A/N: I’m not even going to bother trying to explain myself because it’s been over three years and I left everyone on a Part 1 of 2 without ever posting the second part even though it was fully written and edited. *face palm* There are no excuses. Why didn’t I just get the pictures for it and post it? WHY? I don’t know, but I’m here now, and I have the second part to this—posting it after it’s been lying here written for three years. I did do a bit of editing to reflect new thoughts and ideas as to where this is going, but for the most part it is exactly as it was…only posted three years too late.
If you’re still here, you’re more golden than gold, you absolute treasure. If you’re new, I’m surprised, and there’s much to catch up on, but you are so, so welcomed it’s hard to put into words. I hope to at least finish Generation 5. I don’t know if I’ll continue into Generation 6 honestly, but these stories at least deserve to be told, and Joanne deserves her final act.
Anyway, thank you sincerely for being here. Comments are enthusiastically appreciated, so please even if you feel it’s not much, share your thoughts! You are guaranteed to make a person (me!!!) smile if you do.
Oh, and to winterspixels, if you’re still out there—thank you for the long chats we had about our stories. You helped me realize what Gemma’s tale was about, and I’ll never forget that. I hope you’re doing well ❤
Trigger Warnings: Use of tobacco, strong language, bullying, depressive thoughts, mentions of child abuse
What was a friend anyway?
Oh, Gemma technically knew what a friend was, but it was in an abstract sort of manner, like the way one might define happiness by pointing out instances when they could see it. Like happiness, she could recognize friends when she saw them: The group playing an enthusiastic game of hacky sack by the fountain; the girl holding a stack of books for another as she bent to tie her shoe; the two boys doubled-over in laughter after the third told an evidently hysterical joke. She recognized them all as friends, but having the ability to identify a concept did not mean one understood it.
Did Gemma have friends? She thought she did, or at least, she considered her family to be her friends, but there was a problem in this. A problem that reminded her she would soon move out of her family’s home; a problem that existed in the inescapable reality that soon her twin, her closest friend, would be living a life of his own—a life with a career, a husband…children.
Though, that was fine because it wasn’t as if friends typically lived together. Everyone walked their own paths and these paths naturally crossed with those of others over the course of their lives. Gemma’s path would continue to cross with those of her family as well, but somehow this fact was not a comfort to her. Somehow, even as she imagined meeting up with them in the future, she envisioned herself feeling profoundly alone.
She envisioned this and felt the resolve she’d so carefully constructed in the morning begin to crack. She had not impressed in her classes today and whereas normally Gemma would be excited by the prospect of going to lab, she now felt a dread that begged her not to go; to skip out even though this was one of her mandatory, scheduled shifts. She didn’t think that Dr. Saint would be angry with her if she called out (especially since she already put in countless extra hours), but if she didn’t go, then Kelsey would know that she had gotten to her.
Gemma could already see the smug expression that would cross the redhead’s face if she was absent. It was an image distasteful enough that even the slightest possibility of it becoming a reality was enough to goad her into going.
The likelihood of Kelsey trying something was minimal anyway as there would not only be witnesses present, but also Dr. Saint would be next door in his office, occasionally checking in on them before returning to his work. Surely not even Kelsey Campbell would be so stupid? Perhaps even, if she was lucky, Kelsey would be the one to not show up to her shift.
Steeling herself, Gemma entered the brightly lit laboratory with her head held high and made a beeline for the coatrack. Already she noticed that an unnatural silence had fallen upon the room when she entered, but gradually conversations resumed. Kelsey’s shrill voice stood out like a taunt, raising Gemma’s hackles even as the redhead discussed something as mundane as her upcoming cruise to the Bahamas. Gemma hung up her jacket, switching it out for a lab coat and then securing her safety goggles onto her face.
When she could hesitate no longer without attracting curious stares, she turned to grab a set of samples and went to her station to begin running tests.
At first, Gemma found it challenging to concentrate, every burst of laughter and every beep from the machines fueling her unease, but the longer she was there, the more she relaxed, and the more fully she allowed herself to become lost within the lines of data flashing across her screen.
