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Fear and Force

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     He hadn’t consciously decided to check on Cook. Rarely any decision he made regarding his friend was a conscious one; their relationship thrived on instinct and impulse, it was their turbulent core. Instead, the worry festered as reflex: he sees Cook get hurt, he has to intervene. He’d tried to in the moment, a half-assed, weed-lagged attempt to get between Cook and the new principle, but his response was too slow and too lack lustre. In retrospect, he doubted Cook even wanted his interference at this point; the summer had been fun, but without Effy it had been easier to fall back into who they were before. With her return came the tenseness, and Freddie was still figuring out how to maneuver between them without hurting anyone more than had already been done.


    So it wasn’t until he looked up and found himself standing in front of Cook’s mother’s house that he’d realized exactly what he was doing. As the recognition locked in his brain a wave of yellow-tinged nausea flowed over him, the same as when he saw puss in his own wound after wiping out on his skateboard. He swallowed thick and clenched his teeth til they ached, and approached the door.
    Ruth opened the door. Freddie tried to look everywhere but her, but still could note her smile and the way she shifted her weight to push her chest towards him. She took up the whole door frame, blocking his view inside. Framed herself like one of her shitty photo projects. With nowhere else to look, he glanced down at his feet as he addressed her.

    “Hello, Ruth, is Cook ‘round?” She smelled slightly of alcohol but still more strongly of perfume. It must have been early in the afternoon.

    “I threw the turd out hours ago. But he’ll be back...like a bad rash.” The disgust that coloured her voice whenever she spoke about Cook always put Freddie on the defense. He’d seen what she’s done to her son, she had no right to hate him that much. Where did she think he learned to be the way he was? “Why don’t you come in Freddie? It’s been ages!” Freddie nodded before she finished her sentence. He was here now, and he had to stay determined. No use subjecting himself to Ruth if he was just going to pussy out before seeing Cook. He could do this. It’d been years. Freddie was older and he could handle himself. She was just a woman. Just his friend’s mum. The pulse loud in his ears threatened to drown out his train of logic, but just barely failed. He entered the Byatt home.

 

    This was a new house. Ruth had done well for herself since kicking her son out the first few times; absurdist, tit-centric art stylings must have been becoming a staple of rich homes everywhere for her to afford this place. Ruth sat him on the couch in one of the living rooms and smiled at him with hooded eyes.
    “Would you like a drink, Freddie?” She grinned at him, all teeth. He shifted his weight to move further away from her. “All grown up now, and more handsome than ever.” Freddie picked at his nails. He didn’t know how long he would have to stay her off, Cook could be hours. It might not be a bad idea to numb the buzzing caught in his chest with a drink or two. Only a drink or two. He nodded so slightly he wasn’t sure she saw, but with a happy-or-drunken sigh Ruth retreated to the kitchen to get him his drink.   

    “Beer or Liquor, Freddie dear?” She called once out of sight.
    “Beer.” He replied, voice blunted. He didn’t intend on getting any drunker than he needed to be.

 

    By the time Ruth came back with his beer, Freddie had almost talked himself into leaving without even seeing Cook. The back of his neck felt on fire, he was chewing at the insides of his cheeks to the point where he could almost taste blood, and he felt like fucking crying, though he wouldn’t breathe that to anyone. To his surprise, Ruth explained that she was entertaining company upstairs and that she’d be down later.
    “Unless of course you’d like to join us,” she said, looking at Freddie in a way that made him feel heavy and unable to move. She took his silence as a no this time, thank god, and left him in the relative silence of an empty living room, occasionally punctuated by moans coming through the thin walls.

    Freddie was grateful that Cook’s mom had moved house. After his fifteenth birthday, Freddie had stopped coming ‘round. Cook had never asked why - he didn’t want to be there, why would anyone else? - but though this new house didn’t look the same, the smell, the aesthetic, the fucking atmosphere felt identitcle. Freddie found himself wiping at his eyes as they stung. He looked at his phone, obsessively reading over messages from anyone; Effy, Cook, JJ, Katie, fucking Pandora, anything to distract from the flashes of memory hitting like inconsistent hail on a tin roof. The smell of hard liquor. Read Effy’s texts.The sound of Ruth humming. Read JJ’s texts. The feeling of a wet mouth. Read Cook’s texts. He was so scared. Read Cook’s texts. Why was he so fucking scared? Read Cook’s -
    Freddie was jarred out of his spiral by the front door closing and Ruth reappearing in the living room. She was in a different dress than the one she had originally had on, and was considerably drunker than before. He wondered how much time he’d lost looking over his phone. His beer can was warm and nearly empty. She sat beside him and he froze, her hand grasping eagerly at his thigh.
    “Another drink, Freddie dear?” She giggled in a way that made him taste bile. He nodded, just to get her to leave him alone. Of course, she didn’t. Ruth required attention to breathe, if no one willingly gave it to her, she would take it by force. Freddie flinched and accepted the second drink from Ruth. This one was liquor. He hadn’t been given a choice, it seems. He winced as it went down but was grateful for the burn of his empty stomach as a variance to the dull, aching anxiety.

