C7

by Oh Kashi (王菓子)
illustrated by Riso

I

“We’re getting the band back together,” were the first words in Felix’s ear when he blearily picked up his buzzing phone. Who called without texting on a Sunday morning? Who called without texting period, in this, the year of our Lord— 

They didn’t have a band. They’d never had a band, something which Felix pointed out even as Derek half-carried him out of his apartment and stuffed him into the car in a scene that might have looked like a kidnapping in a nicer part of town. It was a friendly kidnapping, although you wouldn’t know it by the way Jake drove.

The old ‘86 Toyota Tercel with the self-installed neon green racing strip and LED undercarriage lights was long gone, but Jake named every car he owned the “Kostolitz Go Machine,” and that was less a commentary on the kind of cars he bought and more a commentary on how little his driving had changed since he was sixteen. It should have been a crime to subject someone to the Kostolitz Go Machine before coffee. It was definitely a crime to blow through a school zone the way they just had.

“What band?” Felix demanded, kicking the back of Jake’s seat until he turned down the music enough to actually register the question.

“Hey, hey, no hassling the driver while we’re on the road!” Jake waved one freckled arm around the seat, batting right back at Felix. Despite the chiding tone, the face reflected back at Felix through the rearview mirror was stretched in a toothy grin. “You looking to start your day with a fender bender?”

“I could not make your driving any worse if I tried,” Felix said, trying to rub the lingering sand from his eyes. There seemed to be a beach’s worth in there, but then again, he’d been rudely awakened at… He actually looked at his phone and then kicked the back of Jake’s seat again. “Nine in the morning? You dragged me out of bed at nine o’clock on a Sunday for what, exactly?”

“We’ll explain on the way,” Derek said, and Felix wanted to point out that they were already on the way when Derek added, “You had breakfast yet?”

“You just woke me up, asshole. I haven’t even had coffee.”

“Breakfast it is,” Derek said. “Jake, think you can get parking on Wickenden?”

Felix groaned and sank into the backseat. “Please do not subject me to Jake’s parallel parking at this ungodly hour.”

“Dude, nine is not that early,” Jake said, “especially on a Sunday. People get up early to go to church, I’m pretty sure.”

“No one in this car is qualified to talk about church,” Derek said, and craned his neck toward the backseat, a cluster of dark curls falling over thick black brows raised in skepticism. He was tall enough that he could look back at Felix over the headrest, his broad shoulders jutting beyond the silhouette of the seat. “Besides, since when do you sleep in, anyway? Didn’t your last roommate move out because he couldn’t stand the pitter-patter of little feet at six in the morning on weekends?”

“Screw you. I had a late night. Can we please just swing by Dunkies or something?”

Felix immediately regretted his choice of words when Jake swerved at the end of Wickenden into what was practically a U-turn, but sloped off onto a sidestreet at the last possible second. Felix clutched at the oh-shit handle, convinced Jake had retroactively been the cause for its inception, though miraculously the guy had never been in an accident. Not one that was his fault, anyway.

“I’d ask if it was a fun late night, but you were alone in your apartment,” Derek said. Felix leaned over and kicked Derek’s seat for a change.

“And what if I wasn’t? And you don’t know what I do on my nights off! It could have been fun!”

“Probably would have offered to buy them coffee and then politely asked them to leave,” Derek said. “And you’re right, I don’t know. That’s the thing. When was the last time all three of us actually got together?”

“I dunno,” Felix said, filled with deep resentment over having to remember anything farther back than yesterday when he’d been awake less than a half hour. “I think it was for my birthday, so  couple of months, maybe? I saw you last week, and Jake dropped off the old TV on the first…”

The thin veneer of a concept that was adulthood was bullshit on a number of levels. But for all the warnings he’d had about The Future, no one had ever told him that he and his friends would hit a point in their adult lives where they were doing the same shit they’d always done but somehow had no longer had time to see each other on a weekly basis. Jake and Derek were his best friends and had been for almost twenty years now and that wasn’t about to change, but with his thirties came a weird, nagging little loneliness that sometimes Felix just couldn’t shake.

Derek was a manager at Kostolitz Hardware now, so his weekend had shifted to Sunday-Monday, and Jake always kept hours open for his weekend clients, because not every couple who needed counseling could make it during the week. That had been fine when Felix had worked at the restaurant because he’d never had a real weekend off either — but then the restaurant closed last year, and then he’d landed this nine-to-five office job and just like that, the stars were out of alignment. Felix had only tried to keep up with their weekly Sunday night beer and anime tradition for the first month of his new employment, but after the second hungover Monday in a row and some meaningful looks from Felix’s coworkers, Derek had declared beer and anime would simply have to be moved to another night. That had been a big ol’ TBD for months now. It sucked.

“Exactly,” Jake said. “We don’t see you since February, and now we don’t even know what whack shit you get up to on your nights off.”

Jake gave Felix what was probably supposed to be a stern look through the rearview mirror, but Felix could only tell by virtue of lived experience, because Jake had the face of an eternal goofball under a mess of inexplicably professional-looking bedhead, complete with the sunglasses he hadn’t taken off since at least 2001. He wondered if Jake wore those sunglasses during his sessions. He wondered how the guy with terminal Foot In Mouth Syndrome managed to become a successful couples therapist in the first place.

Then again, Jake was the only person Felix knew who’d successfully managed a polycule in high school, and he had an uncannily honed nurture instinct he claimed to be the byproduct of having three older sisters. But if Felix were to be more honest with himself than he was strictly comfortable being, Jake was probably the most qualified for the title of “well-adjusted adult” among them.

“Okay, what is it your wild imagination thinks I do on my nights off? You think I didn’t want to get up at nine o’clock on a Sunday because I spent all night doing acid at an orgy?”

Derek and Jake exchanged glances, then shrugged. Felix kicked Derek’s seat again in retaliation.

“Hey, man, no judgment from me. A friendly orgy never hurt anyone,” Jake said.

Derek made a face. “I dunno. How big of an acid orgy are we talking?”

“Nine. They just needed to make a minyan,” Felix deadpanned. Then he jumped, his spine straightening of its own accord. “Wait, is this an intervention? Because I haven’t done acid since, like, 2017.”

“This is not an intervention,” Derek said.

“Unless you need it to be,” Jake said. “You know, for your gachas.”

“You stay the fuck away from my mobile games. They are a tiny sliver of joy in an exhausting world.” Felix, now reassured that he was not in trouble, immediately became antsy and leaned forward. He hadn’t actually bothered to put his seatbuckle on. “Okay, how do we not already have coffee? We are in Providence. There is a Dunkin Donuts every four blocks.”

“Man, I forgot you get like this when you don’t eat first thing in the morning. That’s on me, I guess.” Derek glanced behind him and planted one bronze hand on Felix’s chest to push him back against the seat. “Buckle your seatbelt, dude. Jake’s driving.”

It was true that once Felix had been refreshed with coffee and a little bag of hash browns, he was considerably less prickly — and, yeah, actually, now that he was awake, this was pretty great. The three of them chilling in Jake’s car in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot, bullshitting over breakfast with no particular agenda.

Except Derek and Jake seemed like they did have an agenda. Felix downed a gulp of ice coffee, shuddered, and nudged Jake’s seat with his foot. “So are you guys gonna tell me what’s up with the band thing? What band?”

“Okay, so,” Jake said, grinning, “you know how my mom had those basement renovations started last year, but the contractor went missing two months in and nobody else wanted to touch the job, so the whole thing was in limbo and she had to move all the dog grooming stuff to a studio?”

Felix stared, his mouth full of hash brown, and gestured impatiently for Jake to continue.

 

“Right, so, Mom finally convinced Mr. Cohen to do it even though she totally low-balled him — ”

“I still think it’s weird she didn’t even ask your dad for help,” Derek said. “I mean, he’s not still mad about the affair, is he?”

“After all this time? Nah, he’s over it. But I think Mom’s still kind of embarrassed — ”

Felix swallowed. “Jake. The point. Please.”

“Right, right, right. Anyway, by the time she finally got the renovations going again, she was pretty used to using the studio for the dog grooming, and wound up switching all her plans last minute to make it into a den instead, brand new carpet and all.” Jake grinned. “And there’s totally enough room down there for my drum kit and then some. Boys, we have ourselves our own little underground garage.”

“Okay, back up a little further, ’cause I’m still lost. What band? We have never had a band.”

“What? We totally did,” Jake said. “You were a freshman, remember?”

“Uh, you guys were in a band,” Felix said. “And you kind of sucked, except for Lisa.”

“Hey, you were about to join that band that kind of sucked. Lisa was going to teach you to play bass and everything.”

There was an open silence hanging on the end of Jake’s sentence, the unspoken but she didn’t get to. It wasn’t as difficult to talk about now, with the distance of time between them, but it had never gotten easy. The wound was mostly closed, only pried open by the force of memory when it crept up on them in their most defenseless moments. They didn’t talk about the night of the fire, and they didn’t go to the memorial park the state had put up on its ten-year anniversary. Their yearly in memoriam for Lisa was on her birthday, and they’d figured out by now how to remember her without getting shitfaced and ending the night in a snotty, sobbing heap. Last August, already several months ago now, they hadn’t even gotten drunk, just passed around a small joint and relived old memories until the sun came up. They could even talk about her music without flinching now. It was the only way to remember her whole; music had been her life.

Lisa had been an infectious sort of person, inflicting her passions on everyone around her. The band had been her idea in the first place, a suggestion out of the blue on one fateful anime night. But Felix was deep in in the depression pit after a nasty breakup, and he was terrified of disappointing Lisa because he didn’t know shit about music, so he’d laughed it off and told them sure, he’d sit in on their shitty garage sessions, but they weren’t going to catch him singing anime covers off-key.

“Dunno what she needed a shitty garage band for when she played bass in a real band,” Felix said, chewing on his straw. Lisa had been in the kind of band every teen desperately wanted to be cool enough to have — a band that, like, had original songs and a MySpace page with more than ten followers and played at all-ages clubs. Derek just smiled faintly down at his coffee.

“You know how she was. She wanted space to sing and play guitar too, and she always got her way in the end.” Derek puffed out a laugh. “All Jake needed to be able to do was keep a steady beat, she said, and if I’d been taking piano lessons since I was seven, there was no good reason I couldn’t learn to play bass too.”

“It wasn’t like we had to be any good,” Jake said with a shrug. “It was just a thing to do together, you know? We didn’t need to play for anyone else or write songs. Just jam out or play cover songs or whatever. That said, though, she managed to push us into shape. We didn’t sound half bad some of the time.”

What mattered was the music happening between them, anyway. And later, when Felix watched the three of them fumble around with their instruments and laugh and realized he’d made a terrible mistake, he was too embarrassed to say so, because back then he’d invested too much in worthless ideas like pride and prudence. But Lisa knew him too well, never bought into his feigned disinterest, and she coaxed him out of his sunk cost fallacy stubbornness with offers to teach him the bass. He didn’t even need to get an instrument; with a triumphant little smile, Lisa told him that he could use hers until he decided to go out and get a bass of his own.

By that same time next week, Lisa was suddenly gone from their lives, a ragged hole in her place. By unspoken agreement, they stopped playing altogether, and the next time Derek and Jake touched their instruments was to pack them up for storage. Felix never even got to hold Lisa’s bass. A stupid, small-fry regret swimming in an ocean of survivor’s guilt, but sometimes it had been easier to be angry about the little things.

Felix stuffed the rest of the hash browns into his mouth, crumpled up the wrapper, and stared at the chipped black polish on his nails. If you finger pick, you’re gonna fuck up all those cute little manicures, you know that?

Lisa had issued that warning more than fifteen years ago. Even now, Felix found that little contrarian welling up in him despite himself.

“You can’t get the band back together if you’re down a member,” he said. Jake came at him with a napkin before he could blink, dabbing away a smear of cream cheese from the corner of his mouth. “Ugh, dude, it’s so weird that you do that.”

“You totally can,” Jake said. “AC/DC did it.”

“Did they actually break up, though?” Derek said thoughtfully. “I don’t think that counts.”

“I mean, it’s the same lineup change, though, right? It’s the spirit of the thing.”

Felix was no longer entirely certain that this was not an intervention. It just wasn’t the intervention he was expecting. It was easy to use that to justify his kneejerk apprehension: that it wasn’t just because he was scared to say yes yet again, to pry out the last few stitches over old grief. Benjamin Felix d’Angelo was never scared to say yes. He dove into everything headlong with unbounded enthusiasm, refusing not to fully commit to whatever bit, chasing every feeling to its logical extreme. Except for this one.

Maybe it was easier for Jake and Derek. Maybe it was just differently hard. Maybe, just maybe, Felix was staring down the possibility of prolonged embarrassment and regret with no Lisa Laurenti to bail him out. He was trying to find a cool, offhand way to deliver a there are two wolves inside me bit when Derek decided not to wait for an answer.

“Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll teach you to play bass. Believe it or not, I actually still know how to play.”

It was the warm smile that let Felix know his ego was being spared. That was the special smile reserved for stubborn assholes.

Felix scrunched up his nose at the both of them. “What, we’re gonna be a band with a drummer, two bassists, and no singer?”

Derek grinned this time, a flash of white teeth in a forest of thick black beard. “Nah, man, I’ll be on guitar. And we can all sing. It’s like karaoke, being good isn’t the point.”

“Uh, I know we’ve been a little out of sync lately, but when the fuck did you learn to play guitar?”

“Oh, believe me, I’m still learning.” Derek just shrugged, still smiling. The last chance to give no for an answer slipped past Felix like a shadow. Thank God for the little mercies, for friends who sometimes knew you a little better than you knew yourself. It was absolutely mortifying to be known, yes, but it could be deeply comforting, too. There were few small blessings greater than being spared from having to make a decision on your own.

There was only one question left in Felix’s mouth, sitting on his tongue like a lead coin. “Okay, but — why, though?”

“Why what?” Jake said through a mouthful of donut.

“Why the band? Why now? What loop have I been left out of here?”

Jake and Derek exchanged a brief glance. Felix hurled the hash brown wrapper at Jake. It bounced harmlessly off his head.

“Fuck you! I knew this was an intervention!”

“This is not an intervention,” Derek said loudly. “Be cool, man. It’s the same reason it’s always been. You said it yourself — we’re all out of sync, and it sucks. We just want to spend time together again. Who cares if we suck? We sucked back then, too.”

“If anything, we’ll probably suck a little less this time,” Jake said. “Some of us have some actual musical experience now. It might be more fun, kinda knowing what we’re doing. We’ll help you suck less, too. Besides, who else are you gonna hang out with, your mom?”

If Jake could just learn to close his mouth three seconds earlier, he’d probably find himself swallowing his own foot less often. They’d always figured it was just an involuntary tic, a Kostolitz special, but the man was a couples counselor. Had he found the spigot between his brain and mouth at some point and just never told them? Or … wait, did this kind of shit work in couples therapy?

Felix sucked away the last of his ice coffee. “Your mom really got rid of the grooming station?”

Jake honked out a laugh. “Yeah, Bekah said that if she has to go back to pulling dog hair out of the lint trap on a daily basis, Mom’ll be looking at her third divorce.”

“And they really don’t care if we use it for band practice? They know we’re gonna be awful, right?”

“As long as we don’t fuck up the brand new carpet, we can tear it up, baby. Musically speaking, anyway. She was pretty clear on the no carpet-tearing.”

“She made him promise to come to Shabbat dinner once a month, too,” Derek added. Felix stared into the middle distance.

“Do you guys ever feel like, even though we’ve got jobs and have to pay rent and do our own taxes and shit, we’re all still in high school?”

“I’ve got an accountant,” Jake said proudly. Felix punched him in the arm. Derek ignored them both and began collecting the trash. It wasn’t even his car, but his fastidious habits carried over no matter where he was. Felix fondly recalled the time in college he’d tricked Derek into doing shots with him just to keep him from trying to clean Felix’s apartment.

They rolled out of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot and onto I-195, and as familiar road signs rushed by overhead, Felix found himself finally able to settle into the backseat. 

“I thought you said we were going to your mom’s place,” Felix said as Jake blew straight past the bridge that split their hometown down the middle. He’d never gone far from home; he could still walk through most of Deerbrook with his eyes closed, tracing the old bike paths they’d ridden to the little corner store with the good candy and the street corner they met up at on their walk to school in the morning. This, too, was creepingly familiar.

“We are,” Derek said. “We just have to make one more stop first.”

They turned the corner onto Sunset Street, and a familiar silhouette loomed into view. Felix had walked up to that house in every season, at every conceivable time of day, and in varying states of sobriety. He could hand-draw a map from memory between here and the house he and his mom lived in when he was still in high school. He hadn’t walked up this street in five years, but in that moment, time seemed to have misplaced its meaning.

“Hey, uh, why are we stopping here?”

“Picking up the last member of the band,” Derek said with infuriating casualness. If this really was an intervention, then Jake and Derek were playing a level of 4D chess Felix could not get his head around. Jake rolled to an uncharacteristically gentle stop a half a block away from the house. Felix was not reassured.

“Can you be a little less cryptic? Caio doesn’t live in that house anymore. That kid moved away like, five years ago.”

“He moved back,” Derek said, kicking the passenger door open. “Who do you think you’re calling kid? We’re all over thirty now.”

“What? Why?” Felix felt some kind of fight or flight response kicking in, which was stupid — this wasn’t that big of a deal. It really shouldn’t have been. He just didn’t like being snuck up on, because who did? “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me we were coming here!”

“He hasn’t been doing so hot lately. Nothing new, just — you know, extra bad,” Jake said. “And we didn’t tell you we were coming here because we knew you’d spend the entire car ride thinking about it and work yourself up into unintentionally being a huge weirdo.”

“I would have had the entire car ride to compose myself,” Felix started, but that was about as far as he got before Jake let out another honk of laughter. Felix kicked the back of his seat again. “If I’m a huge weirdo about it, it’s your fucking fault! What are you doing?”

Derek was patiently holding the backseat door open for Felix, who stared at him stupidly. And angrily. Well, more like annoyed and a little frantic. Derek merely gestured for him to get out.

“Get in the front seat, dude. I’m not making you sit in the backseat with your ex-boyfriend.”

Felix flinched, then felt an instant rush of embarrassment for it. He all but leaped out of the car before Derek could clock his flaming ears. “He’s my friend, too.”

“Exactly. And all we’re doing right now is picking up our friend for band practice. It’s the first time we’ve all hung out in forever, and we’re gonna have a good time.”

Felix buckled himself into the front passenger seat with an air of defeat. Of course he and Caio were still friends — they’d known each other too long not to be. It was just that they’d never seemed to figure out how to make things work between them in the long run. They always tried, but eventually they would find themselves overwhelmed, drowning in each other. One way or another, in the end, one of them always had to let go to come back to the surface.

“We can’t keep being each other’s life raft,” Caio had told him the last time they broke up, with such a serious look on his face that Felix just wanted to kiss it away. The two of them fit together so well, because nothing about Caio’s illness had ever made him less sexy or interesting or lovable to Felix, and Caio had learned how to take Felix’s flighty tendencies with a different kind of patience than Jake and Derek. It was the most difficult easy thing in Felix’s life.

They had parted on more or less amicable terms. On paper, they were still friends, but Felix was pretty sure that a friend was someone you talked to more than once in five years.

They rolled the rest of the block up to the house. It was the same as Felix remembered it, mostly — it looked like Mr. da Silva had finally gotten around to redoing the walkway to the porch, now inlaid with paving stones that ran up against the curb instead of the old beaten brick. It still had the blue door with the kaleidoscope-patterned glass insert, the kind that refracted rainbows onto the floor from the afternoon sun.

The glass caught the morning light as the door opened, flashing with a gleam so bright Felix had to squint against it. Out shuffled a slight, pale figure, face framed by dark hair, dressed in clothes loose enough to make him look smaller than he was. He was awkwardly grappling with a large, rectangular case more than half his height, trying to get a strap over one shoulder at the same time he was trying to move out the door. It was like watching someone trying to escape a revolving door, except this one wasn’t even moving. Felix found himself stifling a reflexive laugh along with Jake even as Derek hopped out of the backseat and hustled up the walkway.

Felix heard a thin, reedy voice say, “I got it,” and Derek’s easy laughter as he shut the trunk with a force that gently rocked the Kostolitz Go Machine. Felix and Jake both twisted around as the backseat door slammed shut.

Memories bubbled up in Felix’s mind before he could catch them, popping to the surface like so much carbonation. Just a few months before Caio moved to Philly, when he’d broken up with Felix, Caio had told him that this would be the last time, and he’d meant it. The going away party had been a mistake, and Felix had gotten himself shitfaced in the immediate aftermath, but not going would’ve been a bigger mistake. For a little while, it had felt like his whole world had ended, but he’d gotten over it in time — Derek and Jake had patiently waited for him to get in his quota of showing up drunk to cry on their laps about how horribly alone he was and would be for the rest of his life until they could put him to bed on the couch, but then it started to get easier. Things grew in the space where Caio had used to be, once it had lain fallow long enough. He had buddies from the restaurant Caio had never met. He’d dated around the last few years, even had fun with it. Sure, in five years he’d never failed to produce an excuse not to go visit Philly or see Caio when he was in town, but he wasn’t pining, just stuck back in the sunk cost fallacy of pride. For the most part, Felix had gotten used to a life without Caio. It hadn’t even been as hard as he’d been convinced it would be.

And then he saw Caio up close for the first time in five years, and it was like all that time and distance simply vanished. Felix had underestimated the speed at which the sight of that dull-eyed little face would hit him like a freight train, how quickly the sense memory of that going away party would return, the choking heat of the bonfire in midsummer, the shock of cold of the cooler, watching Caio laugh and hug other people in a way that made him want to log into his ancient LiveJournal just to post about how his chest was a hollow cavity and there was only howling wind where his heart used to be.

“It’s not even heavy. It’s just big, that’s all,” Caio was saying to Derek, a little sullenness in his tone they all knew not to take too seriously by now. He looked at Felix, blinked — not in surprise, no panic on his face, but with a touch of that awkward diffidence that reminded Felix of when they’d first met in high school. “Hi.”

Absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder, Felix realized; it lowered your defenses, reduced your brain to Silly Putty so that when the boy you spent ten years of your life in varying stages of love with looked at you and said hi, all you could produce a too-bright smile and a squeaked-out “Hey.” 

Jake spared him any further need for thought by immediately lurching them into gear so abruptly it nearly gave him whiplash. Felix untwisted himself in the passenger seat before Jake could indirectly strangle him with the seatbelt and sent up another prayer of thanks for friends who were stupid assholes in exactly the way you needed them to be, sometimes.

This would normally be the time to catch up, exchange how’ve-you-beens and oh, did you change your hair? But how’ve you been seemed like the wrong question when it was plain enough to see, and if either of them tried to openly acknowledge the fact that they hadn’t spoken in the last five years in front of Jake and Derek, Felix would expire on the spot. But Derek had already shifted to talking to Jake, and Jake’s driving provided an excellent reason for Felix to shut up and stay put.

If he leaned just a little to the left, he could observe Caio in the rear view mirror. Even though he was well aware of the time lapse, Felix was somehow still caught off guard by how different Caio looked. Not that different — still recognizably Caio da Silva, a face he’d been intimately familiar with for too long to ever forget — but it was the little things that reminded him that his mental timeline of that face was missing data.

Caio had changed his hair. Apparently at some point he’d abandoned the look Felix had been convinced Caio would take to his grave, the timeless scruff that always hung somewhere between his ears and jaw with bangs just long enough to shade over his deep-set eyes. Caio had never liked to have his hair out of his face, and for as long as Felix had known him, he’d only let his dad cut his hair. The bangs hadn’t changed much, actually, but it was shorter on the sides than Felix had ever seen it, and it actually looked … styled? That wasn’t a kitchen cut, not with those layers. Since when did Caio let strangers touch his hair?

The rest of him looked … worse. Worse than the last time Felix had seen him, anyway, when he’d been mostly in remission — color in his face and a little more weight on him, eyes alert and full of light. It was the closest to normal Caio had ever described feeling. But right now he looked more like when they’d first met back in high school, gray-faced and thinner under his house clothes than Felix had realized. He was sitting limply in the backseat the way he always did when he was in pain, knees drawn together and hands in his lap, pulling at the hem of his shirt with carefully measured breaths. His eyes were lidded, unfocused.

When it became apparent the conversation was going to make no immediate demands on him, Caio tipped his head back against the seat rest and closed his eyes. Felix tore his eyes away from the rear view mirror and stared resolutely down at his phone, trying not to think about the way Caio’s loose-fitted T-shirt exposed the hollow of his throat.

It was less than ten minutes to Jake’s mom’s house, but there was a parade of cars lined up along the street up to the very occupied driveway. “Aw, man, I forgot Bekah was doing one of her Tupperware parties today,” Jake said. “Hey Derek, you and Cai hop out and grab the keyboard, I’ll loop around and find somewhere to park.”

So it was a keyboard in that case. Since when did Caio play an instrument, anyway? Derek and Caio got out of the car, and Felix watched through the side mirror as Derek pulled out the keyboard case with one arm and a guitar case with the other. 

Unable to help himself, Felix leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey, Caio knows she’s not selling Tupperware, right?”

He didn’t know how he was supposed to interpret Derek’s middle finger in return, but he laughed anyway as Jake pulled them around the block, only to stop halfway on the other side. Jake braced an arm against the steering wheel, popped up his sunglasses and asked, “You sure you’re cool?”

Felix wanted to slap the sunglasses right off his face. “Oh, you’re asking that now? You couldn’t ask if I’d be cool in advance?”

“Hey, we thought you’d be happy to see him. You know, once you got the little freakout out of you.”

Felix swallowed a noise of agonized fury, pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead. Jake raised his eyebrows.

“Alright, don’t think we never noticed how you just happen to have a shift every time he’s in town, or how you never have enough vacation to take an extra day off, or how you’ve got a death in the family —”

“Fuck you, there was a death in the family.”

“Oh, shit. Okay, scratch that. Anyway, listen — I didn’t think you guys actually had a falling-out. Did we get the wrong read on that one? ‘Cause he seemed okay.”

“Yeah, well, he obviously got advance warning.” Felix indulged himself in a sulky look, but then he sighed. “No, you didn’t get it wrong. It would be nice to have him around again. Actually be friends. All of us, playing shitty music or whatever, just as long as we just get to hang out.” He punched Jake in the shoulder. “But it was still a dick fucking move not to tell me first!”

Jake batted him away, unfazed. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure this was the best-case scenario. Hmm … yep, we handled that correctly.”

“I cannot believe people come to you for advice on their failing marriages.”

“Hey, couples therapy is for everyone, not just those on the brink. Maybe you should’ve tried it —  fuck, ow!”

This time Felix really did slap the sunglasses off Jake’s face, glaring at him with real heat. Jake held up a hand.

“Party foul. My bad. That was out of line.” Jake picked up his sunglasses from where they’d fallen between the seat and the center console and popped them back on his head. It was actually kind of unnerving to get the unadulterated Kostolitz gaze for too long.

“It’s a little weird for all of us,” Jake admitted. “Like, yeah, we kept in touch and stuff, but we really only saw him a few times a year at most. I guess the bus up here’s hell on his back. And it is kind of a long drive. I think he feels it, too. It’s been an adjustment for him more than anybody, but it hasn’t been all that bad. We’re all still us, you know?”

“How long has he been back?” Felix asked suspiciously. There was an awful of has been in those sentences.

“Couple of months. He kept to himself at first — I don’t think he was really up for company — but me and Derek have been spending time with him. I think he was getting lonely. You know how he gets.”

The car began rolling around the block again, but Jake chanced another look at Felix. “So you’re cool? Not gonna go into pining mode and try to get him back, Say Anything-style? ‘Cause I don’t think he needs that right now.”

“Again, all questions you should have asked me before kidnapping me out of my bed,” Felix said, still glaring, but he blew out a breath and shook his head. “No. No, of course not. It’s over-over and it has been for years. I’d be happy if I could just keep being friends with him like we used to be, you know? And for the record, I do not ever want relationship advice from you.”

Jake just laughed. “Glad to hear it, man.” 

Felix hesitated. “What happened? With Caio, I mean. He looks like garbage. Is he back in Rhode Island, like … permanently?”

Jake gave him a noncommittal shrug as he pulled into a space half a block from the house. “Seems so. I think he’s kinda still sensitive about it. It was a real big deal for him, living down there, you know? If you want the full story, you’re going to have to get it from him.”

Great. Awesome. Way to open a conversation after five years, grilling his ex about why he didn’t stay gone when he’d left. Felix wasn’t going to subject Caio to interrogation about the end of his life in Philly, even if it was killing him a little bit to find himself so far out of the loop. But he’d done it to himself — literally at any point in the last five years, he could’ve texted Caio or something.

The car settled with a rumble, and Jake snapped off his seatbelt and pushed his sunglasses back down. “C’mon, man. Let’s go make some fuckin’ music.”

“We’re gonna sound awful,” Felix informed him. He hopped out of the car, shoving his hands in his pockets just to get them out of the way. Maybe seeing Caio just made him extra skittish; maybe it was that he felt like they were breaking a seal on Lisa’s memory too soon, trespassing someplace they’d long deemed off-limits and blocked off with caution tape.

“We’re gonna have fun. You’re gonna love it, just like you were totally gonna love it back in high school. And you are legendarily weak to FOMO.”

Felix scowled but elected not to argue, because Jake was right, he was always infuriatingly right, no matter how tactlessly it fell out of his mouth. They could hear the sound of frenzied barking as they approached the house. Jake opened the door only as wide as he needed to slip his lanky body through and was immediately greeted by fifty pounds of black fur that hit him at a dead run. Felix, who’d always been half a head shorter than Jake and considerably fatter, used the opportunity to wedge the door a little wider so he could sidle in and bypass the slobbering dog fest. Jake’s mother came running down the hall and hauled the dog back by the collar.

“Marlin, no! Down! Sorry, sweetie, the dogs got loose — go on ahead and hit the basement, Derek’s got Shelly under control. I left you a veggie plate and some hummus downstairs!” she called after them as they hustled away.

“Thanks, Ma!” Jake yelled back. 

Derek was wrestling the other dog back into the laundry room-cum-dog pen, Caio pressed flat back against the opposite wall with a rictus smile. So he was still low-key terrified of Debbie’s dogs. There was something perversely comforting about that. Felix opened the basement door and jerked his head to usher him downstairs, providing cover as Derek finally locked the pen to a chorus of barked protests.

The newly finished basement was nice, though it also had the dizzying effect of looking at two images superimposed over one another. The shape of the basement hadn’t changed, only the interior. Felix could still see the ghost of the old, beaten couch and the home DDR pad where the plush new sectional now sat, of the old TV Jake had dropped off at his place just a few weeks ago, a new big-screen TV in its place on the restored entertainment center. His eyes dropped to the floor, tracing the line where carpet had once met tile. The new carpet was a tasteful dark gray to replace the old faded cornflower blue. A smart choice for a woman with three dogs and an adult son who still asked to borrow the basement to hang out with his friends.

Truthfully, Felix wasn’t sure how serious the guys actually were about actually playing any music. It’d be fine if it was just an excuse to hang out. But Caio slipped out of his shoes and made a beeline for the wall where his keyboard case had already been dropped off and knelt on the carpet to carefully unzip it. Jake’s drum kit was already assembled, too, and there was a guitar and Derek’s old bass next to two amps stacked in a corner. Felix narrowed his eyes. Just how long had they been planning this whole band thing?

Jake pushed past him, kicking off his shoes and diving onto the couch, arms splayed out. “Check it out! Pretty sweet new digs, huh?”

“We are still in high school,” Felix said, but the new sectional couches did look pretty comfy. He slipped out of his sneakers, leaving them by the landing, and his socked feet sank into the plush carpeting. “Got anything to drink?”

Jake pointed with an extended leg to the little corner bar with the mini-fridge that had definitely not been there when they were in high school. Felix bent down and pulled a cold can of Coke out of the fridge. “Holy shit. Was this your mom’s idea or Mr. Cohen’s?”

“Bekah’s.” Jake grinned. “She wanted a space where she could get some peace. This is a canine-free zone.”

“Which means we don’t have to worry about chewed-up cables or drumsticks,” Derek said, shutting the basement door behind him. He had to duck slightly to avoid the ceiling as he headed down the stairs. “Hey, grab me one of those.”

“So you play keyboard now, huh?” Felix tried his best to sound casual, handing a Coke over to Derek.

Caio nodded, fumbling with the power cord as he plugged it in. “Yeah. Piano, actually. I started, um … three years ago? I’m still taking lessons. Over Zoom now.”

“Oh. Wow. Hey, good for you.” It came out lamer than he’d meant it, and he followed it up with a quick smile. Jesus.

He had never imagined Caio playing an instrument, not the kid who struggled to hold a controller for too long and dropped pens from numb fingers. He didn’t remember Caio ever expressing even so much as an offhand interest in music beyond listening to it.

Felix wandered over to where the amps were stacked and picked up the bass. “So are you gonna teach me to play or what?”

“Yeah, but not with that thing. That’s mine.” Derek set down his soda and produced a guitar case from behind the drum kit. “You’re gonna play this.”

Felix traded it for Derek’s bass, setting it down on the couch with a raised eyebrow at Derek. He opened it slowly — the zipper felt stiff with age — and opened it to find a P Bass dotted with worn stickers. The body was a pale yellow, Felix’s favorite color once upon a time. It had been Lisa’s favorite color too. His fingers curled back, a nasty little feeling like dread jumping into his throat.

“I can’t play this.”

“Sure you can. It’s got all four strings and everything.” Derek nodded at the bass. Felix still hadn’t touched it. “She was going to give it to you anyway, you know. Her parents were getting her a new one for her birthday.”

Jake was sitting down at his drum kit, but he was probably watching Felix from behind those sunglasses. Caio was watching too, looking apprehensive and a little like he wanted to melt into the carpet. Caio was the only one of their little cohort who had never met Lisa, coming in just a half year too late. He didn’t know what to expect from this scene, couldn’t have even known it was going to happen. They’d never really talked about Lisa around Caio.

“It’s fucked up that you guys keep springing this shit on me,” Felix said, but his voice hitched on the last syllable despite his best efforts to remain cool. Jake and Derek exchanged glances. Caio was looking a little like a trapped rabbit again, but he didn’t make a break for the door, just hovered quietly at his keyboard, doing his level best not to exist in the moment. Felix’s gaze fell back to the bass. It made his eyes hurt.

“C’mon, man,” Jake said after a moment. “You know what she’d say if she were here.”

He could hear Lisa’s voice echo in his mind even as Jake said the words. I’m putting Derek on keyboard, so you’re our bassist now, she’d said, and then she’d laughed at Derek’s plaintive look. She’d be laughing now too if she were here, her oft-repeated refrain of music is music ringing in his ears. Felix touched his face and realized his eyes were stinging because he was on the verge of tears.

“Fuck you,” he sniffed. This whole scene felt fucking weird. For all that he’d given to Caio, he’d never let Caio into the part of himself where Lisa’s memory lived. None of them had. It had still been too fresh by the time Caio came around, and he never asked, and … it was just separate, that was all. Everyone but Caio could trace their finger over where Lisa’s death had cleaved an indelible line in their lives, neatly separating the before and the after. Caio was firmly in the after.

But there was no keeping them separate anymore, not if they were really going to do this band thing. 

Felix picked up the bass from the case. No shock jumped to meet his fingers; no lightning appeared in the basement sky to strike him down. As far as the universe was concerned, he was not committing a grievous act of wrongness here. Actually … something about holding that bass felt good in the same place where it hurt.

Felix ran his fingers up the neck, just staring for a long moment, then pulled the strap over his head. He paused to scrub his eyes on the back of his sleeve, and when he looked up, he saw that Caio had dropped his gaze to his keyboard, determinedly not watching. Maybe it was just as unfair to spring this scene on Caio as it was on Felix.

“Alright,” Felix said, swallowing any further well of emotion, “so let’s teach me some fuckin’ bass.”

===

Band practice wasn’t Sunday night beer and anime. It didn’t need to be. It was something newer and better, because now they were four instead of three, and it crowded out a little bit more of that strange loneliness. Derek worked with Felix for a while on the basics: how to hold the bass, how to angle his wrist and how to alternate his fingers — Derek had offered him a pick, and Felix thought about Lisa and how her fingertips were always calloused over and thought fuck it to his manicures.

Jake and Caio occupied the background, talking idly and jamming by turns, Caio playing chords to Jake’s lazy rhythms. They’d clearly done this before, and it left Felix wondering just how this had all come about. It was easier to readjust to Caio’s presence when Felix didn’t have to interact with him directly, but every so often Felix would let himself tune Derek out and sneak a look at Caio. He wanted badly to see how Caio played, how the kid who could never walk through a door straight or type one-handed on his phone without dropping it looked playing the piano.

Strangely serene, as it turned out. He still looked tired and like his limbs were made of lead, but he sat up straight on the bench, his hands relaxed as they splayed over the keys. He moved his hands with a confidence Felix had never witnessed in him, a comfort in his body that was wholly new. There was a grace Caio had grown into on his own when Felix hadn’t been paying attention, and in that moment, just as he was about to play, he looked somehow radiant. It was like looking directly at the sun. Felix looked down at his bass, blinking away the afterimage of an imaginary halo.

“Anyone else getting hungry?” Felix set the bass down on the couch. “Shit, it’s almost noon.”

“I vote pizza,” Jake said, getting up to stretch. “What’s everyone feeling today?”

“Hawaiian, Brazilian, Greek?” Felix suggested, to a general consensus of nodding. He pointed at Caio with a knowing smile, trying to play it off like a goofball. “And one gluten-free pizza with sausage, green peppers and olives?”

“And no sauce,” Caio said diffidently, but he didn’t look displeased. Felix, however, felt himself deflate. Shit, of course. How could he forget about the tomatoes thing? Too much acid, had to go along with onions and pickles and virtually everything else that made food taste like food? The fact that Caio hadn’t just flung himself out a window with every new item added to the restricted list was, to Felix, a wonder. 

He used to have all this shit memorized, used to know how to read labels like lightning and how to research restaurant menus for Caio-friendly options. But apparently exhaustive knowledge of your boyfriend’s dietary restrictions was use-it-or-lose-it knowledge, and Felix hadn’t used it in years.

Not boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. No, friend. Fuck.

Derek sent in their order, and Jake passed around a few more sodas, and Felix let his ass sink comfortably into one of the sectional couches. They really were cozy, even if they had still had the stiffness of new furniture to them. He was careful to sit in as neutral a position as possible without sitting so far away that it looked, you know, weird, but in the end Caio just sat down on the carpeted floor next to the couch and laid himself out flat. Felix peered over the arm of the couch at him.

Caio just lay on the floor, pulling his phone from his hoodie pocket. He seemed to be just fine down there. “So what do you guys want to play?”

“I got my Switch in the car,” Jake said around a mouthful of celery. “Wanna Smash?”

Caio let out a little snort, holding out his hand. Jake obligingly passed him a celery stick. Jesus, this was exactly like high school.

“No, I mean, what music do you want to play? We kind of need music to be a band. What did you play, um, back in your old band?”

“Hey Derek,” Jake said, “you still remember the chords to ‘A Cruel Angel’s Thesis’?”

Derek picked up his sneaker and hurled it at Jake’s head, but Jack managed to swat it midair, and it sailed to hit the side of Felix’s head instead. Felix reacted too late, swinging at air. He heard Caio cough out a laugh from the floor next to him and decided the party foul wasn’t worth disputing.

Jake and Derek exchanged a glance and hesitated just long enough that Caio seemed to withdraw, dropping his gaze. No, Felix decided, Jake and Derek had not thought through this part of the plan as clearly. The problem was that some days, there were only two brain cells between the three of them, and they really needed all hands on deck to steer them in the right direction.

“Uh … I mean, you know, we’d play stuff from anime we were watching, whatever tabs we could find online,” Jake said. “I’ve got old CDs of stuff I burned that we’d, like, play along to. I bet they’re down here somewhere.”

“Lisa was really good at figuring the chords out by ear,” Derek said, and there was an invisible ripple in the air that followed Lisa’s name, now that it’d been spoken out loud. Now the seal was really broken, the sound of the caution tape being stripped away ringing in Felix’s ears.

He was watching Caio, not the other two. Caio looked so much like when they’d first met in that instant, small and too-thin and uncertain of his place in their world. He looked ready to retreat back into himself, unwilling to be party to trespassing.

“Yeah, well, you can find chords to pretty much anything online these days,” Felix said. “We’re still the anime club band, right? Let’s just pick some stuff we like and have fun with it. Hey, Caio, what’s your favorite OP? I mean a classic. Nothing from after high school.”

“I mean … I do kind of like ‘A Cruel Angel’s Thesis,’” Caio said, and his slightly wide eyes and relaxed shoulders told Felix he was grateful for the save. “But … I really like ‘Sobakasu’ too. I don’t think I ever even watched Rurouni Kenshin. I’ve just had it stuck in my head for like, fifteen years.”

Caio was hiding a self-conscious smile behind his hand. It was the most words he’d said all day, and that had to be a good thing, right? And he didn’t look so miserable just then, either, a little less stiff.

“Ooh, what about the Trigun theme? Then no one has to sing,” Jake said, making finger guns at Felix, who flipped him off. He threw the shoe back at Jake, but both Jake and Derek had him beat in the athletic category by a landslide, and Jake caught his limp toss out of the air. “Unless Caio really wants to sing some JUDY & MARY.”

Caio looked comically panicked for a second, and Felix had to swallow a laugh. 

“Let’s just sing every song together,” Felix said. “You know, like a terrible basement idol group.”

“All-American anime cover family band,” Jake said with a perfectly straight face, and Caio smothered another snort into his hoodie sleeve. No foul, no out of bounds here — this was getting easier, little by little, coloring in a familiar image. The four of them together like this, just sitting around and bullshitting, felt almost unbearably normal.

Caio jumped as a crash sounded from upstairs: the sound of a gate banging open, a cacophony of barking dogs, a series of thumps and thuds and, of course, plenty of yelling. All they needed was a slide whistle to complete the circus.

There was a banging on the basement door. “Jake! Shelly and Marlin are loose! Can you — Debbie, I swear to God, the selling point of the Captain is not as a fucking chew toy!”

Jake groaned and jerked his head at Derek, and they both thundered up the stairs to get the dog situation under control. Felix almost made a move for the stairs, then realized he wasn’t going to be able to offer any practical help and stayed with his ass glued to the couch. Caio, who’d been afraid of dogs as long as Felix had known him, stayed where he was on the floor. The basement door slammed shut, and then it was just the two of them.

