Kendall vomits after the press conference ends.
His knuckles whiten against the toilet: cheap, plastic, public restroom fare with an automatic flush. It activates mid retch and sprays spittly toilet water into his face, a mixture of mimosas, coffee, and whatever he forced down for breakfast sent swirling in the bowl.
Kendall falls backwards, head pressed against the stall door. The grubby tiles are cold against his palms and almost calming. He finds his breath, the adrenaline from pulling a Judas on live television still sanguine in his veins. His skin itches, like a habit, and he needs something: uppers, downers, cough medicine, even a handful of Gravol might do. He reaches into his jacket for a tin of unprescribed pills but only finds his phone, alight with dozens of text messages and missed calls.
Shiv, Roman, Connor, Tom, Frank, Gerri, Karl, Naomi, Rava, and Co. As he nears the end of the list, he sees Stewy clustered with the others. Something compels him to stare. With how fucked up everything has gotten, he craves any sort of familiarity, and Stewy fits in with the has-beens and not-anymores, the dregs of childhood summers and Harvard hangovers a wisp in his memory.
His thumb hovers over the notification, dragging it downwards, before he decides against it.
Kendall turns off his phone, stands, wipes his mouth with a wad of paper towel and washes it out in the sink, all the while thankful he slipped a janitor a fifty to watch the door. He washes his hands next, the soap bubblegum pink, and adjusts his suit in the mirror.
His eyes are bloodshot at the corners, but he looks composed, guiltless, unprepared to hang himself like a proper Iscariot after ushering in the crucifixion of his one and only saviour. He pauses, trying to evaluate if any of that is really true.
He waits. He feels nothing.
But as he leaves the restroom and finds his way down the journalist scattered hallway, the numbness subsides and the self-loathing creeps in. An intrusive isolation descends upon his head, baptizing him as he moves from one precipice to another.
There was a time when Kendall would have done anything for Stewy.
When they first met back at Buckley, Stewy was a private school prick; he had no ambition, no expectations, no reasons to care. At age thirteen, he smoked cigarettes because he hoped his mother would smell it on his clothes. He liked boys, he liked girls, he liked the idea of rebellion, but in practice he adhered to the system he was born into as much as any other trust fund baby.
Kendall liked him immediately.
Maybe because, at the time, Stewy seemed so disaffected with his own prospects. It all came naturally to him, the schmoozing, the maneuvering, the charm. Stewy called Kendall a try-hard often and without remorse, but it was honest. He had no ultimatum.
That changed sometime in 1992 when Kendall was hit by his father for the first and only time. Kendall remembers why. His parents were divorcing, expensively so, the stock was down, and the annual shareholders meeting was just around the corner. It had come to a head at the dinner table, marked by a question that could have been construed as backtalk. Kendall barely felt it, barely remembers how it felt.
More memorable was how Stewy reacted when he came to school with a bruise blooming on his cheekbone, mottled red and blue to make purple like a kindergarten colour chart.
Underneath the stairs by the cafeteria, Stewy had asked Kendall to hit him in the same spot. Why? Because their friends were staring, he said, and their teachers would ask how it happened.
Kendall remembers the sound of his school uniform tearing as Stewy called him a pussy and a fuckwad and a handful of other middle school insults to egg him on. He laughed as Kendall drove his fist into his jaw, and he was still laughing when they were hauled to the head office.
As for the bruise, well, no one thought anything of it.
Stewy had always tried protecting Kendall by inadvertently dragging him into more trouble. He was a different way to self-destruct.
Kendall has nowhere to go, not really.
He spends some time at his apartment, brushes the bile from his teeth, showers, changes his clothes. Once he dismisses the staff, too penitent to look them in the eye for too long, the quiet becomes too much. He tries not to think about it. The jagged red scar on his forearm burns through his shirt sleeve. His hair, scented with some overpriced organic shampoo, feels like a different kind of wet: swampy, sick, reminiscent of damp English moors and boggy air. His nose hairs stiffen with the acrid smell of fireworks.
It could come out any minute now; his dad is no stranger to leaking information to the press. But it must be too late for that. It would be murder-suicide, another cover-up to add to the Waystar Royco roster. Even so, Kendall anxiously checks his phone again. The only news stories cluttering his home screen are Twitter hot takes and article alerts about the press conference: Wallstreet Journal, CNN, Business Insider.
And then, Stewy Hosseini: (1) MISSED CALL. No voicemail.
Kendall wants to leave, find someplace else he can avoid the nuclear fallout he brought upon himself. Here, at his apartment, his thoughts can run rampant without anything more than booze to abate them. He could call Greg, get him to meet with his dealer, but now is not a good time if there ever was one.
