Chapter 1: Don't Get Me Wrong...
Starting off with a flashback chapter. This one includes Lea and Isa (around sixteen years old), plus a little cameo from Lea's mom.
Isa blinked in the blistering sunlight. “You’re wearing a skirt.”
“Wow, nothing gets by you.” Lea waited for Isa to get in the truck, then put it in park when he stayed on the sidewalk, scrutinizing Lea through the open window.
“…why are you wearing a skirt?” Isa asked, assessing the pink-and-white item in question as if it were even close to the most ridiculous thing Lea had ever worn.
“Uh, because I look amazing?” Lea said, gesturing to himself as proof. “And it’s, like, a thousand degrees today. The better question is why you’re wearing sleeves.”
“It’s not that hot out,” Isa said, though he had clearly rolled his sleeves up as far as they would go. “Look, whatever. I still need to get my stuff. Crank the AC; I’ll be right back.”
“You know the AC’s busted in this thing, bless its big rusty heart,” Lea said, patting the dashboard fondly. “I’ll come in with you.”
“I’ll be two minutes.”
“C’mon, there’s no rush. The movie’s not even till nine. I figured we could hang out here in town until then. Get some ice cream, do some window shopping, make fun of tourists. Maybe swing by the Depths for a while?” he added enticingly. “Pretty sure I still owe you from last time.”
“Fine,” Isa said, sounding less enticed and more agitated than Lea would’ve hoped. “We’ll do whatever you want. Just let me get my stuff.”
“Seriously, can I come in? Like I said, the air conditioning’s toast. I could use a drink.”
“I’ll bring water bottles.”
“Isa, come on, I’m—”
“My dad’s home.”
Lea paused halfway out of the driver’s seat. He glanced at the garage, looking skeptically at the empty parking spot. “His car’s not here.”
“It’s at the shop. He’s inside watching TV right now. He can probably see us from the couch.”
Lea waved sarcastically at the living room window, and Isa swatted his hand down, causing his boyfriend to frown. “What’s the deal? I can’t even go in your house anymore?”
Isa took too long to answer, if he intended to at all, and Lea nodded bleakly, letting it sink in. “Right. Got it.”
“No, hey. Good to know where we stand, I guess,” Lea said, scratching the side of his head. “I can’t believe this is bothering you.”
“It’s not bothering me.”
“So, what? You’re embarrassed by me?”
“Well, yes, on a regular basis. But that’s not it. He’s just…” Isa had been leaning his weight to one leg, but he corrected himself now, standing up straight again. “He’s gonna be weird about it.”
“You’re being weird about it!” Lea said, but he lowered his voice when Isa’s gaze darted reflexively back toward the house. He waited until he had Isa’s attention again before he continued. “You know he’s running our lives, right? I can’t even go inside because—what, because I’m wearing a skirt? It goes past the knees, for fuck’s sake. Girls wear skirts shorter than this to school, and no one says anything. I mean, how much longer is this gonna go on? We’ve been officially together since last year, and you still haven’t told him.”
“I know he knows. That’s not what I’m saying.” Lea wrapped his hands around the steering wheel and took a deep breath. “It’s been years, Isa. I’m tired of this.”
“You think I’m not?” Isa snapped, his voice fierce but barely above a whisper. “Every night you get to go home and complain to your mom about your boyfriend’s shitty dad and how unfair everything is. You know what I get to complain about when I go home? Nothing. I just have to deal with it. And all I’m asking in return is for you to trust me on this.” When Lea simply sat there, staring at him, Isa said, “I’m not embarrassed by you. I’m trying to protect you. I don’t—” He looked down the street, trying to fight off his discomfort. “I don’t want you to hear the kinds of things he’s going to say.”
Lea slid his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel, picking at a loose thread. “I’ve already heard some of it, you know.”
Isa bit the inside of his cheek. Part of him had hoped that Lea would’ve somehow forgotten that overheard conversation between their parents, back when they were—twelve? Thirteen? It was only a few years ago, but Isa felt like he’d aged exponentially in that time. “I remember,” he said. “It sucked. But that was nothing. I just don’t want you to have to hear it, all right? I’ll run in and come right back out. Two minutes. I promise.” When Lea still hesitated, Isa looked him in the eye and added, “Please, Lea.”
Lea stared for a few more seconds, taking in Isa’s expression, wondering how his eyes could hold so much worry, how this was even a conversation they were seriously having. He glanced at the house that Brandt was sitting comfortably inside, the house Isa was hell-bent on keeping Lea out of, and the house Isa was about to walk right back into, alone. Lea gritted his teeth, but he saw the way Isa was watching him, like he might fall apart if Lea gave the wrong answer, so he said, “Okay.”
Isa kept waiting, and Lea started the truck back up and turned the fans on, settling into the driver’s seat. He raised his hands in surrender and said, once more, “Okay. I’ll wait here.”
“Thank you,” Isa said, audibly exhaling the words. He went back up the walkway and through the front door while Lea drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to burn off some energy, thinking that Brandt’s comments were far from “nothing” and wondering what else Isa must have dealt with to be able to brush them off as such.
On the drive downtown, Isa was characteristically quiet and hard to read, and Lea was uncharacteristically quiet and hard to read, putting both of them at a loss on how to proceed. They ended up going through their usual motions in an attempt to set the atmosphere back to normal: hanging out in Central Square and eating more ice cream than they probably should. Lea considered suggesting a visit to the Depths again, if only to give Isa the option to go somewhere secluded, not to mention cooler. But the cliffs on the edge of town hadn’t been a neutral spot for them for nearly a year, and Lea didn’t want to risk putting more pressure on Isa’s already tenuous mood.
Eventually, they ran out of things to do, and Isa’s tolerance for the heat reached its limit. He asked if they could go to Lea’s place for a while, and when Lea reminded him that they didn’t have central air at his house, Isa said, “I don’t even care. Just get me out of the sun.” So Lea drove them back, grateful to finally have some kind of direction, at least.
They kicked their shoes off in the front hall, and Lea said, “I’m just gonna grab some stuff from my room—be right back.” Isa nodded as Lea went up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and he dropped his bag on the floor just as Lea’s mom called from the kitchen.
“Lea? That you?”
“He just went upstairs. He should be back in a few minutes.”
“No worries, just wondering,” she said. “Come on in, Isa. How’ve you been?”
“Good, thanks,” he said, obediently making his way to the kitchen where Ms. Quinlan was sitting with a newspaper. “How are you?”
“Oh, you know. Melting. Sweating. Thinking about moving into the fridge.” Isa chuckled, and when she looked up at him, her gaze was drawn to his hair. “Ooh, I love that,” she said, using her pencil to point at what Isa had thought was a fairly mediocre bun.
“Oh. Uh, thanks,” he said, barely keeping it from sounding like a question. “It’s just because of the heat, really.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Well, it works for you. I’m a little jealous. Even when I had long hair, I could never get it to cooperate like that. I’d love to know which ancestor to blame for these spikes.”
“I think it’s a good look,” Isa said, feeling like he was straying dangerously close to confessing his attraction to her son out loud. He forced himself to remember that this was a house where it was okay to relax a little, where Lea was allowed to wear things like skirts and earrings and nail polish and eyeliner without having to explain why.
He took a seat at the table and continued to chat with Ms. Quinlan about hair and school and work. After a few minutes, she rose from her chair to grab an ice cube from the tray in the freezer, offering him one. He hesitated, about to turn down the offer out of reflex, but after a moment he took one and held it to the back of his neck, closing his eyes as it cooled him off.
They were still talking when Lea entered the kitchen, shoving his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. Isa almost did a double-take, not expecting the change of clothes. The jeans had been cuffed a few times, not because they were too long, but rather to hide the fact that they were a little too short, Lea outgrowing his clothes faster than he could be bothered to replace them. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt, the sleeves shoved up onto his shoulders, and he’d managed to wrestle most of his hair back into a ponytail, though a few stray spikes still hung down by his ears and the nape of his neck.
Ms. Quinlan regarded his outfit skeptically. “Don’t tell me you were cold.”
“Nah,” he said, “we’re just about to head out for the night. Figured it’ll get cool later.” He got his own ice cube from the freezer and held it against his throat, seeking relief from the warmer outfit. Isa looked him over, then looked away, nagged by a regrettably familiar combination of attraction and guilt.
“Well, stay hydrated,” Ms. Quinlan said. “Those clothes don’t breathe in the heat. Where are you going, anyway?”
“Drive-in,” Lea said, and Ms. Quinlan gave him a confused look.
“When did those become a thing again?” she asked. “They were already on their way out when I was your age.”
“I dunno. They’re retro now.” Lea dropped the half-melted ice cube in the sink and rubbed his wet hands on the back of his neck. “I mean, the nearest one’s in Twilight Town, so it’s still a hike.”
“Huh. Learn something new every day.”
Isa didn’t realize he’d been braced for a passive-aggressive comment, or tongue-clucking about how a drive-in might not be the most appropriate venue, until Ms. Quinlan simply left it at that and moved on. “What are you guys seeing?”
“Some old sci-fi movie,” Isa said. “I forget the name. Pretty sure it bombed at the box-office. We just like to go and make fun of them.”
“Ah, a Mystery Science Theater duo. Now there’s something from my era. You guys are a regular Servo and Crow,” she said, getting a laugh from Isa and a faint smile from Lea. “Sounds like fun. Lea, do you have enough gas money to get there?”
“I can’t see the future, Ma,” Lea said, grabbing his jacket from the coat hook while Isa stood and pushed his chair in.
Ms. Quinlan sighed. “Well, you know the drill. Call if you get stranded. Otherwise, have a good time. Isa, it was nice to see you again. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Thanks,” he said, following Lea to the door. “Good to see you, too.”
It was still early when they arrived at the outdoor theater, dark enough for Lea to have gotten lost a few times on the way, but not dark enough to start the movie. He parked on the side of the lot, and the truck’s engine trickled out a metallic pink-pink-pink as it finally got a break from the heat. It wasn’t a great angle for seeing the screen, but it was the most secluded spot Lea could find, and he needed every advantage to keep Isa from stressing out and deciding they needed to leave halfway through the show.
He tried not to think about Isa’s initial reaction to seeing him that afternoon. But as much as Isa’s obvious discomfort with the skirt had stung, the sheer relief in his eyes at seeing Lea back in “normal” clothes was worse. Lea had forced the feeling aside as they left his house, thinking it was a small price to pay if it helped put Isa at ease.
The problem was that it hadn’t, at least not for long. They’d barely made it a mile out of Radiant Garden before the tension rose again, almost palpable this time around. Lea wanted to ask what exactly the issue was, but he didn’t want to have brought them to the Twilight Town drive-in just for a long, drawn-out discussion about their relationship problems.
On the other hand, they didn’t seem like they were about to make use of the setting any other way. It was normally a perfect arrangement. Lea’s truck was a hand-me-down from his mother with an old-fashioned front seat: essentially a broad, cushioned bench stretching from one door to the other.
And that front seat, which was usually so convenient, now emphasized how careful they were being not to touch each other. Isa sat firmly on the passenger side, legs crossed, hands folded on his lap, and Lea slouched behind the wheel with his ankle on his knee and his hands in his pockets, resigning himself to the fact that they had driven all the way out here and parked in the most secluded spot just to actually watch the movie.
It was too terrible to even enjoy making fun of, despite Lea’s most valiant efforts. After fifteen minutes of trying to force their usual dynamic, they both fell back into total silence, and after five more minutes, Lea couldn’t stand it any longer. He only meant to test the waters, reaching for Isa’s hand just to gauge his response. Part of him wondered if he was trying to provoke an argument, preferring to have Isa snap at him rather than keep enduring his silence. He moved his hand a few more cautious inches until it brushed against Isa’s fingers.
Isa’s response was immediate. He pulled his hand away as soon as Lea made contact, and Lea had exactly one second to feel disheartened before Isa reached up and grabbed his face with both hands, kissing him hard.
Lea had no choice but to follow Isa’s momentum, too caught off guard to do anything else. He leaned back, bumping his head against the car door. Isa stayed with him the entire way, almost pinning him down, and while Lea was surprised, confused, and a little sore on the back of his head, he wasn’t about to protest. He rested his hands on Isa’s waist, unsure whether he’d end up pulling him closer or pushing him away to ask what the hell was going on.
He was spared the decision when Isa accidentally leaned on the horn, startling them apart. Isa sat upright in an instant while Lea was a little slower, wincing as he eased himself off the armrest. For a moment, Isa looked like he wanted to reach out and help, but he scanned the parking lot instead, self-conscious or just plain fearful, checking to see how much attention he’d drawn. Lea rolled his shoulder, trying to laugh it off.
“If anyone asks,” he said, tapping the horn without sounding it, “we were just expressing our opinion of this shitty movie.”
Isa didn’t respond, but he didn’t move farther away, either. He even allowed Lea to close the distance between them again as he scooted over to Isa’s side. “Hey,” Lea said quietly, sliding his hand to Isa’s back. “We can leave if you want.”
Isa glanced at him. “You want to go home already?”
“No. I mean…we can go somewhere else. Somewhere more isolated. Just so you don’t have that frightened rabbit look on your face the whole time.”
Isa still looked uncomfortable, and Lea, having nothing else to work with until he spoke up, went on. “Seriously, I’ll take you wherever you want. Just name it.”
“I thought you were running low on gas money this week.”
“I’ll manage. To be perfectly honest, I’d sell a kidney for gas money at this point if it meant getting some time alone with you.”
He expected Isa to say something typically snarky, like, “Wow, nothing like a total nephrectomy to set the mood,” and then Lea would shove him with his shoulder, and Isa would shove him too, and that’s how they’d know things were going back to normal.
Instead, Isa said, “I’m sorry.”
“…all right, I’m getting whiplash here,” Lea said, giving up on trying to keep track of the sudden mood shifts. “Why are you sorry?”
Isa was looking at the floor again. “You’re too good.”
“What are you talking about?” Lea asked. “Too good for what? For you?”
Isa didn’t answer, and he didn’t have to. Lea moved his hand slowly up and down his back, and to his relief he felt Isa relax a bit. “Is this about earlier?” he asked. “I mean, yeah, I was a little mad at first, but I get it. You were just looking out for me. I appreciate it, honestly.”
“I was lying. I wasn’t worried about you.” Isa glanced at Lea and looked away again when he saw the bewildered expression on his face. “I mean, I would have been,” he went on, “if I thought he’d actually do anything. But he wouldn’t have said shit in front of you. He’s…better behaved around other people.”
Lea laughed a little in spite of the mood. “Damn,” he said in disbelief. “Even me?”
“Even you, believe it or not,” Isa replied. “You know how he never uses your name? He’s always calling you, like, ‘Catherine’s boy’ or ‘the Quinlan kid?’”
“Yeah?” Lea said, trying not to mention how much that annoyed him. Isa shrugged.
“That’s him on his best behavior.”
“…well, fuck,” Lea said, momentarily at a loss for words. “What an…outrageous dickhead.”
Isa almost laughed, and he looked like he wanted to be able to, but he was still hanging by a thread. He exhaled when Lea rubbed his back more firmly. “So, I wasn’t looking out for you,” he admitted, staring down at the floor mat. “I knew he’d have a lot to say, but he’d save it until you were gone. I just didn’t want to deal with that today. He’s been more stressed out than usual lately, and he’s already in a bad mood because of the car, and I just…didn’t want to add to it.”
“Does he hit you?”
“What?” Isa asked, looking up immediately. “No, he doesn’t hit me, Lea. Jesus.” He shook his head to himself, looking out the windshield while Lea sighed quietly. As bad as he felt for blindsiding Isa, the fact that he hadn’t even seen that question coming was a relief.
But Isa frowned. He made himself meet Lea’s gaze once more and said, “Listen, I know I made you feel like shit earlier, and I only did it so I’d have an easier time. I have no excuse. It was selfish. I’m sorry.”
He sat there, waiting for Lea to accept this self-condemnation, and Lea quietly said, “Isa,” as he reached out and pulled him closer.
“Um…what?” Isa said, less a response to his name than a response to the hug.
“You think that’s selfish?” Lea asked, and Isa said, “I don’t know,” sounding like he genuinely didn’t. He didn’t hug Lea back, partly because he was still confused, but mostly because Lea had him completely wrapped up, pinning Isa’s arms to his sides. But he did lean in, allowing Lea to hold him until he released Isa after a quick, final squeeze.
“All right,” Lea said decisively. “Screw this. We’re outta here.” He dug around in the cupholder for his keys. “Wanna hit the beach?”
“It’s after dark.”
Isa hesitated. “You don’t have to ditch our whole plan for the evening because of me.”
“What are you talking about? We never have plans.”
“I didn’t mean to ruin the movie.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Lea said, turning the keys in the ignition and glancing out the rear window. “I think you’re about fifty years too late for that.”
That finally got a laugh from Isa as Lea backed out of their parking spot, but as they neared the exit, Isa said, “Are you sure?”
Lea let the truck roll to a stop at the gate, gravel crunching gently under the tires. “Isa…if you want to stay, we can stay. But if you want to leave, we can leave. Just say the word.”
Isa didn’t say anything for a moment, not because he was hesitating this time, but because he was simply looking at Lea, literally and figuratively behind the wheel, taking control of the situation so Isa didn’t have to, but still ultimately leaving the choice up to him. Isa took a breath and exhaled calmly.
Lea brought them to a spot near the beach that was enclosed by a small grove of trees. It was quieter, darker, and emptier than the drive-in lot, and within minutes Isa was relaxed enough to pick up where they’d left off. They made out for a while, this time with Lea guiding Isa down to the seat cushions much more gently than Isa had pushed him. Isa slid his hands under Lea’s shirt and around to his back, pulling him closer and making him shudder at how cool Isa’s touch was, even in the middle of summer. But for all their eagerness to be alone with each other, there was still a limit to how far they were willing to go.
Luckily, they got frustrated long before that point. They used to dream about how much easier things would be once Lea got his license, but it turned out that being old enough to drive also meant they were too tall to utilize the truck comfortably. They were cramped in the front seat, Lea finding it difficult not to knock his elbow against something, and Isa finding that the armrest wasn’t a comfortable place to rest his head, especially with his hair tied back. The bed of the truck lay patiently behind them, an obvious solution to their problem, but as always, they ignored it. Neither one of them was willing to forfeit the shelter of the cab, even if it meant being able to stretch their legs.
Eventually, they opted to take a walk in the fresh air, which they needed after putting the brakes on everything anyway. Lea, who tended to run a few degrees warmer in general, shrugged out of his jacket, and Isa, who tended to run a few degrees cooler, held his hand out to take it. They crossed the dunes and headed for the ocean with the full moon lighting their way.
Something about nighttime seemed to soothe Isa, the darkness providing an extra bit of cover even as they walked beneath an open sky. They were safe indoors, but confined, choosing their words carefully because there was no getting away from them. Out here, even the horizon disappeared into darkness. Whatever they said would be carried out to sea, into the night, freeing them from the burden of it.
At least, that was Lea’s hope. He felt Isa had left some things unsaid back at the drive-in, but for now, he was content just to walk with him. They lingered at the water’s edge, Lea closing his eyes as the breeze rustled his hair while Isa overturned a few seashells with his foot. The silence was almost enjoyable this time—peaceful, even—until Isa spoke up once again to say, “I really am sorry, though.”
Lea opened his eyes and looked at Isa, standing a few feet further along the incline to the water. “Why?”
Isa kept gazing at the ground, ignoring the ocean and the moon and stars to focus instead on the sharp little shells and slabs of driftwood jutting out of the sand. “I know you’re tired of all this,” he began. “I know you don’t want to hide. And I don’t, either. I mean…I don’t mind it, if I have to. I’ve always had a tendency to do it. Or to try, anyway,” he conceded. “I guess I was never as stealthy as I convinced myself I was.”
Lea smiled a little, sympathetic but confused, unsure where he was going with this. “Seeing you feel like you need to hide, though…” Isa had an almost pained look on his face as he went on. “It’s the worst. I hate it. And it’s because of me.”
“Isa, it’s not,” Lea said gently, reassuringly. “You know it’s not.”
“I know it is,” Isa countered, and Lea shut his mouth. “You’ve been toning yourself down for my sake for years. That’s the last thing I ever wanted. I feel sick thinking about it.” He’d had his hands in his pockets, but he raised them now, rubbing his head. “This whole time—ever since we were kids. You made your mom take your nail polish off just because I couldn’t wear mine home. You put off getting your ears pierced because I backed out. You changed your clothes because I was uncomfortable and I made you feel like shit about it. It’s like…fuck. It’s like I’m doing his work for him.” His heart was racing, and he could hear the nervous edge in his voice, threatening to close up his throat. But Lea didn’t speak, only watched patiently, entirely focused on what he was saying. Isa forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath and keep going.
“I know it’s not easy to be with me,” he began. “I know I’ve been holding you back, and I know you’re tired of waiting for me. And you have every right to be. But if you—”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on,” Lea said, raising his hands to stop Isa, and then letting them drop again, staring at him. “Sorry. I don’t want to interrupt. But what are we talking about right now?” Isa didn’t reply, thrown off his train of thought, and Lea said, “I’m not tired of waiting for you, Isa. I’d wait forever for you.”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want you to have to do.”
“Why would you even…like, what made you think that?”
“When you picked me up. Back at the house. You said you were tired of all this.”
“…yeah, of this,” Lea said, gesturing vaguely around them at all of their problems, invisible but omnipresent. “Not of you. I’m just…” He considered his words carefully, trying to avoid another miscommunication. Isa looked anxious now that they were discussing what had been on his mind all day, but he stayed quiet while Lea put his thoughts together, extending the same courtesy that he’d given Isa earlier.
“I’m just tired of this being a big deal,” Lea finally said. “I know a few years ago this was all new and exciting. I mean, every time I even touched you, I thought you might have a panic attack or throw up on me or something.” Isa tried to keep his lips pressed together, but a small laugh escaped him, and Lea smiled before going on. “I’m glad we had that…y’know, discovery period, or whatever. But I just want to be with you now. I want to be able to be with you,” he corrected. “Sneaking around is fun and all, but not if you need to. I just want to have the option not to.”
“I know,” Isa said. “I do, too.”
They stood together in silence for a moment, and Lea felt satisfied about having expressed himself clearly instead of speaking off the cuff, until Isa asked, “How is that different from what I said, though? You’re tired of this being a big deal…meaning you’re tired of waiting for me to stop making it a big deal.”
“Okay,” Lea said, sensing that they needed a new approach. “Let’s say they do mean the same thing. Let’s say I am feeling tired of waiting around for you.” Isa looked uneasy to hear him admit it, even hypothetically, but Lea said, “What’s bothering you about that? What are you so afraid of?”
There was no sound but the water going in and out, shifting the sand, and Isa shrugged, pretending he didn’t know. Lea knew he did, or else he wouldn’t have been so dismissive of the question. “Come on. Just tell me. We’re not going anywhere until you do. I’m the one with the keys, remember?” he added jokingly.
But Isa didn’t laugh along, and Lea started to backtrack, rolling all their conversations over in his head, recalling Isa’s reluctance to even bring up the problem in the first place. Finally, and very slowly, he said, “Isa…are you afraid I’m gonna get tired of waiting and leave?”
Isa looked down at the wet sand, scuffing a pattern in it with his shoe, and Lea didn’t know how to react except by staring incredulously. “Hey,” he said, so quietly that Isa had to look up at him. “Isa…why would I leave you?”
“Because you’re tired of waiting,” Isa said, plainly annoyed at having to repeat this particular point over and over. “We’ve been through this.”
“Yeah, but…” Lea sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen. Just because I’m tired of it, doesn’t mean I can’t keep doing it. Or won’t. I was just venting, you know?”
Isa shrugged, and Lea recalled what he’d said earlier, about not even being able to complain in his own house. He relented and said, “C’mere,” pulling Isa into another hug. This time Isa hugged him back, wrapping his arms all the way around Lea’s skinny waist.
“I’m not leaving, all right? I want to be with you. That’s the whole point. That’s why this is so frustrating. If I didn’t love—you know, being with you and everything, then it wouldn’t even be an issue,” he said, catching himself just in time, though he felt Isa stop breathing for a few seconds there. He regretted losing his nerve, but he settled for kissing the top of Isa’s head and saying, “I’m not going anywhere. Got it?”
Isa nodded, and Lea said, “Good,” moving his hand up and down his back, enjoying how much Isa leaned against him in response. “And…not to steal the focus here, but I can’t watch what I say every waking moment, you know? Like, tell me if something’s bothering you, but remember that sometimes I just need to vent. I want to be able to tell you when something’s bothering me, too. Deal?”
“Deal,” Isa agreed. He rested against Lea for a few more minutes, wanting the support, but eventually they released each other and went back to walking along the shoreline. Lea let Isa go on in silence, watching him occasionally pick up a shell to inspect it before tossing it back in the water. But when Isa felt Lea’s gaze on him, he straightened back up and turned to face him. “What?”
Lea smiled a little, taking in the sight of him: wearing his jacket, expression open and neutral, cast in clear blue moonlight. “Nothing,” he said. “Just…out of curiosity, where did you think I’d even go?”
Isa shrugged, looking out at the ocean. “I don’t know. Somewhere better?”
Lea couldn’t help laughing at the vagueness of his answer, and he walked ahead to stand by Isa’s side. “Isa…if I had somewhere better to go, I’d take you with me.”
Isa smiled faintly, but it fell, and Lea bent down to catch his eye. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “Today’s just been a mess. And…I was embarrassed earlier. I mean, I wasn’t embarrassed about my father seeing you. I was embarrassed about you seeing him. You know, seeing what he’s like, what I have to deal with. And I know that doesn’t make sense,” he added, stealing Lea’s reply before he had a chance to say it himself. “But that’s how it is.”
Lea still wanted to say that it made no sense, and that Isa shouldn’t feel the way he felt. But he merely nodded, picking up some seashells of his own and flinging them into the ocean. “It’s all right,” he said. “I guess if he couldn’t handle earrings, a skirt might have given him an aneurysm or something.”
“Just a bit.”
“I mean, the style was fine, but it definitely clashed with my hair. Bet that’s the first thing he would’ve said.”
Isa snorted at the idea. “Yeah, no offense, but pink really isn’t your color.”
Lea gave him a good-natured shrug, not even playfully arguing back. But when the tide ebbed and offered them a moment of silence, Isa, still looking out at the water, hands still in the pockets of Lea’s jacket, quietly said, “You looked good.”
After a few seconds, he glanced at Lea, receiving only a soft look in response. Isa stepped forward, bringing one hand out of the jacket to reach for Lea’s face, but just as he leaned in, Lea tilted his chin up with a small smirk. It was a new favorite ploy of his, now that their days of being roughly the same height were gone. The best part was how annoyed Isa got, because Lea knew he wasn’t that much taller, and all Isa would have to do to reach him was stand on his toes. But he refused to compromise, preferring instead to drag Lea back down. Lea laughed and let him, bowing his head to make it easier.
This stretch of the beach never saw much traffic, even on its busiest days, and at night it was outright desolate. Still, Isa could only bring himself kiss Lea for a few seconds at a time before breaking away, unable to shake his worry of being seen. Lea managed to coax him into a couple minutes of this stop-start system, but as the breeze picked up, he felt Isa shiver, even with the added warmth of Lea’s arms and jacket. “All right,” he said reluctantly the next time Isa pulled away. “Guess we should start heading back. Movie’s probably over by now anyway. We still need to stop somewhere and fill up the truck, too.”
Isa nodded, giving Lea one more quick, impulsive kiss, and catching the grin on his face before he turned around. But as they made their way off the beach, Lea’s eyes shifted, tracing invisible lines, and Isa realized he was doing math in his head. He waited until they were within sight of the pickup to say, “I can cover it, if you want.”
“What? No. It’s not your truck.”
“So?” Isa said, already opening the passenger door. Lea stayed outside, as if following Isa’s lead and getting in the truck would be admitting defeat. “You said you had enough fuel to get us to the movie and back. The only reason you drove all the way out here is because of me.”
“All right, well, gimme another kiss and we’ll call it even.”
“Lea, it’s fine,” Isa said, refusing to let him deflect with humor or flirting. He shut the door and leaned out the window. “I mean it. This one’s on me.”
Lea wanted to keep protesting, but with Isa waiting expectantly, he finally nodded. “All right. Thanks.”
They found a small 24-hour gas station off the highway, and Lea filled up the truck while Isa went inside to pay. When he returned, Lea held his hand out for the receipt, to which Isa simply said, “No,” and handed him a Rocket Soda instead.
“Oh, come on,” Lea said, examining the bottle. “These things are like five bucks each.”
“Well, I was thirsty,” Isa said, taking the bottle back and opening it himself so Lea couldn’t object further. “And I would’ve looked like a douchebag if I didn’t get you one, too.”
“Man, you’re such a romantic,” Lea said, clinking his bottle against Isa’s in gratitude. They leaned back against the warm truck for a while, enjoying their drinks and listening to the lights buzz above the fuel pumps.
Finally, Isa said, “So, are we even?” Lea glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “I mean, I messed up our date night. But I got you a full tank of gas and a soda. So…we’re good?”
Lea smiled and leaned over, kissing Isa’s cheek. He lingered a few seconds longer than usual, and when he moved back, he could tell that Isa’s heart rate was up. But this time it wasn’t the same trepidation that usually accompanied their PDA—just an elated, unexpected rush. Isa raised his hand to his cheek without thinking, then made a clumsy but admirable attempt to play it off like he was tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. He quickly glanced around the gas station, which Lea expected, even though they were the only ones there.
While Isa rubbed the back of his neck, Lea pushed off the truck, stretching his legs before the drive home. “To answer your question: no, we’re not even.” Isa gave him a puzzled look, wondering what else he was supposed to do, until Lea said, “I told you earlier. I still owe you from our last visit to the Depths.”
Isa laughed, a little abruptly. “Well, if you insist,” he said, trying to match Lea’s confidence, but clearly flustered. “No rush, though.”
They finished their sodas, giving Isa time to settle his nerves again. When they were ready to leave, Lea held the passenger door open, though he refrained from helping Isa up to his seat, knowing it would just make him roll his eyes. But when he climbed in and settled behind the wheel, Isa scooted over to him, fastening the middle seat belt so he could stay by Lea’s side, and Lea drove them all the way back to Radiant Garden with his arm snugly around Isa’s shoulders.
Chapter 2: Some Things Are That Simple
Characters: the Higanbana crew (Lea, Isa, Braig, Demyx, Aeleus, Dilan, and Ienzo), plus a little cameo from Even.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Radiant Garden was swamped in summertime, and no one at the Higanbana staff meeting was without a drink. The tables were littered with half-empty Wild Blues and False Theories and a non-alcoholic Vortex, and it didn’t take long for the glasses to start dripping, despite Dilan and Isa's constant reminders that the napkins weren’t just for decoration. Aeleus was getting his daily ten thousand steps in by walking to the back hall and adjusting the thermostat every time Lea requested a boost in the air conditioning. Other than that, they all relaxed in their chairs, enjoying their drinks and trying to come up with ideas for theme shows.
“We can’t keep doing ‘80s nights,” Isa said, tapping his pen absentmindedly on the schedule.
“Why not?” Demyx asked, as if he’d been personally attacked. “The ‘80s are so in right now.”
“Demyx,” Dilan began wearily, “if I have to listen to you do one more J. Geils Band cover, I’m going to get one of Braig’s guns and put a hole through your keyboard.”
“Good luck finding ‘em,” Braig said from the bar as he prepared another Double Tap for himself.
“How about the ‘70s?” Lea suggested, crossing his arms on the table and resting his head on them. Demyx scoffed.
“Yeah, good luck getting Marley to agree to turn this place into a disco.”
“What about the ‘90s, then?” Isa said. “That’s a decade we’ve been neglecting lately.”
“Yeah, the ‘90s would be pretty sweet," Demyx agreed. "Bet we could get this whole place to do the Macarena. Shit, Lea could do a killer striptease to Britney Spears easily.”
“I could do a killer striptease to the Macarena,” Lea said with a yawn. Isa jotted down a few notes.
“This could work,” he said, sounding surprised at his own suggestion. “We could stretch it from the late ‘90s to the mid-2000s. Why haven’t we been tapping into this market more?”
“’Cause you said I wasn’t allowed to strip to the Backstreet Boys,” Lea muttered.
“I’m serious. Bubblegum pop, boy bands—this is a goldmine for our customer base.”
“That’s what I’ve been sayin’,” Demyx insisted as Isa continued to brainstorm. Their older coworkers barely responded, leaving the discussion of chart-topping millennial hits to the experts while they quietly finished their drinks. Only Ienzo made a sound, and it was a quiet laugh.
“Something funny, Ienzo?” Isa asked, crossing days off his schedule and wondering where the past week had gone. Ienzo hadn’t intended to respond, but Isa and Demyx were both looking at him. Even Lea lifted his head, propping it on his hand as he waited for an answer.
“Not really,” Ienzo said. “It’s just that you’re doing a throwback to one or two decades ago, at most. All of these songs came out well after you were born. It seems a little early to be reminiscing.”
He meant for it to be a snarky but lighthearted remark, and he expected one of them to shoot an equally snarky retort back his way. Instead, the three of them glanced at each other, as if they were trying to figure out how to explain themselves in a way he would understand, and suddenly, Ienzo felt very young.
“You know,” Dilan began, surprising them all by being the first to respond. “I first came to Radiant Garden back when I was starting college, and I have to say, this town didn’t always live up to its name. Even as recently as ten years ago, when the Three Stooges here were around your age.” Isa, Lea, and Demyx had varying reactions to that nickname, but Dilan went on. “A lot of people never got the chance to just go out and have fun at places like this. Hell, places like Higanbana barely existed back then. The theme nights aren’t so much a throwback as they are making up for lost time.”
“Yeah,” Lea piped up, dropping his head to the table again. “Be a little more thankful that you get to sit around here listening to your shitty electro-pop while you make fun of us for jamming out to Shania Twain and Kylie Minogue.”
“The hell did he say about Shania Twain?” Braig asked from the bar as he finished his drink and approached the tables again. “I’m serious. You talk shit, you answer to me.”
“Wait, you’re into Shania Twain?” Demyx asked. “How have we never talked about this before? We need to revamp our playlist, big time.”
“…you two have your own playlist?” Ienzo asked.
“Yeah, but it sucks. Braig’s got no taste. It’s basically just the Eagles and the Dire Straits.”
“Hey, your favorites,” Aeleus said as he elbowed Dilan, who muttered, “Shut up,” into his drink.
“Come on,” Braig said, taking a seat at Demyx’s table. “I like some other stuff. What about the Zombies?”
“Hey, that’d be a sick choice for decades night,” Lea said. “You can’t tell me ‘Time of the Season’ wouldn’t be a hit.”
“No way. That’s our song,” Demyx protested. “The only way I’ll play it is if Braig agrees to do the backup vocals.”
“Absolutely not,” Isa said, and Braig smoothly went from shaking his head at Demyx to nodding in agreement with Isa.
“Gotta side with the boss on this one,” he said. “You know I’m no singer, kiddo. My voice is thrashed.”
“Besides,” Dilan said, “I don’t even want to think about Aeleus and myself having to do crowd control while Braig’s onstage, asking questions like ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘Who’s your daddy?’”
“God, they’d tear my stage apart,” Lea said, putting a self-satisfied grin on Braig’s face. Lea sighed as he tried to find a more comfortable way of slouching on the table. “Hey, Aeleus? You wanna hit the thermostat again?”
Aeleus made his way to the back hall for the hundredth time with only a minimal amount of grumbling. Braig put his feet on the table and tipped his chair back on two legs—which Isa forced himself to ignore—so he could get a better look at Lea. “What’s goin’ on with you, anyway? You look like someone fried your circuits.”
“Not my fault it’s a thousand degrees in here.”
“Dunno,” Braig said, scrutinizing him. “You’re lookin’ a little red in the face. And we know it’s not the Mega Flare,” he added pointedly, glancing at the drink that he’d spent precious time and ingredients making, sitting untouched in front of Lea. “You’re not on your A-game today, sunshine.”
“Eh, I’m fine. It’s just that post-lunch crash.”
“You skipped lunch,” Isa said, looking up from his work.
“Well, I’m at a caloric deficit, then. Low energy either way.”
“You’ve been like this all day,” Dilan said, and with everyone giving their input, it was getting harder for Lea to brush their concern aside. “You don’t look well.”
“Ah, hush. I look incredible. Just haven’t been getting enough sleep lately.”
“Is this true?” Dilan asked Isa.
“No.” Isa rose from his chair, and Lea avoided eye contact as Isa stood in front of him and leaned down to examine his face. “You do look flushed, even with the air conditioning. Are you still hot?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
A collective groan filled the room. Demyx grimaced and shook his head in disappointment, and Isa muttered, “God, that was terrible. You must be sick.” He reached out to touch Lea’s face, and while Lea complained under his breath, he held still so Isa could press the backs of his fingers against his forehead. They both flinched away at the same time. “You’re burning,” Isa said.
“No, you’re freezing.”
“Well, that’s no good; you two are fire and ice,” Dilan said. “Ask Aeleus instead—he’s a walking furnace. If he thinks Lea is too warm, then we know something’s wrong.”
“Good idea,” Isa said, just as Aeleus returned from the back. “Aeleus. Please come here and feel Lea’s forehead.”
“…why? Did he exfoliate or something?”
“They said they wanted your hot body,” Braig said, too much of a constant nuisance to truly fluster anyone anymore. Aeleus simply looked at Dilan for a translation.
“We think Lea has a fever,” Dilan explained, and Aeleus’s expression switched from dull annoyance to sympathy. He crossed the room and raised his hand, and Lea gave his consent with a halfhearted shrug. After a few seconds of contact, Aeleus nodded.
“He’s a little warm,” he concluded, pulling his hand away. “Normally I wouldn’t put much stock in that, but with the AC blasting like this…plus, he’s not looking too great.”
“Hey, feel free to speak directly to the patient.”
“Sorry,” Aeleus said. “You’re definitely sick, Lea. You should probably see a doctor.”
“Total overreaction,” Lea said, though Isa already had his phone in his hand. “I just need to take it easy, and I’ll be back to normal in no time. No reason to get a bunch of doctors and pills and stuff involved.”
“You need to get over this aversion to medical offices,” Isa said.
“Yeah, dude,” Demyx chimed in. “Your mom’s a nurse, for cryin’ out loud.”
“Not for long,” Lea said. “She’s almost done with her doctorate.”
“One more year,” Isa replied.
“Damn…that’s awesome,” Demyx said, beaming at Lea. “Good for her, man. Tell her I said hi?”
“I did,” Isa said as he finished sending his text. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and glanced at Lea. “She said it doesn’t sound serious, but if we can get there after three o’ clock, she’ll take a look at you on her break.”
“C’mon, we don’t need to bother her at work for this.”
“Sounds like it lines up pretty well with her job description,” Braig remarked, and Isa held his arm out in his general direction.
“Do you see what you’re doing?” he asked. “You’re making me agree with Braig.” Lea scoffed until Isa bent down to catch his eye. “This isn’t a debate, Lea,” he said quietly. “You’re sick. We’re going to the hospital, and then you’re going home.” Without waiting for Lea’s weary, reluctant nod, Isa glanced at Demyx. “You want to get his stuff from the break room?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” he said, giving Lea a sympathetic little look before he went to the back. Isa handed Lea his glass of water, though most of the ice had already melted, and stood beside him. Lea slouched in his seat, but he leaned gratefully against Isa’s side and closed his eyes while Isa worked his fingers through his hair.
“What about the show?” he murmured, and Isa rolled his eyes.
“Our patrons will just have to entertain themselves tonight,” he said, causing Aeleus and Dilan to exchange apprehensive looks. Braig brought all four legs of his chair back down to the floor and held his arms out.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” he said, sounding offended. “You got a perfectly good replacement right here.”
Dilan, Aeleus, Isa, and Ienzo—despite their differences in personality and facial type—managed to give Braig the exact same look: half skeptical, half disgusted. Lea was too tired to open his eyes, but he groaned, pressing his forehead against the side of Isa’s hip as he mumbled, “Keep that goblin off my stage.”
“Hey, don’t knock it till you try it. I could have a great routine lined up, and you’re denying the good citizens of Radiant Garden what they really want.”
“First of all,” Isa said, “what they really want is Lea. Secondly: doing the hand jive and the running man and then mooning the audience does not qualify as a routine.”
The trio at Ienzo’s table barely stifled their laughter—even Aeleus had to look away to hold back a grin. Lea chuckled and said, “Burn,” raising his hand for a high-five. Isa took his hand and gently lowered his arm again, rubbing Lea’s back instead.
“The hand jive?” Braig repeated incredulously. “How old do you people think I am?”
“That’s what you took offense to?” Dilan asked.
“We have a long-standing agreement not to try to figure out your birthdate,” Lea said. “We just don’t wanna know.”
“Well, I’ll spare you the year,” Braig said, “but just in case you guys wanna do something special when it rolls around, it’s June 12.”
“Perfect,” Dilan said. “That’s almost a year away. We’ll have completely forgotten it by then.”
While Braig shot him a very fake smile, Ienzo regarded him curiously. “You’re a Gemini?”
“Am I ever.”
“Funny,” Isa said. “All this time I’ve been calling you a cancer.”
Dilan didn’t bother stifling his laughter this time, and Braig turned to Isa, accepting the challenge. “Oh, comedy gold,” he said. “All right, ice queen, what’s your sign?”
“Okay, so, Isa’s a Scorpio,” Braig said, moving on immediately. “Now, this is an easy one: Lea the Leo, right? I mean, with that mane.”
“Nah, I’m the Cancer here. Birthday’s next month.”
“Huh. Dilan?” Braig asked charmingly.
“Astrology isn’t real,” Dilan replied. “I don’t even know my ‘sign.’”
“Well, when’s your birthday?”
“November 23. Does that make me whatever Isa is?”
“No,” Ienzo said. “You’re a Sagittarius.”
“What on earth is that?”
Dilan nodded, swirling his drink a few times. “…so? What does it mean?”
“Means you’re compatible with Geminis, for a start,” Braig replied, and Dilan grunted in disgust.
“Forget I asked.”
“Done,” Braig said with a grin, distracted by Demyx’s return. “‘Cause here comes my favorite Pisces.”
“Ooh, are we doing horoscopes?” Demyx asked brightly, handing Lea’s bag to Isa.
“You are,” Isa corrected him, looping the bag over his shoulder and shoving his work documents into it. “We’re leaving. Everyone, try to hang on until tonight. I’ll come back once I’ve gotten him settled at home.”
He waited for any questions or concerns, but all the crew did was exchange glances among themselves. “Yeah,” Aeleus said slowly, “or you could just…take the night off?”
Isa’s brain needed to reboot after that suggestion. Then his eyes narrowed as he regarded his coworkers, all of whom seemed to be in agreement with Aeleus. “Why are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked. “What are you planning?”
Dilan gave an easy laugh and said, “You’re wise to be suspicious, Isa. But we can manage without the two of you for twenty-four hours. We used to do it all the time. Just take the night off.”
Isa glanced at Aeleus, who nodded, then back at Dilan for confirmation, and even at Ienzo, apparently needing unanimous approval before he acquiesced. He wondered why he hadn’t considered taking the night off until now. Sure, the place might go up in smoke without him, and who knew what kinds of antics Braig would get into without constant surveillance. On the other hand…an evening at home would be nice.
“Fine,” he relented. “But call me immediately if anything goes wrong. Demyx, I suppose the stage is yours for the night.”
“Yes,” Demyx said, giving Braig a low-five and making Isa instantly regret his decision, at least until Lea staggered over and slumped against him, resting his head on his shoulder.
“Well,” Isa said, trying to figure out what else to say, having never taken a day off before in his life. “I’ll see you all tomorrow, assuming this place is still standing. Have a good night, everyone. Please.”
The group waved, wishing them a good night and telling Lea to feel better, which he barely heard, half-asleep on Isa’s shoulder as they walked out the door.
“…so, back to the horoscopes,” Demyx said once they were gone. “Aeleus?”
“Very nice, very nice. Methodical and detail-oriented. Suits you perfectly. How about you, Ienzo?” Demyx said, leaving Aeleus with a small smile.
“I’m with Dilan. Astrology is a farce.” Demyx waited for him to answer anyway, but Ienzo kept quiet, maintaining his air of mystery.
Until Aeleus said, “He’s a Capricorn.”
“Huh,” Demyx said, while Ienzo gave Aeleus a look that was more surprised than anything. “Yeah, guess I can see that. Birthday’s pretty far off, though, huh?”
“Oh, man. Do you get cheated out and only get one set of presents?”
“Technically, yes, but we don’t celebrate Christmas. I mean, my father takes the day off work, as much as he can stand to. But otherwise, it’s just a regular day for us.”
“Yeah,” Demyx said, snickering, “from what we know of your dad, he doesn’t seem like a ‘glad tidings and festivities’ kind of guy. No offense.”
“It could also be that he doesn’t want to overshadow your birthday with a holiday,” Aeleus suggested, taking another swig of his Skysplitter. Ienzo nodded absently as he considered this.
The conversation wound down as they all finished their drinks and realized they had actual work to do. The rest of the afternoon passed mostly without incident, even when Braig sang various Eagles hits every time Dilan walked by. Dilan managed not to react (other than a dull, “Wow, your voice is thrashed.”) until Braig got back on the subject of zodiac signs, pulling up horoscopes on his phone.
“Confident, self-reliant, philosophical,” Braig listed off, leaning forward on the counter while Dilan tried to fix a lopsided barstool. “Restless and impatient, but goal-oriented. What a solid résumé you’ve got.”
“You’re going to make Demyx jealous,” Dilan said, spinning the seat before tightening a few more screws.
“Ooh, Britney Spears is a Sagittarius.”
“Hey, you know why your sign’s represented by a centaur?” Braig asked, outright coquettish at this point. “It’s to symbolize its dual nature. Half-man, half-beast. Heh…sound like any Sagittarius we might know?”
Dilan tested the seat again, finally satisfied that it could rotate without wobbling. He packed up his tools and returned to the stage, giving Aeleus a brief pat on the arm as he passed by. “Give Isa a call, would you?”
“He’s having a stressful day. It might cheer him up to know I’m gonna kill Braig later.”
Aeleus shrugged. “All right.”
The hospital visit was brief, as Lea’s mom barely got a break from her busy shift to begin with. Luckily, she assured them that Lea’s temperature wasn’t very high—for him, at least—and that he should just focus on getting rest and plenty of water and eating properly. “And that goes for both of you,” she added, giving Isa a knowing look, stern enough to rival his own. “Got it?”
“Got it,” Isa said with a small smile. “Thanks, Catherine.”
Back home, Isa made Lea sit on the couch with a sports drink while he ran a bath. Lea objected at first, claiming that sports drinks were disgusting, and he only drank half of it because he was sweating through his shirt and Isa insisted he needed the electrolytes. When he went into the bathroom, Isa tried to help him with his shirt, but he only managed to undo one button before Lea shrugged him off. “Oh, now you have a problem stripping for an audience?”
