Cory sat on the sofa-bed in the empty apartment and wondered how all their big dreams had gotten so utterly fucked up.
First Eric split before they even arrived in New York, turning around at a rest stop and heading back to Philadelphia. His explanation had made little sense, though nothing Eric had said in years had made much sense. Eric went home to Mommy and Daddy and Cory just rolled his eyes at the loss. He marched onward with Topanga and Shawn by his side. They were all he really needed anyway.
The first year with the three of them together had been hard. So hard. But they got through it. Cory had been feeling pretty good about it by the time Topanga's internship ended and she accepted a real position with the firm, continuing her law degree part-time on their dime.
Then Shawn had left abruptly with no real explanation. The fight when he left had been epic and Cory had been so angry that it was months before he tentatively tried to get back in contact with him and find out where he went. That was when he realized just how really-real Shawn Hunter's aloneness in the world was. Cory couldn't find a single person who knew where Shawn had gone to. There was no family to call, no close friends. He'd finally contacted Angela, which was awkward since they'd fallen out of touch after the break-up, but he'd swallowed his pride because he missed Shawn. Angela didn't know where Shawn was but did mention that Jack was back in Philadelphia, having bailed on the Peace Corps. Somehow another year passed and Cory never contacted Jack. Other stuff had happened and gotten in the way. Stuff that overshadowed everything.
And now here Cory was on the sofa-bed dialing Jack's number. He prayed that Jack knew where Shawn was. Cory needed him more now than he ever had in his life.
Things had been going fine in New York for the first year, though everyone was so busy they hardly had time to get on each other's nerves. Topanga was at her internship until late into the night most evenings and taking on extra projects on the weekends that usually required her to be at the office then too. Cory was taking a few classes to keep plugging away at his degree and working days in a mailroom to help subsidize the exorbitant rent. He had visions of his rotten work-study experience in high school, but it was the best he could do with no connections or degree. Shawn had taken longer than he would have liked to find his feet, but he fell into waiting tables out of desperation and found that he had a knack for it. Being good at flirting went a long way when it came to getting big tips. In short time he was making more money than Cory did at his more respectable office job. Shawn took great pleasure in this economic role reversal.
Because of his shift schedule, Shawn actually ended up seeing more of Cory and Topanga one on one than the couple saw of each other. The fact that his bed was the fold-out sofa in the tiny main room of the two-room apartment meant that it was impossible for either of them to avoid him when he was home. He was no longer so much a third wheel as he was an intermediary, often passing on messages from husband to wife and wife to husband and serving as a repository for the things they didn't have the opportunity to say to each other. He didn't mind it so much and was rather pleased that when he did see Cory it was just the two of them, like old times. It was almost like Cory had never even married in the first place. Living with a married couple was working out better than Shawn had dared hope.
Of course, there was a downside to being everybody's only confidant. He had to listen to each of their frustrations, the endless venting about work and complaining about never seeing their spouse. He knew the names of all the people at the law firm Topanga didn't like and all the co-workers and fellow students Cory secretly believed were out to get him. He knew enough to congratulate her when Topanga mentioned she'd been assigned to the Martin Case and always remembered what Cory's current reading assignments were for his night classes. Being the keeper of this information and the lone sounding board for complaints could be a little much.
Sometimes he would sit on his fold-out bed, Cory and Topanga at last rendezvousing in the other room, sharing their precious hours together mostly asleep, and Shawn would think about how weird it was that he now knew more intimidate details of their daily lives than either of them knew about each other. And then at some point, Topanga began to act differently around Shawn; she stopped confiding in him and acted almost standoffish when she saw him. He figured she was finally growing tired of the third wheel sleeping on her sofa and he secretly began building up a little escape fund for when he'd be inevitably asked to find a new place to stay.
He went out with girls he picked up at work sometimes when he didn't feel like going back to the apartment. Instead he'd go home with Jenna or Sarah or Erin and have a nice, empty time. He'd come back to the Matthews apartment refreshed and a little bit smug that he was getting laid more than they were. He was never invested in the Jennas, Sarahs, and Erins, though. Instead what he really lived for these days was his time alone and his time with Cory. These were the times when he felt like he was finally at peace. He didn't have much-some clothes and some books and a spot on a sofa bed-but he was happier with his life than he'd been since his first few weeks at Pennbrook, when everything had started rapidly going to crap. Those two years at college had been a low point for Shawn, which was saying something considering there hadn't been many high points previously, but it was nice to finally feel like all that was behind him. Even if he felt like Topanga was growing to resent him.