Fuck.

This whole band practice thing was fine as long as Felix didn’t have to be alone in a room with Caio. That wouldn’t be the permanent state of affairs, he told himself, but on day one, he needed that little bit of space. He was pretty sure Caio did, too.

He looked over the arm of the couch. Caio was still sitting on the floor, huddling over his phone with his legs crossed. He’d pulled his hood up, a nervous tic he’d had as long as Felix had known him, which was going to make Felix’s only opening volley sound really fucking stupid.

“So, uh, you cut your hair?”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized it was a stupid opening volley no matter what. Could you get any more cringe romcom than a line like that?

But Caio twisted to look up at him, the hood falling back a little, and he touched his bangs lightly. Up close, Felix could see that there were more silver streaks in his dark brown hair than the last time they’d seen each other. Not as many as he’d have thought, though.

“Oh — yeah. A friend of mine down there started cutting it for me after I moved. Said I couldn’t keep going to job interviews with a mop on my head.”

Alright, so it wasn’t a stranger cutting his hair, it was … a friend. Still a jump from his dad with the kitchen scissors, but — 

“You grew yours out,” Caio observed, and now that they were actually talking, he was making eye contact so steadily it was a little unnerving. It was the mild expression, the dull eyes that snuffed out any anticipation of intensity from the small boy with the thin voice. Felix wondered if anyone in Philly had been bowled over by the little wisps of hidden intensity that came out in times like these, in the little moments of closeness. Surely he couldn’t be the only one so weak to it. “And you stopped bleaching it.”

Felix licked at dry lips, running a hand through his hair, which had once been blonde with perpetually visible roots at varying lengths, but now was long enough now to graze down his shoulders, parted down the middle to frame his round face. Back in high school, he’d gone through an unholy amount of hair product to achieve what was now a painfully dated look, although Jake once told him, in a moment of attempted comfort, that he looked like a boy band reject.

He’d never really been able to get the hair right, and it drove him to absolute frustration, and sometime shortly after Caio left he’d just thrown his hands up and given up on it. It turned out that when he left his hair alone, it actually grew in pretty nicely — apparently he had wavy hair? He’d only started dying it darker to cover up the unflattering gray that was already setting in.

“Ha, yeah. Frying the shit out of my hair was getting kind of expensive. Turns out you can just let it keep growing without doing shit to it? Wild.”

Caio let out a breath that sounded a little like a laugh. Felix suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands. All he had was a stupid soda can. What was he supposed to do next? He racked his brain for something, anything other than a version of so what’s new? because he couldn’t ask Caio that with a straight face, not fairly, not right now.

“So what’s new?”

It was a neat trick of ventriloquy, stealing the words from Felix’s mouth before he could use them to damn the conversation. It was a safe question the other way around. He just didn’t have a very interesting answer for it.

“Uh … I mean, you probably know the broad strokes. Nothing ever really changes around here. Worked up in Boston for a while longer after—” After you left, he almost said. He cleared his throat. “Moved back down here for a better job, wound up at a restaurant instead. Restaurant closed last year, but I got a nine-to-five gig now, so I guess it worked out.”

It was the most boring possible answer he could have given. It was basically just his fucking resume. But this wasn’t the time to break out bad first date stories or the highlights reel of his dating life, even if the naked ice cream fight made for a great story. Felix scrambled for conversation topics. Hobbies. He had fucking hobbies.

“I, uh, got into streaming games, too. Nothing big, just kind of a thing I do on weekends. And I guess I’m in a band now?”

“Weird how that happens, huh?”

“Yeah.” Felix’s reply hung awkwardly in the air, and he couldn’t think of anything to follow it up with, and the pause lengthened into silence. Caio had broken eye contact, looking determinedly down at his phone. Cool. That was fine. They could just dick around on their phones until Jake and Derek came back downstairs. It’d be painfully awkward, but everything was temporary.

Felix pulled out his phone and swiped through folders of games designed to suck the anxiety out of his brain in moments of quiet. None of them looked appealing right now.

“I know they’re doing this for me.” Caio’s voice was smaller this time, a shadow of guilt lurking underneath. “I think they feel bad for me.”

Felix kicked himself internally. This was an intervention — it just wasn’t for him.

“They love you,” he said, and then, because it felt safe: “We all do. You know that, right? ‘Cause even we couldn’t throw a pity party for fifteen years.”

Caio ducked his head, and Felix realized that it wasn’t guilt, but embarrassment. Caio pulled his hood back over his head, like wrapping himself in armor.

“Yeah, but,” he started lamely, but failed to produce any follow-up.

“Yeah, but nothing,” Felix said. “Everyone’s psyched to see you, even if you’re not, you know, feeling your best. When has that ever stopped us from bringing the party to you?” He hesitated, faltering. “Do you not want to be here right now?”

Caio looked up and shook his head quickly. “No — no, that’s not it. I do. I missed everyone. It’s really good to hang out again. I just … don’t want everyone to make a fuss.”

His voice trailed off into a mumble. Caio always hated being the center of attention, mostly because that attention was almost always fixated on his illness. Felix had learned over time that Caio delighted in little gifts and acts of kindness, but the year they’d tried to throw him a surprise birthday party had been a disaster.

“They’re not. They’re hanging out. We are hanging out.” Felix suppressed a wince as he said it. They were two exes trapped in someone else’s basement, neither of them with a car to bail in. Caio had stopped minding Felix’s presence years ago, but that had been before Caio left. Maybe Felix registered as a stranger now, or at least closer to that than an old friend.

“Did they ask you about it first?” Caio said.

Felix actually let out a laugh. “Of course not. Jake has a congenital disconnect between his brain and his mouth, and all sense flies right out of Derek’s brain when he sees a baby bird with a broken wing.”

Caio did not look wholly reassured. He gnawed at the edge of his sleeve like a nervous rabbit, a habit Felix thought he’d kicked years ago, but now that he looked closer, he could see that the ends of Caio’s sleeves were frayed, dotted with tiny holes. Felix leaned forward, his elbows braced on his knees.

“I don’t not want to be here too,” he said. “What I mean to say is — yes, I was rudely awakened too early on a Sunday, and yes, I was kidnapped into the Kostolitz Death Machine with little to no exposition, but I want to be here. I mean it. We all do. Even if I am still fuzzy on why the band.”

“Well,” Caio said, rubbing his nose. It was a sheepish little gesture, a familiar thing that made something in Felix’s chest wrench pathetically. “Jake and Derek started coming around after I — got back. Just to hang out and stuff. I wasn’t really up for a lot of moving. Most days I could only get up and play the piano a little.”

His tone was starting to go wooden in the way it often did when he wandered into uncomfortable territory. As long as Felix had known Caio, he’d never liked talking much about the ways in which his rogue’s gallery of illnesses limited him, the way it highlighted all the negative space in his life. But more than that, it was the most tedious thing imaginable to him — tired territory he’d been over so many times the conversational grooves were permanently etched into his brain. He got sick of talking about it easily, repeating the same complaints like a broken record, but even more tedious was the experience itself. Pain not as an acute sensation, but as a neverending drone in your ear, an unbearably itchy wool sweater you couldn’t take off. The banality of chronic pain, Caio had once called it. Felix didn’t know how to relate, couldn’t possibly imagine what it was like for it to simply hurt to exist for years on end, but it was as vivid a description as he thought he’d ever get.

“Then Derek started bringing his guitar. I guess they thought it’d cheer me up. And Jake kept making piles of stuff to hit with his drumsticks. It was fun,” Caio confessed, his gaze sliding to the side diffidently, but there was almost a smile there. “Well, it was funny, anyway. It was pretty obvious they were trying to get me to play, too. I didn’t really want to at first. Just … you know.”

Just … you know conveyed a world of meaning: that Caio was always afraid of being fixated on, that knowing his friends were trying to cheer him up made him self-conscious on its own, that he could be an even more stubborn asshole than Felix. One corner of Felix’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile and he asked, “So how long before you caved?”

“Like … two weeks,” Caio admitted. “I, um … I really missed everyone. I kinda forgot what it was like to hang out like that. When things are bad.”

It was easier to be vague. Caio looked like shit, yes, but very nonspecifically like shit. Symptoms overlapped when you had more than one autoimmune disease, Felix had learned, and having one made it really fucking difficult to diagnose another.

They were all nearly invisible disabilities; you wouldn’t know they were there unless you were close enough to see. First had come the Crohn’s, early onset at age twelve; then in high school, when they thought he’d only caught mono, but it stayed with him for months and years until they would finally diagnose him with fibromyalgia. Later, when his body had started spontaneously rejecting food, came the celiac disease, and after that a procession of new dietary restrictions that seemed to pop up like weeds in his body. Caio da Silva was a little avalanche of maladies.

Caio had been doing so well when he’d left, and of course Felix had wondered — there was a period in the wake of the going away party when he’d thought about nothing but Caio. But he had assumed that if something really noteworthy happened, he’d hear about it from someone. Felix didn’t know the first thing about Caio’s life from the last five years. Surely he’d had friends. As reticent as he could be, he wasn’t as allergic to socializing as he’d once been, and he’d moved down there with the help of a friend from college.

But had Caio made the kind of friends who’d visit him when he was terrible company (though never as terrible as he insisted), friends who’d carry him up eight flights of stairs to the roof just so they could all watch the sunrise, like that time the elevator in Felix’s apartment was busted? Did he have the kind of friends in Philly who’d pick up instruments they hadn’t touched in years, for reasons he couldn’t understand, and play bad music just for the promise of a cracked little smile in return?

“They kept trying to get me to play with them,” Caio said. “And … it was fun. And Jake said I had to bring my keyboard over ’cause that was easier than moving his drum kit, and there was room for all of it in the basement, and I was finally up for leaving the house, so…”

He spread his hands, cheeks slightly pink with embarrassment. God, it was good to see color in his face again. “I really thought they’d mention it to you first. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, like I said, I’m glad I was dragged along. Besides, if anyone owes me an apology, it is definitely not you.”

Felix waffled, wondering if he had the temperature right. Caio was a tepid sort of person, warming to other people slowly, but now that Felix had dipped his toe in, the water didn’t feel too cold.

“So … you’re feeling better lately?” Felix tried to keep his tone light, noncommittal, but even if he managed it, Caio probably wouldn’t buy it. Caio’s eyes flicked down to his lap, leaking resignation like a punctured tire. It felt like a punch to the gut, that minute little expression.

“Better is relative,” Caio said, an oft-repeated refrain. “But I can actually get up and do things. Walk up the street without keeling over. Go to someone else’s house to hang out. Eat pizza. The exciting stuff.”

Caio’s tendencies toward humor were dry and quiet, and on the occasion he made jokes, his toneless delivery tended to make them fall flat. It was worse when he was tired, but they were all fluent in his registers by now, and the way Felix laughed seemed to make Caio brighten just a shade. 

“I was okay for a while,” he said, and there he was going stiff again, cloaking himself in old armor. “I got a good job. For a couple of years, it was fine. And then my fibro went into flare, and it didn’t get better. I kept working, ’cause I needed the insurance. I went on disability leave for a little while, but I wasn’t really any better when I came back. And then I started losing weight, and figured if I kept it up my Crohn’s would get bad again, too. So I quit.”

So I quit. Like he’d left a job that was not to his taste rather than one that was slowly destroying him.

“Dad said I could move back up here, stay with him until I get back on my feet. Whatever that means.” The smile that briefly appeared on Caio’s face was ghastly and humorless. “So here I am.”

“So here you are,” Felix echoed stupidly. He almost regretted asking. Not knowing would have killed him eventually, but he’d forgotten how it could sting when Caio only let him in with toneless words, the way he would in the worst of their off periods, when the distance between them was the greatest. It was never a lack of love that drove them apart; it was just that Felix could be greedy and clingy, and Caio could be stubborn and selfish, and  when things got difficult, Caio shut everything else out, and Felix never learned to handle that with grace. 

Felix found his mouth dry. He felt incredibly, cosmically stupid. “Hey, uh. Listen. About the last—”

“Pizza rush!”

The basement door boomed open and two fully-grown adults ran down the stairs with pizza boxes stacked on their heads. Derek, grinning, came to a stop and kneeled before Caio like a vassal swearing fealty. He inclined his head slightly so that Caio could retrieve the pizza box, eliciting a little smile that lit up Caio’s dull face like a ten-watt bulb. A little pang of jealousy stirred in Felix, seeing Caio smile like that for someone else. They hadn’t spoken in five years. What right did he have to be jealous here?

Jake took the other box off Derek’s hands and stacked them all on the coffee table while Caio hunkered down with his. Felix, now within arm’s reach of pizza, flipped open the top box and reached for a slice, only to have Derek intercept it with a paper plate.

“We are not getting pizza grease on Debbie and Bekah’s new furniture,” Derek said sternly as he passed out the paper plates.

“You let him eat without a plate,” Felix complained, in perfectly good humor. Caio, who was hunched over his box on the floor like a little hooded pizza gremlin, froze mid-bite with a guilty look.

“He has his own box,” Derek said, “and he doesn’t have a sordid history of settling bets in some of some of the most disgusting ways I’ve ever seen. But you should probably have a plate anyway,” he said to Caio, “and napkins. That goes for you too, Jake! Come on, man, we’re grown-ass adults.”

“It’s my house,” Jake said around a mouthful of pizza.

Derek shoved a wad of napkins into Jake’s hand before finally sitting down himself. “It is your mom’s house. We are not in high school anymore.”

Felix watched Caio go back to eating his pizza, now carefully eating it off the plate instead of hunched over the box, taking tiny little bites. He’d always eaten like a mouse. It was a comfort to know some things hadn’t changed.

“We totally are,” Felix said. Then, in a moment of unprecedented bravery for the day: “Hey Caio, you wanna join us on the couch? You don’t have to eat on the floor like a little orphan servant, you know. People might start getting the wrong idea.”

“I don’t mind sitting on the floor,” Caio said, but Felix saw the corner of his mouth twitch upwards.

Jake nudged him gently with a foot. “Yeah, we know. But it’s kinda hard to see the TV from down there,” he said, waving the remote. “Come on, dude. Brand new big boy TV and every streaming service you could ask for. What do we want to go with our pizza, gentlemen?”

Caio didn’t hesitate at that offer as much as Felix expected. After a thoughtful nod, he collected his pizza and climbed onto the couch to sit in the decidedly safe spot between Jake and Derek. Still, it was the closest Felix had actually been to him all day, just a body away.

It was good to see him eat at all, Felix thought, from the little place in his mind he had nurtured over the course of his and Caio’s rocky relationships, the part of him that worried whenever Caio seemed to be extra stiff or fatigued, the part that had never gone away, just gone quiet. Caio had definitely lost weight since Felix had last seen him, the line of his jaw sharper than ever, every last trace of baby fat long gone. If this was how he looked after a few months of rest, Felix wondered just what kind of bad shape Caio had been in when he’d finally thrown in the towel and moved back home.

He’d been watching Caio eat for too long. Derek was giving him a subtle brow raise to the tune of you cool, bro? Felix immediately busied himself with his own pizza. Wild how learning something new for three hours could really take it out of you.

“Does your mom know you installed the Crunchyroll app on her brand new smart TV?” Felix said.

Jake laughed. “Me? Nah, this is Bekah’s account. She is absolutely obsessed with One Piece.”

“Fucking wild,” Felix laughed. Caio let out a little laugh, too. This could work, Felix decided. This could really be okay.

Once they’d had their fill of pizza, band practice resumed. Getting started had been rough; it was hard not to get discouraged by not immediately being good at a new thing, but now Felix was committed. No half measures here. He’d get good — well, good enough — or he’d die trying.

He needed this band thing to work out. He needed things to go back to the way they were before, just a little bit, just enough to ward off that creeping feeling of isolation and time wasted apart. Spending time around Caio would undoubtedly be awkward for a while, but that was closer to normal than Caio not being there at all.

It was funny — Felix really had gotten over Caio’s disappearance from his life. The hole had closed up for the most part with time, letting in only enough light to keep the memories alive. Beer and anime nights with Jake and Derek always left him feeling warm and contented. Until they’d gotten so out of sync, his life had felt whole enough with just his two best friends.

But now that Caio was back, a new hole had opened up around him, and Felix knew that Caio needed to be here just as much as the rest of them. And not just to complete the circle — Caio had hit a new low, it seemed, and he’d always been terrible at asking for help. Caio needed a life raft right now, and no, it couldn’t be Felix, not alone. But maybe all together they could carry him back to shore.

Once they were through with the pizza, they got back to band practice. Another three hours passed without bothering to notify Felix, and he started when he checked his phone. “Hey, I know I’ve got nothing to do on a Sunday, but are you sure you guys don’t have your own shit to take care of?”

“I cleared my schedule for today,” Jake said.

“It’s my weekend too,” Derek said with a shrug. Felix curled his now raw fingertips in toward his palms, grimacing.

“Which is cool, but I think I’m tapped out on bass lessons for the day,” he said. He carefully laid Lisa’s bass — his bass now, though he couldn’t quite get his head around it yet — back into the case.

“I’m getting kind of tired too,” Caio said. His voice was slightly cracked. He didn’t look ready to keel over on the spot, but it was still a bit of an understatement.

“Alright, so we’ll wrap it up soon,” Jake said. “But first I wanna show you guys something.”

He glanced at Caio, who nodded and cracked his fingers with a series of loud pops that made Felix wince on reflex. Caio straightened his back into proper piano posture, hands hovering over the keys.

“While you guys were practicing, we were working on a little something,” Jake said with a grin. He raised his drumsticks, counted them in, and the music started.

It took Felix a second to recognize the tune — it sounded different on a keyboard than on a guitar — but it was the intro to ‘Sobakasu’. Watching Caio play was … something. Felix didn’t think he’d ever seen Caio so focused and so … at peace. There was a kind of smile on his face Felix had never seen before.

And then Jake leaned into an imaginary microphone and started singing: “Daikirai datta sobakasu wo chotto hitonadeshite tameiki wo hitotsu —

The song came to an abrupt end on a mangled chord. Caio winced. “Sorry … I always fumble the seven chords. It’s kinda hard with small hands.”

“Are you kidding? That was awesome.” Derek grinned with genuine delight and was rewarded with a small, embarrassed smile from Caio. “That’s pretty good work for a few hours and a very out-of-practice drummer.”

“I found the chords online and figured, well, if we’re going to be an anime cover band, we might as well get started…”

“Kickass. Incredible start. You nailed it. Just one thing.” Felix pointed at Jake. “Since when the fuck can you sing? Because I remember you in high school, and you sounded awful.”

Jake flipped up his sunglasses and grinned. “It’s the T, baby. Put me right where I needed to be.”

“You’re telling me HRT made you a better singer?”

“Hell yeah, it did. Among many other things.” Jake winked, then tipped his head forward so that his sunglasses fell back into perfect place.

Felix snorted. “Alright, singer problem solved. Jake, you’re the frontman now.”

“Whoa, hey, not so fast. How many drummer-vocalists do you know? ’Cause it’s fuckin’ hard, and I’m still getting my drumming arms back. We are going basement idol group.”

“It’ll be more fun that way,” Derek agreed. “Besides, we don’t have to be good, remember? This is strictly for kicks.”

Band practice ended shortly after, and they loaded Derek’s guitar, Caio’s keyboard, and Felix’s bass (Lisa’s bass, it still belonged to Lisa in his mind) into the Kostolitz Go Machine. By unspoken agreement, Felix took shotgun and Derek climbed into the backseat.

It was a pleasant surprise that the day went by without any real incident — not that Felix was looking to stir shit, but he was a manic mess of poorly regulated impulse control mechanisms in his lesser moments. He was sure Derek and Jake had been braced for the possibility of drama, that Felix might fall victim to old feelings and bad habits. But apparently they’d deemed it worth the risk, decided that he needed to be there, and that … left him feeling pretty good, actually.

Caio’s house was the first stop, and Felix felt a weird, nagging sense of everything being just slightly left of center as they rolled up to the house at the corner of Sunrise and Riverview. This house had been a second home to him once upon a time. Caio’s abrupt reentry into his life had thrown him into minor psychological chaos, and his head was still getting around what kind of shape it would take. It would come with time, he was sure, but right now — right now, Felix felt like if he looked at that tired little face for too long, his shaky foundation of self-control might start to crack. Maybe this, too, was just another aspect of Caio’s return that he needed to adjust to.

Derek helped Caio unload his keyboard against the tired refrain of I got it. Felix watched Caio turn to head up the paved path and on impulse, he leaned out the passenger side window and said, “Hey.”

Caio turned around, blinking heavy-lidded eyes at him. His face was neutral, vaguely inquisitive — he’d always had resting blank face, never been a very animated person except in the special little moments Felix had used to be privy to, but now, with five years between them, Felix realized he couldn’t read Caio nearly as well as he’d used to. Too many little things had changed, too many slight adjustments until they were out of alignment. Felix smiled at him anyway, trying to curb the manic edge.

“It’s good to see you again.” And then, because that felt somehow too abrupt: “I think this band thing’s gonna be a lot of fun, you know?”

Caio blinked slowly at him again, and there it was — that ten-watt smile, the one that nearly everyone but Felix seemed to be immune to. Caio had such a dim little face, but when he smiled, he lit up like a faulty string light, like a yellow porch lamp on a summer evening. Felix immediately quashed the giddy jump in his stomach.

“Yeah. I think so too.” For all that he looked wrung out by a full day of being around other people, Caio’s spirits seemed to have genuinely lifted, at least a little bit. The whole band thing was worth it, just for that. He hesitated just a fraction of a second, then nodded. “It’s good to see you too.”

Felix swallowed a hysterical sound and managed to keep his expression normal until Caio turned and headed into his house. Felix was pretty sure he deserved a gold star for the effort. He settled back into his seat and let out a long, slow breath.

“Very smooth,” Jake told him with an approving nod.

Felix buried his face in his hands. “Fuck you. You guys owe me beer. Can we just do that now?”

Derek raised an eyebrow. “As I recall, we stopped doing beer and anime on Sunday night for a reason, and that reason was you kept going to work hungover.”

“This is not beer and anime night,” Felix sniffed. “This is beer and making it up to Felix for springing this shit on him with no warning night.” He glared at Derek through the rear view mirror, though he mostly just looked flustered and red-faced. “You couldn’t even tell me he was back in town?”

“Alright, fair,” Derek said, surrendering. “I guess we do owe you that much.”

“I think you also owe me takeout,” Felix said, just to push his luck. Derek pointed at him, mouth open to object, but he wavered and finally dropped it with a sigh. Felix inwardly pumped a fist. Of course Derek had known him long enough to spot the bullshit, but Felix had known him long enough to know his weaknesses.

“Okay, yes. We also owe you takeout. But I’m drawing the pity party line at dessert.”

*

ii

Felix never did anything by half measures, certainly not when it came to his hobbies. His friends were well-acquainted with the cycle of his obsessions by now. At least his enthusiasm was genuine; it was just that he wouldn’t shut up about his new hyperfixation and that he’d often drop whatever he’d last been obsessed with in favor of the shiny and new. Caio was one of the few things in his life that had captivated his attention so enduringly. This time was different, though — they were all in on this together. There was nothing to be lost in this obsession. No one really ever came to those game streams anyway.

He practiced the bass with the fervor of a man who’d just found religion. Derek warned him about pacing himself, that he was liable to tear up his fingers if he didn’t take it easy, but Felix cheerfully ignored this advice and played till his fingers blistered and bled. Derek had given him the most exasperated look after he’d made Felix put some ointment on that shit and Band-Aid it up so it wouldn’t get infected. Felix couldn’t be bothered to feel chastised, because the thing was, all that practice was actually paying off.

It turned out that if you threw yourself at a wall hard enough and long enough, it’d start to show some cracks. Felix was not “good” at the bass by any serious measure, but after a month or two of near-daily practice and weekly jam sessions with the band, he could confidently say that he played bass. Little by little, they were coming together, polishing their skills, learning to join their individual sounds into something greater. It was messy, unrefined, and sometimes just plain bad, but it was theirs.

Things got easier with Caio over time, too. The awkwardness began to fade while they hesitantly tried to find their footing one another as friends in this new era of their acquaintance. Caio had changed in so many little ways — he smiled a little more easily now, didn’t take everything quite so deadly serious as he used to. He was still Caio, but he seemed more comfortable in his skin than Felix had ever seen him. It made him a little envious that he hadn’t been there to witness this slow second blooming of Caio’s character.

A couple of months was all it took to establish a new equilibrium. It wasn’t the same as it was before, couldn’t possibly be, but the new rhythm that the four of them settled into felt familiar, a new remix for a new era. For a while, yes, Felix’s chest ached when he saw Caio smile, and he had to stay his hand from time to time, suppressing old reflexes of care and affection. But things were okay now — they could be alone in a room together without being crushed by the weight of awkward discomfort. They could talk to each other like people again — like friends, not exes. The hole in Felix’s chest that had been threatening to burst back open stayed quietly closed, and the new hole created by Caio’s return hadn’t swallowed him whole, either.

And Caio … it was hard to tell where his head was really at a lot of the time. There was a window there for Felix when there had once been a door, and Caio didn’t open up much of his own accord. He looked like he was doing a little better since their reunion, but there seemed to be a perpetual gloom suspended around him. Felix couldn’t blame him. He couldn’t relate, no, but having to give up a life you worked hard for had to be a devastating blow. You didn’t simply absorb the impact and move on.

As for his physical health, Felix knew even less. Caio had only given him vague details, and Felix wasn’t sure he was entitled to ask for more. Over the course of the next month or two, little seemed to change. Caio tired easily when he was in flare, and he must’ve been in flare for a while now, caught in the ebb and flow of it. It was a fickle thing, unpredictable with its timing. Caio hadn’t mentioned anything about finding new work — the subject never came up, and they all figured it wasn’t quite safe to ask just yet.

At any rate, he didn’t seem to be getting worse. Felix knew it could take a while to recover from total burnout, although it must have been driving Caio crazy all this time, being homebound. It wasn’t as though he was forbidden from leaving the house, and he could borrow his dad’s car if he asked, but when his pain was this bad, he was usually too stoned to drive. No wonder he looked so relieved to be at band practice. Just to be around people again, to move and make noise and breathe someone else’s air.

Well, it wasn’t just band practice anymore. It wasn’t beer and anime night, but it turned out Felix handled Sunday hangouts significantly better if they held them in the afternoon and he wasn’t filling them with craft beers. They never went too late, and even if they did, Felix was perfectly happy to go into work a little tired on Monday mornings if it meant badly playing music with his best friends. The rest of his life puttered dully on, but on Sundays, he was a shitty rock star.

Felix rolled up to Caio’s house in his Camry and gave the horn a friendly beep. Sometimes when Jake was running late with appointments, Felix would volunteer to pick Caio up instead. It was nice, now that they could talk again.

They’d started leaving Caio’s keyboard in the basement for convenience’s sake. He had another at home, so he could still play every day. It seemed to be one of the few things he could do consistently.

“How’re you feeling?” Felix asked as Caio climbed into the passenger seat. That was a safe question for him to ask now, a return to old rhythms. Caio made a slight face, fumbling with the belt buckle.

“Okay,” he said. “Achy. Kind of stiff. It’s supposed to rain today. That always makes it worse.”

It didn’t sound like a complaint, just a bullet point list, solicited information. Felix nodded as they turned the corner and headed for the bridge by the white church. “Well, hopefully with the music you can forget about it for a little while.”

“Music is good for that,” Caio agreed. He was watching the town pass by them, cloaked in the bright green of late spring, resting as comfortably as he could in the seat. 

“Is that why you started playing?” Felix kept his tone casual, but he was cautious, checking the temperature again. But Caio didn’t go cold; this wasn’t too invasive an inquiry. “Because I don’t remember you ever confessing to any secret aspirations to be a musician.”

“Well, I didn’t have any,” Caio said. He looked at his hands, blinking slowly. “It was something new. I don’t know where it started. It came on slowly. But I started going to shows with some friends. I never really got into live music before I moved there, I guess, but there are lots of small venues down there, tons of indie shows and stuff. There was pretty much always a cheap concert to go to.”

His voice was starting to go toneless. He must have missed it. He must have stopped being able to go to concerts a lot sooner than he stopped being able to work. But he seemed to shake it off, rubbing his mouth with his hand.

“We were there to see a local band. They had a solo pianist as their opening act. She sang, too, but mostly played. You know, like, weird indie stuff, kind of experimental, I guess. She was crazy good. It was kind of amazing to watch. I’d never seen anyone move like that before. And I noticed how happy she was, like she was just having a ton of fun. I guess I’d never really paid attention to that kind of thing before. And I thought … maybe I could do that.”

He sounded entranced by the memory even as he recalled it. He was still looking at his hands. They were smaller than Felix’s, short with thin fingers and slightly knobby knuckles.

“And it seemed like something I could just keep on doing if I started it. Something that wouldn’t, you know. Get taken away.”

Taken away like his life in Philly, his original career aspirations, that shot at a semester abroad in Japan — like so many other things that had been pulled out of reach by a cavalcade of illness. Felix couldn’t blame him for wanting something he could keep for himself, something that would last.

“At first I wasn’t sure what I really wanted,” Caio said. “Besides learning, I mean. Like an end goal. Something productive. But I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t have anywhere I was trying to go. It was just … something I could do.” He almost sounded puzzled by it. “I kind of just milled around for a while before I finally decided I wasn’t going to get anywhere just thinking about it. And … I don’t know. The more I played, the more I realized it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to get that good at it, or write my own music. I just wanted to be able to have as much fun as she was having. That’s enough for me. As long as I can keep playing.”

Felix puffed out a little laugh, and Caio looked over at him, brow furrowed. “What?”

“Nothing. Sorry, it’s just—” Felix couldn’t help but smile. “It’s just funny, how much you’ve changed. And how much you have totally stayed the same.”

Caio gave him a genuinely bewildered look. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Felix rested his arm against the steering wheel while they idled at an intersection. “Pointing at something and saying ‘I want to do that one day,’ just like that — that’s so you. You’re always working towards something, for as long as I’ve known you. But not needing an end goal, doing something just for the sake of it … that’s new.”

Caio looked faintly embarrassed. He shrugged. “Sometimes you have to learn to work within your limitations.”

His tone was neutral, but Jesus, what a sad thing to say. To smother your dreams in the cradle just to spare yourself when they withered away before they could reach maturity. To know that no matter which way you turned, you were faced only with dead ends.

“Besides, you’ve changed too,” Caio said. “And also totally stayed the same.”

Felix sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Ooh, I don’t know if I can handle this.”

The corner of Caio’s mouth twitched. “You seem. I dunno. Way more chill than before. You didn’t freak out or anything that first day, even though Jake and Derek didn’t tell you what was going on. You, um, seem pretty okay on your own. But you’re not that chill,” he added, his mouth still twitching with the threat of a smile. “You still get, like … super intense about things. Like with the bass. You’re totally throwing yourself into it. And when you’re with Jake and Derek … that never changes. It’s like you guys are still in high school.”

Felix winced. “Ouch.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Caio said. The smile won out — a little thing, growing like a weed through cracks in the concrete. “It’s kind of one of the best things about you guys. It’s, um … comforting, actually.”

“Yeah?” That was unambiguously positive. It meant that Caio liked being around them — all of them. Felix’s presence wasn’t harshing the vibe for him. In fact, it seemed to be doing the opposite. “Glad to hear it.”

It was a short drive across the little suburb that was Deerbrook to Jake’s mom’s house. Band practice went as usual, and they broke for a late lunch about halfway through. Takeout, too, had become a staple of band practice, although for a while Caio kept bringing his own food, hyperconscious of his laundry list of dietary restrictions and how difficult he could be to accommodate. The thing was, none of them actually minded the small rotation of pizza, Thai, and the one burger joint in delivery range that had gluten-free buns.

“Clear the table,” Derek said, bearing two heavily loaded paper bags down the stairs. “The couch too, c’mon. Put your shit away, Felix.”

“I got it,” offered Caio, already half-curled up on the sofa. He picked up Felix’s bass case to lean it against the wall with their other equipment. Derek unloaded the bags on the coffee table, extracting a variety of containers and assortment of canned sodas.

“Ooh, what’d we get?” Felix rolled onto the couch and picked up one of the cans. “Two Cokes, Sprite, Dr Pepper … hey, is that a Fanta? Golden Chef’s getting fancy.”

“I will never understand how the only Thai place here takes two hours to deliver in a town less than twenty square miles,” Derek said, “but at least they always throw in the free sodas.”

“The food’s always hot, too,” Jake said, already digging into a pile of potstickers. “Hey Cai, we got your fried rice over here. You wanna split these summer rolls? Pretty sure this sauce is safe for you.”

When Caio straightened and turned around, he was frowning slightly. “These fell out of your case,” he said, almost apologetically, and held out a small sheaf of lined notebook paper, folded over twice and yellowed with age. “It, um, doesn’t look like your handwriting.”

Felix’s brow furrowed as he set the soda down and rifled through the papers. “That’s because it’s not.” He looked up at Derek and Jake. “Guys, this is Lisa’s handwriting.”

The potsticker fell from Jake’s mouth with a wet plop. “What?”

“I think she was writing a song.” Felix was a tangled ball of emotions, but at the moment, bewilderment dominated his expression. He was at a total loss.

Derek had already vaulted over the back of the couch to crowd around Felix. Jake, too, was moving over. “What, like for her band?”

“No, for our band.” Felix flipped through the pages. Each of their names was in there along with notes and sketched out chords — even Felix’s. His heart leapt uncomfortably in his chest. She had to have started this before Felix finally agreed to be in the band. She’d been counting on him all along. His stomach knotted in sick nostalgia, the ghost of a crippling fear of disappointment clenching its hand around his gut. “She was writing a part for each of us. Derek, I think she was actually serious about making you play keyboard.”

Felix pulled a paper out of the pile and passed it to Derek. It was a lead sheet with music scrawled messily on notebook paper staffs. Derek took it wordlessly, his expression numb with shock. Felix took a closer look at each page — bass tabs, chord progressions, snippets of lyrics and ideas. It was all there.

Even with the sunglasses on, Jake looked like he’d seen a ghost. Felix sure as shit felt like he had. “What’s it about?”

“I think it’s about us.” Felix’s traitorous eyes began to sting at the corners. He blinked them furiously. “Like, about how we met. Friendship and shit. It’s anime as fuck. It’s … so Lisa.”

They fell into a collective silence, passing the papers around them. It was hard to absorb, an epitaph left just for them, hidden away for more than fifteen years. They’d never even have found it if they hadn’t decided to do this band thing. Felix’s throat felt tight. Dammit, he couldn’t even be mad at Jake or Derek for this.

“We’ve gotta finish this song,” Felix said suddenly, looking up at Jake and Derek, who exchanged an uneasy glance. “Come on. How can we not? You know she’d want us to.”

“Playing okay covers is one thing, man, but writing a song?” Jake looked doubtful. But Derek shook the paper in his hand.

“I think she already did most of the hard work. We’d just be putting it together. Filling in the gaps. And … writing the rest of the lyrics, too, I guess. But Felix is right. It is what she would have wanted.” Derek turned and held the sheet music out to Caio. “Hey. Think you can play this?”

Caio had melted into the background at the mention of Lisa so effectively even Felix hadn’t noticed. He looked at the sheet music in Derek’s hand with trepidation, like he was about to be handed a bomb. He didn’t move from the wall.

“Um, are you sure? It was written for you, so…”

“Yeah, but somebody’s gotta play guitar, and you are way less out of practice on the keyboard.” Derek’s expression softened, and the arm holding out the sheet music relaxed. “Hey, listen. You’re part of this band too, you know that? Sorry about the moment we were having there. It’s just — you know, it’s a lot to take in all at once. But trust me, if Lisa were here, she’d totally want you to play this.”

Caio still looked apprehensive, but he finally took the paper from Derek. He took a minute to look it over, squinting to make out the sheet music. It was hard to read his expression from where Felix was standing, but he didn’t exactly look jazzed. “Um … yeah, I think I can play this.”

Felix flashed him a reassuring smile, but Caio’s expression was shuttered now, and he was quieter than usual for the rest of the afternoon. By unspoken agreement, they didn’t start working on Lisa’s song that day — they all needed time to process. Felix was dangerously close to crying himself, if he thought too hard about it. They didn’t really go back to practicing, either, opting to put on a few episodes of something instead. They all needed to not think about music for a little bit.

Caio was quiet the whole drive back to his house, gazing out the window at the darkened scenery. Felix came to a stop in front of Caio’s house and put his car in park, and then twisted to face Caio before the other man could finish unbuckling his seatbelt.

“Hey. You alright? I know today was, uh, kind of a lot.”

Caio hesitated, his gaze dropping down to his lap. In that moment, Felix felt an immeasurable distance between them. Time was that he could have coaxed Caio into candor with a smile, a little touch to the face, drawing him in close even when his narrow shoulders only went slack. Caio was only across the center console from him, but right now he felt the farthest he’d ever been from Felix, farther even than when he’d simply stopped being a part of Felix’s life. Caio’s eyes shifted uneasily back and forth, his mouth working but failing to summon the words.

“I’m fine,” he said, just as Felix thought he might say something else, something real. I’m fine was what people who were anything but fine said. He was receding from Felix even now, disentangling himself from the seatbelt. Felix took a risk and reached out a hand to Caio’s shoulder. Caio stilled immediately, but he was still looking out the window up at his house.

“Hey, I have known you since you were fourteen. You didn’t get a whole lot better at lying in Philly.” Felix’s hand stayed on his shoulder. Caio wasn’t trying to get away, but Felix was worried that if he pulled back, Caio would bolt for the front door faster than Felix could stop him. “This is about the song, right?”

Caio tried to curl in on himself, absently zipping his hoodie up to the collar. He hated being cornered, Felix knew, but he hated lying too. He didn’t speak right away, but Felix knew Caio wouldn’t try another line on him.

“It just feels…” Caio’s shoulders were hunched. He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I don’t know if I should be playing that song with you guys. I know everyone keeps saying it’s alright, but, I mean…” His voice grew smaller, a little basement door creak. “She … Lisa wrote it for you guys. I didn’t even know her.”

Of course. Lisa was the one part of their lives they’d never shared with Caio. She was only a shade to him — he barely even knew the shape of the hole she’d left in their lives, the three of them had guarded it so closely for so long. Caio had always struggled with feeling like he fit in, even though they’d stuck with him all this time. No wonder he found himself on even less sure footing now that Lisa’s ghost was in the room with him.

Felix closed his eyes and nodded. He let his hand fall away from Caio’s shoulder. “You’re right, you didn’t. And we never let you get to know her, either. Not for any good reason other than it still hurt too much at the time, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to know now. So let me tell you about Lisa.”

Caio finally turned to look at him, his sunken eyes wide in that deer-in-the-headlights look that Felix found so inexplicably cute. Less cute when he was sad, granted, anxiety written in the lines under his eyes. It was a cautious look, still hesitant.

“You don’t have to,” he said, but his resistance was waning. Now he was only trying to find his balance. “I know it’s hard. To talk about her, I mean.”

“It’s not as hard as it used to be. And yeah, I think I kind of do. We owe it to you by now.” Felix tipped his head at Caio. “But you don’t have to listen if you’re not up for it. So if you want, you can get off here and I’ll fuck off for the night. Or you can listen to me tell you some truly ancient history to the tune of some ice cream.”

In the end, Caio chose ice cream. It was a two-hit combo of shit he wasn’t supposed to eat, but Felix let Caio pick those battles, and today seemed to call for ice cream. They idled in Felix’s car in the parking lot of the Newport Creamery, the designated Deerbrook teen hangout by virtue of every other restaurant in town being distinctly unfriendly to the adolescent wallet. This, too, came with a loud echo of the past as Felix handed Caio his kiddie cup, muscle memory-induced déjà vu.

Felix stared at his own ice cream for a moment, his mind stalling, and he blew out his breath. “Jesus. I don’t even know where to start. Uh … ” He rubbed his forehead, suddenly finding his mental timeline of his life with Lisa a tangled knot. He didn’t know which end to start from. “I guess you know she died around six months before we met. In the nightclub fire.”

Caio nodded in tacit understanding. There was no need to specify any further than that; it had been on the news for weeks after the fact. There was a memorial plaque with her name at their high school and everything. Felix shook his head, letting the ice cream spare him from having to think of words for another second. That had been a terrible opener, it turned out.

“Jake and Derek knew her from way back when, like, kindergarten way-back-when. I was in sixth grade when they picked me up. Kinda how we picked you up, only my story’s more embarrassing, because it was the yearbook club and they were trying to drown me in the toilet.” Felix tried a smile at Caio, who only nodded around the spoon in his mouth, his eyes unnervingly attentive. “And these three hot shot seventh-graders come charging in like it’s their business to be there — Jake and Lisa might have gotten their asses kicked for busting into the boys’ bathroom if they’d been alone, but Jake played center forward for the field hockey team and that guy’s always been way stronger than he looked, and you know Derek nearly clocked in at six feet by thirteen? He was practically the star of the Deerbrook Middle School wrestling team. Jock definitely outranked Jew on the middle school food chain. Fat queer Jewish kid, on the other hand — pretty much at the bottom.”

Caio nodded with a little crease in his brow that Felix decided to take for interest rather than pity.

“Obviously I’m stuck with those two until the day we all crumble into dust, but none of us would’ve made it to high school without Lisa,” Felix went on, the sound of his own voice starting to sound like a drone in his ear, but he couldn’t stop now. “She was the same age as Derek and Jake, but she was kind of like a big sister to us, too. She was always looking after us. Always thinking about us. She was one of those people who could just … figure out what you needed before you could, sometimes.”

He was rambling. It was impossible to put any of this into a coherent order, now that he’d started. But Caio knew how to listen to Felix by now, and stayed silent.

“She was always there with a pick-me-up. I mean, she was made of pep talks. I really think she used to read self-help books in her spare time. There’s no way she came up with all that shit whole cloth.”

Felix actually laughed, even though it made his chest hurt. Ice cream could only make this go down so much more easily, and it was only going to get rougher from here.

“She got us all through a lot. I mean, I’m not gonna speak for Derek or Jake, but I’m really not exaggerating when I say I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lisa. She got me through so much shit.” Felix found himself the one unable to make eye contact now. “She helped me figure out who I was, basically. I knew I wasn’t really straight, but I was a boy who painted his nails and wore eyeliner in the year 2000, so as far as everyone at school was concerned, the verdict was pretty clear. I mean, you remember what it was like when we were kids. When the only stories we ever heard about other gay kids was when they got the shit beat out of them or murdered. It wasn’t like I wanted that to be me. It scared the shit out of me. But Lisa talked me through it, made it less scary somehow. She was there when I decided to come out to my parents. She was there when my dad drank himself to death, too. She saw me through my first breakup, the shitstorm that it was. Getting dumped by an older boy the second I set foot in high school — I completely wanted to die. Man, I must have been such a pain back then.”

