PARTHENON / short fiction / Writing

Parthenon: After (2/2)

Let’s not waste any time… for those of you just joining us, yesterday I talked a bit about PARTHENON, the novel I started writing during NaNoWriMo, and shared the first of two linked short stories about a character’s past. If you missed it, that post, and “In Between,” the story, are here. You’ll want to read that post before continuing with this one.

That done, here’s the second story. It’s about 5,600 words long and it’s called “After.”

Los Angeles. March 2007.

He was still gritty-eyed from last night’s makeup and not enough sleep when the buzzer by the door went off and he groaned into the pillows, cursing himself for agreeing to a consult with a new client today. He should have known better. Fifteen years, and every five or six he got it into his head that this year would be different, this year he would make himself presentable and deal with the world, regardless of what had happened on this day however many years before. Inevitably, it went badly, and inevitably, for the following two or three years he spent the day holed up in a dark room with a bottle or seven, then the next couple years weren’t quite as bad, and then the cycle repeated itself like one of those weirdass snakes eating its own tail.

The buzzer sound came again and he snarled. “Five more minutes,” he grumbled to nobody, but he was already fighting his way out of the blankets. He buzzed down, let the client in, and counted on his doorman to hold up the newbie for long enough to clean himself up a bit. He brushed his teeth, gauged his appearance in the mirror, and decided that since he was definitely not going to pull off smooth and sophisticated when he felt and looked like one massive rough edge with a wicked hangover, he might as well go with it. He splashed cold water onto his face and swiped away the bulk of the makeup, leaving faint traces behind, then dripped Visine into his eyes to make them a little less bloodshot, tousled his hair until the bedhead looked deliberate, and went back into his room, pulling on a tight pair of jeans and a slightly looser V-neck T-shirt that showed enough of his chest to make bigots uncomfortable. Leaving the rings he’d neglected to take off the night before on his fingers, he picked up a long chain with a single silver wing dangling from it, eyes prickling as he looked at it.

He’d just slung the chain around his neck, closing a hand briefly around the pendant, when the knock at the door came and he flinched, putting his other hand to his head. After a quick detour to dry swallow some painkillers, he went to open it, drawing a deep breath and trying to pull the shell of his work persona around himself to hide everything that was currently hurting.

It was like looking at a ghost, except he’d seen what happened to the dead and consequentially had never believed in ghosts. Still, his throat closed as effectively as a door slamming shut, and his eyes, already tender, stung even more smartly, blurring his vision. It wasn’t until it cleared that he could see he’d been wrong—it wasn’t a ghost, but a shade of the future that had never happened.

He knew it was impossible to avoid, but fuck, he hated it when living people looked like dead people—especially his dead, and especially Michael. Even though he was now seeing the differences—the hair was lighter, far neater and shorter than Michael’s had ever been, the eyes not right both in colour and in the way they looked out at him, the mouth was way too serious—that first impression had hit hard.

The man was frowning at him. “Are… you all right?”

The voice was different, too. That helped. He didn’t think he could have handled it if the man in front of him now had spoken like Michael, but thankfully this voice was just slightly deeper, and more guarded in a way Michael never had been. And the accent—instead of New York, the boy had a soft Midwestern drawl. He knew better than to make these comparisons, but he couldn’t help it any more than he could help the memories that came swimming up.

He’d forgotten there was some kind of couples night happening at the bar, but it was too late to turn back now. He just wanted a place where he could sit and drink without being questioned about why he was wearing makeup or asked stupid, insulting questions about whether he was a man or a woman or an it. As if he of all people gave a fuck about the boxes people tried to shove each other into depending on, of all fucking things, their genitalia.

Rolling his eyes, he skirted the packed dance floor, avoiding the sweaty crush of bodies to make a beeline for the bar and its gloriously extensive lineup of liquor, already thinking about how drunk he was going to get and how much smack he was going to need after. He was keeping an eye on the people nearest him, just in case, but somehow he still didn’t see the man heading straight for him until they were practically on top of each other. He glared; the other guy grinned.

“Bet that usually scares most people off. Very scary. If I weren’t drunk I’d probably be terrified.” He thrust out a hand. “Michael Ramsay. You wanna tell me your name before or after we dance?”

“I’m here to drink, not dance.”

“No shit, dumbass. That’s why I’m getting in the way. You’ve got ‘Danger, overdose in progress’ written all over you.” Though Hermes had kept his hands by his sides, Michael reached out, grabbed them. He was absurdly reminded of couples holding hands at the altar and made to yank his hands free, but Michael’s grip on them was stronger than it looked. “One dance,” he wheedled. “One song and if you still want to drink away your problems, I’ll buy the first round and get drunk—well, more drunk—” he snickered “—with you.”