This was where she belonged, divining order from what others only perceived as randomness. It was elegant and pure, and soon nothing mattered except the comfort she derived from accurate data collection.
By the time she finished Gemma had attained a Zen-like state, a calming lull that led her not to notice the ice blue eyes following her steps.
The curly-haired brunette picked up her tray of samples to return them to the front of the room, but as soon as she turned, someone rammed into her shoulder with enough force that she tripped and collided with the ground, the vials exploding upon impact.
Crystal glass glittered in the harsh florescent light. A gasp of surprise escaped Gemma’s parted lips.
“Oh dear,” Kelsey’s voice jeered from above. “How clumsy of you. Dr. Saint won’t be very happy at all.”
Gemma drove her fist into the back of Kelsey’s knee. The redhead’s leg buckled, and she yelped as the blow sent her tumbling to the floor too. At first glance, it might have looked like Kelsey had exclaimed in surprise and bent to help her, so Gemma took advantage of this, looping her arm around Kelsey’s neck and then digging her fingernails hard into her collar bone.
“You’re right,” Gemma hissed by Kelsey’s ear as she winced in pain. “He’s not going to be happy at all that you tripped me while I was holding the samples, which is precisely what I’m going to fucking tell him. You can lie all you want and say otherwise, but I’ve known him since I was a child and have worked in this lab since I was 16 years old, so if you think for one fucking second that he’ll believe you over me, spout your shitty lies, because I’ll be right here to correct them for you.”
Kelsey made a high-pitched spluttering sound and turned on Gemma in a fury, but it was then that the door burst open and Dr. Saint swept in, blond brows knotted in concern.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked as seven pairs of eyes shot toward the door to meet him. “I heard glass breaking.”
“Gemma tripped,” chirped one of Kelsey’s friends, a blonde girl with bubblegum pink lipstick who seemed delighted by the scene.
Dr. Saint’s gaze roved briefly over the standing students and then stopped when he caught sight of Gemma and Kelsey on the floor, shattered glass fanned out before them. Gemma hung her head, every inch of her skin burning as Dr. Saint continued to look at them in bewilderment.
“Gemma turned at the same time I walked by,” Kelsey flatly added. “We bumped into one another and tripped.”
There was a prolonged silence, broken only by Kelsey bumping her shoulder to get her attention. Gemma lifted her head, blushing harder as she realized Dr. Saint was looking to her for confirmation, his arms folded across his chest and his expression questioning.
“Yes,” she stated woodenly. “We tripped. It was an accident.”
“Totally. We’re really sorry,” Kelsey followed in an unctuous tone, her light blue eyes opened wide.
Dr. Saint’s focus did not shift to the redhead’s as she spoke, but instead remained on Gemma, unsure. She hung her head again, wishing the fall had knocked her out.
“Okay,” he finally said, shifting his glasses further up on his nose. “It’s fine. These things happen and no one was seriously injured. Please, be more careful in the future though and don’t touch the glass. I’ll call maintenance to safely dispose of it.”
“Of course, much more careful!” Kelsey chirped in agreement. She got to her feet, smiling sweetly as she held out her hand to help Gemma up. The curly-haired brunette rather felt as though she would rather roll in the jagged glass than take it, but she could still feel Dr. Saint watching them, so she took the redhead’s freckled hand. Kelsey helped her up. Gemma avoided eye contact by making a show of brushing off her coat.
“I’ll go make that phone call, or better yet, find someone—would be faster,” Dr. Saint mumbled to himself, and then glanced regrettably at the smashed samples on the ground before he turned to go.
Gemma took an unconscious step back, which was fortunate because the instant Dr. Saint was out of sight Kelsey whirled and spit at her feet. “This isn’t over,” she growled.
“It is, actually,” Gemma stated matter-of-factly. “It’s been over from the second you thought it was alright to cross me, but unfortunately you’re far too stupid to notice.”
