Zephirin is so tired.
His back aches. His office chair is an unforgiving old thing and he’s found himself slouching over his papers and computer more often than not as of late. It makes him ache even more once he tries to walk with his usual proper posture.
He wants to go home. He wants to sleep.
Instead, after he finally leaves work, he spends ten minutes sitting in the driver’s seat of his car. Classical music, staticky from a poor connection to the channel, is the only sound that fills the vehicle. He doesn’t let himself think, doesn’t process the sound of traffic outside or even his own breathing.
When he blinks, he sees documents. Black ink. A coffee stain on the corner of the yellow-edged paper.
A failed business transaction. Times New Roman font. His father's name. de Valhourdin & Company Trust.
The blaring sound of a fire truck passing by, sirens wailing, jolts Zephirin into awareness. He sucks in a breath, flexing his fingers grip on the steering wheel.
He doesn’t think about it.
He changes the radio station instead of plugging in his phone. He turns on the most obnoxious pop channel he can find, letting the repetitive beats ring in his head, autotuned voices washing through him. He doesn’t process a single one of the songs that play as he drives.
He’s careful, as he always is. About the speed limit, about the amount of pressure he applies to the gas, about minding the streetlights and signs. So very careful.
Maybe it doesn’t matter how careful they were, part of Zephirin thinks. His grip on the steering wheel goes white-knuckled. Maybe it doesn’t matter how careful he is, now.
Still, he makes it home. His buildings basement parking garage is dimly lit and flickering; when he steps out of his car, he smells something overwhelmingly fruity and sugary.
Looking down, someone had very recently spilled some kind of slushie-like drink on the concrete. A swarm of ants crawl across the sticky red mess near his shoe.
Zephirin stares for a long moment. Red on concrete. Red on pavement. Photos he had never been supposed to see, tucked into the beige case folder of the officer who responded to the scene of the accident, stick behind his eyelids.
He forces himself to move. The low heels of his shoes click against the concrete, echoing in the expanse of the garage and in his brain. His hands don’t shake as he keys himself into the building.
The concierge at the front desk is too engaged in a phone call to do more than give him a distracted smile in welcome as he makes his way to the elevator. He’s grateful for it; he doesn’t know if he’d even be able to say anything right now.
The elevator is blessedly empty. He sees no one on his way to his fifth floor apartment; when he lets himself in.
It feels like any other time Zephirin has arrived home in the late evening, hours after when he should have clocked out. He toes out of his shoes. He shrugs out of his coat, hanging it on the rack, locking the door behind him and dropping his keys on small table nearby.
Welcome home, nobody says, because nobody waits for him. He makes his way to the kitchen out of habit, loosening the knot of his tie and undoing the buttons at the top of his shirt; he finds, near the back of the fridge, the case of disgusting vodka-and-citrus drinks Adelphel had brought over some weeks ago when he and Janlenoux came by for dinner.
He hates vodka. He’s not a big fan of citrus flavored drinks, either.
He takes out the entire six pack and cracks one open anyway.
Zephirin downs half the first can in one go. It burns unpleasantly, nauseatingly bitter. The taste of raspberries pop in his mouth and while the combination is surprisingly palatable, Zephirin still hates it.
He still takes the can—and the case—with him into the open space of his living room when he goes, though. He sits not at the fine leather couch near the coffee table, across from his flatscreen, but at the short settee bench in front of the screen door leading to the balcony.
He nudges it open, one handed as he balances the drink between his knees and tugs his phone out of his pants pocket with the other. The cool night air is a blessed relief as he thumbs across the tracks on his music player.
He doesn’t want to listen to anything on his phone. None of the options are appealing to him, somehow, and he frustratedly puts his phone on top of the unopened drinks by his side.
Zephirin finishes the first can. Opens another, pressing his face against the cold metal edge of the sliding door, the breeze catching on his hair and making his skin tickle.
He doesn’t want to think about it. But it’s hard to silence his mind when he has nothing else to fill it with, and so halfway through the second drink, he starts remembering again. Starts thinking about it. The possibilities.
The arguments his parents had with one another when they thought he couldn’t hear. Low voices behind closed doors or in the kitchen at night, for months before the accident. His father had not wanted to do something. His mother had wanted it done, if only because it would be better than the alternative. He hadn’t understood.
He hadn’t known enough to understand. Not even when his great aunt had come to pick him up from school in the middle of the day; not even when they’d said the funeral would have to be closed casket. Not when Ompagne, who he had only met a handful of times before, had looked at him from across the carved open earth as his parents were lowered, his expression twisted with indecisive grief.
