accurately in his heart. Because after all that pausing, all that lashing out when things are overwhelming, now he’s dared allow himself to have a taste, there is no way to resist the need to lean in for it just once more, time and time again. And he couldn’t live with himself if he pulled away from him now, even for a second, even in a moment of doubt; because he is too important, too luminescent to ever have to be smudged with the undignified shade of his awkward hesitation, of not knowing how to start.

They’ve been dancing; oh, how long have they been dancing. One of them will step forward to claim a kiss, a touch, a smile meant only for the other, and the other will then follow, only to pull back again, then lead with his own routine. It’s dizzying, this need that swells in him, more absorbing than anything else he’s ever felt, and coupled with the knowledge, the unyielding certainty of knowing that he is wanted back, well, that’s a little intoxicating.

But he can’t misstep, he can’t hesitate for too long, can’t bear to be the one that taints even a fraction of his smile, because he is too bright, too vibrant, to be anything but happy. It shouldn’t be allowed; he will not allow it, and more important than perhaps anything else, he will not be the one to ever tarnish that smile again. He’s done it too often, both meaning and not meaning to, too wrapped up in his own confusion to ever be good enough for what he might be wanting with him.

But he does want him, that much is clear; he’s never been shy with his affection or intention, so it’s a little surprising, when he reaches out, only to see his eyes widen in a fraction of alarm, before he takes a stumbling step back.

He never stumbles. And he never wants to be the one that makes him stumble; he’s too steady, too sure of himself to let such an unwieldy creature as himself be the one that knocks the backs of his knees, the air from his lungs. The spark from his eyes.

Is he wrong? Is this step he’s proposing too much too soon, or a move that was never destined to happen?

Worry, he hears, and vulnerable, and it’s laced with self-doubt, self-preservation, and so much contradiction; it’s like the want is there, lurking right behind his irises, but beneath his skin he’s twitching, churning. Fearful to reach out, fearful to take, in case he’s pushed away, permanently this time.

He wants this; does he not already know how much he wants this? Can he not tell by the tremble in his lip, the quake of his shoulders, that he wants this, him, so very badly, yet is half-terrified to reach for it as well?

He is an anchor, a port in a storm, a safe haven when the world is too much and the rain of that world comes crashing down to drown him. But he’s also the spark that ignites him, the curve in his lip, the beating of his heart in ways he didn’t ever dare to imagine he’d get to feel, to experience in his life.

This calls for bravery, a courage that he’s not sure he’s really wielding. But he wants this, in fact, he thinks he needs it, that they both need it; maybe if he can surrender his fear of falling, and he can lose his doubt of ever being caught, then they will meet somewhere in the middle. And that loneliness that swells in his gut, that he’s sure he’s seen peering out the corners of his eyes; maybe they can lose that. Maybe they can bolster each other.

What better way to find out? What better time than now?

He has to keep going, he has to keep pushing, because if he pauses for even a second, that strength and certainty he’s pretending to feel will crash and crumble, and if he steps back, for even a moment, maybe he’ll see in his eyes that this, he, is not really what he wanted after all. Not for more than a frivolity, a passing moment, a shiny new thing to brighten one of his endless days before discarding him again.

He can’t be that. He is not that. But what he is, is terrified; how can it be possible to feel so many emotions all at once? Is this what they always warned him against? Not that they could make you weak, but that they would overwhelm you; blur into and over one another, until you have no sense of time or meaning, when you are trying to feel, and be everything, all the versions of yourself, all at the same time?

He smiles then, delighted as he steps back just enough to really look at him, gripping tight enough to reassure that this is what he wants as well. It is freeing, to be on the receiving end of such beauty, to stare it down as though it is a sun he knows is going to burn him, but he won’t ever mind being forever scorched by. Not by him, and not like this; not when he’s leaning in to kiss him all over again, and the door slams closed behind them, and his heart sings at the knowledge that it is coming home.