Go, Max! Go, go, go!
Instead of obeying the voice screaming in my head, I ran my hand through my hair. The still-damp tips of it clung to my fingers. The shower had helped. The coffee had helped. I still felt like shit, but I was hoping--God, I was hoping really hard--that this visit would help the most.
I went through names on the apartment mailboxes--Andrews, Wilson, Sullivan...Rocco. Funny that I didn't know exactly where Daniel lived nowadays. I suppose it was funny that I thought I should.
It wasn't like we hung out all the time. I hadn't seen him for years, except sometimes at the tail end of Christmas, when he'd show up to see Mom and Dad. After all, he wasn't my friend. Well, not exactly. I hesitated before I pressed on the buzzer. Should I forget it?
Go, Max. Go on.
All that didn't matter. Daniel would help if I needed it. And fuck. I needed him to help. I pressed down hard on the button, telling myself I was ready to take the first step. Anything had to be better than what I'd been doing--not doing--for years.
"Daniel? It's Max. Max Richards."
"Yeah?" There was a slight pause. He had to remember me, right? I shuffled my feet, trying to think of how to identify myself to my brother's best friend. It had never occurred to me that he might not know who I was. Damn it, there was a good reason why I never planned ahead. Things never worked according to plan.
"Well, hell. Come on up."
My breath whooshed out. If Daniel really hadn't remembered me, I'd--I don't know what I'd have done or felt, because it hadn't happened, thank God--but it wouldn't have been good.
My legs were shaking as I headed up the stairs to 2C. There he was--one arm curled over the door, one on the door frame--big, wide, with a scowl on his face. He looked even larger than I remembered, which was weird. Didn't you usually discover people and places were smaller in real life than in your memory?
Just my luck that Daniel was even more imposing now than he'd been when I was twelve and first really noticed him. I would have laughed but kept it in since it would have come out as more of a terrified giggle. In a way, this visit was all Daniel's fault for being larger-than-life.
Then I realized something strange had happened. The adrenaline that usually buzzed in my body slowed down at the sight of him. I think I stopped breathing when reality finally met up with my plan.
Here I go. This is it. The moment stretched out, stilled, froze. All I could see was Daniel looming over me. For once in my life everything was settled and calm. Perfect.
Then I took a deep breath, and time hummed back to normal speed.
Go, go, go.
"Can I come in?"
Jesus. So this was Max.
Before the time I'd gotten my hand off the door, he was inside. He was here, all right, but I still hadn't gotten used to the idea.
The kid was...well, not really a kid anymore. He sat on my sagging old sofa, sprawling out his long legs to brace himself. He needed a shave. Wasn't that a kick? Little Max needing to shave.
I could remember back to when he was born. Matt and I had already met at grade school, and Matt had decided we were friends. I stayed over for the first time to keep Matt company while his parents were at the hospital.
That was a long time ago. I tried to see Matt's baby brother with new eyes. After all, this Max wasn't a baby. He was tall, a little awkward and geeky, but growing into his frame. He was still pretty. We'd teased him about that when he was at the age when it was hard to tell boys from girls--they were all high voices and long legs. But he was definitely masculine now.
And he looked hungover. No surprise there. Drinking was what college kids did, right? Kids not in college too, for that matter. His brother and I used to sneak booze when we were younger than he was.
He tapped the arm of the sofa, stopped himself, and then tapped again.
Yeah. He also looked wired. Scared wired. I wondered if he was abusing more than booze, but decided that wasn't it.
Max had something eating at him.
And he'd come to me, of all people. Well, that almost made sense. I knew all about things eating at you.
But what the hell was he doing here?
I tried to focus on how I should act with this new Max until he told me, but couldn't think of a thing. God, I was tired, even though it was afternoon. The day after the first night shift had thrown me off. I guess I was getting old. I had to be if Max was now an adult.
"Orange juice?" I poured him some before he nodded, and then slugged the rest down from the bottle. I'd only had one clean glass left. Tidying up on the weekends wasn't a priority for me. Max stared at me while I swallowed, but when I finished and looked directly at him, he glanced away.
"Th-thanks. I--" He swallowed the juice and frowned at what was left in the glass. Well, fuck that. The glass was clean. Maybe it wasn't up to the Richards family standards of cleanliness, but it was clean. Old defensiveness trickled in under the anger. I used to feel awkward, different--stupid--around them. They hadn't tried to do that to me. I managed that all on my own. The better they were to me, the more I knew they were everything I wasn't.
