Body and Soul (Vanguard Towers #3) - Aiden Bates

1

Braxton

Whenever Seb and I talked about trauma, he’d say, “The past should stay in the past.” He was right, it should. But in my experience, things as slippery and ephemeral as the past—the type of things that didn’t really hold a firm shape or solid definition—rarely did what they should. The past was like a poorly primed canvas. You could try to control it and smother it with layers and layers of experiences, but it would inevitably suck the color out of your life and make its mark on your work. The past should stay in the past, but all too often, it was present.

“AH! Get off me!” I bolted upright and swatted at the men grabbing me in the dark. I threw myself around violently, and fully woke up. Sitting bent over, I panted for air, and let the waves of panic spill off my back.

Bedroom, mine. Blinds, down. Kitten, fast asleep on the pillow next to mine. No one else was there. We were alone.

“Okay, Brax. Just a dream. You’re twenty-four, and you’re not on the streets. You’ve got your own apartment, and brothers who love you. You’re safe. It was just a dream.” I muttered it like a prayer until I believed it. Kind of.

Just a dream, huh? More like a cache of memories that got jumbled up and spilled out, uninvited, every damn night. I only got a reprieve when I had a warm body to curl up next to; ideally one a little bigger and warmer than Domino’s soft little body. The nighttime panic left me exhausted and jumpy in the mornings, and I felt like it was still the middle of the night even though it was—

“Eight in the morning already? Fuck!” Late, late, late. I threw back the covers and a soft prrrt came from the pillow where Domino’s wide eyes glowed in the dark.

I wanted to slip back into the pile of fuzzy blankets and snuggle him all morning, but I had ‘work’ to do. I pulled back the blackout curtains and he squinted at me, annoyed, before he jumped up and clambered down the edge of the bed with his tiny black and white limbs stretched long.

I resisted the urge to scoop him up and help him down. My oldest brother, Derek, had said I should let him learn how to do stuff by himself, not to coddle him. Rich coming from Derek. He’d been coddling me since I was sixteen years old when he’d taken me in as a foster kid. Gave me food, shelter, and even love, and never asked anything in return. I was the only one of eight of us, the foster brothers who lived in Vanguard Tower, who didn’t have a real job. Everyone else was a frontline worker, and they let me off the hook because I was the youngest or something.

All I did was make art.

Paintings mostly, like the works that were due to be completed in a few months for the greatest opportunity of my short little career—a solo show at The Fridge Gallery, at the culmination of my arts fellowship. It was already getting hella publicity, and if I pulled it off, I might have a chance at really making it as a commercial artist. Living the dream, right?

Yeah, but not if I didn’t come up with a concept to tie the work together, something new to push my paintings to a different level. And definitely not if I kept sleeping in and missing the best painting hours of the early morning.

I slipped on my silk kimono and hurried to turn up the heat while Domino shot out of the room in front of me, making a beeline for his food bowl. If Derek were there, he’d tell me to get dressed in something a little more snuggly than my cherry blossom gown before driving up the electricity bill. Practical, predictable Derek who had built us all a sturdy home.

The Vanguard Tower used to be a warehouse he and our other oldest brothers, the twins Matt and Sean, had renovated into the block of eight apartments, and I got the best view from the top floor. Queen of the castle, baby. But damn, it was always so cold up here, especially when I was sleeping alone…

Which was getting to be more of a frequent occurrence lately.

“Ian hasn’t stayed over for a while, huh, Dom?” I asked the kitten as he wove between my bare ankles.

Domino mewed up at me in agreement in a

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