Miguel was quick to catch the present that nearly slipped from his fingers, careful not to tip over the contents of the paper bag he carried in his arms. He had always been agile, actions quick, sure, and precise. He still wondered how he was going to knock on Tristan's door with an armful of stuff. He figured he should probably put them down first, but in all honesty, he was too lazy to bend down and just let them go just to pick them up again. He figured his shoes were clean enough, so he decided to knock on the door with his foot.
He waited, there was some scuffling and a pause before someone behind the door yelled "Just a minute!" Miguel smiled at the sound of the voice; he always could recognize Tristan. There was some more scuffling, frantic footsteps and the sound of locks sliding out of place before the door opened. Miguel grinned down at Tristan, a foot shorter than him with a mess of brown hair and very... tired eyes. He was wearing a shirt with long sleeves that went over his hands, the shoulders maybe half an inch wider than they should be.
"You okay there? Did you just wake up?" Miguel asked.
Tristan was glaring furiously at the gift and the paper bag. "When did you get here? What are you doing here and what are those?"
"Been back for a few days now. And can't a guy visit a friend?" Miguel countered, offering a warm smile that softened the look on Tristan's face. "Heard I missed your birthday last week."
Miguel watched Tristan's face yield to a smile. It was the best way to describe it. "How thoughtful of you. You didn't have to bring me these, though. Birthdays are just days."
"Still, we should celebrate!" Miguel's beaming smile was a distraction as he shouldered his way into the apartment. "So where do I put these?" he asked, his eyes innocent and sweet.
"What are 'these'?" Tristan asked as he shut and locked the door. "I see a gift box, but that doesn't explain the paper bag."
"I brought baking stuff," The hulking man cheered, moving to set his gifts down on a counter in the kitchen. The apartment was sparse but nice enough, with no walls to divide the kitchen and the living room, and a clear view of the television wherever you likely wandered to. The fridge was an ugly, turquoise relic from an old diner that Tristan bought and refurbished because it was 'retro and cheap'. Well, it looked clean so he wasn't one to question it much. Miguel busied himself pulling out the ingredients and calling out each one: almonds, flour, sugar, pre-made frosting, oil, bananas, strawberry jam, the list went on. Each one made Tristan grimace ever so slightly. Finally, Miguel raised his head to look at him. "I thought you liked baking."
"I do, but that's a lot of stuff you bought." Tristan strode to inspect the goods at a reluctant pace. "Why this, all of a sudden?"
"I missed you," the man answered, simple and brief. "You're a nice break from the other guys and you're a different kind of fun. Besides, you feed me. And patch me up."
Tristan looked at the ingredients for a long time, taking precious time to sort them. Miguel figured he was thinking up of recipes to make. He hoped they would make cat donuts. He liked the cute stubby little butts that pooped chocolate and strawberry; he distinctly remembered that from a post-game party where Tristan brought them back in college. Everyone gushed over the fact that he could make them.
Finally, Tristan looked up. "You didn't think to ask if I had plans today?"
Miguel felt, with no small exaggeration, like an asshole that very moment. "Oh shit, did you have plans?"
Tristan's hands were toying with the jar of strawberry jam. "...I can put them on hold."
There was a long pause. Tristan's eyes kept darting between the groceries and Miguel's face. Finally, his answer came. "...Yes, I'm sure."
"Well, great." Relieved, Miguel fetched the bowls and pans from where he knew they were. He took some time to consider Tristan being pensive, more so than usual. He knew the guy had a lot of ideas most of the time, and his work asked a lot out of him, but today he seemed tired and worried. Miguel hoped he didn't walk in on something like a project due tomorrow. He trusted Tristan to tell him as much. Turning around, he found Tristan just watching the ingredients, all morose. He set the kitchenware down on the counter, and Tristan jerked just the slightest. Miguel wouldn't have noticed if he wasn't looking. "Tristan, you okay? You seem off."
Somehow, the smile Tristan shot his way made him sick. It would have been genuine if he didn't know Tristan long enough. The smile was too tight, and the mirth never reached the eyes. A nervous twitch in a few muscles sealed the deal. This showman's smile could have fooled anyone, but not him. "I'm fine, Migs. Let's go bake donuts."
"What kind of donuts?"
"Cat donuts. I can work with that frosting you bought."
