A few years ago, I shared one of my short stories about some siblings growing up at their dad’s questionable military school, Hold as Long as You Like, but I realized I never shared the sequel. They’re all grown up now. Ash has a job as security for a wealthy businessman. Maggie is their dog, and I think that’s the only unexplained thing you need to know.
With his backpack looped over both shoulders, Blaze moseyed across his college campus. His last class let out early, so he didn’t have to hurry to the next one today.
His route took him through the lobby of the main building, where a larger-than-usual crowd clustered around the TV that constantly played there. Glancing at the screen curiously, Blaze stopped in surprise at a picture of Gavin on the news. He edged closer to hear.
“…less than an hour ago,” the newscaster was saying, her tone concerned but business. “Local millionaire Gavin Reid was visiting Chicago on business when it happened.”
The screen cut to footage of Gavin on the front steps of a building, shaking someone’s hand, with Ash beside him, alert, watching. Ash’s eyes caught something, and he tensed, already moving. Then the crack of a gunshot and Ash shielding Gavin and Blaze was 14 again, watching his unshakable older brother crumple to the ground.
Back to the newscaster and the picture of Gavin.
“We have no information yet on the assailant. Ash Harker, part of Mr. Reid’s security team, has been hospitalized-”
Class forgotten, Blaze ran.
He stopped first at the room where Kai typically waited when he drove Blaze to school. Kai jumped to his feet the moment Blaze burst in. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Ash,” Blaze choked out. “It was on the news. Someone shot at Gavin, and Ash… All I heard was that he’s in the hospital.”
Kai’s friend Alex was already shoving Kai’s books and phone into his bag. He held it out to Kai, who took it and said numbly, “Star. We need to get Star.”
Blaze nodded. “She’s next. You were closer.”
“Anything I can do?” Alex asked. Kai looked at him and shrugged helplessly, so Alex gave him a shove toward the door. “Go get your sister.”
Blaze rushed toward the car, Kai’s footsteps echoing behind his, not slowing when Kai said his name. But then Kai grabbed him in a tight hug and Blaze had to stop, had to turn and hold on and hide from the video clip playing on loop behind his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Kai said.
Blaze couldn’t reply. He didn’t need to.
A moment later, they were running again.
“I’ll drive,” said Blaze.
“I can’t sit still anyway.”
Kai handed over the keys.
But Blaze also had to call Star, and even as he started the engine, he was dialing the pet store where she worked, phone pressed to his ear, whipping out of the parking space.
“Pet Supplies Plus.”
“Hi, can I talk to Star? This is Blaze.”
“Sure, just a minute.”
The minute felt like forever, but he didn’t even get off campus before Star answered, ending the hold music. “Hey, Blaze, what’s up?”
He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t. He could feel Kai’s eyes on him and almost handed over the phone, but instead he swallowed and forced words out. “Hey, Star… sweetie… have you seen the news?”
“No?” He could hear the spike of panic in her voice.
“Don’t look. You don’t want to. But… Ash is in the hospital. Someone shot at Gavin, and Ash got hurt getting him out of the way. That’s all we know.”
“Kai and I are on our way over there to pick you up.”
“I love you.”
Then Blaze did hand his phone to Kai. “Let me know if there’s anything from Gavin.”
When they pulled up to the pet store, Star was already outside and talking on her phone. She flung herself into the backseat, and Blaze stomped on the gas. “It’s Gavin,” she whispered, sliding to the middle and leaning forward between the front seats. Listening to Star’s tense side of the conversation, which told him nothing, Blaze drove, heading toward home, more from habit than decision.
Finally Star hung up. Kai turned. Blaze kept his eyes on the road.
“Ash is alive, but not awake,” Star said, and Blaze’s hands clenched tighter around the steering wheel. “Gavin’s okay. They caught the shooter but haven’t told Gavin anything about him yet.”
“Why didn’t he call us?” Blaze demanded, his anger pulsing in his fingertips and jaw.
“This was the first chance he had. I’d already tried to call him three times before he called me. It really hasn’t been that long since it happened.”
For Star’s sake, if nothing else, he didn’t want to be angry with Gavin, so Blaze shoved that away to think about later, hopefully more objectively. “We need to get out there,” he said.
“Gavin is working on plane tickets. He’s going to send me the information as soon as he has it.”
The airport was a ways away, and they were low on gas. Blaze turned right at the next stop sign to head to the nearest station.
“What about Maggie?” Kai asked.
Blaze swore and bit his lip. Who did they know who would take care of the dog?
Anything I can do?
Kai nodded and reached for his phone.
“Has anyone called Milla?” Star asked.
