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About layla

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    Little attic studio in the midwest
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  1. layla

    Chapter 16

    A thunderous crash jarred Ryker from his sleep and left him instantly alert and grasping around for his weapon, growing more frantic with every minute that passed when he couldn’t find it. The cadence grew, the steady thud, thud, thud like a chopper in the darkness, and he dove for the floor, still groping around in the dark for his gun. Incoming. Incoming. Get down! He waited for the sound of explosions that never came, low crawling towards cover and hopefully, his weapon. His hand itched to hold it, fear pulsed through him at the frantic beat steadily growing louder, closer. “Ryker?” “Get down,” Ryker barked, dragging Jesse to the ground with him and covering him with his body. Dimly, he was aware of Jesse voice, even as the thuds grew more insistent, and he held him tighter, determined to keep him safe. “….it’s okay, it’s just a tree. Ryker, it’s just a tree…” A tree? What was Jesse talking about? Was it some new code for something he hadn’t been briefed on yet. “…Ryker, it’s a tree branch….Ryker, hey….it’s a branch banging against the roof.” Jesse’s words faded in and out until finally Ryker could grasp what he was trying to tell him. Not a chopper, no incoming enemy fire, just a tree branch beating against the side of the house. The wind must have picked up. Shakily, he willed himself to focus, and saw Jesse’s worried face staring up at him. “Are you good now?” Ryker nodded, slowly, and lifted his head in the direction of the banging. “It’s just a tree.” “Yeah, it woke me too.” It dawned on him then that they were both on the floor, his lower body pressed to Jesse’s keeping the smaller man pinned to the floor. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t hurt you, did 1?” he replied, trying to scurry back only to be pulled into a warm hug. “It’s okay. I’m fine, it’s you I’m worried about. Are you good now?” “I think so,” Ryker replied, and let out a shaky sigh as Jesse held him close and stroked his hair. The branch kept banging, making it next to impossible for Ryker to settle down completely. He flinched and Jesse murmured to him, a soothing, half song that helped ground him a little more. “If you let me up, I’ll go outside and cut it down,” Jesse offered. The gesture alone touched Ryker and chased the last of his fears away. He was supposed to be protecting Jesse, not the other way around. He told himself to pull it together, man up and deal with the noise himself. “I’ll go,” Ryker said. “It’s about the only way I’m going to get anymore sleep.” “We’ll both go.” “No, I’ve got this,” Ryker replied. “It doesn’t take two people to cut down a branch and I’m not sure you’d be tall enough to reach it. How about you put on some water on for Cocoa and we can have a cup when I get back?” “Yeah, okay.” Jesse’s expression had gone from open and worried to shuttered and a bit stormy, and Ryker was at a loss trying to figure out what he could have done to cause such a drastic change. “Sorry if I woke you.” “You didn’t. The branch woke me. I was on my way to turn on the light when you yanked me to the floor.” “I’m sorry about that too.” “Stop apologizing, you didn’t do anything you need to apologize for.” “Then why am I getting the sense that you’re pissed off about something?” The thud of the branch was punctuated by the sound of a rattling window as smaller bits banged against it. “What do I look like to you?” “Huh? Jesse, I’m not sure we have time for whatever this is. If that branch breaks the window pane, all that cold out there is going to come rushing in here and even cocoa won’t warm us up.” “Then I guess you’d better get your stuff on and go,” Jesse remarked as he turned away and headed to the kitchen. What the fuck? Ryker thought to himself as he hurried to pull on winter gear and boots. The whole time he was replying the conversation in his mind, until it dawned on him exactly what he’d done. He definitely owed Jesse an apology when he came back in. Ryker wrapped a scarf around the lower half of his face and headed outside, the whipping wind sending swirls of old snow everywhere. At least the new snowfall hadn’t amounted to more than half an inch. It was a slow trek to the utility shed, the bulky gloves making it difficult to get the door open. He was grateful for the high powered LED lights in his lantern though, they made finding the chainsaw and getting it gassed up easier. He was grateful for the chainsaw too. It was way too cold to be standing out there with an old hand saw trying to saw through a limb. He made a mental note to thank Kyle for stocking the place so well, then he headed back out into the mini tornados of snow, the tiny ice particles stinging his eyes. They were teared up and blurry by the time he made his way through the snow drifts around the side of the house to where the branch was steadily keeping it’s beat against the side of the house. He looked for a good spot to set the lantern, something stationary, unlike the swaying branches. His eyes landed on the windowsill, and instead of encountering an unmarred ledge of snow, he spotted indentations that looked an awful lot like human hands. Looking down, he spotted a matching set of footprints, fresh, and turned, intent on hurrying back inside to warn Jesse that they weren’t alone when there was a sharp crack, and the whole damn world faded to black. [***] Jesse was fuming. How fucking dare Ryker treat him like he was some pathetic damsel in distress that needed the big strong hero to do everything for them. Big fuckin’ macho man had to go out there in the storm with a bad knee, so soon after an incident where his memories had dragged him back to a very dark place. Jesse checked the clock. He’d give Ryker ten minutes and then he was going out there after him. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to reach the branch, but he could hold the lantern and pass Ryker anything he might need. He knew the man understood teamwork, but it looked like it was going to be up to Jesse to prove that he belonged on Ryker’s team. Okay, so the whole protective bit was absolutely amazing and made him feel safe when he was scared, but even someone as fucked up as him knew that a real friendship was supposed to be balanced. He wanted that with Ryker, despite not having known him long. Maybe if he’d done a better job of that with Kyle and his band, things wouldn’t be so fractured. He couldn’t blame them one bit for getting sick of his fuckups when he was contributing next to nothing to them. That’s why it was so important he finish the songs. It was the only way he had to make it up to them. At least the time spent with Ryker was chasing some of the darkness from the lyrics, though with each new reveal, it seemed like they were peeling back the layers of each other’s pain. All those memories and emotions were spilling over into the music too. He’d have to make sure Kyle put a special thanks or dedication to Ryker on the album once it released. He busied himself spooning cocoa mix in the bottoms of mugs, the little packet of mini marshmallows laid out on the counter beside them and checked the time again. Two more minutes and he was heading out there, and he’d be damned if he was going to let Ryker turn him back around and send him in. He heard the door slam open and stepped into the doorway, container of cocoa mix in hand, intent on telling Ryker to come to the kitchen once he’d taken his winter gear off, but the man who stood there was the wrong size, wearing completely different colored gear. “You’ve been a real pain in the ass to track down.” That voice sent a shiver of terror down Jesse’s spine. Troy’s eyes blazed with fury as he stalked towards Jesse, who flung the cocoa powder in Troy’s face and bolted down the hall, seeking the safety of his room. “Get back here you little whore!” Troy’s bellow echoed after him, and he could hear the thud of his boots on the hardwood floor but he didn’t dare glance back, slamming the door as soon as he reached the room and locking it for good measure, not that it would keep him out. The first crash of Troy against the door sent splinters of food flying from the frame. Jesse grabbed the edge of the dresser and yanked it down with all his strength, sending it crashing to the floor in front of the doorway. “Stop making it so god damned hard on yourself, Jesse, and get your ass out here!” He punctuated his words by crashing into the door, rattling the dresser and shoving it several inches along the floor. Jesse shoved it back and grabbed the edge of the desk, struggling to move it. He tried shoving, but it barely budged, the carpet beneath the heavy wood offering too much resistance. Desperate, he sat on the floor and shoved against it with his legs, managing to move it a fraction while Troy continued to threaten and rage. Mood wood shard burst from the door jam, rocking the dresser and he cursed himself for never getting around to putting his clothes back into the drawers. At least it might have offered a little more resistance. “Did you really think I wouldn’t find you!” Troy yelled. “You’re mine, you filthy whore. Don’t think I didn’t see you with that bastard you’ve been shacking up with. Gonna have to scrub you clean before I let you back in my bed.” Using all the leg strength he could manage, Jesse manage to shove the desk off the carpet and onto the wood. It slid much easier there, and once he got it pressed up against the dresser, Troy stopped being able to move it every time he rammed into the door. Shaking, Jesse hugged himself, the rattling of the door and Troy’s hollering made it difficult to think. He glanced towards the window and knew he wouldn’t stand a chance of moving things out of the way of the door if Troy decided to come around that way. But if he could beat him to it, climb out, maybe he could find Ryker somewhere in all the snow. Without a lantern. Shit. Glancing around the room, he looked for anything that might work, eyes landing on the bottle of rubbing alcohol he’d never managed to return to the first aid kit. Scrambling around, Jesse grabbed a t-shirt and fumbled in the drawer for a lighter, cursing when he remember that it was still out in the living room with his cigarettes. Fuck. Fumbling, he searched through the backpack on the bed, hoping to find a backup. “I swear to god, Jesse, when I get my hands on you, you’re going to wish you were never born.” Troy threatened. “You’d better get down on your knees and beg me not to hurt you! Maybe, just maybe I’ll take pity on you if you open the god damned door!” Another crash, Jesse dumped everything out of the bag, but there wasn’t another lighter and he was afraid time was running out. The commotion outside the door had grown to a frenzied pace, as Jesse shoved the window open and fiddled with he screen. The levers wouldn’t move on one side and rattling it didn’t loosen a thing. He remembered the knife that had fallen from his backpack when he’d been digging and quickly retrieved it, making short work of cutting out the screen and boosting himself up. “Jesse!” Jesse froze half in and half out of the window, the cold winds making the hair on his bare arms stand on end. “Jesse it’s Ryker, open the door.” Jesse’s heart was pounding and his throat felt tight, making it difficult to find words. For a moment, he struggled to process what he’d just heard, then Ryker called out to him again. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here. He’s out cold for right now, but I don’t know how long that’s going to last and I’m a bit shaky, so we’ve got to go,” Ryker said. “Jesse can you hear me?” “Y-yeah.” “Can you open the door?” “I’ll try, I shoved a bunch of stuff in front of it.” “Understood, but you’ve got to hurry. I’m going to grab an extension cord from the living room and tie him up.” “O-okay.” Shaking as much from cold as nerves, Jesse moved the desk and dresser enough to make space for him to slip through. Troy lay in a heap on the other side of the door, Ryker with one knee in the center of his back, keeping him tightly pinned as he hog tied him. A line of blood ran down the side of Ryker’s face. Jesse couldn’t see where it had come from, but it pissed him off to know that Ryker had gotten hurt because of him. His chest felt tight and tears spilled down his cheeks, he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking and his vision was starting to dim. Growling, he kicked Troy as hard as he could. It was like a damn burst, feeling his foot connect with Troy’s side. Cursing and crying, Jesse kicked him again and again and again until Ryker dragged him back, hugged him close, promised they were safe. “Not until he’s dead,” Jesse roared, trying to break free so he could kick him again, but Ryker held firm. “Then he wins,” Ryker said gently. “You don’t want his blood on your hands. Let’s go. We’ll stop at the nearest police station and make a report, let them come up and deal with him.” “Y-yeah, yeah okay,” Jesse stammered, head throbbing so hard he was afraid he was going to throw up. “Come on.” He let Ryker led him back up the hall and stuff him in a jacket, but when the pair reached the trucks, they found the tires slashes, and red spray paint on the side of Jesse’s truck reading whore. “Shit. Okay. Stay right here.” Ryker said. “What? Why?” “I’m going to go in and get his keys, he had to have gotten up here somehow. I’ll be right back.” “No, this time I’m coming with you,” Jesse told him in a tone that clearly left no room for arguments, as all Ryker did was nod before leading him back in. Troy was still where they’d left him, unconscious and still, but Jesse didn’t take his eyes off him for a moment while Ryker rifled for his keys. “Okay, got ‘em.” Ryker held them up for a moment so Jesse could see, then took his hand, and together they headed back out into the icy wind. Clicking the button on the key fob gave the location of the car away. At the bend in the drive where it would have been impossible to see from the porch. Ryker kept hitting those flashing lights until they reached it, the lantern he’d left out of the cabin with lost somewhere along the way. “I’ll drive,” Jesse remarked, holding his hand out for the key when they reached the car. “I can…” “You’ve got a head wound, I’m driving,” Jesse declared. “It won’t do either of us any good to have gotten away from him just to drive the car over the edge of the cliff.” With a sharp nod, Ryker passed over the keys. “Good point, Jesse had thought the first trip down the mountain was harrowing, but it had nothing on this one. The whole time he was driving he kept expecting to see Troy jump out from behind a tree or a pair of headlights in the rearview, chasing them down. Realistically he knew neither of those things were possible, but his imagination was running on overdrive and the only thing that kept him behind the wheel was the fact that Ryker was sitting in the passengers seat with a wadded up t-shirt pressed to the side of his head. “Has the bleeding stopped yet?” Jesse asked, white knuckle grip on the wheel as he guided the truck through the S curve. This time, jhe didn’t slide and he prayed to whatever gods might be watching that he could keep it on the road this time. When he reached the previously plowed section of road, he was glad to see that it was clearer here, and he whispered a thanks to his good semeritan because it seemed like the man was once again watching over him. “I think so,” Ryker replied. “I’ve got a hell of a lump though.” “What happened?” “Pretty sure that bastard hit me with something,” Ryker remarked. “Last thing I remember was spotting finger prints on the windowsill and footprints in the snow. That fucker was out there watching us. I turned to come get you and the next thing I knew everything went black. When I came to in the snow, I could hear the crashing inside the cabin and him hollering at you. I knew as long as he was yelling that you were somewhere safe.” “When he came in I thought he was you, if he’d cornered me in the kitchen, I don’t know what I’d have done. When I saw him in the doorway I threw cocoa powder in his eyes and bolted for my room.” “So that’s what that was.” “Yeah. Shit!” “What?” “I left the stove on.” When Ryker started laughing, Jesse spared him half a glance before turning his focus back on the road, trying to figure out what was so funny. “The cabin can be replaced,” Ryker replied. “You can’t be, and if he ends up as a crispy critter in the process, so be it.” Now it was Jesse’s turn to chuckle. “I never considered it that way.” “Yeah well, it would serve him right. Let me see if I can bring up the maps ap on my phone and figure out where the nearest police station is. You’ll probably need to call your lawyers once we get there, so they can fax up the paperwork. It’s too bad the restraining order isn’t in place yet or they could really nail him.” “I still haven’t stopped shaking,” Jesse admitted. “It’s the adriniline, are you sure you don’t want to let me take over?” “No, I’m good, this gives me something to focus on. I think if I had to sit over there and do nothing, I’d completely loose it.” “Okay, but let me know if it’s too much.” “I’m not a fucking china doll,” Jesse growled beneath his breath. “I know,” Ryker remarked, lightly touching Jesse’s arm. “And I’m sorry if I made you feel like that back at the cabin. I was embarrassed about the way I reacted to the noise and instead of letting you help me deal with it, I insisted on playing superhero. Maybe if you’d been out there with me, I wouldn’t have gotten clocked with the branch.” “Or we both could have gotten clocked. I understand why you did it, I’d have wanted to face my own demons too, but if we’re gonna be friends, then it needs to be equal. If you won’t let me help you, then I can’t let you help me, I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else the way I’ve been to my band.” “Jesse….” “Look don’t blow smoke up my ass, okay, that’s not what I need,” Jesse interrupted. “I made a mess of things, I need to own it and make it right. In the meantime, I refuse to hide my head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen. Now where is that cop shop?” Ryker was quiet for a moment, while Jesse navigated the last turn to bring them back to the main road. “We’re in luck, it’s only six miles away. Take a left here and follow the road down.” “Okay,” As he drove, Jesse focused on controlling his breathing. He was cold, even with the heater on he was positively freezing. “I don’t want to go back to the cabin. I don’t care if the cops lock him up in Siberia it’ll still be too close.” “Then we won’t. Where would you like to go?” “Home.” “Seattle?” “Hell no. That’s never really been home. I mean home home, Vermont. It’s beautiful this time of year. I kept meaning to go back. Now seems as good a time as any. I was trying to figure out where I was going to move to anyway.” “It’s been years since I’ve been back there,” Ryker remarked. “It would be pretty sweet to spend Christmas with Uncle Desmond and Aunt Irene.” “And don’t forget the hordes of cousins and other relatives. Never could figure out how they could manage to host so many people, but there was always enough food to feed an army and they always made me feel like I was welcome there, even if I wasn’t family.” “You’re Kyle’s best friend, pretty sure that qualifies you as family.” “Maybe it did, once, but too much has changed.” “Are you saying you don’t want to go see them?” “I’m saying I doubt they’ll want to see me. It’s okay though, I never sold the house my folks left me. It’s only a few blocks from Kyle’s folks so if you ever want to hang out, you’re more than welcome.” “And what if I want to stay?” “Huh?” “Turn right at the next drive.” Jesse did as he was told, driving on auto pilot those last few yards to bring the car to a stop right in front of the police station. Jesse killed the engine, then rested his head on the steering wheel and sucked in several ragged breaths. The feel of Ryker’s hand on the back of his neck, gently massaging, helped him steady his breathing, and when he lifted his head, Ryker’s face was right there, inches from his own. Their eyes met and Ryker reached out to brush a strand of hair back from his face. “I asked you what if I wanted to stay with you, at your place?” Ryker remarked. “I don’t think you should be alone, and as much as I love my aunt and uncle, I don’t think I could handle the fuss Aunt Irene would make over my scars, or my nightmares.” Choking back a sob, Jesse threw his arms around Ryker and hugged him tight, all of the emotion of the night bubbling to the surface, until the dam broke and he cried his eyes out into Ryker’s coat. “You can stay,” Jesse muttered, drawing back a bit so his words weren’t so muffled by the coat. “Maybe we can even cross the maple bacon donuts off our to try list.” “Sounds like a good plan to me,” Ryker replied, as he pressed his forehead against Jesse’s “But don’t even think about asking me to try that butternut squash, ricotta, and cranberry pizza you were telling me about.” “Bet.” Ryker pressed a gentle kiss to Jesse’s forehead before letting him go. “Come on, time to go make that police report.”
  2. layla

    Chapter 15

    Jesse lay the phone down on the coffee and ran a hand through his hair. There were eleven steps between it and the window, and as he paced back across the room to stand in front of it, he found that he could breathe a little easier after spending the better part of the last hour giving his lawyer the details of his relationship with Troy, the instances of abuse, where they took place, and any marks or bruises Troy had left him with, threats he’d made, and times when he’d either refused to allow Jesse to return to his hotel or arena, or had restrained him somewhere against his will. He’d also shared with them all the information Ryker had dug up on Troy, and Ryker had forwarded them all of the email messages Troy had sent to Jesse so they’d have a record of them too. Now there was just the waiting game as they filed police reports and petitioned for an order of protection. His lawyer had also obtained Jesse’s authorization to contact the security company that monitored the cameras outside Jesse’s home to see if there was any footage of troy the day he’d slipped into the house. He’d signed off on the publicists statement which had been blasted all over the internet, but of course, one site had run their own story with a big headline reading Jesse Winters: On the road to ruin. He’d only managed to read three lines before closing the page. Maybe one day he’d title a song road to ruin and be able to capture everything he’d felt when his life was falling apart, but there were too many dark places to get lost in right now. Best to avoid them until he could handle them without getting yanked down a rabbit hole straight into a spin cycle from hell. “It’s snowing again,” Ryker remarked as he stepped up beside him to stare out the window. “It just started.” “There was nothing about snow in the weather report.” “Guess it’s like being back home again, huh,” Jesse remarked. Ryker snorted at that and let out a chuckle. “Yup, if you don’t like the weather, wait twenty minutes. I hope we’re not in for another bad one.” “Me too. I brought some more logs in for the fire while you were in the shower, we should be set until at least tomorrow. How’s your knee?” “Was nice to get some heat on it. It’s not as swollen as it was yesterday. It might be a good idea to wrap it back up again though. Would you like me to do it?” “Yes, please.” “Come on, then, you probably shouldn’t be standing on it anyway/” “True, but it was easier to see what you were looking at this way.” Jesse chuckled. “Just the snow. You were a little too late to late to see the deer.” “Really? How many of them?” “I counted seven, but there might have been eight, they went bounding across the yard and disappeared down the rise that leads to the lake.” Ryker let out a low whistle. “Now I wish I had tags.” “What, to track their grazing patterns?” Ryker shot him a confused glance and shook his head. “No, to hunt them. Kyle’s got a couple very nice bows in the back room.” “Oh.” “I take it you’re not a fan of venison?” “It’s okay, but, I don’t think I could shoot one, they’re beautiful, I’d rather watch them run. Pathetic huh?” “Hey, no, not pathetic at all,” Ryker replied, and touched Jesse’s arm when he refused to look Ryker’s way. That would have bothered him a week ago, before Ryker had proved to be someone safe. When Jesse finally glanced at him, he saw Ryker watching him with a small smile. “They are beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to hunt them. My old man and I used to harvest one a year to fill the freezer, otherwise, we left them be. He used to snare rabbits, but I never could go out with him when he was setting his snares, or checking them, I wanted to catch the bunnies for pets, I didn’t want to eat them. I used to make such a fuss about it that mom stopped announcing what was in the food when she served it.” “I wouldn’t want to eat Bugs either.” “Oh I don’t know about that, he always did seem a bit smug to me. I always felt like Daffy got the short end of the stick.” Laughing, headed to grab an ace bandage while Ryker took a seat on the couch. “You want to take about getting the short end of the stick, then what about Wile E?, he was starving and they wouldn’t let him catch a single Road Runner. They could have made a couple extras so he’d have at least one to eat.” “Nope, that would have been like letting Tom eat Jerry, or allowing Silvester to eat Tweety-bird.” “Okay, you make a valid point, but still,” Jesse remarked as he got to work wrapping Jesse’s knee. “Wile E. Coyote was the definition of perseverance. Would have like to see it pay off just once.” “Now, see, I look at him completely different. I see the picture of insanity. Why not adapt and seek out prey that would be easier to catch.” “’Cause it’s the dessert. The only other choices he has is probably scorpions, snakes, armadillos, and spiders. Ick, ick, and triple ick if you ask me. I’d have kept chasing that big plump bird too.” “And thus how a hunter is born,” Ryker remarked “Okay, okay, point taken, though there is always veganism. Wile E could have pigged out on some cacti.” “And gotten high as hell to boot, depending on which cacti he ate.” “There is that. All right, I think you’re all set.” “You’re getting really good at that.” Jesse could feel his face heating up a little at the praise. “Thanks, but I hope you don’t need it for much longer.” “Me too. I guess I haven’t figured out where my new limitations are.” “You will. I’m guessing it just takes times to get used to changing the way you do something when you’ve always been used to relying on your body without having to think about how it will perform.” “Exactly.” Ryker remarked, huffing a little as he tried to get comfortable. “The whole time I was dealing with physical therapy, I kept thinking about all of the things I was going to do once I got out of there, but now that I’m up here, the cold is way more brutal than I remember, and sucking in air makes my chest hurt like crazy. I’ve got a lung that will never work at full capacity again, and a hip that is almost a constant ache. Add in the knee, and well, I feel like I need to be put out to pasture.” “I think that’s a bit extreme.” “Ech.” Jesse got comfortable on the couch beside Ryker, and stared at him intently. “Hey, weren’t you the one telling me not to be so down on myself?” “It’s different.” A flash of annoyance shot through Jesse but he couldn’t figure out if it was at Ryker or himself. “Yeah, how?” “You got away from what was causing your problems,” Ryker said, all of the amusement from their earlier conversation had bled out of his features, leaving him looking tired and grim. “In time, it’ll be nothing more than a dim memory, a life lesion you can look back on as a reminder that you faced something terrifying and survived.” “Bullshit!” Jumping up from the couch, Jesse ran his fingers through his hair as he paced and grumbled. “Jesse what…” Ryker began, but Jesse had heard quite enough. “You faced something terrifying. You nearly died. What I dealt with was frustrating, scary, but it wasn’t anywhere close to being on the same level, so lets keep some perspective, okay. So you’re a little slower than you were before, You’re intelligent, and patient, and kind, and clearly am amazing planner and researcher if all the information you dug up on Troy was any indication. I’m betting there are a million things out there that you can do, when you’re ready to get back into the thick of things, but um, not if you keep telling yourself what you can’t do.” For a moment, Jesse feared he’d gone too far. He hadn’t meant to get loud, but it had been impossible to sit there and listen to Ryker act like he was going to be useless or something. “Guess I had that coming, huh,” Ryker remarked. He actually looked sheepish, which was way better then being pissed off at him for speaking his mind, Jesse thought as he nodded in agreement. “Thanks,” Ryker remarked, and held a hand out to Jesse, who eyed it for a moment, before settling his hand in Ryker’s and allowing himself to be tugged back to the couch. “I needed to hear that. I’ve been in my head all morning and it hasn’t exactly been the best place to be.” Jesse gave Ryker’s hand a squeeze and scooted even closer. “Why didn’t you say anything? I thought we agreed we’d talk to each other when we were in a bad headspace.” “I know. Woke up feeling kind of meh, and I guess I didn’t catch on completely until I was in the shower.” Another sheepish look, it was one of the most endearing things Jesse had ever seen. “Anything I can do to help?” “You already are,” Ryker insisted. “Talking to you helps. Having you sit out here beside me and watch movies or play games helps a lot.” “Would a hug help?” Jesse asked softly. “Hell yeah.” Jesse hugged him, gentle and loose at first, until Ryker tightened it, and the warmth of him made Jesse hug tighter as well. [***] Having Jesse in his arms was rapidly becoming the best feeling in the world, and the moment Jesse hugged him back as fierce as Ryker was hugging him, all the negative thoughts melted away. Ryker was doubly grateful when Jesse didn’t pull away after the hug had ended, and instead, stayed cuddled up beside him. “Are you up for another round of movies?” Ryker asked, not wanting the moment to end. “We can call it a self-care day.” “Why bother labeling it at all, who do we have to answer to?” “Point taken.” “And to answer your question, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing,” Jesse replied. “So what do you want to watch.” “Cartoons, if you’ve got any.” Jesse grinned and was up off the seat so fast it nearly made Ryker’s head spin. “I’ll be right back.” Ryker watched as he disappeared down the hall and wondered how in the world he’d gotten so lucky as to wind up tucked away in a cabin, snowbound with Jesse Winters. Of all the scenarios that had run through his head nothing compared to this one. Not even close. In fact, most of them had featured him wondering around in the snow trying to find ways to occupy his time in between sleeping and staring at the walls. Not very well thought out, in hindsight. Jesse came back smiling in a way that made his eyes shine, waving three DVDs like a little kid at Christmas. “So I grabbed The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Movie, Aladdin, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Have you been holding out on me?” Jesse laughed and loaded a movie into the DVD player before rejoining Ryker on the couch. “Maybe.” “Oh is that how it’s gonna be?” Jesse squirmed which just put him closer to Ryker, who didn’t mind in the slightest, in fact, he stretched his arm across the back of the couch and was pleased when Jesse leaned back against it and got comfortable, his face flushed a slight pink. “Kinda figured you’d think a grown man watching cartoons was stupid.” “Well you can either put that thought right out of your head, or we can sit here being stupid together, I love cartoons.” “Seriously? What’s your favorite?” As the introduction to the Bugs Bunny movie started up on screen, Ryker pondered that question. “Not sure if I can pick just one,” he said at last. “But Scoobie Doo, X-Men and Batman are my top three.” “I never really watched any of those,” Jesse admitted. “But then, I never watched cartoons at all as a kid unless I was over at Kyle’s house. My parents weren’t fans of the television, so unless it was an educational show on PBS, I didn’t get any TV time.” “Whoa, talk about a deprived childhood,” Ryker blurted. “I didn’t mean any disrespect to your parents, it’s just…part of being a kid is cereal and Saturday Morning Cartoons. Please at least tell me they allowed you cereal.” “Yeah, but not the fun kinds with the shapes and colors. Usually I had three choices: Rice Crispies, Kix, or Honey Nut Cherieos.” “Oh damn.” “But whenever I was at Kyle’s I could try whatever he was having.” “Which is why there is an entire shelf in the kitchen filled with Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch.” “Exactly.” “The only thing I’ve been wondering was why so much cereal when you knew you’d run out of milk long before you could finish it all?” “Figured there was always apple juice or hot cocoa, or I could just eat it straight out of the box.” “You’re amazing, you know that?” Ryker remarked, giving Jesse’s shoulder a slight squeeze. “Umm, for what.” “For a lot of things, but in this instance, for not letting me be the only person in the world who puts hot cocoa on their cereal.” “It tastes good that way.” “Yeah it does.” Jesse turned towards him, grinning ear to ear. “Hey you know what?” “No, what?” Laughing, Jesse shook his head. “Funny. Ha ha. What I was going to suggest was that it was as good enough a plan for dinner as any other.” “I can work with that.” “Then it’s settled. At least that saves you from another night of my attempting to cook.” “Hey, they the chilli last night wasn’t half bad,” Ryker pointed out. “No, but the other half sure was.” Ryker’s jaw dropped, then he joined Jesse in laughing so hard they both almost fell off the couch. “How about you let me tackle the beans next time,” Ryker remarked. “You have to actually soak them first.” “Oh, I thought they were like the ones that came out of the can.” “They are, but the ones in the can are cooked first, then canned, those beans were raw, so you gotta soak ‘em overnight, then cook ‘em, then add ‘em to the chilli. Corn bread was amazing though, where did you get that recipe?” “Would you believe a fan in Tennessee?” “You have fans that send you recipes? That’s kind of neat.” Jesse cut him a funny look, leaving Ryker wondering what he’d said to warrant it. “I’ve had fans send a lot of stuff, through email, and through the mail,” Jesse remarked. “Everything from nude photos to them dressed up like me, to artwork and videos of them singing my songs, but never any recipes.” “Then how’d you get it.” “She wrote it down for me when we were having lunch together at a picnic table in Prairie Du Chien Wisconsin,” Jesse explained. “It was right after we’d released Electric Fireflies. We were playing this series of outdoor venues as part of a large tour. Three nights, twelve bands, we were headlining the second night, but I loved being able to walk around in the morning before the place really came alive. That’s how I met Alexia Blue. She was sitting at a picnic table writing a story in a battered notebook and nibbling from this container of food she had next to her. I’d seen her the night before, actually, sitting in the far back of the field, watching the action on the big screen while she was jotting stuff down. I remembered thinking she was going to strain her eyes that way, trying to stay on the lines in such low lights. Anyway, I was hungry and there was a guy who came by and asked if we wanted to sample the catfish. I took a piece, she didn’t. That should have clued me in. It was greasy and tasted like fish and old water.” Ryker couldn’t help it, he snickered at the way Jesse scrunched up his nose, making the light smattering of freckles there stand out more. “Let me guess, it was fresh caught?” “Pretty much. The guy said it was caught earlier that morning. Plus, Alexia pointed out that the reason she hadn’t taken a piece was because they hadn’t removed the skin before they fried it. Apparently taking the skin off cuts down on the fishy taste as does soaking it in buttermilk. She asked if I was interested in a real taste of the south, and when I said I was, she let me try a piece of the corn bread she had in her carton. Holy shit was it good. I’d had corn bread before, but most times it was dry and sort of coarse and crumbly. Hers was like biting into a piece of cake, moist, buttery, slightly sweet and so, so good. I praised it so much, she gave me the recipe.” “And it’s a good thing too, it was fabulous. I could have sat there and made a pig out of my self and ate the whole pan.” “Might have been easier on our teeth and taste buds than trying to eat those beans.” Laughing, Ryker couldn’t deny the truth in that. “It’s actually supposed to be for cooking it in the cast iron skillet over an open fire, but I figured it would work good enough in that gas stove,” Jesse added in. “Since I didn’t see a way to cook it in the fire place.” “You need a grate for that, and I haven’t seen one.” “Me either.” One thing Ryker was curious about though, and depending on Jesse’s answer, they’d have to remedy it one day, if Jesse was up for it. “So, did you ever get to try Catfish done the right way?” “Nope. I still want to though.” “Well maybe one day I can take you to Da Crab Shaque. It’s about a mile off base down at Fort Benning and talk about some amazing food, and not just the catfish either, I’m talking scallops, shrimp, crab, oysters, clams, okra, fried green tomatoes, alligator, hush puppies.” “Hold on, you lost me at okra,” Jesse remarked. “What the hell is that?” “A plant that tastes amazing fried with some Cajun seasoning or in Gumbo, but do not try it stewed, seriously, it’s like eating the green slime out of Skeletor’s slime pit.” “Oh ewwww.” There went that nose scrunch again. God damn, Jesse wasn’t just handsome, he was adorable, endearing, and when he laughed, it made Ryker think of Jesse’s music. “I’ll take you up on that offer, if there’s ever an opportunity. I’m kind of curious to try fried green tomatoes and alligator too. Just don’t tell me it tastes like chicken. Kyle tried that once when he dragged me to some weird restaurant that served Fried Rattlesnake. They even had the vertebrae on the plate and everything.” “So I take it you didn’t agree with the taste profile?” Jesse gave a little half shrug, looking thoughtful. “It wasn’t bad, I mean, I finished my plate, and all, but it didn’t taste like popcorn chicken to me. More like a weird cross between duck and turkey, but what do I know, I’m not usually that adventurous.” “More adventurous than me, I’ve never eaten snake in my life.” “Well who knows, maybe we could remedy that along with the catfish,” Jesse remarked. Wait, was Jesse actually considering spending more time with Ryker once they got off the mountain? Ryker was stunned, even as a rotund cartoon dog fell down a circular flight of steps, he couldn’t be bothered to turn his attention back to the screen. All of his focus was on Jesse. “One day I’d like to make a list of all the foods I’d like to try and then spend six months just traveling around sampling them all, without having to worry about performances and obligations to show up to after parties and meet and greets. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun and so many of the people I’ve met have been absolutely amazing, but that shit gets old after awhile, and I find myself just wanting time to myself to be lazy and spend three hours in a restaurant trying different things if I want. Of course, I do that, I’d better also be prepared to hit the hotel gym twice a day to make sure I don’t get too fat.” “Highly unlikely, you’re too skinny as it is, something tells me you have one hell of a metabolism.” “More like crappy eating habits,” Jesse remarked. “I tend to get lost in what I’m doing and skip meals, and since grabbing something convenient means it generally comes from a can or frozen there’s nothing to really overindulge in. I think about it a lot though. I love having the chance to try new things.” “Nothing wrong with that.” “Yeah. Maybe one day I’ll get to that list.” “Why put it off? At the very least, you could write it out and stick it on the fridge so it gives you something to think about whenever you go in there.” “True.” The look Jesse shot Ryker was pure challenge, there was absolutely no mistaking it, and quite honestly, it sent a surge of fire through Ryker’s blood as he waited to hear what Jesse had to say next. “I tell you what. I will if you will.” “Huh,” Ryker remarked, having been so busy staring intently into Jesse’s eyes, he wasn’t sure if he’d heard him correctly. “Let’s both make lists,” Jesse clarified. “I’m sure there has to be something you’ve been dying to try. Maybe we could turn it into a weird foodies road trip or something, if you found yourself with some free time you wanted to kill.” “Oh I’m pretty sure I could find the time.” “Good,” Jesse remarked, before passing Ryker one of the small notepads he seemed to keep laying around the house. Ryker had noticed them on the first day, and figured they were Jesse’s way of being able to jot down an idea the moment he thought it up. Ryker wondered if it was because he was afraid he’d forget it, or if the ideas came too fast to keep them all straight. Jesse picked up a pad of his own, Bugs Bunny tormenting the opera singer on the TV screen little more than background noise at this point. “Well, I’m going to make it real easy on myself and start with catfish.” “Yeah, I was thinking along those same lines,” Ryker remarked, turning the bad so Jesse could see where he’d jotted down rattlesnake. I’ve kind of always been curious to try a fried snickers bar, too.” “Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good candy bar like that?” Jesse remarked. “Because fried twinkies were a bust so I figure they’ve got to get one of them right.” Laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep inside Jesse and the next thing Ryker knew, Jesse was hugging him, quick, impulsive, it didn’t last long, but it meant the world to Ryker to know that Jesse had done it without feeling like he’d had to ask, or worry about being rejected. “I’m kind of curious about Kool-Aid pickles,” Jesse admitted. “Okay, now that I’ve never heard of.” “Apparently, it’s an Alabama State fair thing, you can choose your pickles from a jar with one Kool-aid flavor, or choose from a couple jars and sample pickles of different flavors.” “That’s…damn, would have thought I’d have heard of that one, all that time I spent down that way. I’d try it though,” Ryker admitted. “But I draw the line at Baked Bean Ice cream.” Laughing, Jesse scribbled away, glancing up to flash Ryker that infectious grin. “Oh eww! Consider the line draw."
  3. layla