Making the donuts took more effort because they had odd shapes and faces. But Tristan took care making cat bits and tails and ears while Miguel drew faces on them. The entire endeavor yielded about a dozen or more after what felt like hours. It was dinner-spoiling goodness that Miguel shamelessly partook in.
"This is great," he laughed, munching on a cat donut's face and watching the filling ooze out; a morbid sight to consider. "You sure you don't want more? We made a lot."
"Maybe later," Tristan conceded His mood was faintly bright but forced all the same. "I'm really not that hungry."
Alarm signals rang in Miguel's head. Tristan was notorious for hoarding sweets. He was a little sugar dragon, and his lack of interest in something cute and sugary was definitely not normal. "Is something wrong?"
The smile he got was tight. The crack in the facade was starting to be obvious. There were twitches in his cheeks, a tick at his jaw. It was like Tristan was trying to stop a dam from breaking, but there were more cracks in the wall, and bit by bit, everything was pouring out. Each crack seemed to fester like an open wound, and the sadness just seeped out of them. Shoulders tense, he pulled his chin against his chest, pulling his eyes away from Miguel.
The fragile moment was dispelled by an insistent ring, the sound a power ballad that spoke of government conspiracy and top secret things. Tristan sighed as he pulled out his phone to check the caller ID, and the breath that left his lips was filled with such hatred and disgust that it could have curdled milk. "I'm sorry, I need to take this. Excuse me." Tristan made a hasty leave, answering the call and putting on a tone that was pleasant and fake.
Miguel was left to stare for a while, then looked around the empty space. He wasn't sure what to do with himself, and his mind reeled with what could possibly be bothering Tristan. He tried to think of answers but he came up short; Tristan had never looked so frazzled before. It was disconcerting to witness.
Tristan had always been an orderly sort, organized and with contingency plans left and right. His mind constantly moved, from scenarios to situations to evaluations. He had insight and foresight that people envied, always asked for. Many thought his departure into writing was a waste. To his credit, Tristan was always open for consultations and advice. He didn't need to understand the ins and outs all the time, his blunt point of view kept things simple and brief, enough to be understood easily and worked on. Intuition alone, he was brilliant. It was just never so when it came to people.
With people, there were always complications, he remembered him say a few times. They had set rules for themselves to the point where it was counterproductive, where it did more harm than good, and it took doubly long to even admit to it. One of Tristan's frustrations was how he could be such a good consultant but people felt attacked when he pointed out more personal problems affecting things outwardly. Dealing with people took too much effort for a mere fraction of the reward it was worth. Miguel knew the words verbatim.
The home was as spotless as it seemed. Counters would be wiped spotless in the aftermath of their baking. There was nothing to make the coffee table seem messy. The fridge was set in a way that made full use of its nooks and crannies. He dared to wager that his books were arranged based on interest and length. And every door was kept shut down the hall. Well, every door save one, slightly ajar.
That must have been where Tristan came out of to answer the door and let him in. Miguel wondered what Tristan was doing before he knocked. He knew the room of the partly-open door; Tristan's bedroom had a certain order to it that was efficient, with a desk facing the window and wide middle space for whatever or whoever. A bookcase was between the bed and the desk for easy reach for reading anything. A closet tucked away most of his clothes and belongings, making the place look clean if not plain.
Curiosity won him over. He wasn't sure of the trepidation he felt at that moment. He'd been to this room so many times before. How was this different?
The moment he pulled the door open, what he saw made all the difference.
In the center of the once-efficient space was an efficient chair, sitting just below the ceiling fan, where a rope twined around the rod and an efficiently-tied loop hung lazily in the air. A hangman's noose.
Miguel felt his blood run cold at the sight of it, at the thought of what could have happened if he was a minute, maybe a few seconds late. Looking past the rope, he saw things that were clearly not like Tristan at all.
The bed was in disarray, sheets crumpled and pillows tucked against the wall. Books were strewn across the floor, thrown in a fit of rage or frustration. A window in one corner of the room was shattered, the broken pieces long since gone. His eyes drifted to the desk, and under a ray of sunlight drifting through the window pane was a desk littered with crumpled paper and curtains draped over one side, flowing down to a graceless heap on the floor with the curtain rod. But the whole mess framed a notebook, opened to one page, and from where he was standing, filled with angry streaks of red, blue, and black, thick lines like a paintbrush or a marker erasing remnants of something, anything. Some pages had tears and holes in the middle, running to the edge, heavy lines etching onto the next page, and the next.