Lea laughed weakly, but he said, “You know, it’s usually a one-man job. It’s not like I’m an invalid.” He was acting unusually modest, resistant to the idea of being taken care of, still trying not to acknowledge how sick he actually was. After a moment, Isa nodded and left, though he insisted on keeping the door open so he could make sure Lea didn’t pass out in the tub.
By the time Lea emerged from the bathroom, Isa had turned the air conditioning up, started a load of laundry, put clean sheets on the bed, ran the dishwasher, and began reviewing his files from work again. He returned to their room when he heard Lea flop down on the bed and found him sprawled on his stomach, taking up the entire mattress with his feet on a pillow and his head at the foot of the bed. The most he could apparently bear to put on was a pair of boxers and his thinnest tank top.
“G’night,” he mumbled without opening his eyes.
“It’s four-thirty. You can’t sleep yet.”
“But I’m not feeling well,” Lea whined, apparently willing to embrace his sickness if it meant he might get special treatment.
“You can take a short nap, if you really need to,” Isa said, pulling the window shade down to block out the sun. “But try to stay awake. I still have to get up on time tomorrow. The last thing I need is you throwing off your sleep schedule and tossing and turning even more than you already do.”
“Or we could just take tomorrow off, too? I mean, I’m gonna need another day at least, just to make sure I’m at a hundred percent.”
Isa raised his eyebrows, about to list all the reasons why taking two unscheduled days off in a row would be the worst idea in history. But he took another look at Lea: too tired to even banter properly, one arm hanging off the side of the bed, his breathing shallow. Isa chewed the inside of his lip lightly. “We’ll see,” was all he would agree to.
He managed to get Lea to turn around so his head was on the pillow, pulling all the covers down except a single sheet, which Lea could barely tolerate anyway. “You gonna stay?” Lea asked as Isa filled a glass of water in the bathroom.
“I thought I’d get some work done while you rest,” he replied, offering the glass to Lea, then putting it down on the nightstand when he waved it away.
“You’re leaving me alone like this?”
“Like what? Lying in bed, taking a nap? I’ll be one room away.”
“Yeah, but…” Lea gave him his best puppy dog eyes. “I’m sick.”
Isa simply stood there, giving him a bland look, before turning around and walking back to the kitchen. Lea kept an eye on the door, and sure enough, Isa returned with his work folder and sat on the mattress beside Lea.
“C’mon, all the way,” Lea urged when Isa settled on top of the sheet and stacked a few pillows behind him so he could sit up comfortably.
“I still need to finish this,” Isa said, waving the folder. “And as soon as you fall asleep, I’m going to get some more cleaning done.”
Lea seemed to accept that compromise, scooting next to Isa and trying to relax while he worked. He pushed the sheet down only to pull it up again moments later, unable to find the right combination of warm and cool that would allow his brain to shut off. Isa didn’t comment on his fussing, nor did it seem to distract him from his work. But when the chills finally set in as Lea’s body played tug o’ war with itself for the ideal temperature, Isa closed his folder. He didn’t put it on top of the nightstand, but fully away, shutting it in the drawer. He turned on his side to face Lea, who nudged closer, too focused on trying to stop shivering to speak.
“Shh,” Isa said softly, pulling the sheet up over his shoulders. Lea kept his bare arms locked against his torso and pressed against Isa, trying to absorb his stillness through sheer proximity. Isa pushed his fingers through Lea’s hair, systematically and steadily, giving him a grounding sensation to focus on. Lea closed his eyes as the tremors started to subside, and once Isa combed all of his hair away from his face, he leaned down and blew gently over Lea’s forehead.
His skin was damp, but it only made Isa’s breath feel that much cooler. Lea exhaled shakily but contentedly, calmed by it. Once he slipped into half-consciousness, Isa slid his hand down the side of his face. He kissed Lea’s forehead, finding it still a little too warm, but he lingered, keeping his lips against Lea’s skin, tasting soap and salt as he murmured, “Sleep…”
He stayed for a while, even after Lea had clearly drifted off. Once he was sure that Lea was resting peacefully, Isa switched off the reading lamp and slowly got out of bed, trying not to disturb his husband. But Lea was completely out, his breathing slow and steady, and Isa shut the door to their cool, dark room to let him rest. Fuck my job, he thought, far from the first time. I should be a hypnotist.
For the next hour and a half, Isa engaged in on-and-off cleaning, running up and down the stairs to get their laundry from the basement, and grabbing a bite of food whenever he was in the kitchen. When he finally paused to gauge his progress, he decided, in a rare moment of compromise, that any remaining or unfinished tasks could be left for tomorrow. He knocked lightly on the bedroom door, pushing it open slowly to avoid waking Lea, only to find that he was already sitting up and flipping through TV channels.
“Hey,” he said when he noticed Isa. His voice was scratchy, though he sounded more alert than earlier.
“Hey,” Isa said quietly, turning on the light. “Do you need anything?”
Lea shook his head, then paused and said, “Some water, maybe?”
“Of course.” Isa grabbed the now empty glass from the nightstand and refilled it in the bathroom, but when he returned, he held onto it and offered Lea a thermometer instead.
“Ugh, again? I’ll save you the suspense: I’ve got a fever.”
“Just do it,” Isa said, tapping the glass with one finger. “I’ll trade with you afterward.”
Lea swiped the thermometer out of his hand, putting it under his tongue with a petulant sneer. But he closed his eyes when Isa pressed his hand to his forehead, once more stroking his hair back. When the thermometer beeped, Isa took it himself, handing Lea the water.
“Well, your temperature hasn’t gone up,” Isa said as Lea emptied the glass in a few gulps. “That’s something.”
“Just move over,” Isa said, heading back to the bathroom. “You’re heating up my side of the bed.”
“Don’t usually hear you complaining about that,” Lea muttered. He furrowed his brow when he heard the faucet running and the sound of teeth-brushing, and he glanced at the clock. “Turning in already?”
“Mhmm,” Isa said, spitting into the sink. “Do you have any idea how much time I spend on my feet in a given day?”
“I’ve been telling you to go easier on yourself,” Lea said as he flipped through the channels, finally settling on a Golden Girls marathon. “You oughta spend less time on your feet and more time on your back. Or mine.”
“…that was pathetic,” Isa said, hitting the bathroom lights as he returned to their room, “but seeing how you’re sick…seven out of ten.”
Lea grinned and got more comfortable while Isa changed into pajamas. He threw his clothes onto the closet floor, remembering that the basket was still full of clean laundry that he really didn’t feel like folding right now. “All right,” he began. “Before I lie down for what will hopefully be eight consecutive hours: is there anything else I can do for you? I can heat up some broth, if you feel up to it.”
“Nah. Still a little queasy.”
Isa nodded and got into bed, engaging in a brief battle over the sheet as he tried to pull it up and Lea tried to kick it back down. Once they managed to arrange it diagonally across them, Isa closed his eyes and sighed, leaning back. Lea watched him for a few minutes, enjoying the peaceful look on his face, before he scooted over and lifted his head as much as he could, kissing Isa’s cheek. “Thanks, by the way,” he said, dropping his head to Isa’s shoulder. “I know today’s been kind of crazy.”
Isa shrugged Lea off his shoulder gently, only so he could wrap an arm around him. “Today has been one of the most relaxing days in recent memory. I know you’re not feeling well, but honestly, this has been a mini-vacation for me.”
“That’s depressing as hell,” Lea mumbled, closing his eyes as Isa trailed his fingertips up and down his arm. “We’ve gotta take a real vacation soon.”
“Well, we’ll have to wait until just before midterms. That’s the next lull in our schedule.”
“God, can we not talk about work—let alone school—on our night off?”
“You’re the one who wants to plan a vacation,” Isa said, failing to stifle a yawn as he slid lower on the bed, bringing Lea down as well. Lea nudged him until Isa arched his back, just enough for Lea to reach under him and wrap both arms around his waist. He laid his head on Isa’s chest, listening to his heartbeat.
“Fine,” Lea said. “No work talk, no vacation talk. We’ll just enjoy having tonight off…and maybe tomorrow?”
Isa was playing with his hair again, drawing his fingertips together at the ends of Lea’s spikes, twirling them back into shape. “Maybe tomorrow,” he agreed, bringing his hand to rest over Lea’s shoulder.
They watched The Golden Girls for a while, though Isa kept his eyes shut more often than not. He continued to slide lower on the bed until he was finally lying down with Lea curled up at his side. They put off falling asleep for as long as they could, trying to enjoy being able to do nothing while they had the chance. When Isa’s phone buzzed on the nightstand, jarring him from a half-sleep that he hadn’t even realized he’d fallen into, Lea muttered, “Don’t you dare.”
“I have to,” Isa said, trying to reach the nightstand without moving. After a few seconds of pitifully stretching his arm, he sighed. “Lea. Get up.”
“Well, let me get up.”
“Lea, seriously. It might be an emergency.”
“No one would text you for an emergency.”
“What if there was an explosion?” Isa said. “Don’t you want to see that?”
Lea opened his eyes, considering this, and then let go. He sprawled on his back, resting his hands behind his head while Isa sat up and grabbed his phone.
“It’s from Dilan.”
“Yeah, well. No surprise there.”
“It just says ‘I tried to stop them.’ And there’s a video.”
That was more than enough to get Lea’s attention, though he still refused to sit up. Isa moved closer and held the phone out so they could both watch, equally curious as he hit the play button.
It was a dim but steadily-filmed video of Demyx on the stage, in the middle of saying, “—couldn’t be here with us tonight, but we’re dedicating this next song to him. Enjoy!” Isa and Lea exchanged puzzled glances until Demyx kicked off his show with a rousing rendition of “Disco Inferno,” getting the entire crowd to chant, “Burn, baby, burn!” After a few moments, the video panned to the side of the stage, where Aeleus was already making eye contact and shaking his head. From there, it drifted to the bar, where Braig was in fine form, singing along and encouraging his customers to break out their most embarrassing disco moves. Dilan didn’t turn the camera on himself, nor did he speak, but Isa heard a beleaguered sigh just before the view dropped to the floor and the video ended.
Lea was already laughing, his forehead pressed against Isa’s arm, while Isa stared at his phone. “…all right,” he conceded, “that’s actually pretty funny.”
“Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?”
That was how questions were often presented in the Nozawa household: at point blank range. Otherwise, they were danced around so thoroughly that even the asker wound up forgetting what his original point was. Even, who was busy researching the trial run of a new drug that claimed to help stave off the effects of retrograde amnesia, didn’t look up from his computer, though he did dignify Ienzo’s question with a, “What?”
“Christmas,” Ienzo repeated. “Why don’t we celebrate it?”
“It’s June, Ienzo. Why are we talking about this?” But when Ienzo lingered in the doorway of his father’s home office, waiting for a real answer, Even said, “We don’t observe religious holidays. You know that.”
Ienzo mulled this over, knowing it was true. But it had always seemed like a nice time of year, commercially speaking, anyway. All the lights and hot chocolate and warm clothing. Ienzo was a fan of sweaters.
But it seemed Even was letting the question sink in further, because he abruptly said, “Why do you ask?” He looked up from his work and wheeled his chair away from the desk, giving Ienzo his full attention. “Did you want to celebrate this year?”
“No,” Ienzo said. “Not particularly. I mean, I wouldn’t be averse to it. I was just wondering.”
Even waited for a more concrete answer than that, just as Ienzo had waited for a better answer from him. Ienzo shrugged. “I was at the club this afternoon—”
“Aeleus was there. He promised to give me a ride home. I was just waiting for him to take his break.”
Even sighed, but he waved his hand impatiently to usher the story along. After ensuring that he’d be able to keep a straight face, Ienzo said, “So, we were all just hanging out, talking about astrology and sharing our zodiac signs—”
“Ienzo, I have work to do,” Even said as Ienzo bit the inside of his lip to hold back a laugh. “I don’t have time to sit through a discussion that revolves around Christmas and astrology. Please get to your point.”
“I told them that my birthday falls on Christmas Day, and everyone was surprised to hear that we don’t celebrate. Well, not that surprised. They know you.”
“They’ve met me once or twice, under unorthodox circumstances. That’s not how you know a person.”
“I think they got the gist,” Ienzo said, and Even gave him an unamused but conceding look. “Anyway, I just wanted to make sure…well, Aeleus was the one who brought it up. But I wanted to make sure you’re not just avoiding the holiday for my sake. Or something like that.”
Even paused. He had expected Ienzo to admit that he’d been secretly wanting to celebrate the holiday all along, and that he felt Even was holding him back. It hadn’t occurred to him that Ienzo might think things were the other way around.
“I have no desire to celebrate Christmas, Ienzo,” Even assured him. “I can find no merit in a day devoted to watching the same outdated movies over and over while consuming nothing but cholesterol-raising food and drinks. I’ve noticed the holiday seems to have evolved into a month-long affair, anyway—thanks to your generation, I’m sure. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was your age.”
Ienzo laughed quietly, half at his father and half in agreement with him. He was about to leave when Even went on. “I just think that having two different celebrations on the same day is excessive,” he explained. “If we have to pick one, it would be a much more worthwhile use of our time to celebrate the event for which we have empirical proof.”
Ienzo stood in the doorway, waiting, but that apparently said it all as far as Even was concerned. He nodded, giving his father permission to return to work, and Even didn’t waste time nodding back. He simply wheeled his chair to his computer desk again, tsk-ing to himself when he realized the screensaver had popped up. Ienzo watched him scroll through pharmaceutical journals and articles for a few moments before dismissing himself, rolling his father’s explanation over in his head as he went upstairs to his room and wondering if there existed an equally scientific way of saying, “I love you, too.”
Fun fact: James Patrick Stuart played the "Desperado" guy on Seinfeld, which wasn't something I realized before I came up with Braig's taste in music. Just funny how things work out sometimes.
Chapter 3: I Try To Wrap My Mind Around Things My Heart Already Knows
Flashback chapter. Like...THE Ienzo flashback chapter.
Characters: Ienzo, Even, and Ansem.
Even had always been a scientist. He couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t prioritize learning and analyzing. For all his insistence on keeping things neat and organized, he thrived on the minor chaos of life in a scientific field, in which one was rewarded for not knowing something, because it opened the doors to endless possibilities.
But in order to maintain that freedom and flexibility in his professional life, he ruled his personal life with rigid routine. Work was a place of coulds and mights, the rest of his life a place of can’ts and won’ts. Granted, the majority of his life was work, so it wasn’t exactly stifling. Still, all the more reason not to let hopeful idealism bleed into the one part of his life that he still understood at all times, that was a place of predictability instead of discovery. The door between his personal and professional worlds was a revolving one, but heavy, strictly regulated, and bolted shut when not in use.
And as he walked Ienzo to his car in the middle of the day, with Ansem waving placidly from the entrance to the lab, Even felt as if he had taken hold of that door with both hands and spun it like a top, until it finally rocked off its axis and shattered for good.
The drive home—which Even realized was no longer going to be his home, but their home—was silent. At every red light, Even tried to figure out where the classical music station was, but he’d never used a car radio in his life, and eventually he gave up. Ienzo didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t stare idly out the window, as Even imagined all children his age did on car rides, but rather straight through the windshield, following Even’s gaze down the road ahead as they traveled from one end of Radiant Garden to the other.
Once they arrived at the house, Even expected Ienzo to engage in an unbridled, borderline rude exploration of his environment, taking items off shelves on a whim or strolling into whatever room he pleased as he’d done back when they first met in the research library. Instead, Ienzo stayed within a few feet of Even at all times. His eyes roved, but he held off on exploring, at least on his own. When Even said, “Come this way,” Ienzo followed, keeping up at a trot until Even remembered just how tall he was and slowed his pace.
“This is your room,” he said, flicking the lights on and showing Ienzo a plain but hopefully comfortable bedroom. Furnishing it had been a mind-boggling experience. Even was embarrassed to admit that he’d never considered the fact that beds were sold in children’s sizes. He’d never had to consider it before. He’d never thought about how he would need to start buying groceries that were both nutritious and appealing to a child, or place a step stool in the bathroom so Ienzo could reach the sink.
Ienzo finally drifted away from Even’s side to scope out the perimeter of his new bedroom. Even rolled his suitcase to the dresser, planning to unpack it later when the boy had settled in and was distracted with books or puzzles or possibly television, assuming Even could figure out where he’d last put down the remote.
After Ienzo completed his inspection of the room and presumably gave it his seal of approval, Even took him on a house tour, showing him where everything was and laying down a few rules that Even had always abided by but which had never needed to be stated before. No shoes indoors. Never open a window without a screen. Sponges are to be wrung out and placed in the sponge holder, not the kitchen sink. Ienzo nodded in response to some of these instructions, which Even was encouraged by.
They ate a simple dinner of noodles and vegetables. Ienzo stood from the table to dismiss himself when he was finished, but Even called him back, telling him that it was rude to simply take off like that, and that in this house, everyone was responsible for bringing his dishes and silverware to the sink. Ienzo stared at Even, who wasn’t sure if his rules were being challenged or simply absorbed. But Ienzo returned to the table and sat cross-legged on his floor pillow, gathering his utensils and cup on his plate while Even quickly finished his meal. When they brought everything to the sink, Ienzo looked up at the sponge and dish soap, but Even waved him away.
“I’ll take care of this,” he said matter-of-factly. “Thank you for bringing your things to the sink, Ienzo. Go wait in the family room. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Ienzo gave him a scrunched-up look but did what he was told, apparently willing to obey instructions as long as they intrigued him. When Even joined him, he brought a small stack of books, puzzles, and games, some for groups but most for individuals. Ienzo raised his eyebrows, trying to inspect each title as Even carried them across the room.
“Ansem tells me you like puzzles, and that you’re a voracious reader,” Even said, laying down a set of educational books that were a bit closer to Ienzo’s reading level than what Ansem had been letting him indulge in. “I’m sure you’ll get through these by the end of the week. When you’re ready for new books, we’ll take a trip to the library. You can leave these ones on the kitchen table to let me know when you’re finished with them. Agreed?”
Ienzo was still gawking at all of the books and puzzles, but when he realized Even was waiting for an answer, he tore his gaze away to look up at him and nod. “Good,” Even said, satisfied that the boy’s insatiable curiosity back at the lab hadn’t been a fluke or a coping mechanism, but rather an inherent trait. “If you struggle with any of the material, let me know. I’ll do my best to help you.”
For all Ienzo’s keen attention on the books, the first thing he reached for was one of the puzzles: a series of metal loops and hooks, contorted around each other and waiting for him to figure out how to twist them apart. Even watched him for a few minutes, finding that he genuinely enjoyed the rather tedious process of Ienzo turning the puzzle over and over in his hands, searching for its weak points. Eventually, Even returned to the kitchen to finish cleaning, thinking that maybe this would be a smoother adjustment than he’d expected. He did have a tendency to blow things out of proportion, or so he’d been told. How much trouble could a child as inquisitive and bright as Ienzo cause?
Even was rarely embarrassed to be proved wrong—he was a truth-seeker above all else—but it was humbling to be proved wrong so quickly. Ten minutes after he left Ienzo to enjoy the puzzles to his heart’s content, he heard small footsteps rushing from the family room to the kitchen. “Ienzo, don’t run in the house,” Even said with mild irritation, knowing they’d gone over that rule very clearly. He put his cloth and spray bottle down and turned to see what the boy wanted, and he paused when he saw Ienzo standing in the middle of the room with both index fingers caught in a small roll of paper. He tried pulling his hands apart to no avail, then raised his arms to show Even.
“Oh,” Even said, “the Chinese finger trap?” Ienzo looked alarmed at the name, pulling harder, and Even quickly stooped down to get on his level. “Ienzo, calm down,” he said, his tone more instructional than reassuring. Ienzo stilled and let Even take hold of his hands.
“This is the simplest puzzle I brought home,” Even said, with a trace of amusement that this, of all things, had stumped the boy. Even carefully wrapped his long-fingered hands around Ienzo’s and pulled them apart. At least, as far apart as they would go. “…hm.” Even brought his hands back to their starting point, waited a moment as if the laws of physics would reset themselves for his convenience, and tried again. The panic returned to Ienzo’s eyes as he realized that Even was merely repeating the same motions over and over, having no real knowledge of what to do.
Even knew better than to try a third time, but he was at a loss. “All right,” he sighed. “I’ll go get the scissors.”
Ienzo retreated three full steps, bringing his hands to his chest. “Ienzo, please calm down,” Even said, if only to soothe his own nerves. “I’m going to cut the trap off, not your fingers.”
But Ienzo stared at Even with total wariness, as if he couldn’t believe that he really had been taken in by a mad scientist after all, ready to experiment on the child on his very first night in the house. Even rose to his feet but stayed put, gazing across the room.
“All right,” he said again. “Come with me.” When Ienzo didn’t budge, Even held out both arms, palms open. “No scissors, Ienzo. I promise. Just come with me.”
They adjourned to Even’s home office, the child prodigy and the neurologist with two and a half PhDs reduced to scouring YouTube for advice on how to thwart a Chinese finger trap. Ienzo still hadn’t said a word; apparently, even the loss of his dexterity wasn’t enough to get him to speak. But his silence was laser-focused, fueled by the childhood distress of realizing that one small, impulsive decision might mean that he would have his fingers stuck in a paper trap for the rest of his life.
That is, until Even found a fifteen-second tutorial. “Oh,” he said, knowing no other word could capture the obviousness and his own stupidity. “Ienzo, push your fingers together.”
Ienzo did so after a moment’s hesitation, fearing that the solution might not work. But his fingertips touched, and Even reached over and plucked the trap harmlessly off his hands.
Ienzo bent his fingers a few times while Even rolled the paper into a ball and threw it away. Ienzo glanced at the trash can, then at Even. He nodded, both in approval of his decision and in gratitude for saving him, and then he returned to the family room to enjoy his newfound freedom.
On the third day, Even entered the kitchen and found every book he’d given Ienzo stacked in ascending order of size on the kitchen table. Ienzo was already up and nearly finished with his bowl of cereal, impatient for Even to make good on his promise and replace the books with new ones.
“Well, I see you’re as prolific a reader as Ansem claims,” Even said. “I trust you found value in them.”
Ienzo nodded as Even poured his tea and spread a thin layer of jam on his toast with surgical precision. “We have to run some errands this morning and go to the lab for a bit,” he said, taking a seat at the table while Ienzo chased the last elusive pieces of cereal with his spoon, somehow overlooking the fact that he could simply lift the bowl and drink from it. “We can go to the library before the lab, so you’ll have something new to read while we’re there.”
Ienzo nodded again, agreeing with the logic in this plan, and Even worked on unfolding his newspaper, muttering as the crease repeatedly bent the wrong way. And then, after a moment’s consideration, Ienzo mumbled, “Thanks.”
Even paused mid-fold, glancing at Ienzo to make sure he really heard what he thought he did. Ienzo was looking back at him, expression plain, but clearly waiting for Even to respond, confirming that he had, in fact, said something to respond to.
After one more second of staring, Even said, “You’re welcome, Ienzo,” finished unfolding and re-folding his paper, and ate his breakfast.
The boy couldn’t have picked a more sensible time to start speaking. When Even brought him to the library, Ienzo told Even what sorts of subjects he liked, or merely commented on what he thought was interesting and let Even provide recommendations based on that. They left with a small tower of books, Even carrying the bulk of them to the car and Ienzo trailing behind him with a new volume already open in his hands.
They received a few double-takes at the lab, despite the fact that Even’s coworkers were well aware of his decision to adopt Ienzo. The sight of them walking through the door together would take some getting used to. Luckily, Even was too focused on his errands to notice, and Ienzo was too engrossed in his book to care. Even promised the visit would be brief, just long enough for him to correct a few notes in their research and pick up some files, but when Ansem stopped by the office to say hello, ten minutes turned into thirty.
He asked Even how the past week had been going and if there was anything he needed, and then he turned his attention to Ienzo, asking if he could take a look at his new book and wanting to know how he liked living with Even. Even waited for the boy to speak again, but to his surprise, Ienzo had reverted to silence. Nevertheless, he seemed to find ways to answer Ansem’s questions without words, at least to the old professor’s satisfaction. When it was time to leave, he bid Ienzo farewell with a fond ruffle of his hair.
Even tapped his fingers against the steering wheel on the drive back. “You didn’t speak to Ansem,” he finally said in as non-accusatory a tone as possible, just a question wrapped in an observation. Ienzo shrugged that dismissive shrug children did when they didn’t realize how unconvincing their behavior was. “Is something the matter?”
Ienzo gazed out the window, his eyes following the sinusoid telephone wires as the car rolled along. “Most people get bored of waiting for me to talk, and they start pretending I’m not there,” he said. “Grandpa Wise doesn’t. He keeps talking to me even though I don’t talk to him. But he’s still waiting.” Even looked in the rearview mirror, trying not to smile at the nickname Ienzo had unknowingly bestowed on Ansem.
“You have no reason to be shy, Ienzo. All he wants is to hear you speak again.”
But Ienzo shrugged once more, and Even let the subject drop, not needing to reiterate points that he was sure the boy already knew.
As with most new endeavors, adjustment became habit. Things went much more smoothly now that the child—his son, Even reminded himself, wondering when that would finally sink in—had begun talking. His relief, however, quickly turned to confusion, and then outright annoyance, when Ienzo used his newly-regained powers of speech to criticize and correct Even at every turn. Not a day went by that Ienzo didn’t nitpick Even’s grammar or pronunciation, inform him oh so helpfully that his tie was askew, or remind him to buckle his seat belt before Even had so much as closed the car door. The child’s neural pathways were lit with firecrackers, and although Even was far from an intellectual slouch, he found himself struggling to keep up. A six-year-old was regularly running circles around him, and that realization could not have been more frustrating to Even, or filled him with more pride.
He got his revenge one morning when he was running late for work. Ienzo sat at the kitchen table and watched Even bolt from room to room, trying to remember where he had left his security badge. The very last thing he felt like dealing with today was carrying a radio on his belt and calling Otsuka every time he needed to walk through a damn door.
He bustled through the kitchen, muttering to himself and creating quite a spectacle for Ienzo to enjoy while he ate his cereal. After watching Even ask himself questions and curse his misfortune for a couple minutes, Ienzo said, in all his childish bluntness, “You’re very odd.”
And without stopping to think, Even replied, “No, Ienzo, I’m Even,” and continued to rummage through the kitchen drawers for his badge. Ienzo stared, blinked, stared some more, and finally said, “Wow,” before picking up his cereal and taking it to the living room. He was violating house rules about appropriate meal locations, but Even was too relieved to be rid of the boy’s unhelpful commentary to care.
After dropping Ienzo off at school and slinking into work, Even learned that explaining that he had misplaced his badge got very old very fast. He set up shop in the research lab for the day, trying to minimize his use of the radio as much as possible, already hearing the aggravated edge in Otsuka’s tone after his second request to disarm a door.
After forty minutes of working alongside Ansem in a pleasant and much-needed silence, Even laid his pen down on the table and stared across the room. “Of course,” he murmured, drawing Ansem’s attention away from his reports. “I’m not odd,” he went on, comprehension dawning in his voice, “I’m Even.”
Ansem waited for him to elaborate, but Even was wrapped up in a personal and seemingly profound revelation. After a moment, he let out a disbelieving, “Tsk,” shook his head, and returned to his research without another word, leaving the workings of his brain a mystery, as he so often did.
Several months after Ienzo moved in—after he’d finally begun speaking to Ansem again, which, to Even’s amazement and slight panic, had actually caused the old man to shed tears—he woke Even up in the middle of the night. He’d padded across the hall to Even’s room, at first loitering in the doorway, and then approaching the bed, poking the mattress and pillow until the pressure disturbed Even enough to wake him.
“Ienzo? It’s two in the morning,” he said, as if Ienzo didn’t know. “What is it?”
“I had a bad dream,” Ienzo said, and Even let his head drop to the pillow, realizing he would inevitably have to get up and walk the boy back to his room.
“Dreams are just your unconscious mind trying to make sense of waking life,” he mumbled sleepily. “They can seem frightening, but there’s nothing—”
“Are you gonna die?”
That certainly got Even’s attention. He opened his eyes again and sat up, propping his elbow on the pillow. “What? Why would—what kind of dream did you have?”
“Are you gonna die?” Ienzo repeated, his voice tightening like wire. Even did his best to rub the sleep from his eyes.
“Well, yes,” he said, believing as usual that honesty was the best policy, especially with a boy as intellectually advanced as Ienzo. “Hopefully not for quite some time. But it’s nothing to be afraid of, Ienzo. Everyone dies someday.”
“Everyone dies?!” Ienzo said, and Even realized that while he may have given the boy a correct answer, it possibly wasn’t the correct answer for this particular situation.
He tried to explain further, but Ienzo was too distraught to respond to facts or rationality. Finally, Even dropped the explanations. He sat all the way up and moved over, patting the mattress where he’d been sleeping peacefully mere minutes earlier. Ienzo hesitated, but he crawled onto the low bed, self-consciousness quelling his panic as he settled into Even’s space. His eyes were bright, and he held his knees to his chest, arms around his shins.
“Ienzo,” Even said quietly, “do you want to tell me what your dream was about?”
Ienzo shook his head. Even withheld a sigh and rested his hand on the child’s small back.
“Are you sure? That’s why you came in here in the first place.”
Ienzo nodded this time, a little slower, and Even realized that while Ienzo clearly wanted Even to know what he’d dreamt, he didn’t want to have to say it, to relive it. Even moved his hand up and down Ienzo’s back, a little clinically. “Are you afraid?” he tried. “Is there something I can help you understand?”
Ienzo shrugged, which Even was encouraged by, the gesture being much more open-ended than a nod or a head shake. He’d noticed that Ienzo’s shrugs, however dismissive they seemed at first, were almost always followed by an answer. Or, in this case, a question.
“Why do people have to die?”
Even paused, knowing that they both knew exactly which people Ienzo was referring to. His hand stilled, and Ienzo must have taken it as a sign that he’d done something wrong, or maybe verbalizing his fear was too overwhelming, because a few tears dripped from his eyes. Those same eyes that had scrutinized and explored the research library so curiously, so intelligently, now wide and wet and scared, and Even realized how much he’d been taking the child’s maturity at face value. He continued to rub Ienzo’s back while the boy tried to sniffle himself back into a state of self-control.
“There are…many reasons,” Even began, not at all sure where he was going with this or how he could possibly give a reassuring answer to such a question. “Some people die of illnesses. Some people die in accidents that can’t be foreseen. Some people live as long as possible, until their bodies can no longer support them. But death is an abstract noun, Ienzo. It cannot be seen or touched. It’s simply a state of being that all of us will reach someday. It’s not an entity or an enemy; there’s no hooded figure or tall man with a scythe chasing after anyone.” He reached up and stroked Ienzo’s hair, only once, surprising himself with the gesture. “Dying can be scary or sad, but death is a natural part of life—of everyone’s life. It’s all right.”
Even never knew that this was his own stance on death until now, because no one but a child would have ever asked him. Whether his answer was good or bad, or even right or wrong, he couldn’t say. But his reply brought out Ienzo’s tears, and the boy reached out and wrapped his arms around Even’s waist, pitifully reaching for his own small fingers behind his back. Even didn’t move for a few seconds, unsure what the correct way to reciprocate was. Eventually, he settled on continuing to rub Ienzo’s back, and when that wasn’t enough to quiet his sobs, Even placed his hand on the top of Ienzo’s head, patting it lightly with his fingers. “It’s all right, Ienzo,” he repeated, more quietly, knowing that this was what the rest of the night had in store for him, at least until Ienzo finally cried himself to sleep.
As Even tried (and failed) to find a comfortable position to lie in without waking the boy, he reflected on his initial reluctance to adopt Ienzo. Part of him had hoped that by giving himself months to prepare, he would also be giving Ienzo time to work through his grief, preferably with Ansem, who exuded wisdom and compassion and would doubtlessly act as a shock absorber for the boy’s trauma. Even had no confidence in his ability to work through his own grief properly, let alone a child’s, and he’d hoped—a thought that made him feel absurdly ashamed now—that by the time he brought Ienzo into his home, the boy would have already overcome his sorrow, just so Even wouldn’t have to admit that he didn’t know how to help him.
But he watched Ienzo sleeping soundly beside him, his face still splotchy with dried tears, but his breathing quiet and steady, his hair soft and gray as a dandelion tuft, his small hand clutching the sheet to his chest, somehow claiming both of Even’s pillows with his head and an outstretched arm. Even wasn’t sure if anything he’d said or done had actually helped Ienzo, or if the boy had merely cried himself into a peaceful slumber. But either way, they were getting through the night, and by four o’ clock, Even was asleep again, after aligning himself very carefully at the edge of the bed.
When Ienzo had days or weeks off from school, he often accompanied Even to the lab, which Even vastly preferred over leaving him with a babysitter. Ansem took Ienzo out to lunch frequently, giving Even a much-needed break from parenting. He was, of course, greatly relieved that the boy was speaking regularly now, though he still reverted to his quieter demeanor when he was around Ansem, which Even assumed was out of nothing more—or less—than respect. But he cherished those times when Ienzo spent the entire afternoon reading a book or visiting “Grandpa Wise” and letting Even work in peace.
After one of their lunches, Ansem and Ienzo tracked Even down in the lab. “Good afternoon,” Even said, staring down the barrel of a microscope while Ansem gave Ienzo an encouraging nudge. “Did you have a nice lunch?”
“Here,” was all Ienzo said in reply. When Even reluctantly tore his gaze away from his samples, he saw Ienzo holding out a wrapped ice cream bar. In the lab. Where food was expressly forbidden. The only thing that kept Even from reminding the boy of that fact was his sheer surprise.
“What is this?” he asked, proving his own long-held theory that there was such a thing as a stupid question. Hopefully, Ienzo would take it as the rhetorical question it was meant to be.
“It’s ice cream,” Ienzo said bluntly, as always cutting Even as little slack as possible. Even glanced at Ansem, who was already finishing his own bar.
“We stopped for dessert on the way back from lunch,” he explained. “I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course?” Even replied, giving him an openly confused look for deferring to him. It had sunk in by now that he was Ienzo’s legal guardian and primary caretaker, but in Ansem’s presence, he always seemed to forget that. “But…I mean, is there something wrong with it? We can’t really fix things like this in the lab, Ienzo.”
“It’s for you,” Ienzo said, still holding the ice cream out. When Even’s only response was a blank stare, Ienzo added pointedly, “It’s going to melt.”
Against his better judgment, Even accepted the ice cream. Ienzo looked satisfied with their transaction and walked out the door without a backward glance. To Even’s credit, he waited until Ienzo was gone before he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Ansem, who had been watching Ienzo’s departure with a fond smile, turned back to Even and raised an eyebrow. “Well, you could try eating it,” he suggested with a deep but light chuckle. “I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt.”
“I’m lactose intolerant.”
“…oh,” Ansem said, wondering how he’d gone so long without knowing this fact. “Then, yes. It might hurt.” He dropped his popsicle stick in the trash can and gave Even an accommodating shrug. “It was just an impulsive stop on our way back to the lab. I’m sure it won’t become a regular occurrence.”
Two weeks later, they returned from their lunch break with another ice cream for Even. And the following month they did the same, and Even was forced to accept that this was his life now. He analyzed data for a living, and he knew a pattern developing when he saw one.
Ice cream aside, they had fallen into step quite easily, learning each other’s preferences and idiosyncrasies quickly and with little fuss. Even thought that boded well—if Ienzo was this good at navigating their personal life, surely his academic life would be a breeze.
His first parent-teacher conference set that attitude straight. While Ienzo did indeed excel academically, he was prone to skirmishes with his classmates, often getting into fights on the playground. When admonished, he fell silent for the rest of the day, refusing to speak or make eye contact with anyone until Even arrived to pick him up.
After one notable fight that left Ienzo with skinned knees and his classmate with a bloody nose, Even was called for a meeting in the middle of the day. When he asked how the fight had begun, the teacher explained that some of the children had been teasing Ienzo about being adopted, and rather than seeking out an adult, Ienzo attacked them. According to the school’s policy, this meant that Ienzo had started the fight.
Even listened patiently to this explanation, and when it was his turn to respond, he said, “It’s a shame you see it that way. My son has endured significant trauma this year that he’s only recently begun to work through. It could have derailed his entire academic career. Instead, he maintains the highest grades and the most remarkable work ethic. You should consider yourselves blessed to have a child with such an innate drive for curiosity and learning in your midst. His parents were renowned cardiologists, trailblazers in their field, and their son could follow in their footsteps easily with the right environment. Do you think a school where classmates are allowed to harass him until he snaps is the right environment?”
“We don’t allow bullying of any kind here,” the teacher insisted, and he seemed to mean it. “We’re aware of Ienzo’s situation, and we’re doing all we can to minimize conflict in our classroom. But we also teach our students that they need to solve their problems with words. The fact that Ienzo resorted to physical retaliation and then refused to speak for the rest of the day is…well, it’s not ideal.”
“Oh,” Even said, almost laughing, “believe me, he was holding back. If you want him to respond to bullies by using his words, then this school had better hire more counselors.”
“Mr. Nozawa,” the teacher said sternly, and Even donned a more serious face, though he still regarded the man coolly. “We’re here to discuss Ienzo’s behavioral problems. He’s excelling academically—we’re all aware of that, it’s hardly even worth bringing up. But this behavior is cause for concern.”
“I agree,” Even said. “His behavior and handling of his grief is my top concern as well. A process that would go much more smoothly if he weren’t provoked into reactions that I think we both know he wants to avoid as much as anyone. How long was he being picked on before he retaliated? Did anyone step in before it reached that point?”
“We weren’t aware of the bullying until Ienzo threw the first punch.”
“Well, that’s very convenient for the bullies. As well as for anyone determined to castigate Ienzo for acting like a child instead of a robot in all areas of his life. I think,” Even went on, cutting the teacher off before he could speak, “that the best course of action would be to treat Ienzo’s obvious trauma with more compassion, and come down harder on the classmates who pushed him to the point of upsetting and uncharacteristic violence. Stop the antagonism before it starts. Maybe it’s the doctor in me, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree?”
Even waited just long enough for the teacher to nod before he rose from his seat. “Thank you for your time. I’ll have a discussion with Ienzo about all of this. You may call me if there are any further incidents.” And with that, he dismissed himself from the room.
Ienzo was sitting on a plastic chair just outside the door, doubtlessly listening to everything the adults said. He stopped scratching his bandaged knee when Even chided him, and he hopped down from the chair when Even said it was time to go home. And after a few steps, with his eyes on his sneakers, Ienzo reached up and held Even’s hand. Without words, Even wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of remorse, gratitude, or simply comfort, but he gave Ienzo’s hand a firm squeeze as he led him out of the school.
Mother’s Day was the first holiday they observed together, and it wasn’t easy. Even knew there would be tears; it was just a matter of when. Ienzo didn’t even make it through breakfast before he started wiping his eyes, and then his nose, and then he was too much of a mess to keep up with, until Even joined him with a box of tissues and periodically cleaned his face and held him while he cried. “I miss my mom,” was all Ienzo managed to say through his sobs, like a confession, grief and guilt pouring out in equal measure, and all Even could do was hold the tissue for him to blow his nose and say, “I know.”
Father’s Day was a little more complicated. Even didn’t want to force Ienzo to dwell on his grief, but he didn’t want to presume that the boy wouldn’t dedicate the day to his late father, just as they’d done for his mother the previous month. There were some tears as Ienzo sniffled over a book, though they were much quieter than before. By dinnertime, Ienzo had made it through the day with only a few brief crying sessions, and Even didn’t expect anything more than that.
All the more surprising that he found a crudely-wrapped present on the desk in his home office that night, after he’d put Ienzo to bed. He peeled the paper away to reveal a lopsided cup made from a long coil of clay, painted a weak and splotchy yellow, almost the same color as Even’s station wagon. The bottom was left unfinished, Even noticed as he turned it over, so that Ienzo could scrawl with a carving tool: “To: My Father. From: Ienzo. 2007. For Your Pens.”
Even held the cup in his hands as if it were a candle that might blow out. Then he placed it beside his computer and got to work tracking down every writing utensil in the office, finding none of them in the desk drawer, but under papers, behind the desk, inexplicably left on bookshelves, scattered to all corners except where he needed them. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed the state of his work station until now, but it didn’t surprise him for one second that Ienzo had. He gathered all the pens in his fist and then slid them into the cup, looking at them in satisfaction as they fanned like a bouquet.
The years went on, and Ienzo continued to excel in school. Soon, his teachers called Even in for more conferences to discuss options. Even listened to them sing Ienzo’s praises, congratulating not only his academic talent but also his work ethic and his passion for learning. Even accepted these compliments on Ienzo’s behalf, knowing they were well-deserved, but whenever the teachers offered to move Ienzo up a grade, Even simply said, “No.”
Most teachers were surprised, and a few of them pushed the issue, trying to convince Even that his son was ready for the fast track and could feasibly graduate high school by age fifteen, if he kept his GPA up. Even didn’t budge. “He’s astoundingly advanced for his age,” they would say, and Even would simply reply, “He’s still his age.”
For the most part, Ienzo settled down, focusing on his studies and refraining from getting into conflicts with his peers. Part of this came naturally with growing up and learning to regulate his emotions.
And part of it came from Ienzo finding subtler and sneakier ways to act out. Even continued to be called in for parent-teacher conferences, this time to discuss Ienzo’s latest escapade or prank or—in one memorable instance in fifth grade—“heist.” Even expressed sheer incredulity that the school could even think of blaming his son for their missing gym equipment. When he pressed them for evidence, they were forced to admit they had none, and Even left in a huff, complaining loudly about their lack of professionalism and their insistence on insulting his son and wasting his time.
He sat in the parking lot for four full minutes, engine idling, hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead while Ienzo waited calmly in the passenger seat. Finally, Even said, “They think you stole the school’s tennis balls.”
He didn’t want to look, but a quick glance confirmed that Ienzo was smiling. Even shook his head, muttered, “Unbelievable,” and put the car in gear, taking them home and ranting all the way about what use a child could possibly have for two hundred tennis balls. “In assorted colors,” Ienzo specified, as if that explained anything.
That was the new pattern of Even’s life: being called to vague conferences, verbally destroying the faculty for daring to accuse his son of misconduct, and then lecturing Ienzo once they were in the privacy of their own vehicle. He liked to get the ranting out of his system in the car, so that by the time they got home, all he had left to say was, “Do not do this again.”
Ienzo always agreed without a fuss. After all, they both knew he would never be so boring as to pull the same prank twice.
In middle school, their household became fraught with miscommunications and snarkier comebacks and—loathe as Even was to admit it—hormones. He had already lived through puberty once, or so he had to assume. He wasn’t completely convinced that he didn’t black out for the entirety of his formative years, waking up one day as the bizarre and neurotic adult he knew he had always been destined to become. He had buried those years deep in his long-term memory, assuming he would never have to revisit them in any capacity ever again.
Ienzo, unfortunately, wasn’t giving him that option. Even had known that the teen years were coming, and he told himself to just go with it. Don’t push, don’t hold the boy to the same expectations as before. When circumstances change, so should your methods. A change in one variable meant a change in the entire equation. It was the most basic rule. And Ienzo’s silence and desire to be alone were hardly dramatic changes to his personality.
But whenever Ienzo sat quietly at the dinner table now, Even felt compelled to make inane conversation. When Ienzo spent hours in his room, reading or watching a movie on his computer, Even felt compelled to knock on his door at regular intervals to ask if there was anything he needed or wanted. When Ienzo gave Even the same sarcastic quips he’d been giving for years, suddenly they were a sign of something, or a possible attack, and what should have been a passing comment turned into an on-and-off argument that spanned the entire evening.
When Even went to the first parent-teacher meeting in seventh grade, he was dreading it. Not because of whatever stunts Ienzo may or may not have pulled, and certainly not because of his grades. But because Even didn’t want to face the possibility that at this point, a stranger who only saw his son a few times a week might be able to explain Ienzo to Even better than Even could understand Ienzo himself.
“Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way first,” his homeroom teacher said, and Even all but prayed that “the obvious” would be things he already knew. “Academically, Ienzo is a teacher’s dream. He learns the material. He turns every assignment in on time and in full. His grades are superb. It’s easy to see that he has a passion for learning, no doubt encouraged by his home life.”
“It’s all him,” Even said. He knew the teacher was right, that he had done his absolute best to foster an environment where Ienzo’s drive for learning would flourish. But he was at a loss. Ienzo’s grades had stayed the same, but the rest of him was changing.
“Well, in any case,” she went on, “we value all our students here, but we like to recognize exceptional work when we see it, and Ienzo’s work is truly exceptional. You should be very proud—I’m sure you are,” she said, while Even nodded. “I have just a few concerns. His participation is low. I know he knows the answers, and I’m glad he doesn’t dominate class discussions; he easily could. But he often doesn’t speak up unless specifically called upon.”
“That’s a shame,” Even said with a little bitter humor. “I’d hoped that was just a problem he had at home.”
“Believe me, he’s far from the only student with this tendency,” she assured him. “I’ve got a couple of my own around this age. This isn’t an easy time for them—or us—but I wouldn’t worry too much. This is perfectly normal behavior for a student Ienzo’s age. I don’t sense any hostility from him, or even any real resistance to sharing his thoughts. He just seems to prefer being quiet.”
Even nodded, clinging to that observation, because at least it lined up with his understanding of his son. “Anything else?”
“Yes, actually. One area where Ienzo seems to struggle is managing his priorities. Like I said, he always turns everything in on time. But when he has to balance his priorities or choose between two commitments, he seems unable to do so. He ends up dropping everything else in his life until all of his assignments or tasks are taken care of. I’d like to say this is just part of his impressive work ethic, but I think there might be some underlying causes. Maybe too much of a strive towards perfectionism. We try to keep our classrooms challenging, but I worry that he might be putting extra pressure on himself. Again, not a huge issue overall, but one that we should consider keeping an eye on.”
“I’ll have a talk with him,” Even said, and the teacher nodded. After a moment, she smiled.
“You know…it’s funny,” she said. “I addressed this with Ienzo earlier in the week. I told him that I noticed how when he had a large workload, he seemed to grow more disorganized, almost hectic. His response—and I hope you’ll appreciate this—was, ‘Blame my dad; I get it from him.’”
She laughed, and Even said, “Well, that’s preposterous,” wondering how on earth he was expected to appreciate a statement like that. “His father was the least disorganized person I’ve ever worked with. He was almost obsessively meticulous, never a paper out of place, everything labeled and organized by letter or date. He never fell behind in his work, and he always made…”
Even trailed off when he realized the teacher was giving him a surprised stare. He reviewed what he’d said, assuring himself that he would stand by every word, while her face softened into a smile. “Mr. Nozawa,” she said gently, about to ease him into a revelation, “I believe he was talking about you.”
