Despite your best efforts, Bro manages to maintain a heavy degree of impersonality with you – even when you're crushed beneath him and the keening tremor of your voice pathetically begs him to acknowledge you. It's aggravating, the worst and most embarrassing kind of uncool because it means, somehow, that he is guarding himself from you. As if, given the chance, you'd turn this back on him, treat it as a one-up on the man who's bested you for years and you're not sure whether to laugh or just feel bad.

Because of it, though, he talks to you less and less, stays out later and comes home with the sour smell of sweat and alcohol sticking to his skin. Sometimes you stay up until he swaggers in and you'll while the time by playing his xbox (and saving over his files) or bullshitting with John or Rose or Jade (usually Rose, interested as she is in your present affair). Usually, though, you just pass out on the futon, daring him to confrontation with half-empty beer cans on the table or floor and he must've stopped giving a shit about what you do because he never says anything and when you wake up they're always cleaned up.

Something you won't call fear pools underneath the arc of your ribcage and it aches dully when you consider the possibility. Your brother is a class-A asshole, but he's not so callous as to string you up by your nerves like this. Maybe to other people, but never you – strangers are fair game and easy and you're not them.

Even at his worst, even after he'd blackened your eye and your ribs had cracked from the force of being slammed down on the hot concrete stretch of the roof, he'd taken you in for care. The next time he lured you to the roof for strife, you knew he was holding back, letting you win by way of apology. (He stopped toning it down when a week later you'd managed to fracture his jaw.) You might break each other's bones, kick and bite with glinting steel teeth and, sometimes, draw blood but it was - in a lot of ways still is - always just the two of you and he can't have forgotten that.

You're sure of it, in the same way you're sure Cal is still locked up in a trunk, buried underneath mountains of old clothes in Bro's closet – which is to say, you're not altogether sure at all.

So when he comes home tonight, hanging onto the door like it's the only thing holding him to the earth, you're awake. You've spent the past hour in your head, turning over the possibility of just leaving, saving yourself the trouble but then he pulls you out of it when he comes home, sinks into the futon next to you and you know you can't. You're not naïve, there's no inextricable link between you two, but you undoubtedly feel warm sappy things for him that you'd miss. Nobody will ever ask you, but if you had to explain you'd probably describe it as a very pressing need to breathe your brother's air.

So even though you'd previously promised yourself – and have promised yourself every morning since you realized what was happening – you wouldn't let it carry on until he cowboy'd up, realized that you weren't going to (and it's the weirdest, lamest thing to admit) hurt him, when he pulls you into his lap you let him. When he unzips your jeans while simultaneously working his own open, you melt into his heat; let your weight go slack so he has to hold you up by the shoulder. And when he finally holds you both together, his grip warm and with just the right amount of firmness, you wind your hands useless into his shirt.

Over breakfast, through a mouthful of southern hash browns you ask him to get you work. He doesn't question it though you can see his eyebrows rise and he cracks the newspaper as he turns the page and grunts.

When he slams his coffee mug on the table, you refill it automatically and he says, "See what I can do."

And it's a lot, apparently, because he comes home earlier than usual and unfolds a receipt with times and locations scribbled on it. You take it from him and you're glad for the distraction three nights of entertaining shitfaced crowds will provide you.

He changes the television to some Disney channel original movie that ends in chaste make-outs and your skin crawls, burns from the anticipation of what you know is coming. So when it doesn't, when he spends the whole time facing away from you, still but for the predictable climb and fall of his chest, it worries you. Your nerves twist into knots and as you slink off to your room you feel very distinctly that you're failing some kind of test.

Your room is too hot, sticky with still air, and when you check the vent nothing is being pushed through. Even at night you know it'll hit beyond ninety degrees and you'll wake up with a fine layer of sweat on your face and neck and your pride is certainly not worth it.

You press your back to your door, listening for the television to go silent. There's sweat beading on your forehead, the back of your neck by the time you finally decide to just fuck it. You open the door quietly, pad to the hall and of course Bro's still there, taking small sips from a bottle of cheap whiskey.

"Vent's broke in my room," you say, sitting so that you can't see him.

"S'fine in mine," he tells you with a careful gesture of the bottle, "I'll stay out."

"Your room is creepy as fuck, no way."

