Jem’s brother has pretty specific type, she thinks—it’s becoming apparent that Kieren moves straight past just being attracted to guys who are bad for him, right on to only ever getting involved with men who will at one point be ordered to kill him by authority figures they won't want to say no to. You wouldn't think you could find more than one of those in this day and age, but leave it to Kieren to break from the herd.
She figures it out when Maxine Martin goes off the deep end, raving about how the disciple was supposed to take care of the First Risen (and Jem can hear the capital letters in her tone), and even having only really met him the once, Jem is certain that the disciple can’t be anyone but Simon. She thinks of his bizarrely convenient appearance in the graveyard, and of the small blade she saw drop from his hand when he tackled Kieren out of the way of the bullet. She thinks of Kieren’s story to Gary at lunch about his rising and thinks clock striking twelve and you’re all alone, thinks of the way it was spoken in Kieren’s I’m completely bullshitting all of this tone of voice.
She thinks of how the only two people who have ever consistently been able to recognize that tone have been her and Rick Macy, which makes her the only one alive who could definitely tell that Kieren was pulling this stroke-of-midnight-world-is-silent shit completely out of the ether—everyone else took it seriously. Simon took it seriously.
He took a bullet for her brother, but before he did, he was planning on killing him.
Jem doesn’t find out about the ‘orders from a higher power’ part until she confronts Simon about it, but she thinks she could probably have puzzled it out on her own—disciples don’t just come out of nowhere, after all, they have to be disciples of something, and with the careful way he looks at Kieren, it’s clear that any violence Simon has contemplated hasn’t been his idea.
Jem may be a bit of a mess right now, thinks she might be spiraling out of control, is afraid she might be losing her grip on her own mind, but the one thing she’s been determined to be able to do, and has channeled all of her energy towards since just after Kieren died (and Jem has never felt so abandoned or so helpless as then, not before or since) is protect her people, and one of the horrible truths she’s stopped fighting against ages ago (days, weeks, months) is that Kieren is still one of hers, even now, even like this. He’s the big brother who looked after her and the big brother who left her, and she’s not about to let him be hurt again.
Maxine Martin speaks of her poor brother being locked away in the earth, away from her, as a reason to strike down all of the current Risen, and all Jem can think is, what about my brother?, bristling and furious and without a hint of doubt.
She’s also not about to sit by and watch him destroy himself over another relationship he can’t see clearly from up close again. It might not be her place several times over, but like hell is that stopping Jem.
First order of business on that front, then, is to confront Simon.
“You have to tell him,” she says, leaving no room for argument in her voice.
Simon nods, but says, “Not yet, though, yeah? After the funeral,” and it sound like a reasonable concession to ask, even if there’s something in Jem that rankles at it, doesn’t like the idea of holding off on doing what has to be done.
It’s a part of her, she thinks, that she got from Kieren, or he got from her—something they grew into together, maybe. Their parents never liked confrontations, dad especially, and there are some things you take from your parents, Jem thinks, and some you react against. She’s pretty sure that she and Kieren both did both, in this particular case.
They don’t like to beat around the bush, though, generally, and they like to confront the inevitable head-on because once the two of them decided it was alright to exist, they decided the only way to do it was loudly. Jem thinks she never should have been surprised that the brother who introduced her to heavy metal eventually got tired of walking around in cover-up and contacts for other people’s comfort. Kieren was never any good at pretending to be normal for the sake of Roarton.
What he did after he rose has shaken him a bit, certainly, but he still walked, determined and direct and of his own free will, to Lisa’s parents’ home. He still looked them in the eye and told them what he’d done, and even then, before Jem quite trusted him again, she could see that doing so hurt him badly. He didn’t wait for a more convenient time because he knows, and Jem knows too, the truth is never particularly convenient. Doesn’t mean it’s not still important.
And this man, who Kieren brought home to lunch with their parents, he wants to wait till the timing is better to tell Kieren something blindingly important. Jem decides she can allow it, in part because she certainly doesn't want to be the one to have to tell Kier, but she hopes Simon knows it doesn't do anything for her opinion of him.
The next one, after Kieren tells her, halting and still horrified, about the Blue Oblivion, about trying to tie himself down to the grate over a grave before the drug took hold so he couldn’t get away and hurt anyone—the next order of business is definitely dumping Gary.
Kieren runs into Frankie Kirby outside the funeral parlor the day before Amy’s service—at the time, it feels like a coincidence, but later, Simon admits that she’d asked him where she could find Kieren, so she’d probably been hanging around the outside a while.
Kieren doesn’t know Frankie well. She was in Jem’s class before she died—and apparently is again now, with all the school Jem missed as a teenager in a militia—and she was still alive when Kieren died, so he’s not even sure what killed her. He’s seen her around the bungalow once or twice with the rest of Simon’s followers, but she’d always been a pretty quiet presence among that group, not one whose contribution stood out. Young, Kieren thinks. She’d seemed young.
Now, she walks towards where he’s heading down the front steps at the funeral parlor with her pale hair in her face, small white teeth worrying at her lower lip, and she looks purposeful, he’s pretty sure she’s not just wandering in his general direction, so he slows a little, turns to face her.
“You’re Kieren Walker,” she starts, which is true, but also not exactly news, and only the fact that she’s a lost-looking teenager keeps Kieren, who is nearing the end of his patience after an afternoon of trying to get the funeral parlor’s protocols to line up with Amy’s extensive and detailed funeral agenda-and-guest-list, from saying something sharp in response. “Simon says you’re planning Amy’s funeral.”
“She planned it herself,” Kieren says, hefting the unfolded will in one hand, pages flapping. “I’m just the executor, I suppose.” He feels his smile slip a little, go a little rueful. “I think any funeral I could plan would fall far below Amy’s standards, you know.”
That makes Frankie face relax into a small smile for a second before it tightens back into nervous inscrutability, and she asks him, “Can I talk to you a moment? Not—” she glances around the street, twitchy, “Not here, somewhere a little private?”
Kieren’s not sure what to do with that, but he doesn't see the harm either, agrees, “Sure. Usually I’d say let’s drop into somewhere for a coffee, that should be quiet this time of day, but it’s not like you or I could do much of anything with one anyway.”
“We could,” Frankie says, tentative, “I mean, obviously not to drink, but we could go there, I do like to hold something warm sometimes.”
Kieren still isn't sure what any of this is about, but he nods, thinks probably wants someone to talk about Amy with with a sort of resigned numbness, and turns them in the direction of a café he remembers vaguely from the last time he had any reason to know or care about means of getting caffeinated, which was, he thinks bleakly as they walk in silence down streets which are visibly changed since the last time he took this route, a bit more than five years ago now.
Luckily, the place he remembers is still open, and still as sleepy-quiet as he remembers—Kieren knows the place best as somewhere he and Rick would meet up where there was no chance of running into Rick’s father.
Even now, even though she’s certainly not going to drink it, and wouldn’t be able to taste it if she tried, Frankie orders not tea or coffee, but a hot cocoa. Young Kieren reminds himself, and his heart twists uncomfortably.
Frankie sees him looking and ducks her head. “I think—sometimes I think I can almost smell it, is that silly?”
Kieren shakes his head. He knows Shirley or even Simon would have something to say to that about neurotriptyline stimulating different parts of the brain and different people’s brains being different, about there being so much we don’t understand yet about any of this. Kieren searches his mind for something to say to this girl, but, “It’s not silly,” is all he comes up with, says it quietly, curling his fingers protectively around his own small, black coffee and leading her in the direction of a table in the back, under a small, high window.
Once they get there, Frankie doesn’t seem to quite know what she wants to say, makes what looks like a couple of silent, false starts before holding the cocoa up to her face, almost to her lips, and then setting it down on the table.
“I helped her, you know,” is what Frankie finally says.
Kieren doesn’t know, though, he tries to think what she means by that, but he’s a bit at sea. “Amy? I didn't know you two were close, but I’m sure—”
“No,” Frankie cuts him off, but she sounds fragile, uncertain. “I helped her. That—that witch. The one who killed Amy. Ms. Martin.”
That’s got Kieren’s attention, and he knows from the wobble in Frankie’s voice, and from the fact that nothing ever seems to be simple these days, that there’s got to be more to the story than that, but for just the space of what would be one breath, if he needed to breathe, he lets himself feel rage. He’s spent the last two days putting together a funeral for the best friend he’s made since he died, and he hasn’t even managed to kick the habit of talking to the headstone of the last friend he buried yet. With Bill dead and Ms. Martin hauled away by now, there hasn’t been an outlet for the fury he’s keeping carefully banked, and here Frankie is, coming out of nowhere and offering herself up as a target.
She must see some of this in his expression, because she stumbles on, “I don’t think I helped her with—that. With Amy. I just told her that Zoe and that lot were planning something. I told her that Simon said the prophet had told them to prepare.” Frankie’s tone is pleading as she tells him, “I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I’ve seen the news, I know what they do sometimes, with the Blue Oblivion, and the busses. I don’t always like the way people are here, but that doesn’t mean I wanted that to happen. And she said she’d call the treatment center on me,” Frankie finishes, soft, and Kieren feels any trace of anger with this girl melt away.
“It sounds like you were in a pretty tight spot there,” he says, trying for sympathetic. “I don’t mind, you know, but I am wondering, why are you telling me this?” Kieren winces at how that sounds as soon as it’s out of his mouth, but he doesn’t try to take it back—the question definitely stands.
