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Sebastian remembers the day Alex came to Pelican Town.

There had been a build-up, a slow-growing anxiety gnawing at his skinny ankles. Mom whispering with Demetrius, a tension that he could feel bleeding from her to him to Maru and back down to Sebastian again. A lot for a nine year old.

He remembers sitting, legs swinging from a table as his mother stirred some pot, tutting and filling a casserole dish with the rice and chicken, topping it with cheese and sliding it into the oven. Terrible, she’d said just so awful, and Sebastian didn’t understand why.

He didn’t understand why she looked at him with her lip caught between her teeth, why she looked so sad. The same way she’d looked when she’d come into his bedroom at the start of Summer, back when the season seemed long and stretched out endlessly in front of him. When he’d been stuffing his last stuffed bear into his brand-new suitcase, an endless vortex of childish energy wrapped up inside a package of atoms barely keeping from vibrating apart—when she sat down on his bed.

I know you’re excited to spend Summer with your dad — but you know what I think would be more fun? I think it would be really fun to do stuff here in Pelican Town instead!

That way you can hang out with your friends and watch TV and go to the beach — you love the beach! There’s no beach in Zuzu City!

Her smile had been too wide, he’d noticed it even then. Too much teeth. It sat with him all through Summer, through the itching of the sand that first taught him that maybe he hates the beach, through the drone of the television switching over to whatever it was Maru wanted to watch, to his mom heading out for work and Demetrius heading out to work and Maru going to play with Emily and Haley until they were both red-faced messes.

It wasn’t like he was alone that summer, he’d cave to that. He had Abby, he had Sam. Two eternal, unstoppable, forces against the immovable object that would much rather be staring down at his hands, wondering why his mom would lie to him like that, wondering if he’d done something wrong.

The season rolled forward until he was there, the heels of his sneakers bumping against the wooden legs of the kitchen chair. His mom wrapped foil over the top of a casserole dish and started a second one. It wasn’t even noon yet, no where near time for dinner, no one explaining that this is just what you do.

How you cope.

The first time he saw Alex was hours later, his mom walking him down the familiar path to Mr. and Mrs. Mullner’s. He’d been a few times, when there was no one around to babysit, when mom had to do deliveries and it was safe for him to sit around, helping Mrs. Mullner make cookies in half-silence, nothing but Mr. Mullner’s TV blaring softly from the other room.

Sebastian didn’t understand, not really.

When he was six, he saw a squirrel get hit by a car. His mom explained why it wasn’t getting up, explained what happened to animals, explained what being dead meant.

Gone. Something that wasn’t coming back.

He understood that much, three years later, standing in a cold living room watching Mrs. Mullner tearfully accept his mom’s stack of casserole dishes and wrapped up platters. Mr. Mullner was sitting beside her, his face hard.

But Sebastian’s gaze followed behind them, to a boy looking about his age. Scraped knees, long sleeves, a mess of hair that reminded Sebastian for a second of the huge Fall hazelnuts he used to forage for with Maru.

It wasn’t the hair, or the healing cuts on his knees, or the too-big Tunnler’s shirt that drew him in.

It was the eyes.

Sebastian remembers them, clear as ever, thirteen years later, sprawled over one of the couches at the Stardrop, watching half-bored as Sam scratches on a desperate, futile, attempt to get his solid into...well, anywhere.

He’s pretty sure it’s impossible to forget, even with the rattle of the jukebox, the drone of idle chatter that grates constantly on Sebastian’s nerves. There was nothing there. It was a sort of hollow emptiness, pitted out like the inside of some rotten tree stump. Like the ghost-shells of cicadas left clinging after Summer died.

He didn’t look over, he never looked over.

Sebastian never forgot.

He kept that look locked away in the back of his mind, carried with a loose-change rattle around in that cavernous space where he carved out the Summer he was nine with a spoon. Gutted and burned out and torn down with nothing but the scars of that evening left behind.

Inside the saloon, it’s just another Friday night. Too loud to settle the grind of his nerves under his skin, too crowded for Sebastian to actually be the one to approach the bar (even when he takes careful steps, even when he knows Demetrius isn’t watching him, his mom isn’t watching him it still feels like they are. Like everyone is underfoot, wondering why he walks like that, why his hair is like that why are you so fucking pale? Guess you didn’t get out into the sunlight again you fucking vampire, don’t fuck up ordering your drink, don’t stumble over your tongue, don’t fuck it up because they’ll know, they’ll know you’re just some sack of shit) Without his permission, his brain prattles on and his eyes flicker to the bar, nervous twitch of his fingers tugging at the sleeves of his hoodie for just a second.

No one noticed, no one probably noticed.

The couch rattles and inches backwards under the force of Sam throwing all six foot three inches of misery and shitty pool skills down onto it. “All you, bro. Just put me out of my fucking misery. Draw up the sheets, take me behind the barn and and take me to the nice farm where I can run around and eat grass like a horse with a broken leg.”

There’s something to be said about tradition. Sebastian picks himself off the sofa, peels his tongue from the roof of his anxious mouth and presses his lips together as he collects his cue and the ball from the pocket. Something about doing something for years on end churns it out to muscle memory. No need to think, no need to overthink, no need to over-over-overthink.

He doesn’t need to look over, to spare a glance at where Abby is half-curled on the couch, sipping a beer and furrowing her brow. “Sam, what the fuck are you talking about?” There it is.

Sebastian sets the ball down, lines up.

Another crack, another roll, another agonized groan from the couch. Fingers resting against the table, cue lined up, one eye shut.

“Fuck you, Seb.”

Instinct, default settings. “If you insist,” he shoots back, just as sharp as he sinks another stripe.

Abby laughs and history tells Sebastian exactly what will happen next. She’ll throw back the rest of her drink, she’ll get up, stretch, and get the next round. Sebastian got the first, gold dropped into Sam’s hand as he pretended like she had to contemplate her choices. (Another ball, another whine, another half-hearted plea for mercy)

At eight he takes a smoke break. He’s always taken a smoke break at eight.

(Deep breath your hands are shaking just one more fucking idiot there’s like five balls left, one is his, then the 8-ball he doesn’t fucking want you) The cue bounces off the green edge of the table, spiralling back into nothing before rolling to a stop clear on the other side. (good going)

Wincing as he straightens up, Sebastian shrugs a shoulder at Sam’s full-throated whoop. “My fucking chance as arrived. Space for redemption.”

Sebastian steps aside. “All you, dude.” He checks his phone without much care for how surreptitious, how desperate he looks.

Abby scoffs as she appears, two bottlenecks between two fingers and a glass in her other hand. “Heading out for a smoke?” She teases, dropping one of the bottles and the glass on the edge of the table. “Shitty IPA for tall, dark, and grouchy, Gus’ brew for the sore loser, and something better for me.”

“Don’t let Gus hear you say that,” Sebastian warns, fingers twitching in the front pocket of his hoodie. They find his half-crumpled pack of smokes easily. “He’ll never let you back. Or he’ll cry. I don’t actually know which one is worse.”

Behind him, Sam snorts.

(Instinct. Muscle memory. Tradition.)

They’ve been coming here every Friday since they were sixteen, in the same couches, in the same saloon, in the same configuration bouncing between playing video games or pool or talking shit about whatever they wanted to talk shit about.

He goes because Sam goes, because Abigail goes. He chews his nails to the quick and swallows around the bilerock that settles in his throat and goes because they go. Because the claustrophobic walls scratch at him, but his friends are there because he can kick Sam’s ass at pool and eat pizza.

Sebastian checks his phone again. Seven-fifty-six.

He goes because he takes a smoke break at eight. He takes a swig off the bottle, watches Abby pour herself back onto the sofa to watch Sam behind him. There’s a crack, a groan and the thud of knees hitting hardwood.

“Yoba why do you forsake me?”

Abby doesn’t bother stifling her laugh into her bottle and Sebastian tries to keep the smile from plucking at his lips. It’s tampered down immediately as he sighs, the fingers of his other hand wrapping around the pack. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see that,” he says, eyes flickering over his shoulder to find Sam still on his knees beside the table, forehead against the glossy-black shine. “I need a cigarette.”

Sam’s thumbs up is wordless.

Here’s the thing about tradition, about routine.

It’s not always as calming as a Friday night playing pool with people you’ve known since you were pissing your pants and banging spoons against pots to try to make the loudest noises you could. Sometimes it’s the heartcrawl right up into the back of your throat, sometimes it’s the rattle of your empty-boned chest and the stretch of boot-scuffed flooring that suddenly feels like it’s eight miles too long and a hundred thousand feet too high, where the air is thin and doesn’t fill your lungs and your vision feels tunneled and dark.

Every Friday at eight.

Slide out the front door, circle around the building. Boots crunching over gravel or snow or leaves depending on the season (tonight, in the chill of the early Spring months, it’s nothing. Just a scrape over cobblestone). Every Friday at eight, he can push his back to the brick, he can tap a cigarette free from the half-crumpled back and light it while making out the broad shape leaning on the rough-hewn points of a dog fence.

Green and gold dulled in the bitter lamplight to some sickly, hollow facsimile of what it was.

Do you mind, Alex would ask, like he does every Friday, not bothering to turn around as he dangles a hand into the dog’s pen. I don’t care if you ruin your lungs, but some of us are trying to go pro, but I’m right here, but I’d like you to stop fucking up mine. Fill-in-the-blank ending. Sebastian’s heard it all.

With the drymouth inhale that cuts at the void in his chest, pretending like he doesn’t want to watch those lips scowl down into a hard-pressed down.

Find somewhere else to smoke.

A dirty look over his shoulder, a heavy sigh. Sebastian never says anything, he’s not that adept at peeling his tongue off the roof of his mouth and spitting out anything, at leaving it flat on the road stretched between them. He likes to think, sometimes, that he would, that he would actually choke something up from his lungs, some challenge as Alex glares through the dusty light of the streetlamps.

Go on, say something. I dare you, I fucking dare you. Say something, come over here, come over here and do it.

Tonight is different. (That’s how stories go though, isn’t it?)

There’s no dark smudge against the fence, there’s no sickly wash of colorless colors, no stretch of shoulders, no hanged head, no nothing, no Alex.

Sebastian’s teeth grind against each other, eyes flickering from the pen to the Mullner’s front door. Nothing. He fishes his pack out, a smoke, his lighter, squirreling away into the shadows to watch for the tell-tale signs of life inside the darkened house. Nothing.

Not a flicker, not a light.

Not a whisper of anything at all. His thumb hits the wheel and—

“Haley, can we please not do this here?”

Ice douses Sebastian’s nervous system.

“Really, Alex? You drop this like, all on me, and you expect me to just like...do what exactly?”

“I don’t want to talk about this here can we—”

“What, go back to mine? Yeah because that’s exactly what you want, isn’t it?”

The voices are close and Sebastian presses his back further against the brick, the icesolid memory of winter seeping through his hoodie and into the thin t-shirt he wears beneath it. (Go back inside, go back inside, fuck the smoke, fuck pulling Alex’s Yobadamn pigtails, fuck it go back inside go back inside). His feet won’t fucking move.

He dryswallows around the knot in his throat as he picks up Alex’s voice again (they’re close, way too close to be anywhere but against the other wall, hiding down in the shadows of the Stardrop (halfway home for both of them, Sebastian wonders where this started, where they were coming from, where they were planning on going)

“Or to the woods? Or even just up to the playground? Somewhere not,” his voice pitches low, not low enough to miss though. “Here. I don’t want someone to hear.” It’s furtive, under laced with anxiety and fear and Sebastian’s breath finds itself weighing down his tongue, pushing it hard against his teeth and refusing to slide down his throat.

“I’m freezing, Alex, I’m going home. Alone.

“Haley, please.” Oh fuck. Sebastian snatches the cigarette from his lips, holding it limp between his fingers. “I didn’t—can we talk? Just...I didn’t want to tell you like this.”

“Him,” she snaps back. Sebastian winces, half at the cutting edge to her voice, half in sympathy for the body absorbing the blows. “I’m not—I’m not mad about that. I’m not even — just, like, him, Alex? Of all people to—of all people to leave me for—.”

Fuck. Fuck (It’s not too late, just back up, into the saloon, into the fucking bar. Go get a drink, slam it, forget this, forget this is happening) his heart finds root under his tongue and Sebastian is not hearing what he thinks he is.

No way.

Haley’s voice hitches around something, a sound that digs itself right into his belly button, burying dread and empathy as she finishes, weakly, “How long did you know?”

For a while, there’s nothing but the wind. A distant howl echoing through the mountains.

Alex’s voice comes thin, like it’s been shoved down into the barrel of his chest and squeezed back through his throat. “Please don’t ask me that.”

There’s gravel-under-shoe, there’s a whisper of a cry, half-muffled against something. Sebastian doesn’t breathe, doesn’t move. The sky churns and the earth spins and it feels like a century before Haley’s voice comes back through the night.

“Okay,” she says, voice wet-thick and heavy. “Okay, Alex.”

“Haley I—”

A gravel-grind backwards, away. “Don’t. Whatever you’re going to say, just don’t.”

“Just—you can’t—”

The footfalls stop, and Sebastian’s chest freezes over. In the mid-Spring thaw, it’s nothing but frostbite here. The wind blows and in the distance, something howls. On the other side of the wall (a place a few feet away but six thousand years apart), he can hear the panic rise, if he focuses, if he sucks in a breath, fills his lungs with the taste of Alex’s heartbeat racing he can feel it. It buries itself down to the pit of his stomach and he swallows, the grit of sand and fear.

“Alex.” There’s no rage left. “I won’t tell anyone.”

For too long, Sebastian listens to the click of her heels against the walkway. He pushes out the breath he was holding, frozen there on the wind. His breaths are measured, careful, as he listens to the sigh heave up from around the corner.

He realizes, the second Alex’s heavy footfalls catch on the echo around him, that he should probably fucking move.

But it’s too late. Alex emerges from out behind the saloon, hand scrubbing over his face and fuck, fuck please let him be invisible, let no one see him (no one ever sees you, no one ever fucking looks at you)--

“For fuck’s sake can’t you find somewhere else to fucking—”

Great.

Cool.

Sebastian’s gaze slides over, from where he’d fixated up on the stars in an effort to look anywhere but the whirlwind of misdirected, fist-clenched, rage snarling from the sidewalk. The shadows, the wash-lighting, it all makes it incredibly hard to pinpoint the heat on his cheeks, the flush he can feel building in a busted mortification under his skin. Groaning its way to the surface.

Alex’s eyes fixate there, on the pale, unlit end of Sebastian's cigarette. He’s a nostril-flare, a jump in the jawline, a curl of the lip—a mispieced puzzle put together wrong and backwards and in all the ways that Sebastian doesn’t quite understand. Shoved together wrong.

Sam broke his arm once. In the Fall they were thirteen. A sick trick, grinding on Emily and Haley’s flowerbox. He’d fucked it up somehow, landed wrong, and all of a sudden snap. The cast he had was cool, something all the other kids could coo and awe over as he retold the story in excruciating detail, relishing in how Abby went green. In the story he told their whole eight grade about how cool he was under pressure, how he got to ride in an ambulance, how cool his trick was, how he’d asked how soon he could go back to skateboarding.

Sebastian was there, the stomach-churn whole of it. He saw the tears, the fear, the desperate panic overflowing through his best friend. He was the one who ran for Jodi, all but wailing for her to come help.

It was in his bedroom, reading comics in the lateness of the season, that Sam told him how scared he’d been, how worried he was his arm would be fucked up forever, constantly malformed and wrong.

The doctors said when they heal wrong like that, they have to re-break them.

Alex’s fists clench at his sides, his bared teeth catching the streetlight like it was looking for a fight too. The blow doesn’t land, the arrow shoots overhead and for a second, Sebastian wonders if this was the second break. Another painful snap, another burst of agony before it can be set right.

For a moment, all Alex looks like is a collection of broken bones.

He doesn’t say anything else. The door to the Mullner house doesn’t slam behind him.

Something pangs about in that cavernous pit between Sebastian's sternum and his spine, bit too close to pity for comfort. It tiptoes a line of empathy before Sebastian flickers back to his fingers. He pockets the cigarette, feeling too nauseous to do much of anything.

(You should’ve fucking said something.)

For a long time, he’s thought there wasn’t any tinder left. He’d been burned out already. No gasoline, no dry wood.

(Why didn’t you fucking say it? Pry open your dumb mouth and say it, be useful for once in your fucking life, Sebastian. You could’ve actually done something, actually made a fucking point. Instead you were too busy being a fucking pussy.)

But the sparks land anyway, on the dry overgrowth and bush, and it ignites with a vengeance. It’s not my fault I overheard. It swallows down, buried low where he isn’t going to think about it. He’s not going to think about it. He’s not going to think about it at all.

He glances back, between the Mullner’s darkened doorstep and the corner wrapping around to the front of the saloon. His friends are waiting for him in there, waiting with a mostly-un-drunk beer and a pool cue and a spot on the couch and place in the noise and the bluster. They’re there with distractions with smiles, with a hip-check as they pass and a casual arm up in his space.

The thought makes his stomach fucking churn.

(Oh right, you’re a fucking asshole. Yeah, that’s what we forgot, we forgot you’re an actual piece of shit.)

He doesn’t go back inside, doesn’t sit with his friends and beat Sam’s ass at pool or listen to Abby talk about the ghost she swore she saw in the graveyard last night.

He just doesn’t stay.

Hands shoved in the pocket of his hoodie, Sebastian kicks off from the wall and heads back up towards the mountain.

###

The light’s still on in the living room by the time Sebastian makes it back up to the house. It’s a warm, golden-cast warning, urging him to keep walking. Twigs crack underfoot as he immediately splits off from the walking path. It would take him past the window, past where his mom is probably half-curled with Demetrius on the sofa, a couple glasses of wine between them or something equally disgustingly domestic.

If he’d walked past the window, she’d see him, like she’s predisposed to spotting dark blurs against a dark backdrop, laser-guided to spotting Sebastian in the shadows exactly when he doesn’t want her to.

So he cuts across the side of the house instead.

It’s a familiar path by now, carved out in his memory through the darkness. Up the road, past the wild man’s tent.

His phone doesn’t buzz but he can feel the texts already starting to roll in (the same way he can feel eyes in a crowded room. The sort of cling-press of them, a frozen slime creeping down the back of his neck, following down the length of his spine and curling around his vertebrae)

Dude, where are you?

Seeeeb come back inside before Sam declares the game forfeit.

Get your ass back here, bro. Don’t make me come haul you back in.

:( :( :( :( :(

It’s been enough nights like this, enough times up and flaking on his friends to know what they’d say, to know that if he doesn’t text Abby back in the next half hour, she’ll go outside and frown at the empty shadow, the him-shaped hole in the darkness and text him one last time. Well, if you want to come back, we’ll be here for a few more hours.

Then, from Sam, let me know when you get home.

A hand blocking the stiff breeze, he finally lights up his smoke as he rounds the last turn towards the train station. It’s a derelict old building, run down and cobwebbed for longer than Sebastian can remember. Stuffing his lighter back into his pack and burying the whole mess into the front pocket of his hoodie, Sebastian picks his way up the half-collapsed stairs.

It’s in the quiet, the distant chittering of wildlife and the quiet gargle of the river feeding off into the lake, that Sebastian can think. He drags once, wondering if he stared hard enough at his cigarette it would turn into a joint.

Why the fuck didn’t we bring weed? Right because Lewis would be at the saloon and the last thing we want is Lewis busting us and because we didn’t think we’d be here. Because we’d had a good fucking day, we got a ton of work done, we didn’t wake up feeling like shit, we were fucking fine.

Fine. Fine. Fine is a happy medium, something almost entirely unattainable is Sebastian doesn’t plan out his day in the right order, something that spirals right down into shit if he walks out of his room too early and Demetrius is still in the kitchen, or if he runs into Maru on her way out or sees Alex coming up the mountain as Sebastian is snarling his way down. Fine isn’t an easy equilibrium, it’s a struggle, a bullseye shot from sixty yards.

Fine.

He’d been fine all day, he’d been fine until he went out, fine until Alex wasn’t there, fine until he heard—until he fucking heard.

The bileslick rage slides back up his throat as he sprawls over the rotting bench and fishes his phone out of his pocket, smoke caught between his lips. It was so much easier, so much fucking easier before this, before Haley’s voice struck through him (him. Him. Him. Him. What was she going to say, who was he, who was wedging between them, wrenching them apart. Him. Don’t you fucking dream about this. Him, how long did you know.)

Hope isn’t a thing that lives in darkness. It doesn’t thrive in the frostbitten void or the stardark skies. It’s a thing he could never explain, the sort of wordless clawing low at his stomach, churning around under the fires in his belly.

Sebastian used to be fucking armed to the teeth, used to slam down the fledgling weeds of overgrown hope that tries to rise from the ashes.

All it took, in the slick-sweat heat in the Summer nights, clinging to that ghost of wondering, of fantasizing about all the things that couldn’t ever happen. All Sebastian ever needed to choke it back, to heave back down any burgeoning sense of anything was the quick-cut reminder.

He flicks through the messages, not all that different from what he expected. He opens the group chat between himself, Sam, and Abby, and sends a bland, sorry, I had to do something for a client, then sets his phone face-down on the gravel beside him.

Letting his eyes drift shut, Sebastian sinks, inch by inch, into the bliss of a mid-Spring chill.

He wants to think about nothing. Sink off into the cold abyss above him, around him, below him. If he lets himself fade enough, if he lets himself drift and spin out for long enough—it feels like nothing. The thrum of the hollowed earth beneath him, the ache of the star-pocked nothing stretched out above him.

Just nothing.

The only problem is that it doesn’t happen. Something sits in the back of his teeth, crawling down in the spaces between his tongue and his throat and scratching up the roof of his mouth. Something refuses to drown down on another lungful of smoke as he takes a long, much-needed drag.

Fuck Alex, he hisses in the back of his own mind, trying to chew the something from that place under his skin.

It’s a familiar refrain now, the sort of buzzing song that curls in the back of his mind, rattling around refusing to get out. A half-tinny rhythm sitting right underneath his pulse, each beat a syllable. Fuck Alex.

Fuck Alex.

Fuck Alex.

The bonegrind of his teeth and the careful measure of air he pushes out through his nose reminds him where he is. Fuck Alex.

Yeah, right. Like he’s got a fucking chance.

Giving up on nothing, Sebastian lets himself look up. It’s been a while since his eyes adjusted to the darkness, to the bleak cold-cast of everything that comes from being so far up the mountain, so far from the warm-glow streetlamps and the burning chatter of town, but he still can’t quite see up to the third rafter from the end of the station’s roof (not that he ever could, not when it’s dark)

He knows what’s there, though, nestled between the rusted nails and the splintered edges. S + A + S. It’s a rough, sharp-edged promise.

The result a salt-sweet sixteen, a bit too much smuggled wine, a couple joints from the box in the box buried under Sebastian’s bed.

It had been one of those days, the sticky-hot opening weeks of Fall, caught in the grind of high school that felt fucking endless. Days when it was three-on-everyone, when there was nothing for them to do but snarl against everything and grip close to each other to avoid the crashing walls.

Uproar up the mountains. Trading swigs from a bottle of red snuck from Caroline’s cabinets and cursing everything above and below and in between. Sebastian had climbed up onto the bench, cutting his palms on the edges of the weather-whittled wood and fished his pocket knife from his hoodie.

This is ours, now, he’d said, Fuck Lewis, fuck Demetrius, fuck Pierre, fuck Stardew High, fuck it all.

He drags his cigarette back to his lips, staring into the shadowed mass where he knows he’d dug the tip of his knife in, scratched out their initials like they’d planted a flag.

He didn’t curse Alex’s name as he pushed the knife through the wood. At least not out loud. But it was there, grit between his teeth and low in the knot in his throat. He’d seen Alex that morning when they were sixteen, he’d seen him five days a week beside him in class. Scratching lines in the margins of blank notes, his face pillowed on his fist.

Sebastian had spent way too much time memorizing the slope of his forehead, the way his brow furrowed and his lips cut a line into a frown. Spent way too much fucking time staring at the way his hands held a pencil, at his square palms and heavy-looking fingers. Furtive glances, all stolen between methodical notes, glimpses into a world sitting in the rickety desk beside him, all but flunking.

It was easier, back then, six long fucking years ago.

It was easier to categorize, to compartmentalize. Sebastian had folders dedicated to that line of thinking, to that order of events. An internal system, burying folder-in-folder-in-folder, squirreling away the time he was sixteen, stifling down that heat-blossom that overgrew his stomach and his chest, that threaded and choked out anything else.

It was easier up until a couple fucking hours ago.

Sebastian chews at the inside of his cheeks, at the nerve-spots he’d torn through before.

He doesn’t know what Haley was going to say (yes you do, yes you fucking do)

Of all people to leave me for, him.

Him.

Him.

Sebastian kicks out, heel of his boot connecting hard with one of the half-rotted support beams. The whole thing fucking rattles and for a second he’s half-pleased, half-fucked at the idea that the whole thing might come crashing down. Bury him fucking alive, leave him there with nothing but that messy tangle-knot of everything he doesn’t want to fucking handle right now. Everything he doesn’t want to fucking think about, everything he didn’t want to fucking hear.

The fingers of one hand tangle in the fabric of his hoodie and he squeezes his eyes shit again to block out that pulse-beat of it all roaring in his ears.

He’s gay too.

All he feels is suddenly sick. An arm crosses over his stomach, wondering if for a moment he could feel the overgrowth of weeds.

Chapter Text

By the time Sebastian gets home, the house is bathed in a still sort of darkness. He drags his feet, that gutwrench part of him drawing out each step until he’s at the front door.

There used to be a time when it made him more nervous when the gnawing anxiety of waking up Demetrius or his mom or Maru pushed him right past the door and drove him with torches blazing all the way to the edge of the river. He used to sit, smoke a few more cigarettes until he could swallow that nervous knot and muffle the sound of the front door clicking half-muted behind him.

Back when he cared who cared.

He doesn’t really do that anymore. The floor creaks, a familiar welcome back as he carefully pushes the door shut and makes his way down to the basement.

Sebastian never really thinks it’s possible for it to be darker than night, for there to be a darkness his eyes hadn’t adjusted to yet. But the wall of nothing hits him as soon as he steps through his bedroom door. It sinks, inch-by-inch into his pores, curling around him and drawing him in as he blinks a few times and thinks of the mines.

Places he used to go, things he used to do.

He used to love the mines, used to keep a kitchen knife in his pocket and a flashlight in his backpack. He would go as deep as he could, before exhaustion set in, before he’d get cut by a rock crab or bit by a slime or scratched by a bat, before his backpack was too heavy with chunks of cool rocks and gems, shit for Abby to toss back and forth in her hands and pretend to eat, stuff to line up on his shelves.

The mines were dark. Lightless.

He shuts the door behind him and paths out the way to his bed on memory alone.

The mines weren’t as dark as here. His knees find the edge of his bedframe before the rest of him does, knocking a curse from deep in the pits of his lungs that flies right up to the tip of his tongue—catching before he can swallow it back down again with a groan.

Luckily, it’s a soft drop back down onto his mattress. He lies there, feet dangling off the edge and body twisted between the tangle of black sheets and the mountains of clothes he meant to put away, and pulls a pillow under his chin. He should get up, he should change out of his jeans, kick off his shoes, do something to show he cares, he’s putting in an effort to make himself comfortable.

He lies there instead and, after a long while, he falls into a restless, dreamless, sleep.

###

Sebastian thanks the part of him that remembered the plug his phone in last night as the sole reason why it isn’t dead, and he curses that same part of him as the reason he wakes up annoyed.

There’s something pounding away in the back of his head, sticking deep in his throat, as he works himself slowly to a realm of being actually awake. Inch by inch he comes into himself, shifting at the uncomfortable bite against his hips that comes from falling asleep in his fucking jeans.

Fuck past Sebastian, that lazy prick. He kicks his shoes off and stretches out, fluid movement cracking down the length of his spine and rolling all the way through to his fingertips (a familiar flex of his hands popping along his fingers, his knees, his ankles, and elbows in some sick cacophony of stiff joints and exhaustion)

It rumbles a groan out with it as he gropes for the steadily-lighting cause of his consciousness. His vision still sleep-blurred, he squints at the screen once he’s pulled it close enough.

3 Messages from Abby

4 Messages from Sam

He blinks once. 6 Messages from Sam.

It takes all but four seconds for him to swallow the guilt of bailing on them last night and fixing firmly on the squirming of exhausted anxiety that’s made home in his gut.

(You’re a shitty friend, they already know that. They can fucking deal, right?)

He plugs his phone back in and rolls onto his back, finally getting around to shucking off his jeans as he listens to the conversational squeak of the floorboards above him, all the muffled voices mulling together into a soft, distant murmur. Beneath it, as he closes his eyes and drinks in the ambient noise of business, there’s the distant churn of thunder. A sound of rain hitting soft earth around him.

If he breathes in and focuses, thinks about himself past the concrete walls and the windowless space bearing down on him, he can maybe smell the storm-rich earth churning around him. It sits on his tongue for just a second before he gets up.

Sebastian gets re-dressed slowly, breathing down the minutes until the voices stop and front door clicks open, whoever was busy hiring his mom finally leaving. From there, it’s routine again. Out of his bedroom and into the kitchen, a nervousknot stuck in his throat as he fills a travel mug with the luke-warm coffee his mom made that morning and strains his ears listening for any hint of Maru or Demetrius or anyone else to come creaking from around the corners.

Then it’s back down again, push out that chest-caught breath, count back down the hummingbird pulse, check his work e-mail, ignore the pings in the corner of his computer screen.

I see you online, dude! Come over and jam, it’s supposed to pour rain all day and I’m bored.

Sebastian stares at his empty inbox, the last response he needed to send today long-gone.

Busy today. Belatedly, he tacks on a brief, sorry, before shoving himself away from his desk and collecting his wallet, keys, coffee and phone and shoving his feet into his boots.

He makes it all the way to the front door unbothered, his hand on the doorknob before his mother rounds the corner.

“Sebby!” Fuck him. His teeth clench around a tendril of annoyance that crops up, gritting it before it can push itself past his lips. “Alex stopped by this morning, but I wasn’t sure if you were up, so I told him I’d tell you to swing by his sometime.”

No.

No.

No. (Say it, say you’re not doing that because you are not doing that. You are not going to fucking do that because you don’t care what he has to say because you don’t give a shit about him because who gives a shit about Alex anyway?)

“What did he want?” It’s about as bitter as expected, the serrated edge to his voice too cutting for a messenger.

For all her merit, his mother doesn’t so much as blink at the crack-whip sharpness. “Didn’t say, but he looked upset about something” Her voices pitches down, a touch conspiratorial and, for a moment, Sebastian’s stomach tastes the sawdust floor. “Caroline told me this morning that last night Emily had to leave the saloon early because Willy saw Elliot with Haley out on the docks and he said that poor girl was a mess over something.”

Oh, Sebastian bets she fucking was.

Not every day you’re dumped behind the only bar in town for some dude. Some dude. As if Sebastian didn’t spend two hours that night sprawled out over the rotting bench, trying to see if maybe he stared hard enough the stars would spell out whoever the fuck it was that Alex was into (not that we care, we don’t fucking care)

He had carded through in his mind the available men in town, weighing their pros and cons against one another and wondering, with a cigarette burning down to his fingers, who it could be and absolutely not weighing them against himself.

“Alex probably just dumped her again,” he says, fingers closed around the handle, debating for a second just pulling the door open and slipping out before they can finish this conversation. He doesn’t, if only because actively pissing his mom off isn’t something he feels like doing today. “They’ll bounce back like ever y’know?”

His mom crosses back over, leaning against the counter of the carpentry shop with a low hum. “Doesn’t explain what he was doing all the way up here, I didn’t know you two,” she gestures, a vague sweep of her hands, “hung out.”

“We don’t.”

The edge to his voice earlier didn’t perturb her, but this makes her eyes widen just a hair, her lips twitch against an expression that’s gone before Sebastian can even try to recognize it (too fast there, dumbass). All Sebastian can do is scowl, his hand shoved back into the front of his hoodie pocket, nervously seeking out his pack of smokes. The need for one has been gnawing at the back of his teeth since he woke up and it sure as fuck wasn’t going away now that he’s stuck here like this. His other hand flexes around his travel mug.

He finishes, lame. “What I meant is, I don’t know why he was here. I don’t talk to the guy, mom. He probably got a virus or something on his computer and wants me to fix it.”

She doesn’t look convinced, but she glances back behind her, towards the pile of blueprints and notes on the counter. “Well, message passed along. Next time I’ll have him leave his number for you. And take an umbrella, it’s getting nasty out there.”

He should probably say goodbye, toss a casual later, love you, mom, over his shoulder before snagging an umbrella and slipping out the door, trudging his way through the mountain path. He should, but he doesn’t, because whatever had been crawling under his skin was now absolutely rooted at the base of his tongue.

Up until a few years ago, back before the bus was repaired and back before the community center became a place where people actually went instead of some rundown old building for him and Sam and Abby to break into—Sebastian would’ve taken the longest possible route down to the bus stop. Up the mountain, down past the run-down and then-abandoned old farm, looping his way without ever having to walk through town in an effort to find a place to smoke and be alone.

But a few years back someone moved from the city, turned the overgrown horror show into an actual functioning farm, and got hitched and now Sebastian can’t cut through the fucking property without running into someone. Sure, as long as he’s not trodding over fucking cabbages, no one cares if he passes through behind the farmhouse but he isn’t exactly in the mood to make friendly conversation with…well…

Anybody.

But the lake is too close, and he knows if a train passes through while he’s up at the station the sound would cut right to the already-annoyed quick. He flicks his hood up over his hair, a silent plea to Yoba for no one to speak to him, and cuts as close to the edge of town as he can possibly get, looping his way along the riverbank.

The rain keeps people away, keeps them indoors. It’s not enough of a downpour to make it so Sebastian wants to break open that stupidly oversized umbrella over his head, just enough that he can feel the patter of raindrops against his shoulders, that he can check his phone and wipe the water from the screen with his sleeve (it leaves discolored swipes, but it’s nothing that won’t be fine once it dries) and thumb through the messages while he sips at his lukewarm coffee, handle of the umbrella hanging off his wrist.

No one bothers him, all the way down the mountain, all the way through town, all the way to the weeds of the bus stop. He finds a spot under a tree, across the street from the schedule and the broken payphone and sits in the damp grass setting his coffee between his knees. Half-numb fingers fish his pack out of the too-heavy front pocket.

For a long while, there’s nothing but him and the rain. He finishes half his coffee before it goes cold (not that that’ll stop him, it doesn’t hinder the mechanics, doesn’t slow his autopilot routine. Drag off his cigarette, drink from the coffee, drag off his cigarette, stare off into the rumbling clouds, watching them spark and glow and count the seconds.

His mom taught him that. Bringing a tray of hot chocolate as him and Maru shivering together under a blanket, half-warmed by the fire half-frozen by terror when the sky spit again with another roaring pronouncement. Chin stuck high, he’d attest he wasn’t scared, that it was just Maru being a baby. She was two, then, maybe. (one, two, three) If he remembers right, which puts Sebastian pushing six. Just the age of quivering-upper-lips and pretending he’s not wincing and knock-kneed with another clap that sinks down into the pit of his stomach. (four, five, six)

It’s just the storm telling you how far away it is, his mother insisted, setting a mug down in front of Sebastian. She’d played along, ruffled his hair and kissed his temple before wiping the snot from Maru’s nose. You’re such a good brother, protecting your baby sister.

Even then, Sebastian had scowled, lips curled into a mirror-image of his ever-resentful father, and curled his arm tighter around Maru, letting her burrow into his side and whimper with another flash-bang of lightning outside, another unrepentant howl of wind.

Go on, count the seconds.

(seven, eight, nine, ten)

He gets to forty before he shudders, as a ripple of thunder rolls through the earth around him. Sebastian doesn’t remember how long it was that night, how long they stayed up in the living room, a little family in front of the fireplace. He drags the travel mug back up to his lips, there weren’t a whole lot of other moments like that, none that he could really remember.

“Uhm, I’m pretty sure I reserved this spot to sulk.”

He totally doesn’t choke on his half-frozen coffee, and if he lurches forward, spluttering and coughing between his knees, it’s just because Abby snuck up on him. “Didn’t see your name on it.” He wheezes. There’s no bite to it, though.

She shrugs when he looks up at her, she’s definitely dressed like she’s come to just sit in the rain and sulk for a bit, dressed like she’s come to be alone. Dark jeans, a t-shirt that Sebastian honestly can’t tell used to be his or used to be Sam’s, but he knows for fucking certain isn’t hers. The jacket is, though, because no one else would own something in that shade of purple.

“I’ll have you know I was going to go up to the lake, but I figured you’d be out there looking for frogs.”

“You can,” he says, scooting to the side under the tree. She won’t. “I’m obviously not there.”

She folds herself down beside him, tugs her hood down. “Too far, guess we’ll just have to sulk together. Bus doesn’t come back from the desert until five, so you’re stuck with me until then.”

He watches her for a moment or two, tracing the online of her profile against the storm-torn skies and the waterlogged bushes. Her hair was bundled up in a bun low on the back of her neck, flyaway’s and loose strands making her look like she’d just woken up too.

She’s pretty like this, he thinks, but she’s always been pretty. He didn’t need to be into chicks to know that. There’d been a time when he thought maybe, maybe, he wasn’t gay. Maybe he wasn’t gay and maybe Abby was pretty and maybe-maybe-maybe.

“You’re staring,” she says, elbows on her knees and fist tucked up under her chin.

It didn’t work like that.

He takes another drag, exhales in the opposite direction of her. “Am not.”

“Are too.” She moves, ever-restless in the way that Sam is ever-restless, in the way that Sebastian isn’t. He’s restless in his fingers, in his hands, in his tongue and brain, always twitching, always fiddling and pulling at sleeves and picking at nails and burning away the butane in his lighter just for the sake of feeling something under his thumb.

Sam and Abby are restless in that full-body way, in bouncing legs and come on get up, let’s go do something, let’s go to the city and go to a bar, let’s go fuck around, go swimming, go throw rocks at the mountain face, go, go, go. She stretches her legs out in front of her now, leaning back against the trunk of the tree and tearing at some grass at her sides.

“So what’s up?” Because of course there’s no such thing as sulking in peace. He hisses out another lungful of smoke instead of responding for a second.

“Just the usual.”

Abby hums. “Demetrius being a dick?”

“When isn’t he?” A while, really, if anything because Sebastian hasn’t actually run into him for a couple days. He’s made it his mission to see as little of the man as possible, and he’s been more or less successful in that department. But he knows, somewhere buried deep in his gut, that no matter where he is or what he’s doing, Demetrius would still be a dick if Sebastian ran into him in that moment.

She just makes a sound back, eyes fixated on her hands, on the shreds of grass that filters through them. He grinds his cigarette out in the dirt before pocketing the butt, hands following it into the warm depths of his hoodie. He picks at his nails as he glances back over between the horizon and her.

He could let the silence reign, could let it wash over them, settle in in the seconds between thunder and lightning, in the eight miles between here and the storm (closing in, ever closer. Last time he counted it was a little less, moving towards them half-unrepentant, half-indifferent to their space in its path) — he could let them just be quiet. Like he wanted.

But Abby sniffs beside him and his mouth opens before he can fucking stop himself. “What about you?”

“Usual.” Sebastian gets the distinct impression she’s lying. She slides a thumb under the paint on her nails, prying it off in the way she does when she’s nervous, when she’s upset, when there’s nothing but anxiety chewing under her skin. “Just...dad’s being an asshole and mom wants me to dye my hair back.”

The usual, really. A mainline they’ve had since they were kids, since they first met on the playground him and Sam and Abby, playing under the careful gaze of Caroline and Jodi. Abby had been wearing a dress, something she immediately wrecked, and Pierre had been pissed when she got home.

He grunts in sympathy, sound half-drowned out by the increasing rain coming down around them. It’s leaked through the branches, sticking the fabric of his hoodie to his shoulders. He should head home soon.

“Sam said you were working.” It’s not an accusation, and Sebastian knows it’s not. Her tone is too casual, too soft and hollow and far, far too unlike her. Whatever crawls into his stomach isn’t just the anxiety at being caught out, it’s a nervouswreck of whatever was wrong.

There’s nothing that can stop him from working into override as Abby draws her knees to her chest, rests her chin on them and watches him, eyes half-empty (not half-full, nah, that requires optimism). He can’t look at her for too long, not without remembering when they were sixteen, when they were nine, when they were kids too self-centered and selfish to understand the world around them.

“I was. A bit.”

“And almost immediately decided to come out and sulk alone?”

His nervous fingers card through his own hair, ruffling it out despite the fact that it was getting wet, already losing its shape in the not-yet humid rain. “I guess. I just had to be out of the house and, y’know.”

“Alone?” He doesn’t even need to respond before Abby hums, already gathering herself up to stand (there’s another split above him, this time the thunder too close behind). “If you want to be alone but like, with me, we can head back to my place. There's wine in my bedroom, we can smoke a bowl and bitch about our shitty parents?”

He chews on the offer for a second more, before Abby offers her hand to heave him up off the ground. He takes it, ignoring how warm she is under his freezing touch. He grabs his cup and his umbrella, opening it over the two of them before heading back down the road.

 

###

It’s a few hours later that Sebastian realizes just how tightly wound he’s been. He’s sitting on Abby’s floor, somewhere between her spirit board and her bed, pleasantly stoned and working up a slow-burning buzz off the bottle of white he passes back to where Abby is sprawled on her back, head hanging off her bed. The knot between his shoulders that he didn’t know was there was starting to unwind, to find the ends of itself

She sits up to take a swig, continuing their well-practiced art of not really saying anything. She sets the bottle down and rolls onto her stomach, fixing him with that level, kohl-smudged stare.

“Hey, Seb?” She starts, as he takes the bottle. “Do you ever feel like...like—” she cuts herself off, scrunching her nose for a second. “Like you know someone is lying to you, and you know what they’re lying about but you can’t just...ask because what if they’re not, or what if they don't know or what if...like you fuck it all up?”

Maybe I do, maybe I feel like everyone is lying to me constantly, like I can’t be totally sure what’s real and what’s conjured up from the back of my head and all those sharp shadows. (Do they really want to hang out with you? Or is just because they feel bad for you, the pathetic adult living in his mom’s basement, just a fucking washed up sewer rat, right?)

“I guess,” is what he settles on, before taking a measured drink. He doesn’t get paranoid when he gets high, at least not usually. There’s been a few times, trying new strains, new blends, that left him too itchy, too twitchy when he got home, that had him counting out his breaths and his heartbeat and tapping the edge of his pack of smokes against the palm of his hand so many times that Linus climbed down from his tent to ask if he was alright.

Sebastian had jumped right the fuck out of his skin that night.

He picks at the bottle’s label while Abby heave a distressed sigh. “It’s just, do you remember how shit used to be? Back when we were kids?”

He blinks, a few times, brow furrowed as he looks up at her. She’s looking at him, eyes filled with some strange, distant, pain that he isn’t sure where it’s from. Is it the same as mine, he wants to ask, to reach out and scrape at that scab until it bleed again. What’s eating you from the inside out?

No, no that’s bullshit, it can’t be. He lets his head hit the wall behind him, relishes in the sensation of something cool and hard pressing into him. “Do you mean like when Sam dared you to eat worms down by the lake, or the time we got busted breaking into the old community center and we thought Lewis was gonna have a fucking anyurism?”

She laughs, a half-hollow sound, but Sebastian considers it a mild victory and barrels forward. “You remember, right? His face got so red I thought he was gonna fucking explode. Spray us all with brains and bits of skull.” There’s another laugh, a little more muffled, to keep them from being caught out. “Seriously, Abs, he was losing his shit and Sam couldn’t stop fucking laughing because you insisted on wearing that fucking ‘ghost hunting dress’ and got yourself stuck on a piece of wood and thought you were being grabbed by some demon.

Fuck, I remember Lewis shouting at us about fuckin’... rusted nails and broken glass and Samson just you wait until your mother hears about this, you won’t find it funny then will you, young man.”

There it is. Abby snorts, hiding her face in her hands as the giggles start to overtake her, edging out the mournful high she was nursing. “Yoba, I can’t believe I almost forgot.”

“How,” he asks, smile tugging at the edges of his lips. “Dude, he was flipping out. You’d think we went and fucking smashed up his windows or something or even like — we didn’t even break anything, we fucking waltzed right in like that fucker was never locked.”

“It was locked after that!”

“Yeah, because Lewis hates everything cool.”

She rolls back onto her back, putting herself just a bit closer to him, a grin splitting her lips and her eyes burning with a familiar soft fire. “Those were good days, weren’t they?” She asks.

Something warm inside of him blossoms and burns, a rich sense of comfort — a lot like a fireplace, a blanket, a mug of hot chocolate, and counting in a storm. “Yeah, they were alright. That was the year Sam got his electric guitar for his birthday.”

The rain abates as Sebastian and Abby whisper back and forth. They pick and choose between a little over fifteen years of memories, Abby sliding out a box of polaroids she’d taken when they were teenagers. There’s piles of them, mostly of Sam and Sebastian sleeping in various places, usually sprawled out over one another. All of them dated, labeled with who’s in them, captioned with something in Abby’s familiar barely-readable script.

Sam and Sebastian, back when they were seventeen, both burned out and exhausted and just a bit too gone on stolen beer half-collapsed over one another in the back of his mom’s borrowed pick-up. Sam on his back, Sebastian’s cheek on his chest. One from when they were eight that someone’s mother must’ve taken with three popsicle-tinged tongues sticking out at the camera.