    Chapter 14

    Ryker’s heart thudded in his chest as he sat on the floor beside Jesse. Knowing Troy’s last name meant he’d be able to dig deeper into the man’s past now. Troy Collins, Entrapreneu, Businessman, based out of Atlanta according to Apple of Discord’s social media bios. That should narrow things down some. Jesse drew in a deep, shuttering breath, but Ryker was pleased to see there were no tears sliding down his cheeks this morning. As far as he was concerned, Jesse had wasted enough time crying over what that bastard had done. Hearing him get angry was a welcome change, and he could only hope that Jesse would soon be ready to stand up for himself and pursue justice against Troy, so at the very least, the asshole could never take advantage of anyone else the way he’d done to Jesse. “I want a shower and to brush my teeth,” Jesse said softly. “Okay, I’ll leave you alone to do that. Do you need a hand getting up?” “Please.” But when Ryker tried to push himself to his feet, his knee buckled much as it had when he’d gone after the phone the night before, sending him crashing into Jesse, sending them both sprawling on the floor. “Shit, Ryker are you okay,” Jesse asked, while Ryker was still trying to assess if any damage had been done. “I’m having trouble with that knee this morning,” Ryker groaned as he sat up. “No, that’s not completely true. I’ve been having trouble with it ever since I decided to go ice fishing, I’m pretty sure I twisted it or something.” “Or something, but you don’t know what. Have you wrapped it or tried icing it? Is it swollen?” “I don’t think so.” “But you haven’t checked.” “No, I’ve been too busy…” “Roll up your sleep pants,” Jesse demanded. It threw Ryker for a bit of a loop, hearing him suddenly switch roles with him. Not that he minded the tone of assertiveness in Jesse’s voice, or the way he shoved Ryker’s pants leg up when Ryker didn’t comply fast enough. He started to pull his leg away and hide his scars, not wanting to expose Jesse to the horror of what he’d been through, but Jesse’s words, about no longer pretending his didn’t exist came roaring back with a vengeance and he held still. If Jesse could face his photos being flashed all over cyber space, then Ryker could handle Jesse examining his. “I’m not an expert or anything but it looks swollen to me, and bruised along the side, did you hit it against anything.” “Just the ice,” Ryker muttered, remembering the slip and fall he’d taken on the way back with the fish. “How many times did you fall?” “Just the once.” “Looks like that was enough. I um, think we need to look up what to do for a swollen knee. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. I’ve never even taken a first aid course.” “What, not even in high school?” “I took the one required semester of health and that was it.” “Everyone should take at least a basic course in first aid,” Ryker pointed out. “Especially if they like to come out to remote places on their own.” “Does that mean you know what to do for your knee?” “Yeah, ice it, keep it elevated, apply a compression bandage and take ibuprofen if I need it, which, I probably should because it’s starting to hurt like hell.” “Then let me help you up and get you situated on the couch so we can wrap and elevate that before it gets worse.” Ryker glanced up at Jesse who was already up to his knees, and thought about being stubborn, not like it would do any good. “Don’t have much of a choice, do I?” “Nope.” Once he was steady, Jesse reached down and clasped Ryker’s arm. At first, Ryker was sure Jesse would be able to heave him up, but he proved surprisingly strong for his size, able to steady Ryker and help bear some of his weight on the way out to the living room. “Where did you put the first aid kit,” Jesse asked as he eased Ryker down onto the couch. “Top of the refrigerator.” “Okay, I’ll be right back.” While Jesse disappeared into the kitchen, Ryker grabbed one of the throw pillows, fluffed it and carefully positioned it beneath his knee, hissing when it throbbed as he bent it. When Jesse returned he had an ice pack and the first aid kit with him, along with the bottle of ibuprofen and some water for Ryker to swallow them with. “Thanks,” Ryker said as Jesse shook three pills into his hand. With Jesse’s face inches from his own, Ryker could take a moment to stare into the beautiful blue ocean of his eyes before he moved away. Ryker swallowed the pills while Jesse rummaged through the first aid kit, coming up with an ace bandage. “Should I start above the knee, or below it?” Jesse asked, looking uncertain. “Above. You want it tight enough to create compression so the swelling doesn’t get worse, but not too tight that it cuts off circulation,” Ryker explained. “Just take it slow, and I’ll tell you it it’s too tight, okay.” “Okay.” Ryker couldn’t help but stare at the way Jesse’s tongue poked through his lips as he concentrated on winding the bandage around his knee, his touch gentle but sure. When he was done, he clipped the bandage in place and gently lowered Ryker’s leg back onto the pillow before meeting his gaze. “How does that feel?” “Perfect, actually,” Ryker replied as he pressed the ice to it. “Would you like anything from the kitchen before I go clean up?” “No, I’m all set. You go ahead.” Jesse nodded and straightened up, gave Ryker a small smile and took off for the bathroom, shocking Ryker when he returned about a minute later and lay two razors on the coffee table. “Can I just leave those with you?” “Of course.” Ryker couldn’t help but notice the way Jesse was chewing his bottom lip and reached out and very carefully caught his hand to keep him from hurrying away. “That was a good choice, Jesse.” He didn’t turn him loose until Jesse nodded in acknowledgement. Jesse only got halfway down the hall before he came back again, and lay a packet containing a single blade down beside the other two. “Is that the last one?” Ryker asked gently. “Yeah.” “Okay. Good. Go ahead and get your shower, I’ll be right here when you get done.” When Jesse started to turn, Ryker added one more thing. “It’s going to be okay, Jesse. I’m going to do everything in my power to help you, that’s a promise, and I never make a promise lightly.” Jesse nodded, and Ryker watched his eyes tear up a little. It was starting to set in. The sooner Jesse got in and out of the shower and back out there with him, the better Ryker was going to feel. The moment Jesse disappeared into the bathroom, Ryker glanced at his phone and noted the time. Even as he searched for information about Troy on the internet, his eyes kept returning to the clock in the corner until Jesse emerged again. Twelve tense minutes, but with Jesse’s usual long sleeved attire there was no way to ascertain if any fresh damage had been done. Jesse seemed to catch on to what Ryker was thinking, because he came over and sat beside Ryker on the couch and very slowly rolled up his sleeves, revealing the mass of tattoos and scars running up his arm. “There’s no new ones,” Jesse said softly. “But, the urge was there, that’s why I gave you the razors.” “I kind of figured. How do you feel now?” “Cold. Angry. Hurt. Scared. I need to check my emails and private messages. I’d been ignoring them since the tour ended because I didn’t want to hear from anyone.” “Okay,” Ryker replied, passing his phone to Jesse. He’d expected him to take it and retreat to his nest of blankets or even the chair across the room, but Jesse surprised him once again when he remained seated beside Ryker and logged in. [***] You have two hundred and fifty-four unread messages the announcement at the top of his personal inbox read. He didn’t even want to think about how many unread messages were in the email account the public went letters to. Jesse pushed the button to open the inbox and the first thing he caught sight of was Troy’s email address stacked one on top of the other in a long line going down the page. Scrolling, Jesse took note of the other addresses that occasionally broke up the flow, few and far between, like the three from Tish and the one from Scott, probably wondering how Jesse’s portion of the song they’d been collaborating on was going. The bulk of them, well over two hundred, belonged to Troy. “I don’t know where to begin,” Jesse said softly. “Let’s try the newest ones first,” Ryker suggested. “Do you mind if I write down his email address first.” Though he couldn’t fathom why Ryker would want that, he passed the phone over, already dreading what he might read when he opened the emails. Jesse watched as Ryker wrote down the email on a pad that already had Troy’s name, occupation, birthday and city on it, along with a note about his net worth being estimated at three quarters of a million dollars. When Ryker passed the phone back, Jesse took a moment to prepare himself for what he might see when he pushed the button, then he opened that first email. I’ve had just about enough of being ignored, let’s see you ignore me after you see the little gift I’ve left for you. Call me, Jesse, or it’s going to get worse. Jesse swallowed and opened the next one. I’m really disappointed in you, Jesse. I thought you’d learned your lesson after the last time you defied me, but clearly, you like me hurting you, don’t you. Don’t worry, as soon as I catch up to you I’ll give you the reminder you so clearly need. And the next. Pick up the phone, Jesse. I’m tired of playing games with you. And the next. Where are you at, you little whore! I swear, if you’re fucking around with anyone else, I’ll make you both wish you were dead. And another. Why are you doing this to us? You know I love you? Why are you ignoring me? Don’t you know how much it hurts? Why do you want to hurt me? No one else will ever love you as much as I love you, can’t you see that? Please, Jesse, I miss you. I can’t stand this silence between us. Please reach out, call me or at the very least answer your emails. One after the other he opened and read them, Ryker a quiet presence at his side as he did. Ryker never pushed him to click on the next message, just waited patiently beside him, stroking his hair or rubbing circles on his back, until Jesse was ready to move on to the next one. You’re going to regret ignoring me. Jesse clicked on one message that simply contained a GIF of a sad face, and another that held a photo of Jesse sleeping in his old bedroom, hair spilled out on the pillow, the blanket tangled around one leg, barely covering his crotch. “Did you know he had that?” Ryker asked softly. Words eluded him. Jesse licked his lips, shook his head, and tried not to think back to that morning. “Was that your home, or a hotel room?” “My house. I told them to sell everything in that room, I don’t want to see any of it again.” Ryker reached over and pointed at the metal cactus lamp on the nightstand beside the bed. “Is that the lamp you hit him with?” Jesse nodded, closed his eyes and tried not to let Ryker see the tears welling up in them. “Be that left a mark.” “Yeah,” Jesse choked out. A gentle tug freed the phone from his grasp and soon Jesse found it replaced by Ryker’s hand squeezing his. “You had every right to do that,” Ryker said. “You shouldn’t feel bad about hurting him.” “I-I don’t. Just can’t stop thinking about how scared I was, and how bad it hurt when he threw the lamp at me after he’d already slung me to the ground. It hit so hard I couldn’t breath for a few minutes. It didn’t help when he started kicking me and choking me and…” Jesse hugged himself, and rocked, trying to push the moment from his mind. “Jesse, you said he didn’t rape you and I believe you, but did he try?” “N-no. He shook me, and I begged him to stop hurting me. He said he would if I gave him what he wanted.” Jesse felt Ryker tense beside him and knew exactly what he was going to ask. “And what did he want?” “A blow job, and for me to be ready to leave with him as soon as the show was over. It was the last night of the tour and he wanted me to go back to Atlanta with him. No way was I doing that. I barely made it through the show, and the band and I got in a huge fight backstage after the main set, because of how bad I’d performed. Then we went out there to do an encore, and I think I managed like three songs, then I did a stage dive and let the people crowd surf me around. Most night, they’d pass me around until I got back to the stage, but that night, I wiggled around until they put me down, and I bolted. I’d already gotten the keys from Kyle, so I took off up here, hid, didn’t even answer Kyle’s calls until the seventh or eighth one.” “And let me guess, the moment you did he lit into you without ever letting you get a word out.” “Pretty much.” “That was really smart thinking, using the crowd to help you get away.” “More like spur of the moment,” Jesse admitted. “That whole night was a blur. Griffin would tap out the intro to one song and I’d launch into another. Tish would cue me in that we were doing an extended version of a song, but I wouldn’t be able to remember what those parts were. I’ve never wanted off a stage so badly as I did that night. I felt bad for the fans though, they didn’t deserve that kind of performance out of me.” “I think they will understand, once they learn the truth,” Ryker said. “That is if you decide that’s the path you want to take.” “At this point, it’s the only path I can take. If I run away from it, the rumor mill will keep on throwing fodder out their for the gossip columns anyway, at least if I tell the truth, maybe in time, it’ll die down and people won’t harass the band about it. It will make it easier for the new singer to take over if there isn’t a cloud of controversy hanging over them.” Ryker sighed and stroked Jesse’s arm until he lifted his head and focused on him. “Is quitting your band something you really want to do, or is it something you feel like you’re being pushed to do?” Jesse shrugged, because it was both and neither and everything he’d had to deal with over the past seven months all rolled up into one. “Jesse?” “I’m ashamed to face them,” Jesse said softly. “The fans I can handle, the gossip columns, but I don’t think I could handle their disgust…or pity.” “If they looked at you that way, after everything you’ve been through, that would make them pretty shitty friends wouldn’t it.” Jesse jerked his head up, fists clenched, ready to defend his bandmates, only to notice the small smile on Ryker’s face. “That pretty much answers the question, doesn’t it.” “After all the trouble I’ve caused, I’m sure they’ve embraced my resignation with open arms.” “But you don’t know that for certain, do you?” Jesse shook his head no. “Then until you guys have a chance to talk, let’s deal with the facts we do know, instead of speculation, okay.” “I can do that.” “Good.” “But I don’t think I can read anymore of those emails today. I um, think I’d like to give the publicists a call, tell them what’s going on and have them draft up some kind of statement they can post. Then I want to curl up under a mound of blankets and watch a movie, or three. Maybe after that we can work on whatever you need me to do for the restraining order you told me about.” “Okay. Whatever you need.” “And if I said I needed you to join me?” “Then I’ll turn off the phone and get comfortable, but you’ll have to bring the blanket mound up here, I’m afraid I’m indisposed.” “How is your knee feeling?” “Less shitty than before you wrapped it.” “Good. Let me know when you need more ice, okay.” “Copy that.” Jesse accepted the phone Ryker passed him, and though it was difficult, spoke to the band’s publicity team, telling them everything he’d told Ryker, except Troy’s name. For the time being, he asked that they craft a bare bones statement about the abuse he’d been dealing with and how it effected him on tour. In regards to his scars, though, he explained that he’d started cutting in junior high, struggled with depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, found it difficult to be comfortable in his own skin, or accept praise, and had a hard time seeing himself as anything more than a screwup. He told them about the lengths he’d gone to hide it and pretend that everything was okay, and he asked them to include in the press release a message to his fans, telling them they weren’t alone in their struggles, to try to take life moment by moment, and make every effort they could to distance themselves from toxic people. He left them with Ryker’s phone number as the best one to contact him at and thanked them for their time before hanging up. Done and feeling incredibly drained, Jesse dragged the blanket nest over to the couch and helped Ryker spread several over himself before tangling himself in the rest of them like an overstuffed burrito. Of course, the moment he got situated he started laughing, and kept on laughing as Ryker joined in. “I can’t believe you did that,” Ryker sputtered. “Neither can I, oh my god, that’s too funny. Now I gotta figure out how to untangle myself so I can put a movie on. Do you care what we watch?” “Not as long as it’s happy.” Chuckling Jesse wiggled around until the layers fell away, and he could shuffle free of his messy pile to load Jingle All The Way into the DVD player “Nice! I’ve always love this one,” Ryker remarked, settling in as Jesse worked to wrap himself back up again. “Me too. I’ve got Christmas Vacation in the crate too, along with Trading Places, and The Grinch.” “Now that’s a compilation I can get behind. But I thought you said we were only going to watch three movies.” “True, but I figure after we talk about the restraining order, I’ll need another laugh.” Jesse fiddled with the blankets, plucked at some of the fuzz, and squirmed a little as the previews played. “Is it too late to press charges?” The grin Ryker flashed him lit up his entire face. “No. It’s not. We can find out the particulars as soon as you’re ready. I don’t know if you’ll have to do it in person or if your lawyers can handle all that for you, but we’ll figure it out.” Ryker’s steadfast support and encouragement left Jesse longing to throw his arms around Ryker and hug him tight. Not wanting to overstep he settled for gripping his hand instead. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me, especially after the way I acted when you first got here. It would have served me right if you’d chucked me in a snowbank and let me freeze for a little bit.” Snickering, Ryker looked like he was trying to hold it in, only to have the laughter leak out until he was almost doubled over with it. Okay, the mental image was funny, but Jesse hadn’t thought it was that funny, but from the way Ryker held his sides, gasping in between chuckles, it almost seemed like Jesse was missing something. “What?” Ryker waved a hand in the air between them, while Jesse waited patiently for him to stop laughing and fill him in on the joke he’d clearly missed. “Kyle suggested as much,” Ryker finally choked out. “Go figure,” Jesse replied, bursting into a fit of laughter of his own. “Maybe if I’d thrown him in a snow bank he’d have actually listened to me.” “Well, it’s not too late, at least not long as there’s snow on the ground.” “Pretty sure I’ll need a bulldozer to move him, or at the very least, a forklift.” “Well, we’ve got a snow mobile and some rope, that’ll have to do.” Jesse froze, some of the joy of the moment bleeding away. “He’s not coming up here, is he?” “He’d better not. I told him he needed to wait until you asked him to.” “Thank you for that.” “It’s what I do. Now relax, and let’s enjoy the movie. You deserve a bit of laughter after everything you’ve been through today.” “Long as you know there’s no way I could deal with any of it, if it wasn’t for you.”
  4. layla