And he laughs, short and tight but you can see his teeth, "They're just fuckin' puppets, man. Would y'like me to pack 'em all up, hide 'em under the bed? S'the coldest room in the apartment and the office ain't open tomorrow."

"Fuck off."

"Just tryin' t'help."

He's not, he's being a dick and while he might have eventually relented on hiding the worst of them, he's by no means completely removed their presence from his room and they make you itch.

"Let me have the futon."

"Gonna be up for awhile."

You swallow a frustrated noise and straighten your shoulders. This is the most conversation you've had in days and it's stupid, contrived and altogether useless. You know he can spend hours doing nothing, just breathing and keeping perfectly still and it's always unnerving, even if you can now predict the majority of his movements.

And time drags. Eventually he puts the whiskey away and turns the tv off. He knocks off his hat when he runs his hands through his hair and he stretches, arches his back and the crack you hear sounds like it hurts. But he heaves out a heavy sigh when he slumps back down, his feet propped on the table. He makes no secret of watching you, then, facing you and you can see your reflection in his shades. His mouth crooks and he sits up, stiffens his shoulders.

"We should switch," he says, even and just a little heady from the whiskey. He slides closer and you know from the subtle twitch of his fingers he considers touching you, but instead he just tugs his hat down onto your head. He hooks a finger under your chin and tilts your head left then right, pretending to consider it before he switches your shades with his own in a movement that's sluggish and you can see his eyes are hooded, tired looking before they're hidden again behind your sunglasses. "You can be me. Do all the Bro-things I do and I can be Dave. Keep everything on track."

"This is the ugliest thing," you say and you do touch him, hook your fingers over his wrists to stop him from unsnapping his gloves. And he twists them awkwardly, takes hold of your own and pulls your arms, drags you closer and you don't resist.

"Depends on how you wear it," his voice is low and gravelly and his breath smells bad, like congealed blood and whiskey, but it's hot and warm over your face. Your throat runs dry, regardless.

A little voice in your brain considers the merits of apologizing, of turning back now, while your brother is still a monolithic figure of all that's Best in the world. You can't change what you did, not anymore, but you can halt its progress if you wanted. And you don't, you don't want to.

So you take your shades off his face and set them carefully on the table, folded up nice and shit because they're one-of-a-kind authentic, and you're careful to keep eye contact as you take off the hat, the sunglasses. He looks to you as though he's very far away, locked up in his head somewhere there's no you, maybe, because when you snake your fingers into his hair, press your mouth against his he looks at you like you're somebody he's never met. There's genuine surprise in his eyes before they slip closed and his hands fist into your shirt, push you back and there's no mistaking the anger that's crept into his face.

He grabs you by the shoulders, his grip firm and uncomfortable and beneath the naked resentment burning up his eyes there's something softer that turns over your guts with middle-school awkwardness.

"Knock it off," he says it between clenched teeth, his jaw hard and the angles of his face are tempting.

This is a game you can win. Without dying, without the threat of other people dying because you fucked up.

And all you say is "no," but it's enough because all his resentment burns out in a heavy, rough noise that neither of you will ever acknowledge he made and he slouches forward, vitriol and venom gone from his posture and face and for how defeated he looks he's handsome. You hook your arm around his neck, pull him to you for a kiss but he tilts his head away, presses his hand against the junction of your neck and shoulders.

His voice is thick, quiet when he says, "Not tonight," and he pulls on his hat and shades, which is just as well, because he does not wear vulnerable well, "Gotta think 'bout it."

You don't begrudge him that, choose instead to watch the subtle swing of his hips as he leaves the room with a little less swagger than usual.

With the futon to yourself, you spread out comfortably and you don't dread the day.

He wakes you up at one by dripping cold water onto your face and déjà vu has you reeling as you sit up, pressure turning over in your skull and you bite into your cheek to keep grounded. His posture tells you he's okay, finally, and the easy curve of his lips has you responding in kind, grinning up at him with an enthusiasm that would have Egbert clinging to your elbow and shaking with poorly contained glee. And it's good, when he bends over the back of the futon to kiss you, until he bites down too hard on your lip and you hiss at the taste of blood.

"Shit," you say, touching a finger to your lip where it stings.