But when Max finished his sentence, I felt even more stupid than I had as a kid. He muttered, "Damn it, I haven't stuttered in years."
The frown had been over his problem, not mine. I'd almost forgotten about the stammer. Sometimes when Matt teased him, the kid would get so wound up he couldn't talk. Matt always eased up on him then. He'd been a good big brother.
He'd been a good friend. The best.
All right. Enough waiting. While I'd been wondering when Max would talk, I'd already remembered too many things I'd forgotten. He'd reminded me about some of the good stuff in the past, but it was a matter of seconds before we both started thinking about the bad.
"All right, spit it out before you get back into the stuttering habit. Your parents spent a hell of a lot of money getting you to stop."
God, Max had hated going to those lessons.
"Spit what out?" He glanced up at me and then down again.
I almost sighed. Were we going to have to do things the hard way? I set the orange juice bottle down on the counter with a thud. The kid almost jumped out of his skin at the sound. I'd been about that bad when I first got back from Iraq, but I'd been trained to watch out for enemy fire. What was he afraid of? Me?
"What do you need, Max?" I leaned against the counter, trying to look nonthreatening. I'm not sure how good I was at that since I'd spent most of my life trying to look like a badass. By this point I didn't even have to try.
"Uh..." He swallowed more juice and began to cough. I waited. When he got over it, he said, "It's more difficult than I thought to--um--spit it out."
Oh hell. I wasn't good at guessing what people meant at the best of times, and this wasn't me at my best. Why did I have to give up an hour of sleep for this?
He gave me a sudden smile, and my breath caught. He didn't look much like his more coordinated athlete brother. Now that his hair was drying, he was closer to blond than his brother's darker shade. He was too skinny, and his face was too serious. But the smile...the smile was the same. I'd always known the world was going to be fine when I saw it come out.
I held on to my patience for the sake of that smile. "You know I owe your family big-time. Anything I can do for your parents or you, you've got. What do you need, Max?"
He stared at the floor, smile gone. He looked miserable. Goddamn moody kid. It made me want to smack him. Made me want to give him a hug and tell him everything was fine.
He straightened his shoulders and looked me in the eyes at last. "I hope you mean that. You see, I need you to help me tell my mom and dad I'm gay."
I watched him swallow and brace himself. He kept staring at me. For a moment he looked like he had when he was a kid in trouble and expected me to help him out.
I only wished I could.
His almost hopeful look drained away when I didn't say anything. I didn't like the sudden wariness in his body. That wasn't Max.
I knew I had to fix things.
Daniel just stared at me, his dark eyes intent, his face completely blank. My stomach, still queasy, knotted up, just like it had last night after the drinking marathon. I'd done a lot of drinking before I was willing to admit I had to be honest. I did a little more before I knew I needed help to be honest. It wasn't until I was fairly sober that I realized it was Daniel whom I needed for all this. If Daniel wouldn't help me, then no one would.
But Daniel wasn't saying anything.
It was scary being on your own. I'd hoped--Maybe I'd made the wrong assumptions all these years. Heard things wrong. Shit. I really was on my own.
"Sorry. I'll leave." I stood up so fast my head spun for a minute. I staggered back.
"Steady." He gripped my shoulder, a firm hold, but there wasn't anything personal about it. He probably didn't want me to break the rest of the sofa by falling on it. "Maybe you need to sit down again, and we should talk some more."
He sounded calm. So I should be too.
"Uh. Sure." I sat. My palms were sweating. Apparently should be calm wasn't working for me.
"I'm not going to insult you by asking if you're sure. You look pretty sure to me." Daniel kept his hands on my shoulders, and I could almost feel the tension going out of my body with his touch. "Let's talk about whatever your problem is about this. Your family? Your parents are great people. But I'm figuring this would be a surprise to them."
"Thanks." Thanks for taking me seriously. "Yeah. I've never--I don't think--I didn't even want to believe it myself for a long time. They don't know at all. And I don't want to hurt them more than they've been hurt."
He took his hands off my shoulders. "So telling them you're gay would hurt them more than Matt dying in a car wreck?"
"No!" Jesus God. "But they're fragile. They've patched their lives up pretty well, but the cracks still show, you know? I don't want to add any more pain."
"All right. That's fair. What do you think I can do that you can't?"
This was going to work out after all. Daniel was handling it just the way I'd figured he would.
