The house burned brilliantly, the destruction all the more beautiful for its fine architecture. Flames blossomed from transom windows and crawled up the roof as all his hopes and dreams for the future went up in smoke, fading into the night sky.
Blaring sirens announced the arrival of the fire engine and ambulance. They would be too late, he knew. The solarium collapsed and the garage soon followed when the dragon landed on top of it.
It was a massive, red-scaled beast, folded wings becoming its forearms like a bat. A serpentine neck moved from side to side as it surveyed the burning manor before lowering it to the ground to bring its great head eye level with his. He felt his legs go numb as it opened its mouth to speak.
“Well, this is poetic.” It began to advance slowly and deliberately. “Purged by fire again. Everything your family touches turns to ash, doesn’t it?”
He felt his lips move but no sound came out. In the background the sirens continued to wail yet never seemed to come any closer.
“You think you can control the fire. Fire obeys no one!” the dragon thundered. The ground shook beneath him, forcing him to his knees. Looking up, he found himself at the center of a ring of flame.
“This...This isn’t…how...” he sputtered before his words were drowned out in the beast’s booming voice.
“You stoked these flames, child. Now burn in them.”
“No…” Beyond the periphery of the fire, he could see familiar faces. Jon and Richard stood at the edge of the ring, helpless to reach him. Alongside his brothers appeared Patrick, followed by Vergil and last of all, Damien.
All of them called and gestured to him, their voices lost in the roar of the flames.
“Is that your family?” the dragon sneered. “You cannot save them from the fire!”
Clambering to his feet, he staggered towards his friends and family but the ring expanded and forced them back a pace for every step he took, the fire placing a growing distance between him and those he loved.
“You are forsaken,” the dragon gloated, now towering over him. “No help will come.”
“This...isn’t what happened. I won’t let…”
“You have nothing left now - but your death!” The dragon bared its teeth and lunged at the same instant the flames reversed course and rushed inwards to consume him.
Sunlight flooded in through his bedroom window. He had forgotten to close the curtains last night. The dragon’s roar continued from the far less threatening source of the small flatscreen TV at the foot of his bed. The opening scenes of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies where the hero launched the arrow that felled the dragon Smaug played out in high definition, the creature’s roar tapering off as the light dimmed from its eyes. Geoff twisted and took the remote from his night table and stopped the movie. He dimly remembered watching the beginning of the first Hobbit movie on Netflix last night and must have had the other two queued up. Because a dragon is just what my nightmares needed, Geoff thought glumly.
He flopped back into bed with a groan. Bittersweet memories of Damien were one thing but reliving that evening almost every night, even without Smaug’s guest appearance, was threatening to drive him mad. He idly wondered if Richard’s health insurance would cover an operation to have his frontal lobe removed.
Geoff ran a hand through his hair, slick with sweat, and forced himself out of bed to face the day.
Jon paused at the front of the cafeteria with his lunch tray, scanning the tables. He began towards his usual, populated with a few sporty types he had grown friendly with, when he heard someone call his name. As usual, at least two other people turned around as well, causing Seth and the others at his table to laugh before apologizing. Smiling, Jon changed course and made his way over to them. He recognized a few faces from the coffee shop, Grayson, sitting close to a brown-haired boy beside Seth, and across from them, Maggie and the girl who had been with her.
“Hey, Jon,” Seth greeted him warmly. “Sorry about the confusion there - probably should have expected it though.”
“All good, I’m used to it,” Jon shrugged. “At least it helps people usually remember my name. It’s so generic it’s memorable,” he explained with a grin.
“Well, we all got different names here so that should keep things simple,” Seth replied. “This is Grayson and Logan.”
“We kind of met Saturday,” Jon commented. “You were working at the coffee shop too, right?”
“Yeah, I was in charge of mop-up operations,” Grayson replied with a smirk.
“Ah, yeah, sorry about that, dude,” Jon chuckled at the pun.
“Just met Saturday and already you guys have inside jokes? Way to make us all feel left out,” Logan nudged Grayson. “Logan Whitmore,” he extended a hand to Jon, “Nice to meet you. These clowns are Tyler, Jordan, Jace and Drew,” he continued, jabbing a thumb at the four other boys at the table.
“So are we saving the best for last?” Maggie chimed in. “I’m Maggie and this is Kristen.”
“Pleased to meet you both,” Jon gave them a winning smile.
“Likewise,” Kristen responded brightly. “We wanted to introduce ourselves before you spilled coffee on us to start a conversation.” Jon felt his ears begin to warm up.
“Uh, what do you-” he began before glancing at Seth, who merely shrugged.
“I just commented you were awfully smooth with the whole thing - ready with that fiver and all. Almost like you planned it,” he grinned.
“And we told him that’s probably because you did,” Maggie added. Jon considered denying it for a moment before deciding to be a good sport about it. They had caught him out fair and square and didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
“You guys don’t miss much, do you?” he replied.
“They really don’t,” Logan agreed fervently.
“Did it work though?” Jace asked, leaning forward with interest.
“Well, I introduced myself,” Jon paused to take a bite of his apple. “Now I’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Don’t get any ideas, Jace,” Drew lightly cuffed his friend on the shoulder.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath, Jon,” Seth warned. “I think she has a boyfriend.”
Never stopped me before, Jon thought, though he kept that to himself. Aloud, he asked: “Is it serious?”
“Not sure, probably. I don’t even really know the guy’s name. Something with a G. I only know what I do cause my friend’s brother knows her.”
“Small town, eh?”
“Yeah, it is. Must be weird coming from a city like Boston, huh?” Logan asked.
“It takes some getting used to,” Jon agreed. “Everyone kind of knows right away when you’re new.”
“Most people tend to notice when handsome guys randomly pop up,” Seth commented.
“Someone sure noticed,” Logan playfully elbowed him. “Should we be worried?”
Grayson chuckled. “Told you he was flirting.”
“You did.” Logan tried to make a menacing expression, though he couldn’t quite conceal his grin. “Well, pretty boy, I’m watching you.”
“Ah, foiled,” Jon lamented, raising his hands in mock surrender. So, his instincts at the coffee shop had been right. Interesting. From the way Logan was joking, it as fair to say he might be Seth’s boyfriend. Though what did he mean by “we”?
“Maybe he could join your-” Jace began.
“It doesn’t really work like that,” Logan cut him off.
“Yeah but you would round it out to an even number,” Tyler joined in. “Make sure no one’s left out,” he winked.
“It’s not a club, Tyler,” Maggie rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m missing something here,” Jon ventured. Seth, Logan and Grayson all traded glances.
“Rock, paper, scissors?” Grayson suggested.
“You don’t have to tell me if -” Jon began.
“They’re all -” Drew tried to blurt out before Seth beat him to it.
“Me, Logan and Grayson are all dating. The three of us,” he explained.
“Oh, uh, cool.” Jon was quiet for a moment. Then he smiled. “You had me going there for a sec,” he admitted. Seth raised an eyebrow. “Wait, you’re serious? This isn’t a ‘mess with the new guy’ thing?”
“Seriously,” Logan assured him.
“Prove it to him,” Jace suggested.
“Yeah, do the thing!” agreed Drew.
“Seriously?” Seth echoed, rolling his eyes. “Like it’s some kind of party trick.”
“Well, it is freaking adorable,” Kirsten piled on.
“You can be in the middle then, Seth,” Grayson smiled and leaned in. He leaned in at the same time as Logan to kiss Seth on cheeks from either side.
“Aww,” Maggie clapped.
Jon realized everyone at the table was watching him, trying to gauge his reaction and smiled before his surprise could be misinterpreted. “So you get to work with your boyfriend, then? That must be fun.”
