An Explanation of This Story, So You Will Be Slightly Less Confused and Terrified By It:

So, I love CLAMP. I love them a lot. And what CLAMP fan can really resist the urge to imagine their characters in your own reality? Basically, this story is my answer to the question of what Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles would look like if it was without magic and taking place right down the street. Well, that and xxxHOLiC, which is obviously connected. Plus I couldn't resist bringing Chi and Hideki along for the ride. Well, them and Kobato and Fujimoto . . .

I just kind of went nuts, okay? But there are some really important things you need to know before you begin this story. This story started out as simply trying to reinterpret the story into modern reality terms, explaining how events would happen without magic or time travel, etc. Which made me have to leave out Fang Wang Reed. Which is awesome, because my story does not suffer by lacking Butt Chin.

Since there was no evil mastermind, I felt a little more free with my interpretation of events. Then it just sort of evolved into a grand, angsty mess full of crossover character goodness. These are totally AU versions of the characters, despite the fact that they still behave in (I hope) the way they do in CLAMP's stories. For instance: Ioryogi is neither a spirit nor a talking plushie. He's an actual person. Also, Fai is not a magician. In fact, Fai is not "Fai," and Ioryogi is not "Ioryogi."

The reason? Well, this story is set in San Francisco. While trying to imagine a bunch of high school/college students, people who live in our actual reality, I had trouble thinking of them with crazy manga names. So I gave them names that they, as Americans, would be more likely to have. I have a LiveJournal entry that offers an explanation for most name choices**, should you need it. I almost always spent an agonizing amount of time making sure the name fit the character. I'm not going to give you a list of the changes, because you should recognize each character pretty quickly. Like I said, they still behave in the same way.

Worried yet? Don't be. You're about to dive straight into a sea of angst! Your first KuroFai moment is only minutes away! Ready, set, go!

**Follow this link (without punctuation instead of words, you know how it goes): faren-maddox (dot) livejournal (dot) com (slash) 32740 (dot) html

Chapter One

January 13th, 2010

Lee stared down at the blank sheet of notebook paper, which had been mocking him with its emptiness for ten minutes. He was not happy. He didn't want to write this essay, didn't even know where to begin. He looked around the room, seeking a distraction, and found the new teacher staring right back at him. He returned his eyes to his paper and scowled while the rest of the class was happily scribbling away. Substitute teachers really sucked.

English just had to be the class that he was alone for, the only one of the day that he didn't share with his brother, his neighbour, or both. If it was Sara, he could have wasted the period watching her write her essay and appreciating the shine of her hair. If it was his brother, he would have known exactly what Lee's problem was and would have faked an asthma attack to get them both out of it.

Instead . . .

A shadow crossed his desk, utterly clear against the bright light of the afternoon sun reflecting off the snow outside the window. Yeah, snow. It was all over the news today, like it was the second coming of Jesus. He looked up to find that the substitute teacher was standing in front of him, tilting her head to see his blank paper and causing a veritable waterfall of blond hair to spill over her shoulder. He blushed, scowled, and didn't say a word.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I didn't realize it was such a difficult subject for you. You may choose another topic, if it's uncomfortable."

He shrugged, not looking up. "It's not uncomfortable, exactly, just . . . complicated."

"That's all right," she said, her voice still kind and soft. "I'm not really judging you on the content of your essay. It's only that I'm teaching your English class for several weeks, and I wanted to try to get to know all of you as quickly as I can. The topic 'home' is one that I thought would help with that. You can really write about anything, because home means something different to everybody."

And really different, to him, Lee thought, although he didn't say it.

She seemed to understand, somehow. "You know what I would write about, if it were my essay? I think home is a smell, and a feeling. My mother used to bake bread while I was at school, and I'd come home to the smell, and she'd always have some that wasn't finished yet. I loved kneading the dough, working at her side, the elastic feel on my hands. My mother died two years ago, and I'm very happy in the apartment I share with my boyfriend, but it's only when I bake a loaf of bread that I feel absolutely at home. So you see, your essay is very much up to you. What you choose to write about, that's what's going to tell me the most about you—not the way you write it or if it's 'normal.' Okay?"

Lee finally looked up at her, and smiled. Maybe Miss Elda wasn't so bad. She seemed like she would be the type to accept anything he told her, graciously. It wasn't like anything about his home life was wrong or bad, either. Other people tried to tell him it was, but all they were really saying was that it was different. And different didn't have to be wrong. He finally started to write.

Home isn't exactly a place for me, at least not anymore. Home is the people who matter to me. When my parents were alive, I probably would have described our house as "home," but things have been very different since they died last year, and everything, including the definition of that word, has changed for me. Technically, home is a small apartment next to the university, but it wouldn't be if not for the people I share it with.