Thank God for the ice cream, the built-in excuse to stop and catch his breath. Caio stayed patiently silent, offering no reprieve.

“You know, she was the one who wanted to go to the show that night. It was her idea. It was the band she liked, the stage she was scoping out for her real band. It’s stupid, how much that pissed us off later. That we couldn’t blame any of it on ourselves, that the only reason we were at that fucking nightclub in the first place was because of her. And it hurt too much to be angry at her.”

Felix’s ice cream was quickly turning to soup in the midsummer heat, the early evening sun glaring through the driver’s side window. There was a stinging in his eyes unrelated to the light. He wiped one eye along the back of his hand, sniffing briefly. Caio had seen him cry before; he couldn’t get embarrassed about it now.

“When she was gone, there was no one to keep us together. We had to figure it out ourselves.” Felix looked up from his ice cream, squinting against the sun. “Lisa was just, like, this huge ball of energy. She was like our sun. So I tried to do that, get everyone where they’re trying to go. I don’t think I ever really got it figured out. Derek, he got angry. He learned to blame himself for the little things, because we wouldn’t let himself blame him for the things that mattered. That night—”

Fuck. Felix closed his eyes. When they allowed themselves to remember that night, they just skirted the edge of that memory, taking only what they needed. It had been so long, but even time hadn’t stripped it of its viciousness, and there were parts underneath it all that were still raw. It felt like peeling back a scab not yet ready to come off.

“It happened so fast. The band started playing, and then the whole fucking building was on fire. It was just — it was chaos. A fucking nightmare. We got half-trampled just trying to get out — everyone was trying to get out the front door all at once, and I don’t even know when we got separated or how, just — once we finally got outside, once we caught up to what was fucking happening, we realized Lisa wasn’t with us.”

This part was still hard to think about, much less talk about. Without dipping too deeply into the well, Felix could remember how they’d staggered out and fallen to the ground battered and coughing, how he’d thought his ears were ringing when what he was hearing were fire sirens. He didn’t need to remember anything else. “Derek tried to go back in for her, but Jake body-tackled him before he could, even with two busted ribs. Pretty sure that deep down, Derek still thinks it’s his fault she never got out.”

Caio bit his lips together at that, a flicker of a reaction. Felix looked at him, and for a moment, he looked indescribably sad. 

“Jake … Jake stepped up in ways we were too sad and fucked up to recognize at the time. Of all of us, it seemed like he changed the least, but he picked us up off the floor more times than I can count. Figuratively and literally. I guess we didn’t notice it so much because he was always the Big Bag friend, you know his shtick, it never changes — you need deodorant, band-aids, breath mints, he’s always got that shit in there somewhere — but now we’re older and we know better. We were all clinging to each other to keep from drowning, but it was Jake who remembered to lash us all together.”

Caio’s expression was hard to read. Felix wondered if any of it had helped to hear, or if it had only made Caio feel less anchored to them. He stirred his ice cream soup, tumbling combinations in his mind, trying to figure out the words that would put Caio at ease.

“What was she like?”

The question caught Felix off guard, Caio’s reedy voice cutting through the quiet car. The space between them still seemed so vast.

Felix faltered. “What do you mean?”

“What was she like?” Caio repeated patiently. His interest wasn’t feigned. He was trying, too. “I know what she meant to you guys. But like, her, as a person. What kind of stuff did she like? What did you guys do together? What kind of, I dunno, dumb little jokes did she have?”

Felix wondered if these were questions Caio had bottled up and kept to himself for years, or if they were only springing up now that they were permitted. Something rocked in his chest at Caio’s genuine inquiry.

“Watched anime and rode our bikes around town, mostly,” he said. “Lisa was the hookup for our cache of fan-subbed VHS tapes and bootleg DVDs, you know. She was the originator of the Deerbrook High Anime Club.” Three Jewish nerds and their burgeoning rock star best friend did not an official school club make, but the school probably wouldn’t have greenlit that midnight showing of Perfect Blue in Jake’s mom’s basement.

“Sometimes we LARPed in the woods behind the Y,” Felix went on, and Caio let out a little snort. “She was like, a walking collection of anime references. It was probably incredibly lame to literally anyone else, but she made it look cool to us. She always had a quote from, fucking, I don’t know, Slayers or Trigun or whatever. She could say that shit with a straight face. And she played in a band. She had all these big dreams. She was gonna be a rock star, she was gonna take a gap year after high school and backpack around Europe — we were just kids, and we were convinced we had the coolest best friend in the world.”

“She sounds like she was pretty funny,” Caio said. It was a cautious offering, but he was smiling just slightly. Felix’s smile came by reflex.

“She was hilarious. It could get incredibly obnoxious, but we loved it. We never really felt like we were just her sidekicks or whatever, or that she was too cool for us. I mean, the inside of her locker was a collage of pretty anime boys and half the cast of Buffy. She’d get us to act out the most super cool, ultra dramatic scenes from whatever series we were watching in Jake’s basement — the kind of thing that, if you let it, felt incredibly cool in the moment but would be unbearably embarrassing to reveal to almost anyone else.”

Caio was smiling for real now, but he didn’t look like he was about to laugh. Felix’s voice was creaking under the weight of unshed tears, but he kept on.

“It wasn’t like we never fought, either. Lisa could be a tremendous pain in the ass when she wanted to get her way. Once when they were in the eighth grade, Jake stuck his foot so far down his throat that she went into his locker, stole the manga he was about to have to return to the library, and refused to give it back until he hand wrote her an apology note. There was a good three days when Derek and I thought our whole friend group was about to go nuclear. About a week later, it was the funniest shit to both of them. We couldn’t even get mad at them, ’cause the second we brought it up they’d both lose it laughing. She kept that note pinned up on the corkboard over her desk.”

Caio’s eyes were wide, the spoon almost hanging from his mouth, and he let out an unexpected laugh. There was a comicality to it, a giddy amusement born out of the feeling of getting a glimpse of some emotional contraband. But it belonged to Caio now, too.

It was time to acknowledge now that Lisa’s death had not been the sole defining turning point in their lives, but an important road marker they revisited again and again. Caio was part of that long road of history. There was no singular before and after, only eras of their lives. Felix offered it all up freely, and he was rewarded with the devastating glow of watching someone new laugh about Lisa for the first time in over a decade.

“No way,” Caio said, but all disbelief had evaporated by now.

Felix snorted. “What, you can’t imagine Jake pissing off a girl enough for her to break into his locker and steal collateral for an apology? ‘Cause I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t even think that was the only time that happened.”

“Okay, no, I can believe that,” Caio said, and as he licked the last of the ice cream off the plastic spoon, Felix could almost see it happening: Caio was imagining, for the first time, the world that included both him and Lisa. The Jake who never failed to obliviously offend, the Derek that could be press-ganged into anime LARP, the Felix who had needed assurance at every turn — Caio could connect them indelibly to the ones he knew, tracing new constellations in his heart. Fuck, they should have done this years ago. Those stray papers had carried more than one blessing. Somehow, even all these years later, Lisa was still giving them the little push they needed.

“So yeah,” Felix said, entranced by Caio’s smile, by the way he could look like an entirely new person with that little bit of light. “That was Lisa.” He sniffed, wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, and smiled blearily at Caio. “She really would have liked you, you know. Ask the guys, they’ll tell you the same thing. Man, she would totally have made it her personal mission to get you out of your shell.”

Caio’s smile went crooked. “What, you mean like you did?”

Felix felt caught off guard, his ears flushing red. Yeah, he had done exactly that back in high school, once he’d gotten over that initial wave of childish jealousy at no longer being the baby of the group. He’d then almost taken offense that Caio hadn’t immediately cracked open for him, making him the subject of Felix’s next hyperfixation until Caio had finally surrendered to friendship. The crush — that had come later, but not that much later, and it had hit Felix like a freight train then just as Caio’s smile was now.

“Ha, yeah. I guess I kind of did.”

Caio wiped his mouth with the thin paper napkin, and crumpled it up and dropped it into his empty cup before setting it on the dashboard. He could be almost as fastidious as Derek sometimes. “Thanks,” he said, and when he turned his smile on Felix again, it was subdued, but the tension had gone out of him. “I know talking about that stuff is never easy. Um, are you sure you’re okay?”

Felix had thought he was done with the tears, but they were apparently only just getting started. Maybe it was the tremendous sense of relief that brought them on, and not the heavy-heartedness. Felix wiped his eyes with his napkin, gesturing helplessly. “I am totally fine, this is just — happening right now.” 

Caio watched him fumble for some tissues or something in the center console, the tears overtaking the flimsy paper napkin, and he opened the glove box to pull out a handful of Dunkin Donuts napkins. Felix took them and pressed them all to his face at once.

“Do you want a hug?” Caio asked, his voice quiet and thin. Felix drew in a big, sniffly breath and nodded.

Caio shook off his seatbelt and contorted himself in the seat so that he could lean across the center console in the only awkward way two short people could hug each other in the front seat of a car. Felix didn’t think that 5’7″ really counted as short, but standing next to Jake and Derek one’s whole life tended to warp that perspective. Caio wasn’t that much shorter than him anymore either, just a couple of inches now. He was such a small person, always disappearing into the oversized clothes he wore for comfort, that Felix still sometimes thought of him as that shrimpy five-foot-nothing kid he’d met in high school.

Caio’s weight against him was slight, but the sense memory triggered by Caio’s arms wrapping around him hit Felix like a particularly potent drug. He tried not to hug back too tight, or inhale too deeply when Caio’s shoulder pressed against his, the textured ends of that weirdly chic haircut brushing against his chin — pepper, it was the weirdest thing and Felix had never figured it out, but Caio always smelled faintly of pepper.

Caio was hugging him tight enough already, and in Felix’s little compact car, there wasn’t much room to move. Felix just shut his eyes and tried not to get dragged back out to sea by the incoming tide of emotion, of being clumsily held in one of his most vulnerable moments by someone who had been his ex-boyfriend for years now. This was just a friend hug, the same Felix would do for Caio if their positions were reversed, but it had the long, reverberating echo of something much older and tenderer. 

“I really am okay,” Felix said as Caio released him from the hug, toppling gently back into the passenger side seat. The tears, at least, were finally slowing down. He dabbed at his eyes and blew out a long breath. “Honestly, that kind of felt good. I literally haven’t talked to anyone but Jake and Derek about Lisa in like, years.”

Caio fixed his hoodie, fiddling with the strings. “Are Jake and Derek gonna be mad about this?”

Felix let out a real laugh, shaking his head. “Are you kidding? They’ll probably be relieved.” He started to collect all of the tear-and-snot-stained napkins, balling them up to stuff into the leftover ice cream soup in his cup. “So … you feel a little better now? About the song, at least?”

“Yeah,” Caio said, just watching Felix as he collected the trash. “Not just about the song.” He looked so much more tired now, illuminated by the sickly yellow car light, his second wind gone. Felix leaned just far enough out the window to toss the two cups in the trash, missed by several feet, and cursed. Caio just sat limply in the passenger seat, watching and almost smiling while Felix got out of the car to pick up the trash he’d so deftly hurled out his car window.

Felix puffed out a breath as he got back into the car, rolling his eyes at himself. “Ready to head home?”

Caio nodded, buckling himself in. “Yeah. Pretty sure I’m gonna crawl right into bed after today.”

“Excellent plan,” said Felix before his mind could snag on the thought of crawling into bed right with Caio, and drove him home.

*

iii

It turned out that writing a song was fucking hard. What Lisa had left behind was considerably less complete than Derek’s initial estimation, its individual parts far from polished, excepting the surprisingly coherent piece of sheet music for the keyboard and guitar tabs she’d clearly spent time on teasing out for herself. Everything else was just a collection of ideas — a clear vision, but only sketched out.

As the only two with any formal music training, Derek and Caio set to filling in the musical gaps, and they laid Lisa’s notes out like a puzzle, trying to figure out how to fit the pieces together. Jake and Felix grew almost immediately restless with nothing useful to do, and spent half an afternoon dicking around in Super Smash Bros before Felix finally threw in the controller and said fuck it, let’s work on the lyrics. No, it wasn’t because he was 0-for-3 against Jake’s Wii Fit Trainer, obviously, it was because Derek and Caio couldn’t be doing all the work on this song when it was really something they should all have a hand in.

Jake had a certain way with words when tact wasn’t a primary concern, and Felix had written enough bad angsty poetry over a lifetime to be up to par with lyrics penned by a tenth grader. At first, it was rocky going — neither of them had ever written a song before, let alone tried to finish someone else’s work, and Felix started off convinced he’d want to tear his hair out collaborating with Jake. But Jake’s breezy confidence translated to a kind of emotional clarity in writing lyrics that, frankly, alarmed Felix a little.

But that was just Jake for you — he was never anything but candid, especially when the situation didn’t call for it, and when it came to writing a song about friendship, candor was your only real option. Felix found himself a little less self-conscious once they got into it, realizing in hindsight the ways he’d been holding back out of vestigial pride — and wasn’t he supposed to be the kind of person who never held back? It was Jake’s stupid support skill, the way he could bolster people so effortlessly and near-invisibly, and Felix resented him for it a little bit out of sheer embarrassment, but mostly, privately, he was glad of it. 

The lyrics came along, even as the music started and sputtered. Eventually they put together a rough sequence, badly lacking in transitions, but it was a start at least. Derek kept the guitars as Lisa had written it where he could, and stitched it together with his own little flourishes. Jake elaborated on what they were pretty sure was the basic beat. Lisa had written a simple and straightforward bass part for Felix, probably to make it seem as unintimidating as possible, but Felix found himself rewriting it into something a little more interesting to play.

Caio played the music that Lisa had written, once they’d reworked the sheet music into something more legible and finished the line here and there that ended abruptly in silence without rest, but he’d mostly let Derek take the lead on that one. When they started to practice it, patching their parts together with duct tape and twine, it sounded terrible. It was like all of them had forgotten how to keep a beat.

Derek couldn’t keep his chords straight, Felix seemed to have forgotten everything he’d learned about the bass over the last few months, and Jake kept throwing himself off listening to the two of them. Caio struggled to keep time in the chaos, and his fingers kept tripping over the same sections. But little by little, hour by teeth-aching hour, they managed to join it all together.

Band practice spread from Sunday nights to the rest of the week, the four of them meeting up in Jake’s mom’s basement any night they could get their schedules to line up, as many as three or four nights a week. From the day they started working on Lisa’s song in earnest, something in the air changed. This wasn’t idle play anymore; they were working toward something, creating something. The four of them had more than fifteen years between them, but in all that time, they’d never come together like this. Felix couldn’t help but wonder if this was what being in Lisa’s band would have felt like.

There was something else about it, too. Felix couldn’t remember the last time the four of them were all together so often. Even when they’d been in college and for a little while thereafter, the group had been split between Providence and Boston. They’d all gotten together most weekends, and always on the important occasions. But the sense of comfort that settled in over them when they were all together at band practice now, the way that Felix booked it to his car as soon as work was over so he could drive straight to Deerbrook — there was a juvenile giddiness to it that they hadn’t felt since … well, shit, since high school. 

The transitions were still kind of abrupt, and there were still some parts that needed ironing out, but after another month of intensive band practice, they actually had a whole piece of music. It was a weird thing, playing a song you’d never heard before. But soon they were getting through whole sections without totally choking, and it sounded like parts of a real song. It began to feel like they could actually pull this off. 

They were still struggling with the chorus, though. It had been the most detailed in Lisa’s notes, as close to complete as any part of it, and not as simple as they’d written the rest of the song. Even as Derek and Felix worked on the faster chord changes, Caio struggled with the keyboard part Lisa had written. The chorus kept falling apart every time Caio fumbled the chords halfway through. He was clearly getting frustrated, and it seemed to snowball the longer he worked on it. Derek finally called for a break one evening, after it had become apparent that they were just spinning their wheels.

Caio climbed onto the couch, looking gloomy and frustrated. Felix dropped into the spot next to him and lightly tousled his hair. “Hey, don’t look so down about it. You’ll get it with some more practice. I mean, you’re basically the closest thing to a real musician in this band.”

But Caio didn’t look particularly cheered, absently fixing his hair with fussy fingers. “I always mess up seven chords,” he muttered, and tucked his hands under his arms. Huddling on the couch with that sullen look — he really did look just like a kid still, despite now being in his thirties. Sometimes, when Felix looked at him for too long, it seemed like he was seeing two images superimposed over one another. “Four-note chords are hard with small hands. My thumb keeps slipping off the B flat. I know I have the handspan, I can block it out, but I trip over the transition every time.” He chewed on the sleeve of his hoodie, looking more annoyed than frustrated. “It’s something I should totally be able to do by now. I just can’t get that C7 right.”

“Yeah, I guess that wasn’t really an issue for me,” Derek said, looking at his own much larger hands, which could easily stretch beyond an octave. He frowned in thought. “You could just drop the seventh and play it as a regular C chord. Or hit the seventh with your right hand instead.”

Caio shook his head. “It doesn’t sound right as a regular C chord. And my right hand is like, all the way up there at this point. Playing the seventh two octaves higher sounds wrong, too, and it totally clashes with the fingering anyway. I just can’t get it to sound right.”

He furrowed his brow, crossing his arms more tightly over his chest. “I’ll figure it out,” he said finally, decisively. There was a spiteful stubbornness in his voice. “I want to play it the way she wrote it. I’ll get it right eventually.”

Felix fought back a smile. Now there was a familiar expression. Caio didn’t look like he felt any better, but now he’d set his sights on a goal. One that ought to be achievable. Derek exchanged a grin with Jake over Caio’s head.

“Glad to hear it,” Derek said, smiling. “But we might as well take a break for a while. It’ll help reset your brain a bit.” He picked up the remote, turning on the TV. Netflix was already there and waiting for them. “Let’s just hang out for the rest of the day. Unwind a little. We’ll pick it up again next week.”

But next week didn’t happen, because Caio fell victim to a freak summer cold in the period of vulnerability that always followed a Remicade infusion, and like following a familiar playbook, the cold quickly turned to bronchitis. It carried on for a full week; nothing serious, just bad enough to keep him down and feeling shitty. So they practiced for a week without him. It felt weird, though. They were still making progress, but it sounded incomplete without Caio.

The cold lingered maliciously even after the fever was gone, despite a week of begrudging bed rest. Another week went by with Caio too weak and tired to go any farther than his kitchen. He sounded miserable in his perpetually taciturn texts to the group, and after months of seeing each other so often, Caio’s absence left a conspicuous hole. It wasn’t like when he was in Philly anymore, when they’d just adjusted to a paradigm shift. It felt wrong.

Caio turned down every offer for a visit, insisting that they all stay away so as not to catch whatever he had. But Felix figured he had to be well past contagious by now, and he was probably going crazy cooped up all day. So one evening after work, Felix stopped by the good burger place, the one out of delivery range from Debbie and Bekah’s, and drove to Caio’s house.

Felix hadn’t set foot in that house since Caio’s return, and he felt a weird pang of anxiety as he rang the doorbell. It probably wasn’t very fair of him to show up uninvited, but if he’d announced himself ahead of him, there was a good chance that Caio would insist that he not come. But, reasoned Felix, sometimes you needed your friends to be stupid assholes for you once in a while.

He was expecting Mr. da Silva, but it was a glassy-eyed Caio who answered the door. He blinked slowly at Felix, then narrowed his eyes in a squint. “What are you doing here?”

“Ouch,” Felix said, putting on an injured face. He held up the paper bag. “I figured you could use a taste of the outside world. There’s no way you’re still contagious, so you’ve got no good reason not to eat a burger with me.”

He sounded a lot more confident than he felt, as though looking into the house beyond Caio didn’t rock his brain with the force of sense memory. Caio squinted at him almost warily. He looked like he’d just rolled out of bed: his hair pressed to one side of his face, dressed in rumpled wide-legged sweatpants and what looked like a band T-shirt with the collar cut off. Felix didn’t recognize the band, only noticed the way one side of the collar was just about to slip off Caio’s narrow shoulder.

The look he was giving Felix wasn’t necessarily unfriendly; that was just how his face looked when he was still deciding if he wanted to be around other people. But loneliness must have won out in the end, because he stepped back from the doorway to let Felix in, absently tugging up the wide collar of his shirt.

“I’ve gotta smoke first,” he said, as though it were an undesirable condition of Felix’s presence, as though it wasn’t something he did every day that they’d all long grown accustomed to. Hell, if Felix didn’t have to drive himself home later, he’d probably ask for a hit. He just gave Caio a sure, dude shrug and stepped into the house.

As the door closed behind him, he realized he’d been bracing himself for — something. It felt weird to be back here, the same way it was weird to revisit any place you’d been absent from for a while, and for a moment the rising tide of memories almost overwhelmed him. But the paper bag in his hand and the smells wafting up from it grounded him in the present day, and with a little breath, he shook it off and followed Caio up the stairs to his room. Just a weird little moment, that was all. He was bound to have them whenever they hit a crack in the road.

Caio’s bedroom was different. Some of the furniture was the same, but some of it was new, or at least different — relics from what had already become his past life in Philly, giving the room a crowded feeling. The sleek digital piano along one wall was the most conspicuous addition, along with the stack of score books and paperclipped sheet music resting on one end. At a glance, Felix recognized a few of the titles on the spines as collections from this video game or that anime. There did not, strictly speaking, need to be quite this many shelves in Caio’s room, or two separate end tables, or the unfamiliar trunk at the end of his old bed, but maybe he simply hadn’t wanted to part with all of it. Maybe there wasn’t enough room for everything he wanted to take back with him in the basement. Maybe he wanted to have these few echoes of his life in Philly close, just so it didn’t feel so out of reach.

Felix realized abruptly that it really hadn’t been all that long since Caio had moved back, not even a full six months, but it felt like an endless stretch of summer to him. He’d gotten used to having Caio back so quickly; that five year absence was finally starting to feel more like a comma and not a period, something in the receding past. It must have seemed much closer to Caio, he realized. Maybe he wasn’t so interested in seeing it disappear into the passing scenery.

The room might have been different, but some habits never changed. There was nothing unfamiliar about the way Caio clambered back into bed to nest in the pile of blankets, or how he leaned over one of the end tables to start packing a bowl when it probably would have been easier to do it at his desk. Felix took that unused space to start unpacking the food, sitting down in the vacant desk chair, and watched Caio out of the corner of his eye.

He didn’t look like he was still on the tail end of a nasty cold. He looked more tired than that, in a way Felix hadn’t seen on him in years: that dull-eyed look, that shuttered expression — it was more than just everyday weariness. Caio hadn’t been putting them off because he was worried he’d get them sick. He was in a bad way, and he’d never been the best of them at asking for help.

When Caio hit his lows, it was almost always when he was at war with his body, and he hit them hard, like a body hitting concrete. It made him withdraw into himself, driven by the particular sense of isolation that accompanied a life of chronic illness. Caio sometimes seemed to struggle with feeling like he really belonged anywhere, even with them, and when he got frustrated, he got moody. He looked like he’d barely been out of bed in days. Felix couldn’t imagine how he must have felt right now.

Had he made the right move by coming here tonight? It was true that Caio wasn’t great at asking for help, but sometimes he really did just need to be left alone for a while. That was a boundary Felix had always struggled with, a throughline of tension in their relationship over the years, that he never really learned to give Caio space when he needed it. Caio had called him pushy more than once, and of course it was because Felix hated to see Caio so miserable, and he always just wanted to fix it, make it better somehow. But Caio had let him into the house. He could’ve said no. Maybe this time, he needed the company.

“So,” Felix said, struggling to fill the silence, “is your dad out tonight? House is pretty quiet.”

Caio shrugged by way of affirmative response. It was impressive how much he could convey in a single shrug. If you spent enough time around Caio, you’d learn his language, how to read between the lines on his face.

“He’s in upstate New York,” Caio said, carefully tapping fresh ground greens into his pipe. “Tia Maria fell last week. She’s fine, but Dad just wanted to spend some time with her to make sure nothing serious is going on.”

Felix winced. “Sorry to hear it.”

And he was, about Caio’s aunt, anyway — but he was relieved he wouldn’t have to face Caio’s father tonight, too. They weren’t on bad terms, exactly. Even in their off periods, Caio’s dad had still treated Felix like a friend of his son’s, when another parent might have seen him as the blight on their son’s life Felix was sure he’d been at times. It was just a little too much right now, that was all, especially having been exposed to Caio’s gloomy aura.

He knew Caio would take a little longer before he’d eat, but that was how it usually went, ever since Caio had started smoking. Felix remembered what a nervous little thing Caio had been about the idea of treating himself with a mind-altering substance, even one as benign as pot. He’d shied away from trying it until he was in college, when he realized it was the only thing that actually helped all of him, and it turned out that being middlingly stoned wasn’t all that different from the brain fog that came with intense pain. Felix was glad to see that was still the case — that Caio still had some means of relief, anyway. Felix attacked his food while it was still hot, having skipped his usual post-work snack to come straight here instead.

“Are you okay here by yourself?” He regretted the words the instant they left his mouth.

Caio’s face darkened, but he only reached for a lighter and settled back onto the bed. “I’m fine,” he said, a little sullen now. “I can take care of myself.”

It was obviously and abundantly true that he was not fine, but Felix raised his hands in concession. “Sorry. My bad. Just, you know — if you ever need a hand with anything while you’re still down, you can give us a call.”

“I know,” Caio said with a limp shrug. He was half-facing Felix, but he didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular as he lit up. He twisted to exhale a puff of smoke out towards the window. It was hard to tell if he was actually enjoying the company, but Felix was determined not to bail. It’d almost certainly make Caio feel worse. 

Felix was still playing conversation Minesweeper in his head, trying to figure out where was safe to tread next, when Caio exhaled on a cough and said, “Um, how’s the song coming along?”

“Good,” Felix said promptly, relieved to have something to talk about. “I mean — you know, we’re getting there, little by little. It almost sounds like a song now.”

He caught the bleakening lines on Caio’s face and abruptly stopped himself. Caio looked like he regretted asking, and Felix wished he’d thought of something to ask first, give the kid something to ramble on about so Felix would be too busy eating to channel Jake Kostolitz.

“Sorry I keep missing band practice. I know we’ve been working on that song and everything.” Caio sounded like he wanted to crawl under a rock and die. It only just now occurred to Felix that Caio’s life in Philly might have been a more complicated experience beyond his having to leave it behind, that he might have suffered growing pains with friends who hadn’t known him as long as Felix and the guys had. He’d never talked about his social life in Philly at band practice, not even once. Maybe those friends hadn’t been able to last. Maybe Caio’s illness had undermined more than just his ability to work.

“Hey,” Felix said gently. “It’s totally fine. It’s not like we’re getting ready for a gig or anything. We’re still just having fun, you know? Of course we miss having you around, but we’re not going anywhere without you. We’ll still be around when you’re feeling better.”

Caio somehow looked more miserable for this reassurance. He wasn’t looking at Felix anymore, just the pipe in his hands, a thin wisp of smoke trailing up from the bowl. Felix almost couldn’t take it anymore, seeing Caio like this, from farther away than arm’s length. He scrambled for words to fill the deepening silence, anything, even a Kostolitz special — anything to avoid being swallowed up by the tension in this moment. But Caio clutched at his pipe with white-knuckled hands and pressed his forehead to his drawn knees.

“What if I don’t?” His voice came not in dull monotones, but as a cracked squeak. He coughed, but his voice only got thicker. “What if I don’t get better enough to keep doing the band?”

Felix set down his food and half-rose from his chair in instinctive alarm, but he repeated his reminder mantra of boundaries and sat back down. His hands were tight over his knees, the better to keep his tone light. “Hey, there is no band without you. We’ll make it work. I promise.”

Caio lifted his head, looking for a moment like he was going to say something, but he just dropped the pipe and lighter onto his bed and buried his face in his hands. The second he started to cry, Felix felt something in his chest split apart. He sat frozen in the chair, watching Caio’s shoulders heave, feeling suddenly rooted to the spot when he’d been ready to launch moments before. He had been here before, sitting in this very chair, even, but never had he been so far from Caio.

“I’m so sick of this.” His voice came in between hiccuped sobs, frustrated, deeply resentful. “I thought I was getting better. Maybe not better enough to go back to work, not back in Philly, but—” Another round of sobs interrupted him. His voice shook with every one. “Every time I think maybe things are getting better again, this always happens. It happens every time. I’m so, so sick of it.”

They were words Caio had regurgitated hundreds of times, counter-mantras that rose in the backbrain when the inner peace he’d tenuously made with his illness thinned to the point of threadbare. Felix fumbled for all the things he used to say to comfort Caio in these moments. He was always so desperate to make him feel better.

“It won’t last forever,” he said. That was Caio’s mantra, not his. “Everything is temporary, right? That means the good times are too, I know, but it’s not always going to be like this.”

“You don’t know that. I don’t know that.” Caio kept wiping his cheeks on his sleeve, but the tears refused to slow, spilling out faster than he could catch them. “I think this time is different. I was doing fine for a while. I thought maybe I’d figured out how to — to live a regular life. Like you guys. But it was only lagging behind. It started to catch up to me, no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to rest, until that was all I did. Rest and work. I couldn’t outrun it anymore. I don’t know if I can again.”

Felix was at a loss for what to say to that. Sure, Caio had had the lowest of lows at times, teetered on the verge of surrender, but when all else failed, spite had never failed to pick him back up. He’d had dreams then, things that pulled him constantly towards the future, so that he’d never get stuck in those moments forever. Did he still have dreams like that? This was the most defeated Felix had ever seen him. Caio lifted his head enough to wipe at his eyes, and he looked immeasurably tired. For a moment, he looked like he might sink into the blankets and drown himself in the silence between them.

“I should be able to do this.” There was a world of frustration in Caio’s voice that Felix couldn’t even begin to imagine. “It’s supposed to be the one thing I can still do, even when everything else is out of reach. Music is supposed to be the one thing I don’t have to let go of. Music and…” His voice hitched, and his shoulders drew in so tight Felix thought he might finally fold in on himself, his hands pressed to his face. “Music and you guys. But I can barely even get out of bed to play lately. I can’t even do that.”

His words dissolved back into sobs, wordless and helpless. Felix found himself finally unglued from the chair and launched himself with a stumble towards the bed. It seemed cruel to ask someone so deep in primal distress for permission; he could ask for forgiveness later. He kicked off his shoes and scrambled onto the bed to catch Caio in a hug just as he began to drop in a heap into his pile of blankets. Caio shook against him, but Felix held on tight, his chest rocking. Caio twisted against him to bury his face in Felix’s shoulder, muffling his cries, and Felix curled a hand around the back of Caio’s head, his stomach doing a circus’s worth of acrobatics.

He’d had it all wrong back in the Newport Creamery parking lot. There was no way this could be a simple friend hug. That seemed impossible just now, with Caio’s small hands clutching at his shirt, like he was afraid to let go, like it was all he could do to hold on. Felix closed his eyes. It felt like his chest was caving in. He was certain he was forgetting how to breathe.

He’d forgotten, over the last five years, what it was like to love Caio as fiercely as he did. It was like being hit by a freight train, or staring at the sun. There was no bracing for impact, no way to survive it without being left blind. He buried his face in Caio’s hair and breathed in, and he felt some last, distant reserve of willpower buckle and break within him.

God, he wanted so badly to touch Caio’s face, to awkwardly kiss all those tears away, or — Jesus, get him a tissue, at least. Felix reached blindly for the tissue box he knew lived on the nightstand and drew back just enough to press a tissue into Caio’s hand. It was a struggle not to dry Caio’s tears himself. Caio was still crying, but he wiped his eyes and blew his nose anyway.

 

Felix’s arms stayed around him. He’d forgotten the way Caio fit so comfortably against him, how his soft body always yielded to Caio’s awkward angles, how good it felt to be able to hold someone so close, so completely. He was afraid to let go, like Caio might vanish into smoke if he did.

“I was happy there,” Caio said, wading through rivers of tears. Felix felt an actual pang in his chest, equal parts grief and envy, both devastating. “I had a life there. A real life. I had a real job. I could take care of myself for the first time in my life. I had places I went to, people I saw all the time. I had friends. I had — boyfriends and a girlfriend, I had an apartment — I could clean the bathtub every week. I thought … oh my God, I figured out how to make it work. I can do this.”

Felix felt like his heart was breaking with every word, and he wasn’t the one living through it. He held Caio tighter as he felt those shoulders begin to shake again and closed his eyes. If he could pull out the stitches of space and time, tear out the seams of fate and misfortune, he’d pick at those threads until his fingers bled, if it’d only save Caio from making that defeated face again. Caio was always the quietest of them, but now he couldn’t seem to stop, the words vying for room against the tears.

“I know I’m lucky.” Caio buried the words in Felix’s shoulder, his face pressed hard enough against the seams to leave a mark. “I know it could have been worse. It’s not like I’m dying or anything. I had a place to fall back on. I have a dad who can support me for now. But it’s just—”

Felix felt Caio’s hands ball into fists against his stomach and wished he had more hands, because he wanted to take Caio’s but couldn’t bring himself to let go.

“It’s so — so fucking unfair.”

The curse word jumped out like a stinger. Caio, even in his thirties, hardly ever swore, his last holdout of boyish prudishness. Felix flinched at the force behind it.

“Being sick tanked every last one of my relationships. Even when I was in remission, it was always a factor. I was too high maintenance and they couldn’t handle it, or it was just too much of a turnoff. There’s nothing sexy about fucking — Crohn’s disease or acid reflux so bad it makes you throw up if you so much as look at a tomato.” He was verging on the edge of bitter humor, which might have been a sign of levity in anyone else, but for Caio, it just spelled the extent of his bleak mood.

“All I ever wanted to do was be able to take care of myself. I couldn’t even last five years. No matter how many times I try to tell myself it’s okay, that I did my best, everything I could, I still feel so small. Like I failed. And then I come home, because I can’t stand on my own anymore, and everyone else is — everyone has a real life. You have an office job like I did, with benefits and everything. Derek’s basically taking over for Mr. Kostolitz — Jake works at a private practice now — everyone has their shit together, and I’m…”

Caio had to pull back just to breathe. He seemed to be struggling. Felix let go long enough to snatch up the whole box of tissues behind him and drop it onto the bed. Caio reached for them, but stopped halfway and just buried his face in his hands again.

“I’m so jealous.” The words sounded like they burned like bile in the throat, bitter and caustic. He almost sounded angry. “And I don’t want to be, because it hurts, but I am. I just want what you have. Why don’t I get to have that? I worked so hard. I thought if I just kept working hard…”

The cuffs of his hoodie were thoroughly damp with his tears. Felix’s fingers itched to smooth Caio’s hair away from where it stuck to his skin in the tear tracks. He didn’t know what to say, couldn’t come up with a pick-me-up or advice for once. So he didn’t try, and stayed silent, hoping he could keep Caio afloat as he bore out this tide.

“I knew by the time that I left that I wasn’t coming back. For a while I kept trying to make plans in my mind, ways I could get my life back once I was feeling better. But I knew it wouldn’t happen.” He cried through every word. He seemed smaller than ever in Felix’s arms. “I wasn’t going to get my old life back in Philly even if I started getting better. People don’t just go on hold when you’re gone. I thought, as long as I can still work a whole job once I get better, support myself again, moving back home wouldn’t be so bad … but it doesn’t feel like that’s going to happen either … ”

His voice shrank until it disappeared into the tears. He seemed to curl in on himself a little more, an awkward tangle of limbs wrapped up in Felix’s thick arms, his face pressed back into Felix’s shoulder as another wave of tears dragged him helplessly under. Felix swallowed back the sympathetic urge to cry along with him, squeezing his eyes shut.

After another few minutes, or perhaps a small eternity, Caio finally reached for the tissue box, wiping away the tears and snot making a wreck of his face. He didn’t look up at Felix to meet his eyes, but his breathing was starting to quiet. 

“My life has been a series of gradually narrowing possibilities,” he said in a mostly steady, hoarse voice, in a tone of such resignation that it made Felix wish he’d start crying again. The distress he could handle; the defeat, he didn’t know how to take. “And it just feels like … there aren’t that many things left. I’m trying to mitigate my expectations. I tried to make myself feel like just this could be okay. Piano and — and the band, just being around you guys again. I like living with my dad. I missed him while I was down in Philly. I thought … as long as I had my dad and you guys and the band, maybe this could be enough. I’m happy when we play. Happier than I am any other time, pretty much. I guess it probably doesn’t look like it, but…”

There was a dim flicker of a smile on Caio’s face for just a moment. Felix would have killed a man to capture that bit of light in a bottle. Did Caio have any idea now, after all these years, what that sad little smile could do to people? What it could do to Felix, in these quiet, dark moments when the rest of the world felt like a mere abstraction?

He had pulled himself back upright now, stopping to properly blow his nose, and he wasn’t in range of Felix’s arms anymore. He looked sick with misery, gutted and ravaged, and he folded and unfolded the tissue in his hands in a nervous, restless loop.

“But lately I can barely get out of bed for more than a few hours at a time. It’s just like those years in college. If it takes anything more from me…” His hands tightened around the tissue, threatening to tear it. The tears swept back into his voice, the tide rushing back in. “I don’t think I really have anything else left that matters.”

Felix was trying not to find himself crushed under the weight of Caio’s sadness. Caio was crying again, words spent. The sounds he made now were pure distress.

“Hey,” Felix croaked, finding his voice nearly as weak as the rest of him. For some wild reason, Caio always thought of himself as the most unlovable in these moments, but Felix couldn’t possibly have loved him any more than he did now. “Stop talking like everything’s already over for you, okay? You haven’t lost us or the band — or music, for that matter.”

He wanted so badly to touch Caio’s face right now, but he settled for bracing his hands around Caio’s arms instead, holding him steady. He could do that, if nothing else.

“Just because your shitty body’s kicking your ass right now doesn’t mean you have to be alone. We’ll come to you. Or — hell, you wanna come to band practice even if you don’t think you’ve got more than twenty minutes of standing up in you? Or none at all? That’s fine. No reason you can’t just chill and listen while we play. Give us feedback or heckle us or, I don’t know, just take a fuckin’ nap on the couch. And then if you get a second wind, you’re already there. No more FOMO. You wanna hang out at Jake’s mom’s place on days you can’t get out of bed? We’ll carry you out to the car. Derek’ll piggyback you down into the basement, he loves that shit. We already drive you, what’s a little more? Hell, I bet we could find you a litter on Amazon.”

He squeezed Caio’s shoulders gently, somehow managing to keep the desperation out of his voice. He couldn’t tell if it was showing on his face, if Caio noticed the tiny specks of tears in the corners of his eyes. Caio finally looked up at him, eyes wide and dark, his cheeks wet with tears.

Felix savagely beat back the urge to kiss his stupid sad little face and swallowed. “We will show up for you, every time. We always have.”


Caio stared at him, and then burst into tears again — full-on bawling, the floodgates lifted. Felix felt paralyzed, unsure if another hug would be welcome, or if Caio was receding away from him on purpose.

Felix’s hands hovered uselessly in the air, watching Caio in rising alarm. “Oh, uhh, hey, it’s okay — sorry, I wasn’t—”

“I was so scared.” The words squeaked out between the tears. Felix went still. “I was so scared that if I was gone too long, you wouldn’t. That I’d get left behind. And I know that’s not fair to you guys — but it was five whole years, and it seemed like so much changed while I was gone, I thought if I couldn’t keep up, there wouldn’t be room for me anymore…”

So it was the relief that did Caio in too. Sometimes, no matter how many years they’d all been together, they all still needed to hear it said out loud sometimes. Caio’s anxieties didn’t end with Lisa; they encompassed so much more. Felix heaved out a breath, feeling sick with relief himself.

“Hey. Come here.” Felix scooted in closer to grab Caio in another hug, and Caio folded against him like so much paper. Reassurances he wasn’t even sure Caio needed now were bubbling up of their own accord. It couldn’t hurt, could it? Felix’s greatest character flaw was that he never really learned when to shut up, but maybe that would be his saving grace for once. “Listen. Yeah, our lives changed while yours was happening down there in another world. You’re right — people don’t just go on hold when you’re not there.”

He’d had such a crystallized image of Caio from five years ago, and Caio was still cracking open that model of him, rupturing old frames alongside all the mechanisms that hadn’t changed. Felix was still figuring out where all the faultlines of change had started, all grown over with time now, lying just below the skin. It was hard to see them when he couldn’t trace them out by hand. Little by little, he was learning all the ways Caio had changed, and how to see him whole again.

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t belong here. Yeah, we went on with our lives. But there’s been a place for you here all along. You didn’t replace Lisa when you came along, you know. No one could have.” Felix drew Caio in close, trying to ignore the burning in his chest. “You made your own place with us. I guess it’s something you’ve always been scared of, and I get why you’re scared now. All I’m trying to tell you is that you don’t have to be.”

His chest ached. It was getting harder and harder to discern what counted as friendly touch, especially with Caio pressed against him like this, but Felix wouldn’t begrudge him the comfort he badly needed. So he swallowed that burning back and tried to steady his pounding heart. He was doing this for Caio, because Caio needed it, and because he was here.

“Is that what happened in Philly?” he asked, when Caio didn’t step to fill the lull in conversation. “You got … left behind?”

Caio made an indistinct, unhappy noise, and after a moment he nodded, his face pressed to Felix’s shoulder. He waited for Caio to speak, afraid that if he tried too hard to pry, this moment would shatter open, and the whole world would rush back in. Felix rested a hand tentatively on Caio’s back, and felt him draw in a deep breath.

“It’s hard to get people to come to you,” he said, his voice hoarse now, mostly dry. “It sucked when I stopped being able to drink, but I had enough friends who smoked at parties and stuff. And I didn’t have to drink at shows, either. It was … easy, for a while. But then I started having to turn down offers to hang out. I got too tired to do anything after work, and most people would rather go out to a bar than go hang out with someone who’s stoned and in their pajamas the whole time.”

“Hey, they don’t know what they’re missing,” Felix said lightly. “Stoned Pajamas Caio is pretty entertaining if you put the right video game in front of him.”

There was a sniffle and a little breath that might have been a laugh. Felix’s chest jumped like he was in the tenth grade all over again.

“A lot of them tried for a while. I think they mostly really meant it, too. But after a while, I stopped getting invited to stuff. When you get like this, you just kind of … fade into the background. People forget about you.” A sting of hot resentment leapt into Caio’s voice. He sounded tremendously bitter.