“Not that I know of,” said Blaze.
She sighed heavily. “I will.” But her phone vibrated before she could dial, and she took a minute to read the message. “Next flight to Chicago leaves in two hours,” she announced. Blaze whipped into the gas station and leaped out. They were going to make that plane.
It took two miserable plane rides, one miserable layover, and one miserable taxi ride to reach the hospital. Gavin, surrounded by multiple police officers, met them at the entrance, and Star ran to him, hugging him fiercely. Relief over his safety had been battling with fear for Ash since Blaze’s phone call, and for this moment, relief overwhelmed everything.
But before she even let go of him, Gavin brought the fear crashing back, saying loud enough for them all to hear, “He’s still in surgery. No news since I last texted you.”
Star sagged a little since Gavin could hold her up. All this rushing just to wait more. She’d known this would happen, but she desperately wanted her brother, just to see him breathing for herself.
“Did you hear anything about the shooter?” she asked as she stepped back.
Gavin shrugged. “Someone high and ranting on and on about the horrors of capitalism and wealth.”
Star rubbed his arm.
Gavin and the police officers led them to a small waiting room, one with locked doors, not open to the public. Two couches in an unfortunate green, a silent TV mounted on the wall, no windows. Kai curled up in the corner of one couch. Gavin collapsed on the other. Blaze paced.
They all needed her attention. Kai hadn’t spoken since asking about Maggie. Blaze had to be reliving the last time he’d waited in a hospital for Ash. But Star had been with them the whole long trip, and she didn’t know what else to do for them right now, so she sat beside Gavin.
“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “I know this is why I hired him, but nothing like this was actually supposed to happen. I was supposed to just be paranoid and ridiculous and…”
When he choked over his words, crying, to Star’s horror, she cupped her hands around his face. “This is not your fault. I’m not upset with you. Whatever happens, I won’t be upset with you.” Star gently traced her thumbs across Gavin’s skin. “Ash protected you because he cares about you, not because it’s his job. It’s okay to be grateful.”
Gavin didn’t say anything else, just put his arms around her, and Star was glad, because she had run out of words.
Blaze hadn’t paced in the tiny waiting room long before he escaped to pace the hallways instead. This was not a day to be still, and he’d forced it long enough on planes. It killed him that he could do nothing helpful. He at least had to walk.
But when he found himself staring out windows at Chicago but seeing the city around the hospital where he’d done this before, he made himself go back, stopping at a vending machine along the way and collecting a whole horde of candy bars.
Back in the waiting room, Star and Gavin talked in low voices, intent enough on each other to make Blaze more jealous than he wanted to be. He worked hard to be okay with sharing his sister. Usually he managed it. Today was not usually.
Sitting beside Kai, Blaze silently offered his candy selection. Kai took a Snickers. Blaze opened one, too, but he didn’t eat it, just stared at it. Stared until he whispered, “I’m really glad I’m not alone this time.”
Kai looked over and then put an arm around him, gripping tight, and Blaze closed his eyes and took a bite of his Snickers.
Kai expected Ash to look a mess. That didn’t mean he was prepared for it.
Ash tried to be himself. Kai could see the pained, exhausting efforts. He insisted on careful hugs. He said encouraging things. He told Gavin it wasn’t his fault before Gavin said a word.
But his words slurred, came too slowly. A few sentences seemed to do him in.
There weren’t enough chairs in the room. Gavin fixed that. Kai curled up in one and left it as little as possible over the next few days.
Blaze ran errands, and sometimes he made Star go with him, fetching food from the cafeteria, finding nearby stores for toothbrushes and clothes and anything else someone decided they needed. The two of them coaxed Gavin into attending a few of the scheduled meetings that brought him to Chicago in the first place. They met Milla at the airport, took her back when she had to leave. They didn’t get Kai farther than a few short walks up and down the hall. He didn’t want to be in that room with Ash a shadow of himself, but he didn’t want to be anywhere else either.
There were new cuts down his arms.
He knew he worried everyone. He tried to care. He couldn’t quite manage it.
For the first couple days, Ash mostly slept. He would wake up for a little while when the pain meds started to wear off, groggy and hurting, until the next dose knocked him out again. Kai knew Ash hated it, he could tell in Ash’s short bursts of awareness, but he’d also listened to the doctor’s list of important organs the bullet hit, and he knew Ash’s body needed the relief.
But wounds began to heal, and the doctors began to ease up on the drugs, and Ash began to look alert when he was awake.
One of the first times it happened, Kai was alone in the room, on his phone, scrolling through his texts from Alex. His friend kept sending him pictures of Maggie, and someday he would have to figure out how to tell Alex how much he appreciated it.