Home is Caleb, who always acts grouchy but is there anytime we need him. He pretends he doesn't like it here, since the only reason he came to this university is that his girlfriend said they needed some time apart, but I know he secretly doesn't mind it anymore. He's on his second year of a baseball scholarship. He'll kill you if you make fun of him for being a Gator, but part of knowing I'm home is when I find a mitt or a jersey just laying around the apartment. I admire him for how hard he works, for himself and for the rest of us. He never complains.

Home is also Finn, who's— well, Finn is Finn. He's special. And by special I mean completely insane. He's the oldest, he's getting his master's degree in something or other that has to do with medieval English history, and I think he must be fluent in Old English because he starts speaking it to bug Caleb whenever Caleb gets really grouchy. I also think he lives entirely on pudding snacks and cheap rum. He doesn't really sleep, either, he's often still awake studying when we all get up in the morning. He's extremely loud and cheerful, whenever he's not studying. He might be crazy, but he's always been really kind, too.

I think someday home might mean my neighbour, Sara. She's smart and gorgeous and very kind-hearted. She lives with her brother, Tom, who thinks I'm a bad influence on her or something. But Tom's boyfriend Yuri likes me, so Tom lets us stay friends. Sara is— something to think about when I'm older, I guess, but I hope Sara means home. If that makes any sense.

No matter what, no matter who comes in or out of our lives, home will most of all and always be my brother Averil. We're twins, but we always say I must be the older brother. I feel like I've been looking out for him ever since we were little kids. He's got a few health problems, so that's probably why I started being really protective of him. Last year, when our parents died, I was the one who tried to take charge to figure out what we should do. He's taken everything really hard, since then, so I try to look out for him as much as I can. He's my twin, and that makes him a part of me in a way that no one else really can be. I wouldn't call anyplace home, if Averil wasn't with me.

The bell rang, and Lee looked down at his desk in amazement, rubbing his cramped fingers. He'd been writing steadily ever since Miss Elda had come over to talk to him. She was collecting papers from people while they were streaming out the classroom door, but Lee hesitated, shouldering his bag and trying to decide. He didn't know if he really wanted to give it to her. She'd ask all the awkward questions that Lee usually avoided by just not talking about home. It was hard to explain his living arrangements. Teenaged orphan twins sharing an apartment with two slightly insane university students, next door to a gay university student and his sister . . . It was kind of hard to explain why this wasn't as weird as it sounded, or why Lee was happy this way. But he'd rather not take a zero for the day, so he steeled himself and marched forward to hand over the pencil-smudged page of writing.

Next was physics, which had both Averil and Sara, and definitely wouldn't include uncomfortable essay topics. Lee practically skipped down the hall to get to that class.

The three teenagers were nearly home, walking side by side and chattering happily about classes and homework. Sara was especially cheerful, since she was thrilled about the first snowfall ever in her lifetime, and Lee was happy that she was happy. He'd been worried about her recently. She seemed tired. And even though she would never admit to it, she kept getting headaches. He was learning to recognize it when she ran her fingers over her forehead, as though to wipe away the pain.

Right now, she was laughing at something Ril had said, and she was cupping a handful of snow in her hands. Lee couldn't stop looking at her. It just made her more beautiful, that she didn't know how beautiful she was. Then something smacked Lee on the back of the head, and he turned around, spreading his arms protectively in front of Averil and Sara on either side of him. He gasped as something very cold slithered down the back of his neck. Snow.

"Snowball fight!" he heard a voice crow, and there was Finn, dashing down the sidewalk toward them with another snowball already held in his gloved hands.

"You scared the crap out of me!" Averil hollered, but Lee had a snowball of his own packed and ready in the blink of an eye, which Finn saw. He whooped with glee and darted backward, hiding behind Caleb. Caleb just stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked back over his shoulder to glare at Finn, who was peeking his face out at Lee with a smug expression.

Lee had to admit, Caleb made a pretty good shield. Finn was tall, but Caleb was taller, and he was all muscle and broad shoulders, too, whereas Finn was so skinny you couldn't see him if he turned sideways. But Lee just grinned and threw the snowball anyway, counting on Caleb to understand. He did. He pivoted on one leg and turned himself aside so that the projectile hit Finn right in the middle of his chest, snow sliding right into the V created by the half-buttoned blue coat he wore and cutting him off mid-giggle.

Suddenly, they were all involved, and snow was flying in every direction. Sara was laughing and letting Lee shield her so she could throw a surprisingly wicked curveball from behind him. Averil had no idea how to pack a snowball properly, but the shower of snow created by his throw blinded Lee long enough for Averil to tackle him and shove his back into a snowbank, shouting triumphantly.

