The room has been dark for a few minutes already, but the crowd doesn’t truly lower its murmurs until Mom takes to the platform. She’s always had a way of swaying attention in any way she desires, but it took into adulthood for Daniel to realize that she has that effect on everyone, and even longer for him to realize that it was a hard-earned skill.
He watches closely as she makes her greetings, her thank-yous, her careful maneuvering, and even as the chess pieces move across the board, a warm flush washes over him as she says, “—and I, of course, have to congratulate my dear son for the role he’s played in making this a record-breaking year for Fair Game. I’m so, so proud of you, Daniel. Since taking point last spring, we’ve seen…”
Then her gaze slides back to the crowd, and after the hand offering an overly familiar, congratulatory shake drops from his shoulder, it’s easy to fall back into the crowd.
Usually, Daniel does his best to avoid these things as much as possible, but Mom hadn’t just been ego-stroking (she rarely is). His work with the children’s charity isn’t actually a complete sham, but even then, all the hands that needed shaking were dealt with in the first hour. Anyone worth talking to made an early exit or, even more likely, was never here to begin with.
It makes him feel old, like something approaching an actual adult with responsibilities, and it’s a relief to see Alex weaving through the crowd, a wide grin reaching his eyes as they Daniel’s. He returns the look automatically, even as he registers the wide blow of Alex’s pupils, the pulled-candy giddiness.
“Were you just with Emilie?” Daniel asks. He doesn’t mean for the disapproval to show, but Alex still rolls his eyes before sliding up against him.
“You’re more than welcome to join us.”
“Uppers aren’t my scene,” Daniel responds.
Nothing much is his scene right now, actually. It hasn’t really reached the point of being worth talking about, but Daniel’s slowly starting to feel better—or, no, he feels like shit. He’s sweating constantly, can’t sleep for longer than an hour at a time without the nightmares taking over, and a desiccated rabid animal now lives in his brain, but threaded around all that is something solid. Like given time, maybe it could grow into something more genuine than floating in alcohol.
He doesn’t say any of that to Alex, who doesn’t say anything back when he realizes the flute he’s stolen out of Daniel’s hand is warm, flat ginger ale. It’s for the best. Of the three of Le Domas siblings, Alex can hold his own best. Even with the floundering post-grad, he’s always had the straightest sight. There’s not much his older brother, probably on the cusp of his umpteenth relapse, can teach him.
But maybe Alex isn’t thinking about that; he’s always had a bad habit of seeing the best of Daniel.
⇇ ⇇ ⇇
In the months following Aunt Helene’s wedding, Daniel couldn’t sleep. Mom had already talked to him and Alex—Emilie was still too small—about Mr. Le Bail and how he took care of their family. Playing Le Bail’s games was just like brushing his teeth and doing his homework.
“Except it won’t just be your teeth falling out if you let down Mr. Le Bail,” she’d said, sing-songy, as she tickled where Daniel’s neck met his jaw. He giggled as he tried to squirm away.
Charles wasn’t like burning herbs or meditating over low-burning candles. He'd been nice. That first Winter Solstice, he’d gifted him and Alex a pair of Liverpool jerseys. Between the reception and the game, he’d made Daniel promise that they would be on the same teams if he drew the right card.
And then their family killed Charles, and they did it so they could live in this house and wear their clothes and survive another day.
A week later, Daniel scored the winning goal of his summer league’s championship game. They weren’t old enough for it to really matter, but the ball went in, even though Daniel squeezed his eyes closed as he essentially dumped the ball away in hopes that the opposing defender wouldn’t completely bowl him over. Even as his teammates crowded around him, Daniel felt the heat of a debt tallied.
So, Daniel couldn’t sleep. He felt too aware of his breath, the blood in his veins, the walls of his room. None of them were his. They weren’t even his family’s. All of it could be taken away. How could they even know that they were making Mr. Le Bail happy? Was it worth it? The look in Aunt Helen’s eyes since that night—
“Will you stop breathing so loud?” Alex complained. He turned over in the tight twin bed and pressed a hand down on Daniel’s chest like the pressure alone could control its rise and fall. In a way, it did.