“What’d you do, Gemma?” Kelsey asked with a sneer. “Fucked the professor too so you’d have him wrapped around your finger?”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“No, what the hell’s wrong with you that you can’t apologize after you clearly hurt someone else’s feelings?” Kelsey shouted, stomping her foot. “That’s all I wanted, and you couldn’t even do that!”
Gemma flushed, all too aware that everyone’s attention was now irrevocably fixed on them, but it didn’t stop her from retorting, “If that’s what you wanted then maybe you shouldn’t have shoved me into a wall!”
“I was angry! You deliberately—”
“HE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW YOU EXIST!”
The room went unnaturally still, Kelsey staring at her as if she’d struck her again. It was a weighted silence that grew heavier as Kelsey’s eyes filled with tears. A dread like sharpened claws gripped the back of Gemma’s neck.
The blonde—Ashley, she remembered—rushed forward in concern. In fact, they all hurried to comfort Kelsey, their allegiances decided without ever giving thought to Gemma’s side. They’d aligned with Kelsey instantly…because they were her friends.
Within the tumult, a sophomore named Paris turned to her with apprehension and murmured, “You should probably go now.”
Gemma met her eyes, her mouth dry and a numbness steadily suffusing her veins. “Right,” she barely voiced, and then went to the coatrack, stowing away her lab supplies and pulling on her jacket.
“Don’t let her get to you. She’s not worth your time,” Gemma heard Ashley say.
“Seriously. That’s just how she is,” another reassured.
“Awful,” Kelsey whispered tearfully. “She’s just…awful.”
* * * * *
How many hours were there in a day again? 97? That’s what it had felt like and it wasn’t even midnight. What he wouldn’t have given to be able to call it a night and climb into bed, but instead he was sitting on the front step of Patrick’s house waiting to have a conversation he couldn’t have wanted less.
The fact that Patrick was running late did nothing to improve his mood, even though he knew that it wasn’t his fault and that delays in closing were common at the convenience store where he worked. There were always students rushing in at the last minute for chips or energy drinks; or tedious tasks the manager would assign with only fifteen minutes left to closing.
Augustus sighed and glanced up at the sky. It was a somewhat cloudy evening, but the crescent moon was still visible, its unfailing light shining within the hazy black ether. To pass the time, Augustus imagined how he would go about capturing the sight in a painting—the precise mediums and techniques he would use to bring the scene to life.
It helped keep his mind off the chilliness of the night; off the fact that Gemma hadn’t responded to his last text; off trying to guess what Patrick wanted to discuss. It even helped keep his mind off the slight pull he felt to talk to Isaac, a want he’d promptly discounted as a bad idea because it was talking to Isaac that he felt had gotten him into this mess in the first place. Perhaps Isaac, in general, was a bad idea. The thought made his heart sink because only hours ago their reattempts at friendship had felt like a tether in a storm.
“He lets you get close and then he walks away. That’s what he does.”
Isaac could have tried harder to reach him.
Why didn’t he try harder?
The sound of hurried footsteps distracted Augustus from his gloom. He looked in the direction they came from and got to his feet as he caught sight of Patrick jogging up the path. He was still wearing his work clothes, his face pink from the cold and his dyed-purple hair tousled by the wind.
“Hey,” Patrick panted, trying to catch his breath. “S-sorry for making you wait. The m-manager wanted me to count the register t-twice because he thought someone during the m-morning shift swiped a five—which they t-totally didn’t.”
“No worries,” Augustus replied with a small smile. “I wasn’t waiting long.”
“Oh, well, that’s good.” Patrick offered him a nervous smile in turn and then hopped up the single step leading to his door. He pulled out his keys, trying to find the right one in the feeble light. “I’m g-going to change but help yourself to whatever you want.”
Augustus nodded and Patrick unlocked the door, turning the knob to open it and then ramming his shoulder into the weathered wood when it didn’t budge. The door gave way with a pop, Patrick stumbling forward a few steps before he managed to regain his balance. Augustus stepped in after him, reaching out to flick on the lights and casting Patrick a quick look of concern.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, s-sorry,” he mumbled as he closed and locked the door behind them. “D-damn thing just started doing that.”