Lee twisted under his brother and bucked him off, anxious that he should be up and gallantly defending Sara from Finn. Caleb threw snowballs like he threw baseballs, so he probably wouldn't target Sara at all in case he hurt her. In fact, Caleb was pretty much only fighting with Finn, who was avoiding the possible pain by launching himself onto Caleb's shoulders like he was about to get a piggyback ride. Sara was just standing back and laughing, until she saw Lee back on his feet, trying to wipe the sludge from his favourite green jacket. Then she stepped forward, a shy, sweet smile on her face that transfixed him—and shoved a handful of snow down his shirt. He shouted in shock (not entirely unpleasant) and she ran toward the shelter of their apartment building with a peal of laughter.

He considered chasing her, but turned to help Averil get up instead, frowning with concern. They looked so different that people often refused to believe they were brothers at all, much less twins—but no one could deny that they had grown up together, not when Lee was able to pick up on the tiniest cue Averil gave him. One hand was dusting the snow from his black hair with seeming nonchalance, but Averil had the other hand down at his side in a fist. There was a smile on his face, but his lips were parted oddly.

Finn looked only too eager to keep up the game, but Lee knew the language his brother was using, and quickly threw an arm over his shoulders. "Come on, we'd better get inside and do our homework—we've got tons."

Averil hated making anyone worry about him. Although he wasn't above faking it to help Lee with something, he never wanted anyone to know when he was having a real asthma attack. He didn't want to spoil Finn's fun, but he didn't want to asphyxiate on the slushy sidewalk, either. So he let Lee lead him inside, where he could sit down and use his inhaler without worrying their roommates.

Well, they really did have a lot of homework, anyway.

Finn obviously didn't think he noticed. It was almost enough to make Caleb punch him for stupidity. Usually, Finn was good at hiding, those blue eyes sparkling with laughter at something only he thought was funny. But when he thought no one was looking, he was different.

He'd been watching the twins closely enough to see the same thing Caleb saw, that Averil put his fist down to say something to Lee, and Lee had understood and pulled his brother out of their fight. It was probably asthma, the kid was so dumb about thinking it would bother them or something. Caleb figured he'd give the twins their privacy, make sure they didn't think they'd ruined anyone's fun, so he indulged Finn's antics for a minute longer. But Finn's efforts to cover him in snow had immediately turned half-hearted. The eyes that followed the movements of those boys weren't merry anymore, they'd gone intense with a stark pain—Caleb was probably the only one who'd even believe Finn was capable of feeling anything that deeply, much less pain. But he saw it, and he knew. Finn had lost someone as dear to him as those boys were to one another.

But he'd be mortified if he knew that Caleb knew. He did such a good job of covering it up, most of the time. So . . .

"I can't believe they don't think we notice that shit," he grunted, brushing the snow off his clothes.

Finn snapped out of it and turned around with his trademark stunningly bright smile. "But there's no harm in letting them keep thinking it, right Cal?"

As always, Caleb couldn't help but growl a protest. He really, really hated it when Finn shortened his name. But even that was a compromise. When they'd first ended up sharing an apartment (and Caleb was never going to forgive the apartment manager Yvonne for engineering it), Finn had refused to call him anything but "Hot Shot" for weeks, until Caleb had snapped. Of course, shoving his new roommate up against a wall and shouting at him just made the blond idiot laugh, so Caleb had to resort to threats against Finn's liquor stash. Finn had switched from "Hot Shot" to simply "Cal," and Caleb decided that was the best he was going to get. Finn seemed to prefer it when people found him obnoxious, and Caleb wasn't about to give him the satisfaction.

At this point, Caleb thought he'd have a heart attack if Finn ever did actually refer to him by his full name.

"Come on!" Finn exclaimed. "I'm sure you're just as impervious to cold as you are to everything else, but I'm freezing, Tough Stuff!"

Oh. Hell. No.

He shoved a handful of snow down the back of Finn's jacket.

"Don't call me that," he growled while Finn was busy squealing like a ten-year-old girl.

"At least you didn't throw me across the room," Finn laughed, poking him in the side.

Shit. He'd seen Caleb thinking about that incident, somehow knew what it was Caleb had been thinking about. And here Caleb had always considered himself the observant one. Even though they'd been sharing an apartment for nearly thirteen months (he knew that because their lease was for thirteen months and Molly had just posted a note on their door telling them their renewal was due), Caleb still had to wonder—just who the hell was this guy?

Well, whatever else he was, he knew how to cook. Finn reserved all his energy for fancy desserts, most of the time, and let Averil do all the cooking. But today, the two of them teamed up to deliver a beef stew to warm them back up after their snowball fight, along with fresh-baked rolls. Averil, as usual, made enough food for their entire apartment complex to feast on. But it was becoming obvious why he did that, since he put a bunch of leftovers into a box, shoved the box at his brother, and told Lee to take it next door.