His apartment is too obvious to be a hideout, a hotel room too pathetic. Kendall runs through his options, evaluates them, then runs through them again. His relationship with Naomi is too delicate; he likes her too much to burden her. And Rava, of course, is out of the question.
After twenty minutes of aimlessly circling through Manhattan, the driver asks him where to. Kendall gives him an address before he can think too much about it.
There was a time in college when Kendall OD’ed. Or, at least, Stewy thought he did.
It was close to Christmastime and they were both in Boston for one last weekend before parting ways to suffer through separate family vacations. The firm was going through a bumpy acquisition, which had left Logan more volatile than usual, and Kendall was dreading having to face his father sober.
Luckily, Stewy had an arsenal of illicit drugs potent enough to tranquillize a herd of cows.
They ended up at a party hosted by someone outside of their usual circle of friends. Stewy did too little, Kendall too much. After several bumps and a pill or three, he ended up near unconscious on the bathroom floor of the undergrad frat house, holding his guts in while the latest Eminem track rattled the tiles.
Stewy wanted to call 911, but Kendall knew better. If what had happened left the room, his dad would hear about it somehow, and that meant intrafamilial shaming and being sent to some rehabilitation centre in the middle of fucking nowhere, away from the prying eyes of tabloids and AOL gossip forums. They would probably make him meditate in an appropriated felt teepee and inhale a concoction of Zoloft and sage, like Burning Man for yuppy junkies and manic depressives.
So, Kendall got it out of his system the old fashioned way, clogging the plumbing with the contents of his stomach. The front of his varsity sweatshirt was stained with eggy bile while Stewy ran the shower on his head, knob turned to freezing, trying to keep him awake.
“If you fucking die, believe me, I will personally deliver your corpse to your family with a dick drawn on your forehead.”
“Thanks for always looking out for me, bro.”
When it was over, Kendall could feel Stewy press his lips against his temple, nose settling into his damp and sweat-soaked hair. Panicked tears were dribbling down his cheekbones. Kendall let it go without insult, not like he usually did when they were bored and desperate, dry humping in an unfamiliar bedroom and calling each other names so it would mean less than it did.
It never happened again.
Kendall is both surprised and unsurprised to find that Stewy is already back from Greece.
It makes sense; he never could sit still, linger in the same place too long when it had nothing more to offer. Kendall doubts there was much left for him after their flubbed negotiation, especially not with the press conference slated for the following day.
Stewy is probably pleased with himself for beating the rest of the Roys to the punch, following the money back to New York before they even knew it was there. Kendall tries not to think about his family, but the image of them scrambling to clear the debris of the atom bomb he dropped nearly makes him laugh. He walks into the lobby of a luxury apartment complex that toes the line between extravagance and poor taste and imagines the yacht abandoned in the Mediterranean sea, a deluge of water fit for any travel blog sweeping it away.
Kendall flags down the doorman, then gives Stewy a call. He picks up on the second ring without missing a beat, like he was waiting for the first to pass.
“Now you answer my fucking calls, you piece of shit,” Stewy says.
Kendall can hear the relief in his voice beneath the insult trying to hide it. “Nice to hear from you too.”
Stewy lets him up without protest. Kendall fiddles with his watch in the elevator, which is lined floor to ceiling with mirrors so he can see his reflection warped in every direction. He begins to question why he came here, what he even has left to say to Stewy of all people. The elevator dings, the button for the penthouse suite encircled in red. He gets out.
Stewy is waiting for him, a crystalline glass of scotch in his hand and a smirk on his face.
“Did daddy finally let you out of your chastity belt?” Stewy asks. His repartee sounds uncharacteristically rehearsed. “Or, I guess you busted out this time. Your prick must be shrivelled like an old woman at water aerobics class.”
“Huh, well, thanks for thinking of my prick, dude,” Kendall deadpans. “I appreciate it.”
He bites down hard on the inside of his cheek and meets Stewy in the foyer. His apartment looks like the inside of a high-end furniture catalogue, professionally decorated in stark, monochrome pieces. The windows are wall-spanning to show off one of the better views you can get of the city, and the oversized flat screen in the living room is turned to ATN with the volume muted, as if to purposefully taunt him. Kendall catches sight of his face, pixels shifting across the screen as the flash of a camera colours him blue. The smear campaign has undeniably begun.
“Do you want to come in?” Stewy asks, gesturing with his scotch, but his face sours. “Or is this a fuck and go type of situation? Because you have been fucking me, like, pretty consistently. I could have used a warning that you were about to commit corporate parricide.”
