Once, We Were.

Part One.

There's a Hole In Our History [An Empty Place In My Heart]

Just before Charlie calls, Zeke's having that dream again.

The Vortex is spinning, big and bright and loud and he has his back to it, his hand out to Virgil. "Dude, come on, just jump," he yells. "Go back with me." He keeps shouting, pleading until he's almost sick with it. Virgil doesn't move. He just opens his mouth to talk, but the voice that calls out isn't his own.

You've got Zeke, leave a message.

/Zeke? Hi, it's Charlie. I was hoping to talk to you in person but, well, this will have to do. I'm just calling to let you know that Virgil's having a birthday party next Saturday. I mean, I know you haven't seen him since … I don't know, the last birthday party, maybe, but I thought you might like to come and let us know how you're doing. I – we - everyone misses you, and we really, really hope you can make it. It's at 8 o'clock, at Virgil's parents' house. Okay? Okay, so. Bye. Bye, Zeke./

Zeke slowly unclenches his anxious, angry fists, before rolling over and burying his head under his pillow.

When people ask him what happened, he's always ready with an excuse. We were too different. We grew apart. We had no time to hang out. My dog ate Charlie's homework. It was all a hoax. I have a contagious disease so you should move away.

He never tells people the truth. He never says, Virgil hates me, because then they'd ask Why? and then Zeke would have to stop and think about it.

Zeke lives in a cheap little flat behind his parents' house. A place to eat, sleep, crap and clean, and a little TV for his DVDs. The fridge hums, and the walls shake when the washer's on, but it's enough. Zeke's always been happy with what he needs. The things he wants are too much trouble.

After Summerton, he went to work in the Cycle Cemetery. It was supposed to be for a little while, until he could decide what he wanted to do, but that was nearly three years ago and the only decisions he could make these days were, Captain Crunch or Froot Loops? Motorbike or car?

On Saturday night, Zeke walks to Virgil's place. Charlie had left ten more messages, had all but bribed Zeke into going to this party. It's important, he kept saying, it's important. The last thing Virgil had said to Zeke was, 'stay away from me'. That's what's important and he's doing the wrong thing here, but that's Zeke. That's Zeke, when it comes to Virgil.

At the Fox's, Zeke circles the block eight times, before going in.

There are people everywhere, just as he'd expected. The noise is so loud it feels like he could swallow it. He pushes through with hands and elbows and hips, hunched and keeping his head down. In the corner of the living room, a little pile of presents sits and waits. Zeke pulls the small parcel from his jacket pocket, wrapped in newspaper and tied with a thin, leather band. He fiddles with it for a moment, questions his intention with shaking hands, but decides to drop it quickly and turn back.

"Zeke!" It's Charlie. He's still short, and that big, happy grin still compensates. "You made it!"

"I guess so."

"You got taller. Did you? It looks like it. How are you? What have you been up to? Wow. It feels like I haven't seen you in years. Just the other day I said to Virgil – Virgil! Of course, you want to see Virgil. Wait here and I'll go and get him for you."

Once Charlie's out of eyesight, Zeke heads for the door.

There's too much here. He can't breathe.

On Tuesday and Friday nights, Zeke goes down to the local Community House and plays Chess. It's mostly old guys with their trousers up under their armpits, but some other people go too. Younger people. It's where he met Rachel, three months ago. The latest girl in a string of going-nowhere girls.

"Where were you on Saturday?" she asks one night, back at Zeke's place. She's twisted n the bed sheets and he's making coffee in his briefs. It looks settled, serious, but it doesn't feel that way. Zeke lies easy.

"I went out, with Paul and Brad and them."

Rachel's a nice girl. A nurse-in-training, with good hair and a great ass. Zeke should like her more than he does, and she definitely deserves better, but. This is all he's got right now – a night here and there, lunch once in a while – and she knows it, and she stays. That's her choice.

"That's funny. I spoke to Paul and he said he hadn't seen you."

Zeke walks back into the room, hands her coffee with a shrug. "Yeah, well."

"Is there something I should know?"

"No." Rachel throws him a look of disbelief. He's not sure that he's lying when he says, "Really. It's nothing."

You've got Zeke, leave a message.

/Zeke, it's Charlie. I just wanted to check you're okay. I couldn't find you at the party, and someone said they saw you leave in a hurry, so I thought I'd better check. I mean, not like a parent but just as a friend. I mean, not that I can assume you're my friend, I haven't spoken to you in such a long time and I know, well I think that you're busy, but I hope that you could maybe find time to catch up with us. It's about time, don't you think? Call me back, okay? Bye./

They haven't seen each other for 351 days, when Virgil walks into the Cycle Cemetery that Saturday.

He's striding, really, hard and fast, and there's determination etched deep in his expression. From this distance, Zeke can see how much he's changed. He's bulked up, the lines of his biceps peeking out from the bottom of his sleeves. His hair's a little longer with a new curl to it; while his skin is a shade darker and freckling. Piece by piece he's become less and less like the Virgil Zeke knew.

