Kam was a smart guy. It wasn’t bragging to say so, it was just a fact. He knew it. Everybody knew it. He’d earned his way to a scholarship to the most exclusive school in the city and he’d done it with his brain and his hard work. Kam was smart.
But Kam was also a little bit dumb. Or maybe Iris was just leagues ahead of him. He considered that briefly before accepting it. Iris Tran was smarter than him so him missing something she thought was obvious was more a credit to her than a criticism of his own intelligence. Yes, he thought, he could accept that.
Because the thing was, as smart as Kam was and as ambitious as he was, the one thing he prided himself on above other was that he was a good brother. He and Ash had always had each other’s backs, had always supported each other, and Kam valued their relationship above all.
So when Iris pointed out in a 30 second interaction how miserable Ash was when Kam had missed it for months, either Iris was a genius who surpassed him in every way or Kam was a bad brother.
It was easy to accept Iris as an unparalleled genius.
“What’s got him so gloomy?” Iris watched Ash as he left the store, his head hung low.
“He’s not gloomy,” Kam defended. Iris shot him an unimpressed look.
“He didn’t even smile at you,” she pointed out. “He always smiles at you.”
Kam thought about it. “He smiled!”
Iris rolled her eyes. “It was fake. Real smile is different.”
And well, Kam didn’t have a response to that. Iris sent him to do more stocking and Kam mostly forgot about it.
The first time Kam met Helena, he liked her. She was smart, successful, beautiful, and seemed to really like Ash. She was everything Kam and their uncle could ever want for Ash.
Sat around the table, Ash was all smiles, happily showing Helena off to the family and exchanging soft looks with her when the attention left them for a brief moment. At one point, though, Ash got up to grab something from the kitchen and Kam followed to help. When he stepped through the doorway he got a glimpse of his brother curled in on himself, his shoulders drooping and his face sagging with weary exhaustion. The second he noticed Kam, a flip switched and the smile was back.
Kam didn’t mention it. “I like Helena,” he told Ash, watching him carefully. Ash’s smile tightened, his shoulders tensed.
“Me too.” Ash patted him on the shoulder as he slid past him out of the kitchen. Kam let him go, reeling from a revelation that felt like it shouldn’t be a revelation.
Ash had a fake smile. And Kam didn’t know the last time he’d seen a real one on his brother’s face.
(He did, he just didn’t want to admit it.)
Silence had a strange weight to it. Particularly in the midst of a crowd of noise.
It was a simple game in the park, nothing they hadn’t done a hundred times or more. The usual people showed up, including Mich and Sully.
“What’s going on with them?” Mich asked when they stopped for a water break. Kam looked over to see Mich gesturing at Ash and Sully who stood to the side with a sizable gulf between them, determinedly not speaking to each other. Ash kept shooting Sully looks but Sully, if he noticed, didn’t return them. “It’s weird seeing them like this.”
“It’s not weird,” Kam objected. He appreciated the distance between them, was thankful that Ash had listened to him and separated himself from Sully after the-
Mich just looked at him. “It’s Ash and Sully, mate. They’re practically inseparable and now they don’t even look at each other. I’m pretty sure they haven’t said a single word to each other, either.”
Kam shrugged. “So what? They’re not inseparable anymore.”
Mich raised an eyebrow. “Sure,” he agreed easily. “Just figured you’d know why your brother looks like somebody killed his dog and he’s not talking to his best mate.” Kam did know, though, was the problem. The other problem was that Mich had noticed Ash was miserable and Kam hadn’t.
Iris noticing something he didn’t, he could accept, but Mich? Mich who never saw Ash? That was harder to swallow.
Ash and Helena walked past the shop just as Sully was coming in to start a shift.
Ash had an arm around Helena and they were smiling (Ash’s smile might still be a little fake but Kam thought it was looking more real by the day). Except then Sully crossed the street and saw them. Sully’s steps faltered and he almost tripped. The motion caught Ash’s attention and Kam watched as the fake smile dropped away and Ash’s whole body seemed to recoil. The arm around Helena fell away and Ash put a noticeable distance between them. One of Ash’s hands started to reach for Sully as they passed him without a word but Sully flinched away and Ash shoved the offending hand in his pocket.
Neither of them said a word.
“Ash?” He heard Helena ask faintly as they got further down the street. “Everything okay?”
Ash turned to her, his smile so bright Kam could see it from where he stood. It felt painfully false. “Everything’s fine.”
