A/N: This is a long one to make up for the wait. I am really sorry you had to wait but I'm going through a lot right now so try to be patient. I got a couple reviews that were sorta complimentary but also kinda mean so even though I was really impressed they could pull that off, please try to understand that my RL has to come first and I can't always control how much time I have to write.

Also, because I didn't think you'd wanna read chapter after chapter of Brandon wallowing in self pity, I am speeding things up a bit and passing through time more quickly. Hopefully I can still hit the key moments deep enough to make an impact.

Big thanks to Nan. You rock girl. Hard.

Songs that inspired this chapter: Black by Pearl Jam, Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons (if you YouTube this one, look for the one that says Bookshop Sessions. That's the one I liked best), and Dark Night of the Soul by Philip Wesley.

Brandon's POV

I shouldn't have called Brady when I was shit-faced but liquid courage is a mother fucker and before I even knew what I was doin', I was finally tellin' him that this wasn't gonna work. But then he pulled that god damn beggin' shit and I couldn't take it. So I told him I'd sleep on it.

I didn't. Didn't sleep hardly at all that night but I didn't expect to open my door and find him on the other side. I should've expected it, knowin' Brady like I do.

The second I saw him, I was done for. I couldn't fuckin' resist that boy. He was like the god damn sun. Everything about him was light and warmth and I wanted so fuckin' bad to just bask in that shit, close my eyes and let it wash over me.

But if he's the light, I'm the mother fuckin' darkness.

I wanted to be angry at him for showin' up, wanted to shove him away and scream at him to just run as far away from me as he could 'cause one thing I've learned about darkness is that it can kill the light, like black paint on a white canvas.

Fuck, I just didn't wanna hurt him. I wanted so fuckin' bad to make him happy but I couldn't do that. I don't know nothin' 'bout love. I don't know how to do it and I don't know how to accept it. Ain't nobody ever tried to love me before and I gotta give it to the little fucker, he put up a Hell of a fight but in the end, I had to set him free.

If I didn't, I woulda killed everything good about him and how could I live with myself if that happened? I can barely fuckin' live with myself even for hurtin' him like I did.

It was the right thing though. I just gotta keep tellin' myself that or I won't fuckin' survive this shit.

While he was here, for a little while, I was actually stupid enough to believe that maybe we could get through this, that we could make it.

He has this way about him that makes me wanna believe in the impossible. So after an amazin' day together, and after he was fast asleep curled up next to me, all warm and sticky from makin' love half the night, I was stupidly happy.

And I wanted to do somethin' nice for him to make up for bein' an ass so I figured I could take him out in the mornin' somewhere fun, like the zoo or some shit.

I grabbed his laptop, since it was closer than mine so I could find somethin' but when I opened it up, his email was still up. I wasn't tryin' to be nosy but there it was in bold fuckin' letters.

Academic Suspension-Warning

My stomach dropped, queasiness settlin' in as I clicked it open and read about how his grades had fallen and if he didn't get a high enough GPA by the end of the semester they was gonna pull his scholarship.

And there it is. I did this. This is my fault. All the late night phone calls, makin' him worry 'bout me all the god damn time, takin' all his time to focus on fixin' me...it was destroyin' him. If I stayed with him, he would lose everythin' and the little fucker loved me so much, he wouldn't even blame me for it. He'd take it all himself, puttin' the weight of it on his own shoulders and just like I am now, I'd be fuckin' powerless to stop it. I can't do anythin' good for him. In the end, I'd take away all that light from those pretty brown eyes until he was nothin' but a broken shell of a man, like me.

I couldn't do that. I wouldn't. I had to let him go. And I knew it would hurt him like a son-of-a-bitch, but in a few years when he had that degree hangin' on the wall of his fancy little office doin' the job he always dreamed of, he'd maybe finally understand that I really did love him.

Closin' my eyes, I thought about the conversation I overheard yesterday.

:

My next appointment wasn't for fifteen minutes so I stepped out to take a break in the alley behind the building. From around the corner I could hear snifflin' and I recognized the man's voice as Lou Anne's boyfriend, Sean.

"This is bullshit, Lou Anne. He shouldn't talk to you like that."

Her voice was broken in sobs as she whispered, "This ain't his fault. This is mine."

Sean sounded like he was grinding his teeth as he hissed, "This ain't your fault. You're tryin'. Yeah, you fucked up but you're a different person now and he's your god damn son. He should give you another chance to make this shit right."

"Why? Why should he? All I ever done is hurt that boy. It's too late to make it right now."

"Fuck that. I'm gonna go talk some fuckin' sense into him."

"No! Just leave it alone, Sean."

"How can I do that? I love you! I can't watch him hurt you no more."

"You won't have to. I'm done. Every time he looks at me, hears my voice, it dredges up all this bad shit and it hurts him. I can't hurt him no more. I won't. You ever hear that ol' sayin' 'if you love someone, let 'em go. If they come back they're yours, if they don't, then they wasn't yours to begin with'?"

Sean sighs, loud and heavy, "Yeah."

Lou Anne sniffles, "I gotta let him go. I got to. I love him too much to keep hurtin' him the way I do."

"C'mere, Lulu. I love you."

She was sobbin' and I could tell he was holdin' her, tryin' to offer comfort. I felt like a dick for intrudin' so I decided to go out front to smoke instead.

:

I was hurtin' Brady. Not intentionally but I was. It had to stop. And I was gonna have to be the one to stop it. I shoulda known better than to think I could keep somethin' so fuckin' good anyway. I mean it was a god damn miracle I kept him this long. But I wasn't stupid. Brady only stuck around me so long 'cause he didn't have enough self confidence to know he was worth more than what I was givin'. I really hoped that with me outta the picture, he could find what he needed to be happy in himself.

Shuttin' his laptop, I set it carefully back on the nightstand. I wanted to go out and smoke a cigarette but I didn't have it in me to leave the god damn bed. So I curled up next to him, brushin' the silky black hair from his forehead and just watchin' him sleep. I committed it all to memory, every little angle, every little mole...

I wanted to remember him like this, a soft smile on his lips, dreams flutterin' underneath long, dark lashes, everythin' sated and relaxed 'cause he was happy.

Fuck, he was really gonna hate me.

And what hurt more than anythin' else was that I was gonna lose my best friend. I ain't never been as close to anyone as I was to him. Not even Angel.

So I stayed up all night just watchin' him sleep 'cause I figured it'd be the last time I ever saw it. The last smile, was really the last one I was ever gonna get from him. The last kiss was really the last kiss.

Damn, I wish I woulda kissed him more. Wish I woulda told him I love him more and been nicer to him. Wish I woulda been good to him the way he deserved. But I didn't do those things and now it was too fuckin' late to make it right between us.

He was gonna hate me and that's what I deserved. But it's okay. I can deal with him hatin' me if it means he's got a chance to make it.

Brady come from nothin', he had to work his ass off to get the things he's got and I can't be the thing that fucks it all up. I just can't.

I wish...

Fuck, it really don't even matter no more what I wish. It's done. It's over. Fuck it.

When the sun rose, I rose with it, haulin' my ass outside to sit on the stairs and smoke till he woke up. I hadn't slept in two days, my head was poundin' and my eyes felt like I had rubbed 'em with sandpaper. Everythin' hurt. My stomach churned, my bones ached.

I guess when your heart breaks, it fucks up everythin' else, too.

I ain't ever dreaded anythin' more than the sound of him tip-toein' across my floor as he was comin' out to see me knowin' that I was getting ready to fuckin' destroy him.

And it was just like I thought it would be. He screamed, he begged, and he went for the fuckin' jugular with that 'monster' line...glad he learned somethin' from me.

I'd like to say that it took everythin' I had not to go after him but that would be a lie. It was easy. After spendin' most my life not feelin' anythin', it was a little scary how easy I slipped back into it. Before the door even slammed, I felt hollow. Numb. The tears were dried up and I was just left there sittin' on the edge of my bed not really feelin' anythin' at all.

I coulda dealt with anger...coulda dealt with sadness too...but when you don't feel a god damn thing, how the fuck ya supposed to deal with that?

