The light filtering in through the blinds glides over the book smoothly, showing off the yellow undertones of the aged pages. It also highlights the shiny, purple bruise high on Patrick’s neck. The mark glitters as it moves under the light with Patrick’s breath. Joe had glanced at it when Patrick came knocking at the his door, but the way Patrick shuddered was enough for him to leave it be. Best to not bring up sore subjects, especially on afternoons like these. When Pete is away to wherever he goes and Patrick is home from Her place, Joe is sure to treasure the time. If all he can offer Patrick is a few hours of peace every week, then he’s willing to give up any plans for the boy.
Patrick’s fingers were shaky when he had first asked Joe to hang out, but now they slide effortlessly over the edges of the book in his hands, turning the page when necessary. This is Joe’s favorite thing to do with Patrick, even more than video games and movie nights. Hours and hours of Joe’s time has been spent reading with Patrick; story after story. Joe always reads to him with a tone one might use on a sleepy child, and Patrick may as well be one from the way he rests, slumped back against Joe’s chest.
It’s a romantic story, the one Patrick brought to him today, about Lancelot and Guinevere. It’s so old and torn up that Joe’s not sure where Patrick even found it, let alone why he wanted to read it, but he’s not one to object.
In this telling of the knight and his love, Guinevere is grieving for herself. Her husband, King Arthur, is the bane of her existence and she runs away to the woods, intending on flinging herself off of a cliff - when Joe had read her monologue about her husband’s awful demeanor, Patrick had sucked in a sharp breath of air.
Before Guinevere can commit her act, though, Lancelot comes upon her, gentle and cautious in his steps. It was a dark night, but he can still see the tears streaming down her face and asks her what had happened. He knows the queen and is worried for her. Ashamed of her weakness in front of a man she respected, she attempts to send him away, but the knight is persistent. When she continues to fight back and moves to run, Lancelot grabs her by the wrist. Guinevere pauses, turning back to the knight.
Patrick pauses too, his fingers stilling on the page.
Joe clears his throat and reads on.
In the face of someone else - someone who finally seems to care about her - Guinevere breaks down. Into Lancelot’s arms she collapses, sobbing and worn out. They melt into each other’s embrace and even if Lancelot doesn’t know her story, he understands.
Lancelot doesn’t ask anymore questions of Guinevere, just holds her close in his arms and allows her to sob. Eventually, he guides with one of his arms across her shoulders and escorts her back to her room. As she goes to close the door, she meets his eyes once more, and there’s something new there that Lancelot had never seen in the Queen before. Something warm. By the time she’s closed the door, the warmth has spread to her heart too.
Looking up to Joe over his shoulder, Patrick closes the book gently. There’s a cold spot all over Joe’s body when he pulls away, moving to sit next to the younger.
“I think that’s enough for today,” Patrick says, his voice all croaky and soft from the lack of use. Joe’s throat, however, is sticky from too much talking and he struggles to respond.
“Yeah,” he says, instantly cringing at how bad he squeaked. It’s almost enough to break the moment. But it doesn’t.
Patrick stares at him, unreadable.
When Joe had said his favorite thing to do with Patrick was read, he didn’t necessarily mean the act of reading itself. He meant he loved the way Patrick was when they read together; so relaxed you never could have guessed what went on beneath the surface.
For a second or two, neither of them speak in the silence. Patrick glances down at the book in his hands and fumbles around with it before his eyes jump back up to Joe. The light from the window now forms a circle of light around Patrick’s head, brightening his dull blond hair and hiding the way his cheeks flush.
A few more beats pass and Joe’s about to ask Patrick if he wants to stay and maybe play a board game or something, but Patrick stands abruptly, looking like he was just told his dog got hit by a car. The halo around him is gone.
“Oh, uh, sorry, I. I gotta go,” Patrick stutters out, grabbing his phone from his pocket to check the time, “Oh shit, I really have to go. But, uh, thanks, Joe. A lot.”
Joe has no idea how to respond, but it seems like he doesn’t have to as Patrick is already shuffling out the door. Patrick does turn back one last time, though, and for the split second Joe’s eyes meet Patrick’s, there’s something Joe doesn’t know how to describe. Something blue, something lonely.
The moment is shattered.
The next time Patrick approaches Joe to read, it’s the night after a show. Pete’s passed out drunk two rooms down and Joe hadn’t seen Patrick since they finished packing up their gear. Standing in his room now, though, the singer is wrecked. Sweaty, red faced, and exhausted. The look Patrick gives Joe - one of pure distress - is enough to tell him all he needs to know. Not that he didn’t see it coming from the second She walked in the door.
They settle at the head of Joe’s bed, underneath the blankets and propped up against the wall. Patrick shoved himself in the corner and left Joe to squeeze in next to him and try to keep a respectable distance between the two of them. Patrick seems too high strung to notice any difference.
Lancelot and Guinevere rest in Patrick’s hands once more, but Joe doesn’t think the older is planning on moving any time soon, so he takes the liberty of prying the book from Patrick and holding it himself. Once more, Patrick doesn’t appear to care. The pages of the book look so much more tattered in the light of his bedside lamp.
Joe starts reading, quiet as a mouse even though Pete’s snoring across the apartment. He’s more worried about Patrick getting spooked than whatever Pete has to say.
