It works like this.
You learn about your shit. You keep it real. You don't have a manual for this, for how not to be broken, how not to break others, but you gotta start somewhere, right? So you play by the rules, even if sometimes the rules are bullshit and sometimes they don’t apply. But sometimes rules can be good, even you know that. They give you someplace to start.
So that's what you do. You go see a therapist; hell, you go see half a dozen, until you finally meet one who doesn't seem too phoney, or too patronising, or so detached from the real world they forgot they're dealing with people, not cases. One you can talk to. Granted, a lot of what he says you think is textbook crap, and you hate the way he turns questions around on you and doesn't let you off the hook even when you're rude. But he listens. And you learn to talk. To him. To Christopher. To the journal you started to keep – your therapist's idea, and hell did you think that was lame (what are you, a thirteen-year-old girl?) but it turns out it's actually not bad. It's like lyrics, only you don't have to worry about getting the rhythm right or whether people will feel them. And slowly, you start to learn the patterns of the past, and how to step outside of them or control them.
It doesn't always work. Sometimes you feel that edge inside, creeping closer to the surface, dark and sharp as ever. Wanting out. Sometimes you catch yourself yelling at some poor studio assistant, slamming a hand down too hard on some unoffending piece of furniture, kicking something. Sometimes you feel this rage rising like floodwater and there’s no high ground to flee to.
Sometimes you backslide, no matter your efforts. Those are the bad days. Like the day they pass Rook's verdict. You slam doors all the way home, ranting away, then have a pointless argument with Christopher about how this wouldn't have happened if he'd been Rook's lawyer. Chris replies that he couldn't have, he's a biased party, they wouldn't have let him. You say screw that, and some other shit like that. He says your name in that infuriating come-on-now-Kal-let's-be-reasonable voice, the lawyer voice. Then he puts his hand on your shoulder.
You shrug away so violently that you kind of shove him, not meaning to – of course not meaning to – but he kind of stumbles and bangs his hip against the kitchen counter. Not much, not much at all, but when you are what you are, when you go see a therapist and an anger management support group, when you have a file that contains phrases like “history of violence” and “battery charges,” when the indelible memory of your ex’s blood smeared across your knuckles still haunts your dreams, then "not much at all" is more than you can afford.
You kind of freeze, appalled by yourself. Chris doesn’t say anything, he just stands there looking at you, not afraid – he doesn’t scare easy, Chris – but you can see him assessing you, calculating, wondering right then and there whether this is an acceptable risk: a harmless slip or the moment where he starts excusing the inexcusable and needs to get out before that happens.
“Shit. Shit, Chris, I’m sorry.”
“I’m okay,” he says in a measured tone, but he doesn’t say it’s okay, which is good because it isn’t. The anger has drained out of you suddenly, leaving behind nothing but the dark grime of self-loathing, which is, of course, worth just about as much as I’m sorry.
“It’s Rook,” you say, hating yourself for even trying to explain but knowing that saying nothing at all might just be worse. “He’s like my brother, man. I’m just upset.”
Chris’s eyes remain narrowed, and his words are clipped and precise. “Don’t take it out on me, Kal.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
He nods, slowly, acknowledging your words but no more than that; neither making nor prompting excuses for you. “I talked to Rook’s lawyer after you stormed out. You ready to listen to me now?”
You know the measured tone well enough to understand you’re not being let off the hook; that he’s merely prioritising, giving you a temporary reprieve. So you help him make dinner and you listen to him talk about appeals and what the plan is, and at some point, when you reach for his hand, he lets you have it, fingers closing around yours, one thumb absently smoothing over the back of your hand while he talks precedents. And all the while you try not to think of all your failures amassing, pushing you down; try not to wonder if this is another one, if you’ve just made a crack that won’t close over.
That night, you spend a lot of time just touching him, almost obsessive, not even sexual really, just making sure he’s there, that you’re there, that touching is possible. You smooth your hands down his flanks, trace the contours of his chest, cup your palm around a hipbone, stroke the insides of his arms, the strong line of his shoulders, the warmth of his nape. Touching him usually grounds you, and you feel pathetically grateful that he lets you, holding you in return, murmuring things at you in the dark, and for a while there you almost think it’s okay, it’s gonna blow over, except when you fall asleep you dream of Tariq and wake up in tears.
(That's the other thing: you can make amends, or get closure, or whatever the hell they call it, but that doesn't mean you're actually absolved. You can evict your demons but those motherfuckers don't throw out your number. Every once in a while they'll come calling, just checking up on you, seeing if maybe you're lonely, or bored; maybe they can stay on the couch just for a night or two, see how it goes, start hanging out again like old times.)
Chris is up before you the next morning; he usually is. You pad into the kitchen to find him nearly done with breakfast.
"Kal," he says, standing by the sink, finishing his coffee. "About yesterday." He’s looking out the window, not at you, and you find yourself thinking this is it, reprieve over; he's been thinking things over and has realised you’re too much of a risk, that you’re too broken to bother with. That's that, then, you think. You’re in tracksuit bottoms and a tank top and wonder, absurdly, shouldn't you be fully dressed for this, but he’s not paying attention to what you’re wearing, whether you’re ready or not.
You don’t pretend not to know what he means. "I'd never hurt you, man," you start, then fall silent, disgusted with yourself all over again because of how hollow words sound in moments like these. There’s no justification. There never is.
"I know that," he says, a little impatient, tossing the rest of his coffee in the sink and then turning to face you. He’s in his suit already, ready for work. You brace, feeling the air tighten around you, getting thinner, elusive.
Chris is watching you closely, a thin frown knitting his brows. "You got a few extra chances here, Kal," he says eventually, choosing his words slowly, deliberately. "I know you got shit to deal with. I see how hard you work on your issues, and I respect that. I know you can't slap on a band-aid and be done, all fixed now. That's okay. Stuff takes time. So you got some credit here, because I know you need it and because I can afford to give it." He pauses, momentarily stuck for words, which is uncharacteristic. Then he shrugs, mouth twisting wryly. "Also I kind of love you, all right?"
The air expands a bit, letting you breathe, although he’s just pulled the ground out from under your feet in a different way. "All right," you manage.
His eyes narrow. "All right. But there's not an infinite supply, either. So don't blow it, okay?"
You just nod, your throat too tight to talk, and he nods too, decisively, like, that's that, case settled for now, and on his way out the door he kisses you, just briefly, not a big deal, not certain of anything because nothing is, but still certain enough for now.
So that's how you do it: for now. You don't know what you'll do when you run out of rules or when you come up against a pattern you can't undo. You just keep working on the ones you can, and take your chances on the rest.