Seth began to laugh. “Told you he was smooth,” he told his boyfriends.
“Definitely,” Grayson agreed. “Though I think we threw him for a loop there.”
“It was surprising,” Jon admitted. “I though Logan and Seth might be together though so I guess I was half right.”
“Two-thirds right, maybe?” Grayson offered.
“Heh, something like that. So are you guys like poly-something or…?”
“We don’t really call it anything,” Logan glanced at his boyfriends who nodded. “We just have this connection and if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” He shrugged. “So what if it’s three people instead of two?”
“Hey, we’re getting good at explaining this,” Grayson observed.
“But it doesn’t define us,” Seth added, “so we don’t hide it but we don’t go running our mouths either.” He gave a pointed glance at Drew and the others.
“Hey, if you’d told us earlier, it would have saved a lot of confusion, that’s all I’m saying,” Drew retorted. Jon turned to Seth.
“Long story,” he replied in answer to the unspoken question. Jon made a show of settling into his seat.
“Lunch isn’t over yet,” he grinned.
“Still can’t believe they dumped me at a state school. It’s insult to injury,” Geoff grumbled. The sight of the SUNY Albany campus buildings renewed his initial anger over the transfer. Maybe he could cut off Jon’s cell plan for a week or so-
“Geoff, no,” Patrick stated from the passenger seat as if Geoff had voiced his thoughts aloud.
“No, what?” he asked with a grin despite knowing exactly what Patrick meant. He shot his friend a sideways glance. Underneath that shock of blond hair was a mind like a steel trap, utterly camouflaged behind sea blue eyes, toned muscle and a carefully cultivated surfer persona.
“I can tell when you’re scheming something. In this case, probably for Jon. So knock it off.”
“But look at it!” Geoff persisted as he tried to nose into a parking spot, then backing up when he realized he was too far ahead, before repeating the whole thing.
“There’s shitty no-name private schools too,” Patrick replied. “Could have been like St. Anselm’s on the Cross of Our Lady Regina or something. As far as rep goes, SUNY blows them out of the water.”
“You know what I mean.” Geoff completed the parking shuffle and opened the door to make sure he was within the parking lines. “God, I hate parallel parking.”
“Indeed! Prince Geoffrey will have to mingle with the peasants,” Patrick affected an English accent. “However will you manage outside of your Ivory Tower, sir?”
Geoff adjusted his sunglasses in the mirror and grabbed his coffee. “Come on then, St. Paddy,” he retorted, evoking Patrick’s hated nickname, “let’s go meet the unwashed masses.”
“Alright, just about set,” Vergil slipped his messenger bag over his shoulders and toed on his shoes. “Ready, Sasha?”
“Just a sec,” his friend Sasha replied from behind the kitchen counter, where he was assembling a ham and cheese sandwich. “So you have another friend coming too?”
“Theoretically,” Vergil shrugged. “He said Saturday he was coming this afternoon but he was pretty hammered. That, and I mentioned the possibility of manual labor in setting up the exhibit and that’s always a good way to put him off.”
Sasha raised an elegant eyebrow. “Were you trying to?”
Vergil shifted uncomfortably. “Sort of. He’s transferring here though so I’ll have to see him again sometime. I’m just not exactly sure if I want to. Like I do and I don’t.”
“You two have a falling out?”
Vergil gave a weak smile. “You could say that. Remember what I told you about Meera’s accident?”
“Yes…” He could tell Sasha already suspected where this was going. “You said that your best friend was driving the car.” Vergil nodded both in confirmation and answer to the unspoken question. Sasha chewed his lip thoughtfully as he leaned against the counter. “So it’s that friend. I get why you have some mixed feelings about this. It’s a little strange he’s transferring here of all places though. Weren’t you all from Boston? That can’t be a coincidence.”
“It isn’t. He’s here because of me - it’s also a long story.” Vergil felt the evasive answer draw another pair of eyes to him and noticed Sasha’s boyfriend, Alec, looking up from where he had been sitting on the couch with his laptop. His gaming headset was slightly askew on one ear. Vergil smiled in acknowledgement before turning back to Sasha. “This could all be a moot point though. He might not even show up.”
“Well in that case, I won’t push it. But if we’re one short I might know someone who’s not doing much of anything at the moment. Right, Alec?” Sasha placed a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder.
“Hm? Who’s that?” Alec took off the headset and Sasha tousled his hair in response. “Hey, for the record, I am doing something. I’m grinding.”
Vergil tilted his head, “Like that app?” Alec let out a bark of laughter.
“Not that kind of grinding, man. Grinding for gold and experience - doing my daily quests in WoW.”
“You can do them later. ‘Raids’ are the important ones, right?” Sasha asked as he wrapped up the sandwich. “Marrying a gamer means you pick up a few things,” he explained to Vergil.
“Come on, love, this is Vergil’s first major art exhibit. It’s a big deal. There’s a sandwich in it for you,” he added.
“I thought I was already getting that.” Alec gave a wicked grin, “How about a massage?”
“Well, I don’t know what sandwich you were thinking of.” Sasha winked at Vergil as he placed what was going to be Alec’s lunch in a tupperware container. “The only one I see is what we’re taking to the gallery. You’ll have to come with us if you want it.”
“Aw, man. That’s harsh - taking a man’s sandwich like that,” Vergil laughed. “Don’t force him. We’ll be fine.”
Alec gave a loud sigh, doing his best to look put upon. “Work me to the bone, why don’t you? But only because I know how much you need us, Vergil.”
“We really can take care of it-”
“Alright, alright! You wore me down, man.”
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt your questing-”
“No need to thank me by working with your shirt off but if you insist…”
“Wait, what?” Vergil asked as he realized he had lost control of the conversation.
“I think you should stop talking now,” Sasha advised.
“Look, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for...both of you to be there if Geoff does end up coming.”
Sasha frowned. “You mean for Alec to be there.”
Alec sniggered. “It’s all good. Homophobes don’t bother me. We love dragging them out of the closet, don’t we, Sash?”
“No, not like that,” Vergil chuckled slightly. “He’s the opposite of homophobic.”
“So-” Alec began.
“So he’s gay too, what’s the problem?” Sasha stepped in before his boyfriend could finish formulating a new wisecrack.
“It’s nothing to do with that. I’m pretty sure he’s here to bury the hatchet but it’s still a delicate situation. Things could still get a little tense, you know?” And Sasha’s wisecracking boyfriend was liable to kick a hornet’s nest, he wanted to add. Alec was likable enough but from what he could tell, was too similar to Geoff in attitude to risk having them in the same room.
“I think I see what you mean,” Sasha replied thoughtfully.
“I don’t,” Alec stated blankly before putting a hand to his chest with a gasp as he contrived to look astonished. “Wait, are you saying I’m not delicate? Really? Sash, tell him how diplomatic and delicate I am!” Instead, Sasha simply eyed him speculatively.
“I think it’ll be alright. Alec will be on his best behavior. Won’t you, love?”
“The best,” Alec agreed.
“I don’t want someone else caught up in my drama,” Vergil tried as a last ditch attempt.
“But it’s just fine to get me caught up in your drama, is that it?” Sasha teased.
“Sash, now I have to go. Can’t miss the drama.” Sasha put a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder to quiet him for a moment.
“Well, considering he might not even show, the more the merrier. I should probably take all the help I can get,” Vergil relented.
“Damn right,” Alec smirked.
“Full disclosure - he might - no will - try to hit on you both.”
“Well, he’s out of luck - we’re not looking for a threesome,” Alec winked and Vergil chuckled. “Cause we already have a pretty epic foursome,” he continued.
