Something has changed, and Tobi is sure he doesn’t like it.
The old mattress, usually occupied by the three youngest members, is mysteriously devoid of two of them. Only Tay lays there now, Emery watching him with an unreadable expression from the ledge of the empty pool they’ve been using as a hangout for as long as Tobi can remember. Jem and the others haven’t arrived yet, but Tobi knows it’ll only get more tense when he does—not that Jem will realize it, the oblivious thing.
It’s not unusual for there to be a fight within their group. As close as they all are, they are for the most part hormonal teenagers and that meant fighting is bound to happen. It’s not even unusual for the cause of a fight to be another member of the group—in this case, Tobi suspects Jem. But usually, it works itself out in a few days. Unfortunately, this one has been going on for almost two weeks now and it’s getting tiring. With school back in motion (it’s his senior year), August’s deadline for his internship approaching, and now this…Tobi just wants everything to go back to normal for a little while.
Sighing, he runs a hand though his hair and moves towards the mattress. Between the two of them, he trusts Tay to be more open to actually talking. Emery had grown a lot since joining their group, but he was still shy and still very much prone to bottling up his emotions and no matter how hard Tobi tried, he never could figure out how to get past the kid’s defenses when he put them up.
Tay on the other hand was someone that Tobi had known since he was knee-high to a grasshopper; even when he tried to close himself off, Tobi had the ability to read him. More than that, though, he knew how to immediately get him to open up.
He launches into a tickle attack, descending on the mattress with a velociraptor shriek. Tay is already cackling, trying desperately to roll away from him, but it’s no use. Tobi has mastered the Tickling Arts as surely as he’d mastered dancing, and there’s no escaping him.
It doesn’t matter that Tay is nearly twice as broad as he is; when being tickled, the younger boy shrinks down to the size of a child. Tobi can feel Emery’s gaze on him even now, knows that he’s probably wearing an expression of annoyed humor, but he isn’t deterred. He’s here to get the story out of Tay and he’s going to succeed.
Thankfully, he’s helped in his mission for just then August arrives and takes the seat next to Emery, effectively diverting his attention.
“T-Tobi! Stop!” Tay cackles. “What do you want!?”
“I want information, you brat!” Tobi says, continuing to tickle the other.
“I’ll tell you wh-whatever you want!” Tay is gasping. “Just stop!”
Tobi grins triumphantly but takes his hands away, allowing Tay to lay there and catch his breath for a moment. Once he’s satisfied that he’s given the other enough time to recover, Tobi takes his hand and pulls him to his feet, dragging him towards the opposite side of the pool and the small ladder there.
The pool is surrounded by woods, one of the few places in this city where the natural world is allowed to encroach on their paved paradise. It’s not a pretty set of woods—rather, the trees are all crooked pines that wave and buckle when the wind blows, sending their needles cascading to the floor below.
Tobi leads Tay a bit into the woods.
“This isn’t creepy at all,” Tay begins nervously as they walk. “I definitely don’t feel like you’re about to murder me and bury me here in the woods where nobody can find me, not at all.”
Tobi ignores the nervous chatter; of course he isn’t going to hurt Tay and they both know it. Tobi couldn’t even hurt a fly—unless of course the fly is himself. He’s done plenty of things to hurt himself over the years.
When Tobi is sure they’re far enough away that they won’t be disturbed, he turns to face Tay, arms folded across his chest. “What’s going on with you and Emery?” he asks, wasting no time.
Tay is immediately defensive, dark eyes searching wildly for a place to escape, but he knows it’s no use. Tobi is thin and fast and in great shape, and he could easily outrun the clumsier Tay.
“What makes you think there’s anything wrong with us?” Tay hedges for time instead and Tobi scoffs.
“Really?” he says.
“Look, it’s really complicated and…”
Tay shuts up, looking at the ground. Tobi has only seen this side of Tay a few times, even with their long history. Generally being optimistic, Tay was not one to bow down in defeat easily. But this look? This was the look of the defeated. Tobi’s heart aches and a dark stab of something ugly—anger at Emery—pierces through him. What had he done to make Tay look like this?
“I messed up,” Tay says after a moment.
Tobi’s eyebrows furrow. “How do you mean?”
“I…I kissed Em,” Tay admits forlornly.
If anything, the statement makes Tobi even more angry at Emery. Had he rejected Tay? Had he told him off for being gay?
“I’m gonna wring that kid’s neck…” Tobi mutters aloud. There’s no room for homophobia in their group, and if Emery is going to stick around, he’s going to have to learn to get over that.
Tay looks up sharply, hair falling in his eyes. “No—Tobi, you don’t understand. It’s not…Emery likes me. He kissed me first.”