He stepped into the room, gently pulling the door shut. His hands trembled as he neared the desk and reached out for the notebook. He spotted a page and found some of the words hidden beneath angry streaks of ink. He could almost feel every ounce of disdain poured into this book, words with apologies, anger, bitter frustration, all hastily buried under sloppy blotches of ink. Each page was the same, bleeding through the leaves and painting dots over other lines, obscuring thoughts and ideas, things Tristan always cherished and kept close.
To think, if he came a few seconds later, he'd be waiting on a corpse. He would probably find out on an obituary, or he'd learn when they buried the body. Every account made him feel sick; he didn't know which would be worse.
What had happened? How could it have gotten this far? He knew they stopped exchanging emails for a few months now, and greetings were brief and fleeting, but this was a whole other depth he did not anticipate.
The book wasn't completely filled, some leaves of blank sheet still available. He looked back at the noose looming over him, a serpent waiting for his next move.
He did have a move. He wasn't hesitant when he pulled out his army knife, unfurling the blade with tight hands.
Tristan came back from the balcony looking worse for wear, feeling like he'd been dragged across the city by a horse. His hands were tense as he entered his home and heard a flush break the silence. Miguel came back from the hallway, wiping his hands and looking up to smile at him. "Sorry, just helped myself to the bathroom. What was that call?"
"Clients. I took a few jobs while you were gone on tour."
"Oh." Miguel's eyes watched him closely, and his expression looked sad but understanding. "Well, hey. Why don't we go out? We can go watch a movie and you can tell me all about it while we wait. We can even go skating afterwards."
Tristan wanted to decline, but he wanted even more to accept. The feelings warred inside him. He had priorities to choose, surely. But how long had it been since anyone even dropped by, made him feel human and normal? It felt so far away. If he calculated it, it felt like three months to a year. All that came out was a stutter of his thoughts.
Miguel saved him the embarrassment. "We can go back here whenever you like. Besides, it looks like you already set the time aside for me. We might as well enjoy ourselves."
Tristan watched him carefully. He felt something was up. He didn't trust this much altruism, as tempting as it was to give in. "What's this about, Miguel?"
Miguel only smiled. "Can't a guy visit a friend?"
Always those words. Such empty words, yet enough to keep him warm, even for a while. Small respite in the storm and all that. Tristan thought himself a stronger man than this, but his conviction had already been weathered; he crumpled easily to him. "Yeah, sure." Tristan moved to set the dishes aside himself but Miguel volunteered to join him. Admittedly, the chore was finished sooner than normal, and Tristan was pulling on his jacket as Miguel stepped out of the apartment. "Oh, hold on." Tristan patted around his pockets but it was futile. "I left my wallet in my room. Lemme go get it."
Miguel nodded, saying he'd wait for him, and leaned back against the wall to wait casually by the door. Tristan rushed back to his room but stopped at the door, recalling his earlier intentions. He could go through with it, right? When he got back? He was sure he could. He'd have one last, final happy memory, let the feeling stay fresh to keep with him to... wherever he went. He told himself that, again and again, letting himself believe in it. Just one last happy memory.
What greeted him when he opened a door came as a shock.
The noose was cut, from the highest point tied to the ceiling fan. The loop for his neck sat on the chair in the middle of the room. He walked over to his desk and saw his diary turned over to a new page, with a familiar scrawl written over it.
"Please don't," he read aloud, fingers brushing tenderly over the print as if they would vanish if bothered. "I'd miss you."
His voice hitched at the last words and a voiceless laugh escaped him. Only then did the dam did break. Tears ran down his cheeks, hands trembling as the paper crumpled in his grip. He fell on his knees and wept, shook with the force of laughter. He was the numb feeling of relief, frustration and anger and sadness pouring out of him in torrents. He screamed to the skies all of it, every hurt he felt, every single tear that wanted to be free, every crack that weathered him down to this point. For so long he just felt so lost and alone, and now this. His broken wails called forth footsteps, and soon he was held in strong arms, being shushed and cooed to by a deep voice he knew too well.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." The words were broken sobs, and they came again and again between each gasp. Tristan struggled to give voice these words, but Miguel shushed him, held him tighter. He didn't need words from him. Just his trust that he could share his burden.