When Gil happened to catch brawl time at Mamma Gkika’s, he liked to sit on the bar. He knew it was obnoxious. It gave him an excellent view of the carnage, but it also presented the rest of the patrons with a nearly irresistible target that almost none of them would attempt to hit. He did it anyway.
He liked the noise. It did nothing to clear his head, but he found it soothing. So he sat there on the bar, an island of apparent calm amid the chaos, and he struggled to make sense of the strange turns his life had taken.
Even a year ago, he would have balked at the idea of a night spent in Tarvek’s private bedroom. He would have worried that Agatha would disapprove. And he would have scoffed at the idea that he could feel at peace there in Tarvek’s arms, in Tarvek’s bed. That Tarvek would allow so dangerous a creature in his room at all.
The trust, though. Gil remembered waking to the scratch of Tarvek’s stubble, to warm breath on his ear, a mumbled “good morning.” He remembered feeling how Tarvek must trust him, remembered how his pulse had quickened at the thought. He had pushed Tarvek back, had kissed him the rest of the way awake.
Gil flicked the tip of his tongue against his lips as though some trace might remain, as though he could still taste Tarvek’s kisses, his sighs, the salt of his skin. He thought of muscles rippling taut, thought of how Tarvek begged with his entire body.
“Hyu looks serious.” Ognian startled Gil out of his thoughts by plunking himself down on the bar beside him. “Hyu dun usually ignore de projectiles.”
Gil considered. Yes, a cup had whizzed past his head just moments ago, but he had hardly noticed it. Trying not to blush, he shrugged.
“Vot’s on hyu'z mind, hey?”
Gil had no intention of telling the truth. He looked at Oggie, and the Jäger grinned a grin that showed every pointy tooth. “Just… stuff.”
“Relationships schtuff?” Oggie guessed. Perhaps he was an expert after all. Gil failed at not blushing. Oggie laughed.
“Well… yes.” Gil looked down at his hands, at the heel of his hand, where so recently he had bit down to stop himself from crying out. Tarvek had snatched his hand away to kiss him. Gil closed his fist. “I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“Ho! Who does?” Oggie crowed, altogether too amused. He leaned closer, uncomfortably close, his nose crinkling. “Hyu'z apparently doink fine.”
With a horrible, sinking sensation, Gil realized that the Jägers—all of the Jägers—could smell Tarvek all over him. “I’ve made a mistake.” He shifted forward to hop down from the bar, but Oggie’s hand caught him by the scruff of the neck.
“No vay, keed. Hyu'z here to talk.”
Was he? Gil gave Ognian a distrustful glance. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” He was, as ever, painfully unclear on any etiquette or actual rules regarding the Heterodyne’s consorts. Perhaps he and Tarvek had committed a crime by not inviting Agatha to join them. Not that she would punish them, but an overzealous Jäger might think to try.
Oggie placed one hand over his heart in a gesture of sincerity. “Hy iz here to help. Remember?”
Yes, Gil remembered. “Sure, but have you ever helped someone so clueless?”
“Hah! Hyu'z not so bad. Hyu sees Oksana dere?” Oggie pointed across the room, at a tall, taciturn Jäger who worked for Jenka. “She vas afraid to ask Meez Ruxala for a date. Hy helped!”
Gil chewed on this new information. “Was that difficult?” Ruxala had come with Oksana for the brawl tonight, so everything had clearly worked out.
“Hyu haff no idea,” said Oggie with a rueful shake of his head.
Gil could not rightly imagine anyone less capable at navigating romance than himself, and he knew that Jenka was not the sort of Jäger to suffer fools under her command. “I’m not convinced,” he said.
“Vat, hyu vants to be de biggest dumdum?”
Tarvek would call that a point of pride with him.
“It’s not that,” Gil sighed, shaking his head. “I’m just… I’m terribly clumsy at everything—”
“Dot’s not vat hy hears,” Oggie interrupted, causing Gil to blush again. The Jäger laughed at him.
“No, no, I mean emotionally.” Gil watched Oksana pick Ruxala up and swing her around to kick two other Jägers. “I say the wrong thing. Or I fail at talking about what I feel. Or else I say or do everything at the wrong time. I can't…” Lowering his gaze to his hands again, Gil shook his head. “I can’t keep carrying this weight. It’s exhausting.”
Without warning, Oggie slapped Gil in the back of the head. Hard enough to rattle his brains. Clapping a hand to his skull, Gil turned to yell, but they both had to duck a barrage of projectiles. An act of violence made them fair game. It was in the rules.
