It hurts to breathe, and I just want to stop.
Everything is a blur – shattered slivers of memory I don’t want to acknowledge moving around in the haze that is my mind – but I remember enough to know that it would be a relief to stop breathing, if it wasn’t for Agron. He is somewhere close by – distance is a foggy concept in this limbo-like state where the line between wakefulness and unconsciousness is indistinguishable – and begging me to stay alive, to keep fighting, telling me that I simply cannot leave him alone.
You cannot fucking abandon me. Not you too.
His voice is wrecked with despair and grief and that makes me realise exactly how bad it must be. Agron is the strong one, strong enough to protect me from anything, and Agron never shows weakness.
I remember fire, but I don’t want go there; it’s too painful. More painful than the burning in my lungs, more painful even than the sound of Agron’s desperate voice. But at least Agron is alive. Agron is safe. He wasn’t home. Agron is here. Agron is breaking apart.
Every breath hurts so much, as if the fire is residing inside my chest now, as if it will live there forever, unquenchable, burning eternally. But I cannot let go. It’s my turn to be strong.
Agron’s hand is around mine, the grip almost crippling. Somehow, somewhere, I manage to find the strength to squeeze back.
It is when they, days later, tell Agron that I’m going to live that he finally begin to cry as if he’s never going to stop. And I know why, cannot deny it anymore: we are all that’s left.
I suddenly notice that my brother is no longer listening to me and I’m about to swat his arm in irritation as I follow his intent gaze and sees what it is that has caught his attention so: a mane of black hair, a dark-skinned arm with a tattoo snaking it’s way down the bicep towards the elbow, a tank top stretching over the sharp planes of a back and hugging a narrow waist, tight jeans showing off the curve of a delectable ass. I’m not one for guys, but even I have to admit that this one is rather spectacular.
The guy turns, just a little, and brown, almost black, eyes scan the crowd behind him, well-defined and smooth-shaven jaw raised slightly, as if in challenge or defiance, and he catches sight of Agron. Impossible not to, with the way my stupid brother is staring at him, mouth slightly agape and everything. I know that look, is all too familiar with the want and the determination in his green eyes. If the guy has any inclination whatsoever he will end up in Agron’s bed tonight. And judging by the way his eyes warm with something that’s definitely akin to lust as they sweep across Agron’s body, he is very inclined indeed.
The guy smiles, just an upward curl of the corners of his mouth really, and Agron is up from his seat, striding over with, I’m sure, one of his embarrassingly lame pick-up lines already on the tip of his tongue and that fucking megawatt-smile that could get even the straightest guy to fall for him in full force.
I sigh, rolling my eyes a little, before turning to Mira.
“Five bucks says he’s going home with that guy.”
Mira shakes her head, grinning. “Not a chance. He’s so gonna get slapped.”
The next time I look towards the bar, only minutes later, Agron’s hand is resting on the guy’s hip and raven hair brushes against Agron’s shoulder as the guy leans in closer to say something that has Agron laughing.
It takes but another few minutes before they are kissing as if the world is about to end, Agron’s back against the bar and now with both hands on the guy’s hips. When he takes Agron’s hand and they move towards the exit, I turn towards Mira with a triumphant smile.
“Oh, fuck you,” she says and very reluctantly hands me my five dollars.
When I open Agron’s door Sunday morning without being greeted by the usual smell of pancakes, bacon, eggs and coffee and Agron singing along to some Metallica-album or other, I frown. We always have breakfast together on Sundays, except for when we are extremely, if-I-even-think-about-food-I’ll-start-throwing-up-and-never-stop-hungover. And Agron wasn’t even out with us last night.
“Agron?” I call as I walk into the empty kitchen. The bedroom door is closed, I notice, so maybe he has just overslept.
I push the door open, trying to figure out the nastiest way imaginable to wake the lazy ass I call brother, only to find the guy from the bar stretched out naked – and, yep, that is definitely one fine-looking man – on Agron’s bed, his hair spread out in sharp contrast over the white pillows and eyes closed. Agron’s head is resting on his stomach, right above his groin, a tell-tale streak of white on the lower part of his cheek, the guy’s fingers running tenderly through his hair. Their breathing his still a bit rough and their skin flushed; they’re like the very definition of post-coital bliss. Agron presses a kiss against the skin right below the guy’s pierced bellybutton and the he lets out a small sigh.
