The safe house was bland on the outside with a slightly unkempt yard. It was perfectly at home in this neighborhood. We entered through a back door. I hadn't wanted to leave Mason, but Deputy Winchell was going to the hospital himself to stand guard. Mrs. Gerhardt had gone with him, while we rode with Cathy to the safe house. Cathy had left two messages for Agent Garibaldi to update him. She refused to answer the number from the DA's office. Fuck that guy.
I sat in the back seat with Nathaniel, running my fingers through his hair and keeping him pressed to me. His hair was amazingly soft and it soothed me to no end to feel it sliding between my fingers. His arms were around me and his hand was moving slowly up and down my back. Anger bubbled inside me at my father being connected to this, that anyone would dare try to hurt Mason. The boy in my arms had stood with me before that fire. Overwhelming wasn't the word.
Once inside we sat together on the couch. He kicked his shoes off and I followed suit. I turned him so that I could pull his back to my chest and I held him, continuing to stroke his hair. My mind kept swirling with how close I'd come to losing everything I cared about. My body was sore, still recovering from my father's beating. My cheek stung and was likely bruising, I think I nearly ripped a guy's ear off, but Mason would be okay. Nathaniel would be okay. We'd all live long enough to recover from this. I had to keep telling myself that.
The next few hours were tense, and hard to remember clearly. Cathy was on the phone with the feds, who had a sense of urgency. The attack had proved something was going on, and they didn't want to be the ones that dropped the ball. After darkness fell Mason and Mrs. Gerhardt showed up. I don't know why, but I started to cry when I saw him with the bandage over his ear. I grabbed him and held him, thankful that he was okay.
Mason was zonked on pain meds, but his grip on me was strong. His mom got him settled in a bed. We followed her and sat on the bed as Mason lay back and drifted off to sleep.
“What did the doctor say?” I asked once I was sure he was out.
She kept her hand over his as she spoke. “A ruptured eardrum from the gun going off right by his...his head.” She covered her mouth and tears were leaking down her face. I moved to go to her, but Nathaniel was there first. She allowed him to hold her and I placed a hand on her shoulder to let her know she wasn't alone. My own tears couldn't be restrained, looking down at him. My happy Mason may never be the same.
“His ear will heal in about three months, but....” Her breath hitched. “Let's...let's let him rest,” she said and stood up slowly. We left a light on and the door open as we retreated down the hall to the kitchen. The agent offered her some coffee and placed a light blanket around her shoulders as she sat at the table. She held the coffee cup and turned it slowly in her hands while staring down at the liquid.
“He was in so much pain,” she said, her voice a low whisper. “but he kept asking if you were okay.” She looked up at us. “He said you came for him instead of running away.”
“I could never leave Mason,” I said to her. “He's my best...he's the brother I should have had, if there was any justice.”
“Mason is good,” Nathaniel said, his voice kind of dreamy. “What sort of person am I if I let a good person suffer for me?”
She covered her mouth again and sobbed lightly. I stood up and she hugged me, then waved for Nathaniel. She held us both in her arms and kept thanking us, although I didn't feel I deserved any thanks. Mason would be okay if it weren't for me. I could never leave Mason, though. So I had to defend him.
Cathy sat us down. She had Agent Garibaldi on speaker with a few other people. They peppered us with questions. I could tell them about my father and some of the things I'd seen, like the copper thieving. Nathaniel really filled in the blanks. Once they'd grilled us for a few hours, they said they'd need statements later, but that we should rest. It was after midnight when word came down of a successful raid. There were some dead bodies, and they'd gotten some gains that they didn't disclose. The agents with us smiled pretty widely.
At two-thirty Nathaniel told me we needed to sleep, and I wasn't going to fight him. We stopped by Mason's room, but he was sleeping. His mom was lying beside him snoring lightly. We let them be and went to another bedroom.
“We've got blood on our clothes,” Nathaniel said quietly. I looked down and realized he was right. I guess it was a measure of how fucked up we were that night that no one had mentioned it and we hadn't noticed. We stripped for bed and walked into the bathroom to clean up. Back in the bedroom we climbed into bed and lay beside one another, our bare skin radiating heat, or so I imagined.
