"I'd resolve to be a better person."
Bryan stared across at him, confusion and expectation in his blue eyes but he said nothing in response to Vaughn's words, simply waited for Vaughn to say more but Vaughn couldn't think of anything else. Too many lives had already been ruined this weekend and Vaughn didn't feel like adding to the body count. Eventually Bryan seemed to accept that there was nothing more forthcoming and went outside to help the others with Trev; though Vaughn felt Bryan's eyes boring into his back before he closed the door behind him, leaving Vaughn alone to change out of his sodden clothes. He knew he ought to take Bryan's advice and get into the hot tub with the others; he needed to raise his core temperature after spending those desperate moments beneath the ice of the frozen lake trying to find Trev and bring him back to the surface.
However, his mind seemed as numb with cold and shock as his body.
Everything had changed over this weekend. All his firmly held beliefs about himself and his closest friends had shattered into so many pieces with all of them dancing on the shards, cut and bleeding. After twenty-three years he thought he knew them, all of them but now he realized he'd spent the past decade in denial, desperately trying to hold onto the good memories and refusing to accept the rest. In his heart they were still the same small group of boys who had met at the age of seven and stayed together through school before going in different directions as men.
John had always been the sensitive artist, Stevie the athletic hero, Vaughn was the academic, and Bryan was the thespian and clown. Together they had made a formidable team, shoring up each other's weaknesses with their strengths, but perhaps he had forgotten that over this past decade. John had no financial acumen but he brought grace to the group, and an artist's eye for the beauty surrounding them, making all of them lift up their eyes to view the world in all its glory. Steve was the hedonist, living for each moment and seeing beauty in the physical form, in strength and power and flexibility of the body, often forgetting that beauty was more than skin deep. Bryan was like an overgrown puppy, so playful and generous, so eager to please with a song or a comedy sketch but so naive in other ways, and so easily manipulated - used and abused.
When had he stopped protecting Bryan?
Vaughn had never tried to look deeper into his own reflection in the mirror, too willing to believe in his superiority and in his keener mind that had brought him wealth, power and this cabin only to realize he'd been living in his own fantasy world. Renee was right in that he was a coward. Someone once told him that the only difference between a rut and a grave was the depth and Vaughn had buried himself in a rut of his own making, desperately needing to be in control of every situation. He'd structured his life, compartmentalizing every moment from the instant he awoke in the morning and put on his slippers, to the second he slid between the covers at night having placed those slippers in their proper place beside the bed. He'd eliminated almost any chance for spontaneity. Everything had always needed to be arranged in advance, planned meticulously down to the last detail. Hell, he'd even written up a schedule for what they would do this weekend only to see it fall to pieces the moment Trev appeared from under the cabin clutching a tin box full of old family movie reels.
His brother and his three closest friends had always added an element of chaos to his life and maybe that was why he had drifted away from them, believing he would be better off if he had full control. He'd forgotten that their unique qualities balanced out his excesses, and he had forgotten how it felt to laugh and joke around with Bryan without having to guard his words around Heather and Renee. When he thought back on those double dates, he could hear himself saying all those things about Bryan afterwards, about him being weak and pussy-whipped but it wasn't Bryan he despised. In truth, he hated Heather. He hated the way she had taken his best friend and used his weaknesses against him, tying him into a loveless marriage from which Bryan might never find the courage to escape. Now he had to hate Renee too because Bryan would never have made the first move in their affair.
He'd lost control, he'd lost his balance and almost lost his brother, and now he was on the verge of losing far more: Bryan.
In hindsight he should have seen that something was amiss with Bryan, that certain moments over this weekend had not held the easy camaraderie of their long friendship. Perhaps on some level he had recognized the guilt in Bryan's eyes, and had heard the lies in his voice but he'd dismissed them. A part of him had become convinced that Heather was the cause of that misery, and that maybe Bryan's marriage was skidding on an icy patch too. He'd inwardly rejoiced at the time and, perversely, he was still glad that Bryan's marriage was failing no matter that he had not ordered Bryan to come clean to Heather about his affair with Renee.
What confused him at first was that despite professing his love to Renee, he knew he would always pick Bryan over her. He would always love Bryan more and nothing over this weekend had changed that, but would he pick Bryan over his work?
All the years of repression struck hard at his heart and for the first time he no longer wanted to deny how he felt about Bryan, how he had always felt about his best friend. He'd told Renee that Bryan was a coward who would never leave Heather for her but now he wondered if Bryan would leave Heather for him.