I turn to leave them to it, and manage to accidentally smash my elbow against the doorframe, a loud “Scheiße!” involuntarily tumbling out of my mouth as the pain shoots up through my arm.
The guy’s eyes snap open and Agron sits up, one hand going up to wipe across his mouth. They both stare at me, Agron with a weird mix of amusement and irritation in his eyes, while the other man blushes and very quickly pulls the sheet to him to hide his nakedness.
“Apologies,” I say. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just wasn’t aware that our breakfast plans had changed.” Said a little too sharply perhaps, but I don’t like the fact that I’m being stood up by my brother for some one-night-stand he’s picked up in a bar. Or two-nights-stand, whatever it is.
Agron frowns a little at me before turning back towards the guy. “Would you like some breakfast? Pancakes, scrambled eggs, coffee? We make killer breakfasts,” he adds with a nod to indicate me.
Dark eyes flicker from Agron to me and back again. “I guess,” he says, a little hesitantly.
Agron’s moves up to kiss him. “You can get a shower if you want while we whip it up,” he says, climbing off the bed. “Oh, and Duro – this is Nasir. Nasir, this is my brother Duro.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say.
“Likewise,” Nasir mumbles while clutching the sheet more firmly against him, his cheeks still blossoming red. His lips are swollen from kisses and the side of his neck is covered in love bites. He kind of looks like he’s been fucking non-stop since Friday night.
Agron pulls on a pair of sweatpants. “Shower’s that way,” he says and points towards the bathroom door. “There’s towels in there and you can grab whatever you want out of my closet if you need anything.” He bends down to kiss him again, before grabbing my arm and dragging me out into the kitchen.
When shower starts up Agron turns towards me and his smile is goofy and more than a little pleased. “I think I’m in love,” he says.
Oh, come on. “Must be a fucking spectacular lay then,” I say a little testily, crossing my arms and leaning back against the counter.
His face sobers. “What crawled up in your ass and died, bruder?”
“You find some guy in a bar, fucks him for two days straight and then you’re in love? Don’t be an idiot, Agron.”
“I’ve done that before, and I’ve never felt anything like this.”
“Fine, whatever,” I say, not really up for a fight, opening the fridge and start to rummage through it. “Let’s make your future husband some breakfast then.”
When he doesn’t answer, I turn to look at him, eggs and milk in hand, and he’s looking all goofy again. I roll my eyes.
This will end well.
Agron’s phone rings as we walk out of the gym, Disturbed’s “Asylum” sounding hollowly from inside his pocket. He pulls it out and I can tell from the way his face lights up whose name is showing up on the display. His fucking boyfriend’s.
I stuff my hands in my pockets and glare at him from the corner of my eye, wondering what Nasir has done to my brother and who this love-sick fool wearing his skin and face is.
I expected their relationship to burn out after a couple of weeks of fucking, but they have been going strong for about two months now and there seems to be no end in sight. Agron still looks like a fucking kid on Christmas morning at the mere mention of Nasir’s name, and when Nasir is in the same room you’ll get more exchange out of a door handle than my brother. Unless you happen to be Nasir, of course.
“Hi, schatz,” he say as he answers the phone and I almost gape at him. He has always used terms of endearment rather freely with everyone and Nasir in particular, but I’ve never heard him call him anything in German. German is ours. Its the secret language we spoke when we were kids and wanted no one else to understand us, and still mostly use to talk to one another because it seems we understand each other so much better in our native language. He may call Spartacus and Crixus and the rest for brother, but he’s never called anyone but me bruder. The language is one of the few things of our German heritage we still hold on to when so much else is lost and something that binds us together. It hurts to know that Agron shares that with someone else as well.
“Ich liebe dich,” Agron says, and my attention snap back to him. I can hear Nasir’s answer through the phone.