Even blinked. “Me.” She nodded. He blinked again. “Me?”
“You,” she said, this time respectfully holding back her laugh. Even shook his head, trying to understand.
“But…I’m not his dad. I mean, I am,” he corrected himself when she gave him a quizzical look. “I’m his legal guardian. But he only refers to his biological father as ‘Dad.’ I’m always ‘my father’ or ‘Ienzo’s father.’ As a child, sometimes he’d just call me ‘Even.’”
“That, I have no trouble believing,” Ienzo’s teacher said, still holding back a laugh through Herculean effort. “But he was definitely talking about you. He described your mannerisms when you were busy at work, along with the state of your home office when things start to pile up. All his words,” she added, raising her hands. “Kids this age are prone to hyperbole; I’m sure he was just exaggerating for comedic effect.”
“He wasn’t,” Even said, his concerns about his son ebbing away as he stared at the whiteboard, trying to wrap his head around what he’d just been told.
He contemplated this all on the drive home, during which he also finally realized that he had given a very stilted and vacant handshake to Ienzo’s teacher when he left. She would probably start a file on him, too, and she’d be right to do so, he thought, pulling into the driveway and noticing that the kitchen light was on. When he entered the room, Ienzo looked up from his dinner, then back down, turning the page of his book. “Hey.”
“Hello.” Even put his bag on the counter and began making a plate for himself. Ienzo got more comfortable on the floor and picked at his food.
“So, how’d it go?”
“Hmm? Oh. Fine.” Even poured some water, habitually rinsing the glass out twice before filling it. “Your teacher is very pleased with your schoolwork. She told me she’d like it if you participated in class a little more. She said you always know the answers, but you don’t always speak up.”
“I want to give the other kids a chance, at least.”
“Well, isn’t that considerate of you?” Even said, taking a seat while Ienzo rolled his eyes, though as he returned to reading, Even knew he was holding back a smirk. Still, Even watched him for a moment, watched as Ienzo drew back into his own world, eyes roving the pages of his book. Even turned his attention to his plate.
As long as Ienzo spoke up on occasion, he was still speaking more than he used to. That was enough for now.
After they washed the dishes, Even folded up the towel and said, “So, what are your plans for the evening?”
Ienzo gave him a perplexed look, but Even simply waited without elaborating, giving Ienzo a taste of his own medicine. “I don’t know,” Ienzo said. “Sitting on the couch? Finishing my book?”
“Good, good. So you’ll be down here in the family room, then?”
“No, I thought I’d use the bathroom couch for a change.”
“Very funny.” Ienzo waited, and Even just continued to watch him, almost scrutinizing, trying to puzzle something out that Ienzo was completely at a loss to detect.
Finally, and abruptly, Even said, “Well, I’m going to go upstairs.”
“…okay, thanks?” Ienzo said, annoyance but mostly sheer confusion tinging his voice. “Just keep me updated throughout the evening. Sound a horn if you go down the hall so I know where you are.”
“You joke, but I considered buying a megaphone when you were seven so I could make sure you wouldn’t get lost in crowds.”
“That would have required you letting me go near crowds in the first place.”
“The only reason I didn’t was because I couldn’t figure out where to buy a megaphone. Plus, I didn’t want to risk letting one fall into your hands. It would be like gift-wrapping a prank for you.”
Ienzo laughed, just a brief exhale through his nose and a small smile, a momentary lapse in his sarcastic demeanor. They stood in the kitchen for a few more moments before Ienzo held up his book and said, “All right, well,” and made his way to the family room.
“Wait,” Even said, and Ienzo tilted his head back in exasperation before turning around. “When I go upstairs, wait a few minutes, and then call me for something.”
“…what are you talking about?”
“I think I’m being quite clear, Ienzo,” Even said, speaking more slowly anyway. “When I go upstairs, wait a few minutes, and then call for me.”
“Anything. Ask me to come down and help you with something.”
Ienzo looked around at their perfectly normal family room, not a thing out of place or broken. “Are you feeling all right?” he asked, mostly snarky but a little concerned. “Should we call Grandpa Weiss?”
“I’m fine, Ienzo. Just…humor me.”
“…all right,” Ienzo said, wondering if Even had ever been humored by anything or anyone a day in his life. Even waited until Ienzo sat on the couch and opened his book, then he went upstairs to his room.
He had just started reorganizing his bookcase—which consisted of emptying each shelf and then putting every book back, one at a time, exactly the way they were before—when he heard Ienzo approaching the stairs. He stopped with his hand hovering between two shelves, every fiber of him waiting for his son’s call.
“Hey, Dad?” Ienzo said, already laying on the sarcasm fairly thick. “I need your help with something, apparently. Can you come back downstairs and stop being weirder than usual?”
Even closed his eyes, laying his hand down on the old volumes to steady himself. He sighed contentedly and stepped out into the hall, leaving the unfinished stack of books on his dresser. “On my way, Ienzo.”
Chapter 4: All This, Because Of Me...
Characters: Vanitas and Naminé.
“Do you come here a lot?” Naminé asked, looking up at the flickering sign that read RHYTHM MIXER.
“Only when the music’s good,” Vanitas said as he moved ahead with the line. “The Emerald Blues are playing tonight. They do a lot of electronic jazz type stuff. I don’t know if you’re into that…”
“Neither do I,” Naminé laughed. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Vanitas showed his student ID at the door, and the woman swiped a marker over the top of his hand, branding it with a black X before sending him in. She was about to do the same to Naminé, but she pulled the marker back just in time when she read her ID.
“Whoops, my bad,” she said. “You’re all set. And hey, happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” Naminé managed to say as she went inside. She hoped the noise level of the club might have drowned out their exchange, but Vanitas was waiting just past the door. When Naminé joined him, he stopped scoping out the tables and turned to her instead.
“Did she just say it was your birthday?”
“Um…yes,” Naminé said, trying to laugh it off without actually laughing. “My eighteenth.”
“Damn. Uh, happy birthday.” Vanitas fiddled with his wallet in his pocket. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier? I would’ve, like…”
He trailed off because he wasn’t sure what he would’ve done, but Naminé was waiting for him to finish his thought, so he said, “I dunno. I would’ve brought you somewhere nicer.”
“I think this place is nice,” Naminé said, ignoring Vanitas’s deadpan look as she took in the smoky lighting, the small stage, and the cramped bar. “Believe me, this is more than I usually do.”
“All right,” Vanitas said, still sounding unconvinced. He led her to a small table near the edge of the room: a good enough spot to see the stage, but far enough away that they wouldn’t have to shout to maintain a conversation. When Vanitas asked Naminé if she wanted anything to drink, she tried to follow him to the bar, but he held his hand up.
“No way. I’ve got it.”
“Well, at least let me give you some munny,” Naminé said, rummaging through her bag.
“Again: no way. You’re not supposed to buy your own drinks on your birthday. Unless you want something alcoholic, in which case…yeah, you’re gonna have to come with me.”
Naminé laughed, lowering her wallet back into her bag without fully letting go. “I don’t. But at least let me cover my own drink? You already paid for admission…”
“It’s all good. Student discount, remember? Besides, somebody has to stay here and guard our spot.”
They engaged in a brief battle of wills, which ended with Naminé embracing her role as Guardian of the Table, putting her feet up on Vanitas’s chair and spreading her arms to claim the space as theirs. Vanitas laughed and shook his head as he walked to the bar, smiling to himself as he ordered their drinks.
They sloshed a bit as he returned, spilling onto the table when he set them down. “Sorry,” he said, stealing some napkins from an adjacent table while Naminé rescued her purse from the mess. “Should’ve had you help after all.” They took their first few sips before he quickly lowered his glass. “Damn it,” he said, holding his drink out. “Don’t know if it still counts now, but: happy birthday.”
Naminé looked at his offered glass, then back down at hers. She tentatively held it forward, tapping it against Vanitas’s. “Thank you.” He took another sip as she drew her glass back to her, cradling it in both hands like a cup of tea.
They talked over the din of the club, scooting their chairs to the same side of the small, circular table so they could hear each other. Vanitas didn’t do anything like order a dessert or tell the staff it was Naminé’s birthday. He did borrow a coin to show her the only sleight of hand trick he knew, and Naminé doodled a cartoon of his likeness on her napkin, grinning as she showed it to him. “Nailed it,” he said, laughing at the exaggerated scribble of spiky hair, twice the size of his head.
Once the music started, their conversation dwindled down, though Naminé occasionally leaned over to comment on the show. Vanitas cautiously tilted his head to hear her, afraid for some reason that his proximity would scare her off, recalling her wide-eyed, on-edge look from the first few times they met. But she accepted his invitation with ease, leaning closer to be heard over the music and the other patrons.
Their evening ended early, neither one of them wanting to subject themselves to crowds or noise for too long, despite enjoying the show. It was barely dark out, twilight dragging on in the summertime glow, but Vanitas still walked Naminé back to her apartment. She suspected it was just so he could hassle her about her birthday, pointing out various shops and vendor carts, suggesting different types of foods he’d be willing to buy. He dropped the subject with an easygoing, “All right, all right,” when she insisted that he’d spent more than enough on her for one day.
The sun had set fully by the time they reached her door, the air cool enough to chill with a slight breeze. “Well, hope you had a good time tonight,” Vanitas said. “I know that kind of music’s not really for everyone.”
“I liked it,” Naminé said honestly. “I don’t listen to much music, but I’d be interested in hearing more of it.”
“Really? I could show you more of their stuff—just let me know, anytime you want.”
Vanitas tapped the toe of his shoe against the steps to her apartment, looking down the road. “All right, guess I should be heading back. Happy birthday, though. Glad you got to do something fun this time.”
“Me, too. Thanks, Vanitas. Get home safe.”
Naminé was halfway through cleaning her kitchen when her phone chimed a cascade of notes. She tried to remove her dish glove quickly, fighting with it when it seemed to hold on tighter out of spite. She grabbed the phone just in time, glancing at the caller ID before she answered.
“Hey, Vanitas. How’s it going?”
“Pretty good. How ‘bout you? You doing anything today?”
“Um…” She stood on her toes to see over the stack of packaged food and pots and pans on her counter, and instantly regretted it when she was faced with her equally messy living room. “A lot of belated spring cleaning, but no, not much else. Why? Are you free?”
“Yeah, for a little while. Would it be okay if I swung by?”
“Sure, if you want to.”
“Great. But hey, before I come over: what’s your favorite color?”
“Just real quick. What’s your favorite color? Yellow? Pink?”
“Um, no. Neither of those.”
“Blue, then? Green?”
Naminé hesitated, surprised that for all her time experimenting with colors and learning their combinations inside and out, she still had to think her answer over. “Purple, I guess?”
“Purple. Got it. All right, I’ll see you in about…twenty minutes?”
“Okay, sounds good?” She hung up the phone, giving it a perplexed look as if it would decipher the meaning of that conversation for her, playing it back with a running commentary. No such luck, she decided, laying it down on the only free space on her counter.
When she opened the door for Vanitas, he greeted her with his hands behind him, conspicuously edging inside while keeping his back turned away from her. She gave him an openly quizzical look as she shut the door. “All right?” she said with an uncertain laugh. “Well, you’ll have to excuse the state of this place. It’s kind of a disaster at the moment. I mean, more than usual.”
“This is nothing. You should see my room.” He cleared his throat and brought his hands out from behind his back, noticing Naminé’s curiosity as she leaned to the side to try and see what he had. “Anyway,” he said, holding two items out to her: a small box in one hand and a flat paper bag in the other. “Here.”
Naminé’s smile froze on her face, blissfully confused. She looked up at Vanitas, then down at what were apparently presents—for her?—and then back up at Vanitas again, so quickly that it was all just a smooth, birdlike bob of her head. Vanitas chuckled softly, and her smile faded.
“What are these?”
“C’mon, you know what they are. I mean, not specifically, I hope.”
“I really don’t,” she said, her confusion turning to almost outright suspicion. Vanitas shrugged.
“They’re birthday presents. Obviously.”
Naminé’s gaze didn’t go back down to the gifts this time, staying glued to Vanitas’s face instead. Vanitas looked like he wanted to put his hands in his pockets or scratch his head, but he’d stalemated himself with the gifts. “You know…I didn’t really have time to get you anything last week. So here. Two for one.” When Naminé still didn’t respond, he held out the box, letting his other arm drop to his side, crinkling the paper bag. “Here. Open this one first.”
She took it robotically and held it in her hands for a few moments, inspecting the packaging for a clue, and Vanitas hurriedly said, “Don’t shake it, though.”
“I wouldn’t,” she promised, carefully pinching the twine bow and tugging it loose. She looked for a flap or a tab on top of the box, and Vanitas reached out.
“Hang on. Just hold it flat on your hand.”
She gave him another skeptical look, but she balanced the box on her palm, almost offering it back to him, and he lifted the rest of the packaging straight off its base like a prize-grabbing claw.
What remained was a stiff square of cardboard, on top of which sat a ceramic pot, inside of which grew a small, green cactus.
Naminé stared down at it, its thorns reaching in all directions, clustered together as though seeking safety in numbers to make up for their odd softness. She held it in both hands, instinctively protecting it, and Vanitas put the box top down on the coffee table.
“So, uh…that’s a species I know from back north,” he said, still waiting for a reaction that wasn’t inscrutable, but willing to forge ahead in the conversation on his own if need be. “Couldn’t believe they carried it here in town. Shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. Makes sense that you can find any plant you want in a town called Radiant Garden, right?” He glanced at the windowsill, but all of Naminé’s plants had been relocated for cleaning, probably to her room. “Well, anyway,” he said, turning back to her. “I know it looks kind of underwhelming right now, but it’s a flowering cactus. The lady at the store said it would be purple, but I don’t trust salespeople, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see. And I know you don’t like flowers, but this shouldn’t upset your allergies at all.”
“Huh?” Naminé said, finally looking up from the gift.
“The flower,” he repeated, nodding at the cactus. “I said it shouldn’t set off your allergies.”
“Oh, yes. Yes. Sorry,” she said. “I’m just, um…a little surprised.”
Vanitas picked at the corner of the paper bag still in his hand. “Do you like it? I can take it back if you—”
“I love it,” Naminé said. And then, feeling that maybe she’d spoken too freely, she tried to correct herself. “I love it,” she said again, realizing that was what she meant to say after all. A smile lifted one side of Vanitas’s mouth.
“Well…on to gift number two,” he said, offering the plain bag a little more reservedly.
“Thank you,” Naminé began, “but really, this is too much. I don’t even—”
“Go ahead,” Vanitas said, urging her to accept the gift so he could finally stop fidgeting and put his hands in his pockets. “I think you’ll like it. Hope you will, anyway.”
Naminé hesitantly, anxiously, held the bottom of the flat bag and slid its contents out. Her stunned surprise turned into choked emotion, her mouth pulling taut as she held in her hand a brand new set of colored pencils. “Um—” she said, clearly holding back whatever she was about to say or do, a metal tin and a few wooden sticks completely fracturing her composure.
“Seriously,” Vanitas said, stepping in to downplay it, “this shouldn’t even count as a birthday gift. I owed you.” Naminé shook her head vacantly, a little in disbelief, and a little at his claim. “Sorry again,” Vanitas went on, taking his hands back out of his pockets, trying and failing to find a stance that would protect him from his own self-consciousness. “I would’ve gotten these sooner if I knew you were still hanging on to those old pencils after I broke them. You deserve to have a full set.”
Naminé looked up at him again, unexpectedly quick, and Vanitas shied under her gaze. But her head had emptied of all thoughts, becoming an echo chamber for the last thing he said. You deserve— You deserve— You deserve—
It was like a jammed gear in her brain, threatened to drive her tension up—there were so many ways for that phrase to end. But she slowed her thoughts down and forced herself to finish the sentence the way Vanitas had.
You deserve to have a full set of colored pencils.
You deserve to have a full set of colored pencils.
You deserve to have…
It was like repeating a word until it no longer sounded like language, or staring at her reflection until she no longer recognized the face. The more she tried to convince herself it was true, the less conviction she had.
But Vanitas had said it with enough conviction for both of them. He was scratching the back of his head, his hair as bristly and clustered as the cactus spikes. “So…do you like it?” he asked again. Naminé looked down slowly, as if she didn’t expect the pencils to still be there in her hands. But they were, and her face tightened a little as she nodded. “Good,” Vanitas said. “Happy birthday. Again.”
Naminé laughed and nodded more briskly, pulling herself together. She brought the pencil tin to her chest with crossed arms, openly treasuring it and not caring how childlike it made her look. “Thank you, Vanitas.”
“Yeah,” Vanitas said, sticking his hands back in his pockets after all. “…you’re welcome.”
Chapter 5: Back When I Was A Kid
50% flashback (awkward first crush shenanigans), 50% present day (cheesy married couple shenanigans).
Characters: Lea and Isa, plus a few other familiar faces, and a familiar location.
“We really shouldn’t be messing around here, Lea.” Isa kicked a plank of wood out of the way and cringed as it broke in half, rot having softened it over the years. “This place is centuries old. Who knows what’s in here?”
“What are you talking about, ‘what’s in here?’ You afraid of ghosts or something?”
“No,” Isa said, aiming for a stern tone but knowing he just sounded petty. As he stepped around a few pools of standing water, he added, “I am afraid of tetanus shots, though. Besides, aren’t we getting a little old for this?”
“Oh, we’re too old for this, we’re too young for that,” Lea said, in a mocking voice that sounded nothing like Isa’s. “What the hell are we supposed to do for fun in this town?”
Isa shrewdly pretended not to have an answer to that question. He followed Lea to an old wall that had crumbled at the top, and after stamping on the floorboard to make sure it was stable, Lea reached up to find a solid grip. “Gimme a boost.” Isa rolled his eyes, but he dutifully linked his fingers together and allowed Lea to wedge his shoe into the makeshift foothold.
It took a few tries to get him up there, not for a lack of upper body strength on Isa’s end, but for a lack of balance on Lea’s. His recent height gain had wreaked havoc on his center of gravity, and when Isa managed to lift him off the floor, his swaying was neither convenient nor reassuring.
“You know,” Isa said while Lea actually tried to stand on his toes, “this was a lot easier when we were the same height.”
“Well, I can’t fucking shrink, Isa. Why don’t you get your own growth spurt already? I earned this. You know what a gawky kid I was.”
And still are today, Isa silently added. But it wasn’t like he didn’t enjoy having a tall boyfriend. Besides, Isa had come to terms with the fact that if he hadn’t gotten a dramatic growth spurt by age seventeen, he likely wasn’t going to get one at all. The trade-off, he supposed, was remaining relatively proportional all through his adolescence. Lea had certainly done his time, enduring those lanky scarecrow years with good humor.
Besides, Isa reminded himself, getting a little absorbed in the thought, he’s gonna be fucking gorgeous once we hit our twenties. There’s no way he’s not.
Lea’s leg jerked suddenly, and Isa realized he had let his hold go slack. He braced his arms again and tried to shake off the daydreams, which was easy enough with Lea glaring at him.
“Look alive down there, will ya? You’ve got one job right now.”
“It’d be a lot easier if you weren’t bitching at me the whole time,” Isa shot back, struggling to lift Lea high enough so he could poke his head over the wall.
“Don’t say ‘bitch.’”
“Sorry.” Isa bumped his head against Lea’s hip, his arms having had about all they could take for one excursion. “Anything up there?”
“Nah. I mean, there’s a room, but the roof’s caved in. Looks like a dead end. Lemme down.”
They continued on through an unfamiliar hallway, Lea swatting cobwebs out of the way and knocking old rubble aside every few steps. While Isa liked to think he was doing it to be considerate, clearing the path for him, he knew Lea was just venting his frustration. It wasn’t a coincidence that the night they failed miserably—and publicly—to sneak into Higanbana was the same night that Lea decided to revisit Hollow Bastion. He needed some semblance of victory and rebellion, and if the castle ruins they used to explore as children were where he thought he’d find it, then Isa was willing to tag along.
Their attempt to get into the nightclub earlier that evening had been particularly embarrassing. Aeleus had guided Isa out by his shoulder while Dilan, in a much less forgiving mood, lifted Lea clear off the floor by the back of his shirt like a cat. Isa would have laughed at the sight if he weren’t directly involved in it, and if they hadn’t been drawing an audience.
Aeleus released Isa as soon as they were outside while Dilan dropped Lea unceremoniously on the cobblestones, from a low enough height that all he’d bruise was his ego. Lea could’ve landed on his feet if he hadn’t been thrashing so much. Isa fixed his collar roughly even though Aeleus had hardly disheveled it, and Dilan stared them both down, exasperated and incredulous. “One year,” he said.
“Less for you,” Aeleus added, nodding at Lea, who grumbled at them. He grumbled at Isa, too, when he offered a hand, but he allowed himself to be hauled off the sidewalk by his arm.
“Just wait,” Dilan said, almost pleading with them. “We’ll let you in when you’re eighteen, but not if you keep this up.” The two teenagers were properly humiliated, but as Dilan watched Lea dust himself off, he must have wanted an extra bit of catharsis, adding pointedly, “Don’t you two have anything better to do?”
Lea was ready to spit out a comeback, but as the implication of Dilan’s words sank in, he stared quickly looked away—not at Isa, not at anyone. Dilan looked almost guilty for a moment, knowing that the kids had already done what little damage they could do for one evening, and that trying to embarrass them further was just petty. Aeleus clapped a hand on his shoulder and jerked his head back toward the door, saying, “C’mon,” and with a last look at the teens, like a pair of puppies caught trying to steal food from the dinner table, Dilan sighed and followed him back inside.
There was nothing left to do but go. Lea stuck his hands in his pockets and kicked an old can down the sidewalk, at least until Isa picked it up and put it in a recycling bin. Lea gave him a surly look, and in an instant, Isa went from gentle sympathizing to pure annoyance. As much as he kind of liked it when Lea got a little pissed off, he didn’t appreciate the way his anger could blaze in all directions indiscriminately, occasionally hitting Isa with friendly fire. Isa used to keep quiet until Lea cooled off and finally realized how he’d been behaving. It was nice for a while, as Lea would spend the rest of the day doting on Isa to make up for it.
But lately, all it did was make Isa feel passive. Rather than wait for Lea’s aggravation to run its course—because who knew how long that would take?—Isa reached out, trying to fix his shirt for him. Lea repeatedly brushed his hand away, still fuming with residual embarrassment and frustration and probably a third emotion that Isa didn’t want to waste brainpower trying to figure out, especially if Lea wasn’t going to use his words or make eye contact.
“At least fix your hair,” Isa said, reaching out again, and Lea tilted his head away, scowling. And Isa, deciding that that was just it, grabbed Lea’s arm and took a sharp right, bringing them into an alley a few doors down from Higanbana. He dragged them out of immediate view of the sidewalk, though he still cast a glance around as he held Lea in place by the wall.
Lea’s annoyance turned to plain surprise, and in spite of his own bad mood, it always pleased Isa to see that quick transition on his boyfriend’s expressive face. But Lea’s annoyance returned when he realized Isa was only grabbing him to adjust his shirt, and Lea tried to brush him off again until Isa said, “Hold still.”
Lea did as he was told, taken aback by his tone, and then taken in by how carefully but swiftly Isa set everything right. He fixed Lea’s collar, running his thumb along it to refold the crease. He tugged on the sides of Lea’s shirt to straighten it out, then briskly started tucking it back in. Lea embarrassed himself further by jumping at the contact and throwing an instinctive glance back toward the street. Isa ignored him, brushing dust off the leg of his pants before finally moving on to his hair.
The spikes, while always a little chaotic-looking, were downright erratic, not helped by Dilan’s manhandling or Lea’s over-the-top reaction to it. But Isa’s hands knew them by heart. Lea’s hair was so red, so wild, that Isa used to think he could burn his fingers just by running them through it, but he combed it into place with expert familiarity. After a few quick swipes, Isa took a moment to assess his handiwork. Still a little crooked, but mostly symmetrical.
All that remained was a small smudge on Lea’s cheek, probably just dirt or dust, but possibly a streak of oil or ash or chewing tobacco, if he’d gone within ten feet of the bartender while they were inside.
Isa knew this was going beyond his normal fussiness. He was using Lea to vent his own frustration, just in a more clinical, productive way than Lea’s chosen method of scowling and pouting. He held Lea’s jaw, not gently, and rubbed his thumb over his cheek until the mark was gone. When there was nothing else out of place to fixate on, Isa moved his gaze up an inch to meet Lea’s.
His eyes weren’t their usual vivid green, dulled by the lack of light in the alley. But they watched Isa intently, and Isa paused, finally noticing how close he’d been standing, how much ground his hands had covered. Lea could see him ticking it all off in his head, and before Isa could drop his arms or step away, Lea reached out and rested his hands on Isa’s hips.
He expected resistance or tension, but Isa’s hand relaxed against his face, and Lea tilted his cheek into his palm. They held eye contact until Isa stretched his thumb, running it over Lea’s lips, and Lea shut his eyes, exhaling softly. He tightened his grip on Isa, about to risk pulling him closer, when Isa moved in on his own. It was only by a half-step, but it compressed what little space existed between them down to almost nothing.
Lea’s head swam as Isa’s free hand traveled up his arm. He was so used to having to coax Isa into this that he didn’t know how to process being a step behind for a change. They could still hear the chatter of the crowd down the street, but it was distant and muted, as if they were hearing it from underwater. The only clear sounds were nearby and intimate: water dripping from the rain gutters, the hum of someone’s air conditioner, the scuff of Isa’s sneaker as he moved his foot between Lea’s. Lea breathed out again, hearing Isa’s name leave his mouth as he leaned in.
Whatever he could have said or done next was upstaged by an abrasively familiar voice, somehow both lilting and absolutely desiccated, saying, “Y’know, the back room’s available, last I checked.”
They were off each other in an instant, Isa shoving Lea against the wall in his haste to separate from him, and Lea wincing as he rubbed his shoulder. Normally perfect opposites—orange and blue, fire and ice, sun and moon—they were now identically frantic, the same polarity, two magnets that kept their distance and couldn’t connect again if they’d wanted to.
All because Braig had decided that now was the ideal time to take out the garbage.
He hauled the enormous plastic bag as easily as Dilan had hauled Lea out of the club, a cigarette smoldering in the corner of his mouth. Lea glared hard enough to bore a hole straight through him, while Isa found himself suddenly fascinated by his own shoelaces.
“Aww, did I break up the party?” Braig asked, hefting the bag over his shoulder as he walked toward them, because of course Isa had picked the alley with the dumpster in it. Lea itched for an outlet for his embarrassment, but Isa had left nothing on him to adjust, so he ran his hand through his hair. It was a gesture Isa normally found endearing, but at the moment he was simply annoyed that Lea was disheveling his hair again and undoing his work.
“You just happened to be making a trash run now?” Lea asked, his sarcastic edge dulled by yet another humiliation.
“You just happened to be locking lips next to the dumpster on my trash run?” Braig shot back. He dropped the bag on the ground and drove his heel down on an old pallet, cracking a piece off and using it to prop open the dumpster lid. “You boys skulk around here often enough. You oughta know my schedule better’n I do by now.”
“We don’t exactly sneak in to see you,” Isa said, and Braig showed his palms in mock surrender.
“Whoa, fire in aisle two. I’ve been burned.” He heaved the bag into the dumpster, wiping his hands crudely on his pants when he was done. He chuckled when he saw the looks he was getting. “Relax. Been hearing about you two from the BFGs for ages. Nice to finally put faces to the names. Don’t think you’ve managed to stay inside long enough for me to spot you before tonight. This a new record?”
Lea almost wanted to let the comments boost his ego, but they were too flattering, like a snake swaying in a pantomime of friendliness. He didn’t know why, but he felt a sudden urge to stand in front of Isa.
Instead, he simply said, “We already got thrown out. You gonna keep rubbing salt in it or get back to work?”
“Hey, I’ve been rooting for you guys,” Braig said, stretching his back until it cracked. “Gets boring as hell in there sometimes. Nothing like a little break-in to shake things up.”
“You strike me as someone who’s been on both sides of a break-in before,” Isa replied, his tone bone dry. Braig grinned at Lea and pointed at Isa with two fingers, the cigarette caught between them.
“Damn, Red. You ever cut yourself on that tongue of his?”
Isa finally admitted to himself that his face was burning, and had been for the past several minutes. Lea jerked his chin toward the alley exit and said, “All right, geezer. Nothing left to see here.”
Braig laughed a little too good-naturedly, the mean streak in his voice as stark as the gray streaks in his ponytail. But he finally showed them mercy, heading back the way he’d come with a wave. “Yeah, back to the old grind. Be seeing you two before long, I’m sure. Try not to have too much fun till then.”
He was around the corner before Lea could think of something cutting to say, as if anything he could say would be capable of cutting Braig. He looked at Isa and immediately wished he hadn’t. His discomfort was not only palpable but contagious, leaping the distance between them as if Lea weren’t mortified enough.
Lea jammed his hands in his pockets again. “C’mon,” he said, not looking at Isa. “Let’s get out of here.” He had no idea how to recover whatever mood they’d just lost, but he led, and Isa followed, and eventually they arrived at a familiar wretched castle, rebelling against the idea that they weren’t ready for the adult world by spitefully returning to a childhood haunt.
Still, loathe as Isa was to admit it, Braig had made a valid point. They’d gone farther tonight than they ever had before, and Isa had to give Lea credit for that. He’d gotten them through Higanbana’s side door undetected, and they managed to stay inside for a whopping twenty seconds before Aeleus spotted them in the crowd—or at least spotted their hair.
The same was happening here at Hollow Bastion. Lea was leading them down twists and turns that they never dared to explore as children. Maybe Isa needed some release of tension, too, more than he realized. Or maybe it was the nostalgia of being back in these dilapidated walls, investigating all the ledges and secret passages like when they were kids, looking past the fortress’s beaten exterior to the possibilities that lay within.
Either way, he was almost having fun, even as he scanned the walls for nails and the ground for broken glass. Lea seemed to be unwinding too, their exploration creating a much-needed sense of productivity and progress.
He was, however, being a little reckless. While Isa carefully sidestepped old beams and fallen doorjambs, Lea shoved them out of his way and let them crash in the damp dust. Isa tried to keep his breathing shallow, but he felt that was only making him more tense. With every creak—and there were many, as buildings this old tended to both thrive on those sounds and produce them in some self-sustaining cycle—Isa stiffened. He realized he was reaching out, his hand hovering protectively a few inches from Lea’s back, as if that would make any difference in an emergency.
After a few more turns, they were falling into to their usual dynamic, which meant Lea wanted to keep forging ahead, encouraged by how far they’d come, and Isa wanted to go back, afraid to push their luck. “We’ve already been caught trespassing once tonight, Lea.”
“You see any security guards in here?” Lea asked, spreading his arms and making Isa feel ridiculous, as if he really thought there could’ve been bouncers hiding in the old castle, waiting to throw them out. “If you wanna go back now, it’s because you’re scared. Just admit it.”
“What do you think is even in this place? Skeletons? Treasure? The only reason you keep pushing us to go farther is to convince yourself that you’re not afraid.”
“Oh, thank you, Dr. Freud, for that insightful look into my brain,” Lea said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Look, our original plan for tonight is shot to hell, so this is what I’ve got. If you have a better idea, I’d love to hear it.”
Isa did have a better idea, and he actually considered sharing it, if only to spite Lea for being so sure that he wouldn’t. But he didn’t have to. The implication of it was everywhere. Braig was about as subtle as an airhorn, and even Dilan had let his professionalism crack for a second. It was unspoken between them even now, here in the cathedral passages of Hollow Bastion, where they used to grab each other by the arms, hugging whenever anything mildly scary happened. Always finding excuses to touch.
Now they stayed an arm’s length apart, careful with their hands and eye contact and words. Isa sighed and started rolling his sleeves back down as a breeze whistled up through the hallways. Nothing to do but give Lea his space, accept that whatever fun they’d tried to have this evening was gone, and hope that things would magically go back to normal without either one of them having to do anything about it.
Giving Lea his space proved difficult when another beam creaked and Isa’s hand shot forward, snatching at the back of Lea’s shirt. Lea glanced at him, caught off guard, but he regained his composure quickly. “Zoinks, Scoob,” he said dryly. “Calm down.”
“No,” Isa said, too focused on the once-vaulted, now-sagging ceilings to return fire with his own biting sarcasm. “We seriously shouldn’t have gone this far, Lea. We need to head back.”
“Ooh, sounds like somebody—”
Whatever Lea was about to say was once again upstaged, this time by a loud pop directly above their heads, the sound of an enormous wooden joint finally dislocating from its socket. Both of them looked up, and then down again, blinking and rubbing away the dust that had rained on their faces.
“Okay,” Lea said, his voice a little tighter as he brushed at his eyes and took a few steps back the way they’d come. “Maybe—”
Another pop, this time followed immediately by a crack that echoed along the hall, like a tree splitting all the way down its center. It was like the castle was waking up after a hundred-year nap, moving its arthritic bones and taking a long, deep breath.
Isa, for one, did not want to be standing in it when it exhaled. He reached for Lea, and at the next crack, they both took off, Isa tearing his eyes away just as part of the ceiling came crashing down.
The ground trembled as the fortress succumbed to itself, and dust rushed into the hallway after them, on their heels the entire way. Isa dodged every obstacle in their path, while Lea, who hadn’t bothered to keep track of them on the way in, stumbled on a loose board. He only avoided a fall because Isa saw his clumsiness coming a mile away. He caught Lea by both arms before he hit the ground, managing to get him back on his feet through pure adrenaline, saying, “Come on, come on!” They raced toward the exit, Lea trying to push Isa ahead, Isa trying to pull Lea along, ultimately hindering each other more than helping, but neither one willing to let the other go.
The entrance was within view, and Isa was just starting to think they’d gotten out of the scope of danger when they actually saw the top of the doorway crack in half. He slowed down, but Lea grabbed him tighter and ran ahead with a burst of speed. They darted through just as the beam collapsed, cutting it so close that Isa felt a shard of the wood catch on the leg of his pants. Lea kept him moving until they reached the grass, where they finally felt safe enough to let themselves stumble to the ground.
They turned around as fast as they could, some deep instinct urging them to witness the final acts of destruction before the castle was still and quiet once more. Lea sat with his legs stretched in front of him, his hands braced on the grass. Isa crouched behind him, reaching under one of Lea’s arms and clutching his opposite shoulder, his entire forearm held across his chest like a seat belt, as though he were afraid that Lea might, after all of this, actually try going back inside.
But they merely sat, taking ragged breaths as they watched the door fold in on itself like a house of cards. The chaotic booms and cracks echoed through the halls, but soon all was quiet again, as if whatever had caused the noise finally retreated back into the deepest chamber of the castle. Lea and Isa remained on the grass, unmoving, adrenaline surging through them but also locking them in place. Dust swirled at the castle entrance, and they were transfixed by it, watching until every mote settled, until every ripple in the puddle that had been pushed over the threshold melted out of existence.
After a few more minutes of silent staring, they finally looked at each other. Isa’s throat still burned from the running and the dust inhalation, and he could feel tiny tremors passing under Lea’s skin. Neither of them could think of anything to say or do, until Isa finally let out a quick breath, teeth showing as the corners of his mouth lifted. Lea risked a smile in return, still a little shaky, but when Isa started to laugh, Lea had no choice but to join in.
Within seconds, they were cracking up, as if this had been just another one of their typical teenage hijinks or pranks or inside jokes. Isa dropped his head to Lea’s shoulder, holding onto him for support. “We just—” Isa snorted in laughter, shaking his head and nuzzling Lea’s shoulder in the process. “We just—destroyed—a historic landmark.”
“Isa,” Lea began, though when Isa looked at him, his attention only made it harder for Lea to regain his composure. “We—” Lea waved his hand as laughter seized him again, and Isa giggled at his futile attempts to get himself under control, knowing that the anticipation alone was going to make literally anything he said next ten times funnier.
Lea took a few deep breaths, still too giddy to speak, before he finally managed to look Isa in the eye and say, “We almost died.”
They collapsed against each other, laughing so hard that they were silent. Lea had to wipe tears from his eyes, and to his delight, he saw Isa do the same. The realization only made both of them set each other off again, touching their foreheads together. The castle had long since quieted down, and the only sound in the valley of Hollow Bastion was the sound of their shared laughing fit.
Lea was the first one to relent, his laughter winding back down to heavy, euphoric breathing, his entire face lightened by a smile. He watched Isa, who was still caught up in the hilarity most teenagers found in narrowly escaping a death caused by their own recklessness and stupidity, still holding onto Lea with his entire arm, still a mess from their mad dash out of what was now more mausoleum than castle. Lea’s smile faded, leaving its ghost on his face as he studied Isa. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him laugh this much, this openly, his emotion unbridled. He didn’t seem aware of Lea, even while maintaining several points of contact with him, lifted by his laughter to a place where he was truly happy.
Lea knew that he’d been testing the limits of Isa’s comfort zone all evening, and that sitting this close out in the open, even in a place as isolated as Hollow Bastion, was normally more than enough to rocket his anxiety through the roof.
But the dominant part of Lea’s personality—the part that he hoped was what Isa liked so much about him—took action and thought things through later, and that was the part that noticed how close they were to each other, how their foreheads were still touching, how Isa hadn’t bothered to let go of him yet. Lea studied the breathless look on Isa’s face, the way his laughter finally started to subside with an elated sigh, the way he still held some of that terror from a few minutes ago but also looked less tense than ever, sitting out here on the grass with the sun just a memory on the horizon. When Isa finally opened his eyes, Lea, already in a risk-taking mood, tilted his head and leaned in the rest of the way, gently pressing their lips together.
He stayed for only a second, knowing that no matter how isolated they were, it was never enough without the cover of darkness, or, preferably, Lea’s truck or house. Truthfully, Lea felt a buzz of anxiety, too, realizing that for all his eagerness to stop hiding, he had been conditioned to seek out these secluded spots just as much as Isa. He leaned back quickly, chalking his behavior up to an impulsive reaction to a near-death experience.
Which made him all the more unprepared when Isa returned the kiss without hesitation, as if he’d had the same thought at the same time. Lea often beat him to the punch, but Isa was never far behind.
In fact, he was close behind, still seatbelting Lea with his arm, pulling him nearer. Lea returned the kiss and leaned back against him, trying not to melt. He was confused when Isa shifted around to his side, bringing his free hand up behind Lea’s neck and sliding his other hand from Lea’s shoulder to his chest. But as Isa applied gentle pressure, Lea realized that the hand on the back of his neck was meant to steady him as he was lowered to the ground.
It hit him that this was all occurring—that Isa was doing this—beneath an open sky, with traces of daylight still in the air, miles away from town, but otherwise completely unhidden. Whether Isa was deliberately throwing caution to the wind or was just so caught up in the moment that the thought of hiding didn’t even occur to him, Lea didn’t care. It sent a wave of dizziness from his head to his stomach, all the way down to the soles of his feet, which he wasn’t aware could feel dizziness until now.
Despite telling himself not to outright swoon, he must have swayed a bit. Isa pulled away, attuned to the slightest change in Lea’s reaction, looking at him in concern. “Are you okay?”
Lea sat there, half-reclined but held in place. Isa was gazing down at him, worried about Lea but with the same energy he’d had while laughing, that lightness and openness that made him seem his age, made him seem alive. His hair was a mess, and his face was framed by a backdrop of pale stars in a pale sky, and he was waiting with undivided attention for Lea’s response.
Lea grabbed Isa by the front of his already disheveled shirt and dragged him back in, meeting him open-mouthed. He sat up a few inches, but as always, Isa was quick to correct him. He laid his hand on Lea’s chest and pushed him down again, with Lea pulling on his shirt the entire time as if Isa might not come with him. Holy shit, Lea thought as he let himself drop the rest of the way and hit the grass with a soft thump, flat on his back with Isa half-lying beside him and half-leaning over him. I’m so glad we didn’t die.
It took every ounce of willpower for Lea not to rake his hands through Isa’s hair, knowing that he would only rain dust and old plaster down on himself. But he released Isa’s shirt and slid his hands up his neck, cupping his jaw. He sighed audibly without breaking the kiss as Isa’s hands roamed, and Lea felt shaky from more than just adrenaline, which they were well past the point of being able to blame on the castle’s collapse.
Still, even as Isa’s touch excited Lea, it settled him. It wasn’t that long ago that they’d had their first kiss, both of them timid and skittish beyond belief, taking forever to realize that the world hadn’t stopped turning and they could do it again whenever they wanted. They used to have to make specific plans, setting dates and times when they could meet up just to kiss in secret.
And that small, nervous boy who had needed the absolute secrecy of the Crystal Fissure for even the briefest, chastest kiss was now a mere four years older and holding Lea to the ground, looming over him, pushing his tongue into his mouth and tracing familiar routes across his body. Lea reached up into Isa’s hair after all, taking the risk of covering himself in dust for the sake of pulling Isa closer. It was amazing to him, how stilted and awkward they used to be, and how they now leaned in at the same time more often than not, finding their rhythm instantly, effortlessly.
But the more at ease they felt, the more it highlighted their readiness to move forward. The road ahead of them had always led to promising but intentionally vague “somedays.” It was becoming clearer and clearer that the only thing keeping “someday” from being “today” was their own hesitation.
Lea tried to keep this realization from affecting his nerves, but as usual, Isa was only a step behind. As soon as the thought presented itself to Lea, it seemed to latch onto Isa as well, like a parasite jumping hosts. It jolted him like static, just enough to wake him up from whatever calm but assertive trance he’d found himself in.
Isa pulled back with little warning, and although Lea had expected him to lose his nerve from the start, he still leaned up automatically, trying to follow him. Isa didn’t kiss him again, but he didn’t sit all the way up either, and that was as thrilling to Lea as anything else. It was a yellow light instead of a red one, a step forward without the half-step back.
Isa laughed again, but not like earlier—his self-consciousness was returning fast. Lea moved over, making room on the patch of grass that he’d warmed with his own body, and Isa lay on his back, exhaling slowly. Lea couldn’t help reaching over, if only to straighten out his shirt a bit, brush his hair back, run his fingers down Isa’s face. When Isa started to turn red, Lea withdrew, staying close beside him but turning his gaze to the sky. He folded his hands behind his head while Isa laced his fingers over his stomach, joining Lea in his stargazing, leaving as much unsaid as they could.
Hollow Bastion stood before them, outside their field of vision now. With the beams having fallen and the door collapsing on itself, it was unlikely they’d ever find a way back inside. At the end of this evening, they would put it to their backs and return to their respective houses, and neither one of them could imagine when they’d find the time or the reason to visit it again. But while they might have been unable to return to this part of their childhood, and equally unable to enter adult venues like Higanbana, they were starting to think there was some merit to exploring the middle ground between the two.
“So, I gotta ask…when did you know it was gonna happen?”
“When did I know what was going to happen?” Isa asked, pushing Lea’s feet aside to make room for his own on the coffee table. “That we were going to be stuck with each other for the rest of our lives?”
“No, but thanks for that.” Lea poked at what remained of his dinner with his fork. “When did you know…y’know, the first time?”
“The first time what? The first time we had sex?”
“Yeah. Like, did you know it was gonna happen?”
“I assumed it was bound to happen at some point, yes.”
“But you had no idea it’d be that night? You didn’t plan it or anything?”
“I thought you planned it.”
“Are you kidding? You’re talking to a guy whose best idea was to repeatedly fail at sneaking into strip clubs. Believe me, I was way too sexually frustrated to have a plan.” Isa tilted his head briefly in agreement as he scraped some more rice together on his plate. “Though, to be fair, I was in a state of constant readiness for about a year.”
“I noticed,” Isa said with a short laugh. “It was astounding to me that you had everything right in your nightstand. I remember thinking, ‘God, I love him, but he’s so stupid sometimes.’ That was the first place a parent would look.”
“Yeah, if they were looking. I mean, where did you think I got the condoms in the first place? Ma was always bringing home free samples from work. She’d try to be tactful, y’know, just leaving them in the bathroom drawer for me to find later. Eventually I had to tell her, look, this is really considerate but unfortunately very unnecessary right now.”
“…and what did she say?”
“‘Just in case, Lea.’” He shook his head while Isa laughed. “It was ridiculous. She knew you were the only guy I’d ever even gone out with. One day—I must’ve been really frazzled, because I just went up to her and said, ‘How much sex do you think we’re having, anyway?!’ And she must’ve been frazzled, too, ‘cause she just said, ‘I don’t wanna know, Lea! Just be safe!’”
Isa smiled at how easily Lea imitated his mother’s mannerisms. “Well, if you were so prepared, why didn’t we do it sooner? I was waiting for you to take the initiative.”
“And I was waiting for you to give me the green light.”
“Then why were you so thrown off when I finally did?”
“It’s not when you did it, it’s how you did it.”
Isa paused with his fork in his food, giving Lea a blank stare. “How did I do it? I don’t even remember.”
“I’ll never fucking forget,” Lea said, sitting up a little straighter on the couch. Isa, accepting that story time was imminent, made himself comfortable and poured some more wine, topping off Lea’s glass as well.
“It’s funny—we must have known something was up from the start. We were acting weird that whole afternoon, sitting on the couch and playing video games like we were just a couple of friends and nothing more. When Ma called to say she was working a double shift, it just ramped the tension up even more.”
“I do remember that,” Isa said, taking a sip of wine and letting it relax him, one of the few things still capable of accomplishing that task. “The best way I can describe it is…I just got the sense that if we started anything that evening, we were going to end up finishing it.” He laughed softly. “It’s obvious in hindsight. As soon as she called to say she was working late—” He snapped his fingers.
“Okay, it wasn’t that fast,” Lea said, annoyed that the story was already branching off into different recollections. “We made out on the couch for a while, just like any other night.”
“Any other night we would’ve been making out. That night, it was foreplay.”
“Well, I didn’t know that at the time! My brain was going a mile a minute, trying to figure out how long we had before you needed to leave, if you’d even want to do it when you’d just have to go back to your dad’s house after.”
“To be honest, that’s why I wanted it to be that night. He was always worse that time of year, mid-autumn—you know,” Isa said, while Lea nodded. “I think it was sort of an act of rebellion. Plus, I wanted a memory that was unambiguously good, that only you and I were in control of.” He swirled his wine gently, watching a tiny whirlpool form in the glass, until he caught Lea smiling out of the corner of his eye. “What?”
“So…was it good? Unambiguously?”
“Lea, for the thousandth time, yes,” Isa said, as Lea’s smile broadened with the shamelessly-demanded ego boost. “The only thing I would’ve changed is being able to spend the night, and there’s nothing either one of us could have done about that. My father was convinced that sleepovers were inherently gay.”
“…well, he wasn’t wrong about that.”
Isa snickered. “All right, we’re getting sidetracked. What did my anxiety-ridden, seventeen-year-old self say that was so terrifying?”