He shifted onto his side, facing Alex. They’re too old to be sharing a bed—Daniel, especially—and it’s almost unbearably hot beneath the covers, even with his legs kicked out and the breeze from the window, but it felt good to sweat next to another person. His brother. It’s not the way things are supposed to go, the younger comforting the older, but it kept Daniel grounded in what was real, what he could see and touch.
“Will you stop being so annoying?” Daniel responded, mostly because it gave him an excuse to shove Alex’s shoulder, which gave Alex an excuse to shove him back. Alex would eventually grow taller and wider than Daniel, but Daniel still had to be careful with him then—although he wasn’t always, and Alex ended up on the floor with a loud thud in a retaliatory flinch after he dug his fingers into Daniel’s ribs.
Daniel stared wide-eyed as Alex’s face scrunched up red with anger, scrambling for ways to stem the inevitable tantrum, but both of them froze as the door creaked.
They exhaled as Tia, one of the older maids, slid into the room. She knew she wasn't going to be back the following summer, and it’d made her lax with them and short with Dad, which in turn made Mom mad for reasons they did not yet understand, except for it sometimes meant taking the long way home, just Mom with the kids in the backseat, riding in silence. One time it even ended with them driving through the night to Grandma and Grandpa Anderson’s house, but then Pop-Pop had a stroke and they all had to go home again.
“Boys,” Tia tsked gently, “I know I put you both to bed separately hours ago. Why is this happening now?”
“Daniel can’t sleep,” Alex answered, and Daniel felt his face burn as Tia made another disapproving noise.
“Get back into your bed, baby. Daniel, why don’t you come with me?”
It felt awkward to hold Tia’s hand as they walked down the manor’s halls, but Daniel held on tight anyway—he’d spent every summer of his childhood uncovering the hidden halls and trap doors that filled that house, until it felt more like part of the family than the blood and flesh uncles and cousins he only saw at reunions, but the darkness clinging to every corner seemed deeper now, more menacing. Like it could look back at him
Only once they were in the kitchen and Tia switched on a lamp did Daniel breathe easier. He sat at the island as Tia moved comfortably through the room, combining apple juice and a darker liquid from a cupboard that Daniel wasn’t allowed in. When she set the glass in front of him, he said, “I’m not supposed to have juice after lunch.”
“This will be our little secret, then,” Tia said, settling down next to him, an encouraging smile on her face even though her eyes looked tired. So Daniel lifted the glass to his mouth and drank.
“It’s warm,” Daniel exclaimed, feeling the warmth more in his throat than his mouth. The familiarity rose as Tia explained, voice still soft and sure the way it always was when adults were not-quite-lying to kids, standing at his father’s side, bringing a wide, squat glass to his mouth and grimacing.
“That’s because it has special juice in it that’ll help you sleep. Your daddy loves the stuff more than just about anything.”
The last part, at least, Daniel knew was true, so he finished the glass, even though some reflexive part of him barely allowed a sip at a time. His entire body felt warm and clumsy by the end, his gaze sliding off every point of focus as Tia navigated them back to his bedroom.
Alex was still awake as he floated into his bed, but Daniel just shushed him before drifting into a deep, peaceful sleep.
⇉ ⇉ ⇉
Daniel doesn’t place William when he first walks up to where Alex and him are attempting to coax some sort of actual food from one of the servers. He looked the same as every other vaguely slimy guy in the room, so while Daniel returns the familiar smile and handshake and small talk, everything still feels comfortably distant right up until William boasts, “I’ve actually just joined the staff of the Gazette — as painful as it must be for you to accept that respectable journalism exists outside your family’s purview,” with just thick enough veneer of friendly ribbing to take Daniel right back to prep school.
“Bile,” Daniel blurts out. “Still telling stories then, eh?”
