Fourteen Years Ago
The rain is falling so hard and thick that it's making it almost impossible to see beyond their parking spot at the gas station and down the road. Tommy checks the digital face on his watch again – 11:17pm – and paces back and forth in front of the hood of the car. Thunder rumbles in the distance, but he doesn't pay it any attention. He's too busy trying not to panic.
"C'mon, B, hurry your ass up," he mutters under his breath. He's soaked to the skin, clothes plastered to a frame that he's rapidly outgrowing, but it's unimportant. Brendan should be here by now. They'd agreed on 11pm – four hours before Pop got off his shift at the mill. Plenty of time to get a head start, to get the fuck out of Dodge and put some miles between them and Paddy Conlon's predictably unpredictable rage.
But it's going on 11:30 now, and Brendan, for all his faults, is never late.
Mom, warm and dry and safe for the moment, is in the driver's seat. When Tommy glances back to see how she's doing, she raps on the windshield, beckons him to join her in the car. He opens the door and climbs into his seat. His clothes squelch as he sits. He shivers.
Gentle fingers smooth wet strands of hair from his forehead. Her voice is gentle, soft, like Tommy's a skittish colt in need of soothing, when she speaks. "He's not coming, sweetheart."
He's shaking his head no before she's finished the sentence. "He promised, Mom," he argues, certain that Brendan will be here any second now. Any second. Brendan has never let Tommy down, not once. He's been there at all of Tommy's matches, has protected Tommy from the worst of Pop's shit...when Brendan makes a promise, that's as ironclad as it gets. "We planned it. The three of us, getting out together. Starting a new life."
"Maybe Tess – "
"She's just some girl," Tommy spits out, hackles rising at just the name. He'd never cared much for any of Tommy's other girlfriends, but something about Tess had been different. Brendan's different around her. All moony-eyed and ridiculous. "She's not you and me. She's not family."
"Not to us, no." Her smile is sad, but somehow still beautiful. Her eyes are wet behind her glasses. "We have to go."
"But..." His heart stutters in his chest. His voice chokes and cracks. "He's not gonna know where to find us, Mom. We don't even know where we're going." They'd planned it that way on purpose, just in case Pop had cottoned on to what they'd been plotting. They were supposed to figure out an end destination after they'd gotten on the road.
"I know." She lets out a shaky breath, then straightens. Her hands are steady, but white-knuckled, on the steering wheel. "We'll be okay on our own. I promise."
He nods, head bent. He can't bear to look out the windows as they drive out of the gas station and get on the on-ramp to I-376, the windshields working overtime as the rain continues to hammer down around them. Brendan had promised.
He takes out his wallet, still damp from his jeans, and flips it open until he gets to the picture of himself and Brendan, Brendan in street clothes, Tommy dressed in his wrestling uniform, taken right after one of Tommy's matches. They have each other in a headlock and they're sporting twin maniacal grins. After a moment, the picture starts to blur and he furiously rubs at his eyes, angrily swiping away the moisture.
"We'll be okay," Mom repeats, and reaches across the seat to lay a quick, comforting hand on top of his.
"Yeah," he replies, and snaps the wallet shut. He's done looking back.
Five months after Sparta
Marine Corps Brig at Quantico, VA
Brendan shivered under his coat as another gust of wind blew past. He should have brought gloves. The chain-link fence swayed, but the security cameras set up on the perimeters didn't move. Nor did the razor-wire at the top of the fence. The place looked cold, remote, desolate. Like the prison it was.
And Tommy – his Tasmanian devil of a brother, who'd always needed to move to survive – had been stuck in there, behind those barren walls, for the past five months.
But that was all changing today. And Brendan didn't mind admitting, if only to himself, that he was nervous. The last few months had flown by in a flurry of public appearances and interviews (which still freaked him out – he wasn't that special, certainly not worth all the publicity – even though he knew most of it was because of his connection to Tommy) and taking care of a ton of business concerns, but he'd still had time to spare more than one thought for how this moment might go. How he and Tommy would act once they were finally together, with no cages or bars between them. He had no idea what to expect.
He checked his watch again, resisted the urge to pace. 45 minutes of waiting and no sign of activity. But that was government bureaucracy for you – hurry up and wait. Asking for anything in a timely manner was just begging for trouble.
Finally, the gated door opened and Tommy stepped onto the sidewalk, squinting as the sunlight hit his eyes. He had a duffel bag hitched high on his shoulder. He'd lost a little muscle mass over the last few months, but still looked solid enough. Real.
Brendan waved, and Tommy waved back, started walking over to the small parking lot. His wide, open grin was jarring, jolting already jittery nerves. Brendan definitely hadn't been expecting some sort of heartfelt, smiling reunion. Hallmark moments were far from the Conlon way of doing things.
Tommy set the bag down in front of Brendan. He was wearing worn jeans, a black thermal shirt, and a beat up pea coat, and had a grey knit cap pulled low on his forehead. "You drove from Philly in that thing?" he asked, by way of greeting, and jerked a thumb at the Camry.
"Hi to you, too," Brendan replied, unsure if he should laugh or be insulted. He held out a hand, waited to see if Tommy would take it. If they could start building a new foundation together.
Tommy looked down, then up at Brendan through his lashes, and spread his hands out wide. "What're we, strangers now? You're not gonna hug your little brother hello? I haven't seen you in months, man."