Confusion replaces his anger swiftly, tinged with a little guilt that he had been so willing to believe the worst of Emery. But this just doesn’t make sense. Why is there so much tension? Shouldn’t they be all over each other, exploring their new relationship? “I don’t understand. If you kissed him and he likes you, what’s the problem?”
The word twists something strange inside of him, and suddenly he’s thinking of all the stolen glances between Jem and Tay, the way they’d occasionally disappear together, how often he’d find Tay sleeping over at Jem’s but not on the couch or in one of the guest rooms. Realization follows a moment later. “You’re together,” he breathes.
How had he not seen it sooner?
Tay nods, but rather than look relieved that his secret is out, he looks even more defeated. “I love him,” he says. “And yet…When Emery kissed me…”
“You kissed him back,” Tobi answers for him, and he pulls Tay into a hug just as the other clenches his eyes closed and buries his face in Tobi’s shoulder.
“I can’t believe I did that to him,” Tay says, voice croaking somewhat as he tries not to get too emotional. “How could I do that to him? To both of them? Maybe…maybe I’m as bad as my dad says after all.”
“Hey, no, shh,” Tobi shushes the younger boy, holding him tightly. “You’re not bad—you’re a teenaged boy and Emery he’s…he’s an attractive guy. It’s hard to say no to those doe eyes.”
Tay shakes his head, obviously not believing a word of it, and Tobi hates that he doesn’t know how to make it better, how to ease the burden. He feels bad for Emery and Jem, too—of course he does, he loves those two like his brothers—but he’s known Tay longer. He knows probably better than anyone what he’d gone through at home, was there for him the first time his father had struck him.
After a moment, Tobi pulls back and holds Tay out at arm’s length, bending down so he can catch the others eyes. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now, but have you talked to Jem about this?”
Tay’s expression balks, the other recoiling as if Tobi’s words had burned him. “H-how could I possibly…do you know what it would do to him?”
“No, but neither do you,” Tobi says. “He’s stronger than you think.”
Tay is shaking his head. “No, absolutely not—he’s…do you know how long it took me to try and convince him that he’s beautiful? That he’s worth something? How do you think it’s going to look when he finds out that despite all of that, despite the times I told him he was beautiful and perfect, I kissed someone else anyway?”
“Not just someone else,” Tobi says, feeling his heart pang as Tay reminded him of Jem’s insecurities. “It was Emery. Tay, listen to me…those two boys adore you. They adore each other. The guilt is going to eat Emery alive, you know that. It’s already eating at you, but Emery he’s…he’ll feel like a dirty little secret. He’ll feel like his very existence is a threat to Jem’s happiness and it’s going to kill him, but he’s going to start avoiding you and Jem like the plague. He’ll freeze both of you out, for yours and Jem’s own good. And then it’s going to kill Jem, because he doesn’t even know why Emery is suddenly cold and distant, why one of his best friends suddenly can’t seem to look him in the eye. And then there’s you…do you honestly think you’ll be able to continue with this bearing down on you? How long before you break, too? And then who does Jem have? And he won’t even know why, Tay. Don’t you think he deserves to know why?” Tobi tries to explain.
Each of his words seems to be a physical blow to Tay, and he hates it, hates that he’s making the other feel this way, but he knows it’s the truth. It’s already happening, the fissures in their group as a result of this mistake.
Tobi doesn’t know what telling Jem will do. But he does know what not telling him could do, and to him, that’s far worse. He’d rather they face the demon head on—which is surprising, because all he’s ever done is run from his anxiety, bury it in the fog of medicine and alcohol and his friends’ arms—but it’s the truth.
“He’s going to hate me,” Tay gasps and Tobi breaks at the tears he hears in the other’s voice. He’s seldom seen the other cry, even when things were at their worst at home. He almost regrets his decision to get Tay to talk, knowing that it led to this, but it had to happen. He knows that, but it doesn’t hurt any less.
“I honestly don’t think Jem is capable of hating anyone,” Tobi says, thinking of Jem’s mother.
Tay sobs and shakes his head. “That almost makes it worse.”
“I know,” Tobi says, pulling Tay back in for another hug so he can cry it out.
He holds him for what feels like forever, but then Tay steps back, wiping at his face, and it’s incredible how quickly he shifts. One minute, a sobbing mess, the next completely composed if a bit red around the eyes and cheeks. “We should head back,” he says.
Tobi nods. The others will all be there by now, he knows. And they’ll be wondering where they are.
As they head back towards the pool, Tobi just wishes he felt less like an executioner escorting Tay to the gas chamber.