“You wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

“You sure you’re not just scared that you can’t keep up with me?” A grin, wide and infectious, split his face. “Come on, old man, show me whatcha got.”

“Old man? Oh, that’s it, brat. One song,” he warned, stalking onto the dance floor with Michael gloating next to him. “Then you leave me alone.”

“We’ll see if you still want me to. Old man.”

A loud throat-clearing noise brought him back, alerted him to the man—nearly still a boy, really—standing in his doorway, staring at him. “Sorry,” he muttered, standing aside to let him in. “It’s Andrew, correct?”

“Yeah.” Hermes watched with some amusement as the youth slipped out of his shoes, looking around. “Friends call me Drew.”

“We’re not friends, not yet at least. I’ll call you Andrew for now.” He motioned him ahead, into the condo. “Do you drink tea?”

“Uhhh…”

“I suppose we’ll find out.” He gestured for him to make himself comfortable while he set about putting the kettle on, but the youth didn’t wander far, instead lingering and looking at him. Hermes let him, waiting while Andrew struggled to voice what was on his mind.

“You’re not what I expected,” he said finally. Points to the kid for diplomacy.

“I don’t really bother sticking to traditional gender roles,” he explained. He lifted a foot, wagging his purple-painted toenails in the boy’s direction as an example. “When it comes to my clients, though, I do what they like. Some prefer a more effeminate partner.” To demonstrate, he let his voice rise in pitch as he spoke, watching the boy take in the change in his body language, then deepened his voice, squared his shoulders, and assumed a more dominant stance, kettle still in his hand. “Others prefer the alpha male fantasy.” And some preferred other things altogether, but baby steps. “I can do both. When we have an actual session, I’ll know in advance what you want and be ready.”

“You will? How?”

He smiled slightly. The clueless, innocently naive ones always fucking got him. “Because, dear boy, you’re going to tell me.” Leaving the kettle on the burner to boil, he led Andrew to the living room, sitting down next to him on the couch, turning to face him. “Let’s talk.”

“About… what I’m into, or?”

“If you feel comfortable telling me that right off the bat, sure, but I’m betting you don’t, so first why don’t we talk about you and why you’re here?” Irony, he mused, remembering himself once refusing to talk, was a bitch.

Andrew was hesitant at first, but eventually relaxed. By the time the kettle boiled, Hermes had learned that he was in his first year at an extremely conservative college north of the city, had parents in Wisconsin with way too much money and some seriously closed minds, and since he’d been more or less ordered to attend the school, he was exacting his revenge by spending his parents’ money on things they would disapprove of. Booze, tattoos, concerts, gambling… and, if this consult turned into an appointment, sex.

“I don’t see anything wrong with any of that, but I’ve been known to be a bad influence,” Hermes remarked with a grin as he got up and headed for the kitchen. Andrew got up to follow him, but he waved the boy back into his seat. “Keep talking, I’m listening.”

Andrew said something else, half-intelligible, but he was trailing off, and poking his head out of the kitchen, Hermes saw the boy had gotten up and wandered as far as the CD towers lining one wall, on either side of the antique table with the record player occupying pride of place, the vinyl lined up on the shelf just above the floor. “Hell of a music collection,” he said admiringly.

“It’s a good hobby. Find something you like, put it on,” Hermes suggested, nodding at the record player. “I mean, it’s not as portable as an iPod, but the sound’s still good. Nothing beats vinyl.”

Andrew let out the first relaxed laugh Hermes had heard so far. “Nerd.” He flushed, looking over his shoulder. “I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”

“Don’t worry, I took it as one,” he replied, grinning, as he ducked back into the kitchen to finish preparing the tea. It was a herbal one and only needed to steep for two or three minutes at most, so he plucked the bags out, doctored his own, and left the honey, sugar, and milk on the counter for Andrew. He was doing this, he told himself as the sounds of Van Morrison filled the air. He was managing. As long as he didn’t see the date anywhere, didn’t remember what today was, he could get through this and then he could spend the rest of the week—maybe the month—drunk.

“This is a herbal tea,” he started to say, but whatever else he’d planned to say about this particular kind of it and how it was best sampled died on his tongue as he realized, too late, that Andrew’s footsteps were moving, shifting around the living room, and there was a heaviness to them, as if he was thinking about something he shouldn’t. “Dammit,” he sighed, bracing himself and leaving the kitchen.