"What the hell is this?" he yells when he nears, before hurling something at Zeke which Zeke catches with one hand. It's the present he had left, still wrapped but imperfect. Zeke just curls his fist around it tightly, and turns his head.

"What are you doing, Zeke?"

"I'm trying to work," Zeke says, his jaw clenched so hard it hurts.

"What are you doing in my life?"

"I'm not. Charlie invited me."

"Charlie?" Virgil laughs like it's the least funny thing he's ever heard. "You mean my best friend? Who, by the way, won't shut up about you, and won't listen to me when I tell him I don't want to see you. Who keeps saying that the three of us should catch up, like old times, even though every time he calls you, you ignore him. You mean that Charlie?"

Zeke looks up at him, though he can barely stand it. "Virg, I - "

"No. Don't say – don't anything. I thought I told you. I thought I was clear, last time."

"Oh, yeah. Crystal clear. I carried a black eye around for weeks."

"What? Am I supposed to feel bad?"

"You're supposed to …" Zeke stops. He'd spent months imagining what Virgil might have done - could have, should have, would have - if things had been different. But they weren't different, and they couldn't change that, and they'd made a choice, a long time ago, that it wasn't their right to change anything.

"What, Zeke? Tell me."

"I'm not in your life, Virg," Zeke says, ignoring the way Virgil flinches at the epithet. "I just used to be, that's all."

Zeke tries to hand him back the present but Virgil puts his hands in the air, no. "I only want one thing from you."

"What?"

"I want you to go and see Charlie. Tell him whatever you want, but make him understand. I don't want any part of it. Okay?"

Zeke just watches, helpless, as Virgil leaves. Again.

On Prom Night, they snuck out to the football field with Charlie's home-made fire crackers and a cheap bottle of wine. Zeke can't remember how long they were out there, but it felt like full, endless hours. Just the hoot and whistle of their voices, the rough and tumble of their play.

It was their farewell to Summerton, homage to the minutemen. It was never a farewell to their friendship. They hadn't had that yet, not really.

Zeke doesn't remember the first day of High School. At least, he doesn't remember seeing Virgil and Charlie hanging off the ram. The first time he bothered to notice them – for real – was the same day they met. Two little nerds peering at him cautiously.

Virgil had always been thankful for that. Zeke had always been sorry he'd spent the first two years of High School, alone at the back of Geometry instead of having spit ball competitions with Virgil and trading magazines with Charlie.

In the end, Zeke does what Virgil asked – just like old times – and finally calls Charlie back. They buy doughnuts and coffee and sit on an old park bench, while Charlie gives Zeke a day by day briefing on Life Since He Was Gone. After one too many, 'Virgil can explain that one later's, Zeke cuts in.

"Charlie, there's something I haven't told you."

Charlie swallows his mouthful so fast it looks painful. "Oh. No. You're not dying are you?"

"Uh, no. I mean, not any faster than your average person."

"Thank God. The look on your face was like, Terminal Illness."

Zeke can't help but smirk. "It's safe to say you're still the weirdest person I know."

"I'll take that as a compliment. So? What aren't you telling me?"

Zeke falters. The truth is, the truth has only ever been, Charlie will always pick Virgil. He will call Zeke, he will text and fax and e-mail and smoke signal Zeke until he's blue in the face but he will always pick Virgil. Zeke understands that, but he doesn't feel good about it. He doesn't feel good about losing Charlie again.

"It's Virgil," Zeke finally manages to say, staring at his hands. "And me. We don't talk. We're not talking."

"Since when?"

"Since, a long time ago. We had a fight and now we don't talk."

To his credit, Charlie doesn't scoff or laugh or tell Zeke the figures don't compute. His voice stays level. "Why? What did you fight about?"

"Just … some stuff happened that we couldn't agree on and we couldn't be friends any more. I should have stayed in touch with you though."

"Why are you being so evasive?"

Zeke sighs, finally finding the courage – or accepting defeat– and looking Charlie in the eye. He respects him too much to lie.

"Well, because I don't want to talk about it. I just want you to stop worrying about me and Virgil hanging out. It's not gonna happen."

"Zeke - "

"Charlie, don't start this okay? This isn't a Science Project. You don't have the answer to this."

Zeke doesn't do much. There's Chess, and bikes, beer with his friends and nights in with Rachel, but that's basically it. It's funny, in a way, how he's the same guy he was before everything went bad. How his life has sort of looped in on itself.

"There was a card by the door," is the first thing Rachel says when Zeke gets home one night. She has a key he never offered her, but he likes the way she takes what she wants without asking. Zeke could learn a lot from her. "I hope you don't mind that I read it."

Zeke shrugs and heads for the kettle. "What kind of card?"

