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From The Sidelines

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When Louis left for the first time, Marshall tried his best to stop him right up until the last minute. On the morning of his flight, Marshall was in his room from dawn while Louis packed, yelling at him, wheedling, comforting, begging. Louis' face was implacable as always.

"I don't know what you think this is going to get you," Marshall said finally when his throat was hoarse from his many different versions of last resorts. "I get that you've lost your girl, Louis, but this is just running blindly into the world for no reason."

Louis turned to him at last, his mouth set tight and his cheekbones standing out from his pale, tired face. "Running doesn't have to get me to anything, Marshall," he said, "as long as it gets me away from here."

He grabbed his bag and stormed out of the room, leaving Marshall with a blow to his gut that, perhaps for the first time in the history of their fights, was not caused by Louis' fist.

*

Music was, as always, the beginning.

From the first time he and Louis had played with the boys in front of a live audience, together, Marshall knew that this was it. This was as good as it could get, the way they fit together, the way the music rose from deep inside them and burst out into the mess of people and sounds and lights. The strong connection that he and his brother always had now lit up the entire fucking stage; and when they sang, screamed the lyrics into each other's faces, they also breathed in the same air from each other's mouths before each line. This was how it was meant to be.

All right, so some things could have been better, but Marshall had always known that he would have to make do with what he was given in life. He knew where he came from, and he wasn't special enough for anything more, so that kept him from looking. He was a decent bass player in a decent band with a fairly good life, and that was enough.

*

When Louis came to Nick's birthday party, Marshall couldn't keep his mouth from smiling, even after he had punched Louis' lip bloody and sent the new girlfriend running off into the ether. Louis came back inside and grinned reluctantly at the others, and Marshall slammed a beer into his hand.

"So, how's the well-to-do stockbroker, then?" he teased as he glanced Louis up and down. He looked good, Marshall reflected, if a bit like a pompous ass.

"Oh, fuck off," said Louis. Marshall couldn't even feel offended because he knew from Louis' tight face that it was well-to-do only in the money, not in anything else. Well, he could have told Louis that himself. Without music, neither of them were anything real.

Marshall didn't want to deal with that thought just now, so he proceeded to get them both horrendously drunk. After the raucous singing and the heartfelt declarations of love between Nick and Joe and any other effusive lads around, Marshall found himself in a cab with his brother draped all over him, possibly drooling a little into his shoulder. This was familiar; Louis never could hold his liquor.

"Where d'you live?" he asked Louis, realizing with a jolt that he had no idea.

"Mmph," Louis replied, turning his face into Marshall's neck. Marshall snorted but reached up instinctively to stroke Louis' hair as he gave the cab driver the address to his own flat. It was strange how quickly they could go from raging blows at each other back to young, tired boys, with Marshall back in his role as the protector and comforter, but he wasn't complaining. His inner reminiscence continued as they crashed into Marshall's bed, and while Marshall drifted off, he realized that he'd never quite forgotten the way his little brother breathed in his sleep.

*

The problem: Louis was special, a more-than-decent musician. Marshall had always known that as well, no matter how much he tried to ignore it. As a boy his denial had been a product of jealousy, that his stupid baby brother could be more talented than he was, but as he grew older he realized that Louis was too important to take that lightly. He was, actually, a quiet kid – so wrapped up in himself and so clearly pining for a better life that Marshall had no choice but to look out for him.

And as a result, Marshall had some way of feeding off that brilliance too, taking in that energy to make his own life brighter. Now when Marshall resented his brother's genius, it was because he knew how dependent he was on it – on him.

So yes, Marshall knew that Louis was special, better, separate.

The real problem was that Louis knew it too.

*

When Louis left for them the second time, he had invited Marshall over without even mentioning his plan on the phone, but Marshall had known from his voice that something was coming. "I'm sensing another big life change," he called out after Louis had taken his coat and offered him a drink. "You had your epiphany voice on back then."

Louis came back with the glasses and quirked a smile, saying, "Didn't know I had a special voice for it."

"There's a lot of things you don't know about yourself," Marshall told him.

Louis' smile slipped a little, and he picked up a photo that had been on the table, handing it to Marshall. It was that fucking Polaroid, the one that Marshall had taken to commemorate his baby brother's wild one night stand under the stars. The one with the girl. He had a sudden urge to crumple it up in his fist.

