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23 October 2013 @ 01:42 pm
Worthless  
Title: Worthless
Word Count: 8,727
Characters: Jeremy, Zachariah, Elizabeth
Summary: Jeremy endeavors to take the first step to fixing things with Zachariah and ends up in the nightmare that is Zachariah's life.
Warnings: Frank discussion of mental illness and suicide.

At the sound of the approaching motorcycle Jeremy looked up from where he sat on the cold stone steps leading up to the imposing doors of the house. He saw its blue form coasting through the trees that lined the long drive, moving slowly. Steeling himself he got to his feet and descended to the elegantly and intricately bricked boulevard that marked the grand entrance to the grounds as the motorcycle slowed to a stop nearby, the driver idling for the briefest of moments before shutting the engine off entirely.

Zachariah Howell pulled off the helmet, black hair sticking up briefly in a halo of static and the sort of natural state of dishevelment he inherited from his father, and pinned Jeremy with a look of contempt. Had he been a lesser man perhaps he would have given up hope then but Jeremy understood the sentiment was well earned. Zachariah was never quick to forgive and he knew he had done nothing to deserve it yet.

“Hi,” he said, waving a little sheepishly in response.

Zach rolled his eyes and slid from the motorcycle and turned around, lifting a little girl dressed in an expensive school uniform from the back of it. A wealth of fiery curls escaped from under the helmet once it was removed, framing an enthusiastically freckled face. Blue eyes fell upon him curiously before she partially edged herself behind Zachariah. Jeremy watched as she tugged urgently on his leather jacket.

“Who’s that Daddy?”

Zach cast a brief glance at Jeremy over his shoulder before shrugging his shoulders fluidly. “No one important,” his smooth voice replied, the tone both calming and suggestive. He passed the smaller helmet to his daughter and rested a gloved hand upon her head briefly. “Go inside and start your homework while I put the bike away.”

The girl, who was undoubtedly Elizabeth Howell, screwed up her face at the mentioning of homework and turned on her heel before marching her way up to the steps. She stopped once she was near Jeremy and stared up at him, her neck craning back. He almost expected her to scuttle away before she surprised him and shoved her hand upwards, a determined expression on her round face.

“I’m Lizzie Howell, it’s nice to meet you!”

Not missing a single beet Jeremy bent over slightly and took her hand in his, giving it a firm but gentle shake in greeting. “Hello Lizzie, I’m Jeremy Sabourin.”

Elizabeth nodded, as if pleased with herself, before darting up the steps and disappearing through the door which clicked shut behind her. Jeremy watched her go before turning his attention back to his former lover who was walking his bike away down the bricked path that lead, most likely, to the garage somewhere off to the side of the massive building. Eyes widening he sprang forward, darting after the young father.

“Zach, wait!”

“I don’t actually have to,” Zach called back, turning to look at the brunette once he reached his side. “See? You came to me,” he pointed out saccharinely, a snide smile on his face.

Jeremy sighed, trying to keep up the pace as the earl sped up. “Can we talk?”

“I’d rather you just fuck off back to where you came from,” Zach replied nastily, pulling a small remote from his coat pocket and pointing it at the doors of the garage which began to slide open as they approached. “But I suppose that would be too much to ask for.”

“You have every right to hate me Zach,” Jeremy murmured, stopping as Zach walked the Kawasaki to its place inside the large building. Expensive cars of various make and model gleamed inside. “I just don’t want to leave things like this between us.”

“You seemed more than happy to leave it like this for six years,” Zach countered, eyes flashing. Jeremy could feel the anger and the hurt buffet against his psyche in nauseating waves.

“I was afraid,” Jeremy admitted, looking down at his feet.

“Ha!”

“I’m not anymore,” Jeremy shot back with some annoyance. Zach exited the garage and clicked the remote again before folding his arms across his chest. It looked commanding and authoritative but Jeremy knew it for the defence mechanism it was. A rueful smile crossed his lips. “I never stopped loving you.”

“You had a real funny way of showing it,” Zach snapped, the setting sun casting sharp shadows on his face. “I like sex just as much as you do but when I was dating you I didn’t fuck other people just because I was horny and my boyfriend wasn’t conveniently available.”

“What I did was wrong but that doesn’t change the fact that I never stopped loving you. Sex and love don’t always go hand in hand,” Jeremy explained gently. “I was foolish, I thought I couldn’t hurt you if you never knew. I tried to take the easy way out. I made bad choices.”

“You made me feel worthless.”

Jeremy looked Zachariah in the eye, seeing as well as feeling the sadness hidden behind them. His heart tightened. “You were never worthless to me. I could never even consider treating you the way I did other men. But I only discovered how precious you truly were when I lost you.”

“Don’t flatter me,” Zach growled. “It doesn’t change the past.”

“I’m not trying to change the past.”

“Then what are you trying to do, asides from waste my time?” Zach asked.

“I’m trying to do a lot of things,” Jeremy admitted, spreading his hands helplessly. “Make you understand, extending and olive branch, opening a discourse… I want you in my life, even if it is just as friends. You liked me once… you loved me once. I want to fix what we broke.”

“What you broke,” Zach corrected.

The hurt part of Jeremy, the festering wound in his heart, wanted to point out that Zach was partially to blame as well. It was painful taking on all the guilt, the burden of blame and yet he knew flinging insults would get him nowhere. He closed his eyes and remembered the difficulties of loving someone who contained so much self loathing. Zachariah had hidden it so well from everyone yet he never knew Jeremy could always see through the perfect mask to the sad, lonely little thing inside.

