Chapter 1: Willem
Some might call it a lifelong friendship. Others, a passionate platonic devotion. But Willem knew the situation for what it really was and what it always had been: unrequited love.
Over a decade had passed since their first introduction, and he had fallen. Hard and fast. It had been that simple for him, even from such a young age, to know that this was the one person that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Those feelings had only grown stronger with time and with each letter that they had sent to one another over the years. Letters progressed to emails. Emails progressed to texting and phone calls. And in time, those turned into video chats.
Each level that was added only caused Willem’s emotions to multiply. Each new fact that was gleaned from their conversations was carefully stored away as a precious moments. Each new moment that they spent talking with one another was enough to cause his heart to race in his chest. He had always yearned for the next text, the next call, the next moment that they would spend together.
If only the distance hadn’t been a factor at all, then he would have had the courage to express the emotions that he had kept bottled up inside for all of those years. He would’ve expressed how he felt, and then they would’ve been happy together. Because now… Now that they were going to the same university together to be able to actually spend time around each other in person…
It was only during those first couple of weeks at the university that Willem had realized that he had missed his chance… That he should’ve acted sooner…
His heart had felt like it had shattered that day, and he had been suffering in silence ever since. There was nobody that he dared turn to, nobody that he trusted enough to let into that broken part of him. He refused to even confide in his sister once she had arrived at the same university two years later. He knew that she would never understand what he was going through and that she would only have tried to stick her nose where it didn’t belong. Besides, why allow someone to try to fix something that didn’t have a cure in the first place?
For all of his outward stoic appearances, his heart had been a fragile little thing. Nobody had been aware of his feelings before, and he certainly wasn’t going to start divulging them now. His feelings were his own, and he owed that to no one.
Art was enough of a solace for him. He didn’t need other people. It was the purest expression of his emotions. Even though anybody who saw his art never understood it, it was his outlet for all of the bottled up emotions that he held within him. It never stopped the heartache completely though, and even despite how much he sometimes wished it would, his love never faded.
However, just because he himself chose not to divulge his emotions or relationship drama (or lack thereof) to everyone around him, it didn’t stop other people from doing the same in return. More specifically, the guys that he was on the soccer team with tended to be the source of this particular bane of his. Even now, Willem could feel the tight thrum of a headache creeping up the backs of his eyes and into his temples.
Regardless of how much it pained him to listen, this was still one of his friends that was hurting, his roommate, and even though he may not outwardly or openly show it, Willem still cared. He cared more than he would ever let even himself believe.
“I just don’t understand what I did wrong this time…” Mathias mumbled, eyebrows furrowed together above a pair of bright blue eyes as they jogged laps around the field, the rays of the sun beating down against the backs of their necks. “It seems like Lukas just gets mad at every little thing that he thinks isn’t right, and then he takes it out on me by taking all of his stuff. He ignores all my phone calls and texts and even blatantly ignores me whenever we’re at hockey practice together, besides trying to nail me with the puck. But then a few days later, he’s back to talking to me and telling me how much he’s sorry and that he misses me and that he never meant to leave and that he didn’t mean any of it and that he still wants us to be together and that he didn’t know what came over him. He does it every single time, and it’s honestly driving me a bit crazy with as moody as he’s been being recently,” Mathias finished with a wide gesture of his arms before they fell to his sides as he hung his head in exhaustion.
Willem sighed gently, shaking his head as he slid his fingers back through his gel-spiked hair. It was a motion half in exasperation and half in resignation. “Matt…”
“I would just dump his ass and tell him to move on!” called one of the other team members, a German student named Gillian, as he ran past the pair. “He’s no good for you, Matt!”
At those words, Mathias’s pace stuttered and a frown began to form on his face. Willem could see it for what it really was though: hesitation and fear, even though Mathias would never admit to being anything but fully confident and happy.
Shooting Gillian a glare that caused the other student to speed up along the track, Willem pulled Mathias over to the side with a frown and placed a hand on the other’s shoulder. “Look, I have no right to interfere in your relationship or tell you what to do or what to say or how to act or any of that. Your relationship is with Lukas and Lukas alone. He’s the one that you should be talking to about all of this. If you… If you really want to be with him and you respect him… Then you should keep your relationship between the two of you and communicate everything that you’re feeling to him. That’s the only way that you’d end up fixing things.”