Sully sidestepped him into the store, his face stony.
Everything was not fine.
Sully had a date.
Kam knew this already, had been privy to Iris’ attempts to set him up. Hell, he’d even helped Sully find the guy online a few weeks earlier, so it really wasn’t a surprise when he saw Sully kissing a guy in the park.
It was evidently very much a surprise to Ash, though.
“We need to-” Ash stopped talking. He froze in his tracks, the words caught in his throat, as his eyes stayed fixed on a point on the other side of the park. Kam had turned around when Ash stopped but now he turned around again, trying to see what had caught his brother’s attention. When he finally saw Sully, the guy was just pulling away from the kiss.
Something wet his the ground behind him. Kam turned to see a puddle of ice cream quickly melting on the pavement and a crushed cone in Ash’s hand. It looked like he’d squeezed it too tightly.
Ash shook himself back to attention. “Yeah?” He followed Kam’s eyes back down at himself, only just now seeming to realize what he’d down. ”Crap.” He hurried over to the nearby bin and chucked the remnants of his cone away. Kam handed over his bottle of water for him to rinse away the worst of the mess on his hand. “Thanks.” He handed the mostly empty bottle back.
Kam took it with a nod of acknowledgement. He wanted to ask, he did. Right now, Ash couldn’t quite manage the fake smile he’d taken to wearing and there was a palpable sadness in his eyes as he kept looking over Kam’s shoulder, but Kam stayed quiet. He didn’t need to ask what was bothering Ash, he already knew. What’s more, Ash knew that he knew.
Sully broke up with his boyfriend, if Kam could even call him that. They’d gone on a few dates and Iris was happy with it until suddenly she wasn’t. Kam didn’t get the details but he knew that Sully was definitely single.
Ash wasn’t. He and Helena had been dating for a few months now and by all accounts it was going well. So long as Kam ignored the way Ash’s smile dropped the second no one was looking. So long as Kam ignored the way Ash’s eyes were drawn to Sully whenever they were within a block of each other. Then yeah, it was going well.
So well, in fact, that they’d organized a meal between their family and Helena’s.
“Uncle,” Kam called as the family piled out of the restaurant after lunch. His uncle turned. “I need Ash’s help with a project. I will see you later.”
His uncle smiled and nodded. He was always so supportive of Kam’s schoolwork, Kam hated to take advantage of it. But needs must.
“Ash,” he called over, interrupting Ash’s conversation with Helena’s parents. “Sorry to interrupt,” he told the couple honestly. “Can you give me a ride to work? I’m going to be late.”
Ash looked at his watch unnecessarily. They both knew Kam didn’t work today. It was his one day off every week. He nodded anyway. “I’m sorry,” he apologized to Helena and her parents.
“No need,” her father waved him off. “It is good to see you taking such good care of your brother.” Ash smiled that horrible fake smile and shook the man’s hand before kissing Helena goodbye.
Kam made his own goodbyes and soon they were in Ash’s car. Neither one of them had said a word on the walk over and the silence continued through the drive until Kam noticed that they were headed for the Towers.
“Where are you going?”
Ash looked over at him. “Home?”
Kam shook his head. “No.”
Ash raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have to work.”
“I know that. But if I wanted to go home I would have ridden with Uncle.” Kam hesitated.
“I thought you were just trying to give me an out,” Ash said. Kam looked at him, fully realizing for the first time today just how tired Ash was, how much he’d been putting on a good face.
“No,” Kam replied. “I wanted to talk to you. Let’s go to the beach.”
“The beach?” Ash scoffed. But he turned at the next light so Kam didn’t bother replying.
He waited until he was standing on the pier, the wind ruffling his hair to open his mouth. “You asked for my opinion.”
Ash furrowed his brow. “About what?” Like he had asked Kam for his opinion on more than one issue.
Kam took a deep breath. “You said you didn’t care what anyone else thought, you just wanted to know what I thought.” He saw the moment Ash got it. The open look on his face disappeared, his back straightening and his shoulders squaring off like he was preparing to get hit.
“I think you’re miserable,” Kam rushed out. Ash blinked. “I think I don’t remember the last time you looked happy.” He stopped and shook his head. “No, I do. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
“You miss him,” Kam accused lightly. Ash didn’t bother objecting. “And because of it you’re miserable.” Kam looked out at the water. “I don’t want you to be miserable, Ash.”
“I’m not,” Ash protested weakly. “I’m not miserable, Kam.”