“Will you give me a chance?” He asked, deciding to forgo replying to Zach’s words and allowing him believe it was an acknowledgement.

Zach opened his mouth to reply but paused and looked around as if only noticing his surroundings. He pursed his lips together and an annoyed expression crossed his face. “I should go inside.”

“Oh?” Jeremy replied, raising an eyebrow.

“How did you get here?” Zach interjected.

“Unh, I walked?” Jeremy said slowly, uncomprehendingly. “It was a nice day and—”

“Fuck,” Zach cursed, running his gloved hands down his face. When they fell away the annoyed expression had only deepened, yet an undercurrent of anxiety niggled at Jeremy’s psyche. “You might as well come inside.”

Jeremy shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Look, if you don’t want to talk about this I get it. I can come back another time and just leave n—”

“Get in the house Jeremy!” Zach snapped suddenly, grabbing his wrist and pulling him forward. The earl moved swiftly, following the path around to the back of the mansion. Jeremy had half a mind to ask what was going on but he held his tongue, taking the chance to admire the beautiful gardens and grounds they passed. The shadows had grown quite long, blanketing the grass in cool darkness from the surrounding woods and hills. Their edges looked almost like claws, reaching out to devour the house. Zach began to move more quickly as the topmost golden edge of the sun slowly began to slip behind the trees, the sky a deep crimson colour of freshly spilt blood.

“Zach?”

Zachariah didn’t reply as they hurried up the steps to the vast terraced patio and the double French doors. Something moved out of the corner of Jeremy’s eye and he turned his head to look but found himself viciously dragged forward when he attempted it, almost tripping over his feet. It took barely a few seconds for Zach to fish out the keys and unlock the doors before he found himself pushed through and into the house. He stumbled and turned just in time to see Zach slam and lock the door.

Relief, not his own, washed over Jeremy in a soothing deluge. It was difficult to shake off.

“What’s going on Zach?”

“It was getting dark, I thought we should move our conversation indoors,” Zach replied, having already pulled off his gloves and was currently shrugging out of his leather jacket. He draped the items over his arm. “That’s what you wanted wasn’t it? To talk?”

“Well yes but—”

“Can I get you a cup of tea,” Zach ground out, forcing pleasantness and failing rather miserably.

Jeremy blinked. “Yes, thank you, but Zach what was all that abo—”

“Follow me then,” Zachariah interrupted, brushing past Jeremy. “Try to keep up, I’d loathe for you to get lost.”

“Who says ‘loathe’?” Jeremy muttered under his breath as he rushed to follow, finding his patience with Zach’s avoidance running thin. Only this man, this beautiful, frustrating, damned man could wear his otherwise infinite patience near to the breaking point so easily.

“Educated people say ‘loathe’,” Zach replied coolly ahead of him, having clearly heard him.

“Not in America, unless we’re being needlessly posh.”

“Are you calling me posh?”

“No I’m calling Americans who use words like ‘loathe’ posh.”

“Nice cover,” Zach replied snidely, gliding through a doorway and into the warmth of the kitchen. Elizabeth was sat at an old country style table, a few books spread out in front of her as she bent over a piece of paper, her tiny tongue peeking out of the corner of her mouth. A plate of cookies sat at her elbow which Zachariah promptly picked up after he hung his coat on a coat rack, drawing the attention of his daughter.

“Hey!” Elizabeth exclaimed, her wealth of fiery curls bouncing.

“No cookies before dinner,” Zach chided with the no-nonsense tone of a parent, moving away.

“But they help me do maths,” Elizabeth argued.

Zach snorted, moving around the counters to a jar, dumping the cookies back in. “How so?”

“By making me hate maths less,” she stated with conviction. Jeremy felt his lips tug themselves into a smile as he watched father and daughter interact. When they had dated it never even crossed his mind to imagine Zachariah as a father. That sort of adulthood—that sort of responsibility—seemed so far away, even at twenty-one. It hadn’t even been on his radar. Perhaps if it had been he wouldn’t have fucked around.

But where would they be now if things had turned out differently?

“Are you alright Mr. Sabourin?” Elizabeth asked, cutting his thoughts short. Jeremy turned his head to look at her. “You looked upset.”

Jeremy opened his mouth to reply before catching Zach’s scrutinizing eyes with his own. He pressed his lips together for a moment before shaking his head. “It’s nothing.”

“That’s what adults say when they don’t want you to know things,” Elizabeth said astutely before giving her father a pointed look. Zach sighed deeply and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, his irritation and exasperation inundating Jeremy’s psyche. “Daddy, what is for dinner anyways?” She asked, changing the subject.

“Unh,” Zach uttered, his cheeks flushing a little. Jeremy watched him move over to the refrigerator, which was covered in Elizabeth’s drawings from top to bottom, and open it. It wasn’t embarrassingly bare but it wasn’t full either, mostly some fruits and vegetables in the crisper and some containers of juice and bottles of milk. “Probably left over Chinese food from last night.”

“Really?” Elizabeth whined as she flopped back in her chair and let her head fall backwards.

“It’s that or peanut butter and honey on toast,” Zach said, closing the door. Elizabeth groaned.