William really did sneer at that. It wasn’t a friendly nickname, and his trajectory made sense—he’d always been a little overeager to satisfy the administration’s curiosity, needling teachers about homework or a turned eye, locking doors behind himself after check-in hours. It all added up enough to make him deeply unpopular, even though he’d never done anything bad, really. Hell, maybe that had been the actual problem; how were you supposed to trust someone who never got any blood on his hands?
They’d been friends at first. Daniel liked how completely untouched William was, and William probably liked being around someone who made him look like he belonged.
Like with many things in his life, Daniel isn’t proud of how things broke down—while Daniel wasn’t central to the efforts, it took some effort to undo the good William was trying to do on campus, and Honors Ethics really was a hell of a class to get through with a do-gooder breathing down everyone’s necks—but he hadn’t thought about William since graduation.
Clearly, William’s memories weren’t buried quite as deeply. “Sure, if that’s what you want to call them, I’m sure I have some good ones the good people of this city would love to hear about its patrons.”
“Oh, I think I’d like to know—”
“Alex,” Daniel interrupts, exasperated. His brother’s eyes were playful but dark, too, like how they got when he smelled blood in the water, but more worrying is the way William stands tall with a confidence he’d never been quite able to pull off at school.
“I’m sure I have nothing new to tell you two. As close as you two are, well, that’s a story onto itself, isn’t it?”
The air goes thin with the tension Alex draws into himself. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m sure it’s far less interesting than you think, Bile,” Daniel says, even as his eyes shoot across the room until they lock with one of the security guards.
Things move with subtle efficiency from there. William’s never been good at subtlety or politics, which makes him easy to handle, but Daniel’s skin still burns, like he’s lying in a bed of dry ice. Alex’s close, though, practically treading on his heels, and somehow it’s still a comfort, even as Daniel knows he should be in clean-up mode. Fuck, he should probably be looking for the next one-way flight out to Singapore. How stupid could he be, thinking things were finally going alright? Of all the asinine things— of all the genuinely fucked up things about his family to be threatened with, even by as small a worm as William Hoffman—
“What the fuck, Daniel? How does he—”
“Mizzou,” Daniel responds blandly as the pieces fall together. “Him and Emilie must have overlapped.”
“Fuck,” Alex spits again. “Why the fuck would she— I have to find her.”
“You know she doesn’t mean anything by it, she just… cannot help but fuck things up sometimes, I don’t know. You don’t have to follow in her footsteps, you know,” Daniel says, but Alex is already gone.
Realistically, very little had changed in the last ten minutes. William was an idiot if he actually thought there was a single pot in this city didn’t that didn’t have his family coin in it, but he wasn’t an idiot. Just a stupid jab that he overreacted to. Still, it feels as if Daniel had stepped into a funhouse version of the ballroom, everyone’s chatter and laughter setting him on edge, paranoid. It’s a welcome anchor when his mother links their arms, light but guiding. Her voice is casual as she says, “I heard a member of the press was just escorted out of our charity gala. Kind of defeats the purpose of having them on the guest list, don’t you think?”
“It was just the Gazette,” Daniel says. “He’s… someone we’ve gone to school with. Thinks he’s heard things.”
She responds, “I heard that as well. And your brother?”
“Who the fuck knows. Ran off.” His eyes glance across the room. Plenty of familiar faces—Emilie giggling at one of the horrible entry-level guys at Dad’s firm, Fitch something—but not even a hint at the one that really matters. “Someone should probably find him.”
At this, Mom makes a disapproving noise. “Probably best to let him burn through whatever’s boiling his blood at the moment.”
“When has that ever been a good idea?” Daniel scoffs. Hell, he even has a scar on his left shoulder from one of Alex’s fits when they were kids—
“I’ve known him just as long as you have, Daniel. Besides, we still have closing rounds to make,” she says, steering him back into the crowd.
It takes a few hours for the call to come, past even the old boys running out of stories. Daniel almost ignores it, but a twist in his chest turns painful as he sees Alex’s name.
“Daniel? Fuck, Daniel, I… okay, you have to promise not to get pissed.”