"Next door?" Lee muttered, his face flushing.

"They never have real dinner. You know Tom and Yuri are too busy, so they probably eat frozen waffles for every meal." A sigh gusted from him, and a slightly wicked smile spread over his lips when he saw Lee contemplating this. "Poor Sara," he finished in a sly tone.

Lee immediately stammered out that he'd be back soon, or something to that effect, and practically sprinted next door. Finn grinned and waved a roll in Averil's direction.

"They're such a cute couple, aren't they?"

Averil rolled his eyes. "They would be if they'd admit they like one another."

Caleb had reached his limit for time spent conversing about other people's love lives. He stood up. "I have to write a paper," he growled.

"What a coincidence, so do I!" Finn exclaimed. Like that was news or something. The day Finn didn't have some kind of major project would be the day he finally got the master's degree he was supposedly studying for.

Caleb started clearing the table, but Averil waved him off.

"I got it, I'll take care of this. You guys can go study."

"You're sure, Ril?" Finn asked, bouncing up out of his seat.

"Yeah. It's fine."

"Thanks!" he said, and dashed into their living room to perch beside a massive pile of research and do something vague and historical. Caleb had no idea what the spaz actually studied, except that he'd apparently taught himself a language that no longer existed. Caleb had paid attention to Finn's supposed area of expertise precisely once. He normally didn't care, but that one time had been Lee's fault.

Lee had been interested in the legend of King Arthur for a while. He'd asked if Finn knew anything about it. Finn had gone pale—well, more pale—and said in a harsh voice that he didn't study that. He'd immediately switched back on his running-off-at-the-mouth ADHD personality, but just for that second, he'd been like a completely different person. Caleb had been wondering ever since just why the medieval legend scared his roommate so much. He'd never asked, because all he'd get for his trouble would be some random bullshit evasion thinly disguised as flirtation. Not worth it. No, he was waiting for the right moment.

Caleb made a half-hearted effort to help Averil with the dishes, let himself be persuaded otherwise, and followed Finn into the living room so he could study. He was just taking pre-requisites, spinning his wheels. He didn't have a major. He didn't need one. He was just here to play baseball. He didn't need a degree, much as the academic advisor might try to tell him otherwise. And if baseball ever fell through, he'd move back home and become a cop, just like he'd always planned on.

He heard the running water turn off and heard Averil and Lee's bedroom door close. He looked at the front door, through which Lee ought to have returned by now, and chuckled.

"That kid's got it bad for her."

"Enough to eat dinner all over again, apparently," Finn said with a grin.

With Caleb on their second-hand sofa with a biology textbook and Finn sprawled out across the floor with books, papers, his laptop, and who knew what else, they both became absorbed in their studies and let the twins slip from their minds.

Lee closed the door and sighed, feeling the need to lean on it for a moment. There was a pleasant euphoric sensation in his head that was reminiscent of a good alcohol buzz. Tom wasn't home, he was working, and Yuri hadn't bothered him and Sara at all. Yuri was always on his side when it came to Sara. Any time spent with Sara was good time, but it was especially good when it wasn't at school and they could just talk. Sara was a deeper and more intelligent person than she acted like at school. Lee loved being the one who got to see her that way.

Caleb grunted at him. "Just going to stand there all night?"

Finn had fallen asleep on his stomach on the floor, surrounded by a bunch of papers. He shifted a little when Caleb spoke, but sighed and subsided, his breath blowing a chunk of messy blond hair off his cheek.

Lee just smiled at Caleb, who was scowling down at a book on his lap like it had insulted him.

"Maybe," he said quietly.

Caleb flicked the page over. "Whatever," he muttered, but Lee could tell he didn't mean it. He was pretty sure that Caleb liked Sara, as much as one could ever be sure that Caleb liked anything.

Lee pushed himself up and toward his room, allowing that nearly narcotic buzz to continue as he walked. He'd say goodnight to his brother, he'd ignore the homework he should be doing, and he'd lay there like the lovesick teenager he was, staring at the ceiling and thinking fuzzy Sara-thoughts. Maybe he'd think about how the new cut of her auburn hair made her look like a pixie, or how her tiny little hands were so expressive when she was talking, or . . .

He froze when he opened the door. "Ril?" He was across the room and on his knees in a moment, the buzz in his head cut sharply by a blade of fear. "Ril, oh, shit."

Averil was laying in a rictus of desperation on the floor. He had his hands clutched in the worn carpeting, his back arched up, and his eyes bulging. A squeezing, pathetically tiny sound tore its way from his throat. His lips were turning blue. Lee whipped his head around and saw Averil's inhaler only one precious foot away on the desk they'd wedged between their beds. He snatched it up and shoved it into his brother's mouth.