“Boy, hyu iz vun SCHTUPID schmot guy!” Picking up a barstool, Oggie prodded the tide of the brawl back away from them with an expert hand. “How many pipples iz in hyu'z relationship?”
“Oh. Well, three.” In total. Apparently two and a half, if one deducted all of his deficiencies.
“Does hyu lets dem carry sum veight?” Oggie’s tone suggested that he already knew the answer.
“Well…” Did he? “I don’t know?”
Ognian gave him a narrow-eyed stare. “Does hyu try to do efferyting hyuself?”
“Chust say yez.” Oggie waved his hand as though to ward off an idiotic response, and Gil swallowed a rebellious twinge. His upbringing and his years alone were against him in that regard.
“Hokay. Ve identify de problem. Now hyu ken fix it.”
Gil had not the faintest clue where to begin with that. If he couldn’t even express his feelings in a quiet, intimate moment, and just last night, how could he stop trying to carry everything on his own? He thought about how he had tried, how this morning Tarvek had murmured, “I know you love me.” How he had kept his head down, avoiding Tarvek’s earnest gaze, and simply nodded.
“I can’t,” Gil blurted, aching inside and too damn tired to fight it. “I don’t have the right words to tell them how I can’t love them enough, can’t touch them enough, can’t keep them close enough to make up for the years we spent apart.”
Ognian stared at him. “Dot’s a pretty goot start, ektually.”
Gil waved a dismissive hand. “So it sounds reasonable now. I’ll make a shambles of it as soon as I try to repeat it.” If nothing else, he knew his shortcomings.
“Hmm,” Oggie said, eyes narrowing, perhaps in judgment. “Hyu dun tink much ov hyuself.”
“How can you even say that?” Gil yelped. “I’m Gilgamesh Wulfenbach! I single-handedly—”
“Yah, sure,” Oggie interrupted before he built up decently Sparky momentum. “But does hyu tink hyu really deserves all dis? Luff? Heppiness?” When Gil sat back, a little stunned by his words, the Jäger leaned closer. “If hyu deed, hyu vould know hyu has time. Dey'z keepink hyu. Foreffer-like.”
“Forever is an unreliable unit of measurement,” Gil objected. Still, he liked the sound of it. He thought of Agatha, her hand in his, her cheek tilted against his shoulder as she sighed at him in that fondly exasperated way of hers. He thought of Tarvek, openly laughing at him, his eyes nonetheless full of warmth and love. Forever. Gil’s stomach lurched in a sudden panic, and he shook his head.
“Hoy!” Maxim ambled over to join them. He threw himself against the bar in an affected casual posture that Gil assumed Tarvek would envy, should he deign to slouch. “Progress?”
Ognian made a frantic shushing gesture. Gil eyed him with suspicion. “Progress with what?”
“Nottink,” Maxim lied.
“I get it,” Gil said, sliding to the edge of the bar. He’d somehow taken it into his head that he could trust these Jägers, but clearly that had been a mistake. “Go ahead and talk about me. I’ll be somewhere else.”
Ognian gave Maxim a casual whack with the barstool. “Dun listen to heem. He vants a goot party.” But Gil was already on his feet, headed for the door.
The problem, he knew, was more him than the Jägers. Oggie listened well, and even offered helpful insight—who would have thought it? And of course they discussed him. If there was one thing Jägers loved more than misbehavior, that thing seemed to be gossip. Still, when they tossed the subject about so casually, and right in front of him, Gil could feel that old familiar sting across the decades, could still hear the other children laughing at him.
He escaped out onto the street. Fresh air would no doubt restore his cognitive function. Ahead of him, farther down the block, Oksana and Ruxala walked together. Oksana hesitated, then reached for Ruxala’s hand. A building scooted just slightly to one side, giving them more romantic lighting.
“You soft touch,” Gil muttered, not quite certain if he hoped the Castle could hear him. A low chuckling proved it did.
“You may be the first ever to say so.”
“I doubt that,” Gil scoffed.
“Well,” Castle Heterodyne admitted, “recently.”
Gil veered away down a side street, headed for… well, not home. Not exactly. He always began to feel a bit odd when he spent too much time on the ground, like gravity increasing on him. Still, Castle Heterodyne had become a second home of sorts, a place where he felt unreasonably comfortable. Anyway, the people he loved were there, and that was good enough.
He felt better, he realized as he ambled through the streets of Mechanicsburg. A small, sullen part of him balked at admitting it, but talking to Ognian had helped in unexpected ways. He knew what he had to do.
And he knew that unlearning his habit of carrying the weight of the world alone would be one of the most difficult challenges he had ever faced.