Chapter Summary: A choice is made.
**The Loose Ends Will Make Knots**
The next day, Chad calls to deliver his sheepish explanation for ditching you last night at the bar. He has to call you on the phone, because there was no way you were going in to work today.
Feeling sheepish yourself, you listen patiently as he tells you about his talk with Abigail, about how he thinks they've really turned a corner. You can hear the smile in his voice even as he apologizes for leaving you alone at the bar. He sounds happy. You're happy, too. For them.
Forgiveness is easy. It's hard enough to stay angry with Chad as it is, and he isn't the one with reason to feel guilty about last night. He isn't the one who was too embarrassed to look anyone in the eye today. No, that would be you. Just you.
You went home alone last night, but you might as well have brought the whole party back with you for all the noise that filled your head: Brian telling you that you're good together, Will saying he loves you, and your mother asking if you're okay.
You're not okay.
Last night was a wake-up call and probably a long-overdue one. If it ever occurred to you to protect Will from your mess— and you would probably be reaching to claim such altruistic motives— then you blew it all to hell by mauling him in a bathroom stall. It's for the best that you couldn't find Brian last night, because you've already proven that you can't be trusted with him either. You must have been crazy to think that going home with him would have done anything but make everything worse.
This is what always happens. When you get low, you sink further and further into your own thoughts until the world starts to take on a distorted view.
You have to blame the stress. It's been an emotional tightrope walk, and you can't do it anymore. It's not fair to anyone. You didn't mean to hurt anyone, but you did. You saw it on Brian's face and heard it in Will's voice. You've been so concentrated on yourself that you forgot to care about other people's feelings.
It's time for a change, beginning with getting yourself together. You're overdue for some self-maintenance.
And so, with this in mind and without being dramatic about it, you go to ground for a few days.
You claim a cold to buy some time and to guard yourself against the well-meaning.
The door gets locked and the phone turned off. Close the curtains and block out the world. Focus.
You can do this. You've done it before, pulled yourself back from the brink without having to resort to professionals. There are meditation techniques you've learned along the way. Foods that boost serotonin levels. Exercises to produce endorphins. Really, what you need most are time and space to get your head on straight. That's all.
Ultimately, you want this solo sojourn to be different from past ones. You need to keep busy instead of just lying around and wallowing. As it were, stress cleaning only gets you so far, because the apartment is spotless after a single day. You can only vacuum so many times, no matter how soothing you find the dull roar of the machine.
You flirt with the idea of finally getting some things accomplished, like finally writing that thesis paper for the Econ class you keep forgetting to attend or getting that box of your brother Joey's old photographs into the mail for him.
You finally do the latter just so you can feel as if you've accomplished something and that the day wasn't completely wasted.
The paper never gets written. You just don't have it in you at the moment, and you'll probably have to retake the class next semester anyway.
Mornings are hardest.
You wake up aching, half-hard and wondering whom it is you're reaching for before you remember that you're alone. That encounter with Will at the Spot left the feel of him branded into your skin. You can still taste him. He left a restless energy buzzing in your veins, hungry for more, and it's all you can do to keep yourself from picking up the phone and calling him.
The worst thing he could have done was to leave the decision with you.
You love Will. But you'd be lying to yourself if you said that Brian didn't touch you in a way that no one else ever has, in a way that goes beyond pretty ideas like love and logic. Will makes you ache with love and longing. Brian makes you lose control. Then again, that night, so did Will.
You're just going in circles.
It's the self-reflection that is proving most difficult for you. The part where you have to face what you've done.
An attempt to wrestle with this leads to a strange whim that has you taking to pen and paper.
Sometimes, you reason, it helps to write it all down. You like organization, charts, and lists. There's clarity to be found in logic and order. At least, you'd like to think so. You've been so adrift lately. Why not try retracing your steps back to the root of the problem?
And so you begin your web. You start with your most recent mistake, which was deciding to ditch work (and class) again today. A simple start. Not so scary.
You draw a line from there to a point that you neatly entitle, "The Spot." From there, the web spreads out into three branches: "Will," "Brian," and (for fun's sake) "T."
Though it comes from a sad kind of inspiration, it's easy from there. The pen flies across the paper, creating a complex mess of crisscrossing interconnected lines. You're on a roll, adding folly after folly, down to the minute. Every time you ever crossed a line that you shouldn't have, going back to the beginning.