One of the three of them on the swings young and carefree in a summer of skinned knees and learning how to fish off the docks, one of Abby and Sam sleeping in the back of someone’s car, Abby drooling a puddle on his shoulder. He’s pretty sure it was Sam’s old car, the one they wrapped around a tree when they were barely nineteen, a driver coming the opposite direction too fast and too bright forced them off the road. Sebastian and Abby had bruises that took weeks to heal, Sam walked out with the same, but add a concussion to the mix. A collection of scratches and scrapes between the three of them and flash-bang memories of Abby hiding the weed they didn’t smoke in her shirt.

The year Abby had a blue streak tucked behind her ear and Sebastian stopped painting his nails and Sam got a tattoo of a flying saucer on his inner bicep (Sebastian went with him, gripped his hand as they both pretended he wasn’t whining)

Abby takes the photo and squints at it, tilting it side to side. “I can’t believe I drooled on him.”

“You’ve drooled on all of us,” he teases back, digging his hands deeper into one of the many shoeboxes. He comes up with a photo from the first and only gig Goblin Destroyer ever played. Wincing, he drops it back into the box.

She makes a disgusted sound. “I think you’re right; I think that’s Sam’s car. It had that weird burn mark in the ceiling that none of us could agree where it came from.”

“Well don’t let him see that, he’ll get mournful about his car again.”

She drops it back in the shoebox, stretching out and checking the clock. She closes her eyes and Sebastian isn’t totally sure if she’s planning on opening them again for the rest of the night. “It was only three years ago. He’s still saving up for a new one. Well, was I guess.”

Right, was.

So caught up in the tangles of the past, he’d sort of forgotten the present. Joja had shut down just a few years back, making it Sam’s turn to sulk around about the only real place to work in this town being swept away. Sebastian stretches, hands the bottle to Abby to polish off. “What time is it?”

“Pushing one.”

Fuck. “Fuck.” He cracks his neck, cracks his fingers and pulls himself half-steadily up to stand. “I should get home.”

“Mmm.” Is the only reply he gets.

 

“Hey.” It’s just sharp enough, just loud enough to jerk her back awake for a half-second. “It’s late and I don’t want to wake up your parents so—” he gestures back behind him.

It’s not exactly a secret that Pierre and Caroline don’t like Sebastian much, or Sam for that matter. Especially the older they got, and especially once Sebastian started dying his hair and wearing all black, and once Sam decided that he wanted to be a rock star and started skateboarding. The longer time marched on, the harder it was to get by that scowl in the front of the shop. Easier just to bypass him entirely. And once they could reach the lowest branch on the tree outside her window, they’d taken to sneaking in and out instead.

It’s not hard to sneak in and out of Abby’s window, at least not when you’ve been doing it far, far too many years. He lands softly, with a sort of grace that only comes from practice and watches as a pale hand sticks out and waves down at him before the window slides shut.

Triple-checking he’s got all his shit, Sebastian starts off, umbrella tucked under one arm. The rain had stopped a handful of hours ago, clouds dissipating to a cool, star-pocked expanse above them. There was still a damp chill clinging to the air, something he could savor just a little while longer before it all starts to heat up again, the threat of summer starting to lurk already.

He only just rounds the corner to the main road when ice sinks into his stomach.

Across the road, heaving a tangle of metal that he thinks might be a telescope, Maru blinks out from behind her thick glasses. “Seb?”

Yoba, can’t you be on his fucking side for once? “Hey.”

She squints, peering around the corner as if someone might follow him out. “Were you coming from Abigail’s?”

His teeth grit and he really, really, really wishes he’d thought to text Emily, see if she was coming down from the desert, if she’d met with her friend by the casino. Not that his stock was running perilously low, just that he’d really like to fucking not have to deal with this right now.

Heart hammering under his skin, he tries for a cold, detached. “Yep.”

“It’s like one in the morning.”

“Noticed.” His eyes flicker down to her bundle, the back over into the blackness that lingers and leaks out from between the fence posts.

Maru’s face twists into something unrecognizable for just a moment. “Sorry, I guess I just...uhm,” she glances back around her, as if anyone else would be out tonight, as if anyone else would be watching them, listening. “I thought you—”

Thought he was what? Something uncomfortable twinges, low and frozen, against his stomach. Thought he was what. (She fucking knows, she knows and she’ll tell mom and she’ll tell everyone and then it’ll be the fucking stares, the fucking stares that eat at him and boil against his skin, the stares that chew on your ankles and claw down the back of your neck — whispering, whispering all the secrets you’ve been keeping hidden all your life)

“Never mind.” She adjusts the telescope with a wince at the clattering noise. “If you’re headed home, can you help me?”

A scowl cuts over his lips and his stomach flips when she winces a second time, glasses sliding down her nose.

No, no I won’t help you, I won’t help you because I don’t need your pity, I don’t need your half-hearted attempts to actually pretend like you care about me, I don’t need you to try to tell Demetrius that I helped you out and instead have him snap at me about being out so fucking late — as if you weren’t out here too. I don’t need you to remind me how perfect you are in comparison.

“Fine,” he says, instead. “I was going up to the mines, I can help you up the mountain.”

She grins for a second, before it falters. “This late? Sebby, the mines are—”

The snarl is a snap-shot, an instinct, the sort of flash-bang urge that comes from touching fire to gunpowder. It doesn’t combust because it wants to, it combusts because it needs to. “Do you want some fucking help or not, Maru?”

And the smile is gone, replaced with a sheepish frown that simmers somewhere with the guilt under his skin. He shoulders the heaviest part of her telescope, and they walk up the mountain in silence.

He leaves it by the fence for her, setting it down as gently as possible to avoid any sort of altercation. He almost leaves it at that, almost manages to head off to the mines without so much as another whisper. Just meld into the dark, meld into nothing.

But Maru’s faster, snapping a hand out to grab his sleeve. “Hey, thanks, Seb.”

Biting his lip, he glances down at her for just a second. There’s something in her eyes, something that reminds him way too much of mom. It tips over the carefully-balanced boil in his stomach and scorches him from the inside out.

He shakes her off without another word, and starts up the dirt road.

Chapter Text

Sebastian doesn’t know what he expected to happen. Maybe it was nothing, maybe it wasn’t.

What happens is somewhere in between, the world falling step-in-step with normal. Not quite familiar, not quite anything less. Maru doesn’t mention that night neither does he, opting instead to let it blur out against the horizon of spring.

Abby doesn’t say anything either, just as happy as him to let that night fade into something else—that space where it almost feels like a dream, lingering in and out of reality. He doesn’t push at whatever it was that Abby was so twisted up about and she doesn’t tell him.

The rain doesn’t break until Wednesday.

It’s still a sticky overcast, with the sweat of Spring starting to coalesce into the promise of a sweltering summer. A mist clinging and sticking deep in his lungs—like it wanted to rain but just couldn’t quite bring itself to.

Sebastian sits at the end of the dock, one foot swinging above the seafoam as it laps up against the sea-slick posts. It’s one of his favorite places to be in the rain, down the furthest pier from the walkway to the beach—the furthest right of the U-shaped docks, out past Willy’s bait-and-tackle shop, in the places where ships would come in if that was something they ever did anymore. If there was anything ever threading itself through this dying down, anything coming desperate to resuscitate it.

Anything but the people in it.

He rests the heel of his boot on the edge of the planks, wrist hanging down over his knee as he looks out over the water, cigarette smoldering between himself and the horizon. In the distance, dark clouds meander away from Pelican Town.

He wants to whistle, wants to summon them back like eager hounds holding out his hand to let them wrap around him and come racing home. Come on, what do you want to come back? Seriously, I’ll give you anything for just another day of rain, another day where I can sit by the lake and smoke for a few hours without anyone coming to talk to me, one more day without having to chew my fucking nails down to the quick, another day without my heart in my teeth, one more day of just this.

Nothing.

Blissful nothing.

They keep moving, mercilessly, off further into the horizon. Above him, the clouds threaten to break open, spilling sunlight over him. It’s just on the edge of dusk, and he really, really hopes the cover keeps for just a little while longer. Just until night breaks.

He doesn’t get to take a drag off his cigarette before the ancient wood of the pier creaks behind him. Please don’t be Willy, he begs, silently, wondering if it would be too much of a risk to put his cigarette out now and pretend like he wasn’t smoking out here.

No, Willy, it’s not me who flicks their butts into the fucking ocean. I’m a piece of shit but I’m not a goddamn—no, I’m an asshole too, and a prick, and fucking useless. But I’m not that kind of asshole.

There’s not admonishment, no gruff-laced voice snapping at him for the threat of pollution, for scaring the fish off with the loud music he isn’t playing, or threatening to turn him into bait if he fishes another half-smoked cigarette out of the water. Just another set of creaks, steady and endless. No one calls out, no one so much as whispers out his name.

It hits him that maybe they don’t even see him (please Yoba don’t let them see us, don’t let anyone fucking see us. We don’t want to be watched, we don’t want to be in a fucking conversation right now) just a dark blur against the dark ocean and the dark clouds. Nothing but monochrome misery lined up against the horizon.

The anticipation climbs up under his teeth, rattling his tongue loose as he flicks his gaze back over his shoulder and — oh fuck him.

Can’t you just give him a break? (No, what fun would that be?)

Alex stops a few yards away, hands in his pocket as he looks out into the distant ocean depths. The churning vastness stretched out in front of them, He’s in front of Willy’s shop, looking focused and miserable all at once. Sebastian hates how good a look it is on him, that perpetual leer flattened down into a low-strung frown, eyes fixated on the middle-distance, on nothing and everything all at once.

He stubs out his cigarette on the wood beside his leg as he watches a gust of wind card through Alex’s hair (fuck don’t I wish that was me). He swallows the coarse ball of everything down from where it hops around and clings to his Adam’s apple. Sebastian’s lips part but nothing comes, nothing can find its way up out of the frostbitten pit of his lungs, nothing but a blank start-up screen, and Sebastian is slamming his F8 key (come on, come on, don’t think about him, don’t fucking look at him look away — look away, look away, drop off the dock, into the ocean. If he doesn’t see you, he won’t see you) for the love of fuck just boot into safe mode.

Let him get into the weeds of his own data, of his own memory and just delete it all. Purge Alex like a virus, wipe his hard drive clean, empty him out.

He looks down at his fingers, peeled and picked nails, bitten edges of his own fingers. He pockets his cigarette and clears his throat.

Alex jolts like he’s been grabbed, whipping out of whatever thought he was trying to conjure and jerking his head for the source of the sound. Sebastian scoots himself so he’s facing the other pier, adjusting himself back to his one-leg-up, one-leg-down sitting position, and offers Alex a half-wave.

“Oh.” Alex’s eyes settle on him after a couple seconds. “Hey.”

Hey. Hey. Sebastian scowls, if only because that’s what he was going to say. Hey, because I can’t think of anything else to say to you. Hey because the last time I saw you, you were dumping your girlfriend behind the saloon. Hey, because I think I know your secret too.

Apparently it takes him too long to answer, because Alex’s frown turns into a scowl quick, shoulders pitching forward as he kicks his heel against the dock, a bitter move that garners nothing. “I’m just out here to think, alright? So if you mind just giving me a little space?”

He raises his hands, half-peace, half-whatever, and stares back down at the water. There’s a flicker in the darkness, some spark of life lingering under the waves. Sebastian tries not to think too hard about what it means.

“So,” he finds himself saying, voice just loud enough to clear the corner of ocean-depth between them.

“Don’t,” Alex says, rolling some look back towards Sebastian. “Seriously, dude, you don’t know what you heard.”

Doesn’t he? Doesn’t everyone know? Like Sebastian can’t feel them knowing, he like can’t not know that they know, that they know that he knows that they know an infinite circle of no one talking about it. A never ending circle of eyes crawling up under his skin, breaking apart his ribcage and rooting around for the loose change between his lungs. Like they don’t know that he counts the seconds he looks at people make sure you aren’t staring, make sure you don’t stare, make sure you look at Emily, make sure you look at Abby, make sure you look at everyone so no one knows, no one knows what they already know.

He could say this, if his throat hadn’t sealed shut. His lips curl down and Alex’s shoulders collapse under the weight of whatever the fuck he’s trying to keep tampered own.

It’s a long while before he can peel the walls of his esophagus apart, until he can push air into his lungs and keep himself from collapsing out. “I’m not saying anything, dude. Just—are you gonna just fucking stand there?”

“I said I came here to think, for—”

Fire blossoms down across Sebastian’s stomach and he feels it leave his teeth before he can stop it. “I’m asking if you want to come sit here and not talk about it. Just instead of standing there like you’re waiting for your fucking husband to return from sea. I already put out my cigarette.”

It hits what he said a bit too late, the implication landing a solid blow to Alex’s solar plexus. He watches him wince, take a half-step back from the dock. Sebastian watches his hackles rise in real time, watches those high-alert eyes whip back around, a silent plea of no one heard, please let no one hear.

“Or don’t,” Sebastian says, too quick as bile swells up in his stomach (why the fuck did you even ask? He doesn’t want to stick around, he’s been looking for a way out since you say anything, now you just had to go and make it fucking awkward, didn’t you because that’s all you ever do, that’s all you’ve ever done)

“Fine,” Alex says and that’s that. It’s done.

He’ll leave and Sebastian will be alone. Just like he wanted.

Exactly like he fucking wanted.

The boards creak with disinterest, but the sound doesn’t fade. It doesn’t slowly ebb off into the distance, leaving Sebastian with nothing but the distant cry of sea-birds and the sounds of the water. Instead, they inch closer, low-groan alarms following Alex as he walks up the pier, until he stops there beside Sebastian.

He sits carefully, enough of a distance between the two that they won’t accidentally knock knees, that they won’t brush elbows or shoulders. It’s a respectable distance.

Totally respectable.

He can’t feel Alex’s body heat at all, no way (It’s burning you, it’s fucking there, you can feel it rolling off him, soaking through your jeans, sliding against your skin, slipping under your knee) A shudder races down his spine as neither of them say anything and Sebastian draws his knee closer to his chest, tucking his nose against it.

“You come out here a lot, don’t you,” Alex asks, shattering the silence without mercy. He sets his hand down on the planks, a half-inch closer to Sebastian. “When it’s raining.

(Fuck, fuck he’s so goddamn close. Don’t breathe too deep, don’t try to think about what he tastes like mixed with the salt-air of the water) “Yeah,” He starts, haltingly. He wets his lips, shifting to rest his chin on his knee and look down into the waves. Alex is looking at him, he can feel it, he can feel it like he can feel the heat of his body spilling out towards him, creeping atom by atom until it replaces all the oxygen in his body. “It’s beautiful in the rain. The clouds blend into the water and it looks like just this slate of angry nothing out there. Everything is moving and restless.”

Alex doesn’t respond, just makes a noise, and Sebastian doesn’t look over, he doesn’t look back at him (he can’t, he can’t and keep his cool). There’s nothing but the waves, for a long while, but the lazy crashing of water against wood against water against wood—the sort of steady lull of consistency that draws a content sigh up from somewhere in the depths of Sebastian’s chest.

He closes his eyes, after a while, letting the sound sink in, twisting up on the smell of the tide and the searing beside him (he doesn’t wonder what Alex might smell like, doesn’t breathe in deep, fill his lungs with him, roll the atmosphere on his tongue to wonder. Something masculine, maybe, something whole and rich and warm we’re not having these thoughts something heavy, something all-consuming, something that rumbles underfoot and sticks to your skin stop that he’s right fucking there.)

Right.

Right. Sebastian’s fingers twitch, curling into the denim of his jeans for just a second—just grounding, just feeling. He opens his eyes and catches the movement, catches Alex snap his face back out towards the water. Good going you freak, he probably thinks you’re so fucking weird.

“So.” It comes out like a cough, like Alex is clearing his throat and trying to speak at the same time. Sebastian buries his wince against his knee and wishes, once again, that those clouds would come back and spare them both. “The other night.”

The other night.

“I thought we weren’t talking about it,” Sebastian says, trying to keep his tone balanced. He doesn’t snipe, doesn’t bite it. He should, he should snap, shouldn’t he? Growl and snarl and bare his teeth until Alex backed away, hands raised because everyone always teaches you to never approach a feral creature. It doesn’t come, though. There’s no hotrush fury, no flashbang anger.

Anger requires energy, it needs fuel for the fire, it needs something, something that Sebastian just doesn’t have in him right now.

He’s long-past empty, the fumes dissipate into nothing. A bone-dry tank, all hollow and clean.

It doesn’t look like Alex notices. He leans back on his hands, head tilted up towards the broken-up sky. There’s sun, just enough of it, just warm enough to melt away the chill, just warm enough to stick the back of Sebastian’s hoodie to his neck. Just enough to cast that memory of what Alex looks like in the summer.

(I thought we said we weren’t doing this)

Warm, sun-touched.

(We just said we’re not doing this)

Sebastian’s eyes snap down to the wood between them, ignoring the way Alex’s fingers spread over the docks.

“Yeah,” Alex says, after a beat too long. “We’re not talking about it. We’re not talking about what you might’ve heard.”

“I didn’t hear shit.” Too fast, way too fast. He swallows the nervousrock in his throat. “That’s what you came up to my house to tell me the other day, right? I heard nothing that was my fucking business.”

Alex’s gaze shifts over and Sebastian does not look at him. Nope. Not even a little. “Yeah. You’re right, it’s not your business. So what you heard—”

That you’re into dudes? Just say it, just say it and I’ll say it back. No one else is around, it’ll be our secret. Just us and the wind and the sea and all the fish and all the birds and never mind fuck me that’s too many people, too many things.

“Wasn’t what I thought it was, which I didn’t think it was anything because like I said,” he pauses to clear his throat, a sting starting at the back of his teeth, a desperate twitch to his fingers that reminds him that he never actually got to finish his cigarette. “Not my fucking business.”

“Right. But if you thought it meant—”

“Nothing.” Sebastian moves sharply, broken-branch limbs snapping up to sit cross-legged on the edge of the dock, his elbows digging into his knees and his gnarl-root fingers threading through his hair. Say it and I’ll say it back. “Alex you don’t have say shit, alright?” (Please don’t say it, I don’t want to say it back) “I get it.”

Say it (don’t say it)

Say it (don’t say it )

Beside him, he can feel the shudder of anxiety, that half-formed terror that sits in Sebastian’s stomach claws itself up his throat, it pushes over his tongue and slides there between them. Something wet and vicious and beyond recognition. Something that both is and is not elephant shaped, something they don’t talk about, something they don’t say.

Alex’s voice gets quiet and Sebastian hates it. He hates that half-raw tone that comes out of him, he hates that shred of vulnerability, that blissful sliver of something that pierces through that so-familiar grandstanding, that robs that underpinned boast of him. Alex is always too loud, too brash, too full. Until he very much is not. “Do you?”

Sebastian’s fingers slide down to the back of his neck. They’re cold, they’re always cold. He digs into the humid-slick space under the collar of his hoodie, where anxiety and weather meet and he really fucking wishes he never left his goddamn bedroom today. He wishes he never left his bed. He wishes he never woke up.

Say it.

(Don’t say it)

“Yeah.”

The tension builds and melts at once, a tidal pull crashing into the beach and retreating back to shore. Beside him, Alex makes a noise of half-surprise. “Oh.” It sounds like it slips out, like it slipped past the mesh of his filter and just landed there.

Oh is right.

Sebastian looks out and the clouds are just specks now, blurs on the horizon too far to call back.

He collects the jagged edges of himself, the sharp elbows and pointed knees and ragged collarbones—a pile of corners and broken glass. He can feel the molten fire building up under his skin, the agony of exposure, of being spread open, having that dark lockbox rattled around until something came loose.

It starts in his throat, it always starts in his throat. It spreads down into his lungs, pulsating with the beat of his heart. (Bad idea, bad idea, you shouldn’t have fucking said it.) Yoba, what are you fucking stupid? Is that it?

He’s going to tell someone, he’s going to tell everyone. The paranoid twitches deep in the scratched walls of his mind start piecing together conspiracies that don’t exist that Sebastian knows don’t exist, they’re not true, they’re not true and Alex’s lips part like he’s going to say something else and all at once his throat seals off. Barricade the lungs, strap his tongue to the roof of his mouth.

Contain it. Quarantine.

All that slips past is a muddled, “later,” that he throws, pulling all of himself to his feet. He can hear Alex’s breath, hear his protests starting up from the ground floor, loading into his throat. He doesn’t stop for them, he doesn’t stop as his shoes his the sand, the bridge, the cobbled path.

It’s barely three but he goes home.

###

Sebastian loves Sam. Sam is his best friend. He loves Sam.

He repeats this to himself with his fingers to his temple, watching Sam enter the twenty-sixth minute of an entirely one-sided conversation on the benefits of getting a modeling amp. Sebastian sinks further into the beanbag chair Sam’s had since they were fourteen, watching as he simultaneously finishes his defense of a new amp and tuning his admittedly less-touched acoustic guitar.

“So what do you think?” Sam asks, playing a few idly chords.

Sebastian hums, eyes half-lidded as he brings his shoulders up. It’s half a shrug that doesn’t really come down, just lingers there. “I mean it sounds like a good idea.” Okay so he wasn’t listening.

But if it involves Sam and music he’ll admit it’s probably a good idea.

Sam readjusts something, plays a bit more. It’s idle, fingers moving over strings, like it all comes instinctual to him. Sebastian knows in a way it is and in a way it’s the natural conclusion of over a decade and a half of practice, a familiarity that sticks up under Sam’s skin in a way it really doesn’t with Sebastian.

He’s been fine with the piano, fine hitting all the right keys in the right order, but putting them into something new was never something he was good at.

Leave that shit to Sam. Sebastian watches him poke his tongue into his cheek, still idly picking. The tone shifts a little more hollow, less familiar. Sebastian tries not to shiver, some disconcerting chord rolling down his spine. “Are you working on something new?” He asks.

Like he’s been startled, Sam glances back up. There’s pink on his ears, tinging the bridge of his nose—a faint sunburn of embarrassment.

“Are we going to the saloon tonight?” Sam asks instead of answering, his bed creaking as he sits and Sebastian doesn’t push. He lets his heels slide across the floor, watching Sam from his spot low to the ground. He sets the guitar aside, keeps his feet on the ground as he lays across his bed.

He weighs the pros and cons of pushing for a second, of digging into the oh really, what are you working on then that’s got Sam burning.

But Sebastian knows when it’s not a good time, he knows when prodding won’t go over well, when it’ll just make Sam flush-red and annoyed. It’s one of those days, Sebastian can feel it burning down the atmosphere between them.

“It’s Friday,” Sebastian says. It is, it’s Friday and they always go to the saloon on Fridays. Even when it’s pouring rain, even in the dead of summer when Gus’ air conditioning stopped working and everyone sort of thought they were going to pass out. They always go to the saloon because what else are they going to do.

The idea of not going ratchets up Sebastian’s anxiety about as much as the prospect of going. Of changing up his routine, to risking running into Alex once he goes out for a smoke (you’re not going out at eight tonight. No way. Not after the other day) No he is fucking not.

He cursed himself out as soon as he hit his bedroom that afternoon, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes and swearing as he realized that maybe that was just the fucking dickest thing he could’ve possibly done. Cool dude, just up and fucking bail on him when he tells you you were right. That’s fine, you fucking prick. You useless dick, you absolute fucking asshole.

Sam shrugs. “Figured I’d ask.”

He knows Sam won’t say it, he knows he won’t point out that Sebastian bailed on them last week, that he left his drink and half a pizza and just walked off into the night. That he spent the next couple days avoiding talking to anyone as much as he could. He didn’t actually see Sam until the day after he’d run into Alex at the docks, opting to wallow in misery instead of doing literally anything else. He’d dug his heels in until Sam showed up on his doorstep with a six-pack and a movie they didn’t really watch as they steadily got as fucking gone as could be.

That gnawing knot of guilt chews on the back of his tongue as Sebastian lets himself sink further towards the ground and scrambles to switch up the conversation. “Switching it up with the acoustic?” He asks, reaching for some common ground that isn’t how shitty a friend Sebastian’s been.

Another shrug. “Yeah, my dad’s been complaining about the noise so I’ve been trying to keep off the electric while he’s home and I had a few ideas for some new songs that I can’t let get stale.”

Sam doesn’t let his tone slip away from anything casual, light, but Sebastian can pick around it anyway. He won’t ask, won’t reach into that can of worms unless Sam opens the top of it first. It’s not the biggest secret in the world, it’s not a cat well-kept in its bag. It’s more the sort of roiling whisper that sticks around, latches onto something. Kent’s not a bad guy, he’s never been a bad guy.

He’s just different now. Sebastian picks at his nails, the silence between them almost uncomfortable. It’s never been like this, it’s never been on the edge of discomfort, on the edge of anything but a long-stretched space where the two of them fall into step.

Abby tells him they’re basically the same person sometimes, rolling her eyes and punching his arm while Sebastian scoffs. In some ways, on some days, she’s right.

He watches Sam heave a sigh and reaches for the threads of conversation, finding the one that he knows will make Sam light back up again. Like hitting a switch in the house he’s lived in since he was three, Sebastian finds it effortlessly in the dark. “Well?”

“Well, what?” Sam asks from his place on the bed.

“Brooding’s my thing, dude, fuckin’ play me something.”

He grins and sits back upright, collecting his notebook and his guitar. “Alright, so it’s different - but I think it’ll be good.”

Feeling just that half-touch of better, Sebastian shifts and lets the first few notes wash over him.

###

They make it to the Stardrop a little after five, already into their first round by the time Abby comes bouncing in to take her place on the sofa, beer waiting for her.

“You’re sweet,” she tells Sebastian, who manages to summon up a scowl for her before sinking another three stripes.

Sam groans and gestures down to the table. Two stripes left, five solids. “Sweet? Look at this, he’s a fucking monster, Abs.”

“Don’t blame him because you suck, Sam,” she teases back. It’s familiar, comfortable, returning to the instinct that comes from years of practice, years of honing a skill. “And speaking of suck, I’m gonna go lose at Junimo Cart for a bit.”

Sebastian, in all his generosity, aims to miss the next shot, if just for the sake of his back. “We’ll mourn you well, Abby.”

Across the table, lining up the shot that Sebastian can already tell will miss, Sam scoffs back at her too. “That thing’s gotta be bad for everyone’s blood pressure.”

“You’d think the good doctor would put a stop to it.” Abby suggests.

There’s a pattern to these nights, again. One that follows a simple rhythm, a careful step-by-step guide. Sam loses, hard, and Sebastian lets him break. There’s a second round of drinks, a second game of pool. Sam loses, Abby gives up the ghost after threatening the game with all the wrath she has. She watches them play, heckles from the sidelines and tells stories when Sam gives up after his third loss.

Sebastian plays her, she plays Sam. It’s a balance. A rhythm. A script.

And of course, once again, Alex fucking breaks it.

Sebastian should’ve known something was going to happen, he should’ve fucking known that because of course it was. He’d been at the table, his back to the bar as Sam was just deep enough in his third bottle to want a rematch that they both knew he was destined to lose.

He’d like to think he was listening to whatever it was Abby was saying, not focused entirely on seeing how fast he could decimate Sam. Really, he only notices when she stops talking, when her brow furrows and she looks beyond his shoulder. Sebastian’s eyes flicker to Sam, who holds a similarly confused expression, twisted up as he glances down at Abby then back over to the space behind him.

Something crawls up his spine, something slick and nervous, and prickles at the base of his neck. It’s the only prelude, the only warning, he has before that unfortunately familiar voice follows. It’s not shredded with vulnerability anymore, it’s not bowed under the weight of coerced confessions or lapses in judgement.

“Can I talk to you?”

Fuck him, fuck him so fucking hard.

He straightens up and prays to Yoba that it’s not exactly who he thinks it is. He can feel the eyes boring into him, that question-and-answer scratch of them down his skin, clawing up under his jaw. Sam and Abby watching him, like they know, like they know the things that he’s not going to talk about.

It’s not true, there’s nothing to know. There’s nothing for them to be watching. Nothing at all. Never mind that Alex doesn’t come in here, never mind that Alex never comes in here. That he avoids this place like he owes Gus money. Never mind that everyone knows.

He turns to face Alex, leaning his weight against the table. “Sure.” Even now, he looks uncomfortable. Hands in the pockets of the letterman jacket he still wears, shoulders raised up to his ears and jaw clenched.

Eyes flicker around them, and Sebastian knows exactly what he wants to say. Alex bites it out. “Can we talk somewhere private?”

Can’t imagine what he wants to talk about. Sebastian scowls, ruffling a hand through his hair to buy himself time to answer. Don’t look behind you. He glances over his shoulder, catching the end of Sam mouthing something to Abby—who just responds with a bewildered shrug before catching Sebastian’s look.

She mouths what he readily assumes was Sam’s inquiry, a very obvious what the fuck?

Cool. Totally fucking cool. Sebastian jerks his head towards a half-dark hall that digs out of the little arcade. “Gus doesn’t lock his back room. C’mon.” He leans his cue against the table and tosses a look Sam’s way. “Don’t cheat.”

Sam raises a hand and purses his lips as if to say of course not. Sebastian leads the way, the oppressive heat of Alex’s presence gnawing at him as he leads them both away from the music, away from the chatter, away from the prying eyes that he fucking swears follows the two of them.

 

“He’s going to cheat,” Sebastian tells no one in particular, testing the handle on the narrow door at the end of the hall. It’s the only thing there, the only thing this far into the cool shadows. It’s unlocked, like ever, and he pushes it open easily and fumbles for the switch. Weak lights flicker on, casting everything with the same warm glow.

It’s the same as it’s ever been, cramped, dusty, but private.

Behind him, Alex hums. “Does he?”

“As much as he can get away with.” Sebastian takes the few short steps into the room, as far as he can get before he bumps his knee into a barrel. “Still loses.”

He tries not to flinch as the door clicks shut, sound echoing in the cramped space. Beside the barrel that Sebastian turns his back to, the room is packed as much as it can be, shelves filled with non-perishables, stacks of kegs and casks and boxes upon boxes of bottles.

It’s dusty, it’s dirty and Sebastian is hyperaware of every electric inch between himself and Alex. It’s too much, it’s too much for the space, with both of them pressed to their respective sides, seeking out any additional inch to cram in the breath between them.

Can’t get too close, no Sebastian cannot get too fucking close. It’s already too close, it’s already too much. There’s a couple feet between them, a couple feet of clearance. Too short, too much.

He swears if he reaches out, just pushes a half-inch further, he could touch him. He could touch him, he could touch him.

Alex looks to his side, looks around the room with a rough scowl creasing his features. “Last week.”

Oh for Yoba’s sake. “I told you I didn’t—”

“You did, though.” It’s the sort of sharp-edged snap that if Sebastian wasn’t already as close to the fucking wall as he could be without clambering over barrels, he’d take a step back. Pointed, jagged, familiar. “You did, so there’s no point in pretending like you didn’t.”

Anxiety swells, an orchestral composition reaching its peak in his throat, and Sebastian stares up at the ceiling and tries not to think about how it’s Alex between him and the door. “So what if I did? I already told you, it doesn’t matter.”

“It does.”

“Yoba, is this what you wanted to do?” He slides his hands out of his front pockets, rubbing at his eyes. “Alex, it doesn’t fucking matter. You know why it doesn’t matter because I told you why—”

There’s a seething edge to Alex’s voice, something burning and concrete. He feels a half-inch closer and Sebastian doesn’t want to look down, he doesn’t want to see if there was a half-step, a movement away from the door. “How does it not matter?”

His heart finds root up there by the back of his teeth, pounding away. “Because it doesn’t. It doesn’t fucking matter if I know, alright? It doesn’t matter if I heard anything because,he stops to spread his arms in the cramped space, a wide gesture to the indifferent boxes of rice and breadcrumbs. “Fuck, dude, it doesn’t fucking matter.”

Except it does. It matters, it really fucking matters. It really fucking matters and Sebastian knows it matters, the lie stings his tongue, molten copper sliding down his throat, settling in his lungs to harden to a perfect imprint of his fucking bronchi.

It matters to Sebastian, and he knows it matters to Alex.

And Sebastian knows why it matters and it matters to him because two people knew and now three people know.

He continues, a step forward finding them two steps closer. “Because I know it matters, and because I know it matters then it doesn’t matter. Is that good? Can you get that through your head or do I need to say it slower?” He takes a half-step closer, something like panic (not quite, but close) snarling from deep in his lungs. “Who. Cares.”

The sneer that cuts his expression lasts about as long as it takes for Alex to grab him by the front of his hoodie and wheel them both around. The door rattles as Sebastian’s back hits it with enough force to knock off whatever mask of indifference he was wearing.

Generally speaking, Sebastian hates people in his space. He hates being crowded, he hates being consumed by the sensation of another person. The oppressive weight of their heat, their nearness, the very essence of them overwhelming every part of him. He hates it with all the sort of ravaging fury of a wildfire.

In this moment, every inch of him freezes, fingers curled where they brace against the time-worn wood of the door, lips parted in a half-shocked gasp that replaces whatever air the force of the shove knocked out of his lungs.

 

It forces him to restart, reboot. His entire mind goes blank, wiped and fried like a bad hard drive—nothing is starting, nothing is happening. No fans, no sparks, no lights. He blinks through the haze, through the desperate sensation of trying to do something, anything, that isn’t breathe in the scent of Alex that pushes so close to him, that isn’t flickering his eyes down (don’t you fucking dare) until they graze just a twitch over lips that are suddenly way too close to him.

He swallows, a bob to his throat, and watches Alex realize what he’s doing. It happens in pieces, in the sort of slow-motion that comes frame-by-frame with every beat of his jackrabbit heart.

Alex’s fingers tighten, pushing Sebastian just a modicum harder, all testing strength, all the flex of muscles that he knows are under his jacket, under his shirt, under his skin. For a second, for a breath—that deep inhale that Sebastian watches Alex take, watches it fill his chest and raise his shoulders—he leans closer.

For a moment, it’s all there is. The radiating heat off his body, the insistent points of Alex’s hands on his chest. He’s close, he’s so close. The heat of his breath on Sebastian’s lips, the sound of his heartbeat distant and too close all at once. Closer just come closer.

The next frame, he lets his hands drop an inch. They loosen, slowly, before Sebastian can drag his eyes up. That rage, that terrified anger, burns off into nothing. Just coldfire ash—terrifyingly familiar.

His hands drop, and Sebastian pushes out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. All he hears his heartbeat, all he tastes is Alex’s breath. His tongue darts out, wetting his lips and he swallows around that impossible weight in his throat.

Nothing.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter, Sebastian,” Alex says, carefully, coal-dragged voice wrenching a shudder from Sebastian’s spine. “Just keep it to yourself.”

His feet move him half-numb away from the door, throat working around some witty comeback, some sharp sound. It’s too slow and his head doesn’t even bother trying to catch up anymore. It lets him whirr and linger on the bluescreen as Alex wrenches the door open and slams it shut behind him.

Very suddenly alone in a space very suddenly too small, Sebastian leans against the wall and drops his head down to his knees.

###

 

Abby and Sam don’t ask when he comes out. They share a look that Sebastian refuses to think about, but they pick up the game from where they left off. Well, mostly. Sebastian doesn’t point out that he knows there’s suddenly less balls on the table than recalls and Sam still doesn’t win.

The ease has frozen over like an early spring chill, a vicious coldsnap that followed them in. It only thaws a little, bringing in the half-warm bursts once Sam starts in on another half-flash memory from years past. This one about the time they crank-called Joja until Morris snapped and threatened them.

Sebastian’s smiles come forced, haunted by the sensation of searing heat and that flash in Alex’s eyes.

He makes it home a few hours later, with the ghost of Alex still lingering and taunting him.

By the time he makes it to his bedroom, he’s fucking furious.

Oh fuck him. (Yeah? Which him are we talking about?)

Sebastian snarls at his own internal monologue, fingers clawing at his jeans as he kicks one of his boots straight across his floor. Fucking Alex, he hisses. (You wish). He half-tears, half kicks himself free as he pours right down into his bed, hand finding one of his pillows to yank over his face.

Yoba, if he pushes down hard enough can he fucking smother this? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck—Sebastian groans, low and ragged, into his pillow, shifting to muffle himself harder as his fucking nightmare traitor of a brain flashes through everything from a couple hours ago.

Alex’s hands on his chest—fuck, he’s so fucking hot, some searing brand fisting his hoodie and that hardpress of the wall behind him trapped, we were fucking trapped but holy shit was it hot, it was so fucking hot that rage-wild look in his eye, half-burned out, half-brimming with an over-eager adrenaline that didn’t do anything he should’ve fucking—he could’ve fucking— fuck, fuck.

Sebastian can still feel his breath. He pushes the pillow harder against his face, trying to drown it out as his skin prickles with that burst of heat, that whisper of nearness, the ragged pant that washed over Sebastian’s lips—

No, no, no. (Yes.)

Fuck him, fuck him.

He loosens his grip on the pillow, letting it rest there for just another moment as his hand slides down the length of his well-worn hoodie, bunching the fabric up to his chest. No, you fucking idiot.

It’s all there still, hands in his shirt, breath on his lips, eyes burning into his own, the smell of him overwhelming, smothering every one of his senses, it’s all he can feel, it’s all he can taste, it’s all he can smell, all he can see. (Don’t think about it, don’t think about hands under chins, about a loosening grip, about a flash, about being yanked forward, lips crushing into lips and tongues and teeth and a wetslick mess of a kiss)

He sprawls his fingers low on his stomach, fingertips teasing the waistband of his boxers. He’s stupid, he’s so fucking stupid. He drags his nails lightly over the sensitive run of skin under his navel, over the thin trail of honey-brown hair. A cool wash of sensation prickles just under his skin, stretching out past his legs. He adjusts himself, hips lifting and resettling before he pushes his hand down, palming himself through his underwear.

He should not be doing this.

He really, really, should not be doing this. Teeth catch the meat of his cheek, a shaking breath in through his nose as the first squeeze, the first press of his palm shivers up a groan that he only barely manages to swallow.

Fuck, there’s no use holding back, is there? Sebastian pushes his pillow off his face and squeezes his eyes shut and, like an archer hitting his target, just lets go.

Alex’s fingers in his hair, jerking Sebastian’s head forward, body crowding him against the wall in the tight, suffocating space. Hands bumping against solid muscle, against this fucking wall of a man that shoves a thigh between his legs— Sebastian slides his hand under the band, already hot and hard, and gives himself a rough, quick, stroke. Alex’s tongue, Alex’s teeth, Alex’s fingers tearing his hoodie off him, tearing at his fly, at his clothes. Nothing but hands, hands skating up his stomach, his sides, his chest. No time to think, no time to breathe. His breathing comes fast, a sharp gasp that cuts around his teeth as he swipes his thumb over the head of his cock.

He doesn’t tease himself, at least not really. No point to it when it’s just him, really—but tonight, he clings to the half-formed thoughts, the memory of Alex’s hands pushing against his chest, his lips so close Sebastian could taste his breath, the feel of him the smell of it.

 

All he wants to do is dig his teeth to the feeling, the memory. Let it wash over him, let it go, let it sink into his pores and wrench him about until he’s left with fucking nothing but this. He lifts his hips, shoves his boxers down and smooths his palm over the cut of his skinny hips.

Fuck he should not be doing this. He should really not be doing this. You don’t jerk off to your friends (he’s not our friend, we barely know him) how is that better? (it’s not)

But Alex sticks up in his senses, like he’s stuck on the back of Sebastian’s teeth and up under his nails and burned into the backs of his eyelids. He’s so hard it hurts, a needy, desperate pulse echoing through his entire body, cock drooling a sticky-slick puddle onto the pale stretch of his stomach.

He’s not a good enough person not to cave, not to yield to the siren call grinding away under his ear. It’s all he’s got and the second Alex shoved him against the wall, he shattered those shred of Sebastian’s self-restraint.

His teeth dig into the meat of his cheek, staving off a wretched groan as he takes himself in hand again, skinny fingers wrapping around his cock to give himself another long, slow, stroke.

He grapples for some stable fantasy, like if he tries hard enough his hand can be Alex’s, shoved down his pants, groping him with all the rough force he craves under his tongue. He can hear that ghost of him snarling in his ear, hissing out his name. Fuck. He picks up his pace, fast and desperate as all those briefly-held restraints and restrictions snap.

Sebastian’s feet slide against his bed, stomach muscles tensing as he chases that white-hot burn under his skin. Alex, his teeth clipped around Sebastian’s lip, biting and tugging. Pinpricks of sweetfire burning down Sebastian’s skin. His free hand twists up in the sheets by his head, toes curling. Palm, heavy and hot and rough scraping up his chest, breath against his jaw. He squeezes himself, just the way he likes, as he swears into his own wrist. He’s close, he’s so fucking close just—the twist of his wrist, he borrows from his memories, wrenching that voice around in his head.

Rough, scratching from his throat with all that raw desperation. Sebastian.

He presses his teeth to the inside of his wrist, a desperate half-attempt to muffle the obvious sound that wrenches itself free from the space between his lungs.

A moan that he bites into his own skin as he comes, body twisting and tensing under the white-hot waves that slam over him, one that sounds suspiciously like Alex.

 

 

Chapter Text

Honestly? Sebastian hasn’t jerked it over one person this many times since he was in high school.

That first night was a dam breaking, a torrential flood of fantasies he’d kept well-wrapped and well-hidden since he was seventeen that just washed away anything else. He’d made an absolute fucking mess of himself that night, and then again in the shower with the last distinct thought of fuck it, might as well. It was everything he’d kept back behind his teeth, every flicker of his eyes at Alex across their shared calculus class, every whisper of him in the hallways, every pep rally or homecoming or whatever-reason assembly that he couldn’t slip out the side doors and hide behind the building for a smoke—every one where they trotted Alex out in his uniform, leading the rest of the gridball team behind him.

For fucking weeks it was like this. A new change in his routine, a new added bonus. Wake up, work, hang out with Sam, go home, think about Alex, jack off, shower, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, pass out.

The edges of summer start to ooze out from the mid-afternoon swelter , turning the mornings into a slowly-building fog of lazy heat.

The hotter it gets, the harder it is to sleep, Sebastian finds, blinking up at his ceiling at a little past seven in the morning.

He always did sleep better in winter, buried under piles of blankets and wrapped in layers. Summer tended to bring more nightmares, more cold-sweat mornings pricking under his skin and gnawing at the back of his throat.

It’s one of them that gets him that morning, a quickly-fading noose of panic looped casually around his throat as he listens to the distantly muffled sounds of an idyllic morning above him.

Sebastian closes his eyes, breathes in the too-early-air to shake off that pound of anxiety under his skin. It’s raining again, if the distant wet-earth smell and the muffled sounds of water pulsing against the ground is anything to go by. It doesn’t do much to chase away the heat of an early-starting summer, doesn’t do much but shove it all down, leveling the heat to right around his chest, to where it sticks up under his shirt and plasters to his chest.

Fucking gross, is what it is. Yoba, he hates summer.

And right now? Right now he hates a lot of things.

Ever since that Friday, he’d been skipping his eight-pm smoke breaks outside the saloon. Unable or unwilling to look for Alex in the shadows (either/or, really. Not like it matters). He’d keep playing pool with Sam or let Abby toss her legs over his lap while she complained about something Pierre said about her learning how to cook, or something Caroline said about her hair, while Sam talked about a job interview he had coming up and some lyrics he was writing, and Sebastian let them needle about his interesting clients (none of them were).

It was easy to keep his mind off Alex when they were there (you fucking liar). Sam and Abby never asked, and he avoided any question, not so much as glancing down the hall - just in case he got a glimpse of the ghost of what happened. (Not that he doesn’t already know it, not that it doesn’t make decisive reappearances every night when he’s alone, or every time he’s standing in the shower, watching the water swirl by his feet. Or every spare moment he has. Just a haunting specter, curling under his chin and whispering up against him. Reminders and promises all tinged with that bilesting of shame.)

 

And if it’s easy to forget about him with Sam and Abby taking up all the space in his head, it’s fucking impossible to do it when he’s alone.

It crawls back up him, slides under his skin to push against the sinew and muscle, fingers twitching with the thought of what it would’ve been like if he’d reached out then, if he’d reached out and grabbed Alex back. Slid his fingers over the expanse of his chest, under his shirt, along his jaw and his neck and the line of his shoulder, if he’d just fucking touched him.

He’d burn under your fingers, turn you to ash and smoke and leave you a crumpled mess.

A groan slips up from his throat as he rolls onto his stomach. It’s too early and too hot to get himself this fucking riled. Across his bedroom, his fan whirls pathetically against the blanket of heat that settles down over his back and fuck it—fuck it he can’t do this.

It’s too fucking hot.

The shower he takes is cold for a number of reasons.

By the time he finishes, he’s shuddering as he gets dressed in his bedroom, drops of luke-warm water dripping from his hair down the length of his back. They sink down to the waistband of his jeans once he manages them up, wiggling wet legs against denim.

The heat starts to simmer around him again, mingling with that ghost-memory of Alex that refuses to get out from under his skin. He pushes his wet hair off his forehead and scrubs his hand down his face, making the classic mistake of wandering to the full-body mirror that hangs off the back of his door.

He crosses his arm over his chest, hand resting on his shoulder as he takes stock. He’s thin, he’s always been thin, always been a skinny-fuck mess with nothing but sharp edges and pointed corners. When he was younger he was made of knobby knees and loose-twine limbs that took him years to grow into. Assuming he has even now. He takes a half-step back, shoulder curling forward.

