Nate was just fourteen when Michael left. Just, and so what if Michael spent the last of his allowance (and likely more than that, but where he got the extra cash, she could never bring herself to ask) on that fancy light-up watch his brother had been eying on and off since Christmas? Nate had spent the month before that going back and forth between the silent treatment and ugly bursts of acting out, nasty words and rotten behavior and far too much of the blame getting shoveled onto Michael’s plate, instead.
And Michael, being Michael, took it all with that shark-toothed grin of his, the one that said he thought he was smarter than everyone else, the one that implied he knew something they didn’t. All of Nate’s insults, all of their father’s drunken wrath (and sober vengeance, which was always worse), all of her failed attempts to intervene, and Michael would just flash that sharp-edged grin and nod like he agreed.
But as bad as Frank was, with the drinking (and without), he was hardly stupid. Michael liked to antagonize him, but even in the hottest rage Frank could always tell when he was being played (can’t con a con, after all, though Michael seemed hellbent on trying). Knew, but didn’t care, because Michael had long since been his favorite target (couldn’t stand a kid who was smarter than him, who was better at taking care of the family than him, who stopped being afraid of him as soon as he had a little brother to protect). He always seemed to know which of his boys was at fault for what (and which times it was their mother), but then he never seemed to mind when Michael stepped up to claim the credit, regardless of the truth of it. Michael liked to antagonize, but Frank liked to be antagonized, and they just fed off each other like it was some ridiculous game of one-upsmanship. One where they could never seem to agree on the rules.
(Michael always was Frank’s favorite, even then. Even after Michael left. And no one would ever say it was healthy (not even her, not even back then), but it was why she had to forge Frank’s signature on Michael’s release papers. Frank was never one to let go of his favorite anything.)
So the month before Michael left was hell, what with Nate doing his best to get his brother in trouble at every turn or turning right around and saying the cruelest things when their father wasn’t there to do it for him. At first she’d thought Nate was trying to punish Michael, to let him know just how badly his leaving was going to hurt his baby brother, and it wasn’t until after Michael left that she realized she knew better, because it was Frank who wanted Michael punished for daring to leave home, and Nate -- who maybe didn’t think things through as well as he should have -- was the best weapon Frank had for that, because Nate was Michael’s soft spot.
(And still is, for the most part; softer even than the place he reserves for his mother will always be his baby brother.)
Nate never understood that, not really. Not even when he was more than willing to play their father's pawn, because all it meant was that Nate got the attention and Michael got the shit stick. Back then he was too young to understand -- he got to be too young because Michael was always there to be older -- and any understanding he might have gained when he grew up was always tempered by the memory of Michael’s abandonment.
And Michael, self-centered idiot that he could sometimes be (still sometimes is, for all that Fiona’s had some limited success in trying to train him out of it), had to go and make it that much easier for the pot to boil over, because for that whole month before, Michael was rarely home.
To be fair, he was at school as often as not, busting his butt to make his grades a full month early so that he could meet his recruitment deadline (and that, at least, she understood; Michael was never one to shy away from doing what needs be done). But then he had to go and spend every spare moment not with his family but instead with that pack of boys he’d taken up with, because he wanted to get in as much time with his friends as he could before he’d have to up and leave them, too (and that was crap, and a really rotten thing to do, and it hurt for a long time after, that slap in the face of exactly how little Michael’s family meant to him).
But in the end the reasons didn’t matter. Just the fact that Nate and his bad mood were stuck home with their father and his volatile temper without Michael there to get between them. And Frank was out of work again, and mourning Michael in his own way (with lots of bourbon, frequent trips up to the track, and the door to Michael’s room torn clean off its hinges), and as much as she tried to watch them both like hawks, in her heart she knew that only Michael could have prevented what was bound to happen anyway.
(And it’s a sure bet that Michael knew it, too; knew that if ever there was one thing Nate and Frank agreed on, it was in the best way to punish him for abandoning the family before even leaving home. But then Michael was always keen to blame a person for the misfortunes in their life, like there was always that one right choice and people should know better -- and if not, well then they should face the consequences. So in a way, his getting fired from his old job was one of the best things that ever happened to him, because she can think of nothing else that could have kicked the stuffing out that damned superiority complex of his.)
(“Yes, Michael, sometimes life is shit, or turns to shit, or yo-yos back and forth between shit and shittier, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, absolutely nothing you could have done, absolutely no way out except on through -- and sometimes not even then. And you know what you do then, Michael? You live with it. Even if it means living in shit, because the alternative is always worse.”)
