He looked like he wanted to say something, but then pressed his lips together and kept silent. He turned in his seat to fish his sneakers out of the back and then started the car. It turned over several times before it caught, and he carefully guided us along the city streets toward Mason's house.
“Whose car is this?” I asked.
“Belonged to my uncle,” he said. “He doesn't need it anymore, so....”
Thinking of some of my recent conversations about family, I asked, “What about your mom? Have any siblings?”
He shook his head. “Only child. Mom is busy doing whatever it is she does.”
I nodded slowly. So he was alone.
“You're...living with Mason now? For good?”
“Depends,” I said. “His folks want me to stay, and I don't mind...I like the house. I like having Mason right there. He's a good, loyal friend. It feels weird, though.”
I had ideas forming in my head. A plan of sorts. That I would drag Mason to the academic finish line and even prop him up maturity-wise later wasn't ever in doubt. I loved the guy. Maybe the only one I actually did love. But now I had to think about Nathaniel and keeping him safe. I mean, this little hot mess needed someone on his side to protect him. I thought he'd earned that from me. Besides, I told myself, anyone that protective of me bore watching just to keep others safe.
I glanced at him as he drove and he looked at me, his cheeks coloring, then looked away. “Your haircut looks nice.”
“Mason's mom insisted,” I said. “I don't care much about getting haircuts, but having someone wash my hair was pretty nice. You ever have that done?”
“Not that I remember,” he said.
My gaze flicked to different parts of him. His fingers around the steering wheel, the way he leaned forward in his seat to see, due to his height, and the way he glanced at me in an almost furtive way that was quickly followed by a slight blush. I glanced away, feeling heat in my own face, unsure what reason I'd have to blush.
“I was surprised to see you at the mall last weekend,” I said to him.
He grimaced slightly. “I...like to check on you before I go to work. Just so I know if your father...you know.”
“Why? Just because of this debt you thought you owed me?” I asked, trying to make my tone gentle.
He glanced at me, blushed some more and looked away. “Yeah. I mean. Mostly.” He sighed. “I wanted you to be able to get out. You can't do that if your dad kills you.”
I shifted in my seat so I could look at him without getting a kink in my neck. He was hopeless. He's given up on himself, but was doing everything in his power to see I'd escape. Noble, but stupid. Something in my chest fluttered harder and I resolved that someone needed to look out for him, now. Someone needed to take him in hand before his potential was wasted in this town like so many others. Yes, that was it. I was feeling responsibility, which wasn't entirely new – I felt that toward Mason all the time. Satisfied, I studied the curve of his face, the squareness of his chin and the green of his eyes whenever he glanced at me and blushed anew.
Mason always looked good, despite his protestations. Ris wasn't any easier to make look bad. I realized, though, that Nathaniel was no slouch. Sure he was dirty. His clothes were ill fitting. He stunk, despite his protests otherwise. But...he looked good.
We got to Mason's, who was still smiling like he had won something, so I punched his arm. He didn't stop smiling. Prick.
“Nathaniel, Mason. Mason, Nathaniel. I need to get Nathaniel cleaned up, and use the washer and dryer,” I said, glaring at his smirk.
“Hey, Nathaniel,” Mason said with a sunny smile.
“Hey,” Nathaniel replied, his tone a little less sure.
Ignoring Mason, I turned toward my new charge. “Let's go in. I'll get you set up to get cleaned up, then come back out while you're doing that and get your stuff to wash.”
Nathaniel's gaze flicked over to his car and back to me.
“Just the clothes. I won't touch anything else,” I promised.
He bit his lip for a fraction of a second and my heart skipped a beat and I had to force myself not to look away. “Okay.”
We headed inside, and to sidetrack Mason I asked, “What are you making us for lunch?”
“Oh, right! I should make something special, right?” he asked, giving me a superior look. He was going to be insufferable. I raised a fist and he just laughed at me. “I'm going to get showered first. You can get stuff laid out for Nathaniel. I'll think about what we have and get started.”
“Okay,” I said more gruffly than I needed to, which made Mason smile a bit more. Prick.
As we entered the house Mrs. Gerhardt appeared from the living room. “There you guys are,” she said mildly. “I woke up and was surprised the house was empty.”
