first blood

He is nine, and his brother has just left for college.

He remembers because he and his ten-year-old sister, Cara, never had a babysitter before that. Before that, it was always their brother.

Before that, things were different.

But when he is nine, there is a girl that goes to their parents’ church instead whose name he doesn’t know. She’s clearly as uncomfortable as they are as soon as their parents leave for some event, but she lets them watch TV past when they’re normally sent to their rooms because she’s paying far more attention to her phone than she is to them.

Cara is the one who realizes, half an hour before their parents are supposed to be home. They waste precious minutes arguing over who showers first; he wins by pointing out that she noticed the time, and Cara goes first, her expression a mix of resigned guilt and gratitude.

He’s nine, and he showers in cold water because that might not dry the walls of the tub any faster, but he thinks it might be enough to make him think they went earlier.

If he notices.

If they’re lucky, he’ll stumble in and pass out on the couch.

The front door opens and bounces off the wall of the entryway, the crack of the knob against drywall loud even from upstairs. He wonders if it put a hole in the wall. Again.

He crosses the carpeted floor between the bed and the door carefully, silently, to press his ear against the hollow wood. It isn’t enough to make out what is said downstairs, but he can tell that his father is still sober enough that his mother hasn’t ushered him to the bedroom right away.

Much closer, door hinges squeak faintly. It’s the door to Cara’s bedroom. To the bedroom they shared until their brother left and told him to take care of his stuff while he was gone. Metaphorical keys to the kingdom, placed without question in his hands.

At the time, he’d been excited. He didn’t understand, then, that there was safety in numbers. That there was safety in having another person in the room between them and him. He wonders if his brother did. If that’s why he gave him the room instead of Cara. If that’s why he really left. If he’s ever coming back.

Now, he hears the hinges and feels only dread. As quickly as he dares, he opens the door to his brother’s room and makes eye contact with Cara across the landing.

Go, he mouths. Whatever they’re talking about, it can’t possibly be that interesting.

She looks like she wants to argue, although he can’t begin to guess why. It’s not like she hasn’t noticed too, so he doesn’t get why she’d risk it to eavesdrop on some boring conversation with the babysitter. The chances of her ratting them out are slim, since it would mean turning herself in as well.

Equally silent, Cara retreats into the darkness of her room and closes the door. He waits a second, then does the same.

As he climbs into his brother’s larger bed, he wonders if he’s made a mistake. If he should have stayed in their room tonight, on the bottom bunk where he could listen to the sound of his sister’s breathing and know that they were, at least relatively, ok.

Before he can change his mind, however, the volume of the voices downstairs increases suddenly, his father’s drowning out whatever protest his mother might give. The door slams again, and a single pair of footsteps make their way upstairs.

Their mother doesn’t check on either of them, which is good because he’s decided to risk peeking out the window. While their room overlooks the backyard, his brother’s has a view of the driveway and the street beyond.

Now, that means he has a view of his father’s grip on the babysitter’s arm. Of the way he cages her against the minivan parked in front of his truck.

He isn’t sure what’s happening, but it isn’t good. It isn’t-

He ducks out of the window, heart racing. He doesn’t dare to move again until well after his father’s truck has roared to life and faded into the distance.

He should tell his mother, probably, but what will she even do? What can she do?

He crawls back into the too-large bed and pulls the covers over his head.

The girl doesn’t come back. The next time his parents have to go to an event, a different girl comes over. The next time, a different one. The next time, he finally tells his mother.

His mouth tastes like blood for a week after. He says he fell off his bike, trying to ride it in the snow.

He is twelve. His father is drunk. Again. Perpetually, for the past week since he was suspended from his job.

He isn’t supposed to know that. Isn’t supposed to know why, but kids at school talk, and he knows how to use the internet. Social media sites are blocked, and that’s where most people are talking about it; he doesn’t dare look it up at home, but he gleans enough from the search page. Something involving an internal investigation into improper conduct, and allegations of trafficking. One of his classmates is the cousin of a high school girl that’s currently missing.

They move.

His brother doesn’t come home. Not for his things, not for the holidays. On the phone he apologizes, says he’s drowning in work, in school, studying for the GRE. But he’ll try to visit soon.

His father gets a job with a different police department, in Pittsburgh this time.

Everything is bigger. Louder. His mom tells him he’ll get used to it, but he doesn’t want to. And now, he’s alone. Cara doesn’t speak to any of them. Half the time, she spends weekends with friends and he’s actually alone, exiled to his attic bedroom.

He doesn’t spend the night at friends’ houses. No one wants to be friends with the weird new kid.

His father takes him to a part of town he doesn’t recognize. He won’t tell him why, but he makes him wait in the truck. Tells him to honk the horn if he sees anything weird. There is no clarification as to what counts as weird, though, and he’s hardly going to point out that his father got him out of bed for this which is already unusual on it’s own.

The one streetlight flickers at irregular intervals. It’s his only light. His father took the keys, so he can’t even see what time it is. Can’t tell how many stretched, uncomfortable minutes he sits there, waiting.

