7.51: Head or Heart

Note: One NSFW screenshot ahead

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“Phoenix… Are you sure you’re okay?” Addy asked softly from across the table.

Phoenix wished he’d had a better poker face, but it seemed he’d failed. All of his friends knew something was wrong… But that shouldn’t have meant they had to bug him about it, should it? Ugh! Why can’t she just leave it alone?!

He had been expecting a fun evening with his friends — something he’d needed desperately after all the stress and uncertainty he’d been feeling lately. Instead, they’d decided to give him the third degree all night.

Before he had a chance to reply, Niko looked up from his character sheet, shaking his head.

“You’ve asked him twice already… He’s not going to tell you what’s wrong.”

Addy looked over at him. “I know.” She sighed. “I’m just worried.”

“Me too.” Niko admitted. “But it’s not like we can force him to talk to us.”

“Seriously?! He’s sitting right there.” Lola grumbled in annoyance at her friends.

Phoenix flashed her a grateful smile. “Yeah, gotta practice your Stealth rolls, guys.” He tried not to let himself feel embarrassed or angry at their words. They were just worried. “Like I said before, I’m fine. Now, did everybody pick a class?”

“Not yet… But I’m thinking Cleric, maybe?” Niko picked up the players’ manual from the table as he spoke.

Thankfully, his friends remained focused on creating their new D&D characters for the rest of their time together, and did not discuss his mood again.

It wasn’t until Niko and Addy had both headed home that Lola decided to broach the subject once more… But when it was her, Phoenix didn’t mind.

“So, at the risk of sounding like Addy…” Lola seemed unable to resist cracking a small smile as she finished putting away the last of the notebooks and returned to the table. “Is there something you need to talk about?” She asked gently. “It’s okay if you don’t want to. But you know I’ll always listen.”

I know… That’s part of the problem. Phoenix thought. “Thanks, Lola.” He replied at last. “It’s just… Y’know. The usual crap.”

And that wasn’t a total lie, either. But there was something else on his mind he wasn’t mentioning too. He couldn’t.

Lola let out a small sigh. “I had a feeling…” Her face fell as she spoke. “I just wish there was something I could do to help.”

“You do help.” He assured her. “Way more than you probably realize. And it means a lot to me.” Phoenix realized how rarely he actually thanked her for being there for him.

Her soft, beautiful lips curled into a smile. “I’m glad.” She replied softly. “It’s just hard sometimes seeing you like this.”

“What do you mean?”

Lola hesitated for a moment. “I like Gigi, so I feel like a total bitch for saying this, but… You deserve better than this, Phoenix. You deserve to be happy… But you’re not.”

She looked so sad as she spoke, but so beautiful too. Phoenix found himself lost in her big, brown eyes. His next words left his lips before he even realized what he was saying.

“I am when I’m with you.”

He watched as her cheeks grew a pleasant shade of pink. “Come on. Do you have any idea how that sounds?”

“I do.” He replied almost guiltily. “But it’s the truth.”

For a few moments, Lola said nothing. Phoenix studied every inch of her gorgeous face, trying to figure out what she might be thinking. But it was impossible.

“Phoenix.” At last, she spoke. He loved the way his name sounded on her lips. “What are we doing? What the hell is this?”

“This?”

Lola nodded. “This.” She gestured quickly between the two of them.

Phoenix furrowed his brow in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Nice try, but you’re smarter than that.” Despite everything, she managed another smile. “You know exactly what I mean… Unless you really don’t.” Her smile vanished just as quickly as it had come.  “In which case, I’m officially the biggest idiot in the entire world.” She rose to her feet as she spoke, turning away from him. “God, this is embarrassing.”

That was when Phoenix finally realized. She can feel it too… And she’s just as scared and confused as I am. The thought somehow both thrilled and terrified him all at once.

He rose from his seat as well, taking a few steps to close the distance between them. “You’re not an idiot. I do know what you mean.” He said softly.

“You do?” She turned around to face him.

He nodded. “And the answer is, I don’t know. I have no idea what we’re doing or what the hell this is. But I…”

That was when he felt it again. That same urge he’d felt last week at the cafe. Her lips were so soft and full and her gaze so warm and loving… Phoenix wanted nothing more than to kiss her.

And this time, instead of trying to fight that urge, he gave in.

Her lips were just as soft as Phoenix had imagined they would be… but warmer too. It was amazing.

And he instantly found himself wondering just how soft and warm the rest of her might be too.

As though on cue, Lola finally opened her mouth against his, letting out a soft moan as she did so. He slowly ran one of his hands up the bare skin of her thigh as she pressed her body closer and closer to him.

Phoenix found himself growing hard with excitement and anticipation. How long had he been craving this? How many times had he secretly dreamt of this moment?

But what about Gigi? A small voice in the back of his mind seemed to whisper. She’s your WIFE. And if you go through with this…

It took every ounce of willpower he had to finally pull away from her. “Fuck. Lola, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Her face was flushed and her breaths were heavy. It did nothing to help the desire that Phoenix was fighting so desperately to ignore.

“I can’t do this… It’s not right. I… I want to. But… I just can’t.”

It pained him to see the hurt and disappointment cross her face. “I get it.” She replied softly. “You’re right. You’re married…” Lola lowered her eyes for a moment. “We can’t.”

“I’m sorry.” He repeated. “I… I wish I…” Phoenix shook his head. “I should go.”

“Y-yeah… Okay.” Lola’s voice was small.

He turned away and took two steps toward the door.

Then stopped.

Phoenix knew he needed to get out of there. He needed to head back home before he did something crazy. Something he’d end up regretting forever.

He thought of his brother, and all the pain that terrible mistake he’d made at that party had caused him. And tonight, Phoenix had already made the same one.

I can’t make an even WORSE mistake, can I?

But would it really be such a mistake after all? To finally do what he’d been dreaming of for weeks, maybe months. To feel connected to someone who understood him better than his wife ever could. To finally be happy… What could be so wrong about any of that?