“Cool - wait, what?” Vergil exclaimed for the second time in the last few minutes.
“That’s another story,” Sasha shot Alec a look that Vergil had come to recognize as reserved for when Alec had said too much. “Vergil, if you really thought he wasn’t coming, you wouldn’t be this worried.” He slipped on his converses and headed to the door, pausing to give his friend a pat on the shoulder. “Now, let’s go meet the infamous Geoffrey.”
“Don’t ever let him hear you call him that. I’d never hear the end of it.”
“Wouldn’t like it?”
“Worse. He’d love it.”
“This should be it.” Geoff stood before the doors to the gallery for a moment.
“Nervous?” Patrick asked.
“Why would I be?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a beer on you, would you?”
“What do you think?”
Geoff sighed and turned the handle.
It was a medium sized, standard exhibition room of white-washed walls and dull blue-grey carpeting, meant to be as unassuming as possible so as not to detract from whatever art was on display. A few pedestals were interspersed along the walls for the odd stand-alone sculpture. Most of the pieces that had been taken out were of the wall hanging variety but that was where the majority of the similarities ended, each using a variety of materials from paper mache to metal to plastic food containers. Geoff recognized some of the works, having either seen them completed or in progress but a great deal of them were completely new.
Vergil turned at the sound of the door opening from where he stood at the far end of the room. Geoff had never decided if Vergil Knight would be considered pretty or handsome. Apparently there was difference but either way his one-time best friend had always been easy to look at. Soft features of a pleasant boyish face and short, wavy brown hair contrasted with a compact muscular frame more befitting an athlete than an artist.
Beside him stood two other boys, who as it happened, epitomized the difference between handsome and pretty quite well. The pretty one shared Vergil’s dark brown hair, though kept it on the long side. He had a light dusting of facial hair that outlined a set jaw as he watched Geoff warily. Someone’s clearly heard of me, Geoff thought wryly. And doesn’t approve. The other fit the classical boy-next-door mold with somewhat lighter brown hair and a tall, athletic build. Likely played or used to play some sort of sport - soccer, perhaps? His gaze was less overtly suspicious, rather one of surprised interest, as if he had unexpectedly found a good movie while channel flipping.
“I didn't think you'd come.” Vergil’s voice broke the silence. “Hey, Patrick. Nice to see you.” Patrick waved.
“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Geoff retorted. The soccer friend chuckled at the Star Wars reference before the other boy quieted him with a glance.
“Well, Drunk-Geoff sounded pretty sincere. I wasn’t sure if Sober-Geoff would feel the same way.” Vergil crossed his arms. “Or do I have to report you for another DUI?” Right out the gate, Geoff thought. He noticed Patrick wince slightly and Vergil’s friends exchange glances. It seems we all know what that was about.
“Nope. The only substances in my veins right now is caffeine and high fructose corn syrup.” Geoff raised his coffee.
“Arguably worse,” Vergil commented.
“You’re telling me,” Patrick interjected. “He won a Starbucks giftcard. This is his sixth mochaccino today.” Geoff took a loud slurp for emphasis.
“Dude, how are you not vibrating right now?” the presumed soccer player piped up. His friend facepalmed but the ghost of a smile flitted across Vergil’s face.
“It’s alright, Sasha.” He turned back to Geoff and Patrick. “These are my friends Sasha,” indicating the pretty one, “and his boyfriend, Alec.” The taller one gave a jaunty salute. “Guys, this is Geoff and Patrick. They went to highschool with me.”
Patrick stepped forward. “Nice to meet you both. But could we have a few minutes? We’ll help Vergil-”
“Hold it,” Vergil raised a hand. “I see what you’re doing, Pat but it’ll have to wait. I know there’s a conversation to be had here but there’s also a show to be put up and I’m not going to pass up a full crew to do it with.” Geoff opened his mouth to protest but Vergil cut him off. “We need to talk - that’s why you’re here - but after, ok? The three of us have been waiting months for this. Another hour or so won’t hurt.” Patrick and Geoff exchanged glances before nodding. “Great. Let’s get to work.”
Jon shouldered his way through the after-school crowd before giving up and simply letting the tide of humanity carry him towards the doors. A hand tapped him on the shoulder and Seth squeezed in beside him along with a friend.
“Crowd surfing?” Seth asked with a grin, his voice slightly raised to be heard over the din of voices, lockers and doors.
“Pretty much. I’m usually able to beat it but I got held up after class today. No idea how I’m going to make my bus.”
“Not if you stay in this crowd,” commented Seth’s friend. “There’s a quicker way to the bus line that might give you a better shot at catching it though. I can show you if you like.”
“Really? I’d appreciate that,” Jon answered with feeling.
“Alright, follow me!” The boy slipped away, leaving Seth and Jon to follow the bobbing of his blond head through the crowd. They darted after him into a classroom on their left, weaving between empty chairs and vaulting desks before bursting through a side door into the warm spring afternoon.
Just in time to see bus nine - Jon’s bus - pull out of the school parking lot.
The other two stopped when he did. “Ah, sorry, man,” Seth’s friend apologized, looking as crestfallen as if it were his personal fault the bus had left.
“Don’t sweat it. Thanks for telling me about the shortcut though.” Jon caught his breath and extended his hand. “I’m Jon by the way.”
“Jake, Jake Thayer.” Jake shook his hand with a shy smile.
“So how are you going to get home?” Seth asked.
“Eh, I’ll call my brother and chill out here, I guess. Probably have most of my homework done by the time he gets here.” He hated the idea of asking Richard to leave work early but any of his nascent friend group who had a car would almost certainly have left by now.
“That long?” Jake asked skeptically.
“Hopefully not, but if he’s coming from Binghamton and probably won’t be able to leave work right away-”
“Seriously? How about you just come over to my place? It’s a short walk to my house,” Seth offered. “Better than spending anymore time at school.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose-”
“Dude, stop,” Seth laughed. “If you were going to ‘impose’ I wouldn’t have offered.”
“Well, thanks,” Jon smiled.
“Then it’s settled - just need to grab Logan and Grey and we’re set.”
“Sure I won’t be a third, or I guess, fourth wheel?” he and Jake couldn’t help chuckling at the expression.
“Don’t worry, it’s not like date night or something. They just live near me. You’ll be able to do your homework in peace,” Seth winked before turning to Jake. “Want to come with? Make it a Monday night party?”
Jake smiled at the invitation but shook his head. “Thanks but I got to get this cobbler in the fridge. I should head back.”
“So that’s why you smell delicious,” Jon exclaimed. Jake blushed slightly.
“Yeah, Jake’s in my cooking class and makes a mean peach cobbler,” Seth smirked. “But it’s not for the likes of us lowly peasants, right?”
“Yeah, you’re so not worthy,” Jake laughed. He waved and had just begun to walk away when Seth’s phone chirped. He took it out and looked at Jon apologetically.
“So that was my boss at Perk’s. Someone’s out sick and Kyle wants to know if I can cover…”
Jon raised a hand. “Say no more.”
“I’m really sorry, if you want, you can chill at Perk’s maybe.”
“I don’t live far,” Jake stepped in. “Maybe you could walk back with me?”
“Perfect!” Seth agreed with obvious relief.
“You sure your parents won’t mind you randomly bringing some dude you just met off the street?” Jon asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I think you’ll be ok. Text your brother to let him know that he doesn’t have to leave work early.”
“You know, maybe I should just stay here…” Not only could Jon feel control of the situation slipping away from him but he instinctively shied away from taking a favor from a borderline stranger. Jake probably meant well but this plan was rapidly accruing too many unknowns.
