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But Loving Him Is Red

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His father ceases most all communication.

Ever since their talk at the construction site his interactions with his father were reduced to business only; punishment at his father’s hand came slow and exacting, felt acutely through his absence and general indifference. He hadn’t been on the receiving end of it for many years and it proved a stark reminder of how much has changed.

A little under seven months ago, he never would have dreamed of defying his father.

“You’re late,” his father gripes the moment he joins him in his office.

His shoulders tense under the accusation, and the barely healed skin over his knuckles scrapes against the inside of his gloves. When Rachel asked about his wounds he placed the blame on his father, but that’s not an option now.

“I overslept.”

The lone wolf, having learned a trick or two from his unlikely companion, has learned the ease of a lie.

His father eyes him suspiciously, but brief enough to assuage concern.

They’re the only words they exchange before he blends back into the shadows at his father’s back, unseen but vigilant, clocking all the exits, counting down the days, hours, minutes until he can see Sebastian again.

 

.

 

“You don’t think there’s violence in me?”

He lifts his head off Sebastian’s chest, watches how the sunlight streams in through the window and catches in his lashes, motes dancing across his silhouette. His muscles are pleasantly sore, and he’s naked but for the sheet covering the lower part of his body, Sebastian’s mostly covered by his.

The scabs over his knuckles prompted the question, along with Sebastian’s reverie of them; he’d kissed them all gently like he had that fateful day, as if the kisses themselves could absolve him of the crime.

He never denied the violence that animated his bones, sunk so deep into his every pore that some days it was all he could see, feel, taste and smell, and his ears would ring with a high-pitched hum before the worst of it disappeared.

He never used to question that.

A little under seven months ago, he never questioned much of anything.

“I’m the one who put a gun to your head for Hunter.”

Sebastian props an arm beneath his head, catching his eyes. Would he have done it, he often wondered, had he not gotten the upper hand? Would Sebastian have killed him?

“There’s violence in all of us.”

Maybe that’s true. Maybe every man, woman and child could be pushed to the point of committing unspeakable acts and it’s futile to think he of all people could ever escape it, should he ever want to. There is violence in him, Sebastian didn’t deny that, couldn’t deny that knowing he killed Hunter in cold blood — what would that carefree ten-year-old think of him? Would he understand what he had to become in the face of his trauma? Or would he rear back in abject horror?

He sits up, sensing the cold weighted shiver of a nightmare at the back of his neck.

“It’s just easier for me, I guess.”

“Easy?”

Sebastian pushes his hand flat against the small of his back. Where the gun used to be now there’s a gentle touch, a reassuring caress, forgiveness and understanding and all that entailed. He’s never been anyone’s this completely.

“Blaine, I saw what you did.”

Hit after hit, after hit. Blood spatter everywhere.

“I saw how it affected you.”

A man whimpering and sniveling on the floor.

“I don’t know what to tell you, killer.”

His eyes close, that word finally finding its proper significance, landing precisely where his shame and apprehension used to be.

He is a killer, for better or worse, because he’s his father’s son.

“But that wasn’t easy.”

 

.

 

Quiet still gripped the house tight despite his nephew’s cries of joy, Rachel’s violin practice, her rendezvous with Jesse, or his mother playing the piano — at night his mother still cried, and Rachel didn’t sing, and his nephew asked about his dad, and his sister-in-law saw a therapist twice a week.

His brother’s ghost haunted their waking hours, his absence felt like an open wound, but where he once turned from it he confronts it now — he killed his brother’s killer, spilled blood for blood, an eye for an eye and that made all the difference. He’s lighter, no longer burdened by unanswered questions.

“How was work?” his mother asks as he enters the house, her singsong voice lulling him into the comfort of a home he too often dissociates from. It’s not the house that makes it a home, rather the people in it, but even they often challenged his grip on his sanity.

His mother wore a red sweater, painful to his eyes.

“Fine.” He shrugs, unable to hide his malcontent, “Dad’ll be home in an hour,” and crosses the foyer to the stairs, making his way up to the first floor.

Work, she asked, like he worked any other day job. She used to ask Cooper the same thing, and he’d launch into an animated retelling of his day, down to its minute detail. For his mother’s sake, Cooper went the extra mile. She asked as a way of connecting with them, be a part of their lives when their father’s world consumed those lives. Literally in Cooper’s case.

He’s never been quite as good at pretending. What was he supposed to say? Great, mom, no one tried to kill dad today. He said two whole sentences to me. His days all looked the same, caught in the identical monotony that gave his life routine, gave it structure, made it a whole lot easier to swallow.

Upstairs in his bedroom he strips the gun from around his ankle, placing it inside the safe hidden in his wardrobe. He pulls the other free from the small of his back.

Slips it under his pillow. His home here wasn’t comparable with the one he built with Sebastian, not of his own making, four inescapable walls that frightened him more each day. These walls had ears, they had eyes, and he’s never been good at pretending.

Behind him the door opens, and Rachel slips inside, closing it again behind her.

She backs into the door, looking at him.

“Rachel?”

Her eyes betrayed a foreboding calm, a contained kind of rage that could explode any moment — he recognizes it all too well, he’s felt that rage more times than he could count. But what could instill such rage in his sister?

“What’s wrong?”

Without speaking Rachel moves, she stomps over to him with her hands balled into fists and, once she’s in range, slaps him hard across the face.

Shocked, he rears back a step, bringing a hand up to his face. “What–?”

“I saw you,” Rachel says with gritted teeth, her dark eyes growing darker still.

Saw him? Saw him where?

“At the house.” Rachel shakes where she stands, and shouts, “I saw you with that monster!”

No.

How?

“Rachel–” he whispers, eyes shifting between Rachel and the door while she continues to scream, the where and how not the most important things on his mind right now. Someone will hear if she keeps raising her voice; their mom, one of the servants, their father — Rachel’s wrath could tear it all down with a few choice words.

“How could you do this?!”

He grabs around her shoulders and forces her back in a mad panic.

“He killed Cooper! He killed our brother!”

“Rachel– be quiet,” he hisses, manhandling her up against a wall.

“How could you betray us like that?! How–”

One of his hands closes over Rachel’s mouth, but it doesn’t stop her screaming.

