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Some Baptize in Water, Some in Flames

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February

He was dying. He was dying.

Another violent thrust.

Another.

He didn’t want to go another round, he’d felt his skin tear — I’m done! That’s it, I’m done — please, I’m done — thick fingers covering his mouth, smearing the cum across his lips, who was going next?, a round of laughter, hands in his hair, slapping his ass. “you ready?” no. no, i’m not ready. i’m done! unrelenting pressure, grunts of pleasure. god, it hurt, it hurt so bad. “clean him up, will ya? oh stop whining, let’s see you choke on this.” what the fuck, what the fuck, he couldn’t do two at once. he was doing two at once, blowing one guy, getting fucked by another.

as soon as they’d had their fun, it’d be over for him.

they’re gonna kill me.

mom...

it was his fault, this was all his fault. he wanted to go home, he just wanted to go home.

mom! mom!

mommy...

“—fucking wake up! Justin! Wake the fuck up!”

Clay was jostling him, his eyes, wild, desperate. Justin clung to them, clung to their intense color—blue blue blue, blue-drop heroin, his first, and only, home.

“Hey, hey.” Clay stroked Justin’s sweaty hair away from his forehead. “You want Mom? You were calling for Mom...”

“I can’t breathe. I can’t–” breathe. He couldn’t breathe. “It hurts. It hurts.” Justin gripped Clay’s arm. “I need meds.”

Black tar, purple fent.

Blue fent, carfent.

Bright pink fetty that turned blue on the foil.

Meto, proto, iso, etazene — cocaine — a speedball, he’d take any of those, all of ‘em, jam the rig straight into his neck.

He fell out of bed, stumbled straight past Clay. He needed Lainie.

Lainie would give him morphine.

If he cried... if he held his stomach, bit through his lip to make it bleed...

She might give him hydromorphone.

“Oh no, you don’t.” Clay was two steps behind him. “Get back on the bed.” He yanked Justin backward, yanked him away from the door. “You don’t need drugs.”

“Yes, I do! I’m fucking dying!”

“Wow. Dramatic.” A firm shove, a loving tap, then Clay was climbing on top of him, cradling him down to the mattress. “You had a nightmare. It was just a nightmare.”

God, please don’t make me talk about it. He’d rather die than talk about what those guys had done to him in the motel.

“Okay. We’ll do it your way.” Clay settled, got comfortable, sat back on Justin’s thighs, grabbed his wrists, pinned them to the bed. He smiled darkly. “Try to flip me.”

“Don’t make it too easy.” Justin tested Clay’s grip strength, nodded his acceptance, nodded permission as Clay leaned close, spat on Justin’s face.

Like a baptism.

The sensation was cathartic, wonderfully odd.

“I wanna struggle.”

“Then, struggle. You’re not going anywhere.”

Justin struggled. Clay fought back.

It was violent, chaotic. By the end of it, they had bruises to match.

 


 

“Was that too much for you, what I just said?”

Dr. A didn’t seem appreciative of his tone.

“I asked you about your first unwanted sexual experience and you told me about your mom, your ex-girlfriend, and a prostitute you hung out with on the streets.”

“Yep,” Justin answered, snapping the p.

He was uncomfortable. Being the center of attention for an entire hour was deeply uncomfortable.

Especially if sex was not involved.

“At some point, Justin, are we going to talk about you?”

He shrugged. “I’ve always wanted sex. My mom said I used to play with myself when I was 3-months old.” Dr. A stared at him dumbly, so he elaborated, “Play with myself, you know—” He showed her what he meant, using the silly putty as a teaching tool. Then he ripped the putty in half, which—since it was a stand-in model for his dick—seemed appropriate. “I don’t know if I got off or not, I was pretty young.”

Something broke through the flatness in Dr. A’s face. Disgust? Sympathy? Boredom? “Did your mother ever touch you on your privates, in a way that felt uncomfortable to you?”

“What, you mean in a sexual way?”

“In an inappropriate way, yes.” She adjusted her glasses, placed pen to paper, like she was expecting something from him. Something he didn’t know how to give.

“No. My mom, she—” She never wanted to touch me at all. “A lot of men hurt her. Abused her. Sexually. Usually while she was high, when she couldn’t fight back, when she couldn’t even scream, she was so out of it.”

“Did you witness this happening?”

“Yeah.” And just like with Jess, he had not been able to stop it.

She made a note on her pad.

His first unwanted sexual experience? AJ, when he was five? Or the motel, in Oakland? Both of those kinda felt wanted, in a twisted way.

The very first time Justin had gotten into a car with a sketchy man, and heard the lock click, he’d been calm. He’s gonna drive you somewhere secluded. You’re probably gonna be raped.

He’d unzipped the guy’s pants, started warming him up as they drove.

It’s gonna hurt.

It’s gonna hurt, but you can handle it.

There might be blood so you gotta relax. Frickin’ relax. Participate. Make it good for him. Make him want to keep you alive for a second round.

You can take it.

You have to take it. It’s what you deserve.

That man had not raped him.

He’d paid him well actually. Oral only, as agreed.

Justin had had a steep learning curve in Oakland. The man that had kept him captive for three days, getting in his car, Justin had just thought, Aw, man, what a total waste. It smells like day-old pussy in here. This guy’s not even gonna be able to get it up.

He’d gotten it up. Multiple times.

It was kinda frightening, how easy it was, to go missing on the streets. No one came looking for you.

Clay had come looking for Justin.

Clay.

Ten more minutes of this hell and he could see Clay again. Matt and Lainie had promised to take them to see a movie.

“I’m not comfortable talking about this,” Justin heard himself say. He’d learned that was a thing he could say, if he ever got overwhelmed.

“Okay. We’ll move on to something else.”

He dropped the silly putty on his lap, wrapped his fingers around his bracelet instead, applied pressure to his skin with the tips of his fingers, trying to soothe himself. Why he needed soothing, he didn’t know.

Clay’s artwork was there, a constellation of purplish-black.

“How’d you get that bruising?” Dr. Acevedo asked him. “It’s quite extensive.”

Justin traced the outline, a record of Clay’s affection for him. He couldn’t help but treat it reverently. “I did it to myself.”

Her pen flew along the page. “Can you tell me why?”

“When the pain gets really bad... I’m talking ‘bout my stomach — some of the nerves were severed, you know, in the shooting, and they haven’t healed yet, I don’t heal very well anymore, because of my immune system, so I have these attacks... the nerves—they misfire sometimes. You don’t ever wanna feel this kind of pain, Dr. A, it’s like... like scalding oil, like being burned alive... for hours, and the only thing that really helps is pressure. Sensation somewhere else on my body. The shock of pain, really, really helps. But the only thing is... I bruise easily. Clay tries to be careful, but—”

Oh shit.

The first rule of fight club.

Dr. A’s eyes were pityingly soft. Pity... with a pinch of professional excitement. She would love for this to turn into an abuse case. “Justin, this is a safe space. Do you want to tell me what really happened?” After a pause, she probed, “Did Clay bruise your arm?”

“No, he didn’t do shit. I–I bruised my arm, to distract myself from the pain. It’s sore, though. That’s what I meant. Clay tries to be careful, but—he bumps it, sometimes.”

Being careful was not at all how they played the game.

Scratches on his back. Bruises on his thighs.

Curlicue indents on his stomach.

Blue-black-purple. His skin was Clay’s canvas.

And on his ankle, a signature: those two little initials carved into his flesh with the tip of a knife.

CJ

Pain was a gift they gave each other.

“If I suspect you’re being abused, or being in any way mistreated... I am required to report it.”

Being abused? By the Jensens?

It was laughable.

Justin did not laugh at Dr. A. (He really, really wanted to.)

Fuck, he almost felt sorry for her.

He might as well throw something juicy her way. Give her a little professional excitement.

She was required to maintain confidentiality.

And she was about to regret the day she had accepted him as a patient.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. I’m sorta in a BDSM relationship with my brother. We don’t have sex, or anything like that, but we do some kinky, kinky shit, and sometimes, he gets turned on by it. Like—roleplaying. We both really like roleplaying. I’m always the one in control, but he’s in charge. What he says goes. The bruises... well, it’s like... pain has this high to it that’s kinda like slamming; when you’re not scared for your life... it can be kinda—soothing? But that’s not why we do it. For us—it’s about comfort. Aftercare. Which sounds totally whack, I get it, but we like taking care of each other. The only thing is, there’s gotta be something to take care of. Right? There’s gotta be a little pain, to get the reward. So, that’s it basically. Clay bosses the fuck out of me, and I love it because he’s really fucking good at it. Good at taking care of me.” He exhaled, let himself empty. “The way I love my brother, it’s like—insanity. I’d do just about anything for him, and I think... I think I’m kinda a masochist.”

He tossed the silly putty into its bowl, settled back, stretching his arms out expansively in the chair. “Whaddya think, Dr. A? Is there a specialist for like, kink between siblings?”

Holy fucking shit, if he could have captured the look on her face!

She steepled her fingers, the way therapists did, adjusted her face, the way therapists did.

Carefully crafted objectivity.

“Justin, every time I see you, you’ve lost weight, you have new bruises, new marks, you speak about very risky sexual behavior. Tell me: Isn’t it your choice now, the way you torture yourself? The abuse is over. Can’t you envision a future—where no one hurts you, and you don’t feel the need to hurt yourself in the absence?”

Man, what a question.

What a fucking question.

 


 

Clay had to see a neurologist, two counties over.

Lainie offered to take him along, told him they could find a private room to administer his medication, they could pack formula for his feeding tube, and if he got tired, she would find someplace for him to lie down.

That would’ve been fucking shit, for all of them.

So Justin stayed home.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Clay told him, and reached out his hand for the final time.

Their fingers touched gently.

Shit.” Clay grabbed onto him, letting his chin rest on Justin’s shoulder. “Shut up, don’t make fun of me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Justin murmured and stealthily slipped two condoms into his pocket. “Use these.”

It wasn’t something he and Clay had openly discussed, how Clay was gonna handle his problem on the road. If he couldn’t masturbate in a restroom... he’d just have to tough it out.

“Hey kiddo, breakfast in ten,” Matt called to him as Justin stood watching out the window.

Clay and Lainie pulled safely away. Be safe.

I don’t miss you, Clay texted him, ten minutes after he left, which was fucking hilarious, because he then proceeded to send Justin a steady barrage of text messages, complaints mostly, about the long drive and the insensitive doctors and the tedious medical tests—but also checking up on him, and sending him pictures of their outing, so he’d feel included.

Justin sent him one text, i rearranged ur comics, and, surprisingly, Clay didn’t freak out about it, just replied, I DISOWN YOU, and then ten minutes later, his second surprise, Lainie called, told him to check his dresser, she had bought him a little something—nothing special, she hoped he liked it, and would he please update her after his first round of medications, she wanted to make sure it went smoothly.