You don't. You just sit there. You don't feel the sun shinin' in through the windows; don't hear the cars or people outside on the busy street; don't realize day has turned to night, your dog's pissed on the god damn floor and you got twenty missed phone calls until someone opens the door.

"Brandon? What the hell, son? Why are you sittin' in the dark?"

I heard Lou Anne talkin' but I couldn't do anything.

Suddenly she was kneelin' in front of me, hands on my knees and green eyes wide as she looked into mine.

"Hey? Hey, what's goin' on, Brandon?" her voice was fuzzy, filled with concern and I clamped my eyes shut. Knuckles diggin' into the mattress, I shook my head 'cause I couldn't answer her. I couldn't speak, couldn't fuckin' move 'cause if I did, I was afraid I'd lose it. All that emptiness was fillin' up with rage fast as fuck and if I didn't keep the dam up, that shit was gonna flood over.

Lou Anne musta sensed it 'cause she stood slowly and backed away before speakin' soft, "Somethin' bad happened."

A vicious laugh left my throat, fingers curling into the sheets starin' at her feelin' cold as ice. The look on my face musta said it all 'cause she nodded and backed herself to the door. Hand on the doorknob, she whispered, "I don't wanna be angry with you, honey, so before you flip your shit, do me a favor and head down to the gym. I'm gonna be down at the shop a few hours still so stop by if you wanna talk after. If you don't, that's okay too. Your cousin Jeremiah called, guess a bunch o'people been tryin' to get a'hold of ya. I'll call him, tell him you're okay, ya just can't talk right now, okay?"

I woulda said thank you but I was afraid to open my mouth, afraid that all kinds of crazy shit would just start spewing out so I gave a short nod instead and waited for her to leave before lettin' go of the sheet underneath me. Gripping my hair, I tucked my head down, tryin' to breathe and calm down but nothin' was workin'. My eyes were stingin', heart racin', head poundin', and she was right; I was gonna lose my shit so I had to get outta here before I destroyed my apartment.

Jumpin' from the bed, I shoved my feet into my shoes, not even botherin' to change outta my sweats before I took off.

Grindin' my teeth, I yanked open the door to the gym and walked in. I wasn't ever particularly friendly when I came here so I figured people would leave me the fuck alone. I didn't waste time puttin' on gloves before I went to the heavy bag and started hittin' it. I liked the burn and sting of my knuckles, I wanted it. Needed it. In short, heavy breaths, I grunted as I hit it over and over and over again, tryin' to get some of this shit out but it wasn't workin'. I wanted to hurt somebody.

"Hey man, you wanna spar?"

My eyes snapped up to the shitty little makeshift ring in the middle of the room where a couple guys stood lookin' at me.

The corner of my lips curled into a menacing smile as I nodded. With one hand, I tore my shirt up over my head as I strode to the ring in about five big steps. Grabbin' the ropes, I hopped inside the ring.

.

.

.

An hour later, I was too fuckin' tired to be angry anymore. Everythin' hurt; my face, my hands, my body...but as beat up as I was on the outside, it didn't come close to how much I still hurt inside.

Downin' a bottle of water, I poured some over my face, lettin' it wash away some of the sweat and blood as a few of the guys I'd been sparrin' with came over to shake my hand and try to talk me into tryin' out some real fights.

I didn't have no interest in that though. I liked what I did and needed my hands in decent shape to do it. Not to mention, I been fightin' my whole life; doin' it for a livin' didn't interest me in the least. But it had been the best thing I coulda done tonight givin' my earlier state.

Throwin' my t-shirt over my shoulder, I left the gym. With legs as heavy as my heart, the short walk back to my apartment felt longer than it normally would. The cool night air felt good against my overheated skin and I wanted to stay in it just a little longer so when I got home, I ran quickly up the steps and opened the door.

"C'mon, girl," I called out to Dolly who came barrelin' off the couch like she hadn't seen me in years and hadn't been sure if I was ever comin' back.

Crouchin' down, I rubbed her all up, her little tail beatin' against the floor and I felt bad that I had pretty much ignored her all day.

Shit, I don't even think I fed her.

I stood up, pushin' my way into the apartment to see that she had used the bathroom on the floor 'cause I hadn't taken her out. Guilt hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't let myself fall apart again. It wasn't all about me anymore. Dolly was my baby girl; a gift to me from Brady. I wouldn't let her suffer anymore 'cause of my bullshit. I could be just about the meanest son-of-a-bitch you'd ever know but I didn't have it in me to be cruel to an innocent animal. After all, people had always been the ones that hurt me, never an animal.

So, I fed her and cleaned up while she ate. My phone was still lyin' on my nightstand but I couldn't bring myself to look at it just yet. I knew I'd have to deal with it eventually or else I'd end up with Jeremiah on my doorstep 'fore too long, but I just couldn't do it tonight.

With a heavy sigh, I bent down and picked up the t-shirt of mine that Brady slept in last night and had left crumpled on the floor. Bringing it to my face, I closed my eyes and inhaled. Fuck, it still smelled like cocoa butter. I almost put it on but didn't wanna stink it up so I folded it instead and laid it on my pillow.

Then I grabbed the pillow he slept on and smelled that, too.

Eventually the clacking of little toenails on the wooden floor got my attention so I tossed the pillow on the bed and grabbed her leash. I needed to get outta here for awhile; somewhere quiet where I could just let her loose to run around and get some of that energy out. So I decided to head out to my grandpa's lake.

Loading Dolly's big ass in the front seat of my truck, we took off, windows down so she could stick her head out the whole way there. The drive was nice; the moonlight shinin' in and the warm air blowin' all around helped me get my head together a little bit.

By the time we got there, I was a little more calm. I let Dolly out and just sat in the grass as she ran around like a maniac. Lyin' back on the grass, I stared up at the stars and wondered what Brady was doing. I wondered if he was still cryin', if he still hated me for what I did. I wondered if he'd ever forgive me. He had promised that no matter what, we'd be friends but I'm guessin' I blew that out the window.

I wondered what it would be like to be without him in my life. I always thought he'd be a part of my life in some way and I hated thinkin' that I might grow old and never know how he was doin', if he was happy. I should've never said yes to him when he said we should be boyfriends. I mean, I had just told him a couple days before that we shouldn't do the long-distance relationship thing and then the minute he says the word 'boyfriend' I'm jumpin' in with both feet when I knew it was too fast.

But no one had ever wanted to be 'mine' before. And no one had ever wanted me for more than a night or two. I just wanted it so bad. I wanted to have somebody who wanted to have me.

No, not just somebody. I wanted Brady. That boy came whooshin' through my life like a little rainbow-colored hurricane and in a fuckin' week he had challenged everythin' I knew.

I didn't think I could ever make a livin' doin' anythin' I liked, that I was actually good at other than breakin' my back 'cause I was just a mother fuckin' work horse. But I ain't no more. I'm a mother fuckin' artist. I'm good at it. People like my work, they ask for me to do their shit and they respect the opinions I give.

People never really respected me before. I mean, yeah, they respected that I'd beat the shit outta 'em if they fucked with me but like, they never really respected me. They didn't listen when I spoke, 'les it was a threat. They sure as fuck didn't want my opinion on anythin'.

Brady gave that to me. That sense that I could be somethin' other than what I always thought I'd be.

I jumped right in, head first, into this thing without thinkin' of the long-term damage I'd do to him. 'Cause yeah, he influenced the fuck outta me, but I influenced him, too.

I influenced him to call off at work and to skip school...to get so pissed off that he lashes out in the meanest fuckin' ways.

It's not that I didn't deserve that shit about bein' a monster, 'cause I did. I am. I'm the fucker that told him I loved him, made love to him all night long – and it was makin' love – and then I dumped him first thing the next mornin'.

Yeah, I fucked up with Brady. For good. He ain't ever gonna want nothin' to do with me no more. And that's good. That's what I wanted but now...what the fuck am I gonna do without him? How the fuck can I keep doin' all this shit he fuckin' inspired me to do when all I wanna do is curl up and fuckin' sleep?