“I killed the man who shot Coop”—he trembles unevenly with fear and self-loathing—“Sebastian brought him to me.”

But Rachel’s eyes show no hint of surrender, and next she pulls at his hair so hard she nearly unroots a whole clump of it, biting his hand in the process, and starts pummeling him all over with her small fists.

He pulls back as if stung.

“How can you believe a word that comes out of his mouth!” she screams, and continues her forward assault, landing blow after blow.

“Goddamn it, Rachel, I love him!”

Rachel freezes on the spot, a fist raised in the air that would’ve hit him square in the jaw. Her arm lowers, her wide eyes focused so tightly on his face he’s convinced she must’ve seen it all along. The newfound calm in him. The uptick in his mood. If his mother saw surely Rachel—

“I love–” he breathes out, losing momentum as that certainty sinks into his bones. It’s the first time he says it in any sort of way, in his head or out loud; they’re the same words that once died on Sebastian’s lips, that first day at the house under a retreating storm.

Is it so hard for you to believe that I might

Love you.

“You’re in love with a Smythe?”

Disgust spins around the black of his twin sister’s eyes, too recognizable still, still too stark a reminder of what they learned at a young age. How old were they when they first heard the names Smythe? Jiulia? Silvestri?

His teeth grind together. “No.”

Not a Smythe, not anything so reductive. Their names don’t matter and why should they? Nothing good ever came from being an Anderson or a Smythe. He’s a killer because of it and Sebastian’s caught between loyalty to his brother and his father. Hitmen came for them when they were ten years old simply because their last names were Anderson.

“I’m in love with Sebastian,” he says, stands fast and strong because he’s never felt this truth so loud, so true, and maybe Rachel sees it, his months of lies, the weight of his secret, but how that secret’s been his salvation.

Her arms fall to her sides, and a tense silence settles between them.

He’s begged a lot of her but never this, to adjust her entire worldview to account for his trespasses, to show kindness to a man– a boy she learned to hate on principle.

If she doesn’t, if she can’t, it’ll all burn. It’ll all be over.

There’ll be no more exits.

“You killed the man who shot Coop?”

He can’t remember if Rachel ever used that word before, called it by its proper name, murder, death, revenge, but it soothes him, thinking Rachel would’ve made the same choice.

“With– with my bare hands,” he stutters, and falls to his knees once the weight of it hits him. Sebastian brought him a man to kill and watched. His father never did, never acknowledged what he asked of his own son so he knew jack shit of what it did to him.

Sebastian left him the choice.

Decided to carry it with him.

Rachel sinks to her knees in front of him.

“How could you do this, little brother?” she asks, and he’s confounded by how close it sounds to little killer, how every line, every boundary, every rule that comprised his life has started dissipating, all amalgamating into this potential of a boy he never got to be. “If anyone finds out–”

“I’m a dead man.”

Like that night in the cornfield so many years ago, Rachel cries in his arms, holding on for dear life, hoping that once they emerge not all color has drained from the world.

 

.

 

From his old bedroom window he can see Sebastian’s car approaching the house, making a sharp left turn into the driveway. Even on the first floor he can hear the crack of the gravel beneath the Mercedes’ tires, the slam of a car door closing, the hinges of the garage doors giving a short squeak before silence returns.

Rachel’s hand still burns hot on his cheek and he hopes it never lessens, stays there as a reminder to be more careful, be more watchful, and not fall into the trappings foolish lovers so often did. There were stories about the how and why of their families’ divide, of differing business interests and a grab for territory but in truth it was betrayal, infidelity, and perhaps love; no one could be sure — his great-uncle Walter plummeted to his death days after discovery of the affair, and Celia Smythe died alone in a sanatorium.

His father’s cruelty might well send him to one too one day.

He tries to draw in a breath but he’s been winded since his confession to Rachel, like he’s the one who’s been running all this time, from his past, from his feelings, perhaps, even to this day, from Sebastian as well. It’s an untenable thing, an Anderson and a Smythe together.

The floorboards outside the door creak.

Slowly, one finger at a time, he releases the gun tucked beneath a fold in the white sheet that’d covered the bed not too long ago.

“Hey, you,” comes Sebastian’s soft call, as if they’re any two boys with normal lives who’ve started an affair, as if they’re boyfriends with the option to leave this all behind and drive off into the sunset.

That’s never what life had in store for either of them.

“Blaine?”

What if he kept it to himself? What if they simply kept going, and Sebastian never knew how close they’d come to being destroyed? Was that fair? Did fairness matter in a world where killing a man came as natural to him as surrendering to one?

He turns and he’s weakness personified, defenseless, wide open for attack — a strong man wouldn’t have turned around and let, “Rachel knows,” slip the moment he caught sight of his lover, the same man he evoked all this danger for. Now, disarmed, he thinks it hasn’t been enough, whatever time allotted them, it’s not enough. He wants more, all, and greed isn’t yet a sin he has committed.

“What do you mean?”

A stronger man, one less caught in the clutches of trauma, might’ve seen the color drain from Sebastian’s face, his skin grown a hint paler, and noticed him skid a graceless step back.

“She saw us,” he says, and crosses to Sebastian’s side with a desperation that put his resolve to shame, but starts greed pulsing thickly through his veins; this doesn’t have to change anything, Rachel won’t be the one to destroy them.

Digging his fingers in tight around his waist, he searches Sebastian’s eyes for the shape of that same greed, hoping to see it reflected so his might be counted as rational, rather than delusional. It’s all been a dream, a fated delusion, to think he could have it all with the world at his feet.

Sebastian looks through him, his gaze distant, elsewhere, in a dream of his own.

“Say something.”

He nearly chokes on his tongue, fingers wringing into Sebastian’s shirt so tight it could tear it to pieces. Why did it have to be this house? Why did he choose to come here? They could’ve gone anywhere, been anonymous, nameless, faceless, without running the risk of Rachel finding them here.

He knew why. His spirit lived inside these walls, then, now, imbued with a promise once made him, a promise he made himself, and every day here has been safe and carefree and—

“I need to think about this,” Sebastian says.

His hands freeze. “What do you mean?”

