Leon woke up earlier than usual, in a good mood. A great mood! The kind of mood to nearly make him forget about his family being in shambles. Then he picked up his phone and looked at the date. August 23rd.
Normally, their family didn’t celebrate either brother’s birthday separately since they came so close together. Not that it mattered. He knew it would be tough for them without Angelo there. It might be tough for him with Angelo there, wherever he was hiding.
Tough or not, he knew that he was done moping. It was time to start hoping. His problems, while far from over, were much easier to face now that he had a friend by his side. Things would turn out alright in the long run. All he had to do was focus on the positives and put his best foot forward into a brighter tomorrow.
That foot collided with something squishier than carpet. It coughed.
Leon shined his phone at the floor and saw familiar eyes staring up at him. “Ángie?”
He prodded at his brother a few more times to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Once Angelo clutched his side and sat up, he knew he’d stumbled on the real deal.
“Ángie, what–?” Stirring in the other bed reminded him to whisper. “What are you doing here? Where have you been? Why were you hiding?”
Angelo’s eyes darted around. His arms and legs tucked in toward his body like a dying spider. Leon couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him even though he was still kind of mad.
He lifted a finger toward Leon’s bed.
“You wanna come up?”
Angelo nodded ever so slightly.
“C’mon.” Leon patted the area next to him. He watched his brother scramble up the bed and against the wall. “Were you sleeping on the floor? Why?”
“I can’t reach my bed. And,” Angelo managed to make eye-contact with him, “I-I wanted to t-t–,” he took a breath, “I wanted to talk. If that’s okay.”
“That’s okay, me too. What did you wanna talk about?”
“I-I just wanted to say,” he sat up straight, “you’re allowed to pinch me whenever you want, wherever you want, however hard you want.”
Leon blinked. “What? Roxie’s next door.”
“I don’t mind if you want to punch me either, but we’ll have to figure out a way to do it s-so that the cameras won’t s–”
“Ángie, what are you talking about? I don’t wanna hurt you.”
Angelo lowered his head. “I thought you might s-say that. Th-That’s why you’re allowed to use my money to buy your next girlfriend whatever you want.”
“I don’t want your money either.” Leon felt more tired than when he first woke up. “All I want right now is an apology.”
“Really? Nothing else?”
“Not what you’re offering.” He tilted his head. “What’s wrong? Usually, you apologize for things you didn’t even do wrong. Now when there’s an actual reason, you run and hide. I don’t understand at all.”
Angelo looked just as confused as him. “I thought apologizing so much made it mean less. I-I dunno, just saying s-sorry for this felt wrong.”
“Hm? That’s what you thought?”
His hands flailed daintily. “‘S-Sowwy I involved you in a web of lies that might cost you your life’s dream.’ ‘Oopsie, our parents are worried for my life.’ He stared up at Leon with sincere eyes. “Th-There’s no sorry big enough for that. Avoiding you was my apology.”
“Ohhh.” Leon understood that somewhat.
“I-I thought you’d be better off never hearing from me again.”
“Of course I wanna see you again.” He placed a hand on Angelo’s arm. “At some point. I’ll admit I needed space those first few days,” as soon as he said that, he felt a pang of regret, “b-but I still love you! You shouldn’t feel like you have to hide from me forever.”
Angelo bobbed his head aimlessly.
Leon realized he had the perfect opportunity to get some answers he’d been looking for. “Ángie, I’ve been meaning to ask… Why? Why did you do all of this? Why run away from home?”
“I-I’ve been awake trying to figure out how to explain it.” Angelo tapped his fingertips together. “You know how Mamá said I didn’t react well to you leaving?”
“Yeah.” The thought of that text made Leon cringe. “Wait, did you join the IF just to see me again?”
“No, no, no!” Angelo frantically shook his head. “Th-That wasn’t the plan at all.”
“It wasn’t?” Leon breathed a sigh of relief. “I guess I’m glad for that.”
“I overheard Mamá and Dad wondering if th-th–wondering whether or not to get me into therapy. This wasn’t the first time, but this time, they were s-so sad. And ashamed.” Angelo held out his hands. “Me being weak hurt them. I-I had to change! I need to learn how to be on my own.”