No, fuck that. I don't wanna sleep. Ever again. My nightmares are bad enough without addin' this shit in the mix.

But I did the right thing, right? Did I do the right thing? Or did I just fuck everythin' up again?

Fuck, please, please let me have done the right thing for Brady. Please don't let this fuck him up...please just let him be okay and get through this.

Because really, it didn't matter what it did to me. It only mattered that it was the best thing for him 'cause I was too much of a distraction to him right now and if he wasn't strong enough to pull himself away, I just had to push him.

I needed to talk to Suzie. Needed to tell her to keep an eye on him and stick her foot up his ass if he tried to be too sad for too long. I didn't bring my phone though, forgot it on the nightstand.

Shit, what if he didn't even make it home? What if somethin' happened and that's why everyone was callin' me?

"Fuck," I curse under my breath and holler for Dolly as I jump up. I need to get home and check my messages to make sure he's okay.

On the way back home, I was damn near tempted to visit Angel's grave but I was too worried 'bout Brady to stop. If somethin' happened to him, I'd...I can't even think about that. My heart was already jack-rabbitin' and I couldn't believe I didn't bring my fuckin' phone.

When I finally got back, me and Dolly ran up the stairs and I grabbed my phone.

23 missed calls, 46 text messages

Shit.

I had messages from Jeremiah, Esme, Carlisle, Jay, Eddie, and Alice.

Not even checkin' them, I called Jeremiah back.

"Where the fuck you been, B? Been goin' outta my god damn mind! You okay, fucker?!"

Letting out a deep sigh, I plopped down on my bed, "Yeah, m'alright, Cuz. Just been...workin' shit out I guess."

He let out a breath now, "What happened?"

But before I could answer I had to ask, "Brady make it home okay?"

"Yeah, he's home. Torn in fuckin' pieces but he's home."

"I couldn't...I told him, ya know? In the beginnin' 'fore any of this started I told him I couldn't do this long-distance shit, man. I told him I wasn't ready yet...that I needed to get my shit together."

"But?"

With a groan, I ran my hands across my face, "But I fell in love with him and I...fuck, Cuz, I wanted him so fuckin' bad. I want him. But it ain't the right time and it ain't been good for him and I..."

A growl of frustration escaped my throat as Jeremiah spoke softly, "Me and Alice have been dancin' 'round each other for years, waitin' for the time to finally be right, when both of us was ready to really give it a fair fuckin' shot 'cause we didn't wanna fuck up our friendship."

"Yeah," I blew out a breath and whispered, "I fucked up everythin', man. Brady ain't ever gonna want nothin' to do with me and what sucks the most is that, he was my best friend. I'm really gonna miss him. But he's failin' outta school, Cuz. I'm holdin' him back, takin' his attention away from the important shit and I can't keep doin' that 'cause..."

"'Cause you love him. 'Cause he's your best friend."

"Yeah."

"Yeah. Shit, I'm sorry, Brandon. This shit really fuckin' sucks."

"Yeah."

"Maybe you could talk to him, tell him why..."

"No way, Cuz. I ain't tellin' him this shit. Don't matter anyway. He needs to just cut me loose and focus on his own shit for awhile, instead of bein' distracted with mine. Just look after him, okay? Don't let him do anythin' stupid."

"I won't. How 'bout you? You gon' be okay?"

"I," choking on the response, I pushed it down and rasped, "Yeah. I'm gon' be fine, Cuz."

"You ain't gotta lie to kick it, Cuz."

That made me snort as I rolled my eyes and grabbed a square, "I'm gonna get off here, J. Need to call Suzie."

"You should maybe text her first. She's with Brady and...well, in all honesty, she's so pissed she might reach through the phone and bitch smack you."

"I kinda expected as much."

"If you need me, B, call and my ass'll be on a plane, quick, fast and in a hurry. I got me a rich-ass woman now who likes to spoil me rotten - What? You do like to spoil me...I earn that shit, woman. All the dickin' down I give you and I cook, so what now? Anyway, Cuz, you ain't locked up no more so no sittin' around wallerin' in your own shit, spendin' all day jerkin' off on the couch. Get up. Wash your ass. And keep busy, okay?"

"Good lookin' out, Cuz."

"Hey, I always got you, man. I love you. Later, B."

"Love you too, J. Later."

Sitting up, I take a deep drag from my square before typing a quick text to Suzie to call me when she can.

My stomach's all tied up in knots as Dolly jumps in the bed beside me and curls up on my side. I start rubbin' her back and it kinda helps calm me down, especially when she snuggles in a little closer

I'm just about to doze off when my phone rings.

I don't even get a chance to say hi before Suzie is whisper-screamin' in my ear, "You got some mother fuckin' nerve, Brandon. I can't believe you. My best friend is sittin' in the tub cryin' his god damn eyes out 'cause of you. How could you be so god damn cruel to him? After all he's done for you, I swear to God I wanna stomp a mudhole in your ass right now -"

The image of him curled up in a little bubble bath cryin' his eyes out about broke me as I rasped, "I know. M'sorry...I didn't...it wasn't supposed to be like...I didn't wanna hurt him -"

"Well what the Hell did you think was gonna happen, huh? You tell him you love him, make love to him, and then kick him out the god damn door!"

"That's not...I wasn't plannin' on -"

"Wasn't plannin' on plowin' him one last time 'fore you threw him away?"

"God damn it, Suzie, will you let me talk?!"

"Why the fuck should I?"

"'Cause I'm your god damn cousin! 'Cause I got my fuckin' teeth knocked out for protectin' you when I was just a fuckin' kid myself! 'Cause I committed my first fuckin' robbery to try and fuckin' feed you! 'Cause I watched Disney movies with you and made you crowns outta dandelions! For fuck's sake, I think I earned a little fuckin' respect!"

Through grinding teeth she grunted, "Fine. What?"

Runnin' a hand through my hair, I let out a breath, "I didn't want you to call me so we could argue, okay? I just wanted to ask you to keep an eye out for him. Help him get through this shit in one piece. That's all I wanted."

With a harsh laugh, she sneered, "Like I need you to tell me that. He's my best friend, Brandon. And you broke his fuckin' heart. He told me everything so how dare you tell me to do somethin' I been doin' since the day I met that boy."

Heavin' a harsh breath through my nose, I gritted my teeth, "Yeah? He tells you everythin', huh? He tell you he's fixin' to get kicked outta school and lose his fuckin' scholarship?"

Now she let out an actual yell, "What?!"

"Yeah. I been fucked up lately, I admit it. It's been bad and I've been a dick but when he was here, it was so fuckin' good, it was like I remembered why we could make it work 'cause he's...he's the best fuckin' thing that ever happened to me. But then I grabbed his laptop when he was sleepin' 'cause it was closer than mine and right when I opened it up, in big glarin' letters it read, 'Academic Suspension-Warning.' And I know it's my fault, okay? I'm the mess he doesn't fuckin' need in his life right now. I'm the distraction. So tell me, Miss High and Mighty, if you knew bein' in his life was hurtin' him, would you be strong enough to let him go?"

I was breathin' out heavy through my nose, lips curled into a snarl as I stepped out onto the porch with my cigarette. She was quiet for a minute, only the sound of her breathin' let me know she was still there.

Plopping down on the step, I took a deep drag and slowly exhaled as I looked up at the stars. They wasn't as bright here as they was out at the lake.

Finally, she let out a ragged breath and whispered, "He didn't tell me that. I had no idea, I...shit, I'm gonna shove my foot so far up his ass, I can't even...fuck. I'm sorry, Brandon. You still went about it wrong but I know you did what you did 'cause you was tryin' to protect him. You were, weren't you? Just tryin' to keep him from fuckin' up his life?"

"Yeah. I love him, Suzie. I didn't think I could ever love somebody the way I do him. I didn't think I could care about somebody else more than I do myself because it would be better for me to have him in my life. But it's better for him to let me go and focus on the important shit right now."

"You were his first boyfriend, Brandon. I think he just got so wrapped up in it all that he lost sight of everything else. I know what you did was hard. I see that now. I'm sorry for yellin' at you."

