“What happened to your knuckles?” Kerith asked his sister through a mouthful of Kung Pao chicken.
“Oh…” Jaryn put down the spoon she had been using for her soup and held her hand out to him. A light mix of black and blue spread out across the back her hand, mottling her pale skin. “They had a nice meeting with your buddy Steve.”
Kerith stopped chewing, his jaw dropping and his mouth hanging open; Jaryn getting a nice view of the chewed up chicken he hadn’t finished yet.
“They came to see me at the diner. To… check on you… Sweet of them, right?”
“He was calling me obnoxious pet names.”
Kerith thought back to the numerous times out with Steve and the others. Steve called everyone pet names. He felt a smile cross his face at the fact that his sister seemed to be the first to lash back at him for it.
“He didn’t hurt you, did—“
“No, I’m fine.”
Kerith swallowed a bite of chicken, set his fork and napkin on the table and stood, heading back to the buffet. Jaryn watched him, a sigh escaping her lips at the bandages he still had to wear. There always seemed to be something. Bruises, bandages, scratches. She wanted her brother to catch a break.
She wanted both of them to catch a break. Together.
This song and dance had been getting old for years. First their father against them, the two of them against each other – what next?
The rest of their meal was littered with conversations and shared memories of their mother, Stephanie. They also talked about Pearl and made plans to call her at some point over the next week. Overall, it was a pleasant meal. The first one they had together in a long while.
As they made their way across the bridge back towards their apartment, ignoring the light rain that sprinkled from above, Jaryn stopped and turned back.
“I left my phone on the table.” She motioned the way they were headed. “I can walk you back the rest of the way and then go get it.”
“Jaryn, I’ll be fine.”
“Promise. I’ll be fine.”
Kerith headed back to the apartment alone. He thought about taking a shower and then going straight to sleep. His mind went to his sister’s bruised knuckles momentarily, but fell back on the thought of a hot shower after their apartment building came into view.
Tan had told him to dance but he knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on any real form of movement feeling like he did, so Oblio sat in an alcove of the main hall of the estate, jacket on, headphones on and helmet beside him on the ledge he was tucked into. His knees were pulled up to his chin and his arms were wrapped around his legs. His music was loud enough that he could hear it, but not loud enough that it completely drowned out the music pumping through Tan’s estate. Nothing was loud enough to drown that out.
His eyes shifted, darting back and forth to all the people he knew, all the dancers he had shared a common bond with and met at different places around the city. He couldn’t tell them anything, they wouldn’t believe him. But he knew he could warn at least one person. One person who just might listen.
The paper in his pocket was there for that reason alone.
Oblio was worried if he tried to leave the estate, Tan would stop him somehow. Or even follow him. It was a chance he had to take though. He had to get out of the city or he would lead Tan right to Jaryn and Kerith. Oblio knew Tan would get to them sooner or later, but with him still in the city it would be much easier for him to reach them.
But now, with Tan busy overseeing his party… this would be Oblio’s only chance to warn her. He knew that he couldn’t come right out and say all of this-- this mess that he had fallen into for what he had to admit to himself were selfish reasons. Did he really think he’d be able to get his mother back?
With a deep breath, Oblio grabbed his helmet and began to shift through the bodies moving on the floor. He moved quickly, but not fast enough to attract any unwarranted attention. He was quite sure Tan was watching him on one of his many monitors, but Oblio was counting on the fact that he wouldn’t make a move with all these people around.
He shifted through MacCoy and Dare, who were dancing together; moved past Angel, who was asking Aubrey to dance and Mo threw a smile at him as he passed. Oblio forced the hint of a grin in return. Nothing to see here. He was just stepping outside for some fresh air in the other’s eyes.
Tan watched him in his office above, following him through the crowd on one monitor, then moving his gaze to another. One that showed the front of his estate, where Oblio’s motorcycle sat and where the boy was now placing his helmet on his head and mounting the bike, speeding off away from the estate without a single look back.
He didn’t need him right now. He would help speed up the plan, but with the way he had been acting, Tan knew he would’ve been a hindrance. It would take him a little longer to reach the twins with the boy gone, but he would manage.
Tan's cackles echoed throughout the upper floor as the motorcycle became a small lighted speck down the street. He knew the boy would run away.
He also knew that somewhere down the line, the boy would be back. He always came back.
He lost track of how many minutes he stood under the almost scalding stream of water, eyes shut and dark blonde hair matted to his forehead. His cuts and scabbing-over gashes here and there screamed in pain as the water hit them, but he was used to it. He had been through it all before. Kerith had learned how to ignore it.
It felt good to him, almost, to do this. He wanted to wash away everything he had done. Every one of the few times he snapped at his sister, every drink he had consumed, every stupid thing he had let Steve and other talk him into, the messy makeout session with Elya, the faces of the guys who had beaten him into the hospital, his father, Gregory—every horrible thing that had happened to him. Every horrible thing that had happened to them.
He wanted those things gone. He wanted to forget them.
He scrubbed himself furiously, only easing up when he reached a bruise or a pucker of raw skin or a now-wilting bandage. It should’ve hurt. But he didn’t let the pain register.
Kerith followed up the shower with a glass of milk and two chocolate chip cookies; something that had reminded him of his childhood. He sat cross-legged at their mismatched dining set, clad in a pair of simple pants and a t-shirt, staring at the cookies on the napkin in front of him.