The gift turned out to be a new video game, which Justin had mentioned to Lainie one time, months ago, and he didn’t know what to say—he didn’t need it, and he wasn’t sure why he deserved it.

“Let us spoil you,” Matt told him, setting up his lunch. “We like getting the opportunity to surprise you with something fun. We know therapy’s been hard. We’re proud of you for sticking with it.”

Not a good reason for splurging on an expensive gift, but yeah... therapy was turning out to be trickier than he’d thought.

Five sessions a week.

All those priceless therapeutic moments.

Listening to Clay explain to Dr. Lee that he and Justin weren’t overly attached, that their negotiated codependence was in fact very healthy and healing, and—case in point—they really liked the role-playing exercises she had assigned them, they especially liked the fact that they required two people, so they had to do them together and therefore needed joint therapy sessions... He argued with Dr. Lee about it for 45 minutes... 45 long minutes...

Hugging Lainie during family counseling after she started bawling about over-ripened tomatoes—the red juice had gushed onto their kitchen counter at lunch-time, made a horrible mess, and it shouldn’t have happened, not in her home, it shouldn’t have happened—she had sobbed her way through half a box of tissues, Justin’s chin resting on her shoulder, his nose in her soft hair, his fingers interlocking with Clay’s against Lainie’s back, because Clay was comforting her on the other side...

Squishing gobs of silly putty against his palm while Dr. Acevedo instructed him to please walk her through the experience of getting orally penetrated by a gun, how did he feel about it, was he worried it would happen again?

No. Seth was dead. Unless zombies were a thing, Justin wasn’t worried about it happening again. He was totally fine with what Seth had done to him.

Why?

Because he had not done it to Clay.

What more was there to say?

That new video game was a spot of hazy warmth in a day that otherwise turned out to be spectacularly shitty.

Not because he had two therapy sessions scheduled back to back, not because he had to struggle through two hours of chemistry with Matt, not because his home healthcare nurse decided to ignore Lainie’s instructions and just do whatever the fuck she wanted, which meant questioning him for ten minutes about his bowel movements and then asking him to strip naked and bend over, but because he realized—without Clay—he didn’t much care for being alive.

Time spent apart from him was meaningless, pleasureless, pointless.

Everything was—whatever.

He forgot to brush his hair. Didn’t bother brushing his teeth.

Matt brought him vanilla pudding as a snack, chock full of protein powder, and Justin ran the spoon along the edge of his bowl, around and around and around, and eventually, Matt asked, “Not today?”

Not today.

He needed to pee for two agonizing hours before he finally forced himself to go to the bathroom, and he couldn’t even last ten seconds before he felt Seth’s hand on him again—his jagged nails; those painful thrusts.

Whore.

His ass burned, like it did after rough sex.

Blood pooled at the back of his throat. Not illusion, not memory. Real blood. Why was he bleeding? He had bitten his cheek, torn open the skin.

Numb to the pain of it, he spat into the sink, saw swirling pink, and when he looked in the mirror, he saw decaying flesh, saw Bryce staring back at him, his grin mockingly delighted.

“How could you let this happen?” Justin asked himself.

He was filled to the brim with shame. He’d done too many terrible things.

And now his rent, was finally coming due.

 


 

“Can you put Clay on the phone? He’s—he’s not answering.”

“He’s with the doctor right now, sweetie. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah. I was just gonna ask him a math question real quick. But it’s fine. It can wait.”

“Why don’t you ask your dad? I’m sure, between the two of you—and DuckDuckGo, you can figure it out.” Justin could hear the smile in her voice, her gentle, teasing humor. “Trigonometry terrifies him. But I know he’d love it if you asked for help. It’s become a point of pride for him, to help you boys out with math and science. He’d hate that I told you, but he reads ahead in your textbook every night, frantically teaching himself the lesson so he can teach it to you. I give you full permission to strain his brain. Make him sweat a little.”

To willingly torture himself with math... Matt was the fucking best dad. “I will. I definitely will. Thanks.”

Except... Justin didn’t have any math questions. What he’d just had, in fact, was his second round of suppositories.

Being touched like that... in his own frickin’ bedroom, right where he and Clay did their schoolwork... being told to spread his cheeks, like he was in juvie, or worse, county jail, and she’d given him toilet paper afterward, like he’d made a mess, shit himself, or something, a nasty little boy...

It was procedure.

He knew it was procedure.

The nurse was just doing her job. (Would he want to do that job? Fuck no.) She hadn’t meant to be so apathetic, hadn’t intended to hurt him, but—she’d hurt him, and he’d been unpleasantly reminded just how badly a loss of control could end for him.

Shot in the stomach... then fucked in the throat.

Drugged to oblivion... then gang-banged.

“Lainie?” Justin had taken the careful, respectful way Lainie handled his medication for granted. (Always a blanket to cover him in the front, a warm towel to sit on; his phone for distraction, an over-indulgent, unnecessary—much appreciated—fuck-ton of lubrication.)

The nurse had done none of that.

It was a lesson in humility.

He wanted to tell Lainie about it, to thank her for how smooth and easy she always made it for him, how completely devoid of shame, and painless, too, but he didn’t want to mention the nurse’s name for fear the unexpected switch of topics would upset or at least worry her.

He’d survived worse.

“Is everything going okay at home? Dad says you spent the morning in bed. I had a feeling the nausea might be bad. There are some ginger chews on my desk, if you want to go get some.” Lainie was worried; Justin could hear it in her voice. He had made her worry.

“My stomach’s just a little upset. Clay usually... he helps.”

Fuck, this was hell. He was wrecked without him.

They needed each other to soothe the hurt Seth had carved into them. Without that comfort... every ache—became an agony.

“Did you take your pain meds?”

The Tylenol wasn’t cutting it; he could barely get out of bed.

He was bundled up in Clay’s blankets, wearing a soft t-shirt, even softer sleeping pants, a bottle of Pedialyte tucked to his chest, rice crackers on his lap, cherry jello, a jar of baby food—apple strawberry banana—five kinds of candy, two packets of gum. Matt had been waiting on him hand and foot, checking in on him every hour.

A fucking prince in his castle, he was completely provided for, spoiled rotten, actually, pampered with blankets and snacks, with the added privilege of not having to do anything taxing for hours on end.

No hustling. No whoring.

“We’re fine with you inviting a friend over. Why don’t you call Zach? I know he’d love to see you.”

Can I invite Bryce?

“I don’t want Zach to see me like this.” His nose was running, he had chills and tremors, his stomach was constantly growling. “I’m kinda gross.” He was dogshit sick.

“Oh. All right. As your mom, I have the right to say: you’re never too gross for me. I’ll need a cuddle, when I get home.”

“I’ll give you one,” Justin said, pretending like he was indulging her, when really he’d like nothing more than to curl up with his mom and sleep for a week. Curl up with Lainie, who wasn’t his Mom mom, but was basically his mom.

“I’ll be okay. Matt made me soup. I just wanted to—to tell you thank you, for the video game. I can’t believe you remembered. It’s—really awesome.”

“Did you try it out? What’d you think?”

“Not yet. I’m gonna wait for Clay.”

“Of course you are.” She laughed gently. “Something to look forward to, then.”

“You could play, too.”

“As long as you boys are prepared to taste defeat.”

“So confident,” Justin teased. “There’s no way. Clay’s pretty good.”

Clay was terrible.

They both laughed, shared the joke. His poor brother, so spatially challenged. So uncoordinated. (And nursing a bad hand.)

God. His poor, mangled brother.

Multiple damaged nerves. Permanent damage.

That hand had never needed to be broken, those beautiful, artistic fingers—

Fuck Seth. Fuck his rotting corpse.

“I know you probably can’t talk right now, so that’s it, really.”

Justin would probably end up calling Bryce. (He didn’t know if he was preparing for the day Clay finally gave up on him... or if he was waiting for Bryce to forcefully intrude and dislodge him.)

“Wait. Justin, honey, don’t go.”

“Yeah?”

Lainie’s voice radiated composure, so calm and level, the same way it was when she checked his incisions, when she flushed his NG tube, when she spoke at his doctor’s appointments, when she—did anything really, which always made him feel very, very cared for and safe. “Stay on the phone with me. Let’s just sit together on the phone for a little while. I’m in the waiting area, and it’s pretty deserted at the moment. I feel like maybe you need someone to talk to.”

“I’m okay.” He wasn’t okay. He thought about Clay, his broken fingers, broken ribs, broken brain — Justin had done that — how could he ever be okay again?

“You don’t need to tell me what’s wrong, but—I know my babies. Justin... I hear it in your voice.”

My babies. Why did that make him wanna cry?

He missed Lainie every bit as much as he missed Clay.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I feel—wispy.” He was separating, losing control. “I’m getting lost.”

“Find something to center yourself. Clay’s bears, or the basketball from the team. Run your fingers along it every time your awareness starts to slip. Can you do a body scan? Does that feel safe?”

It was a daily struggle—not to dissociate. Lainie had been practicing mindfulness with him.

It was stupidly effective.

Justin took a slow breath, softened his jaw, scanned the room, found weapons, found exits, found himself, carefully took stock, did a body scan, his fingers could move freely, his butt was supported on the bed, he could breathe, he could swallow, he wasn’t being fondled, his muscles were locked painfully tight, but—they were his, his muscles, his skin, his nerve endings; it was all his.

Nobody could force him out.

“Any better?”

“A little.” Justin rubbed a hand over his eyes, his head throbbing, and he imagined his hand was Lainie’s hand, brushing his cheek.

“Is Clay...? Is he—okay?” Agony poured out of him; floodwater, torrential rain.

“No.” A weary sigh. “It’s been a difficult morning for him, too. Let me tell you everything that’s been going on.”

After that, even though they were separated by 200 miles of physical distance, even though he was sitting on Clay’s bed and Clay wasn’t pressed snugly against his side, he had Lainie’s voice in his ear, calm and level, and if he closed his eyes, he could imagine she was lying beside him, and it did not feel so much like being alone.

 


 

“If you’re in the wild, and you get a bad cut, what you do is—you collect a bunch of soldier ants. Then you gotta sorta like force them to bite either side of the wound. Then pop their heads off, and— boom! — impromptu stitches.”

“Fascinating,” Jess said sarcastically. She laughed. “That’s what Matt’s teaching you? Emergency first aid?”

“Clay and me... we watch a lot of documentaries. Like, a lot, a lot.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Yeah, it is. Hey, you going to the game on Friday?”

“Only if you are.” Was he imagining the note of wistfulness in Jess’s voice? Yes, he was.

Also, he was dating Alex.

Tell that to his brain.

“Nah, I can’t. Don’t have any ‘pep.’”

“Me either. We’re too good for this school. Oh shit, oui, oui, c'est aussi ça que j'aime — I gotta go.”

“Bye.” Je t’aime.

Justin wrote the words out on a sticky note, Je tame, put the note on Clay’s pillow, with a Hershey’s kiss.

He’d fucking love that.

 


 

Justin watched highlights of last week’s game.

