Stewy spends the last snowy Sunday before the spring semester begins like he’s spent the past week. He’s already been on campus for days, back from break early to start training with the rest of the team. Even though tennis is an individual sport, just Stewy and a racket against any number of unknown enemies, he trains with the other tennis players. He’s told to work out at the same time as the other guys (he does) and wear the same sweatshirts with a big crimson H and the word TENNIS scrawled on the front around campus (he doesn’t). All that means, apparently, that they’re a team.
Not that Stewy considers himself a team player. He’s in it for the individual glory. It’s not just lobbing back his opponent’s ball, and it’s not just about being quick enough, light enough on his feet. There’s real strategy involved in tennis. How to lunge and where to serve and when to run up to the net, fast, and slam the ball to the ground just past where the other guy can reach. And it’s all up to him. He calls his own shots.
That’s not strategy, a fellow economics major tells him. You’re not using that word right. And then, Kendall, at Stewy’s side, shaking his head earnestly. No, no, he says, Stewy’s right. It’s strategic.
It's too cold to go anywhere near the courts today, so the team runs agility drills in the gym, back and forth and back and forth, quick turns of the heel whenever the coach decides to blow his whistle. Stewy keeps his head down, feels the sweat drip down his back.
The coach lets them go an hour and a half later. As Stewy changes in the locker room, pulls out his watch and slips it back over his wrist, he checks to see how far the hands have moved since the last time he checked.
Kendall comes back to school today.
It’s not that Stewy cares. He doesn’t care when Kendall comes back; the longer Kendall’s at one of his mega mansions, the longer Stewy gets the apartment to himself. But here’s what Stewy cares about – he’s gotta be out of the apartment when Kendall comes back. Otherwise, it gets weird. Last time, it got weird.
“You coming to dinner, man?” The guy one locker over asks. He’s slinging his gym bag over his shoulder. His name is Pieter and Stewy hates him.
“Yeah, man.” Stewy says, glancing at his watch again. “With you? You know it.”
In August, when Kendall came back from a summer in the City, Stewy had been waiting for him in the apartment. Of course, Stewy had also spent the summer interning at a prestigious company in the City, but they hadn’t seen each other every day like they did when they shared a bathroom. It had been weeks, maybe a month since they’d seen each other, both too busy to catch up.
Stewy had gotten back to campus before Kendall (that was sort of their thing; Stewy spending as little time at home as possible and Kendall spending as much time at home as he could), and, seeing Kendall wasn’t there, he did the only sensible thing – he threw a party. Invited all the girls he knew the names of, and the least annoying guys from their major over, and stocked the place with enough alcohol and drugs to keep them all happy.
That was the state of the place when Kendall unlocked the apartment door that night, dragging his suitcase behind him. Wu-Tang blasting so loud he could hear it down the hall, throngs of people all around in various states of intoxication. And Stewy, standing in the middle of the room, talking to some art major he knew only as Aurora. He heard the door click shut somehow and turned his head, locking eyes with Kendall.
And the look Kendall gave Stewy, all bemusement and crinkled eyes and relief and way too honey, I’m home for Stewy to be remotely okay with it, made Stewy feel uneasy, made him feel something akin to nausea blooming in his stomach. Here he was, waiting for Kendall to return. He realized he was honey just as someone shouted Kendall’s name, offered him a drink. Kendall broke Stewy’s gaze momentarily to accept the solo cup, and Stewy took that moment to take Aurora’s wrist, ask if she wanted to talk somewhere more private.
So Stewy follows Pieter and his equally asinine friends, his teammates (go team), across campus to a hole in the wall where they could eat shit food and drink shit drinks, or whatever it was Pieter considered high class. It didn’t really matter to Stewy. He just needed to be out.
They’ve lived together for over a year now. Stewy had had enough of dormitory life after his freshman year. He’d cajoled Kendall, who was annoyingly pliant, who shrugged and said it’s not so bad, bro into rooming with him, and they moved into an apartment – well, a penthouse – just off campus, with the other students who were ridiculously wealthy and didn’t care to hide it. Stewy thought Kendall resented him a little at first about it. Where Stewy was outwardly ambitious, Kendall was quieter. He was every bit as driven as Stewy to be successful, but his ambition was all-encompassing, was something that took all his time and energy. It didn’t matter to Kendall where he studied as long as he got the grades he wanted. As long as he could impress his dad.