“Hey, Kai,” said Ash.
The phone clattered to the floor as Kai sprang to Ash’s side. “You’re awake.”
“Yeah, I think so.” Ash reached toward Kai and caught his wrist, and Kai let his own fingers curl around Ash’s wrist, suddenly grateful for the new hoodie Blaze had bought him because the hospital was freezing. Ash didn’t need to see his arms right now. “You look as bad as I do,” Ash told him, trying to smile.
Kai had seen a mirror lately; Ash had not. “I definitely don’t.”
“Are you okay?” Ash asked.
“Not really.” Kai sat on the edge of the bed. “But you’re more important right now.”
Squeezing Kai’s wrist, Ash said, “I love you.”
Kai didn’t try very hard to fight the tears that formed at that.
He stayed where he was, holding on to his brother, not talking much, until a nurse arrived with another dose of painkillers. And then he still stayed while Ash lost his fight to stay awake. And a while longer, because he could.
Ash wanted to go home.
He wanted to sleep when he chose to.
He wanted to see Milla. Technically he had, and he’d supposedly talked to her multiple times, but he only remembered smelling her perfume and her soft lips pressed lightly to his.
He wanted his siblings to look less traumatized.
Even before any doctor told him what was going on, he had known this was worse than last time just from seeing Blaze’s face. Star later told him Blaze saw the footage of the shooting, alone and unprepared, and Ash still needed to get Blaze to talk about that.
Right now none of them were around. With Ash awake and able to add his encouragement, Star and Blaze finally talked Kai into leaving the hospital for some fresh air. But they left Gavin so Ash wouldn’t be alone.
With the lap desk that went most places he did, Gavin was plowing through some of his endless important paperwork. But the pinched lines between his eyebrows and the white knuckles clenched around his pen weren’t things Ash saw often. He didn’t think they came from the paperwork.
“Gavin?” he said.
Gavin started and his head shot up. “You need anything?” he asked.
Ash shook his head. “I just wanted to tell you… I’m so glad you’re not hurt.” He’d been trying not to think about the moment of the shooting, because even now, remembering the rush of fear for Gavin when he spotted that gun made him nauseous.
Gavin’s eyes went wide. “You’re… You’re glad I’m not hurt? When you almost died?”
“It’s worth it,” said Ash simply.
“It’s not. Your family is-”
“Important,” Ash interrupted. “And you’re important, too. You’re my best friend and I love you.” He didn’t know exactly when the short list of people he would get in the way of a bullet for had started to grow, but Gavin had made the list even before Milla. Ash had known that long before this incident. Apparently he hadn’t filled Gavin in.
Gavin stared, mouth agape, eyes suspiciously wet. Putting his paperwork aside, he stood, paced closer, away, closer again. At last he reached to take Ash’s hand, awkward but determined. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely. “I hoped I might be finding a friend that day I emailed you, but I never could have expected such a great one. I… love you, too.”
Ash smiled and squeezed Gavin’s hand before letting go. “For the record,” he said, “I am also relieved that I didn’t die,” and Gavin laughed.
Home felt good, and Blaze could tell he was starting to relax. Maggie had attacked all of them with love and was now glued to Kai’s side. Milla had come by before they arrived to make sure they had food and things were relatively clean. She stayed to greet Ash with hugs and tears before she left to let them rest.
Ash collapsed into bed the moment Milla was gone, exhausted even though he’d slept through most of the flight home. He would still need a million doctor appointments, but all the doctors in Chicago said he was recovering well, and Blaze hadn’t seen any reason not to believe them.
Star said they should leave Ash alone. Blaze listened for a while. But he needed a nap, too. Besides, if Ash really wanted left alone, he could have used one of the extra bedrooms.
They still had bunk beds. They could have spread out in the other rooms, and occasionally it happened, but mostly Blaze didn’t see the point. He felt safer with his siblings close by, and obviously he was not the only one.
Ash usually slept on a top bunk, so right now he was asleep in Star’s spot. Blaze didn’t make any particular effort to be quiet as he entered the room, and Ash stirred and woke. Blaze felt a little guilty, but mostly relieved; one of the worst parts of the hospital stay had been watching his brother who heard everything sleep through so much noise.
“Blaze?” Ash mumbled.
“Sorry,” said Blaze. “Go back to sleep.”
He knew better than to try to lie to Ash about that. But right now, as he climbed into his bunk and hugged a pillow, it didn’t feel like a lie to say, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”
“I’m glad,” said Ash, and Blaze smiled as he settled in to sleep.