The clouds were finally parting.
Not literally; the skies above Las Vegas were clear and bright. A pleasant sight to some; to others, a harsh reminder of the reality that waited outside the city’s many stately pleasure-domes.
Outside one of those pleasure-domes, the Flamingo Hotel, Nate Colton leaned against his trusty Prius as he waited in the loading area. He smiled as he felt the sun’s warmth on his face.
It felt good to join the world again.
As much as it hurt to fall in the first round of the Almasy, Nate had taken full advantage of the lessened spotlight by reconnecting with the people he’d alienated over the summer, personally and professionally.
Nate moved his training to TCS and–after a few rounds of custodial duty–felt the vibe change. It used to feel cold, a pressure system that would turn coal into a priceless gemstone or crush it to dust, and didn’t care which. Now it was more like the Academy; a place where people worked together in pursuit of a shared dream. Once he bought in, he experienced a sense of camaraderie that felt refreshing and new.
No, not new. It had always been there.
He just hadn’t been ready to accept it.
He’d also caught up on his backlog of missed calls, and delighted in being part of people’s lives again. He followed Melissa Talamantez’s run through the Terminus Complex, cheering her on from across the ocean. He made plans to visit the Battaglia kids over the holidays. He even worked his way off Deb Warenstein’s Uggo List, thanks to several rounds of lattes and cupcakes.
There had been an ulterior motive; Nate was hoping to enlist her and Ami’s in his effort to stop the public harassment of a particular librarian. It turned out to be unnecessary, as one day the photos just…stopped.
Nate wasn’t complaining, though. The less he had to think about Savannah Scandal, the better. He could spend that time on the people who mattered.
Even across the long miles, he stayed close with his family. He talked with Jennifer every morning, helping her navigate the pitfalls of an early wrestling career. He made sure to “heart” all the Halloween pictures his mother posted on Facebook, and caught up with his father about Jake’s weekend travel plans.
But today? Today was for the lads.
Benjamin and Dennis were back in town, and Nate had made an extra effort to be part of their frequent trips to Las Vegas. Joining their workouts, driving them to the airport…hell, he even carried their bags at the last SHOOT PPV. Anything to be the brother, and cousin, that they deserved.
He saw the lads in question exit the Flamingo lobby, each with a large gym bag slung over their shoulder. Benjamin also had another package in his arms; Nate knew what was inside without being told.
I remember when I got mine. One of the best days of my life.
“Hey, dummy!” Nate yelled as they approached, drawing the attention of both men…as well as six or seven other people, who no doubt only looked to see who the dummy was.
A shit-eating grin spread across Benjamin’s face, and he elbowed Dennis in the ribs. “He said your name wrong, cousin,” Benny said. “I wouldn’t stand for that if I were you.”
Nate laughed, and drew them in for a round of big hugs. “How was the flight?”
“Awful,” Benny said. “Delay out of Naptown, then it took forever to actually get off the plane. By the time we got here, I was too tired to carouse.”
“Aww,” Nate said with mock sympathy. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“I accept your apology,” Benny said, completely ignoring his brother’s sarcasm…but he couldn’t ignore Nate’s car. “You serious? We fly all this way just to ride in the Nate-and-no-girls-mobile?”
“Shut your butt,” Nate groused as he opened the hatchback, allowing the others to stash their bags.
“Shut your butt, mangy mutt,” Benny shot back. He dropped his bag into the car, then flopped the other package on top of it.
“Shut your butt, Ron Tugnutt.”
Benny laughed, giving Nate the victory. Maybe it wasn’t fair to namedrop every 13-year-old boy’s favorite hockey player, but Shut Your Butt was a game they played to win.
They piled into the car; Nate behind the wheel, Denny in shotgun, and Benny in the back. “Where to?” Nate asked as he started the car.
“They need us for photos at SHOOT HQ,” Benny said. “But that’s not ‘til later. I could go for lunch; we missed the hotel breakfast ‘cause somebody had to sleep in.”
“Yeah, that was you,” Denny said. “Anyway, that’s not our first stop. We need to visit Dan.”
Nate nodded solemnly as he pulled out into traffic. Dan “The Lights” Stein was a SHOOT Project legend who befriended Benjamin and Dennis over the summer. He also saved them from several sneak attacks by the Unholy Thunder Army, and was the driving force behind their victory in a trios match at Eternal, back in August.