So Nate sat through his fourteenth birthday with a weepy black eye and a cast on his left wrist, and the ice-cream cake had mostly melted in the Florida heat because she’d wanted them to wait for Frank (who’d stumbled home drunk two hours late and slammed all the doors between the garage and their bedroom, but then maybe that was for the best) until it was either have cake without him or have no cake at all. Not that Nate could manage much cake anyway, what with the painkillers the doctor’s gave him for his arm.
After soupy cake came presents, and Nate had liked the sneakers she’d bought him, and that Dan Marino jersey she signed Frank’s name to, but the watch that Michael got him wouldn’t fit around his cast, and his shoes still smelled a little like throw-up (and that’s the other half of why she’d wanted them all to wait a bit before trying for cake), and Michael’s bag was already packed (he’d packed so little) because he was leaving in two days’ time, and Nate was surly and in pain and didn’t even bother saying “thank-you” to his brother; just left it with the mean little dig about how much he was looking forward to finally getting the bigger room as he took himself off to bed at least an hour early.
She will never, to her dying day, forget the look in Michael’s eyes as he watched Nate walk away.
And two days later, he was gone.
Frank was off to God-knows-where (and didn’t turn up again until four days later when she got a call from county lockup to come bail him out of the drunk tank) so it was just her and the boys when the recruiter’s car came by. She was in the kitchen and her boys were in their rooms, only Nate blocked his door with something heavy and refused to come out to say goodbye. She heard Michael’s voice echo down the hall, but couldn’t quite make out any of the words that weren’t Nate’s name (and maybe that was for the best, then, too).
He gave up inside a minute, and she met him as he came back through the living room. She hugged him there, pulled him close and told him to be safe, told him to write and to make sure they knew how to reach him, and when he pulled away she slipped two twenties and two fives into his sweaty palm. He’d looked surprised (and it wasn’t often that someone caught Michael off his guard enough for him to actually show it) but whatever he might have said in turn was interrupted by the recruiter’s car horn so it was a quick “I love you, mom” and a peck on her cheek, and then he was shouldering his backpack and walking out the door.
It slammed behind him (had to slam it to get it to latch; both Frank and Michael had promised that they’d fix it) and the house was loud all of a sudden in the silence that followed after. So loud that she almost missed the sound of the recruiter’s car driving away, but she made it to the window just in time to see it disappear around the corner. And she stayed there, looking out at nothing, wondering who was going to get the door fixed, now, until Nate came out of his room. He didn’t say a word to her on the way to the kitchen, but she heard him sniffling as he fixed himself a bowl of Lucky Charms, and she heard him cursing as he tried to juggle it all one-handed, and she heard him call Michael all sorts of nasty things when she pulled him close and let him pretend he wasn’t crying.
And Nate’s tears were good, they were healthy, and it was about damned time he got them out, but for herself her eyes were dry, because Michael’s leaving was a good thing, too. Good for Michael, because if he didn’t have this, and he didn’t have school anymore to distract him (never applied to college; never wanted anything more than the army ever since the recruiters came by the school last year; and really, it’s not like they could have afforded college anyway, and Michael knew that, too) then she shuddered to think what he’d do to fill his days. Shuddered, and lost sleep, and finally decided that maybe Michael did know best about the direction of his own life. Michael, no matter how easily everything else seemed to come to him, still needed to learn what it was to be a man, the one thing (the one of many things) Frank sure as hell couldn't teach him. Best he could do was grant his son his greatest wish, her secret gift to both of them.
So she didn’t cry when Michael left, or later when the house was empty save her and Nate. She didn’t cry when Frank seemed so lost without Michael there to focus his attention, and she didn’t cry when Frank finally sorted himself out -- and Nate started finding every excuse to not come home.
It wasn’t until three months later, when Michael finally (finally!) called on her birthday, when he said that he’d been accepted into special forces training and didn’t know when he’d have the chance to call again, when he asked to speak to Nate and she had to tell him Nate wasn’t home (when she didn’t tell him that Nate hadn’t been home for days, and the only reason she wasn’t worried yet was because the school wasn’t calling them on account of truancy). When the whole call lasted less than four minutes and then Michael was hanging up: a hurried explanation she didn’t catch, an “I love you” and a click. She cried then, still holding onto the receiver, great heaving sobs until the automated operator came on the line to tell that if she’d like to make a call then she should please hang up and dial again.