Zach was an absolute beast. Like always.

As captain, he gave a post-game interview.

“The team was phenomenal tonight. Couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. Personally, I’m happy with my performance, but it’s—it’s a challenge, it’s definitely been a challenge without my best friend on the court. We had a rhythm, a way we moved together. I still carry him out there with me.” Zach pulled his chain necklace out of his jersey, showed the pendant. “That’s why I’m wearing his number, #33.” Zach kissed the pendant, held up three fingers for the camera. “Justin, brother, this one’s for you.”

“Yes, we’re all rooting for him after that devastating injury. Any idea when we’ll see him again, on the bench or in the stands?”

“I hope soon. But the most important thing is that he’s healing. He’s with his family. That’s where he needs to be right now.”

“It sounds like he’s got family here on the court, as well.”

“For sure.” Zach nodded as a player slapped him on the back, Vic, or Russell.

“Can you tell me anything about the upcoming sentencing? We’ve heard both Jensens have elected to speak, might give a statement on their involvement with the perpetrators prior to the break-in. Can you confirm that for our viewers?”

“No comment.”

“Was this a drug deal gone bad?”

“What is this? I’m out. I don’t answer questions from people trying to twist the narrative into something it isn’t. No comment.”

“Well, you heard it. Zach Dempsey, captain of the—

Co-captain.”

“Co-captain of the Liberty High Tigers—”

 


 

“They don’t really want you to talk about it,” Justin vented. “It makes them uncomfortable to hear about shit like this. Either they don’t know what to say, and they resent you for parading it in front of them, or they think you’re using it for sympathy points.”

“I hear you, brother. Therapists are paid to give a shit, but not paid enough to actually listen and be productive with what you tell them. So, my advice? Smoke some weed before your appointment, then kick back. It’s not like you’ve got any real problems anyway.”

“Seriously?” Justin almost threw his phone. “I’ve got a few problems.”

“Oh right.” Bryce fumbled around, turned down the volume on the TV. He looked at Justin speculatively. His gaze became so predatorily intense that Justin grew uncomfortable.

“What?”

“Let me see your scars.”

“Fuck you, no.”

“C’mon, I’ve been listening to you complain for the past twenty-five minutes.”

The lazy tone was enough to set Justin off. It had been specially calculated, to set him off.

“I said no! Drop it.” Bryce wouldn’t goad him into bending the knee. Justin wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

“You’re a lot less fun than you used to be. There’s only so much of this depressing shit I can take. You gotta give me something in return.” Bryce leaned forward, again, showing a little too much eager enthusiasm. “Man, think about how much pussy you’re gonna get out of those things.” With a bludgeoning insistence, he tracked his eyes down Justin’s body, what little of it he could see. “Why won’t you show me? C’mon. Let me see what we’re working with. Scars on abs are pretty hot, but if they’re lower, you could really play that up. Have a chick kiss ‘em better and then, you know, just grab her by the hair and—”

“Are you fucking serious?” Justin wrapped his arm around his middle section protectively. He was never letting Bryce gawk at him again. Or use him as a wingman. “I got shot! You have no idea what that’s been like, recovering from. I lost two liters of blood, my stomach was fucking shredded. And you think I’m gonna use it as a sob story? To get laid? Fuck you!”

Justin ached with a strange sense of loss—the loss of having gone unheard. (Clay would have heard him, heard the pain behind the words, acknowledged it, given him a piece of gum, put his hand in Justin’s hair.)

“You sound like an elitist dickhead,” Justin finished, aching.

“Well, you have kinda been using it as a sob story with me...”

Justin flipped him off, and Bryce grinned, choosing to take it as a joke. “I’m trying to spin some positives out of this for you. You’re not allowed to be mad at me for that.” He put a finger to his chin, tapped it thoughtfully. “I know you’re locked up, so... if you need me to find you someone, just say the word. Those bullet wounds’ll make all the pussies drip, guaranteed, you’ll be drowning in it. But if not, I’ll pay. My treat.”

There was a muffled grunt. Bryce looked to his right, shook his head firmly.

The fuck?

Was someone else there? Listening?

“You having people over?” Justin asked, trying not to panic, especially when slow satisfaction spread across Bryce’s face.

“Nobody important. Oh hey—Monty wants to talk to you.”

Monty’s there?” Justin felt, all of a sudden, tipped over, exposed on his back. He burned with shame.

Bryce’s lips curled slightly, a vindictive thrill, disguised and lethal. “Did I not mention that?” He passed the phone over.

“Yo, Justy!” Monty looked like a complete asshole.

“Hey, Monty.” Justin turned strategically to the side, trying to hide his nasogastric tube, readying himself for the game of tug-of-war Bryce had just set up.

There was no rope.

It was all barbed wire.

“When you comin’ back to school?” Monty casually aimed the phone in such a way that Justin couldn’t help but notice that he was stretched out luxuriously on Bryce’s couch, in Bryce’s pool house. Eating Bryce’s snacks. Sucking Bryce’s dick. (Okay, not that. But—he had the cocksucking lips for it.)

“Poor Zachy’s been missing you. He cries every day. Walks by your locker and just starts bawling like a big baby.”

“I bet. You cry, too?”

“Only when I park my car in the old Jensen bros spot, and poor Ty-Ty’s standing there, hoping this will finally be the day Clay shows up to hold his hand and walk him to class.”

“Monty, Jesus,” Bryce chastised. “Show some class.”

“When has Monty ever shown class?”

Monty laughed; under his bravado, a desire to please, aimed at Bryce, and a volcanic anger, aimed at the entire world, including Bryce. “Oh, that’s right, Clay has to hold Justin’s hand now.”

“He has two hands, dipshit.”

Justin had so stupidly let himself believe things were alright. That Bryce was really, actually fucking listening to him.

(He was just using Justin to get one over on Monty.)

Justin could taste Bryce’s whisky, thick on his tongue. An old, mean instinct was resurfacing.

“I don’t know if I’m coming back,” Justin said, with exaggerated flippancy. “I’ve got it good here with the Jensens. And I’ve got a free ride to college, at Matt’s school, if I want it.”

Hurt flickered across Monty’s face. Hurt and—jealousy.

Why was Justin even playing this game? He should be better than this.

Short answer: Debt and dependency, walking hand in hand.

Bryce looked as pleased with the idea of free tuition as he’d been by Hannah’s tapes. But he congratulated, “For real? Nice.” He slung his arm around Monty’s shoulders. “If you want even better prospects, I could get you a spot at Hillcrest, fudge the attendance records...”

“How would he pay?” Monty derided.

“I would pay, obviously.”

Bryce would never pay for Monty to attend Hillcrest, never in a million years. It had to burn.

“So, what, now you wanna act like you fuckin’ care?” Justin spat. “Where were you at the hospital? I needed you then.” Warning alarms started to blare. Yeah, Justin was going off-script. “I don’t need your money. Or your favors. I definitely don’t need your help getting laid.”

Bryce’s eyes turned cold. “One of these days, I actually will stop giving a damn.” He shifted out of view, left Justin to his pet pit bull to handle.

Monty grinned. “If it’s goin’ so good at your new place, why’re you lookin’ so skinny? That rent payment must be real rough, huh?”

Bryce chuckled in the background.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Spreading your cheeks for a fag like Cory?” Monty wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. “We’ve been wondering: Is it only Jensen Jr. who gets dibs? Or do you let his daddy molest you, too?”

Justin hung up on them.

 


 

Over the next hour, Bryce lit up his phone.

please call me back

you think I wanted Monty to come over?

you’d really rather suck a cock than come to me?

it kills me that you did that

my door’s always open for you

no matter how much you’ve hurt me, you’re still my family

Justin grabbed a comic book, went downstairs, joined Matt in the den. In the absence of Clay and Lainie, it was as close to safe as he could be.

Matt didn’t bother him, just offered him a smile, continued grading papers while Justin stared numbly at his comic book.

The colors blurred, the lines faded, the hand on the page was not his hand.

“Justin?” Matt called softly. “Why don’t you come back now, son?”

“Huh?” Justin jerked. His chin was wet. He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

The fuck?

Had he been drooling?

Excess saliva production was a wonderful side effect of tube feeding.

Maybe Clay was right: he needed a fucking bib. It’d go nicely with his formula.

“You’ve been on that page for almost an hour,” Matt remarked casually, no ribbing in his voice as he handed Justin a tissue. “Where do you go, when you do that?”

It was a harmless question. It sent Justin tumbling down, down, down. “I don’t—I don’t go anywhere. I was still here.”

I was right here.

Matt set his papers between them on the couch, pushed his glasses onto his head. “That must make it worse for you, then. Make you feel more powerless.”

Justin nodded, taken aback. No one else had ever understood that before. “It’s like I’m stuck outside myself... and I can’t get back in. Can’t take back control, not until...”

“Until...?”

Until a dude’s blown his load.

“I–I don’t know.” Justin stared at the floor, grinding his teeth, sticking his tongue in and out of his mouth, feeling all of five years old again, thankful that, even after everything, Clay didn’t hold this trauma, didn’t associate a quiet room, an adult male... with really bad things happening.

“Hmm. It sounds to me, from your comment and others you’ve made, like you’re distancing yourself from an aversive experience in order to get through it. I’m sure that’s a skill that’s helped you survive in the past, but... emotionally vacating your body puts you at risk. Contributes to your lack of agency. Doesn’t allow you to heal and move forward. I don’t keep exact track, but you’ve been dissociating quite a bit lately. What triggered it tonight? Do you know?”

“You,” Justin admitted honestly. And fuck, he hated the look of sick despair that crossed Matt’s face. He wanted to fix it. He rested his hand on Matt’s thigh. Massaged gently.

“Justin. Pause for a moment. Where are you?”

“In the den.”

“Who are you with?”

“You.”

“Say my name.”

“Matt.”

“Okay. Now, look at where your hand is. Notice what you’re doing. This is not appropriate.” Cautious, slow, Matt grasped Justin’s arm, moved it back to Justin’s side of the couch, manually curled Justin’s fingers around his knee. “Keep your hand there.”

“I—I’m sorry.”

“Thank you for apologizing. Now, let’s talk about this. What triggered you? My general existence, or something specific I did?”

“Just the fact that—that you’re an older guy I’m living with, and no one else is home. Kids at school... they like to make jokes about why you adopted me, kinda like what my mom thought...”

Pale and flustered, visibly upset, Matt gathered up his papers. “Teenagers can say very cruel things.” He shifted to the side, deliberately putting more distance between himself and Justin.

“I probably shouldn’t say they. It’s really just one person. Monty. He thinks I worked the streets while I was homeless, too. He’s not that bright.”

The best lies were sandwiched in truth. Maybe, maybe, this would finally get the Jensens off his back.

“Would you like me to call someone to come over, so you’re not alone with me in the house?”

Justin wanted to sink into the couch cushions and disappear. “No, it’s good. Really, it is.”

“What can I do right now to help you feel more comfortable?”