“Well, I was trying to figure out how to bring it up while we were still on the couch. ‘So, Ma said she wouldn’t be home until after midnight…’ or ‘If you’re getting bored with video games, we can go to my room and do something else…’”
Isa took another sip of wine, struggling to stifle his laughter when Lea shoved his arm. “Give me a break. You weren’t the only nervous teenager in the room. I was gonna move things along a little farther before I started dropping hints, and I swear to god, Isa, before I could do anything, you just grabbed me, leaned up, and said—and I quote—‘Take me to bed.’”
Isa barked out a laugh. “I said that?”
“Oh, believe me, you whispered that shit one inch away from my ear. It was the single most heart-stopping moment of my life.”
Isa shook his head with a smile as he stared across the room, replaying an old memory anew. Lea always acted annoyed when Isa failed to remember every minuscule detail of their past, but in truth, he loved it. It gave him a chance to remind Isa of what he’d forgotten and see that gradual, dawning look of remembrance on his face. It was heartwarming as anything to see that look, to know that Isa was gazing back in time to his childhood and actually enjoying what he saw.
“So, yeah,” Lea said. “I expected to dance around the subject for another half hour, and instead you dropped that anvil on me out of nowhere. And I remember thinking, oh shit, he’s handing me the reins. He thinks I know what the fuck I’m doing.”
“I never thought you had any idea what you were doing, if it makes you feel better.”
“It probably shouldn’t, but it does.” Lea put his plate on the coffee table and crossed his ankles beside it, sinking further into the couch. “I still can’t believe we didn’t talk about it first, besides your one-liner of the century.”
“We never talked about anything before we did it,” Isa said, getting more comfortable as well. He angled himself away from Lea, stretching his legs out on the couch and leaning back against him, and Lea embraced his role as a human pillow graciously. “You were the one who always said to act, not wait.”
“Would’ve said it way more often if I knew you were taking it to heart. Might not have taken us so long to get around to sleeping together.” He drank some more of his now lukewarm wine and combed his fingers through Isa’s hair, working patiently through the few tangles he found. Isa ran his thumb thoughtfully over the rim of his glass before he spoke.
“For the record,” he began, “I may not have had a plan, per se, but I did know that our first time was going to be at your house.”
“Yeah?” Lea said, absentmindedly winding Isa’s hair around his finger. “You knew that?”
“Well, I knew I wouldn’t have done it anywhere else. The Depths and the Fissure were adequate, for the most part. But the first time we actually slept together, it had to be in your room.”
“Wow. I must’ve sucked if you thought I needed that kind of home field advantage.”
Isa shrugged. “It was the only place I felt safe.”
Lea paused, then smiled warmly, kissing the top of Isa’s head and wrapping his arm around him. “All right. What do you remember that I might’ve forgotten?”
Isa took his time, thinking it over while Lea occupied himself by fiddling with his shirt, undoing the top button and running his fingertips along Isa’s open collar. “I remember how nervous you were.”
“It was sweet. It helped to know I wasn’t the only one.” Isa laughed quietly, making Lea brace for embarrassment. “I remember you held the covers up for me to get in bed first.”
“I was trying to be a gentleman,” Lea said, only able to sound halfheartedly offended. “I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable.”
“I know. It was cute.” Lea rolled his eyes, but Isa went on. “It made me feel…taken care of. You kept doing things like that, constantly stopping to ask if I was okay before moving forward. It took you about five minutes after we’d undressed to ask if you could even look at me.”
“Come on,” Lea said, unable to keep from scratching the back of his head, a telltale habit that Isa was glad he’d never outgrown. “I was nervous as hell.”
“You seem nervous now.”
“‘Cause you’re making me relive the most awkward years of my life.”
“You asked. And it’s not like you hadn’t seen me before.”
“Yeah, but not like that.”
“God, I can feel you blushing,” Isa said, tilting his head back to look at Lea while Lea expertly avoided eye contact. “We’ve been married for nine years, you know.”
“We just never really talked about this shit before,” Lea said. “We were too nervous at first, and by the time we got more comfortable, well…we were comfortable enough that we didn’t need to talk about it.”
“Regardless,” Isa said, reaching up and taking Lea’s hand, running his thumb over his knuckles. “You were very sweet.”
“Yeah,” Lea said, sometimes inviting praise, and other times, like now, oddly averse to it. “I just didn’t want you to be scared.”
“I wasn’t. I was with you.”
“That’s why I was scared. Because it was you.”
“What does that even mean?” Isa asked with a disbelieving laugh.
“It means I was seventeen years old and I’d never done it before. You were my best friend. And I know I hadn’t worked up the nerve to say it yet, but I loved you.” Isa raised their hands, kissing the back of Lea’s. “I just didn’t want to fuck it up. It’s like the longer we waited, the more nerve-wracking it was.”
Isa smiled and lowered Lea’s hand, leaning against him more fully. “That was partly because of me,” he said. “I think I could have been ready sooner, but…I didn’t want to be.” He shrugged, though Lea hadn’t expressed any doubt or confusion. “Being nervous about hitting that next milestone…I don’t know. It made me feel like we were still kids for just a little longer.”
Lea reflected on that time in their lives, remembering how he’d sensed Isa’s hesitation but attributed it to the same source as his own: general apprehension about growing up. Lea was only nervous about what lay ahead, never giving a thought to what lay behind, never needing to because the foundation on which he stood was so solid. Isa, on the other hand, had had the responsibilities of adulthood pressing in on him since he was a child.
Lea bent down and kissed the top of Isa’s head again, wrapping both arms around his shoulders and crossing them over his chest. Isa leaned up into the kiss, then relaxed, finally lying down. He put his feet on the armrest as he slid onto his back, laying his head on Lea’s lap. Lea smiled down at him, playing with his hair, separating the strands and making sure there was an even amount over each shoulder. After a few minutes of silence, Isa noticed Lea laughing again. “What now?”
“Nothing. Just thinking about what you said.” Isa was about to ask for clarification when Lea added, “Who’s that fucking bold their first time?”
“I wasn’t,” Isa said, catching Lea’s hand and running his fingertips up and down his forearm. “You were always the bold one.”
“No, I looked like the bold one because I was always doing your crazy dares.”
“You kissed me first.”
“Case in point.”
Isa shifted his jaw, quickly reviewing the highlights of their childhood and teen years. “You were the first one to refer to us as boyfriends.”
“Yeah, but only because you gave me the go-ahead. Need I remind you that you were the one who introduced hand jobs into our repertoire? I don’t think I ever thanked you for that, by the way.”
“No need—it was your birthday present. But you were the one who topped our first time.”
“Because you told me to,” Lea laughed. “I don’t know how you pull that off. Even your begging sounds like an order.”
“I don’t beg.”
“I know you don’t think you do, because to you it just sounds like you’re bossing me around. But yes, Isa, you absolutely do beg.”
“Give me an example.”
“Not a chance,” Lea said as Isa rolled his eyes. “The fact that you don’t even realize you’re doing it makes it a thousand times better.”
Isa gave him an unamused look, but he didn’t have a counterpoint other than childishly repeating “No I don’t,” so he let it drop. He closed his eyes as Lea ran his fingertips through his hair again, scratching lightly through the short hair on top of his head. They stayed there for another ten minutes or so, officially unwinding for the day. When they leaned in for a kiss, they came to the sobering realization that they had given their flexibility way too much credit. Lea tried to bend down, only making it about halfway, and Isa tried to meet him without sitting up. After a few embarrassing seconds of not quite being able to reach each other, Isa let them both off the hook with a dismissive wave, and Lea sat up straight again, wincing at the tension in his back.
“All right,” he said, rolling his shoulders while Isa managed to haul himself upright. “That’s what we get for trying to be cute, I guess.” They stretched as they rose from the couch, doing a half-assed clean-up of the family room and bringing their dishes to the kitchen. Lea stood behind Isa at the sink, gathering all of his hair over one shoulder, then bracing his hands against the counter on either side of him. He leaned down, kissing his neck lightly until he saw Isa stifle a yawn.
“Well, that’s flattering,” Lea said, resting his chin on Isa’s shoulder while Isa scraped food off a plate.
“It’s late. I just want to wrap this up and go to bed.”
Lea gave him a lazy grin that went unseen, but which Isa felt when Lea pressed his lips to his neck again. “If you’re trying to say you want me to take you to bed, all you have to do is ask. Works every time.”
Isa let his eyes shut. “I’m tired, Lea,” he said, though he let Lea turn him around and rested his arms over his shoulders. “I don’t know how much fun I’ll be.”
“I know how much fun you’ll be,” Lea said, sliding his arms around Isa’s waist and pulling him all the way in. “All you gotta do is lie there and look pretty. I’ll handle the rest.”
Isa gave him a skeptical look, feeling inexplicably insulted. “You’re not going to try to do your stage performance again, are you? Because I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told you I don’t want to see that in our home, let alone our bedroom.”
“…never mind, then,” Lea said, loosening his hold, only to wrap Isa up again when he saw him shaking his head, silently saying I knew it. “I’m kidding,” he laughed. “C’mon. Zero effort on your part, I promise. And you’ll sleep better than you have in months.”
“Setting the bar awfully low, aren’t we?” Isa said, holding the back of Lea’s neck and kissing him softly a few times in a row. He lingered on the last one, pulling away just enough to say, “Finish doing the dishes. If I’m still awake by the time—”
“On it,” Lea said, giving him a little shove toward their room. “Go get comfortable. I’ll be there before you know it.”
Lea was there before Isa knew it, though Isa suspected that was because he’d taken a micro nap while Lea loaded the dishwasher. He rubbed his eyes with one hand and sat up while Lea went into the bathroom to hopefully rush through his nightly routine. When Lea was still in there several minutes after the faucet stopped running, Isa tilted his head back and closed his eyes again. “You’d better not be reapplying your eyeliner.”
“You love it.”
Isa neither confirmed nor denied this. “Well, hurry up before I fall asleep.”
“You can fall asleep if you want, you know. I’d rather you do it now than when I’m in the middle of trying to blow your mind.”
“I’m awake. Just…move it along.”
“Juuust gotta fix up the other eye…” Lea said, drawing the words out with obnoxious slowness.
“Lea, come on.”
There was a pause, then the tiny click of the cap going back on the eyeliner. Lea reappeared in the bathroom doorway, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
“…yes, I hear it now,” Isa admitted, holding out his hand. “Just come here.”
Lea continued to stare at him for a moment, then dropped his head with a smile, pushing himself off the doorjamb and crossing the room. “Fine,” he said, hopping into bed beside Isa and guiding him into a more comfortable position again. “But only ‘cause you begged.”
Chapter 6: So, When's Our Next Day Off?
Characters: the Higanbana crew, with a focus on Isa (plus a half-assed, in-name-only FF cameo).
PSA: Check your air conditioner filters periodically and clean them as needed. Check for mold too, while you're at it. Don't be like these dumbasses (except Aeleus, maybe).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Higanbana had a tendency to get overly humid, like a greenhouse for the flower after which it was so aptly named. It was to be expected on busy summer nights, when the crowd pushed the limits of the dance floor’s capacity, driving the temperature up with copious amounts of sweat and friction.
But when there were only six people in the whole building…well. There was just no excuse.
Aeleus, ever the problem-solver, was the first to suggest that maybe the air conditioner was on the fritz. But Isa, despite his reputation as a rationalist, was the kind of person who—when he got frustrated enough—tried to repeatedly tighten stripped screwholes, or force cups into holders that were objectively too small. In an attempt to bend reality to his will, he insisted that the air conditioning was just a little slow today, and that it would kick in by the time the doors opened to the public.
It didn’t even survive that long.
By one o’ clock, everyone was moving at half speed. Dilan and Aeleus pushed their T-shirt sleeves up to their shoulders. Braig tied his ponytail higher to keep his hair off the back of his neck. Even Isa had undone the top button of his shirt, but after half an hour, when he finally reached for the next one, Lea—down to a tank top by that point—quickly re-fastened it for him, saying, “Isa, please, we’re in mixed company.” Isa swatted Lea’s hands away, gathered his things, and took advantage of his manager status by retreating to the back office, where it was moderately cooler.
Demyx was the only one who openly acknowledged the heat, constantly pinching the back of his shirt and peeling it off his skin with a grimace, saying, “Ew, ew, ew, ew.” Braig made an almost valiant attempt to act like his normal self, telling Dilan and Aeleus that, as a gun aficionado, he approved of the two of them exercising their right to “bare arms.” Dilan replied with a weary, “Not today, Braig,” and Braig, after a moment of silence, sighed, said, “Yeah,” and went back to wiping down the bar.
When Isa returned, everyone was working slowly but diligently, with no chatter other than Lea asking Braig for directions as he helped stock the counter. They did their jobs with tenuous cooperation, drawn together in mutual suffering. It was exactly what Isa prayed for every day of his life: everything running smoothly, everyone acting professionally, nothing to criticize or correct.
And Isa’s only response to this rare and momentous sight was, “Why is it so quiet in here?”
Aeleus crossed his arms on the box of cables he’d been untangling and sorting for the past twenty minutes, dropping his head onto them. Lea rested his elbow on the bar and his hand on his hip, challenging Isa with an openly disbelieving look. Even Dilan’s composure was whittled away by the humidity, and he replied, “Because you’d rip our heads off for talking.”
It earned him a glare, but he had a point. Isa’s voice was normally crisp but soft, like biting into an apple. Today, it hit their ears sharply, like cold, clear water. And when he got tired of speaking, he resorted to snapping his fingers and pointing, more dog trainer than manager.
“I meant,” he began, using his pen to point past the stage, “why isn’t the air conditioner running?”
Gradually, everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. They’d all been trying so hard to ignore the stifling humidity that they were in denial that the room had even gotten warmer. But sure enough, the comforting blast of cold air had tapered off sometime in the past hour or so. Aeleus, being the tallest, inspected the air conditioner, testing the knobs. “Must be the central unit,” he said, shrugging, and then wishing he hadn’t as rivulets of sweat trickled down his back. “Someone’s gonna have to go up and check.”
The room was silent. Demyx was determined to say nothing and look at no one, hoping that if he stayed in his corner of the stage with his music equipment, he’d be forgotten. But by the time he risked a glance around the room, his coworkers were staring at him, each one with a finger on their nose. “Oh, come on!” he said, gesturing to all of them as a collective adversary. “No one told me we were still doing the nose game!”
“It doesn’t seem like the most professional way to decide these things,” Dilan admitted, though he wasn’t about to put his hand down before they’d made a decision.
Isa was the first to end the game, and the others quickly followed suit. “It’s a simple process of elimination,” he said. “The risk of injury is too high for Dilan or Aeleus to climb the ladder. Braig refuses to do it for reasons he’s explained to me before and which I have since forgotten.”
“Already broken my hip on two separate occasions,” Braig volunteered. “Not about to go for three. Why don’t you make Lea do it? He’s the most spry guy here.”
“Lea doesn’t go on the roof, full stop.”
“Oh, gimme a break. You give Heat Miser here preferential treatment left and right. That’s blatant nepotism.”
“I never claimed it wasn’t.”
“Yeah,” Lea chimed in, “that’s just the way of the world, Braig. One of the many perks of sleeping with the boss.”
“Well, I’m gonna have to go over all of your heads one of these days, then,” Braig said. “Just as soon as Marley accepts my offer.”
“Oh, please do,” Dilan said. “It would be extremely refreshing for you to come to work smelling like cherry blossoms instead of gasoline and cigarettes.”
“Enough,” Isa snapped, culling whatever lightheartedness his coworkers had started to create. “Demyx, go to the roof and check the AC vents, now. Aeleus, make sure the wall unit is set to full blast. Braig, finish stocking the bar, then wipe down the tables.”
Demyx slunk out to the alley, grumbling to himself while Braig held the door open and wished him luck. Dilan and Aeleus worked in near silence, only speaking to each other. The best thing Braig could have done was follow their example, doing his job with the silence and competence everyone knew he was capable of. Instead, he was almost maliciously agreeable, making constant announcements that he had finished the most menial tasks and asking which one he should tackle next, despite having worked in this establishment for at least a decade longer than Isa. It finally took Lea’s interference, combined with a pointed glare from Dilan, to send Braig on his way to organize the inventory.
As Braig stole off to the storeroom like a salamander crawling back under its rock, Lea stretched and shook himself loose. “All right,” he said, holding his arms out at his sides. “Give me something to do. I’m at your service.”
“You sound like a waiter,” Isa said without looking up from his clipboard. But when Lea continued to stand there, undeterred, Isa relented and said, “You can set up Demyx’s gear until he comes back. Assuming he ever does.”
“Yessir,” Lea said, kissing Isa’s cheek lightly before he headed to the stage. Isa waited until he was gone before he closed his eyes and let out a quiet breath, trying to force himself to relax.
Lea had almost finished organizing the music equipment when Higanbana’s resident rock star returned, having completed his successful journey to and from the roof, to everyone’s relief and politely hidden surprise. Braig, who was in a fantastic mood after feeding off the annoyance of his coworkers like a social vampire, tried to greet Demyx with a congratulatory pat on the back, but as soon as he raised his arm, Demyx skittered away, saying, “Dude, do not touch me, I’m sweating.”
“How does it look up there?” Isa asked, while Braig got Demyx a glass of water with extra ice.
“Fine,” Demyx gasped, taking the drink gratefully and chugging it down. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I didn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s gotta be a problem with the indoor unit.”
“It’s still not running,” Aeleus confirmed. “It might just be that the filter needs cleaning, but I don’t want to risk taking it out. They’re not very sturdy.” He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I hate to say it, but…I mean, I really hate to say it. But Braig, we need your creepy, nimble fingers.”
“Say no more,” Braig said, already rolling his sleeves up as he left the bar. “Just call me Mr. Handyman.”
“No one do it,” Isa warned.
“Relax, boys,” Braig went on, obviously in heaven at hearing his coworkers admit they truly needed his help. “I’m a professional.”
“At what?” Dilan asked, utterly ignored as Braig strutted across the room to Aeleus’s side.
“Aeleus? A boost, if you would?” When all he got was a flat look that could give Isa’s a run for its money, Braig said, “Psh. Where’s the camaraderie in this place?” He grabbed a chair from a nearby table and pushed it against the wall with his foot, hopping onto it and still needing to stand on his toes to reach the filter. After cracking his knuckles and rolling his shoulders, he pinched a corner of the filter between his thumb and forefinger, gave it a small, confident tug, and was rewarded with the brittle snap of one piece of plastic becoming two.
Braig stared at the air conditioner. Aeleus stared at Braig. Demyx stared worriedly at Isa. And Isa stared at absolutely nothing in particular, his expression neutral, as though he’d mentally abandoned his coworkers and himself at least five minutes ago.
No one said anything for a few moments, hoping for somebody else to step forward and deliver the appropriate response. It was Dilan who finally overcame the bystander effect, rising above the collective silence of his coworkers to become the hero they needed and speak on their behalf.
Braig wiggled the filter out of place, inch by inch, until he finally extracted it, the broken frame held together only by its mesh lining. “So,” he said, holding it out for all to see. “Just out of curiosity…what’s the warranty on this thing?”
Isa merely sighed, going back to the office to find the paperwork and maybe spend a few minutes screaming curses at Braig into a throwpillow, which almost everyone assumed was part of his daily routine anyway. Aeleus, compelled to try and be helpful even when it was futile, took the filter from Braig and brought it to the bar to rinse it clean. “Do we have any tape?” he asked, lining up the plastic pieces to see if he could fit them back together. “As long as we can slide it back in, it should still work.”
“Right-hand drawer,” Braig said, hopping down from the chair with a wholly inappropriate grin. “We make a pretty good team, don’t we?”
“Yeah, I gotta hand it to you,” Lea said, sprawled on the floor of the lounge area, giving up on productivity and trying to cool himself on the tiles. “Aeleus can fix things almost as fast as you break them.”
After a little DIY handiwork, the filter was cleaned, taped, and carefully inserted back into the air conditioner. Isa returned with a packet of information and a grim expression. “Well, the warranty expired two months ago, as it turns out. Aeleus, please tell me you have some good news.”
“Uh…technically, yeah. But it comes with bad news.” Isa didn’t look surprised. “The good news is that the filter is clean, and we even got it back in the AC. The bad news is we’re about two years too late. The motor’s been working overtime for way too long. It’s shot.”
Isa tried to take a calming breath, but the more deeply he breathed, the more he felt like he was drowning. He decided to chalk that up to the humidity rather than his stress levels. “Well, we can’t open the club like this. We’re just going to have to close for tonight. Or until I get this fixed.” He adjusted the collar of his shirt and gathered his hair over his shoulder, finally feeling the effects of the heat now that there was no reprieve from it. “In the meantime, will someone grab a fan from the break room? We can at least get the air circulating in here.”
No one moved, which Isa was ready to attribute to the bystander effect again, until he realized they were all glancing at each other in confusion. “What?”
“There aren’t any fans in the break room,” Dilan said slowly. Braig chuckled.
“All these years, and you don’t even remember what your own break room looks like?”
“Because I never get a chance to use it,” Isa snapped. Demyx held his hands up in a placating gesture, mumbling something about seeing a fan in one of the supply closets before he scurried off to check. Braig tried to catch Aeleus’s attention, saying, “Air conditioner’s not the only thing with a broken filter today, huh?” but both bouncers expertly and wisely ignored him. Isa claimed a chair in the lounge area, taking out his phone to look up local repair shops. Lea remained on the floor but propped himself up on his elbows.
“You’re making the right call, for what it’s worth,” he said. “It’d be irresponsible to open the club like this.”
“It was irresponsible to let it get to this point in the first place. That air conditioner is only three years old.”
“Well, at least we get the rest of the day off, right?”
“You do. I have to wait for a repairman to tell me how much this is going to set us back. And I have to call Marluxia and let him know why we’re losing a night’s worth of revenue.” Isa shook his head as he scrolled through his phone, and Lea could tell that if things were just a little less stressful, he might have smiled. “Our saving grace is that he won’t dare set foot in here without the air conditioner running.”
Lea snickered as he imagined Marluxia’s hair in this humidity. When Demyx returned with the fan, Isa rose from his chair, taking a moment to help Lea up off the floor. “All right,” he said, standing in front of the fan, literally and figuratively cooling down. “You’re all free to go. Expect to be here at the usual time tomorrow. I’ll get in touch if anything changes.”
Braig was out the side door with little more than a wave in everyone’s general direction, and after confirming that Isa would be all right holding down the fort alone, Aeleus and Dilan followed, doubtlessly heading off to Highwind’s. Isa briefly wondered if Cid might be able to repair the air conditioner for them. He probably could—the man had spare parts for machinery dating all the way back to the 1940s, at least. But calling him in for a favor was something Isa tried to avoid. The beleaguered kinship he felt with the other venues in Radiant Garden never quite extended to Highwind’s, and he was content to keep it that way.
Once half the crew had cleared out, Demyx clapped his hands together. “All right, gang,” he said enthusiastically. “We can have this place closed up in five minutes. I think it’s finally the perfect day for a trip to Twilight Town. Ice cream’s on me.”
He waited for Isa and Lea to join in his excitement, which faded with each glance he made between the two. “You’re a child,” Isa said wearily, though not without a trace of fondness.
“And you guys are sad adults. What’s up?”
“Isa has to stay and wait for the repair guy,” Lea said, trying to copy Isa’s matter-of-fact tone, but just sounding morose.
“Well, how about after? There’s no rush.”
“They gave me a window, not a specific time,” Isa said. “I doubt I’ll get out of here before five or six.”
Demyx drooped, but Lea picked up his slack, unable to be a total realist with his two childhood friends around. “C’mon, we’re never gonna get another day off like this. And you said we’d be able to do at least one beach day this summer.”
Isa hesitated. He had said that. Demyx noticed his reluctance to turn them down and pounced. “Don’t you remember how much fun beach days were when we were kids?”
“I remember the two of you getting sunburned so badly that Catherine made a PowerPoint presentation about the dangers of UV rays and skin cancer.”
But Isa’s snarkiness only fueled their old dynamic, and Lea and Demyx started saying, “Beach day, beach day,” laughing when they realized they were speaking in perfect unison. They joined forces, chanting “Beach day, beach day, beach day,” with increasing volume and enthusiasm, lighting up when Isa sighed.
“Since you’re so insistent…” He held them teetering on the edge of suspense, even enjoying the naïve glimmer of hope in their eyes before he said, “No.” He almost felt bad about how quickly their mood deflated, but he needed some kind of catharsis today. And they really should have known better.
“Tell me, Isa,” Demyx said, “is it that you hate parades, or that you love to rain?”
Isa did laugh quietly at that. “Just go,” he said. “You two have fun. If I get out early, I’ll give you a call, but don’t expect anything.”
Reluctantly, Demyx obeyed, heading home to change his clothes and telling Lea to meet up with him later. Once he was gone, Lea sighed. “Well…guess I’ll hang out here in the meantime.” Isa gave him a pointed look, and Lea groaned. “Fine. But call me for a lunch break if you don’t get out soon. We can go right down the street.”
“I brought lunch,” Isa said, placing his bag on the table and showing Lea the small stack of protein bars and pre-packaged food inside.
“Okay, that does it,” Lea said, grimacing as he inspected the nutrition information. “I’m gonna call Ma and Dilan, and the three of us are gonna stage an intervention. Don’t you remember how much sodium is in this crap? It’s like you don’t listen to a word I say.”
“I listen to everything you say, Lea. How else would I know what to ignore?”
Lea stuck his tongue out, and Isa gave him a faint smile. “I’m fine. I have things I can do here. Go enjoy your day off. You guys deserve it.”
“You deserve it,” Lea muttered, and when Isa only shrugged, he heaved another over-the-top sigh. “Just call me as soon as you’re off, all right? We’ll find something to do.”
After an incredibly brief kiss, both of them feeling too gross to even want to touch each other, Isa sent Lea on his way. He waited until the door swung shut, then let out a breath he felt like he’d been holding in all afternoon. He laid his clipboard decisively down on the table and got to work shedding layers. After ditching his vest, he undid the second button of his shirt, and then the third, just to spite Lea. He tried to put his hair in a bun, but he only managed to twist the hair tie once before it snapped, proving that Isa wasn’t the only one overwrought with tension and hanging by a thread today.
He raised his hands like he was willing his frustration to take physical form so he could strangle it, then let his arms drop. Throwing what was of course his only hair tie in the trash, he scoured the bar for something he could use, finally grabbing a pencil and turning it into a makeshift hair stick. It lacked the grip of a proper wooden stick, sliding loose after just a few minutes. Eventually he gave up trying to stay on top of it, only redoing the bun when it became so loose that the pencil hit the floor.
Isa stayed busy with some light cleaning, though he mostly kept to the back of the club, where the air conditioners were still moderately effective. He turned them off only to rinse out their filters, too, figuring he couldn’t afford not to at this point. When he heard knocking at the front door, he redid two of his shirt buttons and forced himself back into the humid nightmarish hellscape that was his place of work.
There was only one gay repairman he knew of in Radiant Garden, and that man was Aeleus. Isa tried to recall the last time he’d even had any significant interactions with a straight man. It took him far too long to remember that Dilan was, in fact, heterosexual. Still, he opened the front door, bracing himself for the fact that, on top of everything else he had to deal with today, he would now be stuck guiding some middle-aged straight man around the gayest nightclub in town.
The person who stood on the sidewalk with a toolbox in hand was very broad, similar to Aeleus in build, though nowhere near as tall. She was, however, still a full head taller than Isa. Her hair was cropped short, and even in the middle of summer she was wearing long jeans, heavy work boots, and a flannel shirt, though she had taken the liberty of cutting off the sleeves.
Oh, thank fuck, Isa thought. Finally some good luck today.
“Hey,” the woman said, squinting down at him through the sunlight. “Lenna. Here about a fussy AC?”
“Believe me, the AC’s the least fussy thing about this place.” Isa ushered her inside, not out of the warmth, unfortunately, but at least out of the sun. “Thank you for coming over so quickly. I’m Isa—club manager.”
“You own the place?”
“No, I just live here.”
Lenna snorted, looking around and locating the problem with ease. She stepped onto the chair Braig had helpfully left beneath the air conditioner, popping open the front panel and pulling the filter out. “This thing’s in pretty good shape.”
“We just cleaned it.”
She inspected it more closely, raising an eyebrow at the tape.
“…after we broke it.”
Lenna shook her head, holding the filter out to show him. “For future reference: this little tab here? Just push your finger against it before you remove the filter. Whole thing slides out like butter. Otherwise it’ll snag, and…well. You know the rest.”
“Yes, well. I’m starting to think our bartender doesn’t have quite the impressive list of credentials he claims to.”
Lenna continued her assessment while Isa offered her a drink from the bar. Normally, he would have left someone alone while they were working, but there was nothing for him to do without actively looking for chores, and he didn’t have it in him today. They had a pleasant enough conversation, at least until Lenna managed to remove the front casing to get at the inner workings of the air conditioner. “Oh,” she said, shining her light inside. “Wow.”
“…was that a good wow?” Isa asked, self-deprecatingly hopeful.
“It’s, uh…an impressed wow,” Lenna offered with a laugh. “I’ve never seen a motor fried to a crisp like this before. Damn—some of it’s melted.”
“Wonderful,” Isa said, already hearing Marluxia’s inevitable lecture about costly, avoidable repairs.
Lenna held the flashlight between her teeth as she reached inside and around to the back. “Hnn.” She freed her hands, grabbed the flashlight, and carefully replaced the panel before stepping back down to the floor. “Well, Isa,” she said, checking her watch, “the good news is I know exactly what kind of motor you need. I can overnight it if you want.”
“Please do,” Isa said. “What’s the bad news?”
“Didn’t say there was any. It’s July, and your AC’s fucked. That’s enough bad news for one day.”
“So…you can have this fixed by tomorrow?” Isa asked, daring to be optimistic.
“For sure. Motor arrives before noon, I head over as soon as I get it, install it in an hour, hour and a half, and…” She clapped her hands, drawing them apart quickly as though presenting the solution in her palms. “Presto.”
Isa took a deep breath, feeling like he actually could this time, and sighed. “Thank you,” he said. “We typically open at four o’ clock for the younger crowd, but anytime before eight should—”
“No problem. Barring a literal emergency, I’ll have this thing up and running by three at the latest.”
Isa was starting to remember what relief felt like. Only one day of lost revenue. They could handle one day.
Lenna packed her tools and pulled out her phone to order the motor as Isa walked her to the door. “On its way,” she said, sliding the phone back into her pocket. “I’ll call you when it arrives tomorrow. Stay cool in the meantime.”
“We’ll see,” Isa said as she left. “Thanks again, Lenna.”
When the door closed, he took another breath and let it out in a satisfied sigh. He set the chairs back on the tables, double-checked the trash, and finally went to the back office to gather his things. When he heard the front door open again, he assumed it was Lenna, returning for something she’d forgotten.
But it was Braig’s voice that scraped its way down the hall. Isa frowned, checking his watch as he hit the hall light and stepped back into the main floor of Higanbana.
Braig was on his phone, but it only took him a moment to notice Isa. He listened for a few more seconds, then said, “Hey, I’m at the club now. I’ll call you back.” He hung up without saying good-bye, and he looked as surprised to see Isa as Isa was to see him. “Well,” he said, “didn’t expect you to be this much of a workaholic.”
“I had to wait for the repairwoman.”
“Yeah? And where are we on that?”
“It should be taken care of before we open tomorrow.”
“Hey, not bad,” Braig said, as if Isa needed or wanted his approval. “What’re you still doin’ here, then? Go enjoy your day off already.”
“I was just about to. I still need to call Marluxia.” He nodded once at Braig’s phone. “Were you talking to him?”
“No, Isa,” Braig said, patronizingly patient, able to get on Isa’s last nerve with nothing more than a one-syllable word and his own name. “Some of us do have a life outside work.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“Oh, please. You hardly have a life at work.” Isa gave him a lukewarm glare, and Braig held his hands up. “I’ll spare you the embarrassment of admitting you don’t have a comeback. It’s too hot for this, anyway. Just came back to find my wallet.”
While he searched the bar, Isa finished packing his things. Within a couple minutes, Braig sang, “Tada,” holding his wallet aloft in victory. He slid it into his back pocket, and in a rare moment of consideration and generosity, he held up a glass. “Can I whip you up a Sacred Moon before I head out? On the house.”
“You don’t have the authority to offer drinks on the house. Have you been giving out free drinks?”
Braig rolled his eye, flipping the glass around and putting it back. “Do you ever turn off? Forget it. I’m splitsville.” He headed for the door, pausing only once to look back. “Love the hair, by the way. Lookin’ good.”
Isa sighed as the door shut, letting his hair down from the bun and putting the pencil away again. Braig hadn’t even had the decency to sound sarcastic. He’d said it like a genuine compliment, and that was the part Isa couldn’t stand. He combed his hair back into place, rebuttoned his shirt, finished turning everything off, and finally walked out the door.
Even after Isa locked up, he knew he wasn’t done for the day. He’d waited far too long to inform Marluxia that they weren’t opening the club this evening, but he always tried to avoid letting Marluxia know about problems until a solution was actively underway. Luckily, Marluxia was having a busy day of his own, or else he was just tired of receiving calls about the various issues that plagued his nightclub. Either way, Isa got his voicemail, and he sighed in relief before leaving a professional but brief message.
He kept his phone out, and a quick text with Lea confirmed that they were meeting at the fountain court in fifteen minutes. It was just enough time for Isa to take the long way down the side streets, which not only provided some much-needed shade, but also allowed him to make a small detour. He paused at a familiar alley, peering around the corner and clicking his tongue a few times. When he was sure the alley was empty, he approached a dilapidated cardboard box at the end of it, pushing a few gnawed bones aside with his foot. He stooped down once he’d cleared a space, picking up the dish he’d left last time and refilling it with his water bottle. He put it back in a shady spot, hoping it wouldn’t evaporate by the time the dog returned, then continued on his way, digging in his bag for some hand sanitizer.
By the time Isa reached the fountains, he’d had more than enough of weaving his way around tourists and dodging streams of children as they splashed their way through the courtyard. Thankfully, Lea’s chocobo hair was easy to spot, even if it was tied back in a ponytail. Isa whistled to catch his attention, and Lea’s head turned instantly, his eyes scanning the crowd until they found him. He beamed as he approached, looking sweaty and exhausted, but exhilarated. Clearly he and Demyx had had a fun day playing outside like the children they still were deep down.
Before Isa could say as much—or anything—Lea pulled a hair tie out of his pocket and offered it to him. Isa all but melted, every frustration that had built up throughout the day dissipating in an instant. “I love you,” he said, finally twisting his hair into a proper bun while Lea grinned in delighted surprise.
“How’d everything go?”
“Fine. We should be back on track by tomorrow evening. How was your day? Looks like you had fun.”
“Eh,” Lea said with a shrug. “It’s been all right. Nothing too exciting so far.”
“Well, shall we head home, then?”
“I kind of thought we could take a walk. I mean, you’ve been inside all day, and it’s finally starting to cool off.”
“I don’t want to deal with people right now.”
“We could go to the ravine trail. The dummies who visit this place never want to walk that far,” he added, giving a friendly smile to a nearby family of tourists who overheard him.
“Do you want to walk that far?” Isa asked, noting how breathless Lea already sounded, and knowing that he’d probably been running around with Demyx all day.
“We’ll take it easy,” Lea assured him. “Just a nice, relaxing walk. It’s not like we’ve got anything to do until tomorrow, right?”
Isa considered this for just a few moments, then nodded. “All right. Lead the way.”
They headed out to the ravine, sticking to Lea’s languid pace. Soon, Isa could feel his back unknotting, his legs loosening up, the tension leaving the back of his neck and even his jaw. By the time they reached the trails, the sun had started to go down, and the low light turned the rocks even bluer than usual. Isa and Lea made their way up the trail with ease, still knowing the route by heart from their adventurous teen years.
As they approached the cliff that overlooked the Depths, the stars started to come out. Isa looked up at them, trying to remember which constellations were which, and he let his gaze descend to the horizon, where the highest turrets of Hollow Bastion stretched up above the mountains in the distance.
The view was obstructed by a dark, blocky silhouette, parked by the cliff’s edge. Isa struggled to make it out in the dim light. “What’s that?”
“Huh,” Lea said, putting his hand over his eyes and squinting as if he had no idea. “I dunno. What is that?”
“C’mon. Let’s check it out.”
Suspicious but curious, Isa led the way at Lea’s insistence. As they neared the object, Isa, to his seemingly unending surprise, identified it as Lea’s old pick-up truck. It was facing them, the back turned toward the edge of the cliff and the view beyond. Isa paused, feeling the urge to do something stupidly sentimental like placing his hand on the hood.
“How…?” He glanced at Lea, who was smiling, pleased with himself. “How did you get this up here? I didn’t even think it still ran.” It had been quite a while since Isa had seen the truck at all, much less on the road. He laid his palm on the hood after all, the red thoroughly faded after all these years, but the metal still warm from the afternoon sun. “Why is it here?”
“Come and see,” Lea said, waving him around to the back. Isa followed slowly, letting his gaze stray out past the edge of the cliff, which Lea had thankfully parked a good distance away from. The same mountain range still wrinkled the horizon, the same ruins still sat in the valley, stubbornly refusing to fall. Isa gazed out at it all for a few moments, noting how little the view had changed, and how much he and Lea had in comparison.
A singsong whistle drew his attention away from the valley below. Isa turned around and raised his eyebrows as Lea leaned against the back of the truck, holding an arm out to display the set-up. The bed of the truck was filled with what looked like every pillow and comforter Lea could find at his mother’s house, most of them ones Isa recognized. The back wall of the bed was lowered, both to avoid blocking the view and for Lea to place a small cooler on top of. When Isa stepped forward to inspect its contents, Lea flipped the lid back, revealing some sandwiches, a plate of fruit, and a bottle of wine.
“Not the fanciest dinner,” Lea admitted. “Figured it wasn’t a great idea to leave a cooked meal sitting out in the sun for hours. And I don’t have any entertainment lined up, so rather than dinner and a show, we’ve got…I don’t know, sandwiches and a view?”
“Doesn’t have quite the same ring,” Isa agreed, looking through the cooler. He realized that this was how Lea had spent the majority of his day off: going to his mother’s house, retrieving the truck and everything in it, driving it out here, and then walking all the way back into town. He’d spent the hottest, sunniest part of the afternoon on this, sacrificing a day of fun in order to ensure that they had a nice evening together.
Lea watched as Isa rolled the wine over to read the back of the bottle. “So…does this look good to you?”
Isa nodded absently, studying the entire set-up. “Yes,” he said, though he immediately took Lea’s hand and led him away from it all. Lea protested until he realized Isa was taking him off-trail to the Crystal Fissure, guiding him through its familiar twists and turns to the exact corner that provided the most shelter. Despite the lack of sunlight, the small, hidden path never seemed truly dark. It was as if the crystals themselves emanated their own light, faint but clear.
It was cool in there, the high walls creating a perfect funnel for the breeze to waft through, but it was still too warm and humid for Isa to waste time on any kind of preamble. This had always been their place—at least, that was how he had always thought of it. They’d had their first kiss here, stilted and awkward, with Lea holding Isa by his shoulders the entire time as if he might run away, or simply because he had no idea what else to do with his hands.
Fourteen years later, here they were again, already locked in a kiss as Isa backed Lea up to the cavernous wall, pinning him with his entire body. Isa, who’d had even less of an idea what to do with his hands when he was thirteen, now jammed them between their bodies wherever they would fit. And Lea, who had always been the daredevil, rough-and-tumble kid, always showing up with a band-aid on his elbow or some gauze taped to his shin, wasn’t quite young enough to tolerate scrapes and bruises anymore. “Ow,” he said pointedly as the corner of a crystal jutted into his side, which Isa responded to by simply moving him over a few inches so they could continue.
Isa hadn’t planned to spend too much time in the Crystal Fissure, only trying to blow off some almost literal steam. But when his stomach growled and Lea tried to break away, Isa grabbed the back of his head, holding him in place. Lea stayed for a few seconds before taking Isa’s face in both hands and forcing them to separate. “Quick question: how much have you eaten today?” When Isa stared at him without answering, Lea sighed and lowered his hands to Isa’s waist, letting Isa wrap his arms around his neck. “C’mon. Dinnertime.” Isa continued to lay kisses along his jaw, ignoring him. “Seriously, Isa. We can come right back here after you’ve eaten.”
“I’m not going to want to come back here after I’ve eaten.”
“Well, tough. Eating’s more important.”
“Blasphemy,” Isa muttered, still pressing his lips to Lea’s jaw, making him laugh when he reached his ear. But when Lea pushed him away, Isa allowed it, and he followed him back to the truck. Once Lea started unwrapping the food, Isa had to admit that he’d made the right choice. It didn’t smell strongly, but the sight alone awakened hunger not just in his stomach but up through his torso and down his limbs. He took a seat on the edge of the truck bed while Lea arranged a plate for him, listing everything off as he went.
“Veggie wrap, no mayo, plus an assortment of non-acidic fruit and a mini cheesecake, if you want it.” Isa was touched by his thoughtfulness until Lea added, “Because I know if you ate anything at all today, it was that microwaveable crap.”
Isa accepted the plate and glass of wine gratefully. “You really are at your best when you manage to be both romantic and condescending.”
“Right back atcha,” Lea said, hopping up beside Isa with his own dinner. He fiddled with his phone until he got a good playlist going, filled with crooning ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s. After his first bite, Isa took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and contentedly while he chewed.
“Did Demyx help you with this?”
“Nah. Figured someone should get to relax on his day off.”
“Good call,” Isa said. “He probably met up with Braig.”
“God, this again? I told you he’s just kidding around about that.”
“Braig came back to the club this afternoon. He was on his phone, but he hung up fast once he realized I was there.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Lea said, letting Isa reach over with his fork and spear a piece of mango off his plate. “It doesn’t mean he and Demyx are…y’know, together. Could’ve been something totally innocent, like a drug deal or an assassination.” Isa shook his head, unconvinced, and Lea put his plate down on his lap so he could hold up both hands. “All right, you know what? Let’s just leave those jokers out of this. Especially Braig. This,” he said, gesturing at the truck and the cliffs around them, “is a happy place, yeah?”
Isa agreed, and they resumed eating, though Lea did mutter some final words about how if it were true, then Demyx had really let his standards go to hell. By the end of the meal, Isa had devoured his plate and some of Lea’s, plus the slice of cheesecake. He closed his eyes to enjoy the evening breeze and the music, but opened them again when he felt the truck shift.
Lea was back on the ground, standing in front of him. Isa raised his eyebrows until Lea put one hand behind his back and held the other out, leaning forward deferentially, almost bowing. Isa couldn’t even roll his eyes at the over-the-top gesture; he smiled and took Lea’s hand, setting his plate down as he joined him on the cliff.
They used to have to sneak out for dates like this, driving all the way to the edge of the Depths because it was the only place that was secluded enough. Now they consciously chose it, partly for the peace and quiet, partly for the nostalgia. Isa rested his hand on Lea’s shoulder while Lea slid his hand to the small of Isa’s back, pulling him in for a slow dance. He wrapped his free hand around Isa’s, holding them both to his chest. They swayed together, finally able to relax now that the breeze and the darkness had cooled the air. Lea kept Isa so close that they had to look past each other, Lea lightly touching the side of his face to Isa’s, and Isa trying not to get hit in the eye by the few spikes that never made it into Lea’s ponytail. Eventually, he lowered his head to Lea’s shoulder, purely out of self defense.
Once the playlist started over and the moon began to rise, they ended their dance, ready to relax fully. Lea helped Isa back onto the truck and poured him another glass of wine, climbing up beside him. The truck rocked under his weight, a gentle reminder of how far they’d come since their teenager years. When Isa offered Lea another drink, he declined. “I’m bad enough at driving this thing sober,” he said, patting the side of the truck fondly.
They settled in, rearranging the pillows behind and underneath them. For a while, they simply lay in the truck and gazed across the valley at the ruined castle, observing one childhood relic from the comfort of another. Eventually Lea said, in a mostly teasing tone, “You know, if I had the energy, I’d suggest taking a little walk down there. Just to scope it out.”
“I think that ship has sailed,” Isa replied. “I can’t run as fast as I used to.”
“It just feels like unfinished business, you know? We never made it all the way in.”
“We went far enough. You just watched The Goonies too much as a kid. You always acted like there was some secret treasure in there, like we might find…I don’t know, a fully functional church organ or something like that. It was just rusty nails and black mold and broken glass. And Komory bats.”
“Yeah,” Lea admitted. “Plus, I don’t know if we could even fit through some of those passages anymore.”
“I’m certainly done giving you boosts.”
Lea laughed, recalling the visual of his lanky teenage self balanced on Isa’s hands, wondering how they were ever able to pull that off without sustaining serious injuries. “Guess the shine wears off as an adult, huh?”
Isa shrugged. “A lot of things are like that. Do you remember that ledge in the Fissure? It couldn’t have been more than seven or eight feet high, and even now I wouldn’t try to reach it. I think some things are only worth the risk in childhood.”
“I guess. I do miss that ledge though, now that you mention it. It was like a little cave that had been carved out just for us. Perfect spot for hiding.”
“Perfect spot for first-time hand jobs.”
“Yeah, maybe your first.”
“I told you, I don’t like that joke.”
Lea snickered anyway, that nasally, self-satisfied laugh that Isa had, on more than one occasion, berated himself for actually being attracted to. He lay still for a moment, listening, before he moved closer. He nudged Lea’s arm insistently, like a cat, not actually stating what he wanted but demanding it through silent action. Lea chuckled softly, but he wrapped a reassuring arm around Isa’s shoulders, playing with a wisp of hair that had come loose from his bun.
“You always did like those hiding spots,” Lea went on. “Sometimes it’d take me an hour just to track you down at school. Honestly, we should have played hide-and-seek more as kids. You would’ve won every round.”
“No I wouldn’t. You always found me.”
Lea mulled that over as he wound a thin spiral of blue around his finger. He hadn’t thought about it like that before. All he remembered was how often he had to track Isa down in his weird little hiding spots. He never thought about how readily Isa left his havens once Lea finally showed up to retrieve him.
He smiled as he unwound Isa’s hair and kissed the side of his head. He lingered, inhaling the scent of salt, which was almost certainly just sweat from a long and humid day. But there was a sharpness about Isa that turned an otherwise heady scent into something cool and awakening, and if Lea closed his eyes, he could imagine he was standing at the edge of the sea.
They’d come a long way from the pair of teens fumbling awkwardly in the front seat, he thought. Sometimes they used to sit back to back on this cliff at the end of the day. At the right time of year, Lea could face west, soaking up the sunset, while Isa faced east, basking in the moonrise. Both of them had tipped their chins up to watch the sky and, more importantly, to lean their heads back against each other’s shoulders.
Now they lay side by side, Lea with his arm around Isa, both of them tangling their legs together under the blankets, occasionally kissing but mostly resting, held by the shallow walls of the truck bed. The night sky was finally darker than Hollow Bastion, the fortress’s silhouette blotting out only the lowest stars, and the moon arced slowly over the valley, taking its time, half-dipped in light, waning but rising all the same.