He has to pee, but he doesn’t dare get out of the truck. Doesn’t dare fall asleep, either, no matter how heavy his eyelids get. The constant low thrum of terror helps.

A sharp, sudden crack cuts through the air, followed by the blare of a car alarm and distant, angry barking. He freezes, uncertain of whether or not he’s supposed to honk the horn. The noise came from the opposite direction of where his father disappeared into the darkness, so he waits.

The barking grows louder, accompanied by another pop that makes him jump. Through noise, another, more familiar sound emerges. His father’s shouts are enough to make his blood run cold all on their own, although he can’t make out the words through the closed car window.

He climbs over to the driver’s seat and opens the door.

“-the goddamn dog!”

He opens his mouth to ask what, to say he can’t hear, but his voice sticks in his throat.

“Get the fucking gun and shoot the fucki-” The rest of his words are an angry, wordless cry as the dog catches up, taking his father to the ground.

His father had a gun when he got out of the truck. He saw it in the back of his pants. Not his service pistol but a shiny silver revolver. There’s another one under the seat, though. Personal protection, his father said. His god-given right as an American.

It’s cold beneath his fingertips, and heavy. Nothing like its. His hands shake as he raises it and points it at the chaotic struggle.

He pulls the trigger. The sound is deafening, and he couldn’t say where the shot actually goes, but the dog startles and his father kicks it off. Somehow, his father gets back up and closes the distance. He yanks the gun out of his hands. His shot doesn’t miss, and a few feet away from where they stand, the barking stops.

Eyes full of rage and disgust, his father shoves the gun into the pocket of his ruined jacket. The slap connects before he even sees it coming, the back of his father’s knuckles landing hard against his cheekbone.

“You stupid piece of shit, were you trying to get me killed?”

He blinks against tears and shakes his head furiously.

“So what, you’re just a fuckin’ coward? Pissed yourself and everything. Jesus Christ. We have to go. Get in the back. You’re not ruining my seats.”

He blinks again, stunned this time.

“Did I stutter? Go!”

His jeans chafe against his thighs as he hurries toward the tailgate. He doesn’t even know when it happened, but there’s no mistaking that his father was correct in that assessment.

He doesn’t cry on the ride home, too cold and uncomfortable to add anything else to the mix. When the truck finally shuts off in what he thinks is the driveway, he worries that this will be his punishment – that his father will leave him trapped in here, beneath the bed cover.

After a bone chilling minute, however, the truck door opens and slams, and then the tailgate drops, a faint strip of light accompanying the burst of fresh air. He almost trips in his rush to get out, unwilling to risk his father changing his mind. Before he can make it two steps, a hand closes around his throat.

“Before you start tryin’ to think of a way to do something smart like telling your mom, let me save you a step. Don’t.”

Something angry and reckless rears its head in him, then, the five digging points of his father’s fingertips throbbing in time with his cheekbone. “Or what, are you gonna shoot me?”

His father exhales a humorless laugh that smells vile. Rotten. He says, “More trouble than it’s worth, when all I need to do is remind you that you don’t know where your sister is. And you know how teenage girls are.”

He makes the mistake of meeting the dark, sharklike emptiness of his father’s gaze, a silent question in his own eyes.

“A problem,” his father spits. “Who knows who might get the call to go pick her up. Some of the guys I work with, well, they’re not the best. No telling what Cara might have to do to stay out of trouble. Now get in the fuckin’ house. You smell like shit.”

He toes out of his shoes in the entryway without so much as a break in his step, his feet going soundless on the linoleum. The heat of the shower isn’t enough to dislodge the cold, hard thing that’s made itself at home in his chest.

His brother gets married, but only his mother goes, a million excuses for why he and Cara can’t. Too far, too expensive, school, they haven’t even met the girl so why do they care?

That same weekend, he goes on another ride with his father. Because that’s what he always calls them. It’s always “Get in the car, we’re going for a ride,” not I’m going to steal a car and need you to drive the truck to the drop off, you do know how to drive, right? or we’re going to pick up a duffel bag, no don’t ask what’s in it.

“Just a second,” he says, turning into the bathroom because he’s learned from his mistakes.

His father still makes a comment under his breath about it.

“Yeah, fuck you,” he mutters back.

“What’d you say?” His voice is loud in the hallway.

He zips his zipper and flushes. “Nothing,” he says, right in the old man’s face. “Let’s go.”

It gets him a sharp smack on the back of his head, then a shove that he expects, his body reflexively going limp enough that the momentum just carries him forward.

His aim is better, and his hands don’t shake anymore.

He is fifteen and things are impossibly worse.

His life during the day feels like a strange game. Go to school, pretend to pay attention, pretend to care, pretend, pretend, pretend.

He goes to the school dance with one of his sister’s friends, because she’s going and her friend needs a date and he has to go. He thinks this way, at least, he can keep her safe. Of course, Cara’s friend actually has little use for him, which is fine. Somehow he ends up crammed in a bathroom stall with another guy in their group, on his knees with a hand in his hair and he can’t breathe but a little bit of the tension he’s felt for years dissipates.