“We had morning exercise with some of the team,” Mason replied easily. “Coach Ethan over there has been running us into the ground.”
His mom smiled indulgently at him. Her eyes settled on Nathaniel, no doubt noting his somewhat ragged appearance. “And who is this?”
“Nathaniel Benfield,” I said, “This is Mrs. Gerhardt, Mason's mom. Mrs. Gerhardt, Nathaniel is a friend from school. He's been helping with the stuff going on.”
She was smart enough to know what I meant without having to dig for details. “So glad to meet you. Did you, erm, work out with the guys this morning?”
“Yes,” I answered for him. “He forgot his deodorant.”
“Well, best get cleaned up then,” she said, but gave me a look that said she wanted to know more. We three trotted upstairs and I headed into the room I was using. We fell into silence for an uncomfortable minute until we heard Mason jump down the stairs from his room to the landing, mutter 'ouch' and head into the bathroom.
“So. What do we need to talk about?” Nathaniel asked.
“A lot of things,” I said and sat on the edge of the bed. “I told you, though, after you're clean.”
He pressed his lips together. “I'm guessing you have a plan?”
“Getting some ideas, yeah,” I said and let out a breath. “Not going to lie – we'll have to trust each other to get out of this.”
“There is no getting out for me,” he said quietly.
I hardened my expression and my tone. “I'm getting out, and I'm dragging you with me.” I closed my eyes and let out a breath. “At least, that's what I plan to do. If you don't get out, neither will I.”
He looked away. “So I'm a tool to you moving on?”
“No,” I snapped, standing up and taking a step closer to him. “I mean if you won't go, I'll stay with you. That's how loyalty works.”
He looked embarrassed, yet also defiant. “Don't pull that. Get out while you can. I can take care of myself.”
I nodded. “I know you can. But you don't have to do that alone. Don't turn me away until you understand what it is you're turning down.”
He frowned lightly, then nodded. I took that for acceptance. Mason appeared in the doorway, towel around his neck, in just his underwear. Nathaniel blushed.
“Any allergies?” Mason asked, looking at Nathaniel and no doubt lapping up the attention of his blush.
“Showoff,” I muttered. “You done?”
He grinned unrepentantly. “Yep. The girls will be here at eight.”
“Great,” I said with a sigh. He headed back to his room to dress, and I turned back to Nathaniel. “Let me get you set up.”
“What do I dress in when I'm done?”
“Take any of my clothes that you like,” I said. “It might be big on you, but it’s only until I get your stuff cleaned. If you don't like my stuff, we can raid Mason's room.”
“You take his clothes?” he asked dubiously.
“Sure.” I looked at him and smiled at his confusion. “As a poor twin, you don't have clothes that are just yours. Mason and I swap clothes all the time.”
“Oh. I guess. I mean...even underwear?”
“Yeah,” I said. “If he has a pair I like, I just take them. Why?”
“That seems really weird. Intimate.”
I shrugged. “Mason is the brother I should have had. We share.”
“Heard that!” Mason hollered from the hallway.
“Quit spying! Get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” I retorted to his giggling response.
“You guys are weird together,” Nathaniel commented, but his tone was closer to teasing than recrimination.
“Yeah. Some people might think so. Let me grab you a towel, and I'll lay out a toothbrush for you.” I exited the room and stopped at the hall closet for a towel. A drawer under the sink held spare toothbrushes and I placed the new package on the counter so he would spot it. I headed back to the room I was using to find him with his socks and shoes off, and just pulling his shirt up.
“Here's your towel,” I said. I tossed it on the bed and turned to grab the hamper for his clothes. Turning back he'd removed his shirt, but had his back turned to me. There were two scars on his back, slightly jagged and running just along the insides of his shoulder blades.
“Damn, Nathaniel,” I said in a low voice as I crossed the distance between us. He started to turn, asking what I meant, but I placed a hand on his shoulder and lightly turned him back. “Where did these come from?” I asked, afraid to hear, but determined to understand him.
“These,” I said and traced one line down his back, crossing his skin to reach the bottom of the second scar and trace it up to its beginning. He shivered under my light touch.
“Oh, those. I was on a job with my uncle. He wanted me to go through a duct work, but there were two screws pushing down. He wouldn't let me back up – just shoved me forward, and they dug grooves in my back. I kind of forgot about them, since I can't see them.”
