The moment the knocking at his bedroom door reached his ears, Phoenix knew exactly who it was. There was no mistaking it.
With a soft sigh, he closed the textbook in front of him. He’d been trying so hard to study for his final exams, but it was nearly impossible to focus anyway.
“Did my Mama let you in?” He called out as the bedroom door slowly creaked open behind him.
Tam ignored his question, responding with one of his own. “Phee? Are you in here?” He asked uncertainly.
Phoenix rolled his eyes as he rose to his feet and finally turned to face his friend. “I just talked to you like three seconds ago, Tam. Who else could it be?”
The other boy shrugged. “I dunno. Could’ve been your evil doppelganger or something… Just making sure.”
Shaking his head, Phoenix took a seat on the edge of his bed, knowing Tam would follow suit. “What are you doing here?” He asked softly. “Wait, lemme guess — not only are you screwing my brother, but you’re gonna tell me you’re an axe murderer too, right?” There was a harsh, bitter edge to his sarcasm.
“You’ve seen the bodies in my basement.” Tam smiled as he spoke. “You already know I am.”
“Why does everything have to be some kind of freaking joke to you, Tam?!” Phoenix snapped. He just wasn’t in the mood for it. Not today.
His friend’s face fell. “Sorry.” He muttered as the smile vanished from his face. “Just trying to lighten the mood a little… I know that talk with your Papa was really hard. Jas told me about it.”
Of course he did. Ugh. “Yeah, well I had one with my Mama too…” Phoenix shook his head. “Did you know she was in jail when I was a baby?! She went to prison! For stealing!” He felt a hot prickling at the corner of his eyes. It was the first time he’d actually spoken the words aloud since their conversation the night before. “Guess it was around the same time Papa and Rubi met in freaking rehab.” He added bitterly.
Phoenix almost wished he’d been right, and that his Papa and stepmother had grounded him for the rest of his life. That would have been so much easier to hear.
Instead, they’d told him and Jasper how proud they were of them for leaving the party and not trying any of the drugs that had been passed around… And then they explained why.
It was one of the few times in Phoenix’s life that he’d found himself genuinely rendered speechless.
It all made sense now though… He’d always wondered why Erik and Rubi were always so fearful about him trying drugs or alcohol. But now he knew.
They don’t want me to end up like them.
And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, as soon as he got back to his mother’s house, she decided to drop her own bombshell — this one even worse than his father’s.
It was another revelation that helped things suddenly make so much more sense than before. Part of him had always wondered why his mother was in barely any of his baby pictures… But it was because she couldn’t be. Because she was locked away in a prison for the first two years of his life.
They both told him how proud they were that he hadn’t touched any of the drugs at the party. They gave him these big speeches about choices and consequences and responsibility… But none of it mattered to Phoenix. All that mattered was that his parents had lied to him his whole life.
Tam’s brow furrowed slightly in concern. “That really sucks… But hey, look at it this way — at least your parents have some pretty kickass backstories.”
Phoenix rolled his eyes in irritation. “Ugh! There you go with your stupid jokes again…”
His friend simply shook his head. “I wasn’t joking though. Like, think about how high your Will and Fortitude would have to be to get past something crazy like an addiction… It’s like beating a level 20 boss with nothing but a freaking stick. It’s awesome!”
Phoenix shrugged, but said nothing. Easy for Tam to say… I bet his parents never did any awful shit like that!
When Phoenix remained silent, Tam continued. “Anyway, I know it was hard for Jas to hear too… But maybe weirdly inspiring, in a way?” He shrugged, his expression suddenly growing more serious. “He said he’s gonna tell his parents tonight… about us. And I don’t know why, but this is really eating away at him, no matter how many times I keep telling him it’s gonna be okay.” He paused for a moment to let out a sigh. “I had no problem talking to my Mama about it. But Jas is really freaked out. And I know you’re still mad and things are still weird, but I really think you should be there for him tonight, Phee. He needs you.”
Despite how serious their conversation was, Phoenix couldn’t help but laugh. “Wow. You sound just like my Mama…”
“Well, your Mama’s really smart, so I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks!” Tam gave him a playful wink as he spoke.
Phoenix ignored the comment, his smile fading almost instantly as a wave of sadness washed over him. “If he really ‘needs’ me or whatever, why doesn’t he tell me himself then, huh? He’s been avoiding me like the freaking plague ever since that stupid party.”
“Yeah, well so have you!” To his surprise, Tam’s brow furrowed in anger. It was rare to see him so upset. “This is the first time you’ve said more than two words to either of us in over a week! And I get it — it was super fucking awkward. For all of us.” He paused to shake his head. “But it’s not like we can go back and do a re-roll on everything that happened. We’ve all just gotta deal with it… And that means sucking it up and talking to your brother, Phee.”