A month later, Stein was brutally attacked after a match by a masked assailant. A severe concussion, a chest injury…and according to some reports, his heart stopped beating at one point.
Only the work of skilled medical professionals stopped him from being literally beaten to death. His wife, a widow; his kids–one in the world, one on the way–orphans.
Jesus Christ, this business.
Thankfully, Dan’s recovery went well–he was discharged after a month, and his rehabilitation was progressing nicely. But while the cousins had frequently checked in and kept tabs on his progress, they were never able to actually visit him. They tried, but it seemed like something always got in the way.
Nate knew what that was, because he could feel Benjamin’s leg jittering in the back seat.
He also knew why.
“We can do that after,” Benny said, without any of his usual confidence. “They’re gonna be busy with the thing and they don’t need the distraction.”
“Benny, it’s okay,” Dennis said. “They’re at a PT facility; it’s nothing like a hospital.”
“What? You think that’s…no. No.” Benny grabbed his left elbow and pulled it into his body. “Just don’t want to be a burden is all.”
Now I know you’re lying, Nate thought. You love being a burden. He tried to check on his brother through the mirror, but Benny looked away as soon as their eyes met.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Nate said. “Is that all right, Dennis? We can figure something else out.”
“I guess,” Denny said. “But the rest of our day is booked up, and Dan still needs a lot of rest.”
“And I need to get my hands on the son of a bitch that hurt him,” Benny said, his nerves suddenly turning to anger. “Won’t be so I can forgive him, either.”
Oh great, here we go
“Speaking of that…what the actual literal fuck, bro?” Benny asked as he leaned around the seat to glare at his brother.
It was possibly the most obvious attempt at changing the subject in recorded human history.
But it was also a fair question.
“Don’t you start,” Nate said. “I’ve already had this fight with Jenny three times.”
“Ain’t surprised. You know how she felt about Jon.”
“I know.” Last year, their sister briefly dated Jonathan Rhine. It didn’t last long, but they parted on amicable terms. The words Jennifer used in any conversation about Paxton Ray, on the other hand…far less amicable.
“Does feel like an odd move,” Dennis added. “Especially with everything that went down with TAL’s family.”
“I’m not saying we invite him to Thanksgiving,” Nate said. “I just think…hell, I dunno. We’ve all hated his guts for a year and it hasn’t changed anything. Then he comes around and actually tells us he’s sorry…like I told Rich and Jared, I never thought I’d see the day. So maybe there’s something to this.”
“Yeah, a goddamn trick,” Benny said. “Can’t believe you think I’m the dumb one.”
“I dunno. Paxton’s…simple. Direct. This doesn’t feel like his style. Anyway…he asked me a question; I answered it. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t listen, or change…but I hope he does.”
Nate turned into the Kelly Hawkins parking lot–thankfully, traffic was light and their destination was literally just down the street. After parking, he and Dennis opened their doors, but Benjamin was nowhere near as enthusiastic.
“Dude, we passed, like, two burger places just now! And a Fogo de Chão! I’ve never done Fogo de Chão…or Fogo of any kind!”
“We can Fogo all the Chão you want after,” Dennis said, leaving the car and walking around to the back, grabbing the extra package. “Dan and Molly are expecting us.”
“Fine,” Benny said, in a tone that implied it was actually Not Fine. “But I’m gonna Fogo so much Chão it’ll make your head spin.”
They entered the building together. Nate and Benjamin hung back while Dennis went to the front desk.
“We’re here to see a patient,” he told the receptionist. “Dan Stein. I’m Denny Colton; we should be on the list.”
“Just a moment,” the receptionist answered. As she checked her computer, a loud beeping came from the hallway. A few short ones, then one longer one.
It wasn’t an electrocardiogram machine. It didn’t sound anything like one. But judging by the sharp breath Nate heard behind him, he knew exactly what Benny thought it sounded like.
Nate turned, fully expecting to find him to be huddled up in one of the waiting room chairs. But he didn’t.
In fact, Nate didn’t find his brother at all.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Benny’s gone.” He could see Benny out in the parking lot, heading for the car at a dead sprint.
Dennis turned around, ready to follow…but Nate held him off. “You check in on your friends; they need you too. I got this.”
“Nate, I can handle it.”
“I know you can, Denny. But I feel like I need to.”
Denny gave a quick nod, and Nate followed his brother. Sure enough, he caught up with Benny in the parking lot, frantically trying to open the locked door.