I ran my fingertip down the first scar again, anger surging through my system as I thought of a man forcing Nathaniel to move forward while he cried in pain from screws tearing at his back. I crossed the unmarred skin to the second scar and traced it up again. It was mesmerizing. I moved down the first scar again as if my fingertip could erase his memory, the pain or even the scar itself. I had to force myself to stop touching him.
“Your uncle is lucky he's dead,” I said quietly. I took the shirt from his hand, tossing it into the hamper and then grabbed his socks. He wrapped the towel around his waist and pushed his shorts and underwear off and tossed them into the basket.
“Okay, I'll get this stuff started.” I looked at him as he stood before me, chest defined and looking slightly out of place on a little guy. He had a puckered wound near his right shoulder and I homed in on it, reaching with my fingertips as a rush of anger washed through me again. He flinched slightly as my fingers made contact. I moved my gaze to his eyes. “Uncle again?”
He shook his head. “Molester. Part of his revenge. Same knife I cut him up with.”
I bit my tongue to stop the scream I wanted to make. “Son-of-a-bitch,” I muttered.
“I got him” he said.
I looked into his eyes. “He never should have fucked with you.”
The tiniest of smiles settled on his lips. I glanced up at the scar on his forehead I'd noticed a few nights before and placed my fingers there. He closed his eyes.
“And this one?”
“Same guy, different fight.”
“How far does it go?” I asked, tracing it back as it disappeared into his hair. He sighed. His hair was soft. Softer than I'd have thought, but then I hadn't really thought about it before. Why the hell was I thinking that, anyway? I moved my finger back, placing all four on his forehead and traced the scar back again. His little smile grew just a bit wider.
“That...that feels good.”
“Does it?” I asked, repeating the motion. “It does,” I confirmed, answering my own question. I let my fingers open slightly, his hair gliding between my fingers as I ostensibly traced his scar. The truth was I was mesmerized by the feel of his hair and the look of bliss on his face. His mouth opened slightly and he let out a slow, shuddering breath and then violently snapped his head back. His eyes opened wide and he took a step back, suddenly struggling to pin the towel to his hip.
“What are – uh, shit,” he spluttered.
His reaction broke the moment, but it left me wondering just what the hell had happened. I felt unbalanced, my heart like a washing machine with something heavy in it – careening inside my rib cage, banging and making my body shake.
“I, uh, I'm sorry. I'll get this stuff going.” I grabbed the laundry basket and left the room like my hair was on fire and my ass was catching. It hurt to move as fast as I was, but I think I'd been breathing heavily before I grabbed the hamper; my hammering heart seemed to back that theory up. I paused at the bottom of the stairs, my mind swirling like never before. What was I doing? Why was I doing that? His scars made me so...angry. Protective, but that made sense. After all he'd been unbelievably loyal to me, how could I do less? It's true I hadn't asked for his loyalty, but you can't just throw those kinds of things away. That was it, I told myself. Having gotten a handle on my mental stability, I carefully went through his car, grabbing all the clothes I could find. Some of them weren't worth washing, but that wasn't my call. I had the hamper overflowing by the time I headed back inside. I ferried it to the laundry room and filled it with half the clothes before starting it.
I could have squeezed them all in, but Nathaniel likely wouldn't go anywhere without half his clothes, so it would keep him here longer. Long enough for me to talk to him. Yeah. That would work. I headed back through the house and detoured into the kitchen. Mason was making us some kind of grilled cheese with ham slices and tomato in it. They were really good. He also had a pot of soup going, just some canned stuff, but the tomato soup went really well with the sandwiches.
“You guys almost done?” he asked. His mom sat at the breakfast bar, and I was pleased to think she'd been in there to talk with Mason. About damn time.
“He's in the shower. I'll go next. Started the laundry.”
“You'll make someone a good husband,” Mrs. Gerhardt said, and Mason snorted a laugh, but kept his mouth shut otherwise.
“I had to learn. Mason ruined too many clothes,” I replied.
“So, this Nathaniel boy,” Mrs. Gerhardt said expectantly, preempting any reply Mason may have been about to make. It was sooner than I expected, but it might be the best time since he was showering and I needed Mrs. Gerhardt's good will toward him and me.