Brendan dropped his hand, stared back. What the hell was Tommy playing at? Sure, they'd done a fair amount of talking while Tommy'd been holed up here, waiting for his hearing and sentence, but it had mostly been quick phone calls. They hadn't actually connected since Sparta. "I, well, I wasn't..."
"Jesus, when did you get to be such a pussy," Tommy lamented, and before Brendan could react, he was pulled into a rough, quick embrace. Tommy smelled like peppermint and industrial-strength detergent.
"There," Tommy declared, once they parted, like he was making a pronouncement. Brendan still wasn't entirely sure what Tommy was trying to say.
"Yeah, uh, okay." Brendan rubbed his hands together, noticed they were sweating. "You, uh, you got everything?"
"Everything they let me keep," Tommy replied, so nonchalantly that it had to be an act. He pointed at the Camry again. "Seriously, this car, man. It's hopeless. I thought you woulda bought a Lexus or Beemer or something."
"Seems like a waste of money when the old girl runs just fine," Brendan replied, then grinned as a thought occurred to him. If Tommy wanted to play this game and act like everything was just hunky dory, Brendan could roll with it, and get back some of his own. "Besides, bling's not my thing."
"That was terrible, Brendan," Tommy replied, but his crooked grin told a different story. When they'd been kids, Tommy'd always been a sucker for Brendan's bad rhymes. It was nice to know some things hadn't changed.
And seeing that familiar smile broke Brendan's heart for all the lost years, for everything they'd missed. He had no idea how they were ever going to get that back, or if they even wanted to, if they were doomed to be strangers now who shared DNA, much like him and Pop. "Anyway, hop in. If we get a shake on, we can beat the rush hour traffic in the 'Burgh."
Tommy paused in the act of putting his duffel bag in the trunk. "You're coming to Pittsburgh?"
"What, you thought I drove all the way down here to say hi?" Brendan slammed the trunk shut. "I'm here to take you home. Just like we agreed."
"Yeah, I remember what you said," Tommy shrugged, but Brendan could hear the defensive note in his voice. "I just figured you might be too busy with all those fancy commercials and interviews and such you're doing now to spend time at the homestead." The with me was unspoken, but as loud as if Tommy'd shouted it.
Guess Tommy'd had a chance to watch some TV while he was in the brig, Brendan thought. "We talked about this." Brendan wasn't going to apologize for any of it. He'd earned the right to those commercials and interviews, and the money that had come with. "The extra money'll be a nice nest egg, and I owed Frank the publicity."
"Frank, that's your trainer, right?" Tommy asked, and nodded when Brendan did. "He the one that trained you when you were with the UFC?"
"You knew about that?" Brendan asked, surprised.
"Some guys in my unit used to watch you fight back in the day. They all thought it was funny you had the same last name as me."
"You never told them we were brothers." It wasn't a question.
Tommy shrugged and hunched his shoulders forward like he was trying to defend himself against an attack that wasn't coming. It was answer enough.
"Doesn't matter," Brendan finally said, and it didn't. Whatever Tommy did to survive, both within himself and in the outside world, it was all fine, even if it wasn't. No way was he going to cast stones, not after everything. They'd all had to adapt and find their own way over the years.
He held open the passenger door. "Let's just get you home."
Tommy didn't move. "What about Tess and the girls? I mean, you shouldn't have to take time away from your family just to ferry your crazy brother back home."
"You're not crazy," Brendan replied, and there it was. The elephant in the proverbial room. He knew this 'everything is fine, we're cool' act was too good to last.
Tommy shoved his hands in his coat pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. "Got a court-appointed therapist that would tell you different, man. Post-traumatic whatever, abandonment and anger issues, addictive personality, hell, you name it. I'm a walking disaster."
"You're not a disaster." Which wasn't the complete truth, but that wasn't the point. It wasn't what Tommy needed to hear. God knew Brendan wasn't much better, even if he did do a good job hiding it most days. "And I don't think your therapist thinks you're crazy, either. I just think you've had some crazy shit happen to you is all. It's a miracle either of us is functional." He held Tommy's gaze, tried to project as much calm as he could. Tommy, for all of his combative stance, looked so wounded, so lost. "Did talking to someone at least help?" he asked.
"Yeah, maybe, I dunno." Tommy slid off his cap and rubbed his hand over the short bristles of his hair, then stuffed the hat in his coat pocket. "You tell me. Am I a danger to myself and society?"
"I haven't seen you in fourteen years," Brendan said gently. "Not really. I don't know you." He was hoping like hell to change that, but it didn't change the truth. "Do you think you are?"
The silence stretched wide between them, and was only broken when Tommy let out a harsh breath. "Sometimes yeah. Sometimes, not so much."
"That's sounds fair." It was honest, at least, which was the best they could hope for. Then he nodded at the door. "You ready to head out?"
"As I'll ever be, I guess. Not like the Corps' gonna change their mind and beg me to stay," Tommy stated, and finally got in the car.
Brendan waited until they were both strapped in their seats before he handed Tommy a plain envelope that had been sitting on the dashboard. "It's from Pilar," he said. "She wanted me to wait to give it to you until you got out."
Tommy smoothed a hand over it, traced the letters of his name with a finger. "Did you...are they good?"