What was Justin supposed to say? Could you please beat me to help me get over this?

He really needed a knock upside the head. He really wanted one.

Matt... will you hit me? I miss it.

“Talk, I guess.” He was a Jensen now. And Jensens talked about their shit. Or, in the case of Clay, shouted it to the entire neighborhood.

“Sometimes...” Matt paused. “Sometimes, I get the impression that you mistake me for someone else?”

“Yeah, but it’s not because I think you’re like that. If I startle, if I react badly or... or go away—it’s not because I think you’ll do something. I’ve always just been—wary, I guess. We were sitting here on the couch, doing nothing, and in my head, it’s okay, nothing’s wrong, but then—my body reacts, it does all this shit I don’t want it to do, and I can’t stop it, this instinct I have, to fight back, to defend myself. Sometimes the way I defended myself... was to offer sex. You’re my father so that’s so fucking wrong, I know it’s wrong, I’m sorry! I know that I’m safe here, that you’re safe, and I’m trying to lock it down, to push it away—”

“Don’t do that,” Matt interrupted carefully. “Don’t push it away. Feel it. You’re allowed to have these moments, Justin. But I hope you know that you can still come to me. To talk, or to ask for help, or just to have someone sit with you as you process your emotions. I know it’s difficult. If it gets to be too much, we can stop. We can always stop. Just because it doesn’t work out one day, doesn’t mean we can’t try again. If you’re willing... I’d like to spend more time with you.”

“I’d like that.” Justin swallowed, and the tube rubbed raw. It was bothering him more and more, causing massive nosebleeds, inflaming his throat. (He could have it out if he would just start eating.) “I miss hanging out with you, watching basketball, doing crossword puzzles, but—it’s hard. It’s really, really hard.” He hesitated. “For Clay, too.”

He doesn’t like to share.

“We can go at your pace,” Matt said reasonably. “And I know that you and Clay are protective of your time together, so I won’t intrude. We can find our moments, here and there. Don’t forget: I’m in this for the long haul.”

Justin stared numbly at his fingers, curled around his knee. The numbness had spread throughout his entire body, now. “I’ve been thinking more about commuting, for my first year of college. Living at home.”

“We would love to have you,” Matt said, a new, tender emotion in his voice. He sounded pleased—and hopeful.

“I don’t think I’m ready to be on my own just yet.”

“A very mature admission. And I agree with your thought process. I think you need support from your family right now, need more time to just be a kid. You know, I never told you... I’ve driven through those areas in Oakland, places where you must have lived. Saw an incredible amount of suffering, an incredible amount of hopelessness—and desperation. I’d imagine that, living in those conditions, many people must fear telling the police about any abuse they suffer, any crimes of violence against their person, because they’re worried about being busted themselves on drug or prostitution charges.”

Justin went very still. No no no.

“Or maybe it’s worse,” Matt continued quietly. “Maybe they’re worried about not being believed. Being blamed.” He leaned forward, rounding his shoulders. His bones creaked and cracked. “It makes me sick to my stomach... if something happened, and you think we would blame you...”

Justin shook his head. He shook his head.

“I must’ve read your persuasive essay a hundred times. What you wrote about addiction... I don’t believe you brought it on yourself. I don’t believe you asked for it. When you were on the streets—”

Justin pushed himself to the edge of the couch, as fast as he could. “Not—not tonight.” The last thing he needed was to open that can of worms. “I have homework.”

He immediately grimaced. Fuck everything. He didn’t have homework. And Matt knew that.

Matt assigned his homework.

“Please don’t lie,” Matt said calmly. “When you don’t want to talk about something, tell me it’s off-limits. It’s very simple.”

“Fine. I don’t want to talk about that. There’s nothing to talk about! I bought drugs using the money I stole from Seth. I always slept in shelters. I was safer there than I was with my mom. Ask Clay if you don’t believe me.”

Matt studied him. “You’re being very defensive right now, so I agree: let’s table this discussion for another day.”

Another day? What the fucking hell!

Justin collapsed back against the couch cushions, cursing his life choices when he decided to pick up Matt’s papers and settle them on his lap, thereby condemning himself to what happened next.

Matt shifted over. He didn’t usually get this close, usually, he held himself at a respectful distance. But he was close enough now that if he moved his hand, it would brush Justin’s arm.

This was a vulnerable position—Justin could easily be trapped. He was so physically weak... so easy to overpower...

Anyone could do anything they wanted to him.

Justin’s lungs were filled with ice. He couldn’t breathe for the fear.

But when he finally looked at Matt, he realized... Matt was afraid, too. He didn’t usually enter Justin’s space. He didn’t usually make the first move. Or any move.

“It’s your choice.” Matt opened his hand, stayed perfectly still, and Justin’s thoughts were a riptide—Monty talked a load of crap, Monty’s dad beat the shit out of him, Justin had never had a dad, Justin was lucky to have a man in his life who wanted the title, Justin... rested his fingers on Matt’s palm, and Matt’s fingers closed around his, and they put their fear in a stranglehold together.

“I want to make your journey softer and kinder, that’s all. I’d never do anything to intentionally hurt you, but I’m your father, I have a responsibility for you, and what I say... sometimes it might hurt. Sometimes I’m going to push you to talk about things that make you uncomfortable, because I want to see you succeed, and thrive.”

Justin nodded agreeably, tried five different smiles till he landed on one Matt responded to. “I’m good with that. I need it. The accountability.”

“Well, that’s encouraging to hear.” The dryer buzzed, and Matt’s face lit up. Only Matt would get excited about laundry. “Perfect timing. Wait here.”

Justin waited.

Closed his eyes.

He had nothing to hold onto other than the fact that Clay would be home soon.

kicking their door closed, pressing Clay against it, brushing his lips along Clay’s neck, his jaw, his warm, warm skin, as Clay complained about—whatever he needed to complain about, his hands slowly curling around Justin’s back, resting there peacefully, or tapping out encouragement, allowing the intimacy, but keeping it tame.

emotions surging, bodies clinging, no lustful thoughts, no obscene acts; this was recombining—“mine, mine, mine.”

Yep, Justin was fiending.

For his fucking brother.

“You didn’t fall asleep, did you?”

“Nope.” Justin opened his eyes, and Matt was shaking a fleece blanket out, tossing it gently into the air so that it fell down slowly over Justin’s body, covering him from head to toe. It was warm from the dryer.

Warm like heroin.

“Thank you.”

“I thought you might like that.” Matt settled back on the couch, picked up the TV remote. “I always felt a great deal of comfort in Clay needing me for things; in easing his fears, but allowing him to experience them. I’m glad you came down tonight—to sit with me. I had my papers to keep me company, my articles and books, but my favorite conversation partner was upstairs in his bedroom, and, let me tell you, to have him so close, yet so far away—gave me quite a feeling of despondency.”

Matt’s philosophy of speaking was: Why use five words when you can use ten?

Justin summarized, “You were lonely?”

“Yes.” Matt nodded thoughtfully. “That encapsulates it nicely.”

Justin curled his fingers into the blanket. “I’m your favorite conversation partner? That can’t be true.”

“Don’t tell your brother.” Matt’s smile was like the fleece blanket; it held the same warmth. “Would you like me to read aloud for a bit? I have an article that might be of interest to you. I’ve been researching enteral nutrition in pediatric patients, and, luckily, there’s extensive clinical documentation on the transition from tube to oral feeding. Anorexia is quite common, even excepting your unique trauma.”

“Matt...” Justin touched a finger to his fake tooth. “I appreciate it, really, it’s nice of you to try and help me out, but I just think—it’s better to go with the tube in my abdomen. That way... it’s solved, right? and we don’t have to—to keep trying all these things that probably aren’t gonna...” He made a fist, felt like he was in a car that was hurtling down a mountain, about to make its final swan dive into the sea. “My weight. Lainie gets so upset.”

Matt shook his head. “She gets upset because she’s your mother and she wants to fix this for you. Feeding our children—that’s our number one priority as parents. That’s all it is. We want you to be able to enjoy food again, to feel satiated, physically, to have the energy to do all the things you want to do. So, tell me: is the J-tube really what you want? Because we’re willing to keep trying, we’re fully committed to exhausting every avenue before we go with such an invasive procedure.”

God, why wouldn’t they just let him starve to death in peace?

He didn’t want a J-tube. He didn’t want an NG-tube. He didn’t want any tubes.

He sure as fuck didn’t want a catheter.

Matt was smiling at him kindly, but all Justin could see was Seth. The way his eyes had flashed with sadistic excitement each time a whimper escaped, each time a tear leaked out.

“Seth, he–, the gun was— my mouth was bleeding, I was choking, and he—he kept forcing— I’m sorry, I–I can’t eat. I can’t.”

“Oh, Justin. Oh, son. It’s all right. It’s all right.” Matt spread his arms awkwardly, like he was trying to offer Justin a cuddle, or a ginormous bear hug. Justin stayed rigidly still, hoping to hell Matt wouldn’t push it.

Matt didn’t push it. He caught on, placed his hands carefully on his knees instead. “Our bodies remember trauma and tension. We’re just going to have to try different strategies. Don’t give up hope. We can figure it out, together.”

Justin dropped his head and with a cracked voice, admitted, “He called me a whore.”

“He did not,” Matt breathed. “That bastard. That should never have happened, I’m sorry it happened to you in our home. That ‘man’—I’m hesitant to even call him a man—should never have been able to bring his violence here, his sick depravity. The way he hurt you... I don’t use the word lightly. Depravity. Calling you what he did... that was just a calculated attempt to wound you further. Look at me. Look at me, Justin, so I know you hear me. It’s not true. Anything he said—was a lie of the most atrocious nature. Let me tell you right now: You are my son, and you are beautiful.”

Justin didn’t have the emotional energy to break down. He barely had the energy to say what was so rarely said, because with the Jensens, it was folded into every moment, “I—I love you.”

“Well, I love you, too. More than you could ever imagine.” Matt smiled at him again, and there was more warmth, more comfort, more stability.

One room over, Seth had raped him.

(According to his therapist. According to Clay.)

(But the semen had been Justin’s. Why did frickin’ nobody understand that?)

“How about we skip the article and just sit for a while?”

“Sitting’s nice.”

“Are you tired? Close your eyes, if you’d like.”

Justin snuggled into the blanket, absentmindedly rocking side to side, stroking his knuckles to soothe himself. Stroke after stroke after stroke.

He could never fall asleep with Matt in the room.

But it was a comfortable silence, not overwhelming.

The Jensens surrounded him with so much comfort, so much luxury, and, at times like this, he still couldn’t believe it, how this had become his life, the domestic nature of it all—morning alarms, morning showers, Clay chattering away, going on and on about nothing, annoying the fuck out of him, but including him in all his thoughts.

Family breakfast, family therapy, family homeschooling, Matt asking a question about social governance, then—Clay splintering, losing control, his daily mental health crisis, which crawled up on them and then pounced.