“I could cook something,” Jeremy offered innocently. Identical pairs of blue eyes pinned him down, one sceptical and annoyed and the other amazed and jubilant.

“Really!?” Elizabeth repeated, this time with far more enthusiasm, sitting up straighter in the chair.

“If your father doesn’t mind,” Jeremy replied kindly, sending Zach a saccharine smile. The earl’s eyebrow twitched and he folded his arms across his chest in that familiar defensive manoeuvre of his. Jeremy rolled his eyes in response.

“What else am I going to do Zach? You’re the one who dragged me in here and promptly started to ignore me,” he pointed out, his arms spreading magnanimously. “So why don’t I feed you and your daughter something that isn’t swimming in MSG and you can figure out what you want to actually talk about.”

“Fine,” Zach ground out before moving to an alcove that was probably the pantry and opening up a door in the floor that lead to the cellar. “But I’m getting wine. I can’t deal with you sober.”

“White, please,” Jeremy interjected, earning another glare which he allowed to bounce off him with a sunny smile in return before Zach disappeared down into the darkness. Jeremy watched him go before turning to Elizabeth.

“Would you like to be my sous-chef for the evening, Lizzie?” He asked charmingly.

“What’s a sous-chef?” She asked, already slipping from her chair as Jeremy began methodically rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to his elbows.

“It’s the chef’s assistant,” He explained, poking around the kitchen before finding the aprons. Despite Zach’s inability to do anything asides from boil water and burn toast he seemed to own a variety of appliances and tools, which Jeremy was sure the earl probably couldn’t even name.

“Yeah!” Elizabeth exclaimed, moving over to him. He handed her the apron that was clearly hers—he noted that there was more acrylic paint stains on it than flour residue—and helped her tie it before pulling on the one that was probably meant for Zach. With that done he moved over into the pantry and removed the pasta maker.

“Have you ever had homemade pasta before?”

“No, but mummy bought fresh pasta from the store once.”

“Well this is going to be very fresh,” Jeremy promised, opening up cupboards and grabbing the flour before going to the fridge to get eggs. Rounding up his ingredients on the marble counter he began to walk Elizabeth gently through the process with practiced ease, having done similar for his younger half and step-siblings when he visited. Sometime after they began Zach immerged from the bowels of the cellar with a bottle of white wine.

“Dad, Mr. Sabourin said I could be his sous-chef!”

“Did he now?” Zach asked, raising a brow, his tone a subtle mixture of indulgence and contempt. He worked the cork screw into the bottle and violently yanked out the stopper, not taking his eyes off Jeremy.

“Mhm,” Elizabeth nodded. “You can be the waiter.”

“Ah?”

“Well you can’t cook so I don’t think you should be a chef,” Elizabeth explained and Jeremy had to stifle a snort as he mixed the dough on the counter, rolling it under his hands. “He tried to make pasta for me and mummy once and it got stuck to the bottom of the pan because all the water disappeared.”

“Sounds like your father,” Jeremy replied gently, giving Zach a sympathetic look as he brushed his hands on his apron. Zach poured a rather generous amount of wine into a glass, clearly not amused.

“We all have our own talents, mine doesn’t lie in the kitchen,” Zach said into the rim of the glass. He set it down on the counter and poured another glass, this one with a more appropriate amount. “Would you like me to set this at the table for you or would you like it now?”

“Table is fine,” Jeremy murmured, turning on the pasta maker and beginning to feed the dough through it. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Zach replied, moving past them to the table and clearing away Elizabeth’s unfinished homework. Jeremy watched him from the corner of his eye as he worked, getting Elizabeth to drape the dough over her arms as it got longer and thinner. There was a mocking sense of domesticity that blanketed the evening and the animosity that pervaded it left a bitter taste of regret on Jeremy’s tongue as he taught Elizabeth about the different types of pasta while he cut out Tagliatelle.

Zach steered clear of the kitchen after setting the table, sitting at what was probably his place drinking his wine and only commenting when his daughter addressed him specifically with excitement at what she was learning. Jeremy privately noted the amount of love that reflected in Zach’s eyes when they were focused on his daughter, full of wry amusement and adoration. He’d never seen Zach look at anyone quite the way he looked at his daughter.

She was clearly his whole world.

He learned quite a bit about Elizabeth over the course of the evening as they cooked together and later ate together. She talked enough to fill Zach’s silence, chattering about her friends, her little adventures, the pictures she was drawing, her mother’s new boyfriend—a subject that made Zach frown but he never interrupted her—and when she wasn’t talking about herself she was grilling Jeremy about his own life.

“You talk funny, why is that?”

“You have nine siblings?! Wow!”

“You’re sister is a model?! She must be really beautiful!”

“Do you own a restaurant?”

“You have pretty eyes.”

“What’s America like?”

“What countries have you been to?”

“Can you juggle?”

“How do you and daddy know each other?”

Jeremy felt the flow of genial answers stop on his tongue. He shot a worried look at Zach who gave him a bland look in return and set his glass of wine down on the table.

“Jeremy used to be my boyfriend Elizabeth, before I met your mother,” Zach explained and Jeremy felt as though someone had stuck a pin through him and he was a butterfly trapped in a glass case to be examined. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.

“So you guys used to kiss a lot?” Elizabeth asked her father frankly, tilting her head. “And go on dates? And buy each other things on valentines day? And say ‘I love you’?”

“Yes,” Zach replied.

