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A Perfectly Normal Reaction to Fear

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Dennis Severs is eleven years old the first time George Bivin holds a gun to his head. Gog found it in his parent's bedroom closet, and Dennis knows it's unregistered as much as he knows they shouldn't be in there. It's small and shiny and cold when the barrel presses against Dennis' temple and he shivers. He doesn't want to play this game.

 

"Don't," he says, quietly, and would pull away if his body didn't suddenly seem frozen. Gog's right arm is snaked around his neck and nearly eight years later when Malcolm has him under the water in some rusted overflow container he'll be just as powerless to get out of it.

  

"Don't be a pussy, chubs," Gog says, and Dennis' stomach lurches at the use of his old nickname. His dad's been upstate for years, a fact that he tries not to think about (a fact that Gog never seems to let him forget), and if he were the strategically minded sort maybe he'd realize that Gog does it to taunt him, does it to let Dennis know he's being talked down to. It's only later, years later, when Gog brings home a puppy that looks like a miniature version of the dog who almost killed Dennis as a baby that it occurs to him that Gog might have been trying to hurt him all along (Dennis has always had a selective blind-spot for seeing other people's potential for malice).

 

He tenses when Gog's finger slips over the trigger, a "Please let me go," muffled into the fabric of Gog's sleeve.

 

After several long minutes Gog releases him and he slumps to his knees, shaking. Gog shakes his head ruefully at Dennis' shenanigans, saying It's just a game and muttering baby under his breath, and opens the chamber, only now deciding to check whether the gun was loaded.

 

Six slots, all full.

 

"Huh," Gog says with a little laugh, "Imagine that." Like terrifying and almost killing your best friend was a mildly whimsical experience at best. Dennis closes his eyes and tries not to throw up.

 

(Gog puts the gun away and then leaves him there, crying in the bedroom, when he tires of Dennis' tears and panicked breaths.)

 

When he emerges twenty minutes later Gog hands him a chocolate chip cookie and acts like nothing happened.

 

Dennis Severs is eleven years old the first (and only) time George Bivin holds a gun to his head but for the next eight years--for the rest of Gog's short life--he can still feel it, every time Gog brushes against him, the memory of cold metal and malice, pressing into the side of his face, like a promise.

 


  

A lot of the time, most of the time, Dennis enjoys Gog's company. George is his closest friend, his best mate, and with the exception of the gun incident (and sometimes Dennis thinks his life is a series of "incidents"; the incident with the gun, the incident with Dad, the incident with CPS) it starts slow. The suffocation, the control. Gog always wants to know where Dennis is (and has his ways of finding out what Dennis doesn't, or won't, tell him). Nothing advert (nothing more than finger-shaped bruises around his arm, maybe a sprained wrist, and that only happens a handful of times), and that's how it gets past him until it's too late (but really, even if he had noticed at the time, what could he have done?). Gog is always pushing his boundaries (until he can't remember what it's like to have them), always cornering Dennis and Dennis is always retreating. Two steps forward and one step back. It's a dance he didn't realize they were doing until his back is to the wall.

 

Sometimes it feels like Gog has been chasing him for years but he's only just noticed (the night Gog chases him to the top floor of their apartment building and Scarlet Paknadel loses her life he decides to stop running).

 

Dennis is fourteen before George asks him for something he really doesn't want to give, though ask is too soft a word for what happens the night of Gog's fifteenth birthday, when his parents are God-knows-where and Emily is at her grandmother's. Ask implies that someone cares about what the other person's answer is. Ask is synonymous with request and Gog doesn't request, he takes. Too many beers and Dennis is 5'2" and sloshed, Gog whispering in his ear and the room spinning, and it's not a good combination; drunk on Gog's dad's liquor stash and so far from the door. Gog's chest is warm where it presses against Dennis, his thigh shoving in between Dennis' legs, and...(Dennis pushes against the wall to get past Gog and the older boy loops an arm around his waist, pulling him close).

 

Gog has always been hard where Dennis is soft: his face, his torso, his heart. When he presses Dennis into the bedroom wall, shoves his hands up above his head--holding him in place--, he's hard everywhere and Dennis doesn't understand why. He doesn't need to understand though. Gog holds two fingers up to the side of Dennis' head in the imitation of a gun and the threat is clear. Dennis goes still beneath him and Gog smiles (Dennis is fourteen and Gog is pushing up his sweater and it feels like he forgot how to say no a long time ago).