“I don’t—I don’t know,” Frankie says. “But I’ve been wanting to a while. I told Simon there was something I wanted to talk about, about Amy, and I think he must have thought I meant Amy’s funeral. And I—I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him about it. I was kind of, um, betraying the ULA. And he’s pretty intense.” Frankie looks down. Kieren has the impression that if she had blood-flow, she’d be blushing.
“He is,” Kieren agrees, “But I don’t think you’d have to be nervous about talking to him. He’s sort of broken off from the ULA, now, and I think he’d understand that you weren’t in a good situation.” He’d better understand, Kieren adds to himself. He’s still feeling Simon out a little, but he can hardly believe Simon wouldn't be sympathetic of this girl. She’s practically still a child (she’s Kieren’s baby sister’s age when he died), she should never have been caught up in any of it.
Frankie nods. “So, you think I should tell him?” she asks. “Or, I don't know, maybe the police, or something?”
Kieren shrugs. “If you want to, I guess? Simon, I mean. If you think it would make you feel any better, you could talk to Simon, I bet. Don't go to the police, though—I don’t think there’s anything helpful they could get from that, and honestly, Frankie, even if things are looking a little better politically, I don't think it’s a good idea to call much attention to ourselves with the police right now.”
Frankie nods, worrying absently with the edge of the paper cup in front of her. “Alright.” She laughs a little, short and sharp and almost relieved. “It seemed like such a big thing at the time, didn't it? All cloak and dagger. But really, it was just her pushing me around to hear about something that didn't even end up happening, with a group of people who weren’t anywhere near the center anyway, and she didn’t even try to stop them.”
Kieren clinks his own paper cup against hers in a silent toast. “That seems to be just about how it goes, lately. Will I see you at the cemetery tomorrow?” Frankie nods. “Bring something that reminds you of her, if you want. We’ll be tossing them in with the coffin to bury with her. ‘Like I’m a Pharaoh, but without all of the murder required to leave me with proper attendants,’ she said.”
Frankie laughs again, this time a watery little sound, and says, “I will.”
“This was nice,” Kieren says as they’re heading out the door, and he’s surprised to find he actually means it—it’s nice to talk to someone new, for one thing, and someone who doesn’t seem to want anything from him, in the end, except for a listening ear. She doesn't expect him to be the person he was because she never knew him then, and she doesn’t expect—well, he doesn’t know what Simon expects from him, only that it is muddled and grandiose and far too complicated, and certainly not anything Frankie’s looking for. The last person he can think of who treated him with the same kind of warm lack of expectation, he thinks, is Amy. It’s not an obvious similarity, since Amy’ warmth shown far brighter, but now, sitting with Frankie, he can feel the thread of sameness between them.
She seems as surprised as he is to hear it. “Why are you being so nice?” she asks, and she sounds almost forlorn about it, far too serious, which is why Kieren takes his own serious moment to think before he answers her.
“Because you’re my sister’s age.” he laughs at himself. “That’s a stupid reason, isn't it? But you and Jem, you both got sucked into things a lot bigger than you, and people seem to forget that that doesn’t mean you stop being young.” He stops, considers the implications of what he just said, and the way it might sound, and, “Me too, I suppose. But I guess I just want to act the way I hope someone would act with Jem, if she needed someone to talk to. Plus, I like you,” he throws on the end—he’s pretty sure he means it, and it makes her smile.
“Thanks,” Frankie tells him, and, “I’ll see you at the funeral.”
Jem’s opinion of Simon drops lower when Kieren tells her Simon tried to convince him to leave town with him after the funeral—there’s not wanting to have an uncomfortable conversation, and then there’s going to lengths to conceal important information, and Jem is only about to let one of those slide.
Kieren misunderstands her expression, though, tells her, “Hey, no, Jem, I’m not going anywhere—I wouldn’t have, anyway, I meant it when I said I was done with running, but—I wouldn’t leave you with, well, with all of this.”
He means Henry, means the other thing, the thing she’s been trying not to think about, the thing where she can go around judging Simon for what he thought of doing all she wants, it won't change the fact that, when it comes to Henry, she was the killer.
She thinks it’s giving her a better understanding of the way Kieren acted when he first came home, actually.
That’s no kind of comfort at all, though, and most of the time, neither is the fact that Kieren doesn't seem to blame her. No one who knows seems to blame her, but with Kieren it's different. Gary and Ms. Martin hadn't blamed her because they felt like, even though it had been an accident, even though Jem hadn’t wanted to, Henry’s death had been justified.
Kieren doesn’t think like that because he knows better, because he’s like Henry, and because, to be devastatingly honest, it could just as well have been him as Henry (and just the thought makes her feel sick—sicker than the reminder that she killed Henry Lonsdale already does, every time). Kieren was there when Jem came home from the dance that night, more than a year before the world started to fall apart, and he was the first one she told that Henry kissed her, and he still somehow doesn’t blame her.
“No one should have to be put in the position you were in at sixteen, Jem,” he tells her. “No one should be put in it at all, and it’s amazing the lack of provisions and programs that are in place to help HVF veterans. It’s like they think if they give you a medal, they can wash their hands of you.” Kieren may be a little furious on her behalf, which warms her as much as it throws her off-guard, given the way he made his feelings about the HVF known at The World's Most Awkward Sunday Lunch™.
She told him so, once, and he said, “It’s not like I didn’t understand that there was a need, you know, at the time. There wasn’t a cure yet, and the countryside obviously wasn’t getting enough help or protection—big surprise there—and someone had to do something. What you did was kind of amazing, Jem. What I couldn’t take was Gary’s, you know, whole attitude. Like he could just be smug and pleased about all the killing he did when I—I can’t sleep for seeing their faces behind my eyes some nights, Jem, not for hours.”
So Kieren doesn't blame her, he just wants her to get help—he said it, so Jem knows he means it. “Good,” she tells him, because she’s glad. She hadn’t been worrying about him leaving because she really doesn't have space in her head for too much more worry, but she’s glad for the reassurance that she doesn’t need to, in this case.
“Did you tell Judas that?” she grumps, and she’s said more than she meant to, but Kieren must just take it as more of her not wanting him to leave, because he nods, says, “Of course I did,” and then, in that talking-about-a-boy tone he’d used when justifying anything thoughtless Rick did since childhood, “He’s just worried, Jem. He’s fallen out with all of the Undead Liberation types--I don’t think they’re very pleased about it, and they can be nasty pieces of work, you remember. Plus, can you imagine wanting to stay in Roarton of all places if you’re not from here and don’t have any ties here?”
“So he’s leaving, then?” Jem asks, hoping her sudden brightening won’t show up in her voice. That would solve her problem neatly.
“No,” Kieren replies, quiet and pleased, “He’s staying with me.”
Kieren insists on walking Jem to and from her therapy appointments, since he’s the one who went with her to their parents and held her hand when her voice shook trying to explain to them why she needed to go to begin with (even before they became court-mandated) and also possibly because he’s one of the things she has nightmares about, but they don’t talk about that part. Jem doesn't mind the company, really, but she grumbles about it a bit just to save face—what little sister can be expected to be pleased at the implication that she needs to be escorted anywhere?
Still, when she walks out Thursday and she doesn’t see Kieren there, she admits, she panics a bit. She feels rough and raw around the edges, definitely not in the mood for any surprises, and not seeing Kieren where she's expecting him is enough to make her heart-rate pick up, until she spots him leaning against the wall of the next building over.
He's not alone; Simon is leaning on one propped arm against the wall near Kieren's head. He looks earnest-faced, and for a wild moment she wonders if he's finally telling him—but no, Kieren's smiling, so he can't be. He raises his eyes and spots her, raises a wary hand in greeting, and Kieren turns to look at her too, expression still bright.
“Jem!” he calls, “You should come round to the bungalow tonight, Simon says there's a meteor shower.”
From Simon's slightly chagrinned expression, Jem suspects that the invitation wasn't intended for the whole family, but she's still a little suspicious after he tried to skip town, so Jem isn't planning on letting him off the hook. For his own part, Kieren is still smiling what she now sees is a grin of delighted relief that his new boyfriend has hobbies besides death-related poetry and high level ties to violent extremist groups.
“Alright,” she agrees, “it's probably time Simon and I had a bit of a chat, anyway.”
She lets her tone get a little suggestive, and Simon's still-a-little-eerie-to-her eyes widen. yes, she thinks in his direction, you're going to do it tonight or I'll know why.
Of course, the night gets a bit derailed from that objective for a while, but that’s alright. Jem is a soldier, she’s used to factoring unforeseen obstacles into her plans. Still, the direction the evening takes does manage to surprise her.
“I just want you to know,” Kieran says, “that this may be the stupidest thing I have ever done. And I killed myself for love, so, you know, the bar's already set pretty high on that one.”
Jem laughs—more of a choked-off snort than a real laugh, but it’s still a relief to hear, since Kieren had actually managed to forget she was there, and it’s the kind of thing he tries not to joke about where she can hear. Being a member of the undead inspires a certain callous sense of humor that apparently being a teenage soldier in a war against the reanimated corpses of your loved ones does not do in quite the same way. Kieren is trying to be sensitive to that fact, especially now that it seems she’s decided she’s on his side against all comers—it’s hard for her, he knows, to always have to make that choice. It has been since they were kids and the only thing the village was judging him for was the vague sense of difference it took the predictable taunts of adolescent boys to give a name to—it’s a choice that can only be worse now that they have an actual grievance.