She felt slightly better when Nate came home that night (for her birthday, she likes to think; not just because he saw that Frank’s car was finally gone from the driveway) and she saw the regret, the sadness in his eyes when he realized that he missed Michael’s call -- for all of three seconds, before it occurred to him that he was supposed to be angry. But those three seconds were real, and for the first time in four long months she finally started to believe that her boys were going to be alright again.
Nate’s cast came off a few days later, and he started wearing that fancy watch that Michael bought him. Wore it everywhere except the shower; replaced the band twice before the battery finally died and then he wore it just because, like some gaudy bracelet. She even offered once to have the battery replaced, but Nate never got around to taking her up on the offer, and for the longest time she wondered why -- but then suddenly, it clicked.
It clicked because the school had finally started calling them. Nate was cutting class and slacking off and getting into fights, and he’d come home with bruises and scraped knuckles and a scowl when he bothered to come home at all. He’d do his homework if she nagged, if Frank wasn’t around to disturb the peace and quiet, but mostly he would find every last excuse to not be bothered.
It clicked because Nate started getting into trouble with the law. Joyriding, shoplifting, loitering, vandalism. He’d already been stealing cigarettes from her purse, but then all of a sudden he was taking money, too. He did just well enough in school to stay enrolled, and that wasn’t for any self-motivated reason but rather how very much he was aware that school was just about the only place his father wouldn’t go to find him.
It clicked because the guidance counselor said that Nate was acting out because he didn’t know how to reconcile loving Michael with being angry at him, that he was turning his own personal confliction into a generalized rage against the world -- and she had to grit her teeth in an impatient smile to avoid calling the poor woman an incompetent moron. Yes, Nate had problems, but they couldn’t be explained away with pop psychology, and they certainly couldn’t be made all better with hugs and validation or whatever the heck the counselor had droned on and on and on about.
Nate loved Michael, and Nate was angry at Michael, but love and anger are hardly polar opposites and any idiot should know that. And Nate was stealing cars, and spoiling for fights, and hanging out with all the wrong crowds -- and getting into all kinds of trouble he wouldn’t have been up for otherwise -- for one reason and one reason only, and it had nothing to do with “the inability to find a proper outlet for all his negative emotions.” Such bullshit, that. Who the hell ever learned how to handle teenaged boys by reading books about it?
Michael stole cars, and Michael won fights, and Michael kept the bullies off Nate’s back and their father from looking twice. And then all of a sudden Michael was gone and Nate, for the first time since the day he was born, was finally learning what it was like to have to fend for himself. Learning, because he’d never had to know before. Never had a reason. Probably never even thought he’d ever have a reason, because he probably never even thought that Michael would ever not be there.
And learning is a messy process.
And really, of the two male role-models in his life, it wasn’t at all surprising that Nate was trying (trial and error) to be just like his big brother.
It didn’t last, of course. The gambling started almost as soon as Nate turned eighteen, if not before. After high school he worked a string of forgettable jobs, dated a string of forgettable women. Lost Michael’s watch (in a mugging, or so he’d said, but really she knew it went to some loan-shark, come to collect) and took a swing at his father when Frank dared to make some snide remark. (Blackened Frank’s eye, and spent the next four weeks grinning at him with Michael’s grin while his jaw was wired shut.)
Nate moved out soon after that. And never moved back in, no matter how bad his financial situation got, until after Frank was dead.
Sometimes she wonders how life would have been different if Michael had taught Nate how to stand on his own two feet from the beginning instead of sheltering him the way he did, because when Michael left, Nate suddenly found himself all alone out in the deep end and then it was all he could do to keep his head afloat, never mind fend off the all the sharks that his brother once kept at bay. Sometimes she wonders how big of a coincidence it really is, that Nate didn’t start to build a life worth living until his big brother came home again. Sometimes she wonders a lot of things: about Michael’s life, about Michael’s choices, about how he always seems to make room for Nate inside of them, no matter how begrudgingly.
Just about the only thing she doesn’t wonder is where Nate’s new confidence is coming from, because for whatever else he’s learned (or hasn’t learned) in life, whenever Michael Westen, super-spy, doesn’t have anyone else to turn to, he’s turns instead to his little brother, and hasn’t been let down yet.
(The last time Nate’s arm was in a cast, Michael -- who seemed to feel far too guilty about it for the mugging story to wash -- brought home an ice-cream cake, and the three of them sat around the table and talked about Nate’s limo company. Then, when this time the cab came and honked for Nate, Michael hugged his brother goodbye and went back inside to do the dishes. And she didn’t cry, she really didn’t. It’s just that the living room hadn’t been dusted in a while.)