It’s a half hour to their too-early curfew, and Cara announces she’s not going back when he points it out. His date now smells like fruity alcohol and is plastered to his front, the same guy from the bathroom against his back, but it’s only a distraction until the the third time his phone vibrates aggressively in his pocket.

He gives Cara a panicked look over the girl’s head, and this time she listens.

He’s in the parking lot, waiting for them. Even from a distance, it’s clear he’s been drinking.

Cara tries to argue that she’s spending the night with a friend, mom said-

The quiet click of a hammer cocking has him covering her mouth.

“Cara, please,” he breathes.

Her angry huff is warm against his hand, but she can be angry at him all she wants. As long as it’s at him and not at their father.

The old man tells Cara to get in the truck. Tells him to drive the van home.

He doesn’t bother pointing out that he doesn’t have a license yet; that bridge is long since crossed. He does say that Cara can ride with him. That he’ll drive them both, their dad can follow them home. They’ll-

Cold metal against his forehead silences him. With his free hand, his father jerks Cara out of his own protective grip and shoves her toward the passenger door of the truck.

Swallowing down anxious nausea, he reaches into his pocket and unlocks the minivan. Cara’s phone is in his other pocket, he realizes as he turns the key in the ignition, so she can’t even contact him. Can’t contact anyone. The flash of his fathers headlights signal him to pull out first, and he obediently shifts into drive. Hopes, foolishly, that maybe his obedience will be enough.

By terrible accident, he loses them at a light. It turns yellow as he enters the intersection and his father’s truck stops. He pulls over to wait, but the truck turns. In the precious time it takes him to process and act, it disappears. He follows the route he thinks his father might take instead, but finds nothing.

Dread replaces the anxiety, so strong that he throws up in a bush around the side of the house. Eventually he goes inside, deciding it’s better to wait there than to be caught outside.

After ten minutes, he pulls out his phone. His fingers move on autopilot, typing in the entire number even though he could’ve just tapped the name from his favorites. He hesitates, then taps the call icon.

We’re sorry, but the number you have called cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and try again.

He blinks at the screen, at the number he’s known for years, right there with both of his parents’ cell phone numbers and the landline they left behind.

He ends the call, then dials from his contact list.

We’re sorry, but-

End. Dial. End. Dial.

The sound of the front door connecting with the wall announces the arrival of his father, and the quiet – but not silent – rushed footsteps on the stairs confirm that Cara is back as well. A second later, the door to her room opens.

He isn’t sure which is worse, her dress or her makeup. Both are ruined but it’s nothing compared to the bloom of bruises on her arms, her throat. He glances down at her skirt, sees the matched set of purpling fingerprints just before she tells him to get out.

His question is a silent one, conveyed in a look as he stands from his seat on top of her desk. Tell me he didn’t.

“Don’t,” she says quietly, voice wrecked from crying. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have- He’s never going to stop. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, it’s just-”

He wraps both arms around her. Her streaked mascara will ruin his shirt, its claims of waterproof just another empty promise, but it’s not like he was going to wear it again anyways.

She’s right, of course, about one thing. He’s not going to stop. It’s something he’s known for years, but it was different when he thought it was just limited to him – that he was the only one directly tainted by his father.

“I’m sorry,” he says, like that could ever be enough. He could have stopped this.

Cara just shakes her head. “Do you um- You care if I shower first?”

He smells like sweat and secondhand vodka, but there’s not a chance in hell he’d tell her no. While she’s in the bathroom, he retrieves a change of clothes from his room, then takes her place once she’s done.

Clean and dry, he returns to her room, the pocket of his sweatshirt a known-but-uncomfortable 37.2 ounces too heavy. Cara doesn’t question his return. Not even when he shoves her pile of laundry into the floor and folds himself into the old armchair in her corner.

In the darkness, she says, “Well I was gonna ask if you had fun, but I think the last bit kind of ruined it.”


“You seemed less miserable when you came back from the bathroom at least. What’d you and Mikey get up to?”


Even in the darkness, he can imagine Cara’s knowing grin as she says, “Y’know, you could’ve told me if that’s what you were looking for in a date.”

He doesn’t want to talk about this. Not now. But between the two of them, she wins the contest of needs-a-diversion and the only thing he could distract her with is objectively worse. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” The blankets rustle as she turns over, presumably seeking him out in the shadows of the corner.

“It’s not- I mean I don’t know that I don’t… like girls. I dunno, I haven’t really had much of a chance to like, test this shit out. He wanted me to suck his dick, I wanted to suck his dick, and I’m pretty sure neither one of us is gonna call later, so I’d say as options go, it panned out pretty well.”

Cara huffs loudly. “Yeah, as first encounters go it could be worse.”

He sucks in a breath.

“That’s not- um. I’m sorry,” she says in a rush. “I’m happy for you. Really. And it’s cool if you’re gay or bi or whatever. No matter what mom and dad say. And I’m sure Ga-”


“What? Wait what happened?”

“He doesn’t give a shit about us, Care. I tried calling and he like, changed his fucking number or something. So much for him still being there for us.”