    Chapter 13

    God damn that phone, when he found it, he was turning the ringer off. Grumbling, Ryker heaved himself out of the chair he’d fallen asleep in and hit the floor when his leg buckled beneath him. The phone’s shrill ringing droned on as Ryker gripped the arm of the chair and used it to help him climb back to his feet. He staggered a few shaky steps towards the phone, grateful for the fire’s glow to help him see. As soon as he had it in his hand, he flopped on the couch and rubbed his aching leg as he hit the button to answer it. “’ello,” Ryker growled into the phone, voice still sleep roughened. He cast a quick glance at the pallet near the fire place where Jesse still slept soundly, blanket pulled up almost to his nose. Kyle’s voice came through the phone, high and excited. “Ryker it’s me.” “Jesus, fuck, Kyle what god damned time is it,” Ryker muttered, pulling the phone away from his ear so he could look at the screen. “It’s four in the god damned morning, for cristssake, what the hell.” “Sorry, man, but I gotta talk to Jesse.” “Jesse is sleeping, like any sane person would be.” “I need you to wake him up.” “Why? What’s going on?” “He needs to get online, now. Someone’s posted some photos up of him that, are um, fuck, man, they’re nude pictures and the internet is blowing up about them, and not just because he’s naked either, but because of the mess of scars going up his arms.” Instantly, Ryker went from groggy to wide awake. “And you think that’s something he needs to be woken up to see?” “All I’m saying is that he’s going to have to issue a statement or something, get ahead of this thing before it gets too crazy.” “Pretty sure that ships already sailed. Don’t you have people that advise you on situations like this? Publicity experts? What do they think he should do?’ “Not a clue, they won’t be awake for another four or five hours, by then it’ll have spread even further than it already has.” “It’s the internet, Kyle, once they’re up, they’re up,” Ryker replied. “It’s a safe bet that people have downloaded them already.” “All the more reason for him to address it sooner rather than later.” “And say what?” Ryker shot back hashly, instantly regretting it when Jesse let out a soft moan and rolled over. “I don’t know, okay. I just…fuck, Ryker this whole thing is fucked up! Who the fuck would post that is what I want to know and how the fuck did they get them?” “My guess it’s the same guy who was using Jesse as a punching bag.” “Yeah, about that, has he given you a name yet?” “Only a first name, but I plan on taking to him more about the guy and seeing if I can get him to take out a restraining order.” “Fuck, you mean he hasn’t even done that yet?” “No.” “Why the fuck not!” “I’m guessing he was too busy trying to defend himself from you guys,” Ryker shot back. “Or maybe he internalized everything and decided he deserved it so why bother saying anything at all.” Hearing Kyle sputtering indignantly on the other end of the phone brought a small smile to Ryker’s face. Let him trip all over himself trying to push the blame off on others. If Kyle had truly cared about Jesse he’d have found out the truth of what was going on with him instead of accusing. “We’d have put a stop to this months ago if Jesse had told us what was going on,” Kyle said at last. “You have to know that.” “I don’t know shit right now except that he’s terrified and clearly felt he couldn’t tell you guys what happened,” Ryker said. “Just answer this one thing for me, Kyle.” “What?” “Have you ever known Jesse to use drugs?” “I…he….the only thing I’ve ever seen him do was smoke a blunt or two.” “Which is legal where you are, isn’t it.” “Yeah, and…” “And did you ever see him smoke it anywhere that it wasn’t legal?” “No.” “When he smoke it, was it before or after a performance?” “I never saw him smoke it before a performance, just afterwards, to unwind, which is why I couldn’t understand what was happening and why everything was going to shit the way it was. Then Griffin started talking about how his brother had acted the same way when he was using and he kept insisting we find a way to get Jesse some help before something happened to him like what happened to Griffin’s brother. No way was I gonna risk that with Jesse. I didn’t want to lose him to that shit.” “No, you’d rather lose him to a psycho who very well could have beat him to death while you were busy trying to force feed him a one way ticket to Betty Ford.” “It-it wasn’t like that, Ryk, seriously, we just…” “We worried. Wanted to help. Yeah I heard you, I just think your methods were shit. You did more harm that good, Kyle, and until you can recognize that, stop making excuses and genuinly apologize to him, you talking to Jesse is just going to do more harm than good.” “But, the photos, I need to….” “I’ll tell him. You need to get ahold of those publicity people as soon as they get up and find out what can be done, and while you’re at it, text me those numbers so Jesse can call them if he wants to speak to them himself.” “Yeah, okay, I can do that.” “Well I guess that’s something.” “Ease up man. I know I woke you up kinda early but there’s no reason to be so pissy about it. I said I was sorry.” “When will you learn that saying it doesn’t mean jack shit unless you’re prepared to do something about it. What happened to Griffin’s brother sucks, and I feel sorry for him, I truly do, but when I sit here and listen to Jesse apologize to you for messing up songs he was too hurt to play, it starts making me wonder if you care more about the music than you do about him, and that ain’t cool. “Bullshit, Ryker, he’s my best friend, of course I care about him more than…” “Do you? ‘Cause you sure as shit ain’t proved it. Maybe you need to do some thinking about what friendship actually means to you, because you sure don’t act the way one would expect a best friend to act.” He heard his cousin sigh, and was glad he’d finally stopped making excuses and finally started listening. “I know I fucked up.” “Good. That’s the first step. Now start making it right,” Ryker ordered. “Have you fired your security team yet?” “Yeah, I contacted our manager and had him get rid of the security team and the tour manager too. He was the one who supposedly vetted them, and he never dealt with any of the issues we brought to him about them, so he’s out too.” “Good." "We’ve had to postpone any public appearances until they have a chance to line up a new team for us.” “Tell them not to bother.” “Huh, why not?” “Because Jesse made a comment to me about leading a team and it’s something I’ve already started looking into. If you can afford to lay low for awhile and hold off on those appearances, I can work on contacting some old friends and seeing who might be interested. One thing I can promise you is that the team I’d put together would be looking out for your best interests.” “That’s not a bad idea at all. I like it. Will be good having you around more. I’ve missed ya, you prickly son of a bitch.” “We’ll see how long that lasts when I’m in your face each and every day making sure you’re not putting yourself at risk with your choices.” “Huh.” “Jesse told me about Vegas. And Atlanta. Oh, and he mentioned something about you collapsing backstage in Dallas with a hundred and three degree fever and still trying to insist they let you go on.” “Those people paid good money to see us play.” “And what good would that have done if you’d ended up dead.” “Okay, okay, point taken damn, I already got this lecture from the band.” “Yeah, well, I’m family so you’ll just have to put up with it.” Kyle chuckled while Ryker watched the fire slowly beginning to die down. As soon as he got off the phone, he’d add some more wood, maybe even get a jump start on that research. It wasn’t like he was going to get anymore sleep tonight, not with what Kyle had told him about the photos weighting on his mind. He’d tell Jesse in the morning, after he had a chance to get food. He was far too skinny and pale as it was. “So how’d you finally get Jesse to talk to you anyway?” Kyle remarked. “One minute he’s pissed off and wants nothing to do with you being there, and the next, you’re sounding like you two are old friends.” “I listened, I was patient and trusted that what he was telling me was the truth, it was as simple as that,” Ryker said. “Fuck.” “Exactly.” “How, um, how about you,” Kyle asked. “Have you been doing okay?” “Thanks to Jesse. Some moments are shakier than others. We take them as they come.” “How about the weather, is it still clear? I saw on the news that it had warmed up a little, that might help the roads some. The plow service will be around as soon as they can up to you guys, once they do, I’ll be on my way out.” “What part of keep your ass there didn’t you understand!” “But that was…” “Not just for a few days, but until Jesse calls you of his own volition and asks for you to come up, and not a moment before. You owe him that at least.” “I just…” “For the love of god, do us all a favor and strike the word I from your vocabulary, please. How many times do I have to say that it’s not about you. Get that through your thick skull for fucks sake.” “Damn. Alright, I hear you. I’ll do better.” “I hope so.” Ryker replied. “I’ve got to go, I’ve got some thinking to do. Keep me informed of what’s going on and send those numbers.” “Will do.” “Talk to you later.” “Later.” Ryker hung up the phone and glared at it as he set it back down on the coffee table. Under the circumstances, turning it off was no longer an option. After adding more logs to the fire, he headed to the kitchen, put the kettle on, and dug a tea bag from the box in the cupboard, the photos never far from his mind. It was one of the worst kinds of betrayals imaginable, a violation of Jesse’s privacy and sense of self. He couldn’t imagine the shame Jesse would feel when he found out, or the questions he would be asked about his scars and how he’d gotten them. This could send Jesse spireling head long into a panic attack or worse. It most definately wouldn’t be the time to push about a restraining order. As it was, he’d need to be at the top of his game to ensure that Jesse didn’t do any harm to himself. Ryker spent the remainder of the night at the table, sipping hot tea, researching and trying to decide the best way to reveal the news to Jesse. [***] Yawning, Jesse stretched, feeling so mellow and warm cocooned in the blankets before the fire that he really didn’t want to open his eyes. The fleece was warm and fluffy, and he rolled, hugging it to him and basking in the heat of the fireplace as he thought back to the night before. He and Ryker had stayed in front of the window long after the sun had gone down. Sometimes they talked and sometimes they sat in quiet contemplation, neither seeming to have the slightest issue with long stretches of silence. Late into the evening, Jesse sang a few songs and occasionally Ryker had joined in. He’d prefaced it by declaring he didn’t have much of a voice for it, but Jesse had enjoyed his rough timbre, like a rolling, raspy bass. “Good morning.” “Morning,” Jesse murmured as he blinked at the assault of the light beams that greeted him. “How long have you been up.” “Couple hours.” “Oh, wow, what time is it?” “A little after eight, how’d you sleep?” Sitting up a little, Jesse sought Ryker out and spotted him in the doorway of the kitchen. “Really, really good.” “I’m glad. I’m pretty sure you needed it.” “Yeah. How about you, did you sleep okay?” “For a little while.” The way he said it gave Jesse cause for concern, and he sat up all the way, giving Ryker his full attention. “Did you have a nightmare?” “I wish.” The grumbly way Ryker said it beneath his breath made it slightly difficult to hear and seemed so out of place that Jesse crossed the room to stand in front of him, noting the way Ryker avoided meeting his gaze. “Did something happen while I was sleeping?” “Yes.” “Are you going to tell me what?” “Let’s enjoy breakfast first, it might be the only thing either of us gets to enjoy all day.” “That sounds really ominious.” “Sorry. You’ll understand why soon enough.” The grim look on Ryker’s face only ramped up the dread Jesse was beginning to feel. “Why don’t you go get washed up and we can see about finding something to eat.” “Honestly, the only thing I could stomach at the moment is some oatmeal. You’ve got my stomach in knots right now.” “I’m sorry. Just know that I’m not looking forward to this conversation any more than you are.” A stab of fear shot through him and reflexively, Jesse took a step back. Suddenly it was way too hot and stuffy and it was hard to suck in air. “Did I do something wrong?” he wheezed. “Oh shit, no, Jesse, it’s, I’d never hurt you. I’m sorry if that came out in a way that made you feel threatened or scared.” The sound of Ryker’s voice helped ground him and chase away the surge of fear. He reminded himself over and over that this was Ryker, not Troy, and telling himself that seemed to helped too. “I’m good,” Jesse said, pleased that his voice sounded stronger and less afraid. “I think I’ll go do like you said and wash up. The sooner we eat, the sooner I get to find out why you’re totally freaking me out this morning.” He softened the words with the best attempt at a smile that he could manage and hurried off to the bathroom, rejoining Ryker in the kitchen several minutes later. The kettle was already on, some Jesse grabbed a bowl and opened a couple packets of oatmeal, pouring them in, and waited for the water to boil. Across the kitchen, Ryker was toasting a bagel. As Jesse watched, he couldn’t help but worry about whatever it was that had Ryker all out of whack. A part of him didn’t want to know, wanted to bury his head in the snow and continue filling the days with board games, conversations and songs, but something told him that not knowing would be a bad thing. The oatmeal tasted like wet ashes when he finally got around to eating it, but he scraped the bowl clean and even accepted the bowl of canned pineapple that Ryker slid across the table to him. He made short work of that too, half expecting Ryker to pass him something else, in what was beginning to seem like an effort at stalling. “Jesse, I really hate having to be the one to tell you this, and I’ve run words over and over in my mind trying to put together the right way of saying it but there really is no right way except to just get it over with.” “Like ripping off a band-aid. Fine then, let’s get it over with.” “Someone, I’m pretty sure it was Troy, posted nude photos of you online.” Jesse froze, unable to do so much as blink. No way Ryker had just said what he thought he said. That was, there was no way this could be happening. Biting down so hard his teeth began to ache was the only thing that kept Jesse from screaming. That fucker. That sick son of a bitch. He tried not to think about that night and how unbelievably stupid he’d been to strip down and give Troy the show he’d asked for, but the way Troy had praised him had made him feel desirable, attractive despite the lines he’d carved into his flesh over the years. Shit, naked pictures meant… Jesse fled the room so fast he overturned his chair in his haste, racing down the hall to vomit his breakfast in the commode. He was still heaving when he felt a cool cloth on the back of his neck, and Ryker’s hand his hair. He didn’t say anything, just his presence was enough, though having him there to see something so gross left Jesse wishing he could crawl in a hole and die. A sudden thought raced through his mind, and he tried to imagine what Ryker’s response to seeing the photos had been, and he puked again, retching so fast and hard it was hard to catch his breath. It seemed like it only eased up once there were dark spots dancing in front of his eyes, and he was pretty sure Ryker was all that kept him from crumpling into a heap on the floor. Ryker flushed the toilet and passed Jesse another cold, damp washcloth to wipe his face with. “Th-thanks,” Jesse stammered. “Maybe I shouldn’t have insisted on you eating breakfast first.” “Yeah, what a waste.” “Do you think you’re okay to try and stand up?” “No.” “Okay.” Jesse was shocked when Ryker took a seat on the floor beside him. “Wh-what are you doing?” “Keeping you company until you feel like moving.” “Oh.” Jesse dared a glance towards him and saw nothing but compassion and caring on Ryker’s face. At least he could look at Jesse now, and without a look of utter and complete disgust, which was shocking. “H-how did you find the photos?” “I didn’t, Kyle did and called to warn you.” “So you didn’t see them.” “Nope, and I have no intention of looking.” That little assurance went a long way towards helping Jesse relax. “He sent the phone numbers of the publicists you guys use so you could get ahold of them when you were ready to issue a statement,” Ryker told him. “Right now, he says that they’re advising you to only address the fact that you’re nude in the photos and not the scars.” Jesse shook his head. “I can’t do that.” “Why?” “I never wanted anyone to see them. I’ve always been so careful, wearing long sleeves on stage, in photo shoots, even wearing a wetsuit whenever I went into the water,” Jesse replied. “But now that they’re out there, I can’t let anyone see how ashamed I am of them. The band has a lot of fans, and I’m sure that some of them are just like me. It’s a hard thing to live with. Sometimes the urge hits before reason and doesn’t even give me a chance to talk myself out of it. Maybe if I’m honest and open about it, they’ll feel like they can be too. I don’t know, maybe that’s just me being stupid and talking nonsense.” “No, that’s you speaking from the heart and showing how much you love and care about your fans, that you can think about them after what I just told you.” “It’s helping me not think about the fact that Troy posted the god damned pictures I never should have let him take of me. He swore they were only for him, so he could have something to look at while I was away, and like a stupid fuckin’ moron I believed him. How fuckin’ pathetic. You know what? I got exactly what I deserved, taking my clothes off and posing for him like the fuckin’ whore he was always calling me.” “Jesse…” “No. Don’t tell me I didn’t deserve it, and don’t tell me that I have a right to be happy and to be able to trust someone because clearly I am not responsible enough to even recognize who deserves my trust and who’s just playing games with me!” “You’re angry, good, you have a right to be angry, but how about you direct some of that anger onto the person who actually deserves it, Troy,” Ryker interjected, his firm voice making Jesse take notice and listen to everything he said. “You want to help your fans by showing them that they don’t have to be ashamed of their scars and the fact that they were the ones to put them there, good. But what about your fans who are getting smacked around by their husbands, wives, boyfriends, lovers? What about the ones who cover their black eyes with makeup, lie and make excuses for their injuries by claiming to be clumsy, or accident prone? What about the ones who live every day in fear, terrified even in their own homes? If you stand up and put your abuser in prison, you not only keep them from hurting someone else the way he’s hurt you, but you show your fans that there is a way out if they are just willing to grasp it.” Ryker’s passion and belief in the words he was speaking cut through the haze of self-depreciation that was nearly choking Jesse. He hung his head, let them sink in rather than pouring all of his energy into feeling sorry for himself. “Just think about it. Please.” Ryker said as his fingers lifted the strands of hair stuck to the damp washcloth on the back of his neck, and moved them off to the side. “Collins,” Jesse choked out before he came up with another excuse to stop himself. “What?” “Troy’s last name. It’s Collins.”
  5. layla

    Chapter 12

    Jesse had insisted Ryker eat first, which was for the best, because glancing at the clock showed he’d slept until almost two in the afternoon. Once he finished, he dragged the easy chair over by the window to sit beside Jesse, enjoying the sunlight shining through. The sketchbook lay closed on the end table, a battered notebook beside it. He wondered if the crumpled page he’d found in the corner by the fireplace had come from it, and how many others Jesse had consigned to the flames. “What were you drawing?” Ryker asked as he got situated in the chair. “I don’t know yet, I was just trying to purge all the negative shit I was feeling and that’s what came out.” “I liked it. I think it would look pretty sweet as a tattoo…or an album cover.” Jesse brushed his fingertips over the edge of a tattoo peeking out from beneath his collar to run up the side of his neck. “Maybe.” “How many do you have?” “Ten.” “Were any of them ones you designed?” “Yeah, um, six of them.” “I’d love to see them someday,” Ryker remarked, holding up his hand when Jesse’s face turned red and he started to look away. “When and if you ever want to show them to me.” Instead of saying anything, Jesse tugged the collar down enough to expose the beautifuly realistic Owl tattooed on his shoulder, it’s fierce eyes peering out at him. Ryker let out a low whistle at the sight. “Wow, that’s pretty god damned amazing. Do you even realize how hella talented you are?” When Jesse blushed again, Ryker decided then and there to make it his personal mission to make sure Jesse never had reason to doubt his worth again. “Had a lot of art lessons to go along with the music lesson,” Jesse muttered. “I never could focus enough to get the hang of still lifes but nature fascinated me.” “How could it not, growing up in Maine.” Shrugging, Jesse let the collar fall back into place, hiding the owl again. “I didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors when I lived out there, but one thing I always loved was hearing the owls at night. Some people say they don’t have a song but if you listen to them calling through the night, they really do. It’s haunting, and a little bit sad, but achingly beautiful too.” “Did you know that some people believe having an owl as a spirit animal means you’re ready to face the shadows?” “Kind of fitting right now, isn’t it,” Jesse remarked, fingers lingering on the tattoo. “I’ve heard of spirit animals, but not much beyond that they’re animals people feel they can relate to.” “That’s part of it. Some people view them more as guides to the kind of path they should walk, while others view them as symbols of protection and comfort.” Lifting his shirt, Ryker revealed the roaring lions face, with wild, waving mane, that he’d had tattooed over his heart. “That’s fierce,” Jesse remarked. Ryker didn’t miss the aborted moment when Jesse lifted his hand as if to touch it, before dropping it back down on the arm of the chair again. “What do lions stand for?” “Courage, strength, willingness to face whatever challenges life throws my way. Being a relentless fighter, a leader, and protecting those who mean the most to me,” Ryker replied. “Did you get that when you were in the service, or before?” Jesse asked, his eyes never leaving the Lion. Ryker wondered if he’d seen his scars and was choosing to ignore them, or if he was so enamorate of the tattoo he hadn’t noticed them yet. “The day of my first reenlistment.” “How old were you?” “Twenty-three,” Ryker replied, thinking back to those days with a pang of longing. “I enlisted during my last semester in high school, shipped out less than a week after I walked across the stage.” Ryker sighed as he thought back to that day, hugging his parents as he proudly showed them his diploma. Kyle had been there, his folks too, along with several other aunts, uncles, cousins and his remaining two grandparents. His dad had clasped him on the shoulder and handed him the compass he’d always carried. “So you can always find your way back home,” he’d said. It sucked that by the time he’d managed it, they’d passed on, leaving him uncertain of where home even was anymore. “Ryker?” Jesse’s voice cut through his thoughts, and he looked away from the window to see Jesse watching him with a look of concern, leaving Ryker feeling sheepish for worrying him. “Sorry, I got lost in a memory.” “It’s okay, I do that a lot too.” “Why didn’t I ever meet you when I visited Kyle?” Ryker asked, the question having been nagging at him since listening to Jesse and Kyle’s exchange the night before. “My folks and I visited almost every summer and I don’t remember you at all?” Jesse gave a sad smile and ran his fingers along the windowsill. “That’s because my folks shipped me off to summer camp within a day or two of school getting out and I got shuttled from camp to camp until it was time to start school again.” “Seriously? What the hell? Why?” “So I wouldn’t spend my free time on four-wheelers or rafting, or horseback riding or skateboarding or anything else that might have done damage to my hands,” Jesse replied, lifting his left one and stroking his palm. “My mom had a fit the one and only time I climbed a tree, she was convinced I was going to fall out and break my neck, and my dad blew up at your uncle Desmond for inviting me to go rafting with him and Kyle. Called him reckless and irresponsible and forbad me from spending time with Kyle for a while. It sucked. I hated it.” “So I’m guessing they weren’t the type of camps that let you spend time outdoors?” “I wish. More like band camps, music camps, art camps, camps for gifted kids and even a language village where I was supposed to learn Italian so I could sing opera.” Ryker nearly choked on the sip of orange juice he’d just drank “How’d that work out?” Jesse shrugged. “I could do it, but I was never in love with doing it.” Ryker watched him fiddle with his nails and noticed how red and irritated a few of them looked, like he’d been chewing them and picking at the skin around them. “What was your job, when you were in the Army?” Jesse asked, the change of subject catching Ryker a bit off guard. He wanted to ask more questions about camp and Jesse’s hobbies, but from the way Jesse had started to twitch and squirm it was clear that he’d revealed as much about himself as he cared to at the moment. “I was an infantryman, more specifically, I was an Army Ranger.” “That’s a combat job, right?” “Yes.” “Where were you stationed?” “Fort Benning, Georgia, but during the fourteen years I served I was deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria for a total of eight deployments.” “That’s…wow, how old are you?” Ryker chuckled. “Thirty-two, but there are times when I feel ten years older, like last night, when I was trying to sit on the floor and everything ached.” The moment the words left his mouth, Ryker regretted them. Jesse’s eyes widened and he ducked his head. “Hey, it wasn’t your fault,” Ryker explained. “Yeah, it was. You were sitting beside the chair because I freaked out.” “Technically, I was sitting beside the chair because I was stroking your hair and wanted to be near you in case you needed me,” Ryker pointed out. “I could have just as easily sat on the couch after you fell asleep, but…well like I said, I seem to be drawn to your hair. Have you always worn it long?” “Only after I moved out of the house,” Jesse explained. “Ah, I see. Another thing your folks didn’t approve of?” “Pretty much. Along with tattoos, piercings, and multi-colored hair.” Chuckling, Ryker was reminded of the album cover in which Jesse’s hair had been a plum purple twilight color streaked with bright chunks of blue. “I miss them,” Jesse said softly. “Even though I know they never approved of anything I did, I still wish they could have lived long enough to see how good I was at it. Well, before I fucked it all up anyway.” “Sounds to me like it was Troy who fucked it up, not you. How long ago did they pass?” Jesse flinched at the sound of Troy’s name and let out a slow, shaky breath before replying, “Six years. The last time I saw them we got in a huge fight. The last thing I said to them was that I wasn’t coming back home until they could learn to accept me for me. Three weeks later they got in a wreck and I became an orphan. If it wasn’t for Kyle and my band, I’d have had no one.” Jesse brushed a hand across his cheek and Ryker realized he was crying. “What a pair we make,” Jesse said softly. “You don’t know where home is anymore, and neither do I. I sold my house and the only other place I have left to go is back to Maine and the house I grew up in. I’m pretty sure it has more ghosts than memories so, I don’t know what I’m going to do either.” It took effort, but Ryker resisted the urge to reach out and take his hand. “Maybe that’s something we can figure out together?” Jesse’s smile was sad, and a little shy, but his words were genuine. “I-I think I’d like that.” “So would I.” Ryker shifted in his seat and rubbed his leg. Despite having slept on his opposite side when he finally had fallen asleep, it still twinged from the floor. “What’s wrong with your leg?” Jesse asked. “Shrapnel from an IED,” Ryker said softly. “Is that what you were in the hospital for?” “Among other things.” Leaning forward, Ryker met Jesse’s gaze, grateful for the opening he’d provided. “The thing I remember most is the roar of the explosion and the metal raining from the sky. I still wake up to that in the middle of the night.” Ryker rubbed his fingers over the scar on his forearm and shivered. “The other night, when the grease started popping, the feel of it landing on my arm took me back there. We lost three guys that day, it ripped them to pieces before anyone could even process what happened. My buddy Greg was to the left of me, clutching his face. I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t stand. I tried until someone held me down in the sand and pressed against my leg. I nearly blacked out from the pain, it was hotter than the metal, sharper, and I could see their mouth moving but I couldn’t hear them, my ears were still ringing from the blast. I remember something being pressed in my hand and them guiding my hand to my arm and squeezing. That’s when I realized I was hurt too band for one person to stop all the bleeding. There were twelve of us on patrol, and eight of us were hit. Of the five of us who survived it, only one was able to resume active duty status.” Ryker sucked in a deep breath, the image of blood in the sand bright in his mind, along with the pieces and the dogs creeping in, eying them like they were scraps for their next meal. Get away. Get away! Blood and grit had filled his mouth when he’d tried to form words and all around him there was the chaos of tending to the survivors. The fate of the dead had been left up to the guys they called in to help us and how fast they could get there. Squeezing his eyes shut he tried to block out more of the memory, but it was always there, waiting to drown him. Look at me. Please look at me. No. No! He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to see anymore. He didn’t want to remember! Ryker. It’s Jesse. Please look at me. Jesse? No, what was Jesse doing there? He had to get to him. He couldn’t let Jesse get hurt too. Get back, Jesse! Stay Back! I can’t do that unless you can come with me. Wait what? Why? Couldn’t he see it wasn’t safe. Please open your eyes. Damnit! Why wouldn’t Jesse just listen? Why wouldn’t he run? Didn’t he know there could be another explosive buried? Snapping his eyes open with the intent of ordering Jesse to get back, Ryker was met with Jesse’s stunning blue gaze framed by the long strands of his golden hair. Too long to be regulation. Ryker let out a long, shuddering breath and buried his face in his hands. [***] The stricken look in Ryker’s eyes was the only thing Jesse thought about as he wrapped his arms around the much larger man. He could feel how erraticly Ryker was breathing and rubbed slow circles on his back in an effort to help him calm down. Jesse slipped into song, low, soft, hoping something old and familiar would help Ryker relax and breathe easier. Whispers on the wind Take me back again To the days when we were kids Fireflies, tire swings Endless nights with our best friends We never thought they’d end Yet here we are, upon this stage Scream and shout and play with rage Curse the magic and the lies Of childhood dreams that had to die The heroes fell, the legends cry The black wing bird fell from the sky And all that’s left is endless dust And trust Hearing Ryker join him on the last two lines gave Jesse a sense of relief, but when he went to let go Ryker go, the other man’s broken voice gave him pause. “Please, can I hold you?” When his inner voice didn’t scream no, Jesse scooted closer and allowed Ryker to pull him up into the chair with him. “Thank you.” Ryker stammered, hugging Jesse close. Jesse let himself relax into the hold and even snuggle a little, telling himself it was for Ryker, not himself, when the voice in his head once again called him a needy bitch. “I can’t imagine seeing what you saw.” “Good. If it were up to me, you’d never experience anything close.” For once, there were no words that came to mind. Nothing seemed a powerful enough acknowledgement of what Ryker had just said to him. Coupled with his insistence that Jesse back away and get somewhere safe when he was in the midst of such a painful memory, was just more than he could process at the moment. Why would this courageous man be so concerned over whether or not he was safe. Jesse just couldn’t wrap his mind around it, but what he could do, was wrap his arms even tighter around Ryker and hold on to him for as long as Ryker wanted to be held. Eventually, Ryker’s hand found it’s way into Jesse’s hair, and he stroked it while keeping Jesse pressed firmly against his chest while his breathing evened out and settled back into a more normal pattern. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I said that you deserved to be able to sit in front of the window and watch the sunset with someone if you wanted to,” Ryker muttered. “I’m not complaining.” “Thanks.” “You don’t have to thank me either. You deserve to be held if that’s what you need.” Jesse replied, deciding to use a play on Ryker’s words against him. “But…” “No buts,” Jesse replied, cutting him off. “We only have each other up here.” “I don’t want you to feel like you have to…” “I don’t,” Jesse interjected. “I want to.” Ryker shuddered, like Jesse had just taken an enormous weight off his shoulders, and pressed even closer. “Last night I did some research,” Ryker murmured. “Wanted to talk to you about a restraining order and Troy’s last name.” “Later, I think we’ve had enough serious conversations for the day. Why don’t we just sit here and watch the sky until the sun goes down?” “You really don’t mind?” Wiggling, Jesse drew back enough to look Ryker in the eyes. “You asked to hold me, and right now, I’m enjoying behind held. I know we need to talk more. I have some questions for you, too. I’m scared that I won’t be able to help you one of these times that you get lost in your head. I promise, we can have more tough conversations later. Just now, it seems like we both need this.” “Yeah,” Ryker remarked, tugging him close again. Jesse could feel the afternoon sun streaming through the window, warm against his skin. Ryker’s heart had a steady cadence and the crackling of the fire behind them had a soothing quality to it. If not for the traumatic events they’d shared with one another it might have been a cozy scene. As soon as he thought that, he kicked himself for ever daring to imagine that someone as amazing, kind and forgiving as Ryker would ever want to cuddle in a chair with him if there were better options around. It was a sobering thought and one that reminded him not to get too comfortable, which was hard, because he could feel the strength in Ryker’s arms and was almost certain Ryker really would try to protect him if someone were hell bent on causing him pain. Thinking back on some of what Ryker had said earlier, about not having a home to go back to and not knowing what he would do next, left Jesse wondering if there was some way he could help with that. Hadn’t Ryker advised Kyle to fire the band’s shitty security? Maybe Kyle and the others would be safer with Ryker leading a team to protect them? As they sat there cloud watching, Jesse continued mulling it over in his mind, in between sneaking glances at Ryker. There was a look of contentment on his face. Hell, if Jesse was being honest with himself, he’d have to admit that Ryker looked positively serine. Even if it wasn’t much, he hoped he was helping a little. Ryker deserved that, and more, after everything he’d endured. “I can almost hear you thinking,” Ryker murmurred, his breath against the side of Jesse’s neck making him shiver. “What’s going on?” “Just that if Kyle fires the bands security, they’ll need new guards, and you said you didn’t know what you wanted to do once you were ready to leave hear, and you’re Kyle’s cousin, so I thought maybe it would be safer for them if you were leading the guard detail.” He felt Ryker’s hand still in his hair and stay that way as the silence stretched between them once again. “I couldn’t actually be one of the guards,” Ryker said after nearly ten minutes of quiet contemplation. “Maybe someday. But mentally right now, I’m not in a stable place for that kind of assignment. Doesn’t mean I couldn’t co-ordinate though, if you guys really wanted to go that route, but don’t think I didn’t notice you suggest guards for them and nothing for yourself.” “That’s because I’m not a member of the band anymore. I resigned last night, remember.” “An emotional response to a difficult situation. Kyle would be a fool to accept it.” “Its not his choice, it’s mine. I’ve messed up too badly for them to ever trust me again, hell, I don’t trust myself. It’s better for everyone if I finish writing the songs so Kyle can find someone who can go out there and rock them out.” “You rock them out. Do you really think someone else can deliver your words with the same kind of passion and energy that you can?” “I’m all out of both, which is really for the best. The last tour was inexcusable. Doesn’t matter if there were outside forces, I let Troy into my life. In the end, the whole mess falls on me.” “I think you’re wrong, but I’m willing to let it go, at the moment,” Ryker remarked. “Just best believe we will be revisiting this conversation again.” Jesse figured the best response was no response at all, so he shifted positions a little, and watched a squirrel leap from one branch to the next, sending a dusting of snow fluttering down. “I have to admit, the idea of putting together a security team has merit though,” Ryker stated after several minutes had passed. “Thank you for that. It’s definitely an option to look into. I’ve been considering some kind of private sector security gig, but the idea of working with corporate sharks isn’t appealing.” “I don’t know much about the business sector,” Jesse remarked. “I just know that when I look up at those high rise buildings with all their windows, I have to wonder how much living those people miss out on. When I bought my place out west, the one requirement it had to have was being near the ocean. I couldn’t imagine waking up each morning without hearing the sea.” “For me it’s the mountains I miss the most,” Ryker remarked. “It’s been years since I’ve been back to Vermont.” “Is that where you grew up?” “Yup, not too far from Barre.” “What I’ve seen of it is beautiful, especially Stowe,” Jesse said. “I visited a pond that had sparklingly beautiful water and floating doc that were easy to swim out to. Laying out there, feeling the water lap around the edges was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever known.” “My long-term goal is to buy a place out there surrounded by trees, with a pond close enough I can visit every day if I want.” “Sounds pretty awesome.” “That’s what I’m hoping for.” “Was that always your plan for when you got out of the service?” Jesse asked. “Sort of,” Ryker replied. “The plan was always to do twenty years, minimum, but I really had my heart set on twenty-five. Then I could retire with a full benefits package, get my place in the woods, and stay on it without having to plan out where I’d be working next. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way you’d planned.” “Ech you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Sometimes shit goes sideways, it’s how we handle it that defines us.” “I’ve never heard that before, but I like it,” Jesse remarked. “I do too. It’s a lot better than telling something to suck it up and drive on. I always hated that one.” “Was that something your dad used to say to you?” “Yeah, and my Drill Sergeant, and my first two commanding officers, too. If I never hear it again it will be too soon.” “My dad’s favorite line was ‘you must be willing to sacrifice for your art,’ Jesse replied. “It got so I started asking him how much more of myself he wanted me to give away, since he’d taken everything away from me that other kids got to enjoy. That sad part was I hated that I resented him. He’d never been anything but focused and driven, I was the one who changed.” “Don’t you think it’s different when you’re a kid?” Ryker asked. “I mean, I get it, the whole perseverance and push to be the best, but, it’s like when parents push and push and push their kid to be the best at a sport, to the point where the kid starts using performance enhancement shit and fucks themselves up and their future trying to live up to their expectations. I don’t see how that helps anyone.” “It doesn’t, but its not like most parents want to hear that they’re pushing too hard, and when you speak up and try to explain that you need a break, you get accused of being lazy and ungrateful.” “Or not mentally tough enough.” There was a sad lilt to Ryker’s tone that Jesse decided to file away for later, wanting to lift the mood instead of drag it down even further. Curling up to Ryker a little more, Jesse hoped he wasn’t being pushy, but he’d felt a tremor run through Ryker and he was hoping to be something of a comfort to him. Ryker hugged him close and tight. “Thank you so much for this,” Ryker whispered. “You’re welcome,” Jesse replied, as they settled in to watch the sun go down.
  6. layla