Sleep eluded me, despite my exhaustion. My nerves hummed with some weird energy that I hoped would give out soon so I could sleep, hopefully without dreaming. To calm myself I pulled Nathaniel close. He rolled toward me, tucking his forehead against my chest as I stroked his hair. I tilted my head and buried my nose in his hair, breathing slowly as if I could inhale his essence and get enough equilibrium to get through the night.
My arm felt like it would fall off, so I laid my hand on his side, feeling the hot skin under my palm. He shifted his head back so we shared a pillow.
“You were so brave,” I said to him. “I was feeling paralyzed when they said they'd kill Mason.”
“It wasn't bravery,” he said quietly.
“I'm not sure what else you'd call it,” I replied.
“Did you mean it?” he asked softly in the dark.
“Mean what?” I whispered back.
“When you said you loved me.”
“I meant it,” I said. “I hate the word deserve. You sure as hell deserve more than my love, though.”
“Don't say that,” he snapped, his tone shifting from quiet to white-hot.
He lifted his head and placed an angel-soft kiss on my lips. “Because I've loved you from a distance for two years. All I wanted in life was to have you love me. Do you understand? That means everything to me. Don't downplay the most important thing in my life.”
My lip trembled with emotion. “This is going to sound stupid, but those scars on your back? I'm convinced someone cut off your wings.”
He huffed out a small laugh. “No. I crawled out from the sewer grate next to the one you were raised in.” He ran his fingertips through the side of my hair, moving slowly and deliberately. “I absorbed everything about you. I wanted you – this – more than anything.”
“You went to a dangerous gun deal just to try and see me. Seems kind of obsessive,” I said, the corner of my mouth pulling up in amusement.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “It was obsessive. Love. Hope. Just as addictive as anything else you can find on the street. I wanted both, and you had them.”
“Are...” I chuckled. “Are you calling me your dealer?”
He kissed me briefly. “I'm fucking this up. I just want you to understand how...how much....”
“You're loyal,” I said awkwardly. Feeling my way forward, letting things out of my mind I had only noted in passing or with contempt. I said, “I keep thinking about your eyes. The thing with Kevin, the night you helped me protect Mason, the way you risked yourself...that shows me more than anything you could have said from any corner.”
I felt his body shake with quiet laughter and I smiled.
“I'm glad I don't have to sit in that corner in the locker room to tell you I love you back,” he said softly – dare I say it, angelically? He shifted a little, and then he was lying on top of me and kissing me hard, like he had in the laundry room. I felt consumed, yet more whole than I had ever been. His kiss was aggressive, possessive, and I wanted more. His tongue tangled with my own, and all I could think was 'More, please Nathaniel, more.' He pushed on my shoulders and leaned back, panting lightly – at least as much as I was.
“You haven't kissed me since that night. Is it okay that I'm kissing you?”
“Anytime you want to,” I agreed.
“Good,” he said softly. “I expect you to kiss me whenever the thought crosses your mind. Just so you know.”
I reached up and ran my fingers along the side of his face. “I can do that.”
“Are you tired?”
“Exhausted. I can't sleep, though. I'm running on nervous energy, and I can't seem to relax.”
He shifted off me in the dark, sliding his small frame against my side and not allowing me to turn toward him. He laid his head on my shoulder, and I could feel his breath on my ear. “I want to see your scar, now.”
I thought for a moment of the myriad of minor scars my father had given me over the years. “What do you mean? The one on my hip?” I asked him.
When he spoke, his tone was somewhat sultry. “Never heard of a circumcision scar?”
I chuckled lightly, the conversation taking on a surreal quality. “Nathaniel, you must be exhausted.”
“I am,” he said and yawned as if to punctuate that. “But I'm also nearly naked, and you're nearly naked and I'd really love for us both to be entirely naked.” He paused. “Besides, after we get done you'll sleep. It releases chemicals in the brain that relax you.”
His tone made me think he was nearly begging. Trying to convince me, and yet he hadn't made a move. Did I want this? Was this the way to go? My tired brain wondered if I was asking the right questions – or if there were any question that I would ever answer 'no' to Nathaniel ever again. “Okay,” I said quietly. “Just so you know, I've never....”
He slid forward a bit, his lips settling softly on my neck and I sighed. “That feels nice.”
“And this?” he asked, moving down to my clavicle.
“Y-yes,” I replied.
I never knew my nipples were so sensitive, and I no longer felt very tired at all. “Ugh. God! That's...so nice.”
