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First to Reach the Stars

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G.B. held on to the memory of Marshall Lee’s lips pressed to his, like when he was a child still young enough to want a stuffed animal to sleep with at night. He kept it in the back of his mind to keep himself calm, to keep fear from bubbling up deep inside him and making him into something else.

Still, he didn’t really relax until Marshall Lee called him a day later.

***

“I wanna make more cookies.”

“That’s what you call about. Really.”

But he can’t keep the pleasure from his voice, and Marshall Lee knows it.

***

G.B. has a calendar that he keeps above his desk. The pictures are meaningless corporate inspirational phrases; Pepper bought it for him because it’s something that belongs in the office of a CEO who pretends to care. G.B. doesn’t like the pictures, but he keeps it there, to please her.

He’s not one to write things down on paper—that’s what he has a phone for. But he finds himself marking off the days that Marshall Lee calls him, just as proof that they happened, in case something changes.

And it does change.

***

At first it was all right. G.B. thought about being frustrated when the topics of their conversations were usually nothing more important than “teach me via phone to make this thing I don’t know how to cook” or “I saw this stupid thing on TV and it made me think of you.”

Except.

Except that once in a while, his phone will ring at night, and Marshall Lee’s voice is hoarse and soft and frightened, and they talk together until the sun rises. G.B. doesn’t even care if he’s tired at school the next day; it’s not like he has to try to excel.

And.

Once in a while, Marshall Lee will drop the pretense. He’ll call when he knows G.B. is in class or otherwise occupied and leave fragments of a new song on G.B.’s voicemail. Or G.B. finds a box of cookies in the mail, stored in a container that has been carefully wrapped with the paper G.B. picked out.

It’s good. But they never talk about the kiss.

***

G.B. couldn’t have said when things started to get worse.

Marshall Lee never calls him intending to talk about Simone, unless it’s already after dark. G.B. tried asking, the first few times, but Marshall Lee would always hiss at him and say things like bad luck and don’t jinx it. So G.B. gives up and settles for getting the truth in dribs and drabs, usually after midnight when he’s barely awake and Marshall Lee is desperate and shaking on the other end of the line.

“It’s not just little stuff anymore,” was the first thing, and G.B. keeps quiet, because Marshall Lee will list it in his own time. “She forgot where she teaches today. And the nurses say she loses track of what day it is, most of the time. Before I get there.”

“Does she remember when you remind her?” G.B. asks. He tried to do some research on Simone’s condition, but the information he found bothered him too much, and he’d left it aside. He clenched his hand. He’d have to get past that and keep looking. Certainly Marshall Lee couldn’t be expected to do it.

“Yeah,” Marshall Lee said, but weakly. “But it takes her a while, and it goes away the next day. I thought this shit was supposed to fix her.” His voice was bitter but not angry, just tired. Exhausted.

G.B. shifted, wishing Marshall Lee was beside him. Of course he wasn’t here when it would have actually been easy to touch, to comfort. School will be out in a month, of course, and then he could go over there whenever he wanted, but it wasn’t right now, and so he was stuck there, unable to do anything. He wished Marshall Lee would push his window open and come inside, but he knew Marshall Lee was going to stay put, since he was afraid something more drastic would happen while he wasn’t there.

“I don’t know what to do, G.B.,” Marshall Lee whispered, and G.B.’s voice caught at the sound of his name through Marshall Lee’s lips.

“There’s nothing you can do,” G.B. whispered back, thinking of his parents. Thinking of how the pictures that lined the staircase were the only things he had to remind him of them, and how someday Marshall Lee would only have the pictures on the mantel to remind himself of Simone. His heart tightened at the thought.

***

G.B. did his best to focus on his classes, but with only a month left in high school and an acceptance letter on his desk at home, everything felt like a joke. He kept up with his classwork, if only because not doing it would actually be more effort since he would have to explain why.

He did try to call Marshall Lee himself, of course. Simone had a house line, so the calls actually came from the same number for once. But Marshall Lee never answered, so he gave up. G.B. suspected Marshall Lee didn’t like answering the phone, only calling out. It fit with every other weird superstition Marshall Lee had.

***

“I keep telling myself it’ll be just like losing my real mom.” Marshall Lee’s voice was flat. “I mean, it can’t be any worse than that.”

G.B. wanted to say something to stop Marshall Lee, but the conversation was horrifying, and he found he couldn’t speak against the lump in his throat.

“Simone tells me she loves me every day. Sometimes more than once. It’s nice.” His voice was emotionless. “And my real mom told me I never should have been born, that she didn’t want anything to do with me, that she had never loved me. That nobody would ever love me.”

“You can’t believe that,” G.B. managed, his voice hoarse.

“My mom told me that,” said Marshall Lee, with a touch of irritation. “Your mom is like the only person who’s required to love you. If she doesn’t love you, then who will?”

G.B. couldn’t get the words out, and Marshall Lee hung up.

***

The next time he called, Marshall Lee picked up the conversation like it had been two seconds instead of two days. Not that it mattered. G.B. remembered. “My point is, my real mom told me I wasn’t worth shit, and she left, and I got on with my life. I can do this too.”

His voice was quiet and hard, sharp like G.B.’s favorite paring knife.

G.B. couldn’t speak; everything he could think of to say felt like a sick joke.

He heard a click and a long, slow indrawn breath, followed by a long, slow exhale.

“Are you smoking?” G.B. demanded before he could stop himself.

Marshall Lee hung up. G.B. called right back, but Marshall Lee didn’t answer the phone.

***

Marshall Lee didn’t call again for two weeks. G.B. replayed their conversations endlessly, the way he went over a test where he hadn’t scored perfect marks. He left voicemails on Marshall Lee’s phone, not that he expected Marshall Lee to listen to them. Given Marshall Lee’s skill with technology, G.B. doubted he even knew how to check the messages.

Typically, Marshall Lee called when G.B. was just about to fall asleep, his face pressed into his pillow and one arm curled around himself. “You’re really running up my phone bill, you know.” His voice was flat, not teasing.

G.B. wanted to ask how Simone was, but he worried that Marshall Lee would just hang up the phone and refuse to answer. “I doubt it. It’s not like this is a long-distance call.” He tried to make his tone the way it was whenever he’d spoken to Marshall Lee before: light, meaningless, sharp.

Marshall Lee said nothing, and G.B. felt a spike of fear. He’d almost forgotten the Marshall Lee he’d first met: cold, seemingly uncaring. Here he was again, only without the seemingly.