Kendall bows his head. Sometimes Stewy makes it difficult to meet his eyes, the tilt of his head confrontational, his stare blackened and threatening to peer through Kendall’s chest.
“I would have told you if I could have, Stew,” Kendall says.
“Yeah, sure, keep sweet-talking me.” Stewy takes a sip of his drink and it wets his lips with amber. “I hope you realize this gives shareholders a really good fucking reason to back out of Logan’s camp and into mine.”
Kendall does realize. He has already considered that angle and every angle that runs alongside it, which Stewy knows all too well. Letting the company fall from family control was a risk Kendall had to take to divert the blame, but he didn’t come here to beg Stewy to keep the Roy name in Royco. Stewy is determined to see the proxy battle through, and nothing Kendall can say will change that.
But if this was just about business, Stewy would have gotten bored by now, offered him a drink or a hit or both. Instead, he stands there, sipping from his scotch and grinding his teeth. The ease of his posture is gone, spare hand twisting in his pocket. His banter is barbed, more barbed than usual.
“Well, congratulations, man,” Kendall says. “But if this is so good for you, why do you have an elephant dick sized stick up your ass?”
Stewy chuckles, turns on his heels and steps into the living room. Kendall follows him, his footfall quiet against the bocote hardwood floors. Stewy reaches for the remote and unmutes the television just as archival footage of Logan ghosts across the screen: an old interview, maybe early 2000s. Lester McClintock is seated in the chair across from him.
“His plan was better, huh, was it?” Stewy says, pointing at the TV, at Logan. “But not good enough to stop you from airing out his bloodstained laundry, right?” He takes a step towards Kendall. “You owe me a fucking explanation, Ken. No bullshit this time.”
Kendall scoffs to conceal the anxiety intumescing beneath his skin: mud in his shoes, potassium nitrate in the air, what everyone thought was wine on his shirt sleeve.
“Oh, do I, Stew?”
“If not, then why the fuck are you here?” Stewy snaps. “Were you hoping I would make you feel better? Give you a blowie like I used to when your parents were fighting? Need a shoulder to cry on? Or a place to scrub the blood from your hands?”
Kendall lets out a humourless chuckle, willing away the sting behind his eyes. He knows Stewy; he knows any vitriol he could throw at him would be thrown back in a hundred different cruel ways, all carefully constructed to hide his hurt. That was their game for the longest time. As long as neither of them slipped up and said something sincere, they could keep on pretending.
After all that time, Kendall learned that the harshest cruelties are usually found in sincerity.
“I need you, man,” he tells Stewy, hoping his voice doesn’t falter. “I’m fucking wading uncharted waters alone here and I need you.”
At that, Stewy shrinks away, like he’s recoiling from a punch. Hurt passes over his face, loud and distinct, before he rights himself like nothing happened.
“Yeah, fuck you too, dude,” Stewy says. “So, what, you want me on your side now? Just the two of us going up against the big guns? What tactical advantage does you showing up on my doorstep like a fucking stray dog with mange present me?”
“No tactics,” Kendall insists and he feels tired, so damn tired. “I just wanted to see you.”
Stewy is almost laughing. “Go to hell.”
For all intents and purposes, Kendall might prefer it down there.
There was a time when Kendall loved Stewy. And not just because of the drugs, although they did play a part.
A week before their last semester at Harvard concluded, they ended up at a jazz club near Inman Square for one final hurrah. Stewy hated jazz; he just wanted to get laid. His eyes were on some South African exchange student from his macroeconomics class, but Kendall was too sentimental to let Stewy wander far from his reach.
He was afraid of what would happen, after college, when he formally involved himself in the company to situate himself as heir apparent, while Stewy went abroad for a year. He would probably come back a private equity big shot and their relationship would grow impersonal, beneficial only on the business side of things.
Out of desperation, Kendall had crossed a line. He wanted too much sometimes, which always led to a self-defeating prophecy of fuck-ups that ensured he would never get it. That night, he had kissed Stewy in a bathroom stall after doing a line off his palm. No hurried hand jobs pressed up against a wall scrawled with slurs and phone numbers, no toilet water stains on the knees of his jeans. Just a kiss, without teeth for once, disgustingly chaste.
He had expected Stewy to make fun of him afterwards, but Stewy let it go, muttering something about needing a cigarette. They had found their way through the club, past the VIP section and onto the roof via an unlocked and unsupervised stairwell.