"Yeah, they're great," Brendan replied. He knew what Tommy really wanted to know. "Did everything, just like we talked about. Took care of the house, set up a fund for the kids." And flying to El Paso – meeting Pilar and the kids, meeting this family that had been the closest thing Tommy'd had to one since Mom died – was as illuminating as it was painful. He wished he'd had a chance to meet Manny, shake his hand and tell him thanks for looking out for his brother. But he supposed making sure Manny's family was taken care of was thanks enough.
"Thanks." Tommy smiled again, a little wan around the edges, but genuine enough. Brendan took it as a good sign.
"You gonna tell me what happened during your hearing?"
Tommy turned his head to stare out the window and the passing scenery, but his voice carried clear enough. "General under honorable conditions, got off with time served, my rank wasn't busted, and I keep all my VA benefits," he said flatly, like he was reciting a grocery list.
Brendan glanced at Tommy's reflection through the glass, then back at the road. "That's good, right? I mean, that you weren't tried as a deserter or anything and that you're still eligible for benefits?"
"Yeah, I guess, for all the good it does me. What am I gonna do, start fighting full-time, get a sponsor, do the whole tour, UFC thing? Hang out at AA meetings with Pop and start reading Hemingway on the back porch?"
"I got some ideas," Brendan said, hoping like hell Tommy would be amenable to them. "But we can talk about that after we get you settled."
"Yeah, alright," Tommy replied, then flicked at the mini-Steelers helmet swinging from the rearview mirror. "Cute. Thought maybe you'd have switched over to the Eagles and Phillies."
"Not in a million years," Brendan chuckled, then slid another glance Tommy's way. "What about you? Did you become a Mariners and Seahawks fan?"
Tommy shook his head, relaxed into his seat. "Hell no. I still bleed black and gold, man. Although, I gotta say, the Pirates ain't been even halfway good since we were kids. It's getting embarrassing."
"At least the Steelers and Penguins are still winning," Brendan replied, and it felt good to talk sports with Tommy like the old days. "My principal's a rabid Flyers fan, so we sometimes place friendly bets when they play each other."
"Speaking of, you all retired from teaching now?"
"Nah, I'm just taking a small sabbatical, getting all the ducks in a row, doing some stuff around the house, that sort of thing. I'll go back next semester."
"What do you teach again?"
Brendan accepted the change in subject, and latched on to the idea of getting a chance to fill in those missing years. "High school physics. Someone put a Conlon in charge of the young minds of America, as scary as that sounds."
Tommy huffed out a laugh. "Nah, that's not scary. Scary would be me teaching anyone. You were always good with science and shit, knowing how to build things and fix them."
"I guess so," Brendan replied, but wondered privately why it was he could talk theory and laws all day, but when it came to fixing the most important things in his life, he had no idea where to start.
It felt odd being back in the old neighborhood and at the house. Brendan hadn't stepped foot there since he'd bolted right after high school, desperate to get out from under Paddy's thumb and out of Tommy's shadow.
"Place has changed," he commented, when he followed Tommy through the front door and into the living room. The furniture was now masculine, worn, and arranged differently than when they'd been growing up. Pictures of himself and Tommy now dominated every available space. He had no idea Pop still even had most of them.
"Yeah." Tommy glanced around, hefted his duffel bag higher on his shoulder. "Wait 'til you see our old room. It's kinda spooky."
Brendan followed Tommy up the stairs, which still creaked in the same spots. He stopped at the threshold of their bedroom – it looked frozen in time. All of Tommy's trophies, all of his own sports paraphernalia, the beds, the paint on the walls...nothing had changed. The effect was freaky, odd. When Brendan turned to face Tommy, he half expected to see Tommy as a gangly ten year-old, all exuberance and scraped knees and smiles when he wasn't training and competing on the mat.
"Weird, isn't it?" Tommy commented, wrinkling his nose. "Sorta like time stopped or something."
"Yeah," Brendan agreed, and ran a thumb across one of Tommy's innumerable wrestling trophies. His own display of trophies had been pitiful in comparison. Brendan didn't even know where any of them were now – they could be gathering mold in the attic or maybe they'd been tossed out with the trash.
"I knew I'd never be half as good as you, you know," he mused, then peeked over at Tommy, who was framed in the doorway, taking up all the space and all of the oxygen in the room, like he'd always done, even when they'd been little. Everyone was drawn into Tommy's orbit, whether they wanted to be or not, and Brendan had never been an exception. He didn't blame Pop for not wanting anything to do with training him after Tommy left, not anymore. He got it now.
"What're you talking about?" Tommy's brows furrowed together. "You won plenty of boxing matches. You had that left hook – pow –" he mimed an uppercut " – had me seeing stars more than once when we sparred."
"I was tenacious," Brendan argued, shaking his head. "I wore guys down for a few rounds, sure, but that's not talent." He offered a one-shouldered shrug as Tommy stepped around him and sat gingerly on the edge of his bed like he couldn't figure out if wanted to bolt or stay put. Brendan knew how he felt. Just being back in this place brought up too many memories. Too many failures.
"That's what Pop saw in you, you know," he continued. "When you were on the mat, it was like you were operating on another plane than anyone else. You were...man, you were poetic out there. Like that Greek dude you and Pop were always on about."