Stewy wanted more. Stewy wanted the varsity jacket (he wouldn’t wear it, but he wanted it) and the fancy apartment and the social capital. He wanted people to know this was easy for him – this as in school, this as in athletics, this as in money. His summers in the City had all but confirmed to him his path to success. By the fall of his junior year, his ego was as inflated as ever. He didn’t want to associate with people who wouldn’t extend his network. Didn’t want to talk to classmates who couldn’t hook him up with a job five, ten years down the line if needed.
Kendall could feel the same way. It was entirely possible for Kendall to be as self-centered and over-zealous as Stewy. Absolutely, it could be done. “You absolutely could be more of a dick,” Stewy once told him. But Kendall spent most of his time, when not studying, on the phone with his family, or his godfather, Frank, or getting high with Stewy in the bathroom. Or, if none of the above, silently worrying about something Stewy couldn’t shake out of him. Biting his lip until it bled. Putting on the same Bruce Lee movie and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Working out until he collapsed because he was so lost in thought he hadn’t realized he’d reached his limit.
“Dude, I’m telling you, give fewer fucks,” Stewy said once, when he timed Kendall staring out the window in their living room for thirty full minutes after a phone call from his dad that had ended abruptly, or something to that effect Stewy could only grasp in pieces.
“Yeah,” Kendall replied, nodding, still looking out the window. “Yeah, man.”
It’s ten p.m. and they’re at their second bar of the night when Stewy’s cell phone rings. He gulps down the rest of his beer and reaches for the flip phone embarrassingly fast, desperate not to have to hear any more of Pieter’s droll bragging.
He flips the phone open and answers without even checking the caller ID. “Ken?”
“You getting drunk without me, bro?” Kendall asks without pretense, and Stewy smiles. He gets up without another word to his teammates and walks somewhere quieter.
“You back in state lines, man?” Stewy asks.
“Yeah, man.” Kendall says. He sounds tired, Stewy thinks, tired and a hint of something strained. “Just got back.”
“And I’m your first call?” Stewy says. “Oh Kenny, you’re so predictable.”
He hears Kendall laugh softly on the other end. Stewy can picture the sheepish look on his face.
“You wanna join us?” Stewy asks, then, before Kendall can respond. “Your spidey senses were correct, I am definitely getting drunk without you.”
“Fucking knew it.” Kendall says, but there’s hesitation in his voice. “I’m kinda beat though, dude,” he says. “Think I’ll stay in.”
“All right, your call, bro.” Stewy says. “Don’t wait up, Pieter’s spinning a fascinating web about the intricacies of venture capital. I’m learning from the feet of the master. You understand that I can’t pass that up, right?”
“Right,” Kendall echoes. “Yeah. I’ll see you, man.”
He makes himself stay out long enough to feel like he’s not running back home, drinks some more to make up for the shitty company, and then shrugs his coat back on. Makes his excuses and bails.
He feels a light buzz, not as drunk as he probably should be feeling after what he’s had to drink. But he’s been drinking long enough now to build up a tolerance. It was hard not to when his drinking buddy was Kendall. So he trudges up the stairs to their penthouse after the cab ride home, less drunk than he planned to be. He supposed it didn’t matter. If Kendall was as tired as he said he was, hopefully he was already out for the night.
Stewy pushes the front door to his apartment open just as he feels the knob turn in his hand without his doing, and as the door opens, Stewy sees Kendall.
He’s closer than Stewy expects, and awake – coat on, hand curled around the doorknob.
“Oh.” Kendall says, blinking at Stewy.
“What are you doing?” Stewy asks, completely thrown off.
“I was, uh, I was going out.” Kendall says easily. “I was gonna join you.”
“I didn’t tell you where I was.” Stewy says.
“Yeah,” Kendall nods, taking this point in stride. “I guess, I guess I would have looked for you.”
“No, no, no,” Stewy says, shaking his head. He pushes Kendall aside and walks into the apartment, barely remembering to shut the door behind him. His mind is moving fast, cobbling together a new battleplan. “We’re done. Party’s over.” Then, turning to face Kendall once more, bewildered, “you would have looked for me?”
“Dude, fuck you,” Kendall says, “you go to the same four bars.”
“Dude, fuck you, I was slumming it tonight.” Stewy throws back.
Kendall rolls his eyes, but he takes his coat off with finality, tosses it over the back of the couch. He walks past Stewy to do this and as Stewy watches him, he can sense that Kendall’s mood is off again, that something’s not adding up. It’s the way his shoulders have yet to relax, maybe. Something beyond jet lag and his usual nerves.