Because you’d be a dirty, rotten cheater. A bitter voice whispered in his mind. It doesn’t matter how miserable you are. You’re married. You can’t do this to Gigi. This is wrong. You’re better than this.

“Phoenix?” Over his shoulder, Lola whispered his name.

What should I do?! Phoenix’s entire body felt numb. His head wanted him to run back home as quickly as he could. But his heart longed for him to stay and fall back into Lola’s waiting arms.

He continued standing there for what felt like forever as his head and his heart continued their back-and-forth battle.

But in the end, only one of them could win.

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7.50: Terrified

Tam and Jasper finally went back to Windenburg this morning… Together.

And as much as it sucked to have to say goodbye, I’m glad I was able to help them while they were here. It was awesome to see them both leaving so happy. And honestly, I know it’s gonna take some more work, but I really think they’re gonna be okay.

I’d had such a good feeling that they’d manage to work things out… And when Tam got back so late from the hotel the other night, I totally knew I was right. Why else would he have come back so late?

Of course, once I brought Jasper back to our house, he and Tam just told me they’d spent the night “practicing for Tam’s next DJ gig”… Cute, right? There’s so much shit they still won’t let me live down from back when I was a kid. But at least we can laugh about it now.

Anyway, now that they’re gone… I dunno. It just feels really lonely already.

And it doesn’t help that they decided to leave things on basically the most awkward note imaginable.

Last night, Tam asked me to go for a walk with him and Jasper after dinner. And it was their last night here, so of course I said yes. I won’t see them again for another three months.

It started out fine… We were laughing and joking about a bunch of stupid crap and just kinda enjoying the last couple hours we had together.

But then out of nowhere, it turned into… well, I guess it felt like one of those “interventions” on those awful reality shows my Mama used to watch when I was little.

I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised. Especially after the talk I had with Jasper the other day. They’re worried about me, they said. Me and Lola.

And I guess they’re getting the vibe that Gigi might be worried too.

It was a lot easier to try and brush everything off when it was just Jasper and me at the hotel. But with Tam there too… Shit, I dunno. They got me thinking about a lot of things… Things I’d been trying so hard not to think about. Things I never even wrote down in here before. Because it was easier to try and pretend everything was gonna be okay.

Anyway, the point is, I get what they’re saying. As much as I hate to admit it, I really do. Maybe even more than they realized.

But what do they expect me to do? It’s not like I can just stop hanging out with Lola. She’s honestly one of the only things still keeping me going through all this crap with Gigi. She’s the one person who can make me feel okay again…

God, that’s awful, isn’t it? GIGI should be the one who makes me feel that way… But she’s not.

She used to be. I can still remember when she could make me feel happier than anyone else in the entire world ever could.

But she hasn’t for a long time.

And to be totally honest, that scares the hell out of me.

Maybe that’s why I kept trying to convince myself that things weren’t so bad. Or that they’d get better. Because the alternative is just too fucking terrifying to even think of.

And Lola… Lately, shes been terrifying me too.

Jasper could tell something was up when I got to the hotel the other morning. My brother’s one of the smartest people I know… Of course he noticed. But he never found out what it was. I never told him what happened.

Not that anything DID happen. It didn’t. But…

I think I wanted it to. Or part of me did, anyway. Maybe. I think.

I don’t know. There was just something about the way she smiled. She was so beautiful. Well, she’s always beautiful. But I guess I just noticed it more than I have before. And the way she was talking to me… I could have just listened to her voice forever.

I guess I got kinda wrapped up in it all. Then I realized how late I was to go pick up Jasper, so I paid for my coffee and said goodbye… and when she gave me that hug, I really didn’t wanna let go.

I have no idea what came over me. But she just smelled so good and felt so soft… and I really, really wanted to kiss her. As Tam would probably put it, I basically had to pass a DC 25 Will Save not to. And I just barely made it.

See what I mean? Fucking terrifying, right?

So I know why Jasper and Tam are so worried. I totally get it. I’m worried too. But I need Lola right now. Especially with Tam and Jasper back in Germany. I don’t have anybody else to get me through this. Not really.

Not that Niko and Addy aren’t great. They’re so fun to hang out with, and so nice too. But it’s like I said before — They just don’t GET it. Not the way Lola does.

And as easy as it is for everybody to keep telling me I’ve gotta talk to Gigi, I’ve tried. Way more times than anybody else probably would have. Any sane person would’ve given up a long time ago.

That’s what they always say the definition of insanity is, right? Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. That’s what I’ve been doing with Gigi for months. And it’s gotten me nowhere.

So what the hell else is there left for me to do?

I don’t wanna give up on Gigi. I swear, I WANT to keep fighting for her. She’s my wife. And I love her…

Or at least, I think I still do.

Fuck. I can’t believe I just wrote that. I don’t mean it like that. I DO love her.

But I just don’t know what else I can do. Things aren’t the same anymore, and I have no fucking clue how to make it right again. I’d even be willing to go to therapy, if she’d let us. But she just keeps brushing me off and shutting me out no matter what I do.

I know she’s not happy with me anymore. No matter how many excuses she keeps throwing at me, I know that’s total bullshit. I didn’t wanna see it before… But she hasn’t been happy for a long time.

And honestly? Neither have I.

I mean, I’ve been happy with my friends, sure. Or with Lola…

But not with my wife.

But what does that mean for us? What are we supposed to do now? How do we fix this? How can we go back to the way things used to be?

Or is it just too late for us now?

That’s a question that terrifies me too.

7.49: Tired

Jesus, I totally could have Ubered over there by now. Jasper sighed in annoyance and checked his phone yet again. I probably still could…

It had been over half an hour since Phoenix promised he was “on his way” to get him, but his house was only fifteen minutes away. What the hell could be taking so long?