Sebastian grabs around his wrists. “This changes things, Blaine.”

He trips a step back, straight into the pool of blood that sank in the pine floorboards over a decade ago, and he’s reminded, however fleetingly, that foxes are untrustworthy creatures, quicksilver fast and elusive, and running is what Sebastian does best.

“Don’t do that.”

Sebastian closes in on him, reading the lightning fast pattern of his thoughts, the doubt that’s slid itself beneath the surface of his skin like a needle, like a fine hair trigger razorblade, like a—

“Don’t make this into something our fathers would.”

—like the metallic muzzle of a gun pressed up against the back of his head.

“If you honestly think you’re some dirty little secret I come back to for sport, you’re wrong, Blaine, but this–”

Sebastian’s doubt joins his beneath his epidermis, despite the taller cupping his face, scratching reassuring patterns at the base of his skull. Green eyes search his face for that doubt, for some affirmation amongst all the certainties surrounding them.

“If Rachel knows–”

How long before the world does? How long before their fathers do? How long before this has to end, forever?

“She won’t say anything.”

“You’re sure?”

“I trust her with my life.”

And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s trusting her with both their lives. He trusts Rachel not to say anything to their father, not to talk to Jesse or their mother, not to let her own trauma of that night and losing Cooper become such a weight that it’ll break her. He’s trusting his sister to be stronger than him. Like she always has been.

“I need to think about this,” Sebastian repeats, like he hasn’t heard a thing, like his words held no sway at all, and takes another few steps back.

His teeth grit together. “I’m not Adam.”

He regrets it the moment it’s past his lips, because when Sebastian looks at him he can tell he resents the mere implication — he’s no more just a boy than Sebastian has been to him; he’s an enemy, a fellow inmate, a lover. He’s been Sebastian’s and his alone, but how can it be that now the danger’s caught up to them, Sebastian’s running scared? Now, after all they’ve done.

“No”—Sebastian sighs, hands at his hips—“You’re something–”

Eyebrows pinching together, Sebastian draws a hand down his face, omitting once again whatever lies in his heart for him.

“I need some time,” Sebastian whispers, knowing all too well the words stood up all his defenses, chelating all the mercury in his blood to a single organ so he can finally expel it.

His hands tighten into fists.

Danger made flesh looked an awful lot like complacency to him.

Sebastian doesn’t beg a goodbye kiss or comforting parting words. Instead he turns and heads for the door, the exit he thought closed to them both. Will he ever see Sebastian again? Would he turn around if he called out? Does Sebastian expect him to?

“I won’t fight for you,” he calls, fingernails digging into his palms drawing blood. How dare he? How could he come crawling back begging for a promise, a pact, a handshake, only to throw it all away the moment it stopped being their secret alone.

Sebastian halts in the doorway, and, without turning, says, “I never asked you to,” before pushing through the fly door screen.

I’m a runner, Blaine, Sebastian once told him, and all of a sudden danger made flesh looked an awful lot like normalcy.

Sebastian, the runner.

Ever the fox, sly silver-tongued and cunning.

Ever untrustworthy.

 

.

 

Sebastian doesn’t call for days.

All his texts remain unanswered and he’s afraid that if he calls he’ll either get Sebastian’s voicemail, or someone else might answer. How much time did Sebastian need to figure out what he wanted? Hadn’t they both done that already and taken a chance on each other, even if it meant self-annihilating? Why couldn’t Sebastian trust him when he said Rachel would never tell a soul about them?

Instead, Sebastian did what he did best. Sebastian ran like he’d run from Adam, and he has no idea why he thought he’d be different.

But that’s a lie if ever he heard any. Of course he was different. They were different. How could they not be with their last names being Smythe and Anderson?

What’s worse is he understands why Sebastian felt the need to take time. The foundation of their house of cards started wavering the moment Rachel found out about them and will continue — if Rachel saw them who else could have? If she figured it out how long before others did too?

What if it’s already too late?

Every text Sebastian leaves unanswered makes him more fearful for him, for them, and that worry spins into his bones, restless heart and uncoordinated limbs.

“You should sleep,” comes Rachel’s voice, tiptoed into his bedroom deep in the night, only to find him standing fully dressed in front of the window. Seeing nothing through the moonless night.

“I can’t.”

He tried and failed to find sleep, respite from worrisome thought. What he wouldn’t give to have it all stand still, if but for a moment, so he might catch a breath. Whatever oxygen his lungs yet possessed Sebastian took with him and he’s been running on fumes since.

Bedroom door closed, Rachel walks over, her footsteps silent, gentle.

“Did you sleep at the house?” she shoots, straight through his heart, where the bullet lodges itself besides its twin caliber. He deserves to have his sanity questioned, especially by Rachel. Did he let his guard down around Sebastian, a Smythe? Did his touch allow that?

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Rachel amends, voice softened at the sight of his distress, and draws a hand down his back.

It’s a mystery why he thinks himself Rachel’s protector, when it’s clear she’s protected him his entire life with her kind words, coming always at the right moment. Even now, after all the lies he told, everything he kept from her, she shows him kindness.

Which is why he spills the only truth thus far left unspoken.

“I died in that cornfield, Rachel.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true,” he huffs, trying to hold back the onslaught of tears the confession begets. Unlike Sebastian, he never ran, he let the trauma take and own him, wrap him up in a secure blanket of blood and bullets. In so many ways he’s been killing that man in the cornfield over and over. Killing himself, to some extent, and every day since his heart has cemented around that, around the bullet chambered in his heart.

He thought he’d live and die with it, but now, in the wake of his desire set free, at the hands of an enemy no less, not much of it remained.

“With Sebastian– I’m not that boy. I’m who I want to be. I’m–”

He’s not his father’s son. However ironic that may seem.

“You are in love,” Rachel says, surprise in her voice, as if she didn’t believe him before, had thought him young and foolish and naive and maybe he’s been all those things, maybe he’s still all those things.

But his world no longer holds any color, without Sebastian.

 

.

 

“Hey, Blaine.”

Tina and Mike exit his father’s office side by side, their weekly meeting finished much later than usual. Half an hour and his father kept him waiting all that time, muffled voices playing behind the hardwood door, laughter and clinking glasses.

