What Mac hadn’t thought about was how cold the water would be.
It’s not freezing, not cold like Alaska or Antarctica or anything, not enough to make him shiver, but the vague notion of the chill swirls around in his brain and his limbs and his fingertips, weighing him down even more than his questions about God. It’s like when he and Charlie managed to convince Mrs. Kelly that they wouldn’t catch cold and die if they went to the pool in sixty-five degree weather, and they’d get in and it would all be fine until the water hit their thighs and stomachs and chests, and they’d have to race back and forth across the pool so they could tough out the chill. It’s kind of like that, because he honestly hadn’t really thought about the temperature until the water soaked through his jeans and got closer to his core, but it’s more different than similar, because instead of trying to out-somersault Charlie, he and Dennis and Dee and Frank are all making sure that Charlie’s head injury doesn’t make him pass out again.
It’s fitting that he and Charlie go down last, he thinks. The twins— God, how long has it been since he thought of them as the twins?— have been tied to each other since birth, and he and Charlie were only a few years behind them. He’s going to die, he’s going to drown and water is going to fill his lungs and he’ll be getting answers sooner than he ever imagined, and he’s going to do it with Charlie on one side and Dennis on the other. Dennis’s hand is warm, interlacing with his own so tightly that no water can slip through.
A wave of self-loathing washes over him, stronger than anything the ocean could throw, as he wonders how different everything could’ve been if he hadn’t been so afraid of God. He and Dennis could’ve dated, they could’ve gotten a one-bedroom apartment when Dennis graduated, they could’ve died without the words I love you sitting heavy on Mac’s tongue—
And then the door at the top is opening, and the old fear washes over him again as soon as the light touches him. A man’s voice, a lot like his dad’s, says, This was your punishment for doubting me, and Mac doesn’t question it. He swims up as fast as he possibly can, desperately trying to replace the water between his fingers with the brightness up above. Fuck, Mac thinks, God knows better than anyone. He breaks the surface and someone pulls him up, and his body is coughing up the water he’s inhaled but his mind is blank.
“Where’s Dennis,” Dee croaks, her voice salty-rough and filled with fear. “Where— my brother—“ she doubles over and coughs up water, and Mac barely notices because she’s right, Dennis isn’t here, and that can only mean—
The water is even colder than before, and he almost gasps in a lungful of it as he submerges his head, but it doesn’t matter because God is taking Dennis away as punishment for Mac’s sins. Dennis is suspended like a fly in honey and bathed in the ghostly light from above, his skin pale and his curls floating free, like Mac used to imagine that guy Icarus from the story Dennis had to learn for his Greek class, except this time Icarus is sinking under the waves instead of burning up in the sun. Dennis is not a golden god— what with false iconography and all that— but it still isn’t fitting for him to die underwater. Dennis isn’t gonna die, Mac thinks, even as panic fills his chest and church hymns about God’s wrath fill his head. He’s not gonna die, he’s not gonna die, he’s not gonna— and then he’s grabbing Dennis, and Dennis is ten degrees colder than the water but Mac is holding him tight and his lungs are burning and the surface is calling him again, and he heaves Dennis onto the metal floor and pulls himself out as he chokes on seawater that isn’t there.
He closes his eyes as the sting of the icy metal makes half his body go numb, and when he opens them again, the first thing he sees is a small cut across Dennis’s temple, the dark red standing out against the nearly blue tone to his skin. Mac’s stomach turns. “He’s— he’s hurt,” he croaks, trying to think, trying to remember if his feet knocked against anything on his first mad rush to the surface, if his flailing hands cracked against a fragile skull. He rips his hand away from Dennis’s wrist— when did that get there? he wonders, in the part of his brain that’s too far-off to be affected by what’s happening— and checks his knuckles.
The relief disappears faster than it came, because without his knuckles to focus on, all he can see is Dennis’s face. In the background, the paramedics are doing something to him to make the water come up and Charlie is clinging to Frank like he’s his dad and Dee is staring, glassy-eyed, at her twin.
Dee is never silent.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mac asks. “Is he dead?”