“Wait, really?” She sits up and turns on the lamp. “Shit, do you have my phone?”

“Plugged it in,” he says with a nod toward her charger.

Frowning, Cara picks up her phone and taps the screen a couple of times.

We’re sorry, but the number you have called cannot be completed as dialed. Please check the number and try again.

Cara jabs at the screen with one finger, her nail clicking loudly on the glass. She turns off the lamp, but not before he sees the fresh round of tears welling in her eyes.

“Yeah well, whatever. We don’t need him,” she says after a minute.

“No,” he agrees. “We don’t.”


He is fifteen when his father is found face down on the living room floor. His mother’s scream reaches the attic, although he doesn’t move until his sister yells his name a few seconds later.

The aftermath is anticlimactic. He calls 911 because someone has to. His father’s death is quickly ruled an accident, his blood-alcohol level 0.8%. They’re very sorry – are there plans in place for his remains?

There’s a knock on the door. He half expects it to be his brother. Someone must have told him. Surely he’ll come back for this, even if the old man wasn’t his father. They share a mother, and she’s disproportionately grief-stricken over the loss of her second husband.

It is not his brother.

“Can I help you?” he asks, subconsciously making himself larger in the face of this unknown potential threat.

“This Steve Parker’s house?”

“Who’s asking?”

The stranger’s smile is uncomfortable, but not as chilling as he likely intends. “I’m a colleague of his. Your mom around?”

“Oh yeah? What zone are you?” He glances at the guy’s shoes – shitty Nikes, rather than any of the steel-toed options favored by cops.

The smile drops. “Your dad owes a lot of people a lot of money, kid. Your mom and I need to have a little chat about the state he left his affairs in. See if we can’t find some ways to square up.”

“No you don’t,” he says. “I’m handling his affairs. Anyone wants them settled, they can talk to me.”



“And who the fuck are you?”

Behind him, a familiar voice calls his name. He exhales a slow sigh and turns his head, using his bodyweight to keep the door from opening any further. Cara looks tired. Worried. Neither one of them have gone to school since it happened, but he’s been the only one going through the motions of keeping them above water. Judging by the stranger at the door now, though, that’s going to have to change.

“Hey I uh- I’ve gotta go take care of something. I’ll be back. Take care of mom, ok?”

“Where are you-”

“Cara, please,” he whispers.

Frowning, she moves along the wall. Not enough to erase the fact that the man has seen her at all, but enough that she’s hidden by the door when she carefully lifts the edge of his sweatshirt and tucks the holstered gun – the one he’d foolishly left under his pillow, thinking he wouldn’t need it now – into his waistband.

She looks at him for a long second, then says, “Don’t do anything you can’t come back from. You’re not him.”

He swallows and says, “I know.”

“Y’know she could probably pay off his debts a lot quicker,” the man says once they’re both outside, the front door locked behind them.

“I’m gonna pretend, just this once, that those words never left your mouth.”

The guy glances back at him. “You think you got the stones to back that talk up, kid?”

“Do you really wanna fuck around and find out?”

The guy laughs and turns his back on him again, too cocky, lazy, stupid to think better of it. He follows the man to the car parked at the curb, sparing one glance back at the house. A curtain flutters in the living room. He wonders if his mother even noticed anyone was at the door. How long it will take for her to realize he’s gone. The small part of him that isn’t angry worries what this might do to her, if he doesn’t come back.

One more thing she’ll have to learn how to live with. She seems good at that, at least.

He is too old for his body and too young for the things he’s seen. The things he’s done.

His sister graduates. He watches from a poorly-lit seat high on one side of the auditorium. Across the room, a familiar woman sits between two men, one of them a total stranger and the other one effectively the same. After the ceremony, they go to dinner. He risks breaking into the house – a joke of a task, now – and exchanges a thick envelope with the much thinner one waiting on her nightstand. Its contents aren’t going to make her any less mad at him, not enough to make things actually right, but it’s something. She left one in anticipation, so it’s enough for now.

He sits across a desk from a well-dressed French man, trying to ignore the prickle of irritation he feels at being blatantly visually picked apart by the second man sitting in the window of the office, who he can only assume is Mr. Boucher’s son. The meeting takes place in the man’s home in a nauseating display of power. Each question he’s asked is more chillingly well-informed than the last, making him question how well he’s actually been covering his tracks. No one else has come even close, though, so maybe this is an exception.

On the desk, the man’s phone begins to vibrate. Glancing at it, Mr. Boucher frowns, then says something to the man in the window that he doesn’t understand.

The young man shrugs in the corner of his vision, his reply equally quick. “He doesn’t speak French,” he adds.

After a second’s hesitation in which he weighs the potential danger of them learning he’s overheard something he shouldn’t, he says, “Actually, he speaks bad French.”

The elder Mr. Boucher looks at him, something incomprehensible flashing in his eyes. He stands abruptly and picks up the phone, raising it to his ear as he walks out of the office.

The other man’s gaze pierces him like a blade. He doesn’t make himself meet it, though, until the younger Mr. Boucher leans against the closest edge of the desk.