Simon doesn’t laugh, but then, Simon doesn’t laugh often, not out loud, anyway. He smiles wryly at Kieren, though, the skin at the corners of those pale eyes crinkling up.
“Oh, come on,” he replies, and he just sounds like a person for once, nothing in his tone or posture that says he’s got a single thought about a higher purpose or converting anyone to the cause as he says, “You can’t go saying something like ‘I’ve never danced’ and not expect me to do something about it.”
“Yeah, what kind of a boyfriend would he be then?” Jem pipes from where she’s curled into a ball, knees pulled to her chest. “That’s just sad, Kier, even I’ve been dancing, and I’ve spent most of my teenage years in a guerilla army.”
Kieren has to smile at that—he wonders if he’s unknowingly opened the floodgates to all of the completely tasteless things they could say to each other. He’s maybe smiling a little bit at the word, too, boyfriend, which they haven’t actually used before, but which fits the weird, off-and-on-but-blindingly-intense-when-on thing they’ve been doing pretty much since they met better than anything else does, and which Simon isn’t denying. He decides not to bring up the difference between the kind of dancing that she’s talking about and waltzing.
“Yeah, but here, though?” he asks instead, glancing about at the gently pitched roof, the dark cast the night sky gives to the weather-beaten shingles of Amy’s bungalow. “Now?”
“No time like the present,” Jem agrees, and really, she’s enjoying this far too much, but then, she’s the one who just has to hum something in waltz time, not the one who’s supposed to be ballroom dancing on a roof. “Live for today, Kier.”
“Don’t you mean ‘die for tonight?’” he tries, and she giggles and replies, “You only live once or twice. Probably not more than a few times, anyway.”
Simon watches them with a pleased, bemused look on his face, and it’s nice, is all, easy and casual, and that’s the only reason, Kieren swears, that he holds out his hands to Simon to try again. “Alright,” he says, “But you’ve got to promise me you won’t steer me off the roof, here. I know we probably can’t die again, but I’ve no interest in finding out if we can bounce back after a twenty foot tumble.”
“I promise, I’ve got you,” Simon says, as serious and intense as he ever is. Kieren’s learning not to be bothered by it, he’s learning that a certain amount of that is just who Simon is, and that some of it, despite the over-the-top intensity, is not insincere.
Simon looks over to Jem and nods, and she begins humming something Kieren vaguely remembers from church when they were small, a song Kieren is fairly certain is not a waltz tune, but Simon doesn’t say a word about it, just takes Kieren’s hands in his own, stepping to the time of his own count over Jem’s off-tune melody, “One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.”
Kieren moves with the count, paying less attention to the steps and more to the concentration lines etched into Simon’s forehead, the precise way he moves, and to Jem’s occasional, choked-off giggle in the background. The dancing is the least interesting thing about this moment, Kieren thinks, which is probably the only reason he manages to pull it off at all.
“Where did you learn to do this?” he asks Simon, quietly. Simon is usually only open about his past when he’s trying to use it to build rapport in gathering followers, and since he’s a disciple without a prophet these days, he’s generally less than forthcoming about his personal history.
He doesn’t look up when he answers, but he does unclasp one of his hands from Kieren’s own to rest it lightly on Kieren’s back, a barely-there pressure without the heat of a living body behind it to bleed warmth through the thin fabric of Kieren’s shirt. “School,” he answers, soft and wry. “Catholic school, all kinds of nostalgia for days gone by. I always liked it, though—the dancing—which was strange, because I didn't like much of anything back then.”
Kieren smiles, which is probably why he stumbles then, laughs, looks out across the roof at the lights on in the houses spread out below.
Simon looks at Jem over Kieren’s shoulder, head tilted a little, and there’s definitely a question in his face. He’s wondering if I’m going to hold him to it, she thinks, and she can see Simon’s unspoken point—there is nothing about the comfortable ease of this moment that won’t end when Simon says what Jem has tagged along to ensure that he says to her brother.
On the other hand, it’s been weeks since the funeral, and Simon is pretty clearly putting it off. Which makes sense—when it comes right down to it, Jem doesn’t want to tell Kieren either, which is why she’s making Simon do it instead of ripping off the band-aid herself, and she’s not even the one who was prepared to sacrifice him on the altar of what was essentially a cult’s fanaticism. Kieren has seemed more settled, lately, than he has at all since he’s been—well, since he’s been back. Jem doesn’t want him to lose that, either, but he has a right to know.
Kieren stumbles, laughs, says, “Alright, that’s enough of that, I think,” and Jem stares Simon down with every inch of the ‘don’t fuck with me’ face she’d cultivated in the war set firm and determined in her features. Then she nods, keeps her eyes fixed on him until Simon nods back.
“Kier,” he says, “There’s something you should know.” His tone is as serious as the subject requires, which seems to throw Kieren, who doesn’t, after all, know what the subject is yet.
“Alright,” he agrees, laughing, features settling into what, from the half-moon of his face that Jem can see from this angle, looks like an expression of good-natured puzzlement. “Want to discuss it inside, though? I’ve a feeling those of us with blood-flow,” and here he turns around to look back at Jem, “are probably feeling a bit of a chill.”
Jem feels her lips twitch up at that, the way he’s started to big-brother her again lately—slowly, like he’s not sure how she’ll react, but steadily, like that hug at Amy’s funeral had broken a barrier she’d forgotten she even had up.
“I’m alright,” she tries, subdued.
“Alright, ice queen, let’s forget the fact that you’re shivering,” he tells her, “It’s your job to drink some of the tea mum brought over last time for when Simon has visitors, or she’s going to figure out that we never do have visitors and start worrying. You know how she gets when she think we’re getting anti-social.”
Jem does know, because it’s been a problem she and Kieren have been trading back and forth between them since infancy. It’s always worried Sue, her children’s tendency towards solitary behavior, and these days she doesn't seem to know which of them to worry about more. Jem thinks about calling Kieren on his slip, on how, in his mind, he’s already half-way to living with Simon and he’s only even known him a few weeks, but pushing the point here would be massively awkward, and Jem may be blunt, but she’s not cruel. “Sure,” she agrees. “Tea sounds nice.”
Kieren isn’t stupid, he knows something is up. For one thing, Jem’s expression when she looks at Simon practically crackles with tension, and Simon’s voice has gotten dark and serious. Kieren knows this isn’t going to be an easy conversation, but even not knowing what he’s going to hear, he has a feeling it’s an important one. He’s not about to try to change the subject, he’s just damned if he’ll hear about whatever it is while on a roof.
So he herds them inside, Jem and Simon who think they’re being so subtle, so casual, when it’s almost laughable how bad they are at pretending to make normal conversation once the moment has broken. Kieren retreats to Amy’s never-used kitchen, which is Simon’s now but still feels like a place where Amy could emerge from around the corner at any moment, and he makes tea he can’t drink, the warmth of it somehow a comfort even though he mostly can’t even feel it.
Jem calls, “Kier, leave the damn tea,” but it’s then that the water comes to a boil, so he snags it off the stovetop and pours anyway, thrusting it into Jem’s hands as he walks back into the room. He turns to Simon and asks, “Alright, so what is it you want to tell me?”
“Want is a pretty strong word,” Simon murmurs, but Kieren has already gone to the trouble of bracing himself for whatever this is, he’s not about to let Simon slip off the hook now.
“Is it a ‘need,’ then?” Kieren tries.
“In a sense.” Simon glances over at Jem, and Kieren doesn’t like the idea that, whatever this is, his little sister is caught up in it. Nothing that can raise tension in both Jem and Simon can be any kind of good news. “There’s something I haven’t told you, and your sister feels I should. First, though, I want to tell you that the only reason I haven’t told you already is that it’s not relevant anymore. I’m not—not part of that anymore, and I wanted to be a different person, to put it behind me.”
Simon’s expression is imploring, and there’s a part of Kieren that wants to soothe, wants to say it’s okay, it’s alright, don’t tell me please, who you are now counts more than who you were even just a week ago but he knows himself well enough to know that that’s his father’s desire not to admit that bad things can happen talking, and his dad has been made to face up to that over and over again in the past few years. If he can manage it, Kieren can handle whatever Simon has to say.
“Tell me,” Kieren says, and Simon does.
They’d had a trial, for Henry. Or for Jem, about Henry. Jem thinks about it as she watches Kieren’s face drop into blankness, taking Simon’s words in. It had been a bit of a shit trial, the only one keen to convict had been the ULA-affiliated prosecutor Henry’s mum seemed to loathe. Almost no one was willing or able to testify to much of anything, no body could be found, and it probably wouldn’t have come to much at all if Jem hadn’t pled guilty. As it was she’d still only gotten probation, mandatory counseling, and community service for manslaughter under extenuating circumstances as a minor, or something like that.
Jem watches as understanding spreads over Kieren’s face and wishes she felt anything besides as small and cold as she had waiting on the verdict. It would be nice if she could feel vindicated, but she’d even take guilt over the soft, heavy numbness spreading down her limbs as Simon pleads, “I didn’t do it, Kieren—I think, looking back now, that I never could have.”