He was my first boyfriend too...the first person that actually wanted me for more than a night or a friend with benefits.

"S'okay."

"No, it's not. I'm just protective, ya know? I get riled up when it comes to him."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I wanted to talk to you. Ya know, you and me, we're a lot alike, Suzie Q. I'm glad you got outta here when you did. I'm glad you done right. And I'm real fuckin' proud of you, you know that?"

"I know. Thanks, Cuz. Don't you worry 'bout him, okay? I'm on it like bees on honey. I'll tell him I found the email, he'll believe it 'cause I use his laptop all the time. I'll make sure he gets his shit together and does good."

"I knew you would. You take care of yourself, okay?"

"I will. And Brandon?"

"Yeah."

"I'm real proud of you, too. I can't say I know how hard your life has been but I know how hard you've been workin' to do better. And you are doin' better. You're stronger than the lot of us combined."

"I don't know about that -"

"I do. 'Cause if I was hurtin' him by bein' with him, I don't think I could let him go. You're a good man, Brandon. You keep yourself hidden behind all the fucked up shit but underneath all that nonsense, you're a good man. I love you. Take care of yourself and if you need me, call. I got me a rich-ass pseudo sister-in-law who'd put me on a plane in heartbeat if I asked."

Rolling my eyes, I chuckled, "Bye, Suze."

"Bye, Cuz."

Setting the phone down, I took a breath and dragged my fingers through my hair before scrubbing my hands across my face.

I was gonna be okay. I did the right thing. That's all that mattered.

That's what I kept tellin' myself anyway as I curled up on my bed, face buried in the pillow and t-shirt that smelled of cocoa butter.

And even still the next mornin' when I cornered Lex as she was out back smokin'.

"You got some time?"

She shrugged as she exhaled, "Sure. What'cha want, B?"

Takin' a breath, I let my eyes fall to the ground as I whispered, "If you love him, let him go."

"Damn," she breathed softly, then threw her cigarette to the ground before openin' the door and followin' me in to get to work on my new ink.

As the needle pricked my skin, I closed my eyes, just tellin' myself that I did the right thing. We were both gonna be okay. I could do this shit.

:

I couldn't do this shit. The last few weeks had been Hell. With everybody on my god damn back like I was on fuckin' suicide watch or some shit, fuckin' asshole doctor who didn't fuckin' help me, and dick parole officer who kept askin' if I was still gonna try and get my parole moved to Washington, I felt like I was gonna explode.

"You gonna order somethin' or sit there dickin' with your phone all night, Kid?"

And this mother fucker right here...

Grindin' my jaw, I shoved my phone in my pocket and glared at the wrinkly old bastard, "I order the same god damn thing every time I come in here. And I ain't no mother fuckin' kid."

Mumbling underneath his breath, the old man passed me a shot and a beer before pointing his decrepit finger at me with a sneer, "You know what your problem is, Kid?"

Rollin' my eyes, I threw back the shot and pulled out my cigarettes. Sliding one out of the pack, I tapped it against the bar to pack it as I chuckled snidely, "Right now, my only problem is your senile ass can't remember my god damn drink order."

With a grunt, the old man grabbed his dirty beer rag and started wipin' the counter like he had a personal grudge against it.

"Senile, my ass. I'm not the one checkin' his god damn phone every two seconds. Ya know, that mother fucker rings when someone calls. Ain't got no reason to keep checkin' the fuckin' thing. Ain't nobody called since the last time you checked. I may be old but even I can hear your phone not ringin'."

"Fuck you," I mumbled underneath my breath before taking a pull from my beer. My hand was itchin' to reach into my pocket and check my phone again but I didn't want anymore comments from the jackass bartender so I just sat there with my knee bouncin' and fingers twitchin'.

The old bastard was right though. Brady ain't called. He ain't texted. Nothin'.

And that was a good thing. I wanted that. Made it easier to forget.

Only it really didn't. Fuck, I wanted to call him so god damn bad it hurt to restrain myself. But I had to. It was what was best for him.

It had been almost two months since we broke up but Suzie kept me updated on how he was doin' in school and after she had put the fear of her size 9 heel up his ass, he buckled down and started focusin' on his studies again. She said he done real good on his exams and the threat of academic suspension was no longer hangin' over his head. She wouldn't really tell me nothin' else 'bout him other than school though.

Jeremiah did though. He told me how sad Brady was. And that he walked around with his head hung down all the time, he was wearin' hoodies and converse everyday instead of his usual flashy clothes, he barely brushed his hair and had lost weight.

Jay would barely talk to me.

Edward still texted me though which was surprisin' but kinda nice. Carlisle and Esme still called me.

But all I really wanted was to talk to Brady, to tell him how sorry I was. 'Cause I was sorry. Not that I broke up with him, 'cause that was the right thing to do but sorry 'cause of how bad I treated him towards the end. I was such an asshole to him and he didn't deserve that.

The thought that he was walkin' around in hoodies with fucked up hair about killed me. He had to get over this shit. He just had to.

Fuck, please let him get over this shit and find himself again. Don't let me be the thing that broke him.

Rollin' the beer bottle between my hands, I sighed, closin' my eyes and willin' myself not to pull out my god damn phone.

I wanted to get drunk but I never really did. Always just one shot and nursin' a beer or two. I don't know why I came here so much, just needed to get away I guess. Needed a quiet place to think and this shit hole was almost always deserted so, besides the old dick that ran it, people pretty much left me alone. My thoughts were drivin' me crazy so I don't know why I even wanted to think. When all I thought about was him.

His smile, the sound of his voice breathless in my ear, the smell of his skin and how good his little silky hands felt when he was touchin' me. It wasn't about the sex - though if I'm bein' honest, I fuckin' missed the sex like crazy - what I missed most was layin' my head on his chest, little arms around me, tender fingertips brushin' my hair back away from my face and warm, soft lips against mine breathin' life into me.

Brady made me feel alive in a way I ain't ever felt before. With Angel it was nervous butterflies and uncertainty, stumblin' along in the darkness tryin' to make heads or tails of what we were and why he didn't wanna be with me as bad as I wanted to be with him. There was always a hollowed out feelin' in my chest because Angel would never give himself to me; I wouldn't really give myself to him either so we just danced around each other, never really acknowledging the thing that was happenin' between us.

I would've given myself to him. All he had to do was ask. He never did though. I guess that's the thing about fallin' in love; sometimes they don't love you back. Not the way you want them to.

But sometimes they do.

Brady and I danced around it at first but finally, fuckin' finally we fell in step together. I told him exactly what I wanted and he told me the same. There was no guessin', no uncertainty just the realization that we both wanted the same thing. We just wanted each other.

Angel didn't want me like that, not wholly, not headstrong and full force. Brady did.

"You actually gonna drink that beer or you just come here for the ambiance? I'm tryin' to run a business here."

Rollin' my eyes, I took a pull of my beer before mumblin', "Try harder. I'm the only mother fucker I ever see here and you treat me like shit. Ya know, ya might wanna be a little nicer to your only customer. No wonder ain't ever nobody here."

"You know what your problem is, Kid?"

"You mean, besides you? Got no idea, old man. Enlighten me."

He pressed his lips together, bony shoulders hunched over as he sneered with a god damn finger pointed at me again, "Self pity. You spend all your time starin' at the god damn phone, lookin' like the world just kicked you in the fuckin' nuts and all you can think of is 'poor me'. It's pathetic - "

"You don't know shit about me."

"Bullshit, I don't. You're about as transparent as a fuckin' mirror."

"Mirrors aren't transparent, dumbass."

"You see? That's another thing. Always got a smartass comment instead of just listenin'."

"Makes sense that a smartass wouldn't listen to a dumbass."

"Forget it. Think you know every thing, huh, tough guy? Well if you was so god damn smart, you wouldn't be wastin' your life away in this shit hole every mother fuckin' day but here you are. If I was your age, I'd be doin' somethin' with my life instead of sittin' 'round wallerin'. That god damn phone ain't gonna ring."

"Fuck this shit. I'm out."