Mike and Tina must’ve brokered another profitable deal.

“Blaine,” his father calls, beckoning him inside.

The office, a penthouse suite complete with adjoining kitchen, bedroom, and en suite, overlooked the east of the city through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. That’s where he finds his father, raised high above the city, his kingdom, looking down on it with a pride he could scarce imagine. There are streets and buildings like there are so many, north, east, south, and west, and he fails to see the value in a life lived fighting and scheming to keep what’s theirs.

Then again, what was his life as a killer, if not freely at the disposal of the schemers?

Free. What a joke.

He looks around at the four walls enclosing him, all the world at his feet, and all he can think about is how he left things with Sebastian in the far corner of the world. What if he decides he’s not worth loving after all? What if they never see each other again?

No, he’d resolved this. If Sebastian won’t fight for them he sure as hell wouldn’t either.

“I have a job for you,” his father says, as expected, and walks over to the bar behind him to pour himself a glass of whiskey.

He patiently waits for his instructions as he hears the liquid pour. Usually there’d be a folder on his father’s desk, containing a photograph and an address, the few referential cues he needs to get started, but there’s no such file waiting for him this time.

Which meant his father wanted nothing connecting them to this. Nothing on paper. No money trail. Just his father’s will to guide his hands.

“Sebastian Smythe.”

The name sinks bricks to his stomach, his knees quivering, an acidic burn at the back of his throat.

He swallows hard, “What about him?” his voice as steady as he’s able to keep it, aware of his father advancing from behind. Could he know? Could someone have told him? Would he still be standing if he did?

“I have it on good authority Vincent isn’t long for this world.”

Spies, he thinks. His father’s spies are everywhere.

“I would see to it it’s Alexander that takes over the business.”

Death, then, he thinks, for the chosen Smythe heir, for Sebastian Smythe, a name he knew too well, better than his own; it tasted bitter at first, cheap cigarettes and bourbon, like mercury, wild and elusive, like a danger and temptation personified. It felt safe, that name, in the spaces he’d made for it– the red in the corner of his eyes, the bruises over his ribs, the bite marks in his shoulders.

His father would have him kill Sebastian?

With fearful eyes, sputtering, “Dad, I can’t,” far too candidly, he turns to his father.

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“You made a deal with Vincent.” His brow furrows. “You shook his hand.”

Did he not remember the bloodshed? the terror in his mother’s eyes whenever either of them left the house? Months of blood and guts and bullets, all culminating in his brother’s death –his father’s only wake-up call– and over what? Territory? Illegal smuggling?

No one knew.

So what could his father possibly know?

He and Vincent may not have liked it but the ceasefire was necessary; business suffered while their war raged on, people were afraid to leave their homes for fear of getting caught in the crossfire, and even their most loyal soldiers spoke of mutiny. Lives were lost to the futility of violence, the whims of kings with far too much power at their disposal.

What was this, then? Pride? Or a matter of taking from Vincent what he’d already lost. A son.

“You do as you’re told, you hear me?”

His father’s index finger rises pointedly in warning, and digs into his chest.

“I want this boy dead.”

The air grows thinner between them, and he remains standing solely to keep up appearances — the finger at his chest might as well be a gun, might as well be the cold hard reality of what he can’t have.

Not a man. Not an enemy.

But a boy.

If only Sebastian were just a boy.

He never witnessed his father’s wrath firsthand, too young when he stomped out all but one of the Silvestri clan, but if he believed the stories, and he had no reason not to, his father turned Satan incarnate after his grandparents’ deaths; every Silvestri he could get his hands on tortured and killed, their patriarch forced to bear witness to his children’s cold blooded murders.

Had he planned all along to do the same to the Smythes, starting with Sebastian?

Would he risk another war, more bodies, more death, for Cooper?

“Dad, Coop–”

Black beady eyes find his between two beats of his heart, and he does wonder if his father would do the same for him, the son he couldn’t fix, if he ever felt guilty, if he shouldered a single ounce of the darkness he carried.

“Coop died, but–”

It happens so fast he can’t defend against it. His father’s hand strikes out and hits him so hard he tastes blood, red and thick like silted copper knitting between his molars.

“And you’re screwing the man who killed him.”

The words nearly bring him to his knees.

Nearly.

Instead he staggers a step back and spits blood all over the floor, his cheek and jaw throbbing, tears pricking his eyes. Did Rachel betray him? Had anyone seen him with Sebastian?

What does his father know?

It’s been months and they’ve taken such care; burner phones, changing locations, never stuck in one place for too long. Had they grown careless these past two weeks? Had they stepped too far past the borders of their world for them to notice the danger chasing behind?

He looks at his father, at the great man on the throne of this empire, this great king of the East, and thinks of that boy in the mirror, his spitting image. All he ever wanted was to make him proud, be of use after trauma unmade him. He became that loaded gun fitted at his back, holstered around his ankle, a weapon in the form of an Anderson with his father’s command at the trigger. He’d done everything ever asked of him.

But this.

When he speaks it’s with shoulders hunched beneath the weight of it all — his father asks too much of the son he’s already asked for everything, wants retribution carried out by his hands rather than his own.

“I killed the man who killed Coop,” he says, futilely.

His father’s eyes narrow. “What?”

“I k-killed him.” He swallows hard, his mouth dry, filled with soot. “Coop’s killer.”

Chin dipping to his chest, his father sighs. “How long?”

Blaine frowns.

“How long have you and that–” His father’s dark eyes turn to stone. “How long, Blaine?”

A breath shudders through him, and before long he’s coughing it up, dusty charcoal soot, the lining of his lungs coming out every exhale. His father doesn’t care. They’re all the same to him, every Smythe, even Marley, down to the last henchmen. He would never convince his father the way he had Rachel, how he loved Sebastian, how it all mattered with him, so why bother?

A tear runs down his cheek. Drips down his chin. Drops to the floor.

“You will do this,” his father sounds much calmer, much quieter, far more self-assured than a short moment ago.

It’s the most violence he’s ever seen in his father.

“For your brother.”

His father comes forward a step, yet the distance between them fails to shrink. He doubts it ever will again.