Nope. Not really. It’s pale stretch from his throat to the elastic that peeks over the top of age-worn black jeans, half-translucent, half-ghostly, pock-marked by little scars he got from the mines here and there, from the line on his collar where Harvey had to stitch him up after he fucking split it tripping on slick rocks down by the river.

Pale marked by paler, by the razor-cut of his hips and his pointed elbows and the knots of vertebrae down his back—the ones he can’t see here in his mirror but he knows are there.

All he is is cavernous, the dark circles under his eyes, the spaces between his bones hollow and empty, mess when he stretches, when he hunches, when he does anything. He smooths his hand down to his left side, to the first tattoo he ever got. He was on the cusp of nineteen, Sam bounding alongside him, scoping the place out of his own. He’d been furious, a fucking whirlwind of barely-concealed rage and fury.

Fucking Maru, he’d snarled on the drive into Zuzu City, she thinks she’s so much fucking better than me, she thinks that just because I’m not going to go to fucking college that she’s going to be something better. That she can just fucking take over all of it. A sibling swallowing the legacy of another.

He rubs over the image over his ribcage, a wolf curled around two infants—one curled under her arm, another to her leg. A casual reminder, a sensation that clings to Sebastian’s spine, of what happens to brothers who speak out of turn, when no one else believes who saw the fucking birds fall. (fuck Romulus, fuck Rome)

The lines are raised, just enough that a feather-touch can follow the outlines of the she-wolf down to her children, down where the last one clings to her leg in a desperate plea for her attention, lingering towards his waist.

Sebastian sniffs once, rubbing at the tattoo again as if it would make it go away. Stupid fucking thing, he thinks, bringing his hand up to trace his others nervously—the band of binary around his forearm, the stick-and-poke Sam gave him when they were sixteen that used to be the initials of the punk band that was totally going to fucking make it. All the things he keeps hidden under his hoodie, the things that only come out when he pushes up his sleeves, when he forgets for a second he’s got his secrets inked into his skin.

Well, no one sees the wolf but him.

No one sees the type a little faster. emblazoned there inside his rail-thin bicep.

Running a hand down the length of his side, he feels out the edges of his ribcage, follows the softness that centers between his hips—all skin and the sparse brown hair that betrays his natural hair color.

He looks like a ghost. He looks like a corpse.

He tries not to frown at himself, tries not to prod at the black titanium in his brow, or the onyx stud in his nose, and the scar where his old lip ring healed too badly to keep, and he tries not to think about Alex (what the fuck would he want with someone like you? For fucks sake look at yourself) he tries really hard not to think about Alex (skinny sack of shit)

Really hard. (Right, what someone like Alex wants is a fucking goth twig, someone he could snap in half and just walk away)

It’s hotter than the fucking furnaces of Clint’s out there, it’s a wet smother of heat, it’s unyielding and unrelenting and Sebastian pulls his fucking hoodie over his head, lets it hang down to his mid-thigh. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes.

If he stays here, he’s just going to feel worse.

There’s messages from Sam, ones that came while Sebastian was in the shower, ones he’d barely glanced at until now.

We could always just feel worse. Sit here and wallow in it until we want to claw all our fucking skin off. Sit here, feel disgusting, be disgusting, think about Alex, think about him snapping you in fucking half.

If he leaves, he’s going to feel worse.

Tough options.

He collects his phone from where he’d tossed it aside earlier that morning, glancing down the offer for Sebastian to come over whenever he “decided to crawl out of his fucking cave.”

Whatever part of him craves distraction also craves the chance to step outside for a smoke. He pockets some shit to take to Sam’s, his phone, his charger, a pack half-filled with smokes and a couple joints he’d rolled the night before—the basics. He wasn’t ever a boy scout, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared.

Head down and hidden in the smog of his mother’s conversation with the farmer from across town, he escapes unnoticed.

Well, mostly.

He makes it halfway down the mountain, following the line of the lake to where it churns out into a river. It wasn’t so much raining as it was trying to rain, a heavy-thick blanket of mist wrapping into his lungs and choking out any desire he never had to exist during summer.

Humid doesn’t even begin to fucking cut it. He keeps his hands in his hoodie pocket, eyes to the ground to see if he could catch a glimpse of a frog or two (other things out when no one should be, sticking low to the ground, where people don’t look at them, ugly things with angry eyes and a coarse call and an inexplicable draw to the rainswept valley, not that Sebastian gets that, not that he understands the push and pull, not that he sits there, sometimes, cigarette between his knees watching them watch him—distant and untrusting, exactly how they should be)

He doesn’t bother texting Sam that he’s on his way. It’s been years since they did anything but show up, unannounced and always welcome. Sebastian knows where the key is under the flowerpot by the door, he knows that Sam’s window is never locked, same way Sam knows every possible way into Sebastian’s place too.

He makes it halfway down the mountain before he sees him. A glimpse of green in the thunderclap darkness, head hunched and hands in his pockets and gym bag slung over one shoulder.

And there’s no place to run, there’s no place to hide. Sebastian knows, he looks for one. If just to avoid having to look at Alex, having to see him there taking up all the space that Sebastian knows is filled with that obscene body heat, pushing through atoms of the atmosphere and leaving behind a scent that Sebastian could identify blindfolded now—all the things he made the mistake of committing to memory.

All he does is walk. Past the shadows the trees, past the wooden fences, past it all.

Look up, please look up I’m right here (don’t you dare look up, don’t look at me, don’t acknowledge me) - just do it, just let me look at you, let me look at you, let me look at you.

He’s not staring, he’s not staring at all. He’s not looking for all the places where the weather has curled the small hairs on the back of Alex’s neck, he’s not looking for the places he missed shaving that morning, he’s not looking for all of it, for the details, for the imperfect minutiae of an out-of-place freckle, a stray hair, all the things he wants to get up close to inspect, the things he wants to find with his fingers, his lips, his teeth, his tongue, his— “Hey.” Oh why the fuck, did he just do that.

Alex grinds to a halt, heels sliding in the rain-slick mud, looking very much like Sebastian just scared the shit out of him. “Yoba, Sebastian, you scared the shit out of me.”

Nice going, fuckwad. “Sorry. Just, y’know. Hey.”

Fingers thread up through his hair and Alex’s eyes refuse to stay on him (yeah let’s not think about that, let’s not think about how much that fucking hurts. What’s so bad that you can’t fucking look at me? Is it the collar bones? The hollow eyes? Can you tell how knotted my knuckles are, that I’m a fucking lightning-bolt of bones? Is that it?) “Do you need something?”

He doesn’t need anything. (You, I need you. I need you so fucking bad right now. Shove me against the nearest surface and finish what you started in the saloon—either fuck me or kick my ass, I don’t care just as long as those hands are back on me. I don’t care, I just need you) No, he does not. He absolutely fucking does not.

“No.” It hits like a blow to the throat, the sort of half-choked desperation that curls up under his jaw and twists itself into a knot of displeasure.

Alex still won’t look at him. He doesn’t respond, just heaves the strap further up his shoulder and keeps up the mountain. Sebastian pretends like he doesn’t watch, like he doesn’t follow the line of him, the mud-tracks all the way along the path.

He pretends like he turns and walks away, like he ignores the siren call of Alex’s retreating back, like he doesn’t stand there in the thick haze of bile-churning want and need and fuck you I don’t want or need Alex of all fucking people—I’m not that fucking desperate.

Somewhere to his left, a frog croaks and Sebastian cannot look away to find him.

###

He gets to Sam’s before lunch, diligently wiping his feet at the door to keep from trekking mud through Jodi’s impeccably clean house. He takes a second to sink into the bliss of their air conditioning, to just let it wash over him for another half-second, chase away that dreaded cling of heat. There’s a sort of clinging silence to the house as a whole. Half-unease, half comfort—well, it’s silent in the way that Sam’s house is never silent. There’s always some undercurrent of sound, of noise and commotion that levels itself to the baseline.

Vincent talking, the sound of Jodi in the kitchen washing dishes or cooking, the radio droning on about the war, Sam in his bedroom with the steady sound of his guitar.

Today it is only the last one, a familiar noise rolling down Sebastian’s back. It hiccups as he shuts the door behind him, ever-gentle, and hesitates while Sam clearly tries to see who just came in. Sebastian’s quiet, he’s always quiet, he’s always been quiet, and soon after the sound of the song Sam’s been working on has been picks back up again, this time with the rough-laced sounds of the lyrics he’d been workshopping.

He doesn’t knock, he never knocks if Sam’s playing, before slipping through his door giving just a head-nod in greeting. Sebastian doesn’t expect Sam to stop, he doesn’t expect him to stretch his arms out behind him with a sickening sound.

“Yo, dude,” he says. “Didn’t think you’d be up yet.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he explains. “It’s too fucking hot.”

Sam snorts, “Have you tried, I don’t know, not wearing a fucking sweater?”

All Sebastian does is roll his eyes, pulling the door shut behind him before pouring himself right down onto Sam’s bed. When they were kids, they used to both fit easily, Sebastian would have a sleeping bag rolled out on the floor, but they’d huddle down under his covers instead, whispering ghost stories and gossip and trading comics in the night. All the things that kids thought were quiet and discreet. They used to be able to cram themselves into the space there together, whenever Demetrius had gotten on Sebastian’s last nerve or Kent was getting ready to leave again, barely touching but for their knees and Sam’s forehead pressed to Sebastian’s chest and his arms wrapped around his best friends shoulders. Cheek to hair, pretending like they weren’t on the edges of shaking themselves apart.

But time stretched them out, made Sam an absolute giant and Sebastian into this gangling scarecrow. His feet dangle off the foot of Sam’s bed as he sprawls on his back, Sam moving right to the edge to make room.

“What’s up your ass today,” Sam asks, moving his scribbled-in notebook out of accidental swiping distance. Sebastian’s brow makes a move up to his hairline, curiosity pushing at all the exposed nerves in his body.

“Nothing. Let me see.” He makes a snatch-grab for the notebook, but Sam immediately tosses it to his other hand. “Fucking rude.”

“It’s not done yet.”

“Weak excuse, you’ve shared like half a line with me before.”

From this angle, stretched out behind Sam, all Sebastian can really see is the side of his face, the edge of his ear where it turns a soft pink under the attention. Even more curious. It’s easier to swallow down his own thoughts, the things that haunt the shadows of his own mind and instead, poke miserable fun at his friend.

He rolls onto his side, snaking half-around Sam. “Well?”

Sam takes up space in his mind, he makes it easy to forget other things. He’s noise, in the most blissful kind of way. The same way that thunderstorms and waves breaking are noise. The notepad hits Sebastian’s face in a way that he is certain is entirely deliberate. Sebastian flips through it with an ease, reading past Sam’s scribbles and his butchered excuse for handwriting.

His brow furrows as he reads through it twice, then a third time. “Reads like a love song, dude,” Sebastian says, flipping back onto his back to read it again.”

Sebastian can’t see any of Sam’s face from here, but he can feel him burn and seriously? He drops the notebook to his chest and watches Sam rub the back of his neck and fix his hair as if it needs fixing. “Fits the acoustic better, it doesn’t have the right feel for the shit we normally do. It’s just some bullshit, dude. Ghosts and shit, right?”

Ghost in the Graveyard, Sebastian reads, lips pitching down into a tight frown. He casts a loose net around in his mesh sieve mind to catch any inkling of any idea that Sam could’ve possibly fucking met anyone anywhere. Impossible, neither of them have left town for a while and even when they did it was for shitty bars in the city, just the three of them. Sam never broke off, he never traversed off on his own to pick up the chicks that nipped at the edges of his over-grown Labrador energy.

Sam clears his throat, strums another chord. “Seriously, dude. It’s not about anyone, I just thought of it while I was cutting through the graveyard and uh—a leaf blew into my hair and scared the shit out of me.”

There is exactly no part of Sebastian that believes that, but the subject feels fine for dropping at the moment. “Depart and heart rhyme,” he suggests instead of pushing, filling in some blanks where Sam had clearly scratched out a few attempts, tossing the notebook back at him.

He plugs it in, runs through from the top while Sebastian stretches out knuckles knocking against the headboard. Something unsettled curls like smoke in the space between Sebastian’s lungs, crawling up his throat and lacing itself down into the pits of his stomach.

Why are you haunting me? Tell me what did I do?

At the wash of the song, Sebastian shudders under the memory of Alex’s breath, hot over his lips and the feeling of his hands pushing against his chest and the heat rolling off his body.

That feeling of being unable to shake the press of his eyes, that fire that burned just under his skin, just under his gaze, the kind that sticks, that haunts, that refuses to shake off. Once he’d dropped him, in that half-second, in those moments between Sebastian’s breath knotting in his throat and Alex throwing the door open—he looked like he was eleven again.

Just a kid with his eyes too empty and his heart too broken.

Please take my bones with you, the next time you depart.

Sebastian’s arms cross over his chest once Sam crawls through the chorus again, a mournful sort of lullaby. Why are you haunting me? His fingers fist in the fabric of his hoodie as he tilts his head back, trying to push Alex out of there, to forget the way he wouldn’t look at him, the way he wouldn’t make eye contact—half-ashamed of something, half-nothing. Maybe if Sebastian combined them, brought the edges together it would make a clear picture, make something that he could readily understand because right now he is at his wits fucking end.

He’s done and his stomach is in tangles and he really, really, really wishes he hadn’t gone out to smoke that night, he wishes he hadn’t ever caught sight of that stupid fucking ghost of an argument, that he hadn’t gone to the docks that day, that he hadn’t fucking done anything because he’s a little more than sick of this.

Sam finishes without flourish. “It’s rough but—”

“I like it.” It’s thick because he does, because he hates it. Because he really really really fucking hates it and he hates it because he likes it. “It’s really good, dude. Maybe you should quit punk and just make nothing but acoustic love songs.”

“Do you wanna maybe fuck all the way off, Seb?”

He detangles his fingers from himself as Sam shifts, turning to face him as he sets his guitar aside for the time being. “I mean it. It’s good.”

The smile that sincerity earns him is crooked, the sort of real, honest Sam-smile that settles into Sebastian’s chest. The kind he used to try to pry from him, with tangled limbs caught up in sheets and emotions that were too big for them both at fifteen. Clinging to ideas of normality, where all Sebastian wanted to do was make Sam smile through that all-pervasive, choking fear.

“I know you mean it.” It’s soft, it’s sincere—it’s everything Sebastian wants it to be in the moment. “Did you hear?”

Three words easily send a bolt of ice down Sebastian’s nervous system, swallowing it whole as he tries to quell the immediate panic that rises up to the back of his tongue. He brings his hands down behind his head, pillowing them as he turns to look over at Sam, to gauge just exactly what those three words mean.

Did you hear?

Here’s the thing about small towns: there’s no such thing as privacy. Sebastian is plenty aware that he’s gotten away with more than his fair share of it over the years, that people have taken to turning a blind eye to him and whispering behind his back—but that even with that, part of him knows they don’t really know (at least not yet. They’ll figure it out, they always figure it out)

But nothing lasts forever, nothing can stay hidden when there’s no places to hide it. When there’s a secret in every shadow, eventually it all becomes too crowded.

He swallows, thick, and does not think about Alex.

He does not think about Alex. He does not think about what new secrets are bubbling away there, desperately buried out in the quarry as if that means they won’t come to earth soon, as if they can stay hidden down under the river-tide for much longer.

“Hear what?”

That grin doesn’t turn malicious, but it’s something eerily close. “Oh man.” He says, slapping at Sebastian’s thigh until he pulls his legs to actually sit up, the movement jostling the stone in his throat down his stomach. Sam sits cross-legged facing Sebastian, who takes the moment to effortlessly mirror him.

“Okay,” Sam’s voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “So I heard my mom talking to Caroline, right—and Caroline was in Pierre’s when Marnie came in to buy some groceries and dude—dude, guess who of all people, fucking Shane is hanging out with?”

Sebastian blinks, brow furrowing as he casts around wildly for fucking any name. Shane doesn’t hang out with anyone, really—Sebastian’s seen him once or twice now walking with Emily. He sticks to that old farm now, sticks to the married life.

Really, the most Sebastian’s seen of him is Fridays, drinking soda in the saloon and pretending like he actually likes people in this town.

“The ghost of his long-lost youth?”

“Fucking Alex.”

Sebastian’s stomach drops out of his body. It follows the empty spots in his chest and the ice in his lungs and is just gone.

(Haley’s voice echoing around in his head you’re leaving me for him—no, no that’s fucking insane. That is beyond insane, that is batshit. That is—no way, that is not what is happening. That is not what is happening at all.)

Something sort of like darkness creeps up on the back of his vision, some sort of panic-horror that clings to the edges of his nervous system (what did you think it was you? Did you think he’d ever want someone like you?)

No—no that cannot—it has to be something else. Has to be another reason, has to be another excuse.

Shane is married, has been for pushing two years now. He’s married, he’s married (Remind me again, did that stop your dad?)

“Bullshit.” It’s choked, it’s messy. “Alex and Shane?”

Yeah.” Sam’s arms swing out, gesticulating haphazardly. “What has fucking happened, am I right? Like what do they even talk about?”

Do they talk? Are they talking? Or is it just those two in the fucking woods, rutting and groaning and grappling like fucking animals? No — no stop that.

Not the vision he wants, not the idea he wants.

“Being fucking assholes?” The joke doesn’t exactly land for Sam, but it doesn’t for Sebastian either so he can’t blame him, really. “I don’t know I just—” It’s rageslick in the back of his throat and settling down deep in his chest and he can’t—he can’t, he just can’t deal with this right now.

Not with the ghost of Alex already clinging to his fucking skin like this. “Dude I don’t even know.”

“It’s wild is what it is, man,” Sam finishes, sighing and flopping back down on his back. “Like what, dude gets sober and now he’s making friends with Alex?”

Sebastian doesn’t get jealous. He doesn’t.

But for a second, wrapped up in Sam’s presence and sprawled over his bed, staring at his ceiling—all Sebastian can see is flashes of gold and green.

Chapter Text

A nice summer day is an oxymoron.

The afternoon sun filters in through the leaves, catching the Cindersap Forest in a rich golden light. It oozes down with a lazy tide, buzzing away with the heat of the world around them. It’s a kind of melted-honey mid-afternoon, sticky and hot.

There’s no overcast, no rain. The sky is open and endless and Sebastian fucking hates it.

Sweat sticks his shirt to his back as he pushes his sleeves up to his elbows once again, desperate for any hint of relief without actually taking it off. He toes the edges of the road, ignoring the massive cow eyes watching him from the other side of the fence, ignoring the smell of a ranch in the dead of summer.

It had taken a few days to figure out what was going on between Shane and Alex—at least just what they were doing, where they were going. Not that it was hard to figure it out, of course—all it took was lingering around the coffee pot in the kitchen long enough for his mom to come in to refill her mug.

Did you hear? Yoba, he hated that. Did you hear? And it all spilled out, a constant overflow of information, a candle thrown into those shadowed corners. He swallowed around the gossip-mill bile and tried not to think about himself, about Alex on the other side of that line, the ones clinging to the last dredged of the shadows, desperate to avoid that shame-sting of the sun.

He squints against the dripping sun, scowl cutting down his features as he scans the horizon for any sign of movement against the horizon.

You know Evelyn’s grandson, Alex? You went to high school together — yeah, mom, I know him — the tall one with the hair — yeah, mom — well, Caroline told me that apparently he’s been hanging around with Shane recently, you know Shane, right? — of course I know Shane. Marnie’s nephew, worked at Joja with Sam — he and Shane have been hanging out — oh really? — yeah! Marnie says they’ve been playing gridball out in the clearing by the old ranch, y’know, when he’s not busy on that farm.

Whatever noise the cow to his right makes, it isn’t exactly a moo but it isn’t really anything else Sebastian figures a cow ought to sound like. He tosses it a grimace, ignoring the empty eyes that stare back at him, nose to the wooden fence of the paddock. Or corral. Or whatever the fuck it is Marnie keeps her cows in.

Sebastian takes it as a sign to move forward, trudging his way down the dirt path, booths scuffing along with every step.

He isn’t here to look for Alex. He isn’t here to find some evidence of something sordid, of the sort of nightmares that have taken to replacing those filthy dreams—these ones leaving him waking up in a heart-wrench sweat with a churning in his stomach that almost makes him want to empty the contents into his wastebasket.

Much less preferable to the ones he had before, the ones where he woke up sprawled on his stomach with his sleep-numb fingers grasping at his sheets and his teeth pressed to his pillow case. Sweat-drenched and hips pushing against the relentless give of his mattress, burying groan after groan into the space between his tongue and his teeth. Those dreams left him gasping, they left him whimpering pleas for nothing he can have as he ground harder, a full-bodied roll chasing the whisper of something warm and solid long-gone with the last dredges of sleep.

The ones that replaced those involved more hissing, more snarling, more bitter, cruel laughter. More cutting snarls.

Curling his shoulders, Sebastian tries to raise his hackles against the ghost of that nightmare-memory. Shane and Alex tangled up, snarling and sneering at him.

Nope. He is not going to focus on this, he is not going to think about this. Not even a little bit. And he’s not here for Alex, not here for Shane. He’s here because.... Because fuck you, internal monologue, he’s here because he’s here. Because he’s here in the Cindersap Woods and because it’s too hot to breathe and it’s too hot to think and because it’s just what he is. He’s here. He doesn’t owe anyone an explanation, least of all himself.

He walks through the woods, hands in his pockets and eyes skating across the horizon. There’s nothing that’s fine we’re not looking for anything. We’re just here because we’re here. We’re here because we’re here because we’re just here.

We’re not looking for anything. Not looking for anyone.

Eyes back down on the ground, Sebastian.

He sticks to the shadows, the lines of the trees where the overgrow hasn’t been cleared in ages, to the places where picks his way over the brush and over the long-forgotten fallen branches down by the lake. It’s cooler there, but not by much.

It’s almost half an hour before he hears voices. Don’t look for them, you’re not here to lurk, you’re not some fucking stalker out here trying to get a glimpse of them (bullshit, that’s exactly what you are you fucking freak, you fucking loser)

Somewhere, off in the distance a full-throated laughter. Something rich and heavy, the kind that can only come from deep in the gut, from a head tossed back and a languid-summer afternoon. It’s too far to discern words, too far to get anything but a half-shouted response back, some shout, something half-like a taunt.

Too far to pick up anything but a blanket of contentment, of joy, that bleeds through the heat of the summer with an icepick directly through Sebastian’s belly button.

He doesn’t get jealous and he isn’t here for them.

There’s something, some sound and Sebastian’s heart thrums away somewhere under his jaw, somewhere curled like the Gordian knot just wrapped up with his tongue. He swallows around himself and just pushes forward. Hands in his pocket, head down, shoulders up. He’s not there for them, he doesn’t get jealous.

There’s no gnawing curiosity that had nipped relentlessly at his heels. Sebastian picks his way through the sparse collection of trees, down towards the lake, pretending like he isn’t meandering in the direction of the voices.

“Okay, see that’s a cheap fuckin’ move, Mullner.”

“Dude, how is it my fault that you can't catch worth shit?”

He should turn around, cut around the lake, head towards the secret woods and poke slimes with sticks. That’s exactly what he should do, sulk there in the place where it’s always twilight, where there’s nothing but him and the sound of his breathing and the whisper of the lake-water in the breeze that never seems to come past the rustle of the leaves.

Go there and poke slimes until he feels better.

“You can’t throw worth shit,” is the witty retort that perks in Sebastian’s ears.

“Hah. Hah.” There’s the sound of a ball hitting someone, an exaggerated noise, a huff of laughter.

Something washes over Sebastian, a creeping edge of a voyeuristic feeling. Like now, knowing that they’re just on the other side of the treeline, just out of reach and out of sight—knowing he can hear them, knowing he can almost see them but they can’t see him.

He’s just as bad as the town, isn’t he? The part of him that needs to know sucks. It’s the part of him that wants to tear apart the shadows until he unearths everything that Alex left behind, to root around in all his worst places and find all the worst parts of him. He wants to bring them into the light, to roll them around in his hands and break them apart under his fingernails—see if the inside of them looks like the inside of Sebastian’s.

Are all of our secrets the same? What are you hiding that I’m hiding too? I can share the places I keep them, in an old headphone box in a duffel bag under my bed, right next to my weed and the bottle of whiskey that I stole when I was sixteen—the one I never had the guts to drink. We’ll crack it open (he doesn’t drink, you don’t drink hard liquor), we’ll stare into it and forget that the light exists. Stay in my basement of shadows. Nothing can find us there, not even the truth.

Sebastian’s hand finds the rough edges of the tree, drinking in the scent of summer-warm maple and the distant smell of pine. He swallows and digs his nails into the bark.

“Shane, c’mon.”

“Suck it, I’m fuckin’ exhausted. Yoba, kid, not all of us kept in shape after high school. Some of us peaked and spent the next ten years tumbling ass-backwards into shit.”

“You work on a farm.”

“I feed chickens, it’s not exactly an endurance sport.”

All the things he’s not supposed to see. All the things he’s not supposed to hear. It’s warm, familiar banter and all the logical parts of Sebastian knows that it’s nothing torrid. There’s no whispers of affairs, no salacious details. It’s not the stuff of his nightmares, it’s not the deepest recesses of his mind come to life.

But it’s familiar.

It’s friendly.

It’s all the things Sebastian can’t manage to choke up himself when it comes to Alex, when it comes to anyone. He can’t just be fucking nice, he can’t just be fucking friendly—everything sticks to the roof of his mouth and rots there, until it becomes something vile, until it becomes something sick and pointed .

There’s a reason parents teach children not to approach wild animals, right? They hiss, they bite, they lash out without provocation.

Sebastian takes careful steps backwards, then another. He keeps his feet mindful over the tall grass, around the weeds and the fallen branches—ever-careful not to step on one, not to let it snap as he turns and retreats back around the lake. He’ll take the long way, circle past the Wizard’s tower and retreat back to the woods, to the thickest parts of them.

The places where no one can find him.

###

The Cindersap Woods swallows Sebastian quickly, turning the playful banter into distant noises, into laughter, into drones and then once again into nothing.

This is why no one likes you. (You’re a coward and a creep — sustainably impressive, really)

Soon, he finds a steady pace, a comfort there in the depths of the woods that only comes with time spent there. The incessant buzzing of his own thoughts is quickly replaced by the sound of birds, the splash of the lake—of the fish in it or the birds around it, the chattering of the leaves between the squirrels and the rabbits. It lulls him to a sense of security, to a sort of comfort that doesn’t exist outside of the woods.

He should’ve known it couldn’t have lasted. Things like him aren’t allowed in places like this, are they?

He’s just past the worn path that leads up to the Wizard’s tower when he sees it, a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye.

It’s twitch of color that doesn’t belong out here where there’s nothing and everything all at once. It’s violent, it’s jarring, it forces Sebastian to wrench around, seeking out the intrusion. He finds her rubbing at the ash-black that races down towards her jawline, a tangled mess of purple hair and mascara tears that grinds to a hand when she comes face-to-face with him.

“Sebastian? What are—” Abigail pauses to swipe under her eyes again, smearing it to her hairline instead. “What are you doing here?”

Abigail doesn’t cry. At least, she tries not to, at least not in front of people. She hates it, she’s said it a thousand times in a thousand different ways to both him and Sam. She didn’t cry that night Sam crashed his car, even with her lip split and her collar turning purple in the pale moonlight, even though she could barely move her right shoulder. She didn’t cry that night they were sixteen, the one immortalized with a blurry photo of interlocked pinkies (even when Sebastian did), or when that guy from Zuzu City broke up with her three days before her birthday. She doesn’t cry when she fights with her parents, when she gets so frustrated she buries her hands in her hair and screams.

She said she hates feeling weak, that she hates feeling useless. That she hates the way it makes her feel.

She just doesn’t cry.

Sebastian tries to say something, anything, but it comes up dry. There’s nothing in his lungs, nothing under his tongue or hidden behind his teeth. She’s been crying, she’s been bawling.

“What’s wrong?” It’s all he can think of, all he can think to say, as he takes a half-step towards her, watches her curl in on herself and push the stray locks behind her ears.

“Nothing—it’s nothing, I just was going to—I was going to do something stupid and I didn’t and it’s good that I didn’t because it would ruin everything—” Ruin what “ —and I’m not that stupid to do it but I wanted to because I—I don’t want to know but I need to know, Seb, and I need to know because—because I should be allowed to know! I should be and I couldn’t, I just I got all the way there and I couldn’t—” Couldn’t do what “ — I just couldn’t because I can’t and I don’t know what to do.”

She barely stops for a breath, she barely stops to do anything but hiccup around another sob as she hitches forward, heels of her hands buried against her eyes. “Seb,” she continues, around another broken noise, choking off whatever she was going to say next.

He turns his palms up, steps to her side and hovers his hand around her, not touching, not touching when she’s like (she’s not going to fucking bite, you asshole), not sure what she needs. Sebastian has always been shit in moments like this, in the spaces where he’s supposed to do something, anything and he never knows what. What’s the right move, what’s the right place to go, the right thing to say. There’s an answer buried somewhere in his code, but he doesn’t have a fucking clue what it could be, where it all went wrong. He doesn’t know where he fucked up his input, where he stopped being able to read people and situations, where he stopped being able to take this in. He doesn’t know where to even start debugging himself.

“Hey.” And he’s always been shit with a rubber duck. “Hey, Abby—it’s...I’m here, okay? I’m right here just—what’s wrong? What do you need?”

“Can you please just get me out of here?”

Out of here. Out of here, okay yes, he’s got that. Looking over his shoulder, he takes in their surroundings, maps out the places in his head, the places where there’s nothing and there’s everything at once. She should go home, she’s upset just take her home. Is that right though? Is that the answer? Take her home, let her lie in her bed and curl around the nothingness that rattles around (that’s you), let her be miserable in private, where no one else can look.

His arm across her back, he takes her by the elbow and takes her to the secret woods.

They walk in silence, a half-hurried pace unsettled by the awkward movement. The three of them used to go there too often, picking Fiddlehead Ferns and staining their pant legs with that slime that’s impossible to get out. They’d bring their flashlights and dare each other to go deeper in the dead of night, to trip along the nothingness until they got too scared by thick canopy, the abject emptiness that filled it well past the brim.

It was a place to go, a place to hide.

Sebastian doesn’t know why they stopped, he doesn’t know why he thought of it when he came to the woods — why he thought of it as the place to take Abby. Maybe it’s because it’s quiet. Small, crowded without being claustrophobic.

She stops crying well before they get there, but she doesn’t speak, she doesn’t look at him. She folds herself down on one of the old, half-rotted stumps they used to crawl up onto, turning those sad eyes to where a little green slime wanders curiously out of the underbrush. Sebastian finds his own stump not that far away, listening for the rustle of more of the strange little creatures.

He finds a stick fairly easily, long enough to keep the slimes from crawling up the room and nipping at his heels.

Safety first there in the secret woods. It’s all instinct now, keeping his legs tucked up under him, his eyes flickering between the ground an the place where Abigail finds her own stick and prods at the brave little slime. It doesn’t wince or recoil or retreat. It just pauses, unsure.

Like Sebastian would know what that feels like.

He doesn’t say anything, because he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what to ask, what to do—just sits there, breathes in the space between them. Just lets it hang while they both pretend like Abby isn’t sniffling.

She’s the one who breaks the silence, staring down at the slime that circles back to the base of her stump. “Why are you so upset?”

Why am I upset? Why are you upset — don’t ask me that, don’t reach for me, I’m supposed to be the one reaching for you. I’m supposed to be the one to ask, I’m supposed to be the one helping you, the one shouldering your burdens, your pain. This isn’t supposed to be the other way around (this is why no one fucking likes you, this is why you’re alone. You’re so fucking selfish, you’re so fucking needy.)

“Nothing, Abs,” he lies, sliding the point of his stick under one slime and pushing it backwards. It doesn’t so much flip over as it oozes itself in a circle.

She scoffs without looking up, without those empty-raw eyes doing anything but staring down at the grass and the ooze. “I’ve known you basically your whole life, Seb. You’re upset, something’s wrong.”

Something’s wrong with me? Something’s wrong with you. I’ve known you basically your whole life too, Abby. I know more of you than I ever thought I could know someone—the ways we promised each other we’d forget.

“It’s nothing, Abby. It’s just…” His tongue trips over the truth, it trips over a lie too. “It’s nothing.”

It is nothing, isn’t it thought? There isn’t anything there for him to be upset about, there’s nothing there for him to be mad about. It’s nothing. Nothing between himself and Alex, nothing is there, nothing would ever be there.

He’s broken up over nothing and it will always be nothing.

“It’s Alex, isn’t it?” She says, voice a half-snap away from something that he can’t identify.

“It’s not—”

“Dude who cares? Like seriously, who cares what Alex has going on? Everyone is so up everyone else’s ass in this shit fucking town, and it’s too hot for care about anything—like I don’t get why anyone cares so fucking much about anything that goes on here! I don’t get why we have to put up with any of this, why we have to just—why it matters? So what if Haley and Elliott are drinking wine on the fucking beach, no one should care that much—so what if we hang out all the time, or if Willy’s been fishing way later off the beach than usual, or if Shane still goes to the saloon even if he doesn’t drink—so what if anything?

Is it too much to ask to be left alone? For everyone to just leave everyone the fuck alone because it doesn’t fucking matter.” She punctuates by flinging her stick down into the underbrush. The slimes scatter, nervous creatures retreating into the shadowed alcoves between the bushes.

Sebastian doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t look away. He watches her, legs crossed on the stump he’s sitting on, the tip of his stick dragging along the forest floor.

“Abby, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t tell you.”

His heart plummets into his stomach, taking the two of them down over the cliffside and burying them both into the ravine down below. “What happened?”

The canopy of leaves forces a perennial twilight, cutting shadows out of the mercilessly blazing sunset and laying them gracefully over the lines of her. He watches her profile, tracing the slope of her forehead, her nose as she tilts it up to the leaves, her lashes as she squeezes her eyes shut, fuck she’s about to cry again isn’t she? He wants to move, wants to go over and gather her up in his arms and tell her it’s okay — but something screams don’t don’t don’t don’t. A red-alert high-whine siren blaring inside his mind reminding him she’s a wild animal. Do not approach, extend a hand, let her come to you.

She swallows, a heavy movement that starts up at her jaw and ends down at the clench of her fists in her lap. “I… I just… a few weeks ago, I overheard something. My parents were fighting and, and—” fists fly to her hair, burying fingers in the wine-dark waves as she brings her knees up to meet her face. Crumpled there, in the middle of a harsh twilight. Crushed. “Seb, I didn’t want to—I didn’t want to know. I know what people say about my mom and about—I know what they say but I didn’t want to hear him say it too.”

He waits, for just a breath, for her to elaborate. The questions load up under his tongue, know what? What happened? What did you hear? None of them are for her.

His teeth clip his tongue (selfish bastard, all you want is to sate your own fucking curiosity. Dig deep into that pain-spot, right? Press her bruises to know what caused them) and he swallows them all back down. Let them get smothered down there, ignored and abandoned.

Her shoulders are shaking and her face stays buried in her elbows. Sebastian sits there, motionless, as the feral-edges start to wear off to remind him that what the fucking is he thinking? What is he doing, with upturned palms and steady whispers and a distance between them that no one needs to have. No one is ever too wild. There’s no slimes to worry about as he slides down off his stump and slinks down over to hers, sitting in the cold space beside her, an arm wrapped around the weight on her shoulders.

Abigail doesn’t move, she doesn’t stifle her light hiccups and her shuddering breaths as Sebasitian leans closer, his cheek resting lightly on her back. Then all at once she collapses against him. She buries her face in the front of his sweatshirt, her fists tangling in the back as she clings to him like he’s the last stable buoy in storm-ravaged waters.

All the things the town says, all the gossip he knows—the sort they never talked about, they never asked. They never said.

He presses his nose to the back of her head and lets her shudder and shake until there’s nothing left.

The sun sets slowly and then all at once, plunging them sweetly into an anonymous blanket of night.

By the time they part, the shadowed mask of the evening hiding Abby’s puffy eyes and pink nose, she’s shivering. It’s not cold, but Sebastian pulls back to stand carefully in the clearing and tug his hoodie up over his head, leaving him there in an old Solarian Chronicles shirt.

“You don’t—”

“Don’t make me wrestle you into it.” His threats are hollow, empty, as Abby takes it, slides in with a familiar ease. They’re always too big on him, hanging off his broken-glass frame—but on Abby his hoodies always seem to swallow her whole. She lets them fall past her mid-thigh, lets the sleeves roll down past her fingertips as she wraps her arms around herself. Like she’s freezing. And maybe she is. Maybe the adrenaline and rage burned off, leaving nothing but cold ash there in the middle of the Cindersap Woods.

He looks at her, watches her curl her shoulders and push her hair back again. There had been a time when he thought maybe, when the question lingered there, washed down with stolen wine in her bedroom. It was late, when the words he wouldn’t even think lingered around in the stomach acid and the bile. He’d thought he could swallow them down, he’d thought maybe, maybe, that ghost of a thought wasn’t true.

She sticks close to his side as they pick their way around the sticks and the slimes, elbow bumping his until he gives up and links them together. They’d been sixteen, once. Sixteen and unsure, sixteen and desperate for all their darkest secrets to be just worried lies.

They’d been sixteen when he kissed her, half-drunk, in her freezing bedroom, when she’d kissed him back, when she crawled into his lap.

When he told her, tangled up in the truth and her bedsheets. I think I’m gay.

She’d laughed, her head on his chest, nose in his collar.

Yeah, Seb, I think you are too.

He’d been on that knife’s edge between crying and laughing, her fingers threading through his hair as he pressed his forehead to his knees and choked on years worth of confliction and fear.

Abby never left his side, she never pulled away or treated him differently. She linked her pinky with his that night, finished the bottle between them, and promised him that she never would. It’s not anything they talk about anymore, nothing they joke about nothing they hint at.

The sort of thing that faded long ago into some strange sense-memory. Half-dream, half-real—faded to obscurity. There’s proof of it, in a polaroid of two linked pinkies, blurry against her stark ceiling, but that’s all that night was. A promise between two friends. You’ll always have me, okay Seb?

He stays at her side, cutting through the wild-dark of the farm north of the woods. Silent feet to mask their trespassing as they slowly pick along the path. She doesn’t say it, but he knows she doesn’t want to go home. He knows she’d want to do anything but.

Wordlessly, he bumps his shoulder against hers, using their linked arms to pull her just a fraction closer as they walk out towards the road.

He hopes that it comes through. Hopes that his message transfers there from his arm to hers, from all those insistent points of contact. A conduit from him to her, through the bond they forged through unfortunate circumstances, through fire and flood and all the things that should’ve broken them down long ago.

I’ve still got you, he wants to say, even the words feel too stupid to say, even if it feels like too much to choke out right now. I’ve always got you, you’ll always have me, too.

He takes her home, lets her borrow his sweatpants, lets her keep wearing his hoodie (it’s fine, he has more, he’s got a pile of them in the back of his closet)

She falls asleep in his bed, curled around a pillow in the perfect image of what could have never been, the perfect image of things that never should have happened. Things that were never in the cards for them.

All of his dreams are empty that night, sprawled out on the couch across his room.

###

It’s as blissful as it could have possibly been until the morning. They don’t talk about last night, they don’t talk about anything but the fact that if Abby doesn’t get home before it’s time to unload a new shipment, Pierre’s going to freak out.

It’s too early. Way, way, too early for the ache of waking up, too early for the bleariness of trying to navigate his bedroom without his contacts in—but he offers to walk her to the door anyway. He doesn’t ask for his clothes back (first mistake, dumbass).

Sebastian doesn’t know why he thought they’d make it out. Maybe it’s because it’s early, maybe it’s because it’s one of those mornings he feels like he should be allowed to, he feels like he could get this one break, letting Abby up the basement steps before him, her clothes bundled up under her arm and her hair pulled up under a borrowed hair tie.

He should have listened (second mistake), kept and ear out for his mom, for the creaking of the floor above him, counting the steps to hear if she’s up there, a monitor at the front door, a watchful sphynx filled with questions instead of riddles.

“Sebby, you’re up ear—oh! Abigail!”

Sebastian cringes behind Abby, running into her as she freezes in his mom’s path. From behind the counter of the shopfront, she beams at the pair of them. Sebastian tries (really, seriously, he does) to summon anything but a grimace back.

Robin’s grin is unwavering, even if it strikes somewhere in the pit of Sebastian’s stomach as unnatural. “Abigail, hon, I didn’t see you come in this morning.”

Shuffling her feet, Abby glances down at herself and Sebastian feels her flush building up back behind his ears. “Oh, er, uh. Yeah—hey Robin. Seb and I were playing video games last night. It got really late and I hate walking down the mountain in the dark alone and it was so cold so uh—” she coughs, and pulls at the sleeves of her borrowed clothes, hands wandering up to the collar to give it a tug. Sebastian spares her a sideways glance.

I’d almost rather you tell her the truth (bullshit, no you don’t, your mom would flip, she’d lose her mind—she’d be so fucking disappointed) we were smoking, drinking, until half-past when we were finally so blitzed that we couldn’t feel our teeth let alone the bullshit that we’d been cracking them gnawing on.

Beside him, Abby rubs one flushed cheek with the edge of Sebastian’s hoodie. “Yeah. I’m just—I’ll see you later, okay Seb?”

He clears his throat. “Yeah, totally. Later Abs.”

She waves once over her shoulder before slipping out with a clipped, “Bye, Robin!” Traitor, leaving me here like this.

The door clangs shut behind her, leaving Sebastian entirely at his mother’s mercy. Her sunrise smile turns right back at him, cracking at her expression as she pretends (poorly) to fiddle with some drafting pencils behind the counter of the shop. “So Abigail—”

“No.”

“I don’t care!” She says, far too fast for someone who doesn’t care. “You two are both adults, Sebby. I just have to admit that I’m surprised! I really thought that you and—well, that you—Abigail is so sweet, really, she’s a lovely girl.”

His face is already burning, fuck, fucking fuck he can feel it. He can feel the lavasear under his skin, crawling up from his chest and wrapping around his throat.

He wants to say it, he wants to say it as it sticks to the back of his teeth and coats the back of his tongue. Mom, I’m gay. Yoba, he’s never wanted to say anything as fucking badly before. It’s like a reflex, a half-primal instinct that floods his veins with a bileslick rush of adrenaline.

I’m gay, and I’m not fucking Abby because I’m like really fucking gay. It makes it as far as the tip of his tongue, rolled all the way down like a goddamn boulder crashing against his teeth with a boneshudder rattle.

Mom, I’m gay (just say it, just say it you fucking coward, you fucker, you piece of shit just fucking say it just fucking say it just fucking say it just fucking say it.)

“It’s not—it’s just not, mom.”

She makes a noise behind her smile. Mom, I’m gay. Like she doesn’t believe him. “You know I don’t mind who stays over, just so long as you two are being safe, alright, Sebby?”

If he opens his mouth, he’ll say it (do it, just pry your fucking lips apart and say it, spit it out already stop being such a fucking bitch and say it) his teeth catch the skin of his cheek, biting down until he tastes that coppersharp tang just under his tongue. He turns, immediately, and stalks back down into his basement.

He locks the door behind him, and in a flashbang moment of whip-wild rage, he swipes the stacks of books and cards and notes off his desk. They hit the edge and air and rain down in a shower of useless fury.

Coward. He dumps himself down onto his bed, burying his face into his elbows.

You fucking coward.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sebastian told Sam he was gay the same year he told Abby.

It was a few months later, once the shock-pain of it all wore down to a nervous nub settled in his stomach—once it became too much of a burden to bear again. It was in Sebastian’s bedroom, one of those long nights with nothing but buzzing caffeine and throwing jokes and laughter around. Abby’s head hanging down off Sebastian’s bed as she watched them between coats of purple-black nailpolish.

They had a notebook, a spiral thing half-torn and filled with four years worth of victories and defeats, a never-ending contest between the two of them for who was better at Fatal Konquest. It was one of those nights when they were neck and neck, with just a hair’s breadth between their hit points.

No one was above cheating, ever. Sam was waving his hand in Sebastian’s face, Sebastian was kicking at him, aiming for combos and combo-breakers and digging his elbow into Sam’s shoulder as Sam tried to snatch at Sebastian’s controller.

Hey Sam, I’m gay. They weren’t ever above cheating.

Sam lost, those flying-saucer eyes turned on him. Then back to the controller, then back to Sebastian. The weight of what he just did hit half a second after the TKO flashed across the screen, bright-red and dripping with reminder.

He swallowed and stared at the chipping black nailpolish on his fingers. He could feel Abby staring, he could hear her swallow in the abject silence of the room. Dude.

So?

That was a cheap fucking move and you know it.

Sebastian had felt so frozen in that moment. He doesn’t know what some part of him thought maybe, maybe it would be easier the second time. Maybe he wouldn’t be so fucking scared like he was before—maybe he’d already broken out of his locked door. But there wasn’t some open expanse in front of him.

It was just another door.

It was just as hard the second time. I mean about—

Seriously! You can’t fucking—Abby that one didn’t count. That doesn’t go in the tally, that was bullshit Sebastian.

Sam.

I’m serious! Gay or not—

I am. I was… I wasn’t…

Yeah, I don’t care, dude—you’re my bro, right? So you know that when I kick the shit out of you, it’s gonna be because that so doesn’t count as a win and not because you’re gay.

There was something about it, about Sebastian taking off, Sam grappling for his legs to drag him back down—it was comforting. The two of them chasing each other around the bedroom, Abby hollering at them to cut it out before they ruined her nails. Sam had managed to toss him onto the bed, pin Sebastian there and threaten to spit on him until he agreed to have the game struck from the records.