G.B. swallowed and tried to find the warm sincerity that had filled him at Simone’s house. He pictured the blue bed, sunlight shining through a crack in the curtains, Marshall Lee’s head pillowed on his chest. He felt Marshall Lee’s lips against his own. “I’m worried about you,” he blurted out. The words felt like they had been cut out of him.

Marshall Lee didn’t respond for a few minutes. G.B. would have worried that he’d hung up again, only he could hear Marshall Lee breathing on the other end of the line. “You should really just leave me alone,” he said, his voice very quiet. But it was his real voice. “You’ll leave anyway. Let’s just get it all over with at once.”

G.B. gritted his teeth. “I’m not leaving you. You’re the one who does the leaving, remember?”

He regretted the words as soon as he said them, but it didn’t matter. Marshall Lee had hung up on him again.

***

Friday was senior skip day. G.B. had had no intention of participating, and yet when he got up to take to the bus to school, he stayed on past the correct stop, heading further into the city. He watched the city pass this time, since he hadn’t seen it while clinging to Marshall Lee’s back. He had Simone’s address up in Maps to make sure he didn’t miss his stop, since he didn’t know this part of the city well.

He wondered if the school would bother to call Pepper. On the one hand, everyone else in the senior class would be gone. They’d planned a trip to the beach, and someone had even invited G.B., a sweet thought with no basis in reality. He didn’t regret not making more friends. They were all just going to separate in a week, after all. On the other hand, G.B. had never missed a day of school, except when he was sick. He would have had perfect attendance save for this day. The thought didn’t bother him as it once would have.

***

You know when you walk up to an empty house, even if there’s a light on, even if you can’t tell from the outside. G.B. sat down on the front step to wait, holding his backpack on his lap. He still wasn’t sure what he was doing. What if Marshall Lee had skipped town?

But he couldn’t. He never would.

Would he? G.B. couldn’t say any more, not after the last few phone calls. He’d been so certain, but maybe he was a fool.

He read Pride and Prejudice on his tablet to waste time. He started to get hungry, but he didn’t want to leave and get lunch. What if Marshall Lee returned while he was gone?

***

Marshall Lee came back just as it was starting to get dark, just as the streetlights were coming on to banish the shadows made by the trees on the edge of the sidewalk. His eyes were down on his feet; he was wearing a leather jacket, but not proudly. Like a person would pull a shawl around their shoulders on a cold night. He’d shaved his head, and it made him look small.

G.B. was on his feet before he could stop himself. His hands were shaking; he dug them into the canvas of his backpack.

Marshall Lee looked up as he turned toward Simone’s house, and his eyes widened, just slightly. Then they went flat again. He didn’t seem surprised to see G.B.; he didn’t seem like anything at all. He pulled the keys from his pocket. The little cartoon snowflake had been removed from the chain.

G.B. stood mute as Marshall Lee unlocked the door and walked inside. He only managed to move when Marshall Lee made to shut the door with a grating creak. G.B. grabbed the edge. He was larger and stronger, so it was no struggle to keep the door open. Not that Marshall Lee put up a fight. He kept his hand on the edge of the door, but he stopped trying to shut it.

He had yet to look G.B. in the face. It hurt.

“You weren’t answering the phone,” G.B. said, as though Marshall Lee had asked for an explanation. “I was worried.”

Marshall Lee’s hands slipped from the door, and he took a step back. G.B. chose to take that an as invitation to enter and came inside, nudging the door shut behind him. “I—” Then he realized he had nothing to say and dropped his eyes.

Marshall Lee let out a slow breath. Then, like someone had flipped a switch, his face crumpled, and he covered his eyes to hold back a sob. “She’s dead,” he whispered. “She’s dead.”

G.B. pushed back his uncertainty and made himself step forward to take Marshall Lee in his arms. For a wonder, Marshall Lee didn’t push away. He collapsed against G.B. He’d lost weight in the few weeks they’d been apart; he felt painfully thin. Had he been eating at all?

G.B. pulled Marshall Lee close, tightening one arm around Marshall Lee’s back and using the other to cradle his head. Marshall Lee did not cling to him; his hands were still over his face, doing nothing to stifle the sobs that shook his entire body.

***

Somehow they made it to Simone’s bed. G.B. pulled the blankets tight around them, even though they were both still fully dressed and even though he had to do it without once letting go of Marshall Lee. It wasn’t totally for Marshall Lee’s comfort. G.B. was afraid Marshall Lee would slip away if he let go for even a moment.

He was so cold. G.B. wished he could get up and turn the heat on, even though it was the end of May, but of course not. The whole world had narrowed to this place and Marshall Lee’s quiet, broken sobs.

G.B. had no idea how long they were there, but eventually Marshall Lee’s sobs trailed off, turning into hiccups and then into shaky breaths. He slowly turned his hands, pressing them against G.B.’s chest, pushing him away, but only a little. Putting space between them, but only a little. “Couldn’t breathe,” Marshall Lee whispered, his voice hoarse as though he’d been shouting. He was staring fixedly at G.B.’s chest. G.B. wished he had thought to wear the shirt Marshall Lee had given him, though he didn’t think Marshall Lee would have noticed, given the circumstances.

Marshall Lee let out a slow, long breath without lifting his eyes to G.B.’s. “I bet you want to know what happened. You always want to know the correct goddamn answer.” His voice held no bite; it was flat, as though he were reciting the pledge of allegiance.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” said G.B., although he was burning up to know. “It’s okay. It’s none of my business.”

“No. It’s not.” Again. Flat. G.B. had never heard his voice so empty, even when they were fighting seriously.

“How long, though? Would you—would you tell me that much?” He wanted to stroke a hand over Marshall Lee’s freshly shaved head, but that seemed like an overreach. He was lucky Marshall Lee wasn’t fighting his hold; his hands were still pressed to G.B.’s chest, but he was not trying to squirm away from his grip.

“’S been a week. They just. Cremated her and stuff.” His voice hitched, just slightly, but he did not start to cry again, and his voice did not waver. He blinked slowly, like he was sleepwalking.

“Did you scatter the ashes?” It probably wasn’t a good question to ask, but it just came out of G.B.’s mouth. He hadn’t wanted to throw his parents away on the wind, but it had been their request, and Pepper had hugged him and told him he should honor their wishes. He still wasn’t sure if he was glad he had.

Marshall Lee sighed, his eyes drifting shut. “She wanted a tree. So that’s what we did. Went to go see it today, but it’s still just dirt.”

“Where?”