"Yeah, well." Tommy stooped his shoulders forward like he was trying to crawl inside himself. His coat suddenly looked much too big for him. "Talent and poetic whatever are fucking overrated. Not like either got me anything except a bunch of useless trophies for the old man to fawn over. They couldn't help me save Mom. Or Manny." He looked up, face shuttered. "I couldn't compete with Tess for you."
"Shit, Tommy..." Brendan sank down on his own bed, stared at Tommy, the small space between them looming like an insurmountable gulf. There were far too many years between them to tackle at once, and Brendan wasn't even sure where to start. "You're my brother. It's not a matter of choosing. You know that, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever you say."
"Hey." Brendan scooted forward. Tried to bridge a little of the distance. "I'm serious here. I love you. Nothing's ever gonna change that. Not Tess, not Pop, not my girls – and if I'd had any idea where to start looking for you and Mom, I'd've done it the second I turned 18 and got the hell out of this house. I can't change the past. But I'm here now, and I will never bail on you again, I swear." It wasn't enough, but it was a good place to start.
"Mom wanted to send for you once we got to Tacoma," Tommy told him, stretching each word like they were being pulled out of him by force. "I wouldn't let her do it. I was so freakin' mad at you..." His voice faltered, stopped.
"It's okay," Brendan said, gently. "We don't have to do this. We don't ever have to do this."
"She asked after you at the end," Tommy continued, like Brendan hadn't said anything. "And I straight up lied to her, lied to my own mother. Told her I'd tried to find you and couldn't."
Brendan's heart cracked at the raw pain in Tommy's voice. They'd done a number on each other, alright, and all without laying a hand on each other. "It's okay." To his surprise, he found he really meant it. The past didn't matter, and all of his simmering anger and resentment weren't worth it.
"C'mon, let's get some shuteye. Got a long day tomorrow."
"Sure, okay," Tommy nodded, and pushed himself up. "You, uh...you wanna maybe go for a run in the morning?"
It was a start. "Sure," Brendan replied, and smiled. "That'd be great."
Sleeping in his childhood bed had been the weirdest sense of déjà vu, especially coupled with Tommy's familiar snores. As exhausted as Brendan had been from the drive, he'd tossed and turned most of the night, listening to the pounding of the rain on the window sill, trying to make sense of just what the hell he was doing.
They were both so damaged, reduced from being the best of friends to tiptoeing around each other like they used to when Pop had gone off on one of his rages. He didn't know how long he could be in this house without completely going off the deep end. He'd come too far, fought too hard to create a new life for himself, far from the toxicity of his childhood, to slide back. And he wouldn't go back. Not even for Tommy.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle by the time Brendan and Tommy both woke up and stumbled downstairs. There was a fresh pot of coffee waiting for them on the burner, but no sign of Pop. Brendan figured maybe he didn't want to be underfoot, or maybe he just didn't want to be around Tommy when Brendan was around to divide his attention...
He stopped himself before he could continue down that road, put the brakes on that line of thought. Not today, he reminded himself. He wasn't gonna go down that road again, wasn't gonna give in to the old bullshit, the old insecurities.
"Thought you said you didn't drink coffee," he observed, leaning a hip against the counter as Tommy filled two mugs.
Tommy passed one over and grinned, eyes flashing with little boy glee. "And you believed me, man?"
"Guess I shoulda known better," Brendan agreed, and raised his mug in salute before drinking. At least Tommy's joy in getting one over on him was still the same.
The house may have changed, but the neighborhood was still the same – relentlessly blue-collar, with neat rows of houses and well-manicured lawns, tree-lined streets, and the river as a silent sentinel watching over it all. The drizzle had become a fine mist by the time they set out, but they didn't bother to pull parkas on over their sweats. They were both used to going out in far worse conditions.
They kept easy pace with each other for the first couple of miles, testing each other and themselves, settling into a rhythm like no time had passed at all since the last time they'd done this.
Being with Tommy again was like relearning a lost language, learning to wrap his head and heart back around once recognizable nuances and inflections. Once, that language had been as second nature to him as breathing. Once, he and Tommy'd had their own shorthand, their own dictionary. Brendan was determined to be fluent in it once again.
They hit the path that led them past the train tracks in the fourth mile, and Brendan couldn't help the small smile when one of the commercial trains rumbled past them. When they'd both been kids, he and Tommy had looked upon the trains in awe at what they'd represented – escape. A way out, a new life far from the 'Burgh and Paddy's wild mood swings. And even though they'd both managed to get out, Brendan knew neither of them had really been able to shake the town or truly escape their past.
You can't escape your roots, a friend had told him once, and he'd scoffed at the time, but now he thought he understood what it meant.
Over the last few months, Brendan had worked really hard on coming to some sort of peace with that.
"C'mon, I wanna show you something," he told Tommy, and turned right. It was time. If they were going to have a future together as a family, they needed to start now, start building that new foundation. Tommy kept up with him easily, but as they crested the hill and turned the corner to Fitzy's – Colt's, Brendan reminded himself, Tommy slowed to a crawl, then stopped.
Brendan stopped beside him, taking the opportunity to catch his breath. He wiped the worst of the sweat from his forehead with the hem of the t-shirt he had on under his sweatshirt. "Welcome home."
