Darryl stared at Grant from where he was in the driver’s seat. Grant was sitting in the middle, next to Paeden, squished up against the door with Terry Jr. and Nick sitting on the other side of the car. He tried to catch his eyes in the mirror, but it wouldn’t work. He didn’t know why he thought it would. Grant didn’t look anyone in the eye anymore. And that was his fault.
For a moment Darryl thought about trying to make conversation but he knew from experience that wouldn’t accomplish anything. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Henry, who was sitting in the passenger seat, looking at him in concern. He sighed, reaching out his hand and taking Henry’s, giving it a gentle squeeze. Grants eyes darted to their joined hands, but this move went unnoticed by everyone in the car, it didn’t matter though. After all, Grant Wilson no longer cared about anything, right?
They stopped for the night at a rather fancy inn. The lobby was strangely lavish, the wood floors were swept and mopped instead of sticky and blood-covered like they were used to. There was a bar in a corner where a few people were drinking, they were smiling and making polite conversation, it created a soothing backdrop of noise. There was a woman with red skin and horns running the front desk, who smiled warmly when Darryl and Henry approached.
“Howdy there!” She spoke with what Darryl pinned down as a Georgian accent, although logically he knew she wasn’t from Georgia. She didn’t blink at their blood-soaked clothing or their various scrapes and bruises. For once in the whole time that they’ve been here, Darryl felt like a dad booking a room for his family, and nothing more. “Welcome to Fox Berries Inn, what can I do for ya?”
Henry smiled, “We have a group of ten. Four adults and 6 children. Do you think you could fit us in anywhere? Preferably with attached rooms.”
She smiled, leaning down to glance through a book full of room numbers and names. A second later she looked up. “We have a room with three beds attached to a room with two, will that be a problem?”
“We’ll take it.” Henry handed over 3 pieces of gold, accepting the two-room keys with a smile. The woman, Amelix, informed them that if they set their laundry outside their rooms it would be cleaned and back by morning. Something that Darryl thought sounded amazing. Washing your clothes in rivers just didn’t do the greatest job of getting blood stains out.
They went back and hid the car in some nearby brush, taking the amulet with them, making sure toward their rooms. The rooms looked nearly identical except for the number of beds. They walked through a heavy dark oak door and into what was probably the nicest place that had ever seen this side of the portal. The floors were once again swept and mopped; the walls were painted a dark blue that reminded Darryl of the ocean. They were on the second floor and both rooms had a balcony that faced the sun that was currently setting over whatever town they had decided to stop in. The bathrooms had running hot water and some sort of magic (or cleaning supplies) kept the rooms smelling of fresh pine. After everything, they couldn’t help but feel like they deserved this.
The kids got to bathe first, one after the other. Paeden took the longest out of any of them though, shouting through the door “I don’t think I’ve ever even seen anything this nice!” Earning a chuckle from Glenn. The dads went next, Henry and Ron having to settle for cold water but the fact that it had kept up this long proved no complaints from any of them.
Dinner was complimentary and they all dug into the fresh-roasted chicken, except Henry and the twins who helped themselves to some excellently roasted vegetables. By the time they had all bathed and eaten, they were all almost falling asleep on their feet. Even the twins who normally had boundless energy were rubbing their eyes.
The decision on beds was decided for them, Ron and Glenn taking one room with their kids leaving the rest to the other. When Darryl offered his bed to Grant the boy didn’t respond, just laying in the bed farthest from the door and rolling over. Paeden ended up in the bed with Grant. The twins in the next and Henry and Darryl sharing the one closest to the door. Making sure that if anyone were to come in, they would be ready to fight.
The night settled down, everyone falling into blissful sleep, escaping the horrors of the day before, but two didn’t sleep. Henry faced Darryl; the bed was small so the two men ended up so close that they were forced to share the breath between them. Henry sighed, staring into Darryl’s eyes and when the other man didn’t do anything but stare back, he leaned forward, gently pressing his lips onto his.
Darryl smiled into the kiss, one arm coming around to wrap around Henry’s waist, pulling him tighter against him. They broke apart but Darryl kept smiling.
“Do you ever think about the fact that if my dad hadn’t dragged us into this world to kidnap our children then I wouldn’t be kissing you right now?”
Darryl laughed. “Well, when you put it that way this,” He bumped his forehead against Henry’s, “Sounds like it would’ve been impossible.”
“It would’ve. You would still be with Carole and I wouldn’t have gotten to know you. Of course, I wish that nothing bad had ever happened to our sons but—” He looked like he was at a loss for words.