"Just a plain white one. It has a time and a date and it's signed Charlie."

"Oh. Okay."

Rachel comes to stand beside him, the small of her back rested against the counter and her arms folded. She says, "Who's Charlie?" as if she doesn't care, but Zeke knows her better than that.

"Just an old friend."

"An old girlfriend?"

"No. He's a he." Even if Zeke had told him differently, from time to time.

"You don't talk about your friends much."

"There's not a lot to tell."

"What about this Charlie? Where's he from?"

The kettle whistles, and Zeke pulls two cups from the cabinet. "High School," he answers quickly, and, "Can we please stop talking about this?"

"I'm just trying to get to know you better," Rachel mutters under her breath, her arms folding tighter. She tries to hide her face behind the long drape of her hair, but Zeke reaches out and brushes it away.

"Okay. Sorry. Just … ask a different question."

It was less than a month after graduation when Zeke took a ride in the back of a police car. It was the first and last time, and the cops had gone easy on him, but he'd always wear it like a brand. It would never be okay. When they told him to call home, he dialled Virgil's number without thinking, and Virgil got across town quicker than Zeke thought possible.

They didn't talk until Virgil pulled into Zeke's driveway, asking, "What happened, man?"

"I tried to steal some bourbon," he had said, quickly, because he'd been expecting the question. Virgil didn't ask why. Zeke didn't say, because you're at college, because Charlie's going to be rich, because dad keeps telling me I could do more.

Virgil didn't ask anything. He just said, "You should've called me before you did that."

The card is addressed to Charlie's house. The same house they almost burnt down making pancakes. The same house the cops raided after reports there'd been gun fire [it had been one of Charlie's experiments]. The same house that had hosted movie marathons and Nintendo battles and so much pizza they made friends with the delivery guy.

When Charlie swings the door open, grinning, it's almost like Zeke never left.

"You actually came."

"I know you like surprises."

"Well, come in. You know how it goes, leave your shoes, your jacket and - "

"- my miseries by the door," Zeke finishes with a grin.

"That's right. You're in my house now." Charlie pulls Zeke in for a swift and manly hug, a heavy and trying-too-hard pat on his back. "Come on, let's go downstairs."

Zeke follows Charlie down the old, winding staircase, and it hits him, a swift, curving bullet. That smell, that one creaking step, those initials carved into the banister with Virgil's Swiss Army Knife. It's like stepping back in time, [even if he'd sworn never to do it again]. It's almost addictive.

The first thing he sees as he leaves the bottom stair is Virgil. Virgil leaps off the sofa so quick he almost falls over.

"What's going on?" he shouts, red in the face and snarling.

"I told him," Zeke protests, turning to Charlie. "I told you."

"You didn't tell me anything."

"I can't believe this." Virgil tries to leave but Charlie stands in front of him. He's a whole head shorter, but his hand is firm and his expression means business.

"Virgil, no. You are not walking out on this."

Zeke steps back. "I'm going anyway."

"You are not." Charlie points a finger at Zeke, his arms out between them both like a goalkeeper trying to save something. "You're both going to sit down and tell me what's going on."

"What is this, Charlie?" Virgil says, mocking. "An intervention?"

"Yes," he replies, without a hint of embarrassment. "That's exactly what this is. I mean, what happened? You two were inseparable. You were always going off without me - "

"That's a stretch - "

"You were always talking about stuff I didn't understand, and keeping things from me to protect me. But that was fine. I knew you did it because you were my friends and you wanted the best for me."

Zeke rubs a weary hand over his face. Just standing here, these few feet from Virgil and all of Virgil's loathing; knowing he, Zeke, is the only person who has ever made Virgil feel this way. It's exhausting, he can feel his body – the deepest parts – start to unwind. "Charlie - "

"Well in case you missed it, guys, this isn't what's best for anyone! Ever since Zeke's been gone, Virgil, you've done nothing but whine."

"I don't - "

"Zeke?" Charlie adds, before Virgil can finish. "What about you?"

"Charlie, stop it," Zeke's starting to get angry now. "I told you, you can't fix it."

"I'm not trying to fix it. I'm trying to make you fix it. Both of you."

There's a pause. A shuffle of feet and a clearing of throats before Virgil says, plainly, "No."

"Why? What is so bad that you can't get past it?"

Again, quiet. Zeke can hear his heart thumping; he can feel it hard against his throat. Virgil will tell. It won't be spiteful, and he won't be trying to get Charlie on side. He just wants this to be over. He wants Zeke to be gone. He will tell.

"You know how I broke up with Steph because she kissed another guy?"

Charlie glances quickly between them, not catching on. "Yeah?"

"The other guy was Zeke."

AN: Despite how Minutemen ages – not to mention how I age – I can't stop loving this trio and their story. There will be more, of course, but thanks for reading this part, it's nice to know I'm not alone in my affections.