He might have known when Ompagne took him into his home. When he never spoke concretely about his work; when he came home too late or too early, when Zephirin would find swaths of empty bandage packets in the bathroom garbage.
Maybe he had known. He hadn’t let himself think about it then, either, and had buried that deep-seated suspicion further inside himself when he picked up the phone all those years ago to hear Sidurgu’s voice telling him there’s been an accident in the same tone his great aunt had used when she took him out of class.
He had known, as he returned to Ompagne’s home—and he could not, then, think of it as his any longer—one last time, that it was not an accident.
He closes his eyes. Turns his head, pressing his cheek fully against the glass. Behind his closed eyelids he sees Sidurgu in the doorway of Ompagne’s kitchen, sees Fray with their spine curved and their face in their hands. Sees them look up, their eyes gold in the dim light.
Zephirin grabs for a third drink. He knocks over his phone in the process but doesn’t care; after starting in on the third can, he gets up, his legs shockingly steady as he heads towards his bedroom.
He feels the pain as fresh as he had the day he walked away from Fray and Sid after they watched Ompagne burn in the crematorium.
Sidurgu had tried to say something. Fray hadn’t said a thing.
In his room, he bends to the drawer beneath his bed—a wave of dizziness hits him and he stays still for a long moment, head bowed, fearful that he might be sick. There is a reason he rarely drinks, even when Adelphel and Janlenoux bring out wine or coolers when he visits.
The feeling passes. He tugs open the drawer, bypassing folders full of high school essays, his parents wedding photo, and finding the cassette tapes and old portable player at the back.
It’s stupid. A stupid idea. He shouldn’t do this. Already, he feels sick again, not with nausea but with something else.
He doesn’t look at the labels on the cassettes. He just takes one at random, hands shaking as struggles to fit it into the player and make his way back out into the living room.
He drops himself onto the settee again, taking another swig of his drink when he does. Then he shuts the cassette into the player, hearing the click and hovering his thumb over the play button.
When was the last time he had used this thing? A year ago? Two? Maybe the batteries won’t even work.
Part of Zephirin hopes they won’t.
He presses play anyway.
For a moment, there’s nothing, but then the player seems to hum in his grip as the tape begins to play. At first the noise is just static, shuffling—indistinct murmurs, muffled by distance.
And then he hears Sidurgu’s drums—hears the clacking of his sticks—and feels his heart rise into his throat even before Fray’s voice, low and almost raspy, croons out this is as good a place to fall as any; we’ll build our altar here.
He hears Sidurgu falter on his drums; hears him miss his cue to begin on the keyboard, his notes coming in several seconds too late.
Zephirin lowers his head between his knees, putting the cassette player to the side lest he grip it so tight that something breaks. He sucks in a deep, shaky breath of cool air, the breeze from outside barely soothing his alcohol-flushed face.
That’s all it is. The alcohol.
Not the memory of how Fray had looked at him back then; not the way he feels seventeen instead of almost thirty two listening to this. As if it were only yesterday that Fray’s mouth curved up, their eyes gleaming in the poorly lit garage as their fingers strummed against the chords of their guitar, things like you had Jesus on your breath and I caught him in mine and I’m not looking for absolution falling from their mouth with such cursed ease as Zephirin’s hands shook and his face flushed from far more than the summer heat.
His eyes burn wetly. Shame and guilt choke him as Fray’s voice fills his living room, spilling out into the night, and he thinks about the way his mother's ring had caught Fray’s mouth when they fought that last time he had seen them, how Sidurgu had needed to pull them apart—the volume of their silence when he left them both behind, Ompagne’s ashes heavy in Sidurgu’s hands, Fray’s clenched tight as though it were an effort not to strike him again.
He thinks about being seventeen and wanting to live for the shivers their husky voice sent across his skin, how the pleasure he felt at the sight of their honeyed eyes in the light outweighed the guilt churning in his stomach over his want.
He thinks about the documents found buried in the back of one of the storage rooms at work. Of his father’s name, of the company name, of Ompagne—of Fray, of Sid, of the fact they surely knew. Of the fact they surely continued on whatever he had been doing.
Thordon would know their names.
Zephirin squeezes his eyes shut so tightly he sees dots of white. He wonders not if they’re okay, but if they’re even alive, and hates himself because he has to wonder at all.
At some point, the tape stops. Zephirin doesn’t notice; Fray’s voice keeps looping in his head, an overlay to his memories of regret.
He wonders—if Fray had said something, all those years ago, would he have still walked away?
He supposes it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing he can change.