Stewy’s known Kendall long enough to expect Kendall to take some time to readjust to college life after extended periods at home. It’s hard for Kendall to switch from heir apparent to regular (albeit unspeakably rich) twenty-one-year-old undergrad. Hard to remember after weeks in his father’s shadow that he’s in a different state, that he’s in a different role, that it’s just him and Stewy at their apartment. Nobody wants anything from him. Nobody’s evaluating his every move. He’s not walking blind on a giant chess board.
“Okay,” Stewy says, watching Kendall keenly. “So, hi. Welcome back.”
Kendall nods distractedly. He’s reaching down, unzipping a duffel bag. “I have something,” Kendall reaches in with one hand and pulls out a small snake plant, its pot wrapped in cellophane to keep the soil from spilling.
“—from Connor.” Kendall finishes with a cringe. He sets the pot down on their glass ottoman and starts unwrapping the cellophane. “Yeah, he, uh, he grew it himself. So, uh, here it is.” He starts to say more, starts to try to justify the plant’s existence in their apartment as he tugs on the cellophane, but he jerks his right hand back suddenly. It’s a quick movement, and the pain on his face flickers only for a moment before Kendall blinks it away. He reaches for the cellophane with his left hand instead, easily, trying to mask what just happened. He brings his right hand over to the pot again, places it gingerly on the rim as he works again.
Kendall clears his throat. “He gave one to all of us,” he continues with a forced casualness. He can’t quite meet Stewy’s gaze. “Even Mom when we went and saw her for a few days. He wrapped it up like this for that plane ride too, so—”
“Dude.” Stewy says again. Kendall looks up, finally.
“Yeah?” He says. He holds Stewy’s gaze but his face gives away nothing. Kendall’s one superpower – if you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t have a way to tell he was forcing himself to become neutral, emotionless. You wouldn’t know he was shutting down.
Stewy knows Kendall. He knows he’s shutting down.
“You always get shitty Christmas presents from your brother?” Stewy asks, because he wants Kendall to stay with him a little longer. Despite his charade, despite staying out and coming back late and pretending not to care, Kendall was with him now, and he wouldn’t accept this colossally dumb conversation as a substitute for the past few weeks of distance.
Kendall scoffs. He’s young enough that his older brother’s acts of kindness don’t go without mention. An older Kendall might have said, from Connor? Always. The younger Kendall just shakes his head. “He grew it himself,” he offers again.
“So I heard.” Stewy says, mock amazed. “I didn’t know Waystar was expanding to botanical gardens.”
“At least I, like, get Christmas gifts, dude.”
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right, dude.” Stewy nods. “Good reminder. Me, the humble heretic.”
“Didn’t mean it like that,” Kendall mumbles, looking down. He’s reaching into the bag again with his left hand. “Anyway, you have a gift, so. It’s a little late, but—” He tosses a small box to Stewy, who catches it deftly. It’s the protein powder Stewy badgered Kendall to get. Only sold in England and probably (definitely) illegal in many countries. Something about the ingredients blah blah blah Stewy didn’t listen to what his coach said. Just told Kendall to pick him up some when he visited his mom.
“My man.” Stewy says, looking over the packing appraisingly and then tossing the box onto the couch.
“Felt like kind of a dick buying that.” Kendall says. “I made Roman get it.”
“That’s good, Ken.” Stewy says. “Teach ‘em young.” Then: “Thanks.”
“Yeah.” Kendall shrugs.
“So, it was good over there?” Stewy asks. “With your mom.”
Kendall shrugs again. Evidently, he’s emptied the duffel bag, because he zips it back up, flattens it down. “Same as always,” he says. “We were just over there for the weekend. Then back to New York.”
“More time with dear old dad.” Stewy notes.
Kendall nods. He stands up, taking the bag with him. “And you,” he says, like the thought just occurred to him, “You’re good? Break was good?”
“Yeah, man,” Stewy says casually, but his brows are furrowed. Kendall’s shoulders are still hunched forward. He’s still favoring his left hand. “Yeah, you know me. I’m good.”
“Good,” Kendall echoes. He nods. “So, listen,” he says, “I’m beat. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Stewy says, uneasy feeling returning in his stomach. He feigns indifference until Kendall turns around, starts heading towards his room, and then the voice in the back of Stewy’s head shouts loud enough that Stewy lurches forward, grabbing Kendall’s arm to stop him with a hasty “wait.”
Kendall tenses immediately with a soft hiss. He tries to break free from Stewy’s grip but Stewy holds him fast.
“Kendall,” he says, “What the fuck aren’t you telling me.”
“Dude,” Kendall says, voice strained, “You’re hurting me.”