“I think I might be able to fix that,” Augustus hesitantly offered. “Maybe.”
Patrick laughed, a light loud that had Gus feeling hopeful. “I like your confidence,” he teased.
Augustus felt his face grow a little warm and his boyfriend smiled at him before heading off to change. As he waited, Augustus surveyed his surroundings. The small studio was, if possible, even more cluttered than he was used to seeing, stacks of canvases leaned up against the walls, countless jars of leaky paints, sheets of scattered paper and clothing items tossed here and there, causalities of rushing out the door to class or work. He’d noticed long ago that Patrick’s place reflected his art—hurried and chaotic. Patrick’s art had a thousand facets. There was always some new aspect to uncover.
“I’m s-sorry about the mess!” Patrick called from the other side of the divider that separated his bedroom from the living room. “I h-haven’t been home much lately.”
“It’s okay, really.”
Patrick reappeared from behind the divider, still pink-cheeked, but now wearing a pair of gray joggers and a clean white tee. He tilted his head in puzzlement at seeing Augustus still standing in the doorway, and then quickly looked at the couch, which was barely visible beneath stacks of books, clothes, and still more drawing paper.
“Oh! Sorry!” Patrick hurried forward to shove everything off the couch, his belongings piling helter-skelter on the floor instead. “I d-d-didn’t realize how bad it was,” he admitted with some embarrassment.
“I don’t mind,” Augustus assured. The two caught one another’s eyes and Gus erased the distance between them, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend and pulling him close. Some small part of him feared being pushed away, but much to his relief Patrick not only accepted, but returned the embrace.
I’m sorry, he found himself thinking. Whatever it is you wanted to talk about—I’m sorry.
They remained holding one another for quite some time, until Patrick did take a step back, his eyes avoidant as he ran his hand down Gus’ arm and pressed something into his palm.
A small, tightly folded up piece of paper.
“What—” Augustus began to say in mild confusion, but Patrick interrupted by asking, “Read it?”
He frowned, brows knitted, and unraveled the paper square. Sure enough, it was a handwritten letter, its hastily scrawled sentences spanning several sheets. Augustus recognized the handwriting as Patrick’s, which only further puzzled him.
“You…wrote me a letter?” he inquired, glancing up. “Is that why you rushed off today?”
Patrick nodded, and then perhaps sensing Gus’ apprehension repeated his words from earlier in the day: “It’s n-nothing bad, but…it’s important.”
“Okay,” Augustus replied somewhat warily, and then, after taking a settling breath, began to read:
We need to talk, but we both know that’s not my strong suit, so I’m writing you this instead. This probably feels stupid and awkward, but I don’t know how else to say this without it being some uncomfortable, long-drawn-out ordeal, so here we go.
I know you haven’t been very happy lately. I also know that you haven’t wanted to talk about it, which is okay. I’ve been letting it go until you did want to talk, or at least maybe felt more comfortable with the idea. Thing is, you haven’t felt more comfortable—not even a little bit.
At first, I thought maybe this was because you preferred figuring things out for yourself and that if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me. Lately though I’ve been thinking, or maybe realizing, that it’s not that you don’t want to talk about it, is it? Not really, because you talked to Isaac, and that means you are talking to people. So, it’s more like you don’t want to talk about it, or don’t feel like you can talk about it, with me.
“Patrick” —Augustus tore his gaze from the letter and looked at him— “It’s not that I don’t—”
“Just read it, okay?” he entreated. “The w-whole thing. Please.”
Augustus hesitated, still wanting to protest, but Patrick’s granite eyes further pleaded with him to finish. His stomach turned, his mouth feeling dry, but he nodded and forced his attention back to the letter. It took him a moment, but he found where he’d left off:
I don’t know if it’s because you don’t trust me, or because you’re trying to protect me since it’s not a secret that when you’re upset, it makes me upset too. Not “upset” as in mad at you, but “upset” as in sad that you’re unhappy. I think that’s pretty normal, but whenever I’m feeling even a little negative, my stammer gets worse. It gets so bad sometimes that I realize I sound like a nervous wreck when, in reality, I’m just disappointed in myself and frustrated because I can’t control this.