But Marshall Lee shook his head. He blinked, slowly, and then he removed his hands from G.B.’s chest like he hadn’t realized they were still there. He lifted his eyes, slowly; they weren’t quite focused, but at least he was looking at G.B.’s face now. The hollows of his cheekbones were stark and deep; his skin looked like dark tissue paper about to tear and reveal the skull beneath. “Are you really here?” His voice was hardly a breath.

G.B. slid his hand from the back of Marshall Lee’s neck up to his cheek. “Yes.”

Marshall Lee’s eyes narrowed, slowly. “Don’t you have school?”

“It’s senior skip day.”

Marshall Lee’s brow furrowed, and for a moment G.B. thought he didn’t understand. Then his lips twitched, just slightly. “Look at you, you fucking rebel. Almost like you’re a real guy.”

G.B. felt like he should make a joke to keep Marshall Lee from crying again, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t a jokester at the best of times; now he couldn’t even manage dry humor. “You were more important than school.”

Marshall Lee waited, as though he thought G.B. would disavow the statement immediately. Staring back into his eyes without looking away was the hardest thing in the world—what did Marshall Lee see looking back? Surely he noticed all the raw places inside him, still bleeding after all these years.

But G.B. couldn’t read Marshall Lee’s face at all. He still looked half asleep. Slowly, though, Marshall Lee took one hand from G.B.’s chest and covered the hand that still rested on his face, twining his fingers with G.B.’s so tightly and suddenly that it hurt.

“I’m.” He swallowed. “I’m glad. That you’re here. And I need…” He moved his other hand down, so his arm rested awkwardly between them, and moved toward G.B. slowly.

When his mouth was a breath away, G.B. pulled back, just slightly. Marshall Lee stayed where he was, his eyes following. “I—” said G.B. His heart was hammering, suddenly, and he was thinking of Marshall Lee’s mouth on his own, but he couldn’t tell why, if it was compelling him forward or holding him back. He ran his thumb over Marshall Lee’s cheekbone, half surprised he didn’t cut himself. Finally, he managed, “Would it help you?”

“Please,” Marshall Lee whispered, closing his eyes without moving.

G.B. wasn’t sure if he’d ever heard Marshall Lee say that before, though it didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop himself anyway. He closed the distance between them, feeling clumsy and stupid—his complete inexperience would do nothing to communicate how much he wanted to help. All he could do was press his mouth to Marshall Lee’s and clutch his shirt with one hand and hope that it was enough.

Marshall Lee stayed perfectly still for a minute, and G.B. wondered if he’d misunderstood. Then Marshall Lee opened his mouth under G.B.’s, yielding and yet also taking the lead, setting a rhythm for G.B. to follow. His hand slid up under G.B.’s shirt. G.B. had never thought someone’s hand against his stomach could make him gasp, but he had never thought he wanted to be touched, either.

Marshall Lee broke the kiss abruptly, pulling back. “You’re shaking,” he said, and though his eyes were still distant, his voice was present, himself.

G.B. traced his cheekbone again. How long had it been since he’d touched another person? Even Pepper didn’t bother to hug him anymore; she knew he didn’t care for it. “So are you.” His voice came out hoarse.

Marshall Lee’s eyes narrowed, but not in anger; he was thinking. He pressed closer to G.B., and G.B. could not help pressing closer to him, heat lancing down his whole body even though they were both still fully clothed and engaged in the kind of kissing that you could see in a PG-13 movie. “I can’t remember the last time I ate,” he said at last, like he had just solved a complicated math problem.

G.B. drew back. “Are you serious?” The words came out sharper than he meant, and he wished he could take them back, but actually it seemed to help. Or, at least, Marshall Lee’s eyes looked clearer.

Marshall Lee shrugged instead of speaking, though.

G.B. pushed himself up. “Come on. I’ll make you breakfast.”

“It’s like two in the afternoon.”

G.B. got out of bed and put his hands on his hips, waiting. It could have been any other such moment between them, except that his jeans were still uncomfortably tight, and Marshall Lee’s eyes still held traces of an endless, unchangeable sadness.

Marshall Lee scooted over into the warm spot G.B. had left, pressing his face into the pillow. “I don’t want to get up,” he mumbled into the fabric.

“I would let you keep lying here, but I’m afraid to let you out of my sight.” It came out honest and raw and painful.

Marshall Lee bit his lip. Then, slowly, he slid out of bed. G.B. slipped an arm around him immediately, even though Marshall Lee was having no trouble standing and didn’t look like he was going to cry any time soon. Marshall Lee pressed his face into G.B.’s chest, and G.B. rested his chin on top of Marshall Lee’s head, holding him close. It felt even better than the kissing.

Marshall Lee made a noise that wasn’t quite a laugh. “You know I was trying to get you to fuck me, right?”

G.B. swallowed hard. It was not entirely stress. “You wouldn’t do a very good job of it if you passed out halfway through. So. Food.” His voice cracked, again, not entirely from stress. He had never thought he would actually want to have sex with another person. But he didn’t mind it now that it was here.

Marshall Lee nuzzled his neck—slowly, still moving like a person in a dream, but G.B. chose to take it as a good sign, and not just because it felt good. “That’s what’s great about bottoming, though,” he mumbled. “I don’t have to do any work. I can fall asleep if I want.”

“That’s called sexual assault.” G.B. tried to be firm, but he was just pleased to be back on steadier ground.

“Not if I want you inside me.” Marshall Lee kissed the side of his neck, and G.B. had to close his eyes and take in a deep breath.

“You’re going to eat first,” said G.B. with a conviction he did not feel.

***

To his surprise, G.B. actually found a number of things in Marshall Lee’s fridge. He didn’t ask about it; he knew how people gave you things after someone died. It was about all you felt like you could do. Marshall Lee didn’t get in G.B.’s way for once; instead, he sat on the counter with a box of strawberries in his lap, slowly picking the greens off of each one.

“Aren’t you going to eat those?” G.B. asked, surveying his ingredient options.

“No. I want you to make them into pancakes.” Marshall Lee did not look up as he spoke; his entire mind was apparently focused on the task. G.B. knew about that too. The world narrowed when someone died.

“Oh. All right.” Luckily, Marshall Lee had all the ingredients; his milk was past the expiration date by a day, but it wasn’t sour.

G.B. was glad for this. The familiar motions soothed him, like they always did. Other people said they thought while they cooked, that they used the mindless repetition as a chance to free up their brain for difficult issues. For G.B., it was prayer, the equivalent of counting beads on a rosary and whispering “hail Mary” like his mother had done when she was stressed. Everything would change, and nothing was dependable. Except this.