“How’d that happen?” Matt pointed at Justin’s wrist. “You’re wearing your brother’s bracelet.”

It was something they did unconsciously while sleeping.

Bad dream? Swap bracelets. Bad nightmare? Swap spit.

But whenever they had to be separated for more than half a day, he and Clay consciously made the switch.

Here, take a part of me with you when you go (leave me a part of you).

It was so fucking stupid.

Dumb, childish.

Clingy.

Reverentially, Justin wrapped his fingers around the stones. He hadn’t expected Matt to notice. “How’d you know?”

“How do parents tell identical twins apart?”

“I don’t know. I figure they mix ‘em up, the same as anyone else.”

“Maybe immediately after birth. But after?” Matt stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You get to know your kids. I wouldn’t mix you and Clay up. Give me a picture of one of your hands, a footprint, a strand of hair. I would know you instantly.”

Justin almost bolted off the couch, and fled the room.

Matt didn’t know him.

The life he was living was entirely built on lies.

Once Matt and Lainie found out the truth—how many men he’d fucked, the way he’d touched Clay in the shower...

“Notice what you’re doing. This is not appropriate.”

As a Jensen, he hadn’t measured up to shit.

He couldn’t measure up.

(But he wanted so, so desperately to be a son Matt could be proud of.)

“Is there any basketball on tonight?” Matt turned on the TV. “Let’s see if we can find something to watch.”

“Okay, sure.”

Matt was the kind of guy you could sit back and chill with, actually chill with, talk about nothing, watch interior decorating shows, discuss college plans, get solid breakup advice, whatever. You could even, Justin found out (once he started getting drowsy) complain about Clay—the way he kept blocking people on Justin’s phone and reading his texts to Alex, slamming his fingers against Justin’s lips and drawing creepy murder drawings.

Matt took it in stride, wasn’t offended, wasn’t even insulted to hear Justin call Clay a possessive creeper, only asked, bizarrely, “Do you ever feel like you can’t refuse your brother’s requests, for fear of losing our approval?”

“No.” Justin was thrown. “Not really. I mean, I like making him happy, and... yeah, he can get controlling and in-your-face about things— just—just a little! — but that’s not his fault, ‘cuz I go along with it.”

“Does that make it excusable?”

“I like him telling me what to do.”

“He tells you what to do?”

Justin observed the tension in Matt’s wrist, in his shoulder and neck, saw the potential for violence, there, but he was not afraid. The familiar waves of nausea decided to give him a break for once. “Clay tells everyone what to do. With me... I think it’s more how he shows concern, y’know, like a, um—” He snapped his fingers, tried to bring in a little literary analysis, “—a mixed metaphor. Yeah. He doesn’t want me to fall off, and do something reckless. Doesn’t mean I listen.”

“But have you ever felt that way?” Matt pressed. “That we’ve given Clay preferential treatment? That we would withdraw our support if you didn’t behave in a certain manner?”

No avoidance. Matt hated indirect prose. “Yeah, I have.”

“Well, then, let me make it clear: You’re not a second-class citizen. You have equal standing to Clay, equal claim to our love and attention. We will always take care of you, regardless of your behavior.”

“I know that. I know that now.”

Matt was slow to nod, slower still to continue, “May I ask another question?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Do you feel safe here?”

“Yes.”

“Think for a moment before you answer. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me how you actually feel. Do you feel safe, living here with us?”

Did Justin feel safe?

With Clay, he did.

But Clay wasn’t here.

Justin was alone in the house, his feet pressed against Matt’s thigh. Clay wasn’t here. Matt’s arm was stretched out along the back of the couch, and sometimes, a few times, more than a few times, he had brushed the back of Justin’s head, absently playing with his hair.

Justin’s fingers started trembling. His leg muscles locked up. He clasped his bracelet, thought about what it would feel like to have Clay’s hand wrapped around his wrist instead, digging the stones into his flesh—warning, and reprimand.

He thought about what it would be like—for Matt to lead him upstairs, coax him into the master bedroom, and lock the door.

Take off your clothes.

Someone should make him earn his keep.

Matt wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that.

Clay wasn’t here.

Light blue became darker blue, became black.

Justin took deep breaths, forced himself to submit, to behave. As punishment for his uncomplimentary thoughts, he settled his feet in Matt’s lap, told him, “I feel safe with you,” which was a wretched, wretched lie, his smile half-hearted and insincere, but Matt was so earnest and kind, so desperate to believe in a world of gentle fathers and trusting sons, that he bought into it.

“I think, perhaps, I’ve been overly cautious in giving you space. Maybe that’s something we can work on.” Slow, and gentle, Matt tucked the blanket around Justin’s feet, rested one hand there, fingers curling lightly around Justin’s ankle, above the blanket, skin not touching skin, and if that wasn’t safety, what was?

Justin needed to grow the fuck up.

“Do you like this?” Matt asked. “How I’m touching you?”

Hands hot and slick against his hips.

Holding him open, forcing him back...

“Yes.”

After a moment of hesitation, Matt started—basically massaging Justin’s foot, which was uncomfortable as fuck, because it was too much like being fondled by Seth and he didn’t like it but he couldn’t say he didn’t like it because he’d basically just implied that he did and that kind of hot-cold behavior was cruel to Matt, plus Matt was basically the nicest dude on the entire fucking planet, and he seemed to be getting something out of it emotionally, and Justin never gave Matt anything except pain and six-figure medical bills, so he just needed to suck it up, and try to distract himself.

Without dissociating.

“Bryce has been blowing up my phone,” he said. “That’s why I came downstairs tonight. He won’t leave me alone.”

Matt lowered the volume on the TV. “You and Bryce Walker... had a very unhealthy dynamic, I’m hesitant to even call it a friendship. But he’s a good example of what we were just talking about, someone who compelled your cooperation by controlling access to the resources you needed to survive. I hope you learned from that experience the consequences of letting your values and principles be overwritten. Don’t let someone else make decisions for you. Don’t ever let someone have that kind of power over you.”

“Not even Clay?” Justin asked, aiming for a playful tone. “Kid’s a saint. I mean—of course he is. You raised him.”

“Spoken like a true younger brother,” Matt said with a chuckle. “And a child aiming for some privileges. I appreciate the praise, but you layer it on a little thick.” Justin grinned, laughed to see Matt laugh. “We raised Clay to be assertive, yes, and outspoken. But his opinions are not law. You two don’t always have to get along, or agree.”

Bizarre.

This whole conversation was bizarre.

Justin might be a little twisted — his regulars had paid him to do some nasty, nasty shit — but Clay’s intentions were more-or-less pure, he only cared about Justin’s best interests. And, yeah, okay, he also had a major, major control kink, but it wasn’t hardcore or anything, and, it was actually fine, Justin liked the power interplay, the push and pull, the validation and approval he got when he met Clay’s impossible standards, the way Clay fell all over himself trying to please him, and, anyway—Clay was too spastic to be intimidating, too harmless to ever truly be domineering.

Don’t fight me on this. Let me take care of you.” That was the signal. Justin gave himself into Clay’s hands, and Clay’s hands were filled.

In the end, they both got what they wanted.

“They’re three minutes out,” Matt said, checking his phone, answering Justin’s unasked question.

Two minutes, fifty-nine seconds...

Two minutes, fifty-eight seconds...

The front door unlocked with a click, and Justin’s stomach turned over, in nervous expectation.

He heard Clay’s voice...

His lonely, lonely voice, “Hey—”

“Hey, dummy.” Their eyes met, and it was too much. They looked away, almost shy with each other.

“My goodness, boys...” Lainie kicked off her shoes. “Do we need a counseling session after this long estrangement?”

“Fuck no,” Justin and Clay said at the exact same time, and Clay flipped him off, so Justin blew a raspberry, and, without missing a beat, Clay tossed him a gumball from his pocket; they always brought each other souvenirs from their medical appointments, and the dark blue, deformed deliciousness soothed Justin in a way no piece of bubblegum really should.

(Clay had picked it out for him. He had not eaten it, but kept it in his pocket for Justin to eat.)

“Never a dull moment,” Matt said, and slid Justin’s legs off his lap.

Everything was alright with the world.

 


 

“You coming upstairs, or what?” Clay asked him.

“Come finish this show with us,” Justin suggested, dividing the gumball in two with his teeth. “I can sit on the floor.”

“Nonsense,” Matt said generously. “You and Clay can have the couch. I’ll bring some pillows.”

“I don’t wanna watch anything,” Clay said stubbornly. “I’ve been gone all day.”

“Okay. Just give me a few minutes, then.” Justin could feel the disapproval oozing out of Clay’s pores. “Oh, fine.” He stood up. “Let’s go upstairs. Tell me about your tests.”

He’d already heard everything about the tests when Lainie had called, but it was still nice—to hear the details.

It was nice—to be missed. To be hugged and checked over by Clay, to be helped up the stairs, and given so much attention that he felt suffocated and weighted down and ensnared and stifled by Clay’s protection and love.

It was nice mainly, just to be loved.

 


 

But then—

Clay cut him off, cold turkey.

Justin was plunged into acute withdrawal.

“Quit pacing. Find something to do. It’s not my job to entertain you every second of the day.”

Justin collapsed on the bed, put his head in Clay’s lap. There was a disconnect. He felt grimy. “Wanna take a shower?”

“In a bit.” Clay was reading a comic. He glanced under the page at Justin, gave him a half-hearted mean look, went back to his comic, did a double-take, frowned, turned Justin’s head towards him with a firm hand, inspecting the tape on Justin’s NG tube.

The nurse had re-taped it, removed Clay’s sticker. A cute, happy little turtle.

“What happened to–? Did you tell her I put that sticker on you? To denote the day of the week?”

Turtle Tuesday.

“Yeah. She didn’t care.”

Clay hooked his index finger under the tube, testing it gently.

It scraped against the inside of Justin’s nose, resisting removal, extremely dry. Justin winced.

“She didn’t use the gel? Mom told her you get nosebleeds! She– she used lube, right? Hold up, did she force it up there, without—?” Clay looked ready to explode.

It was ridiculous, but... it was also sweet.

Should Justin play it up?

Often, but not exclusively, Clay would pay more attention to him if he thought Justin had been slighted.

“She clogged my tube,” Justin pouted. “She didn’t even read the instructions.” Lainie had given her three pages of instructions. How fucking hard was it to read three pages?

Clay tossed his comic off the bed, ran his hand up and down Justin’s arm consolingly, finally paying attention to him the way Justin wanted, supportive and protective, committed, compliant. It was no work at all to just coax Clay’s leg over his hips, convince Clay to straddle him and hold him down.

“So... uh. Your nurse was a bitch.” Clay gazed down on him, with a mixture of possessiveness and submissive affection. “What do you want me to do about that?”