“Well, that’s never gonna happen with us,” Felix told him with great conviction. He gave Caio a squeeze, and felt Caio press his face against his shoulder even more. God, this was killing him just a little bit, but he’d gladly keep parceling out his heart if he could only stay like this a little longer, if this would only make Caio happy. “First of all, we have seen you at your top-tier level grossest, so you know you can’t scare us off with that. You almost puked on me the first time we met, and as I recall, it was a pretty near miss. And anyway, it feels weird when you’re not there now. We miss you all the time. We’re just waiting for you to come back.”

Caio made another little noise, a creaking whimper as his tired front finally collapsed, but he seemed all cried out for the time being. Finally he began to pull back, and Felix reluctantly released him. He had been selfishly soaking up every last bit of the feeling of Caio’s body tucked against his, breathing in deep that faintly peppery scent. Caio added a few more tissues to the growing pile on the bed next to him, sniffling.

His eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, but his hair-framed face was pale in the dimming light. His chic little haircut was long overgrown by now, in sore need of attention from a pair of kitchen scissors. He blinked blearily, running one hand over the sheets. He pulled his pipe and lighter out from under the blankets and lit up, drawing in a deep, slow pull. He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes as he exhaled. He looked wrung out. Felix couldn’t blame him.

Felix sat there awkwardly and watched him, barely two feet away from Caio on the bed. “Hey, uh — you want me to take off? I can leave your food here.”

Caio opened his eyes and lifted his head to look at Felix with a vaguely puzzled expression. “Um, no, it’s fine. If you don’t mind. I think I’m actually kind of hungry now.”

“Of course I don’t mind. Let’s get you some food, huh?” It was a clear excuse to get off the bed. Caio followed him after a moment, pulling the piano bench over to the desk. He’d never liked eating in bed if he could help it. “You wanna sit in the good chair?”

Caio shook his head, pulling a few fries out and munching on them slowly. He seemed to be content there, reaching over to take a long sip of his soda. Felix was content to be there too, at least for now. Caio seemed okay now. More okay than he’d been earlier, anyway.

“Hey, I know you can order takeout perfectly fine on your own, but if you ever get sick of the rotation in delivery range, I’ll bring you a burger or whatever. Any time.”

Caio raised his eyebrows, his face returning to that blank, tired look. “Don’t you ever have other stuff to do?”

“Hm … nope, not at all,” Felix said with an exaggerated shrug. Caio let out a little breath that Felix swore counted as a laugh. “What, you think I have a life outside of work and the band? Please. Anyway, if we’ve got practice and you’re not up for it, I don’t mind swinging by here first.”

Caio nodded, still picking at his fries one by one. Even at the best of times, his appetite could be fickle. “Thanks,” he said, with feeling. And then, after a pause: “Maybe I’ll be up for band practice this weekend. Or … for being there, anyway.”

Felix flattened a giddy grin into a totally normal smile. “Yeah? Well, you just let us know. We’ll make it happen.”

They fell into a lull of silence as they ate, and the tension in the air finally began to release. Caio was quiet as he picked at his food, but he looked a little less miserable now, just exhausted. Felix watched him eat for a minute, as covertly as he could from this close. This moment felt jarringly normal. It was a dim little slice of life, but Felix wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

“Listen,” Felix said, as the silence seemed to rest on the next beat. He could only ever stay quiet so long. “I know it looks like we all up and grew up while you were gone, or like we all somehow have our shit together more than you do, but I promise you that is not true.”

Caio gave him an inquisitive look with his straw still in his mouth, knitting his brow. Felix had to curl a hand into a fist under the desk. God dammit, it should have been illegal for anyone to look that cute when they were still red-eyed and raw from crying.

“I’m not gonna speak for Jake or Derek,” Felix said, wondering even as the words left his mouth if he was saying too much, but there was a dreadful candor in the room bearing down on him, “but I definitely would not say I have my shit together. I don’t think there has ever been a point in my life where I could say that, to be honest.”

“You seem fine,” Caio said, that little stubborn streak showing its face again. He could be so contrary. It was a good sign. “You have a good job. Your own apartment. And a way better car now.”

“The bar really wasn’t that high for that one.” Felix rubbed his forehead. “The truth is I really don’t do all that much outside of work and band practice. I mean — don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It’s honestly really great to see everyone on a regular basis again. After I got this job, the three of us kinda stopped hanging out as much. Our schedules got too out of sync. I mean, it shouldn’t be that hard to get three people together at once every now and then, right? But we just kept missing each other. It sucked, man. Loneliest I’ve felt in … a pretty long time. Not like I have zero other friends, but still — you know…”

Caio nodded. “It’s different with them. With all of us. I guess ’cause we’ve known each other so long.”

Felix nodded too, a cloud of butterflies hatching in his stomach. That Caio felt the same was an immense comfort. The four of them would always be together, somehow. They could always come home to each other.

A little smile cracked Felix’s face. “Yeah. Well, we must not have been trying hard enough, ’cause now somehow I’m seeing those two more often than I have in years. Since before you moved, pretty much.”

There was a little bit of light between them now, the soft glow of comfort. The tension lifted like evening rain, despairing clouds scattering from the sky.

“Listen,” Felix said, then hesitated, fumbling for the words. “The night before that first band practice — before I saw you — I had a … not so great time. It was a pretty bad night, actually.”

Caio’s pale features shifted into a familiar look of concern. “What do you mean?”

Felix was starting to regret saying something, but he couldn’t very well take it back now. He found it suddenly hard to meet Caio’s gaze, and the food was starting to feel like a lump of lead in his stomach. He cleared his throat of the sudden blockage, rubbing his sweaty palm on his jeans. “I do okay, mostly. I haven’t had to change up my meds in years. But you know how it is. You still have bad days.” He tried to laugh, play it off a little to curb the rising fluttering in his chest. “I guess I just can’t be left alone for too long, huh? It does something stupid to my brain. I didn’t even realize how bad it was until it hit me.”

The attempt at levity fell flat on Caio. Felix ought to have known. Caio shifted his weight forward on the piano bench, holding his cup in both hands. Condensation was pooling in the gaps between his fingers, threatening to spill over like tears, but his eyes were mostly dry now, watching Felix with a discomfiting intensity. 

“What happened?”

“Nothing serious,” Felix said immediately. “Honestly, the second I started feeling like doing something stupid, I got myself too stoned to get off the couch. In hindsight, I probably should have started with that and not the vodka.”

He was rambling too much, his train of thought unspooling. Caio was looking at him with a little crease in his brow that spelled the beginning of alarm. 

“Sorry. I just — I don’t know, my plans for the day got canceled last minute, and instead of doing anything else with my day I just kind of laid around in a mood, which only got worse, because my brain was stuck on one track like a broken record with the stupidest, pettiest, most depressing shit. I just had this awful feeling like … I was running out of time.”

Caio drew himself up, looking at Felix with an expression he’d never seen on that face before. “Are you sick?”

Felix threw his hands up. “Oh, no — Jesus, no, nothing like that. Sorry. I am not dying, even if I kind of wished I was at the time. I’d … just been thinking about Lisa. And you. And everyone, I guess, but—” He blew out a breath. “Lisa had all those dreams, you know? Bigger than I could have imagined. And I was so excited to watch her go out into the world and get them. It’s one of the things I remember the most when I think about her. But she ran out of time before she could do anything. And you…”

Felix finally chanced a look at Caio, expecting to see him flinch or shy away or just look uncomfortable at being the subject. But he wasn’t. He just sat there patiently on the bench, his cup resting between his knees, watching intently. Felix didn’t know what to do with this new, bolder Caio who didn’t shy away from the hard things with people, who’d started meeting them head-on even through tears. It made Felix feel like a coward by juxtaposition.

“You always had big dreams, too. And when Lisa was gone … fuck, I don’t know. I wanted those things for you as badly as I wanted them for her. I wanted you to get what you wanted so bad I got to be a real pain in the ass about it sometimes, I know.”

That got a momentary quirk of the lip from Caio. Good. As long as Felix could keep him smiling or close enough to it, he could make it through to the other side of this conversation.

“It was hard, watching you having to make compromise after compromise. And I know it was way, way harder on you, ’cause you were the one it was happening to. What I mean to say is — you’re right, it’s fucking unfair. But you always found something to latch onto, something that would keep you moving. I always really”— loved that about you —“admired that about you. And even though it hurt to watch you leave, it seemed like you’d finally gotten something you set out for. I was happy for you. I mean it — I know I was a total drag about it, but I really was happy for you. Couldn’t bring myself not to be.”

He stopped only for a breath and because his mouth was getting dry. He avoided Caio’s gaze as he took a gulp of soda. “And then you were gone, and Derek and Jake were getting by fine on their own, and I realized … I didn’t have any real dreams of my own.” Felix stared at his hands, sweat creeping under his collar.

“There was nothing big-picture I really wanted. I spent my whole life around people with aspirations, and I guess I was so busy watching them get theirs that I forgot to come up with anything for myself.” He tried to huff out a laugh, but it sounded forced, hollow. “I was just, I dunno, following the script. Finish high school so you can go to college. Go to college so you can get a decent job. Get fucked by the economy and scrape by until you maybe luck into a better job. And it wasn’t even like I hated any of it. And, yeah, it’s not like I never get really into anything — remember my Bobby Fischer phase? I tried to get you to play chess for like, that entire semester — but it never lasts. I’ve never got, like, a plan, or follow-through, and it always fizzles out. And until we started the band, I hadn’t even had that in a while. I was just in one big, shitty rut. The band is pretty much the only thing in my life that doesn’t feel like it’ll just die out, and it’s probably only because I’m not doing it alone. And that’s the thing … when me and Derek and Jake all fell out of sync, I realized the only thing I really ever wanted to do was to just be around the people I like. Just hang out with my friends. Pretty sad for a guy in his thirties, huh?”

He made another unsuccessful attempt at laughing it off. He could feel Caio’s eyes on him, but couldn’t bring himself to look.

“I don’t think so,” Caio said quietly. “I don’t see what’s so sad about wanting to be with your friends. It must be nice to want things that aren’t so hard to get.”

Felix finally looked over at Caio, but he didn’t look sad. Just … wistful. Envy with the bitterness smoothed away. His gaze was at his hands, twisting a French fry between his fingers.

“I just had to keep downsizing. Philly was my dream. Not the place. The life I had there, where I could take care of myself. Where I hardly had to rely on anyone else. For a while, anyway.”

“Is that why you moved down there?”

“Mm.” Caio shrugged. “I had an opportunity. There was a job and a place to live, and it seemed like … I don’t know. The timing was right. I felt like I’d regret it if I didn’t try. And … yeah, I wanted to go someplace new. Someplace where no one knew me as the sick kid. A fresh start. Somewhere I’d have no choice but to stand on my own.” He chewed on the end of his straw, the way he chewed on his sleeves. “And I don’t regret going, either. Even if it turned out like this.”

He lifted his eyes back to Felix’s face, and Felix was powerless to look away. That dull-eyed little gaze belied a magnetic and terrifying intensity. He wondered if Caio had even a sliver of understanding of how he could command Felix with those eyes.

Caio set his cup on the desk and braced his hands on his lap. The tired lines around his mouth softened, and he tilted his head slightly to the side. His overgrown bangs fell over his eyes, but Felix never lost the impression that Caio was watching him.

“I hope you figure out what you’re looking for,” he said with such a serious and sincere look on his face that Felix almost couldn’t take it. It was the same look he’d worn when he’d broken up with Felix for the last time. “And I hope you get it.”

Felix’s stomach turned over, and he smiled despite the glass lodged in his throat. He went back to his food, ducking his head. “Yeah, me too.”

Caio sniffled quietly, brushing away the last traces of the tears, and this time it was him watching Felix eat. He smoothed some of the hair away from his face, as if only just now realizing what a mess he must have looked.

“Thank you,” he said in a plain little tone of voice that went right to Felix’s shivering stomach. “For the food, and for listening, and just … for coming. I think … I needed someone else here tonight.”

Felix felt his smile must have been too giddy, too stupid, and he tried to rub it away with no avail. Every sharp little turn brought him something unexpected. Caio was still his reticent old self, but at the same time, somewhere along the line, candor had started to come more easily to him. Time was, an evening like this would end with Caio embarrassed and apologizing endlessly, perpetually on tenterhooks. Felix sucked in a breath, breathing in deep Caio’s unselfconscious gratitude. He could get drunk off the scent alone.

“Yeah, well,” he said, exhaling slowly, “you can call us any time. We’ll be here.”

“I know.” Caio’s face was a little warmer in the flickering candlelight, backlit by the dimming sky. “I’ll try.”

He smiled a little then. It was small and tired, but relieved of weight and tension. It was not what Felix would have described as a brilliant smile — it was the faulty yellow closet light, a bare bulb on a swaying chain. It was plenty of light to go by anyhow.

“Good. And — seriously, no pressure — let me know how you’re feeling Sunday.” Felix crumpled up his empty wrapper and rose to his feet, making a face as something popped in his lower back. Shit, he’d been trying to get that to move all day. “I should probably get going. Gotta be up at six tomorrow.” 

Caio made a sympathetic face. All Felix could do was smile. “You feeling okay now?”

Caio nodded, suppressing a yawn. He looked ready to crawl back into bed. “Yeah. I’ll be alright. Thanks, Felix.”

Felix tuned into whatever local station was playing music he hated the least and cranked it for the entire drive back to his apartment. He scrambled to unlock his door like a man being pursued, bolted to his bedroom without taking off his shoes, and screamed into the thickest pillow he could find — the fucking Kurama dakimakura Jake had given him as a gag gift for his thirtieth birthday, which he had been furious to receive, only because it was so disgustingly on point.

Fuck, he was an idiot. To think that his old feelings for Caio had neatly been laid to rest, with simple friendship in its place. He’d loved Caio so long, and it hadn’t gone away when he left — it simply lay dormant, asleep in his heart like a hibernating beast. He’d somehow convinced himself that he didn’t want anything more from Caio anymore. But how was he supposed to be content with the necessary distance, however slim the margin, after watching Caio cry in heartbreaking despair, after seeing that smile like the sun peeking through the clouds? After holding him like that, feeling him shake, after Caio clung to him so desperately — how was he supposed to pretend he wasn’t still stupidly in love with the miserable-looking boy with the ten-watt smile?

And after tonight, he was solidly convinced it was purely one-sided now. Caio had been unusually unselfconscious in his distress, taking as much comfort as he could get without hesitation or apology — he could bear to be close to Felix without his chest caving in. Felix was glad Caio was comfortable at all, but it stung. Never in their long history, not even in their off periods, had Felix’s feelings ever been so thoroughly unrequited.

But he wasn’t going to retreat from Caio now, and he wasn’t going to push it, either. Once upon a time Felix would have done almost anything to appease Caio when he was upset with Felix, and it took him half a lifetime to figure out why it pissed Caio off so much. No, Caio was still one of his best friends, far too important to alienate on this basis. Felix wanted to be around him, bask in his radioactive glow even as it burned him. He’d learn to endure it. Even if it hurt, he could be happy just being around Caio.

He’d figure out a way to keep his cool. He didn’t want to scare Caio off, especially not after he’d smiled at Felix like that. Band practice was a good enough buffer anyway.

*

IV

A couple of days later, Felix stopped by Caio’s house again after work. Pizza from a new place on Thayer this time, and he’d even announced himself ahead of time. He didn’t want to hover, but checking in a few days later seemed reasonable, and Caio had said yes to Hawaiian white pizza anyway.

He knocked on the door a couple of times, but no one came to answer, so he tried the knob and found it open. Caio’s dad was still with Tia Maria, so Caio must have left it unlocked for him. Felix wandered into the house with the pizzas, finding no Caio on the first floor, and now it felt weird, standing alone in Caio’s childhood kitchen. He decided not to linger, set the pizzas down on the table, and followed a faint vapor trail of sound up the stairs instead.

 

He could hear the chime and bass of piano coming from Caio’s room, a sound much richer than anything he’d ever heard from the Yamaha that Caio kept at Jake’s mom’s house. Felix stuck his head into Caio’s room. He seemed to be in the zone, staring determinedly at his sheet music as his fingers moved over the keys, playing the same phrase over and over, skipping back like a record to correct the missteps and mistakes. The stack of score books and loose sheet music was a clutter spread across his bed now, and perched precariously on one leg as he played was a staff notebook.

Felix knocked lightly on the door frame. “Hey, piano man, your pizza’s here.”

Caio half-jumped, shaken out of his reverie. “Felix,” he said, and there was a thin thread of excitement in his voice that grabbed Felix like a hook around his navel. Caio glanced at the analog clock on the wall with a tiny double take. “Sorry. I didn’t hear you come in. Can I show you something real quick?”

“Yeah, sure,” Felix said, stepping into the room. He craned his neck to peep at the scattered sheet music, not that he was any good at reading it. A lot of the loose pages had notes in Caio’s cramped, uneven handwriting, but clipped to his music stand were what looked like fresh printouts. Felix unshouldered his messenger bag and navigated the desk chair around Caio’s flotsam of furniture over to the piano. “What’s up?”

“Just listen for a minute,” Caio said with such clarity of purpose that Felix couldn’t have said no if he’d wanted to. Felix sat down in the chair, just a few feet away, and watched Caio play.

There was a unique focus and serenity that inhabited Caio when he played, and Felix never got tired of seeing it. It was the most striking new thing about him, a form of beauty he’d never taken before. But Felix could only ever get glimpses at practice, and he’d never seen Caio play on this piano. It was digital and sleek, surprisingly compact, but with a full set of keys, unlike the sixty-one-key Yamaha.

The way he played it was different — the keys had weight to them, and maybe it was only because Felix hadn’t paid close enough attention before, but he saw now that Caio played not from his hands, but with his entire body. Felix could trace the lines of motion and articulation from Caio’s fingers up into the tilt of his wrist, the weight of his arm as his hands came down, the way he leaned into the rhythm. It was understandable that Felix hadn’t noticed it before, lost in the noise of the band, filtered through clacky plastic keys. It was fucking captivating.

Caio hummed under his breath as he played through the first chords. Felix immediately recognized it as the bridge from their song, and found himself leaning forward in his seat, drawn in by Caio’s motion.

As Caio bounced off the last chord in the bridge and ran into the chorus, Felix realized it wasn’t the part Lisa had written — not exactly, anyway. The chord progression was the same, but Caio had written an altogether new melody that somehow still sounded familiar. It had an air of nostalgia Felix found difficult to pinpoint.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until Caio lifted off the last note. With the spell broken, he remembered how to breathe and sat up straight. Caio turned to look at him nervously, his hands hovering over the keys until he curled them on his lap instead. There had been nothing but music in the world to Caio when he was playing, but now he looked uncertain, restless for a response.

“I know it’s not what Lisa wrote,” Caio said. “But the bones are still there. I tried not to change it too much, but now I can hit that C7 with both hands, and it doesn’t sound weird or off or anything. It sounds right now.”

“It sounds incredible. When did you start working on that? I didn’t know you could write music. I mean — we’re all writing music, I guess, especially you and Derek. But I thought you didn’t write music, like, generally.”

“I didn’t either,” Caio confessed, fidgeting with his hands in his lap. “But — I dunno, a little while after you left the other night, I got this burst of energy. I just had an idea. So I sat down at my piano and just started messing around, and … I don’t know. It kind of worked itself out.”

“You wrote that in two days?” Felix stared. Caio looked embarrassed.

“I mean — it’s not like I was doing much else. And it’s not even a whole minute of music. It’s not like I wrote a whole song from scratch.”

Felix held up a hand to stop him. “Caio. Please. That was awesome. You just wrote a whole-ass new part for our song, all on your own, and it fucking rules.” He gave Caio an encouraging grin, trying to shine a little sun on him. “So you’re gonna play that for Jake and Derek on Sunday, right? Or — you know, whenever you make it over.”

Caio looked mildly alarmed by the prospect, and he covered the sheet music with his hands as though trying to hide it. “Um — I don’t know if I should. I mean — Lisa wrote that. She wrote it for Derek. I don’t know if I have the right to—”

“Oh my God.” Felix got up from the chair, took Caio’s face in both hands, and smushed his cheeks together. A new crease appeared in Caio’s brow. “Do you want me to write it on your forehead? For the last time — this is your band too. You have as much a right as anyone. Besides, it’d make Lisa happy. If you were having a hard time playing it the way it was written, she would’ve wanted you to change it. Make it yours. And that’s exactly what you did.”

Felix released Caio’s face at his increasingly plaintive look, still grinning. “Seriously, you’ve gotta play it at band practice. They’re gonna love it.”

“Yeah?” Caio rubbed his cheeks, but he looked a little less hesitant now. He looked at his sheet music again. “I’ll keep practicing, then.”

Felix’s grin only broadened. “Hell yeah, you will. But first you’re gonna take a pizza break with me. How long have you been sitting here?”


Caio squinted at the clock. “Uh…”

“That was too long a pause. C’mon, let’s go before you waste away at that piano. Jesus, I can’t believe you wrote that in two days.”

“Well, it’s not like I’ve been taking piano lessons for three years or anything,” Caio said, and the dryness in his tone made Felix grin on reflex. There it was — the piece of Caio he’d been missing since Caio had moved back. He could be the kind of funny unique to him again, the pale sliver of humor that passed for comebacks and commentary in Caio’s language. He could say things with a wry smile, roll his eyes at Felix in insincere exasperation again, now that his existential discomfort had been alleviated somewhat. It was like Caio was really back now, the Caio that had left five years ago and grown up while Felix hadn’t been looking, not just the battered, tired parts of him. Caio caught Felix’s look and his brows drew down. “What?”

“Nothing — sorry.” That was a lie; he wasn’t the least bit sorry. He didn’t even try to suppress the smile on his face. Why should he, anyway? Caio ought to know what his presence brought to other people, even if he didn’t need to know what every little slip of levity did to Felix’s heart. “You just seem like you’re feeling more like yourself lately. What, a guy can’t just be happy for his friend now?”

Caio rolled his eyes, but it was with a tiny, crooked smile that betrayed his amusement. It was almost as good as getting him to laugh. Felix felt his entire chest heave at that little bit of light. Whoever had thought anything about Caio was a turnoff had never seen him smile like that.

Felix followed Caio down the narrow stairwell, but Caio stopped at the last step, turning back to look up at Felix.

“I want to come to practice on Sunday. Even if I can’t actually do anything but lie around. I still want to go.”

“Yeah?” Felix tried to play it cool. “I mean — you don’t have to decide now. See how you’re feeling Sunday. It’s fine if you change your mind.”

Caio’s mouth flattened into a familiar line that Felix was too pleased to see to feel chastised by. “If I want to change my mind, I’ll tell you. But unless I’m, like, puking my guts out, I want to go.”

Felix knew by now when to give up the bit. He raised his hands in surrender. “Alright then. I’ll pick you up at noon.”

===

When Felix pulled up to the house on Sunrise on Sunday morning, Caio was already sitting outside on the edge of the porch with his backpack in his lap despite the blazing heat.

“You could have waited inside,” Felix said as Caio buckled himself in. He moved like a wooden doll, discomfort written in every line of his body. It must have been a bad pain day, if it was showing that badly. “And not out under that sweaty jock strap of a sun.”

“If I’m already outside, you can’t make me stay home,” Caio said smugly. He had the glassy-eyed look of someone who had overshot dosing for a bad pain day and landed in the relative category of ‘too high’. Caio had been smoking so much for so long that he had the kind of tolerance where he could maintain a consistent buzz to keep the volume on his symptoms turned down and frankly, it wasn’t all that different from when he was sober. But dosing with flower wasn’t an exact science, and even a seasoned stoner like Caio could occasionally smoke himself a little silly. All it meant for the rest of them was a Caio who was a little more buoyant than the average day, if more likely to accidentally tune them out mid-sentence. Felix grinned to himself as they wheeled away from Caio’s house towards the bridge by the white church.

“Pretty sure I couldn’t make you stay home even if I tried,” Felix said, glancing sidelong at Caio. He was slumped limply in the passenger seat, wrapped in a hoodie despite the sticky summer heat. “How are you not boiling in that? I bet you sweated right through your shirt waiting out there. Jesus. Here — drink some water, will you?”

Caio ignored the proffered water bottle in the cupholder and patted the bag in his lap. “I’m fine. I’ve got my own water. And I wasn’t even sitting out there that long. I didn’t get that gross.”

“Yeah, we’ll see if Debbie makes you take a shower before she lets you roll all over her couch,” Felix chuckled. “She would, you know. She once rinsed me off with the hose right in the backyard before she let me back inside.”

“That was just because you’d been in a cake fight,” Caio said, delighting Felix with a little snort. “I was there for that. You guys all smelled like a Bath & Body Works exploded all over you for the rest of the day.”

“Yeah, I never could get the smell of icing out of that shirt,” Felix said. “But hey, Jake wanted a cake fight for his birthday. What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t make that wish come true? Do you remember the look on his face when we brought the second cake out? He fucking lost it. It was just a shame we couldn’t get you to join in.”

“That would have been a sensory nightmare,” Caio said, making a face. His eyes were caught on the passing scenery, the butter-yellow forsythias of spring having long since given way to bright summer greenery. “Also, I hadn’t figured out weed was good yet back then.”

“Oh? Are you saying that weed might make you more inclined to participate in a hypothetical future cake fight?”

“Mm … maybe. If I had a change of clothes. And I could shower afterward.” Caio caught Felix’s broadening grin. “This does not mean I want a surprise cake fight on my birthday.”

Felix couldn’t contain a laugh. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

“I mean it.” Caio swatted at Felix’s arm, making a face that could best be described as a pout. It was wild how weed could make Caio more animated sometimes, like lifting a heavy veil. Felix swatted his hand right back.

“Hey, hey, this is not the Kostolitz Go Machine, no hitting the driver. Don’t worry, if there’s going to be a cake fight you’re invited to you’ll get ample notice, and we’ll prepare a spa’s worth of bath products. Actually, we’ll just book you a spa.”

“You’re making fun of me,” Caio said accusingly. Felix laughed.

“Yeah I am, ’cause you’re being ridiculous. I haven’t seen you this high in years.”

“It was an accident,” Caio groaned. He pulled his hood down over his face. “I was trying to get myself to eat before you came and it was taking forever. And I forgot which grinder my daytime stuff was in, and by the time I realized it was too late. You’re still laughing at me!”

Felix was full-on cackling now, because the more Caio tried to get Felix to take him seriously, the less effective it was. It felt like a moment cut right from their college days, when all they’d done some weekends was fuck around while Caio figured out how to get high, using old Who’s Line episodes and the Super Mario Bros movie (and once, inadvisably, Akira) as litmus tests. Felix was fucking ecstatic.

Jake and Derek were out front when they rolled up to the house, wrestling three burly black dogs back into the house. Caio instinctively shrank back in the passenger seat. Felix squeezed his shoulder.

“We’ll be right back,” Derek called over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure they don’t hassle you.”

Blissfully, Caio seemed to be too stoned to be embarrassed. It was a short few minutes before Derek emerged again alone, hustling up to the car. “Jake’s just running the girls around the yard a little more so they’re good and tired out.”

He looked at Caio, who was fighting a losing battle with his seatbelt. He’d somehow managed to buckle it through one of the straps of his bag.

“Here, let me give you a hand with that,” Derek said, unable to withhold a smile. “How’re you feeling?”

“I’m here,” Caio said as Derek untangled the seatbelt and helped him out of the car. For reasons Felix did not totally understand, Caio had always been the least self-conscious about receiving help from Derek. There was something about the big guy that Caio found disarming, the same thing everyone else found intimidating about Derek Mizrahi. “We brought snacks.”

He staggered out of the car on stiff legs. Derek caught him gently by the shoulder, and Caio thanked him for the help with a rare unsolicited hug. Felix raised two CVS bags full of snacks and mouthed, he’s so fucking high right now.

“Whatever he’s saying, don’t believe him,” Caio said with his face still pressed against Derek’s shirt. He seemed fine with just standing there leaning against Derek, who raised his eyebrows at Felix.

“Yeah, I never do. How about I give you a ride down to the basement? Felix can carry one more bag.”

Felix rolled his eyes at Derek, but he was already slinging Caio’s bag over his shoulder as he got out of the car.

“I can walk myself down the stairs,” Caio said, still not moving.

“Uh-huh. I’m not seeing you doing a lot of walking right now.”

Caio let out a sullen little noise, and Derek held his hands up. “You’re right, they’re your legs. Escalator service is optional.”

Caio scrunched his nose and looked down at his legs, which were bearing a little less of his weight than Derek was now. But he was in what passed for a sunny mood, and he let his head knock against Derek’s chest in surrender.

“You can carry me,” he said with a little sigh of concession. Derek laughed, giving him a little push towards the house.

“Come on, let’s get you inside. But then I’m subbing in for your legs. When was the last time someone carried you, huh?”

“See? He totally loves it,” Felix called to Caio from behind them. He knew Caio not-so-secretly liked it too, that sometimes it was a relief even though he usually preferred to stand on his own two legs. 

Jake was still running the dogs around the yard, engaged in some arcane game of dog field hockey, the rules of which Felix could not even begin to divine. Derek scooped Caio up in his arms at the basement door.

Caio looked back at Felix in muted protest. “What happened to piggyback?”

Derek snorted. “Are you serious? You’d smack your head on the ceiling on the way down.”

He set Caio on the couch, who went down bonelessly and held a hand out to Felix. Felix obliged, dropping Caio’s bag next to him on the couch and put some of the snacks close at hand. Caio dug out a bag of kettle corn, tore it open, and ate by the handful. Felix couldn’t stop fucking smiling. 

Jake came hustling down the stairs a few minutes later, patting away some dirt still caked on the side of his jeans. “Hey, look who made it to band practice. How you feeling, Cai?”

Caio gave a thumbs up over his head without turning around, which would have taken a little more effort than it was worth. “I’m here,” he said around a mouthful of popcorn. Jake grinned at Derek and Felix.

“Aw, we got a well-toasted Caio today? That’s a rare treat.” Jake leaned against the back of the couch, stealing a handful of kettle corn from the bag before Caio could stop him, and then, adding injury to insult, gave Caio a little pinch on the cheek. “Look at him. All comfy and relaxed, deep in the munchies. Adorable.”

Derek failed to stifle a laugh. “Man, we should put something funny on later. When was the last time we heard him make that silly little giggle? You know, the one he only ever does when he’s really stoned.”

“I know where he’s ticklish,” Felix volunteered. Caio grunted as he made the effort to turn around, glaring at them with all the edge of a butter knife. 

“You guys are so mean to me,” he complained, wadding up the receipt and throwing it aimlessly at them. It made it about six inches before falling to the floor. Felix snickered first, then Caio next, almost reflexively; before long, all four of them were laughing like idiots over the receipt on the carpet. It felt sickeningly, wonderfully normal, and Felix thought his chest might break apart just hearing Caio laugh so easily. 

“Alright,” Derek said, still trying to suppress his laughter, and wiped a tear from his eye. “Let’s actually play some music. We’ve been wanting to show you how the song’s coming along. Stay awake long enough to give us some feedback, huh?”

Caio settled down with his arms crossed over the back of the couch, his chin resting on top of them. Jake counted them in, and after a few comical false starts, they finally started to play.

It sounded incomplete and half-empty without the keyboard, but they’d been practicing it like this for a few weeks now, and they were really starting to get a grip on the music. They could make it all the way through the song in one go more or less reliably, for one thing, which in itself was an accomplishment.

Felix was too focused on not fucking up the bass line to watch Caio watching them, but when he glanced up in the brief rest between the second chorus and Derek’s solo, Caio was gazing at them in what seemed like total rapture. Felix wished he could capture and crystallize that moment — it seemed to go on forever, frozen out of time, until the crash of Jake’s drums shattered it, and time rushed back in to fill the vacuum.

Felix was out of breath by the time they finished, sweat beading along his hairline, and the three of them looked over to Caio. Caio was sitting up straight now, his chin in his hands, and his eyes glowed with the light of that ten-watt smile from behind his overgrown bangs.

“So how’d that sound?” Jake flipped up his sunglasses and grinned. “Pretty good, huh?”

“Apparently good enough to render you speechless,” Derek said, raising an eyebrow at Caio. “Unless that’s just the weed. What’s with that look? We couldn’t have sounded that good.”

Caio shook his head. “No, you guys sounded fine, it’s just—” He blinked as though trying to clear his vision. “I’ve never watched us play before. I mean — I never knew what we looked like when we play.”

The other three exchanged bemused glances. “And?” Derek said. “How did we look?”

“Like you were having a lot of fun. Like there was nothing else in the world.” Caio seemed to be looking at them in some new light, his eyes raking over the band and their instruments. “Like there was nowhere else you’d rather be.”

Felix beamed like the sun. “Well, there isn’t. Except with you — with you here.”

He could blame the breathlessness on the exertion and exhilaration of playing. Because Caio was right — they were having more fun than Felix could remember having doing anything else in a long time. Caio’s smile seemed to widen by a fraction.

“Let’s give it another run,” Derek said. “Jake, you’re still going off tempo in the chorus. You’ve gotta stop speeding up, man.”

“Wait,” Caio said, and he momentarily disappeared behind the couch while he dug through his bag. He came back up with a folder Felix recognized from the stack of sheet music and score books in Caio’s bedroom. A little bit of excitement leapt into his throat. He’d been dying for Jake and Derek to hear the new part, but he’d quashed the urge to bring it up, not wanting to put Caio on the spot. A younger Felix might have done so in a misguided attempt to galvanize Caio into action. He knew a little better now.

Jake and Derek gave Caio a bemused look, but Derek’s expression lightened. “Hey, you feeling up for playing with us today?”

“Maybe a little bit,” Caio said, making the ill-advised decision to try and clamber over the back of the couch instead of just getting up and walking around, and he was too stubborn to reverse when he was already committed. He half-tumbled harmlessly onto the carpet in a tangle of limbs, clutching the folder in one hand. Felix couldn’t help but let out a snort and extended a hand to Caio to help him up, but Caio got to his feet on his own, dusting off his knees. “I want to play something for you first.”

Felix grinned wildly at Jake and Derek, who raised their eyebrows in turn. Caio didn’t waste any time setting himself down at his keyboard, arranging the sheet music on his stand. Three times in a row he botched the first bar, but then he seemed to finally shift into gear, and he took off from there.

There was a tremendous sense of momentum in Caio’s music that Felix only ever heard when he played alone. It came from the same place as that hidden intensity that so few other people ever looked close enough to see. There was something in Caio that always pulled him forward, that kept setting goal markers even as they burned down ahead of him.

That night Felix had comforted Caio in his room, Caio seemed to have stopped — not at rest but stuck in his tracks, trapped in a ditch of his own debility. But somewhere over the last week, Caio seemed to have finally found his footing, taking one step at a time until he could achieve that forward movement again. Maybe he was still chasing it, but that was beauty in motion, too. It showed in how he played, and Felix felt himself fall in love with Caio just a little more with every note. It wasn’t complex, just a part for a song by an overgrown high school band, but Caio became so absorbed in that snatch of music that he might as well have been playing a concert hall.

Felix couldn’t bring himself to look away until the last note rang out, but when he looked at Jake and Derek, they both had huge grins on their faces. Felix felt a weird, lancing pain through his chest as he realized that he remembered that look. He hadn’t seen it in years, but he clocked it immediately — it was the same stupid excited grin they had when they’d watch Lisa play. Somehow Caio still had no idea just how much they loved him, not yet. But they’d fix that soon. They couldn’t smile like that at anyone they didn’t love at least as much as Lisa.

Caio’s look at Jake and Derek was the same shade of uncertain despite the pleasant haze over him. But he didn’t have to wait for an answer this time, because Jake and Derek immediately surrounded Caio on his piano bench and engulfed him in a hug so crushing that Caio actually let out a squeak. He looked at Felix in comical alarm, but Felix couldn’t help him now — he was laughing too hard.

Jake smushed a wet kiss against the side of Caio’s head and Derek ruffled his hair fondly before they released him, leaving Caio looking a hilariously glazed mix of annoyed and bewildered as he tried to smooth out his hair. The sight was ridiculous — as if Caio’s hair ever looked anything besides scruffy anymore.

“Dude, that fucking whipped,” Jake said with glee, clapping Caio on the back so hard it made him cough. Derek was looking at the sheet music, grinning.

“I can’t believe you wrote a whole new part for our song,” he said. “Is that what you’ve been occupying yourself with the last few weeks?”

Felix, who hadn’t breathed word about Caio’s little meltdown, just grinned and said, “Dude, he wrote that in like, two days.”

“Seriously?” Derek turned that grin on Caio. “Holy shit, Cai.”

Caio was smiling, but with a nervous show of teeth, apparently a little bowled over by this response. Despite Felix’s assurances, he’d clearly been anticipating some resistance. “So, um … you want to use it, then?”

“Of course we do. I bet it’s gonna sound awesome.” Derek’s smile warmed, and he leaned in, squeezing Caio’s shoulder gently. “Lisa would totally have loved it, too. She’d have thought it was so cool that you wrote new music for the band.”

Caio’s expression settled, and his smile softened with a pleased look that made Felix feel like he was witnessing something contraband. He couldn’t help himself — if they were all going in for the hug, couldn’t he too? It was only weird if you made it weird, and Felix made sure not to let it go on too long. The smile on Caio’s face was fully stupid now, even as he pulled his hood over his head in a fit of bashfulness. He didn’t shy away from them, though, and Felix was paralyzed by how heart-rendingly cute he was in that moment.

“You good for a little longer?” asked Derek, already slinging his guitar back over his shoulder. Caio nodded, smoothing his hair away from his face. “Alright, then let’s get moving, gentlemen. We’ve got some catching up to do.”

Caio was good for another few run-throughs of the song before he started to wobble on his bench. Once he tapped out, Derek picked up him up bodily and deposited him on the couch.

“We’re just going to run through it a few more times and then we’ll order lunch,” Derek told him.

“Maybe I’ll get a second wind after,” Caio said. About fifteen minutes later, he was dead asleep on the couch. The combined exertion of concentrating hard enough to play with other people and fighting off the heavy sleepiness of the weed had primed him for a solid nap, and he’d curled up on his side with his hood pulled up, his phone still in his hands. Jake lifted his sunglasses to peer at Caio while Derek rifled through their collection of takeout menus.

“Should we wake him up now?” Jake said. Felix shook his head.

“Nah, just get his usual from wherever we wind up ordering from. His order never changes. Besides, look at him.”

Caio’s thick dark hair was poking out from under his hood, brushing over his closed eyes. The rest of his face was buried in a bunched-up blanket he’d been using as a pillow, but just from what Felix could see, he looked like he was finally at rest, maybe the most comfortable he’d seen Caio all this time.

“He is out cold,” Felix said. “I think he needed the downtime — away from home, I mean. He was getting real stir crazy. He’s probably thrilled just to take a nap at someone else’s house.”

“Yeah,” Derek said, but he was looking at Felix. “We’ll wake him up when the food gets here.”

Caio awoke on his own once Derek brought the pizzas down, blinking blearily as he sat up. His hood fell back, leaving his hair sticking up right on top. Felix’s hand itched to tousle it back into place.

“What did I miss?” Caio still looked sleepy, but he sounded a little more alert than before.

“Nothing important,” Derek said, and set a small pizza box on the coffee table in front of him. “You woke up just in time for the best part.”

“We’ll get some more practice time in with you next time,” Felix said, slapping Jake’s hand away from the pizza slice he was holding. “Come on, man, there is an entire pizza right there. I already took a bite out of this one.”

“You’ve got some freak power, you know?” Jake said accusingly. “You always manage to grab the one slice that’s like, totally loaded with olives.”

“Oh, you just want the olives? Fuck’s sake, you can have them.”

Felix flicked one of the olives off of his pizza at Jake, who tried to catch it with his mouth. He missed, and it plopped greasily onto the carpet. Derek looked at them in impotent exasperation.

“Come on, you guys, Debbie’s new carpet!”

A little fit of muffled laughter erupted from the couch, and all three of them looked over to see Caio laughing helplessly into his hands. It was the stupid little giggle he only ever let out when he was precisely this high. Felix felt his heart leap into his throat, his ears ringing, and Jake took advantage of his momentary distraction to snatch the pizza slice from Felix’s hands and fold half of it into his mouth. Felix shot him a look of venomous disgust. “Oh, what the fuck, man!”

“Oh my God,” Caio said between hiccups of laughter. “We are so still in high school.”

Felix tried to be discreet about it, but he found it hard not to watch Caio. Every time he tried to devote his attention to his pizza and the ambient idle conversation, he found his gaze drift back to the pale, tired little thing balled up in one corner of the couch. The way he picked up his pizza slices by his fingertips, the way Felix was pretty sure he was smiling even when his mouth was a slack line. He didn’t look quite like his troubles had all disappeared, or that his persistent melancholy had been completely cured, no, but today, he looked way less sad.

Derek was looking at their vacant instruments behind the couch, looking deep in thought. “We should record it.”

Caio looked up, blinking. “What?” he said around a mouthful of pizza.

Derek turned back to look at them, an unusual smile on his face. He seemed … buoyant. “The song. We should record it when we finally get it all together.”

“I thought we were just doing this for fun,” Caio said, his brow creasing.

“We are,” Derek said. “If you guys don’t want to, that’s alright. I just think that might be fun, too. It’d be nice to have some proof of all our hard work. Something to look back on.”

“Lisa did say she wanted to record a song of her own one day,” said Felix slowly. He glanced at Caio, who still seemed hesitant, and gave him a small, knowing grin. “Is it ’cause you’re embarrassed to have your voice recorded? You’re really not any worse than me or Derek, you know. You have a pretty … unique voice.”

He just barely bit back the unthinking cute. Caio gave him a truly puzzled look. Felix gestured uselessly.

“It’s all that vocal fry,” he said, but it came out incredibly lame. Derek raised an eyebrow at Felix, which he ignored.

Caio looked like he was still thinking it over, chewing on the sleeve of his hoodie. “Okay,” he said finally. “I mean, it’s not like we’re going to show it to anyone else, right?”

A broad grin lit up Derek’s face like the sun. Felix was nearly blinded by it. It seemed to fluster Caio, who flushed slightly and looked away, and Felix felt an entirely irrational stab of jealousy. It wasn’t like Derek was the ex-boyfriend; Derek was as ace as they came.

“It’s not like there’s any rush on it,” Derek said. “We can take our time with it. The best part is playing with you guys anyway.”

Caio seemed heartened by this. Jake punched Derek’s arm in delight. “Alright! Now we’re cooking with gas. Have we ever been so cool?”