“But you stopped being in love?” Elizabeth asked, her tone a little more subdued. “Like you and… mummy?”

Jeremy winced, thankful that neither of them were looking at him. He hadn’t stopped loving Zach at all. Zach’s eyes flicked to Jeremy briefly before they landed on Elizabeth again. “Yes.”

“OK,” Elizabeth said, nodding to herself. She wore a pensive expression for a time as heavy silence settled over the dinner table. “But you’re still friends right? Like you and mummy?”

Jeremy felt the pit in his stomach bottom out.

“It’s complicated,” Zach replied, shrugging his shoulders and finishing his pasta with a twirl of his fork. “Finish up you’re dinner Lizzie, it’s almost time for you to go to bed. You can do your last two math questions before I take you to class tomorrow morning.”

Elizabeth groaned but eventually bent over her plate to finish her dinner, which she ate with gusto, thanking Jeremy when she was finished. Zach slid from his chair and suddenly grabbed his daughter around the middle, swinging her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes which earned him a surprised squeal which turned into delighted laughter.

“The big bad troll has stolen the princess and will now take her to the tower where she must sleep for a hundred years!” Zach exclaimed, his voice deepening and turning rough as he took on a role. Elizabeth kicked her legs, her voice stuttering through the laughs.

“N-n-no!”

“Yes!” Zach cried, turning around and beginning to march out of the room. “I will make you brush your teeth first! And then I will comb your hair! And just when you think it can’t get any worse I will read you a story and it will put you to sleep!”

“Agh! Nooooooo! Save me Mr. Jeremy!” Elizabeth exclaimed, reaching her arms out towards him as her father carried her away.

“No can do princess, the troll has trapped me in the kitchen and has turned me into his slave! I must clean his dishes and scrub his floors because I am his prisoner too!”

“Those better be done when I come down or I’ll grind your bones to make my bread,” Zach threatened with a meaningful look before rounding a corner with his wriggling daughter. Jeremy watched them leave and chuckled to himself, shaking his head before the smile slowly fell from his lips and a vaguely uneasy feeling settled over his shoulders. He sat there for a minute, not really thinking about anything in particular as he stared at the amber glow of his wine before he cleared the table and set about cleaning up the mess he made.

As he filled the sink with sudsy water Jeremy found himself contemplating Zach’s behaviour over the course of the evening so far. The hostility had in no way disappeared from their first encounter but it was clear the earl was attempting to be civil about it around his daughter—aside from a few quirks about sobriety that the seven-year-old probably couldn’t understand. He did, however, find it odd that Zachariah had so insistently dragged him inside when his body language and emotional bombardment indicated he didn’t want to be anywhere near Jeremy.

“I shouldn’t push my luck,” he muttered to himself, shutting off the tap and sinking his hands into the hot water. Whatever Zach wanted to talk about it was obviously more important than his animosity. Jeremy distinctly remembered Zachariah having the capacity to overcome his personal feelings in the name pragmatism when it suited him.

He set the dishes on the rack to air dry, not knowing where they went, and set about putting away the utensils and appliances that he had found on his own.

Once he finished he sat down at one of the stools near the counter and allowed himself a wry smile, remembering the only other time he had visited Hawthorn Hall as an adult. At the time all the furniture had been covered in white cloth, as though it had been put to bed and buried. It wasn’t hard to imagine why; the countess’s murder—Zach’s mother’s murder—had gone unsolved and he could only imagine how difficult it was for a young man of eighteen to continue to live in a desecrated family home.

Zach had dragged him along on a whim to retrieve something for his godfather and they had ended up having a little side adventure on the marble counter-top of the kitchen island on the way out.

The house seemed so much different now than it did then. Though it appeared, to the eyes at least, warm and inviting despite its obvious grandeur Jeremy couldn’t help but feel something primal and vaguely unfriendly running in the undercurrent atmosphere of the building. It almost seemed focused on him, as though it had great eyes staring at him from unseen shadowy corners. It felt as though he was standing just inside the maw of a great beast and the teeth where threateningly hovering over his head, ready to snap him in half with a bite.

Pushing the sensation away from his weary psyche Jeremy slipped from the stool and went back over to the table where he thoughtfully left his and Zach’s unfinished wine glasses. He poured a small amount into his own and moved to return to where he sat but ended up dropping the glass onto the floor when his eyes met the face that was staring in through the window above the sink.

He felt like screaming but his voice was strangely lodged in his throat as he stared at the face. The interior light didn’t seem to reflect much to define any more features other than the sharp, impossibly wide grin filled with too many sharp teeth. The eyes had their own glow; a hellish colour that Jeremy concluded could only be replicated by the very fires of hell. They were large, lidless, round and spaced too far apart, almost like floating orbs. Everything about the face was wrong. Everything about that wolfish face indicated that it wasn’t made to be seen by human eyes.

It watched him unblinkingly and Jeremy had the unsettling realization that it probably had been for some time and he just hadn’t noticed. He felt sick and horrified the longer he stared but he just couldn’t tear his eyes away from it.

“I didn’t invite you into my home to break my wine glasses Jeremy.”

The scream that was lodged in his throat escaped as he whirled around and stumbled backwards. Zachariah briefly levelled an irritated glower at him before briefly looking at the window. “What’s got you spooked and screaming like a girl?”