The look on Andrew’s face stopped him in the doorway. The boy was wandering around the room, looking at the picture frames scattered on every available surface and on every wall not taken up by the CD towers. Against his will Hermes felt his eyes drawn to the frame on the windowsill, visible only from behind at this angle. He swallowed hard and didn’t speak, waiting for Andrew to notice him.

“You’ve got a lot of pictures,” Andrew remarked, glancing up. “Who are all these people?”

“Family. Ancestors, that kind of thing. Genealogy is another hobby of mine.” He took a step closer to the boy but paused, not wanting to alarm him. “You might want your tea before it gets cold.”

“In a minute. You’re related to all these people?”

“In some manner of speaking, yes.” Close enough, he figured. They’d all been family in some way or another. They’d all mattered.

“Some of these pictures look more recent.”

“Technology really is improving at an alarming rate,” he replied in a too-bright voice. “Can we get back on track?”

“You got to know about me. I want to know about you, especially if we’re going to… you know, have sex.” Face beet red, Andrew walked a few steps, looked around, and plucked up the frame on the windowsill, the very one Hermes had been desperately hoping would be left alone. “This guy is related to you? You don’t look at all like relatives.”

“We aren’t.” He couldn’t make himself look at the photo, but he bit his tongue until he tasted blood, and forced himself to make the correction. “Weren’t. We weren’t related. He was still family in every way but blood. Every way that mattered.”

The frame was made of pewter and silver and heavy, he knew, and it moved slightly in Andrew’s hands. He saw the picture, the dark hair, the laugh Michael had been in the middle of when he’d taken it.

His throat tightened on the last words, his voice trailing off into a croak. “Excuse me,” he managed, going back into the kitchen where he was out of Andrew’s sight. He braced his hands on the counter and bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut—whether to stave off the flood of memories or to better focus on it, he didn’t know.

Michael was laughing, arms folded negligently behind his head, head thrown back. It did things to him, that laugh—made him think he could love this man he’d gone home with one night, intending to fuck his brains out and never see him again—and Hermes felt himself grinning in response, even though he didn’t even know why Michael was laughing.

He raised the camera. Took the picture.

Four months later Michael was sick.

He jerked his head viciously to one side, pain flaring at his temples.

They were walking down a busy street after the bars had all closed down, both still half deaf from the volume of the music. With a large group of very obviously straight, very obviously unfriendly men twenty feet ahead of them, Michael loudly, cheerfully announced, “There’s something you should probably know before you fuck me.”

Hermes slid his gaze over to the flushed, bright-eyed man next to him, raising his eyebrows. “I’m just making sure you get home safe, you inebriate, I never said—”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re a regular decent human being.” Michael batted his argument aside, making loud raspberry noises until Hermes shut up. “I’m HIV positive.”

There was pain in his knuckles. He didn’t know why, didn’t care. It wasn’t enough to distract him. It just bled into the memories.

“How old are you, anyways?”

“Old enough.”

“Seriously.”

“Over eighteen.” Michael grinned at him, clearly aware of Hermes’ increasing annoyance. “What, you worried you’ll accidentally screw a minor? You didn’t strike me as a sleazebag.”

He was so surprised by the bluntness—it had been a long time since he’d had anyone speak to him so frankly—that he laughed. “Kid,” he said deliberately, grinning at Michael’s annoyed grimace, “you have no idea.”

Enough, enough, enough. This hurt. He didn’t want this. Fucking memory, go away—

They stopped outside a large brick building, an old warehouse converted into apartments. “This is me,” Michael said unnecessarily. “So, you a top or a bottom?”

He cut his gaze from the building to Michael, determined to keep his expression flat as he replied, “I told you, I’m only making sure you get home safe. You’re home safe. I’m leaving.”

“Oh, come on. One kiss. At least give me that to remember the cantankerous stranger I saved from himself. Unless you’re scared again. Old man.”

“That taunt won’t work again,” he muttered, but the grin did. He was already stepping closer, hands on the other man’s face to drag him in and kiss him. At first it was a matter of pride, ruining the stubborn brat for anybody else, because if after this many millennia he wasn’t the best kiss people ever had, he’d seriously fucked up somewhere down the line. But then Michael made a sound in the back of his throat and swayed on his feet, taking an unsteady step into him while his fingers clutched at the side of Hermes’ shirt, and suddenly he needed this kiss like he needed air, like they were both going to die tomorrow and this kiss might be what brought the world to its end—in which case the world was fucked, because he’d take the kiss.