“Anything else you’d like to reveal?” he asks, his accented question as cold and sharp as his eyes.

“Maybe if you want to ask nicely instead of like, stalking me for the Inquisition 2.0, I’d be a little more forthcoming.”

“I’m not going to apologize for doing my job well. I would expect someone like you to understand.”

He frowns. “Someone like me?”

The young man makes a dismissive tsking sound. “Are we really going to dance around this like I do not know what you do for a living and you have no clue what we do?”

“I don’t really. Actually, I don’t know what you do at all. Sorry my research isn’t as good, I guess, but I thought Marcel Boucher’s only son was dead. There’s no record of another one.”

“That is because I am good at my job.” The man eyes him warily, then extends a hand. “Felix.”

He takes it. “I’m assuming you’re also responsible for the fact that your dad’s also basically a ghost on paper, so anything you’d like to share?”

“My father will pitch a bitch fit if I get ahead of his process.”

“Fine, whatever,” he says. “All that shit you found. Can you get rid of it?”

Felix looks at him, long and hard, his arms crossed over his chest. “What you are talking about…” he shakes his head.

“I know it can be done. I’m asking if you can do it.”

“I know what you are asking. I do not think you know what you are asking.”

He glares. “Look, I’m sure things are different on your side of the table when you’ve got the security and whatever else that comes with being in your position, but I have to worry about people like you finding out about the perfectly normal, decent people that happen to have the misfortune of sharing my last name.”

“You are implying that I do not have anyone to lose.”

“I-” He’s silenced by Felix’s smile, a tight, dangerous thing. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”

Felix’s lips purse into something judgmental and displeased. “If you’re going to be bitchy, at least have the spine to back it up. I expected better from you on that front.”

His own jaw tight, he swallows and scrubs a hand over his face. He’s been awake for too long, unable to sleep between the flights, the layovers, the jetlag. Still hasn’t gotten over the fear, every time he tries to re-enter the country, that he’ll be denied.

For better or worse, their conversation is cut short by the senior Boucher’s return, a large dog silent at his side. He gives his son a weary look as he returns to his seat, Felix peeling away from the front of the desk to perch on the wide shelf that runs the length of the room behind him.

So you speak French. Any other talents we should know about?” Monsieur Boucher asks, just slowly enough that he’s able to catch it all.

He shakes his head, just once. “My greatest ehm… People do not see me. That is the only noteworthy thing. Otherwise, I am nobody.”

Two dark eyebrows arch in eerie unison as father and son assess him.

“Or at least, I thought I was close enough until I came here,” he adds in muttered English.

He says he wants into the Grey,” Felix says without looking at him.

This makes both of Mr. Boucher’s eyebrows lift. “I see.”

“I told him he does not know what he is talking about,” Felix adds.

“I still um- désolée,” he corrects quickly, willing to fumble in French if it gets him any closer to what he needs. “I asked if it was possible. Of course I do not expect-”

Your record is remarkable for someone your age. To enter the Grey, however… there is a cost,” Mr. Boucher says.

“I know that it is expensive-”

The man across the desk laughs. “I am not talking about money. It is a lasting decision. You must understand that. You enter the Grey, and you are essentially a dead man.”

“With all due respect, sir, I already am.”

I see why you chose him,” Mr. Boucher says with a look back at his son. “He is almost as depressing as you are.”

He blinks, certain he misunderstood something there.

As you wish, Monsieur Gris-l’Espoir. Show us you are worth it and we will sponsor you.”

He blinks again, positive he can’t have heard that correctly. “Sponsor? Me?” he asks in English, just to be sure he’s not mistaken.

Felix scoffs and rolls his eyes. “Do you think you are somehow going to afford it yourself? Because I promise you, I am outside of your price range.”

He can’t help himself. He looks Felix over, piecing him apart the same way Felix has been doing to him since he arrived – the sweater, some designer he doesn’t know, the jeans that leave little to the imagination, his carefully messy haircut, the almost-concealed bags under his eyes – and knows that Felix is right, of course. Even without any of that, even had they met in some shitty bar instead of here, he’s pretty sure he would have known that.

But that doesn’t stop him from saying, “I can pay it back.”

Felix rolls his eyes, but his father looks pleased.

“I believe that is for the man signing the metaphorical check to decide,” Mr. Boucher says. “And as it happens, you came at a good time. But first things first…”

He takes the folder that is passed to him, quickly skimming carefully-delineated notes. It’s almost too good, and strangely makes him feel slightly better about how much they knew about him instead of worse. The thoroughness a rule, rather than an exception to throw him off.

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says, closing the folder and setting it back on the desk.

To his surprise, Mr. Boucher says, “Take it. How long?”


“I um- Assuming I can catch a flight back tomorrow and don’t get hit with as many layovers, before the end of the week.”

The man nods. “Good. Show me what you can do and I can keep you very well fed.”

He isn’t sure what the correct response is, so he just says, “Thank you.”

He is twenty-three, he thinks, when his phone rings and a voice on the other end says, “Are you still in Queens?”