He shook his head slowly. How did Tam not get it? “Yeah, well that’s pretty freaking easy for you to say, Tam.” Phoenix replied at last. “You aren’t the one getting ditched here. So excuse me for not jumping for joy about that.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re my best friend, Tam! Or you used to be… But now you’re gonna be hanging out with Jasper all the time and I’m gonna end up being this stupid third wheel you don’t need anymore.” It felt so silly to voice his feelings aloud… But Phoenix couldn’t help it. “I just don’t want things to change. But they’re going to. And it just sucks, okay?”
“So… you’re jealous, then? That’s what’s bothering you?” He asked. “You think I’m just gonna start ignoring you and you’re not gonna be my best friend anymore?”
Phoenix felt his cheeks grow slightly warm with embarrassment. “Yeah, I guess.”
It was a few moments before Tam finally replied. “Alright, Phee. You said no jokes, right? So let me be serious for a second.”
The corner of Phoenix’s mouth twitched, in spite of himself. “Are you sure you’re even capable of that?”
His friend shrugged, his own mouth curling into a small smile. “We’ll see, I guess?” Tam took a slow breath before continuing. “Do you remember back when we were kids? I’m talking way back when we first met each other. That big cosplay convention was happening downtown, but my Mama said I was too young to go… And do you remember what I did?”
Phoenix smiled. How could he forget? “You showed up to school with elf ears and this ugly little cape thing.”
“Um, pretty sure you mean Hobbit ears and a totally fabulous cloak.” Tam corrected him, chuckling softly. “But it was a pretty long time ago, so you probably forgot.” He teased. “Anyway, all the other kids were fucking awful. Probably worse than they ever were before. I’m pretty sure I spent half the day crying in the bathroom about it.”
Phoenix’s eyes widened slightly. He never realized all that teasing ever got to Tam so much. “But you didn’t take any of it off?” He asked.
“Of course not! Do you know how long me and my Mama worked on making that thing?! But it still hurt like hell… Until lunchtime.” Tam’s smile widened. “I was sitting all by myself, probably a few seconds away from bursting into tears again… Then you walked right over, sat down, and told me you liked my ears.”
“Why wouldn’t I? They were totally badass.” Phoenix’s voice was half-teasing. Talking to Tam was already making him feel so much better.
“Hey, I thought we had a no-joke rule going here.” Tam scolded him with a smile. “Anyway, the point is, I don’t know if you ever realized how much that meant to me. But it was everything, Phee. And that was when I realized three of the most important things I think I’ve ever learned…
“One, cosplay is fucking awesome. Two, it’s a total waste of time worrying about what those jackasses at school think of me. And three, you were gonna be the best friend I’d ever have in my life.” He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder for a moment. “No one else is ever gonna understand me the way you do. And I’m always gonna need you. None of that’s ever gonna change, Phee… Whether I’m fucking your brother or not.”
Phoenix punched his friend sharply in the arm, laughing. “Jesus, Tam. Why’d you have to ruin it like that?!”
He smiled guiltily. “Sorry.”
With a chuckle, Phoenix pulled Tam in for a quick hug. He really needed to hear his friend say all of that, so much more than he’d realized. Of course Tam would always be his best friend… How could he ever think that would change?
“Thanks, Tam.” He said as he finally released him. “And I’m sorry for being so shitty to you and Jasper. I just… I really need some time to get used to it. It’s still so freaking weird for me.”
“I know. And Jas and I aren’t gonna make it any weirder than it has to be.” Tam promised. “I mean… you already saw me sucking his dick, so… probably can’t get much weirder than that anyway?”
Phoenix couldn’t help but laugh, despite his disgust. “God, promise you won’t take that as a challenge.”
“No promises.” Tam winked at him. “I just hope you can at least call Jas or something? Especially before tonight.” He continued seriously. “I think he could really use that same confidence boost you gave to that weird kid with the Hobbit ears… Make sure he knows you’re gonna love him no matter what. No cloaking spell or deception check required.” He added with a smile.
Phoenix sighed softly. He knew Tam was right. He had to stop being so selfish and put all that negative crap aside. I’ve gotta be there for Jasper. Phoenix’s heart sank slightly. He probably thinks I hate him or something. And that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“Wow…” At last, he broke the silence. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you get all deep like this, Tam. Where the hell is it coming from?” He asked with a laugh.
Tam smirked at him. “Dude, haven’t you ever looked at my character sheet? My Wisdom modifier is like, 8.”