It was late March, the beginning of spring, but only warm enough to rid the pavement of the snow and not the drainpipes or balcony railings or windowsills. Stewy lit his cigarette, took a meaningful drag, then offered it to Kendall. Kendall pinched it between his fingers and watched the cherry burn red in the offset glow of the 1 AM streetlights. The filter was already softened with saliva.
“My dad wants me to quit.”
Stewy raised an eyebrow. He was baby-faced and bright-eyed back then, his beard patchy like an old shoeshine brush that had lost many of its bristles, his smirk less sure. “He does, does he? Old habits die hard with you, Kendall.”
Kendall passed the cigarette back. “Is that what you are, Stew? An old habit?”
“I guess so,” Stewy said. “Except you only ever like me when I let you bum off my coke.”
“You’re pretty fucking intolerable otherwise. Is that why you keep plying me with it?”
“Supply and demand, brother. Economics one-oh-fucking-one. You probably owe me a six-figure sum.”
“Send me the invoice, asshole.”
They were talking about money like they usually did, but they were talking about something else too. Kendall wanted to get a good look at Stewy before he dropped out of his orbit again, like he did back in high school, circling back at an indeterminate time like the world’s least reliable celestial body. He would be gone and back and gone and back and gone and back again. It was the only thing Kendall was certain of.
“I’m gonna miss you, man, really.”
“No, you won’t.”
In his memory, Kendall’s not sure who said what.
Kendall sees no way through this.
Stewy will never forgive him if he feeds him more excuses, but he will forgive him even less if he tells the truth. Stewy has committed his fair share of mortal sins. His métier has been marked by betrayals, some of which Kendall was personally subjected to. Not that he ever had the heart to hold it against him.
Stewy would probably split apart his soul and sell it if it would run him a decent price per share. But this is different.
Stewy is circling now. He pours himself another scotch and a vodka for Kendall, which he slides across the bar without saying anything or even asking his preference. He already knows. Kendall takes it and sips from it gratefully. It would be poetic justice, he supposes, if it were poison. Maybe he has been looking for punishment in the wrong place.
He wonders if Stewy thinks alcohol will get him a straight answer while staring at the pathetic finger of vodka in his glass. It placates him just enough.
“Hey, do you have—” Kendall begins, but Stewy has already beaten him to the punch, counting on his fingers.
“What do you want? Coke, benzos, percs, ecstasy . . . MKUltra truth serum, perhaps?”
Kendall shakes his head. “Just a cigarette would be good.”
He smokes it out on the balcony as the New York City skyline shudders in front of him, fractured by thousands if not millions of lights the size of pinpricks. Stewy never takes his eyes off him, like the twitch of his fingers around his cigarette might reveal all the bodies he has buried in the basement.
“If only daddy could see you now,” Stewy says, leaning forward against the glass divider that stands between them and a thirty-story drop. “Come on, Ken, what does he have hanging over your head? You said you trusted me once.”
Kendall exhales and a miasma of smoke pours from his dry lips. “I recall you telling me not to.”
Stewy shrugs. “It was good advice.”
“I do trust you,” Kendall admits. “For some fucking reason.”
“Then tell me.”
Kendall has already considered what might happen if he gave in. With his mother, he had attempted to unload his conscience onto someone else and failed to follow through, but maybe Stewy would be different. Maybe Stewy would judge him the way he should have been judged from the beginning, let him pay for what he did by rendering his third oldest friendship irreparable. Even if he was appalled, Stewy would never tell. Kendall knows that. But it would still be ammunition whether Stewy intended to use or not. A bullet is a bullet even without a gun.
“You would hate me if I did,” Kendall says.
“I already fucking hate you, man,” Stewy replies.
His meanness is cathartic in a way, just the right amount of sting to remind Kendall that his wounds are attached to real flesh and blood. The numbness subsides and he lets out a laugh, while Stewy bites away his smirk. It feels like they have fallen into a familiarity once forgotten.
Stewy has always been the same, only Kendall has changed. He feels the need to reach out and see if Stewy really is that unwavering beneath all of his pretences, because he felt that way when they were kids, green and blind and inseparable. Kendall knows he could never wager losing Stewy altogether, so he decides a fictional betrayal is easier to stomach than the truth.
“Trust only goes so far, Stew.”
“Yeah? Then tell me what makes up the difference.”
Stewy is so close to pleading with him, so fucking close, and he never pleads for anything. Kendall tosses his cigarette off the balcony, wishing he could watch it death spiral downwards until it met the pavement.
“I guess it matters more what gets in the way.”
Kendall gives him nothing, and Stewy learns to stop asking.