Of course, because I sound like I’m on the verge of a breakdown, you pull away and I get why you would, but that’s also partly why I’m writing this—to tell you that 90% of the time, I’m not as uncomfortable, or nervous, or frightened as I seem. I mean, I’m shy, yeah, and awkward, I know, but most likely I’m okay and if you’re ever not sure, you could always ask. I don’t mind. In fact, I get it.
I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember; was in speech therapy and all kinds of therapy honestly throughout my life. Believe it or not, it did help. My stammer used to be worse. As a kid, people could barely understand me, but I didn’t get to practice much. I didn’t because my parents’ so-called solution was to hit me whenever I stuttered, so silence felt a lot safer. Sort of. They’d find or invent other reasons.
…I think you know what I’m getting at here. Maybe you already suspected it. And maybe it explains a lot about me…or something.
I don’t like to think of that. I don’t like to admit that it probably fucked me up more than I realize because it’s all in the past and there’s not a damn thing I can do to change it. All I can do is focus on who I am now and, despite how “fragile” I may seem, I don’t think I’m a fragile person.
I can stand on my own and have been doing so ever since a nurse in the ER called protective services on the two people who are always supposed to have your best interests at heart. Of course, the problem with that is that for some people, “best interests” means using a cast iron kettle to whack someone in the back of the head for spilling a glass of milk and the fact that you’re in the ER heaving into a metal bin from the concussion you sustained was the punishment they made you feel you deserved. A belief that, by the way, took fucking years to correct.
So, I think if I can survive that shit for half my life, I can handle whatever the hell you have to throw at me. And fuck, even if it turns out I can’t or I have difficulties or whatever, how will I ever get better if you never give me the chance? I want to be someone you feel comfortable turning to and if you don’t feel like you want the same, then I don’t know what we’re doing.
I hate writing that, but I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what else to do. I just hope that this mess of a letter makes at least some kind of sense and if it doesn’t, you can talk to me. You can always talk to me…about anything.
* * * * *
Gemma was fast asleep, her arms forming a small shield around her head and her textbook doubling as a terribly insufficient pillow. Of course, she hadn’t meant to fall asleep in the library, surrounded as she was by writing utensils, sticky tabs, and highlighters; she’d meant to study to get her mind off what had transpired in lab, but not twenty minutes into this venture she’d nodded off into a deep slumber.
It was unclear for how long she slept, but it must have been for some time because the next she knew someone was carefully trying to rouse her.
She sat up with a start, nearly ripping the textbook page that had stuck to her forearm. Her eyes were bleary, her curly hair even more unkempt than usual.
“My apologies,” a subtly accented voice sounded from above her. “It wasn’t my intention to scare you.”
Gemma felt her skin grow hot, a condition that was only worsened when she dared to glance upward and caught a pair of familiar umber eyes appraising her from behind blue and black framed glasses. Ashton.
“The staff is about to close the library for the night,” he informed her when she didn’t respond.
“Thank you,” Gemma mumbled awkwardly. She lowered her head, hastening to collect her belongings.
“Not a problem,” Ashton replied. He remained for a second longer, during which Gemma surmised he was debating saying something more, but he must have decided against it because it was then that he turned to go.
She cautiously peered at him, watching as he slowed his steps to check the clock mounted high on the wall. He really was handsome. Handsome, intelligent, and kind. Far kinder than she felt she ever deserved.
Ashton disappeared around the corner. His conclusive absence made her heart sink for reasons she didn’t understand, a sensation that lingered as she gathered the last of her highlighters and stuffed them into her bag along with everything else.
It wasn’t as if she knew him—not really, anyway.
It wasn’t as if she wanted to know him.
Maybe she ought to have been kinder. Maybe she ought to have said something more despite the awkwardness she felt at the desire. She must have come across as cold. She’d certainly been cold to him the one night they’d spent together—she’d fled before sunrise and never spoke to him again despite, perhaps, wanting to do so.