Mathias opened his mouth as if to say something before shaking his head, his expression becoming pensive. Willem took that as a sign for him to continue talking.
“If you start bringing other people’s opinions into the relationship, then it all starts devolving into a my friends said this or my friends said that contest, where it becomes more about what everybody else thinks rather than what the two people in the relationship think and feel about each other.” Willem raised his free hand and pointed over in Gillian’s direction where the white-haired man was mingling with a group of some of the other soccer players on the other side of the field. “That’s exactly what that was. And there will be plenty of other people who will try to put their opinions in your ear.” Willem let both of his hands fall to his sides and looked away, his voice becoming distant as a familiar tight pain clenched his chest. “And if you really… If you care about Lukas… And if you value the relationship between you both, then it would be better to talk everything out with him.”
Not that he really expected Lukas to end up giving Mathias the same courtesy in return. After all, Willem had met the guy, and there was just something about Lukas that gave him red flags that made his skin crawl when he was around him. It was something in his demeanor and the way in which he carried himself. It gave Willem the impression of nothing short of an arrogant, pompous, conceited child who felt entitled to everything and then proceeding to throw a tantrum and throw things or beat people up when he didn’t get his way.
Maybe he was just biased though, since most other people that were outside of the soccer team’s circle seemed to think that Lukas was this outstanding guy. Willem knew better though. He knew so much better than anyone else the damage that Lukas had caused and was continuing to cause upon the people that he cared about. Willem had been the sole witness to the bruisings and depressive episodes that Mathias had gone through because of that bastard.
Mathias deserved better.
And it only hurt Willem’s heart even more to see Mathias force a smile in front of everybody else and pretend that there was nothing wrong with the world. It hurt that Mathias felt that he was the only person that he could come to about anything and everything while he had to hide what he was feeling from everybody else. But the real killer was that it hurt Willem that he couldn’t be there for Mathias in the ways that he wished that he could be.
Oblivious to the other’s inner turmoil, a wide grin spread across Mathias’s face that lit up his eyes as he wrapped an arm around Willem’s shoulders to pull him into a quick hug and not seeming to notice the way that Willem tensed up slightly under the contact. “You know you’re the best, right? Somehow you always know the exact thing to say that’ll make me feel better. I know you never say much in front of the other guys, or in front of anyone else really, but it makes me feel that much luckier that I’ve gotten to have you as a friend for so long.”
Willem blinked slowly, letting out a quiet breath in resignation and giving Mathias a gentle pat on the back. “I know… I know…” If only those words wouldn’t feel like a knife through his chest every time that he said them.
Pulling away, Mathias’s grin only grew wider as he reached up to ruffle Willem’s hair and jog away while cackling with laughter. “Come on, Ned, you slowpoke. We’ve got a practice to finish!”
For a few moments, Willem simply stood there in stunned silence with his breath caught in his throat, watching Mathias as he ran off. The way that the sunlight cast a golden sheen on his spiked honey-colored hair. The way that some of the longer sections of his hair clung to his sweat-dampened forehead. The way that his blue eyes sparkled with mirth as he laughed.
It was a sight that touched his artistic muse and could’ve broken his heart with how beautiful that Mathias was in that moment. If only his heart wasn’t already broken...
He pressed the heels of his hands against his burning eyes, fending off unwanted tears that had threatened to spring up. Rubbing his face, he grimaced with a sigh and jogged towards the other side of the field where the rest of the team were congregating as they finished their warm-ups.
He was tired. So tired. It felt like every part of his being had been drained, and all he wanted to do was sleep to gain whatever solace that the quiet darkness of unconsciousness could provide.
However, there was a smaller part of him that wanted to paint, to draw, to feel the familiar weight and textures of his brushes and pencils in his hands. There was that unexplainable need to create an explosion of color and infuse his emotions into the canvas. It was his therapy. It was what he needed after a day like today. It was one of the few ways that he could let himself go and to let out all of the emotions that he had kept bottled up for so long.
Everything else seemed like an exhausting chore in comparison.
Right. Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Goal.
The weight of each kick of the soccer ball felt like a brick being added to his shoulders. It was a dull, monotonous rhythm that would’ve put him to sleep if it hadn’t been for the fact that he had to attempt to keep himself from being run into by the other team members that were on the field.