“We have never been cool,” Caio informed him with such dead seriousness that all three of them burst out laughing.

They’d run out of steam for practicing by then, so they watched old Naruto episodes while they ate. Full of food and comfortably nestled on the couch between Derek and Felix, sleepiness was starting to encroach on Caio. Felix felt a little snap of guilty pleasure every time Caio leaned against him.

After a few episodes, when it looked like Caio really was going to fall asleep, Jake checked his phone and got up with a stretch. “Good practice, guys, but this is where I get off. Hey Cai, I promised my dad I’d swing by his place after this, so why don’t I drop you off? You’re on my way.”

“Sure,” Caio said, packing up his pizza box. Well, alright, Felix had been planning on offering a ride to Caio today, but it wasn’t like he had a monopoly.

Derek nodded at Jake. “You go ahead. We’ll finish packing up here.”

“If you’re bailing early, I’m taking all the olive slices home with me,” Felix called after Jake’s retreating back. He started consolidating the pizza boxes while Derek gathered empty soda cans and stray napkins.

“So,” Derek said in a tone so deceptively casual that it genuinely caught Felix off guard, “what happened with you and Caio last week?”

Felix started so badly he nearly upended the loaded pizza box in his lap. Derek only raised an eyebrow at him expectantly.

“Nothing happened,” Felix managed finally, which was, technically, kind of true. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Derek’s eyebrow crept a little higher. Felix cringed at what a pathetic defense that had been.

“Seriously,” he said. “Nothing happened between me and Caio. He — we meant it, when we said we weren’t going to get back together again. So nothing happened, okay? We didn’t hook up or decide to get back together or anything.”

“Oh, I believe that,” Derek said, “considering he didn’t spend the afternoon draped across your lap. But that doesn’t explain you mooning over him all day.”

Felix felt himself flush. “I have not been mooning!”

“My man, I have known you since you were in the sixth grade. You think Jake and I can’t recognize that look on your face from a mile away? You spent all practice staring at him. Sorry, not staring — gazing.”

Felix was torn between indignation, embarrassment, and sheer mortification. He pressed his hands to his face. “Oh my God, do you think he noticed?”

Derek rolled his eyes. “Fortunately for everyone, he was too high to notice anything but a bag of Skittles and half a small pizza. Trust me, you and I both know the vibe would’ve been totally different.”

True. Caio would’ve been uncomfortable, and Felix could still spot that from a mile away. He exhaled, smoothing his hair away from his face. Derek swept all the trash into a plastic bag.

“So what did happen, then? And don’t tell me nothing. ’Cause he seemed an awful lot happier today than the last time I saw him, and I know that wasn’t just the weed. Although I’m sure it helped.”

“I don’t think I can really take credit for that one,” Felix said. Derek’s face still read skeptical, and maybe a little impatient. Felix let out a sigh. “Listen — I’m not sure he wanted me to say anything, but … that night I went over to spring burgers on him, he was in a bad way. Not the way I get in a bad way. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so low, not like that. He seemed totally hopeless. Out of gas. Like this was the end of the line for him. And … he was scared he’d be stuck dealing with it alone. That we’d leave him behind, if he never got any better.”

Derek looked alarmed at first, but then his expression crumpled inward a little, a shadow of doubt and guilt creeping over him. Felix was sure his brain was already churning to the tune of what did we do wrong?

“He was really worried we wouldn’t stick around for him? Even after you guys talked about Lisa?”

“Don’t worry. I set him straight on that one pretty much right away.” Felix rubbed his nose. “But you know he’s always been kind of skittish. And I think he really went through it down there. I don’t think he had friends like us in Philly. And then he just … I don’t know, man, he started crying like he was about to break apart.”

Felix buried his face in his hands and tried to let out a slow, controlled breath. Derek didn’t say anything.

“What was I supposed to do, not hug him? Just watch him bawl his eyes out? Do you know what it takes to make him cry like that?” Felix was feeling close to tears himself just thinking about it. Ugh. “He needed to not be alone. I know I sound like such an asshole saying it right now, but he needed someone to hold him. No one that loved should ever have to feel that alone. And it’s just — what the fuck was I supposed to do?”

He felt Derek’s heavy hand come down on his shoulder, and he looked up, blinking back treacherous tears. Derek’s face was serious, but he was smiling just a little.

“You did exactly what you needed to. You did the right thing. Any one of us would have done the same. I know it’s different for you — differently loaded — but I’m glad you were there for him.”

Felix pulled an awful face as he wiped his eyes on the hem of his shirt. “I can’t believe I ever thought I was over him.”

Derek squeezed his shoulder. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t know it was that bad.”

“Ugh. Me either. It’s so bad, Derek.” Felix sniffed and dug around in his pocket for a tissue. “So, uh, you’re not mad at me?”

“Mad at you? Dude, I was worried about you.” Derek sat back down on the couch, pulling Felix by the back of his shirt. Begrudgingly, Felix allowed himself to fall back next to him. “And about Caio, yeah. But I wasn’t mad at you. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t about to get yourself hurt.”

Felix buried his face in his hands again and groaned. Derek just patted him on the shoulder, then pulled him in for a one-armed hug. Felix allowed it for a few seconds, then shook himself free, rubbing his face.

“Derek, please, I’m trying so hard not to cry right now.” Felix blew out his breath. “I thought — I dunno, I remember how me and Caio were back then. We were mostly on, but we could go hot and cold at the drop of a hat. It must have made you and Jake crazy, having to sit through all that.”

“It did sometimes,” Derek admitted. “It could be a lot of drama, but it was our drama, and you were our best friends. We weren’t going to ditch you guys over that, even if it got awkward from time to time. It’d get boring without you, and we kind of got used to it, honestly. Besides, it’s not like you made each other miserable on purpose. I think it’s probably easier to remember the rough points and the tension, but as far as we could see, you guys mostly made each other happy, even if you never figured out how to do it without hurting each other. You both had jagged edges, and you just kept knocking against each other.”

He smiled faintly. “I’m glad you guys were able to make it a clean break, even if it hurt like hell. But we would’ve been just as happy for you if you’d found a way to make it work, too.”

Felix braced his elbows against his knees and pressed his forehead into his hands, feeling ill. If this were Jake, he could chalk every rattled-off point up to a Kostolitz special, but Derek actually thought before he spoke. There was something about his honesty at times like these that cut more sharply than Jake’s did. Felix was almost certain that he got the tough love treatment from Derek more than the others did. He seemed to need it more than any of them, at any rate.

“I’m sorry it all came rushing back at you like that. I cannot imagine how shitty that feels,” Derek said. “But I guess it does make sense. After Caio moved, you didn’t really have to work out how to just be his friend. You just had to put him away.”

Felix let out an agonized gurgle. Bull’s eye, every word. Derek patted him on the shoulder.

“You guys survived each other for ten years. You’ll survive this too. No doubt it’s gonna take time, and it’s not gonna be easy. But — you will get through it. Your and Caio’s friendship really is that strong, and you know it too. And until then … you’re not alone, you know? This is exactly what friends are for.”

“I can’t believe you can say that shit with a straight face,” Felix said, wiping his eyes again. “Goddammit, dude, I told you I’m trying not to cry here.”

“Embrace the moment,” Derek said, ruthlessly tousling Felix’s hair. “If the tears wanna come, who are you to say no? It’s not like you’ll feel any better holding them back. All you’ll wind up with is a tsunami on hold.” He stopped as Felix stared up at him. “What’s that look for?”

“It’s just — you really reminded me of Lisa just now.” Felix sniffled, refusing to give in to the tears. This didn’t make it easier. “Dunno if you were hearing yourself just now, but that was a Lisa classic pep talk. Straight out of her playbook.”

“I guess one of us had to take it up,” Derek said. “Jake’s only ever good at this by accident, and you’re usually the one who needs the pep talks.”

Felix rolled his eyes, but he bumped his shoulder against Derek’s. “And what about when you need a pep talk, huh?”

Derek bumped him right back, smiling. “Me? Oh, I got three different people knocking down my door the second they think something’s wrong.”

He laughed quietly, and Felix huffed out a laugh too, smoothing his hair back from his face. He’d become gradually more cognizant of the fact that since he’d finally shown Caio the last skeleton in their closet, they talked about Lisa more than they used to outside of her birthday.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, you know? What she’d say if she were here now.” Tears were a foregone conclusion by now; Felix surrendered himself to the tide. “I feel shitty saying this, but the first time Caio and I broke up was the most I’d missed her since she died. She was there for me for my first unbelievably awful first breakup, and I just remember thinking … fuck, how am I supposed to get through this without her?”

He had lain in his bed for nights in the aftermath, whispering questions like prayers into his pillow, a breathy refrain of what do I do, what do I do until he tired himself out crying enough to fall asleep.

“Do you think things might have gone differently if she were still around?” It was not a question Felix had ever permitted himself to put into words. Even now, it felt like sacrilege. “Like things with me and Caio, and … you know.”

He chanced a look back at Derek, half-expecting to see a grimace, but Derek’s brow was furrowed. “It’s impossible to say,” he said. “I mean — things would’ve been different, for sure. Just knowing Lisa would have changed Caio. It changed all of us. And she’d have changed, too. With time, and meeting Caio, and everything else. You can’t forget that.”

“Yeah,” said Felix, who was realizing now that he forgot that all the time.

“I think it’s easy to forget sometimes that she didn’t grow up with us,” Derek said. “We’ve just been carrying her with us this whole time. But the Lisa we remember — she’s just a kid, even if she seemed like so much more to us. Who knows what fifteen or so years would have done to her? It’s just impossible to say. But to answer the question you’re really asking…”

Derek leaned forward, his elbows braced on his knees. “I don’t know if it would have made a difference with you and Caio. That was always up to the two of you in the end.”

Felix rubbed his face, trying to determine if the churning in his belly was relief or existential dread. But it started to settle, and as he turned over his memory of Lisa in his mind, all the words of comfort and reason he’d dreamed she’d say to him vanished like so much smoke. Felix didn’t hear any click in his mind, but he experienced the unsettling sensation of coming unmoored from something. He somehow felt lighter, and there was no bitter taste lingering on the back of his tongue. They had always been his words anyway.

“Thanks, man. I mean it. I’m—” Felix gestured uselessly, then threw up his hands. “Man, I’m totally fucking lost without you guys.”

Derek grinned as he got back to his feet. “Yeah, well, I think we can all say the same. Good thing no one’s planning on going anywhere.”

He held out a hand to help Felix up. “Listen, I know it’s a Sunday, but it’s still early. Why don’t we pick up some beer on the way to your apartment? I’ll make sure you get to bed on time, don’t worry. I’ll crash on your couch and hop the bus back to my place in the morning.”

Felix knew that once again his ego was being spared by someone who knew he didn’t really want to be alone for the rest of the night, that he probably needed to not be alone. Derek could be sneaky like that — the beer was a suggestion, but he’d be sleeping on Felix’s couch at the end of the night regardless. Felix clasped his hand around Derek’s and silently counted all the blessings still in his life.

=== 

Caio phased back into their regular band practice with ease, and he made it more days than not, even if he sometimes spent half of it asleep. He seemed to have finally shed his relapse into reticence and self-consciousness and was letting himself impose on them again. It was a relief to Felix, and more than that, it was a selfish delight to know that Caio wanted to be around him. 

Caio really did seem a little less down now, not quite buoyant, but certainly lighter. Felix knew he had to still be feeling frustrated about how limited his prospects seemed to be, and he was certainly still mourning the remnants of his life in Philly — that wasn’t something soothed away by burgers and one really good cry. It would take Caio time to really heal from that loss and figure out how to live his life from here, just like it was going to take Felix some time to really lay his feelings to rest for good this time. And then they’d really figure out how to be whole people in each other’s lives again, some of those jagged edges finally worn smooth.

Admittedly, it felt like that time was an eternity away. It was maddening — the more Caio seemed to come back into himself, the more Felix was fiercely reminded of why he loved Caio so much in the first place. He smiled just a little more easily now than he had a few months ago, and Felix drank every one in like a man in the dark greedy for sunshine. It was agonizing to be so close to Caio knowing there was a permanent gulf between them, however small, but a horrible little part of him lived for every minute of it. It was a little like one of his hypomanic episodes — he couldn’t help but want to linger in it, even knowing how hard he’d crash. Someone ought to have revoked Caio’s license to do this shit to his brain by now.

Despite his initial hesitation, the decision to record their song seemed to have spurred Caio on. Maybe he needed a tangible goal — something to set his sights on again, however small. He was a new kind of beautiful when he played like this, throwing himself into the music as hard as Felix had ever seen him throw himself at anything. Caio worked at it fiercely, and before long he stitched his sound into their quilt, the keyboard piece settling in at home with the rest of the music.

At some point that escaped definition, it went from practice to simply playing. Not nearly always a perfect run, but they could play without stopping to fix the mistakes — and the mistakes got fewer and smaller. As the end of summer began to approach, they were coming more and more into their music.

It was about damn time to try recording the song.

They briefly considered renting time in a recording studio at first, but it was far from cheap, and while they probably could have afforded it between the four of them, they were collectively intimidated by how little they actually knew about the process. They were just four overgrown kids fucking around with instruments. That was fine, though — it wasn’t as though they needed a professional master. The garage band sound was good enough for them.

Only they didn’t have a garage to play in, and they’d have to turn the volume up considerably from practice levels to get a recording. They had a basement in a house that didn’t belong to them, inhabited by three very rowdy and excitable dogs, and they had no practical idea of how long it was going to take them to record one solid take of the song.

It just happened that Debbie was out of town one weekend, leaving the house at the mercy of Bekah and the band. Jake’s stepmom had been championing their little musical cause ever since Jake had explained it to her over Shabbat dinner early on. While she hadn’t known Jake long enough to have known Lisa, it was clear to her how important this one song was to all of them. It turned out that she’d been in a band once herself — just a year in high school with nothing tangible left to show for it now, but there was something powerful about playing music with other people that never left you, no matter the time. 

“You’ll be at it a couple of hours, probably,” Bekah said, tapping one long, pink-gelled nail on the kitchen island after dinner. Derek had started to clean up the dishes and load the dishwasher automatically, and Felix, unwilling to suffer long under the weird peer pressure guilt of not helping, quickly followed suit. “Even if you magically get one perfect take right away, you’ve still got setup and sound check and getting everything right. And then you’ll need time for the afterparty, of course.”

Bekah lifted one exquisitely penciled eyebrow at the returning blank looks. “Please tell me you’ve thought about the afterparty. You’re recording your first ever song as a band, in memory of a dear departed friend, hello? You’re going to feel like celebrating after.”

Jake was nodding along. “She has an excellent point.”

“So I will let you use this basement tomorrow night, while my wife is not here to complain about the ruckus, and I will keep the dogs company upstairs while you rock out, under two conditions.” Bekah held up two fingers. “I get to listen to the song when it’s done. I don’t care how bad it is. I will not laugh, God strike me down, but you have to show it to me.”

The four of them exchanged glances. Felix sought out Caio’s face first — he was always the shyest of them, but he looked okay with it.

“Yeah, I think we can do that,” Jake said with a goofy grin. Caio looked like he might smile, too.

“What’s condition number two?” Felix said. Bekah pointed a pink claw at Caio.

“I’d like a hit or two off that pipe when you’re smoking on the patio. If you’ve got enough to spare, of course.”

Caio blinked in surprise and then shrugged in assent. “Oh, um, sure. I don’t mind.”

Bekah broke out into a sparkling grin. Despite the fact that she was Jake’s stepmom of only a few years, there was an almost uncanny family resemblance between the two of them. It was all those teeth in the smile, Felix decided.

“Oh, you’re a sweetie. I’ve been down to crumbs for days now. Jakey, this one’s my new favorite.” She planted a fat kiss on Caio’s forehead, who looked embarrassed and caught off guard, but not too uncomfortable.

Derek placed a hand on his chest with a totally unconvincing wounded look. “Et tu, Bekah?” He sighed and looked at Caio. “Guess I’ve been unseated.”

Bekah blew him a kiss. “You can win it back if you can convince Debbie not to paint the upstairs accent wall that hideous shade of slate gray. Bring her some swatches, she’ll never know what hit her.”

Derek put his hands up. “Oh, no, I’ve long since learned not to get between a Kostolitz and their interior decorating choices. I’ll settle for second place here.”

“So sensible, this one,” Bekah sighed fondly. “Alright, so we have a deal, boys? And I mean it about that afterparty. What you’re doing is worth a little celebration.”

*

V

When Felix arrived at the house the following afternoon, it was with a six-pack of Gansett, the one good bottle of tequila he kept in his apartment, and a couple of limes — plus his bass and an extra amp unearthed in his mom’s storage unit.

Jake helped him unload it from his car and gave Felix a disappointed look over the rims of his sunglasses. “All you brought is a six-pack? Dude, there’s four of us.”

“And tequila,” said Felix in protest. “And Caio can’t drink beer, and I had better not be the only one who brought booze.”

“Bekah’s donating the use of her basement bar for the night,” Jake said with a broad grin.

“Which we will be replenishing for her as thanks for facilitating all of this,” said Derek pointedly as he relieved Jake of the amp and started for the basement stairs. “Besides, we can always make a beer run later if we need to.”

The space in the basement had grown accustomed to being host to a little pile of equipment and instruments, but it was starting to grow crowded with the addition of three mic stands and the extra amp for Caio’s keyboard. They’d had to shove the furniture into a cozier arrangement closer to the TV to make room for Jake’s laptop perched on a rolling desk, far back enough to pick up the audio without blowing it out immediately.

As Felix set the six-pack down in the mini fridge, Caio emerged from the lavette, wiping damp hands on the hem of his hoodie. His face brightened with a sliver of a smile when he saw Felix, which damn near knocked Felix’s legs out from under him. The problem was, despite Derek’s unconditional support and more than one night on his couch, Felix had no idea where to begin when it came to putting his feelings to rest. Derek had been kind enough not to suggest he ask Jake for advice, although Felix was starting to suspect that this shit was exactly what therapy was for.

“You hype for the big show?” Felix said with a grin. Caio coughed out a dusty little laugh.

“Yeah. It’s gonna be pretty awesome, I think.” He sounded as lukewarm as ever, but in Caio-speak, with that smile, this was high-level excitement. Excellent. As long as Caio was in good spirits, this night couldn’t possibly go wrong.

“Hey Cai, give me a hand with these,” Jake said, patting the plush cushions on the couch. Caio helped pull them up so Jake could wedge them up in the basement windowsills.

“Is this what you meant when you said ‘acoustic treatment’?” Felix said, eyebrows raised. 

“Hey man, don’t knock it if it works. We’re not going for the big bucks here.”

“The basement’s not really a bad place to record if we’re gonna do it like this,” Caio said. “The carpet helps a lot. And Derek set up an old mattress behind us to absorb some of the echo. It might actually sound pretty okay.”

“We’ll find out once we do sound check,” Derek said, and he was grinning too. Felix wasn’t the only one pleased to have Caio in what passed for a chatty mood. “We’ve got pizzas on the way. Should be enough to carry us through the night. Bekah went a little overboard on the snack front, so I don’t think anyone’s at risk of going hungry.”

“Your stepmom’s really into our band, huh?” Felix said to Jake. “Vicariously reliving her wasted youth?”

Jake shrugged as he wiggled the last couch cushion into place. “Pot, kettle.”

“Yeah, fair enough.”

“I’m going upstairs for a smoke,” Caio said, rooting around in his bag for the pencil case he kept his pipe and grinder in. “I promised Bekah, and I need to smoke before the food gets here anyway.”

“Mind if I get in on that?” Felix said. Bekah would be there as a buffer, so there was no danger of prolonged awkward alone time. And it wasn’t like he could keep avoiding being alone with Caio forever — sooner or later Caio would clock that something was up; it was only by the grace of God that he hadn’t seemed to notice so far. Felix was going to have to learn how to be alone with him all over again sometime. Maybe smoking pot with him and their best friend’s vibrator-peddling stepmom was a good first step.

“Sure,” Caio said, tucking the pencil case into his hoodie pocket, and Felix followed him upstairs, where Bekah was pouring herself a glass of white wine over frozen grapes. She waved them out onto the patio, where Caio set about packing a fresh bowl with the same meticulous focus as always.

He politely offered the first hit to their gracious host, who turned out to be the first person Felix or Caio had ever seen actually make smoke rings, and they passed the pipe around amongst idle chatter, though it was Caio doing most of the smoking. It wasn’t too bad, and it helped that Bekah was genuinely interested in what they were doing. Felix kept away any giddy thoughts of indirect kisses with the reminder that they were sharing the pipe with Jake’s stepmom.

Bekah got up to refresh her drink and Felix braced himself for discomfort, but even as the glass door slid shut behind them, the quiet air in the yard didn’t rise with tension. Maybe the couple of hits he’d taken were helping smooth it out, though he’d stopped before it made him too silly. Caio seemed as comfortable as he ever was here, tapping out the ash to pack a second bowl. The first had been for sharing; this one was to ensure Caio’s appetite.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Caio said, his words breaking the silence like a soft tap on the window. Felix felt his stomach go into suspended animation, stuck on the moment just before the rollercoaster dropped, trying to remember everything he’d said to Caio recently. Caio’s gaze was fixed on his pipe, his voice thin and reedy as ever, but steady. “When you said you wished you had bigger dreams. That the only thing you ever really wanted was to be around your friends.”

“Yeah,” said Felix, who could not for the life of him see where Caio was going with this. “Pretty lame, huh?”

Caio’s brow furrowed. “Why do you say that?”

Felix gestured at the house behind them and the cozy suburb packed in around them. “Pretty sure by our age, you’re supposed to want one of these.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” Caio said. “I don’t get why you’re so hung up on having a big dream now. I mean, I guess I used to think everyone had one, or else needed one, just to keep living. But lately … I don’t know. I think maybe that’s just me. New perspective, I guess.”

He talked around the edges of the conversation they’d had in his room that night, packing the flower into the bowl of his pipe and carefully sweeping the excess back into his grinder. 

“I don’t think you need to want anything bigger. I think a lot of people end up in houses like this because they think they’re supposed to.” Caio picked up his pipe and lighter, leaning slightly to shield the flame from the breeze. “I think if what you really want in life is in reach, you should take it.”

Felix managed to keep his smile from becoming too fixed, watching the thing he really wanted in life take a deep pull on the pipe and blow smoke into the wind. Caio coughed, the breeze picking at the ends of his hair so that they seemed to dance with the movement. Felix reached out a hand just as Caio looked up, blinking against the afternoon sun.

Felix’s fingers grazed against Caio’s as he nicked the cherried pipe from Caio’s hand. “Yeah, well, what I really want in life right now is this right here, so I’m taking it.”

Felix must have caught Caio at a weird angle, because he looked momentarily off balance, but he let out a dusty laugh as Felix brought the pipe to his lips. “Just don’t overdo it. We’re recording in a little while.”

“What, you think I can’t play that bassline stoned?”

“I think weed is the only arena I’m not a lightweight in, and probably the only drug I can say I know better than you. And I know way better than you.”

It was good to see Caio stubborn and contrary. Those were signs of life. Felix hissed out a thick cloud of white smoke but choked at the end, hacking like a first time smoker — so alarming was the sound, apparently, that Bekah came running back out and thrust her wine glass at him. Felix, mistaking it for water for absolutely no good reason, took a gulp before nearly choking on Bekah’s riesling. It wasn’t until Caio pushed a water bottle into his hand that he realized he was being laughed at.

“You always do this,” Caio said. “You try to take these deep pulls just to show off and wind up coughing your lungs out.”

Caio was covering his laughter with his free hand, as though those small fingers could hide that smile. Felix felt a little rush of euphoria that had nothing to do with the weed.

“A lab rat would have learned by now,” he said blithely, and Caio’s laughter turned to a snicker. Felix just grinned wider. It was excruciating how badly he wanted to kiss Caio right now, but watching him laugh like that, lighter than he’d been in months … Felix could learn to live with this. He could already see the overlay of joy and pain and how he could separate them, like splitting the colors of an image. These moments were to live for, no matter in what constellation they aligned themselves.

“Come on,” Felix said as the pipe’s embers burned down to ashes. “Pizza’s almost here, I bet. You ready to record your first ever song?”

===

Pizza round one was strictly functional in nature. Possessed by their collective drive to reach this point — or maybe by the spirit of their memory of Lisa — they were already plugging in equipment between bites. Jake somehow managed to eat an entire slice hands-free while he arranged the microphones in front of their instruments.

Derek and Caio spent a few minutes futzing with the keyboard amp while Jake zipped over to set everything up on his laptop, yelling across the room at Felix for sound check. There was a buzzing energy in the room, a slow crescendo of excitement and anticipation that had even Caio a little more animated. Before long, they were more less set up to record.

Felix’s hands felt inexplicably clammy as he picked up the sticker-papered yellow P bass. It was his bass too now, but it would never stop being Lisa’s bass — especially tonight. They were playing a song they played at least three nights a week with no more of an audience than usual, but he was especially conscious of his heartbeat as Jake hit record, raced over to the drums, and counted them in.

The first run, they got all the way through the intro before they beefed it, all four collectively forgetting both how to play and sing as soon as they hit the first verse. The next time, Jake lost the tempo after four bars and sent the rest of them spiraling into an out-of-time cacophony. The fourth time Felix tripped over the opening bassline, he stopped playing altogether and let out a muffled scream into his hands while Jake leapt across the room to stop the recording yet again. 

Caio’s brow was furrowed, his mouth puckered as he paged through his sheet music and tried blocking out the chords again. “Maybe we’re not ready,” he said uncertainly. Derek shook his head and unslung his guitar.

“Alright, that’s enough of that.” He shouldered Jake out of the way at the laptop. “We’re snowballing, guys, that’s all. We’re all thinking too hard about the performance instead of just playing the music. Every time we have to stop and reset it just makes it worse. It throws us out of any groove we might have been and then we’ve got to start from square one all over again.”

“So we give up on recording, then?” Felix grimaced. Derek let out a scoff.

“No, asshole, we do not give up. Have you listened to the song we’ve been playing? Giving up is strictly not allowed.” Derek cleared out the file of their last botched attempt and armed the track for recording. “I’m setting this to record and leaving it alone. Now forget it’s there. Just play like we always do. Have fun. We’ll just keep going until we get a good take.”

He grinned at them, and the air in the basement seemed suddenly refreshed. Caio sat up a little straighter on his bench. Felix pulled his bass back into place as Derek picked his guitar back up. They started to play once Derek hit record, and they fell over the first verse a few more times, but they just kept playing, and it was working: they started to forget that Jake’s laptop was even there, playing through their mistakes instead of getting tangled up in them. The music moved forward, and pulled them along with it.

There was something to be said for the way their newly amplified instruments and voices filled the entire basement, until nothing was left but them and their sound — there was no lacking for air, because all they needed to breathe was in the music. They’d always kept the volume at a respectable level out of consideration for the fact that they were borrowing someone else’s basement, but playing with the volume all the way up, throwing all their weight into their voices — even Caio was shouting his little heart out — it felt like they were in one of those basement punk shows in Boston Felix had used to go to, or the all-ages clubs they’d frequented with Lisa. Felix hadn’t felt this much like a kid since the summer of Caio’s college graduation, when they’d spent the entire drive back down to Providence belting out anime theme songs with the windows rolled down. He leaned into every second of it. It was incredibly freeing, that what they were doing now was something they easily could have been doing in high school, less a few years’ musical experience and organizational skills.

Before long, the basement started to get hot and sweaty — Jake had disabled the A/C for the recording, and all the windows were blocked off by the couch cushions, but it only intensified the faux nostalgia for a stage they’d never stood on. It didn’t matter that they were playing to an empty room; Felix could feel the smile he knew would be on Lisa’s face if she were here right now.

Felix quickly lost count of how many times they played through the song. As the last guitar note faded and then squealed out, Felix dropped his hands from his bass, panting. It wasn’t until he stopped playing that he noticed his fingertips were raw and stinging. He looked over at the rest of the band, who looked equally adrenaline-fueled but running a little low. Even Caio, who’d probably done the least moving of all of them, was flushed bright pink with exertion. 

“Holy shit, you guys. I think that was it.” Felix wiped the sweat off his face with his shirt and blew out a breath. “Is it just me or was that perfect?”

“It fucking ruled,” Jake said, and he was on top of Felix before he could defend himself. He pinned Felix with a sweaty hug and planted a big kiss on his cheek. Felix tried to squirm away, but those wiry arms were deceptively strong. “You guys, we totally nailed it. I didn’t miss a beat. We were perfect.”

Derek was chugging down half a bottle of water, the front of his shirt stained through with sweat. Caio got up from his piano bench and promptly sat back down on the floor, looking dazed and out of breath. Maybe in need of some pizza, too. Felix rolled a chilled bottle of water across the floor into his limp hand. Caio blinked owlishly at it and gave Felix a heavy nod of thanks before twisting the cap off with hands that shook just slightly. He closed his eyes as he drank, his chest rising and falling with his labored breathing. It was one of those just slightly oversized shirts of his, the ones that had the tendency to nearly slip off his shoulder and expose his collarbone and sweat-slicked skin. He looked like he was having all the fun in the world, that ten-watt smile illuminating his face with the closest thing to bliss he could manage. Felix beamed like the sun at him, forgetting all about distance and discretion.

“We got it, baby,” Jake said, bent over his laptop. “It’s a nice clean take, too, no chatter at the start or anything.”

“Awesome,” Felix said, his gaze still snagged on Caio. “Now make that supercut and trash the rest. We’ve gotta listen to this.”

“Are you kidding me? There’s an hour and a half of us just goofing around and having fun on here.” Jake’s grin was impossibly wide. “That shit’s going in the cloud.”

Derek called Bekah down to the basement — they had an agreement, after all — and Jake hit play while they all rehydrated, crowded around the laptop in the sweat-thick air. Felix’s heart was still pounding but he was too delirious with adrenaline and triumph to feel anxious. Caio, though, was staring at the screen with intent eyes, biting his lower lip.

It was loud, and the balance between their voices and instruments was kind of wonky, but you could mostly make out the lyrics in their shouted chorus, overlapping the harmonies between their instruments and the warmth that rang out from them. Felix felt a tangled mix of emotions well up in his chest — he felt like he was going to cry from the force of it — and as he drew in a breath, he looked up to see the others all wearing the same look of rapture and awe.

Jake had taken off his sunglasses, and Felix could see that there were tears standing in his eyes above his deliriously happy, goofy grin. Derek’s eyes were dry but wide and fixed, his mouth open in a bewildered smile, one hand clamped around Jake’s arm, just so he had something to hold onto. Felix could tell just by looking that they were thinking of Lisa while they listened. How could they not?

Caio was watching with wide eyes too, stunned into breathlessness. He was leaning towards the laptop slightly, as though trying to get closer to the music — he looked like he’d reach out and touch it if he could. He blinked, and Felix saw that tears were welling up slowly in his eyes as the recording sailed into the chorus. He was listening intently, focusing only on this moment, and as the chords landed swiftly on C7, his lips parted slightly, just enough to suck in a tiny breath.

It was a little thing, that one chord, but Felix knew that for Caio, it was the first goal he’d set for himself that he’d managed to plant his flag on in a long time. Felix felt so stupidly proud and happy for Caio in that moment that he wanted to yell and hug him, shake him bodily, high five him, whatever — but he couldn’t bring himself to pop the bubble of Caio’s rapture. He could see himself reflected in its iridescent surface, shining just as bright, and he lifted a hand to wipe away his own tears.

There was a beat of silence once the track ended, a moment without breath. But then Jake let out a whoop and thumped Derek on the back so hard it actually sent him coughing and Bekah threw her arms around Caio and Felix’s necks both and planted congratulatory kisses on their cheeks, then released them to move onto the other two. Caio looked faintly embarrassed, rubbing his cheek, but he was smiling. Felix couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Caio smile this much.

“We did it,” Derek said, still looking at the laptop in awe and disbelief. He turned to Felix and shook him by the shoulders. “Holy shit, Felix, we actually did it. We finished Lisa’s song.”

Felix grinned like a man who knew he wasn’t done crying for the night. “She’d be losing her mind with us right now. She’d burn it onto five different CDs and we’d be hearing it in her car for weeks.”

“We should put it up somewhere,” Caio said suddenly. “Like on Bandcamp or something.”

Derek and Felix exchanged a surprised glance and looked at Caio, whose gaze slid to the laptop, a hint of self-consciousness dimming his features.

“I know I said I didn’t want to show it to anyone else. But…” He looked back at them cautiously. “Um, I don’t know, it just seems like … Lisa would’ve wanted to put it out there.”

Felix was beaming like the sun, but Derek gave Caio an uncertain look. “Are you sure? We really don’t have to, you know. We did it for us, after all, and it’s your song too.”

“I know,” Caio said with a shrug. “I’m okay with it. It’s not like we’re trying to go viral or anything. I just think we should put it out there.” Caio cast a shy look at Felix that made his heart do an extra lap around his chest. “And I think it would be cool if more people knew about who Lisa was.”

“A story about her that isn’t an obituary,” Derek said, and his voice was choked despite the uncontrollable smile on his face. Felix clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“A story about us, too,” he said, and looked over at Caio. He met Felix’s eye contact dead-on and unblinking. “About all of us. And if you want to put that out there — then fuck yeah, I’m all for it.”

“Hey, so what am I saving this file as?” Jake called from his laptop.

“New song?” Caio suggested, uninspired, at the same time Derek rattled back, “Document 1.” Felix erupted into laughter so hard he had to grab the side of the sofa to keep himself from going down.

“Oh my God,” he wheezed. “We’ve been working on this song for months — months — and we never even thought about giving it a name. Or the band!”

He had to sit down. It was just too fucking funny. He was crying with laughter, arms wrapped around his stomach. “Holy shit, you guys, we forgot to give our band a name.”

Derek threw back his head and started laughing hard enough to shake the room, and Jake let out a hoot of his own. Caio looked at all three of them, his eyes unusually bright.

“What about the Deerbrook High Anime Club?”

Felix was still trying to control his laughter and get his wind back, hiccuping chuckles. “The what now?”

“I mean, it’s what we are, right?” A little laugh fell from Caio’s mouth. “That’s how you guys introduced yourselves to me in high school. It’s pretty much what we’ve always been.”

Derek, Jake and Felix traded identical grins that made Caio’s face light up. 

“Hell yeah it is,” Jake said. “So what about the song?”

“The Deerbrook High Anime Club Theme Song,” Felix said, to a good-natured snicker from Derek. “Or Document 1. Whatever. We can think of a better title later. My brain is fried and I am ready to get more or less responsibly fucked up.”

“Who’s ready for an afterparty?” Jake whooped and closed his laptop.

Bekah held up a hand. “Before any partying goes on down here, you’re taking those cushions down and airing this place out. Forget the pot — if this place still smells like a locker room when your mother gets back, we will never hear the end of it.”

“Box fans on full blast,” Jake promised, hands pressed together. “Derek, help me get these things down so we can get a little fresh air in here. Can you guys grab the pizzas from the upstairs fridge? And the snacks.”

Before long, the afterparty was underway, and there was something intensely nostalgic about a pizza party in Jake’s mom’s basement, distinguishing itself from high school only by the addition of drugs and alcohol and the instruments now resting quietly in the background of their revelry. After a couple of hours of nothing but music, they attacked the pizza with vigor and broke into the beer almost immediately.

Jake channeled a mood-appropriate Spotify playlist through the fancy new TV and dimmed the lights, and as the leading dirty guitars of “Sobakasu” rang out in the basement, it really started to feel like an afterparty. House parties were loud, disjointed, semi-anonymous; this was small and intimate, an atmosphere generated only by the four of them here together. Inspired by the mood — it felt just right now — Felix pulled three shot glasses out of the stained-wood cabinets and set them on the bar next to his bottle of tequila and limes.

“Where does your stepmom keep the salt?” he said, peering through the little cupboards. When he saw the label on Bekah’s own tequila he cringed, glad he’d brought his own. He answered his own question before long and pulled out a shaker of coarse kosher salt. “Alright, gentlemen, it’s tequila shot time. Just one round, I promise, but it is traditional.”

“Just one,” Derek affirmed, but he was smiling. The lighting was low enough that Jake had finally discarded his sunglasses to the side table for the evening, and his smile stretched all the way to the corners of his eyes.

Caio pulled himself up on a bar stool next to Derek, his hands flat on the bartop. “Me too,” he said. Jake cocked an eyebrow at him.

“I thought you had to quit drinking. Doesn’t just one drink make you all pukey now?”

“I just smoked a bowl,” Caio said with a shrug. “It’s not as bad as long as I’m crossfaded. Plus I just ate. Besides, I’m feeling good today. I can do it.”

He didn’t look “good” today — he looked a little peaky after all that playing and like he might topple over where he sat, but no one was going to argue with him if he said he was fine.

“Four it is.” Felix set another shot glass down and started slicing a lime into wedges. Bekah’s basement bar was an interior decorator’s wet dream — she even had a little knife block with blades sharpened to precision. “You still remember how to do a tequila shot?”

Caio responded with a roll of his eyes, which only made Felix grin. It pleased him to know that he could still elicit those particular little reactions from Caio.

Salt, tequila, lime — it was the ritual of it that had made it a celebratory tradition. They had always found comfort in rituals. Caio’s went down smoother than Felix expected, while he himself choked suddenly on a squirt of lime juice that shot itself directly down his throat. He wound up doubled over coughing with such alarming vigor that Derek went around the bar to pound him on the back, while Jake laughed and Caio leaned across the bar and watched with wide dark eyes and slightly parted lips.

They fucked around like any old night but with more alcohol, surfing through Netflix while ostensibly trying to decide on a game to play, but getting caught up in the idle tide of easy conversation. That was what it was — Felix hadn’t felt this easy in ages, relaxed and stupid and happy. Even with Caio in his heart’s orbit, he couldn’t bring himself to feel too agonized over it. He had to curb the urge here and there to be overly affectionate, old reflexes that were no longer appropriate, but he’d been spending enough time with Caio as just friends that even increasingly drunk, Felix managed to check himself every time. He was just happy to have Caio there.

Caio looked happy to be there, too. Even when he wasn’t smiling, Felix could tell — he had a certain heavy-lidded look when he was amused, or maybe it was the way he tucked himself so comfortably into the corner of the couch in a nest of blankets and snacks. He was always the most unobtrusive one, often quiet but never entirely silent. He smiled more easily tonight, too.

Felix knew that odds were Caio would be paying for his indiscretions tomorrow, but he had clearly done the mental math and deemed it worth the price. It was good just to see him enjoy himself like this. When was the last time Caio had gotten to party with friends? A real party like this, with drinks and music and everything? Watching Caio fumble for his phone as Jake pulled up some party games on the PS4, Felix realized he must have been desperate for this. He must have been looking forward to this part at least as much as the music.

Caio’s phone hit the carpet with a dull thump and Felix bent to pick it up, holding it out to Caio. “You want I should duct tape that to your hand?”

Caio rolled his eyes in response, but Felix felt a little shock of joy when his fingers brushed Caio’s in handing the phone over. He was drunk — they all were, although Caio was more stoned than anything — but it only made these little moments feel all the more starkly real.

They played until they were too faded for any more Fibbage, and Jake went back to Netflix surfing while Derek got off the couch, leaving open space between Felix and Caio. Derek returned with a cold bottle of water from the mini fridge.

“You’re looking a little green there,” he said, offering it to Caio. “You alright?”

Caio looked like he was about to spout another I’m fine, but he just made a face. Derek pressed the bottle into his hands.

“It’s not that bad,” Caio said, nursing the cold water. “I stopped drinking already. Alcohol, I mean.”

“Good. Just so you know, you can smoke down here, okay? For tonight, anyway. We left all the windows open, and Bekah won’t care.”

“Ooh, what happened to Mr. Debbie’s brand-new carpet?” said Felix. Derek pointedly ignored him.

“More water, more weed if you need it. And it’s your turn to pick something. Everyone else is here is all fucked up on decision paralysis.”

“For real,” said Jake, who had cycled through Bekah’s entire watch list eight times. Caio raised a hand.

“I want smash-smash,” he said. It was only when he tried to enunciate that he actually sounded drunk.

Jake looked over from the TV. “What now?”

There was a beat, then Felix and Derek both laughed.

“Oh, he means Smashed Smash,” Felix said, laughing into his hand. “Shit, remember? We used to do this all the time when he was sick in college.”

“Whenever we’d party and he couldn’t, he’d make us play Smash Bros once we were good and drunk,” Derek said, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t be shocked if you don’t remember any of it. We were always really hammered.”

“He likes watching us get pounded by the AI,” Felix said with a sidelong glance at Caio, who only smiled slowly.

“It’s really funny.”

“Aw, what the hell. I got my Switch right here.” Jake grinned. “Let’s make some new memories that I may or may not retain.”

Smashed Smash had no diminished effect on Caio from the last time they’d done this — it drew his laughter out so easily that it made Felix wonder what Caio’s friends in Philly had been like. He must have had good friends, or he wouldn’t have liked living there so much, but he couldn’t have had friends like them. Not because Felix believed that they were the only real friends that Caio could have, but because of how hungry Caio seemed to be for it now. Starving for the comfort of nostalgia, something he’d been missing all this time. He looked so stupidly happy.

They got one freak victory in by the time they needed to refresh their drinks, but for the most part, they were eating shit, and Caio was loving it. It was fun to play drunk anyway, especially when Felix wasn’t trying particularly hard to win.

“Ah, shit. That was the last of the Gansett,” Derek said, bent over the mini fridge. Jake jumped to his feet.

“Beer run,” he announced grandly, but Derek caught him by the collar.

“Not by yourself, you’re not. I’ll go with.”

“You sure?” Felix glanced at the clock. Definitely not too late for a beer run, but they weren’t in any condition to drive. “It’s a little bit of a hike.”

“It’s less than a mile. It’s really not that bad.” Derek rooted around for his shoes. “Besides, my legs could use a stretch, and it’s nice out. And someone has to make sure this goofball doesn’t get distracted and wander off in search of a hot dog stand.”

“That was one time!”

“You’re right. The second time it was a halal truck.” Derek rolled his eyes and nodded at the pair on the couch. “You guys okay for a bit?”

“We’re fine,” Felix said, knowing that he was the one Derek was really asking, as Caio inched out of his nest and reached for Jake’s abandoned controller. Jake kissed both of their heads before bolting up the stairs for his shoes, Derek hopping after him with only one sneaker on.

Felix turned back to the TV to see that Caio had populated the fight with several NPCs at max difficulty. “Oh, come on!”