“I’ll see you tomorrow!” Seth was already gone. Jake, however, was watching him and seemed to recognize his discomfort.
“And then there were two,” he commented as Seth strode away. “I get that we only just met but,” he glanced back at the school building, “it’s going to be pretty depressing hanging around an empty school. You don’t have to come if you’re uncomfortable but you don’t have to be alone either.” With those last words, Jon couldn’t help but feel that Jake was trying to reference something beyond just waiting at school. “Besides,” he continued with a mischievous smile, “maybe you could help me test out my cobbler.”
Jon opened his mouth to voice a last token protest but gave up when his stomach made a loud rumble. “Well, if I’ve been deemed ‘worthy’...” The two of them began the walk out of the parking lot as Jon punched out a text to Richard. “So,” as he put his phone away, “what else you like to make, or are you more of a baking guy?”
“I’m a pretty adventurous eater so cooking-wise I try a bit of everything. Been messing around in the kitchen since I was a kid - always been kind of a hobby of mine. Definitely made grocery shopping a lot more fun.”
“That’s cool. I thought I knew my way around a kitchen but I’m probably pretty basic by comparison.”
“Really? You cook?”
“Hey, don’t look so surprised,” Jon laughed.
“What? I didn’t mean that-” Jake tried to backpedal.
“Relax, I’m kidding. Yeah, my brother and I usually had to figure out dinner if we didn’t want take-out or microwavables every night. The kitchen always looked like a tornado hit it after but the food came out alright.” Jon felt himself smile at the memory. “We’d look up recipes online and try to copy them. Got pretty good at it - even stopped having to disable the smoke alarm after a while,” he added with a grin.
Jake laughed. “I don’t have any siblings but that sounds like fun. What’s it like? You guys close?”
“We’re the closest in age so we kind of grew up together. Definitely had some ups and downs but yeah, we are.”
“So how’re Jon and Richard? You mentioned yesterday that Jon was in a car accident?” Vergil asked, straightening a frame on its hook.
“Yeah, a couple weeks ago - happened near the center of town when a car swerved into his lane,” Geoff answered as he and Alec carefully placed a carved unicorn head on the wall. It was on a dark wooden plaque like a hunting trophy, the animal itself cut from a lighter wood. However, its eyes and horn were polished metal insets.
“Is he alright?” Sasha asked, crouched on the floor unboxing a set of photos.
“He got out with just a few cuts and a nasty knock on the head, the lucky bastard. Had to spend a night in the hospital but it could have been a lot worse. The idiot told us he was going to the Catskills for the weekend and drove up to Boston to get hammered with his friends instead.” Geoff scowled, the memory bringing back the anger and frustration, before he took a deep breath to reign it in.
“You must have been angry,” Vergil speculated. Geoff bristled inwardly as the veiled reference to his temper.
“Obviously. But we worked it out - the important thing is he’s safe.”
“Your parents must have hit the fucking roof though,” Alec commented. Patrick quirked an eyebrow at Geoff, who merely shrugged and smiled.
“If they knew, they probably would. We don’t really keep them in the loop anymore though.”
Alec shook his head. “Dude, unless they’re out of town or something, if they missed that one of their kids was in the hospital, that takes absentee parenting to a whole new level.”
“You could say that,” Geoff smirked. “Being dead tends to be a bit of a communication barrier.” The statement brought the conversation to a screeching halt. Vergil rolled his eyes.
“Aw, shit, man…” Alec trailed off into embarrassed silence.
Sasha’s gaze seemed to soften slightly. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” He glanced at Vergil, who merely shrugged.
“It’s okay. Really,” Geoff gave them both a bright smile, realizing an instant later that this would only serve to discomfit them further. “As for Richard, he’s doing pretty well. Crazy busy though. Royal T has a big release coming up, so that and settling into the new Binghamton office has him running himself ragged.”
“I asked about Richard, not his company,” Vergil clarified.
“They’ve basically been the same thing for the last four years. You know that,” Geoff chuckled.
“Your brother works in Binghamton? No shit? We’re from around there,” Alec perked up, seizing on the change of topic.
Geoff paused in unwrapping another painting. “Yeah, he’s the reason we moved to the area. We’re a little outside the city proper, though.”
“Oh yeah? Where?”
“Some one-horse town called Sanitaria Springs. A lot of “Springs” towns around there, I noticed.”
“You’re shitting me,” Alec’s eyes had gone wide and even Sasha had raised an eyebrow.
“We’re from there,” Sasha explained, again turning to Vergil. “Did you know about this?”
Vergil didn’t return eye contact, focusing on the thumbtack box instead. “I might have heard something,” he murmured.
Sasha’s eyes narrowed. “I see…” he replied thoughtfully.
“You sly dog! So you weren’t coming just to visit us then?” Alec laughed but Geoff and Patrick both turned to look at Vergil.
“Visit?” Patrick asked.
“You didn’t mention yesterday you were coming to town,” Geoff commented evenly.
“Yeah, he’s driving back with us...today…” Alec trailed off upon noticing Vergil’s discomfort.
“Alec…” Sasha pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Must have slipped my mind,” Vergil answered lamely. Geoff hesitated before nodding. Now wasn’t the time. He would let it go for now. Patrick’s relief was almost palpable beside him.
“Uh, well, looks like we’re going to be neighbors then,” Alec awkwardly attempted to change the subject. “So what’s your brother’s company do, anyway?”
“Geoff’s brother Richard runs an app development company, like for tablets and smartphones,” Patrick explained, thumbtacking an info card to the wall.
“Sweet, so there’s a new app coming out? What’s it do?”
Geoff shrugged dismissively. “Some sort of office productivity thing. Helps people traveling on business with their expenses or something.”
“Why would anyone make an app for that?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Geoff turned to inspect the unicorn.
“Dude, it’s more than that,” Patrick frowned at Geoff. “It tracks how much people travel for work and gives them an amount they can charge to their company.” He turned to Alec. “Sure, it’s not Angry Birds but it helps people by making their lives just a little bit easier. That’s what apps were supposed to do in the first place.” Alec nodded, his expression thoughtful.
“Whatever,” Geoff replied distractedly. “Vergil, this unicorn. What did you use for the horn?” Vergil paused but didn’t turn around.
“What does it look like? Sasha, can we move the Ivy Tower one more time? I want to see how it looks next to the Noose.”
“Well, it looks like the gardening spike from junior year. You kept it?” Geoff glanced sideways at Vergil, who still hadn’t faced him.
“Hey, it’s my memory as much as yours. Yeah, that looks good, Sasha.”
“Heh, it was a fun night, wasn’t it?” Geoff chuckled to himself. Vergil finally turned around, the beginning of a smile on his lips, a sliver of sunlight through a crack in overcast clouds.
“Unless Woody Harrison has a very weird idea of ‘fun’, I think he’d disagree with you about that.”
“Eh, he got over it. Eventually.”
“Yeah, he was such a baby about you almost poking his eye out,” Patrick wryly interjected.
“Hey, I actually feel pretty bad about that,” Geoff insisted.
“Really?” Vergil asked skeptically.
“Totally. To this day, I still can’t believe I missed.”
Patrick clapped a hand over his mouth, though it did little to muffle his chortling. Vergil rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that was about what I was expecting.”
“So what’s the story there?” Alec grinned.
“It’s a good one,” Geoff flashed a winning smile, eying him up and down. “How about I tell you over dinner?”
“Told you,” Vergil commented to Sasha, who seemed surprisingly unperturbed.
“Sorry, man. You’re damn handsome but,” Alec raised his hand to display the engagement ring, “I’m happily spoken for.”
“Aw, congratulations, dude,” Patrick smiled warmly.