He laughs, rich but edged with something sharper, and swings over the futon just as you dart off, away. Your nerves run wildfires up your spine and you make a decision too late, because he's got his arms under yours and hauls you back before you can run. He presses his cheek against the side of your head so that his mouth is at your ear, so close the movements of his lips brush over the shell of it and heat crawls up your neck.

You arch your back, twist your hips uncomfortably but you manage to catch the back of his knee hard and he pulls in a breath, drops you. You scuttle away, vault the futon and slide over the kitchen table.

And he catches your arm, barks a laugh when you slam a fist (half-heartedly and with no real intent to hurt him) into his jaw but turns you loose. For a minute anyway, because then he's got you pinned to the table, his fingers pressing hard into your arms. The edge of the table is digging into the small of your back painfully and then his mouth is wet and insistent over the hollow of your throat and the heat there is all you can focus on. Until he moves a hand under your shirt, ghosts his fingers up, leaving electric trails as he goes and you worm out from beneath before he gets too high.

He grabs for you but you're fast, too, and you've got his arms twisted behind his back before he can think to move. You push him down roughly and he bares his teeth, glares up at you behind the skew of his shades.

But you don't care and he must not either, because when you let go of his arms to push his shirt up he doesn't fight you off. Instead he helps you take it off completely, knocking off his hat and shades and you trail open mouthed kisses along a shoulder, tilt your head into his neck and suck, lap at the skin there. You run a hand flat over his back, dig your nails into the dips and curves of his ribs and spine and he hums in appreciation.

You back off to take off your shirt and leave your sunglasses safely on a chair. The carnation twist of shiny pink and white skin stands bright on his back and your throat constricts and your eyes get hot as you run your fingers light but shaking over the scar.

And he must feel it, because he turns quickly so that he's on his back, facing you and his fingers are tangled in your hair, his thumbs rubbing circles over your temples.

"It's okay," and it's quiet and that softest you've ever heard him speak. He moves a hand over your chest, loops between the marks your honest death and he leans close, says, "I think you got it worse, anyway."

"Compared to bleeding out? Not a chance."

You kiss him so he'll stop making it a contest and his hands settle firm, encouraging on your waist while you slide your tongue into his mouth.

He watches your hands as you work open his jeans, smooth a palm over his erection before curling your fingers around it, pulling the smooth fabric of his boxers tight as you do. You sink to your knees, pulling down his boxers and exposing the length of him and his eyes are hooded and dark as he watches you take the head, shiny with precum, into your mouth. You can hear the breath he sucks in between his teeth and his fingers wind up in your hair.

He's heavy on your tongue, warm and thick and you glide your tongue up the bottom from the base, twist it over the swollen head and back down over the very end, lapping off the precum and savoring the taste. You pull back, wrap your hand around the base of his dick and you stroke in tandem with the bobbing of your head. You're going too slow, being too precise with each flick of your tongue, because he growls and holds your head still, thrusts into your mouth – too hard, too deep because you're struggling not to gag or scrape him with your teeth.

He lets you up when you scratch your nails down his thighs and he presses his mouth to yours, nips at your lips until you open your mouth and he meets your tongue halfway, and he doesn't mind the smear of spit on your chin or the taste of his dick in your mouth. He runs a hand down the curve of your spine, stops at the base of it and you pull away.

"No," and your voice is rough, pulled out from the bottom of your guts.

Bro raises his eyebrows, but his hand moves to your hip, his fingers smoothing over the bone. There's an open color of appraisal when he says, "S'in in the right pocket."

And it is, like he had the whole fucking thing planned and, shit, is he smug when you start off on two fingers. You hook your fingers and on the next draw out he catches your wrist, guides you in inserting a third and bends your wrist, twists it.

"Like this, Dave," he purrs.

You stop; set your mouth in a thin line. "You're not gonna tell me how to fuck you."

He laughs, until you bite his neck, sink your teeth into his skin and he hisses, gives in. "Fine."

You press your nose into his hair just above his ear, slip your tongue over the shell. "Good. Turn over."

"Warnin' you, man. Been at this a long time."

"Shut up."

He does and pushes you away so he can settle comfortably on his stomach while you roll the condom on. You place your hands over his hips and push inside, and everything is heat suddenly, solid and earnest heat that burns up your skin until he contracts the muscles there and your eyes roll back and close. You hold your breath, focus on the spotlights of color behind your eyelids until the tightness relaxes and you can think to pull halfway out, grind back up and in and the rhythm of his breathing changes, the muscles roped across his back tighten.