“YOU STUPID GODDAMN PIECE OF SHIT!” Benny screamed, heedless of anyone else who might have been within earshot. Nate unlocked the doors with his key fob, and Benny nearly knocked himself down when the door finally swung open. He clambered into the back seat and slammed the door behind him, then buried his head in his arms.
Jesus, this is worse than I remember
Nate waited outside as long as he could. He knew his brother needed space, but watching him like this made every passing second feel like a blade in his heart. Benny–easygoing, unflappable Benny, who was never bothered by anything…utterly destroyed by a few beeps from a random machine.
When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he knocked softly on the window.
“Don’t look at me,” Benny whimpered.
Nate got into the back seat from the opposite side. Benjamin pushed himself against the door, but Nate put his arms around his brother and held him tightly. “It’s okay, bro. I got you.”
“That beeping, it sounded like…and then…” Benny looked up for just a moment; his face was bright red and covered in tears.
“I know. I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have made you go in.”
“I could see it again…like, he was right there, and then that noise…”
“Probably just a floor scrubber having some kind of malfunction. It’s okay. Deep breaths.”
Benny nodded, and did his best to follow his brother’s advice. “God, I feel like such a little bitch.”
“Hey,” Nate chided. “You needed to let that out. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I want to go see them. I’ve wanted to go every time, but then this shit happens and I just…” Another round of sobs went through Benny, and his hands gripped tight onto Nate’s arms.
“Benny, what you went through would fuck with anyone.”
“I just…I miss him so much…”
“I know you do. Brian loved you too.”
“Not as much as he loved those fuckin’…oh, god dammit.”
Nate opened the center console and pulled out a napkin. He handed it to his brother, who gave a massive blow.
“Feeling better?” Nate asked.
“Peachy pie,” Benny said, his voice still shaking.
“Talk to me, Benny. You gotta let this out or it’ll eat you alive.”
But Benny didn’t say anything; he just sat there, curled up as tight as he could be.
Fuck, what do I do now? He won’t talk, but I can’t leave him…
“I’m here for you, bro,” Nate said, tears starting to trail down his own cheeks.
They sat in silence for a while, before Benjamin found his words again.
“I was getting better, you know. Before Minnesota.”
Nate nodded, knowing exactly what Benny was talking about–though he hadn’t learned until after the fact. “Benny, I am so sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
“Not your fault.”
“Dad told me what you did, staying at the hospital for a whole day. Pretty goddamn brave, if you ask me.”
The younger Colton shrugged. “I was only in the waiting room for twenty minutes, then I hid in a supply closet. Might still be there if the janitor hadn’t needed a new mop head.”
“Doesn’t matter. You stayed there for Angel, and for Bex. That’s tougher than anything I’ve ever done.”
“Right. And it fucked me up so bad I can’t even go into a…whatever the fuck this place is, that’s not a hospital but it’s still too hospitally.”
A sense of guilt sank into Nate’s stomach, hitting him hard. “I shouldn’t have said those things about her, back at…well, you know.”
“I know. I wish I hadn’t pushed her away, but God, I can’t go through that again.”
Again, silence fell. Nate wished he knew what to say to make his brother feel better. All he could do was get out of Benny’s way, in case he knew the right words, and was willing to say them.
Eventually, Benny gathered the strength to fill the space. “You know why I stopped going to church?”
“No. I figured you just liked Saturday night too much.”
“Heh. No…it was Brian’s funeral. Pastor Rachel told me that at least he wasn’t hurting anymore. She was just trying to make me feel better, y’know? But all I could think was how nice that sounded. How much I wanted that for myself…”
Panic clawed at Nate’s heart. They were all familiar with the tragedy of Benny’s high school boyfriend…but he’d never talked about this.
“You never…tried, did you?”
“No,” he said, punctuating with a sniffle. “Thought about it. I still do, sometimes. When it’s quiet, sometimes it just…sneaks into my head. Probably why I’m so loud all the time.”
“Have you told anyone else about this?”
“I think Denny knows. But I haven’t…look, I don’t want to…I don’t. I just don’t want to hurt anymore. When does it stop?”
Nate wished he had an answer.
He wanted to tell Benjamin that he’d feel better someday, that he could just be the happy-go-lucky goof that everyone thought he was. But how could he know?
He also wanted to slap the shit out of his brother for even contemplating suicide, while screaming about how much that would hurt everyone he left behind. But how would that help?