Awful, Kelsey’s voice whispered in her ear. Just…awful.
Gemma picked up the pace, nearly bowling Ashton over as she swept past him and out into the night. She needed to get home.
Her hurried footsteps had her making good time, but not even a third of the way into her journey she caught sight of a familiar figure exiting the pool facility ahead. The brunette wavered, debating arcing around the building to avoid being seen, but then, on a potentially stupid impulse, hurried up to him instead.
The tall young man turned in her direction, a look of mild surprise crossing his features as she halted before him. He smelled like cigarette smoke and chlorine, small beads of water hanging precariously off the tips of his jet-black hair. The droplets shimmered in the light of the streetlamps, making them a distracting sight. He must have been training. Gemma could vaguely recall him saying something about being on the swim team. Evidently, he hadn’t lied.
“You know, when you told me we might meet up again some time I assumed that was your way of saying we never would,” Takashi commented.
“Yes, well,” Gemma mumbled, shuffling her feet.
He smiled wryly, reaching for his back pocket and pulling out a carton of cigarettes which he rapped twice against his palm before drawing one out and placing it between his lips. “Smoke?” he asked, proffering the pack.
Gemma shook her head. “No, and I would prefer it if you didn’t smoke one around me either.”
Takashi’s dark eyes met hers for an uncomfortably long moment, but then he took the cigarette from his mouth with two fingers and returned it to the carton.
“It’s curious that you smoke when you’re on the swim team,” Gemma couldn’t help but point out.
“It’s curious that you’re talking to me when you made it clear you didn’t wish for our paths to cross again,” he countered, pocketing the cigarettes. “So, what do you want?”
Gemma hesitated. She hadn’t expected Takashi to have taken her rejection so sourly, though she suspected it was more about his wounded pride than any real interest in her. He likely hadn’t thought of her before she’d called his name.
She licked her lips and finally managed to ask, “Did you tell anyone that we slept together?”
“Tell anyone….” he echoed pensively, glancing up at the sky. “I guess I did, but I never mentioned your name and it was only to a couple friends.” He met her gaze, subtly arching one eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“No particular reason,” Gemma answered inanely. She lowered her eyes and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She had already figured that Takashi hadn’t said anything and that Kelsey’s conclusions were based solely on them leaving together, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself from asking anyway. Perhaps she was still looking for sense in a conflict that thus far, had made no sense at all. If that was the case though, she hadn’t found that here.
“You look like crap,” Takashi observed, jolting Gemma from her thoughts.
“How kind of you to say,” she coolly replied, and then added in a mutter, “I fell asleep in the library.”
Takashi abruptly grasped Gemma’s chin and forced her head up to catch the light. “Is that how you got this?” he asked, studying the scratch beneath her eye.
Gemma smacked his hand away and took a quick step back. “That’s none of your business!”
He frowned, absently rubbing his hand where she’d hit him. “It is my business if you got that because someone heard about us and gave you shit for it. I assume that’s why you asked? I don’t know why else you would.”
“As I said, it’s none of your—”
“Yes, it is,” Takashi insisted, impatient. “After all, if someone’s going after the women I sleep with and that gets around, it’s not exactly good for me, is it?”
Gemma scoffed and shook her head in disbelief. “I’m not going to risk this person getting even angrier with me all because you’re in danger of missing out on potential sex.”
“So, someone did give you shit.”
Gemma cringed inwardly and clenched her jaw.
“I could take care of the person, you know,” Takashi quietly offered. “‘Her,’ I assume, but correct me if I’m wrong.”
“What would you do?”
“Drug her and dump her into the nearest river,” he replied, and then snorted in incredulity. “I’d talk to her. Obviously. What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I don’t know,” Gemma pointed out. “You did just grab my face like an asshole.”
Takashi clicked his tongue, reaching for his cigarettes again and this time pulling one out and lighting it. He brought it to his lips, taking a draw from it and then languidly exhaling so the smoke curled as it floated upward in the night. “I could easily find out.”