"I don't understand." Tommy gestured at the sign – newly painted and proudly saying 'Conlon's Gym & VA Rehab Center' in bright blue letters – then looked at Brendan. "What the hell's going on?"
Brendan offered a sheepish shrug. "Well, it's like you said. You're not going back in the Corps. And you're a little young to retire...and if you didn't want to get back in the octagon, I figured this would give you a chance to do something else, and help other vets at the same time."
"It's..." Tommy stopped, shook his head. He looked shell-shocked. "Jesus, Brendan."
"C'mon, let me show you around."
Once in the gym, it was a hive of activity of contractors and laborers, a steady hum of noise punctuated by the strike of a hammer and the high buzz of a saw. Everything was coming along nicely, Brendan thought, but most of his attention was reserved for Tommy, who was looking around like he'd never been inside the building before.
"You really bought this place?"
Brendan shook his head. "You did. I had a fund set up in your name and used that to buy it. There's a little left over for you to get a place to live or to use as more seed money or something."
"But...your mortgage...your bills..."
"All taken care of," Brendan replied, cupping the back of his neck as he fought the urge to fidget. He wasn't exactly comfortable talking about his family's financial situation, but this was Tommy. "Tess and me, we're debt free, we've got college funds for the girls squared away, Pilar's house...I could give you the break down on how I used the money, if you want. Get you in touch with my financial advisor." Which still sounded weird to say. Him, Brendan Conlon, with a financial advisor. "This place wasn't as expensive as you think it was to buy. Colt was looking to move his gym into a bigger space, so I got a good deal. And the equipment was thrown in."
Tommy scrubbed a hand over his face. "Jesus Christ, Brendan, what the hell were you thinking? I don't know how to run a joint like this. I was a friggin' Marine, not some manager."
"Well, I thought..."
"Yeah, you know what, I know what you thought," Tommy cut in, brittle and hard, chin tilted up like he was daring Brendan to take a shot. "You thought you'd toss the fucked up baby brother a bone or two, show him some goddamn charity, and he'd be so grateful that he'd fall to his knees and forget the last fourteen years. Well, fuck you. I don't need your handouts or your pity and I don't need you to buy me shit to make up for the fact that you fucking ditched me when I needed you most. Your guilt is your problem, not mine."
Tommy backed away. "I'm gone, man, I'll see you later," he said, and shoved the front door open. He'd disappeared before Brendan could take a step near him.
He whirled, kicked the empty work bench right beside him, sending it skittering across the floor. All he was trying to do was help, to put his family back together the best way he knew how. Couldn't Tommy see that?
His phone started buzzing in his pocket and he dragged it out, swore silently when he saw the call was from Tess. He'd completely forgotten he was supposed to call her. He flipped open the phone, tried to gentle his tone. "Hey, babe."
"Hey yourself." Just hearing her voice soothed him in a way that nothing else ever could. "How's it goin'?"
"Never a dull moment," he replied drily. My brother just gave me an earful and walked out, how was your day... "How're you doing? How're the girls?"
"We miss you. Apparently I'm not as much fun to have tea with." Brendan could hear the smile, and longing for her hit him like a punch to the gut. Suddenly, Philadelphia – home – seemed too far away. He'd been a fool to think he could do this, that he could make a difference in Tommy's life after all this time...
No. He wasn't gonna give up. He'd promised. He and Tommy had come too far to back down now.
"Tell 'em I'll be home soon and I expect my seat at the table to still be there," he said. "I miss you guys."
"I know." He felt the slight pause as much as he heard it, knew what it meant. "I take it by your tone that Tommy didn't take the idea of running the gym too well."
His laugh was short, harsh. "Understatement of the year."
"I hate to say I told you so –"
"So don't." He didn't think he could handle it if she started gloating now.
"Babe, what are you doing?"
He fought the urge to get defensive. Yeah, he had a setback. He'd had worse in his life. "Getting Tommy situated. We talked about this."
"I know, but..." She sighed, the sound slightly tinny through the small speaker. "I just don't want you to get hurt or expect too much. A lot's happened since you two were kids."
"Well, we're never gonna get anywhere if I don't try."
"You sure you're trying for the right reasons?" she finally asked, after a brief, telling moment of silence.
"I don't know what that means," Brendan confessed, weary to the bone of trying to defend himself against everyone. Just once, he wanted someone to have his back unconditionally. "I just know he's my brother and I want him back, whatever it takes."
"And I get that, honestly. But you're talking about inviting him into your family – into our family – and opening our home and our girls to him, and he's..."
"What, dangerous and violent? Fucked up and damaged? Broken? You know that's describing me, too, right? I had the same upbringing he did, dealt with the same bullshit."
He half hoped she'd get mad enough to yell at him, but she didn't rise to the bait. "All I'm saying is repairing what's been broken takes time. And it never glues back together exactly the way it was."
"Yeah, sometimes it's better," Brendan reminded her. Reminded them both. They'd done it – no reason to think he and Tommy couldn't, as well. "I don't want to go on some nostalgia trip. We're not kids anymore, neither of us, and I can't save him from anything. But we need each other."
"Okay." She paused again. "But you need to listen to yourself. He is an adult now, and he has his own needs. And that might not be you."
"I have to try," he repeated, and hoped she understood. "I'll drive back in a few days, check up on you and the girls, alright? We can talk more then."
