Brandon woke up the next morning to his legs being pulled rather hard. He groaned, dug his face out of the pillow, and looked down at his feet to find Ben trying to drag him out of bed.
Benedict Malcolm Thomas Barrett. The prankster. His best friend.
“Wake up, sleepyhead.” The deep baritone rang in his ears as Ben grabbed his ankles and used all his force to pull his legs. As lanky as he was, Ben hid surprising strength in his lean physique, thanks to his talent for fencing and archery. Brandon held on to the mattress, stopping himself in time from being dragged down from the bed.
“Where did you come from?” He groaned again and tried to kick him away but missed. Ben let go of his legs, letting them landed on the mattress with a thud. Brandon winced, flinging a kick in the air again.
“I came in through that doorway.” Ben pointed at the entrance to the room. Then he jumped onto the mattress and the old, rickety bed bounced. “Wake up. We’ll go riding.”
“It’s our last weekend home,” Brandon mumbled. “Feck off and let me sleep.”
“I spent two hours at your barn this morning and you’re still in bed.” He kicked his leg, then punched him in the arm. “You’ll never stop being a dosser, will ya?”
No longer able to put up with the early morning assault, Brandon finally rolled over and opened his eyes.
“What’s the time?” he grumbled.
“About ten-thirty.”
“What?” He sprang up, turning to look at the bedside clock. It was indeed half-past ten.
“Holy cow! Why did no one wake me up?”
“Everyone’s busy downstairs.” Ben leaned back and put a foot up on a knee. “The restaurant’s teeming.”
“Is Izzi here?” he asked. It was Saturday and she did not have school. He hoped she would be at the restaurant helping his mother, or wandering about his family barn and engaging with the horses. Ever since she arrived in the town, she had shown more interest in the animals than in the people. He could see why. Animals did not judge.
“Nope.” Ben had picked up a keyring and was swinging it around on a finger. “She was eating breakfast when I left and seemed in a bad mood, so I didn’t press.” He looked at him, his eyes narrowing. “Is everything alright?”
Brandon sank back against the pillows, still thinking of how one word had played in her mind yesterday. He knew that she blamed everyone for what happened to her and it was not entirely without reason. They indeed had done too little to keep her safe.
“Brandy?” A hand rested on his shoulder. He looked at his friend and tried to smile. Ben was an image of his father, standing at six feet and two inches, with chin-length raven hair, and eyes so dark that it was hard to tell the pupil and the iris apart. Like Brandon, he also had a cleft in his chin and loved horses. But unlike him, Ben was dry and sarcastic and had a talent for the drums and the piano.
All his life, Ben had maintained a fine balance between his Irish and British identities. He switched accents with surprising ease, knew England as well as he knew Ireland, and laughed at both Irish and British jokes. Like his English mother, he also held dual citizenship. 
“Did anything happen?” he asked, suddenly concerned. Ben had always been a protective older brother and possibly Isabel’s only friend, but ever since her attempt, he had become fierce. Like a lioness protecting her youngling, Ben was sceptical and doubtful of anyone who came near his sister, as though he had also lost his ability to trust. 
His mother had counselled him for weeks, trying to help him overcome the trauma. Ben had remained disturbed and shaken initially but slowly come around and transformed into a budding popstar. He was, after all, the child of mental health professionals.
“No. Not really.” Brandon yawned, stretching his arms. “We were talking, and then it went the wrong way… I think she misunderstood. Became upset, perhaps. I don’t know. I can barely understand her reactions now.”
“You aren’t alone.” The hand on his shoulder squeezed gently. “I don’t think I understand her, either. But we’d have to be in her shoes to really understand her feelings.” He sighed, sitting upright. “Which I never want to be, quite honestly.”
Bending his knees, Ben drew his legs close to his chest. “Can I tell you something?” he murmured. “Whenever I knock on her door and don’t get a response, I can’t help but think that maybe…”
He trailed off, his voice breaking. Brandon sat up and pulled him into a hug. They were acutely aware of that feeling. But Ben’s unconditional love for Isabel and his guilt about failing to help her had made his trauma more intense than everyone else’s. And they were not even siblings. They were first cousins. Ben’s mother and Isabel’s mother were sisters, although they had never been on the best terms. Emily married Dr Thomas Barrett and moved to Ireland after finishing her postgraduate research programme at the University of Cambridge, while Isabel was born and raised in London. Even so, she had always been a daughter to Thomas and Emily and a much-adored little sister to Ben, spending time with the Barretts a few times a year since she was a child. Ben’s parents were vaguely aware of the volatile nature of her parents and the problems within the family but had no inkling of the abuse until that night when the police got intimation from her new neighbours and raided the house to find her in the cold, dark attic. Gagged, starved, and nearly unconscious, deep, bloody wounds all over her body, two ribs, and a finger broken. That night changed everything.
“I still cannot believe that any sane person would do something so horrific to anyone.” Ben’s voice trembled as he spoke against his shoulder. “They were her parents.”
“They were monsters, not parents,” Brandon responded, gently stroking his back. “They’re going to deservingly rot in prison for the rest of their sordid lives.”
“She went through the horror for years,” Ben rasped. “Why did she never tell anyone? I mean, we were close, right? I used to think she shared everything with me.”