“Then by all means do so.”
“Gemma, Gemma,” he lamented, flicking glowing ashes onto the pavement. “I liked you better when you didn’t say much—when all you wanted was to give me what I wanted.”
Gemma jolted; any potential retort knocked far from her grasps. She felt as though she’d been struck again, only this time it hurt far more than any frivolous encounter outside a science lab. The wind kicked up, frigid and turbulent. Her eyes began to burn as they filled with unshed tears. She hoped that Takashi would attribute it to the cold.
“It’s that redhead, isn’t it?” he asked casually, oblivious. “She’s been eyeing me hopefully for weeks, and she was at the bar that night too.”
Gemma didn’t respond. Her head felt hazy with fog, her entire being sluggish. She wanted to sink into the earth and suffocate. It already felt like she was.
“All I need is a confirmation,” he said in a sing-song voice, leaning forward.
“Fuck you!” Gemma snapped.
Takashi released a short, incredulous laugh. “I’m trying to help you. You’re lucky you’re so pretty.”
“And you’re lucky I don’t hit you again! Fuck! Forget it! I never asked for your help!
“Alright, alright,” Takashi attempted to soothe, raising his hands. “Calm down. I know you didn’t ask—I’m sincerely offering.”
“Well, I don’t want your help! I don’t want anything from you!” she shouted, fists clenching at her sides. A group of students walking on the other side of the street slowed to stare at them.
Takashi took notice and tossed his cigarette onto the ground, crushing it beneath his shoe. “Fine, fuck, whatever. Have it your way, but if you change your mind you apparently know where to find me.”
Gemma looked away; her arms folded tightly across her chest. She felt Takashi’s gaze on her as he hesitated, but soon he turned to go, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he made his way down the path. The students across the way resumed their evening walk too.
Unwilling to take the same route, she looped around the building after all. His words were like threads of glass woven into her skin. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She made herself keep walking.
I liked you better when you didn’t say much.
You’re cold and uncaring and I fucking hate you!
You’re lucky you’re pretty.
That’s just how she is.
Gemma made it to her house, slamming the door behind her and collapsing to the floor. The lights were off. Augustus wasn’t here. Even if he was asleep, he would have left the porch light on for her. She really wished he was here.
She took her backpack off her shoulders, fumbling to unzip the front pocket and then taking out her phone. Her vision was blurred with tears as she scrolled through her contacts, but she still managed to find who she was looking for. She tapped the entry and the phone began to ring…once…twice. It kept ringing. Gemma shut her eyes tightly. The first tears escaped. Please, please.
After the fifth ring the phone picked up, a warm and cheerful voice answering, “Hey, baby girl! How’re doing?”
Gemma felt what little remained of her resolve collapse upon hearing her mother’s voice. She sounded so happy to hear from her, and all Gemma could do was sob as if she were a small child again.
“I’m s-so sorry!” she cried miserably. “I’m t-trying to be like you. To be as brave and strong as you are, but I keep failing and I don’t know what to do! I don’t—”
“Breathe, honey,” her mother gently interrupted, her tone laden with concern. “You already are. Braver even. Stronger. My perfect baby girl. Where are you right now?”
“Home,” she answered with another sob.
“Breathe,” her mother repeated, and Gemma finally did, drawing in deep breaths as her mom murmured reassurances, just as Augustus would. Or rather, Augustus always did the same as their mother. How many times had they seen her do this for their father whenever his mind turned against him?
Gemma breathed…. Gemma breathed….
“Mom,” she whispered. “I think I need help.”
* * * * *
The room was cold. Outside the window, Augustus could see trees shivering in the frigid gale, leaves and twigs repeatedly kicked up in little whirlwinds that skittered across the ground. The heater clicked on, the whooshing sound of a fire igniting followed by the rush of air through the vents reaching his ears. He could feel the warmth of it upon his skin where he sat, still staring down at the letter gripped in his hands.
Where to start? There was so much that resided within the words he’d read that Augustus felt paralyzed by their weight. His heart rate was at odds with his stillness, racing meters ahead while he stood stunned in the dust.