Caio only scooted closer, smiling expectantly through the haze. “This is outrageous,” Felix said, shaking his controller at the TV. “This is an abuse of power. Why don’t you try playing faded for once?”

“Can’t,” Caio said with perfectly wide, serious eyes. He held up the water bottle and his pipe. “Water. Weed.”

Felix burst out laughing. He couldn’t help himself — these were rare moments, and he was blessed to be part of them. And he couldn’t refuse Caio, not really — well, not ever, but especially not right now. Felix’s repeated doom at the hands of the enemy AI delighted Caio to the point of open laughter. Now that was music, Felix thought as Caio hiccuped out a little giggle that made his heart leap. Before long he’d scooted over to Felix’s side to better appreciate the entertainment, and hearing him laugh like that, Felix was glad that both his hands were occupied with the controller.

“It is messed up that you like watching me suck at this game so much,” he told Caio, who was balled up in a little fit of mirth. “You know that, right? There is something very wrong with you.”

“It’s just so funny,” Caio managed, gasping through an ocean of giggles, and fuck, it was contagious. They were swallowed up in laughter, and Caio’s face was so close, his dark eyes shining with the light of the TV, and he looked so beautiful like that, mouth open, eyes creased, so close Felix could almost taste his breath.

It happened so fast, he couldn’t say who leaned in first. Maybe they were just like magnets, bound to snap back together if you let them get too close. Caio’s mouth was cool on his, still cold from the water. He tasted like smoke and Sprite and something so deeply nostalgic it made Felix’s chest lurch hard.

There was a spasm of movement between them — Felix made to pull back and ask, seeing stars, if this was really happening, if Caio really wanted it to happen, and at the same time Caio leaned in closer and parted his lips, his hands on Felix’s chest, and that was the end of Felix’s sense and self-control. This might as well have been a hallucination for all he felt like he was floating — maybe it was a hallucination and he was hugging himself on the couch, making out with thin air — but Felix was too drunk to put up any more of a fight, too weak to the taste of Caio’s mouth and the way he was balling his fists in Felix’s shirt.

Felix’s heart pounded madly, and he floundered for only a moment before he folded his arms around Caio and pulled him in closer. They were drunk and high and it was messy with the occasional clash of teeth, but kissing Caio felt like coming home, and the hot, open-mouthed little gasps Caio was letting out against his mouth were driving him absolutely insane. The notion that he needed to ask Caio if he wanted this seemed increasingly absurd. He was kissing Felix like a drowning man, like he had only one minute to live, and Felix could hardly refuse him.

Caio was unusually handsy, his fingers traveling over Felix’s body like he was remapping familiar territory, down his neck, his sides, the swell of his stomach — when Caio’s hand slipped over his hip Felix sucked in a breath, his hands tightening around Caio’s waist. What was he sitting still for, anyway, just lying here struck stupid while Caio’s hands were everywhere? He kissed Caio back with fervor to match, his hands slipping under that oversized T-shirt to drag his fingers down Caio’s back. He was rewarded with a muffled whimper, Caio squirming under his hands, too breathless to keep kissing without breaking apart and coming back together.

He wanted to be touching more of Caio, drinking up every last moment of this for as long as it would last — it might wash away in an instant, and Felix held onto Caio even tighter. Caio was half-contorted on the couch next to him, neck craned upwards to meet Felix’s mouth at the awkward angle they’d started at. This was ridiculous, Felix decided, and scooped an arm under Caio to haul him into his lap, and as Caio’s hips settled against his, he let out a breathy noise that made Felix’s stomach drop out from under him.

They fit against each other so well — Felix had discovered over time that he didn’t have any particular preference for skinny guys, but there was something about the way Caio would drape along the length of his body like this, about how Felix could lift him bodily with one arm, how he could enfold Caio in his arms completely and bring him so close that Felix couldn’t get enough of. It felt so deeply, satisfyingly right, and maybe it was indicative of how badly Felix was in need of comfort that that was a massive turn-on right now.

Caio loved it too, always had and still did, judging by the way he pressed his body flush against Felix’s. His tongue darted into Felix’s mouth, but it was the look on his face that made Felix shiver. Caio’s eyes were lidded and dark, not quite closed, and clouded over with the haze of intoxication and unmistakable heat. Felix wanted to pull back and look at that face, drink in Caio’s hungry expression, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop kissing Caio — and if he stopped, this whole moment might break apart. Felix just kissed him harder.

Caio was breathing hard between kisses now, heated little whines escaping his throat. Felix wanted more of that, and he tried grazing his teeth over Caio’s lower lip. Caio’s hands flexed against his chest and he let out a hoarse groan, and Felix felt triumph and heat lance through him in a giddy rush. Forget broken promises and consequences — right now, all Felix wanted was for Caio to keep making that sound.

Caio’s hands wormed their way between their bodies, sneaking up under Felix’s shirt. His hands were cold even in the summer heat, and he flexed them suddenly against Felix’s stomach, making Felix spasm with an involuntary gasping laugh. It was Caio’s own awful way of teasing Felix when he was feeling playful, poking him where he was ticklish in the middle of a heated moment. Maybe it was a drunken reflex, retracing familiar gestures — or Caio had done it deliberately, betraying his mood. Felix was certain he could feel Caio’s smile against his mouth.

Caio was pushing up Felix’s shirt now, raking short fingernails over his chest, and Felix rocked his hips up against Caio with a stuttered groan. Caio seemed torn between pulling Felix’s shirt off and continuing to kiss him, fumbling with the hem in a daze. Felix couldn’t suppress a laugh as he pulled back, however reluctantly, just long enough to strip his shirt off and throw it aside. Caio’s hands never stopped moving, sliding up Felix’s chest, his thumb brushing over Felix’s collarbone. He moved to kiss Felix again as soon as he could, and Felix reached up to bury his hands in Caio’s thick hair, thumbs smoothing away the hair at his temples.

Caio’s comfortable house clothes made for a thin barrier, and Felix could feel Caio’s cock pressing into his stomach through the fabric of his sweats, leaving very little to the imagination. Given the trajectory of his life the last year, Felix figured it had to have been some time since Caio had last gotten laid — not that it didn’t still flatter his delirious ego to have Caio half-hard and grinding down against his hips. Honestly, Felix wasn’t far behind — he’d been in a dry spell too, and Caio was the exception to every rule anyhow. Felix pressed a hand to the small of Caio’s back, slipping one finger under the waistband of his sweatpants.

The basement door opened, and Felix froze.

“Hey, sorry, we’re only just leaving now,” Derek called down from the top of the stairs. “Jake lost his keys. In his pocket. You guys want us to pick anything up for you?”

“No,” Felix said, but it came out a weird squeak. Caio’s mouth had moved to his neck instead, hands traveling back southward. Thank God for the music, or Derek might hear the soft little noises Caio apparently could not stop making. Felix cleared his throat and fought to keep his voice steady even as he felt Caio thumb over the button on his jeans. “No, we’re good, thanks!”

“Alright. We’ll be back in, uh … I don’t know. We’ll be back.”

“Cool,” Felix choked out as the basement door clicked mercifully shut. He was going cross-eyed with the effort of keeping his composure while Caio’s tongue traced under his jaw, and as soon as it was safe, Felix let out a long, stuttering groan.

“Fuck,” he breathed, and pulled Caio back up to kiss him again. Caio submitted with no complaint, opening his mouth to Felix’s tongue, but his hands were busy working at Felix’s fly. Caio’s fingers were clumsy as always, even more now after a night of partying, but stubborn, single-minded determination was enough for him to pry open the button and start to work the zipper down. Caio drew in a shuddering breath and his hand stopped to cup Felix’s cock through his jeans, like he just couldn’t help himself. Felix kissed Caio harder, drinking in the taste of his mouth, feeling dizzy and overwhelmed at being so fiercely wanted by the stubborn object of his affections.

Caio tugged the zipper all the way down, and Felix exhaled on a shudder as his cock was relieved of the increasingly uncomfortable pressure of his jeans. It was swiftly replaced with the heel of Caio’s hand pressing against the shaft, then his palm, until his hand was slowly wrapped around Felix’s still-clothed cock. Felix couldn’t bring himself to be embarrassed at how hard he was, staining a wet spot through his boxers; Caio would be the last person to make him feel self-conscious about that.

His only complaint was that Caio had shifted back so that he could tug Felix’s jeans down over his hips, leaving too much of him out of range of Felix’s hands. Felix wanted so badly to get him out of those sweats and into his hands, to touch him and look at him like he hadn’t in years, but Caio’s fervor was overwhelming in its momentum, and he settled for burying his fingers in Caio’s hair, kissing him furiously.

Felix breathed out another curse when Caio moved his mouth to his jaw, kissing down his neck while he continued to work to free Felix’s dick from his boxers. It was taking him a comically long time, but any agony or impatience was disrupted by the little shocks of heat that lanced through him as Caio’s mouth trailed lower still. Caio let his teeth graze over the exposed skin of Felix’s stomach, then bit down lightly, and Felix jerked on the couch, wrapping his hand around a fistful of blanket to steady himself. He could feel his cock twitch against Caio’s hand as Caio finally slid off of his lap and onto the floor. He could barely find his breath. “Caio—”

It was not a plea for him to stop. Caio settled between Felix’s legs, his lips parted just enough to let his labored breathing pass. In the white-bright glow of the TV, Felix could see that Caio’s face was flushed, his lips red and kiss-bruised, his hair a ruffled mess. His shirt was rumpled and nearly hanging off one shoulder, and as soon as he no longer needed both hands to pull Felix’s pants out of the way, he reached down to cup one hand against his own cock.

A creaking whimper escaped Caio’s throat, and the face that he made as he leaned in towards Felix’s dick ought to have been outlawed on grounds of obscenity. The sight of his cock next to Caio’s face was making Felix go cross-eyed all over again, swiftly undoing every knot of self-control he’d been tying to keep himself from thinking of Caio as a sexual being. Felix’s entire body shuddered involuntarily at Caio’s warm breath, and he knew then that the whole idea had been folly on a profoundly stupid level.

Caio mouthed along the length of Felix’s dick, breathing hard even as he traced his tongue over sensitive skin. Felix was the one making embarrassingly desperate noises now. The thing was that giving head had never really been Caio’s forte. He didn’t mind it — he insisted that he liked it, even — but he was a little clumsy with his mouth, that was all. In a way that Felix had always found helplessly charming, granted, but Caio’s strengths lay in other areas.

Which was fine, because there were few things Felix personally enjoyed more than sucking dick and Caio’s in particular, and ordinarily he’d be the one on his knees, sending Caio into a panting mess with his tongue. But there was something new and different about the way Caio rubbed at the base of Felix’s cock with his thumb, the way his tongue flitted over the head, and as Caio wrapped his mouth around Felix’s cock with a hot, groaning hum, Felix wondered dizzily just when Caio had learned to suck dick like this.

“Fuck,” he said again, and realized he’d repeated himself, that he had been repeating himself, a steady mantra of breathy curses with every shock of heat that shot through him. Fuck, fuck, he needed to relax somehow — he was tense all the way to his toes, and he forced himself to un-arch his back and sink back against the couch. Caio leaned with him obligingly, lifting his eyes to Felix’s face, and fuck, Felix nearly came right there at the sight of him.

One hand was still tightly twisted in the blanket, and he reached instinctively for Caio’s head with the other but stopped himself just short, his hand twitching uselessly midair. Caio let out a soft noise around his cock and nudged his head up into Felix’s hand before dipping back down to take just a little more of Felix into his mouth.

Felix’s chest rose and fell as he panted, struggling to control his breathing. It felt like Caio was sucking the very breath out of him — sucking harder now, pulling back so that just the head of Felix’s cock was resting in his mouth. Felix buried his hand in Caio’s hair and tried not to grip too hard, but fuck, he was drunk and it’d been months since anyone touched him, and this was a moment ripped right out of personal fantasy. He wanted this to go on forever, Caio’s tongue sliding over the head of his cock as he made those stupidly hot little noises, but Felix wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out. He could feel heat building in his core, faster than he could control. He tried to stammer out some warning, but all that came out was a wordless babble that cut short as he came, hard, his hand tightening in Caio’s hair as he arched his hips forward.

Caio let out a soft groan as Felix filled his mouth, and Felix felt his body suspended in that electrifying moment before he melted against the couch, seeing stars. He was fighting earnestly not to pass out, which to be honest would have been a reasonable response from anyone in his situation.

Felix tipped his head forward, and the immediate sight of Caio’s face made him shiver and wonder fervently if his rebound time had improved since the last time he’d fucked. Caio was panting open-mouthed, wiping the corner of his mouth on his wrist, hunched on the floor with one hand braced against the couch. It was his eyes Felix couldn’t get enough of — dark and lidded and clouded over with uninhibited want. He’d clearly enjoyed giving that blowjob at least as much as Felix had enjoyed receiving it. Felix watched Caio bite his lip and palm his cock through his sweatpants on the floor at his feet, eyelids fluttering shut. A thin whine escaped Caio’s throat, and Felix felt another flicker of heat move through him.

He shook himself out of his jeans and kicked them aside, and hurriedly tucked his dick, still half-hard, back into his boxers. He was suddenly, incredibly mindful of Debbie’s new couch and carpet and felt internally grateful that Caio had a thing for swallowing. He bent down on shaky legs and scooped up Caio in his arms, pressing his face into Caio’s hair and breathing in deep. Caio let out a muffled cry as his body pressed against Felix’s, his cock trapped between his stomach and Felix’s chest. He couldn’t seem to stop writhing, and Felix nearly dropped him before they finally tumbled onto the mattress behind the couch — the mattress that had been laid out so that there would be plenty of sleeping room. So that something exactly like this wouldn’t happen.

“Felix,” Caio breathed, squirming desperately on the mattress under him, and Felix nearly melted on the spot just hearing his name in that ragged voice. Caio’s clumsy hands found the back of Felix’s head and pulled him down for a heady kiss, and Felix happily obliged him. Maybe it was a narcissism thing, but Felix always liked kissing someone right after they’d sucked him off. There was something incredibly hot about tasting himself in Caio’s mouth — and something intensely nostalgic — and he kissed Caio through his post-orgasm daze, one hand twisted in Caio’s hair again. It was hard not to when Caio had the perfect hair for grabbing.

The noises Caio was making against his mouth were increasingly desperate, and once again Felix wasn’t sure if this was really happening or if he was having a particularly vivid fantasy. Not that it mattered — either way he was thumbing under the waistband of Caio’s sweatpants, and he pulled them down over Caio’s hips along with his boxers in one easy tug. Thank God for comfort chic.

He wrapped his hand around Caio’s cock immediately, earning a relieved moan from the gorgeous thing writhing underneath him. Felix would have loved to pull back and get a nice look — it had been five years, after all — but decided that would be needlessly cruel as Caio’s hips jerked up towards him. It was enough for now just to stroke his thumb along Caio’s cock and feel its heft in his hand, and he shivered involuntarily. It was a terrible idea for a laundry list of reasons, but suddenly, Felix wanted badly for Caio to fuck him.

Skinny guys alone didn’t do it for him, but something about skinny guys with disproportionately big dicks apparently pushed a deep button for him. Or maybe it was just Caio — it wasn’t like his cock was cartoonishly huge, but it sure was above average and girthy enough to look like it didn’t quite belong on his slight body. Caio had always been self-conscious about it, but there was something about the contrast that Felix found almost comically hot.

Felix swiped his thumb over the head of Caio’s cock, dripping with precome, and teased his finger over the slit before Caio let out a truly agonized moan against his mouth. It was a little mean to tease him right now, even if Felix wanted to draw out every last moment of this — but after the thorough cock-sucking he’d just given Felix, he deserved some gratification of his own.

Felix would have liked to have gotten his mouth around Caio’s cock in turn, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop kissing him, so instead he slid one hand under the small of Caio’s back and wrapped the other firmly around Caio’s dick. Despite his cool hands, Caio was hot under his clothes, his skin slick with sweat, and the thin streaks of precome that had dribbled down the head of his cock were enough for Felix to slick his hand up and down the shaft.

Caio gasped into his mouth, his hands scrabbling over Felix’s bare shoulders with blunted fingernails, and Felix felt a little bad for him, for how desperately he clearly needed this. At least Felix could say he’d gotten laid in the last six months. In all the time Felix had known Caio, he could say confidently that Caio had never had a dry spell that lasted as long as this one must have. No wonder why he was clawing at Felix, jerking his hips up with a muffled cry as Felix made a tight ring around the shaft with his thumb and middle finger, drawing it down to the base of Caio’s cock. Caio hadn’t managed any real words aside from Felix’s name, but the pleading tone was clear nonetheless.

Felix pressed him back into the mattress, shifting Caio under him so that he could wedge his knee between Caio’s tensed legs and give himself a little more room to move, and then he shifted his grip on Caio’s cock, closing his fingers around it in a tight fist. He stroked in earnest now, picking up speed and pressing a long, hard kiss to Caio’s open mouth. He wanted to bury his face in Caio’s neck and taste his skin, but he couldn’t abandon those desperate little moans. Felix drank them in greedily as his pumped his fist over Caio’s cock, and he felt Caio spasm under him just as he let out a warning moan — the only warning Felix needed, because it turned out his near-encyclopedic knowledge of Caio in bed had only been in storage all this time.

Caio seized on the mattress under Felix as he came, his hips arched desperately into Felix’s hand. The drawn-out, stuttering moan that escaped him seemed so dazed that Felix wasn’t entirely sure he was aware of it. Felix muffled it with his mouth, conscious of the middling volume of the music and how unexpectedly loud Caio had gotten just now. Caio’s moan died out on a squeak as one last spurt of come landed on his shirt, and Felix stilled his hand, just holding Caio there as he pulled back and let him fight for some air.

Caio was shivering all over as Felix laid him back on the mattress, his face flushed and eyelids fluttering. Felix took it as a compliment, but he also knew that had been probably a year’s worth of bottled up frustration he’d just uncorked. Felix had come so hard he’d cried on at least one occasion; he’d probably feel like a marionette with its strings cut after that, too. And, he was embarrassed to say as a man in his thirties, the furtive nature of hooking up in your best friend’s mom’s basement had somehow made it hotter.

“You okay?” he asked anyway, bending over to smooth the sweat-sticky hair from Caio’s face. He was still trying to catch his breath too. Caio nodded stutteringly, his breathing shallow and his eyes unfocused. Felix huffed out a laugh and kissed the corner of his mouth before sitting back up.

Well, they hadn’t stained any of the furniture, but Caio’s shirt was a come-splattered lost cause. A stupid smile stole over Felix’s face, and he had to suppress a sudden bout of giddy laughter. And he’d just nearly convinced himself that he’d never see Caio looking spent and breathless like this again. Caio didn’t seem like he was going to move any time soon, limp and dazed on the mattress, and at least as fucked up as Felix was.

Felix gently tugged Caio’s sweats and boxers back up, unable to suppress a small pfft at the sight of him. “Jesus. Alright, don’t pass out just yet, huh? Let me get this come rag off you before you fall asleep in it.”

Comical though the thought was, a sober and probably hungover Caio would fail to appreciate the humor. He was pliant and heavy-limbed, still breathing slightly hard, but he was starting to look like he might really pass out. It felt a little like undressing a doll, which only served to make things feel even more surreal. Felix was too faded to process this much beyond an indistinct giddiness and a weird sense of satisfaction. Caio started to shiver immediately, and with a soft chuckle, Felix retrieved his own discarded shirt and pulled it over Caio’s head. God, but he looked cute in Felix’s clothes.

Caio’s eyes closed, and he opened his mouth but only mumbled something indistinct that ended on a sigh. Felix tucked a pillow under his head, and he automatically rolled over and curled up on his side. Felix threw a blanket over him and got up on shaky legs to retrieve his jeans and stuff Caio’s wadded up shirt in his bag for now. Best not make it look too incriminating, although Jake and Derek would only have to glance down the stairs to know that they’d broken the seal on their promise to stay apart. But hey, Derek had said that he and Jake would be just as happy for Caio and Felix if they’d managed to make it work.

Felix was starting to feel heavy in the limbs, too, lulled by the faintly looping menu music. He crawled onto the mattress and under the blanket, tucking himself up against Caio’s back and enfolding him in his arms. Felix buried his face in Caio’s hair and breathed in deep, falling asleep in the warm satisfaction that it hadn’t been totally unrequited all this time after all.

===

It was still dark in the basement when Felix woke up, groggy and hungover, only to find the space next to him on the mattress empty. He peered blearily at his watch — sometime past 4am — and sat up slowly. He suspected he might still be a little drunk.

He could hear retching from the lavette. If he was feeling kind of shitty, Caio was probably in a world of misery. Maybe he’d played it a little too fast and loose with the alcohol after all.

Felix stumbled to his feet, only dimly registering that someone had turned off the TV and cleared some of the party refuse from the table at some point. Definitely not Caio’s doing, so the cat was out of the bag now.

He grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-fridge, took a few deep drinks from it, then staggered heavily to the lavette. The door was open, and Caio was on his knees on the tile floor, hunched over the toilet. He seemed to be caught in the jumpstart-stalling loop of retching in between actually throwing up.

Felix sat down on the floor next to him just as he started to ease back, catching a breath, but a new wave overtook him and he bent over the toilet again, forearms braced on the seat. Felix winced at the splash that followed and gently rubbed Caio’s back with one hand, relishing the small pleasure of being able to touch Caio like this again.

“Hey,” he said gently, in between Caio’s gasping breaths. “You okay?”

Caio let out a little gurgle of acknowledgment: message received, no emergency here. This was simply the cost of having a good time. Felix suspected Caio knew it would end up like this, but who was he to be the arbiter of good times for someone constantly at war with his own body? It’d pass, and in the meantime he had friends to fetch him water and keep him company. Felix saw a half-empty bottle of water resting on the floor by Caio’s knees and was glad he’d brought a fresh one anyway.

He sat there for a bit while Caio’s body worked out its complicated relationship with alcohol on its way out the door. Felix, who had sat through more Caio puke episodes than he could be bothered to count at this hour, just kept rubbing Caio’s back. Caio was soaked in a cold sweat, and his hair had grown out, but it never was long enough to hold back. He was paler than normal, and there was a tension in him that was less a coil and more like a pencil on the verge of snapping.

When he finally came up for air, heavy-eyed and gasping, and didn’t immediately go back down, Felix unscrewed the cap and offered him the fresh bottle of water. Caio took it in a shaky hand and rinsed his mouth first, spitting with great distaste into the toilet. It was incredibly unsexy, but Felix found it hopelessly endearing in its intimacy. Another round of dry heaving overtook Caio before he could take a drink. When it was over, he slumped back down limply and turned to look at Felix, his cheek pillowed on the toilet seat. His face was the picture of abject misery.

“We can’t get back together,” he said. His voice was hoarse, thin, barely more than a whisper. “We said we wouldn’t.”

Felix blinked stupidly as something cold and heavy sank into his stomach. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him, his hungover brain too slow to process. “What?” His voice came out more of a squeak than he’d intended. He was dizzy from this nasty curveball.

“I’m sorry,” Caio said, and he sounded like it. He shut his eyes. “It — that wasn’t supposed to happen. I just … made a mistake.”

Heartbreak was slowly blooming in Felix’s chest, and he was neither sober nor awake enough to handle it with grace. A mistake, Caio said, and it hurt to be lumped into that category. They had both been wasted and giddy, and there had been nothing ambiguous about the way Caio had crawled all over him. The blowjob certainly hadn’t been at Felix’s suggestion. And Caio had clearly wanted, badly. So— 

“I’m sorry,” Caio said again, and he couldn’t seem to meet Felix’s gaze anymore. “But we promised. We said it’d be the last time. We can’t—”

He was interrupted by another sudden wave of heaving, and Felix sat there stupidly, afraid to touch Caio again, feeling at a total loss. He couldn’t really do anything but wait for it to pass. 

Caio came up for air again as the tide receded, spitting bitterly into the toilet. He didn’t look up, his elbows braced on the toilet seat, holding his head up with cupped hands. Felix couldn’t quite see his face.

“If we break that promise, we’ll just be doing what we always did. We won’t have ended anything. It’ll just become our longest off period.” He was speaking directly into the toilet, his voice bouncing hollowly off the water. He still sounded miserable, but any shakiness in his voice was the hangover’s work. He was devastatingly full of conviction. “We ended things for a reason. It’s better for both of us if we’re just friends. We couldn’t figure out how to make it work without—” He stopped abruptly and shuddered, closed his eyes for a long moment, but seemed to manage to swallow back the wave of nausea. “And nothing has changed since then, except that I’m back now. I’m sorry.”

Felix wished he’d stop apologizing in that sunken-in-misery voice, because it made it impossible for him to summon any anger or resentment towards Caio. Because hadn’t things changed, even a little? Caio alone had changed so much, and Felix was still learning how.

But for once in his life, Felix bit back every protest, every courtroom-worthy counterargument, and swallowed them down, one by one. He couldn’t litigate himself out of the fact that Caio was right, even if the idea of admitting it out loud made his head want to cave in. Their passionate reunion hadn’t been a grand re-opening on their relationship; it had simply been a bad relapse into old habits, retracing the grooves in the tracks that always led them in the same dizzying ellipses.

Caio started to heave again, but it was shorter-lived this time. He sat back on his heels, his forehead pressed to the toilet seat as he tried to catch his breath again.

“Okay,” Felix said, just as Caio opened his mouth to speak. Caio looked up at him in muddled surprise and confusion, blinking like he was trying to clear his vision. “You’re right. We said we wouldn’t. So we won’t. We can pretend last night never happened if you want.”

He was glad he was sitting down, because he was overtaken with vertigo just saying the words. He had to dull his affect just to keep his voice from cracking, and he sounded more like Caio than himself, toneless and stiff. Caio looked at a loss. Felix sucked in a quiet breath through his nose and tried to summon a smile. It was only a glimmer, a brief twitch of his lips. His heart wasn’t in it. “I’m sorry too.”

His heart wasn’t in that either, because he wasn’t really sorry at all. He cleared his throat when Caio didn’t speak, and softened his expression, his gaze dropping to avoid meeting Caio’s.

“I don’t want to lose you as a friend, okay? I don’t want anything to happen to the four of us. This band, you coming back — it’s been the best thing to happen to me in forever. So — okay. We can’t get back together. Okay.”

Caio was still looking at him with great trepidation, some teetering anxiety Felix didn’t know how to read, or maybe it was the nausea, who knew. He looked like a funhouse mirror of misery from all angles.

Felix got to his feet slowly, mindful of his pounding head. He kind of wanted to throw up too, but he could always use a different bathroom.

“Be right back. Just going to get myself some water and grab some Gatorade from upstairs.”

It was dead quiet in the kitchen when he emerged from the basement. It was too early even for the dogs to be up; Jake and Derek were probably asleep upstairs. No doubt they’d decided to call it a night after they’d returned to see Felix and Caio passed out and cuddled up together. 

Felix stopped in the bathroom by the basement door for a badly needed piss and to throw up whatever was left in his stomach, a fit brought on by the mix of hangover and the fact that he was still reeling from the mood whiplash. But it mercifully stopped there, and Felix drank a half glass of water, stalling for time. Being alone with his thoughts was arguably worse, though, so he grabbed two bottles of Gatorade from the fridge and headed back downstairs.

Caio was still in the bathroom, resting his forehead against the toilet seat while he caught his breath. It seemed like the worst of it was over, and he was probably just trying to keep the water down. One of the bottles was looking a little emptier, anyway.

Felix set one Gatorade down on the floor next to Caio, but he hung awkwardly at the door, the space where carpet met tile an untreadable barrier.

“Whenever you feel like you can keep it down,” Felix said, and Caio nodded without looking up.

It was too quiet in here; the AC had cycled off, and the lavette fan was infuriatingly quiet. Felix desperately needed something to fill the space between them other than his own words, since Caio seemed to be done talking. Was he mad at Felix after all? He really hadn’t seemed like it, but Felix couldn’t read the air, too bleary and dizzy, and he couldn’t see Caio’s face. “I’m, uh, guessing you want me to leave?”

Caio shook his head. His voice creaked like a cellar door. “You don’t have to.”

Felix really wished he did, that Caio had chased him away with spiteful words or even just a slit-eyed look. It’d be less cruel than giving him the freedom of choice. He wanted badly to be anywhere but here — he was suspecting that he needed to be for his own health — but the thought of leaving one of his friends behind hungover and vomiting, alone in the basement when all the other partygoers were asleep two floors up, made his chest writhe.

Yes, he had always been weak to Caio, but would he have been able to walk away from Derek? Or Jake? Even if they’d just been in a fight? What if Caio couldn’t keep the water down, or he puked so hard he hit his head on the toilet and knocked himself out? It was stupid, it was hideously self-centered, but Felix was suddenly crushingly afraid that if he left Caio alone now, something awful would happen while he wasn’t there to fix it.

He was pretty sure he was still too drunk to drive anywhere anyway.

He retreated from the lavette and laid down on the floor next to the couch, putting the furniture between him and Caio. He heard the lavette door slide closed and then, shortly, the muffled sound of either crying or more retching. Felix pulled the blanket off the couch and over his face, willing himself to go back to sleep, but he still felt like he had the wind knocked out of him after slipping on that nasty patch of black ice. He always landed flat on his back.

Sleep failed him. His head hurt too much, and his throat was tight and sore in anticipation of the coming tide. Felix pulled a pillow off the couch and pressed it over his face. He could not think of a more mortifying context in which Caio might hear him cry, and he bit his lips together, his tears smearing against the plush fabric.

Being alone with his thoughts right now was killing him. He wanted badly to go upstairs and wake up Jake and Derek and crawl into bed with them, cry it out and pass out in a heap for the rest of the morning. But it was five AM, he was equally culpable for this mess, and he’d talked so big to Derek about how this precise thing was not going to happen. Felix couldn’t handle Jake and Derek’s disappointment on top of everything else.

Another hour passed, and Caio didn’t emerge from the lavette, even long after all sound had ceased but the hum of the AC, and Felix knew Caio’s seeming indifference had been feigned. He was a little more sober now, at least.

Felix resigned himself to be shirtless for the drive home and slowly wobbled to his feet. He listened at the door to the lavette, but heard only ragged breathing and wondered if Caio had fallen asleep on the tile.

“Hey,” he said, and his voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “I’m, uh. I’m gonna head out.”

He could have left without saying anything. Maybe he should have. He just didn’t want Caio to think he was mad. For a minute, there was no response, and Felix almost opened the door to check if Caio was still conscious. But he heard a little grunt of acknowledgment from the lavette, and he froze. 

“You okay?” he asked, and that was all he could manage, because the paralysis seemed to extend to his throat, an embargo on words from his mouth. He barely managed to smuggle out those few, and the question still felt like contraband.

“I’m fine,” came the reply, sounding tinny and far away, and Felix felt the paralysis release him, not a slow melting but a sudden shove.

“Okay,” he said, because he had to say something, never did know how not to have the last word, but there was nothing left to say that wouldn’t break this fragile moment.

He had to bite down his knuckles to stifle his tears as soon as he turned around, because his lips felt numb but the rest of him felt raw. He was possessed with a panicked speed as he lurched away from the door to collect his things and scramble up the stairs with as little sound as possible. A pang of guilt shot through his stomach at the belated realization that he was leaving Caio to explain this mess to Jake and Derek on his own, but it was short-lived, because it wasn’t like Felix being there would make anything better anyway.

The transition to his apartment somehow made it worse. There wasn’t even the low hum of the AC to keep him company; his apartment was empty of sound, and it made Felix feel somehow more naked than just being shirtless.

It wasn’t even dark anymore, but Felix turned on the lights in every room as he passed through them. He turned on the new-old TV in his living room, the one that had previously lived in Debbie and Bekah’s basement, and stared blankly at the silent screen until he remembered he’d never once had cable in his adult life, and he had to make his own background noise. He fumbled with the remote, trying to beat the encroaching sense of crushing loneliness and heartbreak to the punch with a brainless sitcom, just something, anything for white noise. But he felt tears well up while he was still trying to get Netflix to load, and he threw the remote down in defeat and lunged for his bedroom, his last bastion of comfort.

But he couldn’t even claim comfort in this room anymore, not really. It was full of his things, but it felt empty now as he stood there in silence, looking at all of it. None of it brought a fraction of the comfort he desperately needed, not the way their music did, not against this creeping sense of the world shrinking around him. It was the same feeling that had overtaken him the night before their first band practice, this keen awareness of the spaces between things that had resounded through him, a thrumming to the cadence of you are going to die alone that had swelled in his head until it drowned out all else.

He threw himself into bed and buried his face in his stupid Kurama dakimakura and let the tears leak out of their own accord. He thought about Lisa and all the conversations he’d imagined in moments like these. Lisa dispensing advice and comfort with the necessary context, even though she had never actually known Caio, had never been there for any of it, and Felix couldn’t really know how she might have felt, what she might have thought best for him. That had been Jake and Derek, helping him weather the worst of the storms while he prayed blindly to a darkened lighthouse. All those years, and he’d never really fully acknowledged that it was the two of them who had carried him this far.

He wanted to pass out there and sleep the rest of this off, but his head was still pounding and he kept having to get up to pee. Too early in the morning he made the mistake of fishing his water bottle out of his backpack, only to discover Caio’s come-stained T-shirt still balled up inside. Felix stood there and stared at it as a complicated mess of emotions churned themselves into butter in his stomach. A few spectacularly stupid urges sprouted in his brain only to be immediately crushed under the weight of how very unfunny this was in the cold light of a morning he’d woken into too early. Well, he couldn’t just throw it out, and it’d be fucking weird to keep it. He picked it up and hurled it into his laundry basket.

This was for sure a deeper low than he’d seen in a while now, but it wasn’t even a particularly exciting one. It ought to have at least been interesting, but there was something strangely banal about heartbreak over Caio by now, even though it hurt like it was fresh and new every time he moved. Maybe that was what Caio’s pain was like, a perpetual discomfort that had lost its novelty but not its potency.

Except it wasn’t even six AM, and Felix had been wallowing in heartbreak for less than two hours, but it felt like something old made new again, just like kissing Caio had. A sick new remix. Forever Breakup 2: Electric Boogaloo. Fuck.

He sent Caio just one text that day that read you make it home OK? after a dozen revisions and then hid his phone under a couch cushion when he didn’t receive an immediate response. It took all of his willpower not to send a follow-up text or five, or call Caio and leave a voicemail full of panicked apologies. None of it would actually have made him feel better. It definitely would not have made Caio feel better.

He called out of work the next day, because all his attempts at sleeping through Sunday had gone badly and he felt like he was still in some tunneled version of four AM. He called out again on Tuesday even though he’d managed to sleep through most of Monday, this time because he was simply too sad to move. Jake canceled band practice for the week, claiming a scheduling snafu, but Felix knew that Jake was doing him and Caio both a small mercy.

Felix rolled over on his couch to bury his face in the upholstery and contemplated calling out a third day, but his job was going to demand a doctor’s note at this point. Could he get Jake to write him one? He wasn’t actually a doctor, but maybe therapists counted? Not that he was in any position to beg a favor off of Jake. The worst part, really, was that Jake probably would have said yes anyway.

He was going to have to go back to work. He was going to have to resume his life at some point, and this week was all the pause he was going to get. Lisa’s birthday was coming up soon. He couldn’t stay like this forever, even if it was easier than processing. 

He emerged from a contemplative shower to find Derek in his kitchen, unloading a pair of bags from Eastside Marketplace onto his counter. Felix halted in the doorway, dressed only in sweats with a wet towel around his shoulders, stopped by a sudden sense of trepidation. In the sparse texts that had been exchanged over the last couple of days, neither Jake nor Derek had asked him about Saturday night. Was Derek here because he was pissed off, because Felix had finally worn out all the goodwill in him over this shit? But at the same time — did you usually go grocery shopping for someone you’re about to tell off? If so, it was probably the single most Jewish thing Derek had ever done.

“Oh, hey, you’re finally out. I thought you were trying to make your own sauna in there. I figured you probably hadn’t done any grocery shopping this week yet.” Derek opened the fridge to put away the milk and squinted. “Yep.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but — why are you here?”

Derek raised his eyebrows at Felix as he shut the fridge door. “I texted you hours ago, dude. Did you lose your phone?”

“No, I just — haven’t checked it today.” An idiotic thing to say at six PM, and not strictly true: he’d checked for a reply from Caio on waking up (none), and then he’d hidden it under the couch cushions again. Felix sucked in a breath. “Listen, I don’t know what Caio said to you guys, but whatever you came here to say — I know, okay? I guarantee you that I already know. So can we skip that part, or is that why you brought the groceries?”

To draw this out, trap Felix in a conversation, ensconce himself in the space with a task he could drag out indefinitely. Felix’s mind went wild with speculation in the half-second before Derek closed the fridge and turned to look at him. “You think I came here to yell at you?”

Felix fumbled for words. “…Yes?”

Derek buried his face in his hands and let out a long, deep breath. Felix only then noticed the backpack on the floor next to the trash can.

“I fucked it up,” Felix said, as if in defense of his own guilt. “I told you this wasn’t gonna happen, and then I went right ahead and did it anyway. Isn’t that — shit, I don’t know, isn’t that incredibly annoying?”

“Yes,” Derek said with a smile Felix couldn’t quite decipher. “It’s not like we were totally blindsided, though. You think we don’t know you two well enough by now?”

Felix balked. “You knew this was going to happen?”

“We were aware that it was a possibility,” Derek said, and Felix felt himself flush. This might have been worse than getting yelled at. Sometimes you really did need your friends to be stupid assholes, he reminded himself despite his growing mortification. “But Jake and I figured it was still worth the risk. We’d help weather whatever happened, and we’d make it out in one piece, but I dunno — it seemed better than the four of us staying so disconnected. We all needed to be together again, Caio most of all.” Derek shrugged. “I’ll admit, I didn’t actually think it would take this long. Turns out Jake called this one.”

Felix’s eyes widened in outrage. “Did you take bets?

Derek coughed. Felix gave him a disgusted look, but then asked, begrudgingly, “So how long did Jake think it would take, then?”

Derek wrinkled his nose and wisely occupied his hands with neatly folding up the paper bags. “He didn’t think it was a matter of time. More like … the circumstances had to be right.” He made a face and said, “His bet was that if it was gonna happen, it would be after something really good. A high point. He said a birthday or something, but…”

“I cannot believe you and Jake were taking bets on how long Caio and I could go without totally fucking it up,” Felix said, even though he totally could, and he was more furious over the fact that Jake had been right. He buried his flaming face in his towel.

“Hey, nothing is totally fucked up,” Derek said, coming to rest his hands on Felix’s shoulders. They were forming permanent calluses these days, between guitar and work at the hardware store. “Not beyond repair, anyway. I told you before — your and Caio’s friendship is stronger than that. I know this sucks, but we’ll get through it.”

Felix let his head fall forward into Derek’s broad chest, his body squished bonelessly against Derek’s. Derek held him by the shoulders as he made an ugly crying noise. “Ugh. This sucks so much worse than before.”

“I know. That’s why I’m going to be crashing on your couch for as long as you need me to not feel alone. Because you’re not.”

“Don’t you have plants that need watering?” Felix mumbled, his eyes hot with tears, but he couldn’t really bring himself to say no outright.

Derek patted his back. “Nah, killed ’em all over the winter. I really have no better place to be right now.”

“Thanks,” he said, trying not to let his voice wobble, but he couldn’t suppress a sniffle. “I mean, you really didn’t have to—”

“What, we were gonna just leave you to stew alone after all that just happened? Come on. We know what you get like when you’re alone.” He ruffled Felix’s wet hair, just because he knew it annoyed Felix, but his smile was rueful. “We never should’ve let you get so alone in the first place. I’m sorry, man.”

Leave it to Derek to make the smallest shit apology-worthy, as though he were Felix’s keeper, as though it were his responsibility. But Felix wasn’t about to tell him off for it. The selfish, childish part of him reveled in the safety net of mutual responsibility. He liked that Derek felt beholden to him to an extent. Felix had never minded feeling beholden to Derek much himself.

Felix blinked once stupidly, then a second time to beat back tears. That day had been an intervention after all. Motherfucker. “You knew how fucked-up I was feeling? When you and Jake were starting the whole band thing?”

“Dude, I have known you for more than half my life. We might have been a little out of sync, but it wasn’t like we didn’t notice you were in it. Caio was having the worst of it, yeah, but it’s like I said — the band was something we all really needed. I think we still do.” Derek squeezed his shoulders before sending him off with a little shove. “Go put on a shirt and sit down. I’ll get dinner started.”

Evidently, Derek was committed to the bit. It maybe shouldn’t have surprised Felix anymore after all these years, but he decided to generously lay all the blame on his fragile and gutted emotional state for how weepy he was getting over a little dinner. It was far from the first time Derek had cooked for him.

They ate dinner to the tune of Netflix and Felix’s sporadic and sometimes tearful monologues, some recycled from sermons of breakups past, all of which Derek patiently endured, as he always did. At the end of the night, when their plates were in the sink and Felix’s head was in Derek’s lap on the couch, Felix rolled his head back and said, “Hey, how come we don’t live together?”

Derek gnawed on a tea tree toothpick thoughtfully, a habit he had charmingly picked up from Mr. Kostolitz. “I dunno. I already had a place when you moved back down to Providence, and when my last lease was up, you’d just moved into this place, so…”

Right. Felix let his head roll back towards the TV. “I never really thought about it until now, but it’s kind of wild that we’ve been friends for so long and never been roommates even once.”

“Yeah, I guess it just never worked out that way. Me and Caio went to Boston for college, you and Jake stayed down here until you graduated.” Derek poked the back of his head. “What, you don’t like living by yourself, alone with your thoughts every waking moment?”

Felix smothered a groan in his lap. “Ugh, it sucks. I hate it. I don’t want another rando roommate, but I fucking hate living alone. And it’s expensive.”

“Hm. Well, how about I move in, then?”

Felix nearly pinched a nerve in his neck rolling in place. “What, really?”

Derek shrugged. “You’ve got a pretty nice place here. Really close to the hardware store, too. Besides, we already hang out all the time. It’s all we ever want to do. We could have our own little guitar and bass sessions, any time we wanted. And I think we’re old enough now not to murder each other in our sleep over a sink full of dishes.”

“Seriously? If you’re not being serious, you have to tell me.” Felix sat up, hands pressed together in supplication. “Please move in with me. I am so alone. And so tired of paying full rent.”

Derek just flashed him that warm smile. “Hell yeah, man. Might not be for a couple of months, but once my lease is up.”

A little bit of hope began to unfold in Felix’s chest. He could be okay, if he wasn’t alone all the time. If he had Derek here, he could find a way to grow past this latest edition of heartbreak and come out whole.