“Sir, please calm down—”
“I am calm, assface! Is he dead?!”
“Sir, he’s not dead, we need you to stop yelling—”
“I’m not fucking yelling, and you’d know that if you were more than just the shittier version of a doctor—”
“Sir! I don’t want to sedate you—”
“What the hell is happening to him—”
“Mac, shut up!” Dee hisses, and it’s more like a sob, and he does, because the last time she sounded like this was when they were sixteen and Dennis had been put in the ICU for low blood sugar and she’d stabbed Mac with a scalpel because he wouldn’t quiet down with his praying, but how the hell else was God supposed to hear him? And Dennis had turned out fine that time, so Mac has to pray this time too. The words to one of his favorite prayers rise to his lips, unbidden, and he starts to whisper them. “Goddamnit, Mac, shut the fuck up with your fucking prayers—”
“Look, I gotta pray, okay!”
“What the fuck happened to ‘God doesn’t exist—’”
“He does! I was wrong! He does, and this— you—” He draws a shuddering breath, and he starts praying again.
“We need to look you over, sir—”
“Mac, I swear to God—”
“Don’t!” Mac bellows, and her eyes go wide. “Don’t you fucking dare, not right now—”
“Oh, you goddamn idiot! God isn’t going to save Dennis, okay? God doesn’t give a shit about us, and even if he did, you’d probably be the one to fucking—”
“Do this later!” Charlie yells. They all shut up, and even the stream of prayers dries up, and Charlie takes a deep breath, like he’s regretting breaking his silence. “Just— look. Mr. Paramedic, how— how’s he doing?”
“We need to get him to a hospital quickly, in case there’s brain damage, and the rest of you need to stay behind to get examined.”
“I’m going with Dennis,” Mac tells the paramedic.
“Sir, please just—”
“I’m going with him!” Mac replies. “Have your little fake-doctor squad look me over on the way, because I’m going with him, and you can’t— you can’t—” His breaths are coming short and quick, and everything apart from Dennis’s prone form is a blue-and-gray blur. He’s not gonna die, he’s not gonna die, he’s not gonna die—
“Okay, that’s fine. Sir, take a deep breath—”
“Fuck you!” Mac yells, shoving the paramedic away, and he can’t get any air, he’s underwater again, fuck— he reaches out for Dennis’s wrist, begging whoever’s up there to let him feel a pulse.
It’s there. It’s sluggish, but it’s there. Mac tries to regulate his breathing, like Dee’s therapist bitch told him to, taking a breath with every pump of Dennis’s blood. “I’m going with him,” Mac repeats. “I’m going— I’m going—”
“Yeah, we’ll— we’ll see you,” Dee says. Without the anger lighting fires in her eyes, she looks like a shriveled husk. Her eyelashes are tacking together. Charlie looks completely lost, and not in the spray-paint way, but he lifts his hand and waves anyways. Frank’s face is stony, and Mac wonders if they’d be here if not for him. Either way, he knows that Dennis wouldn’t have been hospitalized at age sixteen if Frank had been a half-decent parent. He decides that for the moment, he hates Frank with every fiber of his being.
He doesn’t know how they get to a hospital— there’s stretchers and a boat and people who poke at him and ask him to say ahh, and then the next thing he knows is that he’s sitting in a chair next to Dennis’s hospital bed. He doesn’t think that he’s dropped Dennis’s wrist once. Maybe listening to the thump of Dennis’s heartbeat was some kind of blood magic, because Mac hasn’t been able to think of a single prayer, yet Dennis is still alive. Maybe Mac is going to burn in hell for it. He doesn’t think he cares all that much, because fire, with all its crackling warmth, sounds pretty fucking good right now.
Dennis’s pulse is still slow— Mac knows, because he used his own pulse for comparison, and even though his is apparently a little faster than usual, Dennis’s is still really, really slow— but he’s not gonna die. He’snotgonnadiehe’snotgonnadiehe’snotgonnadie repeats itself in Mac’s head, over and over like it’s the prayers he’s been forgetting this whole time, and it’s still not enough.