“Fuck,” Michael gasped when they broke apart, mouths separating with audible wet noises, his hands still clenched in Hermes’ shirt. “That—that was—intense,” he said on a giddy laugh. “Fuck. As in me. Like five minutes ago, please and thanks.”

Hermes didn’t answer, too busy trying to regulate his breaths. But his head was shouting the same things, and he didn’t know if he or Michael was the one shivering, even though the night was warm.

In later years he would pinpoint that as one of the many, many moments when he could have and should have walked away. Would have, if he’d been smart, or at least more interested in preserving his own heart. He never had learned that one.

A hand on his wrist pulled him back when he started to turn around. “Are you crazy? You can’t leave after that. I wasn’t kidding. Fuck me. Now. Don’t make me beg.”

He shook his head and without looking back said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Well, I happen to think it’s a fucking brilliant one, thanks very much, and right now I’m obviously the smarter one so we’ll go with my call—wait.” The hand on his wrist was suddenly stiff, the grip relaxing. Hermes made no attempt to pull loose, just stood still and listened to the caution that crept into Michael’s voice. “Is it because I’m sick?”

“No.” That got him to turn around, Michael’s hand falling away from his. “I don’t give a damn about you being sick, though I do think it’s a fucking shame when people die before their time.”

Clearly having heard what he wanted to, Michael grinned and threw up his hands. “Then what could you possibly have against the idea of fucking someone you just met tonight who also has a serious illness which you could contract via said fucking?” he demanded theatrically, and despite himself Hermes felt his lip twitch.

“Because, you ridiculous little drama queen, if you must know, I’m a fucking mess, and if I fuck you, I’ll probably end up loving you, and if I love you, I’ll lose you.”

For a beat, there was silence. Hermes nearly walked away. Love? He didn’t mention love, not this early on. All he knew about the guy was his name, that he was older than he looked, and that he had HIV. There was no reason to mention love. Then: “Well, that’s a fucking depressing outlook if I ever heard one.”

And somehow, Hermes laughed.

Even the happy memories hurt, because he knew how the story ended. What was one or even five or seven happy chapters when the last one ripped your heart out?

“One night,” Michael said silkily, stepping forward with his index finger held up. “Give me that. These days if anybody screws me it’s a pity fuck, and I’m tired of it. I want more of what that kiss started.” When Hermes made no move to evade him, he stepped into his space, looking down at the way their bodies fit with a pleased little smile on his face. “And so do you. Come on.”

“You’re seriously using the sick card to get laid?” Hermes asked, raising an eyebrow.

Michael grinned. “I don’t usually. Figured I’d try it. How’s it working?”

“I liked the insults better.”

In the dim orange glow of the streetlights he saw Michael’s eyes light. “Well in that case, you self-destructive sonofabitch, get the fuck into my bed.”

“Brat,” he muttered, and clamping his hand over the back of Michael’s neck, kissed him just the way he had the last time, leaving them both breathless and wanting more.

“By the way,” he said when they separated. This time he knew it was both of them shaking. “Call me Tony.”

The memories were still coming at dizzying speed, reliving what had taken minutes or hours in the span of seconds with the kind of detail that came from memories you tried to forget, from the streetlights casting Michael into shadows as they stood on that street and the way it had stretched out over the bed in the apartment’s lone bedroom, replaced the following morning by sunlight.

“Am I dreaming, or did I actually spend last night fucking the insanely gorgeous, broody as fuck man currently in my bed?” asked a muffled, faintly bemused voice next to him.

“Oh, for—” Hermes turned his head in time to see Michael, face still buried in the pillow, lift one hand and carefully pinch his other arm. “What are you—”

“Ow, fuck! Okay, not dreaming, that’s good. Smack my ass and call me Sally, it’s Christmas and my birthday all at once,” he said admiringly.

The smile he’d been trying to hide turned into a snorted laugh. “You’re an idiot. Sally.”

Michael lifted his head from the pillow and just grinned. “You didn’t smack my ass.”

He usually tried not to think about what would have happened to Michael if his life hadn’t been cut off, but had tried picturing him as middle-aged, as elderly, as having lived. It hurt almost as much as remembering him when he was sick, with the sores and the wasting away and that fucking disease taking him away little by little.

“Tony.”

“Mmm?”

“I want you to be my legal proxy. Make my decisions when I get too sick. Deal with my will. That kind of thing.”

“No.” He shook his head, a knee-jerk reaction. “No, Michael, you can’t ask me to choose for you. I won’t do it.”