Felix looked at his phone, at the lone text he’d sent Caio on Sunday. Still nothing since. “Hey, um … Caio got home okay, right? He was looking a little better when I left, but he seemed pretty fucked up.” He cleared his throat. “I sent him a text that day, but I never heard back. So.”

Derek looked like he wanted to comment on that peculiarly singular text, but instead he said, “Yeah, of course. We hung out with him until he was feeling well enough to leave and then I drove him home. You know I’d have told you if he wasn’t okay. It was just a bad hangover, that’s all.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I just—” Felix cleared his throat again and looked at his phone. “I feel bad that I left him like that. I think he’s mad at me.”

“I doubt it. But it’s not worth worrying about,” Derek said, and Felix slumped back against the couch with a slow breath. The valve on his crushing anxiety was slowly loosening. “You guys will sort it out once you’re ready to talk about it.”

Felix wanted to ask Derek if he was sure Caio was really going to want to talk to him, but he swallowed it back. It was only a pity question, and that was high school bullshit. He knew Caio wanted to make it work as friends. He’d said so to Felix, and it didn’t even feel that ambiguous.

“Is he still coming to Lisa’s birthday?” he asked instead.

Derek cast him a sidelong glance. “As far as I’m aware. I mean, he should be recovered from a hangover by then, and it’s the first time we’ve ever invited him. Is that going to be a problem for you?”

Felix shook his head quickly. No, even if Caio was there, even if it was painful and difficult, he wouldn’t let that get in the way. This part of his life ran deeper than most, the place where he kept Lisa in his heart now uncordoned. “Of course not, dude. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Derek nodded and patted Felix fondly on the cheek. “Glad to hear it.”

*

vi

Derek slept on Felix’s couch that night after rolling him into his own bed, and graciously made breakfast for him the next morning, just in case Felix was under the lingering impression that he wasn’t going back to work. Derek crashed on the couch the next night too, and he probably would’ve kept sleeping there if Felix didn’t chase him out after a couple of days, because the desperate need for company was waning, and for once, Felix felt like he needed to be by himself for a little while. Derek had taken a long look at his face before apparently diagnosing him as okay enough to be left alone, and promised to see him at Lisa’s birthday.

Derek’s company hadn’t just lifted his spirits but bolstered his defenses, too. He’d stopped having to hide his phone in the couch. He could even look back at his text history with Caio without having to fight back the savage urge to call him until he picked up. After work on Friday, Felix found himself sprawled out limply on his bed, back to scrolling through texts and photos from the last several months, but the tears this time felt like a controlled burn. This was processing. Probably.

Maybe. He found himself reflecting, as he crushed an empty tissue box flat and went in search of a new one, not just on how he was going to get through this now, but how he’d been telling himself he was getting through it all year. All that time he’d told himself he’d been building a wall between him and Caio, a breakwater on which the waves of his old affections could safely crash and scatter. But he hadn’t been building a wall — he’d been building a reserve, stealing away what he could from every little moment.

He had never figured out how to just be friends, had never even known what direction he was supposed to point himself in the first place. He thought back to every moment with Caio that had given him that little shock of joy — a few more drops for the bucket, like catching rainwater — and now, in the cold light of realization, he knew that none of it had ever been about putting his feelings to rest for good.

He thought about the night in the Newport Creamery parking lot when Caio had hugged him while he cried ugly tears over Lisa’s memory and how he’d tried not to be swept away, but he hadn’t tried too hard. Every stolen glance to catch Caio’s ten-watt smile in candid or that strange new serenity that came over him when he played — he had been saving them all up without thinking about it, because it was what he’d always done. Those moments had felt like contraband because they were.

Even the night that Caio had broken down and confided in him, when he’d chronicled the end of his life as he knew it — even then, Felix had stolen away what he could from the feeling of Caio folded in his arms. If Caio had never noticed, or maybe just kept on pretending he didn’t, Felix could have subsisted off those drops forever.

That wasn’t healing. That was holding the wound open, meticulously cleaning it but refusing to let it close. Derek had been right about one thing — well, no, he’d been right about a lot of things, but he’d been particularly right when he said that Felix never had to get over Caio when he moved, that he only had to put Caio away. Felix had taken a kind of cover in the band, a setting or context in which he could build his reserve inconspicuously, simply holding out the bucket to catch flickers of a smile, but he couldn’t keep doing that anymore.

The band was the only thing that had happened between the four of them that existed firmly in the after of his and Caio’s relationship, and there was something sacrosanct in that. They had made something incredible together, generated and basked in a powerful host of feelings that had nothing to do with love. They had made a living thing with music, and it had changed them in the making, and they both needed that. With that, they could be old friends and bandmates, and leave the whole concept of exes behind.

Jesus. He’d been giving Derek and Jake too little credit all this time. If they hadn’t dragged him out of bed that Sunday morning, where would they all be now?

The night was cloaked in a late summer storm, rain pelting the windows of his apartment, but the muffled drumming was soothing in its own way. Felix put on the recording they’d made the other night and pressed his face into his Kurama body pillow while he listened, paying close attention now to the lines between their shouted voices, where his ended and Caio’s began, and reminded himself with every measure that this was what the future was going to sound like.

For the first time all week, he felt a little better after crying. He still felt like shit, but it was losing its despairing edge — and more effectively, its novelty. Felix felt too drained to muster up much of anything. He felt, at least, like he might sleep through the night tonight.

He wiped his eyes off on his sleeve and then deposited his day clothes into the hamper. After a moment’s consideration, he stripped off the decidedly snotty pillowcase off the body pillow and shoved it in there too.

After a long shower that left him pink all over, Felix was feeling a little more human. Some of that tiredness was even beginning to translate into a feeling like relaxation, the steady sound of the rain lulling him in.

He didn’t notice the knocking at first, lost in the wash of noise outside, not until he walked into the kitchen to refill his water. He checked his phone. Derek hadn’t texted him about coming over. Had he left something here? It wasn’t like he’d brought much with him.

Felix opened his mouth to speak as he opened the door, but no sound came out. Standing on his front step in the streaming rain was Caio, who looked like he’d somehow been rained on despite the umbrella clutched in white-knuckled hands. The eave only just barely jutted out over the front door, and the rain beat down from overhead, dripping off the edges of the umbrella to seep into his damp hoodie. His eyes were dark and wide, his face white, and he pinned Felix with a gaze that was intensity born out of desperation.

“I know you probably don’t want to talk to me right now,” he said, while Felix was still trying to figure out what to say. The words tumbled from his mouth with uncharacteristic urgency. “And if you want, I’ll leave, it’s fine, but — I have to tell you something, so — so just let me finish first.”

Felix didn’t know how anyone could say no to eyes like that. He closed his mouth and swallowed. Caio seemed like he was trying to steel himself, but his gaze dropped away and he clutched the umbrella tighter.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted out. It didn’t seem to be what he meant to start with. Felix wanted to stop him right there, because Caio had already apologized enough and he wasn’t sure he could take any more of it, but his mouth stayed closed, sealed by Caio’s imploring eyes. “It wasn’t fair. What I did. I promise I didn’t plan for it to happen. But I knew, when I did it, that it was a bad idea. That I’d probably confuse you or maybe even hurt your feelings. But I did it anyway, because it’d been so long since I felt anything but awful, and I just … really, really wanted to feel good for once.”

Felix felt a burning embarrassment sink into his stomach, the sudden, sharp awareness of being seen. Caio was staring at his sneakers, which were heavy and waterlogged. All that time and he’d really thought Caio hadn’t noticed. As if his pining, however distant, wouldn’t be obvious to someone who had been its object so many times before.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I were sober. But that’s not really an excuse. It was selfish. It just was. I’m … really sorry.”

Felix was beginning to feel like there was a deeper regret under all of these apologies, and that only churned his stomach more. Why else come all this way to apologize again, if only to really hammer the point home? Because Felix had gotten the message loud and clear on Sunday, and truthfully, even amidst all the pain and heartbreak, he wasn’t all that sorry except insofar as Caio was. The lovesick part of him he hadn’t figured out how to put down yet still half-wanted to thank Caio just for the opportunity.

“I did it knowing I’d probably have to talk you down later. Not that I was really thinking that much, but — I remember thinking that, and then I did it anyway.” Caio chanced only the briefest of glances at Felix’s face, barely a flicker of his eyes, and then he was staring at his hands, wet and tense. “Because there was no good reason to get back together, not when nothing about why we broke up in the first place had changed. It’s not like we haven’t been here before. I was ready for you to try and convince me, for you to beg, even, and I was going to have to find a way to say no that stuck, because somehow, we always wound up back together, like — like bungled hostage negotiations. I was ready for you to send me like, a million texts. Call me over and over again. But … you didn’t do that. You didn’t do any of it.”

His voice creaked like a floorboard on that any, and there was something almost puzzled about his expression. Felix wasn’t sure how he felt about Caio’s conviction in his ability to fuck it up, but he wasn’t wrong. Felix had had to bury his phone in his fucking couch to avoid making those mistakes again.

“And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with you, or that I didn’t—” Caio’s breath caught in his throat and he coughed, and Felix found his own throat suddenly tight. “It was just so hard, every time we broke up, and it kept getting harder, and I just — we were never going to make it work, and it seemed better if we stopped hurting each other trying. And that’s why we couldn’t get back together, because it wouldn’t work out, because nothing had changed.”

His voice was taut, getting harder to hear over the rain, but he was pushing the words out anyway. They sounded painful.

“But … I think I was wrong. I thought I’d outgrown you, but I was so focused on how much I’d changed that I didn’t realize I was still seeing you as the person you were when I left. But you were growing too, while I was living my life down there, and…” He swallowed, but it didn’t stop his voice from breaking again. “I really, really like the person you’ve become. I might—”

He cut himself off there, biting his lips together, and the whole street seemed to lurch away from Felix, threatening to tear itself free of his front step and leave him and Caio alone in the swirling void left behind. His hand was tight on the door jamb, afraid to interrupt, that he might shatter this fragile moment, too. He didn’t want to put a stop to this unusual candor from someone so taciturn, someone who had become, at some point, difficult for him to get a read on. He could only watch as Caio’s hand twisted around the umbrella handle as he squeezed his eyes tight. His other hand clutched his hoodie closed, a chill setting in despite the muggy August warmth.

“The truth is—” Caio’s voice snagged on that last word. Felix realized he was squeezing his eyes shut to keep back tears, but it was impossible to tell teardrops from raindrops anyway. The rain kept pounding overhead, streaming in a curtain around him. “The truth is I really miss you. I always missed you. Even when I was in Philly, even when I was happy there, even when I was convinced I was over it. And when I saw you again, I — I thought, I don’t know, just being around you again would be enough. That I wouldn’t miss you so much as long as we had the band.”

Felix felt like the bottom had dropped out of his stomach and was still falling, falling, far beyond him. Caio still couldn’t seem to meet Felix’s eyes, not even look at his face, and he was back to staring at his hands. Most of his hoodie was soaked through; his shoes were a lost cause, standing in the pelting rain that was gathering in the depression in Felix’s concrete front step. Felix saw the umbrella twitch, and realized Caio’s hands were trembling.

“I was so convinced we would never make it work. I thought it had to be this way. So I told you no. Only — I made a mistake, and now I think it’s probably too late…” His trembling voice broke, finally, tears creeping in, and he chanced a look up at Felix’s face from under the umbrella.

Felix was trying to remember how to breathe, stuck staring at the rain-soaked boy with those deep-set eyes on his porch, clasping a tiny umbrella that was doing absolutely jack shit for him. 

Caio swallowed uncertainly, his gaze skating off to the side. “If you want me to leave, that’s okay. I just, um. I didn’t want to say any of that over a text.” He hung there awkwardly, looking more miserable by the second. “The buses run late on Fridays, so—”

“Oh my God,” Felix said, finally finding his voice. “Will you please come inside? You are going to catch a cold.”

That was clearly not the answer Caio was expecting to his uncharacteristically heartfelt confession, and he stumbled inside when Felix stepped back, looking badly thrown off balance. He stared at Felix with great trepidation, twisting the umbrella in his hands. He looked keenly, painfully aware of how much water was dripping on the linoleum. He seemed like he wanted to ask for a response, but wasn’t really sure how. He opened his mouth, and only a creak came out. Maybe he’d spent all his words for the night. It certainly had been a lot all at once from Caio.

Felix held up a hand, pressing the other to his forehead as he leaned back against the wall with a thud. “Sorry, just — you threw a lot at me just now. I need a second to process here.”

“Um. Okay,” Caio said uncertainly, only belatedly remembering to close his umbrella. But he had nowhere to put it, so he just held it in his hands awkwardly, dripping water onto the floor like the rest of him.

It wasn’t as though Felix couldn’t appreciate Caio’s situation. In fact, Caio was stealing his entire bit — showing up on the front step in the rain with a love confession? Felix invented that one in high school — it was just that Felix had had a really long week, and he’d already cried himself empty for the day, and his brain was moving at molasses speed, trying to figure out what to say in slow motion. Just when he was really starting to acquaint himself with the idea of getting over Caio — fuck. He was not handling the whiplash gracefully. His friends all needed to stop springing this shit on him with no warning.

“I can catch the next bus home,” Caio said haltingly when Felix still didn’t say anything. “It’s not that far—”

“Please. I am not sending you off to wait at a bus stop in the rain. Your dad would kill me.” Felix rubbed his eyes, still reeling, still uncertain that this was really happening. He drew in a deep breath, keenly conscious of Caio’s anxious eyes on him, and let it out. “Let me get this straight, because my brain is cooked from work, and, uh, this whole week — are you telling me you want to get back together?”

A little bit of color found its way back to Caio’s face, though he looked no less nervous. Felix’s heart lurched. Caio’s gaze flickered away again, but only briefly. He twisted the umbrella in his hands.

“Not get back together,” he said. “More like … start over. Try, anyway.” He cleared his throat and bit his bottom lip. “I know I probably don’t have any right to—”

That was enough of that. The umbrella clattered to the floor with a spray of droplets, falling from Caio’s spasming hand as Felix pressed an ardent kiss to his mouth. Felix’s thick fingers were tangled in his hair, his other arm folding around Caio’s back, and when he pulled away, it was to the sight of Caio looking pink in the face and just a little bit dazed.

“Sorry,” Felix said insincerely. “I just needed a second to think.”

To his delight, Caio flushed a little darker. Apprehension still lurked in his expression, though, and he shrank back. “Aren’t you mad? I mean, it was pretty selfish, and I didn’t text you or call you back or anything…”

“Man, I just spent the last week trying to get over it. Not really? Maybe a little? I don’t know.” It was an honest answer; Felix’s brain was a bumper cart course, and someone had greased the whole track. It was hard to think past the immediate elation. He tried for something simply true. “I don’t really want to be mad at you. You’re one of like, three people in the world who make me feel less alone. I don’t want to throw that away. Being mad at this point is just … a waste of time.”

He cupped Caio’s face in his hands, smoothing damp hair away from where it stuck to the skin. Caio’s skin was cool under his hands, still clammy from the rain. “I can’t believe you ever thought there was a too late for me, you dork.”

“I meant it when I said start over,” Caio said, his face serious, eyes shadowed by his wet bangs. He reached up his hands to cover Felix’s. “If we just try to pick up where we left off, we might just end up making the same mistakes. And I — I really don’t want that.”

His damp hands slid to Felix’s wrists, but he didn’t try to pull them away.

“We didn’t talk to each other for five whole years. We aren’t strangers, but we aren’t the people we used to know, either, and we’re still getting to know each other again. I think the biggest mistake we could make is to think we know each other as well as we used to. We’ll draw all the wrong conclusions.” His hands tightened around Felix’s wrists, and his apprehensive eyes settled into something firm and resolved. “I know it’s not a sure thing. But I miss you. You make me feel less alone too. And I want to try starting over for real. I think we can do it, if we really work at it.”

The most difficult easy thing in his life, Felix thought. He nodded, running his thumb gently along the edge of Caio’s jaw. Caio closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out.

“I just want to take it one day at a time. Figure it out as we go, but on purpose, not just bumping into stuff along the way.”

“Alright,” Felix said, because if those were all Caio’s terms, he’d gladly yield. Caio was right that this was only happening in part because Felix hadn’t let himself succumb to the desperate need to make things happen, to force a conclusion. And it was equal parts because Caio had found a way to articulate himself, to set a clear boundary in ways that were almost foreign to Felix. He was quiet by nature, and he could still be sullen and sad and miserable in a hundred familiar ways, but that old skittishness, bred in the bones, was starting to wane, had been waning slowly for some time now. He seemed to have found his footing.

Felix wanted deeply to get to know this new Caio better, but it hadn’t been easy, keeping himself in check, and this couldn’t have been easy for Caio, either. “So where do we go from here? What’s the next step into not reverting back into stupid teenagers?”

A look of vague panic stole over Caio’s face. “I, um, don’t know. I didn’t come with a plan or anything. I kind of thought I’d be on my way back to the bus to Deerbrook by now.”

“You say the most unbelievably stupid shit,” Felix said, and pressed a kiss to Caio’s damp forehead. “I don’t think even Jake has a playbook for this one. We’ll figure out. I don’t want to fuck this up either.”

Felix pulled the towel from around his shoulders and draped it around Caio’s neck instead, tucking it under his damp hair. “I’ll drive you home later if you want, but at least take a shower, okay? You’re soaked.”

Caio looked guiltily down at the puddles on the floor around his feet. “Sorry,” he mumbled, but he was starting to shiver in the air conditioned apartment. Felix smushed his cheeks together. Caio’s brows pinched.

“It’s just water,” said Felix. “Come on, get out of those shoes. I’ve got some sweats you can probably wear. I need to throw in some laundry anyway.”

“Thanks,” Caio said as he slipped out of his shoes, his voice small but relieved, finally relieved, and Felix picked up the umbrella and propped it up by the front door. Felix led him to the bathroom, grabbing a fresh towel from the closet on the way, but he hesitated as he opened the door, looking back down at Caio. Other than the signs of tiredness, the slackness around his eyes, his face was back to its neutral resting blankness.

In that moment, Felix saw not the passage of time on his face but a point of infinity, a constant that would not change. That was the core of the person he was so madly in love with, but in this moment, it scared him. Because there were things about them that would never change, and it could just have easily been any of those things that kept them from making it work, and not something they could control. There was always the possibility that no matter how much they changed, how much they tried, that one fact would remain the same.

“Hey,” he said, and Caio paused in the doorway, turning his dull-eyed gaze on Felix. Forget the lights, the moments of levity — Felix could look at that bleak, tired face forever. He bit the inside of his cheek. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Caio blinked slowly at him, the subtle change of expression rendered only in the parting of his lips and the hint of tension between his thick eyebrows. He didn’t answer with an unhesitating yes, which almost made Felix regret asking. Almost.

“No,” Caio said finally. “I’m not sure. There’s no guarantees. Even as different people, it might still not work out. But I think it’s worth trying. And … I want to get to know the new you.”

“Yeah,” said Felix, feeling oddly more comforted by that than any keen gesture. There was something grounding about Caio’s matter-of-factness. “Me too.”

He held the towel out to Caio, who lifted his hand but didn’t take it right away.

“Are you really okay with that?” he asked, and he looked so serious, and Felix knew he was supposed to take Caio seriously, and he was, it was just that that face made Felix want to kiss him stupid. “Can you be okay with the possibility that we might have to call it quits for good again?”

The idea of Forever Breakup 3 honestly made Felix dizzy to contemplate, but he was already strapped in. He’d figure it out as he went, how to take it one day at a time, to not take it for granted. Maybe their jagged edges didn’t need all that much sanding down. Maybe it was just now the shapes had changed, and they could fit them together now.

Felix nodded, and Caio smiled just faintly as he took the towel, sending a fleet of butterflies through Felix’s chest. 

“You can just drop your clothes on the floor,” Felix said as Caio closed the bathroom door behind him. “I’ll grab them in a sec and throw them in with the wash.”

There was a muffled noise of acknowledgment and after another few minutes, the sound of running water. Felix let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and slid down the wall until his ass hit carpet. Normally he’d be terrified at being alone with his thoughts at a time like this, but he needed a moment to process. A lot had happened in the last half hour, and he needed to unpack it until his mind settled. Caio probably needed the time, too.

Caio wasn’t usually inclined to take long showers, but he spent a good thirty minutes in there, during which Felix was possessed to try to rapidly clean his apartment once the wash was in. Now that he suddenly had a boyfriend again, he was self-conscious of the depression nest he’d made of his apartment in the last week.

That thought brought him up short as he moved the laundry over to the dryer, standing there with a fistful of wet, cold socks. When was the last time he’d been embarrassed at Caio seeing his messy room? Up until he’d left, Caio had been a permanent fixture in his life, well-worn and comfortable there. But he found himself wanting to make a good impression on his new-old boyfriend, realizing there was space to now. He had agreed with Caio earlier, but now he really felt it: that they still needed to get to know each other, that there were new mysteries to uncover in one another.

Five years ago, the idea would have scared Felix shitless, but now he found it weirdly comforting. It lent strength to the conviction that things could be different because they were different people now. They had had a good thing going once; they could find their rhythm again. Caio could be selfish, and Felix could be greedy, but it might just be worth the risk. Felix punched on the dryer with a smile that was starting to make his face hurt and headed back up the basement stairs to take out the trash.

Caio was just emerging from the bathroom as Felix came back inside, shedding his wet jacket. A thick puff of steam followed Caio, and he was dressed in the clothes Felix had left for him, an old band T-shirt and his only surviving set of pajamas with a drawstring. Caio had a fresh towel around his shoulders, the ends of his overgrown haircut resting gently on the terrycloth. The heat brought a little color to his face, and he looked worlds better than when he’d been pale and shivering and anxious on Felix’s porch.

“I forgot to turn the fan on first,” he said with an apologetic little twist of his mouth.

Felix tousled his hair gently with the towel and kissed him on the head. “What’s a few mold spores between friends? Seems like you needed it, anyway.”

“I feel a little better,” Caio admitted, not smiling, but the resting blankness transformed to something Felix recognized as contentment. “I was pretty soaked. I got off the bus a stop too early by mistake and I wound up walking an extra half mile.”

“Jesus Christ,” Felix said, and Caio stepped past him, peering around at the apartment for the first time. Felix became keenly aware of a dirty sock resting on the coffee table that he’d failed to notice until now. “Sorry it’s kind of a mess in here. Haven’t been, uhh, super up on cleaning this week.”

Caio let out a stifled noise, and Felix realized it was a laugh. “I was going to say it’s cleaner than I expected,” Caio said. Felix made an injured face. “Was I ever really that messy?”

“Not half as bad as Jake. But I haven’t checked your fridge for liquefied cabbage.”

Felix shuddered; Caio just let out another little huff of a laugh. He was already venturing into the small living room, towards the kitchen where he’d first entered, looking around with unmasked curiosity.

“I’d give you the nickel tour, but you’ve seen most of it already,” Felix said, half-expecting Caio to start turning out drawers and cupboards, but he was already circling back, frowning at the two bedroom doors.

“Do you live here alone?”

“For now,” Felix said, and going by the skepticism in Caio’s voice, elected not to tell him that his last roommate had moved out after one too many early morning manic cleaning sprees. There was a reason this place looked better than the last time Caio had seen any living space of his. “But hey, Derek’s planning on moving in at some point.”

“That’d be pretty cool,” Caio said, looking at a selection of figures arranged on a shelf next to the TV. “So you got really into idol games, huh?”

Felix cleared his throat. “Excuse me, is that judgment I hear from a member of the Deerbrook High Anime Club band? Wait, which of these do you play?”

Caio just wrinkled his nose in a smile and kept on walking, peering at the doors. He pointed at the open door, which revealed an unmade bed and a pile of laundry that was just as likely to be clean as dirty, just barely trailing past the doorway. “That’s your room, right?”

“Ouch,” Felix said. Caio rolled his eyes.

“You’ve had that Sasuke wall scroll since college. Can I borrow some socks? Your apartment is freezing.”

Felix went to fish a pair of socks from his dresser and Caio trailed behind him, laying his anthropologist’s gaze on everything. Felix held the socks out to him and sighed. “Seriously, who gave you the right to look that cute in my old sweatpants?”

Caio just gave him a little eye roll again, but it was affectionate, and Felix felt his heart do another stupid pirouette in his chest. Caio sat down on the edge of Felix’s bed to put on the socks, though he didn’t sit hesitantly, but with the full weight of his body. He’d been shaky and seemed on the verge of tears when he’d turned up on Felix’s doorstep, but he seemed so settled now.

There was a new thread of self-assurance woven into Caio that Felix had only become aware of gradually. He was so used to being Caio being skittish, but now the rest of him was coming into clearer focus, and Felix almost didn’t know what to do with a Caio who would turn up to spill his heart out in the rain. He watched Caio finish wriggling his feet into the socks and flop back onto the bed with a little whoosh of breath, his eyes closed. He’d had that shower to compose himself, but as Felix watched closer, Caio seemed to be taking a little more time. Even with color in his face again, he looked drained. Maybe he wasn’t so calm after all, this new boldness only having carried him this far, and he was panicking a little internally just like Felix. Felix wondered if he seemed calmer than he felt. He wondered if Caio’s slow breathing now was because he was calm or if he was trying to calm himself.

For once, instead of wondering, he asked, “You okay?”

There was a weight to Caio’s limbs on the bed that suggested not just tiredness, but a bone-deep refusal of his body to move for a little bit. Felix dropped onto the bed next to him, and the mattress puffed up briefly under Caio, who blinked open dull eyes. “Just thinking.”

There was a wet piece of hair stuck to his cheek. Felix felt himself hold back out of half-formed habit, realized he had no fucking reason to and reached out to brush it back from Caio’s face with a stupid little burst of glee. Caio didn’t flinch away from his touch, only blinked back at him like a cat.

“Yeah? What about?”

“What we should do for our first date.” He let his head roll to the side to look up at Felix. “Since we’re dating again. We should probably go on an actual date.”

“Hm.” Felix’s fingers continued to brush through Caio’s damp hair. “Shit, I don’t remember what we used to do for dates. It kind of always morphed into pizza and Netflix after a point.”

“We should go to a show,” Caio said. Felix’s eyebrows rose.

“What, like a play?”

Caio let out a little pfft. “No, like a concert. There’s small venues here. Boston too. I bet we could find an indie show or something to go to.”

“You really want to go to a concert for a date?”

“Dinner and a show.” Caio shrugged. “It’s really not that different from going to see a movie. And it’s something new.”

Felix thought about that. Time was that Caio could be finicky and hard to please, but now he seemed … flexible. He was so used to having to coax Caio into things that he didn’t really know how to react to Caio doing that to him now.

“Alright then, let’s go to a show. Find us an indie band or something, because now I want to see what you’re like at a concert. How’d you even get into live music in the first place, anyway? You used to hate noise.”

Caio shrugged, pressing the towel to his face. “A friend asked once if I’d come see their band play. They were opening for some other band that was touring. I didn’t have a good excuse to say no, so I figured I’d just stay until their set was over and leave. But … it wasn’t what I expected. I’d never really seen a band play up close before. I mean, close enough you can actually see their faces. It was so totally different from just listening to music. It was better, actually. So I kept going when they invited me out to shows. And then I started looking for stuff to go to on my own. I started figuring out what I really liked, and in Philly, I could always find more of it.”

He closed his eyes again, his voice a little taut with memory, but he didn’t stop. “And it just became the thing that I did with those friends. Sometimes we even went out of town — not far. I went to a punk show on Halloween in Brooklyn once that was like—” He opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling like he was watching a zootrope of not-so-distant memories flash by. “Nothing else I’ve been to before or since, probably.”

“You go to punk shows?”

Caio’s brows drew down in a faint look of exasperation. “Are you going to keep reacting like that to every new thing?”

“Sorry, just — punk shows?” Felix was trying, and failing, to suppress a grin. “You once told me the Offspring were too hardcore for you.”

“When I was sixteen,” Caio said, and he was a little annoyed, and it made him look even cuter. Felix let out a laugh.

“Man, I really missed out these last five years, huh? I wish I’d been less of a coward about it. I could’ve been there for some of that.”

It must have been glorious to watch him come into himself, a shape Felix had never imagined for him, and he wondered if Derek and Jake knew how lucky they were for having stayed in Caio’s life.

“I don’t,” Caio said, and for a second, Felix thought he was still annoyed, but he was looking up at the ceiling with lidded eyes, his expression neutral. “We needed to be apart for a while. We couldn’t grow like that. We’d have just kept choking each other out.”

“This new tendency of yours to keep being right about this shit is getting real annoying, you know,” Felix told him.

Caio smiled up at the ceiling, a little ruefully. “I kind of spent all week thinking about it.”

Ah. Yeah, Caio was not fortunate enough to have a job to distract him even temporarily from his personal life, and he likely hadn’t spent all week trying to shut his heart down, either. He’d spent most of the week convalescing, and had probably been alone with his thoughts way too much. Felix played with Caio’s damp hair, combing his fingers through the tousled tangles, delighting at just getting to touch him like this again. It was the casual affection that had been the hardest to shake.

“Well, I can’t wait to learn more about the new and improved Caio,” Felix said. “Like, for instance, where you learned to suck dick like that.”

Felix expected Caio to flush at that, and he did, a little, but he rolled his head to the side again with a flat little look and said, “You’d just get jealous.”

Felix put a hand to his chest. “I promise I will not get jealous. I just really gotta know.”

Caio peered at him, evaluating, until he deemed Felix to be truthful. “Daniel.”

“Daniel — wait, the Daniel who helped you move down to Philly?” Felix stared down at him. “That Daniel?”

“I knew you were going to get jealous.”

“I am not jealous,” Felix said in indignation. “Just — that Daniel? Really? That guy’s built like Derek, if there were twenty percent more of him.”

He was having a hard time wrapping his head around the visual, although it had a little less to do with the fact that the guy was Felix’s physical foil than it did with the fact that he’d always thought Daniel was kind of an asshole, and never figured out why exactly Caio was friends with him in the first place, other than that they were in the same Japanese program in college. Maybe Caio just had a higher tolerance for the kind of weeb who was so up himself he deemed all shonen anime “pedestrian” but probably jerked it to Akira. It seemed deeply unfair that a tool like that could be so preternaturally good at giving head.

“It happened after I moved,” Caio said, “just so you know. And it didn’t go on that long anyway.” He rolled his eyes back to the ceiling. “You’re totally jealous right now. I know exactly what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, do you?”

“You’re wondering how big his dick was,” Caio said matter-of-factly. Felix cleared his throat.

“I am not,” he said, and propped himself up on one elbow on the bed next to Caio. “I am wondering a little just what he taught you and how, but mostly I’m thinking about what a shame it is that I didn’t get to return the favor.”

That made Caio cough. “I mean, you did.”

“Well, not the way I’d have liked to, but I was genuinely worried you’d pass out before I made you come.” Caio flushed a little more, this time in embarrassment, but Felix just grinned. “I’m just saying. Consider it an IOU. After our date, maybe.”

“It doesn’t have to be after our date,” Caio said, but the diffidence was a feint, and he lifted his deep set eyes to Felix’s face, partly shaded by his bangs, in a look he must have learned to do on purpose at some point — that wide-eyed who, me? look that had made Felix all wobbly since the first time they’d met. It was the sincerity, the uncertainty bordering on bafflement that had captivated him then and since, but he couldn’t bring himself to be anything but delighted at Caio’s utterly transparent attempt at being sneaky. “I’m just saying.”

It was the faint smugness to his tone that made Felix want to roll him over right there. Other people, it seemed, were looking in all the wrong places to find Caio sexy. Felix shifted so that he was leaning over Caio, taking a second just to appreciate the novelty of Caio sprawled out on his bed — a new bed, one that hadn’t borne Caio’s weight before.

He looked stupidly cute in the oversized shirt, the collar low enough to reveal the curve of one shoulder. And it really ought to have been illegal for him to look that inviting in sweats that Felix was on the verge of throwing out for the holes in the crotch seam. There was just something about the way Caio was laid out, how the weight of his limp legs stretched out his short torso over the edge of the bed, how the rumpled shirt pushed up over the waistband to reveal patches of pale skin.

Felix grinned, knowing his giddiness was canceling out every attempt at being smooth and not caring in the least. “Oh? You think I’m a fuck-before-the-first-date kind of guy?”

“Yes,” Caio said unhesitatingly. His arms lay out limply stretched out on either side of him. “And I think it’s stupid you’re not kissing me right now.”

Just who was this bold new Caio, and where could Felix get more of him? There was something about his bluntness, usually charming in its clumsiness, that made Felix’s stomach do a neat little flip.

“Are you this mean to all your new boyfriends?” Felix said, leaning in, and his stomach jumped again as an unexpected laugh burst from Caio’s chest. Felix pressed a kiss to Caio’s neck instead, unwilling to cut short that little bit of music. But Caio’s arms were already loosely wrapped around his neck, and Felix moved up to kiss him without resistance, basking in Caio’s soft breath, in the taste of him. With the lens of the drugs and alcohol lifted, it was all the more intense, present, and Felix had the peculiar feeling of the room revolving rapidly around him with the sheer force of nostalgia.

Their first kiss had gone something like this, hadn’t it? Only there hadn’t been any preamble, only Felix’s nervous impulse, and neither of them had been any good at it then. But this angle that registered as awkward just a half-second too late, Caio spread out limply on his bed in an otherwise empty house, just the two of them — it had the warm bell-ring of nostalgia. But Caio didn’t look embarrassed or like a deer in the headlights now. He looked tired and pleased both, reaching back up only moments after Felix pulled away just to look at him. This close, Felix could smell his own shampoo in Caio’s hair, and it was an immediate turn-on.

After a couple of minutes of craning his head awkwardly, Felix scooped one broad arm under Caio and pulled him onto the bed properly until he was resting against the pillows. Felix clumsily kicked the rumpled comforter and dangerously uncovered body pillow out of the way and pressed Caio back into the mattress, tasting Caio on his tongue, feeling his breath, and he reached for one of Caio’s hands, threading their fingers together. Felix leaned over him, pulling Caio close, just enjoying the feeling of Caio’s body tucked against his.

Aside from Caio, Felix’s type was club-bouncer-level brick shithouse, someone big enough to throw him around a little. But with Caio, he liked that he was bigger, the juxtaposition between his fat body and Caio’s slight one under him. There was something simultaneously comforting and erotic about the way he could envelop Caio so completely like this; it made him feel like a different kind of sexy. 

Maybe it had something more to do with the two of them, because Caio had once told him something similar, that being with Felix made his sick body and the unpleasantries that came with a life of gut disease feel less embarrassing, that Felix had made him feel wanted in a way that other people hadn’t — but that was enough thought on that, because the way Caio was kissing him right now made him feel delightfully, familiarly wanted.

It was clear that just one messy evening in their best friend’s basement wasn’t enough to resolve all of Caio’s pent-up frustration. His free hand was under Felix’s shirt, sinking his fingers into Felix’s side. Caio inhaled sharply through his nose as Felix wedged a knee between his legs, his lips parting further, and Felix squeezed Caio’s hand and pressed him back into the mattress. He wanted to see how quickly he could get Caio hard like this, just kissing him and holding him down against the bed.

Caio’s hand pushed up Felix’s shirt, smoothing his palm up Felix’s stomach, curling his fingers inward until they scratched the skin and caught on Felix’s chest hair. The desperate fervor from Saturday night was gone now, melted into something softer without losing any of its heat.

There was no looming threat of sobriety or their buddies coming back from a beer run too early — they could take their time, and Felix could feel some of the tension that held Caio taut ease under him even as Caio’s fingers tightened around his. There was a sense of relief in the way Caio kissed him, and Felix loved the taste, breathing out slowly as his tongue traced over Caio’s lower lip. Caio’s other hand was still shoved under his shirt, determined to get two hands’ worth of touching in.

Felix’s hands hadn’t moved below the shoulder, one hand still linked with Caio’s, the other tracing a thumb over Caio’s jaw. This was what he’d missed on Saturday night, what he’d really have liked to do if Caio hadn’t jumped him like a loaded spring. After a few minutes, Caio became conscious of the fact that Felix’s hands weren’t moving, and he let out an impatient huff of breath through his nose. Felix grinned into the kiss and thumbed over the hollow just behind Caio’s ear, gleefully testing what had changed and what had stayed the same.

Felix let his fingers drag lightly down Caio’s neck and Caio’s breath hitched on a shiver. But it was when Felix began to mouth along his jaw, fingers tracing over his collarbone, that Caio let out his first unselfconscious gasp. Felix could feel him getting hard, his growing erection pressing against Felix’s thigh. Yes, Felix could say with confidence that one thing, at least, had not changed: he could work Caio into a breathy frenzy without hardly touching him at all.

Caio was starting to writhe under him, pawing at Felix’s chest, urging him to move his hands a little farther south. But Felix, blithely ignoring him, only kissed a trail down to the juncture of his neck and shoulder. A tiny sigh escaped Caio’s throat and he tilted his head to the side almost automatically. He had always been particularly weak here, hadn’t he? Caio’s hand stilled, then flexed against Felix’s chest as Felix bit lightly at the curve of his neck, smoothing it over with his tongue just as quickly.

Caio’s shallow breathing filled the space between them, all other sound dying in his throat. Caio was usually as quiet in bed as he was everywhere else, and it had been one of Felix’s great joys in life to find new ways to make him forget himself enough to make some noise. Saturday night had been a particularly uninhibited display, and he wanted to see what kind of music he could draw out of Caio now.

“Felix,” breathed Caio, the thin thread of a whine in his voice, and Felix felt his cock twitch just hearing his name in that voice. It was in sharper focus now, the sound crisp in his ears, even if Caio sounded a little impatient. Felix breathed a laugh along Caio’s jaw as he kissed his way back to Caio’s cheek.

“What, I can’t take a little time to enjoy you like this?” He placed a kiss at the corner of Caio’s mouth, who let out a little huff. He knew he was being teased. “Last weekend was a rush job.  And I’m actually sober enough to properly appreciate it this time.”

“You can appreciate it with less clothes,” Caio said, stubbornly pulling at Felix’s shirt, though there was a hitch in his voice even as he did so, and he looked faintly embarrassed — no, wait, that tiny tilted smile was pleased. Felix didn’t remember Caio taking quite so much pleasure in being demanding. “It was dark. I didn’t really get to see you at all.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a little hard to see much of anything with your face in my lap,” Felix said, and the touch of color in Caio’s cheeks was indignant. Felix just grinned and stole another kiss from Caio’s open mouth before sitting up enough to pull his shirt over his head. He shivered as the refrigerated air hit his bare skin, and he felt a little awkward for a moment, a flicker of that panic at someone seeing you naked for the first time, until he felt two cool hands slide up his stomach and he saw Caio looking up at him with dark, lidded eyes, lips parted.

Fuck, he’d almost forgotten what Caio could do to him with that look. Had he figured out yet that he was capable of the most smoldering bedroom eyes Felix had ever encountered? It was something about the way his bangs shaded his eyes, the rest of his face slack and neutral — all that heat concentrated into two points. Felix felt suddenly hot, a deep flush rising in his cheeks. He wanted Caio to look at him like that forever, even if it scorched him. 

“The view’s pretty good from up here too,” he said with a crooked smile, and his heart skipped at the rare flash of teeth in Caio’s smile. Felix leaned in to kiss him again, one hand under the small of his back, the other tugging his shirt up. But Caio pulled it back down by the hem, and Felix withdrew his hand.

“It’s cold in here,” Caio mumbled, and maybe that was all — but an offer to get under the covers might not put him at ease if it was a deflection from self-consciousness. It had been a particularly rough year and change for him. Maybe he wasn’t feeling quite that much better yet.

“As long as you’ll let me get you out of these,” Felix agreed, dropping his hands to Caio’s hips, and Caio wriggled under him with no complaint. Felix dove back into the kiss, letting the hand supporting Caio’s back slip down to cup his ass. He gave it a good squeeze, and Caio hiccuped out a squeak that simultaneously made him laugh and turned him on.

The truth was that Felix could do this forever, just kissing and touching Caio, tracing over those familiar lines. In spite of the emotional agony of the last week, Felix was deeply grateful that Caio had chosen Friday night for his dramatic confession. After a few minutes, Caio’s little grunts and gasps became impatient again, and Felix pulled back, pushing his hair away from his face.

“What, had enough of kissing me already?” he said with deeply exaggerated injury, then sat up abruptly. “Wait, am I a bad kisser now?”

“No,” Caio said emphatically, and coughed. “You just said you were gonna…”

He trailed off, waving a hand, and Felix’s eyes widened in delight. He leaned over Caio, propping up an elbow on the bed next to Caio’s head. “Oh? Come on, use your words.”

This was where Caio was supposed to flush and stammer, because there were parts of his prudishness he’d never quite outgrown, and it amused Felix to no end. But instead Caio leveled him with a look so flat and unimpressed that Felix burst out laughing, pressing a flurry of kisses to his face. Caio was caught between indignation and delight, writhing with anticipation.

“Yeah, alright,” Felix said, still laughing, and he tugged loose the drawstring before hooking both thumbs under Caio’s waistband. Felix hadn’t gone so far as to lend Caio a pair of boxers — aside from that none of them would probably fit, it just seemed like a weird move when they’d gotten back together less than an hour ago. So when Felix tugged the sweatpants over Caio’s hips, his cock was bare when it sprang free, and a shiver ran down every line of Caio’s body.

Felix pulled the sweats the rest of the way off and tossed them away negligently. He was much more interested in wrapping his hand around Caio’s cock, running his thumb along the shaft. He could feel Caio growing harder under his touch, and he took a moment just to appreciate the way Caio’s hips twitched, the way his eyelids fluttered briefly before he caught his breath, only for it to hitch and waver again.

Felix couldn’t resist kissing Caio one more time, dipping his tongue into Caio’s mouth just to taste him, but he pulled back as a thin whine escaped from Caio’s throat. He kissed down Caio’s neck and settled himself between Caio’s legs, nudging them further apart. Caio was a sight from this angle too, propped up against the pillows, his hips jutting out towards Felix.

He smoothed one hand along Caio’s inner thigh, stroking down the length of his dick with the other. He leaned in, feeling Caio’s eyes on him, and ghosted a breath over Caio’s cock until Felix heard an honest-to-God whimper creak from his throat. Feeling immensely pleased with himself, Felix ran his tongue around the head of Caio’s cock. Caio inhaled sharply, his eyes shivering shut, but some part of him relaxed, letting his body sink back into the bed even as his hips jerked up.