And then Dennis’s heartbeat speeds up a little, and Mac’s heart rate jumps to match. “Dennis?” Mac whispers, like if he says the name then Dennis will disappear in a puff of smoke. “Dennis, you awake?”
Dennis groans, his eyes screwed shut. “Jesus, my head.”
Mac lets out an aborted laugh, tentative and incredulous, and he blinks hard, just to make sure he’s not hallucinating. “You’re awake.”
“Yeah, no shit. What happened?” Dennis asks, and his raspy voice sounds like hell, but he’s alive.
“Uh. You— you took a hit, someone— on the way up— well, yeah. But you didn’t come up, and Dee realized that you weren’t there and I went back and got you.”
Dennis slowly opens his eyes and turns his head, and his red eyes are glassy, and he’s looking at Mac like everything is completely new. “So… you risked your life.”
Mac shifts, and he’s suddenly acutely aware that he’s still holding Dennis’s wrist, but Dennis doesn’t move away. “Yeah, I guess.”
“For— for me?”
“Well, I mean, I guess.”
Dennis turns his head back up to the ceiling and exhales sharply, like someone’s knocked the air from his lungs. “Oh.”
“What— what does that mean?”
“Can’t it just mean oh?” Dennis asks, his voice torn between snappish and pleading.
“If that’s what you want, buddy.”
Dennis closes his eyes again, and Mac’s gaze shifts from Dennis’s face to the rise and fall of his chest. Up. Down. Up. Down.
“You’re feeling okay, right?”
“It’s just— you’re shivering a lot, man.”
“Goddamnit, Mac, I’m—” The “fine” part hangs in the air like a cloud of smoke, and then Dennis says, “I’m— I’m cold, actually.”
“You want me to get them to bring you more blankets?”
“I have four already, dude. I don’t think that’s gonna help much.”
“Well, what d’you want me to do?” Mac’s itching to do something, to help, to make himself useful. “What can I do?”
“Mac, just—” Dennis opens his eyes and looks up and his jaw clenches like he’s steeling himself for something. The tensing muscles make the cut on his head stand out even more, and Mac resolves to ignore it. “Can you. Uh. Get in the bed.”
That’s unexpected. “Like. With you?”
“No, with Jerry fucking Seinfeld. Yes, with me, Mac. Uh. Please?”
Mac sits frozen for a second, because that sounds kind of gay and Dennis is his best friend and nothing more, but then again, he did say he’d do anything to help, and climbing into a hospital bed is hardly the worst thing in the world. He unfolds himself from the chair, and he awkwardly slots himself under Dennis’s covers. He lies there, stiff, keeping his hold on Dennis’s wrist, and then Dennis says, “You know being gay isn’t a sin, right?”
Mac tenses up, every muscle in his body bunched up and ready to spring loose just in case Dennis says the wrong thing, like when Sam Letterman had asked Mac out in ninth grade and Mac had punched him square in the nose, even though everything in him had said not to. “Why are you talking about gay shit, dude?”
“Because you came out to me, like, six hours ago, and I can tell that you’re doing that thing.”
“What— the fuck do you mean, thing?”
“Can we not bring him in, please?” Mac asks, clenching his free hand into a fist.
“Fine.” To Mac’s surprise, Dennis says it almost understandingly.
“Okay. What thing?”
“The whole— y’know, the whole repression thing,” Dennis whines. “It’s just so— look, Mac, you think God smites those gay people on sight?”
“Well, He can’t do that anymore. He just sends them to Hell.”
“Yeah. Okay. But how do you know what Hell is like?”
“Because of the Bible, dumbass.”
Dennis sighs at him, and Mac glares right back. “It can’t be the same Hell for everybody.”
“Why the shit not?”
“Well, because you have people like masochists and shit, who probably get off on that.”
That’s actually a good point. “Dennis, what the hell are you trying to do here? Convert me to agnosticism or some shit?”
“That would be impossible in a non-life-or-death situation. No, Mac, just— just go with me here, okay, baby boy?”
And that’s the killer— Mac can’t resist when Dennis says that, because his heart does a weird little flip whenever he hears it, and if he dwells on why, then he’ll go crazy. And going along has never hurt him anyways, because he trusts Dennis. “Fine.”