“But you thought about it,” Kieren confirms, tone distant. “You were planning on it, even. You thought it would get you what you wanted—”
“Get us all what we wanted, needed, I thought—the prophet was supposed to save us,” Simon says, but even Jem can tell his heart’s not in the defense, and she doesn't know him at all, really.
“You thought it would get you what you wanted,” Kieren repeats, not like he hasn't heard so much as like he refuses to hear, body and soul rejecting Simon’s words, “And you were willing to sacrifice another human being or—or whatever else we are, a fellow sentient being who had no choice in the matter.”
After a moment, Simon nods, Jem has to given him that, he may have tried to squirm his way out of telling Kieren anything, but now that he’s started, he’s not trying to twist the truth or double back on anything he already said.
Kieren catches Jem’s eye over Simon’s shoulder and asks her, “Really makes you wonder about my taste in men, doesn’t it?”
Jem smiles tightly back at him and offers, “Maybe it’s a family trait?” She misses Gary sometimes, or at least, she misses the way she used to feel with him, but from an objective standpoint, Jem can see that Gary was a fairly suspect choice of romantic partner as well.
“Maybe,” Kieren agrees to Jem, forcing his expression to lighten a bit so she’s sure he’s not upset with her for her part in all this. Then he turns back to Simon’s tense face with a sigh and says, “And you can stop looking at me like I'm about to bite your head off—or tear your skull open, I guess, not that it’d do much from you, anyway.”
Simon's expression, when he raises his eyes from the floor to meet Kieran's own, is tentative. “I just—I don't know what you're thinking, Kier,” he says, and oh, Kieran does still like that, the way Simon's voice twists its way around the old, familiar nickname, the diminutive his parents had called out to get him to come in to dinner as a kid, the syllable the then-toddler Jem had learned almost as early as she learned her own name.
When Rick came back, he'd called Kieran Ren and it had felt like coming back to a room that held just the two of them—Kieran didn't think anyone had called him that since before Rick left.
Just like Rick he thinks now, a little bitterly, to have to be special, have to choose a different nickname than anyone else.
That's not fair, though, Kieran knows it isn't, knows that those things about Rick—the nickname no one else used, the cave no one else was allowed to come to (and he'd been angry, the time Kieran had let Jem tag along when they were kids)—had less to do with ego and more to do with building a separate world for the two of them, and that building that space apart from the rest of his life had been the only way Rick could manage to be around Kieren and still somehow feel safe.
Kieran had let him, had wanted that little universe holding just the two of them in the way he'd wanted anything Rick would give him, and quite a few things Rick wouldn't, and it had backfired in the end because when Rick had gone, first from Kieren’s life and then from the world, he’d left Kieren standing in that space they’d made for just the two of them alone—or at least, he’d felt alone, just Kieren and his guilt, alone in a cave, forever, and death had seemed like a simple answer then because he hadn’t been able to see further than that.
Kieren hasn't known Simon long, but the best thing about him has always seemed to be the ways he’s seemed like the opposite of that, like he’d wanted to be a part of the life Kieren already has, rather than wanting to build him another one, apart from it.
“I don’t even know that I know what I’m thinking,” Kieren admits a little ruefully. “You thought I was the First Risen?” he looks up at Simon who’s glaring at the ground now, shamefaced. As he should be, Kieren thinks, but shame itself isn’t totally a sign that Simon even knows what about this is so wrong. “Hey,” he tries again, a little softer this time, “Let me tell you a story.”
Simon looks up at him, eyes wide, says “You don’t have to—”
“I know I don’t,” Kieren tells him, “I want to. This is something we’re going to have to work on, isn’t it? Listening to other people’s stories. Let me tell you a story about part of why I died.”
If he’s going to do this, Kieren can’t look at Jem, he just can’t. He’s not sure why she’s chosen to be here for this conversation, but it’s clear that she definitely, beyond a doubt did choose to, so she can deal with the consequences.
“See, on the one hand, it was definitely me. I did it, and now,” Kieren’s laugh feels like it could cut its way out of his throat, “I am the one who has to live with that, which is not something a lot of successful suicides get to say, let me tell you.
“But on the other hand, it feels like it was almost a forgone conclusion, you know? Because of course I felt so responsible for Rick’s death that, on top of just missing him, I couldn’t live with the guilt, because yeah, it’s arrogant and self-centered and awful, thinking that his death was because of me, but I look back and I can’t even blame myself because I see how I got there, because in a really twisted way, his dad had been making me out to be responsible for him for years, and this whole town let him.
“For Bill Macy, the way he looked at the world, the way he talked, I could never just be some kid he didn’t like, see? I always had to be the creeping gay menace—for him I was literally the only thing in the world dragging his perfect son over to the dark side. So to him, it seemed perfectly reasonable to ban a fifteen year old kid not just from his home, but from the places Bill spent the most time in when he was in town, so that he never had to look at me, so he could pretend I didn’t exist.
“And no one in the entire town ever sat him down and said, ‘Bill, this is mad, even if it really is that horrible, that Kieren Walker made Rick a mix CD, you can’t ban the boy from a public shop,’ or, y’know, if anyone ever did, I never heard a thing about it. But because it was Bill Macy, you know, pillar of the community and massive fucking bully, they all acted like that was something he had the power to do.
“So, see, there was no way I could think, ‘that’s horribly sad, that he’s died over there, and I’m sorry for it, and he wouldn’t have gone if his dad hadn’t caught him with me, but I didn’t make him want me and I didn’t make him join the army so it can’t be more than, at worst, thirty percent my fault,’ because even though I knew in my head that it was a load of utter crap, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, this idea of Bill’s that no one ever really contradicted out loud but me, that the only reason Rick was, was different was because of me. That I changed him somehow.”
Kieren stops, tries to breathe, tries for one brief, wild moment, to interject some kind of balance of opinion here.
“Maybe a bit of it was true? Maybe if I hadn’t been there, Rick would have gotten married, had kids, shoved it all down, everything Bill couldn’t handle, until he snapped, or something. Or maybe he would have gotten a life-altering blowjob in the locker room after football or something, and come out, out and proud, at sixteen. Who the hell knows.
“The point, though, is that I didn’t change him, I didn’t make him who he is, and Simon,” and Christ that was a bit of a speech, Kieren feels like he got a bit lost in it, but there was a point, he had a point, in saying this, “Simon, I’m not going to change anything for you, either. I can’t. I won’t. Dead or alive or, um, undead. I am not that good,” he finishes with a wry smile.
“Or you could just tell him that you were talking utter bullshit at Sunday lunch, Kier,” Jem cuts in. Her voice sounds teary, which Kieren suddenly and acutely despises himself for. She’s also right. She usually is.
He shrugs at Simon. “Or that. I wanted to wind Gary up, really, so I embellished a bit. I mean, it could be true, and if it does turn out to be, I want to refer you back to point A, you know, about not having the power to save anyone, or destroy them either, but to be honest, my memories of that night are actually pretty fuzzy.” He feels his lips twitch into a halfhearted, slightly raw smile.
(They talked about Kieren once, Jem and Bill Macy. Or, well, they sort of did. One night after a particularly brutal raid, they’d been the last two HVF members awake, sitting near the fire in the Macy living room, cleaning their guns, and he’d turned to her and said, “You’ve got spark, girl. Can’t think of anyone I’d rather have at my back in all this. Never thought I’d think so, knowing your brother, but—”
She’d stopped him there, let every bit of ice she’d been building up since the Rising creep into her tone, voice level, and told him, “It’ll be best if you don’t talk to me about Kieren, Bill. I can promise you we won’t see eye to eye.”
He’d given her a nod of what, to this day, she’d still say was respect, and they’d never spoken of it again. At the time, she’d thought it was so mature of her, so adult, putting the past behind her and not stepping into the middle of old battles that could only be a moot point anymore anyway.
Now, she thinks of it and feels acid in the back of her throat. She wants to go back in time to sitting beside that fire with Bill Macy in companionable silence and shove him into the flames.)
Simon’s staring at him, shocked, as if he hadn’t even considered the possibility yet. Kieren has to ask him, “Didn’t you ever think that maybe I wasn’t first, after Ms. Martin thought it was Amy?”
“I thought—” there’s something lost in his tone, but Kieren isn't sure whether it makes him want to comfort Simon or if it just makes him angry, so he stays quiet. “I thought it was just that she got it wrong. I mean—it didn’t come.”
“The second Rising?”
Simon nods, and Kieren’s not sure why he expected any different, why he’d been so sure that Simon couldn’t believe any of that anymore, but in the aftermath of the Blue Oblivion, he’d heard Simon tell Zoe It’s not happening and he’d been quietly glad, somewhere underneath everything else that was going on because he’d been sure Simon meant we can’t make that happen, we can’t predict that, and even if we could, it wouldn’t be this mystical thing we’ve been building it up to be. It hadn’t occurred to him that it just meant I won’t make it happen because I’m prioritizing my chances of having it off with this undead jailbait over what I still for some reason believe would be our eternal salvation right here on earth. If Kieren wanted to try to spin it that way, he might even manage to be flattered at some point.
Not now, though. Now he’s shaking with just the memory of the feeling of phantom chill he used to get when he heard something particularly horrible on the news, or ran into Bill Macy in town. He hasn’t felt anything like it since he died and he hasn’t missed it. He looks back at Jem, helpless, but he doesn’t see any answers in her returning stare.