"Averil!" he shouted, getting his face right into his twin's, so Ril could see him, would notice that help was here. He pumped the inhaler twice, and then some more just in case. The medicine did its job, and Lee could see the moment that oxygen started leaking its way past the shrinking constriction. Those wide, frightened eyes suddenly lit up. Ril's chest arched up and he greedily sucked at the stale air like it was the purest mountain breeze.

Lee stayed there only a moment, making sure Ril was really breathing now. His brother looked at him now, finally able to see past his fear to know who was with him.

"Are you having a panic attack?" Lee asked.

The dark head nodded just slightly. Tears slid down his face, and though his breathing was coming easier every moment, it was shuddering in and out with no sense of control. Now that he wasn't writhing in agony, he was starting to shake. Lee got his hands under Ril's arms and dragged him onto the bed. He sat behind his twin and held Ril to his chest. Ril was too weak right now to sit all the way up, but laying all the way down wouldn't help him breathe any better. So Lee held him up, clutching him close and talking softly so Ril would hear his voice through the onslaught of fear, waiting for the crying and the trembling to stop.

And if he was shaking, too, there was no one but Ril to say anything about that.

There was a quiet knock on the open door, and Lee looked up to see Caleb and Finn standing there. He nodded at them, and Caleb retreated, but Finn came in. He brushed his fingers through Averil's black hair and smiled at him.

"You're all right now, aren't you?" he said softly. It was mostly a confirmation, not really a question.

Averil was calming down, now. He nodded at Finn and turned his face away in embarrassment. Lee looked to make sure he wasn't hiding more breathing problems, but he seemed okay. Then he felt those long fingers in his own hair, and turned back to Finn.

"And you're all right, too?" the man asked. It really was a question this time. He nodded, feeling weary and spent, and was glad when Finn just ruffled his hair and left, instead of pressing him to talk any more.

Because it wasn't all right, not really. Ril was getting panic attacks more frequently than he used to, and more and more often they were bringing on really bad asthma. If he kept getting worse . . . Lee didn't know what he'd do. Averil was his brother, his twin, was half of his soul in another body. For Lee, seeing Ril like this was worse than if it had been happening to him. There should be something he could do, right? There had to be more he could do than just pick his twin up and sit there like a lump while Ril went through agony.

Ril was falling asleep, exhausted now that it was over. Lee slid off the bed and let him sleep. He stayed up at his desk studying until Finn came in sometime in the middle of the night and turned off the lamp and pushed him into a weary stumble into his bed. Lee was asleep almost before his head found his pillow.

January 14th, 2010

Caleb shuffled into the kitchen with his customary scowl. Honestly, there were mornings he woke up in a perfectly acceptable mood and wore the grumpy morning persona just because his roommates would be disappointed if he didn't. Today, of course, the scowl matched his mood perfectly.

"Good morning," Finn chirped at him from the table they'd crammed into the corner of the living room closest to the kitchen. He was drinking from a mug and reading something.

"Coffee," he muttered in response.

"Oh, Papa Bear, you're so grouchy in the morning!"

Caleb debated throwing the full, steaming mug at the blond, then decided he didn't want to pay for carpet cleaning.

"If you ever call me that again, I'll shove that book down your throat," he settled for saying.

"Okay, you're not grouchy, then, you're just very sleepy. Papa Bear."

Carpet cleaning couldn't be that expensive, right?

"Maybe I wouldn't be grouchy if my roommate didn't wake up at two a.m. and then start banging around the house. Making it impossible for anyone else to sleep."

Finn gave him a sunny smile. "You were so worried about me that you couldn't sleep? How sweet!"

"You would mistake annoyance for worry."

"I was making Lee go to sleep," he said with self-importance. "Someone has to be Mama Bear around here."

Caleb shook his head, suddenly wanting to go back to bed so he wouldn't have to deal with this guy anymore. "I would ask if you know what you sound like, but I think you'd be thrilled to get painted as some gay stereotype so no one would look at you any closer than that."

Finn just grinned at him as cheerfully as ever, but his knuckles had clenched down around the handle of his coffee mug.

"I mean, are you even gay?"

"I have no idea!" Finn replied with a laugh.

"How do you not kn—" He stopped. Don't even bother asking, he told himself.