Stewy drags Kendall over to the floor lamp and tugs Kendall’s sleeve up. Kendall continues to try to pull his arm away, but it’s no use. Stewy sees the mottled bruises that trail a line around Kendall’s right wrist to his forearm.
He hears Kendall swallow, and in the second of silence that passes between them, Stewy runs through all the different scenarios he can imagine. All the ways Kendall could have gotten this series of bruises. But it’s a futile action, and it doesn’t convince Stewy that he doesn’t already know exactly where the bruise came from. He can see the outline of the hand that must have grabbed Kendall by the wrist, ripping him from (or towards) something, someone.
“Stew,” Kendall says, because maybe longer than a second has passed, and Stewy doesn’t normally wait this long to say something, has yet to learn to be more selective with his racing thoughts. And then Kendall’s tugging, harder than before, cringing as he breaks free from Stewy’s grip. Stewy flinches himself when he realizes how tight he was gripping Kendall’s arm, and then, finally, his mind catches up to his voice.
“Can we talk about it?” Stewy hears himself say. “Can you – tell me what happened. Ken, tell me—”
“Nothing happened.” Kendall says. In Stewy’s silence he’s had time to put up more walls. He’s already backing up. “I’m going to bed.”
Kendall turns without another word. Stewy follows him automatically.
“Don’t do this.” Stewy says as Kendall pushes open his bedroom door. “Hey, listen.” He slips into the room before Kendall can shut the door behind him. “Listen, man. I just want to talk. Level with me.”
“It’s not what you think.” Kendall says.
“Okay, what do you think I think it is?” Stewy says.
“I—” Kendall stares at Stewy for a moment, eyes searching, then he shakes his head. He sits down on the edge of his bed. “Just drop it, man.”
“Not gonna do that.” Stewy says. “I’ve seen this shit with you before.”
Kendall’s shaking his head before Stewy can finish his sentence. “No—”
“Fuck you, yes.” Stewy says. He crosses his arms against his chest, ready to continue, but Kendall leans forward, head bowed, and Stewy stops.
It’s a submissive position. He’s been around Kendall long enough to know when he gives up. He’s spent enough summer weekends back in their Buckley days at Kendall’s place to know this stance. He’s seen Logan berating Kendall over nothing, over anything, and Kendall leaning forward, head bowed just like this. Nodding to show he’s listening.
And here Kendall was, doing the same to him.
“Hey, wait.” Stewy says, voice gentler than before. He feels guilty and, more than that, he feels hurt that Kendall would take his words like this, that he’d treat him like his father. “Wait.” He moves forward, sitting on the edge of the bed, knee brushing against Kendall’s. He stares at Kendall for a moment and then, because Kendall barely registers him, he puts his arm around Kendall’s shoulder.
Physical touch has always been Kendall’s weakness. Stewy could talk Kendall up all he wanted, and Kendall would take the words in stride, nod appreciatively. Stewy could supply him coke or coffee or booze (he does) and Kendall would thank him. But when Stewy puts his arm around Kendall’s shoulder, Kendall melts.
Kendall leans forward again but it’s out of a release of tension this time, it’s out of the relief of Stewy’s touch. Stewy hears him exhale and Stewy squeezes his shoulder in response. Kendall’s sleeve rides up again and Stewy sees the bruise once more.
“Jesus,” Stewy says to himself, and then, “c’mere.”
He folds Kendall into a hug, and Kendall moves with Stewy’s guiding arm wordlessly. Kendall slips his arms around Stewy’s waist and breathes deeply into his chest, breathes in Stewy’s cologne and the faint smell of alcohol.
He doesn’t know what to say. Stewy holds Kendall and hopes maybe it helps, listens keenly to Kendall’s breaths and hopes they’ll even out the longer they just sit here, but he doesn’t have any magic words.
It’s not the first time Kendall’s reappeared with mysterious bruises. Stewy admits he doesn’t always look Kendall over, doesn’t always strip him down and check every inch of him to find his weak spots, the evidence of his time at home. It’s not their thing. Kendall never admits to anything, and he wouldn’t ever volunteer information to Stewy, either, wouldn’t roll up a sleeve just to say hey, check this out. It’s just easier for them this way. It’s easier for Kendall to pretend nothing’s wrong. And it’s easier for Stewy, as he pretends not to care, as he focuses so much energy into maintaining the upper hand in their long, complicated friendship, not to ask.
He’s not sure why it’s different this time, why instead of letting Kendall walk away, Stewy reached out. It just is. It’s just different.