    Chapter 11

    Jesse willed his hands to stop shaking as he clutched Ryker’s phone to his ear and hopped Kyle would hurry up and answer his god damned phone so he could get this over with. When Kyle finally did answer, huffing and out of breath, the first words out of his mouth were to ask Ryker to hang on a minute while he grabbed a towel, that he’d just gotten out of the shower. Jesse waited, listening to the sound of things being knocked over in the background, as Kyle scrambled around a bit before getting back on the line. “Sorry, I barely heard the phone with the water running,” Kyle said, punctuated by the clatter of something in the background. “Is everything okay? Are the roads better? Give me twelve hours and I can get there if you need me to.” “It’s not Ryker, it’s me, Jesse.” “Jess, what…I thought you left, what are you doing on Ryker’s phone?” “I came back.” “Okay. Where’s Ryker? Is he okay? I swear to god Jesse if something’s happened to him because of you…” Kyle’s voice must have gotten loud enough that Ryker heard it, because the other man’s hand slid over his, gently taking the phone from him. “I’m right here, now quit your yelling and shut the fuck up so he can talk to you!” Ryker snapped in a voice so thunderously furious it made Jesse jump, a fact that wasn’t lost on Ryker, who mouthed ‘sorry’ to Jesse before handing back the phone, looking contrite. “It’s okay,” Jesse whispered before pressing the phone back to his ear. “You warned me you were gonna do that.” “Who did I warn you was going to do what?’ Kyle asked, clearly confused. “Nothing, I was talking to Ryker,” Jesse explained. “Oh. So….” “I really need to talk to you.” “It’s about time.” “But I need you not to interrupt and not to yell.” Jesse listened to him huff and grumble curses beneath his breath before finally agreeing. “I wasn’t using, or drinking to excess on the tour,” Jesse said, wondering if a time would ever come when he would be able to stop prefacing conversations with that declaration. He heard Kyle suck in a breath like he was about to blow up and launch into another lecture and was prepared to hand the phone right back to Ryker, only Kyle said nothing, so Jesse continued on with what he wanted to say, the words tumbling out in a rush. “The guy I told you I was seeing was beating the hell out of me,” Jesse rambled. “The night I was late was because I was out with him before the show and he wouldn’t let me go to arena until he was ready for our date to end, and the um, the last concert, he’d choked me so bad, I figured I was gonna end up dead in my room. I know you guys all hate me now but I wanted ta warn you that he threatened to come after the band and hurt you guys if I reported him to the cops, so, just, you guys be careful and I’m sorry, I never meant for shit to get out of hand. It was s-so fuckin’ stupid getting s-sucked into a relationship with him. I’m s-sorry I fucked up the music. I never meant to hurt you guys. I never meant for any of this to happen. I just wanted s-someone to love me! I’m sorry. I-I resign. I w-won’t make you guys f-fire me. You d-deserve a f-frontman who won’t ruin the tour o-or mess up h-his own g-god d-damned lyrics.” Jesse couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Trembling, he gripped the phone tighter, still waiting for Kyle to yell, to tell him once again how bad he’d screwed everything up for everyone, to tell him how stupid he’d been for trusting Troy and being so god damned needy and pathetic. “I…you…Jesse…” He only half listened to Kyle sputtering and tripping over words, the other half of his brain was spireling into an angry storm of emotions and memories. The first kiss, sloppy, awkward, he’d tried to do better. The disappointment Troy expressed every time they’d made love, how poorly he’d told Jesse he’d performed, had led to him watching porn to try and learn what he was supposed to do. Rarely earning praise, always failing. So many failures. God damn, can’t you even suck a dick right! Jesse heard a whimper, and didn’t even realize he was the one making the sound until a deep voice cut through the swirling darkness in his head. “You’re okay. You’re okay. Breathe. You’re okay. You’re safe. I’m right here. No one’s gonna hurt you. They gotta go through me first.” Ryker. His hands stroking Jesse’s hair, lips so close to Jesse’s ear that Jesse could feel the heat from Ryker’s breath on his neck. Jesse held on to those words like a lifeline and did as he was told. Sucking in a breath that chased some of the wavy lines and dark spots from his vision. “That’s it. Just like that. Now another,” Ryker encouraged, and Jesse did as he was told, until they were breathing in synch and Jesse had pressed his head to Ryker’s shoulder, letting the larger man keep him from tumbling from the chair into an exhausted heap. He was dimly aware of Kyle calling his name through the phone. It didn’t seem as important as listening to Ryker, though. “Here, let me have the phone,” Ryker said, his gentle stroking of Jesse’s hair never wavering. Jesse let the phone go and closed his eyes, completely drained. “Kyle, hey it’s me. No. No, he’s not going to be able to get back on the phone with you.” Silence for a moment, or maybe Jesse had dozed off, he wasn’t sure. “I don’t care if you have questions, right now he is in no shape to answer them.” Ryker’s voice was firm, but there was nothing angry or threatening in it. Jesse hoped Kyle backed off, as much as he appreciated it, he didn’t want Ryker to yell at his cousin again. “The best thing you can do for him right now is warn the rest of the band and fire those incompetent assholes you’ve been using for security.” Now that sounded like a really good idea, Jesse thought, as exhaustion tugged him closer and closer to the dark mercies of sleep. “No. I don’t think you coming up here right now will help.” A pause, no more than a heartbeat. Funny, Jesse thought as he listened to the sound of Ryker’s heart, it could almost be a song. “No. Kyle, I’m pretty sure that exact same impatience is what’s nearly cost you your best friend so do everyone a favor and back off until he asks to see you.” Please, Jesse wanted to add. “Too bad. I don’t want to hear it right now. It isn’t about you. It’s about Jesse. You’ll find out what he wants you to know when he wants to tell you, not a minute before. Goodbye Kyle, I’m hanging up now. I suggest you think long and hard about how you contributed to all of this before you talk to him again.” Jesse heard a beep, followed by what sounded like the plastic on wood. Ryker must have set the phone done, he thought, too tired to lift his head off Ryker’s shoulder. “You still with me Jesse?” “T-Tired.” “Okay. Well then, you gotta get up. Your beds down the hall.” “J-just wanna s-sleep here.” Ryker’s chuckle was warm, pleasant, different from Troy’s sarcasm laden one, it made Jesse want to cuddle with the sound. “How about we get you situated in the chair a bit better then.” Jesse could feel Ryker rearranging him in the chair, tipping it back, making sure he was settled, and covering him with a blanket, all while still managing to stroke his hair. Safe, he was safe. The word kept echoing over and over in Jesse’s head as he drifted off to sleep. [***] Ryker wanted to punch something. No, correction, what he wanted was to punch Troy and Kyle for good measure. Knowing that Jesse had been hurt by someone who should have cherished him was one thing, but hearing him berate himself, and apologize over and over to someone who should have done everything in his power to figure out the truth left him glad his cousin was all the way in Seattle at the moment, because it would be far to tempting to bury a fist in his face if he were there. How the fuck could Kyle have isolated Jesse so badly that he’d literally had no one he could talk to. He sure as hell hoped there was more to it that he hadn’t learned yet, because right now, Kyle was almost as guilty as Troy. Nothing he’d heard so far sat right with him, and not a god damn thing meshed with what he’d thought he’d known about Jesse and Kyle’s friendship, one that went back more than half their lives. His leg hurt, sitting on the floor wasn’t doing it any favors, but moving seemed like a worse plan. At the moment, Jesse was calm, and from the way his breathing was evening out, Ryker knew he wasn’t far from sleep, something he desperately needed at the moment. Maybe in the morning, after a good meal and some strong coffee, he could convince Jesse to give him Troy’s last name. Just because Jesse wasn’t ready to file a police report yet didn’t mean Ryker couldn’t do some digging into this guy, see if any skelatons popped up that he could use to keep him away from Jesse permanently. It was too much to hope the guy was going to fuck off completely, guys like him rarely admitted defeat, and right now, there was no way of knowing if Troy knew where the cabin was or had some other meals of tracking Jesse. It was a sick thought, but one Ryker couldn’t dismiss off hand. That Jesse had destroyed his phone was a plus, seeing as how Troy was just the kind of sick bastard to track him using GPS. Or low jack. Shit. Ryker thought of Jesse’s truck parked just outside. Without the right equipment, there was no way he could sweep it for a tracking divice. His only hope was that it was too god damned cold for the thing to work properly. Still, he’d have to let Jesse know about the very real possibility that he could be tracked to that location, and hope it didn’t send him spieling headlong into another panic attack. As he continued to stroke Jesse’s hair, Ryker went over everything Jesse had told him, while pondering a few things that had gone unsaid. There was no doubt the sick son of a bitch had targeted Jesse, likely from day one, but what had been the end game? To control Jesse? Destroy him? Or had the sadistic fuck just gotten his jollies tormenting the beautiful young man and reducing him to tears? Stupid. Pathetic. Worthless. Loser. All words Jesse had used to describe himself on more than one occasion. Words that had seeped into his music, warping it. Words used to break someone down, erode their sense of self-worth and confidence until they could easily be manipulated. Jesse’s youth, coupled with his innocence and inexperience would have made him an easy target and there was nothing Ryker hated more than assholes that preyed on the vulnerabilities of others. Ryker’s gaze darted to the phone laying on the floor beside him. The net up here was spotty at best, but if he could catch a signal, he could do some digging into what it took to get a protective order, and maybe take a look at Jesse’s social media profiles as well. See if someone wasn’t stalking them and leaving little tidbits of bullshit scattered all over the web. Protective order first though, and while Ryker was loath to leave Jesse alone, if only for a few seconds, he eased away, and went to retrieve a notepad off the end table and a couple pens. The moment Ryker stopped touching his hair, Jesse whimpered and curled up in a tight little ball, knees tucked almost to his chin. Seething, Ryker swallowed down his fury to focus on the task at hand. Being upset at how badly Jesse had been terrorized wasn’t going to help anything right now, the only thing that would help was doing everything in his power to ensure it never happened again. Rubbing his leg, he eyed the hardwood floor grimly. He’d be in no shape to defend Jesse if he couldn’t even walk. The muscles had been cramping and seizing up for the past twenty minutes. He stretched it and walked around a bit until it didn’t feel so bad anymore, then grabbed a cushion off the couch along with a couple throws and arranged them beside the chair before slowly easing himself down to sir on them. Much better. With the phone in one hand, while he resumed stroking Jesse’s hair with the other, he started looking into the steps Jesse would need to take to get an order of protection issued. It quickly became evident that he qualified for one. Troy had caused Jesse both physical and mental harm, and his behaviors classified as stalking. Finding proof that he posed a future risk would make Jesse’s case even stronger though. Ryker made a note to ask Jesse about any specific threats or property damage Troy might have cause. While he believed Jesse’s statement that he hadn’t been raped, he made a note to ask about any other kind of sexual assault that might have taken place, especially the day Jesse had woken to Troy in his bedroom. He also made a note to look into home invasion laws, and the statue of limitations on filing charges. Jesse might not want to talk to the authorities now, but he might regret that choice in the future, or change his mind if Ryker could help him realize that it would be in his best interests to pursue justice, if only to get Troy off the street so he couldn’t be a threat to Jesse or anyone else. The process for filing wasn’t so simple though. It was going to take some phone calls to figure out how many places Jesse would have to obtain paperwork from, not to mention that there would be a court hearing involved. Perhaps, it was something a lawyer could handle without Jesse having to appear, it was something to look into anyway. When he’d researched all he could about protective orders, he started taking a look at Jesse’s profiles on social media. All the public ones were filled with photos of him and the band on tour, tour dates, concert and studio footage. Unless he missed his guess there should be private profiles too that he’d never be able to find without Jesse’s help. On one site, under the community tab, Ryker found public posts where people had tagged Jesse. Most of them talked about the music, a show someone had seen, asking when they were going to come to particular places, or what inspired him. Some asked about equipment choices, others asked how to get noticed, Kyle read where Jesse answered fan questions and thanked them from coming to shows. Other threads, particularly complements on his looks, he’d simply replied with a thumbs up. The overzealous ones, who talked about wanting to sit on his lap and listen to him sing, or where they asked how talented his mouth was outside of singing, Jesse had flat out ignored. Someone else, however, had not. Ryker read one reply beneath a posters thread that said ‘you only wish you could touch the real thing.’ He clicked on that profile, and frowned at the name the individual had given themselves. AppLeofDisCord Something about that term seemed familiar, at least, if he was reading it correctly it did. Apple of Discord. Wasn’t that from a book or something? He tried to think back to his high school days but English had never been his favorite subject. Opening another window, he did a search for it, not surprised at the connection to mythology, he read on. No way was it’s links to the trojan war a coincidence. He jotted the name, particularly the way it had been spelled, down on the pad, and did more digging. The birthdate listed on the profile put the individual at thirty-six years old, living in Palm Beach, with an occupation listed as entrepreneur, funny, but as Ryker looked through the photos the one thing that jumped out at him was that there were dozens of shots of what looked to be the same individual, but in none of them did their face show. All of them were either shots from behind, sillouettes, or cut the head off completely. The posts were either sarcastic memes, or elitist, priveledged reteroric relating to taxes, commerce, and social programs. There were even several that belittled and demeened artists and creative individuals for trying to make a living with their art, rather than getting a real job. Ryker glanced up at where Jesse still slept peacefully and shook his head. If the lyrics he’d heard Jesse singing over and over as he tweeked the lyrics and the progression of song from plucking at guitar chords to smooth playing was any indication of how songs came together, it was a great deal of work indeed. Ryker read through the posts until he grew too tired to keep his eyes open. He shut his phone down and put it on the charger, fixed the couch, added a few more logs to the fire, and stretched out, getting comfortable. Even as he drifted off to sleep, the posts he’d read through continued to run through his head. AppLeofDisCord, who he had no doubt was Troy, was one fucked up individual indeed. [***] Jesse woke feeling so warm and comfortable that at first, he didn’t want to move. Of course the incessant pressure in his bladder soon prompted him out of the warm depths of his chair. He took care of business, then returned to the living room to notice Ryker still fast asleep on the couch. Not wanting to disturb him, Jesse quietly grabbed a bowl of cereal and settled in the chair beside the living room window to eat it. The morning sky was streaked with clouds and the remnants of sunrise colors that was simply stunning. He took his time eating as he watched the colors fade, feeling more relaxed and well rested than he had in a long time. He knew he owed that to Ryker, his presence, and patience in giving him the chance to open up without making assumptions when Jesse struggled to find the right words. At least now Kyle knew the truth. He knew that didn’t make all the fuck up’s better, but then, there was nothing he could do to make up for those. Except the music. If he could just tap into a place that wasn’t so dark, maybe he could get them some material they could use once they had his replacement onboard. He drank the milk in the bottom of the bowl, deposited it in the sink and detoured to his room to grab a few things before returning to his chair to stare out the window. Even the beauty of the morning didn’t lighten up the words. Dark lines etched into the paper, crossed out and scribbled again. Pain, rage, why hadn’t he ever been good enough? It seemed like the more he worked to create the music he loved, the more he lost things along the way. His folks, his privacy, his best friend, his band, hell, even pieces of his sanity, when was it going to end? How much more blood would he have to shed until it would be enough. Or maybe it would never be enough until there was nothing left of him but old interviews and photos trapped between the pages of dusty magazines. Was this the universes way of telling him he’d fucked up? Maybe if he’d listened to his folk, toed the line, let them mold him into the person they’d wanted him to be, none of this would have happened. Maybe he’d reached too high, grasped at greatness instead of being content with a common, ordinary life. For as much as he’d pursued happiness in chasing his dream, could he really say he was happy? The more those uncertainties flowed across the paper, the obvious it became that it was another song they couldn’t use. Frustrated with himself and his inability to even do that for him, he tossed the pad aside and snatched up his sketchbook. Maybe if he could purge the darkness… Jesse lost himself in the skirch, skirch, skirch, of charcoal on paper and the smoothness of it smudging beneath his fingertips. Slowly, wings took shape, feathers drooping, missing in places where the bones shone through. Several littered the bottom edge of the page, crumpled, shredded, floating in a pool of muck. He used dark blues and purples to highlight the tattered places and bits of revealed skull, edged the tips of the wings in flames, and was starting on the facial features when something brushed his hair. Turning, he saw Ryker standing behind him, looking down at the sketchbook in his lap. “I’m sorry,” Ryker muttered, jerking his hand away from Jesse’s hair like it had burned him. “I need to stop doing that. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to pet your hair.” He looked sleep rumbled, bleary eyed, and flustered, rubbing his fingers together like he needed to do something with them to keep him from touching Jesse’s hair again. “It grounds me too,” Jesse remarked softly, ducking his head as he said it. Needy bitch. Attention Whore. Jesse grit his teeth to keep from screaming. “You don’t need to say that to spare my feelings,” Ryker said. “I shouldn’t touch you without permission. It’s my mistake, not yours. I don’t want you to be afraid to tell me to keep my hands to myself.” “I’m not,” Jesse said, meeting Ryker’s gaze in the hopes that Ryker would have an easier time believing him that way. “Then why did you tense up when you said it?” “You don’t miss anything, do you?” Ryker’s smile looked tired, but it was a nice one just the same. “Not when it’s important. Didn’t miss you not answering the question either.” “It does ground me, and I do like it,” Jesse said. “But…” “I realized how needy that sounded,” Jesse said. “I don’t mean to be an attention whore.” Ryker frowned, eyebrows scrunching up. “First off, you didn’t seek out any attention at all, I gave it to you, without getting permission first, which puts sole responsibility on me,” Ryker said. “And secondly, enjoying basic human contact doesn’t make you an attention whore. I expect it will take you awhile to realize that the things Troy said to you were never a reflection on you. It was all about him trying to erode your self-confidence so he could keep you under his thumb.” Ducking his head, Jesse shrugged, because it was hard to see that when Troy’s words were constantly cropping up where he least wanted them. “Jesse, look at me please.” Ryker’s voice was soft, not a hint of demand in it, just patience and a plea, making it easy for Jesse to do as he’d asked. “You deserve to be loved,” Ryker said. “You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. If you want your hair stroked, or your hand held, or just to sit beside someone and stare out into the night without saying a word, then you deserve to have all of that and more. Don’t let some arrogant piece of shit steal your joy.” Jesse’s eyes prickled with tears and if he hadn’t been so afraid of it being unwelcome, he’d have hugged the hell out of Ryker because it was one of the kindest things anyone had ever said about him. Not his music, just him, Jesse Winters, the awkward band kid who’d been so sheltered growing up that he hadn’t even known what shotgunning was until the night Griffin had shown him. “It’s not night, but, we could stare out at the snow, if you want to drag a chair over,” Jesse asked shyly. “I can do that,” Ryker said. “Besides, I owe you a few truths of my own.”
  7. layla

    Chapter 10

    I just added another 1200 words, I thought they were done with their talk, but I was wrong. Now the chapter is complete
  8. layla

