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Title: Dead Reckoning
Series: 100 Original Fics
Character: Fox Maharassa
Author: Avarice

Prompt: 003 - Ends
Rating: PG
Pairing: Fox/Collin, Padma/Nefertari
Spoilers: the end of FH
Summary: Nefertari and her family pull together to help Fox after he and Collin finally call it quits.
Word Count: 14142
Date First Posted: 11-07-2011
Date Revised: 17-10-2011
Beta: Eike, Fantisci, Dino.
Awards: -
Notes: If you're familiar with my work (or with me!) you know that I wasn't happy with how FH ended for my favourite characters. According to the post-script of the series, you can either go with the idea that Fox and Collin split, which would lead into the other comic OPB, or they were able to stay together. I am in the latter's camp, but recently I got to thinking about them breaking up. If I entertained the notion of them breaking up... this is how I think it would've happened. I think their characters weren't as tight or as consistently portrayed in the last year or so, but I've done my best to keep the line of story that had been happening, reconciling the old and new characterisations and doing my best to be objective about it, not subjective. To that end, this is a third person limited fic, and it follows Nefertari's experiences with the events. Many thanks to my 3 very talented betas, who put up with me pasting things to them, haranguing them, and emailing rewrites at odd hours. It was important that this fic got a really good going-over, because I wanted it to be good. I think it's about as good as I can make it right now. I hope you enjoy. :)

I had trouble naming this piece, but it came to me as I thought about Fox losing Collin becomes a directionless compass. I looked up some navigation terms and came across 'dead reckoning', which is a way to calculate one's current position using previously determined positions, then extrapolating future positions based on that data. The part I liked the best about it, however, was this:
A disadvantage of dead reckoning is that since new values are calculated solely from previous values, the errors and uncertainties of the process are cumulative, so the error and uncertainty in the value grow with time. To me, this is very indicative of what's happening with Fox right at this time, and what will happen to him in the near future.
Feedback: always welcome, as is constructive criticism.

Also Archived At: LJ







Nefertari was watering her plants and humming tunelessly in the front yard when she heard the phone ring. It rang at least twice more before she put down her watering can. “Coming,” she murmured, in no great hurry to answer it.

 

The phone was on its eighth or ninth ring by the time she got to it. Tossing thick curls away from her shoulder, Nefertari placed the receiver against her ear. “Hello?”

There was a pause, a sniff, then a familiar voice. “Hey Mom.”

“Hi Fox-kit,” Nefertari said warmly, studying her nails. “You’re not getting a cold, are you?”

Fox paused abruptly for a few seconds before answering, “Ah, no. Don’t think so.”

“That’s good, you know how hard it is to get rid of colds in warmer weather. They’re so persistent.” Fox said nothing, save to sniff again.

Something jangled on Nefertari’s nerves.

“Fox, what’s the matter?” If there was something wrong, she didn’t want to beat around the proverbial bush.

“I, ah, I don’t know how to say,” Fox stumbled.

“Any way is fine, I will understand no matter what. Tell me and I can help.”

“Ok,” Fox said. “Can you and Dad come over?”

Nefertari wanted to smile at the offer -- it wasn’t as though it was an unusual request -- but there was still something wrong.

“Of course. Your Father’s out in the shed with your Uncle right now--“

“That’s great,” Fox cut her off rather unexpectedly. “Can you bring the trailer, too?”

“Yes--“

“Excellent. How long will it take you to get here?”

“Fox-kit, what’s going on--“

Fox’s voice began to betray a note of panic. “I just need you guys here. Now.”

“Take a breath, and tell me what’s going on,” Nefertari said, hoping her firmer words would cut through her son’s rising hysteria.

There was the sound of a ragged intake of oxygen on the other end of the line, followed by a shuddering sigh. Nefertari chewed on her lip with worry.

“It’s over,” Fox said in a small, defeated voice.

Nefertari’s breath caught in her throat, heart breaking for her son. There were so many things to ask, but the phone was not the place to be asking them. Her first priority was Fox’s well-being; information-gathering would have to come second.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can. Is there anyone close by?”

“Yeah,” Fox sniffed, “D’s here already.” As if in response, she heard a faint voice in the background. At least he wasn’t alone.

“Can I speak to him for a minute?”

“Ok,” Fox’s voice drifted away, to be followed by some muffled talking. A few moments later, another voice spoke on the phone.

“Hello?” Derringer said uneasily.

“It is ‘Derringer’, isn’t it?” Nefertari did her best to put a smile in her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It’s Nefertari Maharassa here, Fox’s mom. I need you to do something for me.”

“Sure,” he answered. “What do you need?”

Don’t let him out of your sight. We’ll be there in twenty minutes. Just... don’t let him leave.”

“Don’t worry, ma’am. I’ll see to it,” he said, and a strength contained in the previously unknown voice reassured her.

“Thank you, Derringer, I appreciate it. See you soon.”

Nefertari replaced the phone receiver back into its cradle and took a moment. Her thoughts had drifted to worst-case-scenario places at the state of Collin and Fox’s relationship in the past, but that was all they’d ever been; scenarios. She’d never once believed that even a single one of them would come to pass.

Steeling herself for the mammoth task ahead, Nefertari walked swiftly through the house and out the back door to her husband’s shed. She could see the flicker of sparks coming out from underneath the door. Not standing on ceremony, Nefertari flung open the door to find Padma and Rafi, complete with goggles, bent over something trapped in a vice. When she entered both heads snapped up in unison, and she stared into four, round, dark green lenses.

“Boys,” she stated in a heavy voice, “we have trouble.”

***

The ride to Fox and Collin’s apartment seemed to take far too long. Padma drove as fast as he could legally, while Nefertari stared anxiously out the passenger window. Rafi was belted up in the middle of the back seat, sitting forward to balance a hand on each of the front seats.

“I don’t get it,” Rafi repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Weren’t they seeing a shrink or something?”

“Marriage counsellor,” Padma corrected.

“Why? They weren’t married.”

“They may as well have been,” Padma said, fingers tightening on the steering wheel until his knuckles went white.

There was a pause until Rafi cleared his throat unnecessarily loudly and continued. “Right, so, counsellor. Wasn’t that all going... I don’t know... well?”

“They were going twice a week,” Nefertari put in.

“Twice a week don’t mean everything is going well, unless you’re talking about sex,” Rafi murmured.

The front seat remained silent in response. Rafi sighed and drummed his fingers on the back of Padma’s headrest.

Nefertari turned away from the window to address her husband and Rafi. “Now there’s a few things you need to do,” Nefertari cast a pointed glance out of the corner of her eye towards the backseat, “and not do.”

“Why did you look at me when you said that?” Rafi asked, raising a sharp eyebrow. Nefertari ignored him and continued.

“Do what needs to be done. I assume he wanted the trailer to move his things out... so help. Tell him that he’s going to be ok, but don’t name a particular timeframe. Don’t badmouth Collin, that’s not going to help.” Nefertari sighed. “There are no bad guys in this situation. Just hurt souls.”

Padma and Rafi murmured agreement, and Nefertari sighed.

“What did he sound like?” Padma asked after a few minutes of silence.

Nefertari pressed two fingers into her right temple, eyebrows drawn together. “Broken.”

Padma floored the accelerator.

***

They arrived at the apartment in record time. Padma spearheaded the charge upstairs, taking two steps with each long stride. By the time Nefertari and Rafi caught up, Fox’s apartment door down the corridor was already visibly open.

Nefertari walked across the threshold, but stopped so suddenly at the sight before her that Rafi ran headlong into her back. He nearly made a rude comment rather loudly, but was hushed quickly.

In the middle of the living room, Padma had his arms wrapped around Fox as he rested his head on Padma’s shoulder. Nefertari watched her husband run his fingers through their son’s dark hair, murmuring to him in a voice far too soft for her to hear from the door.

It was then that the first of Nefertari’s tears began to fall. She walked over to the duo softly, trying not to disturb them. Padma’s face was set with grim determination, jaw clenched tightly. Nefertari reached out to gently touch Fox’s back.

Fox lifted his head a little and opened red-rimmed eyes. He looked at his mother once before drawing in a shuddering breath. “Mom,” he got out before whatever else he had planned to say dissolved into sobs.

“Kailen,” Nefertari said before Fox and Padma pulled her into their embrace. Fox’s body was bowed between them, curled over in grief. They let him cry his heartache out between them, offering words of love and comfort, supporting him physically when his knees buckled briefly.

It didn’t take long for the tears to stop. Fox straightened his posture, wiping his face with the sleeve of his shirt. “Hadn’t cried until you got here,” he said, staring at the wall.

“I know, baby,” Nefertari said, stroking his arm.

Fox didn’t say anything for the next few moments; he just stood there between his parents. It seemed to Nefertari that he was slowly drawing strength from their combined presence, and for that she was glad.

“Did you bring the trailer?” Fox asked unexpectedly.

“Yes,” Padma replied. “What’s happening with it?”