Marshall Lee handed him the strawberries one by one so he could cut them up; their fingers brushed, and G.B. had to fight the urge to take Marshall Lee’s hand and pull him into another kiss. Not for anything like Marshall Lee had brought up. Just to make sure Marshall Lee was really there and solid. Even though he had to be, since someone was handing G.B. the strawberries.

They ate in silence, and it did seem to help Marshall Lee; G.B. made him drink some water as well. And had some for himself, since dehydration didn’t help anyone.

When they were finished, G.B. started getting ready to wash the dishes, but Marshall Lee grabbed his wrist. “Leave it. ‘S not gonna go anywhere, gumdrop.” G.B. opened his mouth to speak, but Marshall Lee tightened his grip. “Come upstairs with me.”

He didn’t say it in a sexy way, and that was the only reason G.B. left the dishes alone.

***

G.B. followed Marshall Lee up the ladder to his room. Marshall Lee sat down on the bed, looking up at G.B. with an unreadable expression. G.B. didn’t know what to do next, so he sat down beside Marshall Lee. Marshall Lee looked at him for a long moment; G.B. felt like he should break the silence, but his heart was pounding, and his mouth was too dry to speak.

Marshall Lee reached over and traced his fingertips over G.B.’s cheekbones, then his lips, and then he drew back. His brow furrowed, from confusion, not frustration. “You’ve really never done this before?”

“You sound shocked.” G.B. wanted to sound sarcastic, but it just came out nervous. And he was nervous.

“Sex is easy, dude. If I can do it, anybody can.” He hesitated, and then he touched G.B.’s face again. “And… you’re good. I just… I woulda thought somebody else would’ve gotten there first.” He slid his hand down G.B.’s neck, slipping his fingers beneath G.B.’s shirt to trace his collarbones. G.B. had never thought any of those parts of his body could be sensitive.

“You’re the only one,” said G.B., and he was terrified of it, but he couldn’t leave a question unanswered.

Marshall Lee met his eyes, and for the first time he was there, really there, and G.B. wanted to lean forward and kiss him, but then Marshall Lee pulled away again, hiding his face in his hands. “What the fuck, dude. You’re so—” He drew in a hitching breath, although he didn’t look like he was crying. G.B. reached for him, but Marshall Lee put his hands down, his eyes dry but wide and red. “Why are you here? I mean, what the fuck are you even doing here? I’m just… fuck, I’m so useless, and you’re good. You’re worth something. Get the fuck out while you can.”

G.B. swallowed hard. “Do you want me to leave?” He had never heard his own voice so quiet.

Marshall Lee opened his mouth. Then he shut it, and his eyes, and he pressed his hands to his face again.

G.B. reached over and carefully took his hands away, gripping them tightly in his own. He waited until Marshall Lee looked at him. “Do you want me to leave?”

Marshall Lee hesitated. Then he shook his head, his eyes never leaving G.B.’s face.

G.B. twined his fingers with Marshall Lee’s. He could hardly believe what he was doing, but his own voice came out even and steady. “I need to hear you say it, please.”

Marshall Lee took in a deep, shuddering breath, his eyes closing. But he still said, “Please. Please don’t leave me.”

Leaning over to kiss him was easier when Marshall Lee’s eyes were closed, and Marshall Lee immediately tilted his face up like a flower toward the sun, setting the pace, teaching G.B. how he wanted to be kissed. Marshall Lee pulled his hands free, only to place them on either side of G.B.’s face, pulling him closer.

Somehow they ended up stretched out sideways on the bed, G.B. balanced carefully over top of Marshall Lee because Marshall Lee felt so much smaller, both in height and weight.

Marshall Lee broke their kiss, finally, and looked up at him in mock annoyance. “Gumdrop.” He slid his fingers under G.B.’s belt, pulling their hips together. The sudden contact, heat, pressure made all the strength go out of G.B’s legs, and he fell on top of Marshall Lee, pressing his face into his neck. Marshall Lee slid a hand up to the back of his neck, the other one still curled in his belt.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” G.B. whispered. His voice was shaking, and he didn’t think he could do anything but lie there next to Marshall Lee. He had never known his body could be hot and cold, a lightning storm waiting to happen.

“Geeze, sweetheart, that’s a first.” But Marshall Lee’s voice was gentle. “It’s okay. I’ll show you.” He turned his head so their faces were pressed together. G.B. closed his eyes, breathing hard, and Marshall Lee kissed the corner of his mouth. “We’ll take it slow, honey. It’s okay.”

G.B. shivered, his eyes still closed. “Careful, Marshall Lee. Those almost sound like actual sweet nicknames.”

“Yeah, well, calling you Bubba would ruin the mood, babe.”

G.B. laughed, despite himself. “You ass.”

“Oh, yes, my ass.” Marshall Lee kissed him, just quickly. “You wanna do this or not?” It wasn’t a challenge; it was a real question. Marshall Lee would have let G.B. walk away, even though both of them were burning.

But G.B. nodded. He could feel his heart pounding in his throat, but he liked it. His body was useless, incapacitated by asthma or anxiety. He hadn’t known it could be like this.

“Okay.” Marshall Lee took in a breath, pulling away just a breath. “Be right back, gumdrop. Gotta figure out where I stashed my lube.”

G.B. shivered again, pressing his face into the blankets. He didn’t even care if he looked ridiculous; for the moment, his thoughts were blocked out, and it was a blessing, not only because it kept him from worry but because it helped him believe that maybe, maybe this was good for Marshall Lee, too.

He heard Marshall Lee rummage around in his things for a few minutes, but he refused to think about it too much because it would have freaked him out.

When Marshall Lee returned, he had a small black case.

G.B. raised his eyebrows, hoping to disguise how nervous he felt. “That looks awfully organized. Are you sure it’s yours?”

Marshall Lee snorted. “Dude, nobody likes shit leaking out of their cock. I come prepared.” He set the case aside, then knelt on the edge of the bed. “But we’ve kinda got way too much in the way to get started, if you know what I mean.” He slid his thumb underneath the top of his jeans, exposing the slightest bit of dark skin. “Wanna help me with that?”

G.B.’s mouth went dry, but he sat up without hesitation. Marshall Lee wasn’t going to tease him, but he had pride to maintain anyway.

And. God. He wanted to touch Marshall Lee.

He pushed Marshall Lee’s shirt up; Marshall Lee lifted his arms, letting G.B. slide it over his head.

God. He was so thin. But G.B. didn’t let himself focus on that; they’d fix it. His hands were shaking, but he got Marshall Lee’s belt undone in one go, and then the button of his jeans. Marshall Lee didn’t wait for him; he pushed down his pants and boxers, kicking them aside so he was naked with no apparent shame.