Augustus leaned forward, placing the letter on the coffee table and then turning his head to glance at Patrick beside him. “Your parents,” he tentatively began, “you always made it sound like they’d died in an accident when you were young, and that was why you grew up in foster care.”
“Now how d-did I know you’d mention that first?” Patrick dryly asked.
Augustus raised his brow in question, and Patrick dropped his gaze, a rosy pink coloring his cheeks. “Never mind,” he mumbled. “Sorry. I…I know I a-always said that, but the truth is, I only w-wish that they had.”
The heater spluttered out, clicked, and kicked in again with a low rumble. Augustus sat back against the couch, his thoughts as cluttered as his surroundings. “I can see why,” he admitted, and then hesitated before asking, “What did you mean when you said you knew I’d mention that first?”
Patrick took a short breath, his focus firmly trained on a set of colored pencils lying by his feet. “J-just that it’s r-really t-t-typical of you to start with the topic that has n-n-nothing to do with you. You b-barely ever talk about yourself. Nothing serious anyway. N-not to me.”
“Not true?” Patrick interrupted hollowly. “I think it is, and I c-c-can’t help but wonder why. W-whether it’s because you don’t trust me enough or b-because you don’t feel like I can handle it and you’re trying to p-protect me or something, or…I don’t know, but…I’m one to talk, right?” He drew a shaky breath, his granite eyes overly bright.
“I’ve k-k-kept so much from you because I d-didn’t want you to think differently of me; didn’t want to m-m-mess things up between us and I have anyway.” Patrick smiled wanly, his voice tremulous as he continued, “After all, h-how can I expect you to share things with me when I’ve b-barely shown I’m capable of hearing it? How can I expect you to share things with m-me when I’ve barely shared anything with you?”
“This isn’t your fault,” Augustus said, feeling quite stunned. “You haven’t messed anything up. If it’s like you said and I’m being overprotective or don’t trust you enough, then those are my problems, not yours. It’s my shit to sort through and it has nothing to do with what you are or aren’t doing.”
“Yeah, but m-m-maybe if I w-weren’t so—”
“No, Pat. You’ve only ever made me happy. You’re always sweet and encouraging and—”
Patrick let out an unexpected sob, covering his face with his hands as his body shook. “I f-f-feel like I’m l-l-losing you. It’s what a-always happens. P-p-people get f-fed up with me and—”
“Not me,” Augustus hastened to say. He pushed the coffee table back and slid off the couch to kneel before him. “Not me, okay? Where’s this coming from? You’re not losing me.”
“I d-don’t know. I just feel it. I f-feel you slipping away and I d-d-don’t know what to do.”
“Then…then that’s my fault and I need to do better, okay?” Augustus gently tugged Patrick’s hands away from his face and then cradled it between his palms as he held his boyfriend’s gaze. “Listen, you’re not losing me. I’m not slipping away.”
Patrick pressed his lips together, fresh tears shimmering upon his reddened cheeks. Augustus dried them with his thumbs and then let his hands fall to his boyfriend’s waist, pulling him to the edge of the couch and enfolding him in an embrace. He responded by wrapping his arms around Gus’ neck, his breaths ragged as he held him as tightly as he could.
“I love you,” Patrick whispered.
The unexpected words resonated in Gus’ ears, but somehow failed to process, leaving him frozen mid-breath. He tried to speak, tried to return them, but felt his tongue lock-up as if he’d never learned to talk at all. His throat felt swollen, his eyes abruptly stinging. He adored Patrick, he did, thought maybe he was everything he could ever want or need, so why couldn’t he—shouldn’t he—didn’t he—? “I—”
“It’s okay,” he said softly, burying his face in Gus’ shoulder. “You d-don’t need to say it back. I j-just love you, and I want us to work.”
Augustus nodded and took a short, shuddering breath. “I want that too,” he rasped.
“Good,” Patrick breathed, and then kissed him; again, and again—kisses like salt water and the ever-rising tide.