He pulled away and blinked back the tears forming in his eyes. “I hated myself for not being able to help her. If only I had known…”
“You saved her.” Brandon reminded him. “It would’ve been too late if you hadn’t found her in time.”
“Yes. And she didn’t speak to me for… three weeks?” he sniffled, running his fingers through his lustrous mane to push it back. “She made me feel like I had done something really wrong by saving her.”
“She wasn’t okay. She isn’t okay. But one day, she will appreciate life again. And then she’ll realise what you had done for her.”
“You believe that?” Ben frowned at him. “You believe she’ll appreciate life again?”
“She will. I know it.” Brandon slid an arm around his shoulders. “Give her time. She needs to heal.”
“I doubt if she’ll ever heal completely. My parents are trying to get her back to normal. We know it’ll take time but…” 
He laughed wryly. “Talk about mum and dad having a patient right at home. We feel so helpless sometimes. Only Izzi knows the scars she bears. We’ll never be able to put ourselves in her place and feel things the way she does.”
“Your parents love her. That’s what she needs. Love. Safety. A home.” Brandon sighed. “Time heals, Ben. We can only hope for the best.”
Ben’s parents had adopted Isabel before bringing her to Ireland but let her keep her existing surname because they thought she was too old for an identity crisis. They loved her, cared for her. But Isabel’s wounds were her own. No one could break her walls.
“Do you… do you think she does alright at school?” Brandon asked quietly, not sure if they should be having that conversation anymore. “I mean, she doesn’t say anything, so…”
Ben shrugged. “She doesn’t tell us anything, either. But it will be stupid to expect her to be comfortable in the middle of hundreds of strangers.” He put his head down where his knees were connected and sighed. “We just want her to get through Leaving Cert, that’s all. Her grades are still good, nothing wrong there. After what happened in London, we couldn’t possibly keep her there anymore. I know Irish education is different from what she had in England, but… we had no other choice.”
Brandon nodded. From a prestigious private academy in London to a small town school in an Irish county, the move was definitely extreme. They could not tell if Isabel found it difficult at all. She was numb. Life was only a routine to her now.
“You know what?” Brandon smiled. “I never told you, but you’re very strong, just like Izzi. If I were you, I wouldn’t have been able to go through this whole boyband thing while my sister battled for life in a glass cabin.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you did it, but it was very brave of you.”
“You find strength when that’s the only option,” Ben sighed. “Life goes on, right?”

It had been difficult for them to learn to be a boyband during the tough time. It was the hardest for Ben, who did not want to be the second lead when his name was suggested. He pushed Mark forward, even Kyle. But their manager and their producer thought Ben’s voice was the best in the band after that of Brandon’s, effortless and mellifluous.
But they had survived. Come Monday and they’d be on TV again, talking about themselves, their childhood, their country, and their upcoming album. And then they would be off to Mexico to film a music video. The good times they had often made him feel a tad guilty thinking of all that Isabel had been through. And it made him more determined to give her the world, no matter how long it took.
“When did you return?” Brandon asked, changing the conversation.
“Last night,” Ben answered. “Nathan wanted to drive me home but I took the train.”
“It was good?”
Ben lifted his head and smiled. “Yes. Spent three days with him and his family in Malahide.” He leaned back in bed, putting his hands behind his head. “He’s a million times funnier than what we know. And his dad is such a sport. Nathan looks exactly like him. Only his father is bald.”
Nathan Byrne was their fifth bandmate, pale blonde with blue eyes and terrible teeth, and obsessed with football. He was from Dublin and had been selected through the audition. The five of them had got along like a house on fire from the first day, turning into a close-knit family on the road. They ate, slept, and hung out together, goofing around, being silly, talking girls, shopping, football, and music. And drinking vodka and Red Bull.
“Good for you.” Brandon smiled. “He called me the other day to ask why the rest of us weren’t coming down too.”
“It would have been fun. But then, everyone wants to be home the few days off we get.” He looked into his eyes, his smile disappearing. “You love her, don’t you?”
Brandon paused before offering a nod. He was not sure when it had happened, but it had. He could not imagine life without Isabel, just as he could not without his family or music.
“You doubt it?” he asked tentatively. Ben shrugged.
“You’re the popular guy,” he said. “You chase girls. Girls chase you. If I’m not very mistaken, you’ve gone out with most of those girls who threw themselves at you after we did Grease.” Ben looked at him again, his eyes turning a shade darker. “My sister is fragile. She isn’t like other girls.”
“I know. And I love her because of that. Because she’s different.” He inhaled, gathering his thoughts. Then he reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You can trust me. I’ll keep her safe.”
Ben gazed at him for a while, before nodding slowly. “I trust you.” He put his hand over his. Brandon smiled, giving him a quick hug.
“So you want to go riding?” he asked. Ben nodded again. “Great. First one to the door gets the larger helping of crisps.”
He jumped out of bed, Ben in hot pursuit.
They were late for lunch. Riding through the woods had been a good idea until Ben became a little too adventurous and took a lesser-known track, and they eventually lost their way. They had dismounted their horses, argued for a minute about who was supposed to know the place better, and then begun riding again, until they were back on familiar track.
When they returned to Ben’s house and crashed on the sofa, it was well past two in the afternoon and Elsa barked at them for being late again. Emily was kinder, though. She asked them to wash up and come for lunch, and they obeyed, famished as they were.

“Where’s Izzi?” Ben asked as they sat in front of TV after the meal.

“She left for Carlton Café a little before you came home,” Emily answered. “She said something about watching dusk fall over the hills.”

“Ah, romantic.” He nudged Brandon. “Why don’t you join her?”

“She usually wants to be alone when she’s there,” he said, although the idea of being with Isabel always made his heart flutter. “Do you want me to walk her home, Mrs B?”

“Ben could do that,” Emily said from the kitchen. Her son made a little sound of disapproval.

“I’m going to watch the Great British Bakeoff,” he announced, waving at his friend. “Brandy can bring her home. And while you’re there, pick up some of your dad’s nachos for me, will ya? There should be a tenner in that change drawer.”

“I don’t need it.” With a roll of his eyes, Brandon turned to leave, grabbing his jacket from the back of the door.


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