⇇ ⇇ ⇇
Daniel did everything he could to avoid returning to the house that summer. He’d gone so far as to apply for a position at Luke Friedman’s summer camp as a counselor, even though he’d never so much as set foot on a campground before—and he’d gotten it, smiled uncontrollably through the phone call with the director, unsure of how competitive the field was but knowing he’d gotten it all on his own. There weren’t many things in Daniel’s life where he could claim that.
He phrased it as an absolute to his parents. He was eighteen. His resume would need something that couldn’t be traced back to his own last name eventually.
“You know how important this time is for our family,” Mom said, her hand on his shoulder. Her voice didn’t have any of the same softness.
Ten summers was enough distance to settle the manor—Daniel guessed as much was true for all grand houses with blood in their foundation. It’s hard to maintain the guilt. Eventually, you get tired.
Daniel was very, very tired that summer. He slept from early morning to late afternoon, eating in disjointed bursts between dodging official meals with the rest of his family. He kept his days simple: walking the grounds, getting drunk, walking the grounds while getting drunk.
By all measures, the idealized gleam should long have been washed out of Alex’s eyes. Emilie had certainly dropped her expectations years ago; Daniel was a shitty big brother, although he wasn’t sure how much virtue there was to model in this family. But maybe he still had some untapped guilt, because after a month of blowing off pickup games and trips into town, Daniel finally snapped and let Alex follow him out one night.
It wasn’t bad being around Alex. They were never that far apart in age, but the gap felt like it’d widened through the last few years, with Alex only just now catching back up. Daniel could make out the outline of the man Alex was going to be.
He wasn’t quite there yet, and it came through in the eager wiggling he couldn’t contain as they settled by the lake, moon high in the sky.
“Can I have a sip?” Alex finally blurted
Daniel paused for a moment, the lip of the bottle resting against his own. “No.”
“Why not? It’s not like you were older than I am right now when you started, I remember—”
“It’s not about how old you are,” Daniel interrupted. “It’s just… a bad habit not worth starting.”
“Then why do you keep doing it? You sure look like you’re having fun.”
Daniel snorted. “You want to know the truth?” Alex nodded, eagerly. “It’s not fun, it doesn’t take anything of the fucked up bits away, it’s not a doorway into a truer, more free version of yourself, it just isn’t… this.”
Daniel gestured widely, although it failed as an example. It was a beautiful night, cool and peaceful, the sky pin-pricked purple. Although wasn’t that always the fracture in whatever Daniel’s deal was? He could be in the happiest place on earth, and he still wouldn’t be able to keep himself from fingering the sharpest edge, pulling at the curtains, pressing his ear to the ground as he listened for empty echoes.
That was true with or without the booze. With, at least he had the choice to just sit and wait for it all to fall down around him. Alex didn’t need that. He shouldn’t.
“You know, if I can’t do it in a safe environment, I’m just going to be forced to experiment elsewhere,” Alex said, so sure of himself that Daniel had to laugh.
“Oh, fuck off and make some of your own friends, then,” Daniel said, but it was proof of his character that when Alex made a move for the bottle, he let it get pulled from his hand. He watched without a word as Alex took a huge swig of whiskey, only to immediately cough it back up. A genuine guffaw escaped Daniel’s through, and he kept laughing at Alex’s shocked face as his brother wiped his hand on the ground and pulled off his shirt with a look of disgust.
“I told you,” Daniel said. “No fun.”
“Fuck off,” Alex responded, and his next attempt was much more successful. If how closely Daniel was watching Alex bothered him, he didn’t show it.
So they stayed there, draining the remnants of the bottle slowly until Alex’s face went slack and Daniel felt like the ground could swallow him whole.
But it hadn’t been the ground. It’d been Alex, leaning over with bright eyes and flushed cheeks while Daniel’s fingers curled into the grass, still too scared then to reach out and—he didn’t know what he would have done. Daniel knew better. Knew alcohol was the excuse more often than it was the cause. Knew that they were tipping over a line they couldn’t even blame on family tradition.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t so much as flinch as Alex’s overeager mouth pressed to his. He just let his eyes fall closed.