    Chapter 10

    In the living room, Jessie shoved the coffee table off to the side of the room and turned the easy chair around so it was facing the couch. It was unexpected, Ryker would have figured Jesse would be more comfortable not having to look at him. Ryker sat on the couch and watched Jesse get settled in the chair. He looked as tired and worn out as Ryker felt. “I wasn’t drinking or getting high on tour,” Jesse said softly. “I mean, I was drinking, sometimes, a couple here and there to take the edge off, but not the way Kyle things. Not to excess.” “Okay,” Ryker said, and waited. When it became evident to Jesse that was all Ryker would say, Jesse took a deep breath, and continued on. “At the start of our tour we played at some smaller venues, we always did that to brush off the road rust, after down time and recording,” Jesse said. “One night we were at this festival and after we got done playing I wanted to check out the other bands and some of the performance art. I um, I always made sure to change up my look when I did that shit. Tie my hair back, wear a baseball cap, anything to blend in. Figured I was doing a good job of it, since no one bothered me.” “Tell me you at least took a guard with you when you were doing that?” Ryker remarked when Jesse paused, wanting to smack a palm to his face when Jesse shook his head. “The point was to blend in, not to draw attention to myself, plus, I couldn’t stand those guys. They did a shit job of keeping people from getting backstage, or onto our bus. I figured I was better off on my own.” “How’d that work out for you.” “Shitty.” Ryker nodded then, and fell silent so Jesse could continue, though he really wanted to press him more on that the guards had been doing if it hadn’t been keeping people away from the band who shouldn’t have been around them. “Anyway, I ended up standing near one of the smaller stages watching this mix of drums and dancers, and this guy came over and stood beside me, started talking about the beat and the dance. We ended up wandering around the festival, talking and grabbing a bite to eat from one of the venders. It was fun, I enjoyed spending time with him. We exchanged numbers, but, I didn’t expect to hear from him or anything. We left in the morning, headed for the next venue and it was business as usual, so when I got a call from him a few days later I was blown away. He wanted to know if I wanted to have dinner with him. I explained that I couldn’t because I was out of town. I’d never told him I was Jesse Winters, just Jesse. I didn’t realize he already knew.” Jesse was fidgeting again, so Ryker thought it best to remain silent and still and hope not to spook him in any way. “I was so stupid,” Jesse muttered. “I can see that now.” Jesse’s shoulders had slumped, his eyes were on the floor, and from the way he was twisting the bottom of his shirt, Ryker doubted it would ever regain it’s original shape. “He showed up after a concert,” Jesse admitted. “He told me he’d really, really wanted to take me out and since I obviously couldn’t come to him, he’d come to me. I was flattered. That was a lot of effort for him to go through. I jumped at the chance to go out with him. Like I said, I was stupid. A smart person would have been worried about him going through all that effort for someone he’d only talked to once in person and a hand full of times on the phone, but not me. I was all gun-ho and feeling special. He was right. I was a fuckin’ attention whore and deserved what I got.” “Bullshit,” Ryker blurted, causing Jesse’s head to jerk up. “You’re human and I’m guessing being in a band doesn’t give you a lot of opportunities to date.” “Not with all the traveling we do,” Jesse admitted. “I’d um, never dated anyone before.” Now that was revealing, but not shocking, considering what little Jesse had revealed about his rather strict and focused upbringing. As a tear slid down Jesse’s cheek, Ryker wished he could be the one to wipe it away. “I’d kind of been afraid to date,” Jesse admitted. “The media is shitty and sticks it’s noses and cameras into everything and I didn’t want someone I cared about to be harassed or have their privacy intruded on. And then there’s the never knowing if someone wanted to date me for me, or because I’m famous and shit. It just seemed like too much of a headache.” “I can see where you wouldn’t want to deal with all that.” Ryker replied. “But something tells me that this guy your talking about convinced you there were ways around it.” “His name is Troy.” “Okay.” And there it was, the confirmation Ryker had been hoping for. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, waiting to hear the rest of the story. “He had his own money. Clubs and property he owned, was a success in his own right, and he had more free time than I did, so, after that first dinner, he’d pop up whenever he wanted, and we’d go out to some little hole in the wall place where no one would pay us any attention.” “Even your band?” “Yeah.” “Is it because you’re not out to them?” Ryker asked pointedly. “I’m out to my band, and my fans,” Jesse said. “I didn’t see any point in keeping it a secret that I’m gay.” “But you didn’t see a point to introduce them to your boyfriend either.” Jesse sighed and shook his head. “At first, I wasn’t even sure we were dating, and it’s not like we’d ever been big into after parties and shit. Griffin usually went to those so the rest of us didn’t have to, so slipping away to do something I enjoyed was easy.” “And of course, no guard.” “I didn’t think I needed one,” Jesse replied. “Like I said, we were going to quiet places, and being very discreet. We didn’t make reservations under our real names and I enjoyed that time to just be me, not Jesse Winters Rock Star. Plus, he said it would be best if we kept it under wraps and didn’t tell anyone. I believed him when he talked about not wanting his business broadcasting around anymore than I did. Once I figured out we were dating I did tell Kyle I was seeing someone, just not who, and I asked him to keep it to himself. He understood what I meant about not wanting it to get out publicly because it had happened to him and ruined the relationship he’d been forging.” “So how long before things went bad?” “I fucked up,” Jesse said softly, and Ryker had to lean forward a bit more just to be able to hear him clearly. “How?” “I didn’t notice that this waiter was flirting with me. How was I supposed to know? I thought he was just being nice. I was exhausted, and I just wanted to eat and go back to the hotel and sleep. I hadn’t even wanted to go out that night, but Troy showed up, and he’d come such a long way I’d have felt like an unappreciative dick if I’d told him I wasn’t in the mood.” That statement didn’t sit right with Ryker, who reached out and touched Jesse lightly on the line to get him to meet Ryker’s gaze again. “Would you have felt that way because it was your genuine feelings about the situation, or would you have felt that way because Troy told you that you should?” Jesse’s eyes widened a fraction and Ryker waited for the response he was almost certain hew as going to hear. “I-I…” Jesse stammered. “It should be an easy question,” Ryker prodded. Jesse huffed and scrubbed at his face. “I told him I was tied.” “And” “And I let him talk me into going,” Jesse softly admitted. “Talk you into going, or guilt you into going?” Jesse growled, and Ryker had never been happier to see a spark of fury in someone’s eyes because it told him that Troy hadn’t broken Jesse completely. Ryker never looked away, just held his gaze until Jesse opened his mouth and spit out the truth. “Guilted, okay, is that what you wanted to hear? He said I was being an asshole and he didn’t know if he wanted to continue to bother with someone who couldn’t appreciate all the effort he went through to see them.” “It’s not about what I want to hear,” Ryker said calmly. “It’s about the truth and hopefully helping you see that him saying things like that to you was wrong. Obviously he knew what you did for a living. If someone was truly being supportive and cared about another person then they would think of that person’s health, well being, and wishes, before their own. What you just admitted to tell me he didn’t.” Jesse dropped his gaze. “I know he didn’t really care about me. I don’t need your help to figure that out.” “Fair enough. I’m still curious about the flirting though, how did that play in?” “’cause I didn’t notice that’s what the waiter was doing. I was having trouble making my order clear, everything was just, bleh that night. I remember trying o read the menu and the letters were swimming all over the page. The waiter made a joke about chicken fingers. I love chicken fingers, I was so grateful he took the choice out of my hands. Too grateful.” Ryker coked an eyebrow at hearing that, knowing there was more, and likely nothing good from the innocent exchange. “We ate, he paid, and drove me back to his hotel. We always stayed at whatever hotel he’d booked. Privacy, he said, ‘cause if media got wind of where the band was staying they might try and stake it out. I wasn’t in the mood to fool around. I was exhausted by that point. It was hard enough putting one foot in front of the other.” The trickle of tears down Jesse’s cheeks had grown to a deluge, and he sniffled, and half-choked on a sob. Ryker waited him out, but it was hard to be patient when what he really wanted to do was pull Jesse into his arms and hug him. “I never saw his hand coming at me,” Jesse said. “It was just a blur. Then he started shaking me, and yelling, but I was so stunned I don’t remember all of what he said. I was still trying to wrap my head around what happened when he pulled me to him and held on to me. He was stroking my hair and telling me over and over that he was sorry but I shouldn’t make him so mad. I remember him asking how he was supposed to feel when he’d come all that way for me and taken me out only for me to flirt with someone else and then refuse him.” “What the fuck?” Ryker growled. “You know that’s bullshit right?” When Jesse shrugged Ryker swallowed hard and gently covered Jesse’s hand with his. As expected, touch brought Jesse’s attention back to him, got him to meet his gaze and focus, even if he did snatch his hand away in the process. “There was no excuse for him hitting you,” Ryker told him. “You didn’t cause him to do that. He chose to do that because he was acting like a spoiled brat that got told ‘no’ and hitting you was the same as throwing a tantrum.” Jesse remained silent, a telling sign that no, he wasn’t fully on board with the fact that it hadn’t been his fault. “Jesse?” Another shrug, and now the t-shirt just looked mangled, “I accepted his apology,” Jesse said softly. “And I let him…we…he got what he wanted, okay.” Ryker shook his head and gazed into Jesse’s eyes, “Not okay.” “I always accepted his apologies.” “How many times did he hit you.” Jesse shrugged yet again, but Ryker knew hurrying him along wasn’t going to help anyone so he waited as Jesse seemed to be thinking back. Clearly it had been a frequent thing. “I thought he’d stop if I stopped fucking up, but I couldn’t ever do anything right.” Ryker felt tears prickle his eyes at the desponded tone of Jesse’s voice and how absolutely fragile he looked. “Some people just like to hurt others. It makes them feel powerful. Gives them a sense that they are controlling that person. When Jesse drew his knees to his chest, hugged them, and started sobbing, Ryker was afraid he’d shut down completely. He slid off the couch to kneel in front of Jesse and rest his hand on Jesse’s head. Jesse trembled, but when he didn’t pull away, Ryker started stroking whole Jesse shook and cried and kept on stroking until he’d cried himself out and sat sniffling and trying to wipe the tears away. “It started to effect my ability to perform, sometimes physically, sometimes, emotionally. The band confronted me about it, wanting to know what was going on, but I was too ashamed to tell them I was getting my ass kicked by a boyfriend who I couldn’t even manage to break up with correctly. It was too pathetic.” “Wait. Wait.” Ryker said, mulling over what Jesse had just said. “So did you break up with him or didn’t you.” “I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. I told him to go away and not come back. I told him we were through.” “And he kept coming back.” “Yeah. Pretty sure he bribed my guard. He got into my hotel room a couple times, and the morning of our last concert, he got into my room at my house.” Ryker was glad he was on the floor because he was pretty sure he’d have fallen over otherwise, it was completely mind blowing to think that Jesse’s security guards, the people who should have been protecting him, had effectively been bought by the person who’d been abusing him. “When he showed up in your hotel room, did he get violent?” Ryker asked. “I didn’t want him to, so I went with him, wherever he wanted to go that night, and I did whatever he wanted, not that it always helped. Sometimes he’d just be so pissed by the time I got there that he’d…” Jesse swallowed hard and rubbed his eyes. “He thought I was seeing other people. He thought I was lying to him about where I was going and what I was doing after shows. By the end of the tour, things were so bad with him, and with the band, that I had to get the hell away from everyone.” “Understandable,” Ryker replied. “What isn’t understandable is why you never told Kyle or the rest of your band what was happening. There had to be some point when it would be better to tell them then to keep letting them think you were deliberately doing things that was wrecking your ability to play.” Jesse puffed up like a wet hen and nearly came out of his chair, fury once more flashing in his eyes. “And they should have known I would never do that shit!” Jesse snapped. “Yeah, I should have told them when they first questioned me about it, but I would have told me if they hadn’t lobbed accusations at me when I was already dealing with way to much. By then I’d decided to deal with it myself. Fuck them, they weren’t being friends and the guards sure as hell weren’t looking out for me, so I…ran. And hid. Up here. Really fuckin’ pathetic huh.” “No,” Ryker said, “not in the least bit. You were in a shitty position with no clear way out and no one to turn to, yet you got out. You made it up here, you got away from him, and please tell me that once you did you filed a police report?” Jesse’s silence was once again more telling than words. “Why the hell not?” “I wanted to put it past me,” Jesse said. “I put my house up for sale, I never have to go back there again. My band hates me, and maybe that’s for the best, since if I never go on the road again he’ll never be able to find me again. I know I can’t stay here indefinatly, but I figured coming up here would give me time enough to figure out where to go and what to do next.” “Only I showed up.” “Yeah.” “And it suddenly dawned on you that you were so terrified you couldn’t manage to be around anyone for fear that they might try and hurt you.” Jesse blinked, mouth falling open like he wanted to say something, then he snapped it shut, sputtered, and took a slow, steady, breath. “Okay, yeah, sorta, but not anyone, just, you’re really…” he gestured towards Ryker, who got the point pretty quick. “I’m bigger than you,” Ryker supplied. “And so was Troy.” “Yeah.” “And I’m guessing he was pretty fit too? Looked like he worked out?” Jesse nodded. “I sort of figured, with how violently you reacted the day I grabbed your arm to treat your cuts,” Ryker said. “Sometimes, I can’t see you past my vision of him in my head, looming and I want to hide.” “Thank you for telling me that. Now I can be more careful to not make you feel that way.” “It isn’t all the time.” “That’s good to know.” Jesse continued playing with the twisted mess of his shirt, something Ryker was coming to realize was a means of self-soothing. There was something almost rhythmic about it, paced, like the almost precise lines he’d seen running up Jesse’s arm, a methodical pattern that quite possibly worked as Jesse’s means of grounding himself in the present. If it was, then it was something Ryker was extremely familiar with. Once he earned Jesse’s trust, maybe the beautiful singer would allow Ryker to help him find a safer way of coping. “Is it okay if I ask you a couple questions?” Ryker said, fully prepared to back off if Jesse said no. For his part, Jesse was nibbling on his bottom lip, another one of his tells. “As long as you don’t mind if I don’t answer if I don’t like the question.” Ryker flashed him a smile, hoping to put him at ease. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” “Then okay.” “You said Troy got into your house on the last day of your tour,” Ryker began. “Kyle told me that was the worse concert out of all the other ones you had issue on. So how bad…” Now it was Ryker’s turn to hesitate, because he both wanted to and didn’t want to know what had happened that day. “It was the first time I fought back,” Jesse said softly, shivered and hugged himself tight. “I woke up to him touching me, trying to…I didn’t want him to…I told him no…there was this lamp, on the end table. I hit him with it and he…completely fuckin’ lost it and choked me ‘til I nearly passed out, then he threw the lamp at me, and ripped one of the pictures off the wall and shattered it on me. I pulled a Steve Tyler with the scarfs that night to hide my throat so they wouldn’t see the bruises but I couldn’t hit all the notes.” “Sonofabitch,” Ryker muttered. “That fucking son of a bitch. Did he rape you?” Jesse shook his head no, and actually looked Ryker in the eyes as he did it, which helped ease some of the tension in Ryker’s gut after listening to the way things had started. “Him figuring out where the concerts were would be easy,” Ryker said. “But him finding out where you lived had to take money and probably a fair bit of persuasion too. Everything about him screams stalker, Jesse. One that isn’t going to go away even if you quit the band.” When Jesse’s eyes widened and his lower lip trembled, Ryker knew that he’d never even considered that possibility. “I’m not trying to scare you,” Ryker said gently, “I just want you to know that ti’s a very real possibility so that you can give some real consideration to filing a police report.” At that Jesse once again shook his head no in adamant refusal. “Why not?” “If the press gets hold of it…” Jesse begun. It was on the tip of Ryker’s tongue to say fuck the press, that Jesse’s safety was more important. He could understand wanting to maintain his privacy, but Troy was a menace and the longer he was on the street the longer he was a threat to Jesse and anyone else he managed to sucker in. He opened his mouth to tell him just that, only to be stopped by Jesse’s tears and the way his shaking had intensified. “You’re not telling me something,” Ryker said softly. “Jesse. Did he threaten you if you went to the cops?” Jesse shook harder, buried his face against his knees and started rocking a little, the picture of turmoil and misery. Sighing, Ryker resumed stroking Jesse’s hair, hoping it calmed him as it had in the past. “I’m going to take that as a yes.” “He s-s-said h-he w-was g-gonna torch t-the w-whole b-band if I t-told,” Jesse stammered through his tears. “S-said h-he c-coulda b-burned me u-up in m-my room t-that day a-and people woulda j-just thought I’d g-gotten drunk and s-set myself on fire.” Ryker scrubbed a hand over his face, understanding Jesse’s fear and the need he would have felt to protect those closest to him even when they’d done a shit job of protecting him. “If you won’t tell the police, I think you at least need to tell Kyle and the rest of the band so they can protect themselves if this guy decides to come after them while he’s looking for you.” Now that got Jesse’s attention. He jerked his head up and the horrified look in his eyes spoke volums for how much he loved them, a love he wasn’t sure any of them, including his cousin, deserved. “You…do you think he will?” “From everything you’ve told me about him, I think he’s the kind of person who would do anything in his power to get his way,” Ryker admitted. “I guess the real question here is do you want to take the chance that he won’t?” Jesse shook his head vehemently, then covered his face with his hand, choking out a small whimper that pierced Ryker’s heart and made him wish, and not for the first time, that he could get his hands on Troy. By the time Jesse calmed down this time, his face was so pale Ryker was afraid he might pass out. “C-can you t-tell K-Kyle?” The questioned, asked in a voice wrecked by emotion, left Ryker wanting to pull him into his arms and protect him from the whole world if need be, but he knew that wasn’t what Jesse needed to help him heal. “No,” Ryker told him as gently as he could manage. “But I can sit here beside you while you tell him.” “He’s just gonna y-yell b-before I can s-say anything.” “Would it be easier to tell Tish or Griffin?” Jesse looked thoughtful. “Griffin was the one that put it in kyle’s head that I was using,” Jesse said. “He kept saying how I was just like his brother, and I felt like shit f-for making h-him think that ‘cause I k-know how b-bad it hit him when his b-brother OD’d b-but I w-wasn’t…” “I know,” Ryker replied. “Don’t you think it’s time he know that too.” Jesse let out a long, shuddering sigh before mumbling beneath his breath. “Would be easier if you did it.” Chuckling, Ryker touched him on the shoulder. “I know.” “But you w-won’t.” “Nope.” Another ragged sigh, Jesse squirmed and just when Ryker was certain he was going to refuse, he quietly asked for the phone. “If he y-yells I’m hanging up on h-him,” Jesse stammered. “If he yells at you, then I’m going to yell at him,” Ryker shot back. The look Jesse shot him was the picture of confusion. “What?” Ryker asked. “He’s your cousin, I’m just the fuck up who’s given you shit since you got here,” Jesse said softly, “why would you defend me against him.” “Because when I look at you I don’t see a fuck up,” Ryker told him. “I see someone who’s been hurt and made to feel like he had no one to turn to. I see someone in pain who tried really hard to find a way out of a shitty situation. I see someone who’s watched out for me when I fell asleep in front of his doorway and brought me back from the brink with his songs more times than I can count. I see someone worth protecting, because that someone has a good heart buried under all those layers of fear, and I think you can be a fierce advocate in your own right, Jesse Winters, if that’s what you set your mind on being.” Jesse gulped, but didn’t look away. “You see all of that.” “Yeah, I do,” Ryker said as he passed him the phone. “I wish I could see it,” Jesse muttered. “Someday, maybe you will.”
  9. layla