“I don’t know, man.” Stewy says to himself, letting out a sigh. His voice is barely above a whisper and if Kendall can hear him, he doesn’t say anything. Just holds onto Stewy and closes his eyes. Stewy notes with some relief that Kendall’s heart isn’t beating as rapidly anymore.
He traces a hand along Kendall’s back and starts to rub gentle circles along Kendall’s side, and just like that, the moment ends. Kendall stiffens as soon as Stewy touches his side, arms tightening around Stewy for a fraction of a second before Stewy feels Kendall force himself to relax, mask what had happened. But Stewy stops anyway, and in the silence before he speaks, Stewy hears the thumping of Kendall’s heartbeat start to increase again.
“Kendall,” Stewy says softly, almost hesitating, “I swear to God—”
“Don’t—” Kendall begs.
“I fucking swear,” Stewy whispers, voice low. Then he’s pulling back, despite how Kendall clings to him. He pushes on Kendall’s shoulders until Kendall gives up, lets go.
Kendall lets Stewy take off his sweater and undershirt wordlessly, turns obediently when Stewy wants to see his bare back, wants to see the bruise for himself.
This one’s larger, and just as dark, trailing along the side of Kendall’s chest. Again, a slew of scenarios run through Stewy’s mind. He imagines Kendall’s father grabbing Kendall by the wrist, pulling him away, and Kendall fighting back somehow (in Stewy’s imagination, Kendall always fights back), but then Logan overpowers him, pushes him back. Maybe Kendall falls into something with a rush of momentum. A cabinet. A table.
Kendall turns back around when Stewy fails to say anything. He doesn’t try to wrap his arms around Stewy again. He stares down at his lap, shaking his head. Words form at his lips and fizzle out.
“Fucking piece of shit,” Stewy finds his voice first. “He’s – that’s – how—”
“No,” Kendall whispers. “You don’t understand.”
“I don’t under—?” Stewy reaches for Kendall again but Kendall shies away on reflex, flinching. Stewy drops his hand quickly, cheeks flushed with anger. “It’s never been this bad before.”
Kendall shakes his head again. “It’s not bad,” he says, finally. “You don’t understand.”
“Your dad hi—”
“He didn’t hit me.” Kendall insists. “He doesn’t hit me.”
“Am I being too specific?” Stewy asks incredulously. “What’s better? What should I say instead? Tell me what I should say instead.” Kendall opens his mouth. “And don’t say I don’t understand again.”
Kendall hunches forward. “Can we just,” he says to his knees, “can we just forget about it?” He turns his head to look at Stewy, but when he sees the barely repressed rage on Stewy’s face he drops his gaze. “Can we just,” he tries again. He clears his throat. “Maybe we could—”
“No.” Stewy is the one who shakes his head this time. He slaps his hands on his knees, stands up with finality. “No, man. I’m not doing this. You wanna live in denial, be my fucking guest. I’m gonna shower and go to bed.” He stares at Kendall. “You’re fucking unbelievable sometimes, you know that?”
Kendall nods. “Yeah, okay,” he says. Then, “good night.”
And it’s the ease with which Kendall says this, the ease with which he switches back to pleasantries, to conversational formalities, all while sitting on the bed shirtless and bruised, unable to look his best friend in the eyes, that pisses Stewy off most. He leaves without another word.
He showers methodically, too distracted to really think about what he’s doing. Afterwards, he watches the soapy water circle the drain and doesn’t step out of the shower until the last of the water has disappeared.
There’s a part of him that hates Kendall for this. For his months here at school, here with Stewy, learning about how he to become successful, notwithstanding his generational wealth, notwithstanding his father’s name. The nights of drinking, getting high, cocky flirtations with the tough-to-get poli sci major, just because he knows he’s good looking enough, charming enough, to get her into his bed. And more than that, for the nights where Kendall and Stewy stumble back to their apartment, levitating on some coke high, overconfident and deliriously carefree, where Kendall shuts the door behind them and just as quickly backs Stewy against the wall, kisses a line from his neck to his cock without even asking, without ever hesitating.
And for all that, Kendall can go home for a week and return hollowed out, the arrogance scooped from his stomach and deposited at his father’s feet as repentant offering. A consolation for his father’s time. And Logan will scrape out the last dregs of Kendall’s self-confidence so he can fill his son to the brim with doubt, with expectation, with burden.
This is the Kendall who returns to Stewy over and over and over, after every goddamn holiday and semester break. It was like this at Buckley and it’s even more exacerbated now that Kendall has reached adulthood.
Stewy flips off the bathroom light, scrubbing his face with a heavy hand. When he reaches Kendall’s room, the door’s still open, and despite telling himself to keep walking, Stewy pauses, glances in. Wants one more look at this hollowed-out Kendall.