“Ich liebe dich auch.”
The words are a little awkward in his mouth, his Arabic-accented voice not used to the harsh melody of our language, but Agron smile widens – if such a thing is even possible.
I remember when I had my brother all to myself, and I want that time back even as I hate myself a little for it.
Agron tears open the present, thick gleaming blue paper shredding under his eager fingers, the white ribbon falling to the floor. Inside is a small cartoon and when he opens it, his eyes widen slightly before he pulls Nasir to him and kisses him laughingly.
“Gratitude, schatz,” he says, holding up the two tickets he’s pulled out of the box with one hand, the other resting around Nasir’s waist. “You’re really going to endure a whole Metallica-concert for me?”
Nasir looks horrified. What does he see in that guy?
“Oh, no,” he says, holding up his hands as if to ward off Agron’s assumptions. “All I’m giving you are the tickets. Thought you could bring Duro.”
And he smiles at me and that just makes it so much worse. Fucking long-haired Syrian fuck who is not only stealing my brother but buying me Metallica-tickets as well. Sold out Metallica-tickets no less.
The replica of Jayne Cobb’s awful hat I got Agron doesn’t seem as funny now. Actually, it stopped being funny the minute he took it off his own head to put it on Nasir’s and kissed his nose in that disgustingly adorable way he seems to do everything when he’s around him, and said “You’re pretty… pretty.” Not that Nasir got the reference – apparently he fell asleep halfway through when Agron made him watch the first episode of Firefly. I would have dumped him.
After the gift-opening is over and Agron and Crixus has started to play the latest GTA-game which Donar got him, bickering about who gets to play first even before they’ve put the disc in, Nasir comes over to where I sit, two opened beers in his hands. He holds one out to me and I accept it, taking a large swallow while nodding thanks just to avoid having to actually say anything. They’ve been going out for almost three month, but I’ve never really had a conversation with him, just he and me. Not due to his lack of trying, certainly, but I don’t understand why I should need to become all friendly with him just because he’s fucking my brother. I don’t know even how to talk to him and apparently the feeling’s mutual, because we just sit there silently for a while, sipping at our beers.
“It is a nice hat,” Nasir says eventually, tipping his bottle towards Agron to indicate the birthday present he’s once again wearing, the orange colour clashing horribly with the green t-shirt he’s wearing.
I hum in response.
“Look,” Nasir says, putting the bottle down with a clink, “I know that we for some reason hasn’t really gotten off on the right foot, but I’d like us to be friends. For Agron.”
I’m not good at keeping my mouth shut – it’s a family trait. But while Agron can make up for whatever his mouth spews out without his brain’s permission with his charming smile, whenever it happens to me I’m usually utterly doomed.
“If I tried to befriend every guy my brother’s ever fucked, I would never have time for anything else,” I say. “I’m usually settling for just learning your names and trying to keep you apart, you know?”
He looks a bit taken aback at my words, mouth opening slightly.
“Break his heart and I’ll hurt you,” I say, rising from the couch before he has time to come up with any reply.
Agron busts in without knocking, kicking the door shut behind him, and I can tell at first glance that he is furious.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?” he bellows at me from the top of his lungs.
I decide to go on the defensive immediately, crossing my arms and leaning against the wall. “So, he ratted me out, huh?”
I regret it immediately when Agron’s eyes turn even darker with rage. “No, he didn’t fucking rat you out. He was fucking UPSET! It took me an hour to get it out of him! Duro, I love that man and you’re not fucking treating him like this.”
“All I said was…”
“That’s not the verdammt point, and you know it! You’ve been treating him like shit from the beginning. I don’t know what you have against him, but just fucking get over it, ‘cause he’s in for the long run – got it?”
“Get over it? Get over it?” I’m starting to get angry too, the volume of my voice rising with every syllable. “Get over what? Having my brother taken away from me? Being constantly put aside while you spend every second of your life with Nasir? Getting used to be second now that you’ve found someone better?”
“You better be fucking kidding me,” Agron spits. “You’re jealous? I’ve been there for you your whole life, Duro. Nasir’s been in mine for three months. I’m crazy about him – of course I spend time with him. I’m not going to allow you to make me choose between you.”