Sebastian acquiesced, but his face hurt from the split of his grin.

It had been later that night, an impromptu sleepover leaving them both tired and jittery on too much junk food sprawled half-asleep across his floor.

Hey, Seb?

Yeah.

Like...you know I meant it right? You’re my bro, dude. My best friend, no matter what.

It was late. Sebastian used the arm he’d tossed over his eyes to push back that well of water that built right behind them. He had swallowed around the knot in his throat. Thanks, dude.

That was six years ago, give or take a little while.

Six years and he hasn’t told anyone since—well, except there on the dock. The clouds on the horizon and the wind biting at the back of his neck and Alex looking at him with a wave-crash of desperation around them.

Six years, and three people know. Not his mom, not Maru, not Demetrius or anyone else in this shithole town that might even give a whisper of giving a shit about it.

He successfully avoids his mother. It’s a careful job, listening for the tell-tale sounds of her step, escaping out the front door when he knows she’s done for the day, or fleeing to the kitchen when he hears someone come into the front shop.

There’s a dance to it. Sebastian was always shit at dancing, but this he could stumble through. There was no one to tread on their toes, no one to trip mindlessly over. It was just another thing, just another easy script to follow.

He tried to ask Abby about what happened that next Friday. Sam off getting more drinks and another pizza, Sebastian pouring himself into the space beside her on the couch. Do you want to—

No.

Abby—

It was nothing, Sebby. Nothing to talk about.

Bullshit, but he didn’t want to press. He didn’t want to dig his fingers into scrapes and scratches.

He fills those noisy nights, the one with his head full of Alex and Abby and Sam and questions that he didn’t have answers for, he fills them with his bike against the open road. He fills them with the fresh-air cliffside in the middle of the night, standing between the brink of oblivion and the stretch of the city and the sky and the road—his hands clasping behind his neck and a cigarette hanging from his lips.

He fills them with noise. With music, with their band cranking away and songs until Kent opens the door, that perpetual grimace slicing through the residual laughter that clung in the atoms between them all. Until Sam winces and mutters an apology, fiddling with the strings on his electric and Abby cringes back behind the set.

Sorry, dad, we thought you were out.

They trade off who suggests something else. The saloon to drink, the tracks to get high. Abby’s to root through memories pinned up on her walls and play video games until Pierre kicks them out, Sebastian’s to play games and ignore everything else around them. They pretend like they don’t notice Sam’s grimace, like they don’t see him shuffle his feet and flush with that mortification before agreeing to whatever it was set before him.

They pretend like it’s all fine.

Like they always have.

Sebastian starts integrating walks through the woods into his routine. Once a week, looping down around the lake until he hears the echo of voices. Laughter, whooping. Joy unbridled and breathless, all of it leaking into the edges. He sticks to the shadows, never walks where he can see them. Only where he can hear, mingled there with the sounds of the water and the fish and the birds. Something wild about it all, something untethered and free.

He clings to it, somewhere in the knot of his chest (all the things you can never have, all the things you never are) and moves on.

Summer crawls, slowly and steadily, away from them all. Days and nights looping the lake in the woods, weeks spent between Sam and Abby’s and the arcade at the Stardrop, an endless hum and draw.

Sebastian never loved summer (didn’t we?) it was always too hot, too sticky (didn’t we love summer in the city?) it was always too much (didn’t we love summer before all it did was remind us how unwanted we are?)

It’s Friday again, with Abby soundly kicking Sam’s ass at a game of pool, when he actually sees Alex again.

She circles the table with a whoop on another successful sink, bumping him away with her hip to line up another shot.

“I’m gonna kick your ass from here to the city, Sam,” she teases, tossing her hair back over her shoulder before she immediately scratches on her next move. “Or at least half-way there.”

Sam pats her shoulder in sympathy. “We can take a bus the rest of the way.”

Sebastian rolls his eyes, taking a long drag off his beer as he settles into the couch, one foot hooked up over his ankle. He checks his phone on instinct, for something to do with his ever-restless hands, for something to look at that isn’t this. He swipes away emails from one of his clients, thanking him for updates, sending him questions and ideas. Things he can look at later, things he can handle once he gets home.

His eyes catch the time and a sensation wriggles itself between his skin and his muscles, finding root there and digging in claws until all he can think is for fucks sake I could use a smoke.

Maybe Pavlov was onto something. The clock on his phone switches over. Seven-fifty-eight.

He picks himself up slowly, some strange anxiety digging itself into the pit of his stomach. That metallic need crawls up between his teeth as he collects himself—gathers all his bones and sharp edges—and shoulders up the nerves gnawing at him.

Sam fixes him with a look. “Are you heading out?”

Fuck, that sounds like a better plan. Yes? Is he allowed to say yes? Yes, I’m headed out. I’m going home, I’m going home and not thinking about this, not thinking about anything. Not thinking about whatever is going on, about this undercurrent of tension that no one is talking about (maybe it’s not real, maybe it’s just you maybe it’s just in your head — it’s probably all in your head, you’re the one making things weird)

Holy fuck does Sebastian not want to do this now. He runs a hand through his hair, half-hoping it would run the constant ever-nagging voices away from the corners of his mind. (It doesn’t)

“No, just out for a smoke.”

This time it’s Abby, sticking close to Sam’s side as she fiddles with her cue. “Yeah? You haven’t been stepping out on us for a few weeks. Figured you were cutting back.”

His mouth twists down and wishes he could stop the eyeroll that summons up from the core of his being. It’s petulant and juvenile. “You sound like my mom,” he tells her — even though she doesn’t. It’s reflexive, it’s an instinctive response to every comment about his habits, a low-cut sneer, a roll of his eyes.

Abby’s face twists up in annoyance for half a second before she sighs it out. “Go have a cigarette before you become too much more of an ass.”

It’s half-playful. Enough that Sebastian can stick his tongue out at her as he passes.

The humidity hits him square in the chest the moment he steps out of the door. It’s a wet heat sinking down into him, settling heavy in his lungs. He takes in a deep breath, feeling half-drowned already in the summer-sweet air.

It’s spice berries and sweet peas, some mingling scent that curls around Sebastian as he steps down off the stoop, cutting through the salted-air of the distant ocean and the damp-earth of the night around him. It’s nostalgic, in a way. Something familiar enough that it whispers in the memories of who they used to be, of all the summers he spent digging his fingers into the ground to churn up rocks and worms.

It reminds him of the hours he spent picking up rocks and foraging for berries with Sam and Abby. Of lake-warm nights with their feet in the cool water, letting the evening stretch out above them and seeing if they laid still enough on the edge of the water that maybe they could feel the planet churning beneath them.

It feels like forever and no time at once as Sebastian steps off the to the side, sliding his pack out of his pocket and tapping it against his palm. Steady, short beats as he circles around the corner of the ivy-crawled building. It’s a still night, the sort with a heaviness to the air that Sebastian can already feel tugging at the edges of his hoodie, sliding into the non-existent spaces between his jeans and his legs.

Gross, again. Yoba, Sebastian hates summer.

The shadows whisper out their usual siren call, a darkened space where no one can see him but Sebastian's eyes find themselves back on the shape leaning there against the dog pen.

Great. Just what I need.

Alex had skipped so many weeks, Sebastian just assumed he’d never see him here again. That the shadowed spot alongside the Stardrop was his, a lonely victor in a war he didn’t ever want to end. His heart finds itself up under his tongue again.

He should go back inside, he should turn around and give up and go back inside. (Don’t talk to Alex, don’t talk to Alex because you might o something stupid—that’s all you are, a collection of bad ideas, a skinny-fuck box full of mistakes that you keep fucking making)

Sebastian stands there for too long, the corner of his pack of cigarettes digging into his palm. Too exposed under the sickly yellow streetlamp, casting shadows he doesn’t ever want exposed.

“You don’t have to lurk there, you know.”

He looks back over his shoulder on instinct, Alex’s voice scratching down his ribcage, before he did something even stupider. Like respond. He digs a heel into the cracks of the cobblestone and bites his tongue as he watches Alex raise a hand in gesture.

Something between come here and I don’t care.

Slowly, eyes still casting about for whoever Alex might actually be talking to, Sebastian creeps forward—ignoring that desperate thrum of his pulse under his skin, pounding away at the inside of his sternum like it’s trying for one last desperate escape, clawing at the walls of him screaming how dare you keep me in here, let me out let me out let me out.

The place beside Alex is comfortable in its discomfort. The rough wood cuts into his forearms as he leans against it, hands dangling down over the pen. He hasn’t looked inside in a while, hasn’t peeked between the boards to the box where he knows Dusty curls up against himself.

It looks just as it ever did, water bowl full and food bowl looking recently-emptied. There’s old sun-bleached and age-softened dog toys scattered about, half-destroyed by paws and jaws. Beside him, Alex sighs, shoulders rising and falling with the weight of whatever was on his mind.

It’s Sebastian’s turn for some bullshit non-answer, for some non-greeting that’ll sit between them, the idea that he’s said something and nothing at once. But he can’t stomach it, he can’t peel his tongue from the roof of his mouth and actually say something.

Not even a fucking hey.

Inside the pen, Dusty does something similar. The big dog stretches out his paws in front of him and heaves an exhausted sigh.

Sebastian flips his pack around his hand, desperate to do something, desperate to move and fiddle and do anything. Anything but stand there, stand there where he can feel the heat off Alex’s elbow, where he can catch that ghost-scent of his skin under his jaw, where half of him is electric, buzzing so close to the body beside him.

It’s all too much, too suffocating, too close.

“Hey.” Oh for fucks sake, Alex it was his turn.

Not that Sebastian was going to say anything, of course. He sniffs once, stuffing his pack back into his front pocket and hanging his hands back over the pen.

“Hey.” It’s a useless echo. Nothing words in the nothing space between them in the middle of a nothing summer. He hasn’t seen (really seen) Alex since that afternoon in the rain, that day he’d gone down to see Sam and they’d sat and talked. It was passing nothing, glimpses and glances right off the hit of another fantasy sequence that Sebastian had shamefully cooked up there in his shower behind the locked doors and bitten lips.

It was something about his hair, something about the stretch of skin that runs down from the line of his jaw to the places where it disappears under the collar of his t-shirt (sweat-soaked? It’s summer, it has to be, I bet you can press your nose to the skin right there—I bet it’s hot, I bet he’s fever-blister warm—press right there and breathe him in, fingers twisting in his t-shirt, anchoring him there against you. What does it taste like? Salt-sweat and skin?)

No. No, for fucks sake—not now. Sebastian thanks everything he doesn’t believe in that it’s dark enough to hide the heat that rushes up to the tips of his ears at the thought of that. Not here. Not now.

Sebastian pushes all the thoughts out under his tongue, a sigh racing up from behind his teeth. In a stitled breeze, the kind that barely rustles the summer-damp hair at the back of his neck, he can feel the movement of Alex’s eyes. He can feel them turning towards him and for a second he wonders if Alex can see inside him.

If maybe those too-deep eyes can look right through the muscle and fiber, the sinew and skin—if he can see all those hidden shadows, the places the dull lamp-light casts into darkness. The places where Sebastian choses to shovel all of his thoughts, his feelings, his wayward emotions.

If Alex is there, rooting around in the darkness like Sebastian is (you just want him to be like you, you just want another hypocrite, another liar)

“Sebastian,” Alex starts and Sebastian distinctly does not look at him, he stares down into the shadowed dog pen, watching Dusty’s paws twitch and his tail beat uselessly against the ground.

It won’t do not to answer, Sebastian at least knows that much. So he chokes up a half-hearted. “Yeah?”

“We’re both—if you’re…”

Not here. Sebastian pushes himself up, eyes flickering over his shoulder then out in the distance, then further past that. He knows his sister hangs out on the benches there sometimes, chattering away at Penny while she mends something out in the sweet summer air. He knows Clint comes late sometimes, that he might not have been here yet, that Willy will be coming down soon, that maybe Elliot was held up writing and is lurking here, around the corners.

“Relax,” Alex finishes, “I’m not going to say it. Just—you know there’s not exactly a lot of people like us in town.”

Slowly, with his heart rate coming down beneath the level of jackrabbit in the shadow of a hawk, Sebastian lowers himself back against the fence, dangling one hand down over the edge. “Right. Yeah.”

He’d had some thoughts, a few times, watching people maneuver around each other. Watching them watch each other. Sebastian would like to think he would know, right, that he would be able to tell.

But he didn’t realize about Alex so there’s that. (That’s because you’re self-centered, you piece of shit)

Alex continues. “I was thinking that maybe we could be like… friends.”

Sebastian’s mind forces a hard reboot, brows furrowing as he struggles with the fans and the start-up procedures. It takes a few seconds, the loading screen flickering in and out as he tries to manage some kind of response, some kind of thing.

Friends.

Why the fuck would you want to be friends with me, why the fuck would you even want to talk about me—do you know what I do? Do you know what I do when I think about you? Do you know that I walk through the woods, waiting to catch a glimpse of you, wondering if maybe you’d see me there too, if you can feel me where I can feel you? Would you still want to know me then?

He doesn’t say that. Well. Not all of it. His face screws up, a knot of confused tension as he spits out. “Why?”

“Because—because for Yoba’s sake, nevermind. Forget I even—”

“No, I mean why with me. You’ve already got friends, Mullner.”

He leans there, turning his body to actually face Alex now, waiting for him to say it was a joke, waiting for him to say something else, waiting for something to happen that is isn’t just the rattle of his heart in his chest.

Alex frowns, a furrow appearing between his brows. “You have friends too, Seb.”

Seb. What he wants to say is, don’t call me that. Only my friends call me Seb and we haven’t actually agreed to this, we haven’t stumbled to that point yet—you can’t call me Seb because I don’t want to think about what my name sounds like coming off your tongue. Don’t you know that’s dangerous, how do you not know that’s dangerous.

For a second, he thinks maybe he does say it, because Alex’s cheeks look darker in the moonlight and he snaps his face forward to look out over the river. “More than I can say for right now.”

Right. Haley. “Right. I mean I don’t—I don’t know what you think you’re going to get out of me but, whatever, if you want to be friends.”

“Maybe just being a little less hostile to each other?”

Sebastian’s gut knots up as he assumes that’s pretty much directed exclusively at him. Fairly, though, he’ll admit. He jolts when something warm and wet slides up against his palm, half-recoiling before he looks down and finds two tired eyes staring up at him, one ear flipped the wrong way.

“Yeah,” Sebastian says, reaching his wet hand down and fixing Dusty’s ear before letting him snuffle there against his knuckles. “Less hostile I can do.”

He tries not to see the way Alex looks at him, tries not to read a thing into it.

###

Sebastian would like to say that after that conversation with Alex, a tenuous truce sealed with dog saliva between Sebastian’s fingers, he is able to get a fucking grip on himself.

He’d like to say that he stops going to the woods.

That he stops ending far too many of his nights biting Alex’s name into his pillow while he fucks his fist like the world is about to come crashing down around him.

He’d like to say he does.

But he’s never been great at telling lies.

Things keep on as they do, a slow troll of summer slowly crawling past them. He can’t tell if he sees Alex more or if maybe it’s just the fever-pitch of summer or if it’s just mental bias. Alex is on his mind too much, so all he sees is him. Glimpses of green and gold, of sun-tanned skin and a sweep of brown hair.

He catches his eye sometimes, walking past the bridge that leads to the museum, seeing him there under the umbrella of the ice cream stand. He lingers, occasionally, watching him scoop out chocolate for Vincent and Sam, or something for Jas. Sometimes, he looks over and sees him, elbow propped on the stand, fanning himself with a few napkins.

Eyes empty.

He would like to says he goes over, that he sits there under the umbrella, extending an olive-branch hand. Keeps him company, works on building that ideal of friendship up from nothing.

Isn’t that the goal? How love stories work?

He would walk over, cross the cobblestone and the river-water and share something sweet and cool in the final dredges of blistering summer heat. Listen to Alex make jokes about shaving his hair, watch him run his fingers through it, sweat and heat melting at the gel until it falls into his eyes.

Sebastian could push it back, could bring strawberry-sweet lips to his own, taste Alex’s favorite flavor off his tongue.

He would like to say he does that.

He would like to say anything changes.

He never crosses that bridge, his toes at the river-edge and his eyes finding Alex’s for just a moment.

Alex waves. Sebastian does too.

###

He can only avoid his mother for so long.

Twenty-two years had given him plenty of practice at it. So much so that he was, admittedly, fairly adept at the task. She kept enough of a schedule that it was easy to move around her, to keep from getting in her way or getting stuck under foot.

She catches him off guard early in the morning, when the thundercrack woke him from some rare dreamless sleep before he’d planned on waking up and the relentless churning of some storm above him kept him from drifting back.

He should’ve realized an omen when it was rumbling above him.

Sebastian had thought he would be early enough, fumbling with just the light above the stove to start a pot of coffee. He’d already gotten dressed, knowing that on a day like this he’d linger around a bit more, shuffle his way out to the garage or to the lake under an umbrella for his morning smoke while the machine chugs away.

The same sort of schedule just pushed a bit forward, changed and adapted ever-so-slightly to account for his early morning. She appears behind him just as he clicks the start button, sending his heart thudding into his throat as he jumps at the sound of his name.

“Hey, Sebby,” she says. He whips around, shoulders up to his ears, like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t (making coffee in your own fucking house or just being in places where you can be seen? That’s what you shouldn’t be doing. How dare you take up space, how dare you occupy the same room, the same air, the same anything as someone else)

Her hands come up, a little grimace tugging at her lips. “I didn’t mean to startle you, honey. You’re just up early.”

A day. A day without commentary on his sleep schedule. Fucking please, he’d give anything.

“Yeah. Storm woke me up.”

She looks ready for her day. The same vest and jeans and work boots, the same thick wildfire hair pulled back into a bun. If it’s raining, she’ll be inside, manning the front desk and keeping notes about what kind of work she’ll be doing.

Her hands drop as she moves around him. Sebastian leans out of her way as she grabs a mug for herself, leaning against the counter. It’s a dance, of sorts, something familiar and natural as he takes a half-step back himself, hands buried in the front pocket of his hoodie.

“So,” she starts, and he can feel a line of things he doesn’t want to talk about lingering there between them. There’s too much space stretched out on the linoleum, too much in the low-light.

“Hmm?” Please, let’s not talk about it. I know what you want to talk about and I don’t want to talk about it.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry, honey,” she says, voice half-pitched low. “I didn’t mean to make things weird between you and Abby. Whatever’s going on—”

“Nothing, mom, I said it was nothing.”

Whatever it is,” she says, hand abandoning the mug on the counter to raise again in defense, “whatever it is—”

There’s a sort of low-boil in his stomach, a feeling less of rage and more like an exhausted annoyance curling up under his skin. “Mom, it’s nothing. Okay? For fucks sake—”

Sebastian.”

He grimaces, shoulders hunching down and head bowed in a wordless apology. He rubs at the back of his neck. Just tell her, that ghost of the argument lingers down in the back of his head. He won’t, he knows he won’t because he’s a fucking coward. He’s a piece of shit and he knows it.

She tucks her arms against her chest, brow raised in a familiar half-warning and Sebastian looks for all the places to run, all the places to hide. There’s nothing, there’s no clear path there in the darkness, unless he feels like crawling over the kitchen table.

“You and Abby have been friends for a while.”

“And that’s all we are.” It’s a little more biting than he intended, a little snapping of his teeth, a little more of a growl to the words as the pot starts dripping coffee into the bottom of the pot—churning it out as he tries to swallow all of his annoyance at once.

He needs a cup of coffee, he needs a fucking cigarette, he needs to be left the fuck alone. He doesn’t care enough about this.

She hums, leaning against the counter again. “I’m just saying she’s a pretty girl.”

She’s also a woman. Not exactly my type, thanks mom.

It grinds at his teeth and he doesn’t bother responding. Somewhere in the depths of the house, there’s another creak. Something distinctive and Sebastian’s eyes snap towards the darkened hall, ears pricked like he’s prey in the tall grass.

Don’t be Demetrius, please don’t be Demetrius. I can’t handle both of them at once, not right fucking now, not before I’ve had a smoke not before I’ve even had a cup of fucking coffee.

A second creak, and a third, and soon it’s replaced by the sound of steps on the stairs, a soft padding of feet that Sebastian knows isn’t his step-dad.

Worse? Better? Sebastian tilts his head back and squeezes his eyes shut as Maru yawns her way into the kitchen, rubbing at her eyes.

“Morning, mom—oh! Morning, Seb. Oooh did you start the coffee already? Sweet.”

Fuck him for fucks sake. He could just get up and go, right? He doesn’t need coffee. He pats his pockets.

No smokes, no phone, no wallet, no keys.

That’s fine.

His mom stretches an arm over Maru’s shoulders, a quick hug and a soft, “morning, sweetie.”

A round of greetings, none of which Sebastian elects to participate in. He just bounces on his heels a little, trying to maneuver his way around the slowly-growing crowd in the kitchen.

His mom gestures over. “I was just telling your brother how lovely Abby is.”

“Ab’s great, mom, we all know. I’ll make sure to tell her you think she’s pretty.” He deadpans. He could probably squeeze around Maru now. He doesn’t need his house key if he’s back before eight—and really, if he leaves his phone here that’s probably for the best. He could make a break for the front door.

But his cigarettes.

Yeah that, that he needs. Did we leave any at Sam’s by accident? No—no we don’t leave anything at Sam’s really. Too worried about his little brother getting into it.

Dammit.

Maru makes a noise, some half-squeak. “Abby is great, isn’t she Sebby?”

Fucking terrific, Maru. Still not sleeping with her. They’re both grinning like they have secrets that he doesn’t know, like they’re brimming with all the knowledge in the world instead of just conclusions they both jumped to land on. Trading glances in that way that transcends words, where there’s no dialogue needed between mother and daughter.

It’s stifled giggles into the back of Maru’s hand as Robin reaches up to grab another mug for her and Sebastian tries to detangle himself better — but there’s not a ton of room to escape, there’s no way he could dive back into his room and then make it to the front door unbothered.

He can already feel his cheeks heating and great, great that’s going to keep them off his fucking back for now, right? That’s going to keep him from having to face down all of that bullshit step-by-fucking-step.

Maru crinkles her nose. “I mean, you know how great she is, right big brother? You two spend an awful lot of time together.”

“I spend an awful lot of time with Sam too.” I’m gay—if I were fucking anyone, it’d be...well, no it wouldn’t be Sam would it? Sam’s Sam.

Maru shrugs. “Sam’s Sam.”

Well, fine.

Their mom laughs, a cheery sort of noise that should fill Sebastian with a familiar warmth, with that little ball of fire in his chest that reminds him of hot chocolate in the winter and blankets wrapped around his shoulders and the way she always smells like wood dust and cedar trees.

It doesn’t. Instead it’s ice-water poured down his spine, it’s freezing him in place as she makes another jab at how much Abby and Sebastian sit next to each other at the saloon.

Maru counters, “I bet she finds your pool skills impressive.”

“You know he got those from his grandfather? He always used to say that that was how he won my mom’s heart.”

Through his pool hustling days? Yeah, sure that’s it. “Can we please,” he tries, but the attention burns its way back onto him in all the ways he hates. He’s starting to feel trapped, he’s starting to feel like there’s something crawling back up the length of his spine. Starting to feel like it’s everything at once, like it’s too much and too much and too much.

A suffocation of space.

Maru hums and sinks the dagger in with a little gleam of mirth. “I mean you’ve already got her impressed enough, right, Sebby? You were leaving her place pretty late not that long ago.”

And there it goes. His entire face burns with the implication and there is no hiding that. It’s some mottled-red mixture of anger and mortification. “That’s not—”

Were you, Sebastian?” His mom’s brows raise in her hairline, something else lurking there just under a spark in her eyes. He doesn’t know what it is, but the teasing lingers just a little bit there, a little bit of something else, a little bit of a question that he doesn’t know if he can answer, that he doesn’t want to answer.

“Can we please just leave me the fuck alone, holy shit,” he snaps before he can stop himself. It’s been simmering too low for too long, a bubbling kind of frustration that crawls out of his throat without his consent. “I’m not—-just leave me the fuck alone, and leave Abby alone. We’re not—I’m not—-we’re not fucking. How many times do I have to say it? I have no interest, absolutely fucking none, so how about we just get the fuck out of my personal life for like five fucking minutes—”

It’s all there, it’s all out there now and Maru’s eyes are huge behind her glasses and his mom looks too shell-shocked to be angry.

“Just—” he holds up his hands, wincing as the regret slams into his gut. “Fuck.”

Fuck.

He slips out and storms his way to the front door, thrumpulse heart beating out the demand there getoutgetoutgetoutgetoutgetoutgetoutgetout — a command pounded out against his ribcage, desperate and needy and please for fucks sake please don’t follow me.

He can hear Maru’s voice—I was just—and his mom’s there behind him—Honey, we were just teasing.

That’s all it is, teasing.

Poking him, prodding him, sticking needles up under his skin until he snaps, until he thrashes and bites. There are only so many ways I can tell you to stop.

The door slams shut behind him and no one follows.

Fucking idiot. You are a fucking idiot. Way to go jackass, yelling at your sister and your mom for what? A couple jokes? You know what it looks like, you know what it’s always looked like. People have always stood you and Abby next to each other and drawn a little circle around you two. There you go, perfect step up. Goth and goth, right? Or punk and punk or emo-emo, whatever the fuck they wanted to call them today.

Everyone has always known, you stubborn fucking dick. You’re such a piece of shit son and a piece of shit brother.

Both of them deserve better.

Sebastian has no idea where he’s headed, his hood flipped up over his head and his arms wrapped around himself. The lake is too close and the woods are too far, too filled with the other source of his fucking stomach-bile shame.

He makes it as far as the beach before the sky properly opens up and drops a metric fuckton of rain right onto Sebastian’s head, forcing him to turn back around.

Thank fuck we didn’t bring our phone, he thinks as the whip-wild downpour half-blinds him. Or our cigarettes. There’s no point in keeping his hood up as water soaks through it, through his hair and his skin and he starts to feel like he’s flooding from the core out (or maybe that’s just his shoes)

Sebastian throws an arm in front of his face as he tries to just wipe the water out of his eyes long enough to squint down and see where he is.

His eyes flicker over to a light in the distance—he’s by the Stardrop, he could take refuge in there but it’s always crowded when it’s raining. On days like this, it’s bustling and he can already hear the rattle of music and fuck he’d rather fucking drown.

He knows this town, knows all the pathways, the ins and outs, the fastest ways to get places, the least crowded ways—he knows how long it would take to walk to Sam’s, how long it would take to sprint and drip there on Jodi’s welcome mat while she fetched him a towel and rocked between chiding him for coming out in this weather and making sure he was okay and making Sam get him a shirt to wear while she threw his clothes in the dryer.

He knew how long it would take to get to Pierre’s, to weasel his way in, dripping there like a drowned rat until Abby came down with towels and poked fun at him.

“Sebastian?” A voice rings through the wind. “Dear, is that you out there in this weather?”

At the sound of his name, he glances up, wind tossing rainwater into his face and pelting the side of him with a shiver-inducing chill. There’s a glow coming brighter now, there at the Mullner’s doorstep. Evelyn rests her hand on the frame, shawl wrapped tightly around her bony shoulders.

“I thought I saw you running out there; come in here, dear!”

Come in here. No, no Alex is in there.

Alex is in there somewhere, lurking behind the shadows and hiding in the picture frames. (I thought you were friends now) oh shut up, for fucks sake for once in your life can you just shut up.

He presses the heel of his hand to the space under his eye, grimacing against that shitty voice that keeps just chewing on the back of his mind as he looks back towards Sam’s place. He’s already soaked, there’s nothing else that can be done for him really. There’s no bother protecting, no bother running to avoid it. His shirt and hoodie are plastered to his skin, his hair is dripping rivulets down his neck.

“Don’t make me come out there and get you, get in here now.”

And how is he supposed to say no to that? Ducking his head, he comes close enough for Evelyn to snag him by the elbow, a deceptive strength lurking under transparent skin and delicate limbs.

“Mrs. Mullner, I promise—”

“Hush. How would your mother feel if she knew you were out here like this?”

Oh she knows, and she’s probably pissed.

“Really, I’m okay I was just going to—”

She holds him fast there, just inside the doorway. The frigid blast of the AC meets his soaked clothes and immediately Sebastian regrets everything. (Shouldn’t have even gotten out of bed today) Oh look, for once, we’re in agreement.

“You’re soaking wet, Sebastian, nonsense. Alex! Come out here!”

Not him, fuck. Not now, not when I look like a drowned rat—proof of how fucking fuck-skinny I am.

Really,” he tries, one last time, pulling against Evelyn’s iron-grip on his elbow, trying to inch his way closer to the door. Deeper inside the house, beyond where the TV is blaring just a few notches too loud, there’s a muffled thud and a brief clatter.

Sebastian’s eyes find the source just as the door opens, Alex hurrying out with worried-wide eyes.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” He asks and—oh Yoba he’s not wearing a shirt. Look away, look away. Look at the ceiling, at the carpeting, at the puddle that you’re dripping onto the floor, like a wet stray brought in by his grandmother, a pathetic drenched little animal.

But Sebastian can’t look away, not as Alex freezes there halfway down the hall. Look away. Sebastian can’t stop his eyes from dripping down Alex’s torso, following the chiseled line of his shoulders, drinking in the well-carved stomach and the knife-sharp cut of his obliques. Fuck holy fucking shit this isn’t fair.

Alex is gorgeous—he’s always been gorgeous but this is something else. Stretches of skin that make Sebastian jealous of the sun that got to touch him, all golden-warm and somewhere between soft and solid. He stands there, as every one of Sebastian’s fantasies crumples and burns to ash because they could never have been as true as the real thing. Like he’s been carved with precision and intent, shaped to perfection out of the clay and mud, from the sweat-damp strands of hair stuck to his temples to the low-slung band of his gym shorts.

Sebastian has never been more thankful he’s freezing cold.

He’s never wanted to bite anything more than that sweat-smooth stretch of skin on his pectoral. (What would it look like, bruised with your teeth? Why don’t we ever go to the beach, again?)

Sebastian’s entire mouth goes dry, a parched drought in the middle of a downpour as Alex crosses one arm over his chest, rubbing at his shoulder. “I thought, uh, I thought it was an emergency. Sebastian what are—what are you doing here?”

Good question. Let me know if you find the answer.

Evelyn answers before Sebastian can find a drop of water in this salt-fuck desert of his mouth. “He was out in this weather and he’s absolutely soaked. Alex be a dear and find him something warm and dry—and a few towels.” She rounds on him before he can recoil back. “And you, young man, are going to get out of those wet clothes before you catch cold.”

He protests as she escorts him to a little bathroom, making him toe off his boots there in the doorway and hurry over her floors to drip as little as possible there. They all fall on deaf ears and within seconds he’s standing there, steadily building a damp little spot under his feet.

It’s not unfamiliar, as far as bathrooms go. White walls, mirror, floor a slightly different, slightly-off shade of not-quite-beige. All porcelain and linoleum and too-bright lighting. There’s a sink, a shower, a dark green mat, and a towel hung up to dry.

It hits him, standing there, that he’s in Alex’s bathroom.

No. (We weren’t even thinking anything.)

Sebastian’s eyes flicker to the counter, the neat little rows of gel and mousse sitting in stacks and pushed up against the mirror. There’s a toothbrush resting beside the basin, hand towel hanging up on the wall and cologne and aftershave in a further corner.

His fingers brush the porcelain edge, half-worried that someone was going to burst through the door and ask him what he was doing. What he was doing here, what he was doing lurking on the edges of Alex’s life, looking at the personal details that just sit out there in the open—a tube of that muscle pain cream, the kind that leaves that medicinal-menthol smell that clings to Alex’s scent, flush right against his skin.

Toothpaste, mouthwash, a nearly-empty bottle of hand soap. His eyes track as his fingers slide off the edge of the sink, leaving him lingering on the shower. His clothes cling, uncomfortable and freezing, to the cracks in his skin and the spaces between his ribs as he leans just a little to the side—just enough to peer around the shower curtain, flicking down over the bottles of shampoo, the body wash, the washcloth draped over the spout.

(You’re such a fucking creep. What fucking stalker, peeking into Alex’s shower. What are you going to do next, sniff his shampoo you pathetic sack of shit?)

He tries to swallow down the image of Alex in the same spot as him, Alex with a towel wrapped around his waist—chest bare and shoulders set just as they were in the hall. His breath falls with a shiver as he peels off his hoodie and his t-shirt in one go, resting them on the edge of the sink. Don’t think about it. His fingers brush the edge of his jeans. Don’t think about Alex standing here, don’t think about him naked in that shower—don’t think about how he looks dripping wet.

Fuck. He pauses to push his hair back, slicking it back off his face. It’s going to curl at the edges, against his brow and cheekbone, frizzing and tangling just a little unmanageably—leave him looking a little ragged, a little younger.

He can already feel it at the base of his neck, drawing a shiver down the length of his spine as another stray droplet races its way down.

Sebastian can blame the prickle of goosebumps on the cool air of the house, the freezing tile beneath his feet on the way his spine shudders again. It’s not at all the image of Alex, dripping, face turned up to the water spray.

A soft knock jolts him from the thought, tearing his fingers away from the edge of the jeans he’s supposed to be taking off.

Alex’s voice comes through the door, muffled and distant. “Hey, I uh, have your towel.”

Right. Right. Sebastian fumbles a bit, opening the door. Alex had put a shirt on, collected a bundle of what looked like some green sweater, a towel, and some sweats that Sebastian knows are not going to fit him in the slightest.

Alex’s eyes drop, cheeks looking flushed and for a second Sebastian wonders why. He glances over his shoulder, down to his feet before Alex clears his throat and looks down the hall. “I didn’t know you had tattoos.”

“What?” Sebastian asks, lamely, looking down at himself. Right. He’d taken his shirt off, it was draining there in the sink leaving him exposed and frozen right in front of Alex.

Cool. Cool cool cool. Totally fine.

He should look away, but his eyes settle back on Alex, where his gaze flickers back and Sebastian can feel it crawling down his skin, he can feel those eyes tracing down the black lines on his ribcage and around his forearm and on his bicep. “They look cool.”

Instinctively, a bubble of self-consciousness eating at whatever web of heat is trying to swallow him whole, he rubs the wolf at his side. “Thanks. I got most of them a couple years ago.”

Every part of him burns, fuck the blasting AC and the buzzing of the news from three rooms down—all he can feel are Alex’s eyes sliding up him, like he’s trying to map out all of Sebastian’s imperfections there, like he’s only just now learning how pathetically skinny he is, how fucking wretched he is.

There’s nothing, for a long time, nothing but Alex’s restless eyes and the bob of his throat and no, no, don’t even pretend like he wants you. You know that’s not true—you know that’s bullshit. He would’ve said it already, he would’ve said it that night. Friends, he wants to be friends. Nothing more, don’t fuck this up, don’t do something stupid.

“I uh...yeah they look good, man. Really sick.”

“Thanks.”

There’s a moment before something breaks, where it hangs there in the sky effortlessly floating at the peak of descent. Like his moms favorite mug when he dropped it unloading the dishwasher when he was twelve, or Sam’s body before he hit the pavement and broke his arm.

Right before it all shatters, there’s a moment of silence. A moment where anything seems possible, falling, flight. Alex’s eyes meet Sebastians, for just a moment and it’s silence.

It breaks when Alex steps back, clearing his throat and shoving the bundle at Sebastian without an ounce of care or grace. “So yeah. Towel, sweater, sweatpants. Grandma put on some tea for you too so just, yeah, out in the kitchen when you’re done., alright?”

“Thanks,” he repeats, but Alex is gone too quickly, too fast. Back down the hallway and into his room, vanishing.

Slowly, Sebastian closes the door and dries himself off. He was right that the sweatpants weren’t going to fit right. They slide right off his bony hips, hanging loose there even as he brings the drawstring as tight as it goes. Don’t think don’t think don’t think.

He tries to toggle that switch in his mind that thinks of Alex, that burns that white-magnesium look back up the length of his torso, that thinks of Alex in these sweats. We’re not thinking about that.

Sebastian plucks up the sweater. It’s a deep green, like most of the things that Alex wears—not that Sebastian blames him, that color blends so well with his skin and his eyes, it draws out a warmth, letting it bleed there, pour out from every inch of him.

Soft, a bit well-worn with threads fraying at the sleeves and the bottom. It looks handmade, something crafted with love and care. He drags his thumb for another half-second before swallowing it all down and tugging the sweater over his head.

It settles against his skin and Sebastian takes another moment to look at himself in the mirror. His hair is half-curled now, a desperate finger-comb doing nothing but shedding inky strands into the bathroom. He looks...like he’d expect.

Sebastian always wears oversized hoodies, things too long and too big to fit a shape to his body, he’s always been keen on keeping himself hidden. Alex’s sweater is too big, but in a strange way. Sebastians hoodies have learned how to fall, never stretched in new ways, never pulled apart or really filled — they’re only ever hanging there. Here, this sweater pulls a bit from his neck, his shoulders feel smaller, lost in a stretch of fabric that wasn’t ever meant to fit someone slender like him.

It consumes him, swallowing him down and bundling and creasing in ways that, well, Sebastian doesn’t exactly find them unpleasant. New, and with the strangeness of newness, but not the worst thing.

Green though, not really his color, he decides.

He’s barely out the bathroom door with his damp bundle of clothes when Evelyn descends, ignoring protests to pop them in the dryer and guiding Sebastian all the way to the kitchen table. He’s not...not a tea person so he sits there, politely, sipping at the mug that she left for him, squirming a bit as he fights off all the things he doesn’t want to think about.

Like skin.

And Alex.

And Alex’s skin.

The rain slows after almost an hour of quiet small-talk over fresh-baked cookies. Alex doesn’t come out of his bedroom again.

Evelyn loads him up with a tin of the cookies, an armful of his half-dried clothes, and an umbrella which he promises to return with the container and Alex’s clothes.

“Don’t make a fuss,” she says, straightening out the front of the sweater with those nervous-parent hands. “Have your mother give me a call when you get home, so I don’t send Alex up the mountain to be sure you haven’t gotten lost in the rain.”

Alex. Just the name sets something off in his belly.

“Of course, Mrs. Mullner.”

Evelyn’s smile doesn’t even waver, it’s brilliant and welcome-warm. “How many times have I told you to call me Granny?”

“A lot, Mrs. Mullner.” There’s a teasing edge to it, and Sebastian lets his eyes bleed around the room. He can catch the living room from there, tying up his boots, and the entrance to the hallway. All the places he remembers from when he was younger, from years of being babysat—when Jodi was busy or Kent was home or Sam was sick—all the places he remembers from that afternoon.

The couch in the living room is the same.

Sagging now, worn down by age and time. But the same.

If he closes his eyes, he can still see Alex there.

He straightens and tries to push the memories of this house’s worst day away.

The rain comes again, but in a slow fashion. There’s a threatening build to the edges of it, but it just steadily drips against the borrowed umbrella the entire walk home.

###

His mom is in the kitchen, when he slips through the door. She doesn’t mention that morning, just raises a brow at his change of clothes and twists her hands together. She wants to talk about it (she won’t because you’re a fucking asshole who already snapped once today)

“Stop by Sam’s?” She asks, voice too careful to be a coincidence.

Sebastian sniffs once. “No, uh. Mrs. Mullner saw me out in the rain and sort of...made me come inside.”

She smiles, a little distantly, at the thought. “Yeah, that sounds like Evelyn. Caroline is always trying to help her around the garden, but she keeps shooing her off. I swear I’ve seen that old woman lift more weight than I can. She’s strong, you should do what she says.”

“I did. She said to call her when I got back and I don’t—”

She waves him off. “I’ll do it, I wanted to ask how she and George were on firewood. Go take a warm shower, honey, you’re soaked.”

Sebastian nods, throws his clothes back into the wash and makes his way back downstairs under the guise of changing.

Changing. Of stripping out of borrowed clothes and sliding back into the ones that know him. The ones already imprinted with his body, the ones that smell like cigarettes and coffee. With his bedroom door shut behind him, Sebastian plucks at the collar of this sweater, raising it up to bury his nose in it.

That ghost of Alex he’d smelled in the saloon weeks ago is there, consecrated and pure. It’s the hint of muscle-ache cream underlining this spicy-sweetness that Sebastian wishes he wishes he knew what it was from. He wishes he’d taken the cap off the body wash he’d seen in the shower, leaned in and inhaled to find the source of what makes Alex like this.

What makes it so Sebastian has to press the fabric closer, eyes drifting shut as he slides his free hand across his stomach. He’s half-undressed, ditching the sweatpants to climb into bed before all those thoughts he was trying so hard to keep at bay swarm him, unrelenting wave after wave after wave.

Alex in this shirt, strong chest stretching it out—his bare skin touching it from the inside, in all the places where Sebastian is touching it now. Fabric remembers and here is Sebastian, sitting wrapped in the memory of Alex.

His heart races, his tongue fills his mouth and he breathes in Alex again. He lies out over his sheets, sinking into the fantasy as that image of Alex in the hallway burns itself into the back of his eyelids.

The defined muscles against his stomach, his chest, his sides and arms, all carving pathways—places to follow with fingertips and the flat of Sebastian’s tongue. He could memorize him like that, taste the skin that touched the things that he’s touching now.

If he thinks hard enough, maybe he can bring it there, maybe he can turn the slide of the sweater into the smooth slide of skin on skin. Smooth, yes, Alex looked so smooth so soft and hard at the same time—what would he feel like here, pressed against us?

Sebastian brings a shaking hand up. He presses it to his chest, letting himself get lost for just a second in the slide of soft yarn against his skin. He imagines it’s Alex’s heartbeat hammering away there under his palm. That it’s Alex there above him. He hooks the collar of the shirt up over his nose, sliding his arms out and bunching the whole sweater up around his neck.

Shameless, you’re fucking shameless. Sebastian knows he’s not a good person.

You’re friends now, that definitely makes this worse. Shut up.

Sebastian strips down, no time for teasing, no time for lingering there in the corners and edges of his own mind. He burns, a smoldering wreck from the inside out as he kicks his underwear away, leaving him only in the sweater half-wrapped around his face.

His hand is back down over himself as soon as he can, hips re-settled and legs stretched out. He’d been half-hard since he first got to his room, reliving the memory of seeing Alex and it doesn’t take a lot of work to get himself there.

Breathing it all in, piecing together a new fantasy now that he’s seen it, now that he’s seen the way Alex’s body moves, the way his skin pulls over muscles in the arms and his chest, the way he stretches himself out and those eyes fuck. He bites back a groan at just the thought, wrist twisting his palm over the head of his cock.

The way Alex looked at him, the way he looked at him.

Like he was staring right through him again.

Would he look at you like that with your legs up over his shoulders? Looking at you like he can see every secret desire, every sick thing you’ve ever wanted — like he could tear you apart and put you back together? Would he look at you like that when he fucks you?

Fuck—fuck.

He tears his hand off himself and fumbles, blindly, at his bedside table. Fucking—now that’s an image that won’t pass.

Sebastian doesn’t usually do this alone.

It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy it, it’s just the added time, the added effort, the added mess. Not worth it when all he wants is to crank one out and be done with it.

But tonight? Every inch of him craves it, craves the thought of Alex above him, of those broad hands sweeping up the lengths of his thighs, pushing them apart and burying himself there between them. His fingers close around his bottle of lube before he nudges the drawer shut.

Fuck him. Fuck him.

He draws his knees up as he imagines Alex there, lingering above him, a body dripping sweat and exertion-flushed and burning under the touch. Close enough for Sebastian to wrap his fingers around the back of his neck, for him to pull Alex down and kiss him fucking stupid.

Alex’s fingers are thick. Sebastian slicks up two of his own, re-adjusting himself so he can reach down better, stoking and ebbing the flames burning out under his skin all at once.

It’s been a while since he’s been fucked, taken his fake ID (well, real one now) to one of the sleazier bars there in the city. Since he finished half a drink and let the blinding anonymity of the darkness swallow him whole. It was always easier to pretend to be someone else, someone less anxious, someone less of a ruined fuck-up. He wasn’t himself out there, he was someone else.

Someone else in the alley, someone else in the darkest booths of the bar with a hand sliding down the back of his jeans.

He likes to think it would be different with Alex. He teases himself, the pads of two fingers rubbing and brushing as he wonders if Alex would tease him. If he would croon questions and expect whimpered answers as his fingers circle his hole, dipping just the tip of his ring finger into him, feeling the heat and the twist of his body.

Or if Alex would go for it, if he would take and take and take, a flex of muscle having Sebastian because he says he wants him, because he says he will. A finger buried up to the second knuckle, making Sebastian’s body tense in the rush of sensation that lances through him, Making him turn his head and gasp into his pillows, the sweater knocking free from around his nose.

Sebastian works himself slowly, one becomes the second. He knows himself, his boundaries and his edges. He finds that place inside himself readily, toes curling into his sheets as he brings his second hand down.

He pushes the sweater up more, making sure he won’t get it filthy, and drags his fingers down his chest, down his stomach. His cock curves up against his belly, aching and flushed as he takes himself in hand again thumb swiping the leaking head.

It’s not going to last long like this, not as he imagines it’s not just Alex’s fingers anymore, as he imagines what Alex would look like, hands braced by Sebastian’s head, cock driving into him the way his fingers are now, beat by beat, the twin panting and twin groaning and twin whimpers that Sebastian keeps bitten behind his lip.

He comes with his teeth firmly wrapped around his moan, hips stuttering between his fingers and his hand.