“Yes, you will. I don’t have anybody else.” A crooked, sad smile. “You’re it.”

Quiet thrummed between them. For once Hermes was the one moving, his eyes roaming around the room, looking everywhere except at Michael, Michael who was leaving him, Michael who would all too soon be gone. Michael who was asking him to make the leaving easier.

“Fuck.” It was as much a sob as anything else. “Okay.”

Michael got up, walked over to him—he could feel the effort it took as though he were the one taking those careful steps, mindful of every ache in his body—and sank onto the couch next to him, sagging against his side. “Thank you,” he whispered, and Hermes could feel him crying too, could hear it in the breaths he took.

They grabbed for each other’s hands and held on, and as the sun set outside the windows and the apartment grew dark, they each sat and wept. “I love you,” he whispered back.

“Uh, Freddie?”

“Freddie Mercury,” Michael insisted in his weakening voice, “is fucking king, okay? And queen,” he added a moment later, grinning impishly at his own pun.

“No way,” insisted the other patient, a man they hadn’t even been introduced to yet but who’d had the misfortune to be playing music other than Queen within earshot of Michael. “Bowie.”

“He’s not Mercury.”

The volunteer patted Hermes’ arm and he glanced toward her, looking back at Michael again. Like this it was too easy to pretend he wasn’t sick, if you avoided looking too closely. But he had looked too closely. He knew him too well. He knew.

“I think he’ll settle in just fine,” she said soothingly.

“It’s a nice place to die,” he agreed in a strained voice.

No. No. He wasn’t ready. Never would be.

“Tony?”

Michael’s Serious Voice was enough for Hermes to shift slightly, to want to be able to see the other man’s face and hold him at the same time as they lay in the dark on the narrow hospice bed. “Yeah?”

“When the time comes—when there’s nothing else they can do for me—two things, well—fuck.” He swallowed. “First, don’t draw it out, okay? Just—I don’t want pain, because you know it turns me into a little bitch, so I’ll take the painkillers, but don’t continue treatment when it’s obvious that it… that I’m going to die.”

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“And second—” Michael’s voice shook “—let me come home, okay? Let me die there, in our bed. I know that’s selfish and cruel to leave you with it, to know I died there, but—”

He was crying when he leaned over and cut Michael off by pressing his mouth to his. “No,” he whispered, using his thumb to swipe away the tears on Michael’s cheeks. “This won’t be the bed you die in. The bed we laughed in, slept in, loved in—” He kissed Michael again, tasted fresh tears mingling with his own. “You’ll die there. At home. And I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Michael’s eyes closed. “Thank you,” he breathed.

“I love you,” Hermes answered, because by now there was nothing else he could say.

But he’d been wrong. He hadn’t been there for all of it. Hadn’t been able to go where Michael had. Don’t go where I can’t follow. He hated this part of the story. Hated knowing how it ended.

“Pneumonia?”

“Pneumonia,” the doctor confirmed. “I’ll be honest with you, he’s doing better than expected, but it doesn’t look great. Don’t lose hope yet, though. He’s stubborn.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The sound he made was somewhere between both. “I know.”

From far away, he could hear someone talking, could feel hands on his skin, but he was somewhere else, stuck in the memories he’d been resolutely ignoring from the moment he’d started drinking four days ago. Look what that had gotten him.

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do at this point… it’s just a matter of time. I really am very sorry.”

Hermes nodded with more composure than he felt. He wanted to scream, to rage at the heavens like they did in the movies, but he knew better than most there was nobody up there to hear. “Then I’m taking him home. Thank you for what you’ve done, but he—” he looked into the room, had to swallow before trying again. “He deserves to die in his own bed,” he finished in a hollow rasp.

Home. What was home, after that? What did you do when the person who made you feel like you were home went away? When they died, and you couldn’t?

Flowers clutched in his hand, Hermes stood in the bedroom doorway, watching Michael sleep. He didn’t need to be a medical professional to know he didn’t have much time left.

He was an idiot. What was he doing, bringing flowers to a dying man? Was he trying to remind him that just like the flowers, he too was dying? Flowers belonged at funerals and weddings—there would never be a wedding for them, but it wasn’t a funeral yet, for fuck’s sake. He should throw them out, but they were tulips. Michael’s favourite. He couldn’t.

In the end, Michael died before the flowers did, so it hardly mattered.

Flowers. He’d hesitated over flowers while a man died. But they’d made Michael smile.