“If we had taken them up on their offer not only would I not have my son, but I would also be miserable with my wife…”
“Yeah.” Henry leaned forward, drifting his lips against Darryl’s and holding him close. “So, what do you think we’ll tell the kids?”
“I don’t want to pile more shit on top of Grant. He’s been through so much and now I have to tell him his parents are breaking up and that his dad fell in love with the weird hippie who lives down the street?”
Henry barked out a quiet laugh.
“Besides, you want to sick Lark and Sparrow on me? They might actually kill me.”
The corners of Henry’s lips managed to turn up more than they already were. “They won’t kill you. They will test your loyalty as they did with Mercedes' last girlfriend.”
Darryl’s eyes widened, “what did they do to Mercedes’s girlfriend?”
Henry looked away. “They may have dyed all her shirts black. She was quite a flowery person and they told her that ‘They just wanted to prepare her for her own funeral.’”
Darryl's head was thrown back with laughter, Henry’s hand shooting up and muffling it. Behind them they heard the twins roll over, going quiet a second later.
“If you wake up my kids then gosh darn, you’re dealing with them.” Henry threatened, taking his hand away a second later, Darryl chuckling quietly.
Henry continued, “Listen it’s not my fault! You try getting those two to listen to anything you have to say. It’s like herding cats but the cats are heck bent on making your head explode!”
“I get it,” Darryl said. Henry wasn’t sure what had happened but the mood between them had changed. Darryl’s face had scrunched up in displeasure and instead of light teasing, there was almost resignation hanging in the air. “Getting your kids to listen to you is hard. I don’t think I’ll ever get Grant to talk to me again.”
“Oh, Darryl…” Henry cupped his face, leaning their foreheads together. “He’ll be okay one day. If you let him know that you’re there for him, he’ll talk to you eventually.”
“I don’t want him to talk to me eventually, I want him to talk to me now.”
“I know.” Henry searched his eyes. “I wanted you to talk to me when we first met, remember? I wanted you to open up, but you weren’t ready to. When you were ready you came to me though.”
“And it helped!” He stressed. “I wish I had talked to you earlier, but I didn’t! I know that if Grant talked to me then he would feel better.”
“That’s not true though,” Henry said softly.
“It wouldn’t have helped if you had come to me earlier because you wouldn’t have wanted to come. You never talked about your feelings because you didn’t feel safe, and right now, Grant doesn’t feel safe. Talking about trauma when you’re forced to doesn’t help anyone, it just serves to re-traumatize the victim. When you talk about it when you want to, when you feel ready, then it lets you put the memory in a different light. A light that can’t hurt you anymore.”
“I, uh, I guess that makes sense? Why do you know all of this?”
“Oh! Well, I read a couple of articles on—”
Darryl closed his eyes and started loudly pretending to snore.
“Okay, fine. It’s fascinating though.” He grumped.
Darryl kissed him again. “I bet it is.”
The next morning Henry was up and ready to go. He had already sorted through all the clothes that they had given to the staff and had folded everything, leaving them on bedsides. By the time everyone got up, he had gotten breakfast together, (including eggs for their non-vegan friends) and even managed to get them all some coffee.
Everyone ate in their rooms, Lark and Sparrow sparring over who could eat the last green bean, Paeden talking with Terry and Nick, and Grant, like usual, staring out the window.
They all finished their meal, going downstairs and thanking the hostess for the night and loading into the car, on their way once more.
3 hours later they stopped. Finding a good clearing in the woods and set up a small camp to rest for a little while before having to be cooped up in the odyssey once more.
Henry, Nick, and Glenn were scrounging around for food and after doing a quick glance around the campsite, he came to the realization that they seemed to be missing two rambunctious brown-haired boys. Darryl decided the two troublemakers had probably just wandered off and after an investigation roll of 17 he saw small footprints running towards where he knew the river to be.
Darryl only had to walk for 3 minutes before he stumbled upon the twins throwing rocks into the stream as hard as they could. The bigger the splash the louder they cheered.
“Does your dad know that you’re here?” He asked. They both spun, hefting rocks and now pointing them in his direction.
“No!” One twin shouted, “And he won’t ever know that we were gone!” The other chorused.
“Yeah? And what’s going to stop me from telling him?” He asked.
The twins looked at each other then back at Darryl. “If you tell him we will throw rocks at you!”