After where they left off last time, Guinevere has a tad more hope in her heart. Arthur remains his same, cruel self, but she forces her mind away from him. Thoughts of Lancelot fill her head now. The knight, in all his kindness and compassion, had saved her life and she was wonderstruck. Wherever she went, she thought of the man and soon she found herself forgetting about her husband all together. Whenever he would pass her in the town, her heart would swoon and soar, crying out for the man who had cared for her so.
As Joe described the scene, tension dripped out of Patrick, slowly but surely. By the time Joe got to the actual dialogue, Patrick’s head was leaning on his shoulder. From this angle, Joe can see a bright red mark on Patrick’s waist where his shirt rides up, already flowering into a bruise. He keeps reading.
Lancelot has gone away on an expedition of sorts. He’ll be gone for a week or two, but Arthur has also gone along, so Guinevere decides it’s a good compromise. Going about her day as normal, she reads and meets with some friends and walks around the garden. Everything is normal until she spots a figure lurking in the back shrubs. Walking closer, she doesn’t recognize the stranger’s face, but they talk to her like they know her.
‘Guinevere, be wary,’ they warn, voice a harsh croak, ‘Arthur has grown suspicious of your joy; everyday he comes closer to finding the truth. Your love brings danger, you must tread lightly,’ Guinevere is shocked by this and flees the garden to her room. For the rest of the knights’ trip she cowers there, wondering if the stranger had been telling the truth. What would she do if her love was in danger?
From his pocket, Patrick’s phone buzzes and all the tension floods back into his body.
Joe really doesn’t want to upset him further.
Arthur and Lancelot return, game in hand, to Guinevere. She’s still tense from the warning she received, but she figures it’s best to just ignore it and act casual. Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary before they left, so maybe if she just ignores it-
Patrick’s phone buzzes again, this time twice in a row.
Maybe if she just ignores it, nothing will come of it. She had no fears before, so why should she now? Her husband approaches with a neutral expression and she knows she’ll have to go back to pleasing him, but Lancelot throws a smile at her and it doesn’t seem so bad. In fact--
Patrick’s phone starts to ring, and he jumps so hard he almost knocks Joe off of the bed.
“Shit, I- fuck. Fuck.” Patrick is frantic, fumbling for his phone and nearly tripping over himself as he clumbers off the bed and out into the hall, not even wishing Joe a goodbye. Joe, as he listens to the frantic mumbling of Patrick moving further and further away, feels like he’s standing on the edge of a cliff.
Pete’s frantic. Not that Joe isn’t, it’s just that Pete is going full on mommy-mode when he usually just… doesn’t care that much. And honestly? Joe’s kind of feeling the same way.
Patrick hadn’t come home for three days straight. No calls, no texts, no emails, no nothing. Just disappeared.
It wasn’t so weird at first, they all come and go as they please, but Patrick always comes home by the next afternoon. Always, no matter how worn or torn out.
That’s when Joe started to get worried.
Pete, though, is cool. He’s not as anxious as Joe and figured Patrick finally got some good hookup or something, as if he doesn’t know about Her. But, it was a good enough reason not to worry and they both went along with it. Until no one else had heard from Patrick either. Not Dirty, not Chris, and not anybody else. That was the second morning.
Now, seventy-two whole hours after Patrick went missing, he just walked right in as if nothing was wrong and poured himself a glass of water. Joe and Pete almost fell right over the coffee table trying to get to him. When they did, though, it was way worse than they could’ve imagined.
With one swollen eye, a busted lip, a bruised cheek, and who knows what else, Patrick looked at them with honest-to-God confusion as if he didn’t know why they were looking at him like that. Joe wanted to cry. And scream. And kick the shit out of someone. But mostly cry.
Pete, though, tugged Patrick so close to his chest Joe thought he might pop the other boy and, when Patrick tried to pull away, Joe folded his arms around him from behind.
Eventually, he stopped fighting back.
Guinevere, Joe thinks, is one of the bravest people he’s ever read about.
She and Lancelot have planned a secret meeting deep in the woods, with only the horses they rode in on as witnesses. They sit next to a spring, where the grass is soft and green and sunlight falls so perfectly between the leaves. Sat next to each other on a blanket, she reaches her hand out cautiously to Lancelot. He takes it with the care of one handling glass.
Here, in the warm summer sun with no one but them around, they feel infinite. Forgetting the rest of the world is all too easy and they’re happy to do so. When Lancelot leans forward to meet his lips to hers, there’s no thought of her husband in her mind. All that she has is focused on her love, soft and sweet and all hers despite all that say no. The tender embrace lasts the rest of the afternoon and when it’s finally time to leave, they head in the opposite direction of the castle. Their struggle is over.
Joe closes the book with the softness he reserves for puppies and babies. Patrick, from next to Joe on the floor, beams up at him.
“That was a really good story,” he says.
“Yeah, it was.”
Doe eyes meet doe eyes.
They hadn’t read for a while, after the whole “Her” debacle. It had taken Patrick a long time to stop the shakes in his hands and the tremor in his voice. It’s still there, even months later, and Joe’s not sure how long it’ll take for it to leave, but he longs for the day that it does.
Joe dips his head. He didn’t do anything, really. But it’s a lot easier to believe he did when Patrick lifts his head back up by the chin and presses their lips together, syrup sweet.