Right, he thinks because she had the sense to end things with the potential terrorist she was dating so that she wouldn’t end up in a situation like this. He doesn’t think Simon is much like Gary, really, but he’s self-aware enough to realize that a good bit of what he’s been basing that on is just charm, charm and the overly earnest way Simon seems to really like him. The rest has been a lack of evidence that Simon himself has been willing to use violence to achieve his goals, and well. It’s starting to sound like he may have misjudged that, isn’t it?
He realizes belatedly that he’s still staring back at Jem when she breaks his reverie by saying, soft-voiced, “Come on, Kier. Let’s head home. Clear your head.”
Kieren isn’t sure he’s done here yet, exactly, and he’s about to say so when Simon cuts in. “Wait—I don’t—I don’t know what I believe right now,” and his words are rushing out, tumbling, like he thinks he needs them to race Kieren to the door. “I think that’s pretty obvious. But. What I believed before, it’s all basically in one piece. You don’t get the option of believing in one part of the Prophet’s word and not the rest, that’s not how it works. And I know now that I don’t believe the part that means killing the first, whether it’s you, or Amy, or someone I’ve never met, and by their own rules, that throws the rest of it out, too.” He smiles a little weakly here, just faintly ironic, and finishes, “Yeah, it would have been better if I’d figured this all out earlier, but that’s what I’ve got.”
He holds his hands out like they’re empty, and Kieren thinks that maybe for once they are, that maybe he hasn’t got anything else up his sleeve. Of course, he’s thought that before, which is the worrying thing, and it occurs to him to be faintly concerned that his dad’s angry, frightened words before he’d locked Kieren in had been true—that he falls under someone’s spell, and then he doesn’t see clearly anymore. It’s a sobering thought, and it’s the one that has him turning back towards Jem and nodding.
He looks back at Simon and is almost surprised by the gentleness of his own tone when he says, “Jem’s right, I just need to clear my head, think things through. I’ll talk to you soon, though.”
Simon nods, but if his bleak expression is anything to go by, he doesn't believe it. Kieren mentally shrugs—Simon’s doubt is not his problem right now. Right now, he’s got to look out for himself, and looking out for himself means collecting his sister from the couch and their coats from the hall, and getting home. Looking after himself doesn’t include kissing Simon’s cheek, but Kieren does it anyway, because after this, he’s planning on sleeping for a week, and if he does that after leaving things as they are, he’s sure Simon will think they’re through, which is not something Kieren’s willing to commit about one way or the other yet.
Because the universe is a horrible place, or possibly because Mr. Overton hates both of them equally, or, to be a bit more charitable, honestly just has no idea what to do with either of them, the next day, for the first group project since Henry’s trial, or Jem’s trial for Henry, or about Henry after she turned herself in, she is paired to work with Frankie Kirby.
Jem supposes that, what with Kieren, she’s probably one of the few living in the class who won’t actively object to the idea of working with Frankie, and she’s the only PDS student left in the class, with Rob carted off and Henry dead, so there’s that, but she waits for Frankie to object on the grounds that Jem killed Henry, and that, if the court hadn’t been blindingly biased in Jem’s favor, it would probably have been classified as a hate crime. Hell, for all Frankie knows, Jem could be planning to attack her, too. It’s not like the trial was anywhere near conclusive. Jem doesn’t know why the teacher isn’t protecting Frankie from her. She’s not going to do anything to her, but she doesn’t know how he could know that, and it’s offending her on Frankie’s behalf.
Frankie doesn't object, though, and she only looks a little wary when she walks over to Jem’s desk after class and says, “So I’m thinking we should do the research part together, so we both get a good sense of what the shape of it will have to look like, and then we divide up the writing part to do separately.”
Jem nods and tries to look non-murderous and unsurprised. She’s not great at playing it cool outside of life or death situations, but she doesn’t think it’s possible for Frankie Kirby to know her well enough to be able to read her face, anyway.
“Sounds good,” she says. “When did you want to start?”
“Today?” Frankie looks a little uncertain, a little nervous, which is why Jem is surprised by the sharpness in her tone when she says, “From what I hear, you’ve got about as much of a social life as me, these days, and I wouldn’t mind getting this all out of the way before the weekend.”
“So you have a clear playing field for your massive social life?” Jem can’t help but offer.
Frankie smiles a little, which is pretty much the opposite of how Jem thought this conversation would go, and said, “Exactly. Want to head over to the library after classes end?”
Kieren doesn’t call Simon the next day, which isn’t, he thinks, something to feel bad about because he never said when he’d call him, so he can’t be doing it late.
It’s a comforting piece of bullshit, and Kieren has been allowing everyone else their own of those lately, so he thinks it’s probably his turn. Simon doesn’t call him either, which is good, because he’d have to be angry if Simon did, but the fact that he hasn’t leaves Kieren feeling strangely bereft.
And what’s that about, dum-dum? he thinks in Amy’s voice, and for once it’s almost comfortable, feeling like she’s close.
Instead of thinking too much about it, he digs out a sketchbook for the first time since the run-up to Amy’s funeral. He’s still working out the best way to use his hands, with their new, more limited sensation. Muscle memory seems to have held on pretty well, which means that lately, he’s done his best work when he’s not really thinking about it.
That’s all very well for copying or drawing from life, but it leaves him in a bit of a tough spot for drawing from memory, or trying to add some more metaphorical touches. He’s drawing at the kitchen table when his mother gets in, and the sound of her moving through the kitchen, getting dinner ready, occasionally passing on a bit of parish gossip she’s picked up, is comfortable enough that he doesn’t move. He’s making up exercises for himself, really, practicing shading and piecemeal sketches spiraling like a collage across the page.
“It’s nice to see you working again, Kieren, love,” his mother says, which trips him up for a moment, because it hasn’t been that long since he was painting roses for Amy’s funeral, but then he thinks she might be right—this is one of the first times he can think of that he’s really started to figure out what he can do with his body the way it is now, rather than holding onto the ways he used to know how to do things. He wonders if that’s something she can tell.
He’s still in the kitchen when his father gets home, and he’s listening with half an ear when Steve tells Sue he’s invited a guest for dinner, and she starts scolding him for not calling ahead so she would know how many to cook for. He snaps to attention when his father ‘um’s and hedges before saying, “Well, that won’t exactly be a problem,” because there’s only one thing that could really mean, Kieren thinks, but Steve can’t possibly mean—
He’s looking up when his father concludes, “Simon won't be eating, anyway,” which is why he catches Steve’s hopeful glance his way. It’s a gesture, Kieren thinks. It’s acceptance and another chance, and an apology for planning to send Kieren away to somewhere that’s a cross between an institution, an unconverted warehouse, and Frankenstein’s lab, and it’s sweet, or it would be, if Kieren hadn’t heard what he heard last night.
For half a second, he thinks about telling his parents—it would certainly be the end of Simon’s invitation to dinner—but he holds his tongue for the same reason he couldn’t quite bring himself to storm out on Simon last night: he’s not quite ready to say he’s done with the relationship yet. If he does tell his parents what Simon was planning on doing, and then he and Simon do manage to work it out, they really will have Kieren committed.
It says something, a voice in the back of his head whispers, that you’re already planning to make up with him. It says something that you never held it against Rick that he might have killed you, too. It’s sick, the voice murmurs, but Kieren swats it away.
“That’s great, dad,” he tries, with a weak smile. He looks back down at his sketchbook, but he’s not even sure what he was working on anymore.
“Oi! Jem!” Gary calls out from the driver’s side window of his pickup. Jem and Frankie are on their way to the library, and up until now, the silence has been fairly amicable. Jem is far from in the mood to engage, but she and Gary do have more than a bit of a history, and she figures she owes him something at least, so she raises her hand in a weary wave. “Hi, Gary.”
She realizes her mistake right away when his truck slows to a crawl and he says, “Hop in, soldier.” He acts like Frankie isn’t there at all, which makes Jem bristle on Frankie’s behalf, though, she reflects, it’s entirely possible that Frankie prefers Gary’s dismissal to his interest.
“No thanks,” Jem says, and she’s still trying to pretend this could be a normal, rational encounter with a normal, rational ex boyfriend who wants to talk but understands that he has no further claim on her time. “We’ve got to go study.”
“Oh, come on, Jem,” he says, “The baby rotter can study on her own, I’ve something I need to say to you,” and she remembers all over again how she’s not talking to a normal, rational anything, she’s talking to a prejudiced, disillusioned, ex-guerilla soldier who dragged her brother bodily across town, forced mind-altering drugs on him, and forced him into a position where he could hurt people, then hid in the shadows to watch the destruction. He tried to manipulate Jem into having to be the one to put Kieren down. She doesn’t even want to think about that. Gary reaches a hand toward her out the window of his truck, and she flinches.
“See, now that’s what I mean, Jem,” he says, and he sounds almost desperate, soft. “I know if you and I talked, you’d understand how it all went down, and you wouldn’t be cringing away from me. You’d understand.”
“Oh yeah,” Jem snaps back before she can think about how she doesn’t really want to prolong this conversation, “Would I understand the way I do when you’re lying to my face, or is there a different type of understanding you had in mind?”