The song they dance to is Peter James's cover of "Can't Help Falling In Love," just for the record.
Chapter 7: Fair Game
Characters: the Higanbana crew and a couple of cameos. I'll wager you can't guess who.
If there was one thing the entire Higanbana staff could agree on, it was this: they had the best security guards in the business. And while Dilan and Aeleus proved their mettle on a nightly basis, it was the annual arm-wrestling competition that let them show what they were truly made of.
The contest as a whole was really just an excuse to get to the final round. As Isa’s records indicated, every year was more or less the same. Lea came in dead last, just after Demyx, who had been insulted by everyone’s surprise when they saw how quickly he dispatched his childhood friend. (“You guys do know I’m a lifeguard, right?”)
Demyx would go on to happily lose to Braig, who would lose to Isa by a narrow margin, which Lea always looked forward to with blatant delight. It was a close match, but so far Isa had never failed to slowly and steadily fold Braig’s arm down to the table. He flexed his hand and congratulated Braig on putting up a good fight, to which Braig rolled his wrist with a wince and a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”
Isa would then gracefully step out of the contest, claiming there was no point in trying to defeat either of the bouncers, though everyone suspected—and Lea knew—that he just wanted to avoid flustering himself by going up against Dilan.
They used to take bets, but they gave up after the second year. Braig had been the first one to suggest that the wagers had gotten boring, and Isa, to his surprise, had agreed. “I’m tired of having to choose between supporting my husband and holding onto my munny,” he’d said, and that was more than enough justification for them to drop it. Truthfully, no one was that interested in placing bets on Aeleus vs. Dilan, anyway. Being part of the audience was reward enough.
They gathered around the table—some more subtle, like Isa, who stood off to the side and watched in silent approval, and some more shameless, like Braig, who had once—and only once—used Dilan’s shoulder as an arm-rest. Dilan had raised his free arm mid-match and, without looking, placed his entire hand over Braig’s face and turned him away. Ironically, Braig’s interference had secured Dilan’s victory that year, as Aeleus was too busy stifling his laughter to put up much resistance.
This year was a close call, but with Ienzo offering encouragement from the sidelines, Aeleus managed to reclaim his title. Lea gave Dilan a consolatory pat on the arm, and Isa gave Lea a withering you’re not subtle and I know exactly what you’re doing look. All in all, it had been as predictable a contest as it ever was, until Ienzo said he wanted a turn.
“That’s cute,” Braig said.
“I mean it. I’ll take whoever came in last place. Lea, I assume?”
Lea waited for Isa to shut the kid down with a scathing comeback, but Isa was studying his clipboard intently, fighting back a smirk. “Psh, fine,” Lea said. “Bring it on.”
They claimed a small table for their showdown while the rest of the crew gathered—if not enthusiastically, then at least curiously. Both contestants rolled up their sleeves, which made Braig and Dilan of all people share a quiet laugh, with Dilan muttering, “You’ve got to be kidding…”
Aeleus bet on Ienzo while Dilan and Braig put their munny on Lea. Demyx refused to participate, claiming that it didn’t feel sportsmanlike in this case. Isa said he’d be surprised either way, but he ultimately bet on Lea, figuring these were probably the best odds he was ever going to get.
Five minutes later, Aeleus was still cheering Ienzo on. Demyx had pulled his hat down over his eyes in secondhand embarrassment. Dilan and Braig had already forfeited their munny, agreeing that they deserved to lose it at this point, no matter the outcome. And Isa had both hands on the table, leaning down so he was level with Lea. “Listen to me,” he said with undue seriousness, “I know I said I’d be surprised either way, but I didn’t actually believe it would take you over five minutes to defeat a child.”
“I think I’m wearing him down,” Lea said, though he and Ienzo appeared to be under the same amount of strain.
Finally, Isa righted himself and made a decisive, slicing motion through the air. “I’m calling it. It’s a draw.”
“Oh, come on,” Lea said as Ienzo gratefully slid his hand out of his grasp.
“You come on,” Isa replied. “You should have at least thrown the match four and a half minutes ago. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t want to hear another word about installing a pole in this establishment ever again. You think you can support your own body weight when you can’t even overpower a seventeen-year-old nerd? No offense, Ienzo.”
Ienzo considered it as he massaged his hand. “Some taken.”
And so the annual contest, which could have ended with a bang, fizzled out. While the rest of the crew dispersed and went back to work, Aeleus took Lea’s seat and had his own match with Ienzo. He coached the teen, showing him how to maintain proper posture and use his elbow for leverage so he might stand a fighting chance next time.
Aeleus was just in the middle of pretending to lose (despite Ienzo’s clear instructions not to patronize him) when the front door was almost certainly not kicked open, though that was the impression it gave when it abruptly swung on its hinges. The sharp click-click-click of stilettos only disoriented everyone further as they turned to see who had arrived. A woman was inexplicably striding across the main floor of Higanbana, a scowl on her face and a phone to her ear. After listening impatiently for a moment, she fed a stream of frighteningly aggressive French to whoever had the misfortune of being on the other end of the call.
She commanded the attention of everyone in the room, but she hardly acknowledged any of them. Everything about her was sharp: her heels, her voice, her glare. Even her hair, somehow. It was as if they ran the risk of getting cut just by looking at her.
Still, Isa did his best to intercept her. “Excuse me,” he tried, and was silenced by a raised index finger as she walked by without so much as a glance in his direction. Impressively, he didn’t flinch, but he did draw back a few inches in sheer surprise, glancing at Lea and Dilan to confirm that had really just happened.
She wrapped up her conversation as she approached the bar. Isa thought he heard Marluxia’s name, but her accent was heavy, and languages weren’t his strong suit. She snapped her phone shut—presumably she still owned a flip phone just for that purpose—and said to Braig, “Un Soleil Couchant.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Braig said with questionable politeness. “I don’t speak Swedish.”
Ah, Isa thought. So she knows Braig, at least. He glanced at the rest of the staff to see if any of them recognized her, but Dilan and Aeleus looked as lost as Isa felt.
Braig passed her the drink, which she accepted with faint disdain, as if she hadn’t been the one to ask for it. She took a sip and looked around with an attitude that implied she was making herself right at home, but also wanted nothing to do with the place. “Well, I see Marluxia’s interior decorating skills are still shit,” she remarked, scoffing at the wall-hanging plants. Finally, she deigned to look at Isa. “So, where is he?”
“He’s not in today. Is there anything I can help you with?”
The woman sized him up, unimpressed with whatever she saw. “You can answer my question,” she replied. “I didn’t ask where he isn’t. I asked where he is.”
“Probably skipped town when he heard you were coming,” Braig said. The woman glared at him, and Isa’s relief at having her attention diverted was canceled out by how obviously Braig was trying to set her off. “Sorry you came all the way out here for nothing. Will he reimburse you for the mileage, or did you travel by broomstick this time?”
The tension in the room crackled, like hair raising just before a lightning strike. But before the woman could verbally flay Braig alive, a voice from the front door said, “Larxene?”
All heads turned, except hers. A man was halfway through the door, leaning just past the threshold as though he were waiting to be invited in. His hair was dazzlingly blond and strictly trimmed, as was his goatee, but he had an agreeable look. He was dressed in a three-piece suit, with a gold watch chain hanging out of his breast pocket and his shoes shined to perfection, the epitome of class and wealth.
When he saw how many eyes had fallen on him, he raised one hand in a wave. “Pardon me. I don’t mean to interrupt.”
“Not at all,” Isa replied as he approached the door, grateful for an excuse to leave Larxene to Braig, thinking that it would be a win-win if one of them killed the other. He didn’t even care which one. “I’m Isa, the manager. Are you here to see Marluxia?”
“Yes, in fact,” the man said, giving Isa a courteous but genuinely friendly smile. “Is he in?”
“I’m afraid not. Is there any way I can be of assistance? I could try calling him for you, though I can’t guarantee…” He trailed off when the man raised his hand again, this time shaking his head.
“Thank you, Isa, but please don’t trouble yourself. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that he’s where he says he’s going to be. I’d call him myself, but if he won’t pick up for his manager, he certainly won’t be picking up for me.”
Isa nodded in vague agreement. “…I’m sorry,” he said, “but who are you?”
The man looked absolutely mortified, for which Isa felt the need to apologize again. “Where are my manners today?” He extended his hand—like the rest of him, it was maintained to perfection, not a fingernail untrimmed, or a cuticle uneven, or a ring unpolished. “Luxord. I’m an old friend of Marluxia’s.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Isa said, trying to give him an impressive handshake.
“A pleasure to meet you, Isa,” Luxord replied, and Isa didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but he sounded like he meant it. “I don’t believe I’ve heard Marluxia mention your name before. How long have you been at Higanbana?”
“About four years.”
“And you’ve been the manager all this time?”
“No—well, I started as the administrative assistant. Within six months I was ‘promoted.’” Isa hoped the quotation marks weren’t too audible. “I’ve been the manager ever since, although it’s more like three different jobs under one title.”
He winced inwardly, wondering why he was assuming so much familiarity with this man, whom he’d only just met. But Luxord gave him a knowing smile and said, “Yes, that sounds like the Marluxia I know,” as though he and Isa were sharing a long-held inside joke about a mutual friend. “Both a notorious workaholic and a notorious delegator. It seems he hasn’t changed much since he and I were in business together.”
“What business is that?” Lea suddenly asked from across the floor, reminding Isa that he and Luxord weren’t the only people in the room, or on the face of the planet. Isa was dropped back into reality without knowing where he’d gone—where he’d been taken—and Luxord peered past his shoulder.
“Oh, forgive me for not finishing my introductions,” he said to the group, giving Isa a brief smile and nod as he walked past, as if he were seeking permission to do so. Isa followed close behind. “Larxene, have you met the rest of the staff? I believe there are some new faces here.”
Larxene hopped off her bar stool and dismissed herself, heading for the door with her phone in one hand and her drink in the other. Isa didn’t bother pointing out that drinking glasses were club property and were to remain on the premises at all times.
“Don’t go far, my dear,” Luxord called after her.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, hardly paying any more attention to him than she had to the Higanbana crew. “Just giving Luxy another ring.”
Luxord chuckled as she left. “I’d ask you to excuse her manners, but I gave up on that long ago. It saves time.” He waved to the group while Isa stepped forward to make the introductions.
“Everyone, this is Luxord. Luxord, this is Lea, Dilan, Aeleus, Demyx, and—Braig,” Isa finished, noticing the far-too-intrigued look the bartender was giving their newest arrival.
“Ah,” Braig said, confirming everyone’s fear that he was about to inflict himself on the conversation. “So you’re the famous Luxord I’ve heard so little about.” He gave the man a once-over to see if he lived up to the hype, which, apparently, he did. Isa shot him a warning look, but Luxord smiled at Braig as if he were just a normal person.
“And you’re the infamous bartender I’ve heard so much about,” he responded, assessing Braig as openly as Braig had assessed him. “A regular One-Eyed Jack indeed.” Braig looked puzzled, silently asking for an explanation because he could just tell it was going to be a good one. “It’s a nickname for the Jack of Spades and the Jack of Hearts,” Luxord said, his tone that of a professional and an expert. “Named for the single visible eye on each face. They commonly function as wild cards.” Braig grinned, absolutely enthralled.
“Well, that’s me all right, as these jokers can attest,” he said, waving a hand at his coworkers. “A One-Eyed Jack of all trades.”
Luxord laughed approvingly. “Quick on the draw as well, I see. Excellent.” He left Braig beaming as he turned to the rest of the group again, making them wonder who he was going to lavish his attention on next.
“To answer your question, which I’m sure will come as no surprise now,” Luxord said to Lea, who had forgotten he’d even asked a question, “Marluxia and I were—and are—business partners at my casino. We worked together for a number of years before he set his sights here in the Garden. A fine choice, I have to admit, though we do miss his classical touch back home.”
“And where’s ‘home?’” Dilan asked.
“The Argine,” Luxord replied, not quite bragging, but not without a trace of pride, either. “Well, we refer to the casino when we say The Argine, more often than not, though it’s actually a casino and a fourteen-story hotel in one.”
“Sounds extravagant,” Lea said, glancing hopefully at Isa, who responded with a silent no.
“Sounds French,” Demyx added. Luxord smiled at him.
“It’s derived from another card nickname,” he explained. “It’s also an anagram for the name ‘Regina.’ A regal and fitting alias for the Queen of Clubs.”
“Hold up,” Braig said with a wry smile, “I thought Marluxia was the queen of clubs?”
Every one of his coworkers went tense. As much as they poked fun at their boss, they tried to avoid outright insulting him, even when he wasn’t there. And the man who stood before them was, by all accounts, Marluxia’s oldest and seemingly closest friend.
But Luxord chuckled, somehow charmed by Braig, and said, “Oh, how much would I have to pay you to become my bartender?”
“We’ll pay you to take him,” Isa said without thinking, and Luxord laughed again.
“What a quick-witted team you are,” he said, while Isa and Braig exchanged skeptical looks at being referred to as a team. “I certainly hope Marluxia shows you the appreciation you deserve.”
There was another awkward pause, as no one dared to respond with an honest, “He doesn’t.”
Luckily, Demyx—the king of non-sequiturs—broke the silence. “So, you’re into gambling, then? ‘Cause we had a little bet of our own here today.”
“Oh?” Luxord looked at Isa for an explanation, absolutely flattering him by acknowledging him as an authority figure.
“Arm-wrestling contest,” he replied. Luxord examined the group thoughtfully.
“Well, no offense to any of you fine gentlemen, but I think the odds are slightly in some people’s favor more than others.” He smiled at the bouncers, as if there could have been any doubt about who he was referring to. But as his eyes drifted past Aeleus, they finally—and with mild surprise—landed on Ienzo. He hadn’t been hiding, of course, but Aeleus’s sheer mass tended to block him from view, and Ienzo did nothing to call attention to himself. Isa realized that he might have even forgotten to include him in the introductions.
Luxord subjected himself to Ienzo’s blandly scrutinizing gaze for a few seconds before saying, “Well, I certainly hope you didn’t participate in the gambling, young man.”
Ienzo continued to give him a flat look, one that the rest of Higanbana knew very well. Luxord returned the look with a polite but blank one of his own; for a moment, he seemed almost guarded. Finally, he offered Ienzo a small smile. “You’re not just too young for gambling. You’re too good. What a remarkable poker face you have.” He reached into his pocket and produced, to the group’s short-lived surprise, a deck of playing cards. He slid them out of the box and fanned them like a peacock’s tail, searching until he found what he was looking for.
“Aha,” he said with perfect showmanship, displaying the Six of Hearts in one hand and reassembling the deck with the other, magician-like. He offered the card to Ienzo, who took it after a moment’s consideration. “This is your homework assignment,” Luxord went on, like an uncle who visited once every couple years but acted like it was much more often. “The next time I’m in town, I expect you’ll have discerned the meaning behind this card.” He gave Ienzo another tiny smile, as though they shared a secret, and turned back to the rest of the group. Ienzo laid the card down on the table and proceeded to ignore it, even when Aeleus picked it up to inspect it himself.
As Luxord settled in to chat with Lea and Demyx and Dilan, Isa lingered by the bar with Braig, who seemed content to admire their guest from a distance. Isa watched Luxord work his magic on the group, drawing them in with intriguing conversation topics and well-timed compliments, before he asked Braig, “Have you and Larxene met before?”
“What, did our friendly banter tip you off?” Braig glanced at Isa and chuckled when he saw his predictably dry expression. “Couple of times, yeah. She was around back when Marluxia took over management of this place.”
“Dilan and Aeleus didn’t seem to recognize her.”
“She’s not exactly a social butterfly, in case you hadn’t noticed. I was amazed she even talked to you.”
Isa ignored that one. “But Luxord hasn’t visited until now?”
“Not that I know of. Gotta say, though, if I ran a place like his, I wouldn’t exactly be itching to come to our quaint little college town. Not even for Marley,” he added, causing Isa to roll his eyes and turn his attention back to the group. Braig watched him for just a moment longer before doing the same. “Still. Hell of a presence, that guy, huh?”
“Hmm,” Isa said, half in agreement and half in distraction. Luxord did come with a presence, and it wasn’t an unwelcome one. His company was reassuring, putting them all at ease. But it was an artificial ease, nagging at Isa’s brain even as he craved it. It made him feel tranquilized.
He shook that thought off, reminding himself that his meter was wildly askew after dealing with the crass customers and daily chaos of Higanbana. Luxord worked in the sleek and manufactured environment of a high-end casino. He wouldn’t be able to thrive in that business if he didn’t eat, sleep, and breathe confidence and sophistication. With inviting gestures and a brilliantly white smile, he lulled the atmosphere of the room into a peaceful, dreamlike state.
They were jarred awake by Larxene when she reentered the building, assaulting their floor with her shoes. She called out to Luxord, interrupting a perfectly fine conversation he’d been having with Dilan and Demyx. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said before looking up and raising his eyebrows.
“Marluxia’s downtown,” Larxene said. “Says he’s too busy to come all the way back here. Apparently we’re supposed to meet him at the Château.”
“Isn’t that just the way of things?” Luxord sighed, which everyone felt compelled to agree with. He rose from his seat and pushed the chair back in. “I’m afraid I must bid you all farewell for now. It’s been wonderful to make your acquaintances. So good to speak with a fellow classic film buff, Dilan. Thank you for not laughing at my admittance to having never seen The Seventh Seal. The next time we meet, I promise I’ll be able to share my thoughts on it with you.”
“It’s a good one. I think you’ll like it.”
“I’m sure I will.” With a cordial wave, Luxord made his way back to the bar, thanking Isa again for his help and promising to let Marluxia know what a charming manager he had. Larxene dropped her now empty glass on the counter and made for the door again, only acknowledging Braig on her way out.
“Salut,” she said, sickly-sweet.
“Ciao,” he replied, matching her tone. He grinned at Luxord when he passed the bar, who responded with a nod.
“It was lovely to finally meet you, Braig,” he said, stringing those words together for what was surely the first time in the history of human speech.
“Couldn’t agree more. Come back earlier next time, and we’ll get you in on the betting action.”
“I’d be honored. Of course, I’d like to see what kind of skill I’m dealing with in a real game. Something tells me you’d be a formidable Blackjack opponent.”
“Oh, careful when you’re up against me,” Braig said. “I’ll take you all the way down to the felt.”
Luxord winked at him, and with a final wave at the rest of the crew, he left with Larxene, the two of them departing in the same dazzling whirlwind of fashion and charisma and blondness with which they’d arrived.
“Braig,” Isa said as soon as the door was shut, steepling his hands against his face.
“What?” Braig laughed. “It’s a gambling term. Means I’ll win all his munny. You guys gotta get your heads out of the gutter.”
“One of these days, someone’s gonna punch you,” was all Aeleus had to say.
“That man wouldn’t punch a fly,” Braig said. “Why can’t we get clientele like that in this joint, by the way? Marley’s got hook-ups like him, and we’re swimming in a sea of blitzed-out college boys night after night? Makes no sense.” He shook his head and sighed. “Man. What a class act.”
Isa stared incomprehensibly at Braig, and Dilan groaned. “Oh, great,” he said, “it’s in love.”
“Hey, don’t harsh my vibe,” Braig said, grabbing his dishtowel and getting back to work. “He’s just the kinda guy I’d be down for playing a few hands of strip poker with, is all I’m sayin’.”
“I’d get in on that,” Demyx said, hijacking the conversation from whatever retort Dilan had lined up next.
“Done deal,” Braig said, “only ‘cause I know how much you suck at cards.”
“I’m good at Uno.”
“No, you cheat at Uno.”
“I do not cheat at—dude, how many times do we have to go over this? That’s how the reverse card works when there’s only two players!”
While Braig shook his head, still clearly unconvinced, Lea raised his hand. “Sounds fun to me,” he offered, resting his feet up on the table. “Poker, I mean. Not Uno. Sorry, Dem.”
“Yeah?” Braig said, surprised but pleased. “You’re in.”
“He’s out,” Isa corrected, making sure all the tables were in their proper places, not too close to the stage but not edging onto the dance floor either. Lea tilted his head back as Isa walked behind him.
“Jealous? You’re welcome to join in.”
“Gonna have to veto that one, Slim Jim,” Braig said. “No way am I going up against the king of poker faces.”
“Don’t worry, Braig,” Isa said. “I would intentionally lose just to avoid seeing you in any state of undress.” While Braig laughed, Isa glanced at Lea and added, “As for you, it’s a matter of fiscal responsibility. You strip to earn munny, not lose it.” Settling that matter in his typical fashion—with a burn that made his husband question why he ever tried to convince them to do anything new or exciting—Isa addressed the rest of the group. “Time to get back to work—we open in an hour and a half. Dilan, please double check the stage. Demyx, stop hitting on Braig and finish setting up your equipment.”
“I can multitask.”
“No you can’t.” Isa pointed at the stage, and Demyx, unable to argue, sighed and trotted off to work. Isa grabbed the back of Lea’s chair and shook it gently but briskly until Lea stopped lounging at the table.
“All right, all right,” he said, raising his hands in surrender and getting to his feet while Isa pushed the chair in. “And by the way, speaking of bets? That right there—” He gestured between Braig and Demyx. “—proves nothing.”
“Demyx wants to play strip poker with him.”
“Demyx wants to play strip poker with Luxord, same as Braig. Same as me, to be completely honest. And same as you, I figured, which is why I extended the invitation in the first place.”
“…that’s the sleaziest romantic gesture you’ve ever come up with.”
“So far,” Lea added with a grin. Isa rolled his eyes, giving him a light shove.
“Fine. The bet’s still on. Now get to work.”
Lea gave him a salute, lowering his hand with a smile as he wandered around the club, trying to find something to do. Despite his insistence, the bet didn’t matter that much to him overall. None of them did, really.
He had always been far more partial to dares.
Chapter 8: At Dusk
Characters: Lea and Isa.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lea and Isa were walking home late from school, kept after the final bell until four o’ clock. They’d sat through about ten minutes of reprimanding from the principal, but after that, they were left alone in detention to ruminate on a prank gone wrong.
Well, technically, a prank gone right.
“My dad’s gonna kill me,” Isa said as he tapped rocks off the sidewalk with his shoe.
“Yeah, Ma’s gonna be pissed.”
“I can’t believe—out of all the bugs you could’ve picked—you went with buzzerflies.”
“How was I supposed to know they’d go straight for the vents?”
“Because they can fly?”
“Geez, gimme a break. This was your idea, as usual.”
“All I said was bugs. You were in charge of the specifics.”
“Well, I hope this was a learning experience for you, then.” Lea scratched the side of his head. “Wonder if they’re gonna shut the school down to fumigate. Otherwise we’ll be hearing them till winter break. How long do buzzerflies live, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I think everyone was mostly pissed off about us breaking into the teachers’ lounge.”
“Then they should invest in a better lock. Man, I’m handing out life lessons all over the place today.”
Normally, a comment like that would make Isa laugh, or at least snark back. But he just kicked another rock, glumly looking down at the ground. Lea chewed the inside of his cheek.
“You know,” he said, “the reason we keep getting in trouble is because you keep daring me to do this crazy shit in the first place.”
“No, it’s because you keep agreeing to it. I’m just trying to see if you have a natural stopping point. So far, you don’t.”
Lea smiled, not about to argue with that. But Isa’s tone was still too morose for his liking. Lea relied on him to be the level-headed one in their duo—and even more so in their trio, when Demyx was involved—but this was no good. He looked up at the sky to see how much daylight they had left.
“Hey. What time does your dad get home tonight?”
“I don’t know. Late? Like eight or nine, maybe?” Isa finally looked up from the sidewalk. “Why?”
Lea gave him a mischievous grin, and Isa felt his stomach flip. That had been happening a lot lately.
“Got time for another prank?”
They pooled their munny, but Isa waited outside while Lea bought the spray paint. He ended up edging around the corner, nervous about being caught for a second time that afternoon, which made Lea all the more confused when he exited the store and Isa was nowhere to be found. But they soon rejoined each other, and together they took off for the ravine trail.
It was past sunset by the time they got there, but still light enough to see by. The early autumn chill made Isa zip his sweatshirt up, the high collar reaching just under his chin, while Lea stamped his feet to keep the blood circulating. But mostly they stayed warm by darting back and forth in front of the rocks, decorating them with streaks of green and white glow-in-the-dark paint. It was the perfect spot for a bit of cathartic misconduct: unhidden enough to feel defiant, but isolated enough that there was little risk of being discovered, satisfying their need for both rebellion and security.
Lea stood back and looked approvingly at their artwork once his paint can ran out. Isa was crouched on the ground, adding a small picture to the lower rocks. “What’s that?”
Isa was too focused to answer, so Lea bent over his shoulder to get a better look. “Is that a buzzerfly?”
“Mhmm.” Isa finished up the wing and sat back, assessing its accuracy. “Figured we should keep it thematic.”
“Nice.” Lea helped Isa to his feet, and they stood together, admiring their mural of seventh-grade nonsense, which didn’t glow in the dark quite as well as they’d expected. Lea rested his elbow on Isa’s shoulder. “Not bad, huh?”
“Yeah,” Isa agreed. “I don’t know why we’re getting C’s in art class. This is excellent.” He smiled a little at Lea’s picture of one of their bullies getting hit square in the face with a dodgeball—one of Isa’s personal favorite retaliations, as it had allowed Lea to avoid detention by playing it off as an accident.
“Still,” Isa said as Lea put his hands in his pockets, “this was a terrible idea if you were trying to prove you have a stopping point.” Lea shrugged. “Seriously, do you have, like…any inhibitions?”
“I dunno. Maybe your dares just aren’t as daring as you think they are.”
“Are you daring me to come up with a better dare?”
“Yeah, I am,” Lea said with a laugh, amused as always by how Isa interpreted his words, drawing attention to points Lea didn’t even realize he was making. “If I’m gonna risk getting in trouble while you sit on the sidelines, it might as well be worth it.”
“I’m sorry, did I not just spend half an hour defacing public property with you?”
“Oh, please. You join me for one prank, when there’s no one else around to even see it? I’m the one who did all the leg work today. I take action and you’re just talk, talk, talk,” Lea said, making a yammering gesture with his hand, though he quickly stuffed it back in his pocket when he realized how cold it had gotten outside. “If you’re gonna keep expecting me to do this shit, the least you can do is step your game up.”
And Isa, possessed by the knowledge of exactly what to say next, replied, “Dare you to kiss me.”
In the silence that followed, Isa replayed those words in his head, considering how crazy it would have been if he’d actually said them out loud.
As they echoed in his ears, Isa accepted that he did say them after all. But Lea probably hadn’t heard him from all of three feet away, with no one else around for miles.
And when he noticed that Lea was staring at him, Isa sank into the inevitable realization of, Oh. Okay. That happened. I did that.
Lea wasn’t smiling, stunned, or taken aback. He wasn’t really anything, except staring. Isa stood there with horrible acceptance of what he’d just said, and yet so out of his element that he had no gauge for how anxious he should be. All he could do was wait for Lea to react.
When Lea’s brain finally caught up to Isa’s words, he glanced around the trail, as if even in the most isolated spot they could find, they might still be seen or overheard. That alone brought reality crashing back down on Isa like a wave that had been swelling over his head. But once Lea confirmed that they were still alone, he reached out into the cold air, warming Isa’s wrist in his grasp as he led them both to the Crystal Fissure.
They took the first turn along the path, the crystals catching the moonlight in spite of the high walls. Isa felt a rush at the fact that Lea was actually doing this, but he was quick to rebuke himself. Of course he’s doing it. You dared him to, you dick. You knew he wasn’t gonna back down from a dare. This isn’t fair. It doesn’t count.
They stopped after a few more turns, in that one corner where neither the entrance nor exit were visible, blocked by the path’s own narrow walls. Isa’s heart was beating so hard he thought he might crack a rib. Vandalism was fine, perfectly acceptable to do within full view of the main trail. But this? This needed to be hidden.
Lea situated Isa near the wall, holding him by his shoulders as he leaned from one side to the other, craning his neck to look down the path. Isa considered suggesting that they just leave, due to how cold it had gotten—he was already shaking a little. He wasn’t sure how he was going to say anything with his heart in his throat, but he gave it his best effort.
“Look, you don’t—”
Lea leaned in, firmly pressing his lips to Isa’s, as if he’d been waiting this whole time for Isa to finally say something just so he could cut him off. Isa froze, waiting for whatever Lea was going to do next. But Lea didn’t move either, too overwhelmed to go any further, but also afraid to stop, as if that would somehow undo what he’d already done.
It occurred to Isa that he would have to be the one to act first, a funny thought in the back of his mind telling him that if Lea were to end the kiss himself, he would be forfeiting the dare. Isa pulled back abruptly, shaking only slightly less than before. He was glad Lea still had his shoulders in a vice grip, feeling like it was the only thing keeping his feet on the ground.
Lea looked as startled as Isa was, but after a minute, he swallowed and said, “All right. You owe me a dare.”
“All right,” Isa said, his voice much weaker than he’d hoped it would be.
It was obvious what was coming, but Isa still felt like his brain blinked out for a second when Lea said, “Kiss me.”
Isa swore he’d be better at it. He was the diligent one, detail-oriented and careful. But adrenaline took control of his body. He leaned in too quickly, reached for Lea’s face too sharply. He was still in the process of planning his approach by the time he realized he was already kissing Lea.
Neither one of them could figure out what to do with their hands. Lea seemed physically unable to let go of Isa’s shoulders, and Isa tried to hold Lea’s face in a way that felt natural. As abruptly as he had leaned in, he broke away again, ending the kiss as soon as it sank in that he was doing it. He’d been so focused on getting things right that he hadn’t even paid attention to what it felt like.
Lea finally released Isa’s shoulders and scratched the back of his head. Isa tucked his hair behind his ear. “Um—” he began, but he hadn’t thought of anything to say beyond that, his mouth moving faster than his brain for what felt like the hundredth time that evening.
But Lea took Isa’s wrists and brought both of their hands all the way back down to their sides, holding them in place so they wouldn’t distract from what Isa realized was about to be their third kiss. He closed his eyes when Lea moved in, and as their lips met again, Isa was finally focused enough to be truly present for every single moment of anxiety.
Lea pressed his lips against Isa’s more softly than before, still unsure what to do, but taking his time and figuring it out. Isa felt his pulse in his wrists, ticking against Lea’s palms, which stayed warm but clammy in the cool air. Although Isa had wanted this more than anything, he was desperate for it to end. He hadn’t moved, but he felt like he was shying away with each passing second, withdrawing from the kiss even as he wanted to reciprocate.
When Lea finally pulled back, he studied Isa and asked, “Are you okay?” and Isa realized just how unresponsive he’d been over the past couple minutes, trying so hard to focus on what was happening that he barely did anything himself. He opened his eyes hesitantly, afraid to find that the walls of the Crystal Fissure had closed in around them, that the exits were gone, that they were about to disappear forever.
But the crystals were in the same clusters as always, and a few stars were visible overhead, and their ridiculous graffiti would still be on the rocks when they left. Isa looked at Lea, their faces only a foot apart, and he nodded. “Yeah.” Lea nodded too, satisfied, and Isa asked, “Are you okay?”
Lea laughed self-consciously as he finally let go of Isa’s wrists. “Yeah,” he said, putting his hands back in his pockets so he wouldn’t keep scratching his hair and giving away how keyed up he was, as if they both weren’t radiating pure nervousness. He tapped his feet on the ground while Isa adjusted his sweatshirt, their movements a little tighter in the cold. When Isa shivered again, Lea checked his watch. “Let’s head back,” he suggested, and Isa nodded, following his lead as usual.
They walked the ravine trail without speaking, and Lea reached out to Isa only once, to make sure he got down a particularly rocky section of the path without slipping. Once they returned to the usual streets, Lea walked with his hands in his pockets, elbows out, taking up space, while Isa looked down at his own steps, holding his arm behind his back, drawn in on himself. With every street lamp they passed under, he wanted to grab Lea and run back into the shadows, to be safe and unseen again.
It wasn’t until they reached Lea’s neighborhood that Isa finally broke the silence. “So…” he began, rubbing his arm before releasing it. “I mean…I know that was just a dare and everything, but—”
Lea covered his face with both hands, muffling his voice but clearly saying, “Jesus Christ, Isa, are you kidding me?”
Isa waited for Lea to lower his hands, trying not to blush as he said, “So…can we do it again?”
Lea glanced at Isa. “Yeah,” he said, “I think I can find time for more of that.” Isa looked down before he smiled, too self-conscious to smile at Lea. After a moment, Lea took a step closer, bumping his shoulder against Isa’s, and Isa did the same, nudging Lea back to his starting distance.
The lights were off when they arrived at Lea’s house. “Lucky me,” he said as they went to the back door. “I get to avoid the lecture till tomorrow.”
Isa tried not to think about how he probably wouldn’t be so lucky. Lea overturned a bucket to reach the top of the door, his fingertips searching blindly for the spare key. He knocked it to the ground, cursing at the metallic ping as it bounced off the walkway. As he hopped off the bucket, Isa knew he should help him search, but all he could think was that if it was too dark for Lea to spot the key, then it was too dark for them to be seen.
The thought struck him as suddenly as it had come out of his mouth back on the ravine trail. It was nighttime. Lea’s mom wasn’t home. None of the neighbors could see them. For all intents and purposes, they were alone in the world. They could kiss again this very moment if they wanted to, right in Lea’s backyard.
Isa was dizzied by his own bravery. The circumstances were almost too good to pass up. He had walked Lea to his door at the end of what he realized he was now mentally referring to as a date. A kiss good-night would be the perfect way to wrap up the evening.
Isa almost laughed at how clichéd it was, how he could actually engage in something so silly and romantic. But as Lea stood and brushed dirt off his knees, spare key triumphantly in hand, Isa held back. It would be the perfect way to wrap up the evening, but he didn’t want to wrap anything up at all. He wanted to leave something to look forward to. And he wanted to prove that he didn’t have to jump at every opportunity as if it were the last one he’d ever get.
Lea watched him without expecting anything, simply waiting. Isa watched him in return for a few moments before he said, “Well…good night.”
“G’night,” Lea replied. Then, after a moment, he added somewhat shyly, “See you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Isa said, giving him a small smile. “You will.”
Lea smiled back, and with a brief wave, he went inside. Isa watched through the window as he flipped the lights on, warming the house in a soft, orange glow. When Lea finally disappeared down the hallway, Isa took a deep breath and started the trek back to his father’s house through the cool, blue night.
Wrote this while listening to "Eternal Moments" on a loop.
Chapter 9: Scholarly Instinct
Characters: Ienzo and Ansem, with a brief Even cameo because I absolutely cannot resist.
Ienzo may have had a keen nose for chaos, but ultimately, he was inclined toward routine. He completed all of his class assignments on time and in full. He prepared regular and balanced meals for himself and his father. When he wasn’t at school or Higanbana, he could almost always be found at the library or at home, tucked away in a corner with his computer or a book.
When he was at Higanbana, he sat at the same table, or, on the offchance it was occupied, in the same area of the bar. He ordered the same drink. He engaged in conversation with the same few people. He avoided the same events and activities. Regulars knew better than to approach, and newcomers sized him up in seconds. In general, they gave each other a wide berth, and everyone was happier for it.
But between the out-of-towners and the occasional douchebag, Ienzo couldn’t expect not to be hit on once in a while. He turned down potential suitors cordially enough to avoid drama, or off-puttingly enough to discourage them from trying again. Sometimes they got pushy, or their sole intent was to give the scrawny weirdo who sat alone in the corner a hard time. Ienzo was no stranger to this kind of treatment, and all he had to do to resolve the issue was catch the attention of Aeleus, Dilan, or Isa. In a critical situation and with a close enough proximity to the bar, he could even rely on Braig.
Rarely—so rarely that Ienzo was never prepared for it—a patron would be non-aggressive, yet still hard to dissuade. Ienzo would respond with caution, trying to discern their motive. It always floored him when he finally realized that he’d spent the past few minutes entertaining—if not outright participating in—flirtation.
Turning away arrogant, entitled people was something Ienzo excelled at. Turning away friendly, unassuming people was a skill he had yet to master. On one horrendously drawn-out occasion, the other guy seemed to pick up on Ienzo’s reluctance to flirt, but he stuck around awhile anyway, asking if the False Theories were any good and expressing curiosity about the book Ienzo had been reading. It was as if he wanted to talk to Ienzo just for the sake of it, though Ienzo doubted that could be the case, given the overall atmosphere of the club.
After ten minutes of stilted but not altogether unpleasant conversation, the guy let Ienzo return to his book, claiming that it had been nice talking to him and that he hoped to see him around. Ienzo nodded and watched him disappear into the crowd, knowing that he had been unusually short-spoken and witless. He wasn’t even sure if he had actually managed to turn the guy down, or if he’d left the door open for a future attempt. In his uncertainty, he cast a quick, reflexive glance at the bar.
Braig was bent down on the counter, his head on his arms, and Demyx was doubled over on a barstool, gripping Braig’s shoulder for support as the two of them shared a laugh at Ienzo’s socially awkward expense.
Ienzo ignored them. He held no illusions about spending so much of his free time in a nightclub. No matter how poker-faced and unapproachable he made himself, being flirted at was a risk that came with the territory. Even Isa couldn’t avoid his share of unwanted comments, though he was much more proficient at shutting them down. Ienzo would have to pay closer attention the next time it happened and try to pick up some techniques.
For now, he felt more suited to a quiet, uneventful evening. With Braig and Demyx still collapsed against each other in a giggle fit, Ienzo packed up his things and left for home.
Ienzo may have been a creature of habit with a penchant for chaos, but Ansem operated in an entirely different mode. While Ienzo was punctual to the minute, Ansem was borderline unreliable. He might show up exactly when and where he said he would, or he might need to be called forty minutes after he was scheduled to arrive, only to abashedly admit that he had gotten caught up in a research project, or a book. Or a visit to the college campus. Or simply an impromptu stroll around town.
It was behavior that Ienzo would find inconsiderate and supremely annoying, coming from anyone else. Coming from his grandfather, it was charming, and even strangely admirable. Ansem consistently ran late not due to a lack of care but an abundance of it, unable to devote enough brainpower to all the interests and passions and obligations he wanted to pursue at once.
Ienzo not only refused to try and change this facet of his grandfather’s personality, he actively accommodated it. This found him lying on the couch at home ten minutes before he was supposed to meet Ansem downtown, which drove Even to a state of dismay when he emerged from his office.
“He’ll be expecting you, Ienzo!” he said, as if this were a rare and significant event and not one of their regular monthly lunches. “I thought you’d already gone!”
“I guarantee he hasn’t even left the lab yet.”
But Even batted at Ienzo’s sneakered feet (which shouldn’t have been on the couch anyway, and Even knew his son was well aware of that), and with a sigh, Ienzo got up and grabbed a light jacket for the walk into town. Fifteen minutes later, he texted his father a picture of the desolate restaurant lobby, followed by an emoji that was deep in thought. Even merely replied, “Inconclusive. He could have gotten a table already.”
He hadn’t, of course, and it was another ten minutes before Ansem even arrived. Ienzo selected a table in their usual corner by the window, but as always, his upbringing and sense of respect made him rise from his chair at Ansem’s approach. And as always, Ansem assured him that the gesture was unnecessary, though he took advantage of it to greet his grandson with a warm hug.
Ienzo’s schedule had started to fill up with schoolwork, but he and Ansem still met for lunch or dinner as regularly as their lives would allow. They aimed for once a month, often on a Saturday. Ansem had urged Ienzo not to waste his precious weekends on him if he had other plans, but Ienzo insisted that he had plenty of afternoons to spare, and Ansem didn’t push the issue. His grandson was in many ways a unique boy, but in many other ways, he took after those who raised him. He was of an introverted breed.
Ienzo led their discussion with questions about the lab. Gone were the days when he would shadow Ansem or Even through its corridors, or surround himself with a ring of books on the carpet for hours, but he wanted to keep up with any news. There wasn’t much for Ansem to share that Ienzo couldn’t have easily found out from his father, but they didn’t discuss the lab much. For one thing, Even had a tendency to get long-winded and overly technical when he spoke about his work. And for another, Ienzo wanted to save those conversations for his grandfather.
When Ansem finished reporting on all the noteworthy updates, the focus shifted to Ienzo. Ansem wanted to know which classes looked the most promising this semester, if Ienzo was still considering RGU as his top choice for college, and if he had any questions about their curriculum that Ansem could help him with. He wasn’t surprised to hear that Ienzo had done his research and answered his own questions already.
Ienzo didn’t have many new developments on the academic front, but he tried to drag the subject out anyway. Once they exhausted the topics of work and school, they would stray into personal territory. And while Even hadn’t done much griping about the club lately, Ienzo had no doubt that he had already ranted about it to his oldest and most trusted confidante.
Sure enough, Ansem asked the brutally open-ended question, “So, what else have you been up to these days?”
“Not much. I’ve just been hanging out around town, mostly.”
“Yes, your father told me you’d been getting out a bit more.”
“To his never-ending anxiety.”
Ansem chuckled. “He’s a worrier, I won’t argue there. But I think he’s glad that you’re broadening your horizons.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Ienzo punctured a grape with his fork, disassembling his salad one ingredient at a time. “I don’t think he approves of the venue. It’s not really the type of place he’d expect me to go.”
“He told me a little about—well, I suppose a lot about it, though it was difficult to tell how much was hyperbole.”
“It’s just a club. Lots of other teenagers hang out there. He just likes to blow things out of proportion sometimes.”
“Well, it was months ago that he told me about it. I believe he’s cooled off a bit since then.”
Ienzo shrugged. He worked on his meal quietly until he noticed a small, familiar twinkle in Ansem’s eye, a dead giveaway that something was on his mind and yet impossible for Ienzo to decode. “What?”
“Well, I’m speculating now,” Ansem admitted, “but from my observations, I believe your father might be experiencing some anxiety about when you’ll finally start dating. I don’t think he knows how to handle that concept.”
“Well, he doesn’t need to worry,” Ienzo said. After a moment, he added, “But don’t tell him that.”
“Of course. I would hate to spoil your fun. Not that I’ve ever been able to keep your father from worrying about anything.”
Ienzo snickered, though he knew that wasn’t entirely true. Even’s anxiety had a way of taking him over, like a force that possessed him rather than an emotion he felt. But if there was only one person capable of calming his nerves, it was Ansem.
“Isn’t that something you might be interested in, though?” Ansem went on. “Granted, none of us are what I’d call social butterflies, but…”
“I think it’s a moot point. Dad would have an embolism if I ever brought someone home for him to meet.”
“What about that girl you used to spend time with at school? I apologize, I’ve forgotten her name. Yumi?”
“Yuffie?” Ienzo corrected, wondering how they had even fallen into this wormhole of a conversation and how he was going to get out.
“Yes, Yuffie. Thank you. She was around your age, wasn’t she? The two of you seemed to get along well.”
“Yeah, I mean…we did. She graduated this past year. But I don’t think that would’ve, uh…really worked. Besides, Dad thought she was a bad influence on me.”
“Well, I don’t think you should put your life on hold,” Ansem said, frowning slightly as he added more lemon to his tea. “Your father can be opinionated, and sometimes quick to judge, but he wouldn’t want you not to have a social life. I’m sure he’d be happy to meet any girl you introduced to him.” Ansem laughed a little. “Unless of course it’s the other way around, and you’re concerned about introducing him to her. And while I can’t say I don’t see where you’re coming from—”
“You know I’m gay, right?”
Ansem paused in the middle of stirring his tea, and Ienzo instantly regretted posing the question the way he had, as if he were accusing Ansem of not knowing. He waited for his grandfather’s response with a tight, airless sensation in his chest that he couldn’t quantify.
Thankfully, Ansem focused on the content of the question rather than how it was presented. “No,” he said carefully, laying his spoon down on the saucer. “I did not know that.” Ienzo was aware that he was being regarded with this new information, which he hadn’t even intended to disclose today. But Ansem studied his grandson the same way he always had: curiously, but not as if he were a curiosity.
“Did…” Ansem started to ask, though he seemed unsure about where he was going, so he started again. “Is this something you’ve known for a long time?”
“I guess?” Ienzo replied, confused by the question. Ansem nodded slowly, and then he smiled, embarrassed.
“I think I’m trying to figure out the right questions to ask,” he admitted. “That’s my usual method, anyway. I’m not sure how useful it is now.”
“Just ask whatever you want.”
Ansem clearly did have something in mind, but he waited a moment before jumping right to the obvious question. “Does your father know?”
“No. Well, I don’t know,” Ienzo corrected himself. “I guess it’s possible. But I haven’t told him, if that’s what you were asking.”
“It was,” Ansem said, amused but unsurprised that his grandson was keeping him on his toes even now, reminding him to be clear and say what he meant. He couldn’t help reviewing what he knew about Ienzo, reflecting on the past several years in light of this revelation. But he paused in the middle of his reflections. “Ienzo,” he said, suddenly serious. He waited for his grandson to look up before he asked, “Is the reason you haven’t told him that you think he won’t approve?”
Ienzo looked down at his food again. “Not really. Like I said, he’d have an embolism or something no matter who I brought home.”
Bless Even, Ansem thought, for providing them with a target to deflect all of their emotional ineptitude onto, in the form of quips and fond insults. Still, Ansem could sense Ienzo’s walls going back up, so he took another shot.
“You know he would have absolutely no issue with this, don’t you? I know,” he said, raising his hands, “we’re an analytical lot. Conversations such as these don’t come naturally to us. But this isn’t something you need to hide from him.”
Ienzo still had trouble maintaining eye contact—not out of shame, but just plain teenage embarrassment—and Ansem decided it was time to cut him some slack. “Well, it’s up to you. Regardless, I’m very glad you told me. Thank you,” he added, so that Ienzo could roll his eyes and say, “You’re welcome,” mocking his grandfather’s overly but purposely formal tone. They resumed eating, and the conversation flowed much more easily as they returned to ordinary topics such as the latest books they’d been reading, and whether Ienzo would join the school’s debate team again this year.
It was still sunny out when they finished their meal, and Ansem offered to walk Ienzo home, since he’d been planning to take a stroll through town anyway. He watched Ienzo as they headed out, thinking there was so much about the boy he didn’t yet know or understand. But as a seeker of knowledge, that thought encouraged rather than disheartened him.
Ansem reached down to Ienzo’s far shoulder, laying his hand on it and giving it a light squeeze. Ienzo drifted a step closer without realizing, and then they put their space between them again, walking side by side through Radiant Garden, a golden-haired elder and a silver-haired youth.
Chapter 10: What Are You Trying To Say?
1/3 flashback chapter, and I use that term much more literally here than I have before.
Characters: Naminé and Vanitas, plus...
Naminé stands in the doorway, watching the men punch buttons on calculators with their pens. She wishes she’d brought some kind of prop so her hands wouldn’t tangle with each other. She wishes she were allowed to wear clothes with pockets.
