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there may not be another way to your heart

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Ashlee calls him an asshole all the time, but when she starts to really mean it, when the words take on an edge, a glow, a push that makes them really hurt… that's when Pete starts counting down. The beginning of the end.

Everything ends. Pete knows that. He just thought maybe they'd have more time. He'd hoped his marriage would last longer than any one of his bands.

"Let it end," advises Gabe. "Just let it wind down in its own time." Pete isn't sure where Gabe is, but the line is crackling like when Pete talked to relatives long distance in the 1980s. That might not be a real memory, though; that might be something he saw on television.

"I don't know if I want to take that advice," confesses Pete, and before he can hear what Gabe would say to that, Bronx throws up what looks like a quart of green Play-Doh and Pete has to hang.

Gabe's last words to him are, "Te amo, brother," and they keep him warm for days, through more than a couple of fights, more than a couple frustrations at the studio, more than a couple nights feeling like he'll never fill up the emptiness. He keeps Gabe's voice, warm and scratchy, wrapped around his heart, a blankie for grownups, while he signs the paperwork his lawyers put in front of him.

Not that Pete would ever call himself a grownup.

*

Pete calls Patrick before it hits the papers. "I just thought you should know," he tells Patrick's voicemail. Patrick's probably busy having his picture taken, or getting fitted for a new suit, or letting people who aren't Pete see his hair, or pretending his sperm didn't make half of Pete's baby. Yeah, he's probably pretending -- pretending he's not Pete's best friend, pretending he's not leaving Pete behind.

He's probably too busy dieting to answer his phone, too busy disappearing into a media machine.

Not fair, asshole, Pete tells himself firmly, and hangs up without saying goodbye, hangs up on the temptation to hit a button and re-record his message.

He doesn't do that anymore. It's a rule, one of eight that Patrick wrote out on the back of a paper Denny's placemat in Georgia. Pete wouldn't remember that, but the placemat says it, has the address of the Denny's. One day Pete's gonna go back and sit in the same booth and remember that moment in 2008 when Patrick said, "We've gotta have some new rules or I'm going to fucking kill you, Wentz."

Rule number five: leave a voicemail and then hang up.

They're stupid rules, but they help. They make Pete feel like an idiot sometimes, but they help. Pete knows he can leave as many voicemails as he wants, as long as he hangs up after each one, instead of staying on the phone, re-recording his message over and over until it's even more of a garbled mess, every word having lost all its meaning. Stupid. Stupid but it helps.

He doesn't call Patrick back, though. He only leaves one voicemail. Maybe he is a grownup.

Still, he scrambles when he hears Patrick's ringtone, Patrick's voice saying, "It's me, asshole, pick up the phone."

"Hole!" says Bronx, as Pete scrambles to answer the phone with his fingers covered in cookie dough. They're going over shapes -- delicious, delicious shapes. And Pete's probably going to have to change Patrick's ringtone before Bronx decides to start calling people assholes.

"Hi!" Pete says breathlessly.

"What the fuck?" demands Patrick. His voice over the line sounds like every night Pete couldn't sleep and called him at four am to sing or tell a story. But that's not this Patrick; Pete has to remind himself of that. This Patrick has his own EP, an album dropping soon, slick suits, expensive hair gel.

He still has time for Pete, though. Pete has to remember that, too.

"We don't. You know. It's time." Pete swipes his finger through the cookie dough and sucks it off. The sugar is rough against his tongue and the insides of his cheeks. Chocolate chips never taste the way Pete is sure they're supposed to. They're always sour, slightly chalky. No one would go crazy for that taste sensation; it's something wrong with Pete.

It's always something wrong with Pete.

"Is it… I mean…" Patrick cuts himself off. There's noise behind him -- not the snap and crackle of a phone line, but people talking, walking around. "You know. Is it?"

And it takes Pete a minute to realize what Patrick is asking, because Pete. Because. Because Pete forgets sometimes. For a moment. A split second. Just long enough for it to be a terrible fucking shock when he's reminded -- even now.