Jasper was so eager to get to his brother’s house and spend more time with Tam… Especially after what had happened the night before. His lips curled into a smile at the memory. He knew it would take time for things to truly go back to normal between them. But it was such a relief to know that after all the months spent apart, they were finally headed in the right direction.

Jasper nearly jumped at the sound of the opening hotel room door. He’d forgotten that Phoenix had the other key.

“Took you long enough.” Jasper’s annoyance was half genuine, half teasing as he spoke.

His brother’s smile seemed oddly forced. “Sorry… Lost track of time, I guess.” Phoenix shrugged and took a seat on the edge of the bed.

Jasper eyed him uncertainly for a moment. “And apparently forgot you had a phone too.” He replied, shaking his head. “You could’ve told me you were almost here… Or had me meet you in the lobby or something.”

“Yeah… sorry.” His brother apologized once more. “I was kinda distracted.” He admitted.

Jasper said nothing. Something was definitely up. Phoenix was acting so… weird. Almost like he was hiding something.

“Alright… What’s going on?” Jasper asked with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Why are you being so…?” He gestured vaguely in Phoenix’s direction as he spoke, unable to find the right word. He shook his head before continuing. “Look, you remember what I keep telling you, right? That you can always talk to me, no matter what… And I know you, Phoenix. I can tell something’s up.”

Phoenix hesitated before replying. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind this morning.” He admitted at last. “You know me and Gigi have been having a lot of, uh… ups and downs, right?”

Jasper nodded. Mostly downs, from the sound of it, he thought sadly. But he chose not to voice the thought aloud.

“Well, last night things were kinda weird… So I got some coffee with a friend before I came to get you, and we talked about it. Gave me lots to think about.” He shrugged uncomfortably.

Jasper did not doubt his brother’s story, but it still felt like there was more to it. Something he wasn’t telling him. But what? Jasper thought back to his conversation with Tam the night before, and a suspicion slowly entered his mind.

“This ‘friend’ you got coffee with… It wasn’t Lola, was it?” He asked softly.

“So what if it was?” Phoenix’s tone had a bit of a harsh edge as he replied. “Why is that such a big deal?”

“It’s not. I was just wondering.” He lied. He hadn’t expected his brother to react so strongly. The last thing he wanted was to fight with him.

Phoenix sighed. “Nice try. But I know you too, Jasper. What gives? Why does it matter if I saw Lola this morning? We hang out all the time…”

Jasper considered his next words carefully. “I know you do. And it sounds like she’s been a really great friend to you and stuff, but… Is it really the best idea to hang out with her so much? Especially to talk about Gigi…?”

His brother rolled his eyes at his words. “Come on, Jasper. You sound just like Tam…” Phoenix’s eyes seemed to widen slightly. “Wait… that’s it, isn’t it? You guys have totally been talking about me, haven’t you?”

“Maybe a little.” Jasper confessed. “We just wanna make sure everything’s… okay with you and Gigi…” He muttered awkwardly. That wasn’t what he’d really wanted to say, but they were the words that had chosen to come out.

“Well… Things aren’t okay. You know that.” Phoenix replied seriously. He didn’t seem angry any more, at least. “And every time I start to think things are okay, I find out they aren’t…” He paused for a moment. “But what does that have to do with Lola?”

Jasper stared down at the carpet for a moment. Ugh… I didn’t wanna have to talk about this… But maybe it’ll help him understand. He took a deep breath before finally answering.

“I never told you all the details about what happened that night at the party, did I?” Jasper asked. “The night Tam broke up with me.”

Phoenix shook his head.

“Well, you know me and Tam got into a huge fight that night, right? And it kinda felt like the last straw or something. There’d been so much shit just piling up for months… and that was basically what pushed me over the edge.” He explained.

“I get it.” His brother replied softly. “But I don’t –”

“As soon as I got to the party, I found a spot in the corner and just started throwing back drinks.” Jasper continued. “Pretty smart, right? Mama and Papa would have been so proud…” He muttered sarcastically.

Erik and Rubi had taught him all about the dangers of addiction. And he’d tried so hard to be responsible over the years when it came to alcohol… But he still slipped sometimes. And that night was no exception.

“Anyway, I was sad and mad and drunk as hell when this hot guy walks over and sits next to me. I never even got his name… But he could tell I was upset. And he asked me what was wrong.” Jasper smiled slightly in spite of himself. “He was the only person at that party who actually gave a damn about how I was feeling. And he didn’t even know me. And it felt so damn good to feel like somebody actually cared.”

“And… that was the guy who you…?” Phoenix asked softly.

Jasper nodded. “I gave him my huge sob story about Tam and the fight and how hard things had been. I basically spilled my soul to the guy. And he listened.” He shrugged his shoulders for a moment. “That was all he had to do. And a few minutes later, when he made the first move, I didn’t back away. I let it happen. And honestly? It felt good.” Even after all this time, it pained Jasper to admit it out loud.

“I felt more connected to that stranger at that party than I had to Tam in months.” He continued. “But I knew I had to stop. I knew it was wrong. So I didn’t let it go any further… But in the moment, part of me almost wanted to.” He confessed sadly.

His brother nodded slowly. “I know you still feel awful about what happened… But what’s important is that you’ve learned from it. And Tam’s finally forgiven you, hasn’t he?”

“He has… But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.” Jasper replied. “All of that happened with some random guy I ran into at a party… But imagine how much worse it could’ve been if he wasn’t a random guy. What if he was a friend? Like… maybe an attractive, single friend?” He eyed Phoenix significantly as he spoke. “One I’d already been confiding in for months…?”

He could tell by the look on Phoenix’s face that he’d finally understood what he was getting at… And that he wasn’t too happy about it either.

“You can’t be serious, Jasper. This is totally different!”

“Is it?”

“Yes! How can you even say that? I’d never do something like that.” He insisted almost desperately. It was rare to see Phoenix so defensive and upset.

Jasper bit his lip. “Yeah, well, I never thought I would either…” He replied softly.