It was the summer after Alex got his driver’s license, so they had an excuse to spend long hours speeding over isolated forest roads, Daniel’s squeezing on the oh-shit handle even as the adrenaline left his head floating.
Eventually, they pulled off onto a small pull-off. They’d been here before, Daniel realized, but the forest service had shut it down years ago after some nice family stumbled upon a stash of mutilated corpses. It was a shame, really; there were some really nice paths though there.
“I’m not going hiking with you,” Daniel said immediately.
Alex snorted. “You were literally morphing into a planeteer all last month.”
“Yeah, well, that was when I thought I was going to get paid for it,” Daniel said. “And I’m not wearing the right shoes, anyway.”
“Oh, damn. Completely forgot about the shoes. Well, on to Plan B, I guess,” Alex said before leaning over the center console, wrapping a hand over the nape of Daniel’s neck and pressing their mouths together, fast and eager with the tongue even as Daniel made a disapproving noise and wrestled his way free, with his back against the window.
“You do not drive people into the woods with no way to escape and then accost them.”
“I’m not doing it to people, I’m doing it to you.”
“No,” Daniel emphasized, throwing the door open being him and stepping out of the car. The air was heavy but cooling as the sun dipped below the horizon, and for a moment it was so beautiful that Daniel wished he was a hiker, or a fisherman, or a hunter. Anything that gave him an excuse to breathe in and watch the world as it stretched out all around him.
Every time they did this, it felt like a test. Daniel could throw on the brakes and stop this whole thing, and while they’re past repenting, they could at least not fuck each other up in this one way.
Daniel was drunk for a lot of it, but it wasn’t a real excuse. He’d have drank anyway. The truth was as simple as him wanting Alex, wanting his everything, wanting so desperately to have something that is good and just for them.
Daniel yanked open the back door of his brother’s more-muscle-than-a-16-year-old-needed car and watched as he scrambled to follow.
It felt real. It felt good. It felt, despite the complicating factors, how a summer romance was supposed to, Daniel thought. It gave him a schedule, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, just enough secrecy for his parents to trust him again.
The problem with anything going alright, with being happy, was that it could be so fucking easy to think that things were actually okay, that all the fucked up shit was just gunk that he could drown out of his own head if he tried hard enough. For whole days at a time, he could trick himself into feeling alright.
And so, Summer Solstice snuck up on him.
“No fucking way,” Daniel blurted out automatically when Mom reminded him.
“Sweetie,” she sighed, like he was refusing to take the trash out or whatever else it was normal kids had to do in houses that didn’t come with a full staff of domestic workers. “You’re an adult now, and in this family, that comes with certain responsibilities.”
“Well, that’s great and all, but I never asked to be an adult in this family. Have Aunt Helene do it, I’m sure she’s drooling for another opportunity.”
“Oh, please, Daniel, grow up. Aunt Helene isn’t always going to be around to—”
“There are worse things,” Daniel replied.
Alex had to sneak into Daniel’s room that night, on account of him being grounded until he found greater respect for the horror show that was their family in what was left of his soul. He pressed close to Daniel, stiff as he was, and after a minute to let the silence settle, said, “Is it really that bad? Like, we had burgers for lunch this afternoon, and cows are way nicer than goats—”
Daniel exhaled slowly, but it didn’t do anything to soothe the wriggling knots tied tight around his throat and his chest. The question pissed him off, made him want to push Alex onto the floor and shake him until whatever infection had already laid claim to his brain came out, but all he could get out was, “I’m not a butcher.”
It’s not the sort of thing that made sense to many members of Daniel’s family, he was sure, but he hoped to whoever would listen that there was something in Alex that was the same.
If there was, he didn’t hear it that night. Instead, they just laid together, getting too hot in a too-small bed in early June, waiting it out until it almost got comfortable. Like breaking a fever.
“You want to know what I think?” Alex said eventually. It had to be hours later, long enough that one or both of them must have slept at least a little.
No, Daniel thought, but after the silence stretched on too long, he dropped his head to the side. Their noses just barely rushed.