 

    Ruth continued to try and chat him up, flirting and grinning at him, pushing her cleavage un-subtly in his direction. She would never bring up what happened, though. Never try to reminisce about the one time her previous attempts had worked. Freddie tried to take solace in the fact that maybe, that means she knew she’d fucked up. As her hand found its way back to his thigh, Freddie tensed. And maybe, she didn’t care.
    “Ruth, I’m actually quite hungry. You don’t have anything in the kitchen, do you?” Freddie had intended to sound nonchalant, certain in his wants and casual insofar as to not insult his friend’s mom. She took offence so easily, and took it out on those around her even more so. Freddie didn’t want her beside him, but he didn’t want her taking out a rejection on Cook when he got home. She sighed a dramatic sigh, and with a glance at his mouth that took far longer than it had any right to, she nodded and got up.
    “Of course, hon, I’ll make you a sandwich,” she laughed too fully at the flat joke, “or order pizza...or something.”

    Freddie tried to calm himself again, not realizing how close to panic he’d manage to get. He was about to reach for his phone again, look through the messages of the people he cared about, when the front door opened. He could hear Cook swearing to himself, but he didn’t get up. Still pinned to the couch by the heaviness in his head and nausea in his stomach. He looked over to the doorway and caught Cook’s eye as he passed. He was angry. Freddie jolted with new found, feverish energy. It burned his skin and he tried to stand smoothly, but fumbled getting up.
    “Mate, listen, thank Christ you’re here. Your mum’s on one again, I’ve just come ‘round - ” he started,
    “Yeah, I wanna talk to you - ” Cook’s turn for a false start before Ruth barged back into the room, liquor lilting her speech.
    “Oh, look who it is! The man who’s just cost me 90,000 quid, hello, you sweet little turd.” Ruth went to hug her son before deciding to flip him off instead. Freddie felt like a kid again every time he saw Cook with his mother. Like he couldn’t do fuckall but watch. Fucking helpless. At least when Freddie’s dad hit him there was an event, a moment to move past. Ruth was just...always like this. Cook played unbothered with ease, though.
    “Mum.”
    “That’s right, still your mum, and…” she paused, forgetting her own words, “yeah.”


    Cook didn’t respond, just turned to look at the wall, sparing a quick glance at Freddie before scoffing to himself. It was these kinds of interactions that had made Freddie beg his parents to let Cook stay at his house for days on end when they were kids. His home had been safer, at least before his mum died, and Freddie’s first impulse had always been to care for Cook, love Cook, save Cook. The reflex showing even now, biting through his fogged head and rapid heartbeat; a firm and decisive “Cook, let’s go” caught just behind his teeth. But Cook spoke first,
    “Where’s Paddy?” The concern rife in Cook’s voice mirrored the concern trapped in Freddie’s throat. He hadn’t seen Paddy since the boy could barely make coherent sentences, but he must’ve grown up too, if they had.
    “Oh, he’s gone to see that...friend...mm, what’s his name, that, friend...mmnevermind.” Ruth half-answered, waving her martini around like gravity was fiction, “Look who’s here!” she said, “Freddie...Freddie,” her voice dropped into husky tones that made his hair stand on end. His chest was all pins and needles and he could barely feel the rest of his body anymore. “Freddie, long time no see! Freddie!” She addressed him as if she hadn’t spent the afternoon sorrily attempting to liquor and feel him up.
Cook looked directly at him for the first time since entering the home. Despite the combination of liquor and ill sitting pretty at the bottom of his stomach, a rush came over him for the moment. He was familiar with it at this point, it happened more often than not when he actually let himself look Cook in the eye, but now was not the time. He clenched and unclenched his jaw, intending to say...something. But Cook beat him to it.
    “What do you want, man?” Cook shrugged, his body language casual but his tone irritated. Freddie frowned, his own irritation flaring in response.
    “Easy,” he replied, his worry straining against frustration, “I came to see if you were alright, if that’s okay?”
    “Yeah I’m fine. Mmhm. Tipsy topsy.” Cook cut him off, harsh and decisive, but his expression was almost cartoonish in its disinterest. Cook was better at angry than Freddie was. Freddie did what he did with every feeling and kept it to himself. He brooded, festered; on occasion he would lash out, harsh words here or a headbut, but Freddie’s feelings were Freddie’s business first and foremost. No one else had a free pass to them. Cook? Cook was a street corner busker with his feelings. Everyone could see them, all the time, and if they got in the way they were part of the show. And by coming here, Freddie had stuck his hand in the air and volunteered.
    “Well, I’m glad that someone is!” Ruth interjected again, evidently frustrated with her lack of attention, “Cause we’ve got a-” she cut herself off mid-sentence, stopping for a moment while a look of marvel crossed her face, “Hey now we can have a proper party, can’t we?” She smiled with a smugness that made Freddie recoil. He felt himself start to get spacey and light-headed. He shrugged it off as the liquor Ruth had given him, but it was getting harder to reconnect with his surroundings. He didn’t know why this woman caused such a reaction in him, it wasn’t like she’d hurt him. Bad birthday blowjobs don’t hurt, they just...Freddie’s train of thought fogged over as another wave of disconnect hit. He leaned his head back slightly and looked to Cook for - reassurance? He wasn’t sure. Whatever he needed from the other boy, he was met with a deep glare. He was barely present enough for it to hurt.