Like that time you let your hand rest too long against Will's when he was still trying to be straight, and you knew it would confuse him, but maybe you wanted him to be confused because he wasn't straight and he was supposed to be with you.
Or the first time you held Brian's flirtatious stare a beat too long even though you knew even then that you were leading him on.
Or when you touched Will's face that night in his dorm, leading him on.
Or, or, or…
While this might appear to be an exercise in masochism, for you, this feels like a vague sort of step toward being proactive. That's good. Anyway, it's better than just staring at the ceiling.
By the time you get to the "Alex" branch, the hurt barely registers. But it has to hurt or else it's not working, right? So, you carry on. Folly after folly, right up until you—
You stop. Just like that.
You put the pen down and slump back against the foot of your bed, defeated. Because you were right. The page is full, and all the mistakes, all the hurts— they share a commonality. You were looking for clarity in chaos when the answer has been staring you in the face all along.
It's you. It's always been you. Even if you had gone right somewhere instead of left, everything would have still happened the same. Because you are you, and when the chips are down, you can almost always be counted on to do the wrong thing, to run away at the first sign of trouble.
You are the source of all your own problems.
And you already knew that.
You adopt a strict exercise regimen. Push-ups, crunches, and anything else you can think of until you're too exhausted to remember you're depressed.
The only time you leave the apartment is to go on runs— away this time from popular spots like Horton Town Square. You bring an iPod full of loud, distracting music— and absolutely no songs from any mix given to you by either Will or Brian.
Between the music and the harsh sound of your own breaths, it's the only time you can escape yourself.
You're out escaping yourself on a particularly brisk morning when you see the other jogger approaching from the corner of your eye.
This is a popular path for runners. It travels through Salem's most beautiful park and then down by the water before looping back around toward the city.
As they near, you amiably shift aside to let the person pass. When they stubbornly stick to your side, you purposefully speed up to increase the distance between you. You aren't looking for a running buddy.
It's only when the person speeds up, too, without passing that you finally glance over and see a man waving to get your attention.
The ground rushes up to meet you before you've even realized that you're falling. It's an ugly, awkward fall, limbs thrown akimbo and headphones ripped from your ears when the cord gets caught by a flailing elbow.
You spend a few dazed moments staring at the ground before you sit up to see Neil gaping down at you.
"Shit. Are you okay?"
Really, the damage only amounts to torn knees and palms. Your pride hurts most, and you tell him as much. Neil offers you a hand that you accept with a sheepish, "Thanks."
"No problem." He hands over your fallen ear buds. "I didn't think you were going to stop, but I guess you just didn't hear me."
You wipe sweat and dirt from your eyes, feeling ridiculous. "Why wouldn't I stop?" How long was he following you anyway?
He shrugs. You sense there's more to be said, but you aren't going to pry it out of him. Neil wasn't exactly warm towards you the last time you met.
Embarrassed, you start hobbling back the way you came. "Well, I guess I'll see you—"
You turn back with a sigh, already mentally bracing yourself. "What is it, Neil?" As if you don't already know. You and Neil only have so many points of commonality.
He looks uncomfortable. "I just… want to talk."
"Do you?" you ask tiredly. "Because I tried to talk to you the other night and you—"
"Behaved like an asshole? Yeah, I know." Neil tugs off his beanie, which leaves his straw-colored hair sticking up in funny tufts. He looks young to you, closer to Will's age than yours, maybe still more boy than man. Suddenly, you remember that you liked Neil once, and it's enough to make you regret the nebulous hostility between you.
Your voice gentles even as you try to edge away. "Look, no offense, Neil, but I really have to be going— ah."
You were trying to hide how bad your knee was actually hurting, but the first step sends sharp pain up your leg, and you're cursing before you can stop yourself.
Neil looks startled. "Wow. That fall was as bad as it looked, huh? I didn't mean to sneak up on you. You really didn't hear me calling you?"
What an ass he must think you. "Really, I'm fine. I just have to go..."
Neil gives you a look. Sighing, he tugs the beanie back on and reaches for you. Before you can protest, he has his arm around your waist and he's pulling your arm across his shoulders. Stunned, you stare at him. "It's really not that bad."
"You can't even walk," he says patiently.
Neil cuts you off. "Sorry, Sonny, but I was a boy scout for five years. It's too late for counter-programming. You'll just have to humor me."