His eyes fell upon the Antler chair that his father had sat upon as if it was a throne. From there he had ruled the family, trying to knock any show of weakness or disrespect out of his sons with his fists. Trev was wrong. He was not the only one who had felt a blow from those fists but maybe Trev had suffered more because, unlike Vaughn, he had shown his defiance too often. They were both victims in their own way, both raised with a heavy hand that had left its scars in their minds rather than on their bodies.
He dragged the chair outside, dousing it with alcohol. When he looked over he saw Trev propped up between John and Stevie barely lucid, saw the cuts and cigarette burns on Trev's pale skin that were too fresh to have been anything other than self-mutilation, and he froze for a moment. His eyes flicked across and were captured by Bryan's and in that moment, Vaughn realized how much he had hated his father for forcing him down a path that he would never have wanted for himself, for trapping him in a downward spiral of work until he was in his grave, and for trying to beat out of him any 'abnormal' feelings he might have had for Bryan.
He set the chair alight and turned back, finding Bryan still watching him with eyes as big as saucers and he had an urge to ask Bryan if he wanted to burn some of his own bridges too; perhaps the one that kept him in a loveless, claustrophobic marriage. Vaughn realized that, despite his financial situation, the only one of them who was truly free was John. He directed his words to John.
"You want to know why I never talked to you about you being gay?" John knew it was a rhetoric question, that Vaughn intended to answer it so he remained silent. "Because I envied you." John's eyes widened.
Vaughn turned on his heel and strode away, heading for the dense woodland that came close to the rear of the cabin. He knew he should go back inside, knew he was already too cold after going into the water after Trev and that his two layers of shirts would not afford him the padding he needed to retain any heat but he didn't care. He wanted to find the deer he had shot, the one he had hid in shame once the initial euphoria at having finally become a hunter like his father had worn off. He wanted to find it and whisper his sorrow for taking its life.
It wasn't until he dropped to his knees beside the badly hidden carcass that he realized one of the others had followed. Vaughn flinched as Bryan's coat was dropped over his shoulders, feeling the residual heat from Bryan's body soak through his cold clothing to even colder skin beneath. He scrabbled at the snow, fingers going numb from the cold as he uncovered the deer's head.
"I shot her." He closed his eyes, recalling the shock on Bryan's face when he punched him first in the stomach and then in the face, so angry at Bryan's betrayal with Renee. "And I hit you."
"I deserved it."
"I don't want to become my father," Vaughn whispered brokenly and turned to look at Bryan.
In this world of white broken only by barren trees with branches laden with more snow, Bryan's eyes looked huge and so incredibly blue despite the darkening bruise surrounding one eye. Vaughn's eyes drifted down Bryan's body as Vaughn pulled the thick coat tighten around his shivering frame.
"You'll freeze," he stated softly, only now realizing that Bryan had worn only a T-shirt and over-shirt beneath his coat.
"You need it more."
Vaughn swallowed hard and reached out, cupping Bryan's face in his hands. He felt no attempt to flinch or pull away as he leaned in and pressed a soft kiss against the bruise, then another kiss lower on Bryan's cheek, at the corner of his wide, pale mouth before pressing their cold lips together. The warmth of Bryan's breath beckoned to him, lips parting to give him access to the heated interior as the kiss deepened. Arms threaded between the coat and Vaughn's shirt, wrapping around him so tightly as Vaughn moaned his apologies into Bryan's welcoming mouth. Lips slid apart and Vaughn's hands dropped to wrap around broad shoulders, his head tucking against Bryan's neck reveling in the heat of skin on skin and on the flutter of Bryan's pulse.
A snowflake drifted past his nose, followed by another and another. He pulled back and watched yet another fall to settle on the long pale eyelashes framing Bryan's bruise darkened eye. A shiver raced through Bryan and Vaughn tightened his hold for a moment.
"We should go back. We need to get Trev to the hospital." He felt Bryan nod, and pulled back further, holding his best friend's gaze. "And afterwards... Afterwards we need to talk."
Bryan nodded. "Talking's good."
Vaughn smiled and pushed up to his feet, offering a hand down to Bryan and heaving him up. They walked back to the cabin slowly within the blanketing silence of falling snow, and with one arm wrapped around the other's waist, holding each other close. The snow covered their tracks, making the whole world pristine and new, as if offering them both a second chance to enjoy a world they could traverse together as more than best friends.
Vaughn hoped Bryan would travel that new path with him.