Throwin' down some money, I skidded the barstool across the floor as I jumped up and stormed out while that old bastard was still mumblin', "Good. 'Bout fuckin' time."

Dick.

:

"You're petitioning for Washington again, huh?" Mr. Gnash, my parole officer chuckled snidely as he shuffled through my paperwork.

"Yup," I sighed, tippin' back in my chair, lacin' my hands behind my head to show off my arms. He might have the power in this mother fuckin' office but I wanted to remind him that out there on the street, I could break his bitch ass in two if I wanted to.

I had no idea why I was still tryin' for Seattle. A little part of me wanted to believe that if I could just get there, maybe me and Brady could salvage shit and work it out. It was stupid. A pipe dream. Because even if I did get to Seattle, Brady probably wouldn't want anything to do with me. It had already been three months since we broke up. And all I was, was the asshole that treated him like shit, used him for one last lay and tossed him out like he didn't matter at all.

Truth was, he was the only thing that mattered.

Besides Brady though, I did miss my family. I wanted to be near them.

I really didn't wanna miss anymore of JJ's life. And little Em J too, if Emmett and Rosalie still let me anywhere near him.

I hadn't heard from them but I expected that. From what Brady always told me, him and Emmett were real close so it made sense that Emmett would hate me now.

It's okay though, I was used to bein' hated. It was bein' loved that I wasn't used to.

"Yeah, well, good luck with that," Mr. Gnash snickered as he handed me a cup to piss in. I took it without so much as a fuck you 'cause he was right to make fun of me. Wasn't no way they was gonna let me outta this god damn state till I was off paper.

Assumin' I didn't fuck that up. Which was a very real possibility.

:

"This is stupid. I been comin' here for months and you ain't helpin' me. I'm tired of throwin' my god damn money out the window for this bullshit."

I stood up and huffed at Dr. Lorenzo but didn't leave. Instead, I just stomped over to the window. Pressin' my palms against the sill, I peered out at the sunshine, silently cursin' it for makin' me think of how warm Brady's skin used to feel on mine.

"Brandon, do you want to be happy?"

It had been four months since I spoke to Brady. How the fuck could I be happy when I still missed him so bad? And how could I be happy when he was still sad?

Rollin' my eyes, I pushed my wrists into the wood and gritted, "That's a dumb fuckin' question."

"Why do you think it's dumb?"

Turnin' around with a huff, I crossed my arms tight over my chest and sneered, "'Cause it is. Who the fuck don't wanna be happy?"

"People who don't think they deserve it."

Letting out a breath, I uncrossed my arms and leaned back against the windowsill, clutchin' the frame as I sighed, "Look, I'm getting tired of this shit. I feel like a god damn hamster on a wheel, runnin' and runnin' but getting nowhere. I'm sick of sittin' here week after week, month after month, cryin' 'bout my fucked up childhood and the shit I lost. 'Cause it's lost. I can't get it back. I fucked everythin' up and there ain't no makin' it better. It was stupid of me to think I could."

I pushed away from the ledge and went through the door as she called out, "You're right, you can't get it back. You have to get off the wheel to move forward. Will you be back?"

Stopping to look at her as I waited for the elevator, hands shoved in my pockets, I shrugged, "I don't know. I don't really see the point."

"The point is that you can't change your past. You can't change what's been done to you or what you've done to others. All you can do is move forward. And all that useless crying you've been doing means that you're not a monster. You're just a boy that was hurt over and over again and you lashed out. But you're not a boy anymore, you're a man and it's up to you choose what kind of man you want to be. If you don't, you'll be on the wheel forever, Brandon. It's your choice. I hope I see you next week."

The elevator door flung open as I stared down at the little old lady and rasped, "I hope so too."

:

"C'mon, Brandon, please?"

"No way, Lex."

"But I ask you to come out with us every weekend and you always say no."

"So why do you keep askin?"

Her hair was hot pink and electric blue this week. I couldn't help but think that Brady would totally dig it.

She stamped her foot and stuck her bottom lip out before slumpin' down on the stool in my booth, "Because! You need to get out of here for awhile, have some fun."

I looked up from the stupid Playboy bunny I was inkin' on some chick's ass cheek, "I don't wanna."

Then I huffed as I went back to work on Bimbo Barbie's ass. I loved this job but sometimes people really annoyed the fuck outta me with the stupid shit they wanted. But who the Hell was I to judge, I guess.

"Brandon, I love you to pieces but you can't keep holing yourself up in your apartment watching Lock Up reruns with Dolly till you pass out on the couch. It ain't healthy."

"Who's Dolly?" Bimbo Barbie looked up at me from underneath her fake lashes and asked.

I may have glared a little bit as I mumbled, "My dog."

"Oh, so no girlfriend then, huh?" she cooed as she arched her back a little, peerin' at me over her shoulder.

I didn't wanna talk about my personal life with some random skank with her generic tattoo and bleach blonde hair so I just ignored the question and went back to work to get her done and off my table as soon as possible. It was gonna take a whole bottle of bleach to make it feel clean again once she left.

Lexi stood, hands clasped together and eyes pleadin' up at me as she whined, "Please? Come on, Brandon. It'll be fun! I'll even buy your drinks. And Siggy can pretend to be your boyfriend so random douchebags don't hit on you."

"Eww," White Trash Barbie scrunched her nose up at Lexi, "That's disgusting. Why would he want to go to a gay bar?"

Lexi rolled her eyes as she walked over to my mirror and grabbed the picture of Brady before shoving it in her face, "'Cause this is his ex-boyfriend that he's still really hung up on."

"Oh my God, you're a queer?" the bitch looked up at me, mouth open in shock and I fought the urge to dig the needle in a little harder than I really needed to.

"That's none of your business. Lexi, put my picture back."

"Fine," she huffed as she stuck the picture back to the mirror and stormed out, "but this ain't over."

With a heavy sigh, I went back to work on the whore mumblin' underneath her breath that I didn't look like a gay. I seriously considered colorin' in that god damn playboy bunny in all the colors of a rainbow. I didn't, though I might have dug a little deep once or twice but I still showed great mother fuckin' restraint. Bitch is fuckin' lucky I'm a professional.

:

Groanin', I tossed the paintbrush in the trash and huffed under my breath, "God damn, stupid weak ass brushes."

Paintin' was hard as shit when I was mad. Drawin' is easy; diggin' the pencil into the paper and etchin' out my anger on the paper underneath. But paintin' was a whole different ballgame. When I tried to dig the brush into the canvas, it either broke or just fucked the bristles all up till it was useless.

When I said as much to the Doc when she first suggested this bullshit, she just smirked and said that was the point. That with paintin' I had to take deep breaths, use soft strokes and focus more on what I wanted to put onto the canvas.

With drawin', I just dug and worked mindlessly. Paintin' was a lot harder 'cause I had to try and calm myself down to do it.

My phone buzzed and I yanked it outta my pocket to see a text from Eddie.

If you never fall, you never learn how to pick yourself back up :)

I huffed a small smile then took a deep breath. Grabbin' another brush, I looked at the canvas and just focused. I was tryin' to paint somethin' soft and nice but I just wasn't feelin' it. So I dipped my brush in the black paint and just covered all that shit up. Then I flipped the brush around and started diggin' the tip of the handle into the blackness, sketchin' somethin' out instead.

:

I stared at that wall with the bucket of black paint in my hand, brush drippin' as my fingers twitched around the handle. I wanted to cover all that shit up. All that shit Brady drew. The fuckin' willow tree and little monsters against a rainbow backdrop. It was all bullshit. I wasn't strong like a fuckin' willow tree 'cause my branches were crackin' painfully and fixin' to snap the fuck off. And I didn't have my little monster by my side, I was alone. There weren't no rainbows in my future, no bright colors or warm hues, just cold empty blackness like the shit drippin' from my paintbrush.

But then my eyes drifted down to the tiny little hand prints and wonky lookin' dinosaurs. Diggin' my teeth into my bottom lip, I dropped the brush and fell forward. Pressin' my forehead against the wall, my curled up fists came loose as my fingers splayed out over the bright colors. Tears stung my eyes as I fought the urge to hit that god damn wall for tauntin' me with memories I didn't wanna have.