"Neil…" The denial dies on your tongue. He's clearly determined to help you, and you're clearly not in a position to fight him off. Sagging against his side with a defeated sigh, you give in. "Okay. Lead on, boy scout."
He nods, satisfied. You have no choice but to follow his lead as Neil guides you up the path, carefully avoiding potential pitfalls. His unexpected kind gesture drains the last of the defensiveness from you, and you open the door to the conversation he obviously wants to have.
"What did you want to talk about?"
You see his rueful smirk from the corner of your eye. "What else?"
"You got it."
You sigh again. "He isn't exactly speaking to me at the moment."
Neil snorts. "Believe me. I'm aware."
Is he? Did Brian tell him about your last argument? Does he know what Brian wants from you? You don't have the nerve to ask. Instead, you ask, "How is he?"
"Not great, Sonny," he says grimly. "He's acting like a real ass right now. I'm sure you can relate."
You deserve that. You hang your head, ashamed. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Of course I am, Neil. I don't want anyone to be unhappy because of me. Things are just… complicated right now."
"Too complicated to talk to him?"
"Sorry, but yes."
Neil shakes his head. "You and Brian really are a pair." The bitterness in his voice is at odds with the gentle way he maneuvers you out of the way of an oncoming bicyclist.
"I don't get it, Sonny. I really don't. You're a nice enough guy, but you seem to leave a lot of damage in your wake. First Will, then Brian. Now, Will again?"
You wonder which one bothers him more. You really don't know him well enough to tell.
"It must be nice," he says, "to be able to pull people in so easily. I bet it feels good to know that you can do this to someone like Brian."
"God, Neil. I know you must hate me, but it's really not like that. I care about… both of them." You can hear yourself sounding like an asshole, but you can't seem to stop yourself.
"Must be nice," he says again.
Before you can protest further, he waves you off with the hand not currently holding you up. "Sorry, I know I'm being harsh. I don't hate you, Sonny. I really don't. And I know that this isn't really my business. It's just… hard, I guess, to watch Brian with you."
He blushes at your raised eyebrow and rushes to say, "Because he's my friend. He's my best friend."
"I know." You have no reason to doubt it. All this time that you've been hoarding Brian to yourself, Neil is the only one to consistently challenge the arrangement, always interrupting with a knock or a call. Beyond his crewmates, Brian hasn't hinted at any other firm presences in his life. Maybe you're the exception, because everyone else seems to have to work for his attention.
You don't know how you feel about that, though it's becoming increasingly obvious how Neil feels about that. Is it strange that you're kind of relieved that Brian is the reason for this confrontation rather than Will?
"So, it is my business, because Brian is my business. I get to care about what's happening to him." He says this as if you would argue.
"I'm not saying Brian was ever a saint or anything, but this just isn't him. He's never hidden anything from me. Frankly, I sometimes wish he would share a little less." His wry smile wilts as quickly as it appears. "Now, he's being all secretive and pretending like he isn't upset when he obviously is."
"And Will?" you ask because you might as well get it all out there.
He flushes a little at that. "Will is a good kid. When I first heard that you guys were together, I was happy for him. I thought you would be good for him."
You could be cruel with the truth and say that Neil knows nothing about what's good for Will. You could, but you won't because you would only embarrass yourself further. You're embarrassed enough already.
"But you don't think that anymore." Both of you know it isn't a question. "What about you, Neil? Would you be 'good' for him?"
Maybe you wanted him to feel embarrassed, too. But if you did, then Neil disappoints you. He shrugs, which is impressive in your current state. "I won't be a hypocrite. If you choose Brian, then it's not exactly going to suck for me."
"Something tells me you'll be all right either way." It slips out before you can even think about what it means.
Neil doesn't respond to that, but his hold on you slips for a second. He makes you feel like a sack of potatoes when he hoists you back into position with a rough grunt. You never realized how long this trail really was until this conversation. It feels never-ending.
"Look, I'm not really worried about Will."
"Uh-huh," you say, unconvinced.
"I just want to make sure that you're considering how Brian feels in all of this. He acts like nothing touches him, but you know that's bullshit, right? He would kill me for saying this, but you know how he feels about you. Don't you?"
Your heart sinks at the question. If Neil weren't practically carrying you, then you would probably run at this point. When you don't answer him, Neil suddenly brings you both to a halt. He adjusts his hold so he that he can look you in the eye.