    Chapter 9

    God damn, that was cold. Jesse stood covered in the snow that had fallen off the roof, half burying him in icy fluffiness. Frozen by the shock of it, he forgot to move for several seconds, just stood there, shivering, as a glob of snow slithered beneath his collar. Only when the cold seeped through his jeans did he finally move, wading out of the mess and trying to shake the rest of it off on his way to the truck. Jesse loaded the guitars across the back seats carefully, lay his backpack between them, brushed some more snow off his shoulders and closed the door. His bass was still inside along with the old Fender Kyle had gotten him for his 21st birthday and he hated leaving them, but there was no way of knowing if Ryker would move a second time. Hell, Jesse wasn’t even sure he’d be able to look him in the face and ask. He knew he was being stupid, making it down the mountain was going to take more luck than driving ability, but if he stayed… It was too easy to talk to Ryker. Eventually, he’d have spilled his guts and the last thing he wanted to see on Ryker’s face was pity. He already knew he was hopelessly weak and pathetic, no need for Ryker to see it too. He got the plow hooked up then climbed up behind the wheel, his heart still hammering. Tory’s face was everywhere, blurring the ice and the trees. Had Ryker been arguing with him in only a towel? Jesse shook his head, told himself to focus, shoved the key in the ignition, and prayed to every god he could think of that it would start. All it did was grumble. He tried again to the same result. Now the tears that had been stinging his eyes since Kyle had screamed at him about never listening and being dumb completely spilled over. Three times, four times, five, he was about to give up when it finally turned over. By then, he was blinded by his tears. Angrily, he swiped at them, brushing them away enough to see so he could back up. Snow spat out from beneath his tires, the back end twisted and slid. Mentally, he berated himself for his carelessness, and focused on slowing down and turning the truck around before he ended up stuck in a drift. Common sense told him to take his ass back inside, but fear pushed him to keep on this path of lunacy. Nervous flutters twisted in his gut. He hadn’t lied when he said he’d driven in snow before, hell, he’d even used a plow on several occasions, but this was at a whole other level. Trying to maneuver the truck to create a path with little room along the road to shove the snow aside was scary as hell. He hadn’t gone a third of mile before he was cursing himself, a white knuckled grip on the steering wheel, his stomach in knots. The road was, well, there were times when he wasn’t sure where the road was, where he could see the drop off and panicked because the guard rails were buried beneath the snow pack. He was going to die of here and it would be spring before they found him and wasn’t that gonna be the biggest cosmic joke, ‘cause he was twenty-seven and how many would think he’d done it on purpose. The truck slid and he bit his tongue to keep from screaming. His heart was hammering and he was both sweaty and cold. He knew he should turn around but there wasn’t room until he got to the next drive over half a mile away. Slowest half-mile of his life. He spent almost as much time in reverse as he did in drive, getting the snow pushed aside, keeping the tires on something they could grip. His neck was stiff, his shoulders tense, and he couldn’t remember when he’d last taken a good, deep breathe. There was a pounding at his temples that had kept getting worse, and the glare off the snow wasn’t helping anything either. He should have grabbed his sunglasses from the dish by the door he’d kept tossing them in each time he came back in from a smoke. While it had been convenient then, it wasn’t doing a shred of good right now. He told himself to relax, that it couldn’t be much further now until the next drive, but with every minute he traveled, his fear just kept ramping up more and more. By the time the drive came into view, there was a line of sweat dripping between his shoulder blades and his stomach was in knots. Someone there had plowed, completely obliterating his resolve to turn around. He was so grateful he wanted to get out and kiss them. Now there was actually a chance of reaching the bottom. He kept the truck on the road, inching down the mountain, stomach cramping so bad he was certain the chicken and biscuits were trying to force their way back up his throat. He grazed a guard rail and swore, easing away from it, pain radiating from his neck through his shoulders and outward down his back. At one point he skid, one tire going partially off the road, saved only by a very careful correction that nearly sent him spinning in the opposite direction. He did stop then, crooked in the center of the road, harsh breathing filling the truck, his fingers gripping the wheel so tight he couldn’t loosen his hold. Warm tears dripped down his cheeks before he even realized he was crying and he slammed his head against the wheel hard enough to honk the horn. Where was he gonna go now? Not west, he couldn’t go back there, he just, he never wanted to see that house again. Kyle had sounded so fed up with him over the phone and he doubted Tish would take his call though he’d have loved to stretch out beside her, his head on her shoulder, the feel of her arms around him, letting him know he was safe and wanted and that they’d never leave him alone. Only…she’d been the first one to suggest that he either clean up his act or leave the band. Wherever he went from here it was going to have to be without them, or anyone. Teeth clenched, he relaxed his fingers enough to move them, opening and closing them to try and ease the tension before he shoved open the door. The winds were picking up again, and as he walked to the guardrail and looked over, he cursed at how far he still had left to go to get down. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t make it, if they could remember him as something that wasn’t shattered and wounded and clumsily trying to duct tape his frayed pieces back together. Maybe….maybe it would be best if he didn’t try and save the truck the next time it slid towards the edge of the road. Climbing back in, he told himself it really would be better. It would put their worries to rest and allow them to move forward. They were all such brilliant musicians, so creative, so talented, it had always been an honor to get on stage with them. To see their faces come alive with the light and thrill that could only be glimpsed while living beneath the lights. God he’d loved the adrenaline coursing through his veins when the people would chant his name and reach up to him. Attention whore! Troy’s voice snarled through his mind and Jesse ducked his head, ashamed despite the fact that the man was hundreds of miles away. That had been the problem right there. Just how much he’d loved the praise, the confirmation that he’d succeeded in something his parents had always told him would be a colossal waste of his time. Shoulders slumped, he returned to the vehicle and started it up again, continuing his slow descent down the mountain. He should have stayed put. Five minutes into his painful procession he felt the truck slide as one tire partially skid off the road. There was a moment when he took his hands off the wheel and prayed it would be painless, then the front end spun and he panicked, wrenched the wheel, and stepped hard on the gas, saving it even as he wept, fishtailed, and narrowly missed hitting a tree head on. Instead, he’d ended up scraping the passenger’s door along the side of it, a long, loud screech of metal on bark that had caused the truck to shudder before he’d gotten the truck back to the center of the road again. Wrenching the wheel had saved it, then he fishtailed and almost sent the whole thing over, before it spun, coming to rest lodged against the guardrail with a sickening thud that jarred the whole truck and sent a bolt of pain rocketing through him. There was no way that was gonna be cheap to fix. He hated what they were going to tell him at the body shop so soon after the incident with the fire hydrant. Only… …he didn’t have to worry about that now did he, since he wasn’t ever going back there? Pushing at his door was useless, between the snow and the buried metal pushed up against the frame, so he carefully moved things around in the cab so he could scoot out the other side and take a look. Not good, not good at all. There was no way to fit between the truck and the guardrail to try and dig it out, even if he had a shovel, which he didn’t and the sun was setting to boot. He’d hoped to at least be back on the main highway by then, but then, Ryker had been right about how bad the road had been, even with the lucky patch of pre-plowed road, there had still been so much work to do clearing a path that he’d lost the bulk of the daylight he’d had. Maybe… …his gloves were thick, heavy and warm, he slipped them on and wiggled beneath the truck to the far tires, trying to clean the snow from around the tires with his hands. The ground was freezing, cold and damp seeping through his sweatshirt and jeans. He was shivering uncontrollably before he got the first tire done, biting his lip hard enough to bleed as he forced himself to continue. Wiggling to the second tire was painful, every moment sent harder tremors through his body, his teeth chattered and he was beginning to feel as if his very bones were freezing. By the time he was finished and wiggled out from beneath the truck the sun was lower, crimson streaks through a gunmetal gray sky. There was nothing he could do for the damage now, best try and rock the truck a bit, see if he could get himself unstock, but first, he needed dry clothes. Fumbling with the button of his jeans, he finally got it open, but peeling the wet denim off was hard as hell, and the dry denim got stuck going back up his legs. He wiggled around, legs sticking out the passenger’s side as he squirmed and kicked until he’d pulled them up over his hips. Pulling on a fresh t-shirt was easier, and he topped it with a fleece hoodie, in the hopes of conserving any warmth his body had left. He yanked on a second pair of socks too, before lacing his boots and slipping back behind the wheel. Forward, backwards, cut the wheel left, then right, four-wheel drive engaged, but all it seemed to do was dig him deeper and deeper into the slush his tires created. The sun was lower now too, which meant that even if he did get out of there he’d have to finish navigating down in the dark. Not like he expected anyone to come along with a set of pull chains to wrench him free. Best to turn off the truck, conserve power and his own dwindling energy. Come up with a plan that might work, instead of just sitting there spinning his wheels, literally. [***] “Kyle, I swear I tried to reason with him but he refused to listen to anything I had to say!” Ryker fumed, having resumed pacing, and worrying, as soon as he’d yanked on some clothes. Kyle’s heavy sigh came through the phone sounding weary and defeated. It made Ryker wish he could punch something, or someone. “Not your fault,” Kyle said. “It was his choice to make. I just wish he’d have gotten on the line, talked to me dammit. There’s not a damn thing in the world we couldn’t have worked out together if he’d just been open and honest about whatever the hell was going on. The shit at the end of the tour wasn’t like him. Jesse doesn’t do things to hurt the music, or at least, he never did before.” “Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you but something’s clearly changed. Maybe he isn’t one to hurt the music but he doesn’t care too much about hurting himself.” “All the more reason for me to wish he’d call, but knowing how much he hates those damn cell phones, he won’t bother to replace his for a while. he told me before he headed up there that he wasn’t bringing his laptop along. I guess I just have to be patient and hope he’ll reach out.” “Sometimes that’s all you can do.” “I know that!” Kyle snapped, then sighed. “Sorry, I don’t mean to snap at you, it’s just…” “You’re worried for your friend, it’s understandable. I’m worried too.” “He was so off, so different from the guy I grew up with,” Kyle replied. “He wouldn’t look me in the eye when we talked, wouldn’t give me a straight answer on anything I approached him about and a few times he flat out avoided me. I just want to know what’s going on.” “He’s been, well, nervous, twitchy, edgy, especially if I stepped too close to him, like he was scared I was gonna hurt him or something.” Ryker admitted, knowing he was getting close to revealing Jesse’s secret, and being very careful about the words he choose. “What!” Ryker moved the phone a few inches away from his ear. “What do you mean? What did you see!” Kyle demanded. “Nothing I could be a hundred percent certain about, but he flinched whenever I stepped into his space and I told you about the day I put my hands on him to check his injuries, he flipped out completely.” “Yeah, I still don’t know what to think about that.” “That’s why I asked if you two had gotten physical with one another, or if he’d gotten into a fistfight with someone in the band.” “Well shit.” “What?” Ryker prodded. “Just that I could have sworn I saw bruises on him, once, when I walked in on him changing shirts. Of course he blew me off, said that’s what happened when you combined a wet stage with an energetic show. He had fallen a couple times that night, so I thought nothing more of it. The fact that he’d showed up an hour and a half late to the show was more concerning.” “Did you think to find out why?” “Don’t you think I tried!” Kyle snapped. “He stonewalled me the same way he stonewalled management.” “And what did his guard have to say about it?” “That he was clueless because Jesse had given him the slip.” Now that got Ryker fuming even more than he already was. “What hell kind of security team are you guys using.” “Not the greatest one, but that is a whole other problem.” Ryker felt the edges of his temper begin to fray. Maybe if they’d been keeping an eye on Jesse like they were supposed to someone would have a fuckin clue who Troy was. With a huff, Ryker tried to stir things towards the music in the hopes of learning something there. “You know I’ve listened to every CD you ever sent me, have many of you guys’ lyrics memorized, but the stuff he was singing up here, it was from a real dark place. About hurting and death and hating who’d become.” “That’s not like Jesse. He always said music was supposed to be a celebration of life. He hated touching on the darker things, said he never felt like he could do them justice.” “Well, I think something happened to change all that.” “What that’s what I want to know! That stubborn bastard. Why run, why not fucking talk to me god damn it!” “Maybe because the moment you had him on the phone you blew up at him!” Ryker shot back. “I didn’t want him ditching you up there.” “You let me handle me, you should have used that chance right there to find out what the hell was going on with Jesse. Fuck! I thought we were okay, for a little while there. Maybe if I hadn’t asked to use the space up here…” “No. I’m glad you asked. At least there was something I could do to help you since Jesse seems bound and determined to keep me at arms length.” “Can’t help but feel I chased him out of here though. I swear I wasn’t trying to, things just spiraled real quick.” “Still not your fault so stop blaming yourself.” Another heavy sigh from Kyle “How have you been holding up?” Now it was Ryker’s turn to sign. “I’ve been better. Wish I’d brought a carton of cigarettes before coming up here. I’m sure my docs would tell me what a good thing it was that I didn’t. the silence sucks though man. At least when Jesse played his music there was that to look forward to.” “Fuck, Ryker are you taking your meds?” “Yeah, but they aren’t helping much.” “Damnit, I’m coming up there. You said the storm stopped now, so there should be no issue making it” “Hell no. Keep your ass in the city, I mean it Kyle if you show up at this cabin before the roads are better, I’m kicking your ass. Besides, we don’t know if he is going to make it off the mountain safely. Last thing we need to add is you running into trouble too.” “Yeah, I, damn, I can’t think about that right now. I need to think he’ll be okay. I don’t even know how to track him down. I know I won’t hear from him. I think I’ll start calling the area hospitals up there in a little while, check and see if he was admitted. Or the highway patrol, see if he had an accident or got pulled out of a snowbank up there. I don’t even know how long to give him to try and get down off the mountain, I’ve sure as hell never tried to drive it after a storm. Hell, everything is so remote so if something happened to him he couldn’t even call for help, since he wrecked his damn phone, so then what? How would we find him? How would anyone even know where to search?” “Whoa, relax, breath Kyle, there’s nothing we can do at this moment except hope he smartens up and turns around. I just don’t want you trying to make it up here and having something happen to you. That wouldn’t do anyone any good either.” “I know, just, damn.” Kyle shot back. “But, I hear ya. I’ll stay put but you call me if you need me. No matter what time. Fuckin’ Jesse, man I am going to have to do some serious reevaluating of our friendship. I told him I didn’t think you should be up there alone.” “Yeah, well, on that you’re kind of right, I probably shouldn’t be up here alone.” “I swear to god when I see him I’m punching his lights out.” “Well, after you do, try taking some time to hear him out, I think he really needs you and you blowing up at him every damn time you two talk isn’t going to get him to open up anytime soon.” “Yeah.” Kyle muttered softly. “I just hate not knowing what the fuck is going on and having to wait to hear anything.” Ryker laughed. “You never did have any patience. Remember the time you got frustrated because the fish weren’t biting and decided to stretch a net across the creek and try to chase the fish into them. You’re lucky you didn’t break an ankle doing that shit. And what about the cherry bombs down the drainpipe? What the hell made you think you could clear a clog that way?” Kyle couldn’t help but laugh at the reminder of follies past, and soon they were trading memories until Kyle informed him he really had to go and get ready for an event “I’ll talk to you soon,” Ryker told him. “You’d better.” And with that final remark, Kyle hung up, leaving Ryker to resume pacing. Criss crossing the living room he passed by the window so many times he lost track. Each time he stared out for a few seconds, hoping to see the hunter green pickup truck pulling into the drive. Turning around would have proved difficult, but far easier than trying to plow his way all the way down. Surely Jesse would come to his senses and realize that before the whole fiasco ended in tragedy. His hopes of that happening faded more and more with every hour that passed. Stupid, Stupid. Stupid. Why the fuck had he shoveled the god damned snow instead of chopping wood, or doing pushups, or god damned going ice fishing. Grumbling, he cursed himself, for that, and for the way he’d lost his temper with Jesse. Frustrated as he might have been, Jesse hadn’t deserved him lashing out like that, not when all his new lyrics included the word stupid like that was Jesse’s personal mantra right now. Might as well be his too, with the way he kept fucking things up. If only he could figure out what the hell he’d done to trigger such a shutdown after the incredible day they’d shared. After an hour, Ryker ceased his pacing and resigned himself to the fact that Jesse wouldn’t be returning and there was no way to find out if he made it down safely or if he’d crashed somewhere out there and gotten himself killed being stupid. He sure hopped, for Kyle’s sake, that it wasn’t the latter. Flopping on the couch, Ryker threw an arm over his eyes, trying to come up with a plan for the rest of the evening but his thoughts kept racing and every time he closed his eyes he saw Jesse’s mangled body trapped in a twisted casket of steel. While the idea of staying off the grid, tucked back in the wilderness somewhere had, at one point in time, sounded quite appealing to him, right now, alone in that cabin, it was the last place he wanted to be. At one point he’d even researched a naturalist program and considered applying to be a forest ranger, but the hours he’d spent alone, even with Jesse right down the hall, had been enough to convince him it would never work, not for him, not anymore. When he’d headed up the mountain he’d eagerly anticipated silence, daily nature walks, a little trapping, some hunting and ice fishing, and evenings spent in front of a fire kicked back with a pile of books. Now though, the last thing in the world he wanted was to sit there listening to the crackle of wood and the wind howling through the trees outside. For the third or fourth time his mind flashed to the equipment he’d spotted in the shed, and despite the waning sun, decided to go for it. Ice fishing with his old man had always been an amazing way to spend time together, and with the space heater, he’d be protected from the cold. Mind made up, Ryker pulled his cold weather gear back on and headed out to retrieve everything he’d need. He told himself the fresh air would do him some good, maybe make it easier to decide what to do now that he’d be stuck up there alone. With any luck, it might even help him sleep. Yeah right, sleep was about as elusive as Jesse at this point. Even calisthenics didn’t exhaust him anymore. They just left him feeling sticky, hot and in need of a shower. The crisp, cold air felt good after hours of staring at the walls, and he made quick work of getting everything set up. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been ice fishing, but he could remember how much he and his cousins had always tried to outdo one another in catching the largest fish. They’d had several holes all over the lake, enough to accommodate their somewhat loud and boisterous clan. With thermoses filled with cocoa and coffee and space heaters between them, they’d talked about school, work, dating, sports, whatever had come to mind. When he’d first spotted the equipment, he’d hoped to come with Jesse, a chance to open a door where he might feel safe revealing some of what was going on with him. There were still so many burning questions he wanted answers to, like who was Troy, and why hadn’t he told Kyle and the other members of his band that he was being hurt. As he dropped his bated hook down the freshly drilled hole, he wondered if Jesse looking for the death he sung so poignantly about in his songs and if so, had leaving been another means of seeking it out. The thought gave him chills, and he had to shove the mangled image of Jesse from his mind for the second time that day. At least brooding about someone else’s troubles allowed him to shove aside his own. After less than an hour of sitting out there on the peaceful ice with nothing but the occasional chattering squirrel to listen to, he’d started to miss the constant conversations that filled the barracks, the pickup basketball games, afternoons on the range, the boasting, the swagger, the aspirations shared over a game of cards, the rumors and gossip that inevitably served as distractions from the chaos going on around them. Then there were the times when the news from back home had been as depressing as some of the things they saw in the fields. The mass shootings, natural disasters, immigration issues, tariffs, Make America Great Again hats, pesticide spills, pipeline protests, terrorist acts, political upheaval and so much more. It was like the whole god damned world had gone crazy and nothing was safe. At times it had made him wonder what the hell he was fighting for and what would be left for him and his buddies when they reached the end of that last tour and decided not to re-enlist again. From everything he’d seen and read, the VA system was in turmoil. Between inadequate medical services, the long distances veterans were forced to travel just to get to the VA clinic closest to them, the debacle that had been the choice program that was supposed to allow vets to seek treatment at facilities near where they lived on the VA’s dime but many times, had resulted in an accumulation of large bills for them. Going to school was always an option, but with the delays in dolling out GI Bill payments, there was always the possibility of pouring all his time and energy into something only to have to drop out before the end due to lack of funds. He had savings, true, but that was supposed to be for a house somewhere, once he’d decided where he wanted to put down roots. Someplace he could have a dog again, maybe a couple. Closing his eyes, he sat there dreaming of that place, waiting for a tug on the line. He could picture it clearly, somewhere with a pond on the property large enough for fishing and swimming on a hot summer day. Woods surrounding it, off the beaten path where traffic sounds would never reach him. Somewhere where the air was clear enough that he could see the stars at night, lay out on the deck with the dogs and maybe a partner if the right guy came along. Hell, he didn’t even know how to go about meeting someone. An internet dating ap maybe, since the bar scene had never held any appeal for him. It was something to think about. He imagined a tree lined drive, a rolling lawn and music, more specifically, the sound of Jesse singing to him, reminding him his feelings were valid even when he was furious at himself for allowing the past to cloud his future. Fuck, he needed to get a grip. Jesse was more than just his music. He was flesh and bone, with his own demons, demons he wished Jesse would let Ryker help him fight. Images of that calm, tranquil house in the country gave way to the one thing he wished he had the opportunity to do. Get his hands on whoever the fuck Troy was and throttle him within an inch of his life for the trauma he’d caused Jesse. Weren’t they supposed to have security for that? Bodyguards watching over them? Surly their status afforded them that much. Why wasn’t the record company providing them with people? Wasn’t that what record companies did? He should have asked Kyle, even if he couldn’t mention why he was asking. He wouldn’t break Jesse’s trust, not in that. Jesse being gone didn’t release him from his oath, and if the gods were willing, than maybe somewhere down the line he’d have the opportunity to see Jesse again, and maybe that time, Jesse would be ready to let Ryker help him. Someone sure as hell needed to. He caught three trout before deciding to hang it up. The fuel level in the heater was getting low and the lantern had started to dim. He’d have to charge it before he could use it again. At least the fish were a good size. The fillets would make a descent dinner. He cleaned them in the shed once he got the rest of the equipment wiped down and stowed away, neat, tidy, like a good soldier. He made sure his blade was sharp, and did a thorough job of descaling, and deboning before carrying them in and rinsing them. From there, he made short work of putting the oil on, seasoning some flour, dipping the fish in a milk and egg mixture, and then into the flour, then back in the wet mix, before dipping them in the flour one last time. Rhythmic, steady, those were the kinds of tasks he could do in his sleep. By the time he was done the pan was heated and he dropped the fillets in to fry, listening to the pop, crackle, sizzle. It was good to have sound again, though it wasn’t as having Jesse there, singing. A loud pop proceeded the splat of grease on his arm, and he jumped back, his eyes drawn to the spot as the oil splattered again, louder. Too hot, he should have turned it down. He was reaching for the knob when it splattered him again, the sharp sting biting into his skin, like the rain of metal shards the day that IED had blown, and suddenly, that’s all he could see, and hear, and smell. Burning flesh, screams, and superheated shards falling from the sky. [***] The cold didn’t hurt anymore, hadn’t for awhile really. Everything was just kind of numb, an imperfect silence broken by howling winds. He’d tried twice more to maneuver the truck free of the snow to no avail and had finally given up to conserve gas. He’d turned off the heater and lights about an hour ago in the hopes of conserving the battery. This late there was no way anyone was going to pass by. So stupid. The cabin had been warm, safe, aside from the recess of his mind that made snakes out of shadows and turned every large figure into Troy. He’d let a memories chase him into an icy wonderland, a self-fulfilling prophesy if he’d ever seem one. I’m going to die here. That thought, more than the lack of shivering and chattering teeth drove home the precariousness of his situation. But what other choices did he have but to stay with the truck out on the road? There wasn’t a single light to mark his path, and with the way the road twisted around the mountain, he’d be as likely to tumble over a guardrail as he’d be to be struck by a driver that hadn’t been able to see him. So he curled up in a tighter ball, yanked every bit of clothes from his backpacks and swore when he realized there wasn’t near enough. All the truly warm shit had been left behind in his suitcase, right along side his favorite guitar. Maybe Kyle would play it, once he realized Jesse had left it behind, or maybe he’d set it up in a stand onstage, shine a spotlight on it, and play a tribute concert for him. Yeah right. That was about as likely as the truck tires deciding they could find traction after all and get him the hell outta here. God, this wasn’t the way he’d expected his life to end. Rock stars were supposed to go out in a blaze of glory, or at the very least crash and burn. This would barely be a fizzle. Hugging himself he closed his eyes, tried to picture himself by the ocean, sitting on the barnacle incrusted rocks beside his childhood home, feeding the seagulls and filling his notebook with words and another song. Too bad there would be no more songs. Winds smashed against the truck with enough force to rock it. It might have scared him if he’d been driving, but now, all it did was bring him closer to the image in his head, of the rocking waves and the tide drifting in, bringing with it the lapping of water against his feet, warm and foamy. It had been so easy to lose countless hours there, arranging words into lyrics, rearranging them into stronger reflections of the emotions he felt, the disconnect, the stigma of being a social outcast when all he’d wanted to do was fit in. He’d give anything to be there now, instead of this slowly freezing tomb. Watching the crabs scuttle about on the sand, ducking back in their shells the moment the gulls got too close, an amusing game of hide and seek. He laughed and recalled the way him and Kyle had filled their summer days in the forest, looking for that perfect hiding spot where the other couldn’t find them. Right now he’d give anything for Kyle to find him. To have the chance to unburden his soul to his best friend and feel safe again with someone with someone who’d always had his back. Until he hadn’t. The thought was fleeting though, the pull of memories was stronger, and soon, he was drifting with the water again, no longer watching from the rocks, but diving beneath the waves to see how far out he could get before he got scared and body surfed his way closer to shore. The clouds had always looked so different from that vantage point, the wispy white on blue a little brighter. As a child he’d wished he could stand at the place where the two met and touch them both, until a science teacher clued him in on the fact that it was impossible. Everyone smashed dreams. A tapping drew Jesse’s attention away from the waves. He glanced towards the rocks, expecting to see a gull beating a shell against it to claim its prize, but there was nothing but empty space, and that same, insistent tapping, louder now, like the sound of flesh and bone against glass. It didn’t belong here. Blinking, he lifted his head, vision blurring at the brilliant golden light surrounding the man standing on the other side of the window. It seemed to sparkle a bit around the edges, and the golden eyes that watched him from a bright, shimmering face looked so kind and concerned that Jesse wanted to weep, because it had been months since anyone had looked at him like that. Not true, the voice in his head screamed. His bandmates had looked at him that way before he’d refused to tell them what was going on with him, and Ryker had looked at him like that, more than once, the fierce protectiveness in his gaze giving Jesse the sense that he was safe. Shadows danced across the bright man’s face. Funny, but the more he focused, the more the light faded away, until there was just a man in a heavy gray parka holding a lantern and watching him with concern. “Hey, you okay in there?” No, no he was most certainly not okay. His fingers fumbled on the key, having to wrench it twice to turn the truck on to roll the window down. “No, sir, pretty sure you just saved me from dying here.” “Looks like you got yourself stuck good. How long have you been sitting out here?” “I dunno, hours,” Jesse replied. “Happened right before sunset. I tried to rock it, but I’m pretty sure that just made it worse.” “Oh yeah, you got yourself dug in there good. You’re in luck though, I’ve got some chains in my truck, let me hook them up to your front end and see if we can’t get you out of there.” “I can’t thank you enough. I didn’t think anyone was going to come down the road tonight.” “Wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t seen your lights flicker on and off a few times. After the third time I figured it might be a good idea to check it out.” “I’m glad you did.” “Care to tell me what in tarnation you were thinking trying to go down the mountain in this mess.” “Just needed to get away.” “Well, sonny, it doesn’t look like that worked out too well for you now did it?” “No, Sir.” “You just sit tight and I’ll get you yanked out of there and turned around.” “Wait, what?” Jesse remarked, all thoughts of how cold he was momentarily forgotten. “Why?” “Because further down, the road becomes impassible. You’re lucky you got stuck here, it could have been a lot worse. Wouldn’t have been able to see you from there. If you’d stayed with the truck like it looked like you were intent on doing, you’d have frozen to death, sure as shit.” That took all the fight out of Jesse. The hours he’d spent curled up and shivering in the truck had been more than enough to convince him that it would be a shitty way to go. Hard to drift off peacefully when your teeth were chattering so hard it was a surprise they didn’t break. Jesse’s good Samaritan returned to his truck, lantern swinging by his side while he retrieved the chains. From there, he made short work of getting Jesse out of there, wrenching the truck free with a jarring shudder and turning the truck until Jesse was pointed back up the mountain again. As soon as the chains were unhooked, he gave Jesse a wave, got back into his truck, and slowly began making his way back to his drive. With a white-knuckle grip on the wheel Jesse followed, fishtailed a bit through when he pressed on the gas to hard. At one point he slid sideways around a curve, barely keeping it on the road. The old man was right, no one should have been out when the road was like this. Too much gas and the tires spun, not enough and it felt like he was backsliding. At one point the back end of the truck spun halfway around and by the time he finally got it stopped, his stomach was in knots. He bolted from the truck, sliding on the snow covered road, barely getting his feet beneath him before he slid into a tree. Doubling over, he heaved, vomiting what little had been left in his stomach from the chicken and biscuits. Quivering, he gripped the very same tree he’d nearly crashed into to keep himself on his feet. He’d been hot seconds before he’s hurled, now, he was freezing, heart pounding. For several moments he clung there, until he was steady enough to trudge back to the truck and climb back up behind the wheel. The wind had picked up again, snaking snow across the road, whipping it into a frenzy that even the high beams struggled to pierce through. Inch by torturous inch, he made his way back up the mountain. The sight of the light in the window when he rounded that last curve was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. Guiding the nose of that truck into the parking spot he’d left behind, shaking so hard he had to force his fingers to let go of the wheel, he whispered a silent prayer of thanks that he’d gotten back safe and relatively unscathed, unless one counted his sanity. Exhausted, both mentally and physically, he opened the door and practically fell out. The rest of his things could wait until tomorrow, but he dragged his guitars and backpack from the back seat and lugged them back up the walk. It was hard to believe that only a few hours had past since he’d stormed out. It felt like days. There were footprints through the pile of snow that had fallen off the roof on him. In hindsight, he should have taken that as a sign he was on a fool’s mission, turned around, gone back in, curled up in a pile of warm blankets and had a shot or two. In fact, that exactly what he was going to do. Stepping inside, he was immediately engulfed in warmth and smoke. Jesse coughed, and glanced around wildly to find the source. It was thickest at the entryway to the kitchen, so he left his stuff by the door and made his way there, the telltale sounds of hot oil crackling reaching his ears well before he reached the doorway. Stepping inside, he was shocked to see Ryker standing there, in front of the stove, looking, for all the world, like he wasn’t aware of the smoke billowing around him. Coughing, Jesse reached past him, turned off the eye and located a dish towel, using it to move the pan to a cold burner. Ryker hadn’t even acknowledged his presence, not when Jesse brushed up against him to deal with the pan and not when he started waving the towel to try and clear the smoke away. Not that it helped much. The smoke was starting to make his eyes water and he had no idea how Ryker could continue to stand there like it wasn’t affecting him. Jesse nudged him, hopping to snap him out of whatever it was that had left him frozen there, but all Ryker did was sway a little, so Jesse grasped him by the hand and physically tugged him from the room into the relatively clearer living room. At least he didn’t protest, Jesse doubted he’d have been able to move him if he had. Jesse took a deep breath as soon as he could manage one, then turned, to look at Ryker, immediately noticing the blank stare in Ryker’s eyes. Shit. No wonder he hadn’t shown one iota of knowledge about what was happening around him. He’d completely zoned out and holy shit, what if the good semariton hadn’t turned Jesse around and sent him back? He shuddered to think of what would have happened. Heart pounding, Jesse led Ryker to the couch and pressed on his shoulder to get him to sit, through it was more like Ryker collapsed and the couch caught him. It was just like the other night, only without the nightmare to trigger it, which made Jesse wonder exactly what had. Settling himself on the floor in front of Ryker, Jesse gazed up at him, feeling like complete shit for not listening when Kyle had yelled at him to stay. How stupid and selfish could he possibly be? An apology would be worthless right now, when Ryker wouldn’t be able to hear it. The only thing Jesse could think of, was to sing. [***] He was dreaming, that was the only explanation for why Jesse Winters had his hands on either side of Ryker’s face, gazing into his eyes with a tender expression. God he was beautiful. Ryker covered Jesse’s hands with his own and the song stopped, much to Ryker’s displeasure. “Are you okay now?” That…wasn’t what Ryker expected Jesse to ask. Ryker smelled smoke and pushed Jesse’s hands away, taking a look around. There was a fire going in the fireplace, but it didn’t smell like wood smoke, it smelled like burnt…oh shit! Bolting from the couch, Ryker nearly knocked Jesse over in his haste to get to the kitchen. It was foggier there, the remnece of smoke still hanging around. Dark oil and burnt fish resided in a pan on the stove and it all came flooding back to him then. Footsteps on the hardwood caused him to turn, to see a worried Jesse watching him from the doorway. “It’s okay, was just a little smoky, nothing caught fire,” Jesse said softly. Ryker looked from Jesse to the stove and back again. “You came back,” Ryker remarked as the realization seeped in. “Road wasn’t passable.” “Thank God!” Ryker exclaimed closing the distance between him and Jesse and studying him intently. “Are you okay? You didn’t wreck or anything did you?” Jesse squirmed, dropped his gaze, and shuffled from one foot to the other. “Sort of.” “What! What happened.” “Just some ice and a little spin,” Jesse replied. “Someone came along and pulled me out, told me to come back ‘cause the rest of the road was fucked.” Ryker pinched the bridge of his nose and fought down the urge to drag Jesse into a hug and hang on to him until he’d broken through to him. Of course, laying one hand on him was likely to send him fleeing back to his room, so he refrained. “Did you um, have a flashback or something,” Jesse asked. “Or something along those lines.” “I’m sorry.” Ryker shrugged. “Wasn’t anything you did.” “Kyle didn’t want me to leave you. I guess that’s why.” “Yeah.” “Does it happen often?” Again, Ryker shrugged, feeling a tad uncomfortable himself now, with the way Jesse was eying him. “You could have gotten burned.” “But I didn’t. You made it back in time.” Shuffling again, Jesse inched a little closer. “Your arm is red.” “Huh?” Jesse pointed to Ryker’s arm, drawing his attention to the blisters that had formed there. “That looks bad.” “I didn’t even feel it.” Jesse shook his head and left the kitchen, returning in short order with the first aid kit and laid it on the table. “You should um, clean it and apply burn cream.” “Yeah.” Ryker remarked, sitting down at the table and opening up the kit. “I think I’m going to need your help with a couple spots though.” “Okay.” Having Jesse’s hands on him, even for something as mundane as cleaning the oil from his arm and rubbing burn cream on what turned out to be several spots, was soothing. His touch was light but steady, like he was truly concerned about hurting Ryker more than the oil already had. Ryker watched as Jesse inspected his arm closely to be sure not a single spot had been missed, before he loosely wrapped the wounds. “Was that your supper?” Jesse asked as he finished up. “Was supposed to be.” “Fresh?” “Yeah, I went ice fishing earlier,” Ryker admitted. “Four silent walls started getting on my nerves.” “Sorry.” “Quit apologizing, it doesn’t fix anything.” Jesse snorted, but flashed him a tiny smile. “What does?” “Talking.” Ryker replied. “Not doing it again. Telling me what I did to scare you out of here in the first place.” “Nothing,” Jesse blurted. He looked so sad Ryker almost regretted saying anything. Jesse signed and traced his fingertips over the worn surface of the table. “I let my guard down the other night. It scared me.” “Why?” “’Cause I want to trust you.” Ryker nodded, beginning to understand. “And trusting anyone scares you right now.” When Jesse’s eyes widened a fraction, Ryker knew he’d hit the nail on the head. “I heard Kyle yell at you. Something tells me he’s been doing that a lot lately.” “Only every time we talk.” “He’s worried because you won’t tell him what’s going on with you and he says you’ve been acting in a way that isn’t like you at all.” “I’d have told him if he wasn’t so busy accusing me of drinking too much or popping pills.” “Alright. Well, I’m not accusing you of anything, so why don’t you tell me?” There was a moment when their eyes locked and Ryker could see the turmoil and hesitation in his Jesse’s eyes. “Whatever you say stays between us. I won’t judge you, and I won’t yell, you have my word, but it really looks to me like not sharing is tearing you up inside, so please, before either one of us takes an accidental trip off the deep in, let’s help each other. Quid Pro Quo. I’ll tell my story if you will.” Jesse looked at him for a moment longer before finally giving him a nod. “Okay.” Ryker let out the breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. “But not in here,” Jesse said, pushing the chair back away from the table. “These chairs are too hard. If I’m going to spill my guts, then at least I wanna be comfortable doing it.” “Works for me,” Ryker replied, before standing and following him to the living room.
  10. layla