“Okay. So, like, you don’t know what hell is like, right? Or at least your Hell?”
This is Dennis’s scheming voice, the voice he uses to hoodwink the mark faster than they can blink, and Mac has never been on the receiving end of it before, but he suddenly realizes why Dennis pulls off his part of their plans the most. “I guess not?”
“Well, what would your Hell be?”
Mac thinks of an answer to that immediately. Hell is fire and brimstone and screams and being without Dennis and the gang. “What the fuck are you playing at, dude? I don’t goddamn know.”
Dennis rolls over on his side, his face taut with pain, so that he’s facing Mac. He pulls his hand out from Mac’s grip, and then he lays it on Mac’s face. “Mac,” he says, slowly, cautiously, “can I try something?”
Mac is hyper aware of Dennis’s hand on his face, of Dennis’s cold fingers almost burning against his skin, of his heart thumping faster than it has any right to. He nods— if he even manages to get any words out, he might break the spell that’s fallen over them and allowed them to do this.
Dennis leans forward and kisses him, and Mac realizes that maybe he’s been waiting for this for the past twenty-five years. Dennis’s lips are warm and soft and Mac can taste the faint remnants of Dennis’s tinted lip balm, and when Dennis pulls away Mac thinks he might die if he doesn’t get to do that again.
You’re going to Hell.
Mac scrambles back, putting as much space between them as he can without launching himself over the rail of the bed. “What the fuck was that?”
Dennis’s eyes are wide, boring into Mac’s own, but his jaw is clenched, like he can’t decide whether to be hurt or pissed. “You know what that was.”
“That— that was fucking gay, okay? And I’m not gay, and you aren’t either—”
“Mac, gay people don’t go to Hell, okay!”
“How the fuck do you know that? Huh? You’re so sure—”
“Holy— just trust me on this, okay?”
“Why the shit should I trust you over God?”
“Did God come down to you personally and say that you’re going to Hell if you’re gay?”
“No, because the Bible exists for that!”
“No, it doesn’t!”
“Wh— you’ve never read the Bible once in your life, how would you know?”
Dennis takes a deep breath, still staring right into Mac’s eyes. “Mac,” he says, and Mac is starting to recognize that slow tone as dangerous, “if you’re going to Hell, I’m going to be there with you.”
Mac’s mouth falls open. “You— uh— you?”
“Yes, can we move past it?” Dennis asks, feigning irritation so well that even Mac is almost fooled. “If— and that’s a huge if— we go to Hell, we’ll be there, y’know, together and shit. And trust me, we’re not going to Hell.”
It’s not a question of who he trusts, it’s who he trusts more, God or Dennis. Mac’s made up his mind before he can even fully process it. Dennis was there when his dad was arrested, Dennis was there when the apartment burned to the ground, Dennis was there for everything. “You swear? On your life?”
If the rest of the gang were here, Dennis would act like he’s humoring Mac, but they’re alone and Dennis’s voice is filled with sincerity and maybe that’s the final hurdle, what erodes Mac’s hangups from mountains down to pebbles. “Promise.”
The beeping of the monitors fills the room for a moment, permeating what would otherwise be an almost-comfortable silence. Wordlessly, Mac grabs Dennis’s wrist again.
The pulse is stronger than it was before, and Mac falls asleep to the thrumming of Dennis’s heartbeat under his fingers.
“Where’s Dennis,” Dee rasps. “Where— my brother—” she coughs, and Mac is plunging back in before the seawater has a chance to leave her lips.
The water is so cold that it’s practically ice. Dennis is at the bottom, his clothes billowing around him. Mac reaches him easily, and then when he wraps an arm around Dennis’s waist, he can’t swim up.
He tries again, pushing off against what used to be the wall of the brig, but he only manages to get a foot away before he sinks once more, Dennis getting paler by the second. “Mac, come on!” Dee cries, her voice distorted and far-off. The surface is an impossible goal. Mac kicks off against the metal again, this time only getting a few inches away. He can tell that the blue hue to Dennis’s face isn’t just the water playing tricks on his eyes anymore, and, with more adrenaline in his veins than he’s ever felt, he kicks away from the wall once more.