“I think we’ve finally solved our family’s curse. Like, if it’s just us, it’s not like we can get married, so it’d just be like… I don’t know. We could keep doing this and spending our family’s money, and then eventually the family line would die out without anyone else getting hurt.”
“It’s a creative solution, I’ll give you that,” Daniel said slowly. It made him sick how badly he wanted that future, even for just a moment, but he knew Alex. Someone was going to love him. He was going to love them back. But it felt too big to tackle in their bed that night—he’d need to eventually, had to make sure Alex didn’t make the same mistakes everyone else in their family had—so all he could add was, “You think we can get Emilie to take a vow of celibacy?”
“Okay, mostly die out with us. Also, gross. I don’t want to think about Emilie— no. Gross.”
“Oh, she’s gross? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but—”
Alex clamped a hand over Daniel’s mouth. Beneath the exhaustion, he could see the determination as Alex said, “Yes. She’s gross. We’re perfect.”
“How did we even come up with this shit, anyway? Did we just start skipping over the part of the story where Mr. Le Bail handed over an instruction manual for this ongoing long-distance relationship?” Daniel asked. He was in spectacular form. His fingers felt numb on the cloak ties; they felt too soft.
“You’d think the guy who just got into Yale would be a little more grateful,” Emilie sing-songed, tucking her hair beneath her hood and sounding horrifically like their mother, and the absolute absurdity of the image rolled his stomach even as it bubbles up in his throat as a squawk.
“What’s that say about you not being able to get off academic probation, then, Emilie—”
“Kids,” Mom snapped, and it was worse looking at her—the dark sweeps of the robe looked right, as natural as the sharpness in her gaze. Daniel’s jaw ground closed.
Rain beat down heavy against the roof of the barn, which was a shitty, hackneyed way for the longest day of the year to pass over them.
The chants were easy, inscribed in his brain, even as the rest of it fumbled with the same shit that’d been tearing him up his whole life: seriously, how did they come up with this shit? How have they kept it going for so long? How is this his life?
His hands were even less equipped to handle the weight of the knife. It was this big ceremonial thing, all iron and obsidian, the edge wickedly sharp even in the dull moonlight. Worst of all, he could feel it, not just as a myth or Alex telling stories, but as a hot thirst pulling at his hand. It wanted—it’d take any one of them.
“Daniel,” his father said, voice stern, and Daniel jerked his gaze up. Fuck, goats had such weird, beady eyes, but it smelled, too, sides expanding and contrasting, head twitching head up and down. He’d taken a field trip to a farm once in elementary school. It’d been gross and smelly, then, too, but the farmer had been nice, and they’d made a whole vat of ice cream before going home, and Daniel remembered, briefly, feeling like part of a chain of care.
“The window is closing!”
“Shut up, Aunt Helene,” Daniel said. He could feel his own heartbeat in his ears. This wasn’t right. What gives them the right to do this? Do they need a plentiful harvest in next quarter’s stocks that badly? Fuck. Fuck.
He dropped the knife. His family scrambled around it, something about breaking wards or whatever, but Daniel couldn’t think about it. The noise felt distant as he walked out of the wash house—all except the bleating of the goat.
The storm broke, and Alex returned to their bedroom not long after. He went straight to the en suite, and even with Daniel’s back to the door, he can imagine how he looked as the water started running; same as he’d seen his father, his mother, his aunts and uncles and cousins, and now his baby brother, too, because he was too chicken shit to pay his dues.
Daniel couldn’t just let it lie. He rose, knocked on the door twice before opening it. Alex had already stripped off the top layer of his clothes; he barely glanced up from the sink.
“Did you do it?”
“Of course I fucking did it,” Alex said, the water circling the drain barely stained pink as he scrubbed hard at his cuticles.
“Why?” Daniel felt himself ask, even though he knew the answer.
“Because someone needs to,” Alex snapped.
Guilt choked in Daniel’s throat. Even after walking out, Daniel felt a pressure he hadn’t even noticed building ease from the back of his mind. He’d seen enough to know it was true—in their family, there were things that had to be done. He could whine and run from his responsibilities all he wanted, but they would still be there. All it meant was that someone else was going to have to pick up the pieces. That Alex would have to.