“How the fuck did you kn-”

The man on the other end laughs, then groans. “I thought we were past that by now. If you are finished with your other engagement, then I am going to send you an address and you are not going to ask questions.”

He sighs and throws his shitty Chinese takeout in the trash. “Ok. I’m on my way.”

Without another word, the call ends. His phone vibrates before his screen has time to go dark; he hails a cab, contemplating what manner of shit awaits him at his destination.

Blood, but not like he expects. He finds Felix shirtless and sitting on the edge of the sink, his back against the mirror and a cigarette dangling from the hand not tethered to an IV bag.

“What happ-”

“Literally the last thing I said to you,” Felix says. He takes a slow drag, watching him approach like some wary animal.

“Ok, so you wanna tell me what I’m doing here, then?” he asks, returning his gun to the holster at the small of his back.

With the cigarette, he gestures at the blood-soaked gauze around his bicep. “It needs stitches and I cannot get a good angle.”

“There’s this thing called a hospital. I think they have them in France.”

“I’m from California.”

“Well I’m almost positive they have them there.”

Felix scowls at him and points at the duffel bag lying open on the floor. “If I go, there is a record. Something I would think you would be slightly more aware of. Also, I do not have health insurance in America anymore. And I- never mind. Can you please just…?”

“Yeah, ok,” he says, sighing. “It’s not gonna be pretty, though.”

After another slow drag, Felix says, “You have the easy out there. I think I have enough of the little ehm, zip stitch things.”

He sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. A medical degree isn’t necessary for him to know that those aren’t meant for this. Nonetheless, he digs through the bag until he finds the package of zip sutures. He also grabs a bottle of antiseptic, more gauze, and a prescription bottle of painkillers that are, to his surprise, both in Felix’s name and only a few months old.

“Left over from surgery,” Felix says, absently rubbing the faint, raised scar around one nipple. “But I’m fine.”

“I didn’t ask.”

After setting the pack of sutures and antiseptic on the counter of the cheap motel bathroom, he twists the cap off the prescription bottle. He plucks the cigarette from Felix’s fingers and tucks it in the corner of his own mouth before turning Felix’s hand over and dumping two pills into Felix’s hand.

“Hurts more after, though,” he says before turning on the sink to make some passable attempt at washing his hands well enough for this. “You’re gonna want those.”

Felix eyes him for a moment, then swallows them dry with a look that says happy now?

“Yeah, very impressive.” Exhaling slowly, he begins the work of unwinding the messily-wrapped gauze, his fingers still damp.

The entire time, Felix’s jaw remains tight, but he doesn’t complain even when he checks the wound for shrapnel. He sprays more antiseptic on it before carefully pinching at the edges of the obvious bullet wound to see how close together he can get the damaged skin.

“It’s still gonna scar,” he says around the cigarette that is still, inexplicably, in his mouth.

“I hear some people are into it,” Felix replies.

He exhales a tight laugh and peels the backing off of the first suture.

“It’s-” Felix sucks in a breath and looks away. “It’s not a bad look, on you.”

There’s no response he can give to that that won’t get him in trouble, so he very pointedly keeps his mouth shut and his eyes on the task at hand.

He’s over halfway done when Felix says, “It was meant to be a compliment.”

Another suture, and a slow drag he lets out through his nose, smoke momentarily clouding his vision. Then, another. Suture, smoke, repeat. He says, “Last one. I might be able to go back through and tighten them further.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

With a shrug, he sticks the last zip stitch to Felix’s arm and pulls it closed. He rinses his hands off again, drying them on the rough motel towel this time, then removes the cigarette from the corner of his mouth. It’s down to the filter, at least, although he still feels like it lasted longer than it should. Like time stretched and twisted inexplicably around them.

“You um- you need anything else?” he asks as Felix straightens and twists to eye his work in the mirror.

“What are you offering?” Felix asks as he carefully removes the line from his elbow.

He swallows and ducks around the wall to toss the cigarette butt in the toilet, the safest place to extinguish it in a room where everything is cheap and flammable.

“You know who did it?” he asks with a nod at Felix’s arm.

Felix’s expression goes hard. “Yes. And yes, he is still breathing. That is the last thing I want to be thinking about right now. Anything you care to do about that?”

He stops, frozen and unable to do anything but stare. It isn’t the first hint Felix has dropped, tonight or ever, but it is the most blatant. The closest thing to an invitation.

“I could take care of it,” he says as Felix hooks a heel at the back of his thigh and uses it to drag him forward.

From his spot on the counter, Felix is closer in height, but still not quite there. It means even when he stretches up close, his lips still just tease along his jaw.

“That’s why guys like you have guys like me.”

“Are you going to take me to bed or not?” Felix asks, tone bordering on pissy now.

He lifts Felix off the counter and turns them toward the bed, stumbling slightly when Felix leverages his new position and their lips finally meet. The noise he makes is far from dignified, but it’s also been way too long since anyone has touched him for anything nonviolent. He just hasn’t had time.

So he follows Felix down onto the bed, but he still can’t stop himself from saying, “Are you sure you’re ok?”

“Are you going to keep talking or are you going to take your clothes off?”