Jeremy stared at Zach for a moment, his breath heaving, and noted the lack of change in his expression. He cast a furtive look at the window and jumped a bit when his eyes landed again on the face which was now pressing itself almost eagerly against the pane, red eyes now trained on Zachariah. He turned his head slowly back to Zach again and was met the exasperated stare.

“What?” Zach asked, annoyed.

Zach couldn’t see the monster in the window.

Jeremy covered his face with his hands. “No,” he whispered as he started to shake his head, not to Zach nor to himself but at the universe. “No, no, no, no, no.”

How many times had he seen things no one else saw? How many times had he insisted to his sister that there were people walking around in the water on the bayou? How many times had he cried himself to sleep after the night his mother threatened the rougarou on him and he had woken to find something hovering at the foot of his bed in the middle of the night watching him? His sister never believed him. His mother told him it was just a superstition and she hadn’t actually summoned a monster to torment him. His father looked as though someone had ripped out his heart when Jeremy confessed to seeing things no one else could.

“Jeremy.”

Zach’s voice was clear, calm but insistent as well as oddly compassionate. The face that greeted him when he slowly lowered his hands was neither impatient nor cold. Zach’s deep blue eyes were oddly bright and alert and it took Jeremy a second to realize that the crease in the other’s brow indicated concern of all things.

“There’s something in the window, isn’t there?” Zach said with resignation and Jeremy noticed his tone was far too sober for someone who was only humouring him. Unease lurked in the corners of Zach’s eyes. Slowly, realizing that this moment was oddly critical, he nodded wordlessly.

Zach exhaled a shuddering breath; his hands coming up to gently grasp Jeremy’s arms. “And you can see it?”

“Yes,” Jeremy replied, his voice quiet as his eyes searched Zach’s. He didn’t intend to sound as desperate as he did. “Why can’t you?”

“Just because you cannot see something does not mean it is not there,” Zach said, dropping his hands to his sides. “Those things are the reason I dragged you inside, the reason why I haven’t let you leave.”

Jeremy tried to shake the surreal sensation that was beginning to settle around him but found he was unable to do anything except sink in it. “What?”

“They come every night once the sun sets,” Zach answered grimly, moving away from Jeremy, gesturing to indicate he wanted the brunette to follow him out of the kitchen. Jeremy looked at the window once more and shuddered as the creature watched Zach with hellish eyes. He tore his gaze away and hurried after the earl eagerly, entering deep into the house.

“How do you know about them if you can’t see them?” Jeremy asked carefully after swallowing the uncomfortable lump in his throat. Zach looked over his shoulder and Jeremy caught the edge of a self depreciating smile on his lips.

“Not all my scars are self inflicted,” Zach replied, rubbing one arm awkwardly with his other hand. His posture seemed closed off and Jeremy could feel the shame and self hatred radiating off him. “They’ve almost killed me more times than I can count. My godfather has been dealing with them for longer than I’ve been alive and my mother… I feel she knew quite a bit more than she ever let on.”

Zach rounded a corner and pushed open a pair of imposing double doors that lead into a warm looking room. He moved over to the windows and pulled the velvet drapes closed before taking a seat in one of the arm chairs.

“What are they?” Jeremy asked, so many questions suddenly burning his tongue. He sat down on the sofa in a bit of a daze.

“My mother called them ‘Hounds’,” Zach said. “George calls them ‘Cu Sith’, which might be a more accurate term. ‘Black Dogs’ is a more commonly used name. They are denizens of shadow, entirely invisible in darkness and moonlight even to those people with Sight.”

It sounded insane to his ears, so foreign. Had he not been quite so shell shocked Jeremy might have made a comment about stepping into a Harry Potter novel. “But I can see them.”

Zach frowned a little. “I know, which is baffling. I’ve never even heard of someone being able to see them except in rare circumstances at dawn or dusk when lingering sunlight can still reveal something of their shape,” he pursed his lips together for a moment before pinning Jeremy with his gaze. “Have you seen other things?”

Despite his utter conviction in his ability to see the supernatural Jeremy felt himself hesitating to answer. He knew this particular acknowledgement would finalize his situation in a way that admitting his gifts to his sceptical or bizarrely sympathetic family never would. There could be no turning back. He nodded slowly, soberly. “For as long as I can remember.”

Zach chuckled, a helpless sound. “It’s hard to believe we dated each other for two years and never talked about it to each other.”

“No. It actually isn’t,” Jeremy bit back with surprising acidity. Zach looked up at him then and the air seemed to thicken pungently with all the lies, misdirection and hurt that had made up their previous relationship.

“Fair enough,” he whispered, folding his arms across his chest defensively again. “I see your point.”

Jeremy winced. “I didn’t mean to upset you…”

“That doesn’t change the fact that you are right,” Zach snapped.

Jeremy sighed and leaned back into the cushions, dropping his head back against the wall in the process. The impact hurt a bit but it seemed deserved in a sense. “Maybe had we been more honest with each other things would have turned out differently.”

“I never lied to you,” Zach said coolly.

“That’s fucking rich,” Jeremy replied, irritated. His emotions were as jittery as his hands. He knew something was about to break forth from inside, something he had kept bottled up for too long.

“Excuse me?”