Gary’s eyes widen a bit, and she wonders if there are other things he lied about, besides Kieren and Henry’s bracelet. She wonders if he’s sifting through all the things she could possibly know, to find the thing to say that won’t give anything else away. “I know, I shouldn’t have lied, Jem,” he says, and a car horn honks behind them—Gary is still keeping his truck’s speed at a crawl to dog Jem and Frankie’s footsteps, and even on a quiet street like this, there are now two cars backed up behind him. “I know I shouldn't have, I knew it then, too,” Gary rushes on, “I just didn't know what to say to you. My head wasn’t on straight. You know how it goes.”
There’s a part of Jem—the part that freezes up and does stupid, awful things because she’s afraid—that does know how that is, that wants to understand him, here, to sympathize. He knows about that part of her, though, and remembering that is enough to get a sense of calculation from his plea. Besides, “You tried to make me shoot my brother, Gary,” she hisses. “You put innocent people in danger, broke the law, went to a huge amount of effort, just to put me in a position where I would have to shoot my brother. You know there’s no coming back from that, right?”
“Jem—” Gary tries again, only to be cut off by another car horn, and Jem can’t handle this right now, she can’t, she won’t—.
She turns her back to Gary, turning back to where she, too, has almost forgotten that Frankie is walking beside her, looking on with unnerving, wide, white eyes. She doesn’t know what Frankie sees in her face, but it must be something pretty dire, because Frankie wraps a protective arm around Jem’s waist like they’re old friends, stares Gary down and says, “She doesn’t want to talk to you, and you’re blocking traffic.”
It’s antagonism from a direction that Gary clearly wasn’t expecting, and Frankie must look totally collected, not intimidated at all, even Jem can barely tell that Frankie’s hand is shaking, and it’s resting on the weave of Jem’s sweater, so there’s now way she can imagine that anyone else would be able to tell.
“I’d watch my tongue with me if I were you, rotter,” he finally says, and Jem isn't sure where this little episode is going, but it’s then that the guy in the car behind Gary leans out the driver’s side window to yell at him to get a move on, so all Gary does is look at Jem again and say, “We’ll talk about this later.”
Jem shivers. It sounds like a threat.
Frankie looks over at him with frank curiosity, and asks, “What was that about?”
Jem laughs, but it sounds wrong—small and wobbly and not brave at all. “Don’t you have any awful exes, Frankie?”
She means it as a joke, but Frankie doesn’t seem to pick up on that, just cocks her head to one side and says, “Never really got around to it.”
She never got around to it, Jem thinks. Right. Because she died. Kieren doesn’t like when people apologize for bringing his death up, and he’s the best guide Jem’s got, so she doesn’t bother here, either.
“Well, plenty of time for you to make terrible decisions now,” she says instead, falsely bright, and that must be obvious enough as a joke, because Frankie smiles.
“All eternity, some think,” she chimes in, and she’s got dimples, Jem had forgotten that, she doesn't think she’s really seen Frankie smile since her fourteenth birthday—they were never really friends, before Frankie died, but they were never really not-friends, either.
Jem can hardly imagine that Frankie could ever trust her now, not after Henry, but she’s the friendliest face Jem has seen since she left the house this morning, which is the only reason why she says, “Let’s make the library a quick stop—grab the books and head back to mine. We can listen to music or something, I can’t stand the thought of being in public after that.”
Frankie hesitates, which is all Jem needs to backpedal wildly—“Or we don't have to! The library is great!”
Frankie stops her, though, says, “Can we do something girly, too? Paint our nails, or something? I’ve only been hanging with the guys since I’ve been, um, back, you know, and I—”
Frankie sounds as nervous as Jem feels, which is reassuring. “Yeah, course,” Jem tells her, and tries desperately to remember if she has any color nail polish besides black.
Kieren excuses himself upstairs after a moment so he can panic in peace, which lasts about ten minutes before he’s diving for his phone to call Simon and ask him what the hell he’s thinking, didn’t Kieren make it clear that he wanted some space?
It’s possible, Kieren thinks, as he scrolls through his contacts for the number at Amy’s bungalow, because Simon, the pretentious git, refuses to get a cell-phone, that he didn’t actually make that clear at all. He left in a bit of a rush. Kieren isn’t sure whether the lack of phone is a ULA—thing, the trying to stay off the grid—or a trying-to-avoid-the-ULA thing, now that Simon has proved himself a less than faithful soldier, but either way, it’s annoying.
Kieren wouldn’t put it past Simon to be doing it just to be annoying, actually.
He listens to the phone ring, and notes, absently, the sound of the front door opening. Jem must be home from school. Kieren isn’t sure whether he’s glad he’ll have any ally in what’s sure to be a mortifying meal tonight, or if he’s sorry to have another witness. It probably will happen, though, because Simon isn’t answering, which means either that he’s avoiding this call that he must have known Kieren would make, or he’s already on his way.
“Hello, dear,” Sue’s voice drifts up the stairs, “Will you be staying for dinner with us?”
“Mum—” Jem protests, and for a second Kieren wonders if this is about him, Jem not wanting whatever friend she brought home to stay. He wouldn’t have thought so, but Jem can be hard to read, hard to tell when what people think of her will start to get to her. Apparently Kieren’s being unfair here, though, because Jem goes on, “You know Frankie doesn’t eat,” and that’s unexpected.
“She’s welcome to sit down with us just the same,” Sue says, just a little repressive. “After all, it’s not as though she’ll be the only one. Kier will be sitting down with us, and your dad’s invited Simon to join us as well, so we’ll have quite a full house.”
“Simon?” Jem asks, and Kieren hopes she won’t blurt anything out, but Frankie’s voice cuts in over Jem’s before she gets the chance.
“Simon?” she asks. “Oh, I’m so glad, I haven’t really had the chance to talk to him since—well, since the funeral.”
“Yes, well,” Sue answers. “He and Kieren are …close.”
Oh, very subtle, mum, Kieren thinks, rolling his eyes a little. Still, it’s heartening the way both she and Steve have taken to Simon, and even the way they’ve picked up on the nature of Kieren’s relationship with him at all—Kieren isn’t sure they really understood the way things stood between him and Rick until they got word of Rick’s death, which, granted, might be his own fault for not telling them, but they hadn’t been a particularly communicative family back then, which is probably also why they didn’t ask, either.
Anyway, it would be heartening, the way Kieren’s parents seem to have accepted his older, undead boyfriend into their midst, except for the fact that their acceptance is forcing a level of interaction Kieren isn’t quite sure how to deal with at the moment. He dials again, listening to Jem and Frankie Kirby tromping up the stairs to Jem’s room. It sounds as if they’re talking about the Inquisition, but honestly, Kieren notes absently, these days, they could almost just as easily be talking about current events.
Simon doesn’t answer, and Kieren hangs up instead of leaving a message, but he waits to do so until the end of the recorded greeting, which is still Amy’s bright, mischievous voice telling Kieren he’s welcome to leave a message if he likes, she’ll consider getting back to him. After that, there’s nothing else for it—he drifts back downstairs and offers to help his mum set the table.
It’s a trick he’s learned, the past few months. If he offers to lay the place settings, he can avoid setting himself one and she won’t say a word. If, on the other hand, she lays the table, she’ll invariably set him with a full compliment of dishes, and then, when they sit down, she’ll probably fill them, absentminded or stubborn, Kieren’s not sure. When she does that, he always ends up fiddling with it, cutting things up, pushing bites back and forth. Once or twice, he’s even gotten so far as to bring a forkful up to his mouth before he remembers not to, which is always awkward for anyone who happens to be looking his way. Better to avoid the whole situation entirely.
There’s a moment, when Kieren is folding the napkins the way his mum has always liked them, the way she showed him before Christmas dinner—he must have been about six the first time— and she’s moving steadily around the room, straightening things absentmindedly, that he almost tells her again. There was a time when telling his mother what was bothering him made it feel like it was half-way to fixed, but Kieren doesn’t think that will be the case here.
In the end, Kieren stays quiet—very quiet, actually, which he doesn't realize could be interpreted differently until Sue says, “it’ll be alright, love,” an encouraging smile on her face. “I know it didn’t go quite the way you wanted it to last time, but Jem’s brought that nice girl from school home this time, and your dad will be on his best behavior, I’m sure.”
Kieren smiles back, and he knows it looks a bit tight, a bit strained, but it’s what he’s got. Still, he tries to sound reassured when he agrees, “Sure, yeah. It’ll be fine,” and hopes that it’s true.
A few minutes later, the bell sounds, and Kieren calls, “I’ll get it,” a generalized claim so no one else comes running. He needs a moment with Simon, he thinks, to ask what he was thinking before all of this becomes a family affair.
He’s almost talked himself around to livid again by the time he makes it to the door, but he can’t manage to hold onto the feeling when the door swings back to reveal Simon in one of those massive, thick-knit jumpers, face tense, holding a bottle of wine.
Kieren glances down at it—it looks rather nice, actually, he thinks with a touch of regret—before looking up to meet Simon’s gaze. “Planning on getting in my parents’ good graces by getting them sloshed?” he asks.
“I was thinking more just friendly and tipsy,” Simon says, face twitching into a crooked little almost-smile.
“I think you’re seriously overestimating my parents’ tolerance,” Kieren says, and knows it’s inane even as he’s saying it, but he can’t help it. “Even with Jem to help.”
Simon thrusts his hair back from his face, combing his fingers through it—it’s odd, it almost looks like a nervous gesture, but not one Kieren has seen from him before. “Christ, Kier, it’s not like they have to finish it.”