“So you joined the military?? I feel like there’s other ways.”
He shook his head. “It had to be drastic or else I’d back out. Or Mamá would stop me. S-So I needed to go somewhere where I couldn’t go back or be found.”
This recklessness seemed so out of character for the Angelo Leon knew, he found it hard to wrap his head around. If he understood correctly, though, being out of character was exactly the reason Angelo did it.
“I didn’t know you felt that way.” responded Leon. “You know you can talk to me, right? I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but it feels like you don’t tell me what’s going on with you anymore.”
Angelo looked away. “I’ve dumped my problems on you for t-too long. Please don’t blame yourself. You’ve done more than enough for me.”
“But I want to help! Even though I know I’m not the best at it, I wanna help you.” Leon leaned over to look him in the eye. “Because you’re my little brother.”
Angelo’s eyes briefly met his. “You don’t have to do that just because we’re related.”
“–always s-supposed to care about each other.” He completed their dad’s phrase. “I know. Never stopped Gramps.”
Leon never knew how to respond to that, so he focused on something else instead. “About Gramps. What… happened with him?”
“I-I might’ve bumped him into a wall by accident. I’m not sure. But I-I did call an ambulance.”
“Oh good, it was an accident.” It relieved Leon to know Angelo hadn’t completely changed. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, nor was he cold-hearted enough to leave an old man injured.
“You believe me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I lied to you s-so much over the past few weeks.” Even in the dim light, the shame on Angelo’s face showed.
“Oh yeah.” Leon briefly forgot. “You did do that, didn’t you? I think I have a better understanding of why, though.”
“Th-That’s no excuse.” Angelo shook his head firmly. “What I did was wrong. I hurt you, Mamá, Dad, and now other people are caught up in my mistake. I don’t know how I could ever make it up to everyone, but I-I want to. No matter what it takes! Until my last breath!”
“That’s all I wanted to hear.” Leon smiled. “A little intense, though.”
“S-Sorry.” Angelo ducked his head.
Leon chuckled. “Thanks. I really mean it. I forgive y–”
“It’s really nice of you t-to forgive me, but..” Angelo looked up at him. “Please don’t say it unless you really mean it. Okay? Don’t feel obligated.”
“Really, I forgive you.” Leon couldn’t find it in himself to be mad at Angelo anymore now that he better understood what was going on. “As long as you’re trying, there’s no hard feelings. And no need for punches or pinches or–” A devious thought came to mind. “Actually…”
Hooking one arm around his brother, he used the other hand to pinch his cheek.
Leon snickered. “So this is what it feels like. No wonder Roxie has so much fun!”
“C’moon.” Angelo half-whined, half-laughed. “Th-This is supposed t-to be a real punishment.”
“Aww, what’s the matter~?” Leon squished both sides of his face with one hand. “I thought you said I could pinch you whenever, where… ev…”
Both Summers stopped in their tracks to see a shirtless Aiden sitting up in the bottom bunk bed. The lights were dimmed, but his green eyes pierced through them.
“What are you two doing?”
“Oh, hey Aiden!” Leon spoke at a normal volume. “Did we wake you?”
Aiden did not respond to that. “I’m going to get dressed now.”
“Oh, thanks for the heads up!” Leon turned toward the wall. Strange. Aiden never warned him before.
Leon almost grabbed Angelo’s shoulders to turn him around until Angelo flinched. He took the hint and faced the wall while Leon remembered what Emil told him. Together, they waited for Aiden to stop being naked.
Bright light flooded the room, the door opened, and then it closed again. Leon looked around, and sure enough, Aiden had left.
“He’s gone.” He let Angelo know. “Ángie?”
“Yeah?” Angelo turned around.
“What happened to your shoulders? Emil told me how badly it freaks you out now. I never knew…”
Angelo groaned. “It’s no big deal.”
“It sounds like it is!” Leon pressed. “You have to start being honest with me if you don’t want things to spiral out of control again. I don’t wanna accidentally hurt you.”
Angelo just stared at Leon.
“So what happened?”
He snapped out of his daze. “I… I really don’t want t-to–to t-talk about that. It’s more embarrassing th-than anything.”