 

    Ruth went to the kitchen and came back with more liquor, pouring unbalanced mixed drinks for the lot of them. Cook silently moved to the couch and Freddie followed. Freddie hated this feeling, like drunk but less fun. He felt away from himself, and the next closest thing was Cook. He sat beside him, out of habit mainly, with a hint of needing to connect someone more tethered than he was feeling. He let his knee rest against Cook’s for a moment, before Cook moved it away. That registered enough to hurt. Cook never moved away from Freddie; it was always Freddie that pulled back, that hesitated, that refused to bridge the gap. Still, Cook didn’t move from his seat, and Freddie could handle that. He could handle sitting beside his best friend, not touching, and floating in a way that scared him. He took a sip of his drink, inviting a dizzy he knew what to do with.
    Ruth drank more than both boys combined. This wasn’t uncommon. Neither was how loud she got. Or that she didn’t notice either boy’s silence. She continually tried to get her tits in Freddie’s face, to which he could only react with evident discomfort and lean slightly back. Not far enough to bump Cook’s shoulder; but enough that he wouldn’t come in contact with them. Freddie knew this was Ruth’s way of punishing Cook as much as it was her intention to try and fuck him again. He was trying his hardest to ignore her; he didn’t want to be her tool of abuse against his friend, but the memories were hard to stifle when she looked, smelled, and acted exactly how she had that night. His semi-drunkenness wasn’t helping, and the flashes every time she sang the lyrics wrong, or got close enough he could feel her body heat, or got her fucking tits in his fucking face. Freddie’s breathing was shaky at best. He was here to check on Cook. Once he talked to Cook he could leave. Once he made sure Cook was okay, he could make sure he was okay. Freddie risked a glance at him and noticed Cook giving him a once over. There was no way he couldn’t notice how off he was, just like there was no way he would do anything about it when he was this angry at him. Freddie couldn’t blame him; between Effy and Ruth’s antics, all the right buttons were pushed to solidify Cook’s stubborn, enraged resolve. Instead, he occasionally challenged his mother, but steadied his tone enough that she wouldn’t kick him out. He couldn’t afford it with the bracelet around his ankle. Freddie could see the calculations going in Cook’s head; everything Cook did was intentional, even if he swore impulse. It’s what worried him.
    When Ruth knocked herself out, it was a relief. Freddie, almost on autopilot, found the remote and turned off the game of Rock Band she had insisted on playing, his muscles finally consenting to moving with some ease again. He leaned back and tried to play off his earlier demeanour.
    “She hasn’t changed, then.” He stated, a sad excuse for a whispered laugh following.
    “Nah.” Cook agreed, sombre. He nodded to Freddie to get up and follow him to another room.