Fox sniffled, still staring at a blank spot on the opposite wall. “Got to load as much of my stuff onto it as possible. Collin--“ the name made his voice hitch for a moment “-- is staying somewhere else for the time being, giving me a chance to move out.”

“How gentlemanly,” Padma said. Nefertari glared at him, having heard the very faint sneer that accompanied the words. If Fox heard it too, he ignored it.

“I figure I can get most of my stuff out today and tomorrow and move back home--“ Fox stopped abruptly and looked from Padma to Nefertari nervously. “It is ok to come back for a while, isn’t it?”

“Of course, son,” Padma affirmed. “For as long as you want.”

Fox exhaled a sigh of relief Nefertari figured he probably hadn’t even realised he’d been holding in.

A soft murmuring caught her attention from the side of the room. Looking to the side, Nefertari saw Rafi talking to someone who had at least a foot over him in the height department. From Fox’s descriptions, it could only be Derringer. Nefertari kissed Fox’s cheek and gently disentangled herself from her menfolk to approach them.

For someone who was clearly the tallest man in the room, Derringer looked like he was trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible.

“Hello, ma’am,” he said shyly.

“There’ll be none of that,” Nefertari said firmly. “Please, call me ‘Nefertari’.”

“Alright,” he replied with a tentative smile.

“Or she’s liable to hurt you,” Rafi grinned, a cigarette clenched between his teeth. He dodged a poorly aimed swat and wandered over to talk to Fox and Padma, leaving Nefertari with Derringer.

“Thank you for being here for him,” Nefertari said as she watched Rafi give Fox a commiserating half-hug.

Derringer shrugged. “I didn’t do anything, really. We were going to meet today anyway, after the counselling appointment. I arrived to pick him up and... well...” the tall blond gestured helplessly.

Nefertari frowned. “Do you know what happened?”

Derringer screwed up his face, shaking his head. “No details. It wasn’t a good session, I don’t think. They were angry at one another. Collin told Fox that they were done.”

“Do you know where Collin is now?”

“Staying at a friend’s, apparently. He’s giving Fox time to move his stuff out.” Derringer cast a sympathetic look to Fox. “I think that if they’re not going to be together, neither of them wants to live in the place where they had so many memories together.”

“I understand,” Nefertari said quietly. She noticed that the old sofa they’d given the boys as a housewarming present was folded out into a bed, sheets rumpled.

Derringer followed her eyeline and spoke softly. “Fox had been sleeping out here, I don’t know how long for.” He scratched the back of his head in a puzzled fashion. “I didn’t have much to do with Collin... he didn’t like me, and I have to say, the feeling was mutual. But Fox loved him, and I’m a big believer in that. I believe that unlikely people can fall in love and make it work.”

“Thing is, they never used to be that unlikely,” Nefertari answered quietly. Turning to Derringer, she gave him the best smile she could under the circumstances. “I’m sorry, all I seem to be doing today is asking you for things, but would you be able to go downstairs with Rafi and bring up the boxes and newspapers we have in the back of the trailer for packing?”

“No problem. I’m just grateful I can be of use.”

The smile came easier then, and Nefertari gave Derringer a hug. “He is lucky to have a friend like you on his side.”

Derringer blushed and hesitantly wrapped large arms around her for a few moments. Nefertari decided that the odd stories Fox had told her about the photographer were rendered null and void with the simple act of him being there. She caught Rafi’s eye, who approached again, holding the keys.

“You and Derringer head down to the trailer and bring the boxes up.” Derringer nodded and headed to the door straight away, followed by Rafi. It made her smile in an odd little way; they looked like the makings of a comedy duo. When they were gone, she turned to the remaining men. “I’ll brew some coffee. Fox, does brewed still make you a little odd?”

Fox gave the faintest of smiles. “No more than usual.”

Nefertari sighed with relief. “Good. I couldn’t stand that decaf garbage you were drinking. Real coffee it is.”

Going into the kitchen, she pottered around looking for the coffee and rinsing out the glass pot. Soft murmurs came from the living area, but they were too low to make out exactly what her son and husband were saying to each other. She saw Padma put a comforting hand on the back of Fox’s neck, their faces so close together she thought their foreheads might actually be touching. Nefertari found herself having to turn away to dull the ache in her chest.

 

By the time a fresh pot was ready, Rafi and Derringer had loaded the living room with a few dozen boxes, newspapers, bubble wrap and packing tape. Fox stood next to his father, stared at the door and sipped from a black mug proclaiming ‘One by one the penguins slowly steal my sanity’.

 

Nefertari began to delegate. “Derringer, if you can start assembling some boxes, you and Rafi can take care of the living room. If in doubt, put it aside, I’m sure Fox can tell you what’s his. Wrap breakables in newspaper or tissue, and pack carefully. Don’t forget to label the boxes with their contents, too.”

“Got it, doll.” Rafi nodded and elbowed Derringer to get to work.

“Great.” Nefertari clapped her hands together. “Padma, can you look after the kitchen and laundry room?”

“Of course,” Padma answered, taking a box and kissing his wife on the cheek.

She turned towards her son. “Fox-kit, take a few boxes and hit your study, ok? After you’re done, I’m sure it won’t take much time to do the bathroom.”

“Ok. Great. But what about--“ Fox began.

Nefertari was fairly sure where his line of questioning was headed. “I’m going to do your bedroom.”

A faint sigh escaped Fox’s lips that seemed to be equal parts despair and relief. He shrugged and looked at the floor. “All right.”

Nefertari approached him, wrapping her arms around his narrow waist. “If you need help, call someone.” Fox didn’t answer, save to kiss the top of her hair, and disappear into the study with a few boxes.

Nefertari briefly watched Derringer and Rafi pick action figures off a dvd shelf before grabbing some boxes for herself and heading into her son’s bedroom.

She’d never been in this room a whole lot... sometimes she’d come over and helped with the laundry while Collin was busy and Fox had a deadline to meet just to help out a little, and ended up putting a load of clean clothes in their bedroom. That had been the extent of her journeys into the room, however.

It seemed to be quite similar to the last time she’d been in there; still pale blue walls with white trim, two large brown cherrywood wardrobes and a matching chest of drawers, queen-size bed with a tasteful navy and white quilt set. Not pristine, but tidy nonetheless.

Nefertari put her hands on her hips, wondering where to start. After a moment’s perusal, she figured she’d begin with the things Fox would need the most -- clothes.

That, at least, was straightforward. She could pick Fox’s style out anyway, but he was also thinner than Collin, which made the distinction easier. The drawers were emptied easily enough of shirts, shorts, underwear, socks. Nefertari folded each of the garments quickly and placed them into the box.

The wardrobe presented a little more of a challenge. Not only was it a place of more clothes, but more personal effects. Nefertari set up two new boxes -- one for clothes and items Fox would require in the very near future, the other for items to be packed away and opened at a much later date. She didn’t want Fox to be looking for a shirt and come across a photograph that might trigger a downward slump.

As per the drawers, clothes presented an easy challenge as the two types and sizes were easy to discern. It wasn’t until she hit the shoebox at the bottom of Fox’s side of the wardrobe that the job began to get more difficult.

Nefertari picked up the box and sat on the corner of the bed. There was an element of intrusion inherent in what she was doing that she disliked, but the alternative was to either let her husband do it, or Fox.

Padma, though approving and happy for both young men, didn’t have as much tact when it came to the intimate side of Fox’s relationship, and Fox was in too delicate a state to deal with personal effects. Rafi was not an option, so it fell to her.

Opening the box with trepidation, Nefertari pored through the trinkets. There were a few movie ticket stubs, assorted bits of paper with writing and drawings on them, a polaroid from some kind of music festival, a cheap red devil -- the kind that were found in abundance on Valentine’s day -- a small clay statue, clippings from a catalogue.

Nefertari pulled the photograph out and looked at it, where two teenaged boys grinned up at her from the slightly creased paper. They looked so happy that her head began to hurt. She sighed and replaced it.

The clippings from the catalogue in a plastic sleeve seemed at odds with the obvious sentimentality of the box, until Nefertari looked closely at the photographs used. They were of Collin, from the time he’d modelled in a photoshoot to earn extra money in a time of financial crisis.

Some writing in the corner caught her eye, and she realised Collin had signed it. She couldn’t imagine him doing it of his own accord, knowing how embarrassed he’d been about the shoot in the first place (she wasn’t even meant to know about it). It said To my biggest fan, with lots of sexy love, Collin. Nefertari couldn’t help a small smile, positive that he’d been coached into exactly what to write, as well.

Replacing the catalogue pages, she fit the lid back over the shoebox and put the entire thing in her ‘much, much later’ packing box.

Nefertari worked methodically through the rest of the wardrobe; trinkets, photos and albums went into that particular box, while general possessions and clothes went into others. Things she was unsure about, she left at the bottom of the wardrobe.

She heard the occasional thump and grabs of conversation from the living room, words being exchanged between Padma, Rafi and Derringer. When Padma came into the bedroom with a fresh cup of coffee, he informed her that Fox was still in his study. There were quite a few books and papers that needed to be collected, and the job was taking a while.