“For your sister,” his father adds, the threat latent in those final words terrifyingly similar to words once spoken by Vincent Smythe. Wouldn’t want you to lose another sibling. It’s a warning. A threat. A reminder that there’s only one thing in this world one can truly count on. Family.

It’s what his father counts on now, that he’s too scared to disobey any more than he already has, that he will bend to his will like he has every other time. It’s easy. It’s simple. Command. Comply.

They always knew it couldn’t last.

 

.

 

That night, sitting on his bedroom floor, he field-strips his Smith & Wesson.

It requires the least amount of thought but all his concentration, so none of it can go to his bruised jaw, the muscles high strung along his shoulders, or fingers tense with the inevitable choice he’ll have to make.

Family. Or Sebastian.

Tears fill his eyes as he releases the magazine, removes it, empties it and sets it aside, works the slide with his finger off the trigger, one, two, three times.

Violin music drifts up from the downstairs living room, Rachel practicing the swan song she’s been attempting to perfect for weeks. His eyes close and a tear runs down his cheek, the adagio starting a fluttering rhythm in his chest, out of sync with his breathing — the din of death waiting to collect, perched on his shoulder like an old friend.

How can he–?

He sniffles, clears his throat. Refocuses. Slides back the ambidextrous slide lock to inspect the chamber. Clear of ammunition.

—kill Sebastian to have his sins forgiven, slate wiped clean, so he could what? Lead? Slot right back into the contour carved out for him, without question, without doubt? With blind obedience to his father’s wishes?

Vision blurred with tears he pulls the trigger to release the slide and take it off the frame, muscle memory guiding his hands. He licks over his split lip as the music erupts into battaglia, and he removes the guide rod and recoil spring — the sting of it doesn’t hurt, his weakness retreated to his heart alone, where it simmers and festers.

If he—

Barrel pulled free he hurls it clear across the room, where it leaves a sizable scratch in the plaster of the wall. Not unlike the permanent marks Sebastian left behind.

He chokes back a violent sob, one hand shooting up over his mouth, the other over his heart, and he doubles over ravaged by his traitorous thoughts. What has he let these men do to him? How has he given them– him this power? Why has he never questioned his father’s dominance over him before?

He cries into the palm of his hand, breathing harshly, the noise of his sorrow muffled into his calloused skin. How can his father ask this of him, his own son, his own flesh-and-blood? Cooper died in a meaningless war neither side knew the flashpoint of, Sebastian’s friend Hunter paid with his life over something as insignificant as territory, yet his father would have him kill a man he– he–

Blaine screams, cries his eyes red and his voice hoarse, his chest concaved around a raw truth he’s tried to run from lying in Sebastian’s arms, kissing Sebastian’s lips.

There’s no happiness for a man like him.

Shackled to the East by a name, by trauma, by family loyalty; he wishes it all meant jackshit.

The violin duet downstairs draws to a coda, the music dies out and he holds his breath, pushes it all down as hard as he can, the past seven months of flesh and spit and come, the past two weeks of scar tissue explored, exposed, excised, the coming weeks and months once filled with promise now a bitter nightmare.

No matter what he decides to do, he’ll end up sacrificing something. Someone.

He hits the floor with a closed fist, the pain that reverberates from his knuckles to his wrist bringing back some of his senses. Not his sight, he’ll never see clearly again, not red, not green, not the black of his own clothing.

Something, someone, has to give.

And that would never be his father.

Knees drawn to his chest, fingers twisted tight in his curls, he dials Sebastian’s number.

It takes nine whole rings before Sebastian answers.

“You shouldn’t call me,” is the first thing past Sebastian’s lips, and, “I need you,” the first past his, trying his best to keep his voice even, devoid of emotion, as if he hasn’t sat here polishing his gun all night in an attempt to postpone this conversation, trying to think of an out that leaves them both alive. He could make an attempt on Sebastian’s life that would force him back to his side of the Corridor, and he could lay low long enough for everyone to forget; they could go back to clandestine meetings in the dead of night.

No.

Who wouldn’t see straight through that?

They could part ways, accept their fate. Become enemies once again.

No.

His father’s orders were clear. Family, or Sebastian.

“What’s wrong?”

He stares down at his gun, disassembled into its smallest pieces, by a killer that came in the night, by his father, by himself. His eyes fall shut and he takes a deep breath, holding back another cry. Last time they spoke Sebastian simply asked for time to think, to assess the danger Rachel knowing might mean for them.

But now—

“Blaine, what’s wrong?”

“Meet me?” he asks, and hates how his voice trembles, how it betrays too much yet not enough to keep Sebastian away. Run, Sebastian, he meant to say, disappear, but he can’t stand the thought of never seeing Sebastian again. Even if for one last time.

“Blaine, I–”

A voice calls Sebastian’s name in the background, Marley, if he had to guess, and it sends him over the edge.

“Please, Sebastian,” he begs, pleads, sinks down to his knees and accosts a higher power with lesser pride to see this done, see this through, see this over with once and for all. Once it’s done he’ll set him free, dissolve the bonds between them and forget they were ever there.

“It’s the last thing I’ll ever ask.”

A short silence sounds over the line, Sebastian perhaps picked up on the finality of his request, on time running out and its chilled breathing at the back of their necks.

“When did I stop being able to say no to you?”

He lets out a rueful laugh.

Must’ve been somewhere around the time they first spoke each other’s names.

 

.

 

By the time he pulls up to the house the sun has set well below the horizon, the fields bathed in black, the light of the fireplace flickering deep inside the house. He zips past, down the driveway and into the garage, which Sebastian left open for him.

Heart heavy, he reaches inside the glove compartment and takes out his gun. Reassembled once again.

He stares down at his hands, covered in black leather, guided by his father’s will. He’s too afraid to have his fingerprints on this, of the thought that Sebastian’s name could well join the other faceless souls he shoulders and his will be the one to break his back, to drive him insane. The one he can’t come back from.

In the rear-view mirror, he sees Sebastian walking onto the back porch.

How can he do this here? Here?

But if not here, then where? Back on the Corridor where their trespasses started, where their names mattered? Where his brother died? Where anything they shared proved meaningless beneath their fathers’ shadows?

Sebastian deserved better than that. Kinder than that.