“Well, you’re fiance’s totally welcome too,” Geoff replied without missing a beat. Patrick facepalmed behind him.
“Hmm… What do you think, Sash?”
“I think, Alec, that we have two handsome devils waiting for us at home. We don’t need another.”
“And I think I’d rather you didn’t hit on my friend’s fiance. Back off, Geoff,” Vergil added but without much rancor.
“Hey, what part of inviting him to dinner is hitting on him?” Geoff asked, contriving to look wounded.
“From you? Everything about it.” Vergil began sorting through the remaining info cards.
“I’m going to be a student here next semester. Maybe I wanted to get to know some people first, especially someone from my new town.”
“And maybe I’m the long lost heir of Gondor,” he retorted as he found the two cards he wanted and tacked them up with their appropriate pieces.
“I made you a sword that one time. Does that make me Elrond?” Patrick inquired.
“I don’t think a boffer sword counts, Pat.”
“It was hella pretty though.”
“It was definitely a work of art,” Vergil conceded. “I still have it on my wall.” He turned and distributed the last few cards among them. “Alright, tack these up and we’re set.”
Afterward, the five of them gathered in the center of the room to admire their work. “Hey!” Alec exclaimed after a moment. “Your shirt’s still on. You gypped me,” he accused Vergil. Geoff stifled a chuckle watching his old friend blush. He had forgotten how endearing it made him look.
“It looks great, Vergil,” Sasha put a hand on his shoulder.
“Thanks for your help, everyone.”
“Don’t mention it. We’ll meet you out by the car in ten, ok? It was nice meeting you guys,” Sasha nodded at Geoff and Patrick before heading towards the door followed by his boyfriend. Before closing it, Alec poked his head back in.
“Hey, Geoff, I’d be down to show you around town and grab a bite sometime. Though that’s the only kind of eating out happening,” he added with a wink.
Closing the door behind him, Alec turned to Sasha. “So, is there something we need to do before we go or are we just giving Vergil some time with his ex?”
“Neither. We’re giving him some time to talk to his friend privately,” Sasha corrected him.
“Oh, come on, Sash. You saw how they were looking at each other.” Alec was rewarded with a knowing smile from his boyfriend.
“Yes, I did.”
“So I knew we had to get out before-” he paused as raised voices could be heard through the door, “that,” he finished.
“So, slipped your mind, huh?” Geoff began.
“Must have,” Vergil replied, his face impassive.
“Yeah, must have,” Geoff agreed sarcastically. “So this was what, some kind of test run? A sort of interview?” He knew he was being slightly unreasonable but this felt like being manipulated, being treated as a stranger or a distant, slightly loopy relative. He was dimly aware of Patrick in his peripheral vision frantically shaking his head. “Look, I get it,” Geoff continued, ignoring the unspoken advice but attempting to modulate his rising voice. “It’s been a while and you’re not sure about -” he gestured vaguely, “this. But after all we’ve been through together, the least you can do is be fucking honest with me.”
“Honesty?” Vergil asked. He barked a short mirthless laugh. “You want to talk about honesty? You? That’s rich. You breathe and the air comes out crooked, so I don’t owe you any goddamn explanation.”
“With us it’s different, you know that,” Geoff persisted. “Whatever issues we have between us, it doesn’t change-”
“Issues? So that’s what we’re calling it now? And yeah, Geoff, if Meera is an ‘issue’, that fucking changes things.”
“I’m sorry about Meera, okay? I’m sorry and I was wrong. How many times do I have to say it?” Geoff threw up his hands in exasperation. “I understand that I wasn’t a very good friend. After Damien,” the name caught in his throat briefly, “I realize how you must have felt when you lost Meera and that I let you down when you needed me most. I know you won’t believe me but I’m sorry, Vergil.”
For a moment there was silence. Then Vergil shook his head.
“And what about Alastair? Leah? Or Kevin? Meera was an accident but you deliberately threw our friends under the bus.”
“Vergil, he had no choice-” Patrick began but Geoff held up a hand. He had been expecting this.
“I am sorry for what happened to them,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “And I wish there had been another way.” He took a breath and continued. “But there wasn’t and deciding between them and you, well, if I had to do it again I’d make the same choice. It was the only one.”
Vergil held his gaze for a moment before turning away with a sigh. “They trusted you, you know.”
“I do. But I had a promise to keep.”
“Family first, right?” Vergil glanced over shoulder. “Till the casket drops.”
Their childhood vow had crossed his mind more than once over the last couple of days but hearing it from Vergil resonated on an order of magnitude, triggering images of Damien and the flames from his dream flashed across his mind. He pushed them aside and replied, a slight catch in his throat, “Till the casket drops.”
“The thing is,” Vergil spun around and started to pace back and forth. “The thing is that our friends you screwed over could be considered ‘family’ just as much as me or Patrick. Sure, they didn’t swear on an antique sword but they proved themselves by their actions. Maybe that wasn’t enough for you - don’t know why though - but you let them think it was. You let all of us think that.”
Geoff opened his mouth to interrupt then closed it. Vergil needed to speak his piece.
“It got me thinking,” Vergil continued, his tone more inquisitive than accusatory, as if they were debating abstract philosophy or art. “If we could be so wrong - so off the mark - in that case, what else were we wrong about? I had to wonder how well I really knew you. Thinking that about someone you’d trusted with your life is pretty damn scary.”
Do I really know you at all? Damien’s question echoed Vergil’s words. The hurt and disappointment in his friend’s eyes only served to strengthen the connection. Again, Geoff found himself fighting off the memory of that night to stay in the present.
“You know I’d never hurt you.” He instantly regretted his words as Vergil raised an eyebrow.
“You sacrificed Kevin, Alistair and Leah because it was the only choice. What if next time the only choice is to stab me or Pat in the back to protect Jon or Richard?” The burning house flickered again in the cinema of his mind’s eye. “You’re mad I wasn’t honest with you? Honesty takes trust and in case it wasn’t clear, I don’t fucking trust you.” Vergil was almost shouting now. He took a deep breath to collect himself.
For a moment, no one spoke.
“Then why did you pick up my call? Why did you invite me here at all if you were so certain you didn’t want me in your life?”
Vergil chuckled as he began to blink rapidly. “That’s the shittiest part. No matter how much I want to hate you, having you both here this afternoon, the three of us together hanging out, just felt right. In a way I haven’t felt in months. Guess old habits die hard, huh?”
With that statement, Geoff felt a lightness in his chest, as if he had released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
“Emotions are complicated, man,” Patrick explained gently. He cast a sideways glance at Geoff. “They’re not always rational either.”
“Why are you here, Pat?” Vergil asked suddenly. “If I’m conflicted as hell, why aren’t you? Technically, almost every problem we had the last four years has been something his family dragged us into. How’s it so easy for you to side with him? Is a promise you made freshman year of high school that important to you?”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side, Vergil,” Patrick assured him. “I’m not here to try and make excuses for Geoff or tell you why you should forgive him or even because of a vow from when we were fourteen years old.” Both Geoff and Vergil were watching Patrick now, who had begun to walk forward until he stood between them. “I’m here for me. Because two people I love are fighting and I’m not ready to let either of you go yet. Sure, people drift apart after high school but after what we’ve gone through together, I don’t think that’s possible for us. Even if we never were to see each other again, that bond would still take a piece of each of us with it, never letting us feel quite complete. Vergil, you said it yourself, this felt right. This last year, we’ve all felt like a part of us is missing. And I’m ready for that to be fucking done.”