Only one thing settles down under his skin as he comes down. Somewhere muddled up, overtaking the self-loathing, overtaking the shame-spiral that threatens to chew on his tongue.

Fuck, is all he feels.

We’re fucked.

 

Chapter Text

Sebastian has never been good with events. He goes to the requisite ones, he hangs out with Sam and Abby and doesn’t eat the soup at the luau, he tries not to gag at the fucking stench of eggs at the festival in the spring.

Whatever Pelican Town’s obsession with festivals and gatherings was, Sebastian hated them. Well, most of them. Spirits Eve wasn’t so bad most of the time.

But that was one out of what felt like a fucking thousand.

This was another, if only because it wasn’t exactly a festival—nor was it really sanctioned.

Sebastian wouldn’t say that he was surprised Abby had only taken an extra summer to graduate—maybe a little. Not to her detriment, or to say she’d slacked off during her time at university, but more to the idea that he’d been privy to just how many times she changed majors.

English, then Animal Sciences (around the time she picked up David from a pet store in the mall in Zuzu), then back to English, then Religious Studies, then some kind of women’s focused thing. She settled on some kind of geology thing, picking up a minor in museum studies along the way, took as many of her classes online as possible. (Her math class a few semesters ago might’ve been online and Sebastian might’ve taken all of her exams for her. And finished her final project for a computer science course she signed up for to fill out whatever extra credits she needed)

The celebration, like anything that wasn’t relegated to the town square or the beach, or some random fucking clearing they only ever went to once a year—was at the Stardrop. Sebastian got the first round, if only to assuage his guilt at being just a little shocked to find out that she’d wrangled all the credits she needed after changing majors one last time a few years ago.

It had started with everyone, with Pierre and Caroline telling jokes, telling stories, spilling their pride with raised wine glasses. People fold in, here and there, buying Abby drinks, Gus sending over a pizza without charging them—celebration at its most basic, at its most tolerable.

He has a drink or two as the hours crawl by, people peeling off and people joining slowly, but Sebastian figures someone ought to be keeping an eye on Abby and Sam, well, Sam is keeping close to her for certain.

Sebastian keeps a fucking eye on that, nursing the same beer he’d been slowly working for the past half-hour.

How do we feel about that? Sam’s arm loose around Abby’s shoulders, her cheeks alcohol-flushed as she shares a laugh with Leah about something that Sebastian has no fucking clue what those two might even possibly have in common enough to laugh about.

(Honestly? No idea)

That’s probably nothing. He swallows from the bottle, suddenly tasting a bit more bitter than he prefers. Nothing. Nothing at all. (This’ll change things, we fucking hate change. Just wait, it won’t be you three anymore—it’ll be them and you) Bullshit. Nothing’s happening.

If something was happening, they’d tell him.

They would.

It’s long past his eight o’clock smoke break, pushing somewhere just past ten. Leah was gone, Pierre and Caroline long-so too. Elliott’s lingering, chatting with Harvey and gesturing—boisterous and way, way, too loud—as he humbly requested another drink be brought to Abby. (Sebastian doesn’t even bother trying to hide the roll of his eyes. Harmless, he tries to remind himself. Elliott’s harmless. Loud, but harmless.)

It catches his teeth, in some way, the sound does. It lingers there and crawls around in his head scratching at the walls of his skull until he needs to slip outside—at least just for a fucking second.

A breather, a smoke. He tells Abby, who plants a gin-and-tonic scented kiss right on his cheek (well, lime-scented mostly. Very lime scented. A fucking unconscionable amount of limes) and tells him to “don’t spend all night dicking around out there. It’s party time.”

He slings an arm around her shoulder, Sam having vacated the premises to fuck off somewhere else. “We’ll actually party in the city soon,” he tells her, half a promise. She whoops, almost deafening, as he slides away an out the door.

For once, being entirely honest—Sebastian really wasn’t expecting Alex to be there. He expects to be alone, he expects to find the pen dark with nothing but Dusty curled up in his little house. He expects the quiet shadows, the breeze.

No part of him expects to circle to the side of the saloon and see that familiar stretch of shoulders.

He hasn’t seen Alex, really, since that night—right on the ass end of summer. He’d gotten a glimpse of him at the moonlight jellies, keeping an eye out for him between making sure Sam and Abby weren’t plotting. They were brushing elbows on the other side, whispers prickling up under his skin.

Alex wasn’t looking his way. Sebastian pretended not to notice him watching Haley, pretended not to notice how close she was standing to Elliott. He pretended not to notice the way people pretended not to notice—everyone fully aware that this will be subject later. Because that’s how it goes, right? Don’t notice now, not where there are people to notice your noticing. When the people you’re noticing are there.

Don’t notice too obviously, don’t do more than glance. (Like how they do to you? You can feel them, right? Their eyes creeping up your spine, you can feel them tangling up in your secrets. You can feel them sussing out all the whispers of yourself.

Funny, that Sebastian. Stays locked up in his room all the time. That Sebastian, never see him with a girlfriend, do you? Sebastian, what a weird guy. What a strange son Robin has. Never does anything, never goes anywhere, doesn’t have many friends, doesn’t take well to women. Just stays at home all day, tapping away at his computer, doing nothing, being nothing.

She must be so disappointed.)

Sebastian doesn’t bother with his cigarettes this time, no need for a farce when it’s already been called out on, right? He just slides right up there, right into Alex’s space. Just like he did that last time, watching Dusty chew on some bone that Alex must’ve tossed him before Sebastian came out here. Forearms on the rough edges of the dog pen, wrists hanging over the edge.

“Hey.” It’s his turn this time, so he takes it.

A nothing word that somehow weighs down with something.

Alex flashes him a half-smile—somehow both something and nothing at once. It doesn’t do anything to him. Nope. Not that hint of a dimple, not that curl of his lip. “Hey.”

Nothing. Something.

Whatever.

“Not going in to celebrate?” Sebastian asks, anticipating the answer but not the way Alex’s lips curl down. No, fuck come back—great, nice going Sebastian look what you did. One smile and you fucked it all up.

Sebastian watches as he looks down at his hands, broad fingers twisting together. “No. Abigail and I don’t talk.”

“Neither do her and Harvey but he was buying her a drink as I was leaving—said something about stress levels of the average college graduate.”

Alex shrugs, reaching down as Dusty whines—giving him the silent plea for pets that he’s obviously asking for. “Wouldn’t know.”

Is that it? Sebastian frowns. “Neither would I.” Yeah, that pleased his mother. Part of why Sebastian’s skin was crawling, he thinks—like he could feel her eyes on him, boring in wondering if maybe he’d gone to college if this would’ve been different. If he’d be different.

It didn’t work like that.

Item number seventy-nine on reasons why you are a fucking disappointment to your mother, right, Sebastian? She’d tried to give that smile, that one that says how it’ll be alright when you said you didn’t want to go to college.

(She deserves a better son)

There’s a noise, a short hum from beside him. “Right.”

“So is that why you’re not in on the festivities? Seems like this town never misses an excuse to do something.” He picks at a piece of splintering wood, half-bored, mostly anxious.

“What about you, Seb?” Seb. Fuck, each time he says it it’s like some lance there under his skin. Seb. he wants to hear it a thousand times. Seb. For fucks sake please stop calling him that. Seb—Seb—Seb. His name feels too heavy for Alex’s tongue, too bitter, too hard-to-swallow without choking on all the baggage that comes with it.

He hums back, stretching forward until his back cracks—if just to give himself something to do. “Crowded. Abby’ll get it.”

“You don’t like crowds.” It’s not a question.

Then again, who in this fucking town doesn’t know? That Sebastian is such a strange one, isn’t he? Never see him participating in the festivals. That Sebastian really hates these town gatherings. Poor Robin and her anti-social prick of a kid.

Haven’t you heard, he once had some kind of attack during the fair—I saw him out behind the saloon, half-collapsed by the wall, head between his knees like he couldn’t breathe.

Have you heard? Have you seen the way his hands shake? What about the way he curls his shoulders, retreats back into that oversized hoodie he always wears? Something’s wrong with that boy—has to be.

No one’s said it, but Sebastian can feel them think it, he can feel them wondering, crawling up under his skin and poking around between his veins to find the glitch.

“I don’t.” Fuck, he wishes he’d actually lit a fucking cigarette. He wishes he had the nerve to light one now, but he can’t map out how Alex will react (tell you to cut it out, roll his eyes and snap at you the way he did before, back before you started talking—really talking. He’ll leave, he’ll go inside and then you won’t have this anymore. You’ll be out here, all alone. Just like you should be.)

His fingers itch, his tongue rolls along the back of his teeth and he scratches down along his thumb. Fuck him.

Alex’s eyes flicker to his fidgeting. “Go ahead. Just don’t blow it in my face.”

The joke lines up on his tongue, then I guess you’ll just have to swallow. Something he’d probably said to Sam a hundred times, always either earning him a faux-gag or an eye roll, or a man fine, as long as it’s not in the hair, alright? But for that moment it sits there, the image flushes up Sebastian’s cheeks.

Yoba, what the fuck is wrong with him?

He leans back, nervous-fingered hand fishing the pack from the front of his hoodie and tapping it against his palm a few times. “Not gonna tell me to fuck off?” He asks, before flipping the top and plucking one out.

“Not unless you’re a dick about it.” Alright, fair assessment. Sebastian takes a polite step back, hand blocking the early-fall wind. He’s lighting it when Alex asks, “Why do smokers do that anyway?”

Glancing up, he asks around the cigarette between his lips. “Block the wind? For obvious fucking reasons.”

“No, the tapping thing you did. You do it every time.”

Every time. Sebastian takes his time putting his pack away, heart finding root between his ears once again. It pounds away there, a tattoo of anxious confusion. Every time. Every time.

Like he’s watched. Like he noticed. How many times have you smoked in front of him recently? Since that talk here last time? None. Before that, after he dumped Haley?

(Don’t you dare fucking think that he’s noticed you, that he’s even fucking looked at you)

The first inhale soothes down that nervous-tremor that boils up under his skin, the bites back the anxiety-patter just a little. Just enough that he doesn’t so much feel like clawing every inch of his skin off and as he does feel like yanking out fistfuls of his hair.

“It’s uh, it’s called packing. Just,” he waves the hand holding his cigarette, exhaling in the opposite direction of Alex before speaking. “Just packs down the tobacco, makes it burn slower, and you’re less likely to lose your cherry.”

Alex’s brow reaches up to his hairline and Sebastian feels that flush sear down his throat again. “The burning part,” he explains. “That’s the cherry.”

“Where did you learn to do that? Can’t imagine it’s just...something you know already.”

Internet, mostly, he wants to say. Because it’s the half-truth, because he’s always done it and he didn’t know why. And he always did it because it’s what he’d seen done, a kid sitting in the passenger seat of his dad’s car, watching him fish out his own from the center console, smack it three times there at the red light.

It’s the half-truth, something that he started doing when he picked up the habit at fifteen (which you did to piss off your mom, to piss of Demetrius. Half-hoping you’d be caught, hoping someone would drag you inside and pay attention to you, you dramatic piece of shit. Look how well that didn’t go.)

Sebastian settles on the other half, staring down at the point of light lingering there in the quiet darkness. “My dad did it, picked it up from him before he realized that nineteen year olds don’t want to fuck dudes with kids.”

“Oh.”

He winces, throat closing around the way too much information he just fucking offered. He shuts himself up with another drag. If we’re lucky, we’ll get cancer right now and die immediately.

Another exhale, timed with the wind to keep it as downstream as he can from Alex. He pretends not to notice the way his nose crinkles anyway. “Sorry,” he says. Either for the comment or the smoke.

He isn’t sure which.

“Don’t be, it’s uh—I get it, I guess. Little bit.” Alex reaches into his pocket, something brown and small between his fingers. A treat, judging by the way Dusty bolts upright and hooks both his massive paws up on the top of the fence. Alex drops it and lets him hoover it down. Like he’s buying time. “My dad wasn’t a good guy, either.”

“Yeah?”

Alex’s throat works around the swallow and Sebastian watches, eyes tracking down the dip of it—just lingers there between them, like smoke. “Yeah. I don’t like to go into the saloon because I really don’t like being around drunk people. My dad used to drink too much. Used to lay into me and my mom. He’d get drunk, get angry and uh… yeah.” Alex rubs the back of his neck, some instinctual flinch twitching one of his shoulders up.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” he says, because that’s what you say, right? He ashes away from the pen, away from Alex and himself but he doesn’t take another drag. “If you don’t want to.”

“It’s fine.” Clearly, not. Sebastian felt that iron-band around his chest, that one he hates when he can see it looping around other people. It’s a bitter tang on the back of his tongue, sharp and scraping there. Pity, when it’s other people. “He left when I was nine, just up and gone while I was in school and mom was at work. Came home and all his crap was gone. He didn’t even show up to my mom’s funeral a couple years later, I honestly have no idea if he even knows she died.”

Alex tosses another treat into the pen, but his eyes don’t follow Dusty this time. They stay fixated on the middle distance, on the space between his memories.

He shakes his head, something pulling back over his expression, melting away that coolness cut by the moonlight with a half-leered mask. “But hey, I got pretty good reflexes now from all the projectile beer bottles I spent years dodging. Plus a couple scars from the learning curve, but y’know the ladies dig those.”

His laugh was hollow and Sebastian couldn’t follow him. The smoke sat heavy there in his lungs, some acrid build-up coating the lining of his stomach. All of a sudden the idea of it churned there, all bitter and thick.

Sebastian grinds it out on the outside of a post.

“You don’t have to—” Alex starts, that mask melting just a bit.

“Cutting back. Even Abby’s been on my case about it,” he half-lies. “Sorry about your piece of shit dad.”

“Sorry about yours too.”

Sebastian shrugs one shoulder. “Not as bad as yours. It was worse for my mom than it was for me, so if you’re gonna feel bad for someone.” He pauses, sliding the half-burned stick into his pocket. “Actually that’s a waste of time too, I think. She doesn’t want anyone’s pity either.”

“Still sucks.”

He wants to lie. It sits thick in his throat, he wants to lie and say it doesn’t. Lie and say that he doesn’t care, who gives a shit if that sack of shit chokes? Who cares if his dad stopped calling, who cares anything about him? He wants to lie, he wants to lie so fucking bad.

“Yeah,” he says, turning back towards the pen. “It does.”

They linger there in silence, until a light goes out somewhere over by Alex’s place. He frowns, which Sebastian is beginning to think fucking sucks.

“I should head home, my grandma gets antsy if I’m not in before they head to bed.”

Sebastian sniffs. “Yeah.” It seems uncouth now, with everything Alex just shared, to jerk his head back towards the saloon, to tell him he has to go inside and buy Abigail another drink, that either him or Sam’ll be giving her a piggy-back ride back to her place once she’s too drunk of celebration and free drinks to walk a straight line.

And considering the display in there, Sebastian wouldn’t exactly be surprised if Sam was the one to offer.

“I should—”

“Yeah,” Alex says, pushing off from the pen. “Hey, tell Abigail I said congrats, alright?”

“Will do.”

He takes a few steps back, watches Alex leave. He lingers there, for a little while longer, actually finishing a cigarette this time before he slinks, slowly towards the saloon.

Sebastian’s barely through the door when Abby crashes into him with all the force of a trashed twenty-two year old, burying her nose into his chest with a gleeful squeal.

Sebby,” she whines, huge, un-focused eyes staring up at him as Sam stumbles over himself to grab her around the waist. He pulls back, once Sebastian manages a grip on her arms with a soft woah there. “I was just coming to get you!”

“Actually,” Sam corrects, swaying a bit. “We were just getting you home.”

“But I wanted to see,” She head-bumps his chest like an affectionate cat, “you before I did.”

He leaves for like twenty fucking minutes. It was getting late though, he’d admit. Most people had peeled off already, slipping out the door after Sebastian did. He stands her up, hands hovering as he lets go to see if she’s capable of standing on her own—which she immediately proves not.

“Okay,” he says, catching her quickly before she tumbles off again. “Yep, Abs you saw me. Saw me all night, actually.” He turns his attention towards Sam who is, about as unhelpfully as Abby, leaning heavily against the wall. “How much did she have?”

“I lost count.”

She hums, a long, drunken hum as she wraps her arms around him. She slurs something barely intelligible up at him. Yoba. Sebastian barely manages to keep from rolling his eyes. “Alright, Abs, you going home-home or are you crashing with one of us?”

Another noise, half-agreement. To what, again, Sebastian has no fucking clue. He weighs the chance that carrying Abby to her bedroom wasted at midnight would wake up Pierre, then weighs the chances that that image would get his ass soundly kicked before nixing that as an option.

He could take them both back to Sam’s, but they might wake up Kent or upchuck onto the floors Jodi probably just cleaned.

Great. Fucking awesome. Fuck, he wishes he drove down here. He didn’t drink, he could’ve packed them into his moms pick-up and just drove them back up the fucking mountain.

“If I take you back to my place do you promise not to puke on me?” He asks. She nods against him and exactly no part of him believes her.

Step by step, he walks her backwards until she’s sitting at a booth sideways, slumped against the back. He corrals Sam into sitting too before making his way to the bar.

He doesn’t need to even ask before Gus slides two cups of water his way.

“Thanks.”

“it's not every day you graduate from college. Always happy to provide for a special occasion. You make sure they get home alright, young man? They had quite a night,” Gus says, wiping up something off the bar before tossing the rag over his shoulder.

“As ever, Gus.”

He collects the glasses before heading back towards the booth. Behind him, Gus calls, “I’m closing up soon but it takes us a bit to finish cleaning the place up. Let ‘em dry up a bit first.”

Sebastian nods before turning back to the two of them, gently coercing them each to drink. Some more fruitfully than others.

It’s about twenty minutes before Sebastian determines that Sam can probably walk his way up—provided they go slow enough, but Abby was almost entirely useless in that department.

It’s a good enough distraction, biting down every last thought he had about Alex and drowning it with some instinctual need to keep Sam and Abby from doing something fucking stupid. He gets Abby up on his back, Gus politely opening the door for him as he ducks to make sure she doesn’t hit her head.

The walk is slow and cold, a steady sort of stumbling pace that improves marginally as Sam sobers beside him. Abby isn’t particularly heavy, but it isn’t long into the walk when the strain on his arms starts to burn all the way up his shoulders and an ache starts to build in his lower back. She bounces steadily with each step, his hands hooked under her knees and her arms hanging loose around his neck.

If it wasn’t for the soft, barely coherent mumbles, he wouldn’t even think she was conscious.

Which, well, given how barely coherent those mumbles are, he guesses he wouldn’t really call it conscious.

They’re barely up away from the shop when Sam asks, “wanna switch?”

Sebastian eyes him warily, but he’s walking a straight line now. Looking a little more clear.

“If you drop her, it’s on you,” Sebastian says, that wariness creeping into the edges of his voice. Sam’s not small, not like Sebastian is. He knows they both look it, buried under baggy clothes and a perpetual slouch—but once Sam straightens up, whenever he takes Vincent down the beach to swim in the summers it gets clear that he’s got more mass, that he’s more toned than he lets on.

Really, if he were anyone else, Sebastian would probably think he’s hot.

“I’ve got her,” Sam says. It’s a careful switch, Sebastian crouching down further when she fumbles for footing before helping her up onto Sam’s back with a low grunt from him. Same position, clinging to him like a drunken, lost koala, her nose buried against his neck.

Sebastian stretches as Sam starts up walking again, popping up the vertebra in his back.

“So,” Sam starts, once they round the community center. “You were gone for a while.”

“Wasn’t that long. Just went out for a cigarette.” (Defensive, much?) Fuck off, Sam wouldn’t care. Sam doesn’t care. (Then why aren’t we telling him.)

Sam makes a noise, something that sounds like it settles in the back of his throat. “Felt like a while.”

“I’m sure it does when you’re making sure Abby doesn’t get alcohol poisoning.”

He shrugs as best he can with someone holding fast to his back. They switch again at the base of the mountain, Sebastian finishing up the trek. They manage Abby onto the couch. Sebastian gets her shoes off, leaves her on her side with a blanket tossed up over her. He moves his trash can in front of her, just in case.

This time when she mumbles, one sleepy-drunk hand wrapped loosely around Sebastian’s wrist, it’s a little more audible. “Love you guys so much,” she manages. “Such good.”

“Yeah,” he says back, shaking her loose. “Love you too, Abs.”

For a moment, Sam lingers, brow furrowed. Sebastian almost asks before his eyes follow there, to the smudge of green against the darkness, the thing Sam reaches for and rubs his fingers along the sleeve of. Fuck, Sebastian almost forgot about it. It had been draped over the back of the couch, just a green flag fading off into obscurity the moment he tossed another pair of black jeans over it.

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Abby must have jostled it free, knocked the cover askew and exposed that memory back to the world.

His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, sealed up there with all the bullshit lies he could be telling. (Yeah, Sam wouldn’t care. Remind me again why you fucking believe that)

“Since when did you wear green?” He asks.

“I don’t.” Too fast there, buddy. “It’s uh...Maru’s. Got mixed up in my laundry.”

Wow. Sebastian is a terrible fucking friend. Cool. We already knew that.

Sam looks wholly unconvinced, but he drops both the topic and the edge of the sweater. His eyes stay fixed on the couch, on Abby. “Seb, do you remember when we were thirteen?”

“Sorta,” he says, sitting on the edge of his bed and working on the laces of his boots. If just to give himself something to do. “Why?”

Sam shrugs, “I was just thinking about shit.”

“About being thirteen?”

He scrubs down his face and Sebastian tries to untangle that knot of worry that ties around the anxiety brewing fresh in his stomach. He doesn’t want to think about what he means, about what could possibly knock Sam off of...off of being so Sam.

He’s never off, he’s never different. He’s always Sam.

There’s only a few ways Sebastian knows how to cope. It’s the same way he deals with that bile-sick feeling in his stomach that stuck ever since his conversation with Alex.

He clears his throat and slides down to his knees before reaching up under his bed for the old headphones box he keeps wrapped up in an old duffel bag. “Do you wanna shove the towel under the door?”

He hears Sam do it without question, he hears him kick off his shoes.

Sebastian unpacks all the shit they need, tossing Abby a sideways glance. She’ll be annoyed in the morning once she learns they’d smoked up without her, but she’s a little too busy snoring softly into a pillow. By the time he finishes, Sam’s also changed into a pair of sweats pilfered from Sebastian’s dresser.

They trade places silently, Sebastian changing into something less constricting before falling onto his bed on his back, Sam already sitting cross-legged with a lit joint dangling between his fingers. Sebastian eyes the jar, doing a mental calculation before deciding that he’ll text Emily in the morning.

“I was thinking about that deal we made,” he says around a cloud. “When we were thirteen?”

Sebastian reaches up takes the joint from willing fingers. ”What deal?”

He honestly can’t remember if they made a lot or nearly none, crawling up on a decade ago is too far back for him to remember with any modicum of accuracy. Maybe it was both? Making and remaking promises and secrets. Always dumb shit, always shit that Sebastian’s certain they’ve broken or re-negotiated since then.

Sam’s eyes flicker back over the couch once more and Sebastian pretends, once again, like he doesn’t notice. He sniffs once, collects the joint back. “It doesn’t matter.”

Something uncomfortable finds root in Sebastian’s chest.

Yeah, that bitter, nasty part of him thinks.

I bet it fucking doesn’t.

Chapter Text

Emily’s bedroom is exactly how Sebastian figured it would be. He never spent a good deal of time imagining it, but he figures that had he dedicated any actual thought power to it — this would be what he came up with.

He sits cross-legged on a rug that he isn’t sure if it’s new or fresh out of the 1970’s, staring down at the jar between his thighs while she sprawls out on her stomach a few feet away.

It’s all plants and brilliantly-colored wallpaper and fabric threads sticking to his clothes. He should get up, brush himself down. He doesn’t he just picks at the bit of red that sticks to him, pretending he’s anywhere but there while she rolls a joint with surprisingly meticulous care.

He had messaged her that morning, a semi-innocuous have you talked to that friend of yours in the desert recently?

She’d gotten back to him a few hours later. Yep! A couple weeks ago, actually — so if you’d like any Calico-treats, come scoop them up before they’re gone. She’d included a few smiles, which all they did was make Sebastian roll his eyes.

They didn’t really hang out as much as they had exchanges. She’d give him a jar, he’d give her cash. Sometimes they sit in semi-silence—like they do today, on a sort of mid-fall day that clings around the edges of a bustling chill. One of those days where the morning fog is dense and frozen, but the summer dies in the afternoon. Shivering nights, half-warm days.

“So,” she says, breaking the only rule Sebastian thinks they have—which is no fucking talking. “You’re different.”

Different. Yes, we’re fucking different, Emily. We’re different in the way you’re different—the way we all know but no one talks about. The way I keep trying to wrap down and hide and you seem to show no qualms about. (But you know everyone knows, everyone can see it, everyone can whisper in the shadows and know what you’re hiding. You’ve got all these secrets, all these hidden parts. Like brushing pinkies in the shadows, people are going to learn. They’re going to find out)

He takes the joint the second she offers it, taking a hit to keep from having to answer. At least until he has to. “Different how?”

Nice deflection, dumbass.

Emily cocks her head, nimble fingers trading back as she exhales her own lungful, all good and pale. “Your aura, you’ve always been so cloudy Sebastian. Like it’s trying to rain around you all the time. You should be a clear night sky, all the stars and the planets.” She takes another hit, as if she fucking needs it. “You should be so open and infinite. But you’re not. You carry weights that aren’t yours.”

Remind me again why we do this? He asks himself, before his fingers bump the metal lid of the jar settled in his lap. Oh right, because otherwise you have to go all the way to the city for weed.

“I’ll get right on fixing that,” he deadpans because what else is he supposed to say to this? Emily shrugs, sprawling out on her back and staring up at the mess of...are those gemstones? Sebastian squints and yep, those are gemstones glittering down from her ceiling, hanging like delicate little spiders, each of them frozen forming a web.

“You could always try yoga,” Emily suggests, offering the smoke his way again. “It might help unblock you.”

And this is why we normally do this outside. This is why we stick between the fence and her fucking wall, squirreled away.

This is why we don’t accept Emily’s fucking invitations.

Sebastian has no idea why he even did it, why he agreed. It’s late in the night, it’s always late in the night when he collects—after she finished up at the saloon, after she came home and changed he’d walk Sam home, no need for a pretense between them all. Emily would wait for him, hanging out the living room window for a quick exchange and Sebastian would be on his way, jar heavy in the front pocket of his hoodie.

Not today, though. Now he’s stuck watching her arch her back into some ridiculous fucking pose.

She exhales. “You talk to Alex a lot now, don’t you?” No. Say no. No you don’t because it’s true, you don’t (don’t you? How many times did you speak to him before this?

He’s not high enough for this shit.

“He broke my sisters heart.” No shit, he fucking did. I heard it happen. There’s no accusation, no sharpness to the edges of her voice. It’s all observation. Fact.

And really, he doesn’t want to be high enough for this shit. Or at least he doesn’t want to get that high here.

With that.

“I think I’ll pass on the yoga.” He ignores everything else she said, and sticks the jar into the bag he brought, trying his best not to roll his eyes at her dedication to all things reusable. He tosses the strap over his shoulder as he stands. “Thanks.”

Emily just waves from her floor. “I’ll let you know the next time I see Sandy. She might have something fun and new.”

Sebastian tried not to shudder at the thought. Last time he tried new and fun it was with Sam and Abby and they ended up half-lost in the woods on one hell of a trip until Linus rounded them all up. “Cool. Thanks.”

Abby had a blast, Sebastian decidedly did not. She’d suggested they try it again for her birthday a few days ago but Sebastian put his foot down, just let her smoke through the rest of his supply which, well yeah okay that would be why he’s here, wouldn’t it?

It was her birthday, it was the fair—always a time when the three of them wanted to do nothing but squirrel away in the morning and smoke through set-up, wandering around the carnival games stoned off their asses. Though Sebastian long-since learned to avoid the fortune-teller until he was coming down.

The bad-trip learning curve on that one was steep.

Emily rolls over, reaching her free hand up onto her nightstand for something. “Here, before you go let me draw you a card.”

Oh, for fucks sake not this fucking bullshit. “I really have to go, so—”

“It’ll just take a second.”

He takes two steps towards the door, trying his fucking level best to not roll his eyes at this. Cards, really? She breaks out a fucking tarot deck. He puts up with this shit when Abby does it—but that’s because it’s Abby.

And Abby’s…she’s Abby. He doesn’t say no to her. He lets her squint at her deck and wiggle her fingers as she reads his future out of a picture of some burning fucking building or whatever.

But, well, it would do to not piss off the only person in town that sells you drugs. Sebastian stands there for half a second longer, shifting the bag before scrubbing a hand down his face. “Fine, whatever, Emily.”

She flips the first card over. Some hand holding a stick.

Incredible.

Insightful.

Emily looks at it, then looks at him. All she does is hum. “Interesting.”

“Thanks,” is all he says before Sebastian just slips out the door, waving over his shoulder.

Sebastian slips off into the freezing night, only stopping when he hears, half-confused, from down the road— “Seb?”

Seb.

It’s not a nickname he was ever fond of, not as bad as Sebby but still not great. He tolerates it with Sam and Abby.

But this? Something hot blossoms in his gut, twisting unwanted vines up through the cavity of his chest and winding around his ribs to tangle there like a thorn bush don’t touch that thought, don’t touch it, it’ll burn you, it’ll prick you. You’ll wither away and bleed yourself dry on it.

Seb.

He’s not going to think about how it feels to hear Alex say his name. Instead, he just takes a half-step back, turning fully to face him in the cool night.

“Were you leaving Haley’s?”

“Uh—” Well, technically, yes. “No?”

Alex blinks, once, then twice, then looks at the house, then back at Sebastian.

He clears his throat, then corrects. “I was talking to Emily. I… she needed some computer...stuff done. Virus.”

Smooth. Fucking idiot.

Alex doesn’t look convinced, but he doesn’t look much of anything at all. His hands in the pockets of his letterman jacket, his shoulders bowing under some invisible burden that Sebastian can’t even consider at the moment. He’s not high enough for this—or he’s too high. Or both, or neither, his tongue keeps sticking to the roof of his mouth and even under the sicky-yellow light of the streetlamp he can still see the ghost of Alex in that hallway.

Looking sun-warm and sturdy. That clay-molded body that filled every last one of Sebastian’s dreams and fucking nightmares. He’d had far too many thoughts during those last few stretches of summer, considering going down to the beach, considering lingering there on the docks just to see if Alex would get in the ocean. To see if he would splash around there, if he would swim, if he would pull himself up all ocean-wet and gorgeous.

Fuck, for fucks sake. Not in fucking front of him.

It’s not something he wants to fucking think about here. Not something he wants to ever think about outside the confines of his fucking bedroom. Or shower.

He shifts, uncertain, and looks away because if he looks at him, he sees him. And if he sees him, he remembers him and how was Sebastian supposed to cope like that? With the chance someone might see you looking.

“Right,” Sebastian says, because neither of them are speaking and come on he needs something to fill the open air. He can’t function in the void static around them, he can’t navigate nothing but he can’t navigate something either. “Later.”

“Hey—”

He doesn’t even get a half-step forward before Alex takes a full one, flashing fever-hot memories of that fucking night in the saloon and holy shit how the fuck did we forget that one? Did we seriously not—oh my Yoba, there it is. Don’t think about it, really don’t think about it. Bad move, Sebastian, bad move.

All hot breath and hot hands and that smell (same one that was on the sweater, the one you left in your room—go on, tell Alex what you did in it. Tell Alex how you thought about him while you fucked yourself)

No.

“Yeah?”

Alex glances back towards the town and Sebastian looks over his own shoulder. Out towards the darkness, towards the woods—away from the light and the everything. Away from Alex.

Slowly, he turns back away, back towards Alex, who clears his throat. “Are you headed home?”

“It’s like midnight, Alex.” Not an answer.

“That’s not an answer.”

It isn’t, and Sebastian knows he should go home. He should go to bed, kick off his jeans, and get lost in that combination of fantasy about the man standing in front of him right now. You know, like the fucking pervert you are. But Yoba none of him wants to. None of him wants to deal with it. There hasn’t been any recourse since the fight (it’s not a fight when you yell at your mom and your sister — it’s not a fight when you snap and shout and throw a fucking a tantrum) but the tile underfoot felt like eggshells and broken glass, desperately muffling everything just in case Sebastian tilts too far and the mercury inside him sets off some chain reaction.

Another explosion over nothing at all.

It’s one in the morning, no one’s awake.

Except him.

And Alex.

He swallows, the burning of those ivy-eyes crawling up him echoing with a pulse of hope. Foreign there, in the space between his ribs—he’s pretty sure hope isn’t a low-light plant.

“No,” he lies. “I was just going to walk down to the docks.”

Bats dive above Alex’s head, snatching up the bugs that dared to inch too close to the light. Hubris in the form of moths and other small-winged insects. Sebastian takes a step away from the lamps glow.

Alex frowns, that furrow-deep frown that pinches his brow together as if he can’t decide if Sebastian is lying to him or not. “Kinda late for that, isn’t it?”

No fucking shit.

“I guess.” He shrugs the shoulder his bag is on. “What are you doing?”

Alex shifts, looking uncomfortable—like maybe he’d hoped that Sebastian just wouldn’t ask. They hadn’t talked much, not since Abby’s graduation party. Because of course they hadn’t because of course Sebastian went home that night, of course he laid in bed with Sam snoring too close to his shoulder and poured over every moment of that conversation.

(Way to be needy, spill all that information, all that shit he doesn’t need to know. No one cares about your fucking daddy issues, Sebastian. No one cares that you couldn’t keep your shit together. No one cares that you think about him, sometimes, cigarette between your lips.

No one cares that you’re fucking like this. No one asked for your life story, no one asked to know all these things. No one cares about this.

No one cares about you.)

“Just walking.”

“Kinda late for that, isn’t it?” Sebastian echoes. He almost winces, when it comes out bitter—but Alex doesn’t so much as flinch. He just tosses a shoulder in a shrug and glances back over his shoulder.

“I guess. Cold too.”

Sebastian shuffles, adjusting the strap on his shoulder. “Yep.”

Can we not talk about anything if it’s not our fucking problems? Is that it? Are we just the worlds cheapest therapist now? You don’t have to pay me, just throw me a glance every once in a while, let me catch a glimpse of you half-naked and I’ll take that—no cash, no credit. This is fine.

(This is not fucking fine)

He clears his throat, re-adjusting once more—those nervous-boned fingers fiddling with a string coming loose from the edges of the strap. Speaking of cold. He chews on the question he wants to ask for a little while longer, letting it grind between his teeth all sand-gritty.

“If you wanted to keep—”

He asks in the same moment Alex bursts forward with a too-sudden, “Did you want—”

Sebastian clears his throat. “Sorry, go ahead.”

Alex’s head ducks for a second, hand at the back of his neck. “No, it’s fine you go first.”

“Right. I just—if you wanted to, you could walk up the mountain with me and I could give you your shit back.”

There’s something, some sort of beat between them that lingers in a frigid breeze. Alex looks up, like he wasn’t expecting the offer. “Sure. Yeah, that sounds good.”

“Unless you wanted to be alone.”

“I don’t.” Alex answers quickly, right on that edge of too quickly—hovering at the edge where Sebastian wonders if he means it, for just a second.

Something wedges up under his chest, in places that Sebastian didn’t even think he could reach anymore. He swallows around the vine it starts to grow and nods, stiffly, once. “Cool. Uh,” he pauses to point behind Alex. “That way.”

“Right, yeah.” Sebastian catches up to him as he turns, leaving them walking in relative silence—only the distant call of the crows and the gravel under foot breaking the ear-ringing nothing that hangs around them. Sebastian keeps his hands shoved in his front pocket, idly twisting his lighter around in the palm of his hand, cold plastic and metal rapidly warming to his nervous palm.

Beside him, Alex sniffs, hands in his pockets in the way that somehow manages to take up more space—his elbows sticking out and brushing occasionally with Sebastian’s. He tries not to watch him, to not flicker his eyes to the way his profile looks in the cold-cast of the moonlight.

Tries not to think about how different it feels, the soaking feeling of Alex’s warmth bleeding out beside him.

“Are you cold?” Alex ask, a little abruptly.

“I don’t get cold.” It’s a knee-jerk response, half on instinct, half-defensive, as if should Sebastian suggest otherwise, his mother would pop up from behind a bush and insist on a thicker jacket.

Alex looks back at his feet and something like regret twists up around that seed left behind in Sebastian’s chest. “Right. I always see you at the Festival of Ice wearing that same hoodie. I can’t imagine being out in the snow like that.”

I always see you. Fuck, Sebastian isn’t going to hang onto that. No way. Not even a little bit. “Just genetics, I guess. And I prefer the cold, prefer winter.”

“Not me,” Alex sighs. “I already miss summer. Didn’t spend as much time at the beach as I wanted to. I didn’t want to… y’know.”

Sebastian raises a brow, eyes flickering between the weeds starting to creep over the ledge of the fountain and the clear-cut space around the community center, then back to Alex once more as they took the turn to walk the path around there. “I don’t.”

“See Haley.” Alex explains, voice flat. “I didn’t want to see Haley. She’s been out on the beach, by the docks, a lot. She kept clear of the woods over the summer though, she used to go out and do photography around sunset out there but—”

“But you were out there?” Sebastian asks, cringing the second he says it. (Hey, idiot, he doesn't know you know. Way to fucking go, way to fucking confess to your stalker behavior. Nice going, you fucking moron.)

“Mmm, yeah,” Alex says, one hand slipping free to rub the back of his neck and fuck, fuck why does Sebastian love when he does that. He tracks the movement carefully, the way his palm curves around the back of his neck—it prickles at his own nape, wondering if he can feel some residual warmth lingering there.

What a desperate freak.

“I saw you sometimes,” Alex says, hand dropping down to his pocket. Sebastian freezes, properly freezes. His feet stop dragging him forward, his heart stops pounding in his chest and his lungs empty out and shrivel there. “Y’know, out in the woods.”

“You what?” His voice cracks, a splintered sound that doesn’t even grind back together as he clears his throat. “I uh—”

“Figured you were going on a walk or something so I didn’t want to bug you. You always looked so focused like you were busy.” Yeah, busy thinking about you. “Shane and I would hang out a couple times a week, toss the gridball around and talk about the old days and shit.” Alex stops, frown wrinkling at his brow. “You okay?”

Sebastian tries to shake it off, he tries but it latches up high in his throat. “Yeah—yeah I just,” he clears his throat again. “Thought I saw something. Nothing, just shadows.”

Good save (it was not)

He catches up to Alex with a few strides, falling back in pace with him. “Yeah I thought I’d change up my usual for a little bit. It didn’t rain as much as I liked over summer.”

Alex scoffs, kicking a rock as they start walking again. It skitters away. “How does something in the shadows freak you out, Seb? Aren’t you out here all the time?”

Right. Incoming vampire joke, right? Incoming joke about how much Sebastian never sees the sunlight, how pale he is, how skinny he is. Ha ha, really funny—so original. “Yeah, and nothing usually moves. It’s usually just me, the frogs, and the slimes.”

“The slimes.” Alex makes a face. “Those things fucking suck. My first summer in Pelican Town one bit me...or burned me? One got me good right on my ankle. I still have a scar from it.”

“Yeah, they’re mean bastards, but they’re kinda fun to bother if you’re out of their reach. They can’t climb for shit so just y’know, keep your feet up.”

“I’ll leave that for you, Seb.”

Silence picks up again once they hit the mountain path, the babbling of the lake beside them picking up where the conversation lulled off. It’s a short while before it properly breaks, before Alex asks, “Why is it that you’re out at night so much anyway?”

Why? Sebastian stares down at the ground that he’s walking over, watching the twigs and the leaves and the bits of rock blur behind him. Why are you like this?

Why have you always been like this?

He wishes he had a real answer, he wishes he really knew why. We know why. The house is in view, quiet and near-dark. There’s a flicker of light in the back, way up from behind tightly-drawn curtains. Maru’s up working on something, tinkering away at a project that will have Demetrius exploding at the seams with pride.

He chews his lower lip as he zeros in on the door, fingers readily finding his keys. “I just like it,” he says, knowing it was too late to answer but doing it anyway. “The quiet. I like it. I like that there’s no one out, usually. That if I wanted to, I could ignore whoever else was there and just keep walking. I can go to the docks; I can go to the playground and there’s no one else around.”

Alex hums. “Did I—”

“No,” Sebastian answers because, well, he didn’t. He didn’t intrude, he didn’t interrupt. “I was leaving Emily’s anyway, I think I needed to talk to someone sane.” Or sober. Like Sebastian unfortunately was now, like he’s unfortunately been for a while. “I just… being around people, it feels claustrophobic sometimes, like everyone is constantly staring at you and constantly judging you—and they are I know they are and they pretend like they’re worried when in reality all they want to know are all your fucking secrets.

Like people keep asking me why I don’t enjoy going to the festivals, or why I don’t like hanging out with everyone else, or celebrating with the whole town and, just fucking look at Haley and Elliott—what, they stand too close during the jellies and everyone is up their own ass about what it means. I can’t fucking breathe without hearing about Haley and Elliott and they’re—y’know. Why the fuck would I want to hang out somewhere where I know if I stand too close to Sam, that everyone’s gonna know the one thing I don’t want them to? It’s bad enough that I can’t spend a fucking hour with Abigail without knowing that the next time I go into Pierre’s, he’s going to be seething at me from behind the counter—but this? Holy shit if I breathe too hard in Sam’s direction, then everyone is going to know and I’ll never have a second of fucking peace again.

Sebastian scrubs a hand down his face and opens his eyes and oh shit. Alex is watching him, lips parted and brows up past that perfect hairline and fuck. Fuck.

“Seb—”

No. No. No. His throat seals shit as he stabs the key into the lock, tumblers giving with a muted sound. “Wait here and I’ll bring your shit.”

“Seb—”

“Seriously, everyone’s asleep and my mom’s never happy to be woken up.”

Seb.”

He ignores Alex as he slinks into the dark house, muscle memory alone keeping him from clipping his hip on a side table or running into a chair. Mrs. Mullner’s tin is sitting out on the counter, and Sebastian happily grabs that first, tucking it up under his arm before making his way to the laundry. He’d done a load earlier that day, running low on socks and shirts and thought that maybe, maybe if he washed Alex’s clothes, if he purged that scent from his bedroom then maybe, maybe it’ll be okay.

Maybe he’ll be able to give it up, this fucking Alex-huffing addiction he seems to have tacked onto the rest of the building ones. The sweatpants were in the dryer, but the sweater was there, in a half-full basket sitting on top of the washer.

Right. Right. He was going to do another load, he was going to finish up before he went to Emily’s but he forgot, he got wrapped up in work and forgot.

Just give it to him. That’s what he can do. He can just give it to Alex like this. He can pry it out of Sebastian’s life and just give it to Alex. No problem, no harm, no foul. His fingers brush the sleeve of it and something like electricity sparks through his fingertips and latches itself onto his nervous system. It laces through him and he carefully wraps his fingers around the sleeve, bumping it up to his nose.

It hasn’t even faded. Not really, at least. Fuck him. Fuck him. He drops the sleeve and keeps the other two as he stalks his way out of his own house, to the stoop where Alex is waiting, looking around like he’s half-worried something will jump out at him.

“Hey,” he says, wincing as Alex jumps. “Sorry, uh. Sweater’s in the washer so just these two for now.”

“Dude we should talk.”

Sebastian sticks the bundle out at him. “No thanks. I’m good.”

"I mean it. If anyone gets it, it’ll be me.”

No, no it wouldn’t. You don’t get it, you’ll never get what it’s like to want you.

“Night, Alex.”

He shuts the door as quietly as he can, pressing his back to it as he listens to the sound of rock and dirt grinding under ever-clean shoes. The sound of Alex hovering before ultimately turning and walking away.

Sebastian waits, lingers there for a few more breaths before stealing the sweater out from basket and retreating back down to his dark, freezing, basement. He tosses the sweater back onto his desk, whipping his hands back the moment it’s gone.

Fuck—why did we fucking do that?

###

Sebastian is certain that buried under whatever mountain of garbage that clogs up the pathways in his mind, there’s a reason for why the only thing he wants to do when he can’t sleep is ride.

There’s a constant whirr buzzing along under his skin, bouncing his leg as he tries to keep his mind as close to occupied as possible. His fingers twitch for another cigarette, but that pulse of the empty pack crumpled into his trash just taunts him.

Should’ve gotten a new one.

He could go buy one.

Underneath all the bullshit, Sebastian thinks there might be memories buried—the kind he half-remembers of late nights slumped in the backseat of a car, some song droning on at a low murmur from the radio in the front seat. Street lamps passing over in perfect time as they burn down the road with no destination.

 

His breath coming in slowing pants, eyes half-lidded between the beat of lights.

A wash of calm rolling over him, wrapping around him and settling in. He thinks he might remember nights like that, he thinks he might be able to hum one of those old songs.

Not tonight, though. Because tonight all he can hear is the sound of his thumbnail against his teeth, the click as he bites at the skin and the squeak of his floorboards as he bounces the balls of his feet.

It’s a rapid-pace tattoo, a collection of noises and sensations that bands around his chest with all the fervor of a kettle coming to boil with unrepentant swiftness.

Why did we do that? He asks himself, eyes finding that smudge of green against his desk. Why the fuck did we lie to him? Why didn’t we just leave it behind?

(Alex could see through it, he could absolutely fucking see through it. There’s no way he couldn't, you piece of shit. You absolute piece of complete fucking shit.)