Cory and Shawn spent a lot of nights together talking on that sofa bed, playing video games, watching lousy TV. At first, Cory spent a fair bit of their time together complaining about not seeing Topanga, her terrible hours, his terrible hours. But after a while even Cory would tire of this topic and they ended up having some of the best conversations they'd ever had. They talked a lot about what they had come from, where they wanted to go.
Cory, as always, craved stability. He was longing now to be done with classes and moving up to a real, decent-paying position, ready to start his life as an established adult already. He felt like Topanga had already gotten there and left him behind in young adult land. There was nothing new about that-it had always taken Cory longer to catch up to brilliant Topanga, but it did make him feel insecure and like they weren't playing at the same level in this marriage.
Shawn, as always, craved a place to belong. He didn't mind waiting tables and took pride in being so good at it, but he knew this wasn't a longterm career. He wanted a job that gave him a sense of identity. And he wanted a life where he could feel like the main character, not a supporting player (Chet's son, Cory's friend, the cute waiter only good for a one night stand). He wanted a life where he wasn't always living in someone else's place. He'd never had a bedroom in his life that was just his. A bed that didn't come with an inevitable time limit. That didn't seem like to much to ask for, and yet he still hadn't managed this small feat.
Those nights when they talked about these things, side by side on the sofa, meant a lot to Shawn. He valued the intimacy, both emotional and physical. It was just nice to be close to someone when you spent so much of your life feeling alone. The warmth of Cory's body beside him was reassuring. The scent of Cory's aftershave became an instant comfort. So much so that when Shawn detected one night that Cory had switched brands, he immediately mentioned his disappointment in this new development.
"I didn't realize my aftershave was so important to your daily life," Cory had replied, amused.
"It is," Shawn laughed, "It smells like home. Don't go taking that away from me."
Cory tossed the new stuff and returned to his old brand the next day.
Cory didn't seem to mind their intimacy either, Shawn thought. Maybe it was because he missed his wife, but he seemed to get a kick out of snuggling up beside Shawn and teasing him in a way that felt flirty. Shawn was delighted. He'd always accepted whatever form of intimacy he could. If that meant Cory burrowing himself up against Shawn's chest and telling him he needed a haircut to better show off his "gorgeous baby blues," so be it. Their friendship had been kind of like this for years anyway.
One night Cory seemed more melancholy than usual and Shawn suspected he'd had a bit more to drink than his usual two-beer-a-night limit. He put his head on Shawn's shoulder, set down his Playstation controller and let his onscreen avatar perish a terrible death.
Shawn leaned his head down gently atop Cory's, nestling his chin among the curls. "What's up?" he asked.
"Maybe we should have waited longer before we got married. At least until we were both through the getting established parts of our careers."
"Cor," Shawn said softly, "You'll get through it." He wanted to point out that it wasn't like no one had suggested such a thing back when they were in such a rush to tie the knot, but what was the point?
"I'm glad you're here," Cory said.
"Glad I'm here too, Buddy."
Jack, remarkably, had just heard from Shawn a few weeks earlier.
"Two years, man," he told Cory, "Two years of nothing from him, no idea whether he was dead or alive and then he sends me a ten-page letter about our relationship as brothers. How it's important to him and he wants to make a fresh start with me at some point. Not, like, now, but at some point."
"That sounds like Shawn."
Jack gave him the return address from the letter. Shawn was living in Denver, of all places. Cory booked the next flight out.
Shawn wasn't sure how he'd realized Topanga was cheating on Cory, but one evening she came home and Shawn just knew.
"I missed Cory again?" she asked when she came in and found Shawn sprawled out on his sofa bed, reading. There was a distinct note of falseness in her voice.
Shawn looked at her curiously, but she turned away, busying herself by putting away the clean dishes from the drainer. She began babbling over her shoulder about work and this new project and how she couldn't say no to it but it was taking so much time. "That's why I've been working so many nights and weekends," she said, "I'm going to have to be in again this whole weekend. It's so frustrating, but what can I say?"
Shawn was suddenly flooded with anger as the pieces came together in his mind. He stalked to the kitchenette and turned her forcibly to face him.
"How long has it been going on?" he demanded.
She went pale and tried to turn away again but he wouldn't let her. "How long, Topanga?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You do." He was boring through her with his eyes and gripping her shoulder hard. She let out a little squeak of pain and he let go quickly, suddenly aware that he was not totally in control of his rage, which frightened him a bit. "Sorry," he said.
Topanga looked defeated then. She sat down on the floor and shook her head. "I don't know what to do."