Darryl looked unimpressed. “I don’t think so. How about you put those rocks down, come back to camp, and he doesn’t need to know?”
The twins exchanged a glance once more, “That doesn’t sound like an equitable deal at all! That’s just us doing what you want us too!”
“Drop the rocks.”
They looked at each other with confusion. “No.”
Darryl just folded his arms. “One…”
“You’re not our dad!” the twin on the left shouted.
“He can’t do anything; dad won’t let him.” The other twin said.
Darryl sighed. “Three.” He surged forwards, the twins dropped the rocks with shock and turned to flee. Darryl, however, was faster. He scooped both boys into his arms and dropped them into the river.
The two boys shrieked at the cold water, now soaking them. One crying out “I can’t swim!” But Darryl just laughed. Lark sat up in the water, only his folded legs getting wet, in what was really only a creek, and scowled at the bigger man.
“I told you to drop the rocks,” Darryl said simply.
The twins looked at each other and then to Darryl. Together, moving as one unit, they grabbed his hands and tripped him, forcing him into the water. He laughed as the twins maneuvered him, one sitting on his chest looking victorious.
“Why are you laughing?” One twin asked from his perch on top of Darryl.
“We conquered you?” the other said, sitting on his legs.
Darryl grabbed the twin on his chest and threw him gently onto shore, shaking the other one-off as well. He stood back up and was tackled to the ground once more. All three of them beginning to wrestle in the grass. Throwing each other around, the twins repeatedly trying to put him into a headlock to no avail.
After what felt like forever all three of them laid on the grass, laughing.
When Henry approached the group his first thought was that something was very, very wrong. The twins looked motionless in a way he had never seen them. At a second glance, he saw their chests moving, and even more damning, their laughter. Darryl was smiling into the sunlight.
“You’re a worthy foe, Darryl Wilson!” One twin, Lark said.
“You’ve earned our respect! Even though we beat you in battle, you were a formidable enemy!”
Darryl sat up and shook both of their hands. “Okay, okay, get cleaned up in this river before your dad sees you like this. I won’t have dirt in my car.”
And amazingly, they listened.
Henry gaped but turned around, walking back to their campsite, and out of the twilight zone. Whatever magic Darryl had worked on his kids he knew he would be a fool to break it with his presence.
When Henry returned everyone was wrapped into their own conversations, he smiled seeing Paeden and Nick comparing their knives, and that is not something he thought he would ever do when watching a twelve and fourteen-year-old.
He saw Grant sitting by himself at the edge of the clearing and sat down next to him, mindful to leave plenty of space between them. He didn’t say anything or acknowledged him at all, but that was fine. Henry was good with silence for the moment.
A few minutes later he saw Grant glance at him, before going back to staring into the woods. This happened again and again until finally, the boy spoke. “What do you want?”
“It just looked peaceful over here, is all.”
Grant didn’t look like he believed him. “So, you’re not going to ask me if I’m okay? That seems to be all anyone wants from me anymore. For me to be okay.”
Henry was careful not to frown. “Nope, just here for the view. If you want to talk, I’m here though.”
Grant went back to staring at the forest. “I don’t.”
Henry didn’t respond, just looked out into the way the sunlight illuminated the forest floor. They never took enough time to appreciate their surroundings, having to flee from danger every day never left a lot of time for them to stop and smell the roses funnily enough. The sun was high in the sky, peeking through tall trees that kind of resembled pines, making light spots dance along the blanketed forest. At some point, Henry started talking. Not really saying anything of import, just talking about the things he loved. The trees, the strange rocks, he spoke of the birds and the animals and even told Grant of some of the rare nice people they had met on their journey so far.
Henry was careful not to look at Grant, talking more to the air then the boy, not expected any response but letting him know that his presence was appreciated. Eventually though, after the air between them had relaxed, after it felt safe even, Henry asked him a question.
“What is something that you’re passionate about?” He wasn’t expecting a response, just letting the question hang in the air for a moment, testing the waters between them.
It sat in the air for a while, and right when Henry was about to start speaking again, Grant spoke instead.
“I like cars, I guess.”
Henry could work with this. “You like cars? What do you like about em?”
Grant let out a long sigh, he was quiet again, but that was okay, Henry could wait. Eventually, he said, “They just… They look cool. I like looking under the hood, it’s like a great big puzzle that’s already done. You can just look and watch how all the pieces fit together in a way that should’ve been impossible for people to figure out. Cars are easy, they can always be fixed. Even if you just have a tire, you can build the car again. It’ll be different sure, but you can always get there.”