“What, so am I not allowed to have friends anymore or something? Is that what you’re saying?” Phoenix shook his head in frustration.

“Of course not! I just think… you should be careful or something. That’s all.” He explained.

His brother let out a heavy sigh before replying. “Look, things are pretty bad with Gigi, okay? You know that. And when you and Tam are back on the other side of the ocean, I need someone else I can talk to… And Lola’s really, really good at listening.”

Jasper’s voice was pained. “I know.”

“And Gigi’s always off hanging out with her friends too.” Phoenix continued. “I’m not doing anything she isn’t doing. So I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was almost hard to tell whether he was trying to convince Jasper, or himself.

“I know she does it too.” Jasper replied gently. “And I’m not trying to say you guys can’t have friends, okay? I just… I think you guys should be talking to each other about this crap, y’know?”

“I’ve tried, Jasper. So many times.” Phoenix sounded so defeated. “And honestly? As awful as it sounds, I’m just… tired of trying. Like, so fucking tired. I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.”

Jasper’s heart sank. Tam had been so certain that they could help Phoenix and Gigi work toward fixing their marriage… But the more Jasper heard, the more he started to fear that it was simply too late.

“Phoenix… Listen to yourself.” Jasper’s whisper finally broke the silence.

“I know.”

“This is awful. You guys can’t keep going on like this…”

“Trust me, I know.” He repeated. “I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

For a moment, it almost looked like Phoenix wanted to say something else.

But he didn’t.

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7.48: Never Too Late

Tam awoke to the smell of coffee and the sizzling of eggs on the stove. With a soft, tired groan he swung his legs over the side of the couch and let out a heavy yawn.

He’d rolled well on his Stealth check when he returned to Phoenix and Gigi’s house the night before — They were both asleep by the time he made it back, and as far as he could tell, he hadn’t woken either of them.

Gigi’s roll this morning didn’t seem to go quite as well… But then, she had to be at at least a -2 penalty with her houseguest sleeping in the middle of the living room.

“Need any help?” He offered as he crossed behind the couch to join her in the kitchen.

Gigi shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m fine… It’s almost done anyway.” As though on cue, she leaned forward quickly to turn off the stove. “Sorry if I woke you, by the way. Our bed’s free now if you wanna sleep a little more.” She offered.

Empty bed? Tam rolled a Perception check. Phoenix was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t hear the shower running either… “Where’s Phee?”

She shrugged, but did not seem concerned. “He was gone when I got up. I think he must’ve gone to the hotel to pick up Jasper… But I’m surprised he doesn’t have to pick you up too.” Gigi’s lips curled into a smile as she spoke. “We were sure you weren’t gonna bother coming back last night…”

It felt almost pointless to even attempt a Bluff roll, at this point. But Tam decided to give it a shot. “Guess I lost track of time.” He explained. “Me and Jas got pretty carried away once we got to talking… It was great.”

Better than great, really… It was amazing. And not just the epic makeup sex either — the parts where they actually talked were incredible too. Having Jasper back in his life made it feel like a terrible curse had finally been lifted. There was still so much work to do… But things finally felt like they were gonna be okay again.

“Uh-huh… ‘talking’… sure.” Gigi teased as she took a seat at the table. “Come on, Tam. Staying out so late without telling us, sneaking back home after we were asleep… Plus, you’re practically glowing this morning.” She shook her head, but smiled.

Tam chuckled softly. He’d totally botched that one. “Okay, maybe we did a little more than just talk…” He admitted.

“Ha! I knew it!”

“Lucky guess!” Tam let out another laugh. It was his turn to tease her. “But for the record, you stayed out late with your friend the other night and then snuck back home after me and Phee were asleep too…” He said with a smirk. “Are you telling me that’s supposed to mean something too?”

“No!” Gigi snapped suddenly. “That was different!”

Tam felt his stomach twist with unease. Why had she suddenly gotten so defensive? “I know. I was kidding…” His brow furrowed in concern. Jas told me we should try talking to Gigi… maybe this is my chance. “Gigi, is everything okay?” He asked softly.

“Yeah, it’s fine.” She replied, her tone suddenly softer than before. “Sorry… Haven’t had enough coffee yet, I guess.” As though on cue, she lifted the porcelain mug to her lips.

“Nice try.” He shook his head almost sadly. His Perception was way too high to fall for something like that. “Come on, Gigi… We’re friends, right?”

“Of course!”

“Alright, then as your friend, I’m telling you that I’m worried about you.” He confessed softly. It actually felt good to finally get off his chest.

“Worried?” She sounded almost nervous as she replied.

Tam nodded. “Something just seems ‘off’, I guess. It has for a while.” He chose his words very carefully — he wanted to be honest, but also didn’t want to let slip anything that Phoenix had said to him. So he stuck to other truths instead. “I could feel it when you visited back at Christmas… And every time we’ve talked since then too.” He explained seriously.

“Tam, I –”

“And I get it.” He continued. “I really do. I’ve played this level before with Jas… And it’s a doozy.”

He hoped she would understand what he was getting at. He watched as she furrowed her brow in thought for a few moments before finally opening her mouth to speak.

“You mean when Jasper went back to school.” Gigi replied softly. “When he started uni… and things started going downhill.”

Tam nodded slowly. “It changes everything… And that’s without adding marriage and moving overseas on top of it. You were brave.” His lips curled into a small smile. “You’re trying this thing on Super Expert mode.”

“I don’t know about brave.” Gigi let out a laugh. “Stupid, maybe…”

Tam said nothing. He could see through her laughter easily — she was finally starting to open up. He eyed her for a few moments, nervous but expectant.

He could almost see her fumbling with her dice as she fought to pass her Will save… But apparently she didn’t.

“It’s awful, Tam.” Gigi’s whisper finally broke the silence. “I’m just so tired.”

“Of what?”