“Alex,” Daniel said, even though there was nothing to say. I’m sorry? He wanted to drown himself out until there was nothing left to say, until he couldn’t feel the rushing in his ears.
He dropped to his knees, then followed when Alex took a half-step back.
“Uh, are you—”
“I need to do something. Please just let me—”
“You don’t have to, like, beg, I just… are you alright?”
No, he didn’t say, not right then, none of us are. But this—this they could do. Alex was sixteen and always wanted it, and Daniel needed to not think for at least a few minutes, to be grounded in flesh-and-blood, reminded of the raw good that could be dug out even on nights like that.
Alex’s stomach was hot under Daniel’s hand, and while Daniel didn’t think much of the off-season training Alex was so dedicated to, its effect could be felt in the firmness there, even as it trembled under Daniel’s touch. Daniel felt like he could shake apart, too.
He was already most of the way hard as Daniel worked off his slacks and briefs, and Daniel wanted him so bad his mouth hurt in the moment before he took Alex in. He tasted like skin and salt, but even more importantly Daniel heard his desperate inhale, felt Alex’s fingers twist in his hair, just short of pushing him on. It wasn’t the first time they went this fair—none of this was a first for either of then, as fumbling as Alex was at admitting there’d been a girl, kind of, at school, no, Daniel didn’t know her—but Alex was still always so eager for it, ravenous. And Daniel liked it—liked feeling needed, like he could actively do something for Alex.
Frenetic energy raced through Daniel, desperate to be burned, and it felt inevitable when he finally pulled off to blurt, “Do you want to fuck me?”
“Oh my god,” Alex said as his dick jerked hard, hands squeezing any part of Daniel he could reach.
“If you don’t want to—”
“That is not the problem,” Alex said, his gaze almost steaming, and Daniel stumbled up to his feet. Alex clung back as he brought their mouths together once more, clumsy and desperate and overwhelmed, like a tangled closed circuit. Of every fucked up thing in their lives, this was what Daniel needed, and some part of him still couldn’t believe that Alex gave it to him so readily. Daniel knew he’d do anything to replay him.
The bedroom door creaked open. They looked at each other, wide-eyed, before scrambling to put themselves back together before the outside world penetrated the bubble they always felt around themselves.
“Daniel, Mom said— what the hell were you doing?”
A mortifying fifteen minutes passed, until it was just him and his shame and his parents, drowning in silence before his father took it upon himself to dispense his endless knowledge.
“Alex is—young. Impressionable. It’s your job in life to take care of him. Demonstrate how to be a man. Life isn’t always about doing what makes you happy. Our family is one with deeply held values. It’s bad enough watching you throw away your life, but dragging your brother along with you… you need to start seriously considering the effects of your actions.”
Daniel ran a hand down his numb face, eyes still locked on the generations of incrimination hanging on their den wall. “Which part of the night are we talking about, again?”
“Don’t be obnoxious, Daniel,” Mom responded.
⇉ ⇉ ⇉
Two images keep flickering back and forth in Daniel’s mind.
The first: The side of William Hoffman’s face misshapen, his eyes staring blankly as blood flowed down his neck and onto the ground beneath him.
The second: The look on his brother’s face, like a prideful heat cracking through stone, and how familiar it is to him.
Seeing Alex standing over William had been like watching a small explosion, expanding quickly and burning up all the oxygen surrounding them. There was nothing to say. They just moved.
Daniel knows there are people who could take care of this from them. Hell, most of the time, it was him burning through the familial contingency plans. The summer house isn’t too far of a drive, and there are places there where no one will ever look. The pit.
But this isn’t getting a little too fucked up in public. This isn’t even a sacrifice, as thin of an excuse as that is on a normal day. Alex murdered a guy, and now he’s sitting in the passenger seat of Daniel’s SUV like he’d just been picked up from detention, quiet but with no real guilt, no fear.
Maybe Alex is right to be calm. Everything always works out for the Le Domas family; everything always comes at a price.