“You’re awfully bossy for someone who called the guy who’s normally responsible for putting bullet holes in people for medical help because you didn’t want daddy to find out,” he says before finding Felix’s mouth again.

“That’s-” Felix bites his bottom lip, “none of your business.”

“It kind of is. If you’ll recall, I have a fairly vested interest in keeping the remainder of your family alive.”

“I can handle it.”

“So can I,” he says against Felix’s throat. “Just give me a name.”

Fingers tighten in his hair, but Felix doesn’t stop him from pulling away. His eyes burn as he says, “You will do anything of the sort. I do not care if someone else offers you enough to buy out the price on your head – if you touch him, I will make you regret every single moment of the rest of your life. Silas Cook is mine.”

“Fine. But whatever it is you’ve got going on? This?” He gestures vaguely at Felix’s expression, at his arm, at the palpable rage coming off of him in waves. “This is gonna ruin you if you don’t find a better way to handle it.”

He stands and straightens his shirt, rebuttons his pants, and takes a step back to lean against the dresser.

“You mean like you did?” Felix asks, his tone dark and accusatory. “Because you see, unlike you, I did not see the threat until he had already taken my brother from me. By the time I found out that he and his father were two traitorous peas in a pod, it was already too late.”

The words land like a blow, which he’s sure Felix intends.

And worse, he seems to catch it, his expression lighting up like a cat that’s just found new prey. To his surprise, however, the look quickly shifts into something else as Felix reclines on his uninjured arm. Then, frowning, he says, “I’m sorry. I did not realize…”

“That dragging me into this shit wasn’t the only thing he did? Yeah.” He looks away, suddenly angrier than he’s been in years and feeling far closer to fifteen than twenty-something. “I might not have found out the first time, but once I did, I made sure it was the last and you wanna know something? It didn’t change a goddamn thing.”

Felix huffs. “Sure it did. He did not get to keep going about his life like nothing was wrong while everyone else around him paid the price.”

He just shakes his head. There’s nothing he can say.

“You can go. He’s not going to send anyone after me, and no one is going to look for me here,” Felix says.

“Yeah, exactly. But I’m the last one you called and you know your old man’ll come for my ass if you die in some no-star roach motel.” He levers himself up on top of the dresser, pulling the holster free so he can get something like comfortable with his back against the wall.

“You would definitely enjoy the things he would do to your ass less,” Felix says with a little quirk of a smile.

He arches an eyebrow.

In response, Felix rolls his eyes and collapses fully against the bed. “Fine. Then I am going to sleep, since you insisted on drugging me but apparently lack the courtesy to get in my pants.”

“Yeah, how awful of me. I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the threats.”

Felix looks up specifically to frown at him, then reaches for the light switch. “It wasn’t a threat.”

He snorts a laugh and says, “Then you’ve really gotta work on your dirty talk.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time,” Felix replies. “It’s not like I’m swimming in opportunities to make friends, all things considered.”

“Fuckin’ tell me about it,” he mutters before he can stop himself.

The rustle of the cheap hotel bedding is the only warning he gets before a pillow hits him square in the chest.

“I can’t imagine why you don’t have any friends.”

“Fuck off,” Felix snaps. He laughs, and adds, “I need that pillow back, by the way. The other one is even worse.”

“Should’ve thought about that before you threw it.”

“Your bedside manner is terrible.”

“Probably a good thing I’m the opposite of a doctor, then.” He sighs and slides to the floor, pillow in one hand and gun in the other. “Here.”

“There is another bed, you know,” Felix says in lieu of thanks. “You don’t have to sit on the tallest piece of furniture like a gargoyle all night, as much fun as I’m sure it is.”

He stands there for a moment, caught in the question of how everything in his life led to this, then he sighs and turns toward the bed closest to the door. The springs creak loudly as he adjusts once again, trying and failing to get comfortable.

It’s a lost cause, he knows. He hasn’t been comfortable in years.

He’s twenty-six, he thinks, or maybe twenty-seven, but he’s sure he must have died somewhere along the way. That last concussion, courtesy of the six-foot-five Russian man who threw him down three flights of stairs. Or maybe after he left the ER, and this whole thing has been some strange dream concocted by his brain in his last few moments.

It’s a more reasonable explanation than any of this being real.

Because he isn’t supposed to get the phone number of the perfectly nice, normal nurse who he met in the aforementioned ER. He especially isn’t supposed to agree to go to dinner with him, then to keep coming back for more.

So that he’s somehow just had his brains fucked out in a house in the middle of nowhere because the man in question decided they both needed a vacation after finding out the truth about what he is definitely can’t be real.

He at least has to be in a coma or something.

Unable to stop himself, he reaches over in the darkness. His fingers barely brush the back of Jack’s hand before the impossible man in question pulls him closer. A tired, pleased smile is pressed to his forehead, the last thing he’s consciously aware of before he falls asleep.

It keeps happening, the ceaseless nightmare that was his life giving way to something more like a fever dream. Still hell, sure, but in between, he gets a few days at a time in which he can breathe. A few days at a time that are, apparently, long enough for him to decide that it’s maybe worth the other times because of how he gets to sleep through the night.