You shrink from his frank stare, wishing like hell that you hadn't tripped over that stupid rock. "Neil, can we just…?"
"You know, don't you?" he insists.
Damn him. "Yes. Are you happy?" Of course you know. The knowledge has been keeping you up at night. "Now, can we please just go?"
"Well, I guess that's something," he says, though he doesn't look any happier for having the confirmation. At least he starts you both back onto the trail. Maybe you'll get home some time before next Christmas.
No longer looking at you, he says, "Honestly, I don't know if Brian even knows how to be in a relationship. I've certainly never seen him try before. But what you guys have been doing lately looks close enough. If you don't want to be with him, then I wish you would be honest and cut him loose. It would be kinder."
He's right of course.
"Do you even know who you want to be with?"
Your silence speaks for you. Neil frowns.
His laugh is short. "I take it back. It must suck to be you."
Your leg is fine after a few days bed-rest. You wish you could forget the conversation with Neil just as easily. The truth is that Neil wasn't wrong. About any of it.
You're not always a good person. Rarely perfect. But you want to be, and that has to count for something. You want to do what's right for everyone, even if you don't know how.
Brian asked you for space. You asked Will for space. Everyone has space. But hiding in your apartment isn't helping anyone, and space isn't working. Hard as it is...
It's time to be honest. With yourself, for starters. You need to figure out what it is that you want. And then you need to tell the respective men in your life. You owe them that much.
Right now, you need to talk to Brian. You and Will were honest with each other about where you stand. It's time to do the same with Brian. There are too many things between you that were either almost said or never said. You think you know what Brian wants, but you're tired of inferring. You want him to say it aloud so everyone's cards can be on the table.
And you'll tell him… what you're feeling.
And so, without further second-guessing and despite lingering confusion still clouding your mind, you finally muster up the nerve to track Brian down. You drag yourself out of bed, wrap yourself in your warmest scarf, and just go. You're nervous as hell, but you go.
Once the decision is made, you expect the rest to fall into place. Funny enough, tracking Brian down proves more difficult than you expected.
You try his apartment first. But after several knocks and several minutes of anxious loitering outside his door, you have to admit that he's not at home. Since it's the middle of the day, you know he's not at the Spot or any of his other preferred bars. Crew practice is always in the morning, and it's already late afternoon.
To your shame, the only other place you can think of to look is the university commons. It's a long, cold walk with enough time for second-guessing. Suddenly fortified, you force yourself onward because you want this thing done already.
The Commons is crowded today. All the couches are full, and there's a long line at the coffee stand. Hovering uncertainly at the entrance, you scan the room for Brian.
In a last ditch effort, you're about to give up and call Neil for help. Your phone is already at your ear when you finally spot him across the room. He's sharing a table, one of those tall ones with bar stools for chairs, with someone.
Your hand falls back to your side.
You never understood how Will could get so worked up over seeing you do something as innocent as share coffee with Brian.
That first time, it really was innocent. You had just kissed Will for the first time, and he looked at you like a deer in headlights before firmly rejecting you. How were you to know that it was his defense mechanism? That he was more afraid than you were?
You didn't know, and Brian was there for you. He saw that you were hurting and offered to listen. Will saw you talking, maybe saw Brian leaning in too close and assumed the worst. He jumped to conclusions and ended up jumping right into bed with Gabi. Everything snowballed from there.
It didn't mean anything, but Will thought it did. At the time, you thought he overreacted.
You get it now.
Brian must have a type, because the boy is about your height, and he has dark hair like yours. From the back, he could be you.
Seeing Brian do his thing— and while you aren't distracted by having his stifling attention directed at you— and you can see why Will would be upset. Brian manages to make even the simplest thing seem suggestive. It's in the promise he offers just by leaning forward into your personal space. It's that wicked gleam in his eyes that makes you want to climb off your pedestal and sin with him.
Like Will, you could be reading into this, but somehow you know you aren't. Brian's disappearing act from your life makes a lot more sense now. You have to wonder how long this particular fish has been on the line. Probably the whole time. Brian's great at multitasking, remember?
God, you were so grateful that he was being so patient with you. But he wasn't being patient. He wasn't waiting at all. You've been a fool. Again.
When Brian actually reaches up to wipe the foam from your doppelganger's lip, you turn away, deciding that this is enough incentive to put a period on this particular sentence of your life.