The lights are on still but Kendall’s asleep on his side above the covers. Like he’d just tilted on his side, laid down, and closed his eyes. Still in his jeans and tennis shoes.
Stewy sighs, closes his eyes briefly. “Fuck,” he whispers to himself, and then he’s fully in Kendall’s room. He shuts the door behind him and flips the light off.
Stewy squats down, balances his weight on the balls of his feet. Shakes Kendall until he stirs, muttering something Stewy can’t decipher.
“Yo, asshole. You’re still dressed.” Stewy says.
Kendall furrows his brows, tries to close his eyes again. “Leave me alone,” he mumbles. “Tired.”
“No, no, c’mon.” Stewy says. “Sleep like a fucking human, dude.” He stands, reaches for Kendall’s shoelaces and begins to untie them hurriedly, probably a little roughly. Kendall doesn’t stop him.
“Bro,” Stewy starts as he pulls a shoe off. “You’re never as tired as you are when you get back from home. You know that?”
“You ever think about that shit, like, psychologically?”
“Stewy—” Kendall sounds agitated now, and he adjusts with a sigh, starts unbuttoning his jeans. Shuffles them down his legs as Stewy gets his other shoe off. Kendall kicks out of his jeans and tosses them to the ground. In the darkness, Kendall’s eyes meet Stewy’s. “Okay?” he says.
There’s no playfulness in Kendall’s eyes, no way for Stewy to know he’s not really as irritated as he sounds, and Stewy looks away, looks down to where Kendall cradles his bruised right wrist in his left.
“What am I going to do with you?” Stewy asks.
Kendall stiffens, and Stewy realizes, too, how his words sound. He shakes his head, erasing the words as best he can, and then he’s climbing into the bed, pulling back the covers far enough that Kendall finally goes under them, too.
The bed’s just big enough for the two of them to not have to touch, and Stewy stays firmly on one half of the bed and props himself onto one elbow. He watches Kendall adjust the covers around himself and settle onto his side again, his back facing Stewy.
The lights from the buildings across the street seep cautiously through the blinds of Kendall’s window, and in the faint illumination of the room Stewy can still see the outline of the bruise on Kendall’s back. He pictures the scenarios he’s cemented in his mind: Kendall falling against a cabinet. Kendall being pushed against a wall. Kendall, a day before he went home, grinning widely at Stewy, cigarette in one hand, the other hand leaning against the bar, their second of the night. A celebration of completing finals. Kendall, a day before he went home, cracking a joke that made the bartender laugh, that made Stewy laugh.
Stewy reaches out and traces the bruise on Kendall’s back, fingers gentle. Kendall doesn’t move; he hasn’t moved towards Stewy since he got into the bed and pulled the covers around them. He could be asleep for all Stewy knew.
But he’s not, so when Stewy says, “It’s okay, Ken,” Kendall turns and wraps his arms around Stewy’s waist again. Buries his head in his shoulder. Exhales when Stewy presses Kendall closer to him.
“You can tell me what happened,” Stewy tries once more, lips at Kendall’s temple. “I promise you. You can tell me.”
Kendall’s silent for a moment. He doesn’t tense like Stewy expects him to; in his exhausted state, he simply takes the words in.
“I’m just tired,” he says. It’s all he offers.
Waking up takes some time. Stewy blames the alcohol, the stress, and the strange, familiar comfort of his arms around Kendall and Kendall pressed against him, chest rising and falling steadily.
When Stewy finally blinks his eyes open, Kendall’s not there. He notices this right away, hand gripping the sheets, searching.
It’s been a while since he’s woken up in Kendall’s bed. He thinks back; maybe it hasn’t happened in this apartment at all before. A vestige of their Buckley days and of their freshman year at Harvard, before they lived together, and they rationalized their sleepovers as a matter of convenience, of, well, you’re here anyway.
This room is more grown up. This room belongs to a Kendall in his twenties. Gone is the Bruce Lee poster, the Wu-Tang poster, the Beastie Boys CDs stacked neatly on his desk. The people and influences that defined a younger Kendall, that fueled his angstier moments. This room has an altogether different look. Bland walls and a simple bed with light brown sheets. A desk with a small, digital clock.
Stewy has yet to move, the covers still strewn around him, when Kendall walks into the room, rubbing the back of his neck. His knuckles and cheeks are pink. In his other hand he holds his flip phone and a pack of cigarettes.
Kendall glances over at the bed, pauses when he sees Stewy awake, staring back at him.