 

Gog pulls at Dennis' belt and Dennis shakes his head. Gog smirks.

 

After, Gog offers Dennis a cigarette. Dennis takes it with shaking fingers and Gog pointedly ignores the tears on his face.

 

When he gets home the next day he throws up so violently he tastes blood. When his mom accuses him of being hungover (Dennis used to be a bit of a handle, his mother says to Kev years later) he just nods his head and doesn't correct her.

 


 

When Dennis is sixteen he gets his first tattoo. It's a pretty big piece for a first, and it hurts when he gets it (but it's a good hurt, because he chose it), but he's in love with it and determined to have it. He's eighteen before he reads any Stieg Larsson and realizes the irony of getting a dragon (he's nineteen before he sees Kev's burns and the irony makes him feel sick).

 

He's nineteen before anyone other than Gog sees it; Little Al catching him in the changing room, eyes widening comically when he sees more of the team's most elusive member than he ever has before. 

 

"You've been holding out on us, Asbo," he says, impressed, and raises his voice to get the attention of their teammates nearby, "And I for one won't stand for it!"

 

"Damn, that's nice," Ziggy says and whistles appreciatively. Asbo blushes and Rob laughs. Boy-with-the-Dragon-Tattoo, or "Salander" for short, seems to stick as a nickname for his nickname from then on, and Asbo doesn't mind it (it's nicer than Asbo, or at least better intentioned) even if he looks over at Kev a little guiltily the first time Al addresses him as such. Kev meets his eyes over the morning paper and gives him his best, dry "Dad is not impressed" look and Asbo smiles. Gog's death was a bit of a chasm between them at first, and though Asbo is absolved now (from the threat of jail, from Gog, even from Mal) the urge to make himself as small as possible and apologize for his very existence is still an instinct that has yet to be unlearned. Gog's death has proven cathartic in a number of ways, but Asbo still sheds a new layer of guilt every day.

 

("Yo, Boy with the Dragon Tattoo," Rob says later, ruffling his hair as he walks past. It was such a big secret before: his tattoo, his past, who he really was. But then Kev lifted him over the banister and Gog died and now Kev and Mal are off the team and Asbo is free in a way he's never been before.)

 

"Why'd you get it, Asbo?" Ziggy asks as she and Dennis overlook the smoking remains of an old high school gym (an electrical fire; faulty wiring, successfully evacuated).

 

Dennis surprises himself by telling her the truth, "I was sixteen...I wanted to prove that I owned my body."

 

Asbo can tell she's raising an eyebrow at him when she asks, "It was in question?" even though she has her mask on.

 

He shrugs when he says, "Yeah, unfortunately," and squints into the sunlight at the pile of rubble, focusing on the melted set of stairs he climbed just hours ago.

 

Ziggy nods in his periphery and says, "I know the feeling," bumping shoulders with him before rejoining the group.

 

When Dennis is sixteen he gets a tattoo because he wants something on his body that he wants. He wants to make a decision without a gun to his head. He wants to change himself, no matter how superficially, on his own terms, as a reminder that Gog might think he owns Dennis but he doesn't own everything. It's something, a declaration of sovereignty, and it's the biggest act of rebellion he commits until he decides to become a firefighter when he's seventeen.

 

Later, after the truth about the Churchill fire comes out, and after Gog is dead, Asbo holds out hope that Guv doesn't connect the dots, (he's barred his soul to Guv without hesitation, and he'd do it again in a heartbeat, but there are some things that he'd rather hide from the older man, out of a mixed sense of fondness and protection) and that he doesn't ask. He doesn't think he could deny Kev an answer to a straight question. Not when the last--and only--time Asbo lied to Guv the man almost threw him down a stairwell (and what does it say about Asbo that, after that, he still loves his boss?). Guv doesn't need to know what happened the night of Gog's fifteenth birthday. He doesn't need to know it was not the only time. Guv likes saving people--and in a way he killed Gog for Asbo, like a macabre, human version of a cat leaving presents--he doesn't need to know he was five years too late. 