You almost run straight into Neil just as he's coming through the doors and you're trying to leave. "Whoa, Sonny!"
You try to push passed him, but he catches your arm. "Hey, what's wrong?"
You don't know what he sees in your expression because you aren't feeling anything at all, can barely even hear him over the rushing between your ears.
"Nothing," you tell him. And you… don't. Feel anything. "Excuse me."
You figure you have maybe a two minute head-start to get the hell out of dodge before Neil tips Brian off and he comes after you.
Brian catches your arm in less than one.
He's out of breath, his fingers digging into your skin. "Sonny, that wasn't…"
"Yes, it was," you say, not angrily because you just want something— anything— to be clear and honest for once. The world is full of liars, and maybe if you were one, too, then everything would be a lot simpler for you. Maybe you wouldn't keep finding yourself here in this same place over and over again.
Brian looks upset. Unfortunately for him, you already withdrew from this conversation before it even began. Expression blank, you pull your arm away. "Please don't lie to me."
"I know, okay?" he says. "About the Spot? About you and Will?"
It doesn't surprise you that he knows. Of course he does. You won't even ask him how he knows. At this point, it hardly seems to matter.
Brian stares at you, obviously waiting for something from you. Denials or hysterics or anything probably other than the nothing you're giving him.
"Seriously? You have nothing to say?" He wants you to be upset. Like he is.
"I'm sorry," you tell him, because you can't even give him that. He'll think you mean something else, but it doesn't matter. None of this does. Not the guy he left at the table to come chasing after you. Not what happened between you and Will. Not anything that you might have said or felt.
There really is nothing left to say.
You won't lie to him, which means you can't even tell him you're sorry about what happened with Will. Will Horton is in your blood. You're starting to realize that's maybe a forever thing.
And maybe you always knew that. Of course, that would make you the liar then, wouldn't it?
If that's true, then you can't be angry with Brian for whatever he's been doing with that guy. Maybe you were at first, but it's clear that this whole mess is mostly your own fault for seeing things as you wanted them to be instead of how they actually are.
You don't want to be here anymore, having this conversation, with Brian looking at you like that. You want to be at home, in your bed. You never should have left.
Brian grabs your arm when he sees you edging back from him. He pleads with you. "Sonny, he means nothing to me. Nothing."
You look at him sadly. He doesn't understand that it's over, that he's given you just the thing you were waiting for.
Your silence only seems to make it worse. His starts to sound desperate. "You… Sonny, what do you want?" From him, he means.
What do— did— you want?
Something real, you think. Because if it's not real, then what's the point? If sex is the only point, then there is no point. You're still just left disappointed and alone and (more) broken. You thought you could do the selfish, casual thing, but subconsciously you were always looking for a foothold, for something real to cling to.
And you realize that was never fair to Brian, to want both more and less of him at any given time. You've been so, so selfish. You could have released Brian any number of times, but you just clung on tighter. Selfishly, you didn't want to give him up. You...
It hits you like a punch just then, and you suddenly realize what you actually came here to say. Then, you do feel guilty, because there's an undeniable relief in the fact that you didn't get the chance. It would have been the wrong thing, because you're still in love with Will. Whatever you feel for Brian, that much hasn't changed. Maybe it never will.
You think you're finally ready to do the right thing. But this still really, really hurts. So much for not feeling anything.
Brian's grip on your arm tightens as if he can actually see you disappearing right in front of him. When you manage to pull out of his grip, he tries to follow.
"Don't," you snap, and it comes out harsher than you meant.
Brian's face falls. "Sonny, please."
You think the worst thing about all this is that Brian was right. You could have been good together. Once. But you… just can't. Let go. There's something stubborn inside you that won't allow it.
And so you take him in one last time. You remember the feel, the taste, the excitement, and the promise of him…
… and you let him go.
The desolate look on Brian's face is nothing like the cool confidence you've come to associate with him, but if that is (finally) real, then it's too late.
What did he expect? Why does everyone think you so above things like actual feelings? Everyone is so surprised when you forget to let everything roll off your back, when you forget to let them off the hook. You're Saint Sonny, right? That's what you do.
No. Not always. Sometimes, you just leave.
Author's Note: Another heartfelt thank you to all the people who have encouraged and supported this fic since the beginning. I really appreciate it. One more chapter to go!