“What the fuck were you thinking?” Daniel blurts out, because he can’t help himself, every time he’s faced with the reality of what is family is—even Alex, even himself.
“He threatened us. He threatened you.” The honesty in his voice, the fierce protectiveness, is enough to make Daniel’s heart throb. It shouldn’t. None of this should be like this. Daniel’s been a horrible big brother, distracted, selfish. He’d known that there was something in Alex, something that needed to be contained, but instead he got compliant, almost content as he settled in. Fuck, does he even know what has been going on with Alex? When is the last time he couldn’t get through a charity ball without topping off in the bathroom?
You fucking idiot, Daniel told himself. Selfish. Oblivious. Sloppy.
“Jesus, Alex, he didn’t—even if he did get something past their editors,which he couldn’t have, no one reads the Gazette. No one would believe it. No one would care. It was just a stupid jab because he didn’t like me in high school. And then you killed him for it,” Daniel says. “You didn’t have to do this, alright? You shouldn’t have. Like, fuck, I know our family is fucked up, but have you seriously made it this far in life without telling you not to murder people for no reason?”
“It wasn’t about the family—”
“Don’t,” Daniel interrupts. “Just. Don’t. That is not going to make me feel better.”
There’s a cliff forty-five minutes north of the city. Whenever William washes back up, he’ll be the third death of the year. If anyone knows where he was earlier in the evening, it’ll be forgotten or otherwise deemed irrelevant.
Alex can tell something is off. He’s overly helpful rolling poor Bile into his final resting place, then offers to clean out the trunk of Daniel’s car, buy him a whole new one, even, clings once they’re back at the apartment and Daniel strips off his bloodied clothes, and Daniel lets him press close and kiss so carefully at the corner of Daniel’s mouth, an apology that’s worked a thousand times before, before Daniel says, “You have to leave.”
It burns as Alex jerks away and asks, “What?” The betrayal, the disbelief is plain on Alex’s face, but Daniel knows now, for sure, that they can’t keep playing this game. That this little cheat that they’ve been playing at isn’t going to change their DNA or their souls or whatever the hell it is that tethers them all together.
“You have to go. To a different fucking continent if you can.”
“I can’t just leave, what the fuck are you talking about?”
“You can. You really, really should.”
“Well, I’m not leaving without you.”
Daniel has to laugh at that, a deep, wet noise. “We both know I’m in too deep. Called on too many favors. But, you, Alex, it’s not too late, you could really be someone, someone decent.”
“Oh, fuck you, if you’re so fucking low where do you get off lecturing me—” but he must know Daniel’s right, knows it as they screw furiously in the living room and the kitchen and even in the bedroom, briefly, the sun rising on them still awake and raw, before Alex gets in a car and drives. Daniel doesn’t even let himself know which direction he turns out.
That first fall, Mom and Dad are quietly, constantly frantic, and every time they’re all in a room together, Daniel can feel the resentment radiating off of everyone. Mom corners him once, long enough after Fair Game had reorganized its leadership board and left Daniel with far, far too much free time to waste away that she must have felt he was sufficiently punished.
“Where is he?” she asks, carrying herself with the same certainty that always resolved problems for her.
“I don’t know,” he responds honestly. It had taken a while for Alex not to text him about every new city he sets foot in, but the messages do eventually fade away, and every time Daniel misses him so bad he almost calls the most recent number, he tells himself that they did this for a reason, that Alex must have found something good, if he was actually staying away, and when that doesn’t work, there’s always whiskey to get him through the night.
She looked at him for a long moment, but must have seen that he meant it. “How could you do this to us, Daniel? Families are strongest together, how have you not learned this lesson yet?”
“I don’t know, Mom. Because I love him enough to let him go.”
“He’ll be back,” she says, certain.
“Maybe,” Daniel replies, but as much as he hopes for anything, he hopes that she’s wrong, that Alex had listened and is getting farther away by the minute, and for the first time in his life, Daniel feels like he’s done the right thing.
Then, Alex meets a girl.