“Everything. All of this… Pretending it’s all okay…” Gigi’s voice broke suddenly. “But it’s too late now.” Her voice was thick as a few tears found their way down her cheeks. “We can’t go back. And that scares the hell out of me.”

Tam’s heart broke at the sight of his friend so upset. It was clear she’d been bottling this up for a long time… and somehow he’d convinced her to let it all out. “Too late for what?” He asked gently.

“We can’t fix this. I fucked up so bad, Tam.” Gigi continued crying as she spoke. “I took everything out on him. I pushed him away, and then I…” She paused, shaking her head. “It’s just too late.”

“It’s never too late.” Tam assured her. “Just look at me and Jas. I really thought it was gonna be over forever. And now… Well, we’ve still gotta start back at level one. It’s gonna take a long time before we catch up to where we were before. But it’s not over yet. We’re still in it together.”

“Even after what he did?” Gigi asked sadly. “After what happened with that other guy… You’re still willing to forgive him?”

It was hard to ignore the slight pang of pain he felt at the reminder of Jasper’s betrayal. But his Fortitude save was high enough to brush it off. “I am.” Tam replied at last. “It hurt like hell. But he was drunk off his ass… And they didn’t go very far or anything. It could’ve been so much worse.”

“What if it was worse though? What if it wasn’t some random guy at a party? What if it was… I don’t know.” Gigi paused, biting her lip for a moment. “A friend he’d been seeing behind your back or something? And… what if they did more than just kiss?” Her voice was so small. “Could you forgive him then?”

Tam’s eyes widened slightly as the realization finally hit him. She’s worried about Phee and Lola… She thinks she lost him already.

“Hey, Phee loves you, okay? He’d never do something like that.”

Gigi shook her head but said nothing, a tiny sob passing her lips.

“You’ve just gotta talk to him, Gigi. Tell him how you feel.” Tam paused for a moment.

Gigi remained silent as her tears continued to fall.

“Look, I know how scary that is… It’s like a level ten Fear spell or something.” He sighed softly as he continued. He understood all too well what a difficult spell that could be to overcome. “I know Phee though. And trust me, it’s not too late yet, okay? But if you wait too much longer… it might be.”

She was silent for several more moments as her tears finally began to subside. With a slow, deep breath, she raised her eyes to meet his once more. “I really appreciate how sweet you’re being about this.” Gigi assured him. “But don’t worry about me, okay? And… Promise you won’t tell Phoenix what I said?”

Tam sighed. Phoenix was his best friend in the world, but he also knew that Gigi had opened up to him in confidence. “I won’t.” He promised softly.

And it was a promise he intended to keep… But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t tell Phoenix anything either. There was no way he could stay completely silent about this.

“Thanks, Tam.” At last, a small smile had found its way onto Gigi’s lips. “And thanks for listening too.”

“Any time.” He did his best to return her smile. “But can you promise me something too?” When she said nothing, he continued. “Promise me you’ll talk to Phee about all this. Promise you aren’t just gonna keep bottling all this up, okay?”

The sound of the opening front door reached their ears before she even had a chance to reply. Phoenix had finally returned home, with Jasper in tow, just as Gigi had predicted.

He’d never know whether Gigi would agree to his promise, it seemed.

But then, Tam had a feeling he didn’t have to roll anything to predict what her answer would have been.

7.47 Take It Slow

Note: This chapter is NSFW for sexual content and screenshots

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“Wow… this is really nice.” Tam said softly as he took a seat on the edge of the large fluffy bed. “And this bed is awesome!”

Jasper nodded in agreement, trying to ignore how painfully awkward it felt to be alone in the same room as his ex. “Yeah, it really is… Which makes me feel even more shitty about Phoenix having to pay for it.” His face fell as he spoke. “I kept telling him I could just stay in a cheap motel or something, but…”

“It’s Phee.” Tam finished the thought for him. “He wouldn’t let his own brother stay somewhere shitty.”

“Yeah… I guess Phoenix has always been Lawful Good.” Jasper’s lips curled into a smile as he spoke. “Helping other people, doing the right thing…”

“Hmm… maybe more like Neutral Good.” For one brief moment, Tam’s brow seemed to furrow in concern. “But yeah, he’d never leave you hanging, Jas.”

“I still feel awful though. I’d pay for it myself if I could.”

“I know. And Phee knows too.” Tam assured him. “I just still can’t believe you spent all your money and came all the way here…” He shook his head. “Did somebody hit you with a Madness spell or something?”

Jasper laughed softly. He’d missed the unique way Tam looked at the world. But then, he’d missed everything about him. “Maybe a Love spell?” He replied at last, smiling gently. “Basically the same thing…”

“Well, whatever it was, I’m glad you came, Jas. I think we needed this… And I think we needed Phee too. I don’t know if we could’ve rolled high enough on our Diplomacy without him.”

Jasper’s smiled widened. “You’re right. We really needed him to get past this first part… What about the rest though?” He asked. “Think the Tutorial level’s finally over? Can we do the rest on our own?”

“I hope so. I know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.” Tam replied seriously. “And we made so many stupid mistakes the first time around… We can’t make them again, Jas. We can’t waste all that XP.”

“First time around…” Jasper repeated slowly. “Does… Does that mean there’s gonna be a second one? You wanna try again?” It was so hard to hold back the hope and desperation that he felt building in his chest.

Tam nodded. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted, at first… It took a while for me to figure it all out. But I miss you, Jas.” His smile sent a rush of warmth through Jasper”s heart. “And I want us to give it another chance… I’m not ready for the ‘Game Over’ screen yet.”

Jasper wasn’t sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry from the immense wave of relief that washed over him. He’d been waiting to hear those words for months.

He reached forward and pulled Tam into a tight embrace. He didn’t want to let go. “I’m sorry for everything.” He whispered, still holding Tam’s hard, warm body against his.

“Me too.” Tam replied softly. “I love you.”