"Alright. I love you. You know that."
He did, God knew. It was the one thing he'd never doubted. "Love you, too," he told her and hung up, wondering what came next.
He took his time heading back to the house, used the time to meander around the neighborhood, check out who was new, who was still around. He thought about what Tess had said – are you sure you're doing this for the right reasons? – and wondered if there even was such a thing as the right reason where he and Tommy were concerned. All he knew was he was out of ideas, and willing to try just about anything, and the why didn't matter.
When he finally made it back, he found Tommy sitting on the top step of the back porch, beer in hand. Another bottle was beside him. Pop was nowhere in sight. Again. But far from feeling annoyed, Brendan only felt relief. This was between him and Tommy, no one else.
Brendan pointed at the bottle, hoped he wasn't getting ready to make another mistake. "Hope that's for me."
"Well, I wasn't planning on double-fisting it," Tommy replied, and even though Tommy didn't turn to look at him, Brendan took the invitation for what it was, grabbed the bottle and sat down on the step beside his brother. The clouds and rain had given way to a crystal clear, gorgeous night.
"The old man's done a great job keeping up with the place," Brendan commented, looking around. He'd never seen the yard looking so well-kept.
Tommy chuckled as he took a sip from his beer. "Guess he's got more to do now that he's all sober and shit."
"Wish he'd thought of yard work 25 years ago." They were back to small talk and tip-toeing around each other the way they used to around Pop. It was a singularly depressing thought.
"Yeah," Tommy agreed, then nodded out to the side of the house. "You saw he kept Mom's rose garden, too."
Brendan rubbed his chin, feeling unaccountably embarrassed. "That was me, actually. Well, right after you two left, I mean. I figured it was the least I could do. I didn't know Pop continued looking after it after I left."
"She'd have appreciated it," Tommy said, simply, then: "I'm sorry I lashed out at you back there."
"It's okay. I deserved it," Brendan said, and hoped the sincerity came through.
"I thought maybe you'd be on your way back to Philly."
Christ, and he'd thought they were working past that. "I told you already. I'm not bailing on you, not ever again," he said, hoping this time Tommy would hear it and believe it. "And I'm sorry, too. I was...I dunno, trying to fix things, give you a fresh start. I should have talked to you about it."
"I'm not a kid anymore, B," Tommy said, echoing Tess so clearly it was like Brendan heard her voice overlapping Tommy's. "I don't need you to fix anything, alright. I don't need you to do anything or take care of anything or any of that. I just...I just need you to be, you know?"
"I do." He got it, he really did. And he knew he'd need the reminder, knew he'd have to work on suppressing that natural instinct, but he thought he could handle it. As long as he knew he and Tommy could talk shit over, he'd be fine. "You mind if I ask you something?"
Brendan could tell by the way that Tommy was bracing himself that he fully expected Brendan to ask about Iraq or Manny or maybe even about Mom's last days. He wanted to tell Tommy not to worry, that he'd never pry, that he may not know Tommy as an adult, but he still knew Tommy where it counted. "Did you ever get back into wrestling? After you and Mom made it to Tacoma, I mean?"
Tommy shook his head with a quick jerk, but his shoulders relaxed. "I couldn't. I was too good, y'know? I'd've gotten noticed and who knows, maybe the old man would've found out where we were."
"He never even looked," Brendan confessed, still feeling the shameful tendrils of regret wind through him. "I think once the shock wore off that you'd abandoned him and his great Olympian quest for glory, he just shut down."
"Guess we all disappointed each other," Tommy observed, with a wry twist to his lips.
"Yeah," Brendan agreed, with his own rueful smile. "Guess you could say that."
"So, I've been thinking about this gym and rehab center idea of yours," Tommy said, and cast Brendan a sidelong glance. "You think the community college offers business management classes?"
"I'm sure they do," Brendan replied in a choked voice, shoulders sagging with relief. "We'll check it out."
"And maybe, I dunno, I can do whatever I need to do to become a personal trainer or something, however that works."
"Sounds great. Whatever you want." He was ready to start researching it tonight, right now, if that's what it took. "The place is yours, deed's in your name – you can keep it, run it, sell it, it's up to you."
"I think you have a good idea is what I think. And if you still want me to, I'd be glad to run it for you, or try to."
"Like I said, it's yours, not mine."
"Alright." Tommy stuck out his hand. "Then I'd say you got yourself a deal, B."
Brendan set down his bottle and took the offered hand, closed his other on top of Tommy's, and held on for a minute. Tommy just looked at him in understanding, and then the corners of his mouth lifted. He squeezed Brendan's hand, then gently extracted it. "And if we're doing this whole let's act like adults and talk about our past thing, can I ask you something?"
"You can ask me anything, man," Brendan said, and meant it with everything in him. He was done trying to hide.
"Why didn't you show up that night?" Tommy's gaze seemed to penetrate every shield, cut through every barrier Brendan had put up over the years. "I mean, I get it now, you got a good thing going with Tess, you've got your girls, you made the right call. But you couldn't have known that fourteen years ago. So, what happened?"
Underneath the gruff question, Brendan heard forgiveness. Understanding. I get it now...you made the right call. Hearing that...it felt like the weight of the last fourteen years rolled off his shoulders in just those few seconds, and he knew he'd return the favor the only way he could. With total honesty.