 

It took another hour of packing before she neared the finish. Most of Fox’s possessions were likely to be in his study or the living room. But there was one last bastion of privacy to conquer -- the bedside table.

 

Nefertari sat on the bed once again, exhaled slowly and opened the drawer. The top drawer was fairly innocuous; a few detective novels, The Story of O, some understandable tubes of an intimate nature, half a pack of cigarettes, three pens, a half-finished crossword book and a still-unopened twinkie; nothing too hard to partition into the boxes, or to throw away.

The bottom drawer was somewhat more bittersweet. There were a few more scattered photographs (some dating back to elementary school), a miniature flipbook, some old birthday cards, and a blue and black beaded necklace with a broken clasp.

Nefertari recognised the items as being significant. Quickly and without fuss, she placed everything from the bottom drawer with the other mementos.

“Hope it wasn’t too bad,” Fox’s voice came from the doorway, startling Nefertari just as she sealed the boxes. She jumped and touched her heart. “Sorry,” Fox apologised, entering the room sheepishly.

“You don’t have to apologise, darling,” she said, opening both arms to him. Fox chose to take one hand and squeeze it. He kept a firm grip on her hand and sat down on the bed next to her. “It wasn’t too bad,” Nefertari answered his question softly, patting the back of his hand comfortingly.

Fox glanced at his empty drawers, and a distressed expression crossed his face. “You didn’t throw anything out, did you?” He began to get up in a near panic.

“Only packed, not thrown away,” Nefertari assured him, pulling him back down to sit. “It’s not my place to do that.”

Fox heaved a shuddering sigh, and stared at his hands, lapsing into silence.

Nefertari studied his profile with empathy. “How did it go in your study?”

“Okay,” he admitted. “Got my computer and personal papers from the filing cabinet sorted. Still have to pack the books, but they’re all mine in there, anyway, so it’s not hard.”

“Maybe you can break up the monotony by doing some work in the bathroom? I’m sure there’s not much to collect there?”

“Yeah,” Fox murmured.

Silence descended again, and Nefertari’s thumb rubbed the back of Fox’s hand in what was hopefully a soothing manner.

“I-- I didn’t think--“ Fox began out of the blue. He stopped abruptly, re-thinking his words and trying again. “This wasn’t how I thought things were going to go.”

“How long have you been sleeping on the couch?”

Fox’s eyes widened for a moment before he shrugged. “Guess that was pretty obvious. A couple of weeks, maybe? Give or take a day.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Nefertari asked.

“That’s all we’ve been doing at the counsellor,” Fox spat bitterly. “I’m tired of talk.”

Nefertari shrugged helplessly, her hand stilling its movement on his. “I’m sorry, Kailen.”

Fox sighed and shook his head. “Didn’t mean to snap, I’m sorry. Not your fault.” He punctuated the statement by wrapping an arm around his mother’s shoulders. She leaned into him, sliding her arm around his waist.

There was silence for a little while, before Fox began again. “The counselling sessions started off well... I-- we all thought that progress was going to be made. And for a while, it seemed like it was.

“But the deeper the counsellor prodded, the worse it got. Collin would bring up stuff -- old stuff, arguments from years back -- as justification for his behaviour. I’m not saying I’m perfect, because I know I’m not, but it all seemed so... petty. I thought the point of counselling was to move past things, not dredge up every grievance so the counsellor can adjudicate as to ‘who did more stuff wrong’. He said he’d always forgive but not forget, but in reality? He never forgave me.”

Fox’s words began slow and stilted, but gained confidence and cohesion as he continued. “And I began to realise there were two sets of rules; one for me and one for him.” Fox turned and faced his mother. “I hate that he got outed in the paper, it was embarrassing and intrusive for him, I get
that. But that was my fault, apparently. And yet, the day before I kissed him on the cheek in public that got photographed, he’d been making this big deal about me not thinking enough about gestures; gestures that showed him I was thinking of him.

“Or he could be mad at me, and rather than tell me exactly why he was mad, I’d get him saying ‘you should know’. And if I didn’t get it, he’d just get madder. I mean, what’s so hard about telling me?” Fox gave a mirthless laugh. “I knew him well, but that didn’t mean I could figure out every single bug that flew up his ass to set him off.”

Fox sobered, the fists resting on his knees beginning to go white-knuckled. “He also started acting odd. Did you know he got in touch with his dad again?” Nefertari shook her head, biting back a knee-jerk scathing comment. Jerry Sri’Vastra was a hard and manipulative man who disliked her son vehemently, and she in turn greatly despised him. “After a while,” Fox continued, breaking her out of her reverie, “I realised I didn’t know him as well as I used to. I didn’t know him at all anymore.”

When he stopped and didn’t continue, Nefertari prompted, “What happened today?”

Fox cocked his head to the side, and his neck clicked painfully. “Today was another day of rehashed arguments and old news. We drove back here in silence, but as soon as we got into the apartment, it started up again. He got pissed at me for being oblivious, I yelled at him for not confiding his issues in me instead of letting them fester... Same song, same tune. And then he just... stopped.” Nefertari watched Fox blink repeatedly, as though fighting off extra moisture in his eyes. “And he said ‘this isn’t going to work’, and I said-- and I said--“

Fox grit his teeth in a valiant attempt not to cry. He rested his forehead in one hand and breathed raggedly, stemming any tears that might’ve fallen. Nefertari rubbed his back and wrapped her small hand around his, trying to give as much comfort as she possibly could.

“It doesn’t matter what I said,” Fox answered when he’d composed himself. “There was no difference to be made.”

“Are you sure?” Nefertari asked. “I’m not saying this to get your hopes up, or delude you, but... are you absolutely sure there’s nothing to be done?”

Fox turned to her, his eyes filmed over and looking decidedly empty. “He doesn’t love me anymore, Mom.”

Nefertari’s bottom lip quavered at the admission. “Oh, Kailen,” she said, pressing her cheek against his shoulder.

“It’s ok, really,” Fox said, hugging his mother close.

“You’re wrong, Fox-kit,” Nefertari said and looked up at her son. She cradled his face in her palms. “It’s not ok, but it will be.

Padma chose that moment to pop his head around the door. “I’m not interrupting, am I?” Fox quickly wiped his eyes and sat up straighter.

“You’re fine, darling,” Nefertari smiled at her husband. “What’s up?”

Stepping into the doorway, Padma leaned against its frame. “I’ve done the kitchen and laundry. The guys out here have finished the living room -- apart from a few items that need Fox’s confirmation -- and they’re now playing with the packing tape gun. Are you done in here?”

Fox glanced around at his personal life boxed up in cardboard and sighed. Nefertari gave him a sympathetic look and answered. “Done in here, I think there’s just the bathroom to go.”

“Not much in there,” Fox added, “it’ll only take me fifteen minutes.”

“Ok,” Padma nodded. “Would you like some help anyway?”

Fox stood slowly and scratched his arm. “No, it really won’t take me long.”

Nefertari stood as well and motioned Padma to collect the boxes she’d packed. “All right. Well, I’ll brew another pot of coffee. Will you call us if you need anything?”

“Sure,” Fox answered, and took an empty box into the bathroom.

Padma exchanged concerned looks with his wife and grunted as he picked up a box of clothes. Nefertari took to sliding one of the others over the carpet to get it into the living room.

“Did you find out anything?” Padma whispered when he put down his cargo.

“I did. But I’ll tell you later,” she said, casting a horrified look to where Rafi was trying to help Derringer get a bunched up wad of packing tape out of his hair without ripping it. She shrugged and went over to assist. By the time she’d saved his blond tresses from being ruined, Fox was exiting the bathroom.

“It’s done,” Fox said. Rafi and Derringer’s scuffling and banter ceased, and everyone looked up. Fox winced slightly, seemingly uncomfortable with all the attention. He put his box down and scratched his arm awkwardly.

Nefertari took charge once again. “Right. Rafi and Padma can start loading boxes onto the trailer. There might be more here than can comfortably fit, so load up the most necessary ones first, like the boxes for clothes and bathroom supplies.” Padma nodded in agreement, and elbowed Rafi.

“Now I think there were some things out here Derringer needed your help with,” Nefertari continued, pointing to a stack of dvds and cds. “Would you mind lending a hand there?”

“S’fine,” Fox answered, sitting down cross-legged on the carpet next to the large pile. Derringer sat next to him with an empty box.

“I’m going to do that final coffee-brew, does anyone want another?”

“Yes, please,” Derringer smiled.

“Had enough, thanks,” Fox answered.

Nefertari went to the kitchen to get the pot brewing again, more for something to keep her hands busy than anything else. She heard Fox and Derringer speaking in low voices as they sorted through his very diverse media collection.

It took around half an hour for Rafi and Padma to get Fox’s boxes sorted, and by that time it was late in the afternoon.

A stray thought occurred to Nefertari. “Oh! Do you need to call your work, Fox?”