"So you are still living in the past," he said instead, as lightly as he could manage.

"Oh, and you're one to talk? Nice film at the party by the way, it was nice to see myself looking so much younger."

"Younger and prettier," Marshall agreed, "there's no way you're getting those days back."

Louis just looked at him, considering.

"All right, I'll bite," Marshall said, waving the picture. "What is this all about? Just in case I'd forgotten the reason you left the band in the first place?"

Louis scowled at him as if that whole situation was his fault. "You guess," he said, and began pacing around the room, finding things to rummage around.

Marshall knew, of course. The party had evidently made Louis realize again that he was missing something good in his life, but as usual he couldn't tell what it was or how to find it. So Marshall pretended not to understand. "Well, Steve tells me you're quitting your job."

"That's right."

There were other photographs on the lower level of the table, Marshall realized, pictures of the band in the old days. Somehow that was what made it hit home – despite the fact that he could see them through the glass table, the girl was still up high and the band was relegated to the bottom. He fingered one more picture of himself and his brother before Louis said, "Let it go, Marshall," his voice knowing, and the rest of the conversation drifted out of Marshall's control.

He tried to use his best excuses again but even as he let them loose, he knew they were pathetic. Insult him, tell him why the girl was too good for him. Maybe those tricks worked for the little kid Louis, but this one was too hard and bitter.

The only other thing that stayed in his mind from the conversation was a curious echo of past grievances.

"Do you not know where you came from, Louis?"

"I've always known where I came from, Marshall. And now I know where I'm going."

*

Yes, Louis knew that he was special. It didn't make him conceited or pompous, which Marshall supposed was a good thing.

Instead it fueled his innate sense of hope – because Louis, like all who want to make their realities out of an amalgam of disjointed fairy tale wishes, thought that having gifts should set him on a path for something different. A destiny, maybe. And it made him not only optimistic, Marshall knew, but it also accorded him with an explanation for his loneliness, a reason for the lost feeling he had experienced all his life.

Though Marshall didn't feel even remotely the same way, he grew to understand his brother's isolation, learned how to deal with it in subtle ways. Well, sometimes subtle.

*

When Louis called them to New York, although his voice was even and his request was welcome, Marshall knew that everything had gone wrong in Louis' plan and braced himself to deal with the after-effects.

His arrival, as usual, managed to be the spark that let Louis pour out his anger and frustration. "I was so close," he shouted, slamming his hand down on the wooden table in the apartment he had taken. "I was there – standing outside her fucking building – while she was on her honeymoon! Oh, God, Marshall, I want to beat the crap out of something."

"That's what I'm here for, baby bro," Marshall said. Louis just looked at him though, his anger draining into hopelessness, so he added, "And of course to say I told you so. Guys like you and me, we never get the princess, we're just big fuckin' losers – and there's nothing you can do about it."

That got Louis growling and fisting his hands in Marshall's shirt, threatening to blacken his eye if he said shit like that anymore. Again, familiar. Marshall yelled back and grabbed him at his neck, and it seemed for a moment like they would have a good old-fashioned brawl to get all the energy out, but then Louis stopped and looked at him properly for the first time.

"You're baiting me," he said slowly, even though his voice was still laced with anger.

"Like I said, that's what I'm here for," Marshall shot back.

Louis took a deep, shuddering breath. "I – " He snorted. "I know I usually just go with it when you do this to help me, but I don't think I can be that much of an ass right now to beat you bloody. I. Well."

Marshall frowned; he could still feel Louis quivering with all the pent-up feelings inside, and he wasn't sure what other way to help him other than to fight it out, because that was what they did, and otherwise there was only –

– oh.

Right, so it had happened before, other times when fighting had seemed too painful or tiring and comfort was more important than release of energy; and it was fucked up, but it was so very clearly a coping mechanism that both of them went with it and never questioned, not really.

Well, then. Might as well get on with it.

Marshall looked at his thumbs digging into Louis' neck, the rise and fall of their chests in the same harsh rhythm, and then looked back up at Louis' eyes, nodding tightly before shoving him up against a wall and surging in to bite at his mouth.