He’d made sure that all the flowers were tulips. White ones, pink ones, yellow ones, even some outlandish blue ones he wished Michael could have seen. People didn’t use chapels or churches anymore, but there was one out in the middle of nowhere way upstate, ruins that still stood after a fire decades ago. The church walls survived when nothing else had.

They held the funeral there, the seats packed with more who would soon meet the same end as Michael. It was an eerie thing, to be immortal at a funeral where so many of the mourners were a few shaky steps from death themselves. If it bothered any of the friends Michael had made in the clinics and hospices they’d spent so much time in, none of them showed it. If anything, they were more composed than the few healthy (straight) friends who hadn’t abandoned him.

There was no sign of Michael’s family, but Hermes had hired security and given instructions to turn them away, just in case. But there was nothing. Even though he’d sent them the obituary from the paper, and the information about the arrangements. Just nothing.

“Michael is…” The use of present tense slipped out, and if possible the gathering grew even quieter. Hermes closed his eyes. When he opened them he was looking at Josie in the third row of seats. He talked to her because it was easier. “Michael was… a stubborn, ridiculously over the top, occasionally unreasonable man. But if you told him so, he’d say you were confusing him with me, unless you also called him a rabid fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. “Everybody says this about the people they loved the most, but it’s true. He was impossible to describe. He just… was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, then you could go fuck yourself—without lube, thanks very much.”

A stronger murmur of laughter this time, with tears just under the surface.

“I’m not going to stand up here today telling stories about Michael because most of you spent time with him so he told you his stories himself, and he told them better than I could have anyways. Instead I’ll just say…” he drew a deep breath, “how thankful I am to have known him. How thankful I am that he pushed me into one dance, one kiss, one night. And how much I wish we could have one more dance, one more kiss, one more night.” He was crying freely by now, and knew he wasn’t the only one. He could hear the sniffles, a few open sobs, as he finished, “I’m going to miss him—so much. Michael, wherever you are—I was right, that first night. I did fall. I think you knew I would. You knew better than I did, brat. I promise I won’t ever regret this. Or you.”

He stepped to the side, touched his fingers to the gleaming box that held Michael’s ashes. “This is for you, you stubborn idiot,” he whispered as the music started. The men who’d been through this with him, who knew they or their partners would sooner rather than later be facing this situation—for some, it was just a matter of who died first—exchanged looks. Freddie Mercury had died of complications caused by AIDS a few months before. It seemed fitting that his music played at the funeral for another of the disease’s dead. It seemed even more fitting that Michael’s funeral was as much a party as anything else, songs that Hermes, other mourners, and Michael himself had chosen playing between eulogies—“You’re My Best Friend” and “One Year of Love,” but also “Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

The last song was “Who Wants To Live Forever.”

Somewhere in the rows of mourners, one man gave a watery laugh that echoed, even in the roofless church. “I still say Bowie is better, you stubborn bastard,” he called shakily. Hermes let that call and the answers drown out his sobs, covering his mouth with a closed fist.

“Freddie?” came the voice again, and he gradually realized he was being shaken, rather forcibly.

“Too much love will kill you every time, kid,” he mumbled, lyrics to a song that hadn’t come out until years after both its singer and Michael were dead.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he muttered, too drained by the memories to try to put any enthusiasm into his voice. He put out a hand to keep Andrew at bay. “Just, please—put that picture down.”

“It’s in the other room. Are you sure you’re all right? You look like you just saw a ghost.” A hesitation, while Hermes turned around and leaned back against the counter, attempting to let the memories go, to not drown in them. “You loved him, didn’t you?”

He nodded, head heavy. “And I lost him.”

Andrew hesitated. “Do you… want to talk about it?”

“No.” Of that he was absolutely certain. “I’m sorry. We’ll have to finish this another time.”

When Andrew had gone, he locked the door behind him, buzzed down to the doorman and informed him that buzzing anyone at all up would result in both that person and the doorman himself meeting a swift and bloody end, and slowly, methodically walked around the apartment with the shuffling, sliding gait of the old man he felt like, closing the curtains, unplugging the phone and the internet, cutting himself off from the outside world. He swapped Van Morrison for Queen, cranked the volume; put on the worn, threadbare shirt he’d slept in for months after Michael’s death; took out a bottle; and, in the room nobody entered, curled up on that mattress, he let the memories and the tears drown him.

======

And that, as they say, is that. Comments section is ready and waiting; barring spoilers, I’ll answer any questions you guys may have about PARTHENON or Hermes and/or Michael!

Cheers,

L.M. Murphy

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