Fox looked up from packing his Gorillaz cds into a box. “They called me earlier, after I didn’t go back to the office. Since it’s Thursday, they’ve given me tomorrow off.”

“Oh, that’s very decent of them, especially since you haven’t been there long,” Nefertari commented, silently vowing to renew their subscription to The Herald Post.

“Yeah, but I have to be back and ready to go on Monday.”

Nefertari squeezed his hands encouragingly. “You will be fine to go back to work on Monday.”

Fox nodded, but didn’t look convinced.

“Most of the boxes are in the trailer, save for two or three from the study and bedroom,” Padma announced. “I’m not sure what’s to be done with the furniture, though.”

“A lot was already here when we moved in, save for the bed, some bookshelves and the fold-out,” Fox said.

“Well, that’s alright. Nobody said they had to be gotten all in the one go. It’s more important to get your clothes and belongings out first, we can sort the furniture out next time.” She turned to the assembled men. “Shall we make a move, then?” Nefertari asked. Padma nodded, but then looked to Fox for approval.

Fox looked at the mostly-bare walls in silence for a few long moments. “Let’s go,” he confirmed.

They filed out of the apartment quietly. Fox was the last one out, and locked the door. Nefertari looked away when Fox’s hand trembled on the doorknob.

Outside on the kerb, they stood in a little circle. Nefertari broke the silence once again. “I don’t know about you, but I think I could devour an early supper.” Rafi and Padma nodded eagerly, Fox shrugged.

Nefertari turned to Derringer. “Would you like to join us?”

Derringer beamed. “That’s so kind, but I do have a prior engagement.”

Nefertari nodded. “I understand. Thank you so much for helping, Derringer.” She gave the giant blond a tight squeeze. He returned the hug, folding his long arms around her.

“If it’s all right, can I stop by tomorrow to see how he’s doing?” Derringer asked in a low voice.

“Of course,” Nefertari beamed at him, “let me write down our address.” She dug in her purse for a scrap of paper and they traded address and phone numbers.

He shook hands with Rafi and Padma solemnly, and gave Fox the same kind of all-encompassing hug he’d given Nefertari. Fox looked embarrassed, but returned it slightly all the same. With a final wave, he got into his little car and drove off.

Just as Nefertari was about to open her mouth, Fox said something instead.

“Can I have a minute?” he asked unexpectedly.

“Of course,” Nefertari said. “We’ll wait for you in the car.”

She shooed Padma and Rafi towards the car, gesturing for Rafi to take the front passenger seat this time. Nefertari watched covertly through the window as Fox stood on the path and stared up to the third floor.

It probably wasn’t long in the scheme of things -- five minutes at the absolute most -- but it felt like hours. Just when Nefertari was about to send Padma out to ask if Fox was coming, her son’s shoulders dropped in what was presumably a sigh, and he turned towards the car. He opened the back door and slid in next to his mother.

“Ready?” asked Padma gently.

“Does it matter?” he replied, clicking his seatbelt. Padma caught Nefertari’s eyes in the rear-view mirror; she could see his thick eyebrows draw together with concern.

She reached her hand out and put it on top of his, giving him ample opportunity to pull away if he so desired. Fox turned away from the window and shuffled closer to the middle, placing his head on her shoulder.

It stayed there for the entire trip home.

***

When they got back to the house, Nefertari urged Padma and Rafi to keep Fox busy while she fixed something to eat. She knew her son would drift off somewhere and probably not come out again if he was allowed to wander off on his own.

Nefertari got to work making her famous meatloaf while the boys unpacked Fox’s belongings and took them into the garage. Padma then took Fox to his workshop while Rafi was roped into helping by setting the table.

“Have you had the chance to talk to Fox?” Nefertari asked.

“Not much,” Rafi said, placing the silverware down carefully. “He mentioned something about getting th’ lease transferred back into my name.”

Nefertari paused. “Was the apartment put in both their names when you let them move in?”

“Think so.”

“Not that I’m not happy to have him home -- save for the awful circumstances, of course -- but I wish he could keep living there,” Nefertari said as she put on oven mitts.

“Me too, doll, but upkeep’s too expensive in that part of town for one person. It’s definitely a two-income apartment.”

Nefertari gave him a sidelong glance. “You never did tell me how you’re able to afford the place and not even live there, you know.”

Rafi grinned the only way Rafi knew how -- with all of his teeth. “And spoil the mystery?”

She smiled at him before the situation became present in her mind once again. “Rafi... I know we’ve known each other for years, but I still feel this is a really impertinent question to ask... Could you help him stay? Financially, that is?”

Rafi’s grin fell and in a rare moment of sentiment, he took his glasses off. “Of course I could. I did offer, while he was cleanin’ out his study. But he don’t want to accept any charity. I know, I know, I don’t consider it charity, it’s like giving money to blood, but he’s bein’ stubborn and proud. Stupid if you ask me.”

Nefertari gave a weak smile, and Rafi continued, cleaning smudges from his lenses with the hem of his shirt. “Still, puttin’ aside that he could still live there if he wants to... he don’t want to live there no more. Because of... y’know.” Rafi described the emotional imprint of their relationship on the apartment with a vague wave.

“I know,” Nefertari said quietly. She watched Rafi clear his throat and slip his glasses back onto his face.

Padma and Fox walked into the kitchen then, and the subject was dropped.

Dinner was a rather sedate affair. Fox’s normally impressive appetite was down to less than half, and he picked at his food like a fussy child. Nefertari kept trying to tempt him with more, but Padma gave her a subtle shake of his head. Conversation included Padma talking about the odd dream he’d had last week where snowmen beat off a zombie army attack -- hence his recent experiments in the field of snow development -- and Rafi and Nefertari discussing Dancing With The Stars.

By the time they got to dessert, Fox excused himself to go watch some TV. Nefertari fought the urge to keep Fox at the table; he needed a little space. Plus, watching TV was good. Watching TV was not unhealthily ostracising himself and being self-destructive. Nefertari and Rafi paraphrased to Padma what they’d talked about while he’d been keeping Fox occupied. Padma nodded and ate his ice cream thoughtfully.

After dessert, Padma and Rafi disappeared into the study, and Nefertari decided to make some hot cocoa for Fox, thinking he’d had enough coffee for one day. She made him a large mug, popping a few marshmallows in for good measure, and headed into their living room.

“Fox-kit, I have cocoa,” she announced over the sounds of Deadliest Catch, but there was no answer.

Nefertari walked to where Fox lay on the couch. His left leg dangled off the side of the cushions, right arm lying across his eyes.

“Fox-kit?” Nefertari asked again. She put the cocoa down on the coffee table and gently rubbed her fingers on his arm. Fox jerked suddenly and half-sat up in surprise, and Nefertari reared back a little. When he saw who it was, he blinked blearily and lay back down, eyes falling shut. “I’m sorry, honey,” Nefertari apologised, “I didn’t realise you were sleeping.”

“Naw, just resting my eyes,” he answered, voice rough.

“Uh-huh,” Nefertari replied, not convinced at all. “Maybe you should turn in early tonight?”

Fox opened his eyes quickly. “I’m not that tired, really.”

“You’re exhausted,” Nefertari corrected, cupping his face.

“Seriously, I’m fine,” Fox pushed himself back up into a sitting position and folded his arms. She recognised the telltale stubborn jut of his chin. Ever the expert at dealing with Maharassa men, she approached him from another angle.

“All right, no sleep yet. But maybe it’d be nice to have a nice, hot shower and get into pyjamas before you lie down again? That way you’ll be comfortable. Just in case you do fall asleep.”

Fox looked at her for a shrewd moment, before acquiescing. “I suppose that’s not a bad idea,” he admitted.

“Of course it’s not. Take your cocoa upstairs and get in the shower before your Uncle uses up all the hot water.”

Nodding distractedly, Fox got up. He nearly walked away without saying anything else to Nefertari, but turned on his heel suddenly and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “I love you,” he said into her hair before trudging upstairs.

When Padma came into the living room a moment later, he found Nefertari on the sofa, weeping into her hands.

“Oh, Bunny,” he exclaimed, sinking into the seat next to her, arms going around her immediately. “What is it?”

“I’m ok, really Padma,” Nefertari hiccuped, wiping her eyes. “I’m just expelling some pent-up emotion. It’s been a trying day.”

“I know,” Padma said, pulling Nefertari back to nestle her in his arms. “Where is he now?”

“I sent him upstairs to have a hot shower and get into his pj’s.”

“Good idea,” Padma said. He allowed Nefertari to tuck her head into his shoulder, and he responded by resting his cheek on top of her soft hair. They stayed quiet for a while, before Padma spoke again. “We hadn’t seen the boys lately, I didn’t know it was this bad.”

Nefertari sighed softly. “I think in the last few years, too much went wrong for them to be able to repair.”

“Like what?” Padma asked.

Nefertari frowned as she composed her thoughts. “No one could ever argue that Fox’s heart isn’t in the right place, but good intentions don’t always make for good outcomes.”

“I know,” he said, “but no matter what, he didn’t deserve this. Again.”