“Well, that’s not necessary!” I say. “You’ve already made it very clear whose company you prefer. We’re brothers, Agron – how the fuck can you just neglect me for some pretty face and a willing body?”
The slap is unexpected, the sound of his hand against my cheek loud in the silence after my heated words.
“I can accept that you don’t like Nasir,” Agron says as he lowers his hand, quietly, slowly, and somehow that’s worse than the yelling. “But for fuck’s sake, respect what I feel for him. I cannot ask you to like him, but I expect you to be civil to him because he is my boyfriend. You’re not going to threaten him, or insinuate that I sleep around or that our relationship is just about sex. You’re going to make a fucking effort to get along with him as he has done with you, because, like you said, you’re my brother.” He sighs and it sounds almost broken, as if all the fight has suddenly left him, and I realise how hard this must be on him. He has never yelled at me before. “Please, bruder. You’re my best friend. And I love him. Just… try. For me, okay?”
And I can do nothing but nod.
For so long, for years – ever since our parents died – it’s been us against the world. Agron is all I have and need. I have other friends, sure, and I’ve had girlfriends too, but there has still always been us. I hate the thought of having to share him.
When his lips press against my forehead I swallow, but whether it is guilt or hurt or tears I try to get rid off I do not know.
I see his hands shaking slightly as he adjusts his tie and smooth out invisible wrinkles in the fabric of his tuxedo pants and I want to ask him if he really is sure about this, if it isn’t too fast, if he’s sure is not going to regret it. But I’ve asked him that and more a hundred times already – me along with pretty much everyone they both know – and I know it won’t matter.
When his eyes meet mine in the mirror they are filled with apprehension.
“What if he changes his mind?” he says and his voice, too, is trembling. Just slightly, barely distinguishable, but I hear it.
“He won’t,” I say, putting both my hands on my brother’s shoulders, lending my support – because, if nothing else, I’m a good brother. I will learn to be.
When he told me that he and Nasir was getting married, I didn’t expect him to, with his next breath, ask me to be his best man. When I confessed that to him a few days ago after one too many beers, he just smiled sadly and called me an idiot.
Nasir doesn’t change his mind.
The ceremony is quick, and the smile on Agron’s face is brighter than the sun when he puts the ring on Nasir’s finger. I have seen those rings up close and they are exquisite – thick silver bands with the word ‘forever’ engraved in Arabic in Agron’s ring and in German in Nasir’s, together with today’s date.
They kiss and when they break it, still in each other’s arms, I feel for a moment almost as overwhelmed as the grooms look.
Fuck, I think, my brother has a husband.
If someone had told me six months ago that Agron would get married, I would have laughed.
When I open the door after the insistent ringing on the doorbell, Agron is standing there with a bag slung over one shoulder and a defeated look in his eyes.
“Can I crash on your couch tonight?”
“Sure,” I invite him in.
I know that they are going through somewhat of a rough patch and that they have been fighting quite a lot lately, but Agron has never shown up on my threshold with an overnight bag before. And Nasir has just come home from a business trip – usually they can’t keep their hands off each other for at least twenty-four hours after he has been gone more than a day. It must be really bad.
I get us each a beer and we sit down in the living room.
“The usual. We were fighting about his fucking job and then it just…” He makes a vague gesture, probably to illustrate the escalation of the fight before hiding his face in his hands, the beer forgotten on the coffee table. “We were shouting at each other about something and then I said that I couldn’t possibly stay married to a man who loves he job more than me. And then I left.” He groans. “I’ve fucked up so bad. What if I’ve lost him? What if I’ve managed to screw up one of the best things that have ever happened to me? I’m never going to love another man, I…”
It continues like that for a while, but he soon falls asleep, exhausted from his emotional turmoil.
I too go to bed, despite it being quite early, not knowing what else to do. I’m not used to seeing Agron in distress and I don’t like it. But they’ll resolve it. They have to.
I wake up around 3 a.m., needing to take a piss. When I pass the living room on my way back from the bathroom I stop, blinking.