His thoughts were getting away from him again, back to the discussions he and his sister had shared over dinner about their mother when a weak knock on the door pushed him out of his trance. He hesitated for a moment before slipping out of the chair and moving towards the door, his bare feet shuffling over the worn carpet of their apartment.
Peeking through the peephole, he saw pale skin and a shock of blue hair.
Kerith could feel that emotion bubbling up again. The one he always felt when the subject of Oblio came up. He couldn’t put a finger on what it was, but he could definitely recognize it. He clamped down on it, telling himself to stop and took the door handle, waiting a few seconds before opening it.
The other man was down the corridor at this point, almost back to the elevator at the opposite end. He turned around when he heard the sound of the door and Kerith was met with the all too familiar face of someone who had recently been abused in some way. Even from down the hall, he could see it. Oblio had been crying and his now bloodshot eyes had that hollow look that Kerith had seen in the mirror so many times.
He couldn’t see any visible marks on Oblio. But that didn’t mean mental abuse hadn’t taken place.
Or emotional abuse.
The negative feeling Kerith had felt rising in him had drained instantly when he saw Oblio’s expression and they seemed to stand there for a multitude of heartbeats, eyes locked and respective thoughts racing when Kerith managed to stammer something out.
“Are you… are you okay?”
He watched as Oblio’s gaze dropped to the ground in front of Kerith. Then he shook his head slowly and turned away, entering the elevator. Kerith didn’t take his eyes off of Oblio’s face until the elevator doors shut. Even then it took him a few moments. The image of Oblio tightly pressing his eyes shut right before the doors closed between the two men was one that would stay with Kerith for a long while. It would keep reappearing in his mind for months afterwards.
He finally moved his gaze away from the elevator at the end of the hall to where Oblio had looked: down at Kerith’s feet.
There was an envelope there, a white speck in the ratty and stained dark red carpet of the hallway. When Kerith reached down to pick it up, he could see scrawled across it, in a hasty and lopsided form:
Kerith took one last look to the elevator before backing in to the apartment and shutting the door with his shoulder. He dropped the envelope on the kitchen counter and stared at it momentarily before looking at the small wicker basket with the studio keys inside. Grabbing those, he dropped them into his pocket and sat back down at the table to eat his cookies and drink his milk.
The keys in his pocket were there as a worst case scenario to him. If whatever was in the envelope reflected how Oblio looked, he didn’t want his sister experiencing it somehow and running away from him again.
He had savored every bite of the cookies and finished the glass of milk, his eyes going back to the counter every minute or so to land on the envelope. He looked away from it quickly when he heard a key in the door. Kerith stood as the door opened and carried his empty glass and napkin into the kitchen.
“The waiter held my phone for me so no one would take it. I slipped him another tip for that, that was really—“
Jaryn had been rambling as she entered the apartment, but stopped when she saw Kerith’s expression. She watched as her brother’s eyes honed in on the envelope bearing her name on the countertop. Making her way to the counter, she noticed her brother open the fridge and sort of stand there; absently scanning over what little they had inside.
She opened the envelope and took the paper out of it, Kerith could hear her doing so behind him. Again, he was afraid of what it could have said and with the look Oblio had on his face, Kerith couldn’t bear to see his sister deteriorate like that too. He just stuck his head in the fridge and stared at the milk, pretending to graze for something to munch on.
Jaryn wandered to the window as she read, finishing the letter and letting her eyes drift over it again and again.
I’m really sorry to do this – especially to you - but I have to go. I’m in danger if I stay in the city right now and I don’t want to inadvertently put you and your brother in danger as well. You two have been through enough. This isn’t goodbye forever, I hope, but at the moment I’m already on my way out of the city.
Be careful who you align yourself with in the future. You’re smart, I know you will. But just keep your eyes open. There are people who are always working with hidden agendas and it would be painful to think that you might have fallen into the hands of one of them.
I really wish I could say more, but I’m already taking a risk by writing this to you. I hope you’ll find it in your soul to forgive me one day.
Stay safe and stay strong.
You mean more to me than I could ever put into words and I’m extremely fortunate to have met you.
“What is it?” Kerith’s voice sounded so far away.
Jaryn took a few moments to swallow a lump in her throat before turning to her brother. She was trying to hold back tears. “It’s an It’s-not-you-it’s-me letter, to put it bluntly.”
Kerith had shut the refrigerator and was standing at the kitchen counter now, hands flat on the surface and eyes locked on his sister. He could easily see how hard she was trying to not cry and he watched as she moved back towards the kitchen and set the letter down gently on the surface. She watched it for a few moments and then reached out for the wicker basket, her lips thinning when she couldn’t find the studio keys.
That was the point where she shut her eyes and let the tears spill over, resting her arms on the counter and dropping her head between them. Kerith was already rounding the counter towards her and he took her in his arms, pulling her to him and dangling the keys in front of her face.
“Let me come with you--”
He waited until her gray eyes made their way from the keys to his face.
“Ker, you’re hurt…”
“I don’t care. We’re gonna dance. I’ll be fine. Go get your bag.”
He gently herded her towards their bedroom to gather her things and took the chance to lean over the counter and let his eyes travel over Oblio’s letter, word after word. His eyes narrowed at the signature.
What the hell is he going on about?
When Jaryn appeared beside him, Kerith wrapped his right arm around his sister’s shoulders and led them out of the apartment and into the elevator.
The rain was still falling, just a drizzle at this point. They didn’t exchange any words on the way to the studio, but Kerith’s random squeezes on Jaryn’s shoulder kept reassuring her that everything would be alright. Everything would get better.
They always hoped it would.