Nefertari nodded, remembering all-too-well the last time Fox’s heart had been broken. “Seems like so long ago,” she commented.

“High school, wasn’t it?” Padma queried, and Nefertari nodded. “I can’t believe Dinah broke up with him right after prom...”

“Thus began the week of not bathing, and being ensconced in his room, listening to country music.” Nefertari couldn’t suppress a shudder.

“I didn’t think I could ever get sick of Willie Nelson, but that nearly did it for me.” A deep frown creased Padma’s forehead. “This feels different, though.”

“Of course it is. When you break up with someone as a teenager, you’re still only just starting out at life, and have so much more growing to do. Fox had already grown into and established his life with Collin... and now that’s all gone. He has to start again.”

“And what’s more, he has to be mature about it.” The concept sounded utterly distasteful to Padma. “I hate that he’s been so badly hurt.”

“I don’t think it was intentional, though. I just think...” Nefertari tried to find the right words. “Boys grew into men, and the men they grew into didn’t fit together anymore.”

They lapsed into silence again. The revelation in itself nearly came as a surprise to her. Collin and Fox possessed strengths and traits the other didn’t, and that had made them the perfect partnership for two decades.

But she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t noticed a growing rift in the last 18 months or so. Money troubles had been one of many real life woes that had put pressure on their relationship, both interpersonally and romantically. In a way, Nefertari felt she shouldered some of the blame for not realising the seriousness of the decline, as the boys had had less and less time to visit them.

She found herself wondering if there was anything her family could have done to salvage their relationship.

Padma stroking his hands through Nefertari’s loose hair. Nefertari lost track of how long they sat together until Rafi came downstairs, newly showered and drying his hair with a towel.

“You folks turning in, or what?” he asked, poking the towel into his ear.

Nefertari sat up and stretched. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to turn in early. Tomorrow’s going to be another emotional day, I expect.”

Padma grunted his assent, and gently pushed Nefertari into a standing position by her waist, before getting up. They moved to the stairs, Nefertari kissing Rafi on the cheek goodnight on the way.

A light was still on in Fox’s room, visible from the landing. Nefertari glanced at Padma before she knocked gently on the wood of his ajar door.

“Fox?” she asked, to no reply.

Padma pushed the door open to find Fox passed out in exhaustion on the covers of his bed. He’d gotten into a pair of summer pyjamas, but only barely, as it seemed he hadn’t done the buttons up on the shirt before he’d fallen asleep.

Nefertari looked at her husband, whose eyes were infinitely sad. Each moved to a side of the bed, where Padma half-lifted his son off the covers, and Nefertari wiggled the quilt out from underneath him. Fox was out deeply enough that he didn’t do more than stir slightly as he was covered up. He looked worn out and sad, brow furrowed even in sleep.

Nefertari kissed her son on the forehead, and Padma did the same, before turning off the light and leaving him to sleep away his exhaustion and hopefully, some of his grief.

***

Despite going to bed at a relatively early hour, Nefertari woke mid-morning to an empty bed and the smell of pastries. She sniffed the air again wondering if she were imagining things.

Definitely pastry.

She got out of bed and found her slippers and robe, and headed out of her bedroom. Fox’s bedroom door was shut, so she decided to investigate the delicious aromas from downstairs before potentially disturbing her son.

Nefertari rounded the corner to the kitchen to take in what appeared to be the oddest cooking class she’d ever seen.

Derringer was in her kitchen, bending over a baking tray, a look of concentration on his face. On either side of him, Padma and Rafi also leaned close, wearing matching expressions, and matching aprons. She did, however, recognise the addition of the goggles and gloves they usually wore out in Padma’s shed. Derringer seemed to have picked up a spare set of goggles as well, perching them on top of his blond head. She soon became aware that the photographer seemed to be giving instructions, and listened in.

“...so then what you want to do is spoon the cream cheese mixture down the centre of the dough in this little strip about an inch wide, but make sure you stop about half an inch from the narrow end. Then the apricot filling gets spooned in on either side of the cream cheese, like so...”

Derringer proceeded to demonstrate his instructions, while Rafi looked enraptured, and Padma took notes on a clipboard. The delicious smell came from an apparently completed batch of apple danishes that were sitting on the bench.

“So this is my competition,” she announced from the doorway. Padma and Rafi jumped up, both looking decidedly guilty. Nefertari sauntered into her kitchen and picked up one of the danishes. The pastry was delightfully golden, soft and crumbly to the touch. She took a little bite while all the men looked on in trepidation.

“This is good,” she said, chewing it slowly, and turning to Derringer. “I’m going to have to kill you. Nobody makes better food than me in my kitchen.”

Padma’s slightly concerned look faded in the face of the incredibly happy expression Nefertari couldn’t hide while eating the danish. Derringer grinned happily at the compliment, and Padma kissed her cheek. “Good morning, Starshine,” he greeted, handing her a fresh cup of coffee.

“This is a good morning,” she said, sitting at the kitchen table. “Nice to see you again, Derringer. How long have you been here?”

“Long enough to make kickass apple danishes, and follow it up with a batch of apricot ones, too,” Rafi put in, snagging another apple danish, before Derringer slapped his hand away.

“About an hour,” he corrected. “I thought Fox might like some pastry, and buying it from the bakery seemed so impersonal...”

She hadn’t forgotten -- not by a long shot -- but the mention sobered Nefertari instantly, and she put her coffee cup down. “Has anyone seen him yet this morning?”

“No,” Padma said solemnly. “I peeked in this morning just enough to see that he was still in bed, but didn’t want to disturb him.”

Nefertari nodded. “It’s only a little after 10, we should let him rest a bit longer.” All the men nodded their agreement. “So...” Nefertari said, standing up to walk towards to bench. “What do you do after you spoon out the apricot?

***

Nefertari walked upstairs with purpose. It was creeping closer to midday by the second, and they still hadn’t heard a peep out of Fox. He’d been in his bedroom for a good 16 hours, and no matter how much sleep he needed, Nefertari doubted it was quite that much.

She reached the closed door and knocked on it confidently. When there was no answer, she exhaled a short, sharp breath and went ahead and turned the doorknob.

The first thing she noticed was that the room was in slightly more disarray than it had been the previous night. There were some books and belongings on the floor, and two of his old dresser drawers were open. The faint odour of cigarette smoke clung to the room, even though the window was open.

There was still a long lump underneath the quilt. Fox was turned on his side, facing away from the door.

Nefertari went and sat on the edge of the bed, Fox facing away from her, eyes still shut. She touched his arm to no response.

“Your father and uncle are downstairs with Derringer making pastry. It’s rather amusing to watch, to say the least. Maybe you should get dressed and come down.”

Nothing.

“You know how I feel about you smoking indoors.”

Still nothing.

“Thing is, second-hand smoke is bad for babies, and I think I might be pregnant.” Pause. “It’s your Uncle Rafi’s.”

Fox opened his eyes without moving any other part of his body. “Now that was just going too far,” he said.

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” Nefertari smiled a little, putting her hand in the middle of his back between his shoulder blades, and rubbing softly. “I think it might be time to get up.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“I know, Fox-kit. But you’re going to have to eat.” She scrunched up her nose. “And have a shower. You didn’t have one last night, did you?”

No response.

“I know you don’t want to get up, honey, but you can’t hide in here all day.”

Fox turned towards her then, looking angry and sullen. “I’m not hiding.”

“All right, not hiding, perse but... avoiding the world.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Nefertari shook her head. “You can’t do that forever.”

The anger melted from Fox’s face. He had dark circles under glassy-looking eyes. “I’m not asking for forever. I’m just asking for a day.”

Nefertari sighed and rested her chin on her right hand. “A day, huh?”

Fox shimmied to sit up in bed, back resting against his headboard. He drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping long, dark arms around them.

“Mom, my head is so jumbled now. It’s a mess. Feels worse than yesterday. I just need--“ he searched for the words. “I just need a break.” He sighed and rested his forehead against his knees. “I know I can’t afford a big one. Hell, I’m not established at The Herald Post, yet. But if I have to start looking for a new apartment and a whole new fucking life tomorrow... I just need today to-- to--“

“Wallow?” Nefertari supplied.

“Yeah,” came Fox’s muffled voice.

“I don’t think anyone would begrudge you a day of wallowing, baby. But there are some conditions attached.”

Fox raised his face enough so that Nefertari could see his eyes. “Wallowing in this house doesn’t mean ‘poor personal hygiene’. You will take a shower, and you will eat at least three meals today, too. Also, this whole house is your wallowing zone, and you have just about used up your official quota in this room.”

“You’re harsh,” Fox commented, raising his head a little more.

“But fair,” Nefertari finished, ruffling his hair.

“And pregnant with my Uncle’s baby. Which, by the way, is something I never want to think about again,” Fox shuddered.

“It had the desired effect.”

“Yeah, the bile did rise a little in my throat.”

Nefertari smacked his leg lightly. “Horrid child. Your Uncle isn’t that bad.” She thought about it a little more. “He’s not that good, either, but he’s not that bad.”