 

    The pair stayed in silence for a moment. Freddie was grateful for it. He needed time to come down from the heady feeling he’d had all afternoon, to reorganize his thoughts, remember why he was here. Cook had punched JJ. Cook had hit a rando. Cook had been arrested. Cook had been expelled. Cook had been fucking pepper-sprayed. Freddie was here for Cook, to help him be responsible, be okay, because he loved Cook. He needed him to know that. He needed him to know, through all of the bullshit, Cook still had him.
    “When were you gonna tell me?” Cook asked out of the silence. Freddie propped himself against a wall, but felt every muscle in his body tense. There were a number of things Cook could be talking about; they weren’t exactly conservative when keeping secrets from each other. His first reaction was always thinking that Cook was going to ask him about how long Freddie had loved him the way he did. The burning that flushed his neck and face followed, a twisting feeling throughout his whole body. But that wasn’t a secret. Cook loved him too, he said as much. So many times, with too much earnest, wide-eyed excitement and fear and hope for Cook not to love him the same. But it was too complicated and they would never talk about it. At least, not unless Cook wanted to.
    “Tell you what, Cook?” He said, fighting to keep his tone even. He knows I love him. The conversation will be easy. He knows. He knows. He has to know. Freddie’s thoughts turned over like a shitty cartoon hamster wheel in his head. JJ wasn’t the only one who knew how to get locked on.
    “That you fucked my mum.” The sentence pinned Freddie to the wall. He swore he could feel nails through him, securing him to the drywall against his will. How else would he still be on his feet? His brain sputtering the last practised love confessions tumbled into panicked flashes of that night. He felt his eyes well but tilted his head back, tried to give himself time to settle. Cook wouldn’t get it. Fuck, Freddie didn’t get it. Why he felt sick every time he thought of it, why Ruth scared him so much, why he had to be drunk to be in the same house as her. It’s every 15 year old boy’s dream to get head from your friend’s hot mum, so why did it make him feel like he wanted to die? No, he couldn’t have thoughts like those. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t. “When.” Cook demanded.
    “Your fifteenth birthday party.” He got the phrase out at the tail end of a breath, felt winded after the admission. Felt a sticky kind of dirty. Felt like puking.
    “What?” Cook leaned forward, an incredulous look across his face. Freddie had seen him angry before. Ready to kill. But this was different. Cook looked...Freddie couldn’t name it, or couldn’t focus enough to name it. He felt dizzy and away again, it started to numb out the panic this time, though. At least it was doing something useful. “Where was I?” Cook sounded genuinely concerned for a split second. Freddie barely processed it.
    “
Drunk.” The word came out harsher than he intended, but he was speaking on autopilot. This was never a conversation he’d intended to have. This was a Freddie problem, and Freddie problems stayed with Freddie. He could deal. He had been dealing. “You’d had six coconut daiquiris. And anyway, I was last man standing, and still fucked off my head.” Freddie felt anger start to bubble up. Why was he angry at Cook? Cook hadn’t done anything. Cook hadn’t done anything. He’d left Freddie, drunk and alone with his mother who had been making eyes at him all night. But Cook wasn’t psychic. But Cook left him.
    “So you fucked my mum?” Cook was ricocheting between angry and the emotion Freddie couldn’t name, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was pissed at Cook for letting this happen, even though he didn't, and even though he was still unsure what this even was. Sure, if Cook wanted to put it that way, Freddie fucked his mum. But she’d fucked him up well in return. He was fifteen, barely knew what was what. He’d only lost his fucking virginity that summer for Christ sake. He was too drunk to know what was happening until it was happening. He would hardly call it a fuck. He wasn’t sure what he would call it. His head hurt.
    “It wasn’t like that.” he protested.
    “Well then tell me, Freds. What the fuck was it like? Hang on, no. No. Don’t answer that shit.” Cook dropped his nickname so casually; he was worried. Cook played up rage when he got scared. He’d seen him do it enough times in bar fights, with teachers, drug dealers. Freddie wanted so desperately for Cook to say it, say this was fucked up. That Freddie wasn’t the only one who this frightened the shit out of. That he knew why talking about this made him float above his own body or drown in his own fucking bile.
    “It was just a blowjob.” He replied, making a silent prayer that saying it like that would make it true. It was true. It was.
    “Wow, I’m well relieved man. Thank goodness.”
    “I’ll make it up to you.” Freddie panicked. He came here to check up on Cook. Not this. Never this.
    “And how the fuck are you gonna do that?” Cook bit back. The push and pull of concern to rage was making him seasick. Cook didn’t know what to do, and so he pushed and pushed but wouldn’t cut the cord. Freddie was still here in front of him. No “get out”, no thrown fists. The air was taught with indecision and confusion. Neither of them knew what the fuck to do. Freddie’s mind was stuck between Cook’s voice and Ruth’s mouth. “I let you take the one fucking girl I’ve ever loved, man. Freddie, is there anyone else I care about that you wanna slip one to, mate?”
    “I’m sorry.” Freddie swallowed his own apology. He didn’t know how this had happened, but he’d hurt Cook. Again. Effy. And Ruth. Cook was hurting and it was Freddie’s fault, somehow. All he wanted to do was make sure he was okay. And now everything was worse. He didn’t know what to do, or how to fix it. Suddenly he was so, so tired. “I’m sorry.” He managed to push himself off the wall to leave.