Louis kissed back with the same ferocity and disregard for finesse, fisting his hands tighter into Marshall's shirt and jutting out his hips until Marshall pressed his whole body against him to keep him in place. They pulled back from the kiss and struggled for a moment as Louis tried to spin him around instead, until Louis gave in and sank into the wall, baring his neck as Marshall bit, licked, and sucked his way down to Louis' collarbone. Louis was breathing in shallow, desperate gasps, and Marshall couldn't help but think how sad it was that Louis was so turned on already – that he was falling apart this easily.

Except that Marshall was maybe falling apart a little too, because he'd forgotten how intense this could be, how much easier and yet how much tougher this was than fighting. It was more like their music together, that bond that came when they shared the same air and the same notes, when they were caught up in the whirlwind excitement of everything and each other, burning so brightly that they might blind each other or the world at any moment.

Marshall pulled his mouth back to take a deep breath of his own before flicking the button of Louis' jeans and reached his hand down. There were better ways, but Marshall wasn't sure he could manage anything else right now. He jerked Louis off roughly, and they both collapsed together, sighing as one as Louis let go of himself.

Though Marshall had to admit that his breaking down was more emotional than physical; it made him think too much about what he could want if he let himself dream too wildly. Those were dangerous, life-altering, hopeless thoughts that Marshall just did not want to let rise too high in his mind, even though they sometimes did anyway in his heart.

And that was why they usually stuck to fighting.

*

That was how it went, Marshall helped and dealt while Louis struggled inside himself. It worked well enough, in Marshall's opinion.

But then came the girl, that night that had apparently changed Louis' life forever. Marshall had at first been thrilled to see his brother having some fun at a party, on a rooftop no less, and even the adoration that he could see in Louis' eyes didn't particularly faze him. The boy needed to let loose a little more often, obviously, and also the whole situation was terribly funny. Marshall and the others poked and teased Louis all day, and in his happiness Louis responded only with easy laughs.

It was not until he reached the other low, after the girl left and broke his heart, that Marshall saw the true effects of that night. It was unlike any mood or anger that Louis had ever expressed before. Marshall was frightened because for once he didn't know what to do.

This was the danger of destiny, after all; Louis' sense of fate was what led him to put all his belief in this girl, to think that she was the answer to everything he had been searching for. A part of Marshall couldn't stand the idea because he knew that it would only end with Louis in further pain, and that this dreaming had to stop now, at the worst point it could get to in Louis' life.

But another, weaker part of Marshall filled him with hatred for the girl not because of the pain she had caused his brother, but for the joy she had brought him in the first place. It didn't seem fair that a lifetime of soothing and fighting and protecting couldn't match up to one random night with a stranger.

And Louis, who at the least had never shied away from any of his troubles before, was now so stricken that he wanted to escape it all, to run away. This was not the Louis that Marshall knew. He didn't know how one night could change a person – his brother - so utterly. It was the most fearful, shocking thing he could think of.

*

When Louis left him for the last time, it was completely unexpected.

They had been laughing and joking in the cab after their first reunion concert. Marshall couldn't stop grinning again, and he felt a joy bubbling up inside him that just made him want to shout. This was it again, this was the best they could get not because they couldn't reach higher, but because having low expectations meant they were more likely to be met. Louis finally understood that.

He could see the change, though, the shift in Louis' face as he went from glancing idly out the window to staring at a banner on a lamppost. The epiphany look, just as clear as the voice, that burst of disbelief, realization, and glimmerings of hope all wrapped together.

And Marshall didn't even have to look at it to know that it meant the end of everything, because if Louis had created his desires from far-fetched dreams, Marshall had secured his with the unequivocal knowledge that dreams could not come true. He had put his utmost faith in the shittiness of life to give him just enough to survive and nothing more to hope for, and it had always seemed like a low-risk bargain, the safest kind.

Sometimes, though, fairy-tale endings came true; destinies were valued and fulfilled, long-lost lovers were reunited by the forces of music and serendipity alone, and there was nothing that ordinary people could do about it but look on as the chosen ones were handed their happy endings. And so Marshall could only watch, helpless, as Louis got out of the cab, burning down Marshall's cast-iron mediocrity with a flash of impossible fortune, and began to run.