Geoff had been looking at the floor but the intensity in Patrick’s voice jerked his head up, meeting Vergil’s eyes, bright with unshed tears, as he did the same. Patrick took both their hands and drew them together. Instinctively, he opened his hand and felt Vergil clasp it. The warmth shot up his arm and into his chest, radiating throughout his body in an almost physical need. Patrick stepped back and took their other hands in each of his.
“I once heard that in the saying ‘blood is thicker than water’ blood doesn’t actually mean family. It originally referred to the blood you would share when taking an oath or shed together in battle counting for more than the water of the womb. Birth isn’t the only thing that decides your family. We’ve fought and bled together, that’s what cemented our promise.”
“A very long way of saying we’ll never be free of each other,” Geoff summarized, the corner of his mouth giving a slight twitch.
“Till the casket drops,” Vergil whispered.
Jake wasn’t sure what to make of his new - possible - friend. He was still surprised at his spur-of-the-moment decision to invite someone he barely knew, let alone a handsome guy, over to his house. Something in him seemed to have recognized a fellow outsider and wanted to reach out.
Now the two of them were just passing through town center, having known each other for no more than ten minutes and chatting easily with a bare minimum of awkward silences.
Though Jon was pleasant and easy to talk to and someone Jake could see himself getting to know better, there was something very guarded about him despite the smile and charming demeanor. So far this feeling wasn’t entirely off putting, it was as if Jon was speaking to him from the other side of a well manicured white picket fence - not uninviting yet setting a clear boundary.
This suited Jake just fine. He had a habit of keeping people at arm’s distance himself - except for when I invite them over for pie, he thought wryly - until he could get a better read on them. So far, Jon remained an enigma but Jake had already decided he wanted to see more of that smile.
“Take a right here. It’s a short cut to the next street over,” Jake indicated a short brick alleyway between a pair of storefronts.
“Hmm,” Jon eyed the path. “You wouldn’t happen to be leading me down a convenient dark alley so you could mug me, right?” He grinned. “Got a few of your friends waiting around the corner?”
Jake chuckled. “You’re in the small town now, city-boy. The worse you’ll find in alleys around here is knocked over trash cans. Come on.”
“If you say so.” Jon fell into step beside him. They were halfway across when an all-too familiar voice called out.
“Shit,” Jake swore. He should have known better than to take this route right after school but the conversation had distracted him. Two boys unfolded themselves from behind a large dustbin. They both wore frayed sweaters and faded jeans. One of them held a glass pipe. The vaguely skunk-like scent of pot hung about them like a tattered mantle. Dave Mullins plus one. Great.
“Who’re they?” Jon asked, his nose crinkled in disdain, his expression conveying he knew exactly what, if not who, they were. Dave, the larger of the two, noticed his expression and scowled.
“Who’s your friend, Thayer? He’s got no manners.”
“We’re just passing through, Mullins.” Jake took a step backwards, calculating the distance back to the street. It was too far to run. The instant he began to give ground, Dave and his friend closed the gap between them with deceptive speed.
“So where’s our toll, faggot? Your boyfriend is going to cost you extra if you don’t want us to teach him a lesson.”
“...Ok, I don’t want any trouble.” Jake was about to reach for his wallet when he heard a jingle and a dull thump of a backpack hitting the ground. Jon put an arm out in front of him and gently nudged him back.
“Yeah, that sounds painful,” Jon commented, somewhat redundantly, Jake thought.
“That’s the idea, dumbass,” Dave smirked. His companion chuckled vacantly and moved to flank them.
“I didn’t say for me.” That line sounded familiar-
Jon’s fist shot out, catching Dave squarely in the nose. The other boy stumbled back with a yelp. His friend lunged forward only to have his arm caught and twisted, releasing his grip on the pipe, and pull him in for a punch to the gut.
“Behind you!” Jake heard himself yell. Jon shoved the boy aside and turned around as Dave slammed him back against the wall. He raised a fist but Jon swung the pipe to smash on his head, eliciting an audible thump that caused Jake’s head to twinge in sympathy.
The instant Dave released him, Jon grabbed him by the back of the head and smashed a knee into his already bloodied nose. He staggered backwards into his friend and they both hit the ground in a heap.
For a moment, the only sound was Jon’s heavy breathing and Dave’s faint whimpering. Then, clutching his nose, he scrambled to his feet and ran, henchmen in tow. Jon watched them turn the corner before he leaned against the wall with a heavy sigh.
Jake took an involuntary step back. In that moment, Jon was scarier than the Mullins gang ever were. He looked up and cracked a grin.
“You weren’t kidding about the trash,” he quipped and some of the tension began to bleed away.
“What? Oh! Right...” Jake struggled for the right words. What did you say after witnessing a swift and brutal take-down? They always seemed to have a witty retort ready in movies and television but somehow he knew that none of those would sound right in real life.
“Thanks,” he added, in the end falling back on basic courtesy. It did little to make things any less awkward. If anything, Jon appeared even more uncomfortable, shifting his weight from side to side. “I’m sorry,” Jake found himself saying, “I forgot they hung out-”
“It’s fine. Don't mention it.” Jon rubbed the back of his head gingerly.
“Are you okay?” Jake pressed.
“Yeah. Thanks for the heads-up by the way - otherwise I’d have gotten a face full of wall.” Jon scooped up his bag and swung it over his shoulder.
“Alright. My place isn’t far now.” The two resumed walking and were silent for a time, though Jake noticed his friend glancing over his shoulder periodically.
“I don’t think we have to worry about him coming back with buddies. He doesn’t have much of a gang anymore.”
“Most of ‘em got expelled or arrested.”
“Not surprising if those two were anything to go on.”
“So where’d you learn that?” Jake asked, changing the subject.
“Learn what?” Jon replied innocently.
“You know, that. Back there. Or did you pick that up from the Batman movies too?”
“Heh, you caught that?” Jon chuckled.
“How could I not?”
“Yeah, I’ve always wanted to use that. Bane was pretty quotable in that movie.” By now they had reached Jake’s house and he opened his bag to take out the keys. “To answer your question,” Jon continued, “I took Tae-Kwon-Do since I was ten. All of us did - I kind of just followed my brothers. Nice place,” he added as they stepped into the hallway.
“Make yourself at home,” Jake replied, heading to the kitchen with the cobbler. “I’ll get you some ice for your head.” He felt as if unless he were in constant motion, the strangeness of the situation would catch up to him - then it was anyone’s guess how it would go. “So your family is big on self-defense?” he asked over his shoulder. It was the sort of gently probing question people asked when they wanted to glean personal details. He had dropped those early in their conversation at school but now it seemed marginally more important to know at least something about this strange guy he had invited home, other than that he liked to cook, what video games he played and that he could kick ass.
Jon had followed him into the kitchen and settled at the table, eying his surroundings. Maybe he was projecting, but Jake thought he saw something of his own bemusement reflected in the other boy’s face. Jon chuckled at the question.
“You have no idea.”
Definitely a story there, Jake thought. He opened the freezer to grab an ice pack and handed it to Jon before taking out a pair of plates, spoons and a pie server.
“Didn’t you say this was for something else?” Jon asked as Jake returned to the table with a clatter of cutlery, the smooth change in topic indicating that the white picket fence was coming back up. “I know you said I could taste it but-”
“I think you earned a real slice,” Jake assured him as he cut into the cobbler.
“Normally I’d say you don’t owe me a thing but in this case, I’ll take it.” Jon took a forkful and paused. “This,” he chewed some more to prolong the suspense, as a fellow cook knowing the greatest tension was watching the first bite. Before Jake could demand he hurry up he swallowed. “Is fucking delicious. How did you learn to make stuff like this?”
“Learn to make what?” Jake smirked. Jon rolled his eyes.