“Morning.” Kendall says. He sets his phone down on the desk, stares at it for a moment.
“You freeze your nuts off for a fucking cigarette, dude?” Stewy says, voice scratchy from disuse. He settles onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow.
Kendall scoffs, sits down in his desk chair. “Frank called.” He says. “Didn’t want to wake you.”
Stewy nods, then flops back onto his back. If Frank called, that meant he was doing damage control. Logan had fucked up, felt bad about it, and was now instigating an apology tour through his number one lackey. And why not, now that Kendall was safely back in a different state and no one had to look him in the eyes or see his bruises.
“You gonna get up?” Kendall asks, but Stewy’s not really listening to him.
It’s a constant struggle in his mind, deciding how much he should admit to Kendall that he’s worried about him. Sometimes Kendall says things that are so profoundly fucked up to the rational human brain that Stewy just stares at him, speechless. Sometimes Kendall’s relatives do things Kendall just accepts and Stewy can’t decide if he feels pissed at Kendall or pissed at the rest of the Roys or just pissed at the universe.
“What’d he say?” Stewy hears himself ask.
“’Cause it’s 11 a.m., dude, and you usually have practice in—”
“No, Ken, I’m genuinely curious.” Stewy says to the ceiling. “Did he tell you it was all a misunderstanding and that your dad thought you were just, like, some fucking, some fucking blue-collar, low-rent, minimum-wage, fucking, grunt man, and he didn’t know it was his own fucking son, and like, like—” he turns his head, glances at Kendall with furrowed brows. Kendall stares back at him, expressionless.
“You know, you can say something, here.” Stewy says. “If you wanted to.”
Kendall nods, fiddles with his pack of cigarettes before he tosses them onto the desk. “Yeah.” He says. Then, after a measured pause: “You know, bro, you’re the only one making a big deal about this.”
Stewy smiles. “You’re amazing.” He whispers. He throws back the covers and sits up. “Dude, you know that? Fucking amazing. You’ve done a complete 180 since last night.”
“No I haven’t—”
“You should market that skill, bro.” Stewy continues. “Give talks in hotel conference rooms and shit. Wow.” He laughs as he gets up, feeling light, almost dizzy. “Wow,” he says again. He tugs mindlessly at one of Kendall’s cabinet drawers, pulling out a loose sweater and putting it on. He walks out of the room.
When they first moved into the place, Stewy’s parents had been overly invested in finding someone to cook Stewy proper food for breakfast, to at least start the day right. Stewy had insisted against it, had wanted to eat cold pizza and cereal like every other college student, but it was clear his parents wouldn’t budge. So Nasmin came weekday mornings and quietly made breakfast and brewed tea while Kendall and Stewy slept, and then left just as quietly.
Kendall loved it, had said so that first morning, when he ambled into the kitchen hungover to find a mug of warm tea and an assortment of bread, cheese, vegetables, and nearly hardboiled eggs. And that was that. Sometimes Nasmin made bamieh just because she knew Kendall liked them, reveled in their sweetness.
This morning, there’s what looks like paneer boreshteh on the stove, still warm. Stewy’s still shaking his head to himself when he pads into the kitchen. He reaches into the cabinet for a plate, gripping it hard. He spoons some food onto his plate and tops it off with a handful of grapes and a piece of naan.
He hears Kendall walk into the kitchen behind him. He stops tentatively before he gets any closer to Stewy, so Stewy ignores him, sits down at the island counter and starts to eat. Pretends he doesn’t feel pissed and disgusted and, strangely, like he’s been used.
“Dude,” Kendall finally says, when he’s been standing awkwardly in the kitchen for almost a minute. Stewy pretends he doesn’t hear, secretly revels in the frantic lilt of Kendall’s voice.
“Dude,” Kendall tries again, “like, why are you getting so pissed about this?”
“I’m not pissed.” Stewy says, taking a sip of tea.
“You can’t even look at me.”
Stewy sets down his cup, turns to look at Kendall. Blinks placidly. “I’m not pissed,” he says.
Kendall bristles. “I mean, Jesus, Stew, I just got back. I haven’t seen you in a month. Did I—did I do something?”
“What’d Frank say, man?” Stewy asks again. He pops a grape in his mouth.
Kendall gives him an incredulous look. “He just, Stew, he just, he just wanted to know that I got back safe—”
Stewy turns back to his food without pretense. Scoops some eggs up with a hunk of naan.
Kendall lets out an exasperated breath. Silence falls over the two of them again while Stewy eats and Kendall teems with tension, shoulders squared. He stands there, Stewy can see in his peripheral vision, staring at Stewy’s hands, eyes unfocused.