“Nathaniel's the one that warned me about Mason's car,” I said to her, moving closer to her. She got a speculative look on her face so I pressed on. “He's the guy on the inside. Cathy said the DA will want us both in order to do what they want, or so she thinks.”
Mrs. Gerhardt nodded and said, “Then he should stay here so we can keep an eye on things, right? You're not thinking he should go back for the sake of appearances, are you?”
“God, no!” I said in a panic. “Every day he's around those people puts him in more danger, and I don't think there is anything else he could learn that would make it worth that kind of risk.”
She smiled at me a little lopsidedly. “I can see you've thought about this.”
I hadn't, really. The thought of putting him back in danger just scared the hell out of me. He had enough scars to last a lifetime. “It just makes sense,” I said weakly.
Mason looked at me over his shoulder, but that wasn't a smile I liked. It wasn't smarmy, like he'd won something. It wasn't full of mischief. It was fond. It was...annoying.
“What are you looking at?” I snarled.
“Nothing,” he said lightly. “Just a...well, nothing.”
His mother looked back and forth between us, clueless.
We all turned toward the voice of Nathaniel. He was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, one of my tee shirts long on him and the cuffs of my jeans rolled up. It was endearing and my pulse picked up. He was clutching the waist and looking a little embarrassed. “I, uh, need a belt.”
“I have a few,” Mason said and I moved ahead of him.
“I'll grab him one,” I said, and Mason just gave me that smile again. God, he can get under my skin like no one else.
Nathaniel followed me upstairs to Mason's room. I went over to his closet and rifled through things, looking for the belts he couldn't be bothered to hang up that always fell into the mess on the floor of his closet.
“Damn. Nice room,” Nathaniel said.
“Yeah, he's got the hot setup,” I confirmed. I stood, belt in hand, and turned to face Nathaniel, who was looking around the space. He looked even tinier than normal in my clothes and that made something swell uncomfortably in my chest. Warmth flooded my being and I had to swallow hard. He turned toward me, framed by the afternoon light streaming from the window behind him. His hair was still damp and a few stray locks had fallen on his forehead. My fevered imagination thought of the scars on his back and how they evoked the idea that someone had cut the wings off of a fallen angel.
“What?” he asked, his voice tremulous.
“I just had to pause for a second,” I said uncertainly. “Ribs are sore and I get a twinge once in a while if I move just right.”
He frowned and walked to me to take the belt from my hand. “I should have looked for the belt. That fucker broke your ribs?”
“Yeah,” I said softly as he fitted the belt around his waist and cinched it tightly to keep his pants up.
“I'm going to shower,” I said, shaking myself out of whatever it was that gripped me. “I'll meet you in the kitchen, okay?”
He took a breath. “Okay.”
I gathered my stuff and hit the shower. Emotions boiled through me – anger, resentment, a desire to protect, responsibility and love. I had to protect Mason, and of course I loved him even if I'd never say the words. He knows. He has to. I admitted that many of those feelings also applied to Nathaniel, and that was dangerous. He was clouding my mind, but why? Other people had made comments about my appearance from time to time, but they had never affected me. Nathaniel bites his lip and I want to – what? Hold him? Stroke his hair? With an ache running through me I looked down to find my penis answering some of those questions.
“I'm not taking advice from you,” I told it. Still, I might think more clearly if this weren't throbbing in my pants. I grabbed hold with grim determination and told myself it wasn't for pleasure, this was all about being practical. I'm not sure I convinced myself.
Once clean I dressed in a tee and light sweatpants before heading down to eat. I found the table a cheerful place. Mrs. Gerhardt was telling childhood stories about Mason, who was clownishly protesting.
“And so Mason tries to tell his father that he didn't steal those titty magazines from him!” she was saying, laughing. Mason grinned and my heart swelled again to see him getting something he deserved, even though I hate the word. Deserved is something people who failed like to whip out to indicate there is some baseline everyone starts at. That's bullshit. Mason was a good person, and his parents should have caught on a lot earlier that he needs them.
I joined them at the table and caught Nathaniel smiling at the story.
“So, Mase,” she said as she stirred her soup. “The girls have been over a lot. Anything going on?”
“In progress,” he said and winked at me. What the hell was that for?
“Are you guys going out tonight?” she asked.