“Fair enough. But seriously, this sort of thing takes practice. This doesn’t taste like a hobby. It’s a talent.”
“More like lots of practice.” Jake could feel himself blushing and a took a bite from his own slice. Having essentially zero friends through middle and early high school certainly freed up the schedule. Jon snorted.
“So did I but I couldn’t do this.”
“But did you actually have a social life?” Jake asked, surprising himself.
“I guess. As much as my brother would-” he caught himself. “Yeah, why?”
“There we go. Until recently, I didn’t exactly get out much,” Jake explained, encouraged by the crack in the metaphorical fence. If you want someone to come out of their shell you have to take the first step out of yours, he remembered his father saying. Jon frowned and put down his fork.
“What do you mean? Why?”
Jake hesitated for an instant. He had only told this to a few of even his close friends, yet here he was sharing with someone he had met less than an hour ago. Well, no turning back now.
“After my parents split, my mom kept me on meds that made me blow up like a balloon. You can probably guess how that went at school, so I had a lot of free time.” Jon nodded but said nothing, likely making the connection with the names Mullins had used. Jake felt the familiar wave of bitterness wash over him as he gestured to the cobbler between them. “Practice is easy when you don’t have anything else to do.”
“What were they for? The meds, I mean.”
“I was kind of hyper as a kid. The doctor gave her a bunch of meds to ‘calm me down.’ She wasn’t really cut out to even be a parent, so being a single parent was pretty overwhelming for her.”
“You know, my brothers used to say the same thing about our parents,” Jon commented before taking another bite of his cobbler, chewing contemplatively before looking up at Jake. “So what changed?”
“Eventually, my dad got a job back in town and sued for custody. He won and it was decided I didn’t need the medication. Started eating better and exercising more and voila, people magically noticed me,” he concluded, unable to keep the slight edge out of his voice. “Though there are still a few who try to act like nothing’s changed.”
“Well, those two look like they’d probably be a little slow that way,” Jon grinned. Jake couldn’t help but smile back briefly.
“I don’t know. They booked it out of there pretty quick.” Jon looked down at the table for a moment.
“Yeah, I might not have handled that right. Sorry.”
“What do you mean? They totally had it coming and you didn’t even hurt them that badly.” Jake paused. “Except if you broke David Mullins’ nose but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
“What? No, I don’t mean that part,” Jon made a dismissive gesture. “I hate guys like that and when he said-,” he shook his head. “Anyways, I meant that now they might be looking for payback. Not much they can do to me but…” He shifted uncomfortably. “So yeah. Sorry.”
Jake had been thinking about this too and he had come up with an idea but no way to ask about it until now. “Well,” he began tentatively, “you know the saying ‘give a man a fish and he’ll have food for a day, teach him to fish and…’” Jon raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah? What about...oh. Oh, I see. Yeah, go for it. Tae-Kwon-Do’s good for self-defense but there are lots of other martial arts too. Take a look and see what’s a the best fit for you before you choose though.”
Jake shook his head. “My dad probably wouldn’t shell out for it. Anyways, I was thinking something a little more short-term.”
“Like a private instructor? Those usually cost a little more and good ones are tough to find.”
“I can think of one guy. Maybe I could pay in baked goods instead?”
Jon scaped the last few morsels of cobbler from his plate for one more forkful. “A private martial arts tutor who you can pay with - Oh, wait. Dude, I’m no teacher,” Jon protested. “There’s a lot more to it than just kicking and punching that I am so not qualified to-”
“I’m more interested in like self-defense basics,” Jake persisted. “Enough to deal with creeps like Mullins.”
“So like, Tae-Kwon-Do Lite?”
Jake felt his cheeks flush. “When you put it like that…”
“I’m kidding, man. But I don’t think I’m the best person to help you.”
“What if I teach you some of what I know?”
“Hmm. Give a man a pie, he’ll have sugar for a day. Teach him to bake and he’ll be at diabetes risk for the rest of his life.” Jon paused, appearing to gaze out the window thoughtfully. “It won’t be easy.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll start small and work our way up. Won’t have you making peach cobblers from scratch your first day.” They both laughed. “So is that a yes?”
Jon flashed his mega-watt smile. “Mr. Thayer, I believe we have a deal.”
The drive back to Sanitaria Springs was quiet. Too quiet for Alec’s liking. Sasha had been stealing glances at Vergil since they left SUNY. His boyfriend was obviously worried but wouldn't push for details on his own. The two of them had met at a photography class first semester and quickly hit it off, so while he was a nice enough guy, Vergil was definitely more Sasha’s friend, technically making this none of Alec’s business. However, Vergil being unhappy made Sasha unhappy and Sasha’s happiness was, as far as Alec was concerned, the definition of his business.
He grinned to himself. The idea of helping Vergil, even if it was for Sasha, was still funny. He trusted Sasha completely but seeing him hang out with another handsome guy and connect over the art thing seemed to raise the old ghosts of insecurities he had thought laid to rest. Alec couldn’t help but see him, in a small way, as a kind of rival despite being (until this afternoon at least) certain Vergil was straight. The weird thing was, after the scene at the gallery, Alec actually felt less threatened. Whichever team he played for, Vergil was stuck on this Geoff guy in a major way.
“Alright, somebody has to say something or I am going to fall asleep at the wheel. Vergil? Spill. You guys back together or what? Unless your throat is still sore from couple’s therapy.” Sasha’s eyebrows shot up and Vergil’s cheeks reddened in the rearview mirror.
“How much of that did you hear?” he asked apprehensively.
“Just up until you came out of the gallery,” Alec replied blithely.
“Only right after we closed the door and headed to the car,” Sasha said quickly, shooting Alec “the look”, an expression he had learned to take as a signal to quit while he was ahead. Three of those in one day, Alec realized, the first at the apartment then the gallery, and made a mental note to change tack. Vergil smiled ruefully.
“Yeah, things got a little heated but I think we both needed to get it out of our systems.”
“So you guys good now?” Alec prodded.
“We’re better. I know that’s not saying much but it’s a start. He’s trying to change and I… I need to support that.”
Sasha twisted around in the front seat to face Vergil, fixing him with that penetrating gaze Alec knew so well. “Vergil, it’s not a question of ‘need’ here. With these kinds of things you have to help because you truly want to, not because you feel obligated. From what you’ve told me it sounds like he’s already taken a lot more than he’s given in your relationship.” Alec glanced at Sasha peripherally. Seemed there were parts of this story he didn’t know, which stung slightly even when he reminded himself that some of it wasn’t Sasha’s to tell.
“The stuff I told you,” Vergil looked away. “When I told you that I was pretty angry. It’s all true but I took it a little out of context. A lot, actually. Anyways if you had the whole story you’d know I have no room to talk. Yeah, Geoff has done...fucked up things. But so has Patrick.” He turned to face Sasha. So have I.”
Sasha reached back and put a hand on Vergil’s knee. “We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. I may have only just met him but what I’ve learned about you over the last year already tells me that you are nothing like him.”
“Guess you don’t know me as well as you think,” Vergil muttered but Sasha ignored him.
“If you think that this is some sort of atonement, don’t. If Geoff truly wants to change that’s great. He will need help but it doesn’t necessarily have to be you that gives it. Not if he’s serious. This is on him and you shouldn’t feel beholden to him against your better judgment just because he followed you here.”
Vergil, who had been staring at his lap until now, looked up at Sasha. “He didn’t follow me here,” he corrected.
“You said he was here because of you.”
“I also said it was a long story.” Vergil sighed. “The short version is his brother thinks he’s self-destructing and is hoping I’ll be able to save him from himself.”