Only I really did. Closin' my eyes, I let the tears spill over, runnin' down my face against the surface. God, I missed Brady. Even after five months I missed him so god damn much that it hurt to breathe sometimes. I missed all of them. I didn't wanna be here no more. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to hang out with Jeremiah and have water gun fights with JJ. I wanted to watch Disney movies with Suzie and see the way Jay looked at Eddie and the way Eddie looked right back at him. I wanted to be there for Christmas dinner and watch Esme and Carlisle beam as they looked at the family they made. I just wanted to really be a part of that family.

But I wasn't. Not really.

Openin' my eyes, I turned my face to the ceilin' and they fell on the scribbled phone numbers etched all along the wall. Before I knew what I was doin', I was sittin' on the floor, had my back against the wall and phone clutched tight to my ear as I whispered, "Just talk to me. Don't care 'bout what. Just...keep talkin'."

Carlisle chuckled into the phone, "Let me tell you about the time I was 17 and had just begun dating Esme. She had four older brothers but they actually kind of liked me so one night they took me bowling. They got me plastered to officially welcome me to the family..."

About an hour later, I was throwin' that can of black paint away in the dumpster behind the buildin'.

:

"Yo, Carlos!" I hollered up at his window. It was about ten o'clock on a Saturday night and after stoppin' by Angel's grave to put some flowers I actually bought and not stole on his grave, I decided to check in on Carlos. I hadn't talked to him since I moved to Houston almost a year ago but he lived in the same piece of shit house for the last twenty years so I figured he'd still be here.

A minute later he popped his head out the second story window with a big goofy grin, "B? Is that you?"

"In the flesh, mother fucker. C'mon, you wanna get outta here for awhile?"

Soon we were sittin' in a strip club as I directed all the women to his lap and sipped my Coke. I ain't never seen that boy smile so much in his god damn life.

On the way back to his house a few hours later, he was still grinnin' as he held his head out the window of my truck and howled, "I touched boobs!"

I grinned, lightin' up a square as I chuckled, "You're a silly mother fucker, man."

He pulled his head back in, hair all windblown and crazy with flushed cheeks as he smiled, "My mom's gonna kill me but at least I got to touch boobs before I die."

"Hey, it's the little things, man."

"Little. Big. It don't matter, B. Tits are awesome. This was the best night I ever had in my whole life."

Boobs didn't do shit for me. But it had been a really good night for me to.

:

"What'll it be?"

I didn't even have it in me to roll my eyes as I looked at the old man, "The fuck you think, Jack?"

Jack was the asshole bartender and constant pain in my ass. He never actually told me his name, I just kept hearin' the waitress say it and it took me a few months to figure out she was talkin' to him and not talkin' 'bout Jack Daniels. I wouldn't even come to this place if it wasn't so god damn close to my apartment and empty as a fuckin' wasteland. I swear, you could see tumbleweeds rollin' through this mother fucker at any given time.

It could've been 'cause it was a hole in the wall but I figured it was 'cause Jack was even worse at customer service than me and Brady combined.

I slammed back the shot and took a drink from my beer before lightin' up a square and pullin' out my phone.

Scrollin' through pictures, I took a deep drag and slowly exhaled. Sig had taught me how to stalk on FaceBook so I found myself clickin' on Brady's profile.

His smilin' face is starin' at me and for just a second I smile back on instinct. But soon it turns into a heavy sigh as I rub my thumb across his face and my heart aches.

He's so god damn pretty. How I ever got that boy, I'll never know. How I'll ever get over him, I don't think I ever will.

There's a picture of him and Suzie with a bunch of drag queens that strangely resemble 80's pop stars and I chuckle for a second until I zoom in closer and see the strained smile on his face as he glances sideways at the one dressed like Dolly Parton.

Slowly, I drag my thumb over my arm, tracin' 'Sail away with me, to another world...'

Fuck, I miss him.

Poppin' open my contacts, my thumb hovers over the 'call' button to his name and my heart pounds against my ribcage as I try to talk myself down.

"Don't do it, Kid."

My eyes snap up and I close my phone, shovin' it in my pocket as I grunt, "Mind your business, old man."

He threw his towel over his shoulder as he harrumphed, "Fine. Don't listen to me. What would I know about life anyway, huh? I mean, I've only lived 62 years, fought in a war, earned a Purple Heart but what the fuck would I know..."

Jack continued to grumble as I rolled my eyes and fiddled with the beer bottle label with a sigh, "Just 'cause you seen shit, don't mean you know shit 'bout me."

The old man held a finger out at me, once again, as he sneered, "You know what your problem is, Kid?"

I managed a smartass smile as I looked up at him, "Yeah. Nosy ass bartenders that think they know everythin'."

"Little snot-nosed punk," he pursed his lips together as he glared daggers at me, "Your problem is you think the world owes you somethin'. You think just because you had a rough upbringin' that it justifies you bein' an asshole. Well guess what, Big Shot, the world don't owe you shit. Most people got fucked up lives. That's just how it is. Men ain't born, they're made. You're so stuck in that god damn whiny little brat stage that you can't grow the fuck up and be a man."

"Man, fuck you. I'm more of a fuckin' man than you'll ever be," I gritted my teeth, hands curlin' into fists as I tried my best to keep from knockin' his fuckin' dentures out.

The old bastard snorted as he wiped down the counter, "A man is made by actions, not words. And I ain't seen you do shit but sit in here every other day sulkin' like a god damn baby. You wanna be a man, Kid? Then act like one."

I wanted to hit him. I wanted to so god damn bad that my fists ached but I didn't. I just threw some money on the counter and stormed off. Kinda like a child throwin' a temper tantrum but at least I didn't hit him.

:

"Okay, Uncle B, you got your glass of water?"

I took a sip and set it on my nightstand as I smiled at the little blue-eyed boy who reminded me so much of his daddy I could barely take it. Noddin' at the screen on my laptop, I chuckled, "Got it."

He nodded back, blond curls bouncin' as he looked bright-eyed right at me, "Okay, now you got Steve?"

Curlin' up on my pillow that, sadly, didn't smell at all like cocoa butter no more, I tucked the big stuffed bullfrog under my arm, "Yep. Steve's here."

"Dat blankie, Uncle B?" Em J's big brown eyes gazed at the small blue blanket he had given me when they first visited.

It was draped over Steve.

"Got it, Em J. Thank, buddy."

He beamed as he yammered on 'bout somethin' I couldn't understand and JJ grinned, "Okay, so my daddy said you was havin' trouble sleepin' so I'm gonna tell you a story 'cause it always helps me sleep. Ya ready, Uncle B?"

I grinned so wide my cheeks hurt as I snuggled into my pillow, "Ready, JJ."

"Okay, so once upon a time there was this big scary dragon..."

Em J made growlin' noises as he bounced next to JJ, beamin' at his best friend completely enraptured as JJ told a tale of a scary dragon that wasn't so scary after all. Turned out, he just had a sore throat and was cranky. So when the brave and handsome knight figured it out and brought him some ice cream, they became best friends.

That night when I fell asleep, I dreamed of havin' ice cream with Brady...or more honestly, of lickin' it off his warm skin under the hot sun.

:

It wasn't a surprise when my petition to move my parole to Washington got denied again. Pissed me right the fuck off though.

Downin' my fourth shot of the night, my hands shook as I stubbed my cigarette out and promptly lit up another one. My nerves were on edge, like little jolts of electricity pricklin' underneath my skin as I dug my phone outta my pocket and flipped it open to the pictures.

I was already agitated as fuck and for some god damn reason the bar had people in it tonight blarin' their music and generally annoyin' the fuckin' shit outta me.

Takin' a long pull from my beer, I popped open FaceBook to cyberstalk my boy a little and I bristled when I saw the newest post. It was a picture of him all dolled up, dark jeans painted on tight little thighs, cream colored shirt half unbuttoned revealin' caramel skin underneath, bloodshot eyes, and mussed silky black hair. His cheeks were flushed as he cast a drunken grin over his shoulder at the camera. That little bubble of an ass was almost hangin' out of those painted on jeans.