He runs the fingers of one hand, the one he’s not currently mangling under his teeth, through his hair once, then twice, then a third time—and a fourth and a fifth until he was digging his nails up under the back of his head, snarling to himself.

Fuck that.

No, no he’s not thinking like this, he’s not going to fucking think like this. His fist meets his thigh with a burst of dull pain (not hard enough, not what you deserve) in the breath before he shoves himself up off his bed, snatch his keys and his phone without a second thought.

Fuck this. (Why can’t you just be fucking normal for once? Why do you have to be such an asshole? Why did you tell Alex that? Why did you fucking tell him that? What is wrong with you?

He’s laughing at you, he thinks you’re fucking crazy—just a worthless sack of shit with nothing but complaints, who does nothing but bitch about your issues.)

He wants to slam his bedroom door, he wants to stomp his way up the stairs and rattle and break things and fist his fingers in his hair and scream himself hoarse until he shreds his throat and splutters up blood onto the floorboards.

There’s a headrush of sensation, a harshness to his breath that swallows up and thins his throat.

It makes him half-dizzy as he stalks through the house, one hand in his hoodie pocket, the other flexing and unflexing as he tries to slow his breathing to a manageable degree (this is why Alex thinks your fucking crazy. This is why, because you’re freaking the fuck out over nothing, over nothing at all—he thinks you’re crazy.

He’s right, too. A weird little douchebag with nothing good to give this world.)

The freeze of the night punches the air from his chest, shell-shocking his lungs until they’re burning under the emptiness of space. The first breath he manages to suck down sears his throat, his nose, all the way down to the pit of his stomach. He goes out the front, circling around to push the garage door up himself—the inside was always finicky, always a little hard to manage, always a little too loud.

A little too much (just like you)

The need to go, to get out of the claustrophobic choke-hold of the town, away from his mistakes, away from Alex and that house and that ever-hanging specter of everything that clings to the shadows—it rampages in his chest, tearing at all his ventricles and veins—claws ripping apart the cartilage between his ribs.

He fumbles in the dark, feeling like he’s bleeding out from nothing. It’s all on muscle memory, on half-familiar actions knitted together as he stows his phone and his wallet. On this side of the garage there’s little every but his shit. His toolbox opened there by a table, a dust-collecting tarp, old ramps not unlike the ones he keeps in the back of his mom’s truck just in case.

And where the fuck is his jacket? Sebastian casts his eyes around in the darkness, trying to catch the folded-leather glint off his riding jacket, the pile where he keeps his gloves too—the rest of his gear too far from where the gleam-black of his helmet catches the moonlight.

Where did we fucking leave it? The last time we rode we shucked it off here, right? Leave it by the bike it’s not like you’re fucking wearing it anywhere else.

That panic-driven need blinds him to the familiarity, sending a wrench clattering down to the ground with an angry noise—ratcheting his heart into his throat and threatening to tear him out at the seams.

That’s it, his jackrabbit pulse will burst out of his chest, paint the garage and leave him there a fucking puddle.

Swearing, he snatches his helmet from the table and straddles his bike. He’ll be fine, he’s always fucking fine.

He taught himself how to ride, he taught himself the ins and outs—a plethora of internet videos and tutorials late at night with the bitter taste of adrenaline and here-sickness on the back of his tongue.

He doesn’t care who the sound might wake up, the rumble of that burning need to get out and go was too much to stifle.

It’s a little past one by the time he hits the highway, his heart rate finally starting to come down under the addictive burn of wind over his skin and the feeling of his bike under his hands. As warm and hypnotizing as the beat of the passing lights.

Breathe in. Out.

In. Out.

It’s one of the few things that keeps him grounded, one of the few things that brings him back to that level-taste of place under him as he churns out a road behind him. He doesn’t pass anyone—really, who would he pass? A weekday in the middle of the night so far in the south valley?

No one comes here. No one leaves.

No one leaves. No—no not thinking about that. (Do you really think you’ll ever get out of Pelican Town?)

His chest seizes up in that conflict once more and no—no we just swallowed down that panic, but here it comes again like a constant sickness. It crawls up his throat and settles there. (You’ll be stuck here. Living in your mom's basement like a loser, pining after a jock who’ll never want you sneaking off to clubs in the city because no one wants who you are. Stuck in the small-town grind of who everyone is, where everyone knows everyone and secrets live in plain sight and no one is allowed to draw their curtains too tight.

Where you’ll never be allowed to be you. Where you’ll never be allowed to be free.)

Maybe he’s too distracted. Too swallowed up in the moment, that gutclench of anxiety that unleashes that tidal wave of everything else he’d been trying to swallow back.

Maybe he takes a last turn too hard—too risky for a cold-snap of a fall night, too risky for those nights when the frost freezes back over, when the settled cold turns the remains of last night's rainfall into ice.

Whatever it is, whatever happens—it’s quick. The first thing he registers is the sensation of something wrong. It starts in the ground beneath him, that moment of something that ricochets through him and wedges up under his chest as his bike jerks unnaturally beneath him.

For a second there’s nothing. There’s nothing but the feeling of horror in the pit of his stomach, nothing but the white-water dread, the slam of the highway under him and the sound of grinding metal against pavement in the opposite direction.

The second thing is pain.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

It hurts to breathe.

Sebastian realizes that lying half on his back too far into the middle of the road. Fuck him, it hurts to breathe.

(Ironic, right? You need to breathe to live and here it is, every breath a fucking knife-stab right in your side.) Shut up, please. (How many years have you had that bike? Riding for what… five? Six? Six years and you haven’t so much as scratched it. Now look at you.)

Seriously. Stop.

One hand slides across the road bunching to a fist to push against the ground. A pained grunt escapes him as whatever once existed as a dull thud pounding along in time with his heartbeat spikes into a burning lance right through his chest—and, well… Most of the rest of him.

The next breath hurts just as much as the last few, a surge centered right under his left arm somewhere in a place that screams broken rib.

Fuck.

Him.

Sebastian manages to sit up slowly, a series of halting movements punctuated by hisses and groans. Each shallow-breath pulse of agony reminds him just how much being alive fucking sucks right now.

He takes stock slowly as he blinks at the scratches in his visor, vision swimming just a bit between the highway and the night sky and the highway again.

Legs? Not broken. Arms? Fine. That’s the limbs in check.

Yoba, every part of him fucking hurts. His left side more than the right—did he land there? He squeezes his eyes shut for a second, replays those last moments before his front tire hit ice, before it sent him careening off his bike. Sound of metal, of scraping, the thud and crunch and shattered-glass, all too loud all too sudden.

He shivers and, for a second, blames it on the wind.

Left side.

He landed on his left side. Sebastian hisses around the breath that struggles itself against his chest. Cool. He fumbles with burning hands for his helmet, tugging it off and tossing it aside with a noise of frustration. His hands are scraped to hell, burning turned to searing now that he can get a good look at them.

Cool. Fucking awesome.

“Shit,” he tells the wind. He touches his left thigh with a similar wince, jeans torn to shit and the skin beneath suspiciously sticky.

His forearm is in a similar state, but that he just twists to look at it, hissing out a noise as he examines the damage he managed to do to himself.

Getting up is a task. The first time he manages, swaying as he does, he goes down immediately, his left hip protesting to the point of half-collapsing. The swarming of his vision finishes the job and sends him right back down hands and knees, chest screeching all the while.

Okay. Breathe (that hurts) I don’t care, breathe.

And he does. Slowly. Once, then twice.

The voice that curls around the back of his mind sounds half-familiar, twisting up in the scent of pine trees and maple. Up you go, hon.

It’s not the usual sneering sounds that cut him down whenever he can’t think. It’s something else, something lingering under all the bullshit that tugs at his mangled sleeves. He gets his right leg up under himself slowly, carefully managing his way over to the guard rail.

For the sake of his bike, he really hopes that dent was there where he found it.

He uses it to balance himself, to get up and clear that fog from his head.

Oh, fuck.

His bike doesn’t look too bad, but the sight of it there shatters something deep in the pits of his chest, sinking the fragments down to his stomach. Fuck. He limps his way over, the short distance she managed to slide without him still too far for comfort.

The effort it takes to right her, get the kickstand up, brings him right back down to his knees and then, immediately after, his ass. He leans against her blood-and-dirt covered fingertips tracing the groove of the scratches in her paintjob.

“Shit,” he murmurs. “Fucking...shit.”

Her left mirror is fucking ruined, that nice midnight blue a smear on the fucking highway. It left dents along her body, divots and scuffs that drag claws down the inside of his throat. Fuck him, fuck him so fucking hard.

The wind whips, reminding him as the adrenaline starts to burn off that not only is he in pain, but he’s fucking cold. The mid-fall freeze wraps around him, digging through the tears in his clothing and slipping down the irritated burn to wrench a shudder down his spine.

He has to get home. How the fuck are you going to ride like this? Curling as best he can against the fading heat of his motorcycle, Sebastian groans—an exhausted mix of frustration and pain rippling up from the hollow of his chest.

There’s nothing to do, no choice, but to wrangle his phone out and blindly tap through the contacts.

He hits the call button and squeezes his eyes shut.

This isn’t the first time he’s sat in the dead of night and thought about Sam, waiting for his phone to ring. Sebastian would love to say this was the first time he’s done something like this. He’d love to say he’s never called Sam at two in the morning before, that he’s never asked him to come grab him from a bar, or a club, or somewhere he’s had too much to drink and too-suddenly doesn’t want to go home with fucking anybody. Where he just wants to end up in his own bed, and curl up under his own blankets.

He would like to say there isn’t a silent agreement, like his mom doesn’t keep the truck’s spare keys in the garage beside the wordless acknowledgement that it’ll be back in the same shape it left by the time she had to open shop.

He could say it, but it would be a lie. Just like it would a lie to say he’s never picked up Sam’s call just as late. That he’s never driven to the city and not asked questions and only ever requested that no one puke in his fucking car. Reckless, but constant. In the steady sort of way.

Sam picks up on the third ring.

“Yo.”

It’s been a while since he called Sam at two in the morning, too drunk to do much but sit on the curb with his head between his knees. Been less of a while since Sam did the same to him.

“Hey,” he rasps, wincing at the sound of his own voice. He tries to clear his throat but he can feel nothing happen. That sound is buried deep inside him, wrapped up in the force of going from fast to not moving at all.

Sebastian can hear Sam on the other line, he can hear the rustle of his bedsheets as he sits up. “You sound like shit, what happened?”

“Nothing bad.” Just crashed my fucking bike. “Not… too bad at least. I need you to grab my mom’s truck.”

There’s a sigh, not unfriendly, just tired. It doesn’t stem the flow of guilt slowly building up under his skin. “Sure, buddy. Where are you?”

Good question. Where the fuck is he? Sebastian leans forward a little, squinting left then right. “I’m like, I think I’m half a mile from exit 89.”

“Like not in the city?”

“No. I’m on the side of the road. Make sure the ramps are in the bed, alright?”

Sam starts to wake up, Sebastian can hear it—like a grinding of locks into place as things start to steadily click. “Dude…”

“I promise I’m fine.”

Dude.”

“Just make sure the ramps are in the bed—”

“Did you crash?”

No, he wants to lie but, well...Sebastian looks down at himself. It’s hard to argue otherwise with that one. There’s no lying and coming out unscathed, no lying and keeping that lie right now. “I’m fine.”

On the other side, Sebastian winces again as he hears the sound of Sam kicking off his sheets, the fumble and rattle of someone tripping over himself to get dressed. “Holy shit, I will be there in less than twenty minutes. Half a mile from exit 89?”

Sebastian confirms, trying to squeeze in one more assurance that’s immediately cut off. “Fucking call me again if something happens. Okay. Twenty minutes.”

###

Sebastian thinks about Sam in a lot of different ways. He thinks about him sometimes as kinetic. An energy in motion, something Newtonian and natural and ceaseless. He remembers when they met, Sebastian clinging to his mother’s legs, Sam bouncing on his heels only barely restrained by Jodi’s hand on his shoulder. Like he was some over-amped puppy that desperately needed to be leashed before he started jumping on the company, or a river that had to be dammed.

Something powerful and endless and constant and reckless all in one. Without impulse or foresight. Sam was always the one to consider something for half a second at the most before doing it, the kind of guy who jumps first and looks second. There’s something about Sam that is chronically himself, a way that Sebastian finds indescribable in any other way. It’s the same way that Sebastian can never think about him in the future tense, he can never think about him in another phase of life, as something other than what he is right now, something other than his current state. In retrospect, it seems like the natural next step, that this was always what Sam was destined to be.

Of course, how could Sebastian have missed it. (You miss it because you’re a piece of shit.)

He thinks about it, for maybe twenty minutes, maybe longer. For as long as it takes for the headlights to swing into view, the almost-familiar sound of his mom’s truck rumbling through him. He winces at the glare, cutting through the sickly yellow of the streetlamps and the dark blanket of the night, and throws up an arm to block the light as Sam rolls to a stop.

The slam of the door, the crunch of the ground underfoot—all of it a warning to the immediate, “Holy shit, Seb.”

“I said I was fine.” He drops his arm, the joint screeching under his skin all the way. Fine. Yep. Totally fine.

“You don’t look fine.” Sam stands in front of him, arms crossed as he blocks the light behind him. “Yoba, should I call an ambu—”

No.” Ambulance means hospitals and doctors and insurance bills (and look luck getting out of Pelican Town with that under your belt. How’s a couple grand in hospital bills, right?) — and besides, nothing’s really broken. “I’m fine, dude. Just a little road rash.”

And probably a broken rib, but there’s nothing they can do about that there. They’d just clean him up, send him home, stick him with the bill and impound his fucking bike.

Sam stares at him, brow arched up to his sleep-mused hair. If Sebastian was in any less pain, he’d take the time to make fun of him, to tease Sam for the way his hair was half-matted to the side of his head, or the fact that he seriously turned up in his fucking UFO pajama pants (which Sebastian only remembers belatedly that he bought Sam for his birthday last year), or the sleep lines on his cheek, or the frown he’s wearing.

“Help me up?” He asks, because if he does it himself he’s gonna fall on his ass and if he falls on his ass then Sam’s going to take him to the fucking hospital, whether Sebastian wants it or not. He tries not to make a noise as Sam gets his hands up under his arms, but it presses up from his lungs, clinging to all those insistent points of pain.

It’s funny, because Sam is always the one getting hurt. Because it’s always been Sebastian calling for help, heart in his throat and blood burning in his ears as he raced for the front door, calling Jodi’s name when Sam broke his arm, or pressing Sam’s jacket against his own head when he crashed his car. It was always Sam that tore up his shirt on the nails and broken boards in the old community center, back before it was repaired. He was always the one tripping over his tangled limbs, always the one who fell off the pier, who ate shit running from Sebastian on the playground.

He’s always been the one with Harvey on speed-dial and more stories about scars than he has anything else.

If anyone was going to get hurt, it was always Sam.

Sebastian grunts as Sam heaves him up to his feet, half at the effort, half at the agony that claws its way up the length of his body. He leans a little too heavily on him, breath caught low in his lungs, refusing to hiss out past his teeth.

Sam holds him up, and fuck, okay he’s warm. Is Sebastian shivering? Has he been this whole time? Well that’s fucking embarrassing. He feels it against Sam’s grip, the way his body refuses to stop.

It’s cold, right, that’s it? It’s cold and the adrenaline is burning off under his skin, every pump of his heart pushing it further and further out of himself.

“Fuck.” He drops his forehead to Sam’s collar, sucking in a rattled breath—on that catches on a sound too close to a whimper.

The grip on his elbows flexes, one of Sam’s arms dropping to wrap around Sebastian’s waist. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“No,” Sebastian tells that stretched-out collar of a sleep shirt and that too-warm skin under it. “You’re not.”

“No offense dude, but you’re in like…no shape to fight me off right now.”

“Consider the fact that tomorrow, I will kick your fucking ass. Just help me into the car and take me home. Just gotta sleep this off.”

“Sleep it—”

Sebastian can hear Sam considering what he’s going to say next. He’s never been the kind of guy with a filter, or impulse control for that matter. Sebastian must really look like shit then, if it’s giving Sam pause.

“Fine.” Sam decides. “But I’m showing up at your place at like nine in the morning, and if you’re dead, I’m gonna kick your ghost-ass.”

Sebastian agrees, if only to get Sam to put him in the car. He slumps against the door the second he’s buckled himself in, the fading cab light shining down on the tear in his jeans. It’s a dark smear, throbbing in time with the stinging and Sebastian is starting to think that maybe that’s not just denim stuck to his leg.

He thunks his head back against the headrest instead of poking at it more, one arm wrapping defensively around his middle, as if that could cut back the pain at all. It doesn’t. Not even a little bit.

Sebastian listens to the sound of Sam loading his bike, guilt festering there under his busted ribcage, mingling with the bruising and the blood. Sam doesn’t ride, but he’s joined Sebastian out enough times, helped him load it, helped him strap it down. He’s a dork and he’s Sam but he’s not a stupid guy.

Not by any stretch of the imagination. (You’re such a shitty fucking friend. It’s past two, you fucking asshole.) The cab is too warm for him to care if Sam told him to stay awake, not pass out there. That dry heat rumbling out, soaking through all the sore parts of him.

He jolts back away when the driver’s side door opens. “The fuck did I say?” Sam asks, pulling himself in and grabbing for Sebastian’s chin immediately. If he were any more awake, he’d swat at him.

Sam squints at him, spring-sun eyes flickering around Sebastian’s face, as if he knows how to accurately tell a concussion. “Last time I got a concussion Harvey was pretty serious about that shit.”

“Last time you had a concussion you almost blacked out because you hit your head getting into bed.” Sebastian mutters.

Sam doesn’t answer, he just relents with a noise and settles back, buckling himself in. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the hospital?”

The drive is longer on the way back, Sebastian thinks. Maybe it’s the soft drone of the radio crooning out of the only stations that works out here, maybe it’s Sam’s voice, low and scratching as he mumbles along. He doesn’t pass out again, but he curls as best he can and rests his head against the cool glass of the window.

Sam parks in front of the garage, ignoring Sebastian’s weak-willed attempts at helping offload the bike and instead taking him by the shoulders and parking him leaning against the wall of the garage. Where he can monitor, he guesses.

He covers the bike with the tarp Sebastian uses in the winter to protect it and rubs his hands together before coming to stop in front of him again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Dude, by tomorrow it’ll be nothing.”

Nothing and scabs, probably. And that ache in his chest.

Sam doesn’t look convinced, but he squeezes Seb’s shoulder anyway. “Tomorrow,” he reminds him. “Nine in the morning.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sebastian huffs, groaning as he pushes himself off the wall. He can stay upright now, but exhaustion slammed into him like a—like a fucking highway. He can feel Sam keeping watch, a lookout for the slightest wobble to use as an excuse to sweep up and demand he at least call Harvey.

Which… no. If he wakes up Harvey, then Maru finds out and if Maru finds out then their mom finds out and if she finds out, well—Sebastian doesn’t even want to think about that whirlwind of concerned fury.

He stays upright, he stays stable. Hands moving out from his sides in a small shrug, he can see Sam start to cave. He hangs the keys back up where they belong.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Well, I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Sebastian nods, taking one surprisingly sure step forward. “Yeah. And thanks, by the way. I owe you one, or like...ten.”

Sam waves it off. “Just buy me a drink on Friday and be ready to get your ass thoroughly beaten for being a fucking idiot. Y’know—” He pauses to stifle a yawn into his fist. “Later.”

“Course, dude.”

Sam leaves as Sebastian makes it to his front door, that sort of half-tired bounce to his step careless in the cold stretch of the night. Sebastian watches him, his key in the lock, for just a few more moments. That’s Sam, sort of settles around him, a warm stone settling low in his stomach as Sebastian pushes open the door and pulls it softly closed behind him.

He takes a second to lean back against it, gathering himself before pushing off and limping in search of ice. That’s what he needs, right? Ice. There’s a few packs in the freezer, for the inevitability that between the four of them, someone’s going to get fucking hurt. Five, if they include Sam which, well, as often as he’s here maybe Sebastian should.

He’s got the countertop in a bleach-knuckled grip, hissing out another breath as he pulls himself up a little bit more, so focused on the sound of his own breathing and the thuddering of his heart in every single part of his fucking skin, pounding out in time with that beat-by-beat thump of pain—so focused on it all that he misses the sound of footsteps, the shuffle and creak of the stairs.

Not that he could escape it fast enough if he had.

“Sebby?”

Fuck him. He pushes himself up, clearing his throat as that knot of anxiety works its way up into his throat. It ties up around his tongue as he turns around, leaning the small of his back against the counters edge. “What are you doing up?”

Maru blinks at him from behind her thick glasses, taking a moment to push them up before frowning at him. “What am I doing, what are you doing?” It’s hushed, but quick nonetheless.

Oh here we fucking go. Sebastian scowls at her, upper body protesting as he crosses his arms and—okay no, no that fucking hurts too much.

He snaps them back down to his sides. “None of your fucking business.” His eyes flicker up to the ceiling, as if he can see if he’s being too loud for his mom and Demetrius.

She shuffles forward a little, frowning as she leans in and squints. “It’s like two in the morning, did you just get home?”

“Like I just said, it’s none of your fucking business.”

“What happened to your shirt?”

He glances down at the tear, shifting it away from her so that maybe, maybe she won’t see what it’s hiding (not that Sebastian wants to think about that either. He just wants to find the medical kit, find his ice, and crawl back into his room and hopefully, if he’s very very lucky, die a little.

Just a little.

“Do I need to keep repeating myself?” He whispers back, that rising tide of annoyance threatening to swallow him whole. “It’s none of your—”

“Sebastian are you bleeding?”

Yes. “No.”

Her hand shoots out before he can twist himself away, grabbing at the wrist of his fucked-up arm and pulling it forward. She reaches up with her other hand, flicking on the light above the stove. “Holy shit.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Fuck, Sebby—”

Here we go, she’s going to tell mom and then we’re fucked. And then it’ll be another series of lectures on safety, on being careful, on not riding our bike like this on not doing fucking anything because that’s the only time anyone cares. The only time anyone cares is when we fuck up like this (bullshit and you know it, you asshole. You’re the one who doesn’t care about you, you just don’t care if they care. You just don’t care if you hurt them.

And what does that make you?)

Maru’s eyes go wide, shining with concern as she looks him up and down, snapping her hands back and twisting them in front of her. He tries not to think about how much she looks like mom when she does that, when she worries her cheek between her teeth. “I’ll call—”

No.”

“You didn’t even know what I was going to say.”

He puts on his best imitation of her voice, well as good as he can do in a hushed tone. “I’ll call Harvey, he’ll fix this.

The worry isn’t gone, but it’s covered by a thick layer of annoyance. “How stupid of me to suggest calling the doctor.”

“I don’t need it, Maru. If I needed it, Sam would’ve—”

“Sam was with you? And he let you come home like this?”

Well, it wasn’t so much a let as a slowly worn down away from the topic. Now she even sounds like mom. Was Sam with you? What did you two do? Am I going to get a call from Jodi in an hour, or what about Lewis?

The reflex to protect, defend, and not quite lie comes immediately. “I wouldn’t say he was with me.”

She groans, a noise entirely familiar, and scrubs her hand over her face. “I’m going to call Harvey.”

“No.”

“Okay, then I’m going to tell mom.”

No.” And oh, how the panic swells. The fills up the space in his lungs, pushing out his chest and sinking low in his stomach. “Do not tell mom, if you tell her that I crashed my bike—”

Is that what you did?”

“—if you tell her, then I’ll tell her that you—that you—” Fuck he can’t think of a single thing she’s done. Of course not, she’s Miss Perfect, right?

Perfect grades, perfect skillset. Doesn’t go off to the saloon, doesn’t get too drunk in the city, doesn’t do a single thing wrong. Sebastian can’t think of a single secret she’s got, can’t think of a single thing she wouldn’t tell mom that she’d done. He stumbles over his threat, searching through every memory he has and no, no he’s the one who broke the vase that was in the hall, he was the one who spilled the entire bowl filled with pasta sauce, he was the one who scratched up the side of her old truck.

No, no it was always Sebastian. It was always him fucking up, it was always him who was keeping the secrets.

Maru arches a brow at him and that guilt festers itself into annoyance, a defensive knee-jerk, whip-wild snap of aggression. “Fine, whatever, Maru, you’re fucking perfect. Can you just get it out of my face for five fucking minutes?”

She snorts. Not the reaction he was anticipating. He blinks back, leaning further out of her space.

“Right,” she says. “Perfect.”

“Yeah, that’s—”

“If I were perfect, Seb, I wouldn’t have cost Harvey like… way too much money because I dropped a bunch of fucking samples two weeks ago. Which, by the way I definitely should’ve gotten fired for. And if I were perfect, I wouldn’t be up until two in the morning trying to work on an invention that legit just will not work. And I mean it, there’s nothing I can do to get it to work! I’ve tried fucking everything, Seb, and,” she pauses to shrug, “nothing. Nothing at all. I’m not you who can make anything electronic do whatever the fuck you want, okay?”

There’s another pause as she crosses her arms, huffing once before wiggling a little uncomfortably. “So maybe like, get your head out of your ass.”

Wow. He is a piece of shit. Sebastian sniffs once, rolling the idea of apologizing to his sister over his tongue for just a second before landing on a solid, “Don’t tell mom.”

Maru stares at him, for just a second longer, before caving. “Fine. But let me help you clean up, okay? Pretty sure if I leave if it to you, you’ll end up with gangrene.”

“Fuck you?”

“Shut up and get on the counter.”

He’ll say it’s because he’s tired, but he rolls his eyes and does as he’s bid, sliding up onto the countertop while Maru disappears back up the stairs, emerging a couple minutes later with their full-stocked medical kit tucked up under one arm and a brown bottle in hand.

Sebastian took the time to wiggle his bad arm free and investigate the scope of what he did to himself. The rash runs from a little up past his elbow, down to his wrist—the sort of angry smear that looks dark in the lowlight and glints under the glare of the hood light. His palms are more than a little fucked up too. He winces just a little. There’s another stretch on his chest, cutting over his wolf tattoo, and a run down his thigh from just under his hip to his knee.

Gross. It’s all fucking gross and it all fucking hurts. Maru clicks the kit open, leaning it against the stove as she fishes out the gauze and antibiotic cream.

“How bad?” She asks, eyes fixated on her little collection there.

“How bad, what?”

“Did you crash?”

Right. He accidently let that little nugget of information slip. Nice job, dumbass. Really, impressive. “Wasn’t that bad. Black ice, broke my mirror, scratched up the paint job.” He waves his hands. “Did this.”

Maru sighs, looking at his scrapes. “You should—”

“Don’t call Harvey.” He barely remembers to keep his voice down, shooting her a dark glare from under the glow of the hood light. “Seriously, Maru, I don’t need any stitches and nothing’s broken.”

She shoots back, “You don’t know that.”

“I think I would be able to tell if my bones were sticking out of my fucking skin, or if I literally broke something.” He hisses, but not from rage. Maru takes the cheap shot, dabbing an alcohol-soaked cotton against the scrape on his thigh. “Okay, fuck you that hurt.”

“Stop being such a baby, Seb.” He just winces this time, as she does it again. In the weak light, he can catch her grimace. It looks bad, yeah, Sebastian will admit that. It looks bad, it fucking feels bad. “You’ve got uh… let me just—” Maru’s hand draws back and even in the darkness she looks a little ashen.

He cranes his neck down, squinting at his own injury. “What?”

“I think it’s gravel just—”

Okay fuck that fucking hurts holy Yoba that hurts. He covers his face as whatever was stuck in his road rash hits the counter with a dull little click.

“Fucking gross,” Maru huffs. “Seb you need to see Harvey. He sleeps with his phone on, I can call him right now for an emergency.”

“It’s not,” he tells his palm because it’s the only thing in front of him right now.

“I won’t if you agree to come in tomorrow morning. I’ll be working so I’ll know if you do.”

Sebastian crinkles his nose, the sting alleviates somewhat as Maru leans in and blows slightly, cool air washing it away—just like his (their) mom does. “I could just agree to that, then not show up.”

Maru doesn’t look up, she just keeps cleaning out the long scrape on his thigh, balling up and putting one piece of cotton away to ready another. “Do that and I tell mom you crashed your bike and refused to seek medical attention.”

Ice settles in his stomach. “Fine. I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“Good, big brother. Gotta keep you in once piece.” He doesn’t smile, there is no warm curl in the corner of his lips as she makes a face at her hand. “You bled on me, you jerk.”

“Oh I’m sorry, let me just control my bleeding.”

“Wouldn’t kill you to try.”

It’s half-past three when she finishes taping the last piece of gauze to his elbow, a perfect line down his thigh and a whole patchwork on his chest and ribs, all with a thin sheen of antibacterial ointment underneath them. She hooks an arm around his waist to help him walk down the steps to the basement, pointedly not saying a word when he hisses and groans at the weight on his right hip.

“Are you sure,” she asks one last time, hovering outside the door to his bedroom. “Are you sure you’re okay, you don’t need anything?”

He shifts, ignoring the strange sensation of medical tape pulling at his skin, and adjusts his grip on the ice packs Maru collected for him. “I’m fine. Thanks, or like, whatever.”

In the dark edges of the hall, Maru’s half-smile looks a lot like their mom’s. “No problem, or like, whatever. I’ll see you at Harvey’s, okay?” She backs up, already starting to blend out into the shadows.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Sure.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Harvey finds the situation a lot more serious than Sebastian does.

He’ll admit under the harsh lights of the clinic, it looks worse than it did with the low-light of the highway and the meager glow of the hood lamp of the kitchen. It always looks worse in the daylight, angry red and scabbing rust streaking down his arm and flaking off onto the parchment covering of the exam table.

Harvey hugs his clipboard to his chest, spiderweb fingers tapping against the particle board. He’s taller than Sam, not by a lot but just enough that Sebastian notices every once in a while, remembers that the shoulder-slumped wreck nursing a single glass of wine on Friday nights in the corner of the saloon just might be someone a little more than intimidating. Sometimes. When he wants to be.

Sebastian was eighteen when he first met Harvey. Harvey had moved to Pelican Town a little over half a year earlier, set up the clinic while Sebastian pointedly avoided going in. It was Sam’s fault, really. Not that Sebastian blamed him anymore. They were dicking around down by the river, smoking and throwing anything they could find at each other.

He can’t remember who shoved who, who grabbed onto whose arm but Sebastian landed in the slick rocks, split the skin at his collarbone. Between the chill and the river water, it was too cold to feel it, but he’d watched Sam’s face drain.

Sebastian met Harvey at half-past eleven, glowering in the doorway to the clinic, blood soaking down the front of his shirt while Sam babbled out some story to explain away their bloodshot eyes and the nasty cut on Sebastian’s collar. He was quiet that night, clearing his throat once to suggest that maybe they shouldn’t be down by the river while otherwise intoxicated.

Quiet the next time too, when Sebastian circled back to get his stitches taken out.

He’s quiet now, but not quite in the same soothing way. This time it’s with one eyebrow arched over his glasses and a deep-set frown under his mustache. Like he’s cycling through everything he could say, everything he should say, and everything he wants to say at once. Like Sebastian opened too many tabs, crashed out the whole browser there—nothing loading, nothing closing. Harvey keeps tapping his fingers, saying nothing.

Sebastian knew it would look bad, it looked bad when he woke up. His entire body was just one steady throb, but like he’d been tilted, letting it pool on the left side of him. Red poked through his bandages, making them stick uncomfortably with he shifted.

And he knows it looks bad now. He knows it because Harvey stopped talking when Sebastian stripped out of his hoodie and his t-shirt, when he peeled off the bandages and sat there, heels bouncing slightly against the leg of the exam table.

“So.” Sebastian jumps, shoulders twitching up as Harvey finally speaks. It echoes too loudly around the buzz of the fluorescent lighting. “You crashed your motorcycle last night.”

It isn’t a question, but Sebastian sniffs once and answers anyway. “Yep.”

“Last night.”

Idiot. “Yep.” (You’re actually so stupid you broke the fucking doctor. Nice job.)

Harvey looks down at him, then up at the ceiling, as if the answer might be written up there. “Okay,” is what he says. Sebastian assumes because it’s the only thing he has left to say right now. “I’m glad you’ve come in now.”

Translation: What the fuck were you thinking last night? Translation: Holy shit, Sebastian did you try to sleep off a fucking motorcycle crash? Translation: You are so stupid that it is causing me physically pain in this very moment.

Translation: What the fuck is wrong with you?

(Would you like that alphabetically or chronologically?)

“It’s not that bad.”

Harvey doesn’t so much look at him as he does through him. Sebastian can feel it, pressing right in the highway shaped divots in his walls, a knife-point pressing past the boundaries and digging in. Right through him, right in all the places Sebastian tries to keep hidden. It’s a blow with precision, the careful managed strike of someone with anatomical knowledge.

Harvey echoes, “It’s not that bad.”

“I didn’t break anything.”

He checks the clipboard. “You fractured a rib and you’re incredibly lucky you didn’t break your hip.”

Translation: Sebastian why the fuck can’t you give a shit about yourself? Why can’t you care—what is caught up in your system, blocking up your fans and shorting out the part of you that cares that people care (they don’t, Harvey doesn’t care, Maru doesn’t care—and even if they did what does it matter? All you’ve ever done is let them down)

Sebastian runs a hand through his hair, as if that could force the snarling from the back of his mind, as if that could stop the clawing of Harvey’s eyes up the back of his throat, unsealing him from the pit of self-loathing he’s splintered his nails on for the past decade. “But I didn’t.”

“Okay,” Harvey says again, a clicker-word replacing whatever he wants to say. “You said your abrasions were cleaned last night—let's make sure they’re completely cleaned out, disinfected, and bandaged properly. Then I’ll let you go.”

Sebastian grumbles, but sticks his arm out all the same. Harvey snaps on a pair of gloves and sets to work.

Generally speaking, Sebastian considers himself fine with pain. He grunts when Harvey peels the bandages off his ribs, the catch of tape on sensitive skin drawing a hiss from somewhere deep in his chest. The tattoo there hurt, that much Sebastian will readily confess. It hurt like a bitch. He remembers the way he caught his whimpers against his teeth, white-knuckled grip on Sam's arm as he hunched over him, murmuring words of encouragement on the second hour of line work.

Come on, bro, it’ll be fine. It’s almost done, it looks so sick.

Sebastian didn’t register the looks from the artist, not until the midway mark, with his ragged-breath pants out between them and Sam combing fingers through Sebastian's hair. He never told Sam of course. Not that it would’ve mattered, really.

But Sam’s not here now, crooning out comfort. He’s not here to mutter low in Sebastian’s ear as Harvey drags antiseptic across the raw-dragged skin. Sebastian doesn’t watch. He doesn’t watch Harvey patch him up, he doesn’t watch him methodically clean out bits of gravel and dirt that Maru missed, he doesn’t watch him tape down bandages.

“These shouldn’t scar,” Harvey says. “At least not largely or in the long-term.”

He peels off and bins the gloves before re-collecting the clipboard, examining it with a frown bunched up under his mustache.

Because just in case Sebastian’s day couldn’t possibly get worse—his tetanus shot is out of date.

Sebastian doesn’t argue, even if he wants to. Something about being smeared across a highway sort of takes the fight out of you.

(Like you ever had fight. Not when it counts)

He hisses at the jab, grumbling his way through Harvey’s instructions, through his admonishments and lectures about safety. Proper equipment, comes up enough times for Sebastian to assume that Maru let slip that he showed up in only his torn-up hoodie.

The little snitch.

It takes every ounce of good courtesy left in him not to sneer at him when the talk circles back around to the shoulder-setting and the, “And I really must insist that next time something like this happens—which I do hope there will not be a next time—but the next time you’re injured in any capacity, please if you don’t visit a hospital at least come to the clinic. Maru has my phone number and, if I recall correctly, you do as well.”

Right, he does. Harvey had caved and given it to him after what has since only ever been referred to as the spaghetti incident. Sebastian winces on Sam’s behalf. “I’ll keep that in mind. Can I go?”

Harvey looks at him, clipboard hugged to his chest and white coat hanging off him in a way that strikes Sebastian as being almost sad. Maybe he always looks like that, maybe it’s just taken the bright clinic lights and more than a twenty-minute check-up for Sebastian to notice. Or maybe it’s just this.

Maybe it’s just that we keep letting everyone down? Could that be it? Maybe we just keep fucking this up, maybe we just keep ruining it all. Maybe that’s all we ever do is let people down.

“Come back in next week, Sebastian. Make the appointment with your sister.”

Sebastian slides off the exam table, fixing his hoodie and swallowing around that flash-bang urge under his skin that demands he wheel around and correct him. Half-sister. She’s his half-sister.

He doesn’t. He just slips out of the room with as much grace as someone who can barely walk.

He wants to go home. He wants to get so high he can’t feel his body. Sebastian managed to keep most of his injuries hidden, under the long sleeves and the baggiest pair of jeans he owns—which might technically be Sam’s from last spring. The only thing exposed are his palms, thick gauze taped down and making it hard to do anything more than wiggle his fingers.

Harvey said just for a few days, but it’ll still make it a pain in the ass to work. He wiggles his fingers again as he shoulders the door open, deciding in that moment that fuck whatever Harvey says, he’s swapping them out for regular-sized bandages when he gets home.

The voice registers before Sebastian has time to react. He’s not paying attention to much besides the annoying flex of his hands. The door swings shut behind him just in time for the painstakingly annoying: “What’s that?”

It’s not directed at him, Sebastian knows that—but some sort of age-old default raises his hackles as he watches Maru’s brow pinch together in annoyance behind the counter. Her lips pressed in a thin line like she’s just barely holding back the urge to snap.

On the other side, leaning over the polished white counter with a mirthful spark in his eyes, Sam points to a pen. “Maru what’s that?”

It’s his favorite game and, judging by the twitch to Maru’s brow, Sam has about fifteen seconds left of it before she snaps.

He’s tempted to let her, to watch Sam push her buttons until she disintegrates into a fire not totally unlike when they manage to piss off their mother. That nasty little dig settles under his skin, hissing up under him. If he were nay less tired, it might’ve been mirthful. It might’ve been something half-gleeful and half-interested.

But Maru helped him last night. “Sam,” He says, watching the question building up on his lips. “What are you doing here?”

He retreats back, hands thwacking the flat surface with a steady beat. “I’m here to check on you. Maru sent me a message saying that you’d be here.”

Traitor. Sebastian should’ve left her at the mercy of Sam’s incessant what’s that game. He’d been doing it to her since she was twelve, pointing at anything in eyesight and asking her what it was. Maru had more of a patience for it before she turned sixteen.

“Why?”

“Because you got your ass smeared across a highway last night.” A presence looms up behind him and Sebastian scowls, pulling his hoodie sleeves further down over the bandages and scurrying forward. It’s too bright under the glare of the lights, too much exposure, too much of everything right in his eyes. Light catches off the sterile-scrubbed floor, the chairs, the blaze-white walls. All of it bouncing back at him and throbbing under his teeth.

Sebastian wobbles with his next step, the radiating pain from his hip making it difficult to keep a steady pace with his sulking. “I said I was fine.”

“Is he, doc?” Sam asks, stopping his impromptu counter-drum session to lean his elbow down onto it. Sebastian doesn’t need to look behind him to see Harvey’s face twisting up.

“Unfortunately, I’m not—”

“Doctor-patient confidentiality,” Sebastian mutters, limping his way past Sam as quickly as he fucked up legs will take him. “Also I’m fine.”

“Make sure you keep those bandages clean, Sebastian.” Harvey calls after him, sliding whatever paperwork towards Maru.

Tough luck, asshole, we still have to stay. Right because he has to fucking pay and make another appointment that he’ll cancel as soon as Maru isn’t working. And then that she’ll blackmail him into keeping, probably. (This is what you get for being a shitty brother. You can’t even think of a single thing to throw back at her because you don’t know her. Because you never bothered to know her. Too much of a son-of-a-bitch to get over yourself.)

Sam is hovering over his shoulder and Maru is clacking away with all the professionalism she has. It’s always like this, that’s why Sebastian hates coming in when she’s working. Hates it when she reflexively fills in all the details she knows already.

(And what do you know about her? What can you keep? Nothing except your own bullshit. No one cares if she has what you want, no one cares.)

The exchange is wordless, a co-pay, an appointment for a couple weeks out. Sam steals his paperwork.

“You broke your rib,” he asks, a burning sound from deep in his lungs. Sebastian flinches back as that heavy press of Maru’s eyes follows. “I should’ve taken you to the hospital.”

“Fuck off.” Sebastian snatches it back, shoving the crumpling paper into his hoodie pouch. Fuck, he wants a cigarette, he wants two. He wants to sit in his basement and get so high he can’t feel his fucking body. He just re-uped, he should be able to do that if he wants. “They wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”

“It could’ve been worse,” Maru says, eyes shifting from behind her glasses.

Sam makes a noise in agreement and Sebastian fights back the whip-wild urge to snarl at the two of them, stumbling back on half-sure legs. “It wasn’t and I’m fine.”

Rolling his eyes, Sam slides effortlessly against Sebastian’s side. “Fine dude. You’re fine. C’mon, Abby wants to yell at you next. Mom’s at Pierre’s for aerobics and Vincent has lessons with Pen so it’s pretty empty at my place.”

“And your dad?”

Sam shrugs before sliding his arm around Sebastian’s waist, letting him drag his arm up over his shoulder to brace himself. It takes the pressure off his hip, that burn of relieved pain starting to seep through his bones immediately. “He’s probably down by the beach or the lake or something.”

Right. Right. Sebastian leans into Sam, into the radiating heat that seeps through him. They manage through the door and Sebastian’s eyes snap around for anyone who might find them tangled up like this, a too-close mix of limbs that Sam never considers.

No, Sam is touchy. He’s always been. Sebastian used to be, too and maybe he can be too, in the privacy of their own space, in the places where no one can look for them. A cold-dark quiet, he can throw his arm over Sam’s shoulders and remember that it doesn’t mean anything to him, so it shouldn’t mean anything to anyone else.

He could be affectionate openly. Totally. The idea doesn’t at all fill him with a boiling sense of dread.

This town is too fucking small. Really. Sam’s arm is the only thing keeping Sebastian from recoiling away from him the moment he hears his name called in a now far too familiar voice and holy shit get him out of here for Yoba’s sake. Can the earth just split and swallow him whole? Can that happen? What are the statistics on spontaneous sinkholes?

Sam’s brow raises as Alex jogs into sight. He looks better than he did last night and Sebastian is entirely sure that he looks worse.

“Hey, Seb.” There’s a slight sheen to his brow, sticking his hair to his temples. Alex is flushed, and Sebastian’s brain whirs and crashes and attempts to reboot again with nothing but the word warm flashing up again and again. “Hey, Sam.”

It’s belated enough that Sam realizes, glancing between the two—but if he realizes, he doesn’t say anything about it, just picking up immediately as only Sam can. “Yo, Alex. How have you been?”

“Good, fine. What about you, man?”

It’s like watching two dogs circle each other, sniffing at the park. Yipping and bowing to play. Sebastian’s leg hurts, his side hurts, his—okay all of him hurts. And Sam and Alex keep trading pleasantries. I’m doing alright, I was talking to Gunther about the museum a couple days ago. Oh yeah, how’s that place doing? It’s been filling out apparently, I guess there was some write-up in some museum paper—I can’t remember which one, but I’ll ask Abby about it—so they’ve been kinda busy. Oh, that’s great, I’m glad. So am I!

Sebastian doesn’t exactly not pay attention, more so that he pays closer attention to the gnawing fire that climbs its way steadily up the length of his leg—chewing a pulsating beat against his hipbone, as merciless as it is consistent.

He can feel when Alex’s eyes turn towards him, when they climb up the length of him, fixating at his shoulder for just a moment. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other, nudging his shoulder against Sam to take the pressure off a little bit more.

“What about you, Seb?” He asks. There’s something to his voice, something half-hollow and forced as Alex grins with too many teeth. Maybe it’s the sun, too bright, too new, glinting off him in ways that Sebastian isn’t totally familiar with.

He’s used to the comfort of the night, to the controlled-burn fires that rage up under his skin and choke him out slowly. The kind that purge out the underbrush, stifled by the dull brilliance of the moon and the faint hum of the stars. Here, it’s blaring. It’s brilliant and it’s sharp-edged.

It cuts, somewhere deep to Sebastian’s core—and maybe it’s the light, the sun shooing away the shadows and leaving them stripped bare and exposed, but Alex takes a step backwards, he looks away quicker than he ever did before. (Were you keeping track? Counting the seconds—how obsessed are you?)

Sebastian swallows, sniffs once, and says, “Fine. Just uh, had an appointment with Harvey.”

Alex’s eyes snap back up, over-grown with concern. “Are you alright?”

Sam opens his over-eager mouth and Sebastian slides in before he can start with what he’s probably about to say. “I’m fine, it was just a uh...it was nothing.” Which it was.

Oh it was? Absolutely. Nothing. Nothing at all. Sam’s arm tightens around Sebastian’s waist, a silent gesture that screams a litany of threats at him.

“Good, yeah.”

Alex’s eyes fixate there for a moment, blinking before he flushes with the sunlight. “Right, cool. I’m glad. You know, that you’re—” He cuts himself off to wave a hand at Sebastian, then jerk his thumb over his shoulder. “Yeah. I’m just gonna—head back home.”

Sam grimaces beside Sebastian, “You okay dude?”