    As he moved, he saw recognition pass over Cook’s face, though at what he couldn’t tell, but his expression changed from one of rage and hurt to an almost serene plain, dashed with the tiniest bit of concern. Understanding, maybe? Whatever it was, it made Freddie hold his breath without thinking. Cook really was beautiful, at the core of him. As he focused on his friend, thoughts of Ruth faded, just a little bit, just enough for Freddie to be in himself again.
    “It’s fine.” Cook said, his voice gentle as Freddie had heard it in months. This was a voice reserved for JJ and early mornings, before Cook remembered he hated the world. It was how he sounded when he wanted someone to feel safe. “Sorted.”
    A wave of relief hit Freddie. He wanted nothing more than to move to Cook and hug him, feel himself in his body with his friend who he loved close enough to feel like home again. But Freddie didn’t trust his feet not to trip, and didn’t trust the peace not to break.
    “Everything’s cool.” Cook spoke again. He was trying too hard, now. Freddie must’ve look a fucking mess.
Then he remembered. Effy. Fuck. Freddie loved the girl, too. It was complicated. Messy. All kinds of fucked up. Freddie didn’t know how to love two people at once. He didn’t know how to do this without hurting anyone, so he just did it. Cook could just do things, so why couldn’t he?
    “Cook, Effy loves me. How can I?”
    “Stop talking about it.” The pair lapsed into silence. The urge to embrace Cook was still there, but Freddie stuffed it down. Covered it up. Buried it in the fucking dirt. He loved him, and Cook loved him, and Cook loved Effy, and he loved Effy. And Freddie fucking loved Cook.
The silence gave Freddie a chance to slow his heart and collect his bearings, at least. He had never intended to have this conversation. He’d come here to check on Cook and tell him about JJ. Because someone had to. That was part of loving about Cook, caring enough to tell him when he fucked up. Bringing him back when he was so busy trying to kill himself he didn't notice his shrapnel sunk into other people.

 

    “You smashed JJ, Cook.” Cook shook his head, the fear that had been under the surface for the whole conversation was plain as day now. Cook loved JJ. Cook didn’t hit people he loved. He’d sooner kiss Freddie than punch him. Had done. His face flushed slightly at the memory. It was the worst kiss he’d ever had, and he still wanted the chance at another.
    “...no...I didn’t.” Freddie nodded.
    “He loves you, Cook,” Freddie hesitated. Cook needed Freddie, now, like he knew he would. He had intended to stay, to invite him to the shed, let him punch it out on the punching bag or drink himself to shit. Freddie could keep an eye and make sure Cook didn’t break himself over this. But the numbness had begun to settle. The afternoon had taken every ounce of feeling but fatigue, desperation, and a whisper of love out of him. “Well, that’s all. So.” Freddie began to show himself out. As he walked out towards the door, he was overwhelmed with the same fear he was every time he left someone he loved, but especially when he left Cook. This could be the last time he saw them. He hadn’t known, with his mum. But Cook...he felt like he was already mourning him, and the boy was right in front of him. It made his chest hurt. He shrugged to himself, and turned. He took a deep breath, scared to say words he’d said a hundred times before. Just, not lately. Freddie looked at Cook’s face; took in the bruises and blue eyes, the fatigue blossoming across his own features. Fucking beautiful, the dickhead.
    “And I love you, too.” Cook broke eye contact first, looking to Freddie’s mouth, then to the ground. Freddie wanted to kiss him. This wasn’t new. This wasn’t the time, either. More than anything, Freddie needed Cook safe. He needed him here, laughing, crying, breaking things. Fuck, even if Cook refused to talk to him, Freddie just needed him here. He was tired of watching the people he loved kill themselves. “Whatever you’re doing, you can stop.” It sounded like more of a plea than he had intended it to. A bargain. Love in exchange for Cook staying alive in spite of himself, “all you gotta do is stop.” I miss you, Freddie thought. Before his voice could betray him, he left.