Caleb debated mentioning what had woken Finn up to begin with. Finn had been sleeping with his face buried like he always did, but he'd suddenly jerked up shouting, "Don't touch him!" He'd looked at Caleb, but Caleb pretended to stay asleep. Whoever this "him" was, and why he wasn't to be touched . . . It had nothing to do with Caleb, and it wasn't his business to stick his nose in. All he wanted was for Finn to admit that he had problems and stop acting like he farted rainbows. Caleb didn't need to know what the problems were. He just didn't appreciate being the recipient of all those games that Finn played to look happy and innocent. Caleb didn't ever bring up his own past, but he didn't go around acting like the world was all buttercups and cream puffs, either.

"Be those kids' freaking mother if it makes you happy," he drawled. "But don't hide behind them, either. You never went back to bed."

"Oooo, you noticed," Finn teased. "You were worried about me!"

"Whatever," Caleb growled, slamming his cup down in the sink. "I have to get ready for school."

Lee walked past him to get at the coffee pot, asking Finn in a mystified voice, "What's eating him?"

"Big Daddy's always a grump, don't mind him," Finn replied.

Caleb heard Lee start choking on his coffee and sighed deeply. Looked like they'd have to get the carpet cleaned after all. Big Daddy. God.

Averil finished up the dishes, feeling completely wrung out. He tried to keep himself distracted, tried to think pleasant thoughts about what he was learning in English class and how much better this new dish soap worked and anything to keep his brain occupied. He didn't know why he bothered, because he didn't know if it would work, anyway. Panic attacks weren't exactly predictable. He just knew he was too tired to handle another one.

He started cleaning the kitchen once the dishes were done, feeling even more tired. He was the only one who really seemed to care about cleanliness. It wasn't like the other guys were slobs or anything, but he'd never really seen Caleb with a duster in his hand, either. It was a constant battle against entropy, keeping the house clean when it was inhabited by four young males. He wasn't sure Finn even knew how to operate the washing machine. Averil pretty much did all the laundry.

He was tired of it. He knew the other guys noticed he did all the work. Sometimes they even said thank you. But he was tired of the way they expected it of him. Like it was just his job or something. He was the one who'd volunteered, obviously. He was the one who couldn't help with rent because his panic attacks made him too unreliable to get a job. He had to do something to pull his own weight. It was just that a little recognition wouldn't go amiss.

Averil knew he was a burden on everyone. He tried so hard not to be. But he was. He made life so hard on his brother, and he was practically useless around here. Cleaning was nice, but unnecessary. He couldn't be cheerful and keep people's spirits up the way Finn did. He wasn't exactly a rock of reliability like Caleb, either. He wasn't like Lee, strong without even trying. He wasn't any good to anyone around here, unless you were talking about who was making dinner.

Maybe Lee was the problem. Well, it was actually the reverse. Averil was the problem, which Lee's very existence made clear. Lee, who looked like their dad and shared his name. Lee, who was determined and serious like Dad but had Mom's compassion. Averil was something else. They told him he looked like some long-lost relative of Dad's, but what did that matter? He was excitable and impatient and awkward. He was the cuckoo stuck in someone else's nest. He always had been.

"I'm home!" came a sing-song voice from outside.

Finn came waltzing in the door, looking tired but cheerful. His trademark long blue coat was open, revealing the black slacks and white shirt that meant he'd been working. None of them really had any idea of all the things Finn did for money, but his rent came from working at some café and charming old ladies into giving him amazing tips. All it took was a limpid look from those baby blues and they fell all over themselves for him. He was also a T.A. in the history department, apparently.

Finn really was great, even if he was psychotic. Just a few weeks ago, on the first anniversary of the death of his and Lee's parents, when Caleb was trying to leave them alone and let them feel sad, Finn had made a sign for the front door that said "Orphans Only." Surprisingly, it made them feel better.

Of course, he wasn't really known for leaving well enough alone. He'd thoughtfully made another sign to put on their neighbour's door. Which Tom had torn down, hollering about insensitivity, not to mention that his father was alive, albeit absent. It did, at least, answer one question about Finn's past, though it raised a few about Tom's and Sara's.

They'd already known about Caleb's parents being dead because Lee had accidentally picked up one of Caleb's books and a newspaper clipping fell out that had his father's obituary on it. Police officer, killed in the line of duty. Lee had apologized about twenty times, but Caleb just shrugged and said his mother was also dead, she'd been sick or something, and that he didn't care if they knew. Nobody had brought it up again. None of them were real big on talking about anything that had happened before they'd started sharing this apartment. Just knowing that Finn's parents were dead was a big deal.

"Hey," he heard Caleb saying gruffly. "Averil. You okay?"

He blinked up at the other man, coming up out of his daze, and nodded. Finn shoved his way past the bigger man and went to the fridge, waving off Averil's offer of leftovers in favour of swiping some juice and drinking directly from the carton. He was clearly the oldest of them, but he acted like such a little kid. Funny how Caleb, who was barely old enough to buy his own alcohol, was the adult around here. Mostly. When he wasn't yelling at Finn for being uncivilized and not using a glass, and getting all annoyed by one of Finn's nicknames. Averil himself was forgotten (as usual), and he slid past them out of the small kitchen to go to his room.