Left. Right. Left. Left. Right. Left. Pass.
At the very least, no one could tell that anything was wrong with Willem or that his head wasn’t in the practice game, that way he didn’t have to worry about answering anyone’s questions. Then again, nobody ever noticed when there was…
A chorus of cheers erupted from around him as Antonio scored the winning goal for their team’s match just a split-second before the final alarm went off to signify the end of the practice session. Antonio was one of the new talents that had just joined the team that year, and with his easy-going attitude and impeccable footwork, he had quickly become one of the favorites on the team.
That didn’t mean that Willem liked him. However, that might’ve been simply because of some of his own personal prejudices and protective nature over his younger sister, whom Antonio happened to be dating. It made his skin crawl just to think of somebody being around his sister, and perhaps that had ended up making Willem be a bit more hostile towards the male than he deserved.
That didn’t seem to deter Antonio from trying to make friends with his girlfriend’s older brother.
“Hey, Willem!” Antonio exclaimed, seeming to pop up behind the taller man out of nowhere as Willem stalked towards the edge of the field where his duffel bag was. “Did you see that last shot, mi hombre? I can’t believe I nailed it on the final second, especially with Gillian blocking the way. It was-- It was increíble!”
Willem simply grunted in response, his shoulders tense from the proximity of the other man and casting a glare in his direction. It didn’t even phase Antonio who still had a ridiculously wide grin on his face.
However, it wasn’t until a few moments later when an petite arm looped itself around his right arm that Willem realized that Antonio’s smile hadn’t been directed towards him at all.
“Hey, big bro,” came the unmistakable delicate sing-song voice of his younger sister. “You guys were awesome out there. Especially you, mon amour,” she said as she let go of her brother in order to nestle herself comfortably into Antonio’s outstretched arms, her shoulder-length honey-blonde curls bouncing with the movement. “You just keep doing better and better each time that I see you. Your old team in Barcelona must be missing you right now.” She giggled as she stood on her toes and placed a kiss to Antonio’s cheek.
“Sí, sí. They’ve definitely mentioned that they miss playing together, mi querida Annabel. But fear not, for I am never going to leave your side.” The softness in Antonio’s gaze as he gently reached up and caressed Annabel’s curls caused a sharp stab of pain in Willem’s chest.
Maybe that was his problem. Maybe he was jealous of his sister’s relationship and how much Antonio genuinely seemed to love her. From everything that he had seen since the two had been together, the man had always treated Annabel like a princess.
Some sort of emotion that he couldn’t have explained must have been showing on his face, because when Annabel looked over at him, her smile immediately faded into an expression of concern. Willem quickly turned away to scoop up his duffel bag.
Clearing her throat, Annabel reached up and patted Antonio’s cheek, pressing a quick kiss to his lips. “I’ll meet you later for dinner, okay? I needed to talk to Willem about a couple of art assignments, if you don’t mind.”
He silently cursed his bad luck.
A small part of Willem had hoped that Antonio would end up protesting, but he knew that he was hoping in vain: it wasn’t in Antonio’s nature to protest to two siblings spending time together. “Of course not, mi hermosa. I’ll meet you at our usual place then? Say at about six?”
“That sounds perfect,” Willem could hear Annabel saying as he started to walk away across the field with his bag in tow. “I’ll see you then!”
Of course, before Willem could even get too far away from the practice field, another obstacle presented itself as Mathias approached him once again. “Hey, Ned!” With that heartstopping smile on his face.
“Matthias,” he mumbled, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead and hitching the strap of his duffel bag more comfortably onto his shoulder.
“I just wanted to thank you for listening to me earlier, and I hope that I didn’t sound like I was whining.” Mathias chuckled. “Anyways, are you heading back to the dorm?”
“We were just heading to the art studio, actually,” Annabel stated, cutting off Willem before he had a chance to speak.
“Oh.” Mathias tilted his head to the side slightly, a gesture that always reminded Willem of a confused puppy. Regardless of any possible confusion that Mathias felt, he didn’t miss a beat as he continued speaking. “Hey, Annabel. That’s fine. I was just going to let Ned here know that I was going to be late getting back to the dorm since I was going to take his advice and try to talk things out with Lukas.”