“I-I’m s-s-s–I’m sorry! I’ll be honest about anything else except th-that.”
Leon watched his brother, who shook like a leaf. His hands held his arms and he tripped over his words more than usual. It might be true that more went over Leon’s head than the average person, but he knew when his brother was upset.
“You don’t have to tell me right now.” He dropped it. “But let me know if there’s anything else like that, okay? I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I-I’ll do my best…”
“Good.” Leon opened his arms. “Come here.”
“C’mon.” He beckoned with his hands.
Angelo scooted close enough for Leon to wrap him in a hug.
“Shhhhhh.” If nothing else changed about Angelo, Leon knew this should make him feel better. “It’s been one heck of a month, hasn’t it?”
Angelo’s tuft of hair brushed against Leon’s face as he nodded. “All because of me.”
“You certainly spiced things up. But it hasn’t all been bad.” Leon looked up to the ceiling light. “It’s been nice having you here, ignoring the whole situation. I’m super glad you got to meet everyone!”
“Me t-too. Th-They’re really nice people.”
“Yeah! Mia, the captain, Jun, Roxie, they’re great to be around. Aiden’s an interesting roommate, but he’s not so bad.” Leon lowered his voice. “Just between you and me, I think he’s got a bigger heart than he lets on.”
Angelo gave him a confused look.
“I know it’s hard to believe at first.”
“What about Emil?”
He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget Emil. I will never forget Emil. Wait, he told you what he was gonna do for us, ri–?”
Angelo covered his mouth with a hand. He leaned in to whisper. “Cameras.”
“Oh, right.” Leon sheepishly glanced at the ceiling.
“We went over it last night.” whispered Angelo.
“Good, good.” Leon let go of him. “But isn’t he just a great guy in general?”
“He’s very kind. He gave me a s-slice of cheesecake so good, I-I cried.”
“It’s amazing! He even got an orange half just for you!”
“What??” Angelo’s eyes went wide. “How’d he know orange is my favorite flavor?”
“You’re asking me? I don’t know how he does it!” Leon realized something. “Shoot, maybe I shouldn’t have spoiled that for you. Oh! You should hear him play the guitar! Maybe he’ll do it again today.” His heart pounded with excitement. “Gosh, I can’t wait!”
“Th-That would be nice.”
“But aside from all that, aside from how funny, talented, and just plain cool he is in general, he helped me out of a super bad slump.” Leon rocked back and forth. “Because of him, I feel like I have a future to look forward to.” He turned to his brother. “Do you feel that way too? Like everything’s gonna be alright?”
Angelo took a moment to respond. “I-I wouldn’t go that far. But Emil’s been really kind to us. There’s s-some stuff I want to tell him.”
“He’s such a good friend.” Leon felt a surge of determination. “I want to be as good of a friend to him, too.”
“Yeah! He deserves a good friend like you.”
“Aww, thanks Ángie, but I don’t really know if I can compare.”
“You do in my heart.” Angelo formed a heart with his hands.
“Oh my gosh.” Leon rolled his eyes. What a classic Angelo move. It comforted him. He kicked his legs against the bed. “Anyway, Emil’s great. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him.”
“Is th-that why you were mumbling his name in your sleep?”
“Oh yeah!” Leon hopped off of his bed. “He was in a dream I had last night. Funny story, we were both at a fancy restaurant waiting for our dates, but we both got stood up.”
“How dare they? Dump. Them. Both.” Angelo clapped to his favorite piece of relationship advice.
“They’re not even real this time.” Leon shook his head. “But I guess we did kind of end up doing that because we went to dinner together instead.”
“Oh, how nice!” Angelo pushed himself to the edge of the bed.
“Yeah, it was a great time!” Leon continued. “I remember we gave each other the bouquet we were gonna give to our dates.”
“Heh. S-Serves them right.”
“Emil looked super nice in a tuxedo, but you know, he looks good in pretty much anything he wears. Though now that I think about it, I feel like he’d be more of a casual date kinda guy, like a walk through the park or the beach. That works for me too.” Leon’s mind cycled through the settings and wardrobes like scene changes in a visual novel. “I should ask him sometime!”
Leon’s phone vibrated. He picked it up.