He hummed and kissed his way down. I wasn't filled with complex thoughts like how long I'd last or if I should be grabbing his hair like that. It was like the kiss, aggressive and possessive. I'd never felt more like I belonged to someone, body and soul, than I did then. Owned, but willingly. Nathaniel was planting a flag, staking a claim that I was his and his alone. I was good with that – he was sure. Afterward I felt as if my bones had been removed as he rubbed my skin and planted small, loving kisses up my chest. Having no experience, I copied his moves – rolling him to his back as I worked on his neck, to his appreciative panting. I moved to the hollow in his collar and he sighed. He gasped audibly and sank his fingers into my hair as I moved over his nipple, settling still and flicking it with my tongue. Ungracefully I tugged on his underwear. Some might have expected that he'd tell me I didn't have to – but I did. I wanted to. I was sure. I could think of nothing else but his sweet release and the sleep we'd share afterward, curled into a ball of boys in love.
I spooned him, holding him lightly as he kissed my fingers. After having avoided romantic entanglements for as long as I could remember, feeling him pressed to me made me...exultant. I craved the warm contact, the silky feel of his touch and touching him. It must be the addiction he spoke of, because now I could relate. I'd never felt anything sink hooks so deeply into me. His back moved against my chest with each inhalation and exhalation, and it was almost more than I could stand – and yet I didn't want it to end.
He pushed his heel backward between my shins and I soon had my legs wrapped around one of his. If anything, my mood shifted even higher. The more skin contact, the more of him I could feel the more real this felt, the more sure I was. This person whom I hadn't even noticed until a month ago had a hold on me that wasn't going to shake free. I squeezed him slightly in my arms, to make his skin move against mine and to silently reinforce that I also had a grip on him. And I did – hooks that had been planted without my knowledge, hooks at the core of him.
I pressed my face into his hair and breathed. Then I dreamt.
The next three months were filled with a lot of waiting for things to happen in the legal system and for our lives to settle into a new normal. It was by turns frustrating and massively enjoyable, which was harder for me to manage than I like to admit. The raid based on the information we'd provided to the feds had been successful, but they didn't tell us exactly how successful. There were a lot of arrests, and they were trying to follow things as far as they could. One guy said they were getting as many dominoes as possible to fall. Because the Double-A was considered a domestic terrorist group, the people arrested – like my father – were being held indefinitely.
Knowing my father wasn't at home, I went back with a deputy to get the rest of my things. I didn't have that much that meant anything, but the nicer clothes I had there were Mason's, and I'd taken them for a reason.
The house looked less threatening in the overcast light of a day on the cusp of winter. My mother answered the door. She looked blearily at us but made no comment as she turned from the open door and retreated to the couch where she'd left her tumbler. The deputy spoke to her about the official reason for the visit, but she seemed as vacant as ever. I wondered why she'd answered the door. Entering the small hallway leading to my room, the bathroom and Tina's room, I saw that Tina's door was ajar, and the room appeared empty. Curious, I crossed to her doorway and pushed the door open wider to look.
The furniture was in place, but the closet door stood open and the clothes were gone, as were all of her personal effects, right down to her bed sheets. I let out a breath. To the empty room I said, “I hope you are waiting tables somewhere with a chance to rebuild, and not living with someone Dad found for you. Sorry, Tina, that might be the best I can do.”
“What's that?” the deputy said, startling me as she approached from behind.
Maybe just hoping wasn't all I could do, I thought. Looking at the deputy I said, “My sister, Tina, used to live in this room. I hope she's safe, but I'm afraid my dad might have...made her spend time with men. It would be good to know none of them ended up, you know, taking her with them since my dad wasn't here.”
The deputy frowned and pulled out a notepad. “What's her full name, date of birth and any identifying marks?”
She followed me to my old bedroom as I filled her in on everything I knew about Tina. I put my clothes and a few personal items into a couple of garbage bags. The deputy retreated from the room to grab her laptop and start an official missing persons posting for Tina. I looked down at the divots in the carpet where Jackson's bed had been.