Felix took Caio into his mouth with unbridled enthusiasm, tonguing over the slit before sucking lightly at the head. Caio let out a groan, his head tilting back as he sucked in a breath through his teeth. Felix’s lips slid further down the shaft, his nose buried in the scent of Caio’s cock. Even now, stone cold sober in his own apartment, Felix felt a little like he was dreaming, like he could get drunk off the taste alone.

A broken, stuttering groan was leaking from Caio’s throat in fragments, punctuated by short, hot breaths. Felix looked up to see Caio with his head tipped back over the pillows, both hands covering his face. Not a habit born out of self-consciousness, Felix had learned long ago, but a reflex, Caio’s automatic response to being overwhelmed with stimuli. Most people grabbed for the sheets, but Caio always buried his face in his hands.

Felix thought it was fucking adorable, but he also badly wanted to see Caio’s face right now. He reached up and gently tugged one hand down, revealing the bright flush that had bloomed underneath. Caio didn’t resist, too absorbed in the wet heat of Felix’s mouth to be anything but pliant. Now that was a proper view — Caio panting open-mouthed, one hand still tangled in his own bangs, the other closing in a vice grip around Felix’s arm. His eyes fluttered open and closed, unfocused, clouded with heat.

Felix tried to go slow, pace himself so as not to overwhelm Caio completely. He wanted to go to fucking town on Caio’s cock, swallow him to the base like he’d fantasized more than once in fits of desperate nostalgia, but he was keenly conscious of how sensitive Caio was right now, how easily he could come undone at Felix’s touch. He wanted to draw it out as long as he could, to both their benefit.

He let his hand drop to cup Caio’s balls, gently kneading between his fingers, and he felt Caio tense under him. Felix pulled his mouth back slowly, flicking his tongue over the tip as he released Caio’s cock from his mouth. Caio groaned in disappointment, but Felix dragged his tongue in a thick stripe down Caio’s cock, and the hand on Felix’s arm tightened.

Dipping his head a little lower, Felix took one of Caio’s balls into his mouth and sucked at it gently at first, then a little harder as he felt Caio’s hips shake. Had he always been weak to this, or had Felix forgotten some things after all? Or maybe it was something he’d discovered about himself down in Philly — the thought might ordinarily make Felix jealous, but in the moment, he was grateful to all the Daniels of the tri-state area for unearthing new things about Caio to enjoy.

Felix pinned Caio to the bed with a firm hand on his hip, because he was going to wind up doing bridges for all he kept trying to arch his hips. Felix mouthed his way back up Caio’s cock, and he could see now that the flush had spread to Caio’s chest, sweat beaded at his brow, one hand still helplessly pressed to his face. His cock was hot in Felix’s mouth, so hard it must have hurt, and Felix was keeping him on the edge. He didn’t want to stop — he could have happily gone on edging Caio for the rest of the night — but Caio’s thin groans were growing desperate, and his short fingernails were digging into Felix’s skin. Felix slid his lips further down Caio’s cock, his tongue pressing into the underside of his shaft.

“Felix,” Caio said raggedly, but whatever he was about to say next was cut off by a sudden, strangled noise as Felix began to suck — lightly at first, but quickly mounting, sucking him the way Felix really thirsted for.

It wasn’t long before Caio toppled over the edge with a cry so sharp it sounded like a cracked sob, his hips straining forward as he came hard in Felix’s mouth. Felix finally had a hand free to drop between his legs and cup his own cock while Caio’s come filled his mouth, and he swallowed it down with a shuddering moan. Fuck.

Saturday night had been thrilling, sure, but too short and juvenile. This, on the other hand, was moving at a pace he could follow with pleasure and had him unbelievably turned on, and sorely regretting not shedding his pants before getting his mouth on Caio’s cock. His jeans were uncomfortably tight around a hard-on that was feeling increasingly urgent with the taste of Caio’s come now lingering on his tongue.

Caio looked completely spent, laying boneless and dazed on the bed. He ran his hand down his face with a groan, still trying to catch his breath. His cock was taking its sweet time in softening, still twitching with the occasional aftershock.

“Sorry,” he mumbled in a cracked voice. “Just give me a second, I’ll…”

Felix breathed out a laugh even as he unbuttoned his jeans to give his stiff cock a little relief. He bit his lip as a shiver ran through him, heat rising to the surface, and stroked himself through his boxers a few times before leaning in and brushing the hair from Caio’s face. “Hey, don’t strain yourself. You don’t need to move. I’ve got a better idea, if you don’t mind being the little spoon.”

“I’m cold,” Caio said in assent, and it was with shallow breath that Felix laughed again and scooped an arm under Caio to turn him on his side. Felix kicked off his jeans and shimmied out of his boxers as quickly as he could while simultaneously rummaging through his nightstand. He knew he had several bottles of lube in here somewhere, precisely because he kept losing them.

He slicked down his cock generously, then slipped his hand between Caio’s thighs. Caio let out a yelp of shock, and he jerked, still sensitive and shivering.

“Your hands are so cold,” he complained in a voice too tired and warm to have any real edge. Felix kissed the back of his neck and arranged himself on his side behind Caio, sliding his cock between Caio’s thighs with one hand braced on his hip. Felix had to bite the inside of his cheek at the warmth of Caio’s body, still hot from his own orgasm. He curled one thick arm under Caio, enveloping him in an embrace, tucked against Felix’s naked body.

“Sorry, sorry. You’ll be plenty warm soon, I promise.” He buried his face in Caio’s hair and breathed in deeply. He would never get tired of that peppery scent. “This okay?”

Caio let out a little sound of affirmation that had no business being that sensual, still awash in the ebbing tide of pleasure, and Felix began to rock his hips. This had long been a staple for them on days when Caio was in the mood but couldn’t get his body to cooperate. He was never interested in taking it in the ass for personal reasons Felix found wholly understandable, and Felix had always preferred to bottom anyway, so it worked out. But when Caio couldn’t move enough to fuck him, or when Felix’s enthusiasm for giving head rendered Caio useless and left Felix with a raging hard-on, such as right now, this had been a solution Felix took pleasure in just for the intimacy of it.

Caio seemed to be using what little strength he had left to clamp his legs tighter around Felix’s cock, his breath still coming in shallow pants. The sounds leaking from his throat were softer now, more subdued, but unmistakably pleased, even if he was a little glassy-eyed right now. Felix reveled in the feeling of Caio’s body pressed so tightly against his, the way his cock slid between Caio’s slick thighs.

“Fuck, you feel so good,” he breathed against Caio’s neck, his voice rich with heat, and Caio shivered against him. Where Caio was usually quiet, Felix was always vocal, though he’d been too afraid to say much of anything on Saturday night for fear of shattering the moment. Now he couldn’t stop himself, five years’ worth of dormant affection coming alive all at once. “You always feel so good like this. I want your mouth on me again sometime, and soon, but this is just as good — better, because I get to hold you like this while I fuck you. God, you smell so good.”

“I smell like you,” Caio pointed out between truncated breaths, his body tensing against Felix even as dick flagged. Felix ran his hand up Caio’s side, slipping under his shirt.

“No, you smell like you, covered in me.” Felix’s voice was getting ragged now, his focus beginning to scatter. Caio wasn’t the only one who’d been in a dry spell until very recently, and he could feel heat mounting quickly in his core. “And it’s unbelievably fucking hot.”

Caio let out a sharp ah as Felix picked up speed, clutching Caio by the hip. His hips slapped against Caio’s ass with every thrust, his cock throbbing with heat between Caio’s thighs. Caio tended be all awkward angles, but fuck if he didn’t have soft skin.

“I’m gonna come,” Felix panted, his breath hot on Caio’s skin. Less to give him a warning, more because it just felt good to say it, to say it to Caio for the first time in years. He wanted Caio to know just what he was doing to Felix, erase any lingering ambiguity that Felix wanted him desperately. “You’re gonna make me come with those thighs. Do you have any idea how good you feel? God, I missed this — missed you—”

He was starting to babble, losing track of his words, but it didn’t matter because he was only saying the same thing over and over, an outpouring of pent-up affection as the heat coiled in him tighter as he clutched Caio to him with every thrust of his hips. One of Caio’s hands found its way to Felix’s on his hip, splaying his fingers between Felix’s with a soft, encouraging sound. That was all Felix needed to come undone, and his body arched against Caio’s as the heat shot through him like an arrow. He pressed his mouth to the back of Caio’s neck as he came, muffling the sound of Caio’s name alternated with an emphatic fuck.

It took a second for the tension to leave his body — he lay suspended there, seeing stars and gasping for breath. He was still clutching Caio to him as he came down, his full weight sinking back into the bed, and he didn’t realize until Caio started wriggling that he hadn’t loosened his grip.

“Are you okay?” Caio asked, his voice half muffled by Felix’s arm. Felix peeled his hand away from Caio’s hip and pulled back, wincing at the friction against his softening but still very sensitive dick. Felix let Caio fall away from him, sinking into the mattress with a little whoosh of breath.

“Yeah,” Felix panted, shivering a little as his feverish body started to cool off. Maybe it was too cold in here. And he’d kicked the blankets out of reach. “Just — whew. That was a lot. Good a lot, but, uhh — wow. I don’t think I can remember the last time I came that hard.”

“Saturday?” Caio suggested tonelessly, and Felix wheezed out a laugh. He smoothed a hand down Caio’s side, gently rubbing where he’d had Caio’s hip in a vice grip. There were red marks where his fingers had pressed into the skin, though Caio didn’t seem to mind.

Caio’s eyes were half-closed, but Felix could still see the labored rise and fall of his chest. Felix was still catching his breath too, but he kept leaning in to bury his face in Caio’s hair, kissing the back of his neck, just because Caio smelled so good, and because of the creaky little noise he made every time Felix’s lips brushed his skin. There was a wet spot on Caio’s other side that he’d deal with later — for now, all he wanted to do was lay here with his arms around Caio, breathing in his air. The quiet that filled the room was soft, light, like another layer of blankets.

“Will you drive me home later?” Caio said, his voice still hoarse, and Felix turned his head to bury a deep groan into the pillows. He had in fact offered to do exactly that — it was just that when he’d offered, he hadn’t imagined he’d be laying in a mostly naked post-coital heap by now.

“Of course I will drive you home,” he said. “Just — give me a little bit. I’m still working on moving.”

“Not right away,” Caio said. “My whole body feels like a limp noodle. And I think I need another shower.”

The idea of dropping off a sticky Caio who still smelled strongly of sweat and sex on his dad’s doorstep was both hilarious and mortifying. “Yeah, well, your clothes should be dry by then anyway. I think I’m gonna need another shower too.”

And to throw these sheets in the wash, too, because in addition to the sizable wet spot, he’d thoughtlessly wiped his lube-covered hand off on the sheets. He tried to catch the end of the comforter between his feet but quickly gave up. Caio was beginning to shiver, huddling back against Felix.

“Let’s get you into the shower,” Felix said, sitting upright with great effort. He wanted badly to lie back down immediately, but if he did, neither of them were going to make it out of this apartment at this rate.

Caio rolled onto his back and made a face as he peeled apart his sticky thighs, still smeared with lube and come. “Did you have to use so much lube?”

“What? Of course I did. That’s the dumbest question you’ve ever asked me.” Felix paused, one arm already scooping Caio up under his back. “How long has it been since you got a good thigh fuck in?”

“Well, I haven’t done much of anything in a while,” he deadpanned, then shrugged. “It’s one of the few things that loses some of its appeal when it’s a strap-on.”

“Mm. So it’s only fun for you if it ends in you splattered in come, got it.”

“That is not what I said,” Caio said, his brow pinched in indignation. “Ugh, Felix, you’re rolling me in the wet spot.”

“So what’s a little more of my come on you? You’re going right in the shower.”

“I can walk,” Caio said in spite of the way his legs dangled loosely over the edge of the bed as Felix sat him up.

Felix patted him on the back, reveling in the glow of closeness with him again, of how beautifully familiar-but-new this felt, too. “I know. I’m counting on it. You thought I was going to carry you? You weigh next to nothing, but I couldn’t carry a puppy right now.”

It wasn’t just the physical tension that seemed to have drained out of them, sucking their energy with it; there had been a heavy catharsis too, and Felix felt weak in the knees. Everything was just a little bit much right now.

He did sling an arm under Caio’s, though, and helped him tread over to the bathroom. Once Caio was in the shower and Felix was satisfied that his legs wouldn’t give out on him, he cleaned himself up enough to don the sweatpants he’d pulled off Caio so he could go down to the basement to get the dry laundry and toss the sheets in the wash.

Caio was out of the shower not long after, looking immensely relieved when he emerged from the bathroom, with some of the tiredness on his face transformed into a sleepy contentment. He had the towel wrapped around his shoulders, already shivering as he hurried back into Felix’s room, as though there were a lurking roommate he might accidentally expose himself to.

Felix presented him with a clean T-shirt, fresh and warm from the dryer, and Caio pulled it over his head with a sigh of relief. 

“I’ve got you covered,” Felix said, patting the edge of the bed where he’d laid out the rest of Caio’s clothes. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe it’s my turn to de-gunk myself.”

“Gross,” Caio called after him, and Felix could not stop fucking smiling as he closed the door.

He made it as quick as he could, because the lull of the hot water made him want to crawl right back into bed, sheets or no. When he returned to his room, Caio was back in his own clothes, sitting on the floor and rifling through the laundry basket.

“What’s this?” Caio asked, pulling the Kurama-decorated body pillow cover from the laundry basket, to Felix’s minor mortification. Caio wasn’t quite smiling, but he looked a little like he might laugh. “You bought this?”

“No,” Felix said, hoping Caio would take his flaming ears as heat from the shower. “Jake did, as a stupid gag gift when I turned thirty. It’s not like I sleep with it, it’s just — decoration, basically.”

“Uh-huh,” Caio said. “That’s why you just ran it through the wash.”

Felix failed to come up with a good return volley and just cleared his throat and asked, “Why are you going through my laundry?”

“I was looking for this,” Caio said, finally pulling out his T-shirt — the band shirt he’d been wearing on Saturday that Felix had taken home and then failed to wash for days. It had come out clean, at least. “I knew you must’ve had it. I was, um, trying to figure out how to ask you for it back in case things didn’t go well. And I was going to give your shirt to Jake. I mean, I was going to bring it with me today, but I figured it’d just get wet, so … ”

Felix waved him off and fished a hoodie of his own out of the laundry basket. “Keep it for now. I know where you live.” He permitted himself to imagine just for a moment Caio sleeping with that T-shirt over his pillow, like he’d done back when Felix had first gone off to college, and suppressed a stupid smile. “You want to head out? It is getting a little late.”

The ride back was easier than Felix thought it would be. It was a fifteen minute drive from Providence to Deerbrook, and they filled it with idle talk about their upcoming first date. Caio looked up shows on his phone, the kind that were usually $15 a head or less, almost all of them bands Felix had never heard of. Some of them Caio hadn’t heard of either, he confessed, but a few of them seemed interesting, and he wasn’t opposed to seeing a new band live. This was the most optimism Felix had seen him express about doing anything more strenuous than band practice in — well, since he’d moved back, anyway.

Felix kept his bafflement contained, but now that Caio had let him back into his little world, it really was a novelty to see him so … outgoing wasn’t the right word, because it didn’t really have to do with other people, but something like it. He’d been inching himself out of his comfort zone while Felix hadn’t been watching, little by little. Felix felt a wave of weird reverse déjà vu as he drove them through the pouring rain, a highlighting of all the new and strange. 

Before long, they were idling outside the da Silva house. The rain seemed to block out all other sound, and in the dim, refracted light from yellow streetlamps, Caio’s face took on an unearthly glow. In that moment, the outside world simply didn’t exist.

“Want me to pick you up for Lisa’s birthday?” Felix said, taking Caio’s hand and pressing a kiss to his knuckles, just because he could. Caio nodded, his head lolling to the side. He looked tired, and — well, if not happy, way less sad.

“What are we doing, exactly? Jake and Derek wouldn’t tell me.”

“Nothing crazy,” Felix said. “Just birthday-party-for-your-dead-friend stuff.”

Caio looked at him like he wasn’t sure how to interpret that, but seemed to decide against further inquiry.

“I’ll come get you around eight,” Felix said.

“Okay,” Caio said, and Felix knew that he was excited despite the tired slackness in his voice. “See you on Monday night, then.”

“Yeah,” Felix said. Caio looked down at Felix’s hand, which was still wrapped tightly around his own, and knit his brow.

“Are you okay?”

“Sorry, I’m just—” Felix blew out a long breath and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll be fine. I just have this awful feeling that all of this is a dream, and the second you get out of this car, I wake up and it’s all over.”

Caio pried his hand free and half-clambered over the center console to press a damp kiss to Felix’s cheek.

“It’s not,” he said with a little smile, just barely a flicker from the naked bulb, and opened the door into the rain. He disappeared into the veil with his hood pulled over his head, not bothering with the umbrella. Felix heard the distant sound of the front door closing and leaned back in the driver’s seat with his hands pressed to his face. After a long, drawn-out scream that no one else could hear, he picked up his phone and texted Jake and Derek: hey you guys are free tonight right?

*

viio

Monday night saw the four of them gathered on the Deerbrook High baseball diamond. Those of them with jobs had already arranged to take the next day off; they celebrated Lisa’s birthday on her birthday every year, on whatever day it fell. They stood by one of the dugouts, half-ducked under it as though it could shelter them from the muggy August air. It was chokingly humid, but the sky was clear, the moon bright overhead. Jake produced a cardboard pack of sparklers while Caio looked around the empty field, his brow knit.

“Is it really okay for us to be out here?” he said. “I think this is trespassing.”

“They know,” Derek said. “They don’t mind.”

“They did call the cops on us the first couple years,” Jake said. “I guess they were worried we were out here to vandalize school property or something. One year, we didn’t manage to outrun the cops, and they took us in for a, I dunno, I guess they just took us there to tell us off. But once they realized what we were doing — why we were doing it — they left us alone. It’s not like the whole town didn’t know about Lisa. Everyone at school knew she was our best friend. So the school just started looking the other way, ’cause they figured if this is all we were doing to cope, well … they were probably afraid that if they kept us from doing this, we’d wind up doing something way worse. This? This is harmless.”

“It helped that we were smart enough to leave the booze at home after the first year,” Felix added. “Not that our parents didn’t all figure it out eventually. They probably thought there were worse things we could do than get shitfaced and cry, too.”

Caio was still staring at Jake. “You guys got arrested? When?”

Jake puckered his mouth in thought. “Oh, must’ve been … 2006, I guess?”

“I think that was the summer you were visiting your dad’s family in New Hampshire,” Felix said. “Thank God, ’cause I really didn’t know how we were gonna explain that one.”

Jake had his sunglasses propped up on his head for once, handing sparklers out, one for each of them. Caio stared at his blankly. “What’s this for?”

“Lisa always wanted fireworks for her birthday,” Jake said, pulling a lighter from his pocket. He lit the end of the sparkler, then held the lighter out. Felix and Derek leaned in to light theirs in turn. “Her parents, being extremely reasonable people, told her absolutely no way every year, so she’d always save a pack of sparklers from Fourth of July. Better than birthday candles, she said.”

He held the lighter out to Caio, the flame wavering in the moonlight. Caio touched his sparkler to the flame until it ignited, and then all of their faces were bathed in the bright white showers. Caio’s eyes seemed drawn to the light, and Felix could see some shade of awe in the persisting bemusement. That was the spirit of Lisa touching him right there.

“We used to sing happy birthday,” Derek said. “But it started to feel weird after a while. So now we just do this.”

“This part’s easy,” Jake told Caio. “Just hold up your sparkler and repeat after me.”

He cleared his throat. “Gentlemen,” he said, with all the grandeur of an MC at a wedding, and thrust his arm skyward. Three sparklers raised to meet his. “A toast!”

“A toast!”

Their voices echoed out across the baseball field, seeming to grow larger and hollower as they bounced away, like dissipating smoke rings. Felix stared up at the sparkling lights.

“To absent friends and the silence in their place!”

“To absent friends and the silence in their place!”

Felix chanced a side glance at Caio, who was shouting with fervor to match alongside them despite the diffidence-tinged bewilderment. It reminded Felix of the way he sang with them, the way the comfort of their shared voices could let him abandon his self-consciousness enough to raise his voice with feeling. Felix felt his chest swell and creak.

“To the music they inspire us to make!”

“To the music they inspire us to make!”

“To one of the singularly coolest people I have ever known in my life,” Jake went on passionately, “who may or may not have returned every DVD I lent to her with at least one scratch — ”

“You asshole,” Derek said, punching him in the arm, while Felix dissolved into snickers. Caio seemed unsure how to react.

“He ad-libs it every year,” Felix said, “and it always turns into shit like this.”

“I just think it’s important for us to remember her as she really was,” Jake said sagely, and Caio did smile a little then, a silent laugh. “Warts and all.”

“This is the part where we go around and talk about Lisa,” Felix said. “Just reminisce and, I dunno, tell old stories and shit. Kind of cheesy, I know.”

“I don’t think it’s cheesy,” Caio said. “It sounds nice.”

Derek drew in a breath. “In the spirit of new beginnings, I’d like to share with you all something I have never told another living soul.” He hesitated. “Lisa was my first kiss.”

Felix shot him a scandalized look. “When we were five,” Derek clarified in a meaningful tone, glaring right back at Felix. “Silly playground stuff. But she made me promise never to tell anyone for as long as I lived, and I guess I never really stopped taking it seriously.”

Jake whapped his hand against Derek’s arm, laughing. “Really, man? Hey, me too!”

The look of somber nostalgia dropped from Derek’s face like a pane of sheet glass. “Are you serious?”

Jake was hooting with laughter. “Yeah, man! Kindergarten, behind the jungle gym. Told me she’d curse me for the rest of my life if I told anyone.” He wiped a tear from his eye, still chuckling. “I think one of us taking that secret to the grave is enough, though.”

“I cannot fucking believe this,” Derek said, his hands pressed to his face. He looked mortified, but at the same time, his lips were pressed together in a smile. “I am so mad at her right now.”

“We should’ve known Lisa would keep finding ways to keep trolling us from the great beyond,” Felix said, patting Derek’s arm in consolation, but he couldn’t help a grin.

“Alright, my turn,” Jake said. He waved his sparkler for their attention. “You know what my favorite Lisa memory is? That time she spent a whole summer drawing a magical girl self-insert manga, starring all of us — well, more like magical girls and guys, and she was so thrilled with it, it was like — she saved it for a Chanukah gift, right? Anyway, it was kind of an awful, unreadable mess, but we didn’t have the heart to tell her, so—”

“Uh, you absolutely told her,” Felix said. “I believe the words you used were something along the lines of ‘Wow! When did you get so good at drawing stick figures?’ She didn’t talk to you for a week.”

“They were really cool-looking stick figures,” Jake said. “I said that! I said, wow, when did you get so good at drawing such cool stick figures? Anyway, the names were the best part. Everyone had magical girl codenames, like—”

“Can someone please tell a less embarrassing story,” Derek said loudly. Caio covered his mouth with one hand. Felix waved his sparkler, grinning despite himself.

“April of 2000,” Felix said, and Derek and Jake were already smiling, because it wasn’t really that much less embarrassing, “Benjamin Felix Eliyahu d’Angelo was called to the Torah. All three of those assholes were at my bar mitzvah — they were part of the candle-lighting ceremony, obviously. By the time mine came around, it was basically tradition.”

“Lisa had already been to ours, and half our Hebrew class’s,” Jake said. “She was a pro. Practically an honorary Jew.”

“Yeah, except at my bar mitzvah,” Felix snorted, “when before anyone could light the candle, she grabbed the mic and went off on this whole impromptu speech like she was the best man at my wedding. She just went on, probably for five whole minutes, talking up what a great guy I was, making half of it up—”

“She goes, ‘Do you know how lucky you all are to know this little nerd?’” Jake cackled. A dry, rustling laugh escaped Caio.

“I was totally mortified at the time,” Felix said, grinning at his sparkler. “I mean, I was just barely making it through the day. Thought I was gonna pass out at the bimah, honestly. But man … no one’s ever done anything else like that for me, before or since. Just got up on top of a chair and addressed a room full of people like it was her business to soliloquize about me, just because she was feeling it. That was just the kind of shit Lisa did.”

“Wish we’d met you a little sooner,” Jake said to Caio, ruffling his hair. “It would’ve been cool to go to your bar mitzvah. We would’ve given you the hype man treatment to scare off the nerves.”

“It does not work,” Felix told Caio, who just smiled a little.

“I dunno. My bar mitzvah was pretty boring,” he said. “Mostly just family and kids from my Hebrew school class.”

“Exactly why we should have been there,” Derek said, grinning. “I bet you would’ve gotten a Lisa speech, too.”

There was a little bit of a lull then, a comfortable silence like arms around their shoulders settling in. Felix was thinking about asking Jake to tell the full apology note story when Caio spoke up instead.

“I know I didn’t know Lisa,” he started hesitantly, and when no one else said anything, he kept going. “But … I kind of feel like I’m starting to. It’s weird, realizing how much your life has been shaped by someone you’ve never met. Is still being shaped.”

He was still looking at his sparkler as though entranced by the glow, as though a scene was playing out in the sparks that only he could see.

“Not that this is gonna come as news to anyone,” he said, his voice going a little toneless now, still halting, “but when I moved back, I figured it was, um … pretty much over for me. In the ways that really mattered to me, anyway. And I was just doing the band at first because it was better than being alone, and because you guys were going to so much trouble. I didn’t think anything would really come from it. And then we found Lisa’s notes…”

The other three were preternaturally quiet. Caio didn’t usually talk at length about what went on in his own head, and he struggled when it came to things that hit so close to home. 

“I was afraid to give myself another goal. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing again. Of finding myself back at square one again. I didn’t think I could take it. And I thought I couldn’t take it when things got hard again, and I thought music was over for me, too—”

When he’d really, truly felt like his world was ending, crying himself tired in Felix’s arms.

“But … I didn’t want to be alone. And I wanted to succeed so badly. And when I did — when we finished that song—” Caio closed his eyes, his face bathed in sparkling light. “It was the first time in a long time that it felt like there were still things I could do. New dreams to chase. That I could still have some kind of life that felt like a real life. And that would never have happened without Lisa. Without the music. It just wouldn’t.”

Caio opened his eyes when still no one said a word, looking mildly mortified. “Um, sorry, I know this is for Lisa and I kind of just made it about me—”

“Nah, man,” said Jake in a tight voice, wiping at the corner of his eye. “‘S totally cool.”

Derek gave Caio a fierce one-armed hug with a little sniffle. “She would’ve loved to hear that.”

“It would have made her fucking insufferable for a week,” Felix said, and they all dissolved into laughter, some quiet, some tearful. They stayed that way until the sparklers burned out and then some, four overgrown kids reaching backwards in time for just one more night.

Jake was collecting the sparklers for disposal, and Caio and Derek had gotten caught up in some old story or another as they headed for the parking lot. Felix hung back with Jake, watching them with a familiar warmth in his chest.

“Okay,” Felix said. “I give up. Tell me.”

Jake blinked at him in genuine puzzlement, tucking the box of sparklers back into his bag. “Tell you what now?”

Felix sighed. This was kind of embarrassing, and he was almost regretting it already, but he was starting to realize that that was part of his problem, too. That he always took Jake’s help for granted, but he never really took it seriously, either.

“Whatever advice you would have given me and Caio,” Felix said. “If we’d tried couples therapy or whatever before we called it quits. I really don’t want to fuck it up this time.”

Jake looked at him — really looked at him for a good long moment, and Felix felt like Jake was seeing right through him without being entirely sure what it was Jake was seeing. Then he puffed out a laugh.

“Man, I don’t know. I would’ve referred you. I am way too close to that shit to get involved.”

Oh. Well, that was a little anticlimactic. But had he really expected Jake Kostolitz, even in his admittedly weirdly broad wisdom, to deposit the golden secret to holding your shit together right into his hand? No, Felix thought. It couldn’t be so simple as that. The work was just too vast.

“Tell you what, though,” Jake said, squinting up at the moon. “I think those five years apart did you both more good than any amount of couples counseling could have.”

“Yeah,” Felix said, wondering if he’d always be the last to get the memo. “Caio said something like that, too.”

Jake broke out into a big, white-toothed grin. “Well, look at him, figuring that shit out all on his own. He really did do some growing up down there.” He thumped Felix fondly on the back. “You ever want a referral, you let me know. You don’t need to be on the rocks to get a little guidance. But for what it’s worth — as your friend — I think you guys are on the right track.”

“It’s worth a lot, actually,” Felix said, trying desperately to sound cool, but his hitched voice betrayed him. Jake grinned and tousled Felix’s hair, annoyingly, and pressed a gross, wet kiss to his cheek. Felix punched him in the arm, and then hugged him for a long moment before they ran to catch up with their friends.

===

They went to Felix’s apartment after that. They’d taken advantage enough of Debbie and Bekah’s hospitality lately, and for this, they needed privacy.

Derek unfolded the sleeper couch in the living room so they could all crowd onto it, Felix leaning against the back of the sofa with his arms loosely around Caio. This felt comfortingly familiar, but he was still getting the occasional flicker of cognitive dissonance at Caio being present for Lisa’s birthday. He really was in every part of their lives now. Felix hoped that Caio would one day get to put to bed all his lingering anxiety of not fitting in with them, of not really being part of the family. They hadn’t been whole without him, not really.

Jake pulled his laptop and an aged photo album from his bag. The photo album was full of old photos developed at the local CVS — summer trips to the pool at the YMCA, school dances Lisa had dragged them to, sleepovers in Jake’s mom’s basement where they’d have their all-night anime marathons. There were pictures from all the bar mitzvot, too, all four of them dressed in an array of embarrassing and now very dated middle school formal wear. Jake and Derek and Felix narrated every series of photographs to Caio, painting him as vivid a picture as they could of a now dusty and faded past.

“I thought she’d be taller,” Caio mused, looking at a picture of all four of them at middle school graduation. Lisa was shorter than Derek by a full head, only a little taller than Caio had been when he’d first met them.

Derek laughed. “Yeah, she had that presence. When she walked into a room, you knew it. People always thought she was taller than she was, even standing next to us.”

After poring over photos, they hooked up Jake’s laptop to the TV to play old home movies, artifacts discovered several years ago while cleaning out the Mizrahi family storage unit, which he’d had digitized for exactly these occasions. Felix felt a pang in his chest when he heard Lisa’s voice for the first time in a year, like he always did, like he suspected he always would.

It was the woods behind the Y, and a pile of discarded bikes lay just at the edge of the frame. In the middle distance was Lisa relentlessly chasing a young Felix and Jake, back when Felix had worn long-sleeved fishnet shirts under his school clothes, and Jake his customary pre-transition trucker hat and basketball jersey, complete with sunglasses.

Lisa was shouting an incantation from some show or another while baby-faced Felix and Jake ran around — doing what, exactly? He couldn’t remember anymore what game they were playing that day, but it didn’t matter. They were all the same, and they played them because they were fun and easy and funny, and Felix didn’t have to think about his dad’s drinking, nor Jake his parents’ drawn-out divorce. They could just be there, in whatever world Lisa wanted to conjure up. All those worlds had disappeared with her when she died.

The Lisa in the video shifted focus and made a beeline for the camera, expression indignant. “You can’t just stand off to the side the whole time! Come on, I’ll hold the camcorder.”

“Uh, no, I’m good, thanks,” came Derek’s fourteen-year-old voice, still breaking, not yet settled into his current baritone. The camera shook as Lisa took it by force, turning it on Derek, who tried to shield his face — a face still round, marked with the beard still only coming in patches. 

It wasn’t long before Jake jogged up to wrestle the camera away from Lisa, and she gave him twin middle fingers and stuck out her tongue. A jeer from Jake of hey, you shake your mother’s hand with those? and everyone in the video was laughing and groaning in turns, even Felix, who seemed so small and so anxious at that age.

“Ah, there he goes,” Jake said softly as Derek pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, biting his lips together. “He’s always the first.”

“Shut up,” sniffed Derek, and reached for the tissues.

Caio was watching carefully with the same rapt fascination with which he’d studied the photos. But he seemed somehow more relaxed against Felix now, and Felix twisted his neck to peek at Caio’s face. The intensity was beginning to melt away, his face softening into something Felix wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen that look on Caio’s face before — or maybe he had. Watching his thirteen-year-old self flail around on camera, just a couple of years before he’d meet Caio, Felix remembered the way Caio had watched him when they’d first met. Caio watched Lisa with that same kind of diffidence.

“Hi, Lisa,” he whispered in a tiny voice he probably thought no one else could hear. “It’s nice to meet you.”

That was it for Felix. He tightened his grip and buried his tears in Caio’s hair with a muffled noise. Jake was reaching out to squeeze his shoulder in comfort despite the tears streaming down his own face, while Derek pressed tissues into their hands and wiped at his own eyes. They collapsed in a pile on the couch bed like that, crying and laughing, until the video ran out and it was just the four of them in Felix’s present-day apartment again. Caio put his arms around Felix’s neck and buried his face there. His cheeks were damp, too.

They put on Lisa’s band’s old music for Caio, who had never heard her sing before, and then Caio was crying open tears with them too, smothering sniffles into tissues. And then just for kicks, they played their own recording back to back with her music and laughed at how Lisa’s old band still sounded better.

At the end of the night, they were all collapsed in a tired heap, drained from the exertion of memory. Felix had forgotten how exhausting it could get. Caio’s weight was getting gradually heavier against him now, his head lolled to the side.

Felix shook him gently. “Hey. You want to sleep out here or in my bed?”

“Yours,” Caio said drowsily. “Jake snores way too much.”

Felix managed to clamber off the couch without disturbing Jake or Derek and helped Caio to his feet. The apartment was quiet save for Jake’s deepening snores and the hum of the air conditioner. This was the least alone he’d felt in ages, watching Caio roll onto his bed with a yawn. Felix gathered the blankets from the foot of the bed before Caio could complain about being cold.

Caio watched him with owlish eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Yeah, I’m fine. We do this every year. It’s our catharsis.” He cast a sidelong glance at Caio as he unbuckled his belt. “You? I guess we kind of threw a lot at you tonight.”

“I’m okay,” Caio said. “Tired. Thinking about a lot of stuff. But okay.” He gave Felix a tiny, worn-out smile. “Thanks for inviting me.”

“It’s a standing invitation now,” Felix told him, tossing his jeans aside. He climbed into bed, immediately scooping Caio against him with one arm. Caio rolled against him easily, like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Thinking about what?”

“Mm.” It wasn’t noncommittal so much as thoughtful. “How to live my life now, I guess. Sounds kind of dramatic, but I dunno. I guess I really don’t know what to do with myself without a job.”

“What,” Felix said, pressing a kiss into Caio’s hair, “this isn’t enough? Me, and the band, and just — being together again?”

“No,” Caio said. The ends of his hair tickled at Felix’s neck as he shook his head. Felix felt his stomach tighten with instinctive panic, a distant klaxon going off that he tried to silence. “It’s not enough. Not for me. It’s part of it,” he said, once he looked up and saw Felix’s face. “You, and the band. If this is how it has to be for me, then I want all of that in my life. I need it. But I need something more, too, something I can work toward, or else it just feels … like I’m sleepwalking through life. And — and the band gave me a push, but I don’t want music to be something I do for any reason except the sake of it. I need that, too.”

He rubbed his eyes, trying to stay awake enough to finish his thought. It seemed important to him. “I used to think it had to be work. That the only way to live whole was to keep outrunning being sick. I’m still trying to get used to the idea that it’s not. That you can have a real life without a job like everyone else. But figuring out I don’t have to outrun it … it’s a start.”

That was the most hopeful Caio had sounded about his future in … well, ever since he’d come back from Philly. But that if this is how it has to be made Felix uneasy.

“Do you want to be here? Back in Rhode Island, with your dad and all of us?”

“I don’t not want to be here,” Caio said slowly, which was not the answer Felix had been hoping for, but he kept his mouth clamped shut. “I like being here. It’s home. I missed it. But I think I’d be happy still being in Philly if I hadn’t gotten so sick again. It wasn’t perfect. It was missing things. But it was my life. I chose it.”

There was iron in his voice for just a moment despite the sleepiness. He deflated against Felix, closing his eyes. “But if I can’t be down there, living that life … I don’t want to be anywhere else but here. Home. With the band, with everyone.” He curled in closer against Felix. “With you.”

Fuck. Felix had to control his breathing and swallow hard just to keep from crying again, because he was still feeling hair-trigger raw and if he started up again now, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop.

“I don’t know what I want yet,” Caio said, and he was starting to sound sleepier now, his words drifting like smoke. “I thought I was almost out of possibilities. I think I can find more now. I can figure out how to work within my limitations again. I think … I think I’ll figure it out.”

He sounded a little uncertain even in his drowsiness. Felix couldn’t blame Caio for being wrung out; God knows he felt like he’d been dragged through a car wash. It had been a hell of a week.

“Hell yeah, you will. And we’ll be right there, carrying you to the finish line if we have to.” Felix pulled the blankets up over both of them, letting his head fall back against the pillows. Caio mumbled something indistinct, but he seemed to have already dropped off, his cheek pressed to Felix’s shoulder. Felix recounted his blessings, one by one, and fell asleep to the sound of Caio’s quiet breathing.

===

The spot next to Felix was empty when he woke up, and in a half-asleep panic he thought he’d dreamed up the last few days, that Caio had never gotten back together with him and last night’s beautiful catharsis had been nothing but a cruel taunt. But then Caio slipped back inside the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him, and caught Felix’s haunted look.

“I just had to pee,” he said, in the tone of voice used to talk someone off a ledge.

Felix cleared his throat and tried to be cool. “Yeah — yeah. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Caio repeated, with great skepticism, and to Felix’s crushing disappointment, sat down on the edge of the bed to put back on the socks he’d kicked off in his sleep. “Dad’s coming to get me in a couple of hours. I was going to wake you up in a second.”

“Aw, what? I would’ve driven you home.” Later, obviously, after a hearty dose of cuddling. He had a deficit to make up for. But Caio just shook his head, picking his hoodie up off the floor.

“I know. But he’s already driving in to meet Vovó for lunch and he asked if I wanted to come. I haven’t seen her in a while since I’ve been laid up, so.” Caio rubbed his eyes, still waking up himself. “I think I need to go home and sleep in my own bed for a little while anyway.”

“I guess I can’t argue with that. But at least let me make you breakfast.” Felix rolled over to trap Caio in a hug, arms snug around his waist. “You know I can cook eggs now?”

“That doesn’t sound as impressive as you think it does,” Caio said, and Felix laughed, and Caio smiled, and things felt incredibly, impossibly right for just a moment.

Jake was already up and at the stove, a borrowed apron (rarely used) tied around his waist while he conducted an orchestra of pancakes and eggs with a spatula. Derek was nursing a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, still yawning, and jerked his head at the mostly full pot on the counter when Felix and Caio trailed in. The four of them ate breakfast together, sitting in comfortable mostly-silence, because Lisa’s birthday was over and they were too tired for anything weightier than idle talk about what to do at band practice now that they’d finished their one song.

Maybe they’d write a new one. Maybe they’d just keep playing covers, and their one song when they wanted to think about Lisa, about each other, and smile through music. They could keep propping each other up indefinitely like this, held together by their sound. Music had brought them all back together more than anything else, anchored them to each other in ways they’d never thought possible. Felix suspected none of them would give it up for the world now. He knew he wouldn’t.

Caio’s phone buzzed on the table, a wave from his dad waiting outside. Felix walked Caio to the front step, just to have one more moment alone with him. There’d be plenty later, sure, but Felix had always been greedy. That habit would take him a little longer to shake.

Caio’s dad waved from the driver’s seat. Felix waved back. Caio hugged him with surprising strength for those little bird arms, pressing his face into Felix’s shoulder for a long moment before pulling back.

“See you at band practice?” Felix said, reac[hing to smooth a piece of hair from Caio’s face. Caio smiled, really smiled for the first time in Felix wasn’t sure how long, and it was like watching the sun come up.

“Yeah,” Caio said, turning towards the car, but he was still looking back at Felix, still gracing him with the glow of that smile. “See you at band practice.”

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7 thoughts on “C7

  1. This is beautiful! I’m so mad my phone died while I was reading it on the bus, but on the other hand, if I had walked into my program’s Christmas party still crying from the ending idk what the reaction would have been, lmao

    i really love the way this isn’t just about caio and felix, it’s about derek and jake and lisa and their whole little group and how caio and felix are part of it.

    and as someone who is also disabled and had to (and keeps having to) deal with that reeling in of goals and expectations and still find hope and comfort…you totally nailed it.

  2. This is a beautiful story and it’s hitting way too close to home. I love how you managed to get something sweet and poignant about having to move home due to chronic illness and feeling like you’re back in high school again. I’m still working on that part. I can’t wait to make my way through your playlist!

  3. Wow, this is so lovely! I loved the group dynamic and got really fond of all of them. The conversations about dreams and limitations are SO real and wrenching and cathartic… And the main relationship is so engaging: reunion stories are just something else — the mix of warmth and familiarity with ~growth~ and the excitement of something new? ugh yes please. I particularly loved all the moments towards the end where Felix is realising all the ways in which Caio has changed, and is getting to know him all over again. Sweet, and hot!

    And it must be the result of so much work! Thank you for this whole-ass novel: it’s thoughtful and touching and I reckon I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

    Also, Riso, your illustrations are always so fun and zingy: I love the colours and the textures. And the food! Want that ice cream tbh.

  4. I described this story to someone as “full of heart” when I was first reading it, and several days later (sorry) I still feel the same way. Every single character has so many emotions, so much unblemished connection to one another in spite of things like chronic illness, brain problems, or simply Being A Disaster, and I loved how they felt like people who would naturally still enjoy one another’s company so long after high school. My own high school experience was a little before their time, but enough of what they shared overlapped with my own early college years it still felt like these could’ve been people I knew back then. I’m glad Caio has a chance at making something that isn’t going to dissolve in his hands for once, and that Felix has grown enough to be right there with him. Good luck to those two sweethearts.

    What fun art, as well! The stylized lines and colors work for this piece, giving the characters plenty of personality and life while also making things feel just a little bit timeless; each interpretation of the leads had me nodding and agreeing that yes, of course that’s what they look like, that’s just objective fact. Showing the difference between Caio’s muted expressions (the “ten-watt smile” itself) and how open and boisterous Felix is, then pushing that through using their respective color palettes, is great!

  5. I was reading an essay recently about the importance of narratives where people with chronic illnesses or disabilities are neither objects of pity nor protagonists of facile tales of overcoming all difficulties. This is such a great and rich example.

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