For a second, Alex looks pale. Like he does in the moon-washed night, like he did just last night—all drenched in the cold light and emptied of color. For a second, he looks sick. But it only lasts a second—a breath of time before he wrenches that summer-burn grin back up onto his face (too many teeth, right? Sebastian stares he swears, he swears there’s something wrong. Something not quite right).

“Fine, Sam. Just starting to feel the cold, all the adrenaline from my run burning off.”

He doesn’t wait for Sam’s response, and Sebastian watches him jog away—something strange twisting up in his stomach. Like he’s made some kind of horrible, horrible, mistake.

###

Sebastian and Sam limp through the door to Sam’s place in relative silence. Sam makes a point to drag Sebastian to the kitchen, sitting his ass down at the table and wrangling a casserole from the fridge.

“Is that your mom's cauliflower curry?” He asks, leaning over the best he can.

Sam hums, setting it down with a dull thunk. “You bet, bro. Best shit this side of the valley. She was in the kitchen all day yesterday so uh, there’s plenty.”

His hand settles, a protective instinct, over his injured side as he leans back in the chair, watching Sam bustle about. “Is she…” Sebastian waves his good hand.

Across the kitchen, reaching for one of the upper cabinets, Sam freezes. His movements slow to something deliberate and careful. “She’s fine,” he says. “You know how she gets.”

Sebastian cranes his neck around to the neat little recycling bin, counting two narrow glass necks poking out from beside the meticulously folded cardboard Joja Cola boxes. He winces a bit, both for her sake and Sam’s.

There were times he remembers, back when they were younger when they were a little more confused, where they didn’t quite get it. A few Friday’s where she’d be asleep on the sofa long after she put Vincent to sleep, one hand dangling over the armrest. Sebastian would always watch, some sadness festering away while Sam tip-toed over, pulling the throw over her and collecting her empty glass and bottle. A couple nights where they’d both come home from a day at the beach—sunwarmed and hungry to find Jodi sitting there in the kitchen, staring at the walls like she was replaying some film back her head.

Three bowls come down, the only warning that Sam definitely told Abby. “Has it been better?” Sebastian asks, some knotting curled up in his stomach. “Since your dad came back?”

Sam shrugs, again, putting the first bowl into the microwave. “I don’t know. Sometimes? I asked her once but she just fixed my hair and said it was fine but—” he waves a hand, dismissive, as ever. “Felt like bullshit. Pretty sure it is, too. She still hangs out with Caroline and gossips in that sunroom over tea or whatever they do. You know it’s bad when she stops and just hovers around here all day.”

He hums in commiseration. “How’s he?”

Sam snorts. It’s the sort of laughter that isn’t funny. Not bitter, not hateful—just tired. “When I find out, I’ll tell you. Anyway, Gunther asked if I needed a job a few days ago so, there’s that. Guess he needs help part-time in the library.”

The opens while Sebastian is in the middle of his congratulations, a whip-sharp voice snapping out from the front room, “Sebastian, I swear to Yoba if you ever do something that fucking stupid again I am going to—to, holy shit I don’t even have a threat for you I’m too pissed.”

The door swings shut in perfect punctuation, leaving Sebastian leaning away from the wave of Abby’s wrath.

Sam waves. “Hey, Abby. Feel free to tear Seb a new asshole. I’m making lunch.”

She bounces over, giving Sam a quick squeeze in greeting. “Thanks Sam—ooh, is that curry? Will you—”

“Extra hot?”

She grins, but only at Sam. It turns to a vicious frown the moment she rounds on Sebastian. “And you.”

He waves, once. “Hey, Abby.”

“What the fuck were you thinking?” I wasn’t, actually. I just wanted to get away from where I was. I just wanted to fucking go. (Look at what you fucking did. Nice job, making Abby worry—like she doesn’t already have enough on her plate, right? Why don’t you just press on all those bruises right now? Yeah that’ll make you a good fucking friend)

“It’s not that bad.”

“Sam said you broke your ribs.”

He winces, the flinch away from her drawing a hiss up from the pits of his lungs too. “Only one, and I’m fine. Seriously, I didn’t even need any fucking stitches or anything, so it’s not even the worst injury I’ve had.”

Sam gestures with the bowl. “Dude, come on that was an accident.”

“So was this,” Sebastian argues, gesturing down himself before leaning back in his chair to look at Abby more, her face flushed with equal parts concern and righteous fury. “It’s just road rash.”

“When do you have to change your bandages?” She asks, arms crossed tight over her denim vest.

Sebastian shrugs. Harvey said once a day, clean it, re-bandage it—or if they got dirty. Abby doesn’t so much let the subject drop as clearly files it away to take her seat beside him, shooting him a look that certainly means there will be more on this conversation later.

She just cares about you (She should stop that, waste of everyone’s time, isn’t it?)

He’s not particularly hungry when his bowl comes to him. Not anymore at least. He stares down at the scabs forming on the edges of his bandages, the places where the whispered edges of irritation start to creep out.

Abby kicks his chair gently, one brow raised when he looks up. “You sure you’re okay, dude?”

He hums, once, ignoring the two pairs of pale eyes watching him. It grates, somewhere, under his skin. An itch that isn’t scratchable, that all it can do is raise questions and concerns and leave someone writhing around there on the inside. “I’m fine,” he says, a weight of exhaustion dropping right down into the pit of his stomach. “I’m totally fine.”

They talk about the library, about how if Sam starts working there, it means that they’ll be able to hang out more. They finish eating, Sebastian managing down half of the bowl once he could start feeling eyes flickering between his hand and his fork, before they slip away to Sam’s bedroom.

Careful eyes watch the clock as they settle in near his open window, Sam politely dragging Sebastian’s favorite bean bag chair close enough to it so he doesn’t have to sprawl out on the floor with the rest of them.

“Don’t know how I’m going to get out of this,” Sebastian mumbles, shifting a bit on the chair.

Sam waves it off. “Dude, you weigh like twenty pounds, I’ll just pick you up if I have to.”

Sebastian doesn’t squawk, but the noise he makes isn’t exactly dignified.

Abby practically snorts from where she’s rolling at Sam’s dresser, circling back to offer the joint to Sebastian first. “For the idiot who fucked himself up without his gear.”

He sets it between his lips, fishing out his lighter. He rests his thumb on the wheel. “Who told you that?”

Sam doesn’t even have the good graces to look guilty. He just whines until Sebastian lights up. Time runs short, clock threatening Jodi’s return and the ever-looming threat of Kent wandering past the open window keeps them from indulging too much. It’s not a roaring high, but it settles under Sebastian’s skin and curls low in his stomach—settled like smoke there where he can’t reach it.

He tucks his chin against his shoulder, watching as Sam stretches out under the window, Abby’s cheek resting against his ribcage.

“You’re not allowed to get hurt like that again,” she says, eyes closed. “I fucking mean it, Seb.”

“Right,” he says. “I won’t.”

The promise sticks, hollow, in his throat. He can’t quite swallow around it, can’t quite force it down. The cool fall air seeps in through the window, sending a shudder down Sebastian’s spine.

Abby stays until the sun starts to slip down, grumbling something about searching for jobs now that she’s officially graduated. She leaves as Jodi returns, headed straight for the shower after her aerobics.

Sebastian knows that means his mom is home by now. Jodi will stay and chat longer, lingering with Caroline over a glass or two—cups of tea in the sunroom—his mom, not so much. She’ll get home, work on some project or another for a while, chat with Demetrius, with Maru. Sebastian’s stomach churns at the idea of limping home, of racking his brain to stumble through some lie to get her off his back—that constant anxiety-chew of knowing that Maru knows and knowing that if Maru knows then it’s only a matter of time before she tells someone else.

Before she lets it slip.

His stomach turns to bile as Sam wanders back in. He barely opens his mouth to tell Sam, to vocalize his pit of I don’t want to go home into something snarky and dead-rooted before Sam stretches his arms up over his head.

“Wanna stay the night? I told mom you were here and she asked if you wanted to. She’s making flounder.”

Sebastian’s throat seizes around a thank you. “Yeah,” he says, exhaustion slamming into him. “Thanks.”

“No problem, need a hand up?”

Sam ends up having to practically pick him up. The first attempting, taking Sebastian by the arms like he did last night—it doesn’t go over too well. Sam ends up getting up under his arms, heaving Sebastian up like a gangly sack of potatoes.

“See,” Sam pants. “I knew restocking shit at Joja for a while would come in handy.”

Sebastian just grumbles.

Chapter Text

The end of fall brings Sebastian’s favorite holiday on its heels.

There are only a scant few town festivals he can stomach, and even less that he actually enjoys.

Spirits Eve is one.

It’s the sort of holiday that he can feel coming on the air, digging its fingers under his collar when he stands at the edge of the lake for a late-night cigarette. It comes with that sharp-burst scent of winter on the air, threatening to drown them all in that immediate frozen burst of snow and a looming ever-present darkness.

His road rash heals. It heals slowly in certain places, in the places that Sebastian can reach as he’s working at his desktop, where he can pick at the scabs on the side of his wrist while staring at lines of code, and as it gets steadily more uncomfortable. It pulls at his skin, the bandages catching on the dried blood and tear at the delicate hairs on his forearm. Each movement brings a little sting, a little reminder. Look how badly you fucked up this time. Look at what a catastrophe you are. Look at what a fuck up, look at what a mess.

He traded out the gauze on the heels of his palm for bandages, using the looming winter as an excuse to break out the fingerless gloves he used to wear in high school without anyone raising any questions. 

Not that he’d needed to hide them, really, he was much better at avoiding his family than that.

Mostly, at least. Maru came down a few times, a timid knock at his door to make sure he wasn’t dead yet. Sebastian let her see the healing parts of his arms, shrugged off any attempts she offered at helping him re-bandage, and scrolled through Valkyrie in search of some battery pack she was looking for—a suitable thanks for whatever in the form of a two-day shipping box left surreptitiously outside her door in the dead of night.

(Right because an actual thank you is out of the question, right? Because there’s no way you’re facing up to her and admitting she helped you because of course that’ll just be another think she lords over you. Her worthless older brother—that piece of shit that can’t even take care of himself. Who can’t even stomach the idea of admitting it to an eighteen year old? Nice job, really. It’s a good look, very fucking adult of you)

He makes it three days successfully avoiding everyone. Well, almost. Demetrius had snuck up behind him while he was making coffee that first day after he came back from Sam’s—a rough night sleeping on the too-cramped bed with every breath and twitch wrenching a burning pain from deep inside him, it left him a little sluggish, a little too slow to register the sound of heavy footsteps. A little too slow to turn and flee.

If Demetrius noticed the limp, he didn’t say anything. He just let Sebastian escape, unscathed, back down to his basement.

It’s always in the kitchen that these things happen. Maybe that’s because Sebastian tries to avoid any other place in the house. He doesn’t hang out in the living room, sprawled out over the couch with his laptop balanced on his knees. He doesn’t spend time meandering the front, doesn’t waste his hours lingering around the other common areas.

Why would he?

His mom nearly busts him once. Dealing with the damage to his bike isn’t as hard as he thought it would be—he’s taking notes on his phone, things to buy and things to look into replacing when he hears the crunch of gravel and the chipper sound of her chattering away to whoever she’s coming up the mountain with.

He barely manages to yank the tarp back over his bike, barely manages to avoid the questions that he knows will come racing down the second she sees it. His heart is soundly in his throat, pounding away an anxious tattoo by the time she pokes her head in.

“Hey, honey,” she says, his jackrabbit pulse nosing itself up against his ribcage. It claws at the broken and bruised parts of him as he barely manages to steady himself with a hand on the covered bike. “Were you working on your motorcycle?”

Sebastian sniffs, scratching the side of his nose for want of something, anything, to do with his hands. Anything that isn’t tear off the gloves and pick at the scabs with needy, nervous fingers. The restless scratch climbs its way down through his veins, crawling up under his skin and in the spaces between sinew and muscle. “Yeah. Just making sure she runs right.”

She comes into full view, hands resting loose on her hips. She’s got that look, the one that Sebastian knows far too well—a mix of disappointment and concern all overlaced with a mirage of affection. “You know how I feel about you riding that deathtrap in winter.”

He knows how she feels about him riding it at all. The day he first brought it home, that furious indignation that blossomed over her, the argument that manifested over his safety—as if that was all she cared about, as if it wasn’t just another thing. Another drop in the bucket of frustration and annoyance.

Sebastian’s leg throbs in response. Fine. But he didn’t die. “I know how you feel about it in general.” He leans his weight on his good leg, shoving his hands in the front pocket of his hoodie. “Besides, it’s not winter yet.”

Not that he’d be riding it, not that he’d be riding it for a while. No, not still spring thaws and it’s warm enough for that.

She leans against the doorway to the garage, picking something off the track. “I can’t help it,” she says, “I’m your mom. It’s my job to worry about you. Now come inside and grab some lunch, okay?”

His blood freezes in his veins, He can’t take a step with her watching, because if he does, then she’ll know. She’ll know and that’ll be it. No more rides in the dead of night, no more sense of escape lingering under his skin and crawling back to curl in the frozen depths of himself. (As if you ever had that freedom anyway. What? You’ll lose the chance you never had?)

She’ll fucking kill him.

Sebastian swallows, wrangling a hand free to rub the back of his neck. “I’m not hungry.” It’s a lie, and a bad one at that. At the idea of food, his stomach starts clawing its way out of his midsection, a low ache that reminds him that he didn’t crawl his way out of the basement for dinner last night, either.

“You didn’t come up for breakfast.”

Or that. “I said I’m fine, mom.”

Her nose crinkles and her restless hand falls down to cross over the chest of her vest. She’s swapped out her denim for a nice heavy sherpa-lined one—the one Sebastian got her for her birthday a handful of years ago.

He pretends not to notice how well-worn it is by now. “You’re not lingering out here for me to leave so you can smoke, are you?”

Yes. “No. No, mom. I’m not. For Yoba’s sake, I just want to finish working on my bike and get back to work. I’ve got a deadline for next week and I’m not as far along as I’d like to be.”

Well—actually, he’s lingering out here for her to leave so he can walk without worry of her busting him and his sore hip.

“You know how much I hate that you still smoke, Sebby.”

Oh for fucks sake. His head tilts back with the force of his groan, shoulder slumping back under the weight of his exhaustion. He’s done with this line of questioning; he’s done with this conversation. He’s done with all of it and he’s been fucking done since it started. “I know, mom. I know you hate it, you’ve told me a hundred fucking times this season alone.”

“Because it’s true. It’s a nasty habit and you’re just—”

“I know.”

Her jaw clicks shut, eyes rolling as if she were the petulant teenager. (You’re not either, jackass. You’re a full-fucking grown man. Wanna try acting like it?) “Fine. I’m going inside and—” This time she cuts herself off, brow furrowing and lips pressing together and oh—oh fuck no.

It’s in her eyes, this immediate flood of emotions that Sebastian doesn’t even want to stick a name to. It’s the same look she gave him the first time he came home stoned when she was awake. Three hours past his curfew, the smell sticking to his skin and his jacket—knowing that his eyes were burning blood-shot and his movements too sluggish to be right.

She didn’t say anything that night, just raised a brow and pressed her lips in a thin line and told him to go to bed.

She didn’t say anything after the cops dropped him off, bruised and bleeding after Sam’s car accident. She never says anything.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Well, apparently today is different then. Sebastian winces despite the softness to her tone. What’s wrong with you? Oh he can give a list. He can give a whole fucking list of that. What’s wrong with you? You mean today? Or in general?

“Nothing.” He says, too quick and too sharp. “Nothing’s wrong, mom.”

“Then why are you standing like that?”

He opens his mouth to argue, to snap back some sort of belated like what, this is how I stand, mom, for fucks sake can you stop making a fucking deal out of everything? Can you maybe leave me alone? Haven’t we learned from Abby what happens when we keep poking? That I’m just enough of an asshole to be a dick about it?

When Maru rounds the corner it’s exactly the death blow he’s been fucking waiting for. Just swing in and lay it on him, go on. He’s already had enough of this day and it isn’t even past noon yet. She slides up beside Robin, some bundle of something in her arms. It looks like something pulled out of the mines, but Sebastian couldn’t get a good glimpse of it.

“Hey Seb,” she says, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Mom was helping me grab some ore for my project and you won’t believe what we found.”

He opens his mouth to retort, but their mom beats him to it, half-ignoring what she has to say. “Sebastian, would you please just tell me what’s going on?”

His eyes flicker to Maru, the immediate pitch of her lips into a frown and the furrow that builds between her brow as she looks between the two, finding the tension she clearly missed before. How is, of course, beyond him. It ripples with a tangibility that rides out on another exasperated huff of air from him.

She’s going to fucking tell her, of course she is. She can’t wait to sweep in and steal the credit.

“Is it your leg, Seb?” And here it goes, for fucks sake—we even did what she asked. We went to Harveys, we took care of it and of course it didn’t mean anything. Of course it was bullshit, it was just another fucking ploy, another fucking— “Because that was my fault, mom. Seb you don’t have to cover for me, Yoba.”

What? He blinks at her, his half-step back more of a sad shuffle onto his bad leg. “I, uh...right?”

Robin immediately turns back to Maru, arms crossed and frown severe. It reeks of tell me and tell me now. Maru barrels forward without missing a beat, only pausing to adjust her grip on her pile of ore. “I left my toolbox out again the other day and Seb tripped over it. Dad reminded me to put it away but I forgot and then Seb had to go to Harvey’s and I’m sorry.” She wiggles a hand into the pile, coming up with a closed fist. Sebastian stares when she offers it, closing the few short steps between them. “I got you something from the mines as a sorry for fucking your leg up offering?”

He stares at it, brain failing to process any of what the fuck just happened.

Maru lied. (She did.) She lied to their mom. (She did.) To her face. To cover for him. He blinks once, then twice. She gestures out again and it takes another second to load, for everything to sweep up to meet him.

Wordlessly, and with halting, tentative, movements, Sebastian opens his palm out to her. She drops something half-clear, cool to the touch despite being in warm hands, right into the center of it. It’s oblong, rough-cut by the turning of the earth around it and jagged edged. Nothing about it is polished or beautiful.

“Is this a frozen tear?” Cool, now there’s something lumped up in his throat. Awesome. Fucking rad.

Maru beams. “Yep! I thought it was kind of your thing and I saw it and—I’m sorry for tripping you and I’m sorry for teasing you about Abby.” Her voices pitches low for a second, a playful grimace crossing her expression. “And for telling mom.”

“I…” Sebastian pauses, clearing his throat as he stares down at the little stone. It glints in the dusty light of the garage. “Thanks.”

The fire drains out of their mother, a slow slump to her shoulders catching right on the edge of a sigh. “Are you alright, Sebby?”

He’s still staring down, shifting his hand to roll the gemstone and watch the way its uneven edges catch the light, scattering it around the pale stretch of his hand around it. “Yeah, mom. Like I said, I’m fine. Just some bruises, right, Maru?”

“Mmm,” she confirms, picking her way further into the garage to find a bucket to dump her ore into. “Harvey said he’ll be fine.”

“Right, well, you two don’t get into any more trouble, okay. And come in for lunch?”

Sebastian’s fingers close around the tear carefully, sliding his fist into the front pocket of his hoodie. “I was going to Sam’s.” It’s default, an instinctual motion that rears up from around the stone wedged firmly in the back of his throat.

Her hand rests on the track once more, credulous brow reaching up to her hairline. “I thought you said you had work to do.”

Fuck, that’s what he said, wasn’t it? Sucking in his cheek, he casts about for a good response, only coming up empty-hooked with the flat and lame: “I’ll do it later tonight. He wants to talk about how we’re gonna beat the maze this year.”

“Be back before we’re all in bed, okay?”

Probably not. “Got it.”

Behind him, somewhere, Maru clunks ore into the bottom of a plastic bucket, one by one. Sebastian turns immediately, snapping around with all the whip-wild confusion and that has been festering away in the spaces between his broken ribs. “What the—”

“Shut up,” she snaps back, on the edge of hush. She waits a couple more seconds, gesturing with a chunk of ore—until the sound of the front door shutting reaches them. “Okay now the coast is clear.”

“What the fuck.”

She dumps them all down at once, her biding done, and dusts off her hands. “You’re welcome. I told you I wouldn’t tell and it looked like you needed help. Also I wanted to give you that frozen tear.”

Right. That. His hand clenches around it, that sweet bite of stone into the meat of his hand—a sharp edged press that lingers on the very edge of being something akin to pain, but something not quite. It ruminates between the two, an insistent point of pressure. A place to ground himself, linking to the tangential concept of grounds and the earth beneath him.

He squeezes, once, resetting his heart back to something akin to a human pace.

“Thanks, for that too,” he says. “How did you know I wanted one of these?”

Maru glances up from where she’s adjusting the straps on her cover-alls. She mirrors their mother’s no-nonsense brow-raise a little too close for comfort. “Seb, have you ever met yourself? Tell Sam I said hi.”

She’s gone in a blink, leaving him there, alone, between his wrecked motorcycle and the chunk of ice-stone gripped in a sweaty palm.

###

Sebastian texts Sam from halfway down the mountain, not anticipating the immediate response that pops up.

Sure, but I’m picking Vince up from the library. Pen called, said he’s not feeling great.

Frowning at his screen, he re-routes himself towards the library with ease. Concern doesn’t ripple through him in the winter like it does in the warmer months. The cold keeps people away, the bursts of freezing wind promising the turning of the seasons and driving them away from the beaches and lingering in the gardens.

The only downside is that now they’re all inside. Maru and Demetrius linger in the kitchen longer, his mom hovers between the front of the carpentry shop and the living room. The saloon is always more full on Fridays now, more noise grating around him.

I’ll meet you there. Is he alright?

A few seconds, another soft buzz. She thinks he’s got a cold. Sam follows it up with a series of frowning emojis. He’s all upset because he thinks if he’s sick mom won’t let him go to the festival tomorrow.

Sebastian doesn’t respond, pocketing his phone as he passes the remnants of the old Joja. The whole thing is a fucking fire hazard now, rusted and pitted there’s nothing but the collapse of time waiting for it. The glass on the windows had been shattered ages ago, either by someone furious by the end, or by nature itself—Sebastian doesn’t know, it wasn’t fucking him.

The wooden doors are cracked, the sun bleached the last of the advertisements—the ones that haven’t been waterlogged. A one-stop wasteland, sitting frozen and rotting all at once.

A little past Clint’s and Sebastian catches up to Sam just as he reaches the bridge.

“Hey, dude.”

Sam glances up, that burning-sun grin affixing right back across his expression. “Sup! Just about to collect the little man, then we can all head back home.”

Sebastian falls into step beside him as best he can. Harvey had been right, a couple days with nothing but work, a couple days doing nothing but sitting around his bedroom and keeping off his leg made enough of a difference. It still throbbed, he still shuffled and limped when he walked but it wasn’t as bad as it had been before.

“How are you doing?” Sam asks, hands in his jacket pockets and shoulders back—as if anything he might’ve been worrying about could just slide right off.

“Better.” It’s not totally a lie, but not really all that honest. “I uh—Maru lied to our mom today, to cover my ass about the accident. Weird, right?”

Sam shrugs a shoulder, “Not really, it kinda makes sense.”

There’s a particular way that old wounds ache, even the ones that have long-since healed over. A dull throb under the skin and sinking bone-deep. An echo and a memory of injuries long-since gone. Sebastian wouldn’t really say he was ever jealous of Sam—well maybe sometimes, about certain things. About his skill, his easy smile, the way he can fold himself effortlessly into any new group, any situation.

He wouldn’t ever say he’s jealous of Sam’s relationships though. But he tenses nonetheless, the ghost of age-old arguments lingering in the throb of the conversation.

“She hasn’t done that before.” Because instead of avoiding painful things, sometimes Sebastian likes to jump in headfirst.

“Bro.” Sam pauses as they reach the library, one hand wriggled free to rest on the handle. “Get out of your head about it, okay?”

Easier said than done. Sebastian follows him into the library anyway, the burst of manufactured heat burning at the tips of his fingers. It crawls its searing path down his cheekbones as Sam immediately heads back for the tables, Sebastian following neatly behind him.

Vincent looks pretty sick. Nose cherry-red and face drained of all that summer-fun color he’d had before. He’s giving Sam those huge eyes, the kind that everyone knows won’t ever fail on him. Sam’s crouched down immediately, talking softly while Sebastian lingers his way into the corners, walking his fingers along the spines and giving the two some space.

Get out of your head about it. There’s nothing to get out of, nothing to shake free. Maru can’t stand him, she can’t stand that he’s there, she can’t stand the fact that he’s still there, making a useless fucking mess of himself in his moms basement. It’s obvious, it’s always been obvious.

His fingers run down the embossed title of some guide on fishing, something he doesn’t even bother reading. (Maru just wants you to be gone, all she wants is to keep the peace before you’re out of there) Obviously.

No use fighting that one, right? His other hand drops down into his pocket, fingers rubbing over the sharp edges of the frozen tear. It’s warm now, between his hand and the heat of the building and his body it’s been brought up to a reasonable temperature—but the touch of it still draws a shudder down his spine.

“Hey, Sebastian.” He jolts more than he cares to admit as Penny appears behind him, a silent sweep of her to linger just outside his personal space. An appropriate distance, considering.

He doesn’t wave, but he doesn’t ignore her outright. Penny is one of the few people outside of his actual friends that he tolerates. She doesn’t usually approach him when they’re outside or at festivals, she keeps to herself, she doesn’t make noise, she doesn’t command attention or divert it immediately against him.

He likes her. Well enough, that is. “Hey, Penny.” It’s a greeting. A little flat, a little nothing. She stands with her arms crossed in front of her. Not defensive but guarded. Nervous in the sense that she always seems a little nervous, a little high-strung (not that Sebastian knows what that’s like or anything)

Jas is either engrossed with whatever she’s reading or too polite to look up from her book to where Vincent is showing Sam all the things he worked on up to then, glowing about as much as his big brother.

Sebastian isn’t feeling anything. Not at all. Nothing is burning low under his lungs, a half-regretful moment of something that he tries to keep smothered. (You’re such a shit brother)

His fingers slide over the fragment in his pocket. Yeah. That one’s probably true, too.

“He’s sweet, isn’t he?” Penny says, ducking her head as she pushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

Sebastian raises a brow at that. Sweet. “Yeah, I guess.”

(You guess?) “He was always really nice to me when we were in school too.”

That Sebastian remembers. Penny was always a blur back then, a lure away from the lockers and the stairwells they skipped class to linger under. She’d be there between periods, during her free time just hiding from everyone. Kids were mean, but kids were always mean. Penny had patched clothes, glasses too big for her face back then.

Sebastian sniffs once, dropping his hand from the shelf and watching Sam straighten up and tuck Vincent’s papers into his backpack. “Yeah, he’s a good guy.”

Something nudges against his arm and Sebastian tears his eyes away to see Penny elbowing him gently. “You were always nice too. When you were around, of course.”

She slides back a touch as Sam circles the table towards them, a comically small backpack hanging over one shoulder. Sebastian tries to consider that, tries to really think about any time he spent with Penny. It was always Sam. Sam who went to sit with her at lunch, Sam who brought her back to the space under the concrete steps—the shadowed space where they sat against the wall and snuck cigarettes and talked shit about everyone else.

“Thanks for calling me, Pen,” he says, flashing her a smile that makes Sebastian’s eyes roll far the fuck away. “I’ll take him home.”

“Of course, Sam. He’s a sweet kid, I hate to see him feeling poorly.”

“He’s tough like his old man, he’ll be fine.”

(Sebastian would never admit this, but for a second he agreed. For a moment, he resolutely looked away from the scene, wishing he had a smoke and wishing he was anywhere else and he forgot Sam meant Kent.)

He glances back, a half-second through dark lashes. Long enough to catch Penny’s warm smile, all soft and subdued. “Of course he will. Plenty of rest, plenty of water.”

“I’ll tuck him in on the couch under the excuse of watching TV and he’ll be out before he knows it, swing him by Harvey’s tomorrow just in case.”

Sebastian takes that as his cue, pushing off from the bookshelf he’d been leaning against and folding himself right back where he belongs. Sam’s sunshine has to cast shadows somewhere, right? He lingers at his heels, waving Penny a quick goodbye before they both double back.

“I’m gonna say goodbye to Jas,” Vincent says, pouring himself off the chair with an exhausted little slouch.

Sam nudges him, quick and quiet. “Hey, I’m gonna talk to Gunther about a job real quick, do you mind?”

Sebastian just waves a hand. “Go for it dude, and y’know, good luck.”

“Thanks, bro.” And he’s gone.

Sebastian rocks back onto his heels as Vincent peels himself away from Jas, rubbing the near-raw patch under his nose with the back of a tiny hand. He drags himself all the way to Sebastian’s feet, forehead colliding with his stomach.

“Hi Sebby.” It’s properly pathetic. Sebastian’s fingers fall to his hair on instinct, a friendly tussle through the pale ginger.

“Sup, Vinny?”

“I don’t feel good,” he mumbles, tiny voice almost lost in the muffle of Sebastian’s hoodie.

He rubs his hair, scratching gently at the back of his head. “Sucks, kid. Sam’s just talking to Mr. Gunther for a sec then we’ll take you home, okay?”

Vincent looks up, those massive eyes overflowing with all the countless emotions too big to fit in such a tiny body. “You coming over too?”

For a second, Sebastian can feel eyes. Passive and sharp digging into the space under his ribcage. They burrow there, prying him apart and looking into the depths of his chest—rooting around in the darkness and shaking him loose, as if they can find something. As if they’re on a mission to suss out something interesting, something better than what’s hanging around on the outside.

He doesn’t look up, he doesn’t want anyone to try again. Don’t go digging, don’t go looking around for anything. It’s nothing but broken glass in there, nothing but tattered cloth and salted earth.

Sam comes back before he can answer, scooping Vincent with a tension-cutting roar. He heaves him up over his shoulder with another blinding grin and pleased squeal from Vince. “C’mon kid, let's cut class and watch TV.”

###

The trek back to Sam’s doesn’t take long; even with the novelty of being carried around on Sam’s shoulders, Vincent gets tired fast. He doesn’t make it long sprawled out on the sofa, pillow pilfered from his bedroom and a near-ancient throw blanket tossed over him while some animated Junimos bounce around on the TV at a low hum.

Sebastian sits on the floor opposite the side of the couch Vincent claims, cheek resting against the arm while Sam scrolls through something on his phone, draped over the armchair. It’s a comfortable sort of silence, the kind that comes from over a decade of friendship and the deep-set desire to not wake up the napping kid.

He rests his arms on his knees, chin sunk into the palm of his hand. From this angle, he can still feel the weight of the rock on his pocket, a constant taunt and jeer in time with the sleepy coughs of Vincent behind him.

“What did you mean?” He asks, voice soft. “When you said it makes sense.”

Sam looks up with a sincerely baffled, “Huh?”

“You said it makes sense that Maru covered for me.”

He goes back to what he was doing with a shrug, leaving Sebastian’s teeth to clench slightly around his frustrations. Sam just shrugs at it, like he does at everything. “She was always trying to hang out with us when we were kids, she used to think you were cool. Plus you’re her brother, dude, it’s written in the sibling code.”

Sebastian scoffs at that. “I’m her half-brother, and that sibling code isn’t exactly a thing we have.”

“Whatever you say, man. Then just consider the fact that she promised she wouldn’t rat you out?”

He huffs, but returns back to his silence. Sam isn’t wrong about her, he isn’t wrong that she was always tagging along. Following Sebastian out of the house when he was thirteen, running to catch up to ask if she can come to the train station too—please, Sebby, c’mon I wanna play with you guys—only for Sebastian to turn and snarl. It’s not for babies, it’s too dangerous for you. We don’t want to hang out with you, go bug someone else.

He picks at his nails and glances over. The blanket around Vincent rises and falls slowly with each sort-of-snuffly breath.

In Sebastian’s defense, he’s always been shit with kids.

“When’s your mom getting home?”

“I called her after Penny messaged me, she asked me to keep an eye on him while she finished running some errands so, y’know, whenever that’s done. I think she’s at Pierre’s so she’ll stop in at Caroline’s, then probably to Harvey’s to get him some cold medicine.”

“Where’s your dad?”

Sam shrugs before pouring himself out of the chair. “Beats me, dude. I think he’s by the bridge or he’s off doing something somewhere. He leaves in the morning, comes back for dinner.” He stretches, that nervous energy starting to bleed through into Sebastian.

Sam doesn’t get nervous in the same way Sebastian does. He’s noticed that over the years, noticed the way he constantly fidgets, the way he shifts and twitches and rubs at his hands, his arms, bounce his leg and paces the room—every time he’s nervous about something, it’s movement. It’s an endless energy, a tidal flow that always jitters its way into everything else.

He zips his hoodie back up and collects Vincent’s mostly-empty water from its place on the coffee table. “He’s doing what he can to adjust, y’know? It was four years of hell, dude, I don’t expect him to just jump right back into it.”

Sebastian holds up a hand, his palm out in the universal sign of peace. “I didn’t say shit, I was just asking. I didn’t see him when we came in.”

He detangles himself slowly to stand, to follow Sam if for nothing than for carrying a conversation a little ways further from Vincent. Sam washes out the cup, carefully setting it on the drying rack beside the sink.

“He’s doing fine,” Sam says, with a sort of finality. “It’s all fine, dude. I uh—I actually…” He trails off, leaning out into the doorway to peer through into the living room. As if from there he can spot Vincent, as if he can spot-check, make sure he’s still asleep, make sure he’s not lingering. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

And there it is. The anxiety crawls back up his throat, a bile-slick sensation burrowing under his tongue and latching onto the back of his teeth. I need to tell you something. Words that never sit well, words that churn in his stomach and render his limbs frozen-solid and his chest a vacuum-sucked pit, collapsing in on itself again and again as Sam turns around, leaning against the counter and barely sparing Sebastian half-wayward glances.

He doesn’t want to squirrel back, he doesn’t want to shove his hands in his front pocket and bring his shoulders up around his ears, he doesn’t want the high-alert, doesn’t want his teeth to dig into the skin of his cheek until he starts to taste copper under his tongue. He doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want the instinctive recoil that happens when he shifts uncomfortably and says: “What?”

Sam bounces on the balls of his feet, pushes his hair back, and rubs at his arms. “Remember when we were 13? We made that dumb pact in the secret woods, right?”

A dumb pact in the—Sebastian’s heart drops into his stomach. Was that what he was talking about? Back in the basement, back in fall with Abby passed out on the couch? When we had to carry her home. He’s struck silent, lips parted and tongue rolling over the thousand questions he has now, a cacophony of when, where, how all tangled up in his lungs in the spaces he can’t even fathom to breath into.

“I know, it was definitely easier for you to keep, bro and I know I was the one who suggested it, right? We were two guys and a chick friend I thought like, right that would be the thing to ruin all of our friendships.”

He blinks at him, his shoulders coming down with the bitter adrenaline and the rate of his jackrabbit pulse. “Sam please tell me you're not talking about that stupid fucking deal we made about neither one of us going after Abby? That’s what you’ve been thinking about? Dude you’re not.”

Sam can’t be. He can’t be.

Across the short distance, under the buzzing kitchen lights, Sam flushes. It’s a deep sort of red, the kind that catches on his ears and burns down to his collar without mercy. An unrepentant bushfire in the dead of the dry season. “I’m not,” he says, fingers flexing as he grips the counter behind him. “But uh, I might’ve—we might’ve—it was after the fair. You went home because people and Pierre was being a dick about losing the grange display again—which, props to the farmer and Shane for kicking his ass like four years in a row now—and Abby just wanted to get away for a bit.

So we went up to the playground and smoked up and we were just—talking and I don’t know dude. We were just kicking back and chilling and talking about how everything used to be. Then she kissed me, or I kissed her, or something and,” he pauses, swallows. “That was honestly it, bro, I mean mostly, but I can’t stop thinking about her and it’s fucking weird.”

We cannot get mad (No you can’t. What kind of fucking hypocrite would that make you? Sam can’t kiss her but you can fuck her, right? That’s it, that’s totally fair. You’re allowed to break the rules, allowed to skirt the line but no one else. Only fucking you.)

Sebastian wouldn’t say he’s mad. But the words don’t come. Nothing comes. He blinks at Sam, watching him fester and fidget there while his head tries to compress all of that knowledge into one blinking picture. It’s something that screams change. Flashing brilliant words and neon letters at him. Change. Change. Change.

Things will change.

“You seriously kissed Abby?” He asks, voice half-raw, half-hollow. “Fucking really?”

“It’s not a big deal, we agreed that it shouldn’t escalate. One-time thing, right?”

Sam’s voice echoes around in his head. But I can’t stop thinking about her. “Bullshit, dude that’s—dude.”

Sam folds, his hands scrubbing his face as he groans as loudly as he’d let himself with Vincent in the other room. “I know. And I can’t do shit about it, okay—I know that, Seb, trust me. Because if it gets fucked up then it all gets fucked up and she’s like—she’s one of my best friends.”

(It didn’t fuck it up with you and Abby.) That was different. That was different and that was things that Sam doesn’t know. Things he probably shouldn’t ever know.

Sebastian shifts back on his bad leg, the slow-building ache centering everything on one place. Just a spot to think, something to ground himself as he tries to even out his breathing. As he tries to focus on the push and pull in the depths of his own lungs.

Does he know? Does he know what she’s going through right now? He has to, he has to because he wouldn’t fuck with her otherwise because—because he wouldn’t.

“It’s…” fuck, Sebastian can’t breathe. His chest is pounding too hard and his throat is closing. “Dude it’s fine, it’s just—yeah. Yeah.”

Sam groans, again, before straightening. “Yeah, no you’re right. It’s fine, dude. It’s me and Abby, right? We’ll be fine. Like we haven’t even mentioned it since.”

Fine. Yeah they’ll all be fine. “Yeah, dude just—maybe that’s for the best, right?”

For the best, for the best. We sound like an asshole (Surprised?).

Whatever Sam is going to say slips away with a sleepy call of his name from the next room. He scrubs down his face again, pushing his hair back and stepping towards the living room.

“Let me take care of this,” he says, “then, yeah we don’t have to talk about this anymore. You’re right it’s—we’ll just forget it happened. Move on, right? Forget I told you, okay? It was nothing. Totally nothing.”

He pats Sebastian’s arm as he leaves, sliding past with that same fever-bright grin and that immediate reset. Like nothing happened. Like they're fine. Sebastian watches him disappear down the hall, listens to him start talking to Vincent.

He slides his hand into his front pocket one last time, fingers wrapping one-by-one around the little piece of rock. 

For a second, it feels, oddly, like the world is on the precipice of ending.

 

Chapter Text

Unsurprisingly, the world does not end. Instead, it continues to swing its lazy pirouette across the stars. That bastard.

Sebastian helps Sam make soup—well, he lingers, watching him, occasionally finding a spoon or a bowl or grabbing him a paper towel. Sam prattles on, like nothing happened, like the last half-hour wasn’t anything and Sebastian can’t tell if it’s terrifying or impressive.

Or maybe it’s both. He doesn’t stay much longer afterwards.

Sebastian agrees to an early-morning planning meeting, a quick review of all the things they plan on doing in order to make it their year, finally. The year they finally solve that weird fucking maze and find the pumpkin.

He’d thought that maybe this year, since that evening in the secret woods, maybe Abigail wouldn’t want to. Maybe it would be like some of the Spirit’s Eve’s from when they were teenagers—thinking they were too good for it, sticking up their nose at the skeleton’s rattling around in Marlon’s cages and scoffing at the ghost-shaped treats that linger by the punch bowl. Years when they’d find some corner to mess around in, to play stupid games and talk shit about everyone they could think of.

He wouldn’t exactly blame her. He tries not to listen to the whispers, to the clawing shadows that offer up scraps of secrets torn off the edges of somebody’s heels. It’s useless to know them, useless to indulge in the dance.

They pretend like they don’t know the steps, like they’re swaying along to unfamiliar beats while they leer and wonder about Abigail’s hair, the shape of her nose and where Caroline went and with whom and for how long and when did she stop.

It’s worse than the mines in terms of shapes in the shadows. At least in the cold-dark pitches of the mines those things had the decency to stick to the corners of his vision. Here they sit out in the open, nominally concealed behind hands and buried under innuendo.

It’s not great, but it’s never been great.

Dusk starts to linger at the edges of the night, the sun slipping away sooner and sooner as the chill starts to find root in the comfort of the darkness. His ears perk as he crosses the town, cutting his path in front of Emily and Haley’s and looping his way behind the saloon.

He doesn’t mean to glance over, the weight of his musings still rattling around the dark corners of his mind, linking around one another and hanging under his tongue with all the things he won’t dare ever ask Abby. The things he won’t ever dare tell her. He doesn’t mean to look (don’t you?)

Sebastian’s feet take him behind the Mullner’s place, like they always do. (Gee, I wonder why that is) And he doesn’t mean to look. But there’s light, and movement—a sort of flicker-dance in the corner of his vision and something, some deep-seated predator-prey instinct snaps in the core of him. His gaze flickers over to the source and his mouth runs drier than the Calico summers.

Stop stop stop. Alex’s curtains are open. Full display to all of Pelican Town of the flex of his back, the pull of skin over muscle as he lifts a bar up over his head, bending to set it down again after a few seconds too long, too fucking long.

He blinks once, that memory-flood of that day in the rain and the day in the saloon colliding into one sudden, stifling, fantasy of Alex. Shirtless with that same stretch of freckle-blended skin over his shoulders, hands shoving Sebastian into the wall only this time—

Heat floods his cheeks and pools, tight, between his hips. No.

No.

—this time he wouldn’t stop. This time he’d snarl himself closer, all angry wolves and howling coyotes until they crush together in a furious wreck of anger and sex.

No.

No. He flicks his hood up over his head and ignores the heartbeat he spent looking. He ignores it as he tromps his way back up the mountain with just the stinging bite of his ribs and his leg, he ignores it like he ignores his mother and his sister and Demetrius.

Sebastian ignores it all the way to his bedroom, jackhammer heartbeat working on cracking away at his sternum, like it’s trying to break free and snap out into the cool darkness of his basement.

He pours himself onto his bed, forging shedding his clothes or turning on the light, and he ignores it. He ignores it with his hand sliding into his front pocket of his hoodie, fishing out the shard of frozen tear. It glimmers a little differently, with nothing but the glow of his computer’s power source to catch. In the night it looks cold, sharp-edged and dangerous—like even the rounded edges could snap out and slice through skin.

But in his palm, it’s warm.

###

Sebastian leaves the frozen tear on his bedside table.

It’s there when he leaves, slipping out the door and back to Sam’s bedroom to hole up and draw maps of mazes based on nothing but age-old memories.

It’s there when he comes back.

Sebastian doesn’t know why he’s surprised, what feeling crawls under his skin and settles there, coiled around the muscles and the blood vessels.

The second time he leaves his bedroom for the night, for a cigarette by the lake and to heat up a plate for dinner, he comes back to a note taped to his door.

He nearly misses it in the darkness, fingers brushing the cool metal of his doorknob before his eyes catch the dark pink piece of paper.

Clear, neat handwriting—the kind with all the scientific precision.

Thanks for the battery packs! - Maru

Instinct tells him to ball it up. Ancient muscle-memory pulling at him and itching at his fingers. Ball it up, toss it in the trash. He doesn’t need her thanks, he doesn’t need her thinking she’s better than him.

Gingerly, Sebastian peels it off the door. And with equal care, he sticks it to the table, tucked safely under the stone.

###

Sebastian will concede, as much as he hates to admit it, that the festivals in Pelican Town are always impressive. Every year without fail, they go all-out. Torches throw thick light through the shivering night as Sebastian tucks himself neatly alongside the shadows. Down the cobbled path, every few feet there’s a pumpkin dotted there—a couple pinned-up mockeries of the skeletons that’ll shuffle around in the cages. He reaches a hand out to brush the lines of the bushes set out to demark the boundaries of the festival.

They never feel real but they don’t quite feel fake. A preternatural green and an shudder-inducing chill to the edges of them. Someone filled the spaces between the leaves with plastic spiders and little tissue-paper ghosts.

Beside him, Abby tucks her hands into the pockets of her vest, bouncing on the balls of her feet already.

“So, we’re set, right?” She asks.

Sam reaches out in front of him, hands clasped, and cracks shoulders. “Fuck yeah we are. This is it, guys, we’re fucking doing it. Can we get food first though?”

He tries not to watch, monitor them, as Abby leans into Sam’s space, elbow digging into his ribs. “Of course, I’m not missing out on Gus’ food.”

Sebastian doesn’t know if she leaves too slow or too fast or if he’s just imagining things as she pounces forward, trodding over the last crawling remnants of fallen leaves and carrying herself with all the air and energy of a woman enthralled by the season.

Not that Sebastian could blame her. Something about Spirit’s Eve always sunk into him too. Maybe it’s the darkness or the shuffling skeletons or the fact that nobody cares what he’s like today. He’s not out of place right now, he’s not wearing his hoodie and his jeans in the sand at the Luau, he’s not chain-smoking behind a tree at the Flower Dance or pretending he’s not freezing at the Festival of Ice.

He’s just here and he’s fine.

Spirits Eve sinks into him, burning away with the distant sound of clattering voices and the spice-sweet scent of pumpkin-flavored everything. Okay maybe that was annoying, but he could indulge a little.

For the season.

Abby barrels forward along the path, carving her own way through the thick blanket of night. Sebastian stuffs his hands as far into his pockets as he can get them, fingers hooking into the warmth as he sighs out a puff of frozen air.

Sam sidles up to him, elbow nudging Sebastian’s. “It’ll be fun tonight, right?”

“Don’t know why you’re asking me.”