Others, he gets the phone calls. The nightmare bleeds into his night. Sometimes, he has to leave then and there, but others, he gets to sink back into the warmth and pretend a little longer.

But somehow, it keeps going. Another year. Two. His sister has finished not only a regular degree and her Master’s, but a Doctorate too. She’s still angry at him. Says she doesn’t want his money, that she wants him to come back.

He doesn’t know how to explain that he can’t just come back from the dead. That it’s not that easy. That it’s better if he doesn’t.

It isn’t any easier when he tries to explain it to Jack, but he says he doesn’t care. That he wants this – wants him – anyways, so is he gonna say yes or not?

He very nearly ruins that, too, the reality of his existence, his choices, sinking teeth in deep this time. Literally. Jack pulls him back from that, too. Cleans him up, kisses his ankle, his knee,

Another call, social in nature, but this one makes his blood run colder than it should.

“I want you to be there. Please. You don’t have to be in the wedding, or do anything, or talk to anyone, but you’re my brother and I want you there. I’m probably only gonna do this once, unlike some people.”

He lets out a slow breath so she won’t hear the sigh, then says, “Yeah, Care. Of course I’ll be there. And anything you need, you know I’ll-”

“Just show up. I haven’t seen you in too long. If you really want to go above and beyond, bring a date.”


“Wait, really?”

“Yeah,” he laughs. “There’s this- fuck, what am I even- Yes, his name’s Jack and I guess it’s been um, a while, actually. Not that I know where the time goes.”

“A while, huh? Must be pretty serious if I’m getting a name this time.”

In the top drawer of his nightstand is a ring that he hasn’t even come close to getting used to, not that it’s ever on his finger. That’s too dangerous. But if anyone deserves to know, it’s her. “Trust me, I never expected this either, but I actually can’t wait for you to meet him. And I’m happy for you. You deserve it.”

“You do too, you know.”

He doesn’t, but he can’t say that. Instead, he scrubs a hand over his head and drops onto Jack’s couch – their couch, if he’s being honest with himself – and says, “So the wedding. Give me all the details.”

He’s not quite thirty, although he feels infinitely older and definitely more tired than he should at the number of looks he’s gotten. Not just him. It’s him and Jack. He’s a stranger, greeted by the bride like he’s someone close, important, but unknown to them and here with another man. Something to talk about, apparently.

And he’s too tightly wound to deal with it well, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He sends Felix a text that says is this what your life is like? without any other context before pocketing his phone again. Jack is, of course, unbothered and the only thing keeping him from running away.

They manage to locate his sister’s maid of honor who is, for some inexplicable reason, the only person with a seating chart at this strange rehearsal brunch. He isn’t sure if he’s been to another wedding since he was a child, but he’s fairly certain dinners are the norm.

From first names alone, she locates them on a spreadsheet on her clipboard, then shows them a numbered table on a different page.

“Great, thank you,” Jack says as she points then toward a table across the crow, one hand spread lightly across his spine.

He lets himself be steered, briefly checking his phone to confirm that the series of vibrations are Felix, who has apparently started a group message in an attempt to get details out of Jack. Sighing, he pockets his phone again.

Jack pulls him close to kiss his temple and says, “Relax. It’s a wedding, and we’re only here for a few days. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

He shoots a sidelong glance at Jack before he’s forced to leave his side and pick his way through the crowd.

Their table is on a corner of the seating area, not far from the main table but enough to the side that he’s unlikely to be in pictures. Even better, it’s currently uninhabited aside from a man who seems to be equally uncomfortable with the whole affair. As they get closer, he notices two other name cards and dares to hope that it means that the man will be more interested in talking to them than trying to strike up conversation with him and Jack.

He slows, allowing Jack to catch up, and twines their fingers together as much for his own sanity as it is a way to let the stranger at their table process this before they’re sat six feet apart. His grip tightens once he’s close enough to make out the names on the other two cards placed beside the stranger.

“No fucking way,” he mutters.

Jack releases his hand to rest it on the back of his neck, his expression concerned as he tosses their name cards onto the table.

He just shakes his head, unable to explain even if he wanted to.

“Oh,” the man at the table says, like he knows something.

“Sorry, have we met?” he asks, sharper than is at all situationally appropriate.

Jack’s hand tightens on the back of his neck, then drops as he turns.

The strange man stands, extending a hand. “Jasper,” he says, smiling.

There’s something about his accent that he can’t place, the sound of it almost familiar, but just off. Everything about him is like that, actually – uncanny in a way that makes his fingers itch for the gun that is absent.

“But no, we haven’t. I’m your brother’s-”

Whatever else Jasper says, it’s lost beneath the hammer of his pulse as a man he’s almost forgotten successfully says, “Danny?”

His mouth tastes like blood, the inside of his cheek a casualty of the latest nightmare that’s slipped into his waking life.

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” Jack murmurs, no hint of accusation in his tone, but he feels it all the same.

Dan swallows hard and says, “I don’t.”

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