 

Fox gave her the barest smiles, and Nefertari’s heart soared to see it. “Have you actually smelled the air coming from downstairs yet?” she remarked. Fox gave her a funny look, but took a deliberate sniff all the same. In response, his stomach gurgled noisily, and he looked embarrassed.

 

“I’d say after that shower -- which you are taking now, by the way -- you just might be ready for some food.”

“Maybe I’ll get down there in time to see the hilarity that is the pastry-making,” he ventured.

Nefertari kissed his cheek. “It is cabaret in the truest sense of the word.”

***

Fox did make it downstairs in time to see Rafi’s argument with Padma as to whether his attempt at pastry was ‘deliciously crispy with just a hint of cinnamon’ or just ‘tasteless squares of mediocrity’.

“This is like an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares I saw once,” Fox remarked, much to Padma’s delight. Nefertari kissed her son’s temple and brewed him a pot of peppermint tea, which he drank absently as he watched the kitchen proceedings.

The rest of the day went much in the same way; the family went about their business, and Fox just hung out with them. Whether it was having a cigarette and drink with Rafi on the back porch, or helping Nefertari with the dishes, he didn’t say all that much, but gravitated towards the company.

Sometimes he would disappear into the corridors of their house, and Nefertari would find him sitting near a window, staring out of it. She left him there, knowing he needed the time alone to process his situation, but was grateful that he always rejoined the rest of his loved ones sooner or later.

Padma found the paper and looked at the apartment ads, circling a few likely candidates to inspect over the weekend. Derringer stayed until early afternoon. Nefertari kept him busy in the kitchen; she taught him how to make her nurse cookies, and he taught her how to make cappuccino cheesecake, both taking the opportunity to get to know each other a little better.

The day finished much as the previous had; Fox excused himself early and put himself to bed. Padma exchanged concerned looks with Nefertari, but she patted his hand. “He just needs a little more time.”

“I know, Bunny,” he sighed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I just wish we could do more.”

Over the weekend, Padma and Rafi went apartment hunting with Fox. It was a rather tiring job, and they came home both days looking exhausted. The hunt was called off early on Sunday, so Fox could prepare both physically and mentally to return to work on Monday.

Nefertari gently reminded her son that he might like to spend a little time on his appearance, making sure he looked the part of a reputable reporter for a reputable publication. Fox grudgingly ironed his shirt and made sure he dug the electric razor out of his bathroom supplies box for tomorrow.

At around 10pm on Sunday night, Nefertari went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea before bed, and found Fox at the kitchen table, poring over apartment listings in the newspaper. She observed his hunched back and furrowed brow as his hand circled another potential residence in red marker.

“Want some tea, or hot cocoa, Fox-kit?”

“No thanks,” Fox replied without looking up, pen poised over the various boxes of information.

Nefertari poured boiling water into her mug, before walking to the table. “Do you mind if I sit for a bit?”

“Go ahead.”

She waited for another few moments, but Fox’s concentration refused to be broken from his task.

“You don’t have to do this all on your own, you know,” she said.

“I’m not. Dad and Uncle Rafi are helping me,” Fox replied.

“That’s not what I meant.” She covered Fox’s hand with her own, and he finally looked up. “You know you can stay here as long as you want to. Why don’t you just take a little break and spend a month or two here? Your father and I don’t mind; we want to help. Take as long as you want, get yourself back on your feet.”

Fox sighed and put his pen down. “I need to get out.” Nefertari raised a delicate eyebrow. “I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Fox amended. “You know I love you guys more than anyone else on the planet, and I’m so grateful that I’ve got somewhere to come when I really need it. And I do, right now. But if I spent too long here...” he looked around the room, right hand rubbing his rough chin. “I feel like I’d get complacent. Like I’d be moving backwards or sideways instead of forwards. Right now I really need to feel like I’m going forwards.”

Nefertari listened quietly as Fox continued. “Who knows, it might even take me a couple of months to find a decent enough place, but I’ll be damned if I won’t spend that time looking. It’s... something I have to do.”

And she saw it, then. Beneath the layers of pain and crippling hurt, and the desperate want to just give up, there was a steely determination to fight, to keep going. His jaw was set, eyes tired, but clear. A lump rose in her throat.

“I’m so proud of you, Kailen,” she told him, moving forward to give him a hug. “You’re all grown up.”

“Thanks, mom,” he replied, sound muffled by her hair. He pulled back in time to see her quickly wipe some moisture away from her eye. Nefertari ruffled his thick, black hair affectionately.

Fox looked down at his newspaper for a moment, before folding it in half and capping the pen. “I think I will have some cocoa though, if that’s ok with you,” he said with a small smile.

Nefertari beamed back at him. “You’re never too grown up for cocoa.”

***

Monday morning came, and Fox prepared for work. It seemed he wasn’t so nervous about returning -- in actual fact, he was looking forward to throwing himself into the job -- so much as dreading fielding questions on his personal life to employers and other staff that didn’t know him all that well yet.

Nefertari advised him to be honest, but not overly detailed with his new boss, and ask for discretion with regards to the other employees. “If you deem it necessary, you might open up to them in time, but don’t feel like you have to do so right now.” She paused as she watched Fox shave his stubbled cheeks, and broached another sensitive subject. “I also think you should speak to someone.”

“Who?” Fox asked distractedly.

“A therapist.”

Fox stilled his movements, eyes shuttered, jaw tight. “That didn’t help,” he said shortly.

“The couples counsellor was different... I’m talking about someone who you can talk to about your thoughts and feelings, and help you work through any problems you might have.”

“You think I have problems?” Fox was incredulous.

“Darling, you’re upright and functioning, but you’re nowhere near healed.” When Fox didn’t argue the point, she continued. “I would suggest that it would be a good idea to have someone to talk to who is experienced in matters like this. Starting work again, while good for distraction, is going to be a bit of a mental strain. It couldn’t hurt to have an outlet.”

Fox was staring hard at his reflection, muscles working under his cheek. The electric razor buzzed loudly from where his hand held it; hovering dangerously over the chin-stripe of hair he’d just shaped out of the thick mass he’d grown over the past four days.

Nefertari trod very carefully; she wanted to make a point without hounding him enough that he went in the complete opposite direction. “It’s not a decree or an order by any stretch, but I’d really love if you could at least consider the possibility,” she said in a soft, non-threatening, non-judgmental voice.

Fox’s eyes flicked to hers in the reflection of the mirror. “I promise to consider it,” he said eventually, running a smoothing hand down his goatee and placing the razor on the sink.

Nefertari sighed inwardly in relief, just as she heard Padma honk his car horn. Fox bent down to kiss her on the cheek, and jogged to the door. She just made it outside in time to wave to her husband and son as they pulled out of the driveway.

Wishing Fox well in her heart, Nefertari went to wake up Rafi, who was going to help her accomplish her own mission today.

***

“Sure you don’t need any help, doll?” Rafi asked as he sped down the street, cigarette clenched in his teeth.

“There’s only a few boxes left, and Fox’s car has plenty of room,” Nefertari answered, hands surreptitiously gripping the inside of the door as Rafi’s driving left a lot to be desired.

“If you’re sure. ‘Cuz I can delay my appointment if y’need a hand.”

“I’ll be fine,” she smiled at her brother-in-law. “Don’t put me out to pasture yet, Ibrafim.”

Rafi gave her a rueful grin. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” They arrived at the apartment block, and Rafi screeched up onto the kerb between Fox’s parked car and a removalist’s truck. Nefertari stepped out onto the kerb and waved to Rafi as he pulled away like a rally driver. She shook her head fondly and dug in her purse for two important keys. One was Fox’s car key, the other, the apartment key.

She stood in the spot that Fox had occupied nearly four days ago and looked up at the apartment, before breathing deeply and heading up.

She and Padma had decided that the last boxes should be collected while Fox was out of the house, so he wouldn’t feel depressed if he did go, and wouldn’t feel guilty that he didn’t.

Nefertari was glad the occasionally fickle elevator was in working order as she stepped in and pressed the ‘3’. It would make loading the car much easier.

When the elevator dinged and stainless steel doors opened, she walked onto the third floor to more activity than she had expected. Fox’s apartment door was open, light spilling out of it. Nefertari frowned, walking up to it slowly. Just as she reached the doorway, a man in uniform walked out, startling her. She jumped, making a surprised noise.

The man in the removal company’s uniform stepped back as well; nearly dropping the box he carried. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said politely and tipped his cap to her, before continuing out the door.

With trepidation, Nefertari rounded the corner and stepped into the apartment where a team of removalists was efficiently packing and boxing all the things they’d left behind on Thursday.

In the middle of the room with a clipboard, directing the flow of traffic, was Collin.

Nefertari’s eyes widened a little, her mouth opening in surprise. One of the men disassembling the entertainment unit looked up and saw her.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked.

The question made Collin’s eyes flick to him, then up to land on Nefertari. The expression on his face was carefully composed, though his eyes betrayed surprise and wariness.