And underneath it, the caption read, "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard."

I had no doubt that it did. Even if he had lost a little weight and was a little too skinny, that boy's ass was a mother fuckin' work of art.

Not gonna lie, I was jealous as fuck.

"Fuckin' homo."

My eyes snapped up to see one of the assholes in the bar walkin' by with a sneer and it took just a second before I was shovin' my chair back and slammed the dick's face into the bar, hands grippin' the back of his head as I snarled.

"Say somethin' now, bitch."

Soon there were two other guys yankin' me back and I couldn't stop myself as a threw a punch, knockin' one of them to the ground and steppin' to the other, growlin' in his face, "You want some, mother fucker?"

He threw his hands up in retreat and backed up, "Nah, man."

"Get the fuck out!" Jack waddled over, finger pointed at me as the guy who started it shuffled away from the counter and tried to help his buddy still lyin' on the ground up to his feet.

I huffed as I threw some money on the counter and snatched my phone, "Fuckin' bullshi-"

"Now, 'fore I call the fuckin' cops, Kid!"

Grabbin' my beer, I drained it real fast before slammin' the bottle to the ground watchin' it shatter as I walked out with a final, "Fuck you."

:

Two weeks later, I found myself back at the god damn bar. I hated Jack. He was a dick but I found out later that the guys had actually called the cops and the old bastard didn't tell them that I lived across the street. So, begrudgingly, I swallowed my pride and walked back in one afternoon.

Jack looked up, narrowed his eyes but didn't say shit when I threw down some money mumblin', "Sorry 'bout..."

Draggin' a hand through my hair, I sighed, "All that shit. And sorry 'bout makin' a mess."

Then I walked out.

:

"I was pissed at first, Cuz. Brady's one of my best friends and you hurt him bad. But then...I don't know. I talked to Jeremiah and Suzie, talked to Eddie...and then I just felt kinda bad for you."

I looked over at Jay as he leaned back in the passenger's seat of my truck. Him and Jeremiah had come down for the weekend and I picked them up from the airport. I was surprised Jay had come. We hadn't talked much in the last six months since I broke up with Brady and I thought he might never come see me again.

"Why?" I questioned 'cause there wasn't no reason to feel bad for me; I was the asshole in this situation.

He sighed, rakin' a hand through his hair as he leaned forward and turned down the radio, "'Cause I know you love him. And I know how much it hurts to be apart from the man you love. It hurts like Hell and I hate that you're goin' through this. That's why I been avoidin' you, not 'cause I'm still pissed but just 'cause I feel sad as fuck for you, man, and I didn't know how to deal with that. Sorry 'bout bein' a dick. I love you, Cuz. I'm gon' be here for you from now on. We're family and I got you."

That made some of the tension drain outta my shoulders as I offered a weak but grateful smile, "Thanks, Cuz."

He gave a small smile back and Jeremiah chuckled, "Ya'll wanna hug it out?"

Jay and I both laughed and said at the same time, "Shut the fuck up."

Then we turned and laughed at each other.

:

Jeremiah was passed out in the cab of the truck and me and Jay was sittin' in the grass by the lake, smokin' our squares and starin' up at the stars.

"I don't know, Jay. Sometimes I just get so worked up it feels like I'm gonna bust right outta my skin, ya know? Like the fuckin' Hulk or some shit."

He nodded, curls hangin' over his eyes as he took a drag, "Yeah, I know. Still happens to me sometimes too but I been doin' good. Ain't got in no fights in a long time. You know what helps me?"

"What?"

"This," he grinned, full dimples as he shuffled to his feet and sauntered over to the truck.

"What are you doin'?" I asked, turnin' my head to see him grabbin' a CD from his bag.

He popped it in and turned up the music before leavin' the door open and ploppin' down in the grass next to me again.

"The fuck is this?"

The sounds of piano filtered through the warm, night air as he took another drag, arms hangin' over his knees as he smiled softly and looked up at the midnight sky, "This is Eddie. He's incredible on piano. When I was a kid and first heard he could play, I was skeptical. I remember askin' him if he would play for me sometime and thinkin' in my head that I'd have to try and be nice when he did 'cause I wasn't into that shit at all. If it wasn't shit I knew, old rock or rap or whatever, that I wasn't gonna like it. But then he did play for me one night and man...I ain't ever heard anythin' so fuckin' beautiful in my life. And seein' him play, that's like fuckin' Heaven, Cuz."

Then he looked over at me, serious expression on his face as he spoke, "I fought it at first, tried to pretend like it didn't move me, 'cause it wasn't me, ya know? I'm just a good ol' boy, I got no business listenin' to classical music like I'm somethin' I'm not. But then I couldn't fight it no more. It does move me. It touches me somewhere deep and even more so when it's Eddie playin'. This is all Eddie, by the way. He made this for you in our livin' room. Just close your eyes and listen, man."

That was actually really sweet of Eddie to think of me like that.

So, I mimicked him, layin' back in the grass with my arms behind my head and closed my eyes. It was weird at first 'cause I felt like I shouldn't like it, but the more I listened, the more the sounds haunted me. And I felt all the weight drainin' as I melted into the soft ground beneath me, my lungs filled with air as I breathed in deep, tears pricklin' at my eyelids.

"Beautiful, huh?" his raspy voice filtered through the air, soft and breathless.

Wipin' my eyes real quick, I breathed out, "Yeah. It's...I ain't ever heard nothin' like it."

I opened my eyes to see his starin' back, "The thing is, boys like us grow up our whole lives thinkin' we gotta be what everyone expects us to be. We gotta like what we're supposed to like, do the things we're supposed to do. But wantin' Eddie the way I did, man, it changed my whole outlook on who I really am...who I wanna be. That's when I thought, fuck it. I'm gonna like what I like, be who I want and not what everyone expects me to be. I come home from work or school and havin' a bad day? Man, all I gotta do is curl up behind Eddie on his piano bench, lay my head on his shoulder and say 'Play for me, baby boy.' And he does. It's like every bad thought in my head just melts away into somethin' kinda beautiful, ya feel me?"

I couldn't stop my lips from curlin' into a small smile at the way he talked about Eddie.

"Yeah. I feel ya, Jay."

He smiled back then turned more serious as he spoke, "It's not about changin' who you are. It's about bein' strong enough and comfortable enough in your own skin to be who you really are deep down inside. Now, I roll through my hood blarin' this shit and don't give a fuck 'bout the strange looks I get. Fuck it, man. If you open yourself up to new things in life, life might surprise you, Cuz. It sure as fuck surprised the shit outta me."

Grinnin' at my little cousin, I was proud as fuck of the man he was, "How'd you get so smart, young'un?"

He grinned, full blown dimples as he laid back and closed his eyes again, "I've always been a smart mother fucker, man. I'm just not scared of it anymore."

Closin' my eyes, I took a deep breath and melted back into the grass, lettin' the pretty music wash over me like a cleansin' rain.

:

"This sucks."

Lexi huffed as she went about arrangin' the different piercing jewelry underneath the counter. I continued workin' on my sketch for the piece I had to do this afternoon and Sig looked up from his book, "I'll go with you, Lex."

Lexi's girlfriend had broken up with her a couple of days ago and she was bitchin' and moanin' 'bout some play she had tickets to and that she didn't wanna go by herself.

"You sure, Siggy? I mean, it's Rent."

He rolled his eyes, lookin' back down at his book and jottin' some notes, "I know what it is. A musical about a bunch of starving artists and shit, very homo-friendly. It's not like I have a problem with gay people, Lex. I work here, don't I? It's like being surrounded by the Rainbow Brigade up in this mother fucker."

I snorted and kept about my drawin' as Lexi laughed, "True. I mean, you do go to the gay clubs with me. Would it offend you if I called you my fag hag?"

Sig chuckled, "Would it offend you if I said I only go to watch you grind on other chicks?"

I snorted again as Lexi thought for a moment then retorted, "Nope."