“I said ‘that’s fucking rich’,” Jeremy reiterated. “How many times did you smile at me when on the inside you were barely keeping it together or were incapable of feeling anything at all? There is more than one way to lie Zach,” He spat vindictively, surprised again at the vitriol that was lingering on his tongue. He ran his hands down his face and then up again and through his hair. “How many times did you tell me you loved me when you felt nothing but absolute hatred for yourself? You can’t… God Zach, you can’t love someone properly if you can’t even love yourself. It’s not healthy.”

Zach looked as though he had been slapped. Something almost close to tears glimmered in his eyes for the briefest of seconds before they hardened like ice. “Don’t you dare turn this on me when everything was your fault.”

Jeremy leaned forward, holding Zach’s gaze. “I’ve admitted to screwing up Zach. I realize what I did hurt you, irreparably it seems and I hate that I did that to you. I was stupid and I was twenty-one-years-old but that does not mean that everything is on me,” he explained, standing up. “I was in love with you. I didn’t even know how much at the time. I didn’t understand why it hurt so much to be with someone so fucking emotionally unavailable who was sinking in his own tragedy and didn’t seem inclined to fucking help himself! Depression isn’t a Get Out Of Jail Free card Zach! You have no idea how alone I was sometimes, even when you were laying next to me smiling like the Mona Lisa while you slowly rotted away inside.”

Jeremy turned away from him and began to pace, his movements oddly frantic as all the things he wanted to say started bubbling up. “I realize I went about my need for affection the wrong way and you can’t begin to fathom how sorry I am. I should have gotten you help, I should have done something, anything other than what I did, but I didn’t and that will haunt me for the rest of my life because it was so utterly selfish. Yet I can’t help but wonder sometimes what I would have done had you just been honest with me about it. Maybe this would have all turned out differently…”

He turned around again to face Zach who had carefully donned an impassive face. “Most of this was my fault… eighty… maybe even ninety percent of it if that makes you feel better. But don’t you look at me and tell me you didn’t contribute. Don’t look at me and tell me that your misdirection and silence do not count as lies. You hurt me too… and I guess you get the last laugh as well.”

Zach waved a hand, his words sardonic. “Then by all means, explain to me why I should be laughing.”

“I’m still in love with you,” Jeremy’s lips twisted into a bitter smile and tilted his head to the side a bit. “I slept with two people after we broke up, both that same week and came, rather quickly, to the sickening realization of what I lost. I haven’t been with anyone since. I haven’t been in a relationship. I haven’t even fucked anyone. I lay in bed at night and think about how much I still love you and how much you hate me. It hurts but it’s alright you know? Because I deserve nothing better than that.

“But how many people have you been with since then? At least one, who you loved enough to get married to… and it hurts you know? Not just because you married someone else, but that you’re no better now than you were then because it doesn’t take an idiot to realize she left you. It hurts loving you Zach… and it hurts knowing that there are other people who feel the same way I do, who screwed up and left you for the same reasons I did.”

“There was one key difference between you and Emily,” Zach said coldly as he rose from his chair and approached Jeremy. “She left me but I left you. I have that, if nothing else.”

Jeremy felt awash with incredulity and shook his head in disgusted bewilderment. “No one wins these things Zach…”

“I know,” Zach hissed, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Fuck, you don’t need to tell me that. You don’t need to tell me any of this because I’m well aware of how fucked in the head I am.”

Jeremy winced. “Don’t say it like t—”

“Oh sure,” Zach interjected, dropping his hands. “Let’s call it by clinical terms then. I’m clinically depressed. I have post traumatic stress disorder,” Zach sighed and was silent for a prolonged moment. “After we broke up, probably a week or two later, I got on medication. I… I was in a messed up place. I still am, I’m not fooling myself, but… that was a bad time.

“And you’re right, some of it was my fault,” Zach smiled, a bitter expression. “I’ve known that for a very, very long time. Once upon a time I blamed myself for it all—something that’s fairly easy to do when you hate yourself and are spiralling down a dark hole of nothingness. But fucking hell Jer… who the fuck does what you did? I wasn’t smart enough to help myself so if you loved me so much why didn’t you help me?”

“Hind sight is twenty-twenty,” Jeremy whispered, feeling whatever anger he had previously held seep out.

Zach tilted his head. “Yeah it is.”

“I’m not going to ask you to forgive me.”

“Good, I don’t feel like it,” Zach replied before turning around and sitting down heavily. He scrutinized Jeremy for a moment before resting his elbow on the arm of the chair and placing his chin on his hand. “Can I be honest with you about something?”

“I’d actually appreciate it,” Jeremy admitted, standing rooted to the spot.

“After all the sadness and the hurt there was this period in my life where I felt nothing,” Zach began. “I had gone off my meds for about a year before I got to that point. I hated taking them, hated needing them, I felt so weak. So it was great, you know, feeling nothing at all. I felt as though I had weathered the storm and nothing could touch me. I wore it like armour and it felt so good to be so untouchable. But… I began to realize, eventually, that no one could live like that. There is something so utterly empty about such an existence. Something worthless.

“I just wondered what the point of it all was… and coming to that realization that absolutely nothing fucking mattered… that I didn’t matter should have been horrific. And I suppose intellectually it was but emotionally I just felt dead. I might as well have been dead I began to suppose,” Zach laughed, the sound cold and empty. “And then I looked over at my two-year-old Jeremy. I should have felt something and I didn’t. People think suicidal moments are dramatic, and I suppose some people do have those cinematographic elegies but mine was just so perfunctory.”