 


 

When Dennis is eighteen he opens his apartment door to Gog's face and he's livid. There's nothing he can say to calm him down, no amount of protesting that will result in Dennis getting to bed and Gog being on his way. He's clearly on a mission, and what Gog wants, he gets. Dennis is still in his pajama pants and has only one shoe on when Gog shoves him out the door. His hair is wet from the shower and all he wants to do is sleep.

 

When Dennis Severs is eighteen years old he tries to save his neighbor's baby girl and only succeeds in putting Kev Allison on George's radar. Dennis doesn't know it at the time, but it's an action that will eventually save his own life (he doesn't know it at the time, but George breaks two of Kev's ribs and bruises his kidneys). George's fingers dig into Dennis' skin all the way down the back stairs and when the two of them finally spill into the alley behind Churchill Estate there are welts on his wrists and smoke in his lungs.

  

"What. the. fuck. were you doing?" Gog asks, and it's not his usual brand of scary-quiet, it's accusing, and his eyes are heated with what looks like actual concern.

 

"I was--" he says, and chokes on his words I was trying to save the baby, because Gog doesn't want to hear that, Gog made him put her down, and he's not sure he's drawn in a full breath since Gog drug him out of the room kicking and screaming, "I was..." he tries again, too fucking late, too fucking slow, too weak to save either of them, and he gags on despair.

 

He heard the explosion just seconds behind them, he could smell burning flesh and he knows that something terrible has happened, because of them, and he pushes George away. Pushing George away is like saying no. It's not acceptable, off-limits, but he does it anyway because he just doesn't care. Not about his own life, not anymore. George schools his expression and leans forward, putting his hand on Dennis' neck and it's supposed to be a warning but he's just so tired. Gog has had held a metaphorical gun to his head for years and sometimes wishes the other boy would just pull the trigger.

 

He doesn't care. He doesn't care if Gog crowds him against the alley wall and he doesn't care if his former best friend pushes him to his knees and makes him blow him while the fire still burns behind them because moments before he was holding Scarlet in his arms and now he's not and he knows it's too late. It's too late and it's not fair and when his back hits the alley wall he closes his eyes.

 


 

Asbo means it when he tells Kev he can't watch them take Gog's body away. It's too much, and not enough, and he doesn't trust himself to handle it. God forbid he fucking cry.

 

The past year his life has been divided into Before the Fire and After the Fire. Now there's Gog and After Gog. The loss of something, of someone, so significant--even if that thing wasn't what one would consider to be something good--still leaves one's life reeling. There's an ache in Asbo's chest when he hands Emily over to the paramedics, and one of them asks if he's okay. He's not sure whether he shakes his head or nods, but then the paramedic is shaking her head and leading him to a stretcher, making him sit down and put his head between his knees. Gog is dead, Gog is dead, Gog is dead, and it doesn't feel real. Gog doesn't deserve his tears, but for the first time there's no one to tell him what to do so he cries anyway.

 

He still identifies the body. Dennis does not think of himself as brave, but he knows he is not cruel, and there is no way he could force Emily to do it. Gog doesn't look like Gog, he looks like a poor, pale imitation of himself, and he can be glad--at least--that he spared her this. He stares at Gog's hands, wiped clean of soot and oddly bloodless, and thinks these are the hands that hurt me. He stares at them, tries to comprehend that they will never pose a threat to him again, and feels oddly detached. He brushes his thumb over the back of his own knuckles, over the memory of bruises from the time he finally hit back, and thinks, It can't be this easy (thinks, it shouldn't be this hard).

 

"That's him," he says to the nurse, and his voice comes out sounding more wrecked then is right. He can always blame it on the smoke he inhaled earlier.

 

"A friend?" she asks sympathetically after she relays the sheet. He shakes his head.

 

"Just--" just somebody who loved me, just somebody who once knew me better than anyone in the world, just somebody who tried to destroy me "--an ex," he says, going for casual and not quite succeeding. To call Gog a friend would be a lie, but to call him nothing doesn't seem right either.

 

"I'm sorry," she says as she leads him out of the room, and he recognizes her tone. It's the same tone of voice Guv uses with civilians who've just witnessed something horrifying. He almost laughs. 

 

"Don't be," he says, knowing she'll chalk his inappropriate response up to grief, while he chalks his inappropriate grief up to shock.

 

The hospital door shuts behind him and he takes a deep breath. It doesn't taste like smoke.