Not that he had anything to be ashamed of. G.B. didn’t know where to touch first, so he leaned forward to kiss Marshall Lee and let his hands go, fingertips sliding over his ribcage, the hollow of his hips. Marshall Lee made a soft whimpering noise against his mouth, sending shocks down his spine. “Touch me,” Marshall Lee mumbled against his mouth. He took G.B.’s hand and pressed it around his cock, guiding him with speed and pressure.

He moaned against G.B.’s mouth again, and G.B. groaned, pressing closer to him. “That feels so fucking good,” Marshall Lee whispered, breaking the kiss so he could let his head fall on the bed. His back arched, and his hips bucked against G.B.’s hand. G.B. watched him hungrily.

Marshall Lee swallowed hard, then covered G.B.’s hand, stopping his movement. G.B. pulled back, wondering what he’d done wrong, but Marshall Lee rolled toward him. “I don’t want this to end fast, and you were doing too good of a job,” he breathed, fisting his hands in G.B.’s shirt to pull him close. “Anyway, you’re wearing way too many clothes, babe. I want to see you.”

He pushed G.B. over with no apparent effort, not that G.B. was about to resist. “Why the fuck did you come here wearing a button down?” Marshall Lee growled, climbing atop him. G.B. reached between Marshall Lee’s legs, but Marshall Lee grabbed his hand and pinned it down. “Nuh-uh, sweetheart. My turn.” He grabbed G.B.’s other hand, pinning that one to the bed, too.

G.B. felt like he should have struggled, but… God, it felt so good to just let go. To stop pretending he didn’t want Marshall Lee in all the ways that encompassed. To stop pretending that he wasn’t scared. That he didn’t care.

“Be good and hold still,” Marshall Lee murmured, leaning forward to drag his teeth down the side of G.B.’s neck. G.B. shuddered, his eyes sliding closed. He hadn’t know anything could feel this way. And that wasn’t even mentioning Marshall Lee’s crotch pressed to his, shifting as Marshall Lee worked his way down the buttons. He ripped G.B.’s shirt open.

“This is a nice shirt,” G.B. said, but there was no heat to it.

Marshall Lee snorted. “I didn’t rip it, did I? But next time we’ll make sure you’re wearing a t-shirt. That’s the smart thing, ain’t it?”

G.B. didn’t say anything; he couldn’t, because Marshall Lee had dropped his head to trace his tongue over G.B.’s collarbone, then his sternum, and then one of his nipples, biting just lightly, just enough to make G.B. arch his back and dig his fingers into the black sheets.

“Fuck, you’re pale,” Marshall Lee muttered, his lips still pressed to G.B.’s skin. “Never been with a white boy before.”

“And you’re too thin,” said G.B., but it came out wrong. Not teasing, serious.

Marshall Lee lifted his head, and G.B. wondered if he had ruined it, but then Marshall Lee sighed and lowered his head so he could kiss G.B. “Sweetheart, gum drop, sugar lips, I am asking you from the bottom of my heart.” He pressed his mouth to G.B.’s one more time, and then he leaned back, his eyes dead serious. “Be quiet and fuck me.”

G.B. bit his lip. He felt like he ought to push, like they were brushing past things that were important to have out in the open. Keeping your eyes away from something diseased was easy, but eventually it would catch up with you.

But…

He let out a breath. “Well, you have to take my pants off first, don’t you?”

Marshall Lee grinned like a feral cat and bent down to kiss G.B. one more time. G.B. tried to keep him there, shivering as waves of heat moved down his body, but Marshall Lee pushed him down again. He slid his mouth down G.B’s neck, following the line of his sternum to his belt. He undid G.B.’s belt with one hand, then pulled G.B.’s zipper down with his teeth. G.B. made a noise he didn’t know could come out of him; Marshall Lee’s eyes flicked up, and he smirked, and usually that made G.B. want to hit him, but right now it just made him gasp for air. The world had condensed to Marshall Lee’s mouth, warm and wet and so very close.

“That’s what I thought,” said Marshall Lee, apropos of nothing, and jerked G.B.’s pants down, shifting so G.B. could kick them off. “Boxers, huh? I figured you for a tighty whities guy.”

G.B. ignored this, speaking with a confidence he didn’t feel. “I think there are better things for you to do with that mouth.”

Marshall Lee laughed in surprise, sitting back on his knees. “Now who the fuck do you think you are, gumdrop?” But his voice was pleased, and his eyes were alight, almost no hint of darkness at all. Almost.

G.B. knew the thematically correct answer, but he couldn’t actually get himself to say anything about anal sex yet, so he just smiled, hoping his nerves didn’t come across.

Marshall Lee smirked. “Yeah, we’ll see how cocky you are in a minute.”

“I’m holding you accountable for that pun.”

But then Marshall Lee was sliding G.B.’s boxers down, and his mouth was pressed to G.B.’s hip bones, biting and sucking until G.B. was bucking up against him, his whole mind blacked out.

And then Marshall Lee took G.B. in his mouth, and the whole world was swallowed up in white heat, and G.B. was gasping for breath, clinging to the sheets to ground himself.

Marshall Lee slipped off, licking his lips. “Not quite sweet as sugar, but we’ll give it a pass.”

“Will you ever stop with that?” G.B. said, but he was breathless and gasping.

Marshall Lee rolled his shoulders. “Not as long as it keeps pissing you off, sweetheart.” He slid his hands over G.B.’s chest. “So. You wanna do this or what?”

G.B. swallowed hard. His whole body was sparking with desire, but he was still terrified. “Yes,” he managed, “but I told you, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Marshall Lee smiled at him. “Don’t worry yourself a bit. I’ll take care of you. Just stay put.” He bent down and pressed a kiss to the corner of G.B.’s mouth, but moved away before G.B. could deepen the kiss, pull him closer. He heard Marshall Lee rummaging around in his case and turned his head to look, but Marshall Lee pushed his face away. “You just sit tight, gumdrop. Got some things to take care of, and I doubt you wanna be involved.”

G.B. blushed and pressed his hands to his face.

“That’s what I thought, sweetheart.” Marshall Lee kissed his forehead. “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll ease you into it. For now, let me take care of me. You just stay hard and ready.”

There was no question of that, but G.B. wasn’t going to say that. He did have some pride left, after all.

“Now close your eyes, sweetheart. I’ll tell you when to open them. It’s more fun that way.”

G.B. thought about arguing, but he closed his eyes. He’d never admit it, but he liked it when Marshall Lee told him what to do. Nobody ever helped him. He’d never let them. But Marshall Lee was different.