Then she spoke quietly, "Thanks, Siggy. I really didn't wanna go to this show by myself and I really wanna see it."

"S'no, problem, Lex. I like hanging out with you even when you're not grinding on hot chicks 'cause I'm your friend."

He emphasized the word friend and I raised my eyes to see him lookin' at me with a raised brow.

Huffin' a little bit, I thought about what Jay said and I mean, I secretly liked Disney musicals so maybe I would like some shit like that. I'd never know if I didn't experience it and I had been bein' kind of a dick to them, always refusin' when they invited me places.

Shadin' in the lines of my piece, I sighed, "I'll go. Can I still get a ticket?"

Her head snapped up, green eyes wide as she squealed, "Oh my God, for real?"

I shrugged, mumblin', "Yeah."

The next second she was on me, arms around my neck as she kissed my cheek, "You're the best! I'll get online right now and get you a ticket!"

I chuckled, cheeks burnin' as she let go and flew to her laptop. Siggy grumbled, "I didn't get a kiss. That's not fair, you don't even want girl lips on you."

Smudgin' in some of the shadows of my drawin', I shrugged, "Life ain't always fair, man."

"Psh, tell me about it. I mean, you look like that and you're gay. And I look like this and I'm straight. Girls don't like short, skinny, and pale, man. They like big, buff and tan."

I looked up at him, grin on my face as I batted my lashes, "You think I'm buff?"

He scowled, turnin' back to his book but he chuckled, "I so hate you, dude."

But he didn't really hate me at all because he was my friend. And a pretty damn good one at that. It was time I started bein' a better one.

:

Rent was gut-wrenching. I might've threatened to kick the shit outta Sig for guiltin' me into goin' to see it but as I wiped my eyes at the final curtain call, I found that I was really...kinda moved by the whole thing. As hard as it was to watch the story of the boy, er, girl named Angel, it was strangely upliftin' too. And it made me think about Angel but mostly I just thought about Brady. I thought about how much he'd like it and how he'd sob his little eyes out when Angel died and Collins was singin' "I'll Cover You," to him.

And I thought about the whole theme of the story, livin' your life for today 'cause who knows about tomorrow. And I thought about Angel again and how sad it is that he died never gettin' to experience these crazy little things that really, are kinda what life is all about. I was sad he missed so much livin'.

I didn't wanna miss out on it no more.

On the way home I blared the CD Eddie had made me and was kinda surprised when Lex and Sig didn't give me shit about it.

But Sig did grumble about bein' hungry so we decided to stop off and eat and I don't know if it was fate or just the luck of the draw that we ended up sittin' in that diner where Melitta worked. But when I saw her, I was up and walkin' over to her.

"Hey."

She looked up from where she was wipin' a table down and a hesitant smile came to her face as she whispered, "Hey."

I had never went to that Gay Youth club thing she had asked me to come to and I hadn't spoken to her since the barbecue which seemed like so long ago.

Tuckin' my hair behind my ear, I shoved my hands in my pockets and rolled on the balls of my feet, nervous as shit.

"So, uh...I'm sorry for not stoppin' by. I've been...I don't know, goin' through some shit. I'd like to, if the offer still stands. I mean, I really don't wanna talk on the phone or nothin' but I could do other shit maybe?"

She broke into a genuine grin this time, eyes warm that reminded me so much of her brother, "Yeah? That'd be nice, Brandon. I could use somebody to help paint? It'll take a week or two for us to save up the money for the gallons we'll need but - "

"I'll buy 'em. I make decent money. I'd like to help."

Nodding, she bounced on her toes a little as she smiled, "Really? That would be wonderful! Thank you."

Nodding back, I glanced back at Sig and Lexi who were peekin' over their menus at me.

"You wanna meet my friends?"

Melitta almost squealed as I walked her over and introduced her.

"Oh, is he your new boyfriend? He's cute," she whispered to me as she set down my plate.

My eyes got big as I looked over at Sig, "Who him? Hell no he ain't my boyfriend. No offense, Sig."

Sig just rolled his eyes and picked at his fries, "I'm used to it, man. No worries." Then his eyes snapped up to Melitta, wide and shocked as he spoke, "Wait, did you just call me cute?"

She giggled, raisin' an eyebrow as she sauntered away, "Maybe."

He called out, "I'm completely, one-hundred percent heterosexual by the way! Just in case you were

wondering!"

She laughed and shook her head as she disappeared into the back and Lex smiled, "Way to play it cool, Siggy."

But then my thoughts caught up with me and I wondered why the Hell she assumed I had a new boyfriend.

:

I groaned, eyes squeezed shut, hands dug into soft hair as I came deep down some little brunette guy's throat in the back of the club. I hadn't meant for this to happen but it had been damn near eight months since I had been with Brady and I couldn't take that shit no more. So when some random little fucker offered to suck my dick, I just let him.

And it felt great to cum by somethin' other than my own hand.

Well, it felt great for about two seconds until I opened my eyes to see unfamiliar, hazel ones starin' back up at me. Then my stomach twisted, guilt knottin' me up as I shoved my dick back in my jeans and took off without a fuckin' word.

I threw up in the alley behind the club then started walkin' home. I felt like such a fuckin' asshole.

I was never gonna get over Brady. But he seemed to be doin' a little better. He was aces by the end of the semester and his scholarship was still good as he started his Junior Year. And from my FaceBook stalking, he was lookin' better. Dressin' more like his old self but I don't know...somethin' in his eyes still looked off.

Fuck, I missed the shit outta him.

On the way home, I stopped in some crappy little convenient store and bought a bottle of cocoa butter lotion. And I started using that shit to jerk off. I was so fuckin' pathetic.

:

I hadn't been back to therapy since I stormed out months ago. Dr. Lorenzo called a few times but I never answered and never returned her call. So I wasn't exactly sure why I ended up sittin' in the parkin' lot outside her buildin' one evenin'. And when she walked up, fixin' to get in her car and leave, I wasn't sure what to say.

She smiled softly, "How you doing, honey?"

I shrugged, hands shoved in my pockets as I grumbled, "I don't know. Good days, bad days."

The old woman nodded, opening her car door and I found myself shovin' forward, "It feels like I take one step forward and two steps back. I don't even know why I'm here. I don't know if I can be fixed."

She chuckled, reachin' into her bag and pullin' out a notebook, "You're not broken, Brandon. It's like a scar. You're hurt, not broken. You need to heal, that's all."

"What do you mean?" I asked lookin' down at her.

Flippin' open the notebook, she took a pen and dug the word SCAR into the paper then handed it to me.

"Wounds heal in layers. Slowly over time, an open wound begins to heal with each new layer of skin. But sometimes, we pick at it till it's opened up and bleeding again so the healing process has to start all over. If we can go long enough without pricking it back open, the layers begin to cover it again. So, little by little, we see the wound fade. Sometimes it still leaves a faint scar, but sometimes it heals completely."

I was still a little confused when she smiled, "Run your fingers over the words. Do you feel the jagged lines in the paper?"

I did as she said and nodded at the indents and creases of where the pen dug in.

"Good. Now turn the page and do it again."

I flipped to the next page and repeated the action. I could still feel the little indents and creases but not as much.

"Next page."

This went on for about seven pages until I couldn't feel anythin' but smooth, unblemished surface as I dragged my fingers across it.

She smiled, "See. Every new layer and the less you see it, the less you feel it. You need to add layers to your life, honey."

I kind of understood that. I mean, I think I had been doin' that for awhile now, just always seem to pick and pull at the mother fuckin' scabs till I prick them back open and they bleed again. But I was healin'.

I gave her a small smile as I handed the notebook back, "Thanks, Doc."

Throwing it in her front seat, she nodded, "Anytime, dear."

Clearin' my throat and tuckin' my hair behind my ear, I rasped, "Could we keep Wednesday's at 4:00?"

Patting my arm, she nodded again before duckin' into her car with a chuckle, "The Force is strong in you, young padewan. We might pull you over from the Dark Side just yet."

I chuckled, tappin' the hood of her car with a grin before I left.