Willem’s heart sank at those words, the edges of his eyes prickling painfully as his shoulders sagged just the smallest fraction. It wasn’t like he expected anything different to happen, so he had nobody to blame but himself for getting his hopes up.
Annabel glanced between the pair of men that towered above her, Mathias looking excited while her brother looked...defeated and even more withdrawn than usual. “Ah, I see. Antonio and I have a date at six, but I was going to ask Willem for some pointers on a few art assignments before I headed that way. I hope that things go smoothly for you, since I know that things have been pretty rocky between you and Lukas for a while now, yeah?”
Mathias’s smile faltered for the briefest second, but Willem knew that nobody but him would notice it. “Well, it has been for a bit, I guess, but I’m sure that it’s just because of some sort of built-up stress that Lukas has been under, especially with getting sick during hockey season and trying not to lose his scholarship. I’m usually the only one that ends up being around, so I tend to end up taking the brunt of his temper, but that’s okay.”
That was the biggest bunch of bullshit that Willem had heard. He knew that wasn’t the cause of how things were. That was just how Lukas was as a person. Nothing was going to change that, and it wasn’t just one isolated incident of it either.
The corners of Annabel’s mouth twitched with concern. “He hasn’t hurt you though, has he? Because if he has--”
The resounding shout from the other side of the field made the trio jump slightly in surprise, though Mathias had a look of resignation on his face.
“Sorry, guys, but I’ve gotta run before Lukas decides to add this to the list of things I’ve done wrong.” There was only the faintest hint of sarcasm in Mathias’s voice as he rolled his eyes. With a wave of his hand to the pair of siblings, Mathias ran off.
Willem turned his back so that he wouldn’t have to see what he could only expect would be the boyfriends leaping into each other’s arms and kissing. He would’ve started walking away, but his sister still held him firm in her grip.
“Oh no you don’t, mister. You’re coming with me,” Annabel stated firmly, her free hand sliding into the pocket of the overalls that she was wearing. With her other hand, she pulled on Willem’s arm in order to drag him towards the art studio. Of course, if he had even so much as resisted the movement, she wouldn’t have been capable of even making him budge an inch. As it was, Willem was being compliant.
That didn’t mean that he was willing to talk though. He wasn’t in the mood to even begin to divulge a fraction of the dark hidden secrets and feelings that he had kept bottled up inside of him for so long.
The distance between the soccer field and the art studio was only a little over a block, but to Willem, that trek felt like an eternity. At least it had been made in silence. Annabel opened the door and gestured for him to enter the building. She followed him in, searching for an empty room before locking the door behind her.
Annabel placed her hands firmly on the table that was now between them, staring at Willem with a frown. “Look, I know that something is wrong. So please just tell me what’s bothering you. I know that it has to have something to do with Mathias and Lukas.” Willem winced. “I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I could see it. Even now. Every time that somebody says Lukas’s name, you end up looking like you want to throw up or hurl yourself out a window. It’s something that I’ve been noticing for the past six months since I came here. I just wish that you had enough sense to actually open up to someone. To open up to me. I’m your sister. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
The look of open hurt in Annabel’s eyes made Willem cringe internally, but all he could do was shake his head as his hands gripped the strap of his duffel bag until the tough canvas nearly cut into his hands. “There’s nothing that you need to know. Lukas is just an asshole that shouldn’t be trusted. He’s no good and you need to stay away from him before you end up getting hurt by him too. So just drop the subject.”
Annabel raised one hand to twist her fingers into the green ribbon that was tied in her hair like a headband. At first he thought that he had successfully diverted the conversation. Her voice was quiet when she spoke, and it caused a lump to form in Willem’s throat. “Lukas hurt Mathias, didn’t he? That’s why you’re getting so upset, isn’t it?”
He couldn’t help the small surge of anger that nestled itself into the base of his throat, and it took several moments for him to be able to restrain the sudden emotion enough for it to not show in his voice. “Look, it’s not my relationship and I have no right to interfere in it. It would be best if you just dropped it and moved on with your life. There are more important things for you to worry about.”