“Nah. I thought we'd do rom-com movie night,” he said. “We have to get up for work tomorrow.”
She gave him a pleased smile. “I'll see you for dinner, then. I was thinking of ordering Chinese. What do you think?”
“Sounds perfect,” Mason replied and looked to me.
“I like food,” I said and grinned at Mason's put-upon look. He turned to Nathaniel.
“You like Chinese, right?”
“I like anything I'm not paying for,” he said and Mason threw his head back and groaned.
“Guys, guys! It's Chinese take out! You – okay, I'm ordering for you both!” he stated. Nathaniel shrugged and looked at me with a tiny smile. I copied him, just to egg Mason on.
I ate my lunch and complimented Mason on the meal. He preened, but only a little. Nathaniel thanked him and also said it was good, and Mason was even more pleased. We retired upstairs to Mason's room and fired up the video game console. We took turns, made fun of each other, and generally had a good time.
A few hours later I stood up and said I had to go swap the laundry around. Nathaniel elected to follow me. Mason said he would go see his mother about ordering dinner, and we left him to it. I opened the washer, but was surprised to have Nathaniel gently pushing me out of the way.
“I can do it, and you're hurt,” he said.
“I'm not a cripple. I think I can manage,” I said.
“Good for you. I wasn't asking,” he replied as he pulled out some of his clothes and started tossing them in the dryer. I pointed out where the dryer sheets were, and as he took care of that I picked up the hamper and dumped the clothes into the washer. He started the dryer, then turned and leaned against it with his hands behind him as he watched me add detergent and start the machine. I turned to him and warmth flooded me as his gaze swept over me.
“So. You said we need to talk, and I am clean.”
I nodded. “Yeah, we do need to talk. About a lot of things. There's someone I want you to meet. A lawyer.”
He frowned, hard.
“I know, I know,” I said quickly. “Not the way I'd have gone. My hand got forced.”
I looked back into the house as if someone would happen upon us suddenly, but the more likely thing was that Mason would hide nearby to listen in. It wasn't like Mason didn't already know everything anyway. I turned my attention back to Nathaniel.
“The night my dad beat the shit out of me, he'd wanted me to shotgun for him. I said no, and he lost his shit and beat it out of me. I got outside so I could make a run for Mason's car, and Mason drove up across, like, three lawns like a wild man and nearly turned my dad into a red spot on the grass.”
“Mason did that?” he asked, jaw open.
“He totally did,” I said with a grin. That faded as I moved into the less fun part of the story. “I thought he'd just bring me to his house, but he took me to the ER and called his folks. The hospital called the police and social services.”
Nathaniel looked stricken. “Fuck,” he whispered.
“Yeah, I wasn't happy. Mason and I agree to disagree on that one.” I paused. “Things are a little – well, no, they aren't complicated. My lawyer gives things to you without a coat of bullshit. She told me the DA would try to make a case, no matter what it did to me and I have to remember that. I told her a few little things I knew, but I wasn't really part of the things going on – not bigger things, outside my dad. I told her I knew someone who knew more, who'd been helping me. That's the short version. It could be a way out for both of us.”
He looked at me doubtfully. “I don't know.”
I looked at him and then nodded. “I'm going to let you drive the bus on this. I just want you to hear the lawyer out – she said she'd take us on together as clients. Then if you don't think we can make it work, I'll let it go. I'm not leaving you behind.”
He frowned again. “You keep saying that. I told you why I did what I did.”
I studied his face. “Yeah. It all started because you wanted to be closer to me.”
His face colored slightly and he broke eye contact. “So?”
“So. You think you know me. I don't think you do, not really. Come get to know me without having to hide and talk in corners,” I said, each word coming out with no forethought. “Enjoy Mason. We'll watch a few dumb movies. You can sleep in a real bed. We'll talk to the lawyer and figure it out from there.”
He sighed. “I only know how to break into places. What kind of future do I have? Tell me that?”
I smiled. “I bet security companies would love to pick your brain for ways to stop people like the one you used to be, for starters.”
He frowned thoughtfully. “I never thought of that.”
“Are you guys talking about me?” Mason asked, popping around the corner as if to surprise us.
“Please,” I said in a bored tone. “Like you weren't hiding out and listening to everything I said.”
“How else would I find stuff out?” he asked and grinned.