“Benny…” he started, terrified of saying the wrong thing, but compelled to say something. “Thank you for telling me, and even setting foot in the building today. That was brave as hell and I’m so proud of you right now. But that was also a lot, so if you just want to chill in the car for a while, that’s okay. Nobody will think any less of you, Dan and Molly will understand, and we’ll find a way to get together soon. But if you want to try again…we can do that too. And I’ll be right there with you the whole time. Denny, too. You can use our courage, if you need it.”
Benny blew his nose again, then sat up. His face was still bright red, his eyes were puffed up and raw…but as he looked back at the facility, there was a spark in his eye.
“Let’s do it.”
“Hell yeah.” Nate clapped his brother on the back, and he hoped his brother felt the same sense of relief. “There’s more napkins in the center console. Clean yourself up; you look like shit.”
Benny laughed. “Way to ruin the moment, dick.” As he wiped his eyes, he got a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror. “Oh Christ, you weren’t lying.”
Nate got out of the car while his brother composed himself. Afterwards, Benny got out and asked, “There. Am I the prettiest Colton again?”
“No, but you finally cracked the top ten.”
“Ah, shut your butt.”
“Shut your butt, corn smut.”
“Shut your butt, King Tut.”
Nate made a little dance like from that old music video, drawing another laugh from his brother.
“Appreciate you, bro. Thanks.”
“Any time,” Nate said, standing again at his brother’s side. “And I mean that. You ever feel that bad, or you’re having…those thoughts again. I don’t give a shit what time it is or what i’m doing, you call me, understand? You call me when you can’t be strong…and I’ll be strong for you.”
Benny nodded, and hugged his brother again.
Together, they walked back toward the building and into the lobby. Nate looked at his brother, and was pleased to see Benjamin holding together.
For…about five seconds. Then he grabbed his left arm again, and his eyes darted around the room.
“Hey,” he whispered. “We got this.”
Benny nodded with speed, but not conviction, and addressed the receptionist. “Where are the Steins at? We were in earlier.”
“Room twelve,” she said and pointed down the hall. “Down that way, then take a right.”
“Thank you,” Benny said, following her directions without even stopping to flirt. Nate had to jog just to catch up with him.
“Dude, wait up!” Nate said.
“Can’t,” Benny replied through gritted teeth. “Pretty sure if I slow down I won’t make it.”
They walked down the hall until they reached their destination. Through the window, they saw Dennis talking to the Steins–Dan resting in a wheelchair, in rough shape but good spirits. Molly, sitting beside her husband and holding his hand, her baby bump much more prominent than the last time she’d been on camera. Benjamin stopped clutching his arm and, with a deep breath, reached for the doorknob. Nate, meanwhile, stayed by the window.
“You comin’, bro?” Benny asked.
“Do you need me to?”
“I think…I’ll be okay. But you should come too.”
“In a minute,” Nate said. “This is your time. But I’m right here.”
Benny swallowed and opened the door. He’d barely made it inside when Denny threw an arm around him and whispered in his ear. Whatever it was, Benny nodded in response.
Nate watched them through the window, as Dan and Molly gave his brother a warm welcome. Benny’s smile was still obviously masking his terror…but as the four of them talked, it grew more genuine.
I am so fuckin’ proud of you, Ben
Dennis picked up the package they’d brought and handed it to Benjamin, who in turn handed it to Dan Stein. Dan opened it and saw what Nate knew would be waiting.
A satin ring jacket, bright pink with turquoise lettering, to match The Lights’ ring gear. Identical to the ones all the Coltons wore.
Stein beamed with pride, and leaned forward so he could put it on.
I hope you know what that means, Dan. It means you’re one of us now.
As he stood there, Nate thought about his life over the last year. A pang of guilt over what he’d almost thrown away. Then, a prayer of thanks that his life hadn’t been lost forever. That he could be here for his brother, and for this moment.
How long has it been since Paxton felt something like this?
There was a time…a year ago, when the wounds were fresh. When Nate Colton would have loved nothing more than to make Paxton Ray pay for his sins.
But as he watched his family and their friends, he realized that time was over. There was no need to deliver justice, or punishment, or suffering.
Paxton already had enough of those…and he did that to himself.
Benny caught Nate’s eye through the glass and motioned for him to come into the room. The others looked up and beckoned as well.
With a smile, Nate opened the door and joined the world again.
It was just that easy, this whole time.