“Fine, but you’re not happy.”
“You wanted to know what I think,” Kam cut him off again. “And I think you should be happy, Ash. If that- if that means...” he hesitated long enough to look over at his brother. There was a strange kind of wary hope on his face that was shuttering the longer Kam hesitated. He took a deep breath and faced Ash fully. “If that means Sully, then I support that.” Ash stared at him. “I support you. No matter what. I don’t- I don’t understand it, but I support you. So- so that’s what I think.”
Ash didn’t say anything. He just stared at him, surprise clear on his face. It dug at Kam, that his brother was surprised that Kam supported him but he knew it was his own fault.
Ash hugged him.
If Kam was expecting things to change overnight, he was wrong. Ash kept dating Helena. He and Sully still couldn’t be in the same room for very long without the temperature dropping. For a few weeks, it was business as usual. Part of Kam was relieved. More of him was confused.
He wanted to ask Ash about it but he’d expired his personal quota for discussing his brother’s sexuality so he let it lie.
Then Ash and Helena broke up. Their uncle was upset, demanded to know what had gone wrong, but Ash held his ground. All he would say was it didn’t work out.
It was a few more weeks before Kam started to see Ash’s smile again. It was small at first, a small upturn of his lips when he got a text. Then bigger, when they played a game in the park and he and Sully talked. It wasn’t how it was but it was better than it had been.
Kam started to think it hadn’t mattered, what he’d said. Ash and Sully were friends again, were close to what they’d been before Kam caught them, but nothing more. They likely would have gotten back to this point without Kam saying anything.
Iris didn’t approve. She eyed Ash suspiciously when he came into the shop even though he paid for his drinks every time. “What happened?” Iris turned on Sully one day after Ash left. Sully looked at her and for the first time Kam knew Iris was going to lose a fight.
“I’ll go stock up.” Sully turned away from his mother before she could ask anything else so Iris turned on him.
“What happened?” She asked again. “They weren’t speaking and now your brother is back. Sully doesn’t need that.”
Kam shrugged. “Maybe he does.”
“Kam.” It was funny how much Iris could put into one word.
He backed away. “I’m going to help Sully.” Except when he got into the back, he found Sully sitting at Kam’s desk with phone in hand.
“This hiding spot is currently occupied,” Sully told him without looking up from his phone.
Kam leaned against the cabinet on the opposite wall and didn’t say anything.
Kam was a smart guy. He should have seen this coming. He had, actually, in a way, he’d just sort of forgotten.
Because while the only opinion that Ash might care about was Kam’s, it really wasn’t the only one that mattered. Not while Ash lived under their uncle’s roof. And they’d both always known that Uncle wouldn’t approve.
Which is how Kam found himself hiding Ash and Sully’s relationship for them. It wasn’t too bad, most of the time. All he had to do was make excuses for Ash when he wasn’t home when he should be, cover for him when Uncle asked about his love life and Helena.
It was fine. Kam could do it.
It would just be a lot easier if Ash didn’t keep losing track of his brain cells and kissing Sully in the middle of the day where anyone could see them. In the first confirmed month of their relationship, Kam had stumbled across them kissing no less than 16 times. Outside the shop, in the park, in the hallway outside of Kam and Ash’s apartment... He had started to actively avoid them whenever he thought they might be together but he still kept finding them. By now, everyone in the Towers knew they were together and Kam had found himself some unlikely allies in his mission to keep his family from finding out but it was getting harder by the day. On the plus side, any discomfort he might have had at seeing them together was well and truly gone by now. Now, he was just annoyed.
“Really, Ash?! Are you kidding me?” Sully pushed Ash away but Ash didn’t go far. If anyone looked at them, it would be obvious what they’d just been doing and the rest of the family was only a minute behind Kam at best.
“What?” Ash asked, unrepentant. He was smiling.
Kam waved a hand behind him at the door to the building. “We’re leaving for mosque and you’re standing right outside the door. At least try not to let Uncle catch you.”
Sully pushed Ash back another step so he was no longer pinning Sully to the side of the car. Ash pouted, actually pouted, but didn’t argue. A good thing, too, since the door opened behind Kam and the rest of their family spilled out.
They exchanged pleasantries, his cousin confirmed her next tutoring session with Sully, and then they were off. Kam looked back as they turned the corner and saw Ash smile and pull Sully into yet another kiss and shook his head.
He was happy his brother was happy but come on.