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In Vino, Fraternitas

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The first time they get drunk together, it's Peter's sixteenth birthday. Nathan takes a long weekend and drives up to the summer house in the Hamptons for the party. Late that night, when all the guests--chosen by Mom, not by Peter--have gone home, Nathan and Peter sneak out to the beach with a quart of orange juice and a bottle of vodka. They forget the glasses, so they pass the carton and bottle back and forth. Half a mouthful of juice, then some liquor, then swallow.

In the morning, Nathan can't remember what they talked about, but he remembers damp sand under his back and the occasional glimpse of a star through drifting clouds. He remembers Peter's elbow brushing his, and how he felt so happy and so sad that he could hardly tell which was which.

***

The second time they get drunk together, Peter's in college. They go to some crappy college-kid bar with a widescreen TV and four-dollar pitchers of Bud, and the bartender just laughs when Nathan asks for Wild Turkey. Nobody in the bar comes up to talk to them, and Nathan wonders whether Peter has any friends, or ever did. Whether Nathan's all there is.

Peter's roommate is out of town, so Nathan takes his bed. Falling asleep, he realizes it's the first time he and Peter have ever shared a room.

***

There's a third, fourth, and fifth time that are just about the same, and then Peter's graduation makes six. Family dinner at the Four Seasons to celebrate, and Dad shows off to the waiter by ordering a different wine with every course. He and Mom just taste a few swallows, so Peter and Nathan end up finishing the bottles. Brandy afterwards, too, with their coffee. Mom gives them crap on the way home--drunk in public, for heaven's sake--but they're too far gone to care.

Not even the hangover makes Nathan sorry.

***

After that, it doesn't happen again for a while. Nathan's pretty busy with his job, and Peter bums around the country for a while before he decides on nursing school. So the seventh time comes after Nathan's bachelor party. The actual party sucks--too many guys from work, guys who don't even talk to a client on the phone for less than a hundred bucks but expect the strip club girls to be impressed by dollar bills shoved down the crotch of their g-strings. Assholes.

Later, though, when it's just him and Peter in Peter's shitty apartment, everything's good. They toast to Heidi and marriage and love and brotherhood and family and memories, all in twenty-year-old Laphroaig that Nathan brought along with him because he doesn't trust Peter's taste in alcohol. Nathan thinks about the kids he'll have with Heidi. Sons, he hopes. Brothers who'll be friends and look out for each other like him and Peter.

They share Peter's bed, kind of curled up together, and Nathan's glad, because he's not used to sleeping alone anymore. "You should get a girlfriend," he says. Peter needs someone to love him. Peter deserves that, and Nathan can't stand the thought of his brother being lonely.

***

The eighth time, Heidi's in the hospital. It's just after Nathan gets the news that she isn't going to die. Peter comes home with him, plays with the boys and makes them a snack and puts them to bed while Nathan sits on the couch like a stranger. Nathan doesn't feel like someone who lives in an apartment, works as a lawyer, raises a family. He doesn't feel like someone who can ever do those things again.

Peter makes them both drinks. Vodka and tomato juice. "At least it'll have some vitamins," he says. Nathan has two and then he's dizzy and sick. He slips over into Peter's arms and cries. Half of it's from shame, because he thinks he could bear Heidi's accident, even Heidi's death, more easily than . . . the other thing. Flying. He's broken life's rules, and now he doesn't belong anywhere.

***

The ninth time happens after their father's funeral. Nathan hardly speaks to Peter all day, and he makes sure nobody else does either, because Peter is vibrating with anger, like glass about to shatter. If he breaks, everyone's going to bleed.

Making sure Peter's okay has always been his job, but now Nathan has to look out for his mom, too, and say the right goddamn things at the coffee hour, and call Heidi and the boys (she's still not well enough to cope with this, and they're too young), and behave like the man of the family. His mother's been telling him that since he was ten or so--you'll be the man of the family someday. He hates that she's always right.

Peter keeps trying to leave, and Nathan keeps heading him off, a couple times an hour until finally they're alone. "Not now," he says when Peter starts in about Linderman. "Please."

They sit on the floor and drink bourbon from one of their dad's bottles. There's half a crate of the stuff in the cellar. It'll go to waste now, because dad was the only one who liked it.

They don't exchange more than ten or twenty words. Nathan knows Peter's still angry--it's obvious--but at least he's willing to wait. To be angry later.

After a while, Peter stretches out with his head on Nathan's thigh. His hair (long hair, teenager hair, still) fans out, and Nathan finds himself stroking it.

When Peter was a little boy, he had sandy brown hair, much lighter than this. But that was a long, long time ago.

***

The tenth time, Nathan's finally been freed from the hospital, with a folder full of terrifying pamphlets and the doctors' admonitions ringing in his ears. His lifetime risk of cancer has increased by a factor no one can estimate, and he'll never have another child. But at least his hair has started to grow back.

He leaves the hospital by a staff door to avoid the media. The Times has been running stories about the "Linderman connection" and the sudden turnaround in the election results. A few days ago he got a phone call from his party chairman in which the word "resignation" hung in the air, unspoken. The opposition's already calling for it, publicly. And Heidi has said she's filing for divorce.

Peter picks him up and drives him to the summer house. He sleeps most of the way, and then has another nap before dinner. It would be nice to sleep for three or four years and not wake up until Petrelligate is just another historical footnote.

That night, they go out to the beach. Peter makes him wear a sweater, but lets him have beer. Nathan lost a lot of weight in the hospital, a lot of strength, so after just one he's feeling mellow. Relaxed, finally--not quite tipsy, but close to it. He lies back and watches the clear, star-dusted sky.

Beside him, Peter leans on one elbow and says, "I'm sorry, Nathan. You shouldn't have - "

"Shut up, Peter." Nathan pulls Peter down against his shoulder. He almost died; he can do whatever he wants. And what he wants is to cradle the back of Peter's neck, where the glass opened his skull and nearly killed him. Did kill him. By rights, he and Peter should both be in the grave.

Peter's neck is warm and fragile, and his hair smells good. Peter is the only person who's ever needed him. The only person Nathan would die for.

Nathan kisses his forehead first, then his cheek, then his mouth. And again, and a third time, too slow and open to be brotherly. That doesn't seem to matter. If they can fly, and burn, and cheat death, they can do this too. Nature has no hold on them.

Peter must know it too. He sighs and rolls closer, and Nathan clings to him, wraps around him the way he did when eight million lives depended on it. Peter's nature is to reflect, to make other people's gifts his own, and Nathan wants to give him this. This certainty, this love.