“Is he? Pass me a coke, would you? Alec might need a sugar boost.” There was the sound of the cooler behind the driver’s seat opening and a soda appeared on the center console. The can opened with a hiss and Sasha placed it in the cup holder.
“Thanks, babe.” Alec grinned. He didn’t even have to ask. There was a chuckle behind him.
“You two really are turning into an old married couple.”
“Shit, do you see a bald spot?” Alec’s hand sprang to his head.
“Calm down, love, and Vergil, don’t rile him up while he’s driving,” Sasha chided them both. “So, Richard thinks his little brother is self-destructing. What do you think?” he asked, returning to the subject at hand.
Vergil chewed his lip for a moment. “Shortly after I...left, so near the beginning of last summer, his boyfriend, Damien, was killed in an accident. A house fire.” Alec felt Sasha’s hand on his knee as they both winced. “Apparently he was drunk and passed out when a plug caught fire or something. Geoff said they had a fight earlier that evening so maybe that was why he hit the bottle so hard. They did that, you know.”
“So you think that’s why Richard’s afraid for him?” Sasha asked. Vergil nodded.
“They were a pretty intense item. I trust Patrick’s judgment a much as anyone else in the world, and he says Geoff has been in a downward spiral since then. Lashing out violently, drinking like a fish, partying, coursework out the window. He’s not himself.” Vergil paused. “Actually no, he is himself but he’s Geoff on overdrive, like all his worst qualities have been dialed up to eleven.”
“Some people have to hit rock bottom before they can start trying to improve,” Sasha speculated.
“You don’t let trainwrecks run their course,” Vergil replied, “You stop them before they go off the rails.”
“You think it’s that bad?”
“Did you hear about the Cornell video back in November?”
“Uh, yeah. It was horrible-,” Alec began before he put the pieces together. “Oh, shit…”
“That was Geoff?” Sasha asked, eyes widening slightly.
“So I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time,” Sasha commented.
“He’s always had a talent for pissing people off, even those closest to him,” Vergil added with a grimace.
“I know how that feels,” Alec muttered.
“Stuff like this happened on and off through high school - there was this one time in the locker room after tennis practice when -,” Vergil stopped himself but Alec felt his grip tighten on the steering wheel. The setting was hauntingly familiar. “Anyways, me, Pat and Damien were always able to make sure he stayed grounded. Help him keep his shit together. I mean, he was never exactly a model student but he was a functional one. Now? It’s like he’s just given up.” Vergil looked up at Sasha. “You asked why it has to be me. It’s because after today, I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance that there’s a shred of something in him worth saving, I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t try.”
For a moment, there was only the sound of the engine and the occasional whoosh of passing cars.
“What if he doesn’t want to be saved?” Sasha finally replied.
A hard edge crept into Vergil’s voice, making the hair on the back of Alec’s neck stand on end.
“It doesn’t matter what he wants.”
It was past nine-thirty on a school night but that had never stopped them, especially when there was news to share.
“So Vergil bought it?” Jon asked as they clinked glasses. The two of them were lounging on the house’s rear balcony outside Geoff’s room. With the lights off downstairs, the backyard was completely dark, giving the impression of overlooking a yawning void.
“Jon, I was totally honest and spoke from the heart,” Geoff began to protest. “Saying he bought it makes it sound like I lied to him somehow.”
“I know, I was just messing with you.”
“He didn’t buy it. I sold it.” Geoff sipped his wine while his brother laughed, savoring the taste on his tongue. Today had been a small but satisfying victory.
“Well, I’m glad you guys are back together. It’ll be nice to chill with Vergil again.” Jon and Richard had adopted Vergil and Patrick into the family almost as much as Geoff had.
“We’re still working on it,” Geoff corrected him, as much to remind himself as Jon. “But yeah, it’s a step in the right direction.” They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the crickets. Behind them, Patrick gave a gentle snore from where he lay prone on Geoff’s bed.
Geoff glanced sideways at his little brother. “So, any lesson plans yet, Mr. Myagi?”
“Shut up,” Jon elbowed him. “Then un-shut up and give me some ideas cause I don’t have any. Can’t believe I agreed to this.”
“Because you’re a push-over and have a weird interest in helping people. When do you start?”
“Wednesday afternoons and weekend mornings. But he’ll probably ask tomorrow at lunch.”
“He probably doesn’t really know what he’s asking. Think back to your training. A lot of it is just practice, practice and...more practice. You could probably still get out of it by telling him how boring it is in the beginning. And when it’s not boring it’s painful.”
“First thing I tried. Didn’t phase him and I’m not going to go overboard on our first session just to make him quit. I think we could be friends.” The last part had a slight tentativeness to it, as if he weren’t sure he should say it.
“Well, then start with what you used on those low-lifes in the alley. Seems the kind of thing he’d want to focus on anyways.”
“Yeah but how?”
“Beats me. Why do you think I never tried teaching anyone? But you’ll probably want to bring him along on your gym membership as a guest.”
“You’re just all kinds of helpful, aren’t you?” Jon grumbled.
Soon after, the two of them said their goodnights and Jon retired to his room. Geoff was surprised to see that between the two of them they hadn’t finished the bottle and padded downstairs to the fridge.
“Good evening, Geoffrey.”
His brother’s voice almost made him jump out of his skin. Geoff whirled around with a snarl.
“Dammit, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
Richard smiled. “Sorry, you gave me a bit of a start yourself. I thought you were all asleep.” Geoff replaced the bottle and joined his elder brother at the kitchen table. The sleek laptop’s screen was bright and colorful - hardly a work program.
“Brody, are you playing games?” Geoff grinned.
“Hush, you. Some of us have been working all day. Did Jonathon tell you about his little field study with the local wildlife?”
“Hmph, I think he let them off easy.”
“Of course you do but we shouldn’t encourage him to use violence to solve his problems.”
“Didn’t sound like you punished him for it, though.”
“Do you think I should have?”
“Are you kidding? No, from what I heard they forced his hand. If anything, I think the worst decision was taking on his little charity case.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain,” Richard replied thoughtfully. “It may be a learning experience for them both.” He returned to his game and Geoff watched over his shoulder for a few minutes, until a red banner declaring “Defeat” flashed across the screen. Richard closed the laptop and looked up to find Geoff staring at him. “Yes?”
“Why did you transfer me there?”
“I told you. You needed to leave Cornell-”
“No, I get that. I mean why SUNY Albany? It’s actually further than Cornell so it’s not like it’s closer. SUNY Binghamton is practically right up the road so I could have lived at home if you wanted to keep a closer eye on me and saved on board and there are plenty of other good schools around here so why in the nine Hells did you choose this one?” Geoff paused to catch his breath.
Richard raised an eyebrow. “I think you know the answer to that.”
“Maybe. But I want to hear it from you.”
“Fine,” Richard sighed. “Because you’re destroying yourself, Geoffrey, and if you succeeded it would pain everyone who cares about you. Vergil is your moral compass, you both need each other in a way that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate, but I know he is just as invested in you as Jon or I. No matter how much you try to alienate him,” he added before rising from the counter. He walked past Geoff before stopping again. “Damien would not want his death to be yours as well, Little Prince.”
Geoff sat staring at the table until he heard his brother reach the stairs. “Perhaps it should be.”
Richard stopped. “Geoffrey… It wasn’t your fault.” Geoff didn’t turn around.
“What if I said that it was? Without a shadow of a doubt?”
“I would ask how and why.”
“I started the fire.” He could feel his brother’s gaze on the back of his neck.
“The why still remains.” Richard’s voice was steady.
“Because, Brody,” Geoff turned to face him. “He knew you killed our parents.”