Justin unzipped his hoodie, toyed with the collar of Clay’s button-down, popping the buttons slowly, showing him what he wanted, guiding him without words, and Clay was attentive—star pupil—he complied, his fingers slipping under Justin’s t-shirt, checking him over, scar by scar, signing his artwork, each bruise met with a kiss, then the real tenderness, pressing down into him, trapping him in place, everything delicately positioned, one wrist pinned firmly to the bed, the other allowed free reign to explore, asking permission for the knee to his stomach, rolling his eyes when Justin sighed happily and laid back to enjoy it.

Separations were shit, but reunions—reunions could only properly be classified as the shit.

Justin was having the best time. He didn’t at all mind it, being put on his back by Clay, it thrilled him, the body high was amazing.

Amazingly dangerous.

He didn’t know how to pace himself, didn’t know how to dose responsibly.

“Grab my hips. You can leave fingerprints.”

A sigh of interest. That was all it took. Justin wrapped his legs around Clay’s back, rocked into him. It was all muscle memory.

And for Clay, it was all—biology. He was hard, that neglected bad boy interested in finally getting some action, finding a hole to conquer, a willing body, a pain-free stroke, a memory other than Seth fucking Justin into the floor.

Justin could give him that.

Let me ease the pain of it a little.

He had an epiphany, a startling egotistical realization—being desired made him feel powerful.

By Clay, though?

His mind revolted. He felt—trapped, and not in a good way.

He was far from trapped. He had one unchained hand. (Clay always left him an escape route.) He used it, shoved the body that was on top of him away.

“Red,” he choked. “Red. I’m done. Stay offa me. Stay—stay over there. Until you calm down.”

“Okay, I will. I will!” Agreement, instant, unwavering. “I didn’t mean... for that to get out of hand.”

Out of hand. Jesus. (It was kinda funny.)

“Don’t apologize, c’mon. You can’t help it. You’ve been depriving yourself all day. And I gave you too much friction. I instigated that, I don’t know why.”

“I do,” Clay said sadly. “I think, maybe you need some space?” He dropped his head. “From me. Do you?”

“No. That’s really not what this is about. Don’t sweat it. We’re solid.”

“Thanks.” Clay sat back on his butt, buttoning up his shirt before shooting Justin a questioning glance. “Why didn’t you come with us today? We wanted you to come with.”

The unspoken accusation, None of this would have happened if you’d just come with us.

This is all your fault.

Everything, his fault.

Justin scratched at his hair, scratched at his neck, saw Clay gawking at him, shuddered, ripped off his t-shirt. He couldn’t stand it, the sensation of fabric against skin. His expensive clothes, none of them hand-me-downs.

He grabbed at his waistband. Yanked that down, too.

“Are you—overheated, or something?” Clay dodged Justin’s sweatpants as they came flying. “Watch it!” Disgruntled, he touched Justin’s forehead with the back of his hand. “You’re not acting right. Why aren’t you acting right?”

“Do I look gross to you?”

Clay huffed a laugh. “Have you seen a mirror? Even when you look gross, you don’t look gross. So. No.”

“My scars, are... are they... a turn-on?”

“The fuck. No.”

“Do you think girls would like them?”

“Yes? I mean...” Clay panicked. “No? I don’t know! I don’t know what you want me to say!” He quieted down. “I like them,” he said, achingly sincere. “I saw your stomach with two bullet holes. So, I’m always gonna like them.” Awkwardly, he helped Justin pull off his socks, then, with determination, he stripped down, removing his clothes in the same order, until he matched Justin in nakedness.

They were left in only their boxers. They kept those on.

“Bryce wants to see,” Justin said, bitter, torn. “He wants to see my scars. You okay with that?”

“No. Don’t you fucking dare.” The fire in Clay came alive. “Shower. Now.”

Once Clay had a purpose, he was very happy. He picked out fresh gauze, fresh tape, fresh clothes, lathered himself right back into Justin, and scrubbed everyone else out.

 


 

Time to grovel.

“Please don’t tell Monty. Please, Bryce. I’m begging you.”

Bryce stretched his arms out, took a sip of whisky. He had to think about it. For three whole minutes. (Of fucking course he did.) “I don’t tell Monty jack shit, you know that.”

Justin exhaled, the relief a strong wave.

But nothing came for free.

He curled his fingers around the hem of his t-shirt, felt yanked in two directions, forward by Clay, backward by Bryce. “I’ve got some pretty badass scars. Wanna see?”

Bryce’s eyes lit up, dark, hungry. “Fuck, yeah, I wanna see.”

Justin removed his shirt, showed off the carnage.

Nice.

Justin tried to block it out, the exaggerated moans; the low, breathy sounds of interest. Bryce was playing it up just enough to be obnoxious, his hilarious interpretation of how horny girls would get, but Justin knew, he knew what this was really about.

“Run your finger along where they split you open.”

Justin nearly bit his tongue off. But he did it.

“Zoom in on that puckered one.”

He tasted blood, but he did it.

“Fuck, Justy... he really did a number on you.” Bryce’s admiration was not like Clay’s admiration; his concern, not like Clay’s concern. “For a hooker, you’re probably what, still a nine out of ten? I bet you could even charge extra, for something like that, right?”

Waking up, and needing. Shooting up, and still needing.

Cravings. Chills. Dopesick. Dopesick.

Hitting his knees, opening his mouth.

Walking into a motel room... having to crawl back out.

He couldn’t charge what he wanted. Heroin set the price.

“I’m saving this shit for later,” Bryce murmured, satisfied. The sound of a zipper.

“You’re recording this?” Justin tilted forward, grabbed onto Clay’s bed.

He could never catch a full breath, someone always had him in a chokehold.

The ceiling was doing somersaults, so he gingerly lowered himself to the floor.

Don’t do this to me. Please, Bryce. I have nothing left for you to take.

“Hey, you don’t look so great...” Bryce’s voice was concerned, caring. And nestled in the tenderness—

A heavy-lidded perversion, a carnal glint in his eye.

Like Seth.

Stomach acid flamed up Justin’s throat, burned through his sinuses.

“I honestly didn’t think you’d mind. This was always our thing, and I thought, for old time’s sake... Do you want me to delete it?”

Justin was burning alive. His entire skin was on fire. “Keep it,” he forced the words out. “Not a lot of girls around Hillcrest, right?”

“Exactly.” Bryce took another sip of whisky. But when he spoke, his voice stuttered, insecure and doubting. “You’re still mine—at least a little bit, right?”

Pathetic. Their hierarchies, briefly, reversed. Justin felt an almost paternalistic sort of pity for him. “We done talking? I gotta go soon. Clay needs help shaving.”

“You help him shave?”

“Yeah, he’s only got one functioning hand. And that’s what you do. For your brother. For your best friend.

Bryce’s head jerked sharply. He looked like he’d been sucker-punched.

Good. Justin’s last small act of defiance.

“So... it’s really not about having a place to stay? You’re actually kickin’ it with this Jensen kid? What could you two possibly have in common?”

“Almost nothing.” Except a last name. “That’s the beauty of it. Me and Clay, we don’t like the same things, don’t agree on frickin’ anything, we could fight for two hours over how to open a bag of chips... but it doesn’t matter, he’s still my favorite person in the entire shit-spangled universe, and if you even think of messing with him, I’ll chop your balls off and shove ‘em down your throat.”

Bryce choked, amused. “Fuck, I missed you.” His coughing turned into contemplation. His right hand was out of frame. The gears were turning. How to use this new information to set himself up for conquest?

“Clay saw it all, didn’t he? Saw Seth put two bullets in you. Must have scarred him for life.” He let the statement hang in the air, and it was weak, it barely made an impact, lacked creativity, lacked finesse, which made Bryce’s vindictive smile all the more unsettling. “Or... wait. Did it scar him? Is that the big secret? Maybe he enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing you get what you deserve. That’s his thing, right? Justice for Hannah?”

“Yeah, he’s a vicious little shit.”

Justin looked at their desk, at the framed photo of him and Clay at Christmas, wearing matching pajamas, tinsel in their hair. He loved that photo. Looked at it every single day.

“Did you tell him about Oakland yet? I bet he loved hearing that, how you went from Hannah’s wet-dream to a white-trash hobo getting reamed for 20 bucks a pop.”

“My ass is worth more than 20,” Justin gritted. He’d been a great fuck. Anyone who didn’t appreciate it—wasn’t worth his time.

“Is it lined in gold? Oh, c’mon, I’m only playing. Don’t act like that, c’mon.”

Bryce was a fucking moron.

Justin knew, he knew, as surely as their blood had mixed into the same clotted puddle, as surely as their hands had entwined in final farewell, as surely as Clay’s tears had baptized him in undying love—I’m here, I won’t leave you—his brother would never make a joke out of those johns having their way with him, never take pleasure in what caused him pain.

He might judge him for it, might lecture him for ten hours, but he wouldn’t bask in it, wouldn’t use it as fucking trauma porn.

“You’re right,” Justin said, setting his jaw. “Clay wanted me to get what I deserved. That’s why he saved me. That’s why he killed Seth. Why he slept at the hospital for two weeks, holding my hand, feeding me ice chips, never leaving my side, even though he was hurting, even though the press was begging him for an interview. He didn’t do an interview—you know why? Because he doesn’t give a shit about that stuff, about people calling him a hero. The reason he’s not back at school? It’s because I can’t go back yet, and he doesn’t wanna go without me. He gives a shit, really gives a shit, and if he heard me talking to you right now... he’d block your number, sharpen his knife, and come after you. Because that’s what he does now—kill the people who try to hurt me. So, watch out.”

Bryce yawned. “I feel sorry for you, Justin. I really do. You act like you don’t need me, like Clay knows the first thing about how to handle you, and yet... when I call, you always pick up.” He tsked. “You came from a junkie whore; you know you’re only good for one thing. And it’s good, I’ll give you that.” He smirked, ran his tongue over his bottom lip. “You sure you don’t mind? About the video?”

“I don’t mind,” Justin lied, contemplating homicide. “Knock yourself out.”

“Thanks for coming through on this for me. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Can’t wait.” Fuck off.

 


 

Here was the primary difference between Bryce and Clay: Clay loved him. Bryce loved having him.

 


 

“Cut ties with Bryce,” Justin told Monty. “It’s you he’s going to leave behind in the dirt.”

“Says the guy who ran off to Oakland. You don’t know the meaning of loyalty. You ain’t got his back. Definitely didn’t have mine.”

I don’t want to fucking use.

He doesn’t have your back. No one does.” Justin pinched his wrist, forced himself to do a Clay Jensen thing, stupid, reckless. Kind. “You’re no better than me, but—you’re no worse. Come over sometime, talk to my– talk to Lainie Jensen, she can get you help, with your dad. Community college. A job. A safe place to stay.”

Shut the fuck up. You think you’re so high and mighty now, don’tcha?” Monty’s voice was cut with something ugly. Not jealousy. And definitely not gratitude. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“I think I do.” Justin couldn’t see him, but he imagined Monty’s face, the red-hot mixture of shame and self-loathing. “I have a lot of stuff to be grateful for, so you’re right to hate me, for shiting on it like a pussy-ass bitch.”