He remained standing over her, refusing literally to stoop to her level. He didn't trust himself to get that close to her again. "You need to end it. Right now."
"No," she shook her head sadly.
"No. I mean, it's complicated. I don't know. I don't think I want to end it."
"You can't keep doing this to him."
"I know. But John makes me feel like...I mean, I'm so much better with him than I've ever-"
Shawn punched the kitchen cabinet. "No! No! You cannot do this. This cannot happen."
Now it was Topanga's turn to be angry. She climbed to her feet. "It is none of your business, Shawn. I'm going to figure it out, but you need to butt out. You have nothing to do with this. I don't know why you've always been so invested in us anyway. It's not your life and we're not your mother and father."
She stormed into the bedroom and shut the door on Shawn and what he now knew.
Shawn in turn left the apartment, escaped to a bar and then home with a girl. He fucked angrily and ended up arguing with her about something stupid. He left that girl's apartment in huff and just walked the city blocks all night until it was time for his shift the next morning. He didn't come home that night either, bunking instead at a co-worker's place.
When he did return on the third day, he met Cory, who was incensed.
"I've been worried sick," Cory began his lecture, "I thought you were done doing things like this."
Shawn couldn't look at him. The sight of Cory right now just felt like someone yanking out his intestines. "I'm sorry," he muttered, making a bee line for his sofa and his belongings. He took up his duffle bag and began shoving in clothes and book haphazardly.
"What are you doing?" Cory cried, bewildered.
"I...I have to go," Shawn turned away from him quickly and stepped into the bathroom where he grabbed his toothbrush and razor and dropped them in on top of his clothes. "I'm sorry, Cor."
And then Cory began to yell and it was awful. Shawn was a chid, he said, and Shawn needed to fucking grow up. Cory knew Shawn didn't want to be like his father but he was acting exactly like him every time he pulled shit like this and, frankly, it was getting old. Didn't Shawn care about anyone but Shawn? Didn't he care when he worried people? How that hurt them? Did he fucking care about anyone else at all? Or was he that damn selfish? Did he think he was some teen rebel from the 50s, riding off into the night every time something happened he didn't like? Did he think that kind of behavior was ever going to get him anywhere? Didn't he care about evolving, about being better than that? Hadn't he said that's what he wanted to do?
"I can't stay here now," was all Shawn would say. He repeated it several times throughout Cory's tirade, as if he knew no other words.
Finally, Cory sat on the sofa and said no more. He just shook his head and scowled.
Shawn was on the verge of tears but he fought them back. Ever conscious of the money divide between them, he took out his wallet and put a handful of bills on the coffee table. "There's my share of the rent for the rest of the month. I'm sorry to leave you in the lurch like this. Maybe Eric will be ready to try coming out again and he can help you with the rent."
"Fuck you, Shawn."
Shawn sighed and zipped his bag. He slung it over his shoulder and then laid his apartment key down beside the money. He made his way to the door and fumbled with all the locks.
"What'll I tell Topanga?" Cory asked in the saddest, most little boy voice.
Shawn smiled bitterly. "Oh, she'll understand why I had to leave. She'll know why I couldn't be here anymore."
Cory looked at him curiously then but Shawn quickly turned away and left the apartment. The tears were in his eyes by the time he reached the street but he ignored them and trudged on into the night.
It was freezing when Cory stepped out of Stapleton airport. Snow was falling and he was glad he'd decided to rent the car and then to upgrade to four-wheel drive. It was all going on their joint credit card anyway. Topanga could afford to cover it.
He'd gotten directions from the guy at the Hertz desk and laid them out against the complimentary street map now, double-checking his route. He paused then, wondering if he should abandon all this and return to the airport. Book a flight to Philadelphia. Go home to his family and tell them what a failure he'd become. Maybe he could drown his sorrows in his old bedroom for a few weeks, then start making plans on how to rebuild. Maybe get a job working for his dad, get a place with Eric? But he didn't want to be with his brother. He wanted to be with Shawn; he wanted his real brother. Cory started the ignition and headed out onto the snowy highway.
After a very long, white-knuckle drive, Cory found himself parked in the driveway of a tiny bungalow in an older neighborhood. He turned off the engine but remained in the car, trying desperately to string together the next part of his plan. Then suddenly Shawn ran out of the house in street clothes, unlaced boots and a giant fur cap. He was waving his arms frantically.
"You can't park here!" he cried. "This is private property!"
Cory opened the door and started to slide out of the cab.
Shawn was still shouting hoarsely. "I'll call the cops! Get back in your car! Get outta here!"
Then he froze, recognizing the driver. "Cory?"