Agron is lying on his back on the couch, Nasir on top of him – both of them fast asleep. Nasir’s face his hidden in the crook of Agron’s neck and Agron’s hands are resting on the small of his back.
“Un-fucking-believable,” I mumble sleepily and stumble back to bed, half-convinced I’m dreaming.
I have completely forgotten about it when I wake up the next morning and when I leave my room and hear voices emanating from the living room, I frown before remembering. Even so I can’t help but stay and listen – after all, I only want to know if they’re good again.
“I’ve quit my job,” Nasir says.
Silence. Then: “But you love your job.”
“I love you more.”
“Nasir, you can’t quit your job for me. That’s insane. You cannot just…”
“Agron.” Nasir’s voice is sharp. “You are my husband. Three months ago I promised to love and care for you for the rest of our lives. I’m not making good on that promise by working until after midnight three out of seven days a week and being away every second or so weekend on business trips and auctions. There are other art galleries in town – I’ve had some offers. It will be fine. And, most importantly, we will be fine.”
Agron lets out a small laugh, and it sounds almost pained. “And I thought you were drawing up divorce papers.”
“Foolish man.” A sound like a kiss. “Haven’t you read the inscription on our rings?” More kissing sounds. Then: “So, are you coming home?”
“Try and stop me.”
This time the kisses sounds decidedly more ardent, and I’m surprised when I identify the feeling spreading through me as relief at knowing that they’re good again.
The noises are growing louder, and I push the door open with one foot.
“Terribly glad you guys are alright again and everything,” I say, “but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t have sex on my couch. And Agron, what are doing? Trying to crush him?”
Nasir isn’t exactly delicate despite his slight build, but I know from our countless wrestling matches that having Agron’s weight pressing down on you is far from comfortable.
Agron gives me a dirty look over his shoulder while Nasir laughs, the same blush on his cheeks as the first time I caught them. That his ability to blush remains intact after nine months together with my brother is remarkable.
“Apologies,” he says. “And gratitude for taking care of him.”
“Just get him home,” I say, grinning a little. “He’s your responsibility now.”
Everything hurts. Everything, but the physical pain doesn’t measure up to what I see in Agron’s eyes as he stares down at me. There is horror on his face, horror and dread.
I want to open my mouth and make some kind of joke, ask if I really look that bad and isn’t it really his turn to lie here and have a near-death-experience, anything to chase away that look, but it hurts too much. I can taste blood in my mouth and there are hands on me and hurried voices around me, machines beeping and someone groaning in pain.
They’re trying to get Agron out, but he refuses and no one seems to really have time to try to move him so he stays and his eyes doesn’t leave me for a second, as if he can keep me breathing by sheer willpower.
But he can’t. I can feel myself slipping, the pain growing more distant with every uneven breath, the beeping of the machines growing wilder with every erratic heartbeat. I fight, even as it is in vain, because I cannot do this to him.
And then Nasir is suddenly there, his arms around my brother, holding him, a tear slipping down his cheek. I wonder if it’s for me or for Agron. Maybe both.
He holds Agron, an anchor he can cling to in his pain, and I realise that my brother will be fine. Eventually. Nasir will keep holding him as he grieves and rages; will be there for him for the rest of his life, as I will not; will accompany him to my grave and kiss away his tears; will keep him from tearing that guy I glimpsed for but a fraction of a second behind the steering wheel of the other car to pieces. He will make it possible for him to keep on without me, help him fill that gaping hole I will leave in his life. He will be fine.
I want to tell them that I love them, love them both, but all that comes out are blood and all I hear is the sound of Agron’s desperate, heart-wrenching chant: “nein, nein, nein, nein, nein”. But even that is fading away, overpowered by the echoing silence in my mind.
I catch Nasir’s eyes for a fleeting second before I close mine for the last time, and maybe I imagine it, but I think I see him nodding his head just once at me, understanding what I need from him and agreeing to it without a doubt.
I will never leave him.
I wish I could promise the same. But he will be fine, and that is all that matters.
I let go.