Lee wasn't there. Oh, right—he'd gone next door with dinner for Sara and Tom again. He'd be a good hour, unless Tom was being all brotherly and trying to chase the juvenile delinquent away from his sister. Averil was glad that Lee had Sara. She was good for him. She gave him someone to care about who didn't need anything from him. She actually gave something back. Unlike Averil.

He sat down at the desk to try to study, but he felt tears slipping out. He didn't know why he was crying. He'd been miserable all the time, lately. It didn't make any sense for him to feel that way. His parents were dead, sure. But he and Lee had found a place to live, and Lee wasn't in trouble anymore, and school was going fine. He should be happy, right? Instead he was having panic attacks all the time and making problems for people and doing nothing worthwhile for them.

He couldn't study right now. He could barely breathe. And if he thought about the tightness in his chest, it would get worse, and that would be bad. It wasn't fair. What cosmic power picked him out to suddenly not be able to breathe, all the time? It sucked. What had he ever done to deserve it?

Lost, the word came to him as he tried to bury his head in his arms. He was lost. He didn't know where he was, who he was . . . He didn't know why. He didn't know why anything was the way it was, or what he was supposed to do with it. He just felt lost, all the time. He didn't hate it here, or anything like that. He just knew that he didn't fit in with them. He couldn't joke around with the two older guys, and he weighed his own brother down unforgivably. He had no ideas about his future or about what he wanted. He didn't make any sense to himself.

He didn't fit here. Just like it had been in his own family. He was . . . not like Mom and Dad and Lee, and not like Finn and Caleb, either. How stupid was it, that he only knew what he was not? He didn't feel unloved. He knew better than to think that, not after what Lee had done for his sake since Mom and Dad died. Even his roommates seemed to like him well enough. But he never could get in a word edgewise, it seemed like. Not unloved. Just forgotten.

He decided to go get a glass of water and try to calm the hell down. He wasn't doing anyone any good, acting like this.

He heard Finn and Caleb having an honest-to-God serious conversation in the kitchen, and he stood there in his doorway, listening. It was unusual to hear them talking in normal voices, instead of teasing and almost-flirting and pretend irritation that turned into real irritation. He shouldn't eavesdrop, but he did.

". . . rough on him, you know? He's just a kid, got his first crush and all, but he's got all this shit to deal with, when it comes to Averil."

"Yeah. It's not like Lee would ever think that Ril was a burden or something, though."

"Even if he is?"

"Lee doesn't see it that way. Trust me. Ril is his twin brother, and no matter how difficult it gets, he'll still want to take care of him."

"Yeah. I figured. The kid needs to be able to take care of himself, though."

"Ril, you mean?"

"Yeah. He's got to learn to stand up for himself, to take care of himself. I know he took their parents dying harder than Lee did, but still . . ."

Averil stumbled backward, trying to breathe. The tightness in his chest wasn't asthma, and it wasn't panic. It was horror. Pure horror. Was that what they really thought of him? That he was weak, that he was a burden . . . That he was everything he'd been assuming about himself? If even the cheery and crazy Finn could see it—

He shook his head violently. He had to get out of here. That was all, that was really all there was to it. He loved Lee too much to keep holding him back like this. He really liked Finn and Caleb, too, and to find out that they thought he was weak, that he was in the way . . .

He picked up his inhaler and put it in his pocket. He grabbed the framed photograph of him and his twin with their parents. He rifled through the desk, and triumphantly withdrew the papers that declared him an emancipated minor. He and Lee both were. The court had wanted to put them in foster care, but they were already living with Caleb and Finn by then, and they'd been able to get emancipated instead. Averil was legally considered an adult, according to these papers, and he shoved them into his bookbag with the photograph and a book of recipes he'd been creating.

In the kitchen, Caleb was frowning. "You hear that?"

"Do you think Ril heard us?"

"No, the door's shut," Caleb reported, peering around the corner. "He's not the eavesdropping type."

"Well. How do you want to bring it up?"

"Let's just do it," Caleb said impatiently. "When Lee comes back, just sit down and say it. We think Ril should see a counselor for a while."

"We have to make sure he knows that we don't blame him. I don't want him to think it's his fault. It's not shameful for him to need this."

In the bedroom, no longer able to hear, Averil tore a page from a spiral notebook he used for class notes.

"And you really need to take your own advice," Caleb snorted.

"What do you mean, Big Daddy?" Finn crooned.

Averil started writing.

"Don't call me that, you moron. I'm talking about you, going to see someone."