Henry smiled into the sunlight and if he were to glance at Grant, he would see that he was smiling too. “I don’t know anything about cars, how do they work?”
Grant looked at him with an unreadable expression on his face, “You really want to listen to me talk about cars?”
Henry shrugged noncommittedly. “You listened to me talk about rocks for twenty minutes. It’s only fair.”
And so, Grant talked. He didn’t mention Darryl’s name, or go into specific memories; he just talked about cars. The history of them and how the parts fit together. He talked about car shows and his favorite models. Henry interjected to ask questions here and there but other then that, for a moment, for five whole minutes, it seemed like Grant was okay.
He tripped up somewhere, he mentioned his dad, said how sometimes Darryl would take him out to look at cars whenever he had asked a question that he couldn’t answer. Just like that, Grant stopped talking. He went back to staring into the woods.
That was okay though, because this time his shoulders looked like they had relaxed, even if only by a fraction of an inch. His frown wasn’t as deep, the corners tilted up ever so slightly, in the smallest smile that Henry had ever seen. His eyes were no longer completely glazed over, now there was a hint of life to them.
Grant wasn’t ready to talk about what happened to him, he wasn’t ready to talk about this world, or his old life, or his dad. But he was ready to talk about cars.
And Henry felt quite good about that.
After a while Henry stood up, he walked more towards the campsite and at the same time saw Darryl walking back with Lark and Sparrow by his side. The two boys were smiling and while they were still pushing each other back and forth, there was a calm that Henry had never seen in them.
“What did you two get up to?” He asked.
The twins looked up at Darryl and then back to him. “Washing out clothes!” They said at the same time.
“Is that why you’re wet?” He asked.
Darryl coughed into his hand, hiding a smile. “Yes, they even had the foresight to ask me to go with them to make sure they had a chaperone.”
The twins nodded. “We were responsible!”
Henry raised an eyebrow but lost the fight with himself. He smiled and shooed his two boys to go get warm by the fire. He looked at Darryl who rubbed a nervous hand on his neck.
“I hope you don’t mind but those two have so much energy, we wrestled for a while until they were all tuckered out then got cleaned up and came back here. I know you’re pretty anti-violence, but they were laughing, and it sort of just—”
Henry cut him off with a kiss. When he drew back, he threw a cursory look around that told him he had rolled pretty high on stealth, and thankfully no one had noticed. “Thank you, Darryl. If you can get them to listen to you, then honestly, I don’t care what you did. As long as no one got hurt?”
“Oh, of course not. I got a couple of scrapes when they tripped me into the creek though.”
“To be fair, I threw them in first.”
Darryl just laughed.
“Yeah okay, I will admit my boys are a little rambunctious and I thought that yoga would be a good enough outlet for that, but I am now seeing that I might have been wrong.”
“It’s okay, Henry. Apparently, the only way to earn their respect is either by being related to them or trial by combat.”
Henry chuckled and looked at where Lark and Sparrow were sitting by the fire. Their shirts were off, and they kept flicking water at Ron who wasn’t actually doing anything in retaliation.
“I got Grant to talk to me,” Henry said quietly.
“You did?!” Darryl, whipped his head around to look at his son, sitting exactly where he left him.
“We didn’t talk about trauma or anything. Just, about what he used to love. We talked about cars for a while. Your son is quite the mechanic.”
Darryl’s eyes didn’t leave Grant. “Yeah, I uh, I’ve been teaching him about cars since he was 6. That’s all you talked about?”
“I think he was just looking for a distraction from his own head. He’s not going to heal from one heart-to-heart or hug or an ‘I love you’. This is going to take time. So yeah, we talked about cars.”
Darryl looked back at Henry, letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “How the hell are we better at parenting each other’s kids then our own?” Darryl asked, he grabbed Henry’s hand in his own and squeezed.
“We’re not. Parents are authority figures that you have a lot of past with. We are incredibly different people, Darryl, with incredibly different parenting styles. It’s not as scary to listen to someone who isn’t your dad.”
“Yeah,” he breathed. “I guess you’re right.”
“Come on, we’ve spent way more time here then we were supposed to. Ready to get back on the road?” He asked.
They rounded everyone up and loaded them back into the van, this time with minimal complaining from Lark and Sparrow. When Henry got Grant up from his log, he smiled at him, and surprisingly Grant returned it. They got back in the car and back on the road to who knows where, but they were together, and that was all that matters.