"I was coming, Tommy, I swear on Mom's grave, I was on my way to meet you guys. I just...I had to go say goodbye to Tess, y'know, tell her I'd send for her as soon as we got settled and it was safe and I had some money. And I get to her place and I've got my speech ready and I've got my bag in hand and she takes one look at me and bursts into tears, man, just full on sobbing..." He could remember it like it was yesterday, the sharp clarity of feeling like his life was about to go careening off the rails and into a ravine. The way her lashes had been clumped with tears, the hitch in her breath, how freaked out he'd been...
"And then she tells me she's pregnant," he continued, finally confessing the truth he'd never told to another living soul. "And I knew, right then, there was no way I could walk away from that. From her. But if I'd gone to tell you and Mom what happened and why I couldn't come with you, I knew there's no way I could have let you go without me. So I didn't."
"Wow." Tommy let out a low whistle. "What happened? I mean, Emily's not near old enough..."
"She miscarried two months later." Brendan was able to say it now, to state it simply, with only an echo of the heartache he used to feel. But he knew part of him would always mourn the child they never had. "We, uh, broke up not too long after. Didn't reconnect again until we were both in college in Philly."
"I'm sorry," Tommy said quietly.
Brendan wanted to tell him about how hard he and Tess had worked on getting it right the second time around, how they'd both had to work through their own anger and grief and, for Brendan, guilt for bailing on his family without anything to show for it. But there would be time. They didn't need to plow through fourteen years in one night or even a month or however long. They had time now. They had all the time in the world, and Brendan was determined not to make the mistakes that Pop had made. He wasn't gonna force this, wasn't gonna push.
"Me too," was all he said, and clinked their bottles together. A silent toast for the past, for the present. An acknowledgement that they were both here, and maybe they weren't whole, but they were damn sure better together than they'd been apart.
Brendan left Tommy to sleep in the next morning, made his way down to the kitchen by memory, yawning every fourth step. He needed some coffee in the worst way. He and Tommy had stayed up far too late the night before, just getting to know each other.
He skidded to a halt as soon as he entered the room and saw Paddy sitting at the breakfast table, still dressed in his pajama pants and bathrobe, hair sticking wildly in every direction, glasses perched on the end of his nose. The second Paddy saw him, he stood, scooping up his coffee mug in one hand and sweeping the newspaper off the table with the other. His voice was even gruffer than usual. "Sorry, I'll just clear out, I didn't..."
This was reaching ridiculous levels now. They couldn't even share a friggin' cup of coffee in the morning? "Pop, come on, stop it," he said, impatience bleeding into his tone. "It's your house. You have every right to be here."
"I know that, I just didn't..." The bluster disappeared as Paddy's shoulders sagged. "I don't want to interfere, that's all. Told you I'd give you and Tommy your space."
"I remember and I appreciate it, but you don't have to hide." Had it really come to this? To the two of them avoiding each other in the same house, like Brendan was 16 all over again? "Come on, sit. I'll make us some eggs and bacon, alright."
"Yeah, I'm sure. Now sit. Your knees have to be killing you."
Paddy just leaned against the counter, peered at Brendan out of hound-dog eyes. "I just...I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry. For..." his voice stumbled, then steadied, "...for what happened that night. I never meant –"
"I know you didn't," Brendan interrupted. It was too early in the morning for this conversation, for rehashing that night three years ago. For Pop to try to make amends, too little and far too late. He was all talked out. "But that don't change what happened."
"I know it doesn't." Paddy was practically bleeding earnestness, contrition. Brendan wondered if Paddy was back to up to Step Nine again with the program, because this was sure sounding like it. "I'm not trying to excuse anything. I was out of control, drunk and lashing out..."
"You know I'm not the one you need to be telling this to, right? I was unconscious," Brendan reminded him, if only to stifle the apology before it could get out of hand.
"I know." Paddy's grip was so tight on his coffee mug that Brendan was afraid it would shatter. "You think Tess'll ever let me explain myself, apologize?"
"I don't know, Pop. Maybe not. But that's between you and her. She's got the keys to that lock, not me."
"Understood," Paddy replied, then paused, like he was still afraid of Brendan walking out of the room.
"Go on," he encouraged, as he snagged a coffee mug. If he was gonna do this, he may as well be awake for it. "Whatever it is, just say it."
"I just..." Paddy let out a slow, measured breath, like he had to psyche himself up just to get the next words out. "Do you mind if I ask how little Rosie's doing? Is she okay?"
His heart lurched in his chest, but he held steady. He could do this, give his father – this flawed old man who may have been the architect of so much heartache, but who was trying his best to make amends – this much. Set his mind at ease on at least one thing. "She's fine. She's beautiful. Growing like a weed, talking a mile a minute, running us ragged. Everything's fine."
"You know I never meant –"
"Pop." Brendan shook his head. He couldn't do this – couldn't talk about this or let Paddy off the hook, no matter how hard he was trying. There were some things a person never got over and never got past. And his emotional reserves were at an all-time low as it was. "Not now, alright. Let's just...get through these next few days and weeks."
For a second, it looked like Paddy would argue, but he just nodded and sat at the small breakfast table. "Okay, son. Whatever you feel is best."
Brendan grabbed the ancient skillet from the cabinet next to the stove and peered in the refrigerator. "You still take your eggs sunny-side up?"