And, anyway, the second he closed his eyes, Marshall Lee started moaning. G.B. sucked in a breath and dropped his hands, but Marshall Lee clicked his tongue. “No peeking, sweetness.”

G.B. kept his eyes closed and his hands fisted in the sheets, letting his mind fill in the blanks as Marshall Lee gasped and sighed.

“Okay,” Marshall Lee said, after what might have been an eternity. But a good one. “You can open up now.”

G.B. obeyed. Marshall Lee was balanced over him now, carefully. “Is this how…”

“This way you don’t have to do any work, sweetheart. Ease you into it. Beginner’s luck and all that good shit. You ready?”

G.B. swallowed and put a hand on Marshall Lee’s hip. He did want it. He knew that much. He nodded, taking in a breath. Marshall Lee opened a condom package and rolled it onto G.B. with practiced ease, stroking G.B. enough to make him groan. “Don’t be a tease.”

“I would never do that, not me.” Marshall Lee bent down to kiss him. “Now hold still until I tell you. For once, I get to be the know-it-all.”

“Will wonders never cease,” said G.B.

He had something else to say, but then Marshall Lee slowly lowered himself down, and G.B.’s whole world whited out for a minute. His first instinct was to thrust up into the heat and pressure, but he settled for digging his fingers into Marshall Lee’s hips.

Marshall Lee, for his part, took his time settling himself, one hand stroking his cock and his lips parted. When he was all the way down, pressed against G.B.’s hips, he looked down and met G.B.’s eyes, which somehow made it harder to keep still. “Doing good, gumdrop?”

G.B. felt like he should protest the nickname, but he was just glad he could talk at all. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”

“You talk like I’m not a total slut, honey. It’s sweet.” It should have been a joke, but his voice was almost wistful. He leaned forward and kissed G.B. again, shifting his weight in a way that made G.B. moan into his mouth. “That’s what I like to hear. Now you can let loose.” He placed his hands on either side of G.B.’s head, balancing just above him.

G.B. hesitated, even though it was what he wanted. “It won’t hurt you?”

Marshall Lee snorted. “You talk like I don’t like being hurt.”

G.B. wanted to answer that even more than he wanted to keep doing this. But Marshall Lee kissed him again, swift and hard. “Now fuck me, sweetheart. Please.”

Like always, it was the please. Not that G.B. needed a lot of persuading. Marshall Lee moved in time with him, just like the kissing, showing G.B. how to fuck him, slow and steady and deep, deep inside. G.B. reached up and pulled Marshall Lee down to him, adding kissing to the sensations overwhelming him. Marshall Lee pressed G.B.’s other hand to his own cock, guiding him there, too. G.B. was too dazed to be self-conscious; he squeezed in time with his thrusts. His whole body was a fuse, alight and counting down.

Then he was gasping, and he made himself stop, drawing back from an edge he hardly recognized, because the build-up to an orgasm had never felt like this in his life, not even in the handful of dreams he’d had about this very moment.

“It’s okay, honey, I’m ready for you,” Marshall Lee murmured against his lips. “Please keep going. I’m close, too.” He shifted his weight, and G.B. gasped, digging his fingernails into the back of Marshall Lee’s neck.

G.B. couldn’t argue; he wasn’t even sure he could form words, much less a rebuttal. He thrust, following the rhythm of his own need now and pulling Marshall Lee tighter against him as the world whited out. Stars exploded inside him, and the world shrank to Marshall Lee’s body pressed to his and Marshall Lee’s quiet moan. Then Marshall Lee tightened around him, gasping for air as he came into G.B.’s fist.

They stayed like that for a minute or two: Marshall Lee balanced over him, panting, his eyes closed; G.B. staring at his face, hardly seeing it, as aftershocks ran through his body. G.B. was vaguely aware he was sweating and that his chest and hand were covered in cum and God knew what else, but for once in his life, he did not care about being dirty or disgusting.

“I didn’t know that was what it felt like,” and he didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until Marshall Lee laughed incredulously.

Marshall Lee carefully extricated himself, then flopped alongside G.B., pressing his forehead into G.B.’s neck. “Of course you didn’t, sweetheart. If you’ve ever fucking jerked off and liked it, I will eat my bass.” He was still breathless, and his lips moving against G.B.’s neck made him shiver.

G.B. tried to sit up, but Marshall Lee pressed him down. “Enjoy it, babe,” he said, pushing himself up on his elbow. “I’ve got it.” He removed the condom and tied it in a knot, throwing it hopefully in the direction of a wastebasket. G.B. decided not to dwell on that question. Then he handed G.B. a box of tissues to wipe himself clean, which G.B. appreciated. He was still riding the high, but cum dried really fast and it was impossible to get off.

Also, the motions of wiping himself clean grounded him, brought him back to some semblance of reality. He was still shaking a little, and his whole body was loose and boneless in the best way he’d ever felt, but his brain was returning, and he could think in polysyllables.

Only there was no anxiety anywhere in his mind. His thoughts were slow and patient, like honey on a cold day. He stared at Marshall Lee’s ceiling as Marshall Lee pressed up next to him again. It wasn’t cold, exactly, but it wasn’t warm, either, so G.B. pulled the blanket over both of them.

“You look like your brain is dribbling out your ears,” Marshall Lee murmured smugly.

G.B. thought about trying to pinch him, but he didn’t have the energy. “Isn’t that a compliment to you?” he said instead.

Marshall Lee snorted. “I already knew I was good at this. It’s the one thing I am good at.”

G.B. turned his head, searching Marshall Lee’s face. “You keep saying that,” he whispered. “Why do you keep saying you don’t matter? You…” He swallowed hard, reaching up to touch Marshall Lee’s face. “You matter to me.”

Marshall Lee looked back at him, and for a moment, all the bleak emptiness returned, and G.B. thought he would collapse back into sobs. Then it disappeared, and Marshall Lee kissed the side of his neck.

G.B. wanted him to say something, wanted to press Marshall Lee for more. But he was tired, and it was hard to concentrate when Marshall Lee was tracing his fingertips over G.B.’s stomach, playing with the fine hair there.

***

G.B. hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but the next thing he knew, he was waking up shivering. Marshall Lee had rolled away, taking the whole blanket with him, but he was still shivering. G.B., only half-awake, rolled over toward him, reaching for the edge of the blanket, and Marshall Lee gasped, his head jerking back. G.B. only just avoided a headbutt. He put his hand on Marshall Lee’s shoulder to turn him, and Marshall Lee let him, though his eyes were wild and startled.