"See someone? Only if it makes you jealous, Cal."

"Yeah, whatever. If it's nothing for Averil to be ashamed of . . ."

"Enough," Finn said sharply. "This isn't about me."

Averil folded the page in half and wrote his brother's name on it.

"Fine. We'll talk to them when Lee comes back, then."

Finn went to the bathroom and stayed there for a while. Caleb decided he was in there sulking, and he went to their room and fumed to himself for a few minutes. They didn't hear the other bedroom door open and close, nor the front door. They didn't know. Not until Lee came home.

Lee shut the door and leaned against it, but it was far different from yesterday. This was the front door to Tom and Sara's place, and he could hear Tom and Yuri's argument through the white-painted wood. He knew Sara was crying, and he wanted to be in there with her, helping her. But the mere sight of him was putting Tom in a homicidal state, and Yuri had told him he'd better go.

Those bruises on Sara's arms. They scared him. That was what Tom didn't get, the thing that had Lee just as angry with Tom as Tom was with him. He was just as scared as Sara's brother was, to see the bruises on her skin. It didn't help that Tom had gotten in his face and accused him of putting them on her. Yuri had been quick to jump to Lee's defense—like hell Lee would ever hurt any girl, much less Sara. But then Sara said she thought they might have come from the snowball fight, and Tom was ready to take the injuries out of someone's hide. He'd try to take on Caleb, in this state, if he had to.

"You have to take her to the doctor, Tom!" he heard Yuri saying.

"And have the doctor call the cops, thinking I did it? No way! They'd try to take her guardianship away from me."

"It's too important not to look into, and you know it."

"The only thing I know is that whichever of those goddamn thugs next door hurt her—"

"Tom," Yuri interrupted, his voice suddenly softer. "You know that no one, not even Caleb, could throw a snowball hard enough to leave bruises like that."

"Yeah, but it happened."

"And that means it has an explanation. Which she needs to see a doctor to discover. Think about it. She's been tired all the time, she keeps saying she has a headache, and now she's turning up with bruises that have no cause? She needs to go now, Tom. You remember what happened when I didn't want to see a doctor? In case you don't, I'll remind you: it was bad, and I almost died. If you won't take her, I will."

Lee heard Tom try to say something, but he gave upon it, and the conversation ceased. Lee finally pushed himself away from the door, feeling sick. He entered his own apartment, making a beeline for his room. He had to talk to his brother. He needed to get this fear off his chest, explain what was going on. Something might be wrong with Sara, and he had to get past Tom's anger so that he could be there for her. Because he wanted to be there. Sara would need him. He didn't know what she saw in him, he really didn't, but he'd do anything to be worth her regard.

"Hey, Ril," he said, feeling almost shy as he came in. He had to tell his brother. He had to tell Ril that he was falling in love with Sara and that he'd do anything to help her if she was sick. "Are you— what?"

Ril wasn't there. He hadn't been in the common area, and Lee couldn't think of a reason that he'd be in Finn and Caleb's room. Lee looked around sharply. Something was missing.

There. It was usually right there. The picture of their family. It was gone.

His eyes fell on the piece of paper on the desk. It was a sheet of notebook paper, folded it half. It said Lee on it. He snatched it up. He heard someone walking up behind him, but he was too busy trying to breathe to care.

"I know I've been a burden on you. I'm sorry. I'm going someplace where I won't be getting in your way anymore. Don't worry about me, I have a plan. Don't—" He choked. He dropped the paper.

Finn knelt down, picked it up, finished it. "Don't look for me," he said softly.

Caleb snarled something unintelligible and punched a hole in the wall. Lee would have, but he was too busy going to his knees.

"No. No, no, no . . ." Finn's hand was on his shoulder, and he hung his head so the other guys couldn't see him start to cry. "No."

Okay then. Here's the deal.

I have already written most of this story, and I'm awfully proud of myself. I have, in the past, tended to write each chapter one at a time and post them as soon as it was done. This time, I chose to take a brief hiatus from the world of fanfiction to work on this story, so I could give it to you with regular updates and a lack of continuity errors. I will be giving you a chapter every week, which will give me time in between chapters to work on any issues that are brought to my attention in reviews.

Another thing I want to mention: I have been a member of this website for years, and I've never branched out. Mostly because I am lazy. But if someone who is reading this feels that my story would be welcome in another community, let me know! I really like this story and want to share it with people! I'm not brave enough to go look for other websites and beg them to take me, so I'm going to be shy and wait for an invitation.

So, that's it! Don't forget that you can go here** if you want to read my explanation for character's names, and I'll see you next week with Chapter Two.

** faren-maddox (dot) livejournal (dot) com (slash) 32740 (dot) html