"Yeah, thanks," Paddy replied, looking pleased that Brendan had remembered. "And remember, the front burner –"
"Gets stuck on 5, yeah, I grew up here, I know," Brendan replied, and was proud of himself that it came out teasing instead of bitter. And, judging by the relieved look on Paddy's face, he knew he'd succeeded.
They may be walking in baby steps towards true forgiveness, but at least they were making forward progress.
Tommy pointed his bottle of water towards the stairs and the empty upstairs office area. "How much do you think it would cost to turn that space into a loft or apartment or whatever?" They were both taking a well-earned break from spending the morning working with the contractors at the gym, creating a downstairs locker room that was wheelchair accessible.
"I dunno, we can look into it." Brendan squinted as he thought it over – the space in question was certainly big enough for someone to comfortably live in, even though it'd be a sort of snug fit. But, compared to sharing barracks with twenty of your not-so-closest friends, it probably seemed like the Taj Mahal. "You sure you want to bunk here?"
"It's as good as anything else," Tommy shrugged. "I ain't staying with Pop forever, and I may as well stick close to the joint, y'know?"
"Whatever you want, man."
Tommy nudged him, a friendly, careless gesture, and jerked his thumb at the boxing ring, still set up in the middle of the floor. "And if I wanted to make it two out of three?"
Brendan laughed as he held his hands up in surrender. "You're kidding, right? Is your shoulder even healed?"
"Good as new." Tommy rotated the shoulder in question, showing off his range. His grin was sly, daring, a ten year old's smile in a twenty-eight year old body. "Sure you don't wanna go a couple of rounds?"
"I'm sure I couldn't beat you again if we sparred another twenty times is what I'm sure of, so no."
"Yeah, I guess it makes sense to retire at the top," Tommy replied, still grinning. "But I'll talk you into it one of these days."
"Sure, Tommy. Sure. Soon as pigs fly."
"Well, there was that one time at Uncle Allen's..."
"God," Brendan groaned, laughing at the same time. "I thought Aunt Carole was gonna kill us for sure."
"Brendan!" one of the contractors up front yelled, interrupting them, "yo, man, you got a visitor!"
Brendan whipped his head towards the entrance and his heart jerked to a stop. Tess was standing by the door, with Rosie on one hip and holding onto Emily's hand. Emily was wearing her favorite pink coat and Rosie had on a bright yellow hat. All three were sporting wide, open grins. They were so beautiful it hurt to look at them.
"Those your girls?" Tommy asked quietly, like he was afraid they'd disappear if he spoke too loud.
"Yeah," Brendan replied, feeling like he was in a trance. "Dunno why they're not in Philly, though."
He hopped to his feet and strode towards the door, stopping only once he got in front of them. "What're you doing here, babe?"
"Thought we'd see what sort of progress you were making," she replied, then her gaze flickered away from him to a point behind his shoulder. "And to introduce the girls to their Uncle Tommy."
Brendan didn't need to turn his head to know Tommy was behind him. I love you, he mouthed to Tess, more proud of her in this moment than he could remember since the nights Emily and Rosie had been born. That she was willing to give this a chance, give them a real shot at being a family. "Well, I guess you get the grand tour. Wanna say hi to Daddy, girls?"
Rosie launched herself in Brendan's arms, and Emily hugged his leg like she'd never let go. He hugged them both, breathed them in, and gave thanks to every deity he knew that he'd been blessed with these two miracles. "I missed you guys."
"We missed you, too," Emily replied for the both of them, showing off a gap-toothed smile.
Brendan hefted Rosie higher on his hip as Emily continued to cling to his leg. "You girls ready to meet your uncle?" When they both nodded, he turned, met Tommy's stunned gaze with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. It'll be alright, I swear. "Tommy, these are my girls," he said. "Emily, Rosie, this is your Uncle Tommy."
Rosie stuck her thumb in her mouth and regarded Tommy out of wide eyes. Emily lifted a hand in a shy wave. Tommy dropped to his haunches and stuck out a hand. "Hey there." His voice was liquid soft, soothing in a way Brendan had never heard. Brendan wondered if this is how he'd acted when he'd met Manny and Pilar's kids. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Emily stared at his hand like it was an alien object, then up into his eyes. "Why's your hand out?"
Tommy frowned in confusion. "I dunno, I thought it was polite to shake someone's hand when you meet them."
"That's for strangers," Emily pronounced, with the authority of the very young. "Not family."
Tommy cast a helpless glance up at Brendan, who only shrugged. "She's got a point, man. Remember what you told me? Only strangers shake hands, not family."
Emily rolled her eyes. "This is how you greet family," she stated and stepped forward, wrapping slender arms around Tommy's neck.
Brendan wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at Tommy's look of surprise. But Tommy recovered quickly enough, and clasped Emily to him like she was made of spun glass and he was afraid he'd break her.
Tess stepped beside Brendan, leaned her head on his shoulder. "Welcome back, Tommy."
Tommy just nodded in reply, eyes closed as he cradled Emily close, rocked her back and forth in a silent dance. Then his eyes opened, met Brendan's, and Brendan knew, even without Tommy saying a word, what Tommy was trying to say.
It wasn't perfect. They were never going to be perfect. But they were learning each other's language again, and that was all that mattered.