“I thought I dreamed it all for a minute,” Marshall Lee whispered, and G.B. wasn’t sure if he meant the sex or anything else. “I told myself you weren’t really here.”

“I’m right here,” G.B. said, even though it was obvious. He pulled the blanket around both of them, and Marshall Lee moved into the curve of his arm, though his eyes still moved over G.B.’s face like G.B. was a painting he didn’t recognize. “I’m right here.”

Marshall Lee pressed his face into G.B.’s chest, and they didn’t speak anymore.

***

G.B. had not thought he could have such a quiet weekend with Marshall Lee. They fought, of course; it was just how they talked. But it wasn’t serious, and sometimes, Marshall Lee wouldn’t respond to one of G.B.’s comments, and it was clear he hadn’t been listening for a while.

But that was how it went after a death. G.B. remembered the days and weeks after his parents passed away, but vaguely, the way he remembered plots of movies he’d seen when he was very little, unsure how much he’d seen and how much was a dream.

They had sex again three more times, and each time it was better. G.B. did not initiate it, but only because he was just beginning to understand the ache in his chest as want, as the need to run his hands down Marshall Lee’s body and feel him arch up into G.B.’s touch.

He’d thought the whole world would come crumbling down if he ever admitted that he wanted to lie spooned with Marshall Lee, his face pressed into Marshall Lee’s neck and one arm draped over him. That he wanted to make him breakfast and argue over what to have for dinner and what to watch on Netflix. But here they were, still standing. G.B. had jumped, and Marshall Lee had caught him.

But it couldn’t be like this forever. Marshall Lee was the one who brought it up. G.B. was still gasping for breath, his fingers tight in the sheets; Marshall Lee had already cleaned up and thrown away the condom, and then he slithered up beside G.B., propping his chin on G.B.’s chest so they were face to face. “You have to go back to school tomorrow,” he murmured.

G.B. stiffened; he couldn’t help it. Marshall Lee noticed, since his eyes narrowed, but only a little, and only in thought. “You act like that’s a death sentence or something.” Marshall Lee tapped G.B.’s nose, though he wasn’t smiling enough to make it a gentle tease. “I mean, I never finished high school, but even I didn’t think it was that bad.”

G.B. wanted to press the point about dropping out of high school, but he knew he was just trying to distract himself from the truth. He made himself relax, inch by inch, letting himself sink back into bonelessness. “I do have to go back to school. I’ve only got two weeks left, though.”

He swallowed and put one hand on the side of Marshall Lee’s face, tracing the day’s worth of stubble there. He’d never admit it, but he liked Marshall Lee with scruff; it suited him. “I’ve got my graduation next week.”

Marshall Lee wrinkled his nose and pressed his face into G.B.’s chest, hiding his expression.

G.B. pinched his ear, just gently, so Marshall Lee would lift his head, if only to glare at him. “I’m not asking you to come, Marshall Lee. I wouldn’t make anyone sit through that.”

“But you’ll be making a speech and everything, right? That’s what they do in movies.” Marshall Lee’s eyes were surprisingly innocent; he wasn’t teasing for once.

G.B. rolled his eyes. “Yes, unfortunately, me and the salutatorian both. That’s the only reason I’m going. That and because Pepper would be very upset if I didn’t.”

Marshall Lee laughed softly. “Would never want to upset Pepper.” He smiled, and G.B. relaxed more, focusing again on the warmth and weight of Marshall Lee’s body instead of the tension in his mind. “I can’t believe you’re complaining about having to go to something for school. Before we did any of this,” here he nipped the side of G.B.’s neck, just lightly enough to make G.B. hiss, “I woulda sworn the only thing that gave you a boner was a textbook.”

G.B. snorted, despite himself, and turned his head so he could catch Marshall Lee’s mouth with a kiss. That finished, he said, “I’ve been taking college courses since last year. This is just a formality. I seriously considered dropping out, getting my GED, and starting college sooner, but my trust fund for my tuition didn’t kick in until after I turned 18 anyway.”

“Pfft. Trust fund,” Marshall Lee muttered, but not harshly.

“Did—” G.B. stopped himself, but by the way Marshall Lee went still, G.B. knew he already understood.

Marshall Lee let out a long, slow breath. “Go ahead,” he muttered, hiding his face in the curve of G.B.’s neck.

G.B. ran a hand down his back, hoping it would be soothing. They hadn’t breached the subject of Simone’s death since that first night; they’d danced around it but never came back to it. “I won’t,” he said softly.

Marshall Lee lifted his head and looked G.B. in the eyes. He was tired, and darkness lingered in the hollows of his cheeks and the bags beneath his eyes, but he was there in a way he hadn’t been when G.B. first arrived. “It’s okay. Gonna have to talk to somebody about it sometime.”

G.B. nodded, running his fingers down Marshall Lee’s spine again. It seemed to help him relax. “Did she leave you anything?”

Marshall Lee nodded. “All her stuff. This house…” He sighed and hid his face again, but he nuzzled into G.B.’s neck so G.B. didn’t worry about it as much. “She’s got some money and stuff, but I haven’t gone through it yet.”

“It takes time,” G.B. said quietly, thinking of the boxes upon boxes of his parents’ things that still needed to be sorted through if he and Pepper ever decided to move. “You’ve got plenty of it.”

“That’s the problem,” Marshall Lee murmured. G.B. tilted his head, trying to catch a glimpse of Marshall Lee’s expression, but from there, Marshall Lee bit him hard on the side of the neck and would not talk about it any longer.

***

G.B. made him lunch—chicken soup, with plenty of leftovers, since he did not trust Marshall Lee to remember to feed himself. Marshall Lee actually helped: G.B. showed him how to slice the carrots and celery, how to dice the chicken.

It was a good distraction, and it took a long time, but they had to come back to reality eventually. Marshall Lee was the one who started it, though. When they finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen, Marshall Lee hopped up on the counter so he was eye to eye with G.B. G.B. raised his eyebrows, since he hadn’t finished cleaning that part of the counter yet; Marshall Lee took G.B.’s free hand and pulled G.B. between his legs, locking his feet around the small of G.B.’s back.

G.B. raised his eyebrows higher, though his first instinct was to lean into Marshall Lee’s warmth. Marshall Lee set his hands on G.B.’s shoulders. “It’s a long way here on the bus.”

G.B. stared at him. “I know. That’s how I got here.”

Marshall Lee let out a breath and leaned his forehead against G.B.’s. G.B. allowed himself to relax into Marshall Lee’s hold, letting the rag slip from his fingers so he could slide his hands into Marshall Lee’s belt. It felt so good to hold on to him, to make sure he stayed. “That’s not what I was talking about, man.”