Up above, the door closes, sealing them in semi-darkness. Mac’s lungs are burning like the fires of Hell, and he clings to Dennis’s lifeless body as he tries again to swim up. “Dennis,” he says, pushing the last vestiges of air out of his lungs, “Dennis, I’m sorry—”
“Mac!” someone calls, and he jerks upright. This is not his room, this is not his bed— “Dude, what the hell?”
Hospital. He’s in a hospital, and Dennis is next to him, looking at him with wide eyes and ruffled hair that hides the cut on his head well. Mac takes a breath, just to make sure that he’s not still drowning. “What?”
“Dude, you were all—” Dennis shuts his eyes and flops around for a second— “when you were asleep. You good?”
“Yeah, just— just a dream,” Mac tells him.
“You wanna— y’know, talk about it?” Dennis offers, like he’s unsure if Mac is gonna smack him or not.
“It was just a goddamn dream, dude, can you leave it alone?” Mac snaps. Dennis’s eyes harden, and Mac regrets it almost immediately.
“Sorry for caring, I guess,” Dennis drawls, his voice dripping with acid.
“Jesus, you’re such a drama queen.”
“I’m— was I the one who was flailing around in my sleep and moaning?”
“The fuck? I wasn’t moaning!” Mac insists, heat rising into his cheeks. “Why the hell would I be moaning in the middle of a goddamn nightmare?”
“Ha!” Dennis exclaims. “So it wasn’t just a dream!”
“Holy— I can’t do this with you right now,” Mac replies, turning over in the narrow bed so that he’s facing the wall instead of Dennis’s still-pale face. “Just leave it, Dennis. God.”
The silence makes Mac even more aware of Dennis’s body right next to his, and even though he can’t see him, Mac can tell that Dennis has crossed his arms and contorted his face into that I’m better than you even though I’m pissed at you expression. He flips back over to face Dennis. “Holy shit, fine, it was a nightmare, okay? I had a nightmare, where I couldn’t get you out of the water, and it sucked. Okay? You happy now?”
“Well— what the hell am I supposed to say to that?”
“Nothing! Just don’t say anything!”
“Fine!” Dennis says, because he’s a child and he just has to get the last word in. Jesus Christ.
It’s hard to stare angrily at a wall when there’s a hot person’s face in the way.
“You care about me enough to— to have nightmares about me?”
Mac’s expression shifts from pissed to incredulous. “What kind of fucked-up logic is that?!”
“You know what I mean, asshole!”
“Yes! Okay! I obviously— have you had your head up your ass— I bought you a goddamn RPG, dude!”
“You— you what?”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “That was, uh. Supposed to be a surprise. For Valentine’s Day.”
“Uh. For— for me?” And there’s that glassy-eyed look again, brittle and fragile and burnt at the edges by something that Mac is just starting to find a name for.
“And how did you, um— how did you know that I wanted an RPG?”
“‘Cause I know you, man.” Mac smiles at Dennis, the sharp edges of his expression like a broken beer bottle. “Also, you casually mention RPGs, like, a weird amount.”
“That’s— that’s fair.”
“It won’t be coming ‘till February, though, so—”
“Mac, can I—” Dennis motions towards him with his fingers outstretched, jerky, like a marionette.
“Can you— can you what?”
“Don’t make me— can I kiss you again, goddamnit?”
“Well, if you’re gonna be like that—”
“Holy Christ, Mac—”
“Kidding! Kidding! Of— of course.” He says it as if his heart isn’t beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings, as if he hasn’t been hoping for Dennis to kiss him for the past twenty-five years. “Yeah— just—”
Dennis’s lips press against his, hesitant and light, and the shadow of his fingers brush against Mac’s jaw. It’s quick and almost-chaste and everything that Mac thought it would be and more, and he thinks that yes, Dennis is right, gays don’t go to hell, because how could a sin feel this good? It would go against everything, against the fundamental orders of nature, for kissing another man— for kissing Dennis— to be sinful. He pulls back, and he can’t stop the sigh that escapes him. “Shit, man.”