With reluctance, Jasper finally released him from his embrace so he could look him in the eye. “I love you too. And I know it’s not gonna be easy, but I’m gonna get things right this time, okay? I promise.”

“That makes two of us… We just can’t let ourselves fall for the same traps again. We’ve gotta outsmart the AI this time. And I think we can do it.” Tam replied confidently. “We might still need a little help getting started though… Phee already gave me the names of some couples’ counselors back home. Maybe we should give them a call when we get back?”

Jasper nodded. “Definitely. And we’ll take it slow… Like maybe try a couple dates and go from there?” He suggested. “And I don’t mind still staying with my parents for now.” As much as he wanted to jump right back in, he knew they needed to ease back into things. They couldn’t risk rushing it.

Tam smiled. “Yeah, taking it slow sounds good.” He agreed. “Can’t go charging into the main dungeon without taking some time to level up first, right?” Tam reached out for him then, wrapping an arm around Jasper’s shoulders as he spoke. “This is enough for now.” He continued softly, placing a gentle kiss against Jasper’s forehead. “I missed this.”

“Me too…” Jasper nuzzled his cheek against Tam’s as a soft sigh passed his lips.

Having Tam so close to him was driving him wild with desire. Jasper’s heart and body had ached for Tam’s for months. And now, having him so close again…

“And you know what else I missed?” His voice was barely above a whisper as he spoke.

Tam seemed to have read his mind.

Because the next thing Jasper knew, Tam’s lips were on his and their clothes were falling to the floor.

All thoughts of ‘taking things slow’ were instantly lost… The only thing that mattered anymore was each other.

It was so intense… electric, almost. Frantic. And hot. Maybe the hottest sex they’d ever had.

And though so many sweet words of love seemed to linger on the tip of his tongue, every time Jasper opened his mouth, all that would escape were moans of pleasure and cries for more.

And Tam seemed more than happy to oblige.

Jasper felt like he was floating as he and his boyfriend lay in the silence afterwards, sweaty and sticky and spent. It was a feeling he’d missed even more than the sex, he realized. That indescribable feeling of connection that came from laying together the afterglow of their passion. It was like nothing else in the world.

And no matter what happened, Jasper promised himself in that moment that he would never let himself lose that feeling again. Tam was the love of his life. He’d known it since before he even understood what love was.

How had they lost their way? How had they let things fall so hopelessly apart? It was a mistake he knew neither of them would ever make again. They couldn’t.

Jasper was finally called back to the present by the feeling of Tam’s fingers running through his hair. He smiled at the touch, turning his head down to press his lips against Tam’s chest for a moment.

“Thank you.” At last, Jasper broke the silence. “I love you so much… And I really needed that.” He confessed.

“Me too. I missed you… All of you.” Tam’s lips curled into a playful smile as he ran his fingertips teasingly up Jasper’s thigh.

Jasper chuckled softly. He wouldn’t say no to another round, but… not yet. He still needed time to recover from the first one. “Woah, there.” He teased. “I thought we agreed to take it slow…”

The sound of Tam’s beautiful laugh filled the air. “I think we’re a little too late for that.” He brushed his lips against Jasper’s forehead as he spoke.

With a small laugh, Jasper sat up and pushed himself toward the edge of the bed. As much as he would have loved to continue holding Tam in his arms, nature called.

When he emerged from the bathroom a minute or two later, he found that Tam had put his boxers back on. Despite his twinge of disappointment, Jasper couldn’t help but smile at the sight. Those had always been his favorite pair.

“Okay, so… I’m thinking we probably shouldn’t tell Phee about this.” Tam said as Jasper rejoined him on the edge of the bed. “You know how much he loves his ‘I’ statements, but something tells me ‘I need you inside me’ or ‘I want it harder’ probably aren’t gonna cut it…”

Jasper nearly doubled over in laughter at his words, and beside him, Tam did the same.

“Um, yeah… probably not.” He finally gasped, still fighting back a few giggles. “We totally owe him for this though.” At last, his laughter had died away and he could speak normally again. “I don’t think we could’ve made it this far without him.”

“Definitely not.” Tam agreed. “And you’re right — we totally owe him… I’d actually kinda wanted to talk to you about that. Returning the favor, I mean.” He paused for a moment, biting his lip uncertainly. “I don’t know how good your Perception checks have been around Phee and Gigi lately, but…”

I know!” Jasper cried out a bit louder than he’d intended. He was just so excited and relieved to hear that Tam shared his worries. “I’ve been worrying ever since Christmas.” He admitted.

“Me too.”

Despite his worry, Jasper almost smiled for a moment. It was such a relief to finally have someone he could talk to about his concerns for his brother. “I just never really know what to say. But I hate seeing them like this… It gives me the worst déjà vu.” He knew Tam would understand what he meant.

“I know. They’re so unhappy…” Tam’s voice was pained. “I guess Gigi’s been okay since I got here, but something still feels… off.” He explained. “Like she’s hiding under an illusion spell or something.”

“I’ve felt it too.” Jasper nodded in agreement. “But honestly? Something feels kinda off with Phoenix too…”

“I think it’s Lola. I was talking to Phee about her the night you showed up, and…” Tam paused as a heavy sigh passed his lips. “I really think we’ve gotta talk to him again before we head back home.”

“What about Gigi?” Jasper suggested. “Maybe we should try talking to her too… I know Phoenix keeps complaining that she won’t talk to him, but… Maybe we can get her to talk to one of us?”

Tam was thoughtful for a moment. “It might be worth a try… I just don’t wanna piss Phee off or anything. We’ve gotta tread lightly… ace our Stealth checks.”

“Yeah, we’ve gotta be careful about it.” Jasper agreed softly.

They’d both asked for Phoenix’s help. But he hadn’t asked for theirs. Jasper didn’t want to overstep his bounds, and he knew Tam didn’t either… But now that they were here with him and could actually do something, they couldn’t just stand back and watch Phoenix’s relationship suffer like this. Especially after everything he’d done to help theirs.