It has to be here.

Just as well.

He died here once. It can’t be too hard to do it again.

Handbrake pulled, he turns off the ignition, climbing out of the car before he secures the 9mm at his back. He buttons his jacket and heads for the house, Sebastian’s silhouette a black cutout against the back-lighting — he stands, hands in his pockets, waiting for him to explain what all the urgency was about.

He could do it from here, take aim and fire, but he can’t will his hand to reach back for the gun, or his feet to stop there in the grass, the ideal vantage point. Instead he succumbs to the pull Sebastian exerts and by the time he meets Sebastian at eye-level he’s a trembling mess of fear and doubt, hoping Sebastian has better answers.

“Who did this to you?”

Sebastian touches a careful finger to his split lip, the bruises along his jaw painful and inflamed. What’s a little more pain? What’s a little more weakness?

They know,” Sebastian realizes with a whisper, his panic reflected in green eyes but for a moment.

He nods and falls forward, buries his face into Sebastian’s chest and tries to burrow deeper still, curl up inside in a tight ball and let Sebastian do with him what he wants, as long as he’s careful, as long as he demands nothing too arduous.

To his surprise, to his disappointment almost, Sebastian doesn’t run. Doesn’t take the out while he has it.

Instead Sebastian takes his hand and leads him inside the living room, where he peels off his gloves, tugging sharply at every finger before the fabric gives, exposing his fingerprints to the air — Sebastian kisses each of them while tears sting at the corner of his eyes. It’s not what he had planned, not what he came here to do, but his limbs go numb from the tenderness imbued in Sebastian’s touch. He can’t catch a breath, can’t will his lungs back into submission.

What have they done to each other?

What haven’t they?

Sebastian’s lips brush his, the faintest hint of a kiss, the promise of it, and the torture of every single kiss they’ll never share again.

Is this goodbye, he thinks, is this –once again– them parting ways? Last time they both walked away unscathed but that’s not an option now. He has to choose.

“I shouldn’t have run,” Sebastian says, “We could’ve–”

We could’ve had the past few days, we could’ve hatched a plan, but what goodbye would be enough, what plan would get them out of this mess? Both of them had to face the facts; this was never going to last, they’ve been postponing the inevitable and the clock’s finally run out.

“You were scared.”

Sebastian smiles ruefully. “Not many who could get me to admit that.”

But there hasn’t been anyone like him before, has there?

Half an enemy. Half a lover.

But his, wholly.

He stills at the realization, whispering, “I’m scared too,” before Sebastian nuzzles his cheek. He tries to make his heart a stone — he can’t let anything break his resolve. He said he wouldn’t fight for him and he won’t, he can’t, if he disobeys his father he might as well sign his own death sentence.

Not that killing Sebastian wouldn’t have the same result. He’d die all the same, just much slower.

Sebastian pulls his tie free and pulls away, moving to stand behind him before he blindfolds him, chasing all light from the room.

All color gone.

Warm hands slide down his arms.

“This okay?” Sebastian’s breath tickles his ear.

He shivers and nods. He has no other choice.

There are no exits left.

Sebastian smooths his jacket down his shoulders and tosses it aside, before his fingers trace further down his neck, down his spine, down to the gun at the small of his back.

Sebastian huffs a laugh. “You did warn me about that, didn’t you?” he says, and pulls the gun free. “Long time ago.”

Word of advice, Smythe.

His fear triples in the wake of that memory, when it was a dark room stifling his sight and Sebastian crept up on him from behind, a stranger then, an enemy. How he’d wanted him, even then. Even with the gun to his head.

I’m always armed.

All that time ago he didn’t know any better, that gun a tether, an anchor, a coat of armor. Now it pulls him every which way, towards his father’s will, towards his own, which looked deceptively like Sebastian.

Would Sebastian do it again? Push a gun up against the back of his head, cock the trigger, and put him out of his misery?

“Sebastian,” he whispers, voice shaking, expecting the cold press of the muzzle any moment.

“I’m here.”

Lips push up to his hair instead, and Sebastian reaches around and places a hand over his stomach, warm and reassuring, a tether, an anchor, slipped like a fox past all his defenses.

A breath shudders past his lips. He’s not strong enough to make this choice, he doesn’t want to be; all he used to be, everything he thought important, paled in comparison to who he’s become. Who he wants to be.

He turns sightless in Sebastian’s arms, denied any visual clues but it’s worth it just to feel Sebastian’s hands on his face, to smell the mint on his breath, hear the hitch in his breath before he speaks.

“I love you, Blaine Anderson,” Sebastian whispers, and he’s grateful when the blindfold catches his tears because he honestly couldn’t stand to look at Sebastian right now. He punches Sebastian in the chest, no strength behind it. How could he say this now? How dare he?

He shakes his head, “Don’t–”, but his protest drowns in a kiss; Sebastian takes it without apology until those words echo through his mind like a mantra, until they set in his lungs and drown him, until all will leaves him and he surrenders.

He cedes control to an enemy, a lover, a boy. Cedes all else to the whims of his heart.

 

An hour later he wakes up to the sound of the fly door screen clicking closed. His ears ring and he reaches for Sebastian underneath the blanket on instinct.

Gone.

Shot up in an instant he fears the worst, that Sebastian ran, that he crossed back into the West to stay there, that this was the goodbye Sebastian needed and chose this over a different kind — only his clothes are still here, his wallet and car keys. He can’t have gone far.

The decking of the porch creaks, and the smell of cigarettes blows in from outside.

Drawing a hand down his face he shakes off the final remnants of sleep and gets up, puts on pants, walks toward the table where his gun rests on top of his jacket.

He grabs it and takes the safety off.

Cold metal presses against the back of his skull.

Followed by the too distinct cock of a trigger.

Would that Sebastian had pulled the trigger that day, put an end to all this before it could begin, before he learned the outlines of Sebastian’s desire and how it complemented his.

How had it come to this?

He turns around, chasing away the specters of the past, and trails bloody footprints all over the floor.

Sebastian smoked a cigarette out on the porch, naked but for his boxers, the chilly night air leaving him seemingly unaffected.

Body rife with doubt his eyes slip down the lines of Sebastian’s body, long and lithe and soft.