He felt a confession pressing behind his lips, considered giving it up to someone he did not love, did not despise. They were Bryce’s boys. There was something in their blood, corrupted and compelling, aching for a fix... and repeatedly finding satisfaction in the same source. “You’re right about me. I’ve fucked some guys. More than a few. Not Bryce, though. And not Clay.”

“Why do I care? Faggot.” Monty hung up on him.

“Whatever, asshole.” Justin laid down on his bed, remembered walking away, having nowhere to go, where he’d ended up.

I don’t want to fucking use. Every minute: I don’t want to fucking use.

Tapering off these meds was gonna be motherfuckin’ horrible. He’d sell everything in his bedroom for a few stamp bags. But... he didn’t want to close his eyes and feel a john’s dick in his mouth, ever again.

His stomach twitched at the memory.

Faggot. No one had ever called him that on the street.

He picked up his phone, called Child Protective Services. Made himself an enemy for life.

 


 

Walking a cat was like dragging a block of cement on a leash.

Clay eventually gave up. He wrapped the leash around his wrist, picked the cat up and carried it under his arm like a football. “Do not fucking scratch me,” he told the demon-eyed fucker when it tried to swipe him with its claws.

“And if you scratch Justin,” he added pleasantly, “your grave will be in our backyard.”

He marched up the porch steps, dumped the cat on Justin’s lap.

“We’re cat sitting, three days a week, until graduation. I can’t remember which one this is—Peaches or Cinnamon or Arabella.” Their neighbor had a million cats; Clay had borrowed the first one he could get his hands on.

They were all hellions. The three black ones were the most tame, but still, hellions. Clay had re-named them: Fleabite, Tetanus, and Roadkill.

“It’s Cinnamon,” Justin said fondly and buried his face in the cat’s fur. She started purring, rubbing her head against Justin’s hair, soaking up the attention.

Clay stared at them in disgust.

“Hey you, don’t bite.” Justin grabbed Cinnamon’s scruff. “She’s biting my tube.” He laughed. His laugh was genuine and full.

Clay stared at them with a little less disgust.

Okay, fucker. Make Justin laugh again—and I’ll feed you a whole bag of treats.

Justin removed Cinnamon’s leash, gave her an ear-scratch, then—

“Whoa, whoa! Hang on, should you—should you be doing that?” Justin was attempting to stand, Cinnamon cradled in his arms. “I’m pretty sure she weighs more than ten pounds. What are you— Put the cat down! No, do not pass me the cat, put it down. Wait, I said!”

Clay crouched, slipping under Justin’s arm for leverage, pushing with his legs, hauling all three of them up, Justin and the damn cat.

Fuck his shit of a brother—and his stubbornness.

“Tell me what you’re trying to do.”

“We need catnip,” Justin said. “It’s why she likes me. I let her get high whenever she wants.”

“That’s called being an enabler. She doesn’t need to get high.” Cinnamon dive-bombed off Justin’s shoulder, chasing a grasshopper. “See? She’s fine.”

“Are you worried I’m gonna smoke it?” Justin asked, light and teasing. “Because I already tried—it just gave me a headache.”

“You tried smoking catnip?” Clay rubbed at his temple, never ceasing to be amazed at Justin’s inability to think anything through.

“It’s like cat marijuana.”

“Great. You’re both idiots.” Clay pulled (nicely!) on Cinnamon’s tail as she sauntered past.

The cat yowled.

Clay kicked his foot at her. “I think she’s possessed.”

“Nah.” Justin’s lips curled in a smirk. “She just doesn’t like you.”

“How could she not...? I’m likable! I’m at least as likable as you.” He lowered his voice, singsong, spoke to the cat like he was talking to a baby, not Satan’s hellspawn. “Fuzzball. You dumb rodent-killer. Why don’t you like me? Huh? Look. Look at what you’re missing out on.” Clay combed his hand through Justin’s hair, petting him elaborately, scratching at his scalp.

Cinnamon liked Justin, and Clay liked Justin therefore... there was no reason for Cinnamon not to like him, too.

“Now,” Clay told her, “be a good pussycat and... roll over.”

She hissed at him.

“Uh, Clay... I don’t think she likes you touching me.”

“Well, tough. What’s she gonna do about it?”

Cinnamon ran at him, her tail bushed out, swiping with her paw.

“Ahh!” She would’ve taken his leg off had Justin not stepped in to save him.

“Motherfucker!”

Justin laughed, distracted Cinnamon with a twirling weed. “This cat is exactly like you.”

Clay had no words, he was so outraged.

“She’s territorial,” Justin explained, “about people getting in my space. Like you. She acts super standoffish, but she’s actually really cuddly. Like you.” He squished Clay’s cheeks until he made a duck-face. “You sure you wanna cat-sit?”

Affection achieved through bribery—was not really affection, but maybe... “Alright,” Clay caved. “Tell me where the catnip is. I want her to like me, too.”

I guess I can learn to share—as long as she makes you laugh, as long as she makes you happy.

(Are you happy?)

“You wanna take her upstairs?” Justin idly nudged the bowl on the top step with his big toe. His smile was disarming. Perfectly pristine. To anyone else, it wouldn’t have set off any alarms. Justin Foley, all-American boy.

But Clay could tell: He was very unhappy.

Justin Jensen, train-wreck in progress. His laugh was scoured down to bone.

“Are we celebrating Halloween early?” Clay picked up the overflowing candy bowl, balanced it on the railing. The sun’s brightness felt like a façade, the sky with its streaks of magenta, brilliantly misplaced. “What’s with all the candy?”

“Matt keeps giving me sweets.” Wrinkles of confusion appeared on Justin’s forehead. “Why does he keep giving me sweets?”

Clay dug in the bowl, grabbed a Tootsie Roll for himself, a Pixy Stix for Justin. “Maybe he read that sugar gives your receptors the same feel-good boost as heroin. With the taper starting... I bet he wants you to feel some comfort, or—you know, just being a good dad. He misses cooking for you. Watching you chow down on junk food.”

We all do.

Their parents had been trying to approximate Justin’s tube feedings to normal mealtimes, both in size and timings, but, more and more, they were presenting non-liquid nutrition to him 24/7, doing everything short of begging to get Justin to eat the old-fashioned way.

“You like cherry, right?”

Justin nodded, so Clay started the trick. First, lots of talking— “Grape’s better. Orange is the superior flavor, obviously. We should do a taste test. Here, just– oops!”

Clay (accidentally) ripped the pourable straw open directly above Justin’s nose.

Justin’s natural instinct was to catch the flying powder, because god-forbid they waste two-cents worth of food.

Ta-da! That was the trick: Clay persuaded Justin to open his mouth by—not giving him any other choice.

Having successfully taken him by surprise, Clay carefully dumped the rest of the cherry sugar onto Justin’s tongue, treating every milligram of powder like the most precious, most rare miniature jewel.

A calorie was a calorie was a calorie.

“Any good?” Clay asked innocently.

Justin sucked on the powder, ripped open an orange Pixy Stix for Clay. Upended it on his face.

Mutual support, in all things.

“Tell me if you want another one,” Justin grumped savagely.

“Great. Thanks.” Clay brushed the powder off his cheeks, blinking rapidly, trying to get it off his eyelashes. I guess I deserved that. “Want to share a Tootsie Roll?” He wasn’t giving up.

“Sure. Make it nice and spit-gooey for me first.” Justin didn’t sound very enthused. In fact, “I don’t wanna eat dinner tonight. Will you cover for me?”

Unbelievable. Not again.

Clay knew he wasn’t supposed to comment. Knew that drawing negative attention to the anorexia only made it worse. Only put more pressure on Justin to perform.

(But he also knew what it sounded like late at night, Justin’s stomach rumbling, rumbling, how he tried to stifle his cries under his pillow, whimpering at broken intervals—like it hurt to be alive. Those were wretched nights, Clay’s little shit of a brother, crying from hunger.)

“I can’t keep covering for you. I’m sorry, but you have to eat. You have to eat.”

Fucking eat!

Clay bit his Tootsie Roll in half, offered the larger piece to Justin... nope. Offered the smaller piece to Justin... nope. Chewed on a piece fiercely, coating it in saliva, making it as grossly inviting as he could.

Offered it to Justin... Justin stuck it on Clay’s nose. Laughed at him.

“Is there anything in this candy bowl you’ll eat?”

Justin selected a box of Nerds — “oh, okay! Good choice!” — and proceeded to feed the box to Clay, using Clay’s mouth as a basket, the Nerds, his miniature basketballs.

He was hyper-affectionate, jumping all over Clay, annoyingly loud and rambunctious about the game, laughing at Cinnamon’s antics—she was his point guard—and if it weren’t for the fact that he could see each of the bones in Justin’s wrist, Clay would have enjoyed it. As it was, he contemplated going to the garage, finding some rope, tying Justin to a chair, shoving avocado, almonds, cheese pizza down his throat.

You’re going to eat this—and you’re gonna like it!

Would their parents applaud him for his initiative or book him a private room in a facility?

“Clay, I– I think I’m starting to crack.” Syllables splintering, Justin squinted up into the sun.

He looked like a ghost. Clay almost fell down the steps.

He regained his balance, considered his brother, the nightmarish twitch to his cheeks, the way his fingers kept tapping against his stomach, buzzing with restlessness and anxiety.

In that ethereal afternoon light, Justin looked otherworldly, not like a ghost, but like—

An angel, Hannah helpfully supplied. He’ll be with me soon.

Desperate, Clay slammed his hand against Justin’s forehead, relieved when he felt no fever, when he felt only a light sheen of sweat—he was pleasantly sweaty—and, pulling back, saw specks of dirt on Justin’s nose, constellations in his irises. “Is it cravings? Or flashbacks...?” His throat felt swollen. “Seth?”

Justin touched a finger to the crook of his elbow, the place where the needle would go. “If you can’t feel it... if you numb it out... it can’t fuck with you.”

“So, all three,” Clay surmised, a subtle queasiness setting in, a slight instability in his stomach.

“If I wasn’t so sick, I’d... I’d take you to Oakland. Buy you a knife. Whatever knife you wanted, man, I’d buy it for you. We could set up shop, castrate all the chomos, the ones who go out looking for young guys, young girls, the real sick fucks who–who get off on pain. Who tell you one thing and then—”

God, the look on Justin’s face.

He was—touching himself. Hurting himself. He didn’t seem aware he was doing it.

He was officially starting to freak Clay out.

Their addiction counselor had assured them that, this time, the taper didn’t have to be a nightmare. They could taper Justin, not rapidly, but comfortably.

It could be done slowly and gently, a five percent decrease of opioids every three to four days.

They were on day four.

It was already becoming a nightmare.

“What can I do?” Clay asked Justin, grabbing his hand away from there, watching him shift his self-destructive attention to the other place Seth had tortured him. Eyes stinging, Clay watched Justin tear his lip open, saw fine specks of blood.