“And,” Kendall says then, voice eking out of him like he can barely get the words out, like it’s a betrayal even to say this, “and he told me – he said – what happened. With Dad. It was a misunderstanding.”
Stewy pushes his plate aside. He turns to face Kendall once more.
Kendall knows Stewy’s waiting for him to say more and he shrugs, a little exasperated. “There’s a lot going on right now. With Waystar. Like, possible international implications and shit like that.” He says. “So.” He inhales sharply. When he speaks again it’s in one rushed breath, “CaughthiminabadmoodIguess.” He cringes a smile. “It happens.”
It’s not much. It’s still more than Stewy expects. The older Kendall gets, the less forthcoming he is, even to Stewy. But even this, admitting his father’s guilt, matters to Stewy.
“Okay,” Stewy says, because he can’t admit to Kendall how much this matters. He nods easily.
“Okay.” Stewy says again. He gets up, taking his plate with him to the sink. He doesn’t say anything, just sets the plate down and drinks the last of his tea, sets the cup there too for Nasmin to clean later.
“That’s all you have to fucking say, dude?” Kendall asks.
This time it’s Stewy who shrugs. He shakes his head, gives Kendall a soft, bewildered smile. “Just trying to figure out why that was so fucking hard to get out of you. Felt like you were going to your grave with that shitty story, bro.” He meets Kendall’s eyes. “Would it have been worth it?”
Kendall doesn’t answer, and Stewy can see he’s genuinely stumped by the question, eyes searching Stewy’s, trying to figure out the question. Stewy has to look away. He lets out a soft breath.
“Listen,” Stewy says. “I’m going to do something. Just – stay there. Don’t move.”
Kendall nods a beat or so later. He swallows, nods again. “Okay,” he says.
Stewy slowly walks over to Kendall, until he’s standing in front of him, shoulder to shoulder. “Don’t move,” Stewy says again, quieter this time.
“Okay, Stew.” Kendall whispers.
Stewy leans in, brushes their noses together lightly, and kisses him.
It’s not their first kiss or their second or their seventh. There’ve been countless times when they were younger, when they were teenagers, where they found themselves like this. But Stewy can count the number of completely sober kisses they’ve had on one hand, spread out over almost as many years as they’ve known each other. There was something scarily deliberate about a kiss not borne of sloppy drunkenness, of searching in the dark for a warm body, of the full-body tingle of a high that made you want to melt into someone else.
There’s none of that here. There’s just Stewy, with a hand on Kendall’s hip. There’s just Kendall, surprised, eager, instantly leaning in.
Stewy pulls back after only a moment.
“Mm—” Kendall starts to protest.
“Ken,” Stew says when Kendall opens his eyes. He pauses to make sure Kendall is listening. “You’re here now, you get that? You’re back. You’re back in Cambridge. You’re back at Harvard. You’re back with me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Kendall says easily, smiling, leaning in again.
“No—” Stewy holds Kendall back by pressing gently with the hand on Kendall’s hip. “Dude. I’m serious. You’re here now.”
“Okay, man.” Kendall shrugs. “Okay.”
Stewy’s hand leaves Kendall’s hip to take Kendall’s wrist in his palm. He turns Kendall’s wrist over in his hand as Kendall looks down. They both stare at his bruise, a dark purple.
Kendall’s smile fades. “I just,” he starts, voice small. “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”
“You don’t let me understand.” Stewy’s response is quick.
Kendall nods. He can’t look Stewy in the eyes. “I just think it’s for the best that way.”
And there it is. What Stewy had been dreading.
“Sure, Ken.” Stewy says, voice hollow. He lets go of Kendall’s wrist. “Your call.”
But Stewy’s already stepping back, away from Kendall. He makes a show of glancing at the clock behind him. “Yeah,” he says, more to himself. “I’m gonna bounce.”
“Wait—” Kendall says again.
“Got practice.” Stewy says, before Kendall can finish his thought. He feels humiliated again, and stupid, and the stinging defeat of a miscalculation. He wants to leave as quickly as possible. “So, yeah, I’m gonna go. But you stay here, yeah? Stay here with your thoughts and my weed and your fucked up life and, and, this new plant thing from your weirdo brother, and I’m gonna go actually socialize with actual, normal, human beings.”
Kendall’s eyes darken. “Fine, man. Whatever. Thanks for the fucking pep talk, I feel a lot better.”
“Yeah.” Stewy says. He’s already headed out the door. “Welcome back, Ken.”