“So… what do you say?” Tam broke the brief silence that had fallen between them. “Think we can pick up this side quest and help Phee before we head back home?”

He nodded. “I think we can do it… As long as we’re in it together.” Jasper smiled softly at him.

“Together? I like the sound of that…”

His smile widened. “Me too.”

7.46: Therapist

Note: One NSFW screenshot ahead

—————————————————

Okay, as much as I keep joking about that ‘hourly rate’ thing, part of me can’t help but wonder how much I could’ve made off of Tam so far this week… And now Jasper too.

Nah, I’m just kidding. I really don’t mind… Not only is this all good practice for when I’m a real therapist someday, but I’m helping my brother and my best friend. And I’d do that no matter what.

It’s so much easier to help now that they’re both here. At first, I thought Jasper was totally out of his mind flying all the way here (okay, maybe part of me still thinks that…) but honestly? This might have been the best thing for them.

The past few days have been… well, maybe a little chaotic, for all of us. But definitely cathartic too.

It was a little awkward at first. The first conversation was a pretty rough one… Yelling and tears from both of them. I hated seeing them like that. But as hard as it was to watch, it’s good they got it all out in the open like that.

Because once they did, the next conversation went so much better. And I did the best I could to mediate things and move things along… It was almost fun, in a weird way. I finally got to put some of the stuff I’ve been learning into practice (and figuring out what actually works and what’s total BS. The jury’s still out on ‘I’ statements… But I like them?)

We’ve been breaking up our ‘sessions’ with doing touristy crap and hanging out with my friends too. And I think that’s almost as therapeutic, in a way. It was really nice seeing Tam and Jasper laughing and having fun together again… I missed that. And I know they did too.

I’m really starting to think they can do this. It’ll still take a lot of time and work, but… they’re on the right path now. They really needed that break to figure things out. And now they just need a little help having the right kind of conversations to put all the pieces back together.

I wonder how Gigi would feel about that. Not the break part… We can’t. We’re married. But… what about the help putting things back together again? Obviously what I’ve tried isn’t working… Maybe it’s finally time to get some outside help?

I just think the hardest part will be getting her to admit things are broken enough that they need fixing.

I tried bringing it up earlier tonight, after dinner. Tam and Jasper went back to the hotel for a while so they could talk by themselves, so it was my perfect opportunity. Gigi’s been so busy lately that she hasn’t been around much this week. And when she HAS been around, Tam or Jasper have always been there.

For the first time, it was just the two of us.

And I’d really had the whole therapy thing on my mind, so I kinda tried to bring up how… not-so-great our marriage has been the past few months. I didn’t wanna be accusatory or anything, so I tried to just focus on how I’ve been feeling and stuff… Trying out those ‘I’ statements, I guess.

But even then, she reacted just like I was afraid she would. Less angry than I thought. A lot quieter. But still so freaking adamant that there’s nothing wrong. She started blaming everything on stress from work. Then she just kept apologizing and telling me how much she loves me.

And she didn’t even give me a chance to argue. The next thing I knew, she was all over me, and I… Well, how could I say no? Like I said, it’s the first time we’ve been alone all week.

Luckily we managed to make it to the bedroom before things went too far (Tam still has to sleep on that couch, after all…). And it was really, REALLY good.

Not as kinky as Gigi usually wants it, but still probably the best sex we’ve had in a while.

I’ve gotta be honest though. In the moment, it was amazing. But afterwards it just felt… Kinda empty, I guess. I’m not really sure how else to describe it.

We tried cuddling for a couple minutes, but it didn’t last very long. It was weird. Then Gigi came out here and started chatting with some of her friends on her laptop. So I decided to write some of this stuff down before Tam gets back from the hotel.

And getting all this stuff out of my system definitely helps. But I feel like I really need somebody to talk to about how I’ve been feeling lately. A real person. Not a journal (no offense).

Normally Tam would be my go-to. But now that Jasper’s here, the two of them are busy dealing with enough on their own right now. I don’t wanna bother them with my problems.

Niko and Addy always try to help when there’s shit going on, but they never really seem to ‘get’ it.

There’s one person who always gets it though. And who always listens too, no matter what.

I texted her a little bit ago, and we’re gonna meet up for coffee tomorrow morning so we can talk. Gigi and Tam both love sleeping in… But not me. Guess I’ve always been a morning person. And I know Lola is too. She gets up early to feed Duchess every morning anyway.

So tomorrow should be good, at least. Or off to a good start, anyway? But who knows where it’ll go from there. This week has been one of the strangest weeks I can remember… Between Tam being here, me trying to be his therapist, how weird Gigi’s been, and then Jasper showing up out of the blue…

Well, hopefully things are finally gonna calm down. Tam and Jasper go back to Germany in just three days. It’d be nice to have a day or two of a normal visit with them before they leave.

But I guess that all depends on how their talk went today…

Hopefully they remembered the ‘I’ statements.

7.45: Realistic

“Um… Hi.” Jasper muttered uncertainly as he lingered in the doorway.

“Jasper what the hell are you doing here?” Phoenix shook his head in disbelief as he stepped backward, allowing his brother to enter at last. Jasper left his duffel bag behind him on the front porch.

“I know, I know. It’s crazy but… I can explain? Kinda?” A small nervous laugh passed his lips as he turned his eyes toward his ex. “Hey, Tam… Wow, uh, you look really good, by the way.” He added awkwardly.

At last, Tam spoke. “You too.” He replied softly.

Phoenix realized with a jolt that this was the first time Tam and Jasper had seen each other in person in months. Oh God this is awkward.

“I’m sorry about this, I just…” Jasper shrugged, turning back toward his brother once more. “Can we sit down?”

Phoenix nodded and led him over toward the couch. Part of him was thrilled to see Jasper again, but he still couldn’t believe that his brother had flown across the freaking Atlantic ocean and arrived at his doorstep completely unannounced. Thank God Gigi’s not here… She’d flip!