"I don't know. But they took it pretty well when you told them you were, and you're the closest thing to Matt they have left."
As the words floated into space, I took a look at his face. It wasn't a blank any more. Too late, I realized maybe that was the wrong thing to say.
"They took it pretty well when you told them you were."
When the kid finally opened his mouth, he told things just the way he saw them. I had to admire that.
Well, I'd admire that after I got over the shock.
"They told you I was gay?"
Max looked young and vulnerable again. "Not...not exactly. I overheard th-them say..." He stopped, and I didn't know if he was struggling because of his refound stammer or to find the right words.
But whatever they'd said, it was all right. I knew them. It had to be Max taking what I said the wrong way. Speaking wasn't my strong point. I relaxed and tried the nonthreatening look again. "Okay. I didn't think they'd have mentioned it to anyone. But if they did, that would still be all right. I'm not hiding anything."
Not since I said good-bye to the army two years ago. I'd pretty much been done with keeping that secret by then. If I had any family left at that point, it was Matt's mother and father. So while I hadn't made an official announcement, I'd let them know some of the places I hung out in my spare time. They hadn't ever said anything directly back to me either, but they'd...accepted it. That was all Matt's parents and I needed.
Of course Max would want to do more. He always liked to create a storm.
But he surprised me by avoiding the drama for now. Instead Max took a deep breath and said, slowly and carefully, "I once overheard them saying it was a pity you'd never get married or have kids. That you were lonely. That's when it finally clicked for me."
My face heated. Great. The Richards family felt sorry for me. I didn't need to know that. I'd spent years getting over my accent, my poverty, and learning to be comfortable around them. I couldn't start over again. And I sure as hell couldn't stop being gay to prove I was as good as they were.
Hell. Now that I'd gotten Max going, how did I stop him?
"So the problem is that you think they'll figure you'll be lonely if you're gay?" I was pretty sure the issue wasn't that simple.
"I dunno." Max cracked his knuckles. "It doesn't make any difference if I tell everyone or not, I suppose. I'm lonely already."
Christ. Matt, what the hell am I supposed to do with your baby brother? He's not like you. I can't joke things away. I can't throw him off with questions. He's not going to let me off easy.
"So maybe you'd be less lonely if people knew." I sat down next to him, keeping a careful distance.
"We can talk about my problems when I come to you for help. At least I'm not lying to myself or anyone else. That works for me."
"All right, then." Max nodded and let it go, thank God. "So I tell them. Just...say it?"
He moved his legs, and I watched one frayed inseam strain and threaten to unravel at his right inner thigh. Nice. Fucking nice. The quick zing that shot to my balls wasn't unfamiliar, but with this guy, it was as unsettling as it was unexpected.
I needed to get him out, because it appeared I'd reached my limit on meaningful conversation for the week. My brain wasn't interested, and my little head was taking over. Except I wasn't sure Max had finished, so my brain needed to keep going a while longer.
I was the closest thing he had to a big brother, and that was a damn shame for both of us.
"You seem good enough at talking, kid. Should work." Damn, I could use a drink. But that wasn't in the cards right now. I tried to settle down. Max needed someone who could take whatever he needed to throw and take it calmly. And I was the only other someone in the room.
Shit. Just the two of us. I looked at the stubble on his face, wondering how it would feel--
"It's not what my parents wanted. I know that."
Parents. George and Jeanie. Better to me than my biological ones. His parents. Right. What the fuck was wrong with me, thinking about Max that way?
"Listen. You're the only kid they have left. They're not going to lose you too. Not for this."
"It won't ever be the same between us."
It hadn't been the same ever since the cops announced Matt was dead on arrival at the hospital. It never would be. But I could understand Max not wanting to threaten what was left.
He shifted, and that damn inseam threatened to break open again. I huffed out a breath.
It was weird. Part of my brain was still acting like Max was...well, Max. The other half was telling me Max was fucking delicious to look at and would be even better to touch.
"You planning to be an adult someday?" My words came out more harshly than I wanted them to.
He looked up at me, lips thinned, and nodded. Once. I'd forgotten the kid could keep his mouth shut but stew for weeks if he was mad enough. Of course he had to be really mad before that happened. If I'd gotten him going that much, it was too bad, but I needed him out of here soon. I wasn't up--if that was the right word--to arguing much more.
"Then things will change between you and your parents, one way or another. Do it on your terms." I braced myself to stand. Talk over.