It takes nearly two minutes for Marluxia to look at her and say, “What was that, Naminé?”
She assumed he was simply finishing up his work before answering her question, but he hasn’t been listening at all. She might have repeated herself sooner, but she never knows when to take initiative and when to wait. She wonders how much of her life is spent standing stock-still, in silence, waiting for his responses. Adding all that time up, she’s probably lost days.
Naminé isn’t sure where she got the courage to ask the first time, let alone how she’ll steel her nerves to ask again. She runs her hand down her braid, pulling it over her shoulder, and manages to say, “I was just wondering if I could—if we might be able to talk about art classes?”
Marluxia returns to his work, not hiding his annoyance that this is what she’s interrupted him for. “It’s our busiest time of the year, Naminé. You know this.” He snaps his fingers rapidly, too agitated to explain himself, but Luxord slides the exact folder he wants across the table without skipping a beat. He isn’t lying; they truly are flooded with paperwork. Naminé would be stuck at the table with them if Marluxia had any faith in her ability to do basic arithmetic.
It’s funny, though, how he never doubts her math skills when he needs someone to go out and collect payments.
“They’re evening classes,” she tries. “Only a couple times a week.”
“This is a casino. Evening classes couldn’t possibly be less convenient. Why would you even bring this up now, of all times?”
“I did ask last quarter. You said we might be able to figure something out, but I never heard back…”
“I work full-time. Not ‘forty hours a week’ full-time. ‘Every waking moment’ full-time. Luxord needs my help day in and day out. You can’t expect me to keep track of every little request that comes my way.” He scribbles his signature and closes the folder, passing it back to Luxord and rubbing his forehead. “It’s not fair of you to stay quiet and let resentment fester. I’m a human being, Naminé. I can’t remember everything. If you want something, you need to speak up.”
But that’s what I’m doing now, Naminé knows better than to say.
“What about those art supplies we bought you?” Marluxia continues. “Those paints were very expensive, and you’ve barely touched them.”
“But that’s because we’ve been so busy,” Naminé says. She picks at a hangnail, then stops when Marluxia raises an eyebrow at the habit. Instead, she laces her fingers together to keep them still, looking as poised and non-threatening as she can. “I can pay for the classes. It’s not about the money; it’s just having time to practice.”
Marluxia shakes his head, as if he’s at a loss. “I don’t know what you expect me to say. Time is money.”
“On the contrary, Marluxia,” Luxord says, finally offering his input, “money is time. Either way, we have none to spare at the moment,” he adds, giving Naminé a somewhat gentle look. He’s better than anyone Naminé has ever met at almost apologizing.
She doesn’t know what else she can say, and Marluxia closes his book and starts to gather his things. “Fine. Do whatever you want, Naminé. If you want to take art classes, then take art classes. I suppose we can manage without you if we absolutely must. Just check in with Larxene when you return and see if she needs help with any work that piles up in your absence. Deal?”
Naminé truly hates the sound of that. The idea of reporting to Larxene after every class is worse than not taking the classes at all. But Marluxia is finally giving her his full attention, his suit jacket draped over one arm and a stack of paperwork in the other, acting as though he’s waiting for her permission to leave.
Her throat is dry, but she swallows and says, “Um…it’s all right. I’ll wait for a slower time of year.”
Marluxia stares blankly until she says, “Thank you anyway,” and then he glances back at Luxord and sighs.
“I don’t know why you bother me with these things only to change your mind as soon as I say yes. Next time, please do me the courtesy of figuring out what you want before you interrupt my work.”
Naminé nods, holding her own head down, and Marluxia says, “Good,” as he walks past her and out the door. Luxord remains engrossed in his work, acknowledging her even less than Marluxia. Naminé dismisses herself with another nod in his direction anyway, just in case. She’s not sure where she should report to next, but she never has a problem with idleness for long. If she’s lucky, Marluxia will find something for her to do.
And if she’s not, then Larxene will.
“Okay, would it be a guaranteed secure connection every time? And would I be able to get my exact coffee order?”
“Yes, and yes.”
“Then I’m going with free WiFi, no contest,” Vanitas replied. “Free coffee would just turn me into an addict. Pretty sure it’s already stunted my growth.”
“Fair enough,” Naminé laughed, pulling her feet onto the couch and crossing her legs. “All right. Your turn.”
Vanitas leaned back against the lopsided cushions. “Would you rather…have the power of invisibility or the power of flight?”
“Do I need wings?”
“Nope, but you can have them if you want.”
“Do my clothes turn invisible, too?”
Naminé needed only a moment to decide. “Invisibility.”
“I think it would have more practical uses in day-to-day life. Plus, I’m not a fan of heights.”
“Huh.” Vanitas took another onion ring from the paper tray. “I think I’m good enough at going unnoticed already. I’d pick flying.”
They went through another few rounds of the game, in which Vanitas learned that Naminé had a mild strawberry allergy, and Naminé learned that Vanitas was afraid of spiders. (“Aren’t there, like…tarantulas out in the desert?” “Don’t remind me.”) When Vanitas was halfway through a very in-depth explanation of why he’d rather spend a week stuck in an airport than a mall, Naminé felt a small smile easing onto her face. Vanitas trailed off a few seconds after he noticed. “What?”
Naminé shook her head, about to say, “Nothing.” But the smile spread a little more, and instead she said, “This is fun.” Vanitas paused, then gave her a tentative smile back before he went on with his condemnation of shopping malls.
When they ran out of good Would You Rather questions, they started asking more open-ended ones. Naminé wanted to know where Vanitas would go if he could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid. He listed off a few places: Corona and Daybreak Town for the photography opportunities, La Cité des Cloches for the historical monuments and the music, and Port Royal, just because. “And, honestly…” Naminé raised her eyebrows, curious at his hesitation. He tore off small pieces of his spinach wrap, rolling the dough into a ball between his thumb and forefinger. “I might be interested in taking a trip back home.”
“Ooh, that’s a good choice. You could definitely get some interesting shots with your new lens.” But when she saw him nodding to himself, contemplatively, she said, “Wait. Did you mean…as part of the game? Or for real?”
Vanitas shrugged. “I dunno. I was thinking about it. Not for good, obviously. Maybe over Thanksgiving break or something, if that works out.”
“Oh. Wow.” Naminé watched some condensation trickle down her glass of iced tea, counting the months between now and Thanksgiving. “Well…I guess you really will get some good shots, then,” she said with a little laugh. “You’ll have to send me a postcard. No—send me some photos! I’d love to see more of your home.”
Vanitas didn’t answer, or look up from his food, and Naminé quickly backpedaled. “I’m just kidding. You’ll probably be busy. You might not even want to bring your camera, I totally get…”
But Vanitas was shaking his head to cut her off, and Naminé furrowed her brow. “What is it?”
He looked at her, but only for a second. His eyes darted back across the room as he drew himself up and said, as if they were the most difficult words he ever made himself say, “I kind of thought…you might want to come see it for yourself.”
It was a long few moments before he decided that the silence was more unbearable than the eye contact. When he glanced at Naminé again, she was watching him, as he expected. But her expression wasn’t the stunned, doe-eyed look he’d grown accustomed to. She refused to let him off the hook that easily, trapping him instead with a soft, understanding—if slightly disbelieving—smile, letting him know that she recognized what he was offering and appreciated how much it meant.
Vanitas averted his gaze far too late to pretend he hadn’t been staring. He cleared his throat and said, “I might not even go. It was just an idea I was tossing around. There’s not much to do there, but if you like the scenery, it’s nice to see it at least once in person.” He forced a shrug, which made his discomfort even more obvious and Naminé’s smile even broader. But when he said, “So, where would you want to travel?” she allowed him to deflect the attention back to her without comment.
She agreed that La Cité des Cloches and Corona seemed lovely. She wasn’t sure about Daybreak Town, thinking it was a long journey for a place that was ultimately very similar to Twilight Town. “I like Radiant Garden,” she said, “and Twilight Town’s just a few train stops away. The only other place I can think of that I’d really like to visit is down in the tropics, where my cousin lives.”
“Oh, yeah, you told me about her. Islander, right?”
“Yes. Well, she used to live here, actually,” Naminé said. “Her family moved when we were really little. Four or five, maybe. I know I’ve visited once, but it was a long time ago. All I remember is a cove with palms trees, and the ocean. Just about the most generic memories you can have of a tropical beach,” she admitted with a laugh. “But as long as we’re playing ‘what if,’ I think I’d like to visit again.”
“Well, hey. That’s more realistic than any of the places I want to go,” Vanitas said. “I mean, you already know someone who lives there. That’s way more viable than me going to Port Royal or wherever.”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty far away.”
“…I don’t know. Pretty far.”
Vanitas snorted. “Spoken like a true defeatist.” He laughed when Naminé scrunched her face up, feigning offense. “Do you and your cousin still talk much?”
“Not really. We used to write to each other, but that dwindled when we were around ten or so. We just started living our separate lives, I guess.”
“You should try getting back in touch,” Vanitas said, prying open a can of soda. “Bet it’d be a nice surprise for her.”
Naminé shrugged, and after Vanitas swallowed his first sip, he added, “Not that I’m one to talk. I haven’t contacted anyone in my family since I moved here.”
“Wow. ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ huh?”
“Guilty,” he laughed, and they blatantly but deftly brought the conversation back to more neutral ground, leaving Naminé’s apprehensions behind for the rest of the afternoon.
Naminé opened her bedroom window that evening, letting the cool air in so she could bundle up under the covers. She was getting pencil shavings and eraser crumbs on her duvet, but she was too comfortable to get out of bed, and too inspired to put her sketchbook down. As she tapped her pencil on the page, trying to figure out what color to make the sand, her mind drifted further into the image before her, out to sea. She slowed the tapping of her pencil until it was still.
After a moment, she laid the sketchbook on her lap and gathered her pencils back in their tin. She grabbed a pen instead and flipped the sketchbook to a clean page. Reminding herself that there was nothing daunting about a blank, white canvas, she took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and put the pen to paper.
I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last wrote to you. Things have been…
The cap of the pen found its way between her teeth as she considered how honest she should be, and whether she really had been busy enough over the past few years to justify not sending even one letter. As she weighed her options, her eyes drifted back to those first few words. She paused, really reading them for the first time, and then a few more times to let them sink in.
With one decisive pull, she tore the page from the sketchbook, warping the spiral binding in the process. She crumpled the paper and tossed it across the room, missing the trash can by several feet. After carefully shaping the wire back into place, Naminé turned to another clean page, settling deeper into bed as she started again.
I hope this letter finds you well…
Chapter 11: What Is It With You And Picking Up Stray Puppies?
Characters: Lea and Isa, plus a special little sweetheart who finally gets a name.
It was a quiet day at the Quinlan apartment. Lea was forty minutes into a deep clean of the kitchen, and Isa was relaxing in the family room. He sat on the couch with his legs crossed, elbow on the arm rest, head propped idly on his fingers, and a book on his lap. For the first time in two years, he had set aside an entire afternoon to indulge in some recreational reading.
He was terrible at it. Insurance forms and budgets and checklists had changed the way his brain worked, and the harder he tried to focus on his relatively short novel, the more of a struggle it became. The only reason he’d made any progress at all was because of Lea, who provided some pleasant white noise as he rummaged through the fridge.
That is, until he slammed the door. Or tried to. He’d already removed the items from the shelves, causing the fridge to shut with a wholly unimpressive suction sound. His attempt to storm across the kitchen was similarly dampened by his lack of shoes. Nevertheless, he planted himself dead center in the doorway, and while Isa raised his eyebrows and tilted his head, he made Lea wait until he finished his paragraph before he actually looked up.
Lea held a can aloft like a symbol of profound betrayal, everything about his stance indicating that he was ready for a showdown. “What the hell is this?”
Isa peered over his reading glasses. “That would be a can of dog food.”
“A can of dog food,” Lea repeated, as if he were announcing it to a jury. “All right. I want an explanation, and I want it now.”
“I think it’s fairly self-explanatory, Lea.”
“Can you please, for once, just have the decency to act embarrassed at being caught?” Lea held the can out between them. “How long has this been going on? Were you gonna tell me? Am I supposed to start adding dog food to the grocery list now? Oh my god,” he said as the pieces finally fell into place. “Is this where all my leftovers have been going?”
Isa removed his glasses and folded the corner of the book, as if he’d lose his place seven pages in. “I’ve just been leaving some food and water out, usually when I’m passing by the alley anyway. It’s not a big deal.”
“Remember a few months ago? When we had a whole discussion about how difficult it would be to own a pet with our work schedules and my general laziness? ‘Borderline impossible,’ I believe were your exact words.”
“I remember. I’m just giving it food once in a while. I hardly even see the dog.”
“I swear, Isa, if you’ve named it—”
Lea looked suspicious, rolling the can in his hand as he thought it over. “Well…guess I can’t be mad at you for trying to help a stray,” he conceded. With a tired shake of his head, he turned back to the kitchen, halting after a few steps at Isa’s quiet, “Hey.” Lea put the can on the counter, refusing to place it back in the fridge, and he faced Isa again with his hands on his hips. Isa assessed him for a moment before he said, “You look really good today.”
Lea held his hand up, raising a finger for each point. “One: I know. Two: nice try. And three: quit stealing my food.”
Isa showed his palms, graciously accepting defeat, and Lea returned to the kitchen, muttering about how this dog was becoming a real thorn in their sides. Once he was out of sight, Isa slid his glasses back on and opened his book, going back to the beginning of the chapter when he realized he’d already forgotten every word he read.
It was still early when they left the restaurant, so Isa suggested they take the long way home. Lea rolled his eyes. “I know where you’re bringing us,” he said, “and I know why you ordered steak tonight.”
“I’m bringing us home, albeit a little more slowly than usual. And I ordered steak,” Isa added, holding up the take-out box, “because you keep saying my iron intake is too low.”
“And it is. But if that was really the reason, you would’ve eaten more than half—”
He cut himself off when Isa held the box out to stop him in his tracks. Lea took it in confusion, about to ask why it was suddenly his job to carry the food, when he followed Isa’s gaze down the sidewalk.
The dog was standing in the middle of the path, just outside its alley. Its back was arched to protect its meager midsection, but its nose seemed to have a mind of its own, trying to pull its head toward the box of steak tips. This was the first time Lea had gotten more than a passing glance at the dog, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It was missing roughly fifteen pounds of muscle, along with its left ear. What remained was just a flap of skin from an old wound, a lopsided, furless twist of leather that almost closed the ear off entirely. Its coat was dull brown and uneven, matted in some places, and patchy and thin in others.
Isa had just begun to lean down when Lea lifted his chin and greeted the dog with a friendly, “Hey there.”
It balked, abandoning the food for the safety of the alley. With one yelp as its paw jammed between two cobblestones, it vanished around the corner, its scraggly tail the last thing to whip out of sight.
For a moment, neither man moved, taken aback by the sudden reaction. When Isa looked over his shoulder to give Lea a dry glare, Lea responded with a simple, “…whoops?” Sighing, Isa straightened up and took the box again, bringing it to the alley. Lea glanced down the road, wondering why they weren’t writing this off as yet another brief sighting, leaving the leftovers for the dog to eat later, and going home.
But he followed Isa, poking his head slowly around the corner. Isa had lowered himself to one knee in the middle of the dingy alley, keeping a generous distance from the dog, who crouched by a trio of trash cans. When Isa opened the box, the dog’s nose started twitching again, and it began to creep forward, one timid paw at a time.
Lea inched into the alley, and although the dog gave him a wary glance, it continued its slow approach toward the food. It seemed to be responding well to Isa’s manner, so Lea tried to follow his lead. “He’s not lookin’ too good, huh?”
“What? How do you know?”
Isa kept his voice quiet and steady as he replied. “She has a ridge of fur on her back, between her shoulders. It’s a little hard to see, with the state she’s in. But only the females have them.”
“…and you know this why?”
The dog paused at Lea’s shift in tone, but she continued edging toward Isa, already halfway there. Isa shrugged, every gesture slower and more deliberate than usual. “We kept running into her, so I did some research on her breed.”
“Yeah? Just because?”
“I figured I should know, if I was going to keep giving her food.”
Lea sighed, half admiring and half annoyed. “Well,” he said, trying to maintain a sense of humor, “as long as you still haven’t named her, I guess.”
“I haven’t.” After a pause, Isa added, “You did.”
Lea blinked. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly, “I did what now?”
Isa didn’t answer at first, beckoning the dog until she was almost within arm’s reach. He shrugged again. “You said she was a Thorn.”
“…why did that sound capitalized?” When Isa once more chose not to respond, Lea took a deep breath, holding it just long enough to accept that it wasn’t even going to come close to relaxing him. “Isa, come on. We talked about this. We can’t adopt any dog, let alone a stray. We haven’t planned for it.”
“Since when does that stop you? I thought your family’s supposed to be all about improvising.”
“Oh, don’t fucking do that. This isn’t the same. I mean, I thought we were living on a budget all these years so we could finally afford a house. But it turns out we’ve been secretly saving up for a dog all along. Would’ve been nice to have been informed, but whatever, I guess.”
“No, hey, good call. I’ve been wondering what to do with all that extra space we have,” he said, waving his arms sarcastically to encompass the imaginary spare rooms of their apartment. “Why don’t—”
But the dog, who had been gradually closing the distance between herself and Isa, building tenuous trust with each step, bolted again, scrambling over her own paws in her desperation to get away. She retreated even farther than before, almost to the other end of the alley, hunched and guarded as she turned to face them again.
Isa stared, his neutral face now gone slack. The food sat forgotten in his hands as the dog fixed her attention on Lea, who stood frozen in place with his arms in the air. There was a long stretch of silence and stillness from all three of them until Lea said, “Shit,” comprehension sinking in as he dropped his arms to his sides.
It was just as sudden a motion as raising them, and it sent the dog fleeing all the way back to her cardboard den. She yelped continuously—not the quick, startled cry she’d given before, but the sound of brutal, embedded fear, like a warning and appeasement and a call for help melded into one wretchedly horrible noise.
Lea took an instinctive step after her, knowing it was a bad idea even before Isa said, “Lea, stop.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and moved back, finally relinquishing control of the situation to Isa.
A hundred times more carefully than before, Isa approached the dog. He offered an occasional “Hey, girl” and “It’s okay,” but mostly he stuck to quiet, gentle clicks of his tongue so she could keep track of him as he got closer. He went down on both knees this time, folding his legs under him as he sat several feet from her den, far enough to give her space, but near enough that she wouldn’t have to abandon her shelter if she decided to come out.
The cloying smell of urine leeched into the stale smell of waterlogged cardboard, but Isa held the box of food out, hoping it would cut through the odor. He continued to call for her, and eventually, as her cries trickled down to short whines every few breaths, she poked her head back out into the open.
She kept it low. While she responded to the smell of food and the sound of Isa’s voice, her eyes were still glued to Lea. He avoided eye contact, trying to be as unintimidating as possible and looking properly chastised in the process. But Isa kept speaking to her, not in a comforting or cooing tone, but evenly—almost instructionally—and she started to emerge from her shelter.
For all her tremulous fear, her progress was much faster than before. Her tail swept furiously from side to side, the whole hind half of her body following along. It was more of a placating gesture than a happy one, as if she were desperate to prove that she wasn’t a threat. When she was finally close enough, she sniffed Isa’s hand, her breath anxiously erratic. Isa reached for her slowly, allowing her to see every individual movement before he passed his hand over the top of her head.
She went still, neither leaning into his hand nor shying away from it. After stroking her head a few times and studying her lack of response closely, Isa held the leftovers out once more. The dog hesitated, so perplexed and transfixed by the touch that she’d briefly forgotten about the food. But she stuck her nose into the box, gingerly picking up a steak tip to bring back to her den. She huddled under the cardboard as she ate, the roof sagging in on her after weeks of summer showers and humidity.
Lea observed them from the alley entrance. The dog devoured her dinner one piece at a time, always returning to her hiding place to do it, and Isa knelt on the grimy ground, endlessly patient as he watched her every move. On her fourth retreat, Lea quietly said, “Hey.” Isa didn’t take his eyes off the dog, but he turned his head slightly to indicate that he was listening. “Just so we’re on the same page…there’s no chance you’re letting her stay here tonight, is there?”
“Fair enough.” Lea watched Isa try to get the dog to take the next piece of steak directly from his hand, though she didn’t seem to understand that she could. “I’d still like to have a real discussion about this.”
Lea nodded. “You’re humoring me, aren’t you?”
“We’ve pretty much adopted her already, haven’t we?”
Isa placed the box on the ground after the dog took the last piece of steak. “We’ll talk about it.”
As the dog lapped up the leftover residue, nudging the box across the ground in her effort to get every corner, Isa finally looked at Lea, waiting for his verdict. Lea hesitated, then sighed, almost silently. “Let’s just focus on getting home for now.”
Isa had concerns about leaving the alley, but they proved to be baseless. All it took was constant, gentle encouragement in the form of holding his hand out and saying, “Here, Thorn,” and she trotted after him, still rattled, but as reluctant to leave his side as he was to leave hers. Lea had to slow his pace every couple blocks, and it made the long way home even longer, but together the three of them finally made it back to their street.
Thorn’s anxiety returned with a vengeance at the apartment complex, and her compulsion to stay close to Isa lost out to her desire for shelter. As she darted behind some bushes, Lea decided to leave her to Isa again while he went ahead and started dog-proofing the apartment. Once he was gone, Isa got comfortable on the front steps of the building, elbows on his knees, hands hanging between them.
He spent an hour coaxing Thorn out of hiding, calling to her as she braved the open sidewalk only to run back to the bushes whenever a car drove by. His tone never changed, and his lack of flinching gave her a focal point. No matter how suddenly she recoiled or how close she put her nose and teeth to his bare hands, he held them steady and still, and while she continued to quail under every unexpected noise, it took her less and less time to return to his side.
When it was dark enough for the street lamps to come on, Isa rose to his feet, heartened by the fact that his movement didn’t scare her away. It took a few minutes to persuade her to follow him inside, but once they were through the door, she stayed so close that Isa almost tripped over her. The stairwell in particular seemed to put her on edge; Isa imagined she didn’t like the lack of escape routes. But she followed him all the way to their floor, and by the time they reached their apartment, it hardly took any convincing to usher her inside.
Isa shut the door softly, trying not to spook her or make her feel trapped, but she had already started investigating. She inspected the couch, then the bookshelf, then the window, her nose working overtime. Isa wondered if she was picking up on his and Lea’s scents and recognizing this as their home, or if she was just relieved to be anywhere that wasn’t the street. She seemed to understand that she was somewhere safe, at least, though that realization also seemed to boggle her, her pupils flooding her eyes as she combed every inch of the room.
“Lea?” Isa called, keeping an eye on Thorn. “We’re back.”
“In the kitchen,” Lea replied, and while Thorn looked up at the sound of his voice, she didn’t balk from it. She even followed Isa into the kitchen, but she detached from him quickly to continue exploring. She was so distracted by the new sights and smells that she didn’t notice the bowl of water until she’d already stuck her nose in it, though she began to lap it up right away.
“Don’t let me forget about these,” Lea said, filling another dish at the sink and setting it down in the opposite corner of the kitchen. “I put a bunch of them all around the apartment so she can drink wherever she’s comfortable.”
“That was thoughtful.”
“Yeah, well. Odds are I’ll just end up knocking them over in the middle of the night. Plus, we’re down to one bowl each now.” He looked at Thorn as she diligently inspected the kitchen floor, his mouth twitching in spite of himself when she walked into a chair. “Kind of a space cadet, huh?”
“She’s looking a little better. Y’know, coming out of her shell a bit.”
The two of them spent a minute watching Thorn do a full lap around the table, eagerly licking crumbs off the floor. When she padded into their bedroom, leaving them alone in the kitchen, Lea said, “So, can we talk about this now?”
Isa nodded, giving him his full attention for what felt like the first time that evening. He stood by the table while Lea crossed his arms, leaning back against a corner of the counter. “Well, first things first. I don’t even know if our building allows dogs.”
Lea stared at Isa for a moment, then exhaled, both exasperated and adoring as he muttered, “You so planned this.” Isa shrugged, and Lea went on. “We need to think about our work schedule, and whether we’re equipped to take care of a dog.”
Isa shifted his jaw. “We can try it out for a period of time. If we decide it isn’t doable, we can work with a shelter and find someone better suited to take care of her.”
Lea wasn’t sure how convinced he was by that. Isa’s tone was matter-of-fact, even businesslike, but Lea had already seen the hearts in his eyes when he looked at Thorn. “We’re gonna have to revamp our entire budget.”
“I’ve been working on it for the past couple weeks. I can run my suggestions by you whenever you’d like.”
Lea couldn’t help smiling. “All right, what’s next? You gonna open our closet and show me you’ve already bought a crate of chew toys and a dog bed?”
“Oh, we’ll definitely need to get a new bed.”
“…I beg your pardon?”
Isa hesitated, wondering if he was pushing his luck. “You’ve been insisting on an upgrade for a while now.”
“Not ‘a while.’ Two years. And you’re finally gonna cave for a dog?”
“Our current mattress isn’t large enough for all three of us. Either we get a new bed, or one of you will just have to sleep on the floor.”
Lea gave him an unamused look, but Thorn’s paws clicked on the kitchen tile again, drawing Isa’s attention away. He knelt on the floor, and she joined him immediately, craving reassurance after the few minutes spent exploring the apartment alone. She let him pet her, and he let her get close enough to sniff his face, even when she tried to lick it. Lea’s look softened as he watched them. Damn, he thought as Isa allowed Thorn to press her slick nose into his hair. He didn’t even fall in love with me this fast.
With another sigh, Lea uncrossed his arms, resting his hands on the counter instead. “Well, blessing in disguise, I guess. I just have two conditions.”
“Name it,” Isa said, working his fingers gently through the longer fur on Thorn’s neck.
“Since we’re already gouging our budget, we might as well spring for one of those space-age memory foam mattresses. Work has been killing my back for way too long.”
“Done. I’ll write it off as a business expense.”
“Secondly,” Lea went on with a little laugh, trying not to get distracted until they’d covered all points, “she sleeps at the foot of the bed. I don’t wanna fall asleep next to you and wake up next to a dog.”
“Agreed.” Lea nodded, though he couldn’t help wondering how long that rule would actually last.
As Thorn returned to the family room, Isa got to his feet, doing his best to brush the dog hair from his clothes. He looked at Lea and said, “Anything else?”
Lea took a few moments just to look him over. Isa stood at attention, a few tufts of fur still clinging to his slacks. Lea had trouble containing his smile when he realized how much their usual dynamic had reversed: Isa the tentative, hopeful one, waiting for Lea to approve his impulsive idea.
“Yeah,” Lea said, pushing off the counter. “One more thing.” He crossed the kitchen and stood beside Isa, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close. He kissed the side of Isa’s head for a long moment, and when Isa leaned against him, Lea murmured into his hair, “You’re a good person.”
Isa fidgeted, suddenly unsure where to look. Lea gave his shoulders a reassuring squeeze, but when Isa leaned up for a real kiss, Lea drew back sharply. “Uh,” he said, the softness in his voice gone. “Yeah, I mean…you’re a good person and all, but you did just let a stray dog lick your face.”
Isa looked offended, possibly more on Thorn’s behalf than his own, but he didn’t argue. After one more quick hug, Isa adjourned to the family room, and Lea joined him after grabbing a pen and paper. “Okay,” he began, writing Thorn’s name at the top of the page. “I guess a vet appointment is the top priority, right?”
“I’ll call tomorrow morning.”
“Great. For now, I’m gonna try and run to the pet store before it closes, wherever the hell it is.”
“Thank you. Now, what are the necessities? What’s critical for the next twenty-four hours or so?”
“A collar and leash.”
“Right,” Lea said, jotting both down. “And for the dog?”
Isa gave him a flat look, and Lea tapped the pen against his temple. “Yeah, that was funnier up here. Should I get a name tag?”
“Yes. Put my phone number on it. And pick up some cans of bland food. I’ll get specific recommendations from the vet.” Isa watched Lea add to the list. “Food dishes and water dishes. A brush. And a bed.”
“All right, come on. She’s been sleeping in a soggy cardboard box. I’m sure the carpet will be fine for tonight.”
“Chew toys. Tennis balls. Stuffed animals.”
“Isa. I’m talking about essentials here.”
“This is all essential.”
“It really isn’t. And even if it were, could you please tear your eyes away from her for two seconds and look at who you’re talking to? Think about how much I can actually carry.”
Isa did, and he half-nodded, half-shrugged, accepting that point. “Besides,” Lea said, “she’s got enough to take in for one night. Once she gets her bearings, you can bring her to the store yourself and let her pick out her own toys. Sound good?”
“Yes,” Isa said immediately. “That’s infinitely better.”
“Good. Well, if that’s all for now…” Lea grabbed his bag, checking to make sure he had his wallet. He was about to leave when he noticed Thorn watching him, caught by his change in tone as the conversation reached its end. To his surprise as much as Isa’s, she started to cross the room. She walked slowly, still cautious, but Lea held his hand out a few inches, his fingers gently curled.
“Hey, girl,” he said as she crept forward. Isa could tell Lea wanted to bridge the gap himself, but he waited, and before long he was rewarded with Thorn’s nose bumping softly against his knuckles. She sniffed his hand and even made eye contact, though apparently that exceeded her comfort level, and she withdrew to the kitchen soon after.
Lea shrugged, hiking the bag higher on his shoulder. “Well, that’s progress, I guess.” He glanced at Isa, who was looking toward the kitchen. “Hey.” When Isa turned his way, Lea held the list up. “If you think of anything else, text me.”
“I will. And thank you.”
With a nod and a promise to be back soon, Lea departed. Thorn was drawn back to the family room by the sound, arriving just in time to see him go. She trotted to the door, sniffing it curiously until Isa settled down on the floor and called her over.
Her body writhed again, hip bones jutting out with each wag of her tail. Isa tried to pet her, and Thorn tried to lick his hand, neither one of them accomplishing their goal. Eventually, Isa’s steadiness won out, and Thorn managed to hold still while he ran his hands over her face and body, counting her ribs. He worried he was hurting her when she started to whine again, but she nudged his hands, urging him on. She continued making sounds of pain as he stroked her coarse fur, apparently knowing no other response to touch, even when it was gentle.
“We’ll get you up to a healthy weight soon,” Isa said softly. “We’ll get you a professional grooming once you’re up to date on your vaccinations. And honestly, I’ll be very surprised if Lea doesn’t return with at least one stuffed animal tonight.”
Thorn was responding well to his voice. She sat beside him for a few seconds, then stood abruptly to perform a nervous lap around the room. She returned to Isa’s side, then left again, repeating the pattern. She didn’t stop to sniff anything, seeming to have no real goal in her wandering. Isa remained seated on the floor, trying to ignore how quickly his back was stiffening up. Lea was right. They should have gotten a new mattress by now.
Thorn’s circling gradually shrank, ending with two small rotations by Isa’s side before she lay down next to him. She was unnaturally still, and her breathing was tight as Isa ran his hand along her back. After a while, she rested her chin on his leg, still whimpering intermittently, the sound of stress leaving her body, wringing it dry. Isa tried to catch her eye, but she stared across the room in a catatonic daze, stupefied by the effects of the evening.
Isa continued to pet her anyway. When she started to blink sleepily, he combed his fingertips down the sparse mane between her shoulders. “I’m sorry you were hit,” he said, and Thorn pushed her nose into his free hand, licking it softly as though to return the sentiment.
Chapter 12: Nothing Is Whole
Get ready for a whole slew of flashback chapters. (Contains descriptions of child abuse—more of the aftermath than the incident itself.)
Characters: Lea, Isa, and Lea's mom.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Night set in fast, even for November. The sky’s pale, rosy glow vanished in an onset of blues and purples and blacks. Shadows pooled in yards and all the way down the sidewalk.
Isa held his jaw shut until it ached, trying to keep his teeth from chattering. By the time he bothered to pay attention to where he was going, he was already at the Quinlans’ house, dodging the loose stone on their walkway. His feet carried him forward, doing the work that his brain couldn’t. He stood on their steps in the blue non-light of dusk, opposite the soft orange emanating from the front hall. It was hard to curl his stiff fingers into a fist, and even harder to make himself raise his hand to knock. It was too cold for insects and too dark for birds, and Isa stood motionless in the late autumn silence. Then, with a raw breath, he rapped his knuckles on the door.
Nothing happened at first, and Isa wondered if there was still time for him to turn around and leave. When he saw Lea enter the hallway from the kitchen, Isa wished he had left, realizing that he had arrived right in the middle of dinner.
Lea gave him a quizzical smile through the window as he approached, but when he opened the door, his expression fell like Isa had never seen it fall before. He could tell by the way Lea zeroed in on the side of his face that it was already bruising.
“What happened?” Lea asked, reaching out and pulling Isa into the house before he could answer, not wanting to make him say what they both already knew. He brought him into the foyer, keeping his hands on Isa’s shoulders as he bent down to catch his eye. “Isa?”
Isa felt Lea’s gaze on him, burning with questions, but he simply stared at the wall and said, “I can’t go back.”
Lea wrapped his arms tightly around Isa, either knowing exactly what to do or having no idea what else to do. “You’re not going back,” he replied, but he said it too forcefully, trying to convince them both and sounding all the younger and more unsure for it. Isa continued to stare, following a pattern in the wallpaper. His shoulder was particularly cold, and he finally remembered the damp dish towel draped over it. He started to shake, only feeling the chill now that he was inside. Far from the first time, he considered how lucky he was that Lea always seemed to run a few degrees warmer than average.
A chair squeaked on the kitchen floor, followed by footsteps and Ms. Quinlan saying, “Lea, you’re letting a draft in.” She rounded the corner, taking an automatic half-step back to give the boys privacy when she saw them, and freezing in place when she really saw them. For a moment, she didn’t do or say anything. But when Lea looked at her and said, “Ma,” sounding as shaken as Isa looked, she stepped forward again.
“Isa, come in, come in,” she said, taking her son’s place and putting her own arm around Isa’s shoulders instead. “Lea, get the door.” She guided Isa into the family room, and as they sat on the couch, they heard Lea shut the door, secure all three locks, and flick on the outside light.
Ms. Quinlan assessed Isa, brushing his hair aside to get a look at the bruise on his jaw. He flinched, and they both said, “Sorry,” at the same time. She rubbed his upper arms briskly when she noticed how he was keeping them pinned to his sides, and after a few minutes, his shaking reduced to occasional shivering.
Lea stood in the family room doorway, even more distressed now that he was a mere spectator. “Is he okay?”
Ms. Quinlan’s eyes were still on the bruise. “Lea, go grab an ice pack.” He started down the hall, backing up to the doorway again when his mother said, “Wait.” She took the dish towel from Isa’s shoulder and tossed it to Lea. “Throw that out.”
As Lea went to the kitchen, Ms. Quinlan pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and laid it over Isa’s shoulders. “Does it feel like anything’s broken?” she asked. “Are there any cuts on the inside of your mouth?”
Isa shook his head. “It’s just sore,” he said, and she could hear how difficult it was for him to answer, the puffiness of his jaw and cheek making his pronunciation softer than usual.
“Do you have any other injuries?”
He shook his head again, and Ms. Quinlan let herself feel a bit of relief at that before she asked her next question. “When did he do this?”
She tried to stay in nurse mode, maintaining a gentle but matter-of-fact tone, and on the surface, she succeeded. But Isa knew anger when he heard it. He wondered how clearly the bruise was shaped like a handprint. “Just before I left. I walked straight here. Um…twenty minutes ago, I guess?” His responses were stilted and out of order, as if he were speaking his thought process aloud, but Ms. Quinlan nodded patiently as she rubbed his upper back.
Lea returned with an ice pack and a glass of water, because he was striving for a way to feel useful, and it never hurt to have some water, though he ended up setting it down on a side table to be forgotten. “All right,” Ms. Quinlan said as she took the ice pack, “I know the last thing you probably want right now is more cold, but it’ll help keep the swelling down.” Isa nodded, and then stopped so she could hold the pack to his jaw. He winced, and Lea, unable to spend one more second away from Isa’s side, joined them on the couch. He arranged the blanket more snugly around Isa and lifted his hair out from under it, his fingers catching tiny crackles of static. When he brushed all of Isa’s hair away from his face, he took over for his mother and rubbed Isa’s back, crossing the warm but respectful distance she’d been keeping.
Isa tensed under his touch, feeling like it made everything he and Lea had ever done suddenly visible. Lea had been assuring him for years that his mother was supportive of them being together, and it wasn’t like they went out of their way to keep their relationship a secret from her. But whenever they told her they were going out for an evening, all three of them were mindful not to use the word “date.” They had been careful about physical contact, too, and not just in front of her. Fond, playful touch between childhood friends started to look different when they entered their teen years. And now Lea was being openly affectionate without a shred of self-consciousness, while Ms. Quinlan sat less than a foot away.
Isa took a slow, quiet breath in an attempt to calm down, and the smell of food caught his attention. “I’m interrupting your dinner,” he said, knowing as it came out of his mouth that it was a ridiculous thing to say. But everything was swirling around him, and he clung to whichever passing thought he could get a hold of, just to keep from losing his grip entirely.
“Isa, you’re not interrupting our dinner,” Ms. Quinlan said simply. “You’re joining us for dinner.” Lea rubbed Isa’s back more firmly in agreement while Ms. Quinlan lowered the ice pack and inspected the bruise. “I think the swelling’s starting to go down. Is it too cold?” When Isa shook his head, she held the ice pack out to Lea. “You wanna take over for a few minutes?” She moved aside so Lea could take her spot, and after watching them for a moment, she said to Isa, “I’m going to call the police now,” both informing him and asking his permission. He nodded vacantly, and she hesitated. “I’m sorry, but before I call…I just need you to confirm for me that it was your father who hit you.”
Isa nodded again, staring across the room, and Ms. Quinlan squeezed his shoulder before she went to the kitchen. They heard the fan above the stove turn on as she picked up the phone. Lea didn’t say anything, because “Are you okay?” would be stupid, “I’m sorry” would be trite, and he couldn’t even think of a suitable third phrase. He just moved closer, holding the ice pack against Isa’s jaw so carefully that it barely made contact.
Ms. Quinlan returned sooner than any of them expected. “The police are on their way. They just need to get a statement and document the bruising.” Isa nodded blankly, and the three of them stayed where they were until Ms. Quinlan added, “Well, dinner’s still warm, if anyone wants it. Isa, have you eaten? We have chicken, potatoes, green beans—I put some cookies in the oven a while ago, too. They’re a little on the crispy side, but Lea was actually just going on about how you prefer them that way.”
“Hey, Ma, c’mon,” Lea said, scratching the back of his head. Isa looked like he wanted to say something but couldn’t quite land on it, and Ms. Quinlan’s expression softened.
“Come on,” she said. “They’ll get here when they get here. There’s no point sitting around waiting when we could be eating. It’ll help you warm up.”
Finally, Isa nodded again, his head twice as heavy as usual. He let Lea help him up while Ms. Quinlan brought the ice pack back to the kitchen, and Lea took the blanket from Isa when he started to fold it. “It’s fine,” he said, tossing it to the corner of the couch. Isa still looked distant as Lea put his arm back around his shoulders, but before they left the family room, he shut his eyes and pressed his forehead to the side of Lea’s head. They stood there for a few seconds, Isa leaning against Lea as if he were the only thing keeping him from dropping straight into the ground. Then Lea gave his shoulders a light squeeze and whispered, “Come on,” and together they went to the kitchen.
Ms. Quinlan had already made a plate for Isa, loading it up with an extra dinner roll. She forewent symmetry for the sake of putting Isa on the same side of the table as Lea, as silently considerate as Isa was silently grateful. Lea slid the salt, pepper, and butter down as they sat, but no one spoke much. Their attempt at normalcy only highlighted how abnormal everything was, and it was hard for Isa to pretend this was just a regular dinner with a police cruiser on the way. Additionally, his jaw was still too sore for him to eat half the food on his plate. He settled for small spoonfuls of potatoes and peeling the rolls apart into doughy, bite-sized flakes.
When the doorbell rang, Ms. Quinlan went to the front hall, leaving the boys at the table. They pushed their food around their plates while she got the officers’ information and invited them in, and she returned to the kitchen shortly. “They just have a few questions for you, Isa,” she said. “Lea, could you bring another chair in, please?”
Lea couldn’t help glancing at Isa, but he did as his mother asked, taking a chair from the table and carrying it down the hall. Ms. Quinlan waited for Isa and guided him to the family room again with a reassuring hand on his back.
A woman sat in the armchair with a camera at her hip while a man took the kitchen chair, thanking Lea as he sat down. Ms. Quinlan and Isa sat on the couch, and while there was room for Lea beside them, he chose to linger just inside the doorway, keeping his distance.
It was a painless process overall. The first officer asked for Isa’s account of what happened while her partner jotted down the details in his notepad. They were professional and straightforward, and Isa found it was easier than he expected to relay the story. He explained how he’d been washing the dishes when he and his father got into an argument. His father had given him a smack on the back of the head, and when Isa knocked his arm away, that was when his father struck him, leaving the bruise.
“So, he hit you twice?” the male officer clarified, and after a moment, Isa said, “Uh—yeah, I guess so.” He went on to say that the rest of the details were hard to remember. They argued a little more, but when his father started breaking dishes, that was when Isa left.
Lea, who had been staring at the window as if he were on lookout, now glanced at Isa. “He was throwing dishes while you were still in the house?” the female officer asked. Isa nodded, watching her partner scribble more notes. “Did he hit you with any of them?”
“No, no,” Isa said hurriedly. “Just his hand.”
The silence was fleeting, but it came down like a guillotine. Lea looked from one adult to the next, silently demanding to know if any of them were going to address what Isa had just said.
Wisely, none of them did, and as the officer finished his report, his partner turned on her camera. “We need to take a few photos to document the bruising,” she said, with a hint of apology in her otherwise professional tone. “If you could just…”
Isa sat on the edge of the couch while she half-knelt on the carpet, lining up the shot. He gathered his hair out of the way and lifted his chin, and Lea looked like he wanted to step in and shield Isa from the lens. But it was over with a few soft snaps of the shutter, and the woman returned to her seat, putting the camera away while her partner clicked his pen.
“Well,” he said, closing his notepad, “we sent a unit to your father’s house. He was in an agitated state, and the kitchen was a mess, as you described. They brought him down to the station for the night. He’ll be released tomorrow morning, but if you want, you can press charges and file for a restraining order—which, given the circumstances, I’d say has a very good chance of being granted.”
Isa nodded slowly, going a little blank again, and Ms. Quinlan asked, “Does that all have to be done tonight?”
“We advise people to do it as soon as possible after the incident, but it can be done tomorrow morning. They’ll probably want to take a few more photos of the bruising, just for comparison.” Ms. Quinlan nodded, and Isa thought, Incident. Good. This was an “incident.”
After confirming that there was nothing else the officers needed, Ms. Quinlan caught Lea’s eye and tilted her head toward the kitchen. He swooped in immediately to take Isa back to dinner while she finished up with the police, assuring them that Isa would spend the night at her house and asking a few more questions as she walked them out.
The rest of the evening passed quietly. Ms. Quinlan cleared the table after dinner, refusing Lea’s help with the dishes, though she did put him in charge of transferring the cookies from the baking sheet to a large plate. She invited Isa to take his pick, but when he reached for one, Lea grabbed the plate. “Nuh-uh—this way,” he said as he carried the entire platter to the hall, pausing only when his mother, up to her elbows in soapy dishwater, said, “Hey, hey, hey.” Lea removed a cookie, left it on a napkin for her, then led Isa back to the family room.
Before Isa could sit down, Lea put the plate on the coffee table and wheeled it across the carpet with a series of squeaks. Isa hesitated, but Lea was already removing cushions from the couch, so he helped him unfold the pull-out. Lea straightened out the blanket while Isa propped a few cushions against the back of the couch, and while it took some persuading, he eventually settled in beside Lea on the mattress.
Lea clearly wanted to reach out to him while they watched TV, but he held back, circling the perimeter of Isa’s comfort zone, guarding it. He knew the floodgates would open later, when the house was dark and quiet. For now, he put the plate down between them, going through the motions as if everything were normal. Isa helped himself to dessert, chewing slowly and finding that he didn’t mind the pain in his jaw as much when it came from eating cookies.
Around ten o’ clock, Ms. Quinlan returned to the family room. Isa had been reclining more and more over the past hour, but he sat up when she appeared in the doorway, and Lea grabbed the remote to mute the TV. “I just want to go over the plan for tomorrow,” she began. “You two can sleep in a little, but we should try to get to the station by eleven at the latest. I have some errands to run in the morning, but I’ll be back at ten. Isa, I’m sorry, but our spare room is an absolute disaster right now. You can take Lea’s room for the night. There’s an extra toothbrush in the bathroom—should still be wrapped. Oh, and if you want, you can leave any clothes you’d like washed on top of the machine, and I’ll take care of them before I head out tomorrow.”
Isa nodded, barely managing a “thank you,” and Ms. Quinlan turned her attention to Lea. “You’re in charge of breakfast. I think we have enough ingredients for waffles, but otherwise, there’s cereal, bagels, eggs, bacon, plenty of fruit—”
“Yeah, thanks. I do live here, y’know.”
“There are leftovers from tonight,” she went on, ignoring him. “Let me know if you two decide to go out tomorrow so I can plan my meals. I don’t want the fridge overflowing.”
“Do you have enough blankets for the pull-out?”
“Will you lend Isa some pajamas for tonight?”
This, of all things, finally got through. Isa laughed, nothing more than a small smile and slight exhale through his nose, but it was like a fever breaking. Both Lea and his mother visibly relaxed, and Isa realized just how on-edge they’d been because of him, even as they tried to keep the mood light.
Ms. Quinlan smiled at Isa and asked if there was anything else she could get him. He said he was fine, though after a moment, he added, “Maybe some ibuprofen?” She retrieved it from the kitchen, selecting the dosage for him and passing him the water from the side table.
“Well, I’m turning in,” she said once he finished drinking. “I’ll see you two in the morning. Isa, if there’s anything else you need during the night, feel free to wake one of us up.”
Isa nodded, and Ms. Quinlan walked around the couch, putting her hand on the uninjured side of his face and kissing the top of his head. “Good night.” She did the same to Lea, though she used her hand to flatten his hair first. He smiled, saying, “Night, Ma,” as she ruffled his hair more or less back into place. She went upstairs, hitting most of the lights on her way, but leaving a few dim ones on to see by.
Lea turned the volume back up on the TV, and he noticed Isa in his periphery, unmoving. “You okay?”
Isa didn’t answer, asking instead, “Does she always do that?”
“Usually, yeah. If we’re both home and still awake. She doesn’t have to, if you’re uncomfortable with it,” Lea added. “I can let her know.”