"No," he finally says to Patrick. He sucks more sugar, flour, butter, and pasteurized eggs off his finger, avoiding the chocolate chips. His teeth catch a grain of salt and it melts over his tongue. "That wasn't it at all. It's -- you know, I'm too much, and we're growing apart, and she wants to have a life and a career and being Pete Wentz's wife doesn't make that easy."

"You're not too much," Patrick says loyally, and Pete loves him for it, even as he knows it's a lie.

"You're too much, Rickster," Pete tells him. "Go be a rock star. Say bye to Patrick, Bronxie." He holds the phone out so Patrick can hear Bronx's babble.

"Pete," says Patrick. That's all he says. The pause stretches out and becomes a silence, and Pete sighs.

"I'm taking my meds. I'm talking to my therapist. I call my mom almost every day. I'm working, I have Bronx right now, I promise, Patrick, I'm okay. This is -- it sucks, but it's okay." Bronx hands Pete the dinosaur cookie cutter, and grabs the dreidel. It was part of a set of Hannukah-themed cookie cutters Joe had given him as a joke, but Bronx can't get enough of the dreidel.

"Okay, I'm going. Call me tonight and leave me a voicemail," Patrick orders. "I love you, you asshole. Don't make me worry."

"Pinky swear," says Pete, and hangs up before he starts to beg Patrick to drop everything and come to the house to stay for a while like they're young and free and starting a band and sharing an apartment. They'd need Joe to really make it work, but maybe Joe would come out, bring some of the old hardcore mix tapes Pete knows he still has in a couple of boxes somewhere. Bronx can play the role of Andy. He's cranky enough.

Pete presses a fist to his chest. Empty empty empty; everything aches. Bronx pats the hand holding the phone with a cookie dough-covered fist, and when Pete looks up, Bronx is frowning. Pete pulls a face, twisting his mouth, but Bronx isn't buying it. When Bronx hands him the dreidel cookie cutter, Pete feels himself fill up just a little bit.

*

"It's me," Pete says to Patrick's voicemail. "Do you ever think that every star is someone's wish, and when the star dies, it means that person won't get their wish? I think that sometimes, and I wonder if my wishes are the dead stars. I don't mean to sound like I've been shopping at Hot Topic -- although, dude, have you been there lately? Justin Bieber T-shirts. What is this world coming to?"

It's a shot day. Pete's all set up, just has to push the needle into his skin. He's never gotten over holding his breath, and his hand still shakes -- just a little, but the tremor is there. He'd gotten his first shot when he was fifteen; his doctor had been old and gruff, always called Pete "son." His nurses had kept peppermints and caramels in the pockets of their scrubs. Pete had liked that, had liked thinking of it as a regular appointment like other people had, for allergy shots and strep tests and asthma medication. For years, those appointments were the only times he ever felt the way he thought normal would feel -- even then, he recognized the irony.

He wonders if he could find the injection site if he looked closely enough. Maybe it would glow -- like a star. Like a wish.

There are other options. It doesn't have to be a shot. But Pete likes the ritual. Likes the feeling. Likes the knowing. For a while, he'd hated it, resented it, felt like it made him less of a man -- less of a person. But now it's almost… part of him. And it fills him up, makes him solid. He's not an outline. He's really there.

He stares at himself in the mirror.

"I feel like a grouchy old man," he says, more to himself than to Patrick's voicemail. "Kids these days, get off my lawn, I fought through a circle pit uphill both ways in the snow." He looks down at his phone. "I'm going to bed. Call me if you feel like singing." Pete hangs up and goes back to looking at himself in the mirror. He wants to call Ashlee -- that's what he's supposed to do, talk to Ashlee while he takes his pills. But he can't, because they don't do that anymore.

In every place he's ever lived, he's kept the sharps box in the same place: under the bathroom sink with the poisonous chemicals. He doesn't mean it to be any kind of metaphor, though. It's just a good place. It's hard to open the cabinet door with the childproof thing on it; he always pulls the door open too far and then presses on the plastic tab instead of only opening it slightly so the tab presses easily.