“Yeah,” Dennis says, and when he grins, it reaches his eyes for the first time in an age. “That was— that was nice.”
“You wanna watch TV?” Mac asks, for lack of anything better (or just not totally, extraordinarily gay) to say, and Dennis’s face falls, but when Mac picks up his hand again, he nods.
“Don’t think you’re gonna get anything good, though.”
Mac makes a noise of assent as he picks up the remote and switches on the TV. “Wish we could get the DVDs and shit from Dee’s apartment. Wait, holy shit, what country are we even in?”
“Huh,” Dennis says, frowning. “I got no clue.”
“Didn’t you say that we were getting close to, like, Barcelona or some shit?”
“Yeah, same difference.”
“No, not same— holy shit! They have Thundergun!”
“Holy shit!” Mac exclaims, going back a channel. “Nice!”
All good things must come to an end, though, and this is proven by the door to Dennis’s room opening to reveal the rest of the gang. “Aw, shit, did you two bang in here?” Frank asks.
“What the— no!” Mac yells, heat rising to his cheeks again as Dennis cries, “No, we didn’t, Frank, you slut!”
“Jesus, no need to get so aggressive,” Dee says.
“It was a valid question,” Charlie adds. “We don’t wanna be in here if you guys spilled your— your fluids—”
“God!” Dennis yells. “What are you people even doing here?”
“We wanted to check on you, asshole!” Dee exclaims. Mac is about to protest, yell, call her a bird, and then he remembers how she asked about Dennis before she could get all the water out of her lungs and he shuts up.
Dennis has no such qualms. “You—”
“Let’s just watch Thundergun, okay?” Mac tells them. “Everybody, just watch Thundergun, and then maybe we’ll calm—”
“I don’t understand Italian, though!” Charlie yells.
“What the fuck— there’s no Italian in Thundergun, moron!” Dennis snaps.
“But it’s playing in Italian, so now who’s the moron!”
Dee rolls her eyes. “Jesus, Charlie, that’s Spanish!”
“I don’t understand Spanish either!”
“Holy shit, it’s not like we don’t know the words by heart anyway!” Mac yells. “Just shut up and watch the goddamn movie!”
“He’s got a point,” Frank says.
“Frank, haven’t I told you to never be on my side?”
“What? I’m just tryna help!”
“Frank, we’ve already established that you never help,” Dennis tells him.
Dee’s eyes widen. “Shut up! Shut up, the dong part is coming, and if you guys make me miss the dong part—”
“Dee, shut up, Thundergun is about to hang dong!” Dennis exclaims.
John Thundergun hangs dong, and it is just as magnificent as every other time they’ve seen it. Except this time Mac is holding Dennis’s hand, so that probably makes it better.
By the end of the movie, Frank and Charlie have fallen asleep, both of them half on a chair and half on the bed, and Dee has elbowed her way to a spot in between Mac and the rail of the bed. “I don’t— I don’t think that this bed was built for five people,” Mac says, yawning.
Dennis turns the TV off as the opening credits of Downton Abbey roll. “Technically four, because Frank and Charlie’re on chairs, sort of.”
“Yeah, but with all my muscle—”
Dee snorts. “Your muscle is a joke.”
“Dee, I will—” a vicious yawn tears through his sentence— “I will beat you into little pieces.”
“Try me, bitch,” Dee says, sleep mellowing her voice.
“Can we do this in the morning?” Dennis asks. “For once, we don’t have Old Black Man—”
“Just Old Man,” Mac reminds him automatically.
“You’re right, we don’t have Old Man with us—”
“But he’s been replaced by Charlie and Frank, sort of,” Mac says.
“Shut up, Mac, you’re in the middle. They’re not at your feet,” Dee tells him.
Hesitantly, Mac slings an arm over Dennis’s stomach, pulling him closer. “That’s— that’s nice,” Dennis murmurs.
“Please don’t have gay sex next to me.”
“Dee, your presence alone is the biggest boner-killer ever.”
“You’re a boner.”