    Chapter 8

    “I’m sorry if I woke you,” Ryker replied, when Jesse reached the end of the song. Jesse just shrugged in response and launched into another one. Filled with longing and pain, this one must have been a new one, as Ryker didn’t recognize it. Staring at Jesse while he sang, he focused on his features, rather than the lingering remnants of dreams. Eyes half closed, Jesse tipped his head back just a little when he sang. Ryker tried to picture what it might look like, kissed by the sun, his hair shot through with droplets of water. An old fantasy, but one he reached out to whenever his mind was restless and filled with chaotic rumblings. Come the next song, Jesse switched things up, singing an old ballad from an 80s hair band that he followed up with another ballad from the same area. Beautiful songs Ryker knew well, but they weren’t the same as listening to Jesse’s music and the way he poured his soul into every word. “Why’d you stop singing your songs?” Ryker asked the next time he paused. Shrugging, Jesse hung his head, words half-muffled behind his hair but unmistakable. “They’re all really dark right now. Didn’t think either of us needed that.” “I prefer your music.” The look in Jesse’s eyes when he raised his head to meet Ryker’s gaze was one of shy surprise. Without giving it a moment’s thought, Ryker reached out and cupped Jesse’s cheek in his palm, stroked his thumb along Jesse’s jawline and watched his eyes grow wider before he wiggled away. “Shit, I’m sorry,” Ryker muttered, kicking himself for forgetting, yet again, that Jesse didn’t appreciate being touched. “It’s just easier to ground myself when I can touch something I know is real.” Jesse licked his lips and watched him with cautious eyes, like a frightened animal. It pained Ryker’s heart to see how wary Jesse was. Hesitantly, Jesse reached out his hand, fingers spread. He was chewing his lower lip again, a tell that Ryker was quickly learning meant he was worried. Willing himself to be slow and steady, Ryker reached out until his palm touched Jesse’s and a miniscule spark of static shocked him. Both of them shivered at the contact but stayed put, as Jesse launched into another song. This one from the band’s most recent album. “I could listen to you all day,” Ryker said softly, the heat of Jesse’s palm spreading down his arm, warming him and keeping the cold edges of the nightmares at bay. Three songs in Jesse’s arm began to shake, his palm sliding against Ryker’s, nearly breaking contact, until Jesse interlocked their fingers, and rested their wrists against the arm of the couch. Ryker knew it had to take some huge measure of trust on Jesse’s part for him to connect them in a way that left Jesse unable to flee easily. That bit of trust Jesse bestowed upon him was greater than any store bought gift could ever be. Ryker lost track of how much time had past, all he knew was that he was calm and steady and the last few songs had been interrupted by yawns. Jesse’s eyelids were drooping and at some point he’d slumped down and rested his head against Ryker’s knee. It couldn’t have been comfortable, being on the floor that way. A better man than him would have told Jesse to go to bed, but Ryker was feeling selfish, scared that the moment Jesse left him alone all those memories would come tumbling back to haunt him. Slowly, so as not to spook him, Ryker brushed his free hand over Jesse’s hair, stroking it. This time, he didn’t even flinch, he just sighed like a contented cat and finished the song, garbling the ending a little bit. He slurred the beginning of another, the words fading as Jesse drifted off to sleep. Staring into the crackling logs in the fireplace, Ryker continued stroking Jesse’s hair until he followed him into dreamland. Chapter 4 Son of a bitch. Twenty-four hours ago he and Jesse had reached the point where they could be in the same room with one another, talk, and interact, but ever since Jesse had woken up beside the couch to Ryker watching him, he’d been distant, evasive. Ryker could hear him moving around in the bedroom he’d retreated to early the morning before, and no amount of persuasion had gotten him to emerge, not even for food. So much for taking two steps forward, more like three steps back. Being restless didn’t help. Twice he’d fallen asleep on the couch only to wake drenched in sweat, the nightmares having yanked him under again. Ryker sat in the living room sipping a cup of cocoa while steering into the fire, remembering how good it had felt to feel Jesse’s hair beneath his fingertips while listening to him breathing. The silence and relative solitude were beginning to get on his nerves. Jesse had ignored the plate of cookies and bottle of juice Ryker had left outside his bedroom as peace offering, along with a note apologizing for whatever it was that had spooked Jesse when he’d woken up. If Jesse would just talk to him, explain what had made him retreat again, Ryker would apologize and vow not to do it again, anything to get Jesse back out in the living room with him. The snow that had tapered off and fog had rolled in, but at least he’d been able to see the road in the distance while he brought in firewood. Speaking of which, the pile was getting low again. Ryker pulled on his winter gear and boots before hauling in several armloads. It barely put a dent in his energy level though, so once the wood cradle beside the fireplace was full, he headed back out, determined to see if there was anything in the shed that could help exhaust him. With the way the snow was piled up in front of the door, it was a struggle to get the door open, but it gave him something to expend his energy on, so that was good. Inside he found a large, gas auger used for drilling holes in the ice, a portable ice fishing shack, a space heater, nets, several fishing poles and a well-stocked tackle box. He filed that information away for later, and moved on to the wall where the snow shovels leaned. Three in all, large, able to afford him the sort of intensive labor he needed to settle himself back down. A hug would have been infinatly better, he thought to himself, even as he selected one of the shovels and headed back outside. Scoop, lift, toss, scoop, lift, toss, the scrape of metal over snow crust and driveway, he slowly made progress getting a path shoveled out. It was easy to get lost in the repeditive motions, let them push every thought from his mind until there was nothing but the snow, the shovel, and the ache in his muscles from the weight of the snow he’d moved. He pressed on, a trickle of sweat down his back, hot in his layers but knowing better than to take them off least he catch a chill. The sun was bright, the glare of it reflecting off the snow was almost blinding at times, forcing him to pause and fish around in the pockets of his coat for a pair of sunglasses. He finally located them tucked in an inner pocket, and with them as a shield between him and all that white, he kept shoveling until he’d dug out both his and Jesse’s trucks, the driveway, and the walkway up to the house. By then, his muscles were quivering and his shoulders ached. He trudged back to the shed to hang up the shovel, contemplating how nice a hot bath would feel, especially with the large soaking tub in the bathroom. The first thing that struck him when he stepped back inside was the smell. When it’s left the only aroma hanging in the air was that of burning wood. Now, it’s fragrance was mingled with the scent of freshly baked bread and herbs, so tantalizing that he was immediately drawn to the kitchen. Empty. With a dejected sigh he slumped in the doorway. Would it have been too much to ask that Jesse stuck around. At least he’d eaten, and well, if the rich scents filling the kitchen were any indication. Ryker was just about to leave the kitchen in pursuit of that bathtub full of hot, sudsy water, when something caught his eye. There, propped against the salt and pepper shakers, was a note. There is a plate of chicken and biscuits in the oven. I thought you might be hungry after all that shoveling. Thanks for bringing more firewood in. Sorry I’ve been avoiding you, I’m sort of freaked out right now. I need space. Jesse Well damn. Issues he could deal with, even understand, hell he had his own, but the thought that he might have done something to freak Jesse out stung. Bewildered as to what it had been, Ryker opened the oven, inhaling deeply as the smell wafted out. Wow, by the time he got to the table with the plate and a fork, he was salivating. The first bite was heavenly. A piece of flavorful, fluffy biscuit covered in a creamy sauce and tender chicken, unlike the bulk, processed food he’d grown use to in the chow hall. While it was tempting to woof it down, the thought that it might be awhile before he had another meal that good gave him the willpower to take his time. Small bites, swirling the biscuit bits in as much sauce as they could sop up, with time between to let the flavors linger on his tongue. God it was good. The last bite came far too quickly, and when he’d finished, he cleaned his plate and wrote Jesse a thank you note containing a plea to please come back out and spend time with him. With nothing left to do but take that bath he was longing for, Ryker trudged down the hallway to the bathroom. [***] He was a coward and he knew it, but ever since he’d woken to find Ryker watching him sleep, their hands still conjoined, he’d been silently freaking out over how vulnerable he’d left himself. How could he have done that, after everything that had happened with Troy? It just proved how stupid he was, what poor judgement he had. Troy had been right, he’d deserved everything that had happened to him. In the moments of calm that came between the swirls of too much emotion, he could acknowledge that the two men, and the situations, were vastly different and that Ryker had done nothing to warrant Jesse’s fear of him. It just sucked that those moments were few and far between. And what was that shit, him liking the way Ryker’s fingers had felt in his hair, how safe and protected it had made him feel to be in Ryker’s arms, how much he longed to trust the main who claimed Jesse’s singing was like a lifeline. You just want everyone to worship you. Greedy little whore! Jesse shivered as Troy’s words wormed their way into his thoughts once more. He couldn’t stay here. The storm had stopped and without realizing what he was doing, Ryker had made it easy for him to leave. All he had to do was take his stuff out, load it into the truck, and drive away. Only. After what he’d seen the other night, he was hesitant to leave Ryker alone, but what the hell was he supposed to do for his own sanity? He wished he could call Kyle. Maybe if he’d been honest and open up front, Kyle would have sent his cousin anywhere but there. Of course, if Kyle had actually been willing to hear him out then Jesse doubted he’d be up there in the cabin in the first place. Maybe if he’d purged his soul of the truth, put his house on the market, and spent this time away from touring and the studio getting his head together and finding a new place to live, he wouldn’t be at the mercy of anyone else’s rules. Ryker’s focus had been too intense, and those eyes, Jesse still swore that Ryker could see all the turmoil and hurt in side of him. It had left him feeling too naked, too vulnerable. He couldn’t afford to let someone get that close to him, not ever again. Not when everyone who was supposed to give a shit about him had turned their backs on him and kept on assuming the worse. Maybe if he actually got high he could calm down and focus. Write a song that wasn’t filled with grief and angst. Hell, maybe if he was stoned out of his mind he could sleep for longer than a couple hours without waking in a panic, awaiting another midnight assault. Hell, maybe if he’d been high when Troy was hitting him it wouldn’t have hurt so bad physically, or emotionally. As he gathered things together in the center of the room, Jesse had one more thought, scarier than all the rest. Maybe, if he was high, he wouldn’t be afraid of Ryker, and in that moment, when Ryker had been staring down at him, he’d have done the first thing that came to mind, which was to crawl up on the couch, curl up to him, and sink into the sensation of holding and behind held. That he craved that, more than anything else, was reason enough to leave. He’d been listening when Ryker came in, heard the scrape of his chair in the kitchen, his footsteps in the hall, and when the bathroom door had closed and the tell-tale sound of the tub facucet reached his ears, he knew it was the only chance he was going to get. With all the stealth he could muster, he began carting his things outside and loading them into the cab of his truck. [***] “You gotta be kidding me!” The last thing, the very last thing Ryker had expected when he stepped out of the bathroom, was to see Jesse emerging from his room with guitar cases and a worn backpack. This was insane, no one could be that stupid. And yet sure as shit, Jesse was heading for the front door with his things. “What the hell are you doing?” Ryker asked as he hurried to catch up, towel wrapped around his waist as he’d forgotten to grab a change of clothes. “The storm stopped,” Jesse remarked, voice low and almost trembling. Ryker had to strain to hear it. It took him a moment to realize why, and he backed off, lowering his own voice in the process. “I didn’t dig us out as an invitation for you to leave.” “Doesn’t matter. I gotta go,” Jesse remarked, taking a few more steps towards the door. “At least tell me why.” Jesse turned, but he wouldn’t raise his gaze past Ryker’s chin. “Jesse,” Ryker began, swallowing hard. He gripped his towel tighter, hoping to find the words Jesse needed to hear to make him stay. “If I scared you, or made you uncomfortable, it wasn’t intentional. Please believe me.” “I’m not leavin’ ‘cause of you,” Jesse muttered. “I’m leavin’ ‘cause of me. My heads all fucked up and I need to go.” “I only shoveled to the end of the drive, beyond that, the road is covered in snow.” “I brought a blow attachment when I came up,” Jesse replied. “I grew up in Maine, remember, I know my way around snow.” “That’s not the point,” Ryker remarked, reaching for his hand, stopping before making contact when Jesse took the smallest step backwards. Huffing, Ryker stood his ground, desperate to get through to Jesse. “If you need to talk I can listen, if you need to just sit and spend the night watching movies and playing games without saying a word then I can do that too.” “You don’t get it. I can’t stay.” “You’re right, I don’t get it, but since you won’t explain it to me, maybe you’ll explain it to Kyle!” “Thought you weren’t here to spy on me?” Jesse remarked, eyes narrowing. “This isn’t about spying, this is about you heading out there where it isn’t safe and the possibility of you smearing yourself all over the god damned mountain.” “If that’s the end the fates have for me, then so be it. Who am I to argue with fate.” “Who…wh….” Ryker sputtered, at a loss for words and nearly losing his towel. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his phone on the coffee table and grabbed it, hitting Kyle’s button on the speed dial. ’ello? “Your best friend is an idiot!” Kyle groaned loud in his ear, accompanied by the sound of metal spinning on wood. What’s he done now? “More along the lines of what’s he about to do,” Ryker shot back. “He’s packing up his truck. I don’t know how he thinks he’s going to get down the mountain, but it’s a suicide mission if I ever saw one.” Oh son of a bitch you gotta be fuckin’ kidding me with this shit. “Wish I was, but he he’s standing in front of me with a backpack on his back and two guitars in his hand. I have no clue what else he’s loaded. I came out of the tub to this.” Put him on. “Will do. I swear, I don’t know what happened to cause this. You didn’t. Jesse’s just. I don’t know anymore. “Hurting, tired, in need of help, which he isn’t going to get taking off to god knows where.” “I’m standing right here! You don’t have to talk to me like I’m a ghost!” “Which you very well might be by the end of the day trying to go down a slippery ass mountain word!” Ryker could feel his control slipping, right alongside of his hole on his towel. He made an effort to grip it tighter without loosing control of the phone, or sight of Jesse, who’d backed up all the way to the door. You should have thrown his ass in a snow bank, then talked to him once he was too cold to do anything but shiver. “Yeah, and why do I get the feeling that would have done more harm then good!” Ryker snapped. “In fact, something tells me your methods have been doing more harm than good for quite awhile.” If you feel that way, then why the hell did you call me? “In the hopes that you’d talk him out of leaving, not give him more reason to go.” Just, put him on the floor. “Fine, Just remember I need you to help the situation, not make it worse.” Ryker closed the distance between him and Jesse and held the phone out to him. For a moment, Ryker wasn’t sure he’d take it, with as hesitant as he looked. “Kyle wants to talk to you.” “I have nothing to say to him.” “Well, it sounds like he has pretty to say to you.” “Go figure. Tell him I’m not in the mood right now.” “What are we, four? I’m not going to stand here and pass messages to him when he’s right on the other line.” “Can’t you see I’ve got my hands full?” Snorting, Ryker shook his head at Jesse’s lame attempts at excuses. “So put the shit down and take the phone.” A moment passed, and then another, where all Jesse did was stare at the proffered phone before leaning one of the guitar cases against the door to free up a hand so he could take it. He had it for thirty seconds, in that time, all Ryker could hear was noise coming from the other end, no doubt caused by Kyle’s yelling. Glaring, Jesse shoved the phone back at him. “For fuck’s sake,” Ryker grumbled before putting the phone back to his ear and catching the tail end of Kyle calling Jesse stupid, selfish and irresponsible. “Yeah, that wasn’t anywhere near helpful, fucker,” Ryker remarked, keeping one eye on Jesse who was huddled against the door, eyes shimmering with unshed tears. “Fine, whatever, fuck him. Let him drive the god damned truck off the side of the mountain if that’s what he’s hell bent on doing. I’m so over this bullshit.” The call disconnected, leaving Ryker staring at the phone for a moment before tossing it on the couch. One thing he was certain of was that Kyle didn’t mean a single syllable of the words he’d just spoken. The frustration in his cousin’s voice had been evident, as had been the edge of fear. Ryker knew without a shadow of a doubt that if something happened to Jesse, Kyle would beat himself up about it for the rest of his life, and that was no way to live. He should know. Glancing up, Ryker saw the thunder cloud of emotions on Jesse’s face, from his pinched brow to the hard set of his jaw, moments before he turned, picked up the guitar, and opened the door. Lunging, Ryker got a hand on it, slamming it shut even as the icy winds blew in, causing goosebumps to crop up on his still damp skin. “You’re not even going to be able to see the road in places,” Ryker reasoned. “If you wreck, or get stuck, there won’t be anyone around to help you.” “I didn’t ask for a lecture on road conditions! I’m leaving, end of story, now get your hand off the door. I’m in the mood for your shit even less than I was your cousins.” Fuck that. If Jesse wanted to throw his concern back in his face, fine, but that didn’t mean he had to get out of his way and hasten things along. “Move.” Ryker held his ground, despite the fact that the wood beneath his feet was freezing. “I’ll give you all the space you want, just, stay, at least until the roads are safe.” “I can’t.” “You haven’t given me one good reason why I should,” Ryker replied. “’Cause I’m asking.” “Not good enough.” “You have no right to keep me here against my will,” Jesse growled. “It’s kidnapping. That’s a pretty damned serious offense to end up with on your record.” Ryker glared and threw up his hands. “Fine, kill yourself, I’ll tell my cousin that you clearly gave no thought to your music or your band when you were being stupid.” Jesse chuckled bitterly. “Your cousin already knows I’m stupid” and with that he stormed out the door. A heavy thud followed, but Ryker didn’t move. He was too busy fuming over Jesse’s threat to have him charged with a federal fuckin’ offence simply for trying to look out for him.
  11. layla

    Chapter 7

    By the time they’d played through every game in the living room, the sun had gone down and Ryker’s focus was shot. One look across the table at Jesse showed that he was fairing no better, and yet, he’d made no mention of calling it a night. Ryker fidgeted with a stack of Monopoly money, before half-heartedly beginning to divide out the starting amounts. “We don’t have to play again,” Jesse said softly. Oh thank god, Ryker wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to sit still for another game. Still, he wasn’t sure he was ready to be alone either. Spending the day with Jesse had been a welcome diversion from both of their problems. Add in the intermittent bursts of laughter sprinkled throughout the afternoon, and it had truly been a good day. Jesse was chewing his bottom lip, looking a bit lost and uncertain, so Ryker said the only thing he could think to say. “We can, if you want to.” The ghost of a smile illuminated Jesse’s face for a moment before he shook his head. “No thanks, I think we’re both done.” “Yeah,” Ryker admitted, scratching the back of his neck. “Just, not tired enough to sleep yet.” “Me either.” As Ryker watched, Jesse played with a long strand of his slightly curling hair, twisting the end around his finger and tugging at it. “Wannawatchamovie?” Ryker blinked, needing a minute to space out the slammed together words. Once he realized what Jesse had asked, a wave of relief washed over him. “I could go for that.” “I’ll be right back.” Despite Jesse’s best efforts to move quickly, Ryker could see how much the wooden kitchen chair had effected him by his shambling walk and the way he rubbed his lower back. Ryker used the time he was gone to clean up the game and put it away before taking a seat on the couch, figuring Jesse would want the easy chair. When Jesse returned he was carrying a crate of DVDs with a DVD player on top, which he wet about setting up. “You can pick. I like all of them.” “Okay,” Ryker replied, digging into the pile. You could tell a lot about a person from their movie collection, and Jesse’s collection showed he liked things that were plot heavy with an emphasis on story rather than graphics and special effects, something Ryker could certainly appreciate. “I’ve never heard of most of these,” Ryker remarked, as he flipped them over and read the backs before finally passing one to Jesse titled “Perminant Record.” “This one looks good, I’ve always been a Keanu Reeves fan.” Jesse let out an audible gasp, before taking the movie from his hand, leaving Ryker to wonder what had prompted that particular response. He would soon find out, as they settled in, the movie unfolding on the screen. It was about musicians, but more than that, it was about friends, feeling like a failure, suicide, grief, and what it was like to be the ones left behind. Ryker couldn’t help but see deep parallels between some of the characters and what he’d learned about Jesse. He could even see hints of Kyle in one of the characters. When the on screen parents took the lead character’s guitars, Ryker heard a distinct sniffle, and glanced over to see Jesse wiping a stream of tears from his eyes. “You okay?” Ryker asked, the question feeling stupid even as it left his lips. Clearly Jesse wasn’t. “That part always gets to me,” Jesse admitted, his soft voice barely rising over the movie. “My folks did that to me,” Jesse said. “Only they sold them. I never got another one after I turned eighteen.” The statement, and the hurt that still echoed in Jesse’s voice even after all these years, drew Ryker’s focus away from the movie. In the light from the television, Jesse’s face was pale, and his eyes still shimmered with tears. “Were they that against you being in a band?” Ryker asked. Jesse’s chuckle was icy and edged with bitterness. “They hated the band, as much, if not more than they hated the kind of music we played. To them I was wasting my talents, throwing away the years of musical training I’d received, and breaking their hearts in the process. The thing that sucked the most was the day my dad told me that he wished he’d never taught me to play music at all. I loved the time we spent together in his music room. That he regretted it gutted me. I always hoped to make them see that my music mattered, that it was just as amazing as what they’d wanted me to play, but they died before I ever had the chance.” “Shit, that’s…” Ryker struggled to find words for how shitty he felt Jesse’s folks had been, without out and out insulting them. “It was a long time ago,” Jesse replied, cutting off his thought process. “I need to get over it.” And because he didn’t want to push and ruin the very tentative connection they were forging, Ryker said nothing else about it, and instead, turned his attention back to the movie. As the story came to a head, culminating in both the performance of the song written by the dead musician and the recording of the song by his former band, Ryker’s attention was once again drawn to Jesse who was softly singing along. For his part, Ryker listened to the words, about wishing on lucky stars and how despite the way time might change people and relationship, the heart still yearned to dream and make wishes, even once they were too old to believe they’d come true. It made Ryker want to know what Jesse’s dreams had been back then and what they were now, what had changed them and if he still believed in staring up at the stars and wishing on them. Ryker hoped he did, because there was something bright and almost ethereal in Jesse Winters, that he wasn’t even sure the other man could see in himself. If there was a way to bring it out, Ryker would love the opportunity to do so, because he hadn’t been lying when he’d talked about how much Jesse’s words had helped him through the darkest of times. When the credits began to roll, Jesse put the movie back in its case and asked Ryker what he wanted to watch next. Hoping to lighten the mood, he told Jesse it was his turn to choose. It ended up taking Jesse even more time to choose one then it had taken Ryker. In the end, he loaded up Secret Window, leaving Ryker to wonder if the hesitation to choose had been as much about not wanting to trigger another bad memory as it had about what he’d been in the mood to watch. Either way, Ryker hadn’t seen this one before so it was easy for him to get lost in the flow and twists. The ending slammed into him from out of nowhere, maybe because he was finally getting tired but he hadn’t seen it coming. Jesse yawned and reclined his chair, a signal that he had no intention of calling it a night yet. “Your turn to pick,” he told Ryker. So this was how it was going to go. A quick glance at the clock showed that it was almost midnight, so Ryker choose something that he hoped would lull them both to sleep. 2001 A Space Oddessy. The length, the soundtrack, Ryker could feel his eyes growing heavy less than an hour in. He glanced to his left and chuckled, because Jesse was sprawled in the chair like a starfish, one leg dangling over the side. His eyes were closed and Ryker could detect faint snores coming from him. Good, something told him Jesse needed a good night’s sleep. Now if only he could get one himself. First things first though. As quietly as he could, Ryker stood up from the couch and plucked one of the throw blankets from it’s resting place, shook it out, and gently covered Jesse with the thick, fluffy cloth. When Jesse shifted and let out a soft grumble, Ryker feared he’d woken him. No other sound followed though, so Ryker crept back to the couch and let himself settle into its plush folds again. The cold, sterile atmosphere of space, the droning, monotoned speaking intersparced with the flow of the music soon had his eyes feeling heavier and heavier. Perhaps if he closed them for a bit, let himself drift with the flow of the sounds…. [***] A loud, anguished cry had Jesse sitting bolt upright, surrounded by a darkness so thick and heavy it was almost choking. His heartrate sped up and he gripped the blanket surrounding him, the urge to pull it over his head and hide hiding him seconds before the realization hit that it would be an utterly stupid thing to do in the dark. The cry came again and Jesse reached out, grasping for the lamp and encountering nothing but air, until he remembered where he was and righted the chair. That put the end table by his left hand and the lamp chain in easy reach. Pulling it caused a flash of light to erupt before his eyes, nearly blinding him. Blinking, he rubbed at the clear the black circles that swam in front of them. Another cry, this one punctuated with a groan and curse. Now, Jesse could see where the noise was coming from. Ryker lay on the couch, eyes closed, thrashing around, clearly in the throas of a bad dream. His first instinct was to shake Ryker awake, but he thought of how he would react to having someone’s hands unexpectedly land on him, especially when he was sleeping, and he paused, trying to think of a better way to wake him. “Ryker?” he called out, even as the other man yelled what almost sounded like a name, and shouted what was clearly a warning. Fuck. “Ryker!” he tried again, a little louder this time. Having knelt down beside the couch, still hesitant to touch. Ryker hollored and lashed out a hand that Jesse barely managed to avoid. “Hey! Ryker! Wake up!” Gasping, Ryker jerked, eyes opening, wide, wider than normal, breathing coming in harsh gasps and pants. Jesse knew what that meant. Panic. A blanket was clutched in Ryker’s fists, and each time he sucked air in, there was a pause, like he’d forgotten how to exhale it. For the first time, Jesse noticed the color of Ryker’s eyes, golden brown, like cognac. They might have been beautiful if it wasn’t for the terrified look in them. Jesse inched forward, slow, careful movements, not wishing to make things worse. Whatever he’d been dreaming about had already done enough damage. “Ryker, can you hear me?” he asked. Where as before, he’d tried to be loud to cut through the haze of the dream, now he kept his voice soft, a low, lulling pitch designed to sooth and capture his attention. Ryker sucked air in, trembled, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes. There was sweat on his brow, and Jesse heard the distinct sound of threads tearing from how tight Ryker was gripping it. “You, umm, gotta breathe,” Jesse said. His own hand trembling as he reached out and lightly touched one of Ryker’s. When he didn’t jerk or pull away, Jesse covered his hand entirely and gently pried his fingers off the cloth. “Hey. Can you look at me?” Nothing, not a single clue that Ryker could hear him. Jesse brought Ryker’s hand to his chest, placing it where he would be able to feel Jesse’s heartbeat, then he placed his own hand over Ryker’s heart, feeling it pound. “Ryker, if you can hear me, can you match your breathing to mine?” Jesse asked. “In, out, okay, can you focus on that, please.” He wanted to add that Ryker was scaring him, that he didn’t know what to do, and he didn’t have a cell phone anymore so he couldn’t call Kyle and now he understood what Ryker had been taking about, when he worried about Jesse getting sick in the middle of the storm, because there was no way Jesse was going to be able to move Ryker half a foot, let alone out to his car, and even if he could, the roads were surely impassible. Ryker’s breathing only seemed to grow louder, harsher, or maybe it was that Jesse was starting to panic, either way, it couldn’t be good. “Please slow your breathing so you don’t pass out,” Jesse pleaded, then second guessed himself, wondering if it might be better for Ryker to pass out so he could calm down and escape whatever was tormenting him. “You need to calm down, okay?” Jesse said, still pressing his hand to Ryker’s chest and holding Ryker’s to his. “In and out, please, slowly, just, inhale, then exhale. You’re kind of forgetting to exhale.” Unable to rouse him with word, he decided to resort to the one thing he’d always been good at…song. With one single word you broke me Spilled my blood upon the floor And like a coward I let you Gave and gave ‘til I could give no more Never enough Ugly, stupid, lying, cheating whore Your scowl stabs me Your hate wounds me Your hands bury me alive One more dance One more night One more dream One more song We can’t go on When all that I have you reduce to dust You shred my soul, my love, my trust Tear down until the ghosts of me ‘til even I can’t see Ryker gasped, fingers crumbling Jesse’s shirt in his fist. Letting out a frightened squeak, Jesse tried to pull away. But Ryker was bigger, stronger, and jerked him forward. Almost on instinct, Jesse closed his eyes, waiting for a blow that never came. Instead, Ryker wrapped his arm around him and buried his face against Ryker’s chest, still clutching Jesse’s shirt to hold him in place. Ryker gasped, shook, and Jesse could feel the dampness of Ryker’s tears seeping through his shirt. So he held on tight, and sang what he’d written of the song again to keep his own panic at bay. Being held so tightly was threatening to send him spireling into a very dark place and the only thing keeping him from it was the sheer and utter misery Ryker was clearly in. Jesse ran his slightly shaking fingers through Ryker’s short hair, the chestnut strands thick and fluffy. That simple contact seemed to have a profound effect on Ryker, who hiccuped, shuddered, and let out a little choking moan, before burrowing impossibly closer. If felt like he was trying to climb into Jesse’s clothes with him, into his very skin, so Jesse stroked his hair again and kept on singing until Ryker got his breathing back under control. [***] Slowly, as Ryker came back to himself, he realized the steady thud, thud, thud sound in his ears wasn’t gunfire, but a heartbeat, slightly elevated, though not near as bad as his own. His second realization was that he was holding another person in his arms. Someone warm, who smelled of cinnamon and syrup, like the French Toast he and Jesse had for supper earlier in the night. Shit. Jesse. In the instant it took him to realize who he was clinging to do desperately, he had two conflicting thoughts. One, that he owed Jesse an apology for grabbing him once again, and the second, that it felt amazing simply to be held like this. Reluctantly, he let go, dropped his hands to his side, expecting Jesse to jerk away from him like he was on fire, but Jesse kept on holding him, stroking his hair, singing. Ryker let the words sink in, the pain of them almost an admission of the abuse Jesse had suffered. It was only then that he realized that Jesse was trembling too. “Hey,” he rasped. The song stopped, and Jesse pulled away to look him in the eyes or try to. Ryker watched as his gaze slid a little left, landing somewhere by his ear. “Are you okay now?” Jesse asked. “No.” “C-can I get you something to drink or something?” Jesse muttered, looking as awkward and frazzled as Ryker felt. “Could you keep singing?” Jesse nodded and leaned up against the side of the couch, launching into a song Ryker remembered from the band’s first album. He was grateful Jesse didn’t ask questions, or try and get him to talk. As it was, the screams were still echoing in his head and he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle having to explain his nightmare. It was bad enough he relive it when he closed his eyes. Talking about it, no matter how much his doctors might have felt it would be a good idea, wasn’t something he was ready for yet. Kind of like Jesse. Was a hell of a thing to have to bond over, the traumas they’d suffered and their inability to move past them. “I’m sorry if I woke you,” Ryker replied, when Jesse reached the end of the song. Jesse just shrugged in response and launched into another one.
  12. layla

    Chapter 1

    He is out to his bandmates, there just hasn't been a natural place to reveal that yet.
  13. layla