“Cop for me? A point of black.”

“Uh. No.” Clay tried to smile, smile at Justin’s idiocy, but this wasn’t a fucking joke. This wasn’t a joke.

Stiff and cold. Lips blue, chest still.

Cold on the floor. (Justin hated being cold.)

“Wake up. Wake up! Please wake up.”

Too late for Narcan. Already dead.

He’d be cold forever now.

“Just breathe,” Clay whispered, placing his hand over Justin’s heart. Warm, warm, warm. “Breathe.” He didn’t know how to comfort Justin.

He comforted himself.

“The fuck good is breathing gonna do?” Justin shoved Clay’s hand away. “I was breathing when Bryce tossed me out of Jess’s bedroom, breathing when those guys locked the door and took turns with me on 14th Street. This taper is shit; already, it’s shit. The fuck is wrong with these doctors? Taking away my meds, after I got shot, after Seth practically split my dick in two! I think about that asshole every fucking minute, and every fucking minute, I wanna get high. Wanna destroy my veins. So, he wins. What, Clay? He does. I know I’m gonna fuck it up. I hate how my mom is, but I’m on the exact path to being just like her!”

“You’re nothing like your mom! No. You’re not!”

Justin laughed. “You’ve never once tried to understand, what my mom’s been through. You’ll make excuse after excuse for me, but my mom– She’s no different. She was in foster care. Worked the streets before she ever got a real job. People treated her like trash because she had a drug problem and a baby. I know you’re not trying to be judgmental, you can’t help the way you were raised, but, c’mon, man, Seth hurt you, and look how much it’s fucked you up. Well, my mom was hurt by a hundred different guys, over and over and over, for years. Can you imagine how much that’ll mess you up?”

“You don’t understand what this life is like, that kind of trauma. You can’t. There’s no hope, there’s no fucking hope, not for people like us. You? You could try heroin, go to a fancy rehab, get some hugs, a pat on the back, and it’s fine, whatever. A year later, you’re an inspirational speaker. But me, my mom... this is our entire fucking lives. This is all we know. A guy raped my mom, she got high. She lost her job, she got high. Sh–she broke her arm, trying to protect me from Darnell, and... and I shot her up, just so she could sleep, so she would stop crying from the pain.”

“Drugs—they’re all we’ve ever had. The only reason to get out of bed. The only comfort. When you use something for that long, it screws up your brain chemistry. We can’t function clean. Our brains don’t know how to make dopamine and serotonin and all that good shit, like healthy brains do. So we’re screwed. We’re just screwed. I know you think I’m fucking weak — I am! — these drugs have completely ruined me, but the only reason I’m alive today is because of tar. I’d be dead without it. And I feel like—like the only way I can escape it... is in a casket.”

Clay flinched. Justin couldn’t mean that. He couldn’t fucking mean that!

“You fucking asshole!” Clay couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Sometimes berating Justin worked wonders. Other times...

Justin had his arms wrapped around his stomach. He looked two seconds away from collapsing. From starvation. From pain.

Prolonged mental stress.

He was cracking—and they were taking away his primary source of comfort.

This probably felt like the end of the world to him.

It was the end of the world.

How did you taper someone off the thing they felt had saved their life?

Not by yelling at them. Not by disparaging their mom.

Clay didn’t understand Amber, he never would — she had been blessed with Justin and been willing to give him up — give up Justin — the fuck was wrong with her? — but, Jesus, only ever experiencing relief and comfort through a chemical... what a horribly sad way to live.

Degraded. Abused. Terrorized by guys like Seth, for weeks, and months, and years.

It was the first time Clay had ever truly felt sorry for Amber.

(She was the reason Justin was hurting. He didn’t feel sorry. He wouldn’t.)

“I’m scared, Clay.”

“Me, too.” They should be scared. Scared Justin’s past was gonna snatch up his future. One wrong hit, one bad batch of dope...

“The strongest person I’ve ever met,” Clay said, biting back heavy emotion, “is you. You, Justin. All the shit you’ve been through... and you’re still kind. I don’t know how... how you’re not bitter and cold. I would be. But you... you have the most annoyingly attractive personality. You somehow managed to make me like you, which, hard sell, but you did it in like two hours. Listen, I screwed up, and you’re right to call me out. I’m sorry for being so down on your mom all the time. She hurt you, and that—that’s all I see, sometimes. It shouldn’t be all I see. She needs help. I want her to get help. I’m sorry if I made you think–. I don’t think you’re weak for having a disease. God, that’s not weak. That’s not weak at all.”

“The HIV...?”

“No. Addiction.”

Justin blinked slowly, his facial muscles growing heavy and slack, his body movements sluggish and delayed, like he was drunk.

Oh fuck.

Why now?

He was starting to dissociate. It was incredibly haunting.

Incredibly raw.

Clay had not been mindful of his triggers.

“Sorry,” he blurted, “I was just rambling. I know that’s self-centered. I know that’s not fair to you.”

“Why are you apologizing? Jesus.” Justin fought, grabbed onto a concrete hope, a glimmer of something positive. “My mom’s doing good, at the recovery house.”

Clay grabbed onto it with everything he had. “I know she is. That’s awesome. And you can, too. Here, with us.”

There was something new in Justin, Clay saw it striving to emerge—a wildflower stretching sunwards, triumphant roots, a thorny stem... and fragile petals.

A mere gust of wind and the beauty of it could disappear.

“Come here. Come here, man.” Clay wrapped his arm around Justin’s shoulders, tugged him into his chest. Felt the tremors through his shirt. The terrible, terrible heaviness. “Addiction... you can’t just put it down, I don’t get it, but I get it, and I have some ideas.” It was Clay’s self-assigned senior project: Rewire Justin’s brain, create new dopamine pathways, teach him to crave experiences actually worth remembering. “You’re tapering off these drugs, so we have to find something else to put there. Something just as good. Something better.”

Like Cinnamon. Animals were great for emotional support.

Brothers, too. They were the best kind of support.

The best, by far.

“Rest your head on my shoulder for a sec.” Justin gave himself over to Clay, with perfect trust.

Matted blood, blue lips, cold hands—

He couldn’t survive it happening again.

Cinnamon watched him keenly, but she was calm now, understanding that this was serious shit.

Their vendetta could wait; Justin came first.

“Stay still, okay?” Clay disconnected, slipped into the role, sent his fingers out searching, seeking the perfect place to leave a mark. He found it.

With all his strength, he dug his fingernails into the soft skin behind Justin’s ear.

Justin inhaled sharply. Tried to jerk away.

Clay kept him contained, tightly hemmed in and secure. “Don’t fight. Work through it with me.”

Justin let out half a curse, forced himself into passivity, the simple act of submitting easing the tension from his muscles, and quieting his tremors.

Pain was a gift they gave each other.

It took a long while, but the hurt finally came away. The balled-up self-obsession that was addiction collapsing in on itself as Justin leaned on Clay physically, leaned on him heavier, emotionally.

“Go again?” Justin requested.

As many times as you need. Clay found a new spot, soothed Justin’s pain, chased it away with the tips of his fingers.

“I hate this. I hate this.” Justin hit a balled fist against Clay’s back, over and over, a loving gesture. It really fucking hurt. That’s how he knew it was love.

Curiosity was a cruel, cruel thing. If he didn’t ask now, he might never know. (Did he want to know?) It would eat at him forever. His mind was already conjuring horrors.

(He didn’t wanna know, couldn’t handle knowing.)

He’d been here before, smothered by someone else’s story. It was Hannah, confessing her rape. It was Skye, showing him her self-injury scars.

This was worse.

Not in the details, not in comparison—but simply because it was Justin. That was the only significant difference, the only one that mattered.

“This is killing you,” Clay said softly. “Isn’t it? All these secrets. What haven’t you told me? I won’t overreact, I promise. Tell me what you meant when you said they—they took turns with you on 14th Street?”

The pain was there and—it was overwhelming.

Clay never felt it wash away.

It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts, please
let me
Die, please let me
Die.

“Justin?”

Justin was there, and then he wasn’t. Clay felt him leave.

He rested his free hand on Justin’s stomach, over the mass of scar tissue, which earned him a plaintiff meow from Cinnamon.

I’m worried too, girl.

“Come back?” Clay asked, tried to ask, his fear a lesser fear than terror, but still sharp, and biting. “C’mon. Don’t do this.” He tapped Justin’s foot. “Get back here.” He blew on Justin’s forehead.

“The fuck you blowin’ on me for?” Justin asked quietly, slumping against Clay, fragile fingers seeking a fragile hold. Clay responded, grabbed Justin’s hand, holding those warm, warm fingers in his, until Justin found his way back to his body, back where he was supposed to be.

“When we’re in our bedroom, alone, just us, with the door locked—I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you about Oakland.”

“You don’t have to.”

A whisper, like a confession: “I need to.” Then, in a broken, cracked rush, “If no one ever knows, it’s like it never happened. I need to know it happened.” Justin shivered, his body rattling apart, rattling except for Clay, who was—somehow—keeping him together. “Fuck, I’m really starting to lose it.”

Clay held Justin to him, shaking him gently. “You’re doing okay, come on. Grab Cinnamon. Hand her to me, carefully. I’ll carry her upstairs. I think I have a laser pointer somewhere. Let’s play with the stupid cat.”

“Jensen. Wait. You like cherry, right?” Justin leaned forward, put his lips on Clay’s. His lips were frosted with sugar.

And soon, Clay’s were, too.

He licked them in appreciation, touched the tip of his tongue to Justin’s tongue.

Simple intimacies, the spontaneity of the unexpected.

“Better than orange? Or about the same?” Justin’s thumb hooked lazily into the back pocket of Clay’s jeans. He was smirking, enjoying himself a little too much.

“Oh, shut up.” But Clay was sure he was grinning like an idiot, too.

Not because of the sugar—though that was nice—not because of the out-of-the-blue kiss—which was simply part of hanging around Justin, loving him, the way he needed to be loved, but because the most genius idea had just occurred to him.

A way to get Justin to eat. Without thinking of Seth.

You take out the bad, you have to put something good there.

 


 

The house felt stuffy after being outside for so long, but everything was infinitely better once they made it upstairs. Their bedroom was their sanctuary; they’d made their home, there.

The bro-cave, as Zach annoyingly called it.

Cinnamon bounded from one bed to the other, chasing the laser light, the room filled to the brim with Justin’s boisterous laugh, and Clay basked in that laughter, hogging the bowl of candy, sending completely innocent, non-flirtatious texts to Sheri, simultaneously checking Justin’s math homework for him, delightfully uninterrupted by Alex, who had gone radio silent, and free of their parents, who had yet to commence their nagging.

It was hard to feel anything other than content.

Until Justin’s phone buzzed and it was Bryce and Justin stopped smiling, stopped laughing.

Clay blocked the number.

But it was too late. All Justin wanted to do for the rest of the day was sleep.

Not because Bryce had called.

Because Clay hadn’t let him answer.