“Hi, Collin,” she said.

“Hello,” he answered. His voice was deadpan, but eyes quickly flicked behind her, searching.

She took a demure step forward as one of the moving men walked past her with a box. “I’m here on my own,” she said by way of explanation, “Fox is at work.”

“Of course he is,” came Collin’s reply. Nefertari was unhappy with the faint sarcasm inherent in his words, but with the knowledge that Fox was not there, he seemed to relax a fraction.

Nefertari scooted out of the way of another removalist with a frown. “This seems like a big operation.”

Collin affected a shrug. “My company doesn’t want me to take more than a day to sort this out, so they’re paying for the movers.”

“I see,” Nefertari said. She looked around the apartment to observe the little touches of Collin being systematically removed, quickly and professionally. “I don’t mean to intrude. I just came to pick up the leftover boxes and take Fox’s car.”

Collin glanced back down at his clipboard. “The boxes are over there,” he said and made a careless gesture with his left hand in the direction of the far wall. Sure enough, the remaining boxes were lined up against the plaster, along with a few other items. He gestured again, and a group of movers started carefully piling the boxes onto a hand truck and walking them out. “I’ll just have the movers take them downstairs for you.”

“I-- alright,” Nefertari said, not expecting the help.

Collin reached into his pocket and pulled out Fox’s spare car key. He turned to one of the men. “James, load them into the car downstairs, and then you can break for lunch.”

“Sure, Mr Sri’Vastra,” James nodded, taking the proffered key. “Want we should pick you up anything?”

“No, thank you. I’m going to catch up on some business.” Collin muttered a few more words to the man in a low enough voice that she couldn’t make out what they were.

James nodded to Nefertari politely, and left the apartment.

Collin and Nefertari were alone.

“So,” Nefertari said to fill the silence, “where are you staying?”

“With a friend,” was Collin’s short reply.

More silence.

“With Fox moving out, you know you could have stayed a little longer if you needed to.”

Collin shook his head adamantly. “No. It’s his Uncle’s apartment, it wouldn’t have been...” he searched for the word, “proper.”

“It was your apartment, yours and his. Both names are on the lease.”

Collin licked his thumb and turned a page on the ever-present clipboard. “About that. I talked to Legal at work, they’re looking into the lease agreement.”

Nefertari stiffened visibly, eyes widening. “Why are you getting lawyers involved in this? There’s no need. If you’re thinking about suing us--“

“No, no, nothing like that!” Collin actually looked affronted. “They’re just looking into expediting the process of transferring the lease back into Rafi’s name, that’s all.” He held up one hand, palm up, in a gesture of surrender. “No litigation, I promise.”

With a small sigh, Nefertari released the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. She touched her temple briefly. “I’m sorry if I over-reacted, it’s been a long few days.” She looked around the almost-empty room and pointed to the bare wooden table and chairs that had been their dining setting. “Can we sit?”

Collin pursed his lips, but nodded. As they walked over to the table and chairs, Nefertari saw the coffee maker still out on the bench and already brewing. “Would you mind if I made a cup?” she asked, gesturing to the machine, “I could really use it.”

Collin shrugged non-committally, and sat in one of the dining chairs. He stayed silent while Nefertari went hunting for mugs that hadn’t already been packed up, quite aware she was being watched closely. She did not, however, shirk under the scrutiny.

“So how are you?” she asked, finding two clean mugs. Picking up the glass pot, Nefertari poured coffee into the two mugs, having enough to fill them both three-quarters of the way. There was a little cream left in the fridge, so she added a dash, stirring the coffee to a pleasant colour with a teaspoon.

“Fine,” Collin answered.

Nefertari raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Sure.”

Nefertari walked to the table and set a mug down in front of Collin. He hesitated for only a second before he took it. “Don’t you think we’ve known each other a little too long for you to give me the one-word run-around?”

He blew air out of his lips exasperatedly, and the carefully controlled business-like manner and posture cracked as he slumped forward a little, hands cupping the hot mug.

“I don’t know what to say to you.” He made a futile gesture.

“Well, I wouldn’t mind something. I’ve known you for -- and this makes me feel old even saying it but -- a little over 20 years. I’ve watched you grow up, and you’ve spent more time at my house that I can even remember... so I’d really like to know what’s going on from your end.”

“With all due respect, Nefertari, we’ve had a marriage counsellor, and you can see how well that worked out.”

Nefertari started at the use of her name. For years she’d tried to get Collin to call her by her given name, to his polite refusal. However, he’d always had the warmest way of calling her ‘Mrs Maharassa’ that she’d stopped bugging him about it long ago.

Her name had rarely sounded so cold.

But instead of closing off from him, she made a conscious effort to open up further, leaning in. “Tiger,” she began, using her favourite pet name for him, “I’m not a marriage counsellor, and I’m not trying to be. I’m just Fox’s mom, and your friend. I care about you both.”

Collin’s resolve seemed to crumple a little more, and he sighed. “I care about you as well,” he said, staring down at the table. “I thought you’d be mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you, I’m just upset that my boy’s hurt.”

Something flashed in Collin’s eyes, then; a hardness that she knew existed, but rarely saw. “Now he knows how I felt.” The mug in his hands was placed back on the table with a stark thump.

Nefertari frowned. “This isn’t a competition to see who can hurt who the most.”

“Good. He would’ve won a long time ago if it was.”

Nefertari narrowed her eyes slightly, the severe words giving her cause to sit back a little. It seemed that Collin wanted to play a game of one-upmanship as to who’d been wronged the most. Whether she agreed or not, she was not going to give him the satisfaction of playing along. “Perhaps. I don’t think I’m qualified to make a judgment call on that, though. I wasn’t there to witness it,” she said, effectively killing that train of thought.

“Huh,” Collin said after a few moments, shaking his head slightly. “I would’ve thought you’d have stuck up for him more.”

“Please don’t mistake me accepting my son’s faults for not supporting him. I understand that while his actions weren’t always good, or smart, or terribly well thought out, he never did a thing with the conscious intention to hurt you.”

“And yet, here we are,” Collin replied.

“Yes, we are.” They lapsed into silence, Collin picking at the wood grain in the table, Nefertari sipping her coffee and planning her next words.

The conversation wasn’t going as she’d envisaged. Nefertari had to find a way to break through the outer shell Collin was using to separate them. It seemed to be the same shell he’d developed years ago to keep everyone but her son and her family out. She was not used to being on the other side of it, and didn’t like it one bit. In her heart, she knew her son-by-proxy was still in there; she just had to find him.

Reaching out her hand, Nefertari gently lay it over his. He stopped his movements immediately, but didn’t pull away, though Nefertari guessed he might’ve wanted to.

“What happened, Collin? The last time I spoke to you a few weeks ago, things were... well, they were progressing.”

“He would’ve already told you, I’m sure,” Collin said.

“I want to hear it from you.”

Collin gently disengaged his hand from underneath Nefertari’s and pulled it back close to his body, crossing both arms over his chest.

“If it had been anyone else but Fox, I wouldn’t have even considered therapy. I thought I owed him that much, given our history. I very much wanted it to be the magic cure-all that fixed us, but it just didn’t work like that. Humpty Dumpty had fallen so many times, the pieces weren’t big enough to glue back together.”

Nefertari winced at the vehemence of Collin’s words.

“His antics stopped being charming a long time ago, and I couldn’t live like that anymore. Running off with those freaks from that paper he worked for at the drop of a hat... being gone for weeks at a time with no real explanation.” Collin frowned darkly. “I know his douchebag of a boss had a lot to do with that, but he could’ve said ‘no’ at any time. He never did.”

“I actually know what you mean.”

Collin snorted incredulously. “How?”

“Do you forget who I’m married to? The King of running off at a moment’s notice and getting into trouble.” Collin conceded that point with a nod of his head. “He was out doing stupid, sometimes dangerous things... for science, for the government, for his own ridiculous amusement... and I was always left home to worry. But I always knew he loved me, and was coming home. I never lost faith in him, I never gave up, and I never stopped loving him in return.”

At those words, Collin looked down at the table, partly angry, partly guilty. Nefertari’s heart broke a little more at the implication.

Stunned into silence for a few moments, she fussed in her purse for a tissue to dab the corners of suddenly moist eyes. Collin looked away while she did so. “So that’s it, then?” she asked after an awkward silence.

Collin met her eyes once again, his gaze blank and serious. “The truth is, it was over a while ago, and everyone could see it but him. By the time he could,” he shrugged, “it was too late.”

“The counsellor really didn’t help?”

“Like I said; I wouldn’t have even gone had it been anyone else. I would’ve just left a long time ago.”

A previously unconsidered thought occurred to Nefertari. “Is there someone else?”

Collin’s faced stayed flat, still. “I don’t see how that information is relevant.”

Nefertari scrutinised Collin very carefully at that, but he didn’t so much as twitch his eye and give away anything. “It is relevant if one party has been unfaithful to the other.”