Zach pursed his lips together. “I got back on anti-depressants, I started getting therapy—which I probably should have been getting since the age of eighteen—and I got a divorce less than a year later. It took… a while to start to feel again. My life had been so grey and then this bloom of red occurred and it was like a revelation. Anger is beautiful Jeremy. And I discovered that I had quite a bit of it.

“Anger still comes most easily to me. It’s my crutch. Some of the first bits of anger I felt were towards you and I clung to that anger like a life line,” Zach shook his head, smiling ironically. “In an odd way you saved my life Jeremy.”

Jeremy stood still in the middle of the room, simply digesting Zach’s words, the last ones barely even registering. Then slowly, as anguish welled up in his heart he moved over to the couch and deliberately sat down, absorbing the words. He looked at the man he loved and he couldn’t stop the tears from welling up in his eyes and spilling over. Through some of the haze he saw a confused and startled look cross Zach’s features right before they blurred away entirely into indistinct colours and his own emotions suddenly blocked out everything. It felt like his heart breaking apart all over again, into even smaller pieces.

Subconsciously he was aware of himself babbling half incoherent apologies yet he couldn’t seem to stop the tears. He had never been much for crying as a child or as an adult but in this moment he found himself lost in the deluge. He almost didn’t notice the hand resting on his back or the dip in the couch cushion.

“If anyone should be crying right now it should be me,” Zach said sarcastically, though his tone lacked any malice. Jeremy knew Zach’s words held some truth to them but he found himself incapable. He knew to some degree the grief was his own, taking on the same dull hurt that had been aching inside him for years. Some of it was Zach’s, its taste bitterer and oddly dusty with age. And then there was another sadness too, more intangible and heavy and pressing him down like a brick the size of the mansion itself from all sides, willing him to break under its strain.

“Jer,” Zach said, the old nickname coming from his lips making Jeremy’s heart writhe in agony. “My depression isn’t your fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault… medically speaking it’s just a chemical imbalance in my brain,” Zach’s arm brushed briefly against his and Jeremy imagined he was probably shrugging nonchalantly. “And I told you that being angry at you has actually helped.”

“I still made it worse,” he murmured, rubbing the palms of his hands across his eyes, trying to isolate and push out the supplementary sadness buffeting his psyche.

“You and many other people,” Zach replied soberly, sounding tired.

“I hate that I did it to you.”

“You’ve said.”

Jeremy sighed deeply and ran his arm along his nose, a bad habit he still hadn’t quite broken since childhood. He felt so tired he could feel it deep down in his bones. “Do you hate me?”

Zach snorted. “No Jer, I don’t hate you. It might seem like it but I don’t, not really. I’m still pissed off and I probably will be for a long time… I cling to anger like a lifeline and I have difficulty allowing myself to let go because I don’t want to return to that wasteland of nothingness,” Zach admitted quietly, shuddering.

“Alright,” Jeremy breathed, sounding relived.

“Alright?”

Jeremy laughed, tossing his head back bonelessly. “I don’t think I could handle you hating me… but I can live with you being angry at me.”

Zach smiled wryly, a ghost of good humour at the corners. “God I could punch you in the face right now.”

“Please don’t, it already hurts from crying.”

Zach laughed, his whole body shaking with amusement. “Alright,” he murmured, leaning back into the sofa and pressing a hand to his forehead. “Alright.”

“Do you think the thing—the hound—is at the window?” Jeremy asked quietly.

“Probably,” Zach’s reply was soft and weary. He was quiet for a moment before turning his head, which was still resting on the back of the sofa, towards Jeremy. “Jer… did it see you?”

Jeremy dropped his head in his hands. “Does it matter?”

“Yes,” Zachariah sat up anxiously. “Does it know you can see it?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, frowning and lifting his head. “I… I looked it in the eye…”

Zach cursed under his breath and stood to his feet. “I have to call George,” he said, though Jeremy had an assumption it was not directed at him, and darted out of the room with a panicked look. Reddened eyes widening Jeremy scrambled to his feet and raced after the earl, trying to keep up. He awkwardly dodged sofa tables and elegant furniture that rested along the walls of the long corridors when he rounded corners, trying to keep Zachariah in his sight. He caught up with him when they ended up back in the kitchen, Zach fishing through his coat pocket for his mobile. Jeremy reached out and grabbed him gently by the arm, making him fumble in his movements and pause, his blue eyes wide and frightened.

“Zach,” Jeremy gasped, trying to catch his breath. “What… what’s wrong?”

“They know you can see them Jer,” Zach intoned ominously, finally freeing his cell. “You’re… they’re going to kill you. No one should be able to see them!”

“What?”

“You’re in a lot of danger,” Zach said, unlocking the screen.

“But… you’re in danger.”

Zach made a frustrated noise and shot Jeremy a brief glare. “This is my fucking life; I’m not going to get you killed because you accidentally stumbled into it!”

“Zach,” Jeremy grabbed the hand holding the phone as Zach began to dial in a number, once again drawing the glower of the other man. Jeremy met it with earnest eyes. “If I can see them… then maybe I can help.”

Zach opened his lips to reply, looking for all the world as though he was about to bite Jeremy’s head off, but hesitated. A helpless sound slipped out and Jeremy watched as tears suddenly welled up in Zachariah’s eyes and spilled over. It was the first time he had ever seen Zach cry.

