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ashes in his wake

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“Hey, beefcakes,” Joe greets cheekily when Sami opens the door. 

The other purses his lips at that, feigning annoyance if only to stop his mouth from pulling into a grin. “I brought menudo for the patient,” Joe continues, hiking up the brown paper bag holding the twenty ounce container of piping hot stew. “Can I come in?”

Sami—so different from his brother except for the faintest echo of Rami’s face in his own—rolls his eyes at the question and waves him wordlessly inside. Joe flashes him a gameshow grin at the victory as the other turns away, letting Joe kick shut the door behind him and toe off his shoes. “Rami’s watching TCM in the living room,” he offers as he paces away, and Joe huffs a laugh at that. “ Rami! ” he calls, “Joe’s here!” He follows it up with a garbled line of something in Arabic, which Joe is pretty sure his white-washed ass only uses so he can hurl abuse at his brother without him knowing.

He hears a congested oh, thank God called out in return as he follows Sami to their ridiculously large living room, and he laughs again.

“I come bearing offerings of food for the ailing and the ill,” he announces, and watches Rami’s adorably curly head of hair emerge from a nest of blankets settled into the corner of the sectional.

“You went to Huarachito’s?” he rasps, and Joe winces at the sound of his voice. It is rough .

“Stop talking,” Sami orders, ruffling Rami’s hair as he breezes behind the sofa past him. Rami grabs his arm before he can walk away and bites playfully his fingers, earning a hissed curse and a light smack in reply.

“Stop trying to infect me,” Sami accuses as he trails into the kitchen, and Rami laughs. “I have to go to school!

Rami only grins after him as Joe rolls his eyes and sets the bag down on a table. “For being sick, you seem to be in an awfully good mood,” Joe accuses.

Rami lolls his head back towards his guest. “Torturing my brother is the only respite from the pain,” he manages, voice gravelly. The humor is still there though, and Joe gives him as chastising of a smile as he can manage. 

There's an intimacy between those two Joe knows with certainty he will never be entirely privy to—an inherent knowledge of and intuition for each other that can't be found in something not bound by blood. It's fucking awesome , Rami had mindlessly chattered to him one day, we were the same egg once , and the statement rattled Joe’s mind a little. He supposes that's part of their magic. For as different as they are, there's something to be said for growing out of your literal other half. My soulmate, Rami had said once.

“I can hear you thinking,” Rami teases, and Joe blinks himself back into the present. 

“Sorry,” he apologizes in a rush, and turns back towards the stew as he shrugs off his jacket. “I brought some menudo for you,” he offers. “If you want.”

“I do want,” Rami affirms, letting himself collapse back onto the couch, one arm thrown carelessly over his eyes. He coughs once, and it's a hollow, ugly sound, rattling his whole torso. “You know where shit is in the kitchen.”

He does. He's as familiar with this house as they are, what little free time they have usually spent together now. Benefits of living in the Hollywood Hills—your neighbors are usually your co-workers, too.

He makes quick work of it, pulling out a bowl from a cabinet and fishing for a ladle in one of their many drawers. He carefully steps around Sami as the other carries a ham sandwich to his office, which Joe knows is packed with ungraded papers and rolls of scented stickers. The thought makes him huff, something warm and fond, as he spoons the hot stew into the porcelain, steam rising in tendrils.

When he re-enters the living room Rami’s sitting up, legs folded Indian style as he shoves remotes and used tissues aside to make room on the coffee table. “Not having any?” he inquires when he catches sight of the singular bowl, knowing what the answer will be.

Joe wrinkles his nose. “I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, but menudo is one thing I can’t stomach,” he says as he sets the bowl down delicately and settles into a corner of the sectional. Rami only shakes his head and tuts as he takes the bowl in his hands.

“You’re missing out, man,” he says with a soft smile. “White people, I swear…”

“Oh, shut the fuck up and eat,” Joe dismisses, not unkindly. He watches the other settle in happily, and his chest aches as he soaks in the brunette’s appearance. Rami has aged. People joke about him being vampric or aging backwards, but the truth is that he’s almost forty and a smoker and it shows . His skin is sunk and sallow, eyes tired, genuinely tired, in a way that has nothing to do with his permanent bags. His cheeks are less full than they were ten years ago, shadowed by cheekbones that weren’t always so prominent, and his fingernails are brittle and finally starting to yellow. It’s life. It’s Hollywood. It’s everything he’s ever been through, worn on his skin like battle scars and tattoos.

“You’re quiet today,” Rami observes, politely not pointing out Joe’s blatant staring. The blonde only shrugs, looking away. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just…” Joe lets his gaze fall back on the other, blinking. Like usual, Rami’s gaze pierces through any lie he could have thought about telling. “You’ve aged. Since we first met . I’m just kind of… noticing.”

“Well, yeah,” Rami agrees, swirling his soup around. “I’m almost forty. Things change.”

“You’re still beautiful,” Joe rushes in. “Almost more so, in some ways. There’s character in how you’ve aged. I think I admire you for that.”

Rami blinks at him. “Thanks, Joe,” he says carefully, then sets the menudo back down on the table. “I’d like to think I have character.” He suddenly shoots the other a playful look. “For the record, you don’t look a day above twenty-five!”

Joe waves him off with a roll of his eyes and lets his head fall back against the couch, admiring the tall ceiling above them. “It’s just weird is all. There’s always been a part of me that just kind of assumed we wouldn’t make it this far. Not even career-wise, but like—even that we’d live this long.”

“Yeah,” Rami agrees, voice sounding even more congested now that Joe’s not looking at him. He hears the clatter of the bowl being picked up again and the scrape of his spoon stirring. “I half-thought we’d get killed while filming all those years ago, you know. It was totally surreal, thinking back on it now.”

Rami’d been so different back then—young and spritely, bronze-skinned and pouty-lipped. His cheeks had been full, even as half-starved as he was, waist slim and tapered. Joe had stared when Rami wasn’t looking. A lot of people stared when Rami wasn’t looking. Joe might have been the leading man in his own fair-skinned, waifish way at the time, but Rami was another creature altogether, gravitating in how he would pull people into his orbit. An orbit Joe never quite escaped, even as he circles him now.

He turns to look at the pale, gaunt and sick thing before him, and wonders if a part of Rami died on that island all those years ago, after all. “But look at you now,” he finally rebutes. “A leading man! With an Emmy and Oscar under his belt to boot.”

“Oh, shush,” Rami dismisses, then coughs again. A hollow rattle. “I got lucky, that’s all.”

Joe thinks about the toll it’s taken on him—the constant exhaustion, the paranoia, the leers from older producers, the PR and contract relationships in a bid to keep him relevant and on the proper radars—and thinks, no, Rami. The world got lucky with you.