That was apparently the wrong thing for him to say, however, because Annabel puffed out her cheeks as her nose started to turn red. One of the tell-tale signs that she was on the verge of tears. “Well I wouldn’t have to worry so much if you would just open up to me, to anyone. You always keep yourself so closed off from everybody, especially recently, and you keep all your emotions bottled up to yourself, and it’s not healthy, Willem!” She pressed the tips of her fingers against her eyes and shook her head. “You always end up listening to everyone else’s problems whether you actually want to or not, but you never open up to anyone in return even after dealing with the weight of everybody’s situations, and I know that it has to be weighing down on you more than you’ll ever admit.”
“Well it’s not your problem to fix, Annabel,” he muttered dully. He loved his sister and he hated seeing her like this, but he just couldn’t risk opening up the can of worms that was his emotional turmoil. He had to protect himself at all costs, even from those he loved.
Annabel crossed her arms over her chest, looking as if she’d just had the wind kicked out of her. Her mouth opened and closed as she struggled to get out the words that she wanted, but after a few futile moments, her shoulders slumped and her eyes glistened with tears. Willem wanted to reach out and comfort his baby sister, but he couldn’t. If he did, he knew that his carefully constructed control on his emotions would shatter, so he stood idly by.
The silence stretched on for several more moments until Willem could feel the bile rising in the back of his throat from the stress, his stomach twisting in knots. “Can you at least give me advice on my art pieces while we’re here?” came the faint whisper. It eased the tension in Willem’s shoulders for the time being. It hadn’t been an admission to stop prying, because he was sure that Annabel would end up poking her nose back into the matter. However, it was enough for the moment to have the subject changed.
Releasing his grip on the strap of his bag, he slowly lowered himself onto one of the stools at the table. He kept his voice gentle when he spoke. “Yeah, I can do that…”
Annabel glanced over at him, biting her bottom lip as she nodded. Heading over to one of the cupboards, she withdrew several semi-finished canvas paintings, and Willem was patient as she discussed the assignment relating to each, what she was attempting to achieve, and what she had already done.
By the time that he was done giving her suggestions and critiquing the pieces with his artist’s eye, Annabel’s normally perky disposition had almost fully returned, though there was a slow reluctance to her movements that Willem knew was caused by her unwillingness to simply leave matters as they were. He knew that she wanted to say more on their previous discussion, but she simply thanked him and returned her works to their places, leaving soon after telling him that she didn’t want to be late for her date with Antonio.
As the door clicked quietly behind her retreating form, Willem pillowed his head in his arms. He hated this feeling. He hated feeling as though his entire soul was shattering in his chest, over and over again. It didn’t help that it felt like someone was constantly taking a sledgehammer to his chest. He wanted to cry. He could feel the tears welling up in the backs of his eyes. He knew that if he let himself though, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself, and he wasn’t up to the task of diverting every single person that he knew would end up asking him about what was wrong.
Forcing himself up off the table, Willem pushed himself into a standing position, shoulders hunched as if the weight of the world weighed down upon him. As he turned to leave, something inside him hesitated. It was an itch in the back of his mind, a tingle that made his fingers twitch with anticipation.
Resting against the wall nearby was a stack of blank canvases that students used for painting. One of the tables nearby was stacked with several cases of oil paint tubes, containers of paint brushes, palettes, and other miscellaneous artist’s tools. Placing his duffel bag on the floor by his stool, Willem shuffled over to cases of paints, gently running his fingers along the tubes of colors.
Titanium white. Cadmium lemon. Hansa yellow light. Cerulean blue. Cobalt blue. Pthalo blue. Gold ochre. Chromatic black. Viridian. Sap green. Burnt umber. Burnt sienna. Portland grey medium.
He instinctively picked through the colors of paint that lay before him, a vision of a painting already forming in his head with each new color that he picked out and placed next to his palette. Willem only hesitated for a brief moment once the paints were chosen before he scooped them up in his arms and brought them over to his stool, dragging an easel along behind him. He went back for a canvas and the other tools and brushes before sitting down.
Willem’s breath felt lodged in his throat for several moments as he stared at the almost intimidating expanse of vast empty whiteness. It was blinding in a way, like the feeling from staring at glistening snow for too long. Squeezing the colors onto his palette, he picked up a paintbrush and dipped it into a mixture of lighter and darker blues.
Raising the brush, he hesitated once more, stilling the nervous tremble in his hand. And then, he painted, and he could feel all of his emotions come crashing down around him, spreading down along his arm and out the brush and onto the canvas. Each stroke and color was a conduit of emotion.
Willem stayed in the art room that night.