But Isa shook his head, and after a long internal debate, Lea reached out, sliding his arm tentatively around him. Isa leaned into the embrace, slouching to lay his head on Lea’s shoulder. They finished watching a poorly-edited cut of Jurassic Park, Isa inching closer periodically and Lea running his fingertips up and down his arm, resting his cheek against the top of Isa’s head.
By eleven o’ clock, Lea decided they should probably go to bed. They wrapped up the cookies before heading upstairs, and Lea told Isa to pick out whatever he wanted for pajamas while he went into the bathroom. Isa walked through Lea’s room, stepping through ten feet of space and ten years of memories. He’d been here hundreds of times before—more recently to see Lea naked on as regular a basis as he could manage. But something about going through his dresser was unexpectedly intimate. Isa opened the first drawer and was met with two warm scents mingled together: the sawdusty smell of old, wooden furniture, and the sweet but smoky scent Lea always carried with him, like sapling branches thrown on a bonfire.
His pajama options were few because, apparently, Lea didn’t believe in wearing pants to bed, even in November. Isa finally settled on a pair of red sweatpants he’d seen Lea wear maybe twice, and an oversized T-shirt he’d seen Lea wear countless times. It was worn and faded, but comfortable, and—more importantly—comforting.
Isa brushed his teeth once Lea freed up the bathroom, and he left the faucet running after he rinsed. He stuck his hands under the cold water to quickly scrub his face, but when he looked up at the mirror, he paused.
Despite the ice pack, the bruise was still swollen, and several shades of purple. Isa tested it, pushing his fingers against what looked like the worst part and wincing sooner than he anticipated, feeling pain go straight through the muscle and into his mouth. He adjusted the faucet, letting the water warm up and using that time to pinpoint every area of tension in his neck and shoulders and relax them, one by one. As the cold water in his palms turned cool, then lukewarm, he inspected the bruise again, as morbidly fascinated as he was sickened by it.
In hindsight, it hadn’t happened entirely without warning. Isa distinctly remembered his father saying, “Watch it,” in a cautioning tone as he delivered that first smack to the back of Isa’s head. But he had no chance to brace himself for the second one. A snake could not have struck more quickly.
Isa couldn’t even remember what the slap had sounded like. It was so sudden and forceful that everything was muted for a few seconds, as though Brandt had stricken the world into silence. But it had echoed in Isa’s skull, not audibly, but physically, pulsing like aftershocks. One moment he was knocking his father’s arm away, and the next he was staggered, clutching the edge of the counter, his head ringing like a bell. When he looked up, Brandt had already put his hand back down at his side, trying to hide the evidence as though he hadn’t left it on Isa’s face.
And in the kitchen, Isa thought, oddly bitter about that. If he wanted plausible deniability, maybe he shouldn’t have broken every single dish I just finished cleaning.
He shook himself off, feeling very strange about all this. He soaked his hands in the warm water and gently massaged his face with his fingertips, taking his time and being extra careful with his jaw.
When he exited the bathroom, carrying his clothes in a small bundle, he wasn’t surprised to see Lea still in the hallway. He was standing by his bedroom door with a scowl on his face, but as soon as he looked up, his expression softened. He almost smiled at the sight of Isa in one of his old T-shirts.
All the lights were off, but the moonlight came in bright through the leafless trees outside. Isa was astounded at how little tension he felt in this house at night. He’d never been allowed to stay late enough to notice it before. Well, we’re finally having a sleepover, he thought, musing that all it had cost him was getting assaulted by the only blood relative he’d ever had.
He stood in front of Lea, waiting. After looking at Isa for a moment, Lea reached out and took his hand. “I’m not sleeping down there. C’mon.”
Isa didn’t argue, but as Lea brought them into his room and shut the door, he said, “Doesn’t your mom have rules about this kind of thing?”
“I think the normal rules are out the window right now.” Isa heard restrained anger in Lea’s voice, the first trace of it he’d allowed to surface since Isa had arrived. But Lea closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before he looked at Isa again. “I don’t want you to be alone tonight.”
Isa nodded. He hadn’t really been protesting, only trying to ease his conscience and hear Lea tell him that what they were doing was okay. His plan worked a little too well when Lea added, “Besides, Ma’s not stupid. She knows we’re sleeping together. She literally lectures me about having safe sex on, like, a bi-weekly basis.”
Isa laughed quietly, but he felt his face warming. “She takes her job pretty seriously, huh?”
“Oh, you have no idea. She’s the reason they have such a comprehensive program. Once I started middle school, she went into the clinic every week on a new crusade. ‘Why don’t we provide more options for protection? Not all the kids even need contraceptives, you know.’ ‘Why don’t we offer any pamphlets exclusively for same-sex relationships? They’re only mentioned on the last page, and you know none of these kids are reading that far.’”
Isa struggled to keep his laughter quiet at Lea’s impressively accurate imitation of his mom. “She singlehandedly turned this town into a gay haven over the past few years.”
“You’re telling me.” They shared a laugh until they both realized they were stalling. When they hit a lull, Lea half-shrugged and said, “Well…we should probably go to bed. I’m beat.”
To his credit, he cringed immediately, hearing what he said even before Isa did. “God, sorry. Sorry. That was so fucking stupid.”
Isa smiled faintly. “It’s fine.” Lea looked unconvinced, and he apologized again before stripping down to boxers and a tank top, mentally kicking himself the entire time. As he was about to get into bed, Isa stopped him. “Hey, could…do you mind if I sleep on that side?”
“Sure, of course,” Lea said earnestly, stepping back. “Whatever you want.”
Isa seemed like he was about to say something, and an almost pained look flitted across his face as he chose not to. He got into Lea’s bed, scooting over to the far side, against the wall. As Lea slid in beside him, Isa changed his mind, deciding to say after all, “I want you,” too desperately for Lea to enjoy hearing it. He wrapped his arms around Lea’s neck while Lea hugged Isa around his waist, trying to finish settling in. He stroked Isa’s hair, running his fingers though the long blue strands, which had been growing out slowly but steadily over the past four years. When Lea felt tears burning his bare shoulder, he held Isa closer and said, “It’s okay,” not realizing that that was why Isa was crying.
Being struck had shut him down, but it was everything that followed that had brought out the tears. An extra dinner roll, a back rub, a plate of cookies. A kiss good night. He and Lea had always been ice and fire, but now Isa was truly feeling it. He’d come into Lea’s house to thaw, his frostbitten nerves slowly regaining sensation. It healed, but it hurt first.
His crying was steady but quiet, the tears a calm purge accompanied at most by shaky breaths. Isa didn’t bother to wipe them away, letting them either dampen his face or fall as he wrapped his arms tighter around Lea, kissing his cheek and his neck before moving up to his mouth. Lea did his best to reciprocate, expecting to have to reach out and comfort Isa, and thrown off by how actively Isa was seeking comfort himself. He knew this was a valid reaction, that some people found solace through physical intimacy in the wake of tragedy or trauma. Lea had never quite gotten that, but he supposed he’d never had his own tragedy or crisis to use as a gauge.
Still, he knew they were pushing it. Somehow he’d ended up on his back with Isa leaning over him, his hair spilling down on both sides of their faces like a waterfall. They’d never been in bed together without going all the way before, and Lea could tell he’d have to be the one to put a stop to things soon, but he didn’t have the heart to yet. All he wanted was to do anything to keep this from being the worst night of Isa’s life.
But as Isa slid his hands down Lea’s waist, Lea abruptly pulled away from the kiss, whispering, “Isa, Isa,” and reaching up to hold his face. He only meant to keep Isa where he was for a moment, a pause rather than a full stop, but Isa sat all the way up with a seething breath. It took Lea a second to realize what went wrong.
“Shit,” he said, sitting up as well, automatically reaching out to Isa and then putting both hands in his lap, telling himself to just stop already. Isa held his fingertips an inch from his jaw, and Lea looked guiltily at the bruise, feeling like it was in the shape of his own handprint now.
“Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just did that. What the fuck is wrong with me tonight?”
Isa waited for the pain to recede before he said, “It’s okay.” After a few more moments of silently berating himself, Lea reclined again and made a crook of his arm, and Isa carefully curled up in the space beside him, still shifting his jaw to test the pain. Lea brought his hand to the nape of Isa’s neck, working his fingers up through his hair and lifting it off his back. Isa’s eyes shut, and he moved closer until he was pressed up against Lea’s side. Lea stretched his leg out between Isa’s, crossing their ankles.
They lay there in silence for a while, Isa trying to match his breathing to Lea’s heartbeat, until Lea quietly said, “Isa.”
Not just tired, but drained, Isa merely responded, “Mmm?”
Lea trailed his fingertips up and down Isa’s back, the repetitive motion helping him get his thoughts together. “Listen…if I could go back in time and stop tonight from happening, I would. If I could go back and stop any of it, I would.” Isa opened his eyes, looking across the room, his gaze drawn to a shelf full of comic books. “It’s just…it sucks. But I’m glad you came over. I don’t know how many times something like this has happened before and you ended up staying there, or going out alone. And, I mean—I don’t think I ever felt worse than when I opened the door tonight and saw you standing there. But I was relieved, too.” Lea kissed the top of his head for a long moment and said, “I just feel better knowing you’re here.”
Isa waited to make sure he was finished before he said, “So do I. And thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. Seriously, we’re glad you’re here. You know Ma’s crazy about you.” Lea laughed a little, playing with Isa’s hair. “I kind of think she’s wanted to adopt you for years. She used to talk about you like you were a future son-in-law.”
Isa snorted. “Well, glad she dropped it.”
“Yeah,” Lea agreed, smoothing Isa’s hair back into place. “Now she talks about you like you already are one.”
Isa continued to stare across the room, trying over and over to let that sink in. Lea, who had been intermittently stroking Isa’s hair and rubbing his back, stilled his hand and said, very plainly, “We love you, Isa.”
Isa didn’t move. He lay there, alert, careful not to even breathe too deeply, as if the words were hovering around his head and the slightest motion might startle them away forever.
Lea assured him that wasn’t the case by adding, more softly, but no less clearly, “I love you.”
Isa turned to him, wrapping his arms around Lea again and burying his face in his neck. It muffled his reply, so all Lea could hear was, “—you, too,” but he knew the rest was there. When Isa finally loosened his arms, taking one hand back to wipe his face dry, Lea laid the pillows flat so they could lie down fully. They faced each other, touching foreheads, sharing breath, Lea warming Isa and Isa cooling Lea, heartbeats slowing in tandem as they fell into a joined sleep.
Luckily, I've never been in this type of situation before, so I just kind of...winged it, as far as the police were concerned. This whole fic takes place in a pseudo-realistic setting, anyway.
Chapter 13: Nothing Is Broken
Another flashback—immediate follow-up to the previous chapter, and the same warnings about child abuse apply.
Isa awoke to sunlight filtering through gray clouds and the sound of running water down the hall. It was a peaceful kind of quiet—not a sudden awakening, but a simple matter of sleep melting away, leaving a calm, conscious state behind.
He stretched, unaware that he was reaching one arm farther than the other until it touched empty space instead of Lea. The previous evening returned to him slowly, and he wondered how much of it had even been real. He pressed on his jaw, felt no pain, and, encouraged, pressed a little harder. He drew a sharp breath, massaging the area as the sting faded.
That much had been real, at least.
The shower handle squeaked, followed by the plastic curtain being whisked aside. Isa glanced at the clock: quarter past eight. Despite how comfortable he was, he felt unusually eager to get up and start his day. He spent a few minutes tidying, making the bed and straightening out the window blinds. When he realized that what began as a polite clean-up had become a legitimate fixation on how messy Lea’s room was, Isa forced himself to leave the rest for later and go downstairs. He made it as far as the hallway before the bathroom door opened.
Lea stepped out with a towel around his waist, vigorously drying his hair with a second one. He paused when he saw Isa, his hands gradually stilling on top of his head. “Well,” he said. “Good morning.”
“No shit,” Isa replied, blatantly looking him over. Lea grinned—there was nothing like an ego boost from Isa. The more sarcastic he sounded, the better the compliment he was giving.
“Bathroom’s free, though I’d give it a minute to air out,” Lea said as he continued to rub his hair dry, some of the spikes already lifting back into place. “The atmosphere’s like eighty percent Old Spice at the moment.”
“Yeah, I might’ve noticed,” Isa said, breathing shallowly. Lea started heading back to his room, but he made a detour first. He stopped in front of Isa and let the smaller towel fall across his shoulders, covering up most of the freckles, to Isa’s disappointment. Lea slid his arms around Isa’s waist, and Isa avoided eye contact as if that would hide how embarrassed he was. But Lea kept looking down at him, slightly dazed, totally adoring.
“I think we’re definitely pushing it with your mom’s house rules,” Isa said as Lea bent down to kiss his neck.
“I think there are fewer rules than you seem to think there are.” He worked his way up to Isa’s cheek, but just before he reached his lips, Isa pulled back. Lea paused, confused.
“I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”
Lea stared for a few seconds, then rolled his eyes with a small smile, kissing Isa’s cheek one more time before he went to his room. Just before he closed the door, his eyes lit up in remembrance.
“Oh! Hang on, I gotta get your clothes. Gimme ten seconds.”
He shut the door and exactly ten seconds later flung it open again, a flurry of zipping up his jeans and trying to finish putting on a very twisted T-shirt. “Heard the dryer stop like half an hour ago. They might be wrinkled, but I can iron them.” He dropped his arms when Isa took the hem of his shirt, untangling it and pulling it into place without a word. Lea kissed his cheek again in gratitude, and, despite earlier protests, kissed Isa’s lips briefly. He started down the stairs, taking them two at a time except for the final three, which he cleared in one leap with the aid of the banister. Isa followed more conventionally, wondering if his presence was throwing off Lea’s morning, or if he always started the day this slapdash.
Lea was already setting up the ironing board as Isa arrived in the kitchen. When Isa told him not to worry about it, Lea replied, “No, you don’t worry about it. Go take your shower. I’ll have your clothes ready by the time you’re done, and then you can help me with breakfast. Deal?” Isa agreed, but before he left, Lea added, “Oh, hey. How’s your jaw feeling?”
“Not bad,” Isa said, automatically raising his hand to it. “It really only hurts under pressure.”
“Good,” Lea said, sounding relieved. “But, uh, just a heads up? You might wanna brace yourself before you look in the mirror.”
“…that figures,” Isa said with a sigh. Lea gave him an apologetic look before he started gliding the iron over Isa’s shirt, and Isa trudged back upstairs.
The mirror was still fogged up, which allowed Isa to enjoy his shower without having to acknowledge whatever state his face was in. He took his time, turning up the temperature until the water was almost molten. When he stepped out, he flossed and brushed with his usual diligence, trying to be thorough but also aware that he was stalling. Finally, he wiped the mirror clean, thinking that however bad his jaw looked, it was worth it for the lessened pain.
He was wrong. The swelling had disappeared, but what remained was mottled and awful, the most sickly shades he could imagine: the yellows of fat and vomit, and a purple so dark it was almost black, like mold spores spreading under his skin. Last night it had been less defined, a smudge of pale purple and blue. Now it was an unmistakable handprint, in the colors of violence and decay. Isa could see just how much his father hadn’t held back, how he’d been able to strike with everything he had, because none of what he had was love.
The realization shot through Isa as swift and irreparable as a fracture in ice. That’s the real slap in the face, he thought grimly. He stared at himself for a while longer, then exhaled decisively and finished his morning routine. When he peeked out into the hall, he found his clothes on the doorknob, wrinkle-free and arranged neatly on a hanger. He dressed quickly, squeezing the excess water from his hair and twisting it into a bun. He’d thought about leaving it down to cover the bruise, but he figured if he was going to the police station, he might as well let it show.
When he returned to the kitchen, Lea had already broken their deal and done most of the cooking himself, to Isa’s annoyance. Not only did he want to pull his weight, he also enjoyed watching Lea cook. He was good at it, and it was still a novelty for Isa to see a full meal prepared instead of being tossed an apple on the way to school.
Lea smiled when Isa joined him at the stove, scooting over to make room while Isa observed the spread of scrambled eggs and toast and crackling bacon. “That’s a lot of food.”
“Yeah, full disclosure: most of it’s a few days from expiring. Gotta use it up.”
“It looks good.”
“You look good.”
Isa scoffed. “I look like someone threw a brick at me.”
“Hey,” Lea said, making sure he had Isa’s attention before he repeated, “you look good.”
Isa nodded, accepting Lea’s claim so he could go back to preparing breakfast. But Lea laid the spatula down, facing Isa fully. “Can I kiss you now?”
With another nod, Isa reached out, pulling on Lea’s shirt to bring him in. Lea stepped up to Isa but spent a few minutes just looking at him, thoughtfully tucking some loose strands of hair behind his ear while he studied his face. Isa, normally a major proponent of eye contact, always felt a little self-conscious whenever Lea did this. When Lea finally leaned down, touching his lips to Isa’s gently, Isa felt a weightlessness in his stomach, which he decided to chalk up to how hungry he was, because surely he didn’t still get flustered by something as basic as a closed-mouthed kiss.
Any chance of maintaining his composure was lost when Lea withdrew, just far enough to look Isa in the eye, and said in a near-whisper, “I love you.” Before Isa could respond, Lea kissed him again, briefly, and repeated, “I love you.” And then he kissed Isa’s cheek and said it again, and then his temple, his forehead, between his eyebrows, the bridge of his nose, the tip of his nose, his other cheek—peppering Isa’s entire face with light, fleeting kisses and telling him he loved him after every one, apparently hooked on the phrase now that he’d finally said it.
Isa laughed, feeling absurdly silly, but when he started to move back, Lea raised his hands to cup his jaw. He barely made contact, trying to avoid last night’s mistake, but that was all he needed. Isa responded to his slightest touch, meeting Lea for another kiss. It wasn’t any deeper than before, just slow and calm and lasting for as long as they wanted.
Which was until Isa smelled something start to burn. He pulled back, his face still in Lea’s hands, and said, “You’re gonna start a fire.”
Lea smiled. “Yeah?” he replied as he leaned in again, and Isa pulled back further.
“Lea, you are literally—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Lea said, reaching back without looking to turn the burner off and finally letting Isa step away. “Relax. I’ve managed to avoid burning this place down for the past ten years.” He scraped the eggs and bacon onto a plate and handed it to Isa, then opened the fridge. “What do you want to drink? I put some coffee on, but other than that, we’ve got milk, orange juice, like half a glass’s worth of grapefruit juice, apple—”
“Hey.” Lea paused, holding onto the fridge door as he glanced at Isa, who stood by the table with his plate. “Love you, too.” Lea smiled, and then fought back an even bigger smile, and Isa added, “And orange juice, please?”
“Comin’ up,” Lea said, all but beaming. “Now, sit down, get comfortable, and start eating.”
Isa did sit down and start eating, though he refused to get comfortable on principle. Normally he put up a bit more resistance whenever Lea tried to get bossy, if only for the fun of making him work harder to crack Isa’s resolve. But this morning, he didn’t have the energy to act like he was anything but ravenously hungry. He hadn’t felt it until he stepped into the shower, where the warmth and humidity had made his stomach lurch and contract, crumpling like a ball of foil. The fallout from last evening, the minimal amount of dinner he’d eaten, and a full night of rest had taken their toll.
When Isa cleared his plate, Lea held up the pan again, raising his eyebrows. Isa nodded, a little embarrassed by how much he was eating, especially when Lea sat down with just two slices of raisin toast and a cup of coffee. Whatever amorous mood he’d been in before was ebbing away as he watched Isa eat, and while Isa had the vague impression of being a patient whose progress Lea was monitoring, he was still too hungry to care.
For the most part, Lea let Isa focus on breakfast, but once he was halfway through his second serving, he decided to broach the subject. “So, about today…are you feeling okay about all this? I mean, dumb question, but…”
Isa thought it over as he swallowed, shrugging. “I kind of have to at this point. I can’t really risk not going through with it.”
Lea nodded, and they both went quiet again, Isa chewing some toast, Lea drinking his coffee. Finally, Lea said, “I feel like I should say something helpful, but I don’t know anything about this. I don’t even know anyone who’s filed for a restraining order before.”
“Neither do I. I have no idea what I’m doing, as usual,” Isa said with a laugh. “At least we’re consistent, I guess.”
“True. You know my philosophy: wing it and hope for the best.” Lea took another sip of coffee and added, “Incidentally, that’s also my philosophy on eyeliner.”
Isa laughed a little more, and Lea smiled, letting him return to his food. He ate more slowly than before, the brief pause allowing him to acknowledge how full he was. He nodded at what remained on his plate. “That was really good,” he said. “I could get used to this.”
“What? Eating breakfast?”
Lea looked disheartened for a moment, but he said, “I was going to bring it upstairs. You know, a whole breakfast in bed type deal. You woke up too early.”
“Good. I don’t want you taking care of me,” Isa lied. “It’s bad enough you did all this without waiting for me to help. I don’t want to be a burden here.”
“I know what you’re going to say.”
“Let me say it anyway: you are not a burden. Got it?”
Lea watched him, feeling like he hadn’t gotten it at all, but he let it drop. Isa drank some more orange juice while Lea took a sip of coffee, and once their focus was somewhere besides each other, Lea said, “I could get used to this, too.”
Isa snorted. “What, doing all my chores for me? Making my breakfast and ironing my clothes?”
His tone was lightly teasing, but Lea didn’t play along. He stared down at his coffee, swirling it contemplatively around the bottom of the cup. “Yeah,” he said. “All of it.” He waited a moment, then looked Isa in the eye and said, “I could get used to waking up next to you.”
Isa sat still, waiting for Lea to look away or self-consciously scratch the back of his head. By the time he realized he wasn’t going to, he’d already held Lea’s gaze for a good few seconds. He looked down at his plate, conspicuously pushing the food around without eating any of it. It had always gone without saying that they wanted to spend all their time together, and that they were waiting for the day when they’d finally be able to. Saying it now, in a near-perfect simulation of Isa’s ideal morning, after all that had transpired over the past twelve hours, was a little more than he was prepared to handle.
He could tell Lea was watching him, but after a few seconds, he looked away and finished his coffee. He was still too serious to be relaxed, too introspective, but he radiated a calm, content energy, having said exactly what he meant to say.
They were clearing the table and washing the dishes when the front door unlocked, and Isa forced himself to relax as quickly as he tensed up. Ms. Quinlan entered the kitchen with two large paper bags in her arms, surprised by the sight of them. “Look at you two, already up and at ‘em,” she said, dropping the bags on the table and taking off her hat and scarf. “Good morning, Isa. How are you feeling? Did you sleep well?” Her gaze swept over his bruise, though she tactfully said nothing about it yet.
“I did, thanks,” Isa replied, wondering if she’d noticed them both in Lea’s room when she got up, if the pull-out looked convincingly slept in.
“Good. When did you get up?”
“A little after eight.”
“Do you feel rested?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“There’s no rush, you know, if you want to take a little more time.”
“Geez, Ma, he said he’s good.”
Ms. Quinlan held up her hands, saying, “All right, all right,” while Lea rolled his eyes at the sink. “Isa, I left the painkillers in the bathroom for you, just in case.”
“I saw; thank you.”
“Looks like the swelling’s gone down,” she said as she started to unload the groceries, now observing the bruise more openly. “How does it feel?”
“Not too bad. It still hurts if I press on it. But it’s fine, as long as I don’t walk by any mirrors.”
She smiled sympathetically. “Well, I know it might not seem like it, but it’s healing well.”
“Besides, nothing could ruin that pretty face.”
“Lea, hush. Isa, could you put these in that cabinet behind you?” Ms. Quinlan asked, handing him a couple bags of rice and providing a convenient excuse for him to turn away and hide how furiously he was blushing.
The next fifteen minutes were spent putting away groceries, cleaning up, and making idle conversation. When there was nothing left to do, they decided as a somewhat awkward group that it was probably time to go to the station. Lea gave Isa one of the coats he’d outgrown and luckily held onto, and after grabbing some duffel bags and cardboard boxes, they all piled into the truck and headed out.
Isa had never been inside a police station before. The combination of bright lights and dark wooden furniture was strangely disorienting at first, but when they reached the desk, the process went much more smoothly than expected. They sat with an officer, and Isa recounted his story and had a few more photos taken. When the topic of restraining orders came up, however, Isa floundered, and without thinking, he glanced at Ms. Quinlan. She’d been keeping quiet, but the second he looked her way, she took the wheel. She wanted to know what they would need to prepare, how soon they would be able to appear before a judge, how long the process tended to take, and so on, knowing as little as Isa did about restraining orders, but at least knowing which questions to ask.
Before they left, Ms. Quinlan requested an escort. She explained that since Isa would be moving into her home, he needed to gather all of his belongings and personal documents from Brandt’s house, something he hadn’t had a chance to do last night for obvious reasons. Their interviewer promised to send someone out in a few minutes, directing them back to the lobby to wait.
They stood in a quiet little cluster, and Isa wasn’t sure what to say. He felt it was implied that he would be staying at the Quinlans’ house for longer than just one night, but he’d been expecting a separate, sit-down discussion about it, with Ms. Quinlan outlining all the conditions and parameters for him to agree to. Instead, she had gone ahead and said it like the most natural thing in the world, as if it had been decided a long time ago.
The officer who came out to meet them said that Brandt had been released earlier that morning, and while they couldn’t legally prevent him from returning to his own house, they’d strongly suggested that he find something else to do for a few hours. The trio followed her there in the truck, not speaking much, and Isa felt a pit in his stomach when they turned onto what he realized was no longer his street. As they went in, it occurred to him that Ms. Quinlan, to his knowledge, had never set foot in this house before. He felt odd bringing them all inside, like guilt by association, and he wished he were truly as much of a stranger here as he felt, just so someone else could take the lead.
Ms. Quinlan waited by the front door with the officer, sending Lea ahead to help Isa gather his things. They were the only ones in the house, but Lea thought Isa walked through the kitchen as if he expected his father to enter it at any moment. There were no signs of last night’s violence, though; Brandt must have stopped by earlier to clean up.
Lea waited for Isa to start collecting his things, but he just stood in the kitchen. He looked confused, even mildly distressed, and before Lea could ask if he was all right, Isa crossed the room, going straight to the trash can. He opened the lid and, closing his eyes, exhaled in relief. Puzzled, Lea joined him, leaning over the trash can to see an assortment of ceramic shards and broken drinking glasses.
“Just checking,” Isa muttered as he dropped the lid and headed for the stairs. Lea followed, his brain whirling as he tried to grasp the fact that, even with blood clotting in his face in the shape of his father’s hand, Isa still needed proof that he wasn’t blowing things out of proportion.
Isa let Lea start on the bedroom while he got his things from the bathroom. When Isa returned a mere minute later, he started to rifle through his desk, skipping over entire drawers. Lea zipped up the duffel bag, still holding pockets of empty space even with the entire contents of Isa’s closet and dresser. “We should’ve gotten you out of here sooner.”
Isa shrugged. “I’m getting out now.”
“Yeah, but…this shouldn’t have had to happen first. Nothing should’ve had to happen.” Isa paused to look at him, and Lea said, “Sorry. I’ve been trying to keep a lid on this. It feels stupid for me to get more upset about this than you are.”
“It’s not stupid,” Isa said, sounding a little less dismissive than before. “It’s nice, in a weird way. And it makes sense. This is still new for you. I’ve been dealing with him for years.”
“Okay, saying shit like that is gonna make me even more upset.” Isa gave him a wan smile, but he didn’t approach Lea, still conditioned to keep his distance in this house. Lea slung the duffel bag over his shoulder, and they each picked up a box, both of them only half-full. “All right. Anything else?”
Isa gave the room a final scan, realizing how few memories he associated with it. “No,” he said. “And even if there is…honestly, I just want to go.”
Lea nodded, heading back out to the hallway. Isa followed, absorbed in his thoughts and walking straight into Lea, who had stopped just outside the door. A moment later, Isa understood why.
Brandt’s voice drifted up from the front of the house, though it was quickly cut off by either the officer or Ms. Quinlan. Isa blanched, and he would have backed into his room again if Lea hadn’t hefted the box to one hand, propping it against his hip so he could put his free arm around Isa’s shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said, quietly but earnestly. Isa nodded, not in agreement with Lea, but just in an attempt to regain his composure.
“I don’t want to talk to him,” he said, with hardly enough breath to sustain a whisper. “I don’t have anything to say.”
“Then don’t say anything. The police officer’s here. Ma’s here. I’m gonna be with you the whole way.”
Isa nodded more slowly, taking a deep breath before letting Lea guide him down the hall. After only two steps, he suddenly dug his heels in, saying, “Wait.” Lea stopped, about to remove his arm from Isa’s shoulders, but Isa leaned in, kissing him briefly, and then again, more fully, overriding his nervous reflex to pull away. A few books toppled over in the box, and Isa realized he was shaking as if he’d regressed five years, kissing Lea for the very first time again. He had always urged Lea to keep his voice down in this house, to be very careful about what he said and how he behaved around Isa, to avoid touching at all. He did every single stupid thing I asked for years, and he still loves me, Isa thought. My boyfriend loves me, and I’m kissing him at least one time under this roof before we leave forever.
He broke away but stayed close, and Lea wrapped his arm tighter around his shoulders, the closest they could get to a hug with Isa’s belongings in their hands. Isa closed his eyes, pressing his forehead firmly against Lea’s for a few seconds before he said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Lea kept his arm around Isa on their way back through the house, adjusting his one-handed grip on the box every few steps. They heard the adults more clearly on the first floor, and as they approached the front door, Ms. Quinlan’s voice came through the clearest.
“—how else to say it to you. He walks out in the middle of November, no coat, after dark, and an hour later you’re still—look at me—”
“All right,” the officer said in a mediating tone, about to step between the two of them as Lea and Isa rounded the corner.
Brandt was standing just inside the open door, and he was the first to spot them, though the way his gaze fixed over Ms. Quinlan’s shoulder caused her to look as well. She faced the pair, turning her back on Brandt almost entirely. “Are you two all set?”
“Yeah,” Lea said, not looking his mother in the eye because it would mean letting Brandt into his field of vision as well. He held Isa even tighter. “We’ve got everything.”
“Good. Bring Isa’s things out to the truck. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Isa withered under his father’s gaze. There was a time when being seen like this would make him panic and struggle until Lea released him, just to relieve the unbearable pressure of showing his father proof of what he apparently hated. Now, Isa was praying that Lea wouldn’t let him go. He felt safe with the officer and Ms. Quinlan nearby, but it was Lea’s hold that made him feel secure.
“Well,” Brandt said, addressing Isa as if they were the only ones in the room. “You’re really determined to break up this family, aren’t you?”
Isa automatically assumed that was a dig about him dropping in on the Quinlans unannounced. It took him a moment to understand that when Brandt said “family,” he was referring to Isa and himself.
“Why don’t you tell me what she’d think about this?” Brandt went on, continuing their conversation from the night before. “Calling the police on your own father?”
“I called them, Arthur,” Ms. Quinlan said—not defiantly, Isa realized, because there was nothing about Brandt for her to defy. She was simply correcting him, and expressing some exasperation that he hadn’t left already.
She caught Brandt off guard, and while his attention was on her, Lea started to guide Isa toward the door. The officer extended her arm, herding Brandt aside so they could pass. He obeyed, but he couldn’t help making one last snide remark as they walked by, telling them scornfully, “Well, it looks like you’re getting exactly what you want.”
Lea finally glared up at him, his green eyes burning bright. “Go to hell.”
“Lea, help Isa bring his things to the truck,” Ms. Quinlan said, before anyone else had a chance to respond. Lea walked out the door with Isa safe under his arm, and the last thing they heard from inside the house was Brandt saying to Ms. Quinlan, “Wow, nice kid.”
They loaded the truck in silence, and Isa tried to remind himself that getting what he wanted wasn’t a bad thing. His winter coat was in one of the boxes, easily accessible, but he opted to keep wearing Lea’s, as he’d already warmed it up. Regardless, he was still shaking, and Lea suggested they take a walk around the neighborhood. Isa followed him, his feet once again doing the work that his brain couldn’t, though as they left the house, he couldn’t help asking about Lea’s mom.
“She’s gonna be a few minutes. Trust me.”
“Is she okay in there, though? I know there’s a police officer, but still. He hits hard.”
“So does she. She’s knocked out guys scarier than him before.”
“Seriously. Walloped an intruder with a baseball bat.” Lea chuckled at the expression on Isa’s face. “C’mon, I’ve told you this story before.”
“That your mom is some kind of crime-fighting vigilante? No, Lea, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that.”
“I barely remember it,” Lea admitted. “I was like six years old. I guess there was this string of break-ins near our neighborhood—eighth district, half the street lamps didn’t even work and no one gave a fuck. Anyway, I had a fever or chicken pox or something, so Ma and I were both home when the guy broke in. I don’t think he expected anyone to be there in the middle of the day. He probably would’ve just took off once he realized. But, y’know, young single mom, sick kid upstairs…I think her instincts kicked in.”
“And her instincts were to beat a grown man into submission with a baseball bat?”
“…does she still have the bat?”
“Pretty sure she broke it that day,” Lea laughed, and Isa joined in, though his mind started to wander. As a child, he had seen both his father and Lea’s mother as adults and authority figures, on the same tier. But looking back, Ms. Quinlan had only been twenty-five when they first met, and Brandt was already in his forties. She’d been far closer to the age Isa was now than the age his father was then.
But as he envisioned the two of them standing in Brandt’s doorway—forgetting to even include the police officer in the picture—Isa found it hard to worry. Brandt had been an unstoppable force last night, but Ms. Quinlan was the immovable object standing firmly before him. By definition, they couldn’t both exist, and despite the adrenaline still pumping through Isa’s veins, he already knew which one would prove the other false.
“What’s up?” Lea asked, and Isa realized he’d been smiling. He shook his head.
“Nothing. Your mom’s just, like…a superhero.”
“Nah, she’s just wicked cool. She is gonna be a doctor, though. Maybe a surgeon.”
“Yep. I mean, she’s wanted to do it for a while, but she hasn’t exactly had the time, what with working her crazy hours and basically raising Bart Simpson alone.”
“Yeah. No offense, but you’re kind of a handful.”
“Well, you would know.”
Isa blurted out a laugh, genuinely not expecting that response. His head swam at the clash of sudden humor and lingering anxiety, and through the dizziness he managed to think, Yeah, fuck you, dad. That’s how you make a gay joke.
Lea smiled at Isa’s laughter, hearing what a release of tension it was. But after it dwindled down, followed by a minute of walking together in silence, Isa said, “Um.”
Lea turned, seeing that Isa had paused a few steps back. “What it is?” Isa was focusing very hard on nothing in particular, and when he tried taking another step forward, he stopped again with clear urgency. “Isa?”
“I’m about to throw up.”
“…what?” Lea asked, and without bothering to repeat himself, Isa quickly went to some bushes between two yards and knelt on the grass, heaving. “Oh, shit. Hey,” Lea said, rushing to kneel by his side. He brushed the loose strands of hair from Isa’s face, then rubbed his back, waiting patiently for him to get everything out. Isa spat a few times once he was finished to rid himself of the taste, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and cursing under his breath. “There goes all that time you spent on breakfast,” he said, trying weakly to laugh it off.
Lea shook his head as he helped Isa to his feet, rubbing his back until Isa gently brushed him off. He still looked faint, and bile itched in his throat, but in a way he seemed better than earlier. His shaking ceased, the vomiting having purged him of not only food but also excess energy. They walked on in silence for a few minutes, listening to the gritty scuff of their sneakers on the sidewalk, until Lea said, “Hey, um, we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but…what exactly happened last night?”
Isa shrugged. “It was just the same shit as usual until he hit me. I was doing the dishes, and he made some stupid joke. They all blended together after a while. Something along the lines of, ‘Well, your mother always did want a daughter.’”
“Okay, does he literally not understand that we’re both guys? For real, I’d believe he’s as stupid as he is evil.”
“Right? At this point he should’ve just said what he meant and saved us all the time.” Isa shrugged again. “Usually I just tune him out. I don’t know why I got so pissed off last night. I told him that she’d think he was an asshole for saying that to their only son. He gave me a slap on the back of the head—” Isa demonstrated on himself, more of an upward sweeping motion than a direct strike, though Lea still winced. “—and for some reason I just couldn’t deal with him anymore. I knocked his hand away, and the next thing I knew, he’d hit me.”
Lea nodded somberly, ready to accept that as the full story, or at least as much of it as Isa was willing to share. But Isa hesitated, considering what to say next.
“I was stunned,” he went on. “Not emotionally, but like…literally, physically stunned. He hit that hard and that fast. Even he seemed surprised by it.” Isa chewed the inside of his cheek in thought, then cringed, forgetting about the very injury he was describing. “Me hitting his hand away should’ve been a reflex. But I had to make myself do it. The way he hit me—that was a reflex. He did it before he even realized. He ended up telling me to apologize, for—I dunno, disrespecting my mother’s memory or some shit. But if that was really what he was upset about, then he would’ve hit me sooner, when we were actually talking about her. He was just mad that I hit him back for once.” Isa kicked a pebble off the sidewalk. “Kind of fucked up. I keep thinking, if that really was a reflex, then how long has he been holding back?”
“…you didn’t apologize to him, did you?” Lea asked, not sure why that was the detail he decided to focus on. Isa snorted in sardonic laughter.
“I asked him if he was crazy and told him he needed to apologize. I don’t think he meant to literally slap some sense into me.” Lea forced a smile, but it fell again as Isa said, “He didn’t like that, obviously. He made grab for me—I think I just staggered back, I was still pretty stunned. That’s when he lost it. He hated that I wasn’t letting him do whatever he wanted anymore. He swiped some dishes off the counter. I remember hearing them break when I walked out. After that, I just blanked until I got to your house.”
“…I’m sorry,” Lea said. “And I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner. It just felt like a weak response to all this. But I’m really sorry.”
“Thanks. It’s how it is, I guess. At least he’s gonna have a criminal record now, right?”
“I mean…dragging your mom into it, though. And acting like you were the one who brought her up? What the hell is wrong with him?”
“He always gets like this around this time of year. Well, not like this,” Isa corrected, pointing at his jaw. “But worse than usual.”
“But…I mean, I know it’s harsh, but she died a long time ago, right? He should’ve figured out how to deal with his shit by now without putting it on you.”
Isa, who had been maintaining a very matter-of-fact tone, brushing off the grim details, finally hesitated. “Lea,” he said, “she died when I was born.”
They were still walking, but Lea felt like every part of him had stopped entirely. “…what?”
Isa shrugged again, a gesture that was becoming less appropriate the more he spoke. “She died in childbirth. Apparently there were complications. They told her it was unlikely both of us would survive if she went through with the pregnancy. She decided it was worth the risk. My father doesn’t agree.”
“He said that to you?”
“No. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he did. He’s always angry or moping this time of year. It’s more about the anniversary of her death than anything else.” Isa let out a bitter little laugh as he said, “You want to know the worst part?”
Lea was afraid to let him continue, wondering how, after all this, he still hadn’t heard the worst part. “I don’t even know if I was right about her thinking he’s an asshole,” Isa went on. “I know nothing about her except what my father told me. For all I know, she was just as bad as him. Maybe she would’ve hated me, too. And then I think…maybe I’m only thinking that to make myself feel better, like my father could only care about someone as awful as he is. Because if my mother was a good person, and he really did love her, then why not his own kid? Like…what made me so unlovable?”
Lea was about to respond, but Isa was on a roll. “And I’m sorry for even saying that, after everything you guys are doing for me, and you telling me—” He cut himself off, unable to say out loud that Lea loved him as a definitive fact. He took his first full breath in minutes and said, “I’m not doubting that you feel that way. There’s just…a lot coming up.” Isa had been on a series of emotional upswings and tailspins over the past day, but the full force of everything, the good and the bad, seemed to finally come pressing down on him. He rubbed his face, holding his head as though trying to manually stop his thoughts from spinning. “There’s way too much happening right now.”
He slowly lowered his hands, about to shake himself off and keep walking, when Lea gently turned Isa toward him, wrapping both arms snugly around his shoulders. Isa leaned against him, trying to exhale the stress out of his system with every breath. He stayed there for a few minutes, waiting for that little squeeze Lea always gave him before letting go, but it didn’t come.
“Isn’t your mom waiting for us?” Isa asked, muffled against Lea’s coat. Lea didn’t respond, nor did he loosen or tighten his hold, and Isa gradually leaned against him more fully, wrapping his arms around Lea’s waist. His head was still foggy, and his stomach had voided itself, but he felt like a solid, existing point in the universe, and it sank in for him that this wasn’t a comforting hug as much as an affirming one. He gave no thought to anything that had happened, or had yet to happen, or was currently happening outside of this moment. He simply stood there with Lea, letting the moment last for as long as he needed it to.
Eventually, not knowing or caring how much time has passed, Isa slid his hands back down, and Lea gave him that final squeeze before letting go.
They completed their loop of the neighborhood, and while Isa felt a twinge of anxiety as his father’s house loomed into view, he took some comfort from the sight of the police cruiser still parked by the curb. Unsurprisingly, he found more comfort in the sight of the truck. It had become more of a haven for Isa than the house he’d lived in for eighteen years. On countless summer afternoons, he’d walk to the Quinlans’ place and see Lea out in the driveway, bent halfway over the engine, fiddling expertly with it, his slender fingers protected by a pair of thick gloves. Other times he’d be working on the undercarriage, not even needing to jack the truck up, but simply lying flat on a skateboard and rolling himself under. On those days, Isa would approach quietly, listening to him work, and during a lull, when he was sure Lea’s hands were free of the mechanisms, Isa would put the toe of his shoe on the skateboard and wheel it back out, greeted by Lea’s surprised face, a smudge of black grease on his cheek, stark against his skin.
The truck had been a spot for them to hang out on summer nights, when they felt like being outside but not going far from home—and Isa realized that even back then, he must have thought of the Quinlans’ house, on some level, as home. In middle school, they’d sit in the cab and talk about whatever they needed to, windows up, lights off, sun down, a safe place for both of them to vent. And later, when they were finally old enough to take it out of the driveway, it brought them to Twilight Town, to the beaches, to drive-ins, to the outskirts of Radiant Garden where the crystals erupted through the rocks, to the cliffs that overlooked the valley and the castle ruins. It ran on memories as much as fuel, and even now, as they approached his father’s house for what would hopefully be the final time, Isa felt like it was standing sentinel at the curb.
The officer was already in her cruiser, waiting to escort them away from the house, and Ms. Quinlan was leaning back against the truck, hands deep in her coat pockets, tapping one foot against the other to keep them warm. She stood up straighter as they approached. “You two all right?”
“Yeah,” Lea said. “Just needed to take a little walk.”
She nodded and glanced at Isa, who was looking at the police cruiser. “Is there anything else we have to do?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“Nope, that’s everything. Now c’mon. We’re leaving.”
Her tone was reassuring and confident, but there was a hint of anger remaining from whatever conversation she’d had inside. But she got into the truck and blasted the heat, and Lea held the door for Isa before climbing in after him, and off they went, none of them bothering to watch the house disappear in the rearview mirrors.
It only took them one trip to carry Isa’s things inside. The real task was clearing out the spare bedroom, a job that Ms. Quinlan predicted would last into the evening. After a quick lunch of leftovers from the night before, they got to work. Ms. Quinlan reminded the boys that their priority was making sure Isa had a place to sleep tonight, and she insisted that sorting the clutter could wait until a later date, though she was the one who was most prone to being distracted by discovering old artifacts and reminiscing over photos.
When she left with a box and didn’t return for several minutes, Isa told Lea he’d be right back. He went downstairs and found her sitting on the family room couch with the box on the coffee table. She was entirely absorbed in its contents, but she looked up when Isa knocked on the doorjamb.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, though she sounded delighted. “Got distracted again. I found a ton of Lea’s stuff from when he was little—like way back. I’m talking daycare and preschool.” She held up a piece of construction paper with two tiny handprints on it in orange paint, dated 1993, and Isa gave a small smile in spite of himself. “I’ll set this aside so you two can go through it later. Don’t let him talk you out of it if he gets embarrassed. You’ll get a kick out of this stuff.”
Isa did want to see more of Lea’s past, now that he’d been shown a glimpse of it, but he made himself focus on the task at hand. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure,” Ms. Quinlan said, carefully rearranging the box so nothing inside it got bent or crushed before she gave him her full attention. “What’s up?”
Isa took a steadying breath and said, “I just wanted to thank you for everything you’re doing. I know this is kind of crazy, and you weren’t expecting any of it, so I really appreciate you letting me stay here.”
She looked at Isa, her expression soft but otherwise unreadable, at least to him. Lea came down the stairs with another box and paused, glancing between them, sensing that he’d arrived in the middle of something. Ms Quinlan looked at him over Isa’s shoulder and said, “Lea, can you keep working on Isa’s room? We’ll join you in a little bit.”
Lea nodded, giving Isa a passing glance but continuing on to the basement, not feeling the need to stay by his side for the first time in this entire ordeal. Ms. Quinlan waited until he was gone, then scooted over, making room on the couch. “Isa, come sit with me for a minute.”
Familiar, icy nervousness set in his gut, like acid slush. He wondered if he was about to go two for two and throw up yet another meal as he sat beside her. She’d been polite so far, for her son’s sake, but Isa braced himself for the oncoming discussion where she’d finally let him know how much they were sacrificing to take him in, how much this was going to cost, and how much she hoped he appreciated it, which he was already prepared to tell her at least three more times.
What Isa wasn’t prepared for was her taking a deep breath of her own, looking him in the eye, and saying, “I owe you an apology.”
He stared, finding nothing funny about that statement, but thinking it must somehow be a joke anyway. “Lea and I had a chat before I left this morning,” Ms. Quinlan went on. “He was very upset about not doing anything before now. I told him not to blame himself, that it doesn’t help anyone and it wasn’t his fault. But honestly, I know how he feels. I should have noticed sooner. You lived a mile away—we saw you all the time. It shouldn’t have taken ten years and an incident like this for me to see the situation for what it was.” She’d been looking at the box of Lea’s childhood mementos, drawing comfort from it, but she met Isa’s gaze again and said, “I’m sorry, Isa.”
His brain rejected that sentence as soon as she said it, because there was no way she could offer an apology like that without any prompting, an apology for not doing enough when she was one of the only people who had ever done anything. Isa’s own father wouldn’t even apologize for hitting him in the face. At the mere suggestion that he owed his son an apology, his first instinct had been to try to hit him again.
Isa knew he should respond, but he just sat rigid on the couch, trying to process everything. Ms. Quinlan waited a moment, then stepped in for him like she’d been doing all day. “Well, we’re going to try to get your room set up by tonight. It might be a little sparse for now. We’ve been using it as a storage area since we moved in—probably should’ve finished converting it a long time ago.”
“There’s no rush. I’m fine with the pull-out. I get up early; it wouldn’t be a bother.”
“Isa, you’re living here now. You get to have your own room.”
“It’s just…I know this is really spur-of-the-moment,” he said, feeling the need to remind her how much of an imposition he was being. “I was on autopilot when I came here yesterday. I didn’t even think about it.”