“You were a fucker, Jax. I'm sorry things went the way they did for you. I gotta leave you behind, now. I know I always planned to someday, but I thought you'd be alive. That you'd call me for bail money one day. Or that I'd have to take in your kids when you went to jail for killing your wife or something.” I paused, pressing the toe of my shoe to the dimple. “Truth is, you would have hurt people, Jax. Wishing won't change that. It's who you were, just like I'm who I am. I guess I'm gay now, or something. You'd respect him, even if you didn't like us being together. I mean, excepting that he shot you, maybe.”
I sighed and looked around the sad space. “Dad's in prison. Probably going to be there for a while. Tina got out, maybe. Hopefully. Mom...she has her own prison. I guess I should do what I can for her, just because I'm not her. I don't know if I can, though. I can give loyalty to someone that's loyal, but how do you do that for someone who doesn't even look out for herself?” With another sigh I hefted my bags and looked down at the divots one last time. “Goodbye, Jax.”
A few weeks later they found Tina. She'd left town, and I'll be damned, she was actually working as a waitress. I guess the feds filled her in on how our dad was in prison, and did she have any information that might help to keep him there. I guess she must have, but I didn't learn any of those details. I was sure I didn't want to know.
We sat around the dining room table with a meal Mason had made laid out before us. I'd never seen his dining room so full, with his mother and father, Nathaniel and myself, as well as Mason, Ris and Valerie, who'd brought along Matt as her date. Mason had made something French, Coque au vin he said, which was chicken in a white wine cream sauce. He served it over a bed of egg noodles and there was a side of green beans.
Mrs. Gerhardt tapped her glass for attention and all eyes turned toward her. “I'd like to officially welcome Nathaniel Aaron Gerhardt and Ethan Andrew Gerhardt to the family. Boys, this is a night to remember.”
We raised our glasses and smiled at each other. Our names were changed, but neither of us was adopted. Parental rights had been terminated, and prevailing thought was that Double-A had cut their losses as much as they could and we were no longer a threat to them. There was some concern about retaliation, but I didn't want to leave Mason behind. Couldn't. So I got a name change, enough that if anyone came looking for Ethan Miller, they wouldn't find him. Nathaniel got the same deal, and our files were under seal. Neither of us had been adopted; that would have defeated the purpose of the name-change. That did nothing to stop Mason from proclaiming us his brothers, and I'd never deny either of us that title.
Nathaniel joked it would make getting married easier since we already had the same last name. I was still figuring out the details of our relationship, but the one thing I was sure of was that I loved him – it wasn't just something I'd said when under stress or exhausted. Touching him had become a need, and one I wasn't inclined to control.
One might wonder how we'd been accepted by the school or our fellow students. I'm not sure, because I never noticed them nor cared. I had reflected, however, that I wasn't doing myself any favors with that attitude, hard as it was to shake and easy as it could be to justify. Matt Heron was a perfect example of the kind of person I'd cut myself off from. We'd grown reasonably close as the soccer season had wended its way to a close, but I had been surprised when he'd maintained our relationship – perhaps friendship. Nathaniel told me I motivated people, even inspired them. I really don't know what he means.
Mason's ear had taken three months to heal. I was kind of surprised he didn't blame me. After all, if it weren’t for associating with me, he'd have been safe. That was Mason, though. The only thing he'd ever say about it was that we came back for him, that we never left him. He was more interested in telling us all that we were brothers now and that Nathaniel and I should cut out the incest. Although his hearing had recovered, he'd play it up when his parents called him, saying he hadn't heard them. He did claim to hear moans coming from my room, but that's another story altogether. He actually had quit drinking after asking me months ago what I'd change about him. He hadn't had a drink since that conversation, and I was exceedingly proud of him.
He wasn't sleeping around, either. Ris had a grip on him, now. Mason seemed pleased with the situation and even seemed to be in love. I can honestly say I think he's going to be okay.
Nathaniel and I take things day by day. We love each other, and that keeps us moving forward. We each have our demons, our learned behaviors to overcome. We hurt one another from time to time. I still have the occasional nightmare, and Nathaniel can shut down when things get difficult. I'm not any less of an asshole, but the people I love seem to love me back, so I can live with that. I still don't know if I'm gay, but I don't think I care. Once upon a time I could have slept with Ris or Mason, no strings attached. I don't think I could anymore. I knew, now. I was sure. Nathaniel was where my heart could go and be safe, where I was loved and was allowed to love in return. At the end of the day, we always come back to that love – an unbreakable bond that isn't whispered in corners, but carried in our hearts for any who care to see.