    Chapter 6

    Kyle woke, groggy, and sniffed, the scent of something sticky sweet making him sit up and take notice. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, casting bright light beams across the hardwood floor. He rubbed his eyes, squinted but couldn’t make out if it was still snowing outside or not. In the kitchen something clattered, and Kyle jumped to his feet, instantly alert. He crept along the wall to the kitchen, keeping his back flat against the smooth logs. The sight he saw when he glanced in gave him a moment to pause. Jesse stood in front of the stove, stirring a small pot with a wooden spoon. He was barefoot, dressed in flannel sleep pants and a long sleeved t-shirt, his hair tied back and damp, looking like he’d just recently stepped from the shower. Ryker leaned against the door frame, shocked to see him out here without prompting. “Good Morning.” Despite how low Ryker had deliberately kept his voice, Jesse still jumped, bits of something splattering off the spoon as he abruptly turned. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Ryker remarked, remaining where he was so as to not give Jesse a reason to feel threatened. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.” “You didn’t.” “I’ll be out of the way in a minute, this is almost done. You can report back to Kyle that I ate.” Don’t you mean I could report back that you cooked, since technically, I haven’t even seen you take a bite yet.” “Whatever.” “Jesse.” “What?” Ryker huffed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I wasn’t spying on you for Kyle. He’s just worried about both of us.” “Oh now he’s worried,” Jesse grumbled. “Sounds to me like he’s been worried for a while.” “And is that supposed to be my fault?” “I don’t know, is it?” Ryker let the words hang in the air between them. He needed to piss but worried that the moment he stepped out of the doorway, Jesse would once again flee back to his room. Surprisingly, Jesse sighed and hung his head. “I’d have told him the truth if he’d given me half a chance,” Jesse muttered, his voice having gone low and sad. “You talk like it’s too late,” Ryker replied. “I know Kyle would welcome a phone call from you and a chance to talk.” “You don’t know shit.” Jesse turned off the burner with an angry snap, and upended the contents of the pot into a waiting bowl. Thick, it needed some help along. Ryker would only assume that it was oatmeal, judging from the consistency. “Okay, so enlighten me,” Ryker asked, gesturing towards the table in the hopes that Jesse would sit down with him. He watched the cautious look on Jesse’s face, the way his eyes narrowed and he worried his lower lip between his teeth. Ryker was shocked he had any skin left on it with the way he was chewing. Finally, Jesse edged around the back side of the table, stopping when he reached the chair closest to Ryker, and the door. “Fine, but I want this seat.” Ryker held his hands up in the universal symbol of peace and moved across the room to the other chair, settling in and trying to look nonchalant. Only when he was seated did Jesse sit with his bowl, stirring the contents inside. “Every time Kyle and I have a conversation these days it ends up in an argument,” Jesse admitted, before taking a tiny bite of his food. He couldn’t meet Ryker’s gaze and seemed to squirm beneath the scrutiny of having Ryker’s eyes on him. “I think it’s best that we don’t talk for awhile.” “Fair enough,” Ryker replied. “How about you talk to me.” “So you can tell him everything I say? No thanks.” Ryker placed his hand over his heart. “On my honor, I swear that anything you say to me stays between us.” Jesse scoffed and took another small bite. “Like I have any reason to trust you.” “Maybe because Kyle isn’t just calling because he’s worried about your issues,” Ryker supplied. “But because he’s worried about mine too. That night I fell asleep outside your door was because I started to forget where I was. I have nightmares, bad and sometimes sounds trick my mind into thinking I’m somewhere else. I’ve got a bunch of things I’m struggling to work through and he knows I’m having a hard time with them, so he calls, so see, it isn’t all about you.” The whole time he’d been speaking Jesse had been watching him like a hawk. Ryker wasn’t sure what Jesse saw in his face, but he gave a slight nod and ate another bite of his breakfast. “He asked me to stay here with you,” Jesse admitted. “Said he didn’t want you up here alone. Guess maybe we’re both fucked up, but I still don’t like the idea of you asking him questions about me and telling him what I’m doing.” “I’m sorry,” Ryker replied. “I got scared when I saw you in the bathroom and in the hall. You had blood on you and I needed to know if you had a history of hurting yourself. Was pretty sure you’d have told me it was none of my business if I’d asked.” “It isn’t your business,” Jesse muttered. “I’m making it my business.” When Jesse’s eyes narrowed, Ryker prepared for another bout of Jesse yelling at him and stalking out of the room. He could see the edge of Jesse’s hand turning white from how hard he was clutching his spoon and Ryker knew his words had struck a cord. “For as long as this storm keeps up, it’s just me and you,” Ryker went on, forging ahead in the hopes of circumventing another meltdown. “You get sick, and I’ve only got the contents of that dinky first aid kit to try and help you. I lose it completely, and you don’t even know what you’re going to be dealing with. We don’t have to talk, but we need to keep an eye on one another.” Jesse was grinding his teeth, Ryker could see how much effort it took for him to open his mouth to get another bite of food in. “And if I fuck up and let something slip?” Jesse grumbled. “Then it goes not further than these four walls.” Jesse was silent for several heartbeats while he ate another bite of his oatmeal, but it seemed like he was at least giving some consideration to Ryker’s words so he decided not to push. “I want to trust you,” Jesse said at last. When he said nothing more, and instead, turned his attention back to his food, Ryker decided to prod just a little. “But?” “The last time I trusted someone I didn’t know very well, they turned out to be an asshole. Don’t really feel like repeating the same mistake.” “I can’t blame you for that.” Ryker sighed, reaching the last of his limits on waiting to take a piss. “Will you be out here for a few more minutes?” Jesse glanced at his bowl, which was only half-empty. “Yeah, I guess.” “Be right back,” Ryker replied, nearly overturning his chair in his haste to flee the room. As he released a steady stream into the toilet, he gave some thought to what he could do to help Jesse be more comfortable with him. A movie. A game. Something that would keep them in the same room with one another. He wasn’t sure if he could sit through a movie though, and the last thing he wanted was his fidgeting to put Jesse on edge. As soon as he was done, and had flushed and washed his hands, he returned to the kitchen, pleased to see that Jesse was still there, though there were only a few bites left in his bowl. At least he’d eaten an actual meal, which was a first in the days since Ryker’s arrival. “Do you think you’d be up for a game?” Ryker asked. “I found a couple on the bookcase shelf, or we could play crazy-eights again if you’d like.” Jesse shrugged. “That’s not much of an answer.” “Still trying to figure out why you’re being so nice to me,” Jesse remarked. “I’ve been nothing but a dick to you since you got here.” Well…that was an unexpected admission. “I don’t…I’m not usually such an asshole, I’ve just been having a really hard time being around strangers lately.” “I can appreciate that.” Ryker admitted. “Since returning from overseas I’ve been the same way myself.” “What was it like?” Jesse blurted, then his eyes widened and he actually slapped a hand over his mouth, bring the ghost of a smile to Ryker’s lips. “It’s okay. I’m asking you to trust me, I should be able to trust you too,” Ryker replied. “How about this. I’ll grab a game, and set it up, because neither of appear capable of sitting still if the way your wiggling around is any indication, and then I’ll answer your question.” Jesse nodded, even as he rose from his seat. “Yeah, okay.” As Ryker left the kitchen, he noticed Jesse flinch, just a little, when Ryker passed close by him. If there was still a lingering doubt in his mind that Jesse had been hurt by someone, it was completely erased now. As he tried to decide which game to select, he heard water running in the kitchen, and clanking, like Jesse was washing his bowl and spoon. By the time he returned with Aggravation, Jesse had cleared off the napkin dispenser, place mats, and salt and pepper shakers, leaving nothing but the gleaming wood. Turning the game where Jesse could see, Ryker asked, “Is this one okay?”’ A slow smile crossed Jesse’s face, and it was stunning to behold. The posters and magazine shots didn’t due him justice. Smiling Jesse Winters was stunningly gorgeous. “I love that game,” Jesse admitted. “Umm, since there is only two of us, do you want to play with two colors instead of one?” “Yeah, we can try that.” Ryker unfolded the board and lay it in the center of the table, waiting to see if Jesse has specific colors he wanted or if he was content to play the ones closest to him. When he took reached for the marbles without rotating the board, Ryker began to wonder if he had been as desperate for company as Ryker was. It had to be a terrible thing, being scared to be around people, but not wanting to be alone. Jesse rolled a one, so Ryker started, trying to formulate the words to answer Jesse’s earlier question. “There are moments, when the sun starts to chase away the night, that’s it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve watched the mist rise up off the mountains, knowing how treacherous they were, how many dangers lay hidden, human and stone, and wondered if there was ever anything here but harshness, crumbling stone, and war,” Ryker began, thinking back to his early days in country. “Out in the desert, that’s all we see. Not the majesty of the Mauseleum of Baba Wali kandahari or the curves of the Arghandab River. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever wash all the sand off of me.” He half expected Jesse to interject, pepper him with more questions, but Jesse seemed content to roll the die, move pieces, and listen. “You have to understand that there is never a moment of privacy,” Ryker explained. “It’s pretty hard to reflect on things when you’re constantly surrounded by sound. Being up here is the kind of peaceful I’d longed for, but there are still moments when a sound shatters the silence, that it takes me back there, and I panic, and I reach for a weapon that isn’t there, or open my mouth to give an order to someone who isn’t standing right beside me anymore.” Ryker sighed, and moved one of his pieces, sending another one of his pieces back to home base. Jesse had been right in choosing this method of game play, it was far more challenging and would keep them at the table longer. “During my time there, I had moments I could truly be proud of, like helping to rebuild a school and having the opportunity to come back to that place, months later and see that the number of children who were attending had grown. There were other moments though, like having stones thrown at our convoys by dust covered children in tattered clothing, that would lead me to question if we were making a difference or just causing more harm. It wasn’t the experience I expected, but it taught me a lot.” Ryker closed his eyes against the image that threatened and decided that would have to be answer enough. “So, Quid Pro Quo,” Ryker replied. “I answered your question, now you answer one of mine.” “Depends on the question,” Jesse replied. Smart. Jesse was still playing his cards close to the vest. Was a good thing they had nothing but time and opportunity while they waited for the snow to stop. “Fair enough. What’s it like being onstage?” [***] That hadn’t been the question he’d been expecting. Jesse had figured Ryker would start in on the brand of questioning he’d engaged in ever since he’d caught a hint that Jesse might be a danger to himself. Him not pushing for an answer to those other questions was a welcome reprieve. At least this was a question he could answer. “A rush,” Jesse replied. “But more, that’s too simple a word. I’ve heard other musicians says its like being high, but I’ve never been high, so I don’t know. To me its like standing in the face of a line of waves rolling in and crashing over you one after the other, the rattle of your bones, the shaking of your body like the drums and the shouts and the people clapping along to the beat.” Sucking in a deep breath, Jesse rolled, moved one of his pieces, then slid the die across the table towards Ryker. “It’s also terrifying,” Jesse added. “I remember the first time I stood up in front of a crowd and had to sing. I couldn’t move, I could barely breathe, my palms were sweating and I was clutching the microphone so tight I kept expecting it to shoot out from between my fingers and hit the floor.” Chuckling, Jesse recalled the memory fondly. “I choked on the first word, and I’d written it. I opened my mouth, and no sound came out. I remember thinking I need to get off stage and not being able to remember which way was shortest but I couldn’t tear my eyes off the staring people to look.” Jesse watched Ryker contemplate which piece to move, studying the board with an intensity that told him plenty about the other man. Ryker was a planner, someone who liked to look at all the angles before committing himself to a decision. Sighing, Jesse continued on with the rest of the story, despite the fact that it was a bit bittersweet at the moment. “Kyle looped an arm over my shoulder and started singing, which, shook me out of my panic and got me singing too. I could always count on him to be there when I needed him, except when it mattered most. I’d been on stage before that, but always with an instrument hiding out as part of a band. That was my first time being front and center and I…well I’m just glad it got easier. Up there is the only place I’ve ever truly felt like I mattered.” “That’s a shame, you shouldn’t need to perform to feel like you’re special.” Jesse could only duck his head and shrug in response. “What would you have done if you hadn’t enlisted in the service,” he asked, hoping to get the spotlight off of him, kind of ironic when he thought about it. Ryker gave a rueful chuckle. “That’s what I’m supposed to be figuring out. I never had a backup plan. I made that decision as a Freshman and never allowed anything to deter me.” As Ryker drummed his fingers on the tabletop, Jessie hesitated to say what was on his mind before finally taking the plunge. “I’m pretty sure you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” “I sure hope so. I’ve given myself a time table to get settled in and get something lined up, only I’m still working out ideas. I don’t want anything where I have to be behind a desk all day, that’s for damn sure.” “Maybe you could be a cop or something.” “I thought about it, for a fleeting second. It’s not for me, though. I like the idea of protecting people, but not everything that comes from working a beat. I’ve seen enough of that sort of thing. What about you, what would you be if you weren’t a musician.” “A music teacher,” Jesse replied, realizing that he didn’t even have to think about it, it had always been there, in the back of his mind, ever since his father had suggested it. “That’s what my dad was.” “Is he the one that taught you to play?” “Yeah, for the most part. Everything but the guitar.” From the look on Ryker’s face Jesse knew he’d failed to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Why not the guitar?” “’Cause he fuckin’ hated the kind of music I wanted to play,” Jesse replied in an explosion of emotion that brought tears to his eyes. It still hurt, and the fact that they’d passed away before he could change their minds just made the pain that much sharper. “They never saw me perform with the band. They wouldn’t come even when I sent them tickets. Wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was a member of Wild Child when people asked them if that was me.” Ryker looked shocked and a bit perplexed at that. “Let’s just say they were musical snobs and leave it at that,” Jesse remarked. “And I believe that’s two questions you owe me.” “Okay, shoot.” “Have you ever wanted to disappear?” Jesse asked. “Just scrap everything and create something brand new for yourself where nobody knows you and know one can point out all your flaws and mistakes.” “Sort of, but in my case, I’d be the one pointing out my mistakes and running senarios in my head, berating myself for all the things I’d done wrong and overanalyzing all the things I could have done differently.” “Same.” “We’re our own worst critiques, did you know that,” Ryker replied. “I’m starting to.” Ducking his head, Jesse played with a spot on the table, the game having become secondary to them. “That’s all I can think about these days. The things I did wrong, the things I let happen, the things I couldn’t say. I should have stood up to Troy right from the beginning.” “Troy?” Ryker asked, seat creaking as he moved around. Jesse blinked, and it dawned on him that he’d said way more than he’d planned to. “Forget I said anything.” “Impossible.” “Well for my sake, try.” “How about I just agree to drop it for the moment,” Ryker conceded. “Fine, it’s your roll anyway.” Ryker took the die and rolled it, but even as he moved his piece, his eyes never left Jesse for long. That piercing gaze, like Ryker could see all of his secrets just begging to spill out. If he wasn’t careful, that was exactly what would happen and Jesse feared that once he started talking, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he’d told Ryker every last hideous detail.
  14. layla

    Chapter 5

    Ryker stared at the closed door, mentally going over every word he’d said to Jesse, trying to figure out what had prompted him to retreat. The key is owning up to our mistakes Ryker had stated, only now, as he listened to Jesse’s sobs, he found himself wondering if that hadn’t been what did it. After all, Jesse had said no one cared to hear the truth. Could it be that Jesse hadn’t been the one to make a mistake at all? Sitting outside Jesse’s door, Ryker pressed one hand to the wood, the lantern beside him keeping the room from being completely dark. “Jesse,” he called, giving the door a light tap. He heard scrambling, then Jesse’s panicked voice. “D-don’t come in!” “I won’t,” Ryker sought to assure him. “I just want to talk to you, if that’s okay.” At first, the only response was a few more choking sobs. Ryker was patient though, waiting him out, and eventually, there were sniffles and loud, shuddering breaths as Jesse struggled to get himself under control. “Jesse,” Ryker called out. “W-what?” “I just wanted to let you know I’m still here.” “O-okay.” “I’m sorry I upset you, again.” “I-is not you.” Jesse stammered, sniffling again. Ryker gave a rueful chuckle and pressed his ear against the door, listening for any signs that Jesse might be doing harm to himself. “Sure seems that way.” “I-it, I-I’m sorry.” “You don’t have to be sorry,” Ryker told him. “Clearly something is wrong and my being here is making it worse. I can’t do much about it at the moment but sit here and listen if you want to talk.” The laugh that echoed through the door was bitter, caustic, and Jesse sounded like one wrong word would send him spireling even further over the edge. “No one cares what I have to say.” “I do.” “Y-yeah, right, y-you don’t even know me.” Ryker sighed, and closed his eyes, at least Jesse didn’t seem to be moving around in there, but how to reach him when Jesse was right? “I know your music,” Ryker replied. “Every word to every song committed to memory. Sometimes….” Ryker hesitated for a brief moment, then decided to take the plunge. Something told him that if he wanted Jesse to trust him, then he was going to have to lay himself bare first. “There were moments when I lost track of what we were supposed to be doing over there,” Ryker said, pressing his head tighter to the wood. “Moments when it felt pointless and I felt useless and everything got to be too much. Some of the things I saw…” Grinding his teeth together, Ryker let the images drift through his mind, bloody and bleak. “You only have a moment to decide if you’re going to pull the trigger. A split second where its them or you,” Ryker said. “Some of them looked so young, like they should have been in high school worrying about algebra class, not the fact that there AR just jammed. We’re supposed to be helping, but so many of them hate us for being there, hate us for what our government has done to theirs, hate us because we’re different from them and we’re in their country and they know so many here don’t want them in ours. It’s just fucked.” He let his head thunk against the wood, felt a single tear slid down his cheek. “I’d lay awake at night because the echo of gunfire was still rattling around in my head and nothing would make it fade, except your songs, man, you’re god damned voice pumping through those earbuds.” Maybe we never intended to get lost The jangled screams in our minds Blinding us to reason Ripping past caution Punching holes in the mind In the soil Lights fade as darkness claims Sanity Reality That’s alive That’s living All those moments melding into one One life One death One night What will you do to win? What will you sacrifice? We roll in hazy purple shadows Clawing at the thick wisps Shaking as we climb Turmoil rolls, questions Rapid fire dance through battered minds Hope sinks in silent oceans of cerulean sludge As we trudge, knee deep Through forests of longing and lost inspirations Words drip ash from chapped lips Mangled meanings lost in howling winds That’s alive That’s living All those moments melding into one One life One death One night What will you do to win? What will you sacrifice? We are the night that dances nomadic Frantic waltzes before dying fires The glimmer of dreams and superstitions Turned on their ears Torn apart Broken to shreds on jagged rocks in radioactive oceans Plucked from the sands where we’ve wasted Defined by ancient, dusty names and psycho babble Are seams held by ducktape and glue Reality wanting to be put back together again He wasn’t pushed you know He jumped That’s alive That’s living All those moments melding into one One life One death One night What will you do to win? What will you sacrifice? What will you sacrifice? “I’d lay there asking myself that, playing that song over and over, wondering what you’d seen to make you write that. What you’d given up and if reality really could be put back together again, ‘cause fuck, it seemed like mine was being torn further apart with every single day.” Breathing out heavily, Ryker wondered if Jesse was even listening. He’d been so silent, he could have his own ear buds in, blocking out Ryker’s hopeless ramble. “I had all these ideals, but the truth was that there are better ways to make a difference,” Ryker remarked. “Better ways to make the world a better place then putting bullets in someone and watching your buddies get blown to hell.” Ryker nearly fell over on his side when the door was abruptly opened, spilling light into the hall and framing Jesse’s wrung out form in the doorway. He quickly righted himself and caught sight of Jesse biting his lower lip before he sat, almost hesitantly, a few feet away, leaving the door open between them. “You…” Jesse shook his head and brushed a hand across his face, drawing Ryker’s attention to the angry tears still lingering there. “At least you were trying to do something meaningful.” “And you don’t feel making music that makes people feel things is meaningful?” Ryker asked. “You give words to feelings that other’s can’t even begin to express. I know I couldn’t, but I’d listen to you sing that, and I got it. Life hurt, it was supposed to, but more than that, we had to take the broken bits and make something better out of them because no one else could do it for us.” “It was stupid.” “What was stupid?” “The words, those fucking lyrics, me!” Jesse snapped. “Some things are too broken to ever be fixed! Some people are so broken that no amount of glue and dreams is ever going to fix them.” Ryker studied him, the ridged posture, the way he hugged his knees to his chest, the tears that continued to fall in thicker lines. He was the picture of anguish wrapped up in a beautiful ball of ragged cloth and ruined tattoos. “Who broke you Jesse?” The slow, soothing ricking that Jesse had been doing stopped abruptly and he blinked at Ryker as if seeing him for the first time. “Was it Kyle?” “No, he just helped stomp on the pieces,” Jesse whispered. Okay, now they were getting somewhere. “How?” “I don’t do drugs!” Jesse snapped. “And I-I wasn’t getting smashed before shows. I don’t drink to get drunk, even when everything sucks and all I want is to be away from it all!” “Okay.” Jesse snorted, eyes narrowing. “Hey,” Ryker interrupted what he was certain was going to be the start of a rant. “If you say you weren’t using and you weren’t getting plastered then I believe you.” Once again, Ryker seemed to have said the one thing that would stun Jesse into stillness and uncertainty as he fixed Ryker with that owl look, all wide, watchful eyes. “You’d be the only one,” Jesse muttered. “I take it Kyle and the rest of the band didn’t?” Ryker asked. “Like I’d suddenly start lying to them about shit like that,” Jesse said. “They are supposed to be my best friends, my fuckin’ family, and they couldn’t even pause the accusations long enough for me to try and tell them the truth.” “Will you tell me?” Ryker watched the way Jesse’s jaw clenched and his cheeks reddened. “I was stupid.” Jesse mumbled. Ryker waited, silently, in the hopes that it would urge Jesse to continue talking, but instead, he seemed to shrink into a tighter ball. “I don’t want to talk anymore,” Jesse said at last, looking everywhere but at Ryker. Knowing it would only take them backwards if he pushed now, Ryker nodded. “Okay. Want me to leave you alone?” “NO!” Jesse’s outburst shocked them both a bit and Ryker watched him hang his head. “No, I-I don’t want…do you have cards or something?” “Yeah, I’ll go get them,” Ryker replied, heading back up the hall to the living room and snatching them off the shelf where he’d tossed them. He half expected to see Jesse’s door shut when he returned. It wouldn’t have shocked him at all if he’d changed his mind with how hesitant he was about damn near everything, but there he was, still seated where Ryker had left him. “What do you want to play?” Ryker asked. “Do you know crazy eights,” Jesse replied, brushing the last of the tears from his cheeks. “You’d better believe it.” It was a big step, and Ryker was pleased that Jesse was willing to take it. Just sitting across from him without the door between them was a big moment and Ryker cautioned himself not to make any abrupt movements or drift into territory that might make Jesse retreat again. [***] With every hand they played, Jesse found himself relaxing more and more. It helped that somewhere during the second hand, Jesse had put on some music and Ryker was as content as Jesse was to listen to it without interrupting the flow by talking. After the forth hand, Ryker had gone to the kitchen and retrieved a package of shortbread cookies and placed it in the space between them and Jesse had found himself nibbling on more than just a few of them. In fact, he wasn’t completely sure, but it seemed like Ryker had only taken a couple, certainly fewer than Jesse had. On one hand, it made him feel a bit self-conscious and greedy, but on the other, they were so, so good and he was hungry despite the two sandwiches he’d eaten. Ryker lifted the cards towards him in a gesture Jesse had come to interpret as questioning if he was up for one more hand. If playing would keep him from sleeping and dreams that gave way to nightmares, then he’d be more than happy to play until he passed out from exhaustion. Shuffle, deal, they were halfway through the hand when a buzzing from Ryker’s pocket interrupted the flow of things, and Ryker lay his cards on the floor and fished out his phone. “Yeah?” Silence for the span of a few seconds. “Can’t really talk right now, I’m playing cards with Jesse.” More silence. “Kyle! For fuck’s sake, I will call you back later, now is not a good time.” Cold fury shut up Jesse’s spine and he threw the cards down. “Get. Out!” Jesse yelled, ignoring the shocked look on Ryker’s face as he leapt to his feet. “Jesse, hang on,” Ryker replied. “Kyle I will call you back.” “Out!” Jesse ordered. “Was that your plan? To spy on me for your cousin?” “Hey Kyle,” Jesse hollered. “You want to know what’s going on? Maybe next time you’ll fuckin’ listen to me instead of assuming, you ass!” “Out!” Jesse ordered again. Ryker backed away, phone held up in his hand. Through it, Jesse could hear Kyle’s angry voice but he couldn’t make out the words, not that he gave a damn at the moment. Unfuckinbelieveable! For the second time that night Jesse slammed the door in Ryker’s face, but this time there were no tears, there was nothing but cold fury as he paced and muttered and growled and cursed at the thin tendrils of light peeking through the trees. The fuckin’ snow was still pouring down. Gripping the windowsill he focused on his breathing as he stared out into the sunrise, thoughts spireling to so many dark places that he wished he could make time still for awhile so he could get a break from it all. How stupid could he be? It seemed like the levels of stupid were just piling on one greater than the next. Just when he’d thought he’d shed as many IQ points as he could possibly afford to lose he tripped himself up with another dumb mistake. Of course Ryker would report everything he saw and heard back to Kyle and just like on tour, Kyle would assume it was because Jesse was using and abusing pills or alcohol and never give him the opportunity to muster up the courage to tell him what had truly been going on. Sometimes he wondered if his ex-best friend would even care. Pressing his head against the cold glass pane, he let it seep into his skin, his bones, the very marrow of his soul. He should have spoken up after the first hit, gone to Kyle with the bruise forming on his cheek rather than covering it up with makeup. Maybe then there wouldn’t have been any question of what was wrong. Instead, he’d hidden behind his shame, accepted that he’d provoked it and listened to promises that it would never happen again, wanting to believe that he was loved. Stupid Stupid Stupid Clenching his fist, he drew it back, intending to punch through the glass, gouge the glass as deep into his flesh as he could manage and hope he rendered himself unable to ever play another cord. Fade into fucking obscurity a washout, a burnout, someone the magazines did ‘what ever happened to’ articles about ten years after they vanished from the limelight. What the fuck had he been thinking climbing up on that stage in the first place? Why hadn’t he listened to his folks and auditioned for the symphony, focused on classical music and learning to teach the way his father had done? Cause he was stubborn…and stupid. Stupid…and stubborn, and look where it had gotten him. That’s alive That’s living All those moments melding into one One life One death One night What will you do to win? What will you sacrifice? What hadn’t he sacrificed? Home, family, love, a place where he truly belonged. Eyes glancing around the room, he took in the site of the guitar cases, recalling the joy he’d felt the first time he’d picked one up. Like his blood was on fire. Like someone had just set firecrackers off in his soul and slathered what was left in glitter. Everything bright, sparkling. Music poured from his fingers into the cords and the world melted. No, better than that, he’d created a different world for himself, one where he could indulge in the only thing he’d ever been addicted to. Standing beneath the lights, sweat dripping from his hair, wrung out and shaking as he launched into the final song. That’s alive That’s living Fuck! He let his hand fall to his side, unable to do the one thing that turn him from a star into a flash in the pan. I love you, why do you insist on making me hurt you? God damnit he hadn’t meant to. It wasn’t as if he’d had some basis for comparison, some roadmap to follow to tell him that the thing he planned to do was going to piss his boyfriend off. He’d never thought love could hurt that bad, or leave him so broken. What will you do to win? What will you sacrifice? All he had left was his pride and even that was in tattered. His music was…dark, a twisted parody of what it used to be. From one moment to the next he wasn’t even sure if it would be best to hold on to it or let it go before they snatched it away. Wouldn’t it be best to go out on his own terms rather than read in the tabloids that he’d been replaced. They wouldn’t do it that way, would they? Thinking back to how fed up they’d been, and how he could never make the words come because every time he’d opened his mouth to speak he’d found himself fielding accusations. It was exhausting. Flinging himself on his bed he closed his eyes. Maybe he’d find the answers in the morning. [***] Son of a bitch! Ryker gripped the phone in his hand, wanting nothing more than to crush the damn thing, but that would mean neither he or Jesse had a means of communicating. Not a good thing considering both of them were battling demons. He could still hear his cousin yelling through the phone, so he yanked it to his ear and barked at him to shut the fuck up. What’s your problem? Kyle shot back. “Your timing, which completely sucks.” How was I supposed to know you’d actually gotten Jesse to sit down with you! “You couldn’t have, it just sucks that he’s back behind a closed door again and I get to sit out here, twiddle my thumbs and watch the fuckin’ sun come up.” Shit Ryker, I’m sorry. “Not your fault. It’s just been a rough twenty-four hours. I need sleep.” Have things gotten worse up there? “Define worse.” As in how are you handling things? Are the nightmares getting to you again? How’s Jesse doing? Is he still getting fucked up? “I’m not sure he ever was.” Dude you didn’t… “See him, I know, but I think I made the same misjudgment you might have,” Ryker admitted. “He says he isn’t using and I’m of the mind to believe him. I think something else is going on. He is cutting himself, but tonight he tended to the damage he did. I think he needs someone to listen to him without judging him. Hell, he’s practically begging for it, so do me a favor, please, and don’t call me. I’ll call you when I need to talk. As it is I don’t know how I’m supposed to convince him I’m not spying on him for you.” None of this would be an issue if Jesse would just spit out whatever the hell it is that’s eating at him so we can fit it and move on. This living in limbo shit is getting old for everyone. “Yeah well, from what I’ve seen it’s getting old for Jesse too,” Ryker said. “I think he needs help, not more pressure, ultimatums, or accusations at this point. I also think he needs to eat more. He didn’t look so pale after he got a couple sandwiches and cookies in him.” Don’t you guys have enough food up there in the cabin? “We do, but Jesse hadn’t been coming out to get any,” Ryker said. He took some things to his room but I’m doubting it was anything with much nutritional value. Does he want to self-destruct! “I don’t know and it wouldn’t do anyone any good for me to try and assume,” Ryker replied, stopping short of pointing out his feelings that assumptions might have been the very things to have pushed Jesse to the point he was at right now. I guess. “Kyle, I need to ask you something and you’d better be honest with me.” Shoot. “Did you and Jesse get in a fight?” Ryker asked. “A physical one.” Hell no! Jesse and I have never taken a swing at one another. “Do you know if Jesse has gotten into it, physically, with anyone else?” Jesse? He’s never been in a fight in his life. I doubt he can even throw a punch without hurting himself. A grim picture started painting itself in Ryker’s mind. One in which someone else was doing the hitting and Jesse was at the receiving end. It was the only thing that added up. All of his behaviors suggested trauma and fear. Ryker thought back to how Jesse had grown more relaxed and at ease once Ryker was seated on the ground in front of him, at his level, and maintained the distance they’d established between them. Now that he thought about it, each and every one of Jesse’s outbursts had come after Ryker had gotten too close. Ryker, you there? “Yeah, I’m still here. Just thinking is all,” Stifling a yawn Ryker checked his watch and realized he’d been awake the entire night. “You sure him and Griffin haven’t thrown hands?” Seriously? Griffin is like the Hulk compared to Jesse, not to mention I’d know about it if it had happened. We’re a family, man, we don’t get in fistfights with one another. “Family members still fight.” Yeah well, this family fights with words. “Which still hurt. I’d think you would know that. Look. I need sleep so just back off for right now.” Fine, I can do that. “Thank you. I’ll talk to you later.” All right, but don’t hesitate to call if you need me. I know you’re all focused on Jesse’s mindset right now, but I’m worried about both of you. Won’t do him any good if you spiral too. “I’m good,” Ryker remarked, refusing to mention where the latest dream had taken him. “Gotta go.” And without allowing Kyle to get another word in, Ryker ended the call and sank heavily onto the couch and rested his head in his hands. When he woke up he’d try again. Maybe kick things off with food and see if he could use the smell of bacon and eggs to lure Jesse into opening the door again. Actually, the first thing he was gonna do was turn his phone off. The last thing he needed was to lose another hard-earned ounce of progress to a mistimed interruption.
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