Kieren smirks a little at the edge of exasperation in his tone. “Bottle of wine to dinner, what’s next, flowers for my mum?”
Simon’s eyes drop and he mutters something that sounds suspiciously like “I thought about it.”
“You really are a piece of work, aren't you?” Kieren asks, and though it’s a rhetorical question, he’s almost expecting a response anyway. “Did you just learn everything you know about how to be a normal person from films?”
Simon hesitates, starts to answer and then cuts himself off, and yes, that was a little cruel, wasn’t it? Kieren thinks to himself. Especially since, on further reflection, it might be a little bit true.
Kieren glances inside to make sure none of his family are hanging around, then steps out onto the front porch next to Simon and closes the door behind him. Simon looks a little dismayed, and that always was the trouble with Simon, wasn’t? He walks around looking so perfectly like someone Kieren wants to be kissing that it’s easy to set aside the fact that he’s an extremist and a fanatic and as charming as a snake, far too charismatic for his own good or anyone else’s.
Kieren leans up just a touch, just a hair, wraps one hand around a chunk of the loose, thick knit of the front of Simon’s jumper and catches Simon’s mouth against his own, slow and lazy and not at all like Kieren’s parents are probably going to call them in to a dinner they can’t eat at any moment.
After a moment, Kieren pulls back just enough to break the kiss, still standing close, and turns his head just enough to whisper in Simon’s ear, “Don’t think this lets you all the way off the hook, though, alright? I’m still thinking. I reserve the right to have a reaction later.”
Kieren can feel Simon’s sigh and his muted nod of agreement against his own cheek just as strongly as he can feel the faintest pressure of Simon’s free hand, the one not still clutching the wine bottle, low on his back, and all of the sudden, the moment feels unbearably intimate, almost obscene to be right out in front of the house here, where anyone could see.
Kieren looks down at the hand that’s still resting on Simon’s chest in a loose grip, then steps back, tugging Simon along with him. “Come on, then,” he says, “We’ll be late to dinner.”
“Wait—” Simon pauses before coming in. “Your parents. Do they know?”
Kieren snorts. “Do you really think my dad would have invited you if they did?”
“Well, no—I thought you might have told them later, though. I wasn’t sure I’d still be welcome.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Kieren tells him, and tries to pretend it doesn’t sound like some kind of declaration. “Come inside, Simon.”
Jem is two minutes and thirty seconds into finding out that Frankie Kirby is a really committed headbanger when her mother calls up the stairs, “Jemima! Turn that off and come down to eat!”
Jem turns to the clock on her dresser and, yes, it is getting to be that time. She turns to Frankie, who is upright again but whose hair is still a wild mess, riotous curls as pale as her irises falling in wild tendrils around her face. “You don’t have to stay, you know, if you don’t want.”
“I know that,” Frankie says, and she sounds more confident than her face looks. “I don’t have to stay if you don’t want, either—I know how it can be, with mothers. It could be fun, though.”
Jem snorts. “Yeah, tons of fun. You’ll have front-row seats to the Kieren show. Today’s episode should be a memorable one, too.”
Frankie raises both eyebrows and Jem thinks maybe she said too much, maybe that came out too harsh, but she only asks, “So, are your brother and Simon…”
Jem sighs. “They’re—I don’t know what they are right now. But my parents definitely think they know, and they’re not all wrong.” It’s as much as she feels up to saying right now—Jem likes Frankie, she thinks, but she doesn’t know her all that well, and anyway, this is about Kieren. Jem’s not in the habit to blabbing Kieren’s business to anyone who asks.
“Sounds dramatic,” is all Frankie says before she slips out the door in front of Jem and trots lightly down the stairs, and Jem thinks that maybe her addition to this circus tonight, at least, will be alright.
There’s a moment, after Jem and Frankie come downstairs, and Kieren’s dad is pouring the wine while his mum compliments Simon’s good taste, when Kieren really does think it might be alright. Sue asks Frankie and Jem about their project, and Kieren doesn’t ask how it was that they, of all people, ended up working together on it, though he only just barely manages to resist. It’s probably best to avoid topics that skirt too close to his sister’s manslaughter charge at the dinner table.
Then, though, Steve launches into an anecdote about work, before using it as the universe’s most obvious segue into asking, “So, what do you do, Simon? Or what did you do, I suppose. Have you got something you’re itching to get back to now that Give Back is on its last legs? We’re hoping Kier will try for art school again, after this whole citizenship business is worked out, aren’t we, Sue?”
“Dad,” Kieren hisses, but he doesn’t mind, really—it’s a pretty good dodge, to be honest, and his father introduced it himself, which means there’s a better chance that he’ll let himself be distracted by it.
“Kieren’s quite talented,” Simon agrees, and Kieren reflects for a second on how deeply weird it is that the only evidence Simon has to base this on is the work Kieren put in to the elaborate funeral of a mutual friend—how strange it is that this man who he has taken home to meet his family (or, perhaps more accurately in this case, his father has dragged home to get better acquainted with) knows so little about a piece of Kieren that he used to define himself for so long.
(Rick had loved his work with a sweet fascination that had meant he’d rescued doodles in the margins of class notes and across the backs of receipts from waste bins and crumpled heaps, had smoothed them and spirited them off and kept them, and Kieren had never seen them again until Janet Macy had handed him a shoebox full of them she’d found under Rick’s bed a few weeks after they’d gotten word of his death.
“Best if Bill doesn’t find them,” she’d said, and Kieren had taken the box in numb fingers and not had the energy to tell her that his ability to care about her husband’s rages had died with her son. Then she’d held up a sheet of lined paper sketched out in pencil with a picture of Rick in profile, looking bored and zoned out, on the back of what looked like a page of geometry notes, and asked him, “Can I keep this one?”
Kieren had nodded his head and closed his fingers around hers over the paper briefly. He’d stayed quiet, though, and three days later he’d gone out to the cave and he hadn’t come back.)
“We’ve always thoughts so,” Steve agrees, beaming, and Kieren appreciates his parents’ easy pride in his work, he does, but he has a feeling it won’t be enough to sway Steve from his course, and he’s proved right when his father goes on, “And you, then? Where do your interest lie, Simon?”
His tone is jocular, but it is clearly not an idle question—Kieren has the strangest feeling that what’s on the table here is his hand, or something equally absurd and antiquated.
“Well, Steve,” Simon starts, then trails off like he’s not sure where to go with it. Kieren can almost picture him doing something awful, maybe pulling the same kind of thing he tried on Kieren himself at the Give Back scheme—rolling back his cuffs to show his scars and saying, smooth and low, matter-of-fact and carrying, Well, Steve, for the majority of my adult life, I was a habitual intravenous drug-user, up until I died of an overdose. Since then, I’ve been looking for something to give my second life meaning, and I think I may have found it in the messianic potential of your firstborn.
The thought is so simultaneously absurd and vivid that he almost sighs out loud with relief when Simon goes for the infinitely more innocuous, “I was a bit adrift just before I died, actually. I think whatever it is that I do next—I have some ideas, but certainly nothing solid—it will have to be the beginning of something new.”
It’s a relief to Kieren, but the answer doesn't seem to do much to impress his father, who looks like he might press for more, but it’s then that Frankie breaks in.
“So you’re almost in the same position as us,” she says, “trying to figure out what comes next.”
She sounds a little awed and entirely innocent when she says it, and Kieren wonders if she knows how fraught the conversation she just stepped into is. Simon seems content to let her break the tension. His smile in her direction is much easier than the tense expressions working themselves across his face every time he looks at Kieren or anyone Kieren shares DNA with. He says, “I guess I am. Strange, isn’t it? Falling into some kind of adolescent state again. Still, it must be fairly common for our kind. It could be that you’re lucky, Frankie, that you might have been in a state of uncertainty at this point anyway.”
There’s definitely that preachy, hypnotic tone in his voice when he says it, the one that Kieren hates, and hates even more that he’s a little turned on by. He kicks Simon under the table and Simon raises an eyebrow.
Frankie doesn’t seem to notice the exchange. “Yeah, maybe,” she says a little doubtfully, “But couldn’t you just say I’m double-unlucky for not knowing what I’m doing twice over?”
Kieren’s parents are both looking at Frankie with furrowed brows, Jem too, and Kieren wants to divert the conversation, he does, but he can’t help but think of how what Frankie is saying applies to him just as easily as it does to her or to Simon, how he’s caught somewhere between the two of them, and how there isn't an easy way to diffuse the topic because there isn't an easy answer to the question of what it is they’re supposed to do with this second life, or if there’s even somewhere they’ll be welcome to do it.
“So!” Jem says brightly, “Who’s ready for dessert?”
After dinner, Simon offers to help Sue with the dishes, and Kieren grumbles that Simon is sucking up, but he follows after them. Steve retreats to the den with a new DVD, and Jem and Frankie head upstairs to collect Frankie’s books, and then Jem walks Frankie out. “I’d stay to work a bit more on this,” Frankie says, a little apologetic. “Actually work, I mean. Not that the distracting parts weren’t fun, but my family will be wondering where I’ve disappeared to.”
Fun. It has been, and that’s not something Jem was expecting. Suddenly, she has to know. She hustles Frankie to the front door, then follows her onto the front porch so she can close the door behind her and ask, “Why are you being so nice to me?”
Frankie doesn’t pretend not to understand, which Jem appreciates. “You mean because of Henry?” she asks.