“My mother died because she protected me Jeremy and I’m not,” Zach tried to reign himself in, almost choking on the words. “I-I’m not going to get you killed over something as worthless as me. No one deserves that.”

“I left you to the monsters once,” Jeremy replied, holding Zach’s gaze. “I’m not going to do it a second time.”

“Jerem—”

“I am not leaving you alone. Not ever again,” Jeremy promised.

Zach searched his face, a small frown knitting his brows together. He looked lost and confused by the concept that anyone would want to risk their life for him. It tore at Jeremy’s heart to see how utterly damaged Zach was. “Why?”

He wanted to kiss away that doubt he saw there. He wanted to show Zach he was worth everything to him. “Because I should have never left you in the first place.”

Zach held his gaze for a moment longer until he looked away, as though confused and not quite sure how to handle the conviction he found. He then looked down at the screen of his cell, the light reflecting in his glassy eyes. Jeremy had never seen Zach seem so small and helpless as he did in that one brief moment.

Then Zach wiped his cheeks with his hand quickly and moved away entirely, redialling the number and bringing the cell to his ear. He replaced his outer armour so quickly it was seamless. “It’s your funeral.”

Despite himself Jeremy felt a smile grace his lips and something settle into place within his heart. He brushed the barb off easily, seeing it for what it truly was and focused more on the acceptance he found. For the first time in a long time he was able to achieve an illusive peace and serenity. Finally he could embark on his journey to fix what he broke.

“He can see Cu Sith George,” Zach was saying into the phone, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. “Yes I’m sure… Why the fuck would he lie about that? … I don’t know what to do, he wants to help… Wait a minute, you’re fine with that? He could die George! … I’m not worth— … Fine. Whatever. I’m keeping him here over night, I can’t exactly let him wander outside now… hold on I’ll ask,” Zach turned his head towards Jeremy. “Are you working tomorrow?”

“I have to be in at ten to start placing orders for the kitchen and oversee prep.”

“He’s got work at ten,” Zach said into the phone. The voice on the other line—George—said something garbled and Zach frowned. “I’m not kidnapping him… No. I’ll work something out… Yes, I’ll be careful… You too,” Zach half whispered the last response before ending the call.

“Um so… what was that all about?”

“George wants to meet you,” Zach said. “We’ll have to work something out but don’t be surprised if he shows up at your work and starts harassing you. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“George is… your godfather right?” Jeremy asked haltingly, as memories slowly dawned on him. Zach’s smile was wry and sharp as a knife blade.

“He’s not your biggest fan.”

Jeremy winced. “I wouldn’t be either in his position.”

“George has saved my life more than anyone,” Zach said, approaching Jeremy. “He might hate you, and I do mean that in every sense of the word unfortunately, but he’ll keep you safe.”

“Because it will keep you safe.”

Zach shrugged as though the truth was neither here nor there.

Jeremy laughed hesitantly and then looked down at his feet. “I feel as though I’m in over my head.”

“I’d offer you the chance to rescind your offer but… George would hunt you down.”

“Is it possible to both look forward to and also dread meeting someone?”

“He has that effect on people,” Zach said. He reached up and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles with a groan.

“Emotions can be exhausting,” Jeremy said sympathetically, beginning to feel the effects himself.

“Yeah,” Zach muttered before squaring off his shoulders. “I should… probably get you set up in a room for the night. It’ll be safe to leave once the sun has risen.”

“I’ll catch a cab first thing, you won’t even see me,” Jeremy promised, raising his hand in a mockery of the scout’s honour.

Zach chuckled wearily and turned around, waving at Jeremy to follow. Straight out of the kitchen they made a right and headed up two flights of stairs to where the bedrooms were located. Faded moonlight spilled in through the windows and Jeremy looked out at the moonlit grounds and distant woods as they passed, trying not to think about the defined shadows he saw flitting across the gardens and fields.

“If the Hounds are trying to get at you how come they just don’t break into the house?” Jeremy asked absently.

“The house is… it’s difficult to explain but for now just assume the house is warded. Certain malevolent magic can’t enter,” Zach explained awkwardly. “George will probably go over it in greater detail. It was all his work after all.”

“He sounds talented.”

“Talented doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Zach said, moving over to a door and opening it. He turned on the light inside and peered about before deeming it suitable. “This one should do for the night. There are extra blankets in the wardrobe if you need them… and I’m just down the hall if you need me,” he added hesitantly before turning to head down the hall, seemingly eager to get away.

“Thanks mom.”

Zach stopped and looked over his shoulder, giving Jeremy an incredulous look. Jeremy shot him a silly smile before letting it smooth out into something more earnest. “But really, thank you Zach.”

Zach paused before nodding. “Your welcome Jer. Good night.”

“Night,” Jeremy replied quietly as Zach slipped down the hallway. He watched as he paused to peek into one of the rooms, most likely Elizabeth’s before continuing on to his own. Once the furthest door was shut Jeremy entered the guest room and closed the door behind him, leaning against its solid dark surface once the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion hit him like a freight train. He barely managed to pull the covers back on the bed before he stumbled into it fully clothed.

He knew there was a very real chance he would probably have nightmares tonight but he was grateful that at least sleep would come easily. He was too tired to be scared of the monsters that roamed the perimeter of the house. Rolling onto his back Jeremy stared at the ceiling, feeling his eyes droop and his lips curve into a smile as a realization dawned on him right before he fell asleep.

“He called me Jer.”
 
 
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