“Think it’s kinda obvious, my man.”

Sebastian rolls his eyes, shoulders hunching forward. Well, he was in a good mood—for like a second there. It’s fleeting, as ever, crawling something else down his spine instead. “Dude I thought we weren’t talking about it.”

“We’re not.” Sam waves a hand, half towards Sebastian, half towards where Abby has already melded into the crowd ahead of them. She’s a purple streak, a flicker in the night around the corners and weaving between bodies. “Don’t uh—don’t tell her I told you, by the way. I don’t think she wanted you to know.”

Something a little too close to guilt curls up in the pit of his stomach. Something angry and too-often ignored. “I won’t—just if we’re not going to talk about it can we not fucking talk about it?”

It’s rougher, snappier, than Sebastian wants it to be but Sam doesn’t get the space to respond before a throat clears behind them. “Need I remind you once again that there are young children at these gatherings.”

Sam winces, muttering something under his breath before coughing up an entirely insincere, “Sorry, Lewis.”

Sebastian’s teeth grit as he shuffles back, out of Mayor Lewis’s way. He ducks his head in wayward apology, but all it garners him is the raise of a bushy-grey eyebrow.

“And even if there weren’t children, like your brother, Samson, it’s still not appropriate for polite company.”

“Said I was sorry, sir.”

From here, Sebastian can see the wicker-end of Sam’s patience. Infinite and inflammable with Vincent, long but not perfect with Sebastian—and fucking miniscule with Lewis. It’s almost impressive, really, how quick-to-anger Lewis can make him. Though Sebastian wouldn’t consider it surprising.

Lewis straightens his shoulders, adjusts those age-worn suspenders, and makes another one of those self-righteous hrumph noises before carrying on. Sam lingers at Sebastian’s elbow, watching him disappear around the next corner again.

Sebastian manages to glance at him, a brief aside. “The fuck did you apologzie for?”

“I don’t know, but I was in the vicinity of trouble so it was my fault.”

Something not unlike a good mood starts to flicker back under Sebastian’s heels. He doesn’t work that hard to suppress his smirk. “Right, because you’re a bad influence on me.”

“Clearly, Seb. You’d be a priest if it weren’t for me. Dedicate yourself to Yoba, right?”

He nods, sage and flickering with faux-sincerity. “You’ve ruined me for Yoba, Sam.”

The grin Sebastian gets back is wicked, sharp-edged and gleaming down at him. “Oh somehow I think that isn’t my fuckin’ fault.”

Sebastian scoffs, freeing one hand from his skin-tight jeans to press, flat, over his heart. He deadpans back, “How dare you.”

Sam tosses his head back when he barks out a laugh, one that echoes sharply across the entrance to the festival. “Fuck you, man,” he says, throwing his weight onto the leg closest to Sebastian. It’s gentle enough not to hurt too much—but hard enough to nudge him into the hedge. “C’mon, let’s get food.”

###

The maze is exactly like nothing they planned for. Whatever Rasmodius had been doing the past few years, he clearly ended up with some new plan. Abby scowls as she peers around a corner.

“It looks like another dead end to me,” she huffs, hands tucked up under her armpits as she bounces up on her toes to try to peer over it.

Sam leans beside her, chin stuck up in the air. “Looks like it.”

(Don’t count the inches between them, c’mon, you know better than that. Don’t you hate when people do that to you? When they try to wiggle in the spaces you try to keep secret. You hate it when people do it to you. You hate it.)

Sniffing, Sebastian leans away, peeking around another corner. “Dead end this way too,” he mumbles, half-certain neither of them can hear him. “At least we haven’t run into the spiders yet.”

“Don’t—” Abby says, from behind him. “Don’t even mention them. We have a contingency plan for those.”

“Whoever is closest to Abby picks her up while she closes her eyes and screams the whole way?” Sebastian repeats, leaning back into the clearing with the two of them. “S’great plan.”

“I don’t recall screaming being part of it.” She argues, a huff on the edge of her voice. She blows a strand of hair out of her face, clearly not keen on exposing her hands to the rapidly-chilling air. She bounces from one leg to the other. “It’s fucking cold.”

Sam returns from scouting out the edges of the hedge-line. “Didn’t we say to bring a scarf?”

Her face screws up to a nose-scrunch of annoyance. “I left it on the counter of the shop.”

He clicks his tongue, making a noise back down at her. “Poor baby.”

Sebastian rolls his eyes at the display, fingers shoving back into the warmth of his hoodie’s front pocket. “I’d offer you my jacket but…”

“But the second you do everyone’s gonna see that your costume this year is a medical-tape mummy?”

He hums back in agreement, watching as Sam sheds his own coat, draping it over her shoulders with a flourish.

Doesn’t mean anything, you all do this all the time. Hell, how many of your hoodies have been in her place? How many times did she walk home wearing them?

(It’s different now, but it’s not different now.)

“Thanks, Sam,” she croons back up at him, zipping his jacket around her.

(It’s different. It’s not different.)

A flicker of movement drags Sebastian’s attention—a flash of green and a summer-sweet tan that somehow manages to stick through the depths of fall. He checks back over to where Sam and Abby have returned to prodding at the walls, muttering between themselves before skirting himself around the corner of the hedge.

“Hey,” he says because what else do they say? “What’s up?”

What else do they ever say? Alex half-turns, face snapping into one of those smiles—the kind that robs the torches of their right to light up the pathways. “Hey, Seb. I think I found something—it looks like it’s on the other side of that bush.”

He slides up on Alex’s left side, pushing himself onto the balls of his feet to try to peer over the wall of the hedge that he’s staring at. Sure enough, there’s something there. The low lamplight catches on something, gleaming out at just the right angle.

“If only I could get to it,” Alex mutters, pushing his fingers against the hedge. The strange, unnatural, edges of the hedge not giving under his hand. It never does—Sebastian has tried, Abby has tried. Almost everyone has.

Sebastian leans back, then flickers his eyes from corner to corner, seeking out some impression, some shift in the hedges—some kind of anything that might linger around and suggest anything else.

The resolve doesn’t last long, because his eyes skate back over for another half-second, they catch on the way that the firelight kinds the edges of Alex’s jaw, the cut of his cheekbone and the stray hairs that stick up from his carefully-gelled style. Something about him glimmers, almost.

Warm. It’s not the first time that work has rolled itself over Sebastian’s tongue, not the first time he’s tasted it thick against the roof of his mouth, sealed up there and drawing out all of the heat and the fire out of the pit of Sebastian’s body. Not the first time he’s followed the familiar line of Alex’s face, of his expression—his brow furrowing in the shadows and the way his lips curled into a familiar frown.

The sort of expression he makes when he’s focusing, when he’s determined.

Sebastian used to see it—when they were younger.

A long time ago.

You’re staring. You’re really fucking staring.

Alex glances back over and Sebastian tears his gaze away, fixating on the curling edges of the preternaturally green whispers of the hedges. It shouldn’t be so clear, so healthy in this weather. Not with the bitter winter frost starting to sink in the healing spaces between his ribs. Not when it’s the wind biting at his back and nipping at his ankles. The hedges don’t so much as shudder when the wind howls.

But Alex does. He shifts around, eyes just as brilliantly alive in the oncoming winter.

“I wonder if there’s even a way around it,” Alex says, shoving his hands in his pockets and snapping his eyes back away—like he’s the one that was caught, like he was the one who was staring at things he shouldn’t be looking at. His eyes fixate back down on the edges of the dirty, one perfectly white sneaker scuffing at a rock. “Wouldn’t put it passed that weird guy in the woods to make it totally inaccessible.”

Sebastian shrugs one shoulder, sniffing and scratching at the back of his neck. Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him now. It’s not—just don’t.

He can’t help himself. The motorcycle, the smoking, people in bars that he can barely stomach the idea of drinking in—it’s easy to say that Sebastian’s impulse control has always been shot. He’s never been the kind of person who can say no to himself, the kind of person who can stop himself from whatever stupid thing he wants to do.

Like look over at him anyway. Like shifting, drawn inexplicably, towards Alex. Like he’s one of those satellites that Maru loves to stare up at, the ones that she spends all night glued to her telescope to catch a glimpse at. Caught up in his atmosphere, in his gravitational pull—just making Sebastian lean a half-inch closer to him, like he could feel that whisper of heat. Of warmth.

Of whatever it is that he’s missing.

“Lewis promises he made the Wizard promise that it’s fair.”

Alex scoffs, glancing back at Sebastian. “Sure. You guys find it yet?”

He crosses his arms over his chest and tries to lean back, tries to put more space between them as he picks at the edge of his fingerless gloves, that healing-itch under his skin starting to drive him mad. “Nope. We’ve been at it for a few years now but—”

He shrugs. He always shrugs.

He always just shrugs. It’s all he does, he shrugs, he mumbles, he doesn’t speak up, he doesn’t speak his mind—he doesn’t say anything at all. All he does is linger there, on the corners of the shadows and the edges of inside anyone’s sight. It’s where he likes, it’s what he likes.

All he has to do is remind himself of that. This is what he likes. This is what he wants. He wants to be on the edges, he wants to be on the outside, he wants to be where no one can see him, observe him, pick him apart bit by bit until there was nothing left for the buzzards and the carrion birds.

It’s what he wants.

Eyes crawl up his fingers, that furrow back between Alex’s brows.

Sebastian doesn’t like being touched. It’s always been a thing, it’s always been something to crawl up his skin and make him shudden from his bones. He hates being touched. He hates it. The fact that someone is near him, that someone is close enough to catch his wrist in their grasp—that someone is close enough to feel the oppressive brand of their heat through his skin, close enough that they can sink into him—an effortless choke of flame and fire against cold skin.

He hates it and he hates that he doesn’t hate when Alex does it.

Sebastian hates that his entire body locks, that the sirens start blaring in the back of his head and that he can’t even recoil.

He hates that the second Alex’s hand grasps his wrist, pulling his hand away from his chest, it’s the only thing he can think about.

Alex’s hands are bigger than he thought they were, or maybe Sebastian’s wrists are thinner. Either way, he engulfs the narrow link in his grasp and Sebastian's heart stops in his chest.

We hate being touched (not like this we don’t)

Sam gets away with it because he’s familiar. He’s natural and easy, a steady constant weight of his arm draped over his shoulder—some days it’s stranger when he’s not there. When it’s not their knees knocking together or elbows digging into ribs, it’s off, like Sebastian is missing his favorite hoodie or his earrings or something vital, sometime integral.

Sam gets away with it, Abby gets away with it.

Alex…

Sebastian’s heartbeat finds its way under Alex’s fingers, thrumming away in the insistent points of contact. Alex. The movement is too quick, too sharp for Sebastian to process anything but the heat of his hand, the electric-pulse that vibrates through him as gridball-coarse fingers of one hand twist his wrist just enough and another pushes at his sleeve.

“What happened to you?”

What happened? Sebastian blinks, brow furrowing before—fuck fuck fuck fuck. His fidgeting must’ve pushed it up, exposed the edges of the bandages and fuck. He recoils like the burns is too much, snapping his skin from the fever-burn touch and shifting his weight back onto his leg with a brutal hiss.

“Nothing.” He yanks his sleeve back down passed his fingers. “I just got banged up.”

Idiot, fucking idiot. So caught up in the idea of being touched you didn’t even fucking realize.

Alex takes a half-step forward, his face a tangled mess of something. Concern and worry and something else underpinned, something Sebastian doesn’t know and doesn’t recognize. “How?”

A lie would taste so sweet right now. Sitting on the tip of his tongue and lingering there like sugar. A lie would be good, a lie would settle there, unforgotten and gone in an instant. Say it, say it you tool. Lie to him, come up with something better. Something less idiotic. Something less fucking stupid.

He blinks at Alex’s open palm. Has he seriously never noticed how big his hands are? Square palms with all the scars and calluses of sports and rough work—the kind that look well-worn with time and surprisingly gentle. The kind of hands that could crush the kind of hands that could snap something. Thick fingers, neat-clipped nails with just the edge of dirt beneath them.

Freckles. He blinks again.

Alex has three little marks. An imperfect belt across his wrist. Lie to him. Say you fell, say you tripped, say Sam shoved you down a hill, say one of Marnie’s cows got loose and knocked you into the mud.

The places where Alex touched burn with absence, crackling under the sensation of nothing where there once was something. He’s always been shit at saying no. He’s always been shit at denying himself, at cutting himself off.

Impulse control has never been Sebastian’s strong suit. He lays the back of his arm in the warm expanse of Alex’s palm. “I crashed my bike. Couple nights ago.”

There’s a sharp inhale, a bone-cracking gasp that Sebastian won’t look at. He can’t look at. His eyes fixate on the flex of fingers back around him, on the way he pushes up Sebastian’s sleeve like he’s inspecting him, like he has to make sure he’s okay, he’s in one piece, he’s alive. One hand holds his wrist in place while the other slides up his sleeve, curling around his elbow like it belongs there.

“Are you okay?” Alex’s voice is nothing like it is. It’s soft, now, interlaced and underwritten with a sort of heavy weight. Sebastian licks his lips, eyes flickering back to Alex and when did he get so close. How long has he been standing here like this? How long has he been so near that Sebastian can see the way the torch-light catches in the green of his eyes? The way it makes him look golden and rich?

“I’ll be fine,” he says. “It’s...fine. Yeah.” His lips feel dry, they are dry. Nothing left of the pumpkin juice or the coffee he was snagging down by the buffet table. His tongue darts out to wet them and since when was Alex this close?

He feels closer now, that radiating heat cutting through the late-fall chill and crawling up under the edges of his hoodie until they link around his bicep and crawl down the pin-pricked pain in his chest.

Alex’s fingers slide down the edges of his medical tape. Don’t let go, holy shit for Yoba’s sake don’t let go of me.

“I, uh, I broke my rib too.” He offers, unasked, into the night. He searches Alex’s expression for anything he can find, slipping through the cracks where he winces, where he catches his lower lip between his teeth for a half-second. “My whole left side is kinda fucked right now.”

Why did we tell him? What do we think he’s going to do? Touch us there?

“Are you alright?” It’s the same question as before but it feels different this time. Sebastian doesn’t know how but it just is. It’s different this time because it’s just different this time. Nothing about it is the same, not the flex of Alex’s touch against his wrist and his elbow, not the spark of possession that lingers across Sebastian’s blood—floating along on his cells.

Firm fingers turn gentle as Alex’s palm slides up from his wrist, cradling the narrow back of Sebastian’s hand. He looks down at his own fingers, at his skinny wrist and his twine-thin palm. He looks almost delicate, even with the age-worn gloves and the padding from the bandages.

There’s nothing in him this time—his mouth is dry, his throat is dry. It closes around the words, around the air stuck around him. “It’s okay.” I’m okay. This is okay. This is okay as long as you keep touching me. Keep touching me and it’s okay that you’re touching me.

“You’ve got nice hands,” Alex says—apropos of nothing.

All Sebastian can do is choke on the question he wants to ask, cough up something from the pit of his lungs. “What?”

One shoulder shrugs and Alex’s eyes find root there, staring at their hands and the places where Alex’s fingers are brushing the back of his wrist like nothing is weird about this at all. Like there’s nothing weird around stroking down the length of Sebastian’s hand, about running his thumb along the length of his index finger.

Like there’s nothing weird when he says, “You’ve got nice hands. I noticed it before but I don’t think I ever told you. They’re just really nice hands. I like them,” as casually as ever.

Like there’s nothing weird about curling his fingers against his palm, half-holding his hand, half curling his thumb around the root of his finger—a constantly moving, constantly shifting, flow of heat. Like lava slowly oozing around him, taking him in and swallowing him whole as Alex touches him with casual abandon, like he’s always been doing it, like he’s never not been touching him, like Sebastian can’t feel every drag of his callouses, like he can’t feel every grove and whorl and catch.

Like he can’t feel two heartbeats under his skin. Like he can’t do anything but swallow around nothing—caught desperately between staring at the way Alex’s hands look tangled in his own, tanned and wide swallowing Sebastian’s thin, anemic one. Has he always had that scar? A pale sliver of skin on the outside of Alex’s wrist, a fragment of something that makes Sebastian’s own fingers twitch with a sudden all-consuming need to touch, to flip them around and grasp him instead.

The sudden wash of desire rolls through him, every nerve in his body screaming to drag him forward and see if that scar tastes the same as the rest of him.

He wants to, he needs to—but every inch of him is frozen, stuck in the mottled confusion of Alex touching him, of Alex touching him like it’s normal, touching him like this is something they’ve done before. Pretending like there’s nothing about the way Sebastian shivers, some sensation tangled up in his vertebrae, like he’s never been touched before.

(He touches you like you’re something delicate) No—stop fuck off—stop. (Like you’re something important)

He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe at all.

All at once, Alex steps forward.

And now he’s too close. Now he’s far too close, now he’s too close and he’s set with a sort of determination that Sebastian can only imagine he used to have before storming the gridball field, all adrenaline and testosterone. He wouldn’t know, he was always too busy getting blazed out of his mind to watch Alex play. (Or too worried about popping a boner in the middle of the stadium. That too)

He’s too close and he’s too close and he’s too close and he still has one hand on Sebastian’s elbow.

All Sebastian does is take a breath. An ice-jab shot under his ribcage as no part of him can appropriate process what is going on. All he does is take a breath.

All he does is breathe.

“Seb get your ass over here we fucking found it!”

The hollar, in time with a desperately gleeful whoop cuts the air from his lungs. It snatches it from the spaces of his bronchus and his cilia and tears it from the space between them. Alex drops him like he’s something dangerous and snaps his gaze back towards Sam’s voice.

He doesn’t like the way he looks when he looks back over. Like he’s a half-second from being sick in the weird bushes, “Seb, I’m—”

“Can Sam please learn to fuck off?”

“Dude, no—that was my bad. I’m, fuck, I’m sorry. I forgot that you—yeah, shit, Seb. I promise it won’t happen again.”

Sebastian blinks once, then twice. “What are you talking about.” What is he talking about? What was he about to do? (Don’t you even think about it. Don’t you even come close to thinking about it)

Alex scrubs down his face, eyes cast skyward like the answer to whatever problem he’s having is spelled out in the stars. “I’m sorry you can—yeah, I’m sorry. Just—”

Sam’s voice echoes from the corners, loud and panting. “If you don’t hurry up we’re gonna fucking leave without you.”

Sebastian takes a half-step towards him, away from Alex, away from this. The moment shattered, it’s nothing more than glass under their feet now—pressed into the grass and the dirt. Ruined an unfixable.

Alex leaves without another word and Sebastian stands there, a cacophony of feelings he can’t even begin to name.

Only one thought strikes him with any clarity, standing in the middle of a maze, watching Alex’s shoulders hunch as he steadily disappears into the shadowed corners.

It’s gonna be a long fucking year.

Chapter Text

Winter comes and Sebastian is convinced that Alex is avoiding him.

He plays that night over and over again, a worn-down CD hiccupping over the same moments again and again and again. I’m sorry. You have nice hands. I’m sorry. I forgot. You have nice hands. I’m sorry.

His tongue trips over the words he tries to follow, lying on his back in a pile of twisted slate-grey sheets on his bed. Only his lamp is on, sending shadows over the fingers he twists to catch the light.

You have nice hands. He’s always thought they were too thin, sort of skeletal and spidery in comparison. Slender palms, a bony wrist—all of him was too-thin, too-narrow, too-breakable. He twists his hand to examine them from the back, Alex’s voice curling down beneath his throat—buried in places he tries to keep secret.

He’ll dig down deeper if he has to, carve out some spot between his ribs and leave it there for the wolves and the birds. When they pick him clean like carrion, they’ll find it.

Sebastian catches his lip between his teeth, letting one nail catch down the scabs and scrapes on the heel of his hand. They’re healing fine—slow, but fine. The push, the pick, the prod—it all hurts, it all catches there in one little insistent point of contact.

And all he can hear is it again. Another breath, another wash of sound and the heat of hands on his skin. I like them.

I like them.

It’s been just under two weeks since Spirits Eve, since Abby held the golden pumpkin aloft with a sort of victorious cry that comes from some need for vindication. Just under two weeks since Sebastian peeled away to leave them to their celebration, some strange-sick feeling in his gut watching Sam’s arm drape casually over her shoulder, Abby still in his jacket.

He could’ve stayed, he could’ve slid into his spot between them, chewed on the jealousy that crawled up from the bile in his stomach and bared his teeth at whatever things started growing. But all those points on his arms, all the places Alex touched, the skin and the bone—it burned, a churning sensation of something and everything and nothing all at once.

Sebastian didn’t see Alex again. He didn’t seem him the rest of that night, he didn’t see him traipsing up the mountain when winter officially fell over Pelican Town with the first dusting of ice crunching beneath boots.

He just didn’t see him.

Well—that’s a lie. He saw him once, the back of him—a familiar splash of spring against winter as he cut a line across the early-morning frost, his head hunched on a beeline out the path from the center of town. Sebastian didn’t follow him, but he had the sinking suspicion that Alex wasn’t headed for the bus but beyond it.

He didn’t call out, he didn’t do anything but continue on that day.

Little over a week into the season, there was nothing else. Not even a whisper of him.

Dropping his hand (nice hands) to his stomach, Sebastian heaves a sigh and rolls onto his side to check his phone. He’s been in bed for too long, slept through the morning to pick himself up by the lonely start of a cold afternoon. He didn’t want to get up, no part of him pulling for a coffee quite yet.

It’s one of those mornings where he doesn’t feel too terrible about fishing out his cigarettes—one won’t send his mom storming down the steps to tell him to take his terrible habits outside. One of those mornings where a cigarette in bed is just what he wants, eyes closed as he exhales towards his ceiling, ashes dropping in a mostly-empty can of cola.

Lazy, slow. Winter is never great for business. Never great for all the things he has to do, all the things he wants to do. It’s never great for saving money, never great for picking up new clients who don’t want someone who’ll disappear for a week during the holidays.

He follows his cord to his phone. Jobs pick up again in spring, they always do.

It’s a little passed two and his notifications overflow—between his phone and the pinging from his computer, it’s safe to assume that someone really fucking wants to get ahold of him. He’d bet all the money in his bank account that it’s Sam or Abby.

Surprise. It’s both. The group chat notifications are, as ever this late in the day, almost entirely his name. Missed calls, missed voice chat requests, missed messages.

Sebastian, what are we doing tomorrow?”

There’s variations of the message, mixed in with don’t make me call your mom - I swear I will.

Should we do breakfast? Lunch??? Drinks/smoke party????

Sebastian just tell us when you’re doing family stuff.

Family stuff? He frowns down at his phone. He’s never doing family shit, that know that. (You really are a shitty son and a shitty brother. When was the last time you even ate dinner with them? Did more than squirreled away in your bedroom hiding and then scavenged from the fridge like a thief in your own home?)

He shoots back a simple, “I don’t know?”

Sam’s response comes first, whip-sharp and there. What do you mean you don’t know?

Abby’s lands immediately after. Just go ask.

He rubs his eyes as he sets his phone down, too tired to actually consider whatever they’re saying for more than half a second as he swings his legs off his bed and stumbles his way towards his dresser.

It’s not that he wants to go anywhere, not that he wants to really hang out with Sam and Abby, not like he wants to do anything but linger in the darkness, the cool shadows with that hanging edge of winter lapping at the back of his heels.

The weather hasn’t dipped into freezing quite yet, but it’s on the horizon—that sort of bite-scent to the air, where everything’s frozen and sharp. Wriggling into a pair of jeans, Sebastian figures the beach is probably empty.

He doesn’t mind Willy or Elliott all that much—but Elliott hasn’t been around so really, it’s just Willy and if Sebastian isn’t smoking, Willy isn’t bothering him so why would Sebastian care if he hangs out and fishes off the nearby pier? It’s good, usually. Quiet, mostly.

He layers on a long-sleeved shirt, grunting as the movement bothers his rib and tugs at the worst of the road rash. Parts of it that will scar, parts of it that cut through the tattoo on his ribcage, that sever through the image of wolf and kin.

The hoodie lingering on his desk is just on the edge of being rank, a quick sniff drawing a frown and securing it a toss into his hamper before he fishes a new one out of his drawer to crawl into.

He doesn’t answer the series of messages that come back in perfect time, another threat to call his mom—as if she would know his plans. He fixes his hair in the hanging mirror of the back of his door before shoving his feet into his boots and taking to the stairs.

The muffled sounds of his mom taking cut off before he reaches the top steps, and he thinks maybe, just maybe he can make an escape.

“Sebastian, hon—” well, fine fuck him then. “Sam called.”

Seriously? Maybe Sebastian would go over there, if just to ask Sam to his face exactly why he did that. (Can’t be because he said he would)

“What did he want?”

An unamused brow raises up as she leans slightly away from her register, arms crossing over her chest. “He wanted to know what time we were doing dinner, so he and Abby could steal you away from some quality time.”

There’s a lot of things Sebastian wants to say, about how he just saw them the other night, or how I see them every Friday night, why do they have such a stick up their ass about it being tomorrow?

“Okay?”

She makes a noise, tongue clicking before reaching down to adjust some pencils, then back up to fix a strand of loose hair. “I told him that he and Abby are more than welcome to join us at seven—he said they’d probably be there.”

Sebastian blinks once, then twice.

When he was younger, sure, Sam and Abby used to come over all the time, crammed extra chairs at the dinner table, gossiping and teasing eat other over food—it slowed when they were older, when Sebastian was old enough to decide he didn’t feel like eating up with everyone else, that he could eat later in the night where no one could see him, where he could pick at his plate and work. Where he didn’t have to face questions or comments or concerns—or anything at all, really.

“Okay—I’m going,” he pauses, thumb pointed towards the door. “Out.”

Her lips purse for half a second. “Alright, hon. Be safe, I love you.”

His hand fumbles behind him, head ducking in a nod, an affirmation, a brief little cut of okay, mom, love you too.

It’s been almost two weeks since he’s seen Alex. Two weeks of being ignored, two weeks of being avoided.

Two weeks.

And yet, Sebastian still knows it’s him the second he collides with his chest. Alex knocks the air of him, steadily replacing it all with that now-familiar scent of him—all undercut with something else, something just on the edge of sweet and warm, even over that winter-sharp menthol scent of whatever balm he rubs on after a work-out.

Alex catches him at the elbows, righting Sebastian easily with a soft oh. And it’s back with a vengeance—fucking burn crawling under his skin and whip-lash fury of ice and fire and wind and water all of it at once slamming through him before Alex immediately snaps his hands away.

If it burns through Sebastian to have Alex too close to him, to have him tear away—rip back three steps at once, until he’s clear off the porch and looking down at his feet—that’s worse.

That’s much, much worse.

“Uh,” Sebastian starts, as elegantly as he can, shutting the door behind him neatly. “Hi?”

“Sorry I was—I was just about to knock.” He follows through with the gesture, burning something warm in the pit of Sebastian’s throat.

“It’s a work day, you don’t have to knock,” he reminds him. “My mom’s at the counter.”

“Right yeah no,” Alex pauses, clears his throat. “I just uh, I’m sorry about Spirits Eve, by the way. It was a shit thing for me to do.”

I’m sorry - you have nice hands - I’m sorry - you have nice hands. ‘

“It’s fine,” he says because nearly two weeks—nearly two weeks and Sebastian still has no idea what Alex is sorry for. Maybe the touching, the grabbing? Maybe it’s the way he pulled at Sebastian’s sleeves, the way he held his wrist in that loose grip. Maybe it’s in all of the other ways, the burning feeling racing down between the lines the highway cut into his skin.

(is it) It is. Sebastian hasn’t been lying in bed, replaying those brief moments again and again and again. He hasn’t stared at his own hands, watching the way they catch the light from his bedside lamp, the way they cut shadows and curl against his palm. He hasn’t picked at his nailbeds and run his touch down the length of his own fingers, trying to get lost in the idea that maybe Alex was right.

“No it wasn’t but, thanks,” Alex says, his carefully-white tennis shoes scuffing at the dirt before their porch.

Sebastian stares, for as long as he can stomach staring. It hasn’t snowed yet—it’s dusted, almost, overnight. That sort of cool frost that only sticks in the shadows past the creeping of the sun. It’s not yet where the grass crunches underfoot—not unless you dragged yourself to bed, or crawled in late enough to watch it settle, wordless and long, around the world. “Did you need something?”

Me, did you need me? Did you come here to touch me again? Drag your fingers down my arm—the bandages are gone, there’s just a few angry red spots now. My ribs haven’t healed yet, but I can still feel you in between them—kind of wrenching me apart with every breath. The gloves are gone now. He flexes his bare hands, curling against the edge of his sleeves. The gloves are gone, you can touch my palms, you can touch every bit of me.

Alex just hesitates, that conflicted expression cutting away that familiar smile, that familiar beam that comes up from the heart of him dashed against the cold ground.

“I uh—” he pauses, digging around in the pocket of his jacket for a second before coming up with a square. It’s a flash of deep red, bound up in a sort of honey-rich gold. A flash of color in the washed out wasteland of winter. “Here.”

He shoves it gracelessly in Sebastian’s direction. Sebastian blinks down at the little box, all gift-wrapped with a lopsided bow, a clear sign of someone’s hard work tied and re-tied again and again until they got it right. He takes a step down off the porch, fingers tugging at the edges of his hoodie’s sleeves.

“Huh?” Graceful, elegant.

Alex looks up, like maybe it’ll drain the pink from his cheeks down his throat. “It’s your birthday tomorrow, right?”

Is it? He blinks, rapidly, at the question, reaching out to the take the box—warmed, by Alex’s pocket and hand. It doesn’t blister, it doesn’t burn, it doesn’t sear off his nerves and mold itself to the shape of him.

Not like Alex does.

Explains why Sam and Abby are so pushy about making plans. “It’s the ninth?”

“Yep. And your birthday is the tenth. So, tomorrow.”

Huh. Alex swallows, head ducking. “Cool so uh, happy birthday, Sebastian. I hope you like it, the place I went to said it was, uh, right. I’ll, y’know,” he flaps a hand. “See ya.”

His tongue ties up over itself, a worthless knot sitting behind his teeth as he digs down to the pit of his heels and tries to come up with something, anything, worth saying. Nothing comes, though, because nothing ever does when he needs it.

Sebastian plucks at the ribbon, then the tape, unravelling all of Alex’s care until he’s holding a little black box—some shop name embossed in flaking gold on the lid. He puts all the wrappings into his hoodie pocket before picking the top off. Nestled in deep velvet are two little studs—pretty on point for the size Sebastian wears any given day—but better. These are black stone, some rich obsidian cracked through with an uneven vein of purple—imperfect on either of the pair and perfectly matched in their flaws.

His chest hurts with the sudden, blinding flash of fuck, no and his teeth catch his lower lip—windbitten and chapped. His hands don’t shake as he puts the top back on the box and, with painstaking care, pockets it.

Fuck the beach, fuck standing out on the pier alone. Sebastian heads down the mountain in the direction of Pierre’s.

###

He knows she’s home by the time he reaches the stone stairs that cut down the incline, the light in her window casting the mangled shadow of her against her curtains. He doesn’t creep for too long, one last drag off the cigarette he’d lit on his walk before he grinds it out under his boot, pocketing the butt.

“I’m outside, do you want to hang out?” He asks, thumbs sliding over his keyboard.

The shadow vanishes and a few seconds later the message comes back, flashing on his screen. “Of course! You outside the house or like, outside-outside?”

Sebastian doesn’t text her back, opting instead for a pebble to her window.

Like the ghost of when they were younger, before they had phones and numbers—nothing but secret messages and stories and rocks clicking against the scuffed edges of Abby’s windowsill. The third one hits before she opens it, frowning down at him, elbows resting on the ledge.

“Phone,” she says. “We have them.”

“I said I was outside.”

All she does is jerk her head, a silent come up, before she retreats back.

He thinks, sometimes, that scaling the tree to her window used to be harder—and sometimes that it used to be easier. He knows it was harder when they were younger, back before he hit that last burst of growth, cutting him at six feet exactly. (Well—fine, it depends who you ask. He slouches, his shoulders curl downward, he bends himself at the waist to tuck himself lower, smaller. Sam says just under, Sebastian says just above.

Abby, well—)

“You gangly freak,” she scoffs as he manages the first leg in through her window and almost eats it immediately into her carpet. “People aren’t made to be as tall as you.”

“Sam’s taller than me,” he reminds her—right, Sam. That’s what you want to think about. Sam and Abby, Abby and Sam and Sam with Abby and her with him and—David chitters up at him from his cage, balancing on his back two paws.

He doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t want to think about any of that. He reaches in, one finger bopping the top of his tiny head. He gets a nip for all his effort, but continues on, hand sliding out of the cage while David squeaks.

She’s sprawled across her bed, one arm tossed over her eyes. “You’re both too tall, I can’t tell the difference.”

“Yeah, well,” Sebastian pauses, shrugging while he toes off his shoes to avoid trekking mud around.

There was a time she was taller than him, a brief stretch before he stretched out—before Sam surpasses them all in a knot of limbs he didn’t quite know how to control, a tornado of broken glass and banged elbows that did nothing but steadily decimate all of Jodi’s fragile belongings and remnants of her sanity. Not that Sebastian was any better, unsure and unstable and elbowing mugs off counters and tripping over nothing as he tried to adjust into an unfamiliar stretch.

He pours himself into a heap of sharp edges and broken sticks, right beside her bed, back of his head resting against the worn wood of her bedside table. “What’s up?” He asks, nudging the foot she dangles off the edge of her bed.

“What’s up with me? You came here,” she reminds him, kicking back gently. “What’s up with you.”

Good question. Well, shit question but good question. Sebastian’s hand slides into his pocket, fingering the box and the wadded up wrappings. “I uh, I don’t know. It’s my birthday tomorrow apparently.”

From here he can see the arm lift off her face, the wide gesture she makes before it settles back down the kind of sigh that bends her bed. “Apparently.” It’s deadpanned, empty. “Yeah, dude, that’s why Sam and I kept—nevermind. Yes, dork, it’s your birthday tomorrow. What woke you up to this fact?”

“Alex brought me a gift.” There isn’t a whole lot of ways he thinks he can say it that aren’t suspicious, that don’t lean into the things he doesn't want her to know. The things that shouldn’t ever see the light of day, things that linger in the places he wants to keep hidden. All those sticking shadows and spots buried under the decrepit train station there on top of the mountain. Things stuck in places abandoned.

Abby’s bed creaks as she rolls over, those pale-brilliant eyes peer down over, brow arched. “Alex brought you a gift.”

Sebastian slides the box from his pocket and hands it over, trying to feel that fever-burn of being torn apart the second Abby peels it from his fingers.

She whistles as she opens it, twisting the box. It catches the light, Sebastian knows how they swallow it whole, that endless black and the flicker of deep purple—something gorgeous to an obscene degree when it shivers along with the winter light. “These are nice.”

“Yeah,” he croaks. He doesn’t mean to, but it happens. “They are.”

He fixates on the scabs on his palm, the places he keeps picking and re-picking and picking again. Harvey tells him to stop, warns him they’ll scar over (like the ones on his side, the ones that Harvey said almost certainly will, the ones he hemmed and hawed over while prodding with those cold-latex fingers). He picks at them again as Abby’s eyes blaze trails down the length of him.

“So like, you’ve been hanging out with him,” she says, box shut and handed back. Sebastian quickly pockets it, sniffing once and running his hands through his hair once, then twice.

He needs it cut, it’s getting too long. Falling out of place more, more difficult to style in the mornings. He fixes it again before letting his fingers drift down to tug at the collar of his hoodie. “I guess. He’s kinda sad y’know. He’s out talking to dog or whatever every time I go for a smoke.”

She sighs, and scoots over on her bed, towards the wall. It’s a silent invitation. One that Sebastian takes, carefully leaving the box and wrappings on her nightstand.

He doesn’t do this much with her—at least not as much as he does it with Sam. Like with him, and like with Sebastian—nothing really changed about Abby’s room. There’s not much different from the last time he sprawled out over more than his fair share of her bed, letting her curl against his chest and stretch an arm around him. The same worn crack in the ceiling that blurs and flickers in the polaroid in his bedroom, the same chipping paint on her wall, the same hand-and-finger worn joystick tucked in the corner, the same melted candles and collection of stones dotting her dresser.

It’s the same in all the sweet ways. The same blankets kicked around by their feet, the same body-spray and shampoo smell that he finds somewhere between the pillows and buried in her hair.

“You guys like friends or something now?” She asks, with her cheek on his collar.

The truth sits funny when he says it. “I guess? I don’t know.” Don’t you? Didn’t he ask—say it?

Maybe, maybe not (maybe not anymore). Maybe it’s different now and Sebastian doesn’t know why, that electric-fire touch flickering down from elbow to wrist until he has to rub the edge of his arm on Abby’s side to chase it away—smother the flames and pray to no one they don’t come back.

“Don’t use me to itch, you fucking bear.”

“I’m not a bear, I’m—”

“Whatever, don’t use me to itch you fucking twink.”

He opens his mouth to argue but she thuds her head against his breastbone and huffs, “You didn’t answer.”

“I said I guess.”

“He bought you really nice earrings for your birthday, dude.”

Fuck, fuck, he can feel the flush building up under his skin—every inch of it crawling around and slinking up to the surface like it needs air. His chest hollows out, choking on the breath he can’t quite manage. The hand not wrapped keeping Abby in place falls to his face, scrubbing down the length of it. “I don’t—”

“Know, yeah—it’s weird, dude. I love you, Seb, but you’ve been weird.”

Great so she noticed (so everyone noticed, everyone knows what you’re doing—everyone knows what you are, who you are, all the ways you’re fucked up and messed up—everyone knows)

“Well what about you.” He doesn’t mean it to snap, to catch on his teeth and come out jagged and broken—but he feels her tense against him, the frozen catch of air as the heat and comfort saps from the room and remakes itself into tension.

She pulls herself up, one hand braced on either side of him. She’s not cold, she’s not burning—she’s somewhere dangerously in the middle. “What about me?”

“Did you forget—”

“I didn’t.”

“ —well can’t I be worried about you?”

She sits up with a huff, back to the wall—a snap of movement riddled and suffocating with the kind of confrontation that Sebastian isn’t built to handle. It’s the kind that crumbles and caves and makes him follow her up, flicker his gaze between the window and the door—seeking exists, quick escapes.

“You don’t need to be worried,” she snips, digging her thumbnail under her polish, prying off a chunk to disappear into her bedsheets. “I’m fucking fine, Seb, so drop it.”

And he does, stupidly. If only just for a second. They sit there, in silence. It’s not the kind they usually have, not the cool comforting kind—this is the kind that builds, where the vast array of nothing threatens to overcome them, to swallow them whole until she breaks it.

Until Abby sits there, picking at her nails. “My mom cheated on my dad. At least, I think she did.”

Oh.

Sebastian doesn’t say anything. Oh. What could he say? There’s nothing that could undo that, nothing that could mend all the broken bones, all the torn muscles and the shattered heartstrings. Nothing reaches that deep. He moves to sit beside her instead, back pressed against the wall, shoulders brushing with every deep breath.

She sniffs, once, deep purple strands veiling her as she hangs her head. “I uh, I heard them fighting. My—he said he can tell I don’t look like him, and he told her he knows she still goes by his tower. My mom kept denying it but—he’s not wrong I don’t look like him and I barely look like my mom and—” she sniffs again, rubbing up under her eyes and nose. Her hand comes back streaked wet and black. Wordlessly, Sebastian wraps his pinky finger around hers.

It’s okay, I’m here.

“It’s dumb and I can’t ask about it—I think he’s right and he’s not—and I’m not—” Her breath catches, shuddering out around a sob she bites through. “I’m not. And I wanted to go to—to his tower and ask him to his fucking face and I got there and I—I couldn’t and I didn’t want to know and—it’s not fair Seb, it’s not fair. I—I just—”

It’s careful, it’s slow, when he pulls her back against him, lets her burrow into his hoodie and shake where she’s wrapped in his arms.

“I’m tired of it.”

He doesn’t say anything. There’s a lot of things he could say, as she shakes herself apart right there—a barely-held-together ball of everything and nothing all at once, falling between his fingers and held in place by the sheer willpower and the promise of future collapse.

“I hate it.”

There’s so many things he could say, but he doesn’t. What good would they be, what point would they have? Platitudes aren’t bandages—at best they’re pats on the shoulder, at worst it’s a dig into the worst spots, a grind of salt into the open wounds. All Sebastian can think of are useless things to say, empty I’m sorry’s and hollow if I could help you’s. (There’s nothing he could do, there’s nothing he could ever do—not to fix it, not to mitigate)

He just buries his nose in the top of her head and doesn’t say anything.

Not when she slides her cheek across his shoulder, not when she twists her fist into the front, or when she finally slows herself to a stop, her breath shaking and her heartbeat wild against his own.

Adrenaline is a beast all its own. It burns fast and hot until suddenly Abby is cold again, the tension gone from her with the same snap with which it came.

She’s heavier against him, nose to the side of his neck and her face streaked and smeared with smudged eyeliner and flaked mascara.

They sit like that for a long while, hands clasped together in his lap. Until she breathes in once, long and deep, and pushes it out with the same sureness that she handles everything else. Her eyes drift shut.

“Sebby?”

“Yeah?” His voice cracks around the quiet.

“Can you talk to me about literally anything else.”

“Sure,” he says before immediately losing the ability to conjure a single topic. Nothing comes to mind, nothing but Abby and the space around them and the nothing and the everything. “Uh… Emily gave me free weed.”

“Birthday gift?” Abby asks, voice thick with exhaustion. His eyes draw back to the box, sitting there staring back at him.

“Combined with her I got the feeling you were in pain, this might help bullshit I think. Though it would’ve been nice if she said it was a birthday gift—given me heads up that that shit was coming up.”

“How’d she find out,” she hummed.

“Harvey got drunk, probably. You know how he gets after half a glass of wine.”

Abby hums, nuzzling his shoulder with all the affection of a tired cat. She seeps exhaustion through him and he guides them back down to the bed, letting her wrap closer and him stretch out his legs.

“Probably,” she agrees. “He gets chatty. I bet he’s lonely as fuck.”

“Definitely. Sam heard down the usual grapevine that all he buys from your dad is like...those frozen meals.”

She sniffs, burrows deeper, as if that’s possible. “The ones that I don’t think anyone’s touched in like fifteen years.”

“Those exact ones.” It’s hollow, it’s familiar. Nothing heavy, nothing hard—just what he wants, what she needs. “I’d say Harvey—if Maru would’ve said something my mom would’ve chained me to my bedroom to keep me from ever leaving the house again.”

There’s a yawn—Sebastian doesn’t know who was first.

“Or the spirits snitched on you.”

“Fucking hope not. If they knew I wrecked my bike I wonder what else they know.” He can pretend all he likes like his eyes aren’t drawn to the box again. For a brief moment, Alex flickers through his mind—an interruption. He tears his eyes away to find Abby’s open, staring too like she followed his line of sight.

Her sigh melts through her. “You really are friends, huh?”

“Not like you and I are friends,” he says. “Or like Sam and I or—” Like you and Sam. (You’d like to be friends like she is with Sam, wouldn’t you? The kind of friends where he’ll kiss you in the dead of night?) “Yeah.”

“Why Alex though?”

“He’s nice,” he says, throat tighter than it has any right. “Like once you get to know him, he’s nice and he’s funny and he like...cares in this weird way. He just like...he’s not a bad guy and he really does try to be like...cool about shit. Plus, he’s good to talk to—it’s kind of easy.”

And he’s hot, and he’s hot, and he’s funny and he’s sweet and he looks at Sebastian like he wants to know every inch of him, like he wants to reach inside him and shake out the secret parts and line them up and count them and catalogue them—not to judge him, not to tear them apart and fly them high above the flags. Like he wants to know them just to know the way that Sebastian is put together, to outline the hooks and angles and sockets of him—a mystery taken apart and put back together a hundred times over again and again and again and again.

Perfect and imperfect at once.

He looks at Sebastian like he already knows him, like he’s just been stuck waiting for him.

The realization crashes through him all at once, sucking him under into the riptide and carrying him out—breathless and choked around the seawater truth.

“I think I, uh—” He clears his throat. “I think I might have a crush on Alex.”

(A crush? What are we, twelve? A crush—way to make this about you. Can’t have someone steal the spotlight, can’t have them linger for a moment thinking about anything that’s not you. How dare Abby have her own problems, how dare she exist for a second in a world without you at the helm?)

In his arms, Abby snorts. It’s not mean, just sad. He rolls on his side, hand smoothing up her back as she wraps herself closer around him. “Man we’re both pathetic today, aren’t we?”

His nose finds the crook of her neck. “Little bit,” he tells the trace of her shampoo. “I’m the bigger bitch about it though.”

“You’re always the bigger bitch.”

He huffs a laugh, bitter and clean, arms squeezing around her. She squeezes him back. “I’m sorry,” he says, with all the sincere weight he wraps around her.

She freezes, tensing and untensing until she can shudder out another breath. “So am I. Sorry for all—that.”

“Don’t be.” It’s quick, it’s fast and he means it. “Sorry for making that distraction all about me.”

This time her laugh is all bark, tickling his hair. “Dude, don’t. I think we both just—we needed to say it, right? And just—that’s it.” She shifts, stretching out once before re-adjusting herself around her. “Now I sort of cried myself out and I think I really need a nap.”

“Yeah?”

She doesn’t let him go, not even for a second. “Yep. Sorry—we need a nap. And then you’re actually helping me make plans for tomorrow.”

He buries his exhausted, heavy, smile against her shoulder, “Oh yeah? Why, what’s tomorrow?”

Dork.”