That is a metaphor. That's a metaphor that doesn't even require any work or thought.

Sometimes Patrick does call now, late at night. Pete's not the only one who has an emptiness, and the thought is reassuring. ("No matter what," his therapist always tells him, "you're never alone. There are always people who feel almost the exact same way that you do, people who have been through what you're going through. You know better than anyone how people can relate to what you put out there, Pete. You're never alone.") Patrick had called and sang what ended up being "Love, Selfish Love" one night; Pete had said, "No, definitely don't put that on the album."

"All my friends go to the ends of the earth for secrets they don't want to keep," Pete says softly to the Pete in the mirror. Mirror Pete's nipples are hard under his tank top. Pete lifts his shirt and touches one, the one that still has a scar from the nipple piercing. That's the only scar; Pete's moobs are tiny, always have been. He didn't need more scars.

He presses his nipple, and mirror Pete shudders a little. Mirror Pete wants to slide his hands down and get off, but real Pete is tired and feels too ugly and mean tonight.

Pete takes the small paper cup he'd put his meds in and tosses it back like a shot, chases it with a long swallow of water from a plastic cup covered in tiny Pingus. Mood stabilizer, a terrible joke. Anti-anxiety, a lie. Anti-psychotic, the scary-sounding one. Pete hates that one. The off-label use makes the mood stabilizer work better -- "I really do not think you're psychotic," his therapist had said, clearly trying to be reassuring -- although no one could prove it by Pete. Or maybe the right someone could, since he's still alive, still pushing, still writing, still getting up on a stage and ripping his heart out for people to see.

No, that's wrong. These days, he carefully snips and cuts until his heart just slides out on its own.

The milligram of klonopin that is supposed to help him calm down enough to sleep always leaves a bitter taste on the back of his tongue, no matter how much water he drinks. He shouldn't have taken it; it's just him and Bronx tonight, so he doesn't want to take a sleeping pill, so all the klonopin will do is make him woozy and give him a headache.

He lies down anyway -- he's sleeping in one of the guest rooms, the one with the twin bed. He puts his phone on the bedside table, next to the baby monitor. Bronx is still awake, even though Pete put him down a while ago; Pete can hear him moving around in his crib and talking to himself. He usually falls asleep pretty easily, though -- just like Patrick.

*

The phone rings and Pete answers it before he's even awake. He fell asleep when the sun rose, shining into the guest room, a bright, hot spot on his face.

"When I said to let it fade, that was only because I thought it would come back," says Gabe's voice. "Why didn't you tell me, papi?"

"Gabe --" Pete's got a lump in his throat, and it's making his whole mouth hurt.

"Okay," says Gabe, like he knows. "Later, though."

Pete's got a million texts -- one from Bronx's nanny, telling him that she showed up and let herself in while he was sleeping, didn't want to wake him, took Bronx to the park to eat breakfast and feed birds. One from Ashlee ("I'm okay. Are you okay?"; damn, what does she think?); six hundred thousand @replies from Twitter, because he didn't turn off the phone notifications, even though he knows he should have. Four from Travie, the last one just, "Ill b seeing u soon," which sounds kind of ominous -- or would, if Travie wasn't Travie and Pete wasn't Pete.

One from Patrick. "Stop going into Hot Topic, you sick fuck."

Pete grins and rolls out of bed. Two hours of sleep is more than enough for facing this day, and maybe he can cajole someone into bringing him some crazy Starbucks concoction with more sugar than coffee.

He moves his cock around a little, scratches. He doesn't always wear a cock to bed, but he'd wanted the weight last night, and it feels good this morning, holding him down. He's real, he's real, he's real, he exists, he's a person, he's not totally full, but he's not totally empty either. The mirror in the bathroom is big enough that he can see the bulge of his dick when he walks into the bathroom. He likes the way it looks with his tattoos and his black briefs.

The day is gonna be okay, he's gonna get through it. There are no other options. It's get through it or nothing, and Pete's had the nothing before, creeping into everything. Never again. He knows the name of the Childlike Empress; he's protected.