“Yeah. Because he was your friend, and because I…”
“Because you shot him.”
“Yes.” Jem made a decision to tell the truth about this, and she’s not about to go back on that now, as much as she wants to melt into the floorboards of the porch rather than meet Frankie’s frank, pearly gaze. She holds her head up and makes herself look Frankie straight in the eye.
“The thing is,” Frankie says, “I was at the trial,” and Jem hadn't known that, that comes as a surprise, though maybe it shouldn’t. She’d sat in the courtroom, with her lawyer on one side and Kieren and her mum and dad at her back, Henry’s mother sitting across the way, and she hadn’t noticed much else. “I heard what you said, about how you thought he was rabid, about how you’d been having dreams, and how seeing Rob in the hallway shook you up, and I knew that was true because I was there when that happened, and I saw the way they shoved you out in the hall, and how you didn’t hurt him, didn't even want to go near him. I could see you were scared.”
Jem nods. She had been scared. And part of being scared had been wanting to stalk down that hall and take out the threat so she wouldn't have to be scared again, but another part had been remembering that Rob was the kid who’d laughed so hard he’d shot milk so far out his nose it had stained a passing teacher’s blouse when they were all eight years old and a million miles from the nightmare they live in now, and that she’d watched his parents cry at his funeral, and that last week in class Frankie had passed him a note that he’d snickered so hard at that the teacher had sent him out of the room, and Jem hadn't wanted to do anything to hurt that boy, no matter how terrifying he looked as he’d shambled down the hall towards her. She couldn't take any more blood on her hands, that had been all she could think--that she didn’t want to die, but she couldn’t bear to hurt anyone else. And then she’d killed Henry.
She doesn't know what Frankie sees in her face, but it must be some of this, because Frankie nods.
“We’re none of us innocent,” she says. “I’ve done some things—even since I’ve been—been human again, I’ve done things that were things I shouldn't have, and there have been people who knew it and were nice to me anyway. And you didn't mean to, did you?”
“I didn’t,” Jem agrees, “I really wish I hadn't.”
“And, see,” Frankie goes on, and she’s got a strange little smile on her face. “I knew Henry. And I know the way he was about you. And I think he would have forgiven you a lot, he always knew you meant well. I think he’d be glad that I’m here to do it for him.”
And that, that’s too much for Jem—she lunges forward and throws her arms around Frankie, one over one shoulder, one under her arm, an octopus hug, Kieren would have called it when they were little. Frankie doesn’t respond right away, but Jem might be crying a little, and she can't pull away now or Frankie will see, so she keeps holding on.
After a moment, Frankie’s arms come up to hug back hesitantly, and then, after another second of tentative, awkward arms, tightly. It feels unpracticed and, after a moment, a little frantic. Jem wonders how long it has been since somebody hugged her.
When Frankie eventually pulls back, Frankie’s eyes are rimmed with the faint impression of those ichor-dark tears, but she only says, “So you have my number, yeah? Text when you want to meet up to finish up the project,” and then she turns around and goes.
Jem comes in from walking Frankie out just as Kieren and Simon have finished putting away the dinner dishes. Kieren is expecting her to stomp upstairs and turn her music back up, but instead she only goes as far as the living room, where she sits herself next to Steve in front of the TV. It’s not so strange, it’s certainly not unheard of, but it is enough to concern Kieren a bit.
He makes a mental note to ask her what happened with Frankie Kirby as soon as Simon has gone home. He’s sure there’s a story there. Frankie seemed like a good kid to him, the one time they talked, but she also has a pretty bulletproof reason to be furious at Jem, and Jem is going through enough right now without adding that to the mix.
Kieren can only handle one problem at a time, though, so he shelves that one for the moment, and smiles at Simon as he passes him the last dish to dry. “There you are, then. All done. Fully showed your appreciation for a meal you didn't eat.”
“Kieren,” Simon hisses admonishingly, darting his eyes back into the kitchen to make sure Sue didn’t hear.
She seems sorry to see Simon go, when he tracks her down safely out of earshot in the dining room a moment later, and she makes him promise to come back soon. Kieren’s father isn't so effusive, but he does go so far as to pause his film, stand, and shake Simon’s hand before he goes, which is fairly significant for him.
Jem just waves vaguely, but there’s no antagonism in it, which Kieren suspects probably has something to do with the fact that he’s come clean now. It makes much more sense for her to have had something she was actually suspicious about, with Simon, than for her just to have mistrusted him on principle.
Kieren tugs him towards the door, then says, “Looks like you’ve got their full approval now,” after shutting it behind them. Then they’re standing out on the front porch all over again, almost like the evening hasn't even happened yet, except that it’s dark now.
“That—that’s good,” Simon says, but he doesn’t sound sure about it.
Kieren looks askance at him, and Simon says carefully, “I am glad of that, I am, but do I have yours? That’s the important one, Kier.”
Kieren feels a little cheated—this was supposed to be his time to think about it, his time to figure out what he wants to say, and he hasn’t done that yet. He doesn't have a plan.
“The thing is, Simon,” he finds himself answering, “is that I don’t really know you, do I? I’d like to, I think, but at the moment, I really don’t. And that’s what keeps throwing me off guard with you, is that I keep expecting you to act a certain way based on who I assume you are, and that assumption doesn’t have much to do with reality, does it?” The question sounds almost too reasonable for the melodramatic absurdity of the situation, so Kieren adds, “Plus, it’s not so strange not to be expecting the guys you kiss to try to kill you, is it? So it’s not so weird of me to be a little, you know, thrown off by it. Even if precedent says maybe I should have been expecting it.”
Simon laughs, small and grim and choked off, and he looks so hangdog and sorry that Kieren aches for him.
“I do like you,” he says, a little desperately, half unsure whether he wants to stick to his guns or just say something to wipe that look off of Simon’s face. “I just don't know you yet. And we can fix that, can’t we? If you want, anyway.”
“I do,” Simon tells him, and there it is again, that furious, banked intensity. It’s exhilarating and frightening, and Kieren can't help but want more of it. “I really do want that, Kieren. Just tell me what to do.”
“Let’s just—let’s just slow down a little, alright?” Kieren isn't really sure how these things are supposed to go, either, it’s not like he’s ever tried to have a healthy, adult, non-secret relationship before. “Just promise me nothing like—nothing like that ever happens again, and then let’s try again?” Kieren squints up at the porch light and admits, “I don’t know, Simon. I don’t know how to do this. I do think I want to try, though.”
“I do, too,” Simon says, hoarse-voiced, and yes, it was basically inevitable that Kieren was going to end up kissing him before he goes, wasn’t it? It’s almost like he never stood a chance. Kieren rests a hand on either side of that strong jaw, the tip of the longest finger of each hand resting in the dip behind each ear.
Simon feels fragile like that, where skin rests loose over bone, Kieren thinks—human and real and fallible as Kieren himself and anyone else he has ever loved: Kieren doesn’t know of a better way to tell him than this, lips slotted together, feet facing toe to toe, Kieren’s father and sister on the other side of a thin window pane and thinner curtain, just a few breaths away.
He pulls his face away, hands still resting on Simon’s face, and Simon nods, steps back, down one step, and Kieren’s hands fall to his sides. Simon says, “I’ll call you tomorrow—or should I wait for you to call me? I can do that. I can wait.”
He steps down another step, almost down to the lawn.
“No—no that’s alright,” Kieren tells him, over-earnest, tripping over his words, “You can call me,” and Simon smiles wide.
“I will.” And that’s it. That’s the night. Simon turns and walks back towards the bungalow, and Kieren sits down on the top step and watches him go.
Jem finds him there, maybe seven minutes later. She knows it’s not a long time, but it’s long enough, with the way Kieren lets himself get twisted up over boys. She walks back out onto the porch and takes a seat on the step beside him.
“So, you took him back, then?”
Kieren smiles over at her crookedly. “Not sure I even made him really go to begin with, honestly.”
He says it like a joke, but like a joke that he thinks is true, and also maybe one that he’s not happy about the truth in.
“Well, that could be very brave of you,” Jem tells him.
“Could it really, though?” he asks her, and she’s not sure whether he’s being nasty to her or to himself, but either way, she doesn’t like it.
“Yes,” she tells him, waspish. “Just as long as you stick around to deal with the consequences,” and that is nasty of her now, that’s harsh, but it feels like all Jem’s world is, these days, is consequences, and she can’t bear the thought of him becoming another one of them again.
Apparently he doesn't mind that she’s a bit sharp, though, because it’s then that he scoots closer to her along the step, and slings an arm across her shoulders. “I’m not going anywhere, Jem,” he says. “I know I told you that already.”
He did, but Jem could stand to hear it a few more times. She never thought he’d leave the first time, either. “You’d better not,” she grumbles, ducking in closer under his arm.
“And you’re alright?” he asks quietly, lips moving against her hair. “Everything with Frankie—?”
“Frankie’s great,” Jem murmurs.
“Well, good, then.” Jem can hear the smirk in Kieren’s voice. “I’m glad you’ve made a friend at school.”
“Oh, piss off,” Jem says, but her heart isn't in it, and the half-hearted shove to Kieren’s ribs isn't meant to make him go anywhere at all. She thinks she’s lucky that he knows her well enough to know it, because instead of moving away, he wraps another arm around her, and he holds on.