How can he do this h–? This.

He raises his arm, levels the gun with the deck, pointed at Sebastian’s head. All he has to do is add a little pressure, squeeze the trigger, put an end to this farce once and for all.

The tip of Sebastian’s cigarette lights up his face every time he takes a drag, like there are stars in his eyes worth staying alive for.

He looks past Sebastian, at the cornfield in the distance, dark but for the glow cast from the house. Rachel and him slip between the stalks.

Now, he’s the killer stalking through the house.

A reflection of his deepest fears.

“Do I get any last words?” Sebastian asks, breathing out his last pull; the smoke curls into the night air like burnt gunpowder, an omen of things to come.

Of course Sebastian saw this coming.

He’s a much softer kind of killer.

For the first time in years, the weight of the 9mm grows heavier, more than its precise standard weight, and both his hands tremble at this. This can’t be the end and it can’t be him. He can’t be the one to kill them.

Sebastian stubs out his cigarette on the porch railing and turns to face him.

There’s no oxygen going to his lungs as green eyes fall to the gun in his hand, pointed at a man he claims to love. He thinks back to all those months ago, when this would’ve been easy, when Sebastian was his brother’s killer and he wouldn’t have thought twice about pulling the trigger. When he didn’t know the boy behind the name would ever– could ever mean so much.

Sebastian takes a step forward.

“Do what you do best, killer,” he says, the muzzle of the gun pressing over the tattoo dotted beneath Sebastian’s collarbone.

Four walls.

And the prisoners inside.

A shudder of a breath escapes him, his hand guided by his father, his duty, his birthright. Do this for your sister, his father said, but Rachel wouldn’t want this, she’d condemn him for the thought alone, for ever thinking freedom wasn’t well within his grasp.

He’s never had anything his alone but Sebastian. Sebastian.

They’re prisoners of their fate, of this world, of their birthright, but together they’ve molded it into something else. Inescapable in its own right.

But something worth fighting for.

Swallowing hard, he nearly chokes on the disobedience lodged high in his throat, and his arm drops to his side.

“Sebastian, I”—a tear runs down his cheek—“I lo–”

Sebastian shoots forward and cups his face. “Don’t say it”—he thumbs circles into his cheeks—“I’ll never leave if you do.”

Green eyes fill with tears, raking over his face memorizing every detail, every blemish, down to the tint of his skin so he’ll never forget. “I’ll never let you go.”

He cries, “What are we going to do?”

Sebastian brings his lips to his temple, draws a hand through his curls and his skin crawls with his need for this; to be held, to be cherished, to be anything but a killer. Eyes closing he buries his face against Sebastian’s neck and breathes him in; he smells like dust in the rain, freshly cut grass, the outdoors copy-pasted on his skin like it belonged there.

“What we do best,” Sebastian murmurs. “You’re going to shoot me through the shoulder.”

His eyes open. His fingers twitch around the gun in his right hand.

Why would–?

He pulls back, studies Sebastian’s face. Sebastian has an escape plan.

Has this been ending for Sebastian all along? Is that how he could stand to do it?

“And then I’m going to run.”

I’m a runner, Blaine, Sebastian once told him.

Yes, and he’s his father’s son.

Sebastian will do what he does best, and he’ll fall back in line, fit right back into the same old role, same old routine, kill those he’s supposed to kill.

But they tried that once and failed. He can’t go back to insomniac nights and aimless hours watching Rachel have with Jesse what he wants with Sebastian.

This relationship has changed him too much to ignore it now.

“Is that what you think I want?” he asks, putting the gun on safe again before he fits it back at the small of his back.

When the no, of course not doesn’t immediately follow he thinks he must not have been clear enough, perhaps not even with himself.

Tonight was never a farewell.

“We both knew this couldn’t last.”

And then Sebastian kisses him like he doesn’t want it to, like he never will let go, like he never will leave, even if his love remained unspoken — they’ve destroyed each other, he thinks, as Sebastian licks into his mouth with all the fight he has left in him, a desperation so similar to his he wants to scream, he wants to fight back, he wants to give them every chance they can possibly take together.

Sebastian pulls away just as abruptly, pulls away completely to push past him back into the house.

His fingers draw down Sebastian’s arm.

Grab tight around Sebastian’s wrist at the last moment.

No.

There has to be an exit.

He won’t bow down at his father’s feet and beg, sniveling and whimpering, for mercy or sympathy or any shades in between. He knew about the gun cocked against his temple all this time. He knew what danger he invoked every time he sought out Sebastian’s body.

Even now, despite all that’s happened, he’ll stand by those choices.

He’ll fight for them.

“What if it could?” he asks, and glances back at Sebastian.

He hopes it’s enough this time around, that Sebastian feels for him what he didn’t feel for Adam. He will fight for them if it’s the last thing he does, beat his knuckles bloody, down to the very bone. He’ll prove he’s someone worthy of his love.

He can’t go back to those years lived numb and unaffected, his heart like marble stone.

He understands now, why Rachel dared utter the word elope, how running could be worth it even at the risk of invoking their fathers’ wrath. How sweet freedom might taste.

“What if it could last?” he asks, his voice a whisper in case the walls grew ears in response to his dissent. But he would tempt self destruction if it meant even fleetingly escaping this malignant world. If it meant, however briefly, untethering from this life and the past, leave it behind and drive off into the sunset with Sebastian by his side.

Sebastian searches his eyes. “What do you mean?”

Run, he thinks.

Run.

 

.

 

For lack of any better word, their relationship was forbidden.

Not ill advised, or a bad idea, or a preference their families had casually uttered. This prohibition ran deep within their veins, their blood different colors for all they knew. Desires such as theirs were the verboten fruit in paradise the likes of which left empires in ruin — their need would meet with hell on earth, fire and brimstone raining from the heavens, worse than the original sin itself.

Any interaction between the Smythe and Anderson family that wasn’t business or murder was unthinkable.

And for seven months, seven life-changing eye-opening strange months, he and Sebastian had committed every unthinkable offence known to their fathers. Knowing they could both lose their families over the defiance. Knowing they could lose their lives should the wrong people find out.

But they risk it.

 

.