That provoked a slight response. Collin’s mouth tightened in indignation. “No one has cheated. Least of all me.”

It didn’t answer the question of whether there was someone else, but she trusted Collin’s resentment at being questioned enough to know nothing had actually happened.

She clasped her hands tightly around her coffee mug, feeling distraught and upset by his revelations.

“I’m sorry it came to this. Neither of you deserved it.” She gave a small, sad chuckle. “I’m pretty good at picking things, and I had you guys pegged for the long haul long before you did. You had the most wonderful synergy borne out of being best friends.”

“People change,” Collin said.

She looked at him, and, while familiar, he currently bore little more than a passing resemblance to the young man who had been for all intents and purposes her son-in-law for the past five years. “They do,” she confirmed unhappily.

They lapsed into silence once again, both becoming absorbed in the act of drinking coffee.

It had delicious symmetry; so many times they’d done the exact same thing. Whether it had been at the apartment at this very table, or home in her kitchen, she’d always had a particularly strong and unique bond with him. When Fox was out raising hell with his father in the back yard, Collin was with her in the kitchen, eating scones and discussing Chris Evans’ new GQ photoshoot.

After a few moments, Nefertari laughed. She couldn’t help it; she’d just had a decidedly potent memory resurface. Collin looked at her curiously. She smiled around the lip of the mug. “Do you remember a few Thanksgiving’s a go when you boys came over and ABC was having that Desperate Housewives marathon?”

Collin’s rather blank façade wavered, and his expression softened a trace. “Yes,” he replied.

“It was the Edie Britt memorial compilation, playing all of her best episodes, and ended with her death. Everyone else went to bed, but we watched until 3am, drinking coffee and eating cherry cheesecake.”

“I remember,” Collin said, eyes crinkling at the corners slightly with a tiny smile.

Nefertari shook her head. “I was so tired and emotional by the end, I remember bursting into tears and you hugging me.” She deliberately left out the fact that he’d cried, too. Looking at his face, and seeing a faint flush stain his cheeks, it was obvious he didn’t have to be reminded of the fact. She sighed. “That was a good night.”

“One of many,” Collin said, and Nefertari was pleased to finally see a little of the old Collin looking back at her.

“We had some good times as a family,” Nefertari put her hand out, palm up, and Collin slowly took it. She squeezed his fingers.

“I wish-- yeah,” Collin started to speak, but interrupted himself.

“You wish?” Nefertari prompted.

Collin cleared his throat and started again. “I’m... grateful for what you guys have done for me over the years. I wish--“ he stopped again, but not for long, “--I wish it didn’t have to end.”

Nefertari closed her eyes briefly. “Me too, Tiger. But I’m not under any illusions as to you two being able to maintain any kind of friendship right now.” She shrugged sadly. “So when you leave Fox, you’re leaving us, too.”

Collin said nothing, save to squeeze her hand, and she continued. “This is what happens when people break up. You lose your extended family, and I lose a son.” He physically flinched at the words. Nefertari didn’t want to abandon him, didn’t like having to choose between him and Fox. But if a choice absolutely had to be made, it was always going to be Fox.

Collin shook her out of her thoughts by being the one to disengage their hands. It made her feel cold. And while the thoughts of abandonment were on her mind...

“I understand you’re talking to your parents again,” Nefertari said. Collin nodded warily. “We never got on well, as you know, but...”

There were so many things she wanted to say: Don’t trust them. They weren’t there for you before when you needed them. Their touch is poison, even though they gave birth to you.

“I’m glad you have family to turn to,” was what she said instead.

“Thanks,” replied Collin.

Nefertari sighed deeply and stood. “Speaking of family, I’d better get back to mine.”

Collin stood as well, straightening a wrinkle in his shirt. “Of course.”

Nefertari turned slowly, taking in the apartment’s current appearance. “It’s nearly all cleared out.”

“It’ll be done by the end of the day.” Collin glanced down at his clipboard again. “Oh, I meant to ask; the bed and foldout... does he want them?”

“Maybe, I hadn’t asked. You don’t?”

“No. If he doesn’t want them, I was going to donate them to a shelter.”

“Oh.” Nefertari blinked slowly. “Well, I guess he’ll have them, but I don’t have the trailer or anything. I can’t take them today.”

“That’s fine. I can have the movers drop them at your house by tomorrow.”

“You don’t need to go to the trouble.”

“No trouble,” Collin said, and the businessman persona had all but returned.

Nefertari glanced at the wall where Fox’s boxes had been stacked. “Was that everything?”

“Actually,” Collin looked around the room with a frown. “Excuse me for a second.” He disappeared into the bedroom to re-emerge a moment later with a small file box.

“There are a few things in here I was going to get rid of, but I thought Fox might like to keep instead. Sorry I couldn’t find a lid.” He handed the box to Nefertari, who looked down into it.

It was a mixed box of Collin’s half of some of the personal mementos she’d packed away for Fox. There were a few papers -- letters, most likely -- and old photographs. Some were in frames, one Nefertari recognised from its place on top of the television of the boys together. There were also a few slightly ratty stuffed animals, and a painfully familiar blue and black necklace around the neck of a plush black gorilla holding a red felt heart proclaiming ‘I go ape over you!’.

Nefertari’s mouth turned down at the corners. “Are you sure you want to give these things away?”

“It’s either this or I throw them out,” Collin said, and the statement wasn’t warm, nor was it unkind. It was just... fact.

She shook her head disbelievingly. “I... I can’t believe you’d want to throw this out. This is your past, Collin. I understand you want to move on, but to throw it all away?”

“I’m not getting rid of everything,” Collin said curtly, “but I don’t need it all. I don’t want it all. Isn’t it better to give it back rather than throw it out?”

Nefertari gripped the box tightly. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll take it, but I won’t tell him about it. At least, not straight away.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’ll crush him more if he thinks you’ve given these things away, or contemplated throwing them out.”

“He’s too sentimental.”

“Sometimes a little sentimentality is good.” Nefertari blew air through her lips in a controlled exhale. “I should go.”

A peculiar tightness in her chest made her stop from turning away from him, and she briefly placed the box on the ground at her feet. “Come here,” she ordered, “we are not going to finish like that.” Collin stepped forward, and she wrapped her arms around his chest. She was gratified to feel that he returned the hug, head sinking down onto her shoulder to rest briefly. “Take care of yourself,” she told him. Nefertari thought his breath hitched in what might’ve been a sob, but if it did, it was only once.

Ultimately, Collin pulled back a few moments later, and Nefertari bent over to pick up the box. She wiped a tear or two from her cheeks hurriedly as she walked to the apartment door, but stopped just inside the doorframe and turned.

Collin stood alone in the almost-bare apartment, all at once looking painfully familiar and totally different. His jaw twitched. “Goodbye... Mrs Maharassa,” he offered, and a modicum of past warmth made it into the farewell.

“Goodbye, Collin,” she returned. “You know... you were right.”

“About what?” he asked curiously.

“People do change. But sometimes ‘change’ is just another euphemism for ‘giving up’.”

Nefertari turned then, not wishing to remember an expression of cynicism as the last one on his face.

The trip down in the elevator afforded her a moment to inhale a shuddering breath, and make sure her mascara hadn’t run. She found the movers camped out in the back of the truck, eating fast food. The one named James jumped up when he saw her, approaching as she unlocked the passenger’s side door to place the box on the seat.

“Mr Sri’Vastra asked me to give this to you,” he said, holding out the spare key to the car.

“Thank you. Also for bringing the boxes down,” she said, gesturing to the back seat of the old car where Fox’s remaining belongings had been neatly placed.

“Not a problem. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No, I’m just leaving.”

James touched a hand to the brim of his hat once again. “Have a nice afternoon then, ma’am.”

Nefertari nodded, something about his over-polite manner irritating her for a moment. Without another backwards glance, she got into Fox’s clunker and drove home.

The ride back was spent reviewing the conversation with Collin in minute detail. Nefertari was acutely aware that their exchange might’ve been her last opportunity to talk to him properly. She was also quite sure that had occurred to Collin as well. What she couldn’t decide was whether that had made the discussion a success, or a bittersweet failure.

No cars were in the driveway when she pulled back up at home, meaning Rafi and Padma were still out. She pulled the garage door open and looked at the controlled chaos within. Nefertari stacked the boxes in the back corner, by the pink plastic flamingos, a broken lawnmower, and a pile of folded up picnic tables. She opened one of them briefly -- the one with Fox’s personal items -- to add Collin’s box to the contents, and resealed it.

She knew her son well. Someday in the future, he would want to look over the items. Whether he could look at them with fond remembrance, or decide to dispose of them once and for all, would be decided then.

But not now, not when he had so much more healing to do first.

As she walked up her front path, she noticed the hydrangeas that lined the concrete strip in their short, stubby bushes were wilting. Her watering can was still by the door where she’d placed it after receiving the fateful call from Fox on Thursday afternoon.

Picking up the can, she watered her flowers in silence, and waited for her family to come home.

 

~finis




 

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The Smoking Mirror

December 2013

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