“Isa, honey…I couldn’t be more relieved that this is where you came when you weren’t thinking. You did the right thing.”
“I just didn’t consider anything beyond last night. I know you weren’t planning on this.”
“So what? I didn’t plan on having a kid at seventeen, and I think we can both agree that turned out pretty well.” She leaned down, trying to catch his eye and get him to smile. “You don’t have to plan something for it to be right, Isa. Life happens.”
She was close to getting a reaction, but Isa was still resisting. “I just don’t want you going to any more trouble.”
Ms. Quinlan studied him for a moment, her smile fading. “Isa, listen,” she said quietly. “The only trouble in this situation spent last night in a jail cell where he belonged.”
Her words of comfort hadn’t gotten through to Isa, but that sure did. He finally made eye contact, if only in sheer surprise at hearing another adult talk about his father so bluntly. “This isn’t a bother,” Ms. Quinlan went on. “You are not a bother. You’re a pleasant, intelligent, wonderful young man, and we’re beyond thrilled to have you live with us. Got it?”
Isa nodded, unable to come up with any counterarguments, and she said, “Good. Remember that.” She rose from the couch, giving him a little pat on the back to signal that it was time to get up. He stood, still feeling off-balance, but figuring he’d regain his equilibrium once he returned to cleaning out the spare room—his room, he reminded himself. He was about to head for the stairs when Ms. Quinlan put her hands on his shoulders and gently but firmly turned him back around, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him into a hug.
Isa froze, his brain skipping like a scratched record. Ms. Quinlan waited for him to return the hug, hesitantly and questioningly, before she moved her hand up and down his back, brisk and comforting. She gave him a small squeeze before she let go, and Isa realized, in a stunningly heartwarming moment, that this was where Lea had picked up the habit.
She smiled at Isa before picking up the box of Lea’s childhood memories and bringing it down to the basement. She passed Lea on the way, who glanced at her, and then at Isa. He looked at Lea without saying anything, without having to, his astonishment clear on his face and in his stance. Lea laughed quietly at the sight of him, but he joined Isa, standing by his side in the center of the family room, resting an arm over his shoulders and leaning in to bump their heads together softly as he said, “Welcome home."
Chapter 14: We'll Go Together
Another flashback chapter. Takes place in the late '80s and deals with teen pregnancy and emotionally repressed Irish Catholic families.
Characters: Lea's mom, plus her family (at the time).
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” And then, because there was truly nothing else to say, Cat Quinlan added, “Fuck.” She kicked the cabinet below the sink for emphasis; maybe if she kicked it hard enough, she could propel herself back in time to before she ever met that asshole. Maybe far back enough to take her sex ed classes more seriously.
She clutched fistfuls of her hair at the scalp, drawing red-hot breaths. She tore off a square of toilet paper to dry her eyes before she realized she wasn’t crying. With a final, frustrated groan at herself to suck it up and get a grip already—and to stop wasting her munny on drugstore pregnancy tests—she released her hair, roughing it up into a frazzle of spikes. She stood, paused, sat back down on the toilet when she thought she might faint, stood again, and went down to the kitchen.
She kept a lid on things while the family prepared for dinner, even when Nate oh so helpfully reminded her that it was her turn to set the table. When they all sat down and Mrs. Quinlan sent the sweet potato casserole around, Cat took it from Nate and passed it directly to their father, trying not to let the smell sink into her stomach.
“You don’t want any?” Mr. Quinlan asked, accepting the dish uncertainly.
“I thought you liked sweet potato.”
“I’m just not feeling great right now.”
“You have been acting very odd lately, Catherine,” said Aunt Deirdre, taking the casserole next. She was the only person Cat knew who could draw her name out into three syllables. “Normally you’re willing to eat whatever’s put in front of you.”
Cat gave her a baleful look, keeping her comebacks to herself, mostly because she had too many to choose from. But when Nate told her, “You’re still putting on weight, though, so go figure that one,” she decided that was as good an opening as she was bound to get.
“Yeah, well, I’m pregnant, so. That pretty much explains that.”
Nate snorted and resumed eating. When he realized everyone else was sitting in silence, he looked at the three adults, and then at Cat again. “Oh, shit. Are you serious?”
While Nate rolled his eyes at his aunt, Mrs. Quinlan continued to stare at her daughter. “Are you being serious?” she asked softly.
“Uh, yeah. Kinda.”
“You’re kind of serious about being pregnant?”
“Okay, I’m completely and utterly serious, Aunt Deirdre. Thanks for focusing on the big picture here.”
“All right, everyone. Let’s just calm down.” There was another brief silence, more tense than usual for the lack of silverware clinking against dishes. Even Nate couldn’t come up with anything to say. Finally, Mrs. Quinlan said, “Let’s all just…finish our dinner. Then we can talk about this.”
Cat returned to eating what little she could stomach, thinking, Great, good plan. Good priorities.
The ensuing family meeting involved not only her parents, but also Aunt Deirdre and Nate, for whatever reason. Cat sat cross-legged with a pillow in her lap, picking at its fringes. She’d claimed the armchair so she could have a seat to herself, but she quickly remembered that she couldn’t be anywhere by herself at the moment.
“So…” Mrs. Quinlan began, as if she were struggling to make small talk. “How far along are you?”
“Do you know who the father is?” Aunt Deirdre asked, and Cat almost lobbed the pillow at her then and there.
But instead, Cat simply said, “There isn’t one.”
“What?” Nate said with a disbelieving laugh. “So what is this, immaculate conception?”
“Obviously I got knocked up, Nate,” Cat said, reminding herself to choose her battles wisely, as she had but one pillow at her disposal. “But the guy’s not an option. There’s no father. Moving on.”
“Well, where is he?” Mrs. Quinlan asked. “Who is he? Is it Caleb? Kendall? Sean?”
“God, if you say Sean…” Nate muttered.
“You’d already be smelling the kid’s B.O. if it were Sean.” Nate snickered, getting a disapproving look from his mother and a glare from his aunt, though Cat nearly cracked a smile. Their banter made her feel like this might become just another pointless, unnecessary family discussion, and once it was over, everything would go back to normal.
But more than that, it pissed her off, leaving her confused about why he couldn’t have her back all the time, or at the very least make wisecracks with her instead of about her.
“Look,” she said, “it’s not anyone you know. It was, like, some dude in his twenties. He was in town for a few days, and we had sex, and now he’s gone.”
“But…can’t you get in touch with him?” Mrs. Quinlan asked timidly while Aunt Deirdre massaged her forehead at this revelation. “Have you even told him yet?”
“Of course I told him. Why do you think he left? Pretty sure he had his plane ticket before I even hung up the phone.”
Her repeated attempts to cope with humor weren’t well-received, and while her elders sighed and began to confer among themselves, Cat elected to zone out. It felt pretty good. She wondered if she shouldn’t go through the whole process this way, gloriously and sublimely detached. It would certainly beat listening to Nate try his hand at comedy, or watching Aunt Deirdre purse her lips so hard they nearly disappeared. And while the adults continued to discuss her “predicament”—Christ on a bike, did they seriously just call it that? Cat thought—the cluster of cells inside her was slowly but steadily growing. In a few short weeks, it might even resemble a person. She tried not to think about it.
Her unfairly brief out-of-body experience ended, just in time for her to hear Aunt Deirdre say, “She’s sixteen years old. She doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Well, hey,” Cat interjected, “we could always ask her.”
Mrs. Quinlan sighed. “Cat, if you refuse to get back in touch with the father—”
“Wow, could you be listening any worse?”
“—then you’ll need to find someone else to help you raise this child. It goes without saying that we’re here for you—” (Cat thought that absolutely didn’t go without saying, and had in fact been waiting to hear even one of them say it.) “—but you need a long-term solution. You need a partner who can support you and this baby financially.”
“Look, I don’t know how to make room in my life for this person,” Cat said, removing the pillow to point at her stomach, “let alone a second one. How would I even do that? How am I supposed to find a guy in the next seven and a half months willing to deal with this? My own family doesn’t even want to.”
Mr. Quinlan finally spoke up to say, “You can’t have a baby out of wedlock, Cat. You just can’t. It’s not right.”
“Okay, so, I get an abortion then.”
Mr. Quinlan looked taken aback, and Mrs. Quinlan and Aunt Deirdre looked scandalized. Even Nate dropped any semblance of teasing at hearing his little sister speak so bluntly. A truly uncomfortable, morally distraught silence descended, and Cat couldn’t help feeling powerful for having created it.
Aunt Deirdre was the first to object. “How could you even suggest—”
“Those are the options!” Cat said, feeling hysterical and hating herself for it. “Either I have the baby, or I don’t. Those are literally the only options.”
“Cat, let’s just think about this some more—”
“I can’t listen to this,” Cat said, cutting her mother off and shutting down like a dormant volcano. She dropped the pillow on the chair as she stood. “This is crazy. I can’t listen to you guys anymore.”
Despite the pseudo-concerned comments at her back, Cat left the parlor satisfied. The only item on her to-do list that night had been to tell them, and she had, and now she was more than ready to progress to the “superfluous vomiting” phase of pregnancy. At least that family meeting was good for something, she thought on her dash back to the toilet.
She’d expected a follow-up to that conversation, maybe even a blowout, complete with drunken accusations and insults going back generations. But everyone kept their distance, giving her space. What little teasing Nate could come up with died down in the first week, and when he ran out of jokes, he seemed to run out of things to say altogether. Aunt Deirdre drove her to the clinic for a check-up, but she waited in the lobby, which was fine by Cat.
When she reclined for the ultrasound, Cat genuinely considered asking the nurse if it would be okay for her to just lie there for the rest of the day. Before she dragged herself back to her feet, the nurse assured her that the baby’s development was right on track, the embryonic heartbeat should slow down moderately by her next appointment, and all of the pregnancy symptoms she was experiencing were perfectly normal.
Cat had a mercifully quiet ride home with her aunt. She sat through dinner, rinsed her plate, and went up to her room for the rest of the night. As she lay flat on her back in silence, not even bothering to play her records, she crossed her ankles, laced her fingers over her stomach, and stared at the ceiling, trying all evening to grapple with the fact that her body was home to two different heartbeats.
The following week, she approached her father in his study. She’d been hoping for some more unproductive and insulting conversations to move things along, and had even tried to instigate them herself on more than one occasion. But everyone was tiptoeing around the subject. It was as if they had all wrestled the wheel from her and then given it back once she was good and lost, getting involved and stepping away at all the wrong times.
Her one-on-one discussion with Mr. Quinlan was a little more encouraging. She sat across from him at his desk, not sure where to start, and then unable to stop, ranting for nearly a solid hour about every stupid thing she could think of. He let her talk and talk, never showing a trace of anything but patience and compassion. When Cat finally paused for a breather, he said, “I know this has all been very overwhelming.” Cat nodded, feeling puzzle pieces of herself coming unglued, and Mr. Quinlan said, “Have you given any more thought to finding someone who will be able to help you?”
Cat held herself in place for a moment, wondering if he innocently hadn’t realized that that was the very reason she’d come to his study to begin with. “No,” she said slowly, “of course not. Was I supposed to? Was that my homework assignment?” she added, in an attempt to remind him how young she actually was.
“Well, this child will need a father growing up, Cat.”
“I need a father now,” she shot back, and while it visibly jarred him, it wasn’t enough. She left his study without waiting for a reply, knowing that if there were any words of substance in him, they would have come out by now. She burned at the fact that he’d strung her along for an hour with sympathetic nodding, letting her believe it was finally okay to fall apart, only to make her realize that she would never have that luxury. The most she could hope to get out of these talks was sheer catharsis, and by the time she got it, she was too tired to care.
Four weeks after she’d delivered the news—and she realized she was tracking her life in weeks now—Cat crossed paths with her aunt in the kitchen. Aunt Deirdre gave her a pursed-lipped non-smile from her seat at the head of the table, and Cat ignored her, thinking only of the bowl of oatmeal she was about to make and how there was a fifty-fifty chance of it either settling her stomach or upsetting it further. Cat stirred the oatmeal, lifting a spoonful and watching it drip in globs back into the pot, and Aunt Deirdre said, as if the thought had just occurred to her, “What are you going to do about school, Catherine? Have you thought about that?”
Cat absolutely lost it, forgetting the oatmeal in an instant as she whirled on her aunt to say that of course she’d thought about it, and to ask if Aunt Deirdre really believed there was a single facet of this situation that she hadn’t already thought about. If she really believed that Cat’s brain hadn’t been racing nonstop for the past few weeks, with the exception of this very moment, when all of her conflicting thoughts formed a truce and quieted down just so she could fully and properly appreciate the stupidity of her aunt’s question.
“I was only trying to help.”
“Oh! Oh! Thank you, because, I mean—geez, I didn’t realize. I mean, I just didn’t think that’s what helping me would look like, ‘cause, like, how would I even know?”
When Mrs. Quinlan arrived three minutes later, Cat was still on a tirade, and Aunt Deirdre was sitting with her hands folded in her lap, giving her sister-in-law an expectant look. “Cat, don’t yell at your aunt,” Mrs. Quinlan said. “She’s just trying to help.”
“How would you know? Where have you even been?” Cat demanded, taking an even more livid tone with her mother because she knew she could get away with it. “What’s she still doing here, anyway? Whose house is this?”
“Cat, go to your room for a while and just calm down.”
Cat obeyed, but she stormed off as if it were her idea, as if she’d run out of things to say when she knew she had days of ranting left in her. She heard her mother apologize to Aunt Deirdre for her behavior, and Cat barely made it to her room in time. She shut the door, locked it, and flopped down on her bed, hugging her entire pillow to her chest as she buried her face in it and sobbed.
She cried until her head felt like it was on fire, and then even longer, extinguishing herself. Hours later, she lay on her back, her shirt pulled up so she could run her fingertips absently over her abdomen. Her eyes were still wet, but she had cried herself into gray oblivion, euphorically blank, emptied of everything but breath.
She felt embarrassed as she went back downstairs, wondering how something as typical as one of Aunt Deirdre’s passing comments was enough to set her off these days. When she found her aunt and mother in the parlor, she tried to broach the subject, even offering an apology of her own. Her mother smiled and waved it away, her hand flitting like a bird as she insisted it was water under the bridge. Aunt Deirdre took a sip of tea and said nothing.
And Cat, who had been trying to suppress an epiphany for the past few weeks, finally gave it room to grow. This was not water under the bridge. This, like every unwanted thing that found its way into the house, was dust under the rug. Everyone was still tiptoeing around her, keeping their lips pressed thinly together at all times, even when they spoke, careful not to let anything too real slip out. She’d spent four weeks—one month out of precious nine—waiting for just one of them to step forward. The fetus had accomplished more in that time, Cat mused, and it barely had a brain.
Nothing was going to change, and she wouldn’t find help here, she realized with panic, anger, confusion, and more than any of those, disappointment. She left the parlor, thinking that guy had the right idea after all. Of course, if she ever saw him again, he was a dead man. Skipping town, though…maybe there was something to that.
She went back to her room, but not before she grabbed the big suitcase from the closet.
The next morning, when Mr. and Mrs. Quinlan were at work and Aunt Deirdre was at the salon, Cat lugged her suitcase to the front door, silently apologizing with every step. Nate, drawn out of his room by the noise, stood in the middle of the hallway behind her and asked what she was doing. Cat hesitated—her brother was the last person in this house that she wanted to deliver her parting words to. But she clutched the bus schedule in her fist and half-turned, her eyes full of fear and fire as she said, “We’re leaving.”
The train, it turned out, was far more convenient than the bus. Cat claimed an entire row of seats so she could stretch her legs, though she couldn’t afford to relax. She worked on her to-do list as the towns blurred by outside her window. She tried to put the critical items at the top—housing, income, health care—but the more she wrote, the harder it was not to see everything as critical.
When her trepidation came too close to the surface, Cat laid the notepad on her lap. “Get a grip,” she told herself. “I can do this. We can do this, peanut.”
She poked her stomach lightly with the pen. It was still too early to determine the sex, but during a recent visit to the clinic, the nurse had described the baby as being about the size of a peanut, and Cat had latched onto that description immediately. It was specific and silly enough to stand out from the more clinical details, making her believe that it was possible for all of this to turn out even remotely okay. And although she assured the little peanut that she had no idea what the fuck she was doing, she thought of a few more items to add to her list, and all things considered, Cat Quinlan did feel okay.
She disembarked in the smoky dusk of Traverse Town, her suitcase in one hand and the now useless bus schedule in the other. As the train pulled away and left her alone on the platform, Cat looked around and thought, I am going to die. I am definitely going to die.
But after a quick existential crisis and a refreshing vomit into a trash can, Cat found a few older ladies to ask for directions to the women’s shelter. And when one of them offered to walk her there herself, Cat dug up her to-do list, crossed off “Housing (temporary),” took a shallower breath than she would’ve liked, and said, “All right. Lead the way.”
Chapter 15: Our Little Summer Vacation
Characters: the Wayfinders plus Tifa, and a few surprise cameos.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the nearly two months since Aqua and Tifa had started dating, they’d gone out on what Aqua would officially qualify as a “date” so infrequently that she could keep count on one hand.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. But with Tifa’s busy schedule, it was hard for Aqua to get any substantial time with her, and even harder for Ven and Terra to get to know her. They treated it like a running gag, asking when the four of them would finally get to go out, pointing out how suspicious it was that Aqua was keeping her girlfriend hidden from them, playing the roles of her overly protective best-friends-slash-pseudo-brothers.
But there was an element of seriousness to their teasing, and Aqua knew that if the roles were reversed, she would be doing the same for them, and without the lenience to play it off as a joke. There was an unspoken agreement among them—mostly because it was too dorky to say aloud—but nevertheless, it held fast: if anyone was going to join their carefully-constructed trio, they had better be worth it.
So when Tifa announced that she was taking a day off at the end of August, leaving her own trio in charge of Seventh Heaven (Yuna covering entertainment, Rikku running the bar, and Paine manning the door), Aqua jumped at the opportunity for a day trip to Twilight Town. And while Tifa was hesitant to let the boys tag along on the first full day off they had together, Aqua insisted that they really wanted to get to know her. Besides, the three of them had been trying to organize a beach day all summer, and they were running out of chances. With an easygoing sigh, Tifa said, “All right. But I get to pick the activity.”
The train ride to Twilight Town was a little awkward. Terra and Tifa did their best to make conversation, and Ven mostly stuck close to Aqua. They loosened up as they walked through town, conversation coming much more naturally on the brick-laden sidewalks and in the open air. By the time Tifa led them to the entrance of the Mirage Arena, jogging after Ven as he darted in ahead of the group, Terra held Aqua back for a moment to say, “All right. She’s in.”
They followed Tifa through the Arena’s expansive layout, some areas equipped for indoor sports, others decked out like an ‘80s arcade. “You seem to know your way around pretty well,” Terra called over the music and games.
“I used to come here a lot for roller derby,” Tifa shouted back, leading them on as Aqua and Ven tried to take in all of the sounds and colors. When they finally arrived at their destination, it wasn’t the track for roller derby, but go-karting.
“You guys ever tried Rumble Racing?” Tifa asked.
“No,” Ven said as he stared at the track, his tone suggesting an implied, “but obviously I need to try it right this second.” After a quick review of the rules and getting fitted into helmets, they were off. It didn’t take long for Aqua and Terra to realize that Tifa’s experience and Ven’s weight advantage (or lack thereof) put them in first place nearly every time, and while they drove a few more rounds just for fun, they eventually took a breather at the refreshment stand. They stood at the railing and watched the two continue to zip around the track, Aqua downing a Crystal Soda while Terra treated his slight motion sickness with a tray of nachos.
After another hour and a lot of persuading, with Terra pointing out that today was meant to be a beach day, they finally managed to tear Ven away from the track. They made their way to the Twilight Town boardwalk, enjoying the ocean breeze before the day got too hot. While Aqua and Tifa took a quiet break on the Ferris wheel, Terra worked on winning Ven a prize at one of the carnival games. “These things are all about speed,” Terra explained as he pitched the baseball as hard as he could and flawlessly missed both stacks of bottles. He felt Ven’s gaze intensifying with each shot he missed, and when the rest of their group returned, he wasn’t remotely surprised to hear Ven say, “All right, let Tifa try.”
Nor was Terra particularly surprised when Tifa only needed two out of three baseballs to knock down the bottles. “It’s all about hand-eye coordination,” she said as Ven selected a thematically appropriate baseball cap for his prize. Tifa stuck it on his head and flicked the visor up while Terra caught Aqua’s eye and gave her a nod of approval, which she returned with a delighted grin.
Once it was finally hot enough to go to the beach, they spent a good amount of time in the water, warming up for a proper volleyball match by hitting a beach ball back and forth. When the net was free, they returned to the shore, flipping a coin to decide the teams: Aqua and Ven vs. Terra and Tifa. Aqua, diligent as always, spent a few minutes stretching before the game began, standing on one leg and pulling the other behind her like a ballerina. “Show-off,” Ven said, and without losing her balance or letting go of her foot—or arguing—Aqua reached out and poked him in the side of the head.
Just as Aqua was preparing to serve, Tifa said, “Hold on a minute. This hardly seems fair.”
“…excuse me?” Aqua said, standing up straight while Tifa gestured between the two teams.
“It’s just that one side clearly has an advantage in the upper body strength department,” she explained, overly sympathetic, as if she were trying to break the news to them gently.
“She’s got a point,” Terra said, happy to join in. “I mean, I don’t mind kicking your asses all afternoon. But the last thing I want is for either of you to feel embarrassed.”
Ven gave him a snide look, but he couldn’t help glancing at Aqua in concern. She was no slouch, but she had more of a lithe, swimmer’s build than their opponents, and Ven was outright puny compared to all of them.
But Aqua had her arm hanging lazily over the volleyball at her hip, a deeply unimpressed look on her face. “Why don’t you two just worry about yourselves?” she said, and while Terra and Tifa took their positions with unworried shrugs, Aqua beckoned to Ven, whispering something to him before sending him back to his spot and starting the game.
Terra and Tifa were the powerhouses everyone expected them to be, sending the ball as far as it could go without being out of bounds, and making it as difficult as possible for their opponents to get close to the net. But Ven zipped around the court like lightning, and as long as he set Aqua up for a spike, she delivered a lethal one every time. In one particularly entertaining instance, she had sent both Terra and Tifa ducking for cover.
For the most part, they were differently but evenly matched, both teams relying more and more on their advantages over the other’s. When Tifa managed to deliver a spike of her own, she sent the ball hurtling down as if it were shot from a cannon. Ven made a futile but truly heroic dive, sending up a wave of sand as he crashed. He brushed himself off and jogged to retrieve the ball, apologizing to a small group of beachgoers who had been ready to flee when they saw it coming.
Meanwhile, Terra and Tifa shared a high-five like a thunderclap. “Holy shit, that was amazing,” Terra said. “How’d you even get that much air?”
“Oh, come on, it was nothing,” Tifa said, obnoxiously modest as she tossed her hair over her shoulder. Aqua rolled her eyes.
“Big whoop. You got a point.”
“Using your move,” Terra countered. “Better have another trick up your sleeve, or it looks like an easy win for us.” He and Tifa struck a few over-the-top victory poses together, though Tifa rolled her shoulder after trying to stretch her arms too high, admitting that she might have overdone it after all. Aqua stared until the volleyball bounced off her head, and she looked back to give Ven a glare, receiving one in return.
“Wake up,” he said. “We’re losing points because of you.”
They played for a while longer, taking advantage of the shade provided by passing clouds. They were just about to enter a tie-breaking round when a bright voice from across the beach called out, “Oh, no way! Aqua, Terra? Tifa?”
The three of them turned to see Demyx waving excitedly, and Tifa said, “Oh, shit! Time-out, guys.” She tossed the ball to Terra, who tossed it to Aqua, who tossed it to Ven, who didn’t know whether to hang onto it like an awkward child or drop it on the ground like a petulant one. He settled for placing the ball down quietly and followed his group, ready to endure a lot of small talk that in no way involved him. He arrived just as Demyx was telling Terra, “Long time no see,” and Demyx’s gaze landed on Ven as he loitered by Aqua’s side.
“And even longer time no see. Like…never, actually,” Demyx laughed, introducing himself with a fist bump, which Ven happily returned. “You guys got a volleyball game going?”
“Yep, and these nerds could use all the help they can get,” Terra said, grinning as Ven stuck his tongue out and Aqua flipped him off.
“Seriously, we’ve got room if you want to join,” Tifa added. “You been here long?”
“Oh, well. Ah…” Demyx glanced over his shoulder, and the other four followed his gaze to see two men approaching, one leading a dog and the other viciously sunburned from head to toe. He was wearing a loose cotton shirt, but the way he carried himself and cringed at the slightest friction told them that he had put it on far too late.
“Long enough for that to happen,” Demyx replied while everyone tried not to laugh, though Terra gave a low, impressed whistle. “Yeah,” Demyx said, with almost proud fondness. “He’s a crispy critter.”
“Demyx, you have to stop saying that,” the man with the dog said, though their sunburned friend seemed to take the nickname with good humor.
“Sorry, sorry,” Demyx said. “He does have a name.” He guided the group through the introductions, being the only one who knew them all. They exchanged polite greetings, and a few felt more comfortable laughing at Lea’s predicament, now that they had some level of familiarity.
“So, how do you guys know Demyx?” Terra asked, nodding at the three of them. “Can’t imagine you spend a lot of time poolside if you’re still getting burns like that.”
“Nah,” Lea said. “We’ve known each other since grade school. Plus, we work together.”
“Down at Higanbana,” Demyx added, more specifically to Tifa. “Isa’s the manager.”
“Oh, nice,” she said. “Y’know, we kind of consider you a brother organization over at Seventh Heaven. I think some of our regulars have even done maintenance work for you guys.”
“Yeah! God, she’s the best. Seventh Heaven would’ve had an all-out cave-in due to some burst pipes if it weren’t for her. Seriously, if you guys ever run into a problem, just give us a call.” While Isa nodded in thanks, Tifa glanced at Lea and asked, “And what do you do?”
“I’m a dancer.”
“Oh, really?” Aqua said, her eyes lighting up. “What kind of dance do you nevermind,” she finished gracelessly, drawing her hand back to her as if trying to physically retract the statement while Lea grinned and Isa performed a very subtle variation of a facepalm. “I just heard myself.”
Demyx chuckled while Terra put his hand on top of Aqua’s head, giving her hair a teasing but consolatory little ruffle. Tifa looked Lea over again with this new information.
“Wow. You guys really shot yourselves in the foot, huh?”
Lea shrugged as lightly as he could. “Price we pay for a beach day, I guess.”
“Didn’t you bring any sunblock?”
“We used it all on him,” Isa said, embarrassed at having to admit any involvement in this situation.
“Well, we’d offer you some, but I think that Banana Boat has sailed,” Terra said, actually managing to get a quick laugh out of Isa.
“I do have some aloe,” Aqua offered, trying to be helpful enough to offset her earlier awkwardness. “Feel free to use as much as you want.”
“If you don’t mind…” Lea said, already itching both figuratively and literally to get his hands on the bottle.
“Don’t worry about it. You look like you need it more than…well, anyone I’ve ever seen, to be honest.” Lea gave her an abashed smile as he followed her to her bag. Demyx said something quietly to Tifa once Aqua was out of earshot, and when Tifa nodded, Demyx gave her an excited, congratulatory shove, looking incredibly pleased.
While the two of them were catching up, Ven crouched down, trying to get the attention of the dog. Despite her clear interest in the group, she had yet to fully join them. “Hey there,” Ven said, holding out his hand. “Good dog.”
“Her name is Thorn.”
Ven glanced up at Isa, then back at Thorn, saying, “Here, Thorn. C’mere, girl. It’s okay.” Her ear perked up at the sound of her name, and she took a step forward before needing reassurance again, pushing her nose into Isa’s palm. He scratched her head for a few seconds, then took his hand away and nodded in Ven’s direction, and Thorn crept forward again, cautious but curious. She spent a long time sniffing his hand, refusing to let him touch her until she’d inspected every inch, but soon she let him pet her and even give her a few scratches behind her working ear. “Good girl,” Ven said encouragingly as she took a step closer.
When Terra knelt beside Ven, Thorn flinched instinctively, startled by the movement. But Terra reached out to her with steady hands, almost as steady as Isa’s, and she seemed quieted by his touch as he ran his fingers through her coat. “Isn’t she pretty?” Ven asked.
“She’s beautiful,” Terra agreed, “aren’t you, girl?” He looked up at Isa. “How old is she?”
“We’re not sure; she was a rescue. The vet estimated she’s about four.”
Terra nodded, taking over for Ven when he found a tickle spot on the side of Thorn’s neck. Not expecting the stronger touch, Thorn leaned abruptly into Terra’s hand, tilting her head sideways and wagging her tail vigorously. “Oh my god, she’s so cute,” Ven said while Isa watched her with a small smile.
When Aqua and Lea returned with the aloe, Aqua said, “Ven, catch,” and tossed him the sunblock. He caught it with a grimace, and she added, “You can either spend two minutes reapplying or two weeks looking like that. No offense, Lea.”
“You think this’ll take two weeks to heal?” he replied, sounding dejected, and not helped when Isa muttered, “At least,” under his breath.
Lea shot him a dour look while he started rubbing his hands with the aloe, and Demyx suggested getting the volleyball game started again. Ven let Demyx take his place as Aqua’s teammate, much more interested in Thorn, though she ended up being more interested in the game, pacing the sidelines in fascination as the ball went back and forth. Sighing, Ven turned back to Lea and Isa, and when he noticed that Isa was about to go back to their previous spot to gather their things, he offered to help, just to have something to do.
“Sure, if you want to,” Isa said, sounding a little surprised. “Lea’s no help right now anyway.” They headed off, and when Thorn realized they were leaving—and that no one was going to pass her the volleyball after all—she bounded after them.
It was a hassle to carry everything across the beach, especially with Thorn constantly darting between them, looking for attention. While Isa made sure the umbrella provided enough shade for the inevitable sprawling Lea was going to do, Lea checked the cooler. “Hmm. Not as much as I thought we packed.” He drummed his fingers on the lid, gently pushing Thorn away when she tried to stick her face into the box. “I vote we get some snacks. Ice cream or pretzels or something. How about it, Ven?”
“Uh, sure?” Ven said, glancing briefly back at Terra and Aqua. “I’m good with anything, I guess.”
“Hey, you name it,” Lea told him, nodding at Isa. “This guy owes me for skimping on the sunblock.”
“I bought two bottles just for you.”
“Well, you should’ve known better by now. I burn during a full moon if I’m not careful.”
Isa rolled his eyes, but he headed for the food carts, telling Thorn to stay with Lea when she tried to follow. And a good thing, too, as one stumble over her would have caused Isa to drop three Rocket Sodas, a plate of watermelon slices, a giant pretzel, a water bottle, and a large bag of ice on his way back. While Ven helped Isa with the food, arranging it on the lid of the cooler, Isa said, “Give Thorn some watermelon if you want. She’ll be your best friend for the rest of—Lea, wait.” He held the ice out of reach as Lea made a grab for it. “Do you really want freezer burn on top of a sunburn?”
“Wouldn’t they just cancel each other out?”
“That’s Demyx logic if I ever heard it.” Isa wrapped one of their beach towels around the bag before handing it to Lea, who hugged it to his torso with a happy sigh.
“I love you,” he said, and Isa gave him a brief pat on the head, a gesture that struck Ven as more condescending than affectionate, though Lea seemed content with it.
Thorn, meanwhile, was eyeing the watermelon slices the same way Lea had eyed the bag of ice. “Have her do a trick first,” Isa said while he tried to convince Lea to let go of the ice for a moment so he could take the shirt off, both to apply the aloe and because Isa wanted his shirt back.
“Sit?” Ven said, and Thorn sat immediately, her eyes locked on the prize. “Good girl. Um, paw? Shake?” Ven laughed when she all but high-fived him, and he let her take the well-earned watermelon.
After they all enjoyed some food and soda, tearing off pieces of the pretzel to share, Isa began to help Lea with the aloe, a painstaking process that bored Ven in seconds. He resumed petting Thorn, smiling when she made him stop so she could scratch herself. “What happened to her ear?”
“We don’t really know,” Lea said. “We found her like that. Vet said it was probably another dog that did it.”
“Aww…poor girl.” Ven gave her another rub on the head. “So, when you said she was a rescue…you really did just find her? Like, on the street?”
“We’d been seeing her around town for a few months,” Isa replied. “But yes. We finally adopted her about a month and a half ago.”
Ven smiled, petting Thorn until she got up and returned to her dads, distracted by the sound of their voices. She nudged Lea, and he pushed her away with a wince. “Please not now, sweetie. You’re killin’ me.”
“Thorn,” Isa said. His voice was neither commanding nor inviting, but she went to him immediately. She wagged her tail as he let her snuffle his face and hair, and he even stopped helping Lea so he could give her all of his focus, scratching under her chin and stroking her head. Lea glanced over his shoulder and groaned.
“All right, this love fest is very cute, but c’mon, Isa. I’m flaking.”
Isa continued to pet Thorn, but he glanced at Ven. “Do you want to play with her for a while? Demyx was keeping her busy earlier, but I think your friends have stolen him for the afternoon.”
“Yeah, sure. If that’s okay.”
“Just stay in sight, and don’t take her too far into the ocean. Wading distance only. And bring her back for water if she looks like she needs it.” Ven nodded, and Isa gave him some tennis balls from their bag. Thorn was still preoccupied with Isa, even when her ear twitched at the sound of Ven calling her name. Only when Isa nodded in Ven’s direction, saying, “Go on,” did she finally turn. She located Ven quickly as he stepped backward toward the ocean, and when he held up a tennis ball, she got up without a second glance at Isa or Lea, trotting eagerly after him.
Isa watched them until Lea said, “Okay, they’re babysitting each other. Now please help un-fry me.” He sat behind Lea again and got to work, slowly and methodically rubbing the aloe in, occasionally glancing up to keep an eye on Thorn. By the time the two returned from their long romp in the water, Lea was completely zonked out on the towel, sleepy from the heat and the stress of being so heavily burned. Thorn, even more exhausted from playing all day and overwhelmed by her first visit to the beach, flopped down beside Lea, barely stirring him. Ven gave her a final little scratch before he returned the tennis balls, apologizing for losing track of one, which Isa waved away.
The volleyball game had ended in a victory for Aqua and Demyx, and now they were all relaxing and catching up. After thanking Isa for the food and for letting him play with Thorn, Ven went back to join them. Isa glanced down at the pair dozing under the umbrella, then quietly took out his phone and snapped a photo. He sent a quick text, and he was in the middle of cleaning up the paper plates and soda bottles when he got the reply.
ok I promise I’m THOROUGHLY embarrassed about Lea, but omg. Thorn is looking b-e-a-UTIFUL. Who knew her coat was so red??? Maybe just the lighting, but still!
Isa smiled at the message and the slew of hearts Catherine had tacked on the end of it. He put his phone away and let Lea and Thorn continue napping until Demyx finally returned, informing them that the other four needed to head out so they could catch the train. They all waved and exchanged good-byes and nice to meet yous, Lea a little groggier than the rest. Terra and Ven said good-bye to Thorn, and Tifa and Aqua gave her a quick pat on the head as well, assuring Ven that she was, in fact, the cutest dog they’d ever seen.
As the trio-plus-Thorn headed for the boardwalk, the quartet made their way back to the train station, reflecting on a beach day well spent. Aqua and Tifa took the lead, each with an arm around the other, and as they approached the platform, Ven said, “Hey, guys. I’ve been thinking…we should get a dog.”
Terra gave him a warm smile. “Well, I’ll tell you what, Ven,” he said, reaching out and ruffling Ven’s hair fondly. “No.”
I wrote this, like, a year ago. If you had told me then that we’d end up getting a canon scene of Lea, Isa, and the Wayfinders all hanging out on the beach, I would’ve laughed in your face. What a world.
Chapter 16: Another Side
Immediate follow-up to the previous chapter.
Characters: Lea, Isa, Demyx, and Thorn.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“All right, why’s Ma blowing up my phone right now? What did you tell her?”
“Nothing,” Isa said as Lea scanned text after text reminding him about the importance of wearing sunscreen. “I did send a photo, though.”
“A picture’s worth a thousand words,” Demyx chimed in. Lea rolled his eyes at both of them as he put his phone away, trying to resist the urge to scratch off an entire layer of skin.
They spent some time exploring the boardwalk, repeatedly guiding Thorn away from the food stands. Lea and Isa asked Demyx about his friends, such as whether Aqua really was an aloe-dispensing guardian angel, and whether Terra had ever considered swinging by Higanbana. Lea muttered, “Damn,” when Demyx said he didn’t think so, and Isa had the good grace to keep his disappointment a bit more subtle. They tried to find something fun to do, but the only activity Lea could handle with his sunburn was the Ferris wheel, and none of them suspected it would be worth the wait. “Still tourist season,” Demyx said as they passed the crowded line. “Everyone wants to see that classic Twilight Town sunset before summer’s over.”
They continued walking until Lea demanded a break from the heat. Demyx followed him into one of the air-conditioned stores to keep him company while Isa waited outside with Thorn. She stayed close, but she let her attention wander, and while she flinched at the sounds of popped balloons and celebratory cheers as someone won a carnival game, she didn’t shy away from passersby. A far cry from their first day together, Isa thought. She was still on alert more often than not, but her curiosity overpowered her fear rather than the other way around. Isa had had his reservations about bringing her somewhere so busy and populated, but as he gave her a comforting scratch under her chin, he felt they could mark this down as a pleasant and entirely successful beach day.
He told himself this even when he noticed a little girl wandering closer and closer to where he and Thorn stood. He assured himself that she was just passing by, although a few key details failed to support this theory, such as how young she was to be walking around unaccompanied and how she kept her eyes fixed on the ground. Isa looked up and down the boardwalk, hoping to see even one person running to retrieve her. No one did, and as the girl closed in, Isa realized with no small amount of alarm that, somehow, this situation was becoming his responsibility to handle.
Or, more accurately, Thorn’s. She looked apprehensive, having never interacted with a person so small before, and despite how she edged closer to Isa, the girl walked right up to her. She reached out and started petting her inexpertly, her small hand repeatedly stroking the tufts of fur on Thorn’s back and shoulder. She seemed to be trying to comfort herself more than anything, and while Thorn wasn’t quite delighting in the attention, she was receptive to it, carefully craning her neck to sniff the hand that was petting her so oddly.
After a quick look around, wondering what the hell was taking Lea and Demyx so long, Isa looked down at the top of the girl’s curly-haired head and said, “Hello?” The girl didn’t give any indication that she heard him, unless swaying absentmindedly qualified as a response. “…are you lost?” Isa tried, sounding like he was playing a guessing game rather than looking for an actual answer.
Maybe that was why, instead of replying, the girl merely shuffled closer to him. She didn’t look up, nor did she stop petting Thorn, but what she did do was reach out and hold onto the leg of Isa’s pants, clinging to the crease on the outside of his knee.
The first and only thing Isa wanted to do in that moment was step aside. He knew that was all it would take to free himself from her grasp. It would be pitifully easy, yet that was exactly why he couldn’t do it. She was holding onto an inch of fabric with a hand so tiny it could barely make a fist; how awful would he have to be to step away when she was barely hanging on?
He cast another glance across the street and was rewarded with the sight of Demyx walking out of the store, laughing over his shoulder at something Lea had said. “Demyx,” Isa barked, drawing his attention, which quickly took the form of a puzzled smile.
“Uh…okay then?” Demyx said, still laughing a little, now in confusion. Lea tilted his head to look past him, and he stared for just a moment before absolutely melting. He let Demyx go ahead while he followed more slowly to enjoy the sight, undeterred by Isa’s warning look.
“You need a hand?” Demyx asked.
“Yes,” Isa replied, too stressed out to be embarrassed when Demyx said, “I wasn’t talking to you, dude.” He stooped down to talk to the girl while Lea sidled up to Isa, making no effort whatsoever to hide his smile.
“Hey there,” Demyx said, his voice as friendly as usual. “Do you need some help?” The girl didn’t respond until he joined her in petting Thorn and asked, “Are you lost?”
She nodded quickly, and Demyx said, “Did you come here with someone today? Your parents?”
This time she managed to look up at him briefly before nodding, and Isa, for whatever reason, decided to jump back in. “Are they on the boardwalk?” The girl shrugged, tearing up as she was forced to admit that she didn’t know where her own parents were, and Lea gave Isa’s shoulder a push.
“If she knew where they were, she wouldn’t be lost,” he chided while Isa swatted his hand away. The girl wouldn’t look at anyone now, petting Thorn with more desperate focus than before.
“Hey, it’s all good,” Demyx said, hoping the other two would pick up on how pointedly bright his tone was. “Don’t listen to these bozos. You just leave it to me.” He rose to his feet and said in a quieter voice, “You guys wanna stay here with her? I’m gonna take a jog and see if I can spot a panicking couple somewhere down the road.”
“Good idea. Honestly, she seems to like Isa. Why don’t you take one end of the boardwalk, and I’ll check the other?”
“Sounds good to me.”
But before either of them could move, Isa’s hand shot forward, locking around Lea’s wrist as he said, “Oh, no you don’t.” Lea looked back and paused, taking in the sight of Isa grabbing his wrist, and the girl holding his pant leg in one hand and Thorn’s collar in the other, the four of them standing there like a train of baby elephants. Just when Lea thought his heart was about to burst, he felt something slide into his free hand, and he turned back around to see Demyx holding it. Lea gave him a blank look, and Demyx simply said, “I felt left out.”
Isa would have reminded Demyx to stay focused, if it hadn’t been Demyx’s antics that finally got a positive reaction out of the girl. She giggled, a bit shyly when everyone’s attention turned toward her. Lea smiled warmly, and Demyx knelt down again.
“Hey, she’s got a voice after all,” he said, laughing along with her. “I don’t think I introduced myself. My name’s Demyx.” He held his hand out for a fist bump, partly to establish trust, and partly to see who she’d choose to let go of. She released Isa, to his eternal relief, and made a small fist, smiling when Demyx bumped his hand against hers. “What can I call you?” he asked, leaning in as she mumbled her reply. “Libby?” She mumbled again, and he said, “Lily, my bad. That’s a great name.” He sat back on his heels, giving Thorn another pat. “Well, Lily, this pretty girl here is Thorn, and lucky for us, she’s got the best nose in the business. If anyone can help us track down your parents, she can.”
Thorn looked more unsure than ever, but Lily seemed convinced. “All right,” Demyx said, rising to his feet once more, “we’re gonna stick together, gang. Let’s partner up. Lily, you and Thorn look like a perfect match to me. Isa, you should probably stay with Lea and let him do the talking.” Isa had no qualms about that and had been about to suggest the same plan himself. “I’ll take the lead, of course. Lily and Thorn, you two can come up here with me. We’re gonna need your eyes and her nose on the front lines. Now, let’s move out.”
Although Demyx had tapped into some surprisingly effective leadership skills, Lea broke protocol almost immediately, ditching Isa to join the group at the front. While Lily kept her eyes mostly on the ground, she was more responsive than before, especially now that Lea and Demyx had started trying to make her laugh.
“Hey, Lily, what do you think of Lea? He kind of looks like the Pink Panther, right? This is why you always, always, always wear sunscreen.”
Lea huffed dramatically, pretending to be offended, which made Lily giggle even more. Isa trailed behind the group, happy enough where he was but wishing he at least had Thorn to commiserate with. But Lily was helping Thorn loosen up as much as the other way around, and he had to admit that watching Lea and Demyx get the girl to laugh at their antics was rewarding. After several minutes of listening to their comedy routine, which mostly involved insulting each other, Lily was comfortable enough to let go of Thorn’s collar and take Demyx’s hand instead.
Eventually, Demyx revealed that he hadn’t been leading them randomly down the boardwalk, but toward the tourist information area. When they saw a young and very dismayed couple at the counter, Demyx said, “Hey, Lily, are those—”
But Lily was already dragging Demyx along as she ran ahead, either refusing to let go of his hand until she had officially reunited with her parents, or simply forgetting that she still held it. He waved awkwardly as her parents spotted them and closed the rest of the distance themselves. Lily finally let go of Demyx as her mother scooped her up, and Demyx modestly waved away her father’s exuberant thanks. Lea joined them while Isa remained where he was, scratching Thorn’s head as he watched the reunion.
Demyx congratulated Lily on being such a brave adventurer, managing to get a soft high-five from her. Lea went with a gentle fist bump to go easy on his sunburn, and before Lily left, she darted back to Isa, still not making eye contact, but giving his leg a quick hug. She let go in about two seconds, sparing him the trouble of figuring out how to react, and after giving Thorn a few more pats on the head, she returned to the group, where her parents were waiting to take her home and Lea and Demyx were giving Isa what he considered to be disproportionately satisfied smiles. As the family departed with a final wave, Lea and Demyx sauntered back to Isa, who said, “Be quiet,” before they even opened their mouths.
Demyx stopped at his side, resting his elbow on Isa’s shoulder. “I said be quiet, Demyx.”
Demyx continued to smile until Isa said, “I’m not going to tell you again.” With a nearly silent little laugh, Demyx gave Isa’s shoulder a friendly shake and let him go, beckoning for Thorn. She trotted after him, still confused by everything that had transpired, but grateful to have her usual group back.
Isa was about to follow them when he noticed Lea smiling as well, though much more softly than Demyx. “What?”
“Oh, you know perfectly well what. That was the cutest damn thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Isa rolled his eyes and started walking after Demyx and Thorn, and Lea followed at his side. He didn’t push the subject, but after a few moments of silence passed between them, Isa said, “You were good with her.”
“Yeah, she was sweet. Good audience, too—those jokes really weren’t our best material.”
“I’m serious. I never see that side of you.” Isa replayed their interactions in his head a few more times before he added, “You’re good with kids.”
“Ah, c’mon. It was nothing.”
“Not to me.”
Lea gave him a gentle smile, letting those words sink in before he leaned over. He placed a light kiss on Isa’s cheek, then paused when Isa turned his head, meeting him for a full kiss. After all these years, it still sent a jolt through his system sometimes when Isa took him by surprise, especially in an open, public setting. Even now, Isa didn’t stay long, but before he pulled away he gave Lea a final, brief kiss, something he always did after a longer one, like punctuation at the end of a sentence. It struck Lea as a compulsive habit, a sense of closure that would throw Isa off balance for the rest of the day if he didn’t get it.
Regardless, it was a quirk that Lea had come to expect and enjoy. And until he finally shed that seared layer of skin, it was about the only contact he could tolerate anyway. Still, in spite of the burn, he managed to gingerly slide his fingers between Isa’s, and together they followed Demyx and Thorn, working their way through the crowd and walking down the Twilight Town boardwalk hand in hand.
And so concludes the end of summer. They all deserved to end it on a fluffy note. Plus, I have a soft spot for boardwalk settings.
Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for Part 3, coming up sometime in the near future.