You build an easy tempo – you can't go faster, harder because he does this thing, rolls his hips to meet you and tightens in a way that pulls you too quick to the edge – and you reach around to take firm hold of his dick. With your thumb at the base of the tip you can feel the blood throbbing and it's encouraging. You stroke him to a beat that's stronger than your thrusting and the noises he makes – low and feral and with your hand splayed on his back you can feel them – echo in your throat, your voice.

He grinds into your hand so that each roll back meets your hips, rides your dick at an angle so that you hit that little pocket of nerves and your breath rattles out of your chest like you're dying. You're too hot, too tightly wound around a need in your guts and you let go of his dick, drive your nails into his hips as you cum, his name torn rough out of your throat.

You slide out, loose and light and shaky, warm and soft all over and Bro turns back over, sits at the edge of the table. His hands settle gently into your hair and you let him guide your head into his lap; slide his dick into your mouth. He sets the pace for it, consistent and heavy but careful enough to let you keep up, keep raising and twisting your tongue against him as he pushes in.

When he finally finishes, the more of it ends up in your throat and you swallow what you can, the rest leaks over your lips as you catch your breath and he thumbs it off, sucking it clean. Your mouth is coated with the flavor (all salt and tang and something slick and bittersweet) and your jaw feels as slack-sure as your knees, but he keeps you steady with an arm over your shoulders. His other hands rests on the side of your face, his thumb smoothing over your eyebrow until his thoughts catch up and he stops, lets you go to pull up his jeans.

You draw on your pants; forego your shirt for the heat in your chest. Bro slides your shades on for you and the world falls dim.

"Y'need to get your shit together," he tells you off-hand, setting bread in the toaster, "For tonight. Can't use mine this time."

Your fingers are weak as you set your hair right, "Your gear is so fucking sweet though."

But he shrugs, folds up a piece of toast when it pops and stuffs it whole into his mouth.

"Motherfucker," and you steal the other piece before he can suck it down his blackhole throat.

You spend the rest of the day organizing what you need and there's no anxiety when you take the stage later – the club is small and seedy and Bro's hidden in the crowd, anyway. If you fucked up (you won't), he could easily direct you out of the shit. You're surprised he's here at all, but it calms something cold in your bones and you're dropping beats like nobody's heard before, cut with the finest last-generation bullshit gear you're forced to use until you can get the cash necessary for the latest tech.

It's a disembodied feeling when you really get into it, your thought process stops and the crowd surges louder, sweeter when you switch over. The night leaves you with that acrid sweat and booze smell but your nerves buzz pleasantly whenever somebody asks for you name.

He lest you ride the high for an hour before steering you to the car, careful to look appropriately apathetic even as he keeps his hand on your arm. You feel good, really just good, but you're bone tired and the stairs aren't worth the effort. The elevator is slow and creepy as hell, the wallpaper peeling by the dirty red floor, but Bro holds your bags like a fine fucking gentleman and he doesn't complain when you lean on him. He even holds the door to the apartment open for you, sets your gear down by the door to your room.

The air is still out in there – office is closed and you're both pretty useless – so you crash on the futon, your nose pressed into the fabric (and it smells like stale piss and beer and something like apple juice but you don't care). He's careful about touching you, but he does, rubs a hand over your back and shoulder and neck before disappearing to his room. The air closes in cold around you and the only sound is your breathing, rattling in and out of your mouth.

You don't think you'll ever say outright that you love your brother – you're a Strider, for fuck's sake – and you're damn sure he'd sooner burn his record collection and bury his smuppets than say it to you, but when you stumble half-awake into his room he doesn't kick you out. Instead, he shifts on the bed to make room and lets you slip under the covers, press close so all you can taste on the air is his skin. He stays perfectly still until you've settled comfortably against him, presses his nose into your hair and hooks an arm over your waist, rubs slow circles to soothe you. And you think – lazily and slow and fogged by a beat you'll hear in your sleep – that for all these things, neither of you need to.

His breath washes warm and sweet despite the liquor over your face and you hum, curl your fingers into the sheets beyond his shoulders and breathe deep.