“Well, as usual, you’re taking a circuitous route to get to the point, so forgive me for getting lost in the brambles growing over your train of thought.”

Marshall Lee chuckled, and G.B. pressed closer so he could feel the laughter rumble in Marshall Lee’s chest. “You’re such a fucking freak,” but he slid his hands up to G.B.’s face, looking at G.B. like he was the most precious thing on earth. G.B. wanted to drop his eyes, but he kept his gaze. “I have no idea what the fuck you just said.” He sighed. “What I was saying is, you’ve got a long way to go to come to me, and there’s nothing else here.”

G.B. wrinkled his nose. “I’m still not following, dear.” The endearment just slipped out, but he was surprised by how much he liked saying it.

Marshall Lee stroked his cheek. “So I’ll come to you, dumbass. Not gonna ask you to leave a sweet graduation party or whatever.”

G.B. snorted. “You don’t know me very well if you think I’ll be partying. Or that I’d have anyone to invite.”

“Man, I was trying not to say that, but yeah, dude, you are going about this whole graduation thing completely wrong.” He leaned forward and kissed the corner of G.B.’s mouth before G.B. could object to that. G.B. closed his eyes as Marshall Lee slowly kissed his away across G.B.’s face.

G.B. swallowed, not entirely from desire. “So… you’ll come next weekend, then?” His voice was hardly a breath.

Marshall Lee didn’t answer immediately, but that was most likely because he was tracing his teeth over G.B.’s ear, and G.B. had to grip Marshall Lee’s thighs to stay upright. “Yeah, baby. Yeah, I’ll be there.”

They kissed, deep and hungry, and G.B. wanted to live in that moment forever.

***

He couldn’t, of course. He took the bus home that night, letting Marshall Lee give him a very salacious kiss goodbye even though he was completely embarrassed. But he could feel Marshall Lee’s lips against his own the entire way home, so it was worth it.

***

G.B. hoped he would get a call, and he did, though they were short. Marshall Lee said he was busy; he wouldn’t specify with what, but he called every day, ignoring G.B.’s attempts to ferret answers out of him by instead describing the way he was touching himself. Which, much to G.B.’s irritation, always worked to get them away from the subject.

Only when they hung up, when G.B. was spent and languorous, would he remember that he was trying to find out what Marshall Lee was dancing around. What else could be on his mind?

***

The graduation ceremony was boring. G.B. nearly fell asleep, which was his own fault; he’d stayed on the phone with Marshall Lee until well past midnight, talking about nothing in particular. Love was stupid.

But he got up and he made his speech, talking about the future and college and jobs and all that crap they were supposed to care about. He didn’t even remember writing it, but Pepper was in the front row, beaming at him, and when they were released, she put her arms around his neck and told him that his parents would have been so proud.

***

Pepper had made a lovely fancy dinner for the three of them, all of G.B.’s favorite foods: chicken and spinach ravioli with alfredo sauce, fresh garlic bread, a bacon and spinach salad. She even poured G.B. a glass of wine, and G.B. did not say he was not yet old enough to drink. It was a good dinner. Monochrome congratulated him, and after dinner he played the dulcimer while G.B. noodled around on his keyboard for the first time in ages.

It felt so good.

***

G.B. did his best not to wonder when Marshall Lee would show up. He had no sense of time, for one thing. G.B. had told him the graduation ceremony would be said and done by four, and that they’d be having dinner afterward, a tacit invitation that Marshall Lee had not-so-tacitly turned down. Which was probably for the best, honestly, even though G.B. had wanted him to be there.

But G.B. had also said MoChro had to work at eight, which meant he’d be gone by seven, which meant the festivities would be over and done with for the night.

Not that G.B. realistically expected Marshall Lee before midnight, but he wasn’t about to say that and give him permission to show up that late. He did want to get some sleep. Maybe.

Anyway, he kept himself busy. He knew not to watch the window, and he knew not to try calling back the number Marshall Lee had last used. He just had to be patient.

***

Midnight rolled around.

***

Then one.

***

G.B. fell asleep sometime after two in the morning; he woke abruptly because sunshine was streaming into his room, and he never left the curtains open. Nor did he ever sleep in late enough for that to be a problem.

It was after ten in the morning. He was alone.

He did not not let his heart start beating faster; he did not let himself take shaky breaths. He walked up to the window. There was no sign it had been touched since the last time G.B. had opened it himself. No note tucked anywhere, no obscene phrase written backward on the glass so it’d show when you breathed on it.

G.B. bit his lip hard, but he stayed perfectly calm.

***

The bus ride downtown took even longer than usual, since an old man got into an argument with the driver about a price increase. G.B. turned his music up, staring out the window because no matter what he tried to work on, the words blurred and turned to nothing.

***

Simone’s house was dark. G.B. knew, again, as soon as he walked up to it, that it was empty.

And… there was a for sale sign in the front yard. With a sold marker hanging over it. G.B. stared at it for a long minute, his eyes moving over and over the limited information there. He supposed he could take out his phone and try to look up who was selling it, for how much, but why?

He still walked up to the door. He still knocked. When no one answered, he reached up and found the key taped to the top of the doorframe. Marshall Lee said it was Simone’s, since he wasn’t tall enough to reach it.

G.B. unlocked the door. It had been oiled; it didn’t creak. G.B. wished it would have. Something to break the endless silence of an empty house.

And it was empty, even though everything was exactly the same as the last time he’d stepped in the door.

Oh, there were a few differences. The pictures of Simone and Marshall Lee were missing, for one thing, and G.B. was sure he’d find a few more missing objects if he went up to the loft. But otherwise, it was like walking through a museum.

G.B. made himself go through the whole house, excepting the loft, because… he didn’t even know. Because he liked tormenting himself, perhaps. Because he needed to confirm his suspicions. Because he needed the images of an empty, lifeless house to replace the ones he’d lingered over all week: kissing Marshall Lee in the shower, in Simone’s bed, on the kitchen counter.

When he had made the circuit, he stood in the living room and bit his lip, hard. Then he walked outside. He almost sat down on the front step, but then he remembered the last time he had done that, and he dug his fingernails into his palms and walked to the end of the street to sit at the bus stop. He dialed Pepper’s number.

“Where have you been? I thought you were sleeping in,” said Pepper. She wasn’t irritated, surprisingly.

G.B. let out a long, slow breath. “I need you to pick me up, please.”

Pepper, to her credit, didn’t ask any more questions.

***

G.B. didn’t see Marshall Lee again for almost three years. Not that he went looking.