“Jas… What’s going on?” Tam broke the uncomfortable silence. “Why are you here?”

Jasper took a slow, deep breath before replying. “This is gonna sound so dumb. And I guess it IS pretty dumb, actually…” He admitted. “But ever since you called me the other day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was like I was possessed or something. I was up all night thinking about it.”

“About what?”

“You. Us. This stupid ‘break’…” He paused for a moment. “I miss you, Tam. I want you back. And I knew I had to come tell you. In person.” He explained. “So I emailed my professors and said I had a family emergency… Then I basically drained my savings account and bought a ticket for the first flight I could find. I had to see you.”

“Wow.” Phoenix muttered. He genuinely couldn’t believe that his rational, level-headed brother had done something so foolish and rash. It was totally ridiculous. But oddly sweet, too.

Tam just shook his head. “Jas, I’m going back home in less than a week. You couldn’t just wait til then?”

“I know… I told you it was stupid.” Jasper’s cheeks grew slightly pink as he spoke. “I’m pretty sure I spent half the flight just asking myself ‘What are you doing?’ over and over again… But I just couldn’t wait. I couldn’t.” He reached out then, taking one of Tam’s hands in his. “I love you, Tam. And I’m so sorry for everything.”

Phoenix suddenly wished he knew how to make himself disappear. Yup, totally awkward…

“Jas… I love you too.” Tam replied at last. “And I want us to find a way to fix this.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment before finally releasing Jasper’s hand. “But…”

Jasper’s face fell instantly. “Why does there have to be a ‘but’?” He groaned softly in frustration as he spoke. “I love you and I feel like shit for everything that happened… And I finally wanna make it right again. That’s why I came all the way here for you, Tam.”

“I know.” Tam’s voice was pained. “And it’s probably one of the most romantic things you’ve ever done for me.” He admitted. “You totally got a nat 20 on this one.” He assured him gently. “I just wanna make sure you don’t think things are like, magically better now or something… This isn’t some low-level Boss we can just kill in one hit. One big romantic gesture isn’t enough to undo everything.”

“I know that. I never said it was.” There was a hint of a sharp edge to Jasper’s voice as he spoke. “Why do you always have to put words in my mouth?”

“I’m not!” Tam insisted. “I’m just… being realistic.”

Jasper raised an eyebrow at him. “You? Realistic?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Pfft. Come on, Tam…”

“What? Is that really so hard to believe?” Tam replied defensively. “I know you think you’re the mature one since you went off to uni… But you’re not the only one who grew up, Jas!”

Oh God, what’s happening? “Uh, remember, ‘I’ statements…” Phoenix muttered weakly.

His brother and best friend looked over at him as though noticing him for the first time.

Tam’s expression softened immediately. “Sorry, Phee.” He said seriously.

“Yeah, me too.” Jasper agreed. “And I’m sorry to you too, Tam.” He turned his gaze back toward his ex as he spoke. “I didn’t come all the way here to fight with you. That’s the last thing I want right now. I promise.”

“Me too.” Tam let out a soft sigh. “I’m sorry.”

Phoenix took a deep breath and rose from his seat. They both needed time to cool off… and he needed time to try and process what the hell was even going on right now.

“Look, Jasper’s had a really long day. I’m sure he’s super jetlagged and could use some rest. And Tam, I know I got you all worked up with that roleplay thing earlier…”

“Roleplay?” Jasper interjected.

Tam shook his head. “Not as fun as it sounds, trust me.” He explained quickly.

“So anyway, what I’m saying is, why don’t we get Jasper set up in a hotel for tonight and we can try talking more about this tomorrow? Like, after we’ve all had some time to rest and cool off?” Phoenix suggested, smiling hopefully.

To his relief, neither of them put up a fight. In fact, they were more than willing to go along with his plan. It took a couple of phone calls, but Phoenix managed to find his brother a hotel room less than fifteen minutes away.

Unfortunately, Jasper hadn’t been kidding about draining his savings account to fly there, so Phoenix got stuck with the bill. And even in the off-season, it definitely wasn’t cheap. Oh God, Gigi’s gonna kill me…

But, to his surprise, she didn’t.

Tam was already asleep by the time Gigi got home from her friend’s house. And when she tiptoed silently into the bedroom, Phoenix had a feeling she wasn’t expecting to find him still awake.

“You didn’t have to wait up for me.” She said softly as she took a seat beside him on the bed.

Gigi was so beautiful in the moonlight. Practically glowing. She looked so tired. Almost sad, even. But the look in her eyes was so loving too. Phoenix felt a rush of warmth at the sight. Maybe he was right. Maybe things really were getting better.

And how sweet and understanding she was when he explained the situation with Jasper only served to strengthen that feeling.

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” He asked her yet again. “I know it’s a lot of money…”

His wife shook her head. “He’s your brother, Phoenix. It’s fine.”

He let out a soft sigh of relief at her words. “Thank you.” Phoenix leaned forward to pull her in for a kiss. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Gigi replied as they finally broke apart. “You know that, right?” She added softly.

His brow furrowed slightly at her words. What was she talking about? “Of course I do… What’s gotten into you tonight?” He teased.

Her laugh sounded so tired. “Too much wine, maybe.” She said with a shrug. “But I’m fine. Promise.”

Phoenix nodded in understanding. He’d been able to taste the wine on her lips when they kissed. “Well, I’m glad you and Lucy had fun tonight.”

“Yeah…” She paused for a moment. “And I’m glad you and Tam did too. Until Jasper showed up, I guess.” Her lips curled into a soft smile, but it vanished almost as quickly as it had come. “I’m gonna go take a shower, okay?” Gigi leaned forward to quickly brush her lips against his. “Goodnight.”

“Night.” He muttered sleepily against her lips.

Jeez, what a freaking day. Phoenix thought to himself as he finally laid his head against the pillow. But at least no one can say I’m having a boring Spring Break…