 

Air filled with the acrid scent of copper he flicks the blood off the brush in one swift movement. Droplets disperse through the air, impact the wallpaper like a fine mist as if a bullet tore through flesh and bone and exited a body. Forward spatter.

He drops a few larger globules to the floorboards. Back spatter.

A larger pool of blood stained the rug where Sebastian laid down earlier, his outline still barely visible in the pattern.

It’ll be his turn next.

Each of them sacrificed two-and-a-half pints of blood for the macabre art project, enough to paint a clear scene. Anyone analyzing the room would find evidence of two gunshot victims, follow the bloody shoe prints out into the yard where the trail disappeared abruptly, as if the assailants got into a car and drove off.

If they wanted to make a run for it they had to disappear fast and thoroughly, and while Sebastian knew a thing or two about running, he knew a thing or two about blood. Had made it his job to learn its guiding principles, its quirks and tails and spins.

“Passports are done,” Sebastian calls from the kitchen, where he’d sat forging the documents for close to an hour after cleaning up and a fresh set of clothes.

Tie loose around his neck he overlooks the story he’s thus far painted on the walls, all the red dots on the pastel-blue wallpaper.

Blaine blinks.

Pastel—

He trips a step back.

“Blaine?” comes Sebastian’s voice, emerging from the kitchen.

Eyes skipping back and forth, he tracks the blood spatter up the wall, blotches of crimson and burgundy, vermilion, overlaying the faded blue of the wallpaper. In the far corner of the room there are the lines of crayon Rachel once drew, orange, yellow, blue and green.

“What’s wrong?”

Sebastian’s by his side now, worry palpable in his voice, while he blinks at the wall a few more times before taking in the rest of the room. Like a distant dream he once forgot, the colors of his childhood hasten back.

“I can see it.”

His grandmother’s curtains with a Jacobean floral print, covered in dark reds, blues, golds and off-whites, the vibrant paintings on the walls of sunflowers and sunsets, the cream stones around the fireplace and the heavy oak mantle, and the couch a deep forest green.

Years of therapy hadn’t brought these colors back to him, and now, in the process of unshackling from his father’s world, here they are. Colors. In all their splendor.

He looks at Sebastian, at the white of his shirt, the pink of his lips, and– his eyes.

Green.

It’s real.

Slowly, with purpose behind his every move, Sebastian oscillates a step closer, curls a finger under his chin. “Poetic,” he muses, and offers up a small smile, before pushing a soft kiss to his lips.

His eyes close and he smiles. His breathing calm and measured, the expanse in his chest widens to encompass far more than his childhood memories; hope, dreams, fantasies all take their bespoke place among them.

“You’re sure you want to do this?” Sebastian asks, for what has to be the seventh time, his fear incarnate. What if he yet changes his mind? But he’s no more adept at this than Sebastian proves to be; he can’t imagine a life without Sebastian in it.

His mom and her red dresses, the children she cries for every night, Rachel’s raven hair and her singsong voice — he’s tainted those things long enough, and he won’t stain them with his blood-red hands any longer. They’ll understand once they find out what happened.

He’s never done anything for himself but this– This.

He owes this to himself.

To see, if even for a moment, if the dream holds up.

His eyes open to a new and bright future, their prison break plot.

“I love you, Sebastian,” he says, at long last, abdicates his throne once and for all.

He can live with the danger. Like he has his entire life.

“I’m sure,” he whispers, and falls forward, reaches for Sebastian’s lips on tiptoe, knits his fingers around Sebastian’s hips. A breathy laugh stutters against his lips, warm air and then the heat of Sebastian’s mouth. It’s their first kiss, and their last kiss, their every kiss for every day to come.

Soon, they’ll pack up this place and leave. They’ll switch out the plates on the car Sebastian stole and drive off into the sunset, leave their names behind, sacrifice everything but each other, and make a life out there, far from the confines of their fathers’ worlds.

Like his grandmother used to say.

It’ll all look less daunting in the morning sun.

 

.

 

Dearest Rachel,

 

Over the next few days you’ll probably hear things about me and Sebastian you should never hear, but I want you to know this was my choice. It was my choice in ways few other things have ever been, and I want you to know I’m happy with my choices. I don’t know how long it will last, I don’t even know if we’ll get away, but I do know that I’m happy. I’m safe. When I’m with him.

I’m sorry it had to be this way, that I couldn’t take you with me, but we’ve shared the weight of this world between the two of us for a very long time. I think in so many ways I never left that house or that cornfield with you. I don’t think either of us really did.

I wish there’d been a way for us all to be together.

I hope you can forgive me.

 

I love you,

your brother,

Blaine.

 

Holding the letter between trembling hands, Rachel reads and rereads the letter seven times before each and every single one of her brother’s words have sunk in. Blaine’s happy, she thinks, he’s found someone who, like her, fails to see the killer he thinks he became, but instead a boy starving for love; he’s found a way out of this hell, that cornfield, the past, and he’s making a run for it.

Rachel smiles through her tears. “I forgive you, little brother.”

A creak of the door alerts her to someone else’s presence, and she jumps up clutching Blaine’s letter to her chest.

“Mom!” she calls, angering at the uncalled intrusion.

 

.

 

Two days later an anonymous tip will lead the police to the Corcoran house; they will find the lock on the back door broken, glass on the floor, bloody footprints on the floorboards. Two sets of size eights. One set of nines.

Inside they’ll find blood evidence of two murders, one Blaine Anderson and one Sebastian Smythe.

No bodies will ever be found.

The mob doesn’t leave its bodies on display.

The Andersons will blame the Smythes and the Smythes will point their fingers East.

But neither knows who spilled the blood.

So it remains unsaid.

 

.

 

“Just tell me,” Shelby Corcoran asks her daughter, “Is he happy?”

Rachel regards her mother for countless moments, this vision of a woman equally broken by the machinations of her father’s world, undecided whether this is a truth safe to speak out loud. But the tremble in her mother’s voice is a familiar one, fearful and hopeful at the same time, like her mom too carries the weight of what they lost. What her children lost.

“He’s free,” Rachel whispers.

 

this is not a dream and
the gun is not yours,
it’s your father’s.
x

 

- THE END -