Chapter 1: Learner's Permit
Despite being somewhat popular among his peers Jim doesn't consider most of them close friends. His phone has outgoing calls to about four people, and one of them is his mother. He's never complained about a lack of friends, and deep down he knows his temper is the reason his phone isn't constantly blowing up with texts, and that's fine , really. He'd rather have just a few close friends than a dozen or so shallow ones.
Right now though he'd rather have zero friends, but only because he can't imagine who else would call now.
It's around two, and he's blinking awake, bleary eyed and exhausted from staying up too late. His phone is lit up, screeching at him from across the room where it's charging, and he watches it vibrate and ring until it topples off his desk and eventually goes silent. Then after about a minute the light goes back on, and the ringing resumes, and Jim groans as he forces himself out of bed and across the room to his desk.
He kicks his desk chair and swears, grumbling as he bends down and picks up his phone, scowling at the bright light as he tries to read.
When he registers the name “Ed Nashton” on his screen Jim feels an icy cold slip down his back and settle into his gut. He blinks, now wide awake, and answers quickly, sitting in his chair and whispering, “hello?”
“Jim,” he says, voice thick and a bit muffled, like he's talking through a stuffed up nose, “you were asleep, weren't you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I shouldn't, you should sleep. Go back to sleep. It's fine, I just-”
“Ed what's going on?” Jim keeps his voice low, not wanting to wake his parents, and slips off his chair to grab his shoes. “Do you need me to come get you?”
“I shouldn't have bothered you,” Ed says, somehow thicker, and sniffling. “I'm sorry, I'm so stupid, I just, I know you didn't mean any time but I just, I'm sorry. I'll let you sleep.” His breath shudders, loud in Jim's ear. “Please, I didn't mean to bother you-”
“Ed I'm coming over,” Jim says. He tugs on a pair of sneakers and grabs a sweatshirt before moving to his door and slowly making his way down the hall. “Are you at home?”
“Yes, but Jim-”
“I'm coming , Ed, okay? Just sit tight.” Jim hesitates by the front door and shifts his weight, then he grabs the set of keys for his mom's beat up four door. “Do you want me to stay on the phone?”
“I don't want to get you in trouble,” Ed whispers. “It's nothing serious, please don't go to too much trouble.”
“Are you outside?” Jim asks. He slips out of the house and to the driveway, unlocking the car and starting it up. Ten and two, press the brake before changing the gear, and don't get pulled over.
“Yes,” he sniffs. “Thank you, really, I, I'm, you have,” he gets somewhat inaudible between trying to be quiet and failing to not cry, and Jim swallows around a lump in his throat. He sets his phone in his lap and slowly, and very carefully, puts the car into reverse.
He's driven in the parking lot at his mom's work a dozen or so times, and for a few hours on some of the back roads, but never at night, and not alone. But Jim is determined, and he's moving slowly, keeping both hands glued to the steering wheel as he drives about five under at two in the morning with his brights on. He forgot how to turn them off; it feels immaterial to him now.
Jim doesn't want to call attention to Ed's parents so he parks the car on the opposite side of the street and leans out the driver's side window, waving Ed over and telling him to, “hurry up Ed, come on,” into the phone. “I'll take you to my place just get in .”
Ed walks quickly, favoring one side and wheezing a little, and he avoids looking directly at Jim until he's already seated in the passenger seat. His glasses are gone and Jim fears the worst based on Ed's bruised eye. He takes in his swollen cheek and bleeding nose, and he has a very hard time staying seated instead of running into Ed's house and giving them a taste of their own medicine. He looks away from Ed and grips the steering wheel, then he punches it twice, swearing when the impact hurts his hand. Once he manages to turn back to Ed he finds him cowering in the seat, one hand on his side and the other covering his unbruised eye.
“Sorry,” Jim whispers. He takes a few calming breaths and closes his eyes. “Are you okay?”
“I just want to leave,” Ed whispers back. “Please?”
“Do your ribs hurt?” Jim's cracked a few before in a fight. It hurts like hell but he knows how to treat them.
“Only a little. Can we just go?” Ed pleads. “I'm sorry, I'm grateful, really. I just want to go.”
“You should buckle up. I don't have my license yet and I don't want to get pulled over.” Ed sobs, and Jim turns and watches while he cries, shoulders shaking. He puts a hand on Ed's knee, rubbing his thumb across his kneecap and letting him work through his feelings. Once he's calmed down a little Jim asks, “do you need a doctor?” Ed shakes his head emphatically. “My mom's a nurse, so she can look at you if you want.”
Ed doesn't answer, instead he starts crying harder. Jim leans over and carefully buckles him in, mindful of Ed's left side and pausing long enough to give him a loose, one armed hug. Ed leans against him for a moment, temple to temple, and then he leans back, sniffling through tears and maybe a little more blood. Jim doesn't try to make him talk again, opting to just sit quietly until the worst has passed, and by the time he starts driving away Ed is down to some stray tears trailing down his face and the occasional sniffle.
Jim drives slower than he did on the way to Ed's, wary of every other vehicle they see, but they make it back to his home undetected. Jim parks the car more or less where he found it and gets out first, motioning for Ed to follow, but he has to help Ed out of the passenger seat after he squeaks in pain. Jim is as patient as he can be, hands rubbing up and down Ed's arms to try to soothe him. He shushes Ed gently, begs him to keep it together until they're down the hall, and the two make their way to the bathroom closest to Jim's bedroom.
Inside the bright room Ed's nose looks worse, there's dried blood under his nose and on his shirt, but it's no longer bleeding. His eye is swelling along with his cheek, and Jim has to take a few more breaths to stop himself from doing anything stupid.
“You can sit on the counter if you want,” Jim says. Ed doesn't move and Jim shrugs, moving to wet a washcloth before gently wiping at Ed's face, clearing away the dried blood and checking Ed for any sign of a head injury. There’s no blood anywhere on his head, and he doesn't seem confused or in any excess pain, at least.
“Can I see your ribs?” he asks. Ed nods and pulls his shirt up and over his head, wincing when it tugs on his sore nose, and Jim surveys Ed's torso with a steady building rage. Nothing looks all that bad on its own, but the sheer number of bruises on his torso about send Jim into a fit. He huffs out a breath through his nose, and another, then he leaves the bathroom and storms to the kitchen to get an ice pack and maybe punch one of the more sturdy walls of the house, seething quietly when something in his hand makes an unnerving popping noise. His hand still works afterward, but he grabs an extra ice pack from the freezer for himself just in case.
“Hold this on your eye,” Jim instructs Ed. He sets the extra pack down on the counter and moves to the sink. “I'll get you some pain meds.”
“I don't have any allergies,” Ed says. “Except maybe lactose.”
“You drink milk all the time.”
“I take supplements,” Ed mumbles. “I prefer aspirin,” he says even quieter. “Three.”
Jim says nothing and fills a small glass with water, then he digs through the medicine cabinet until he finds a small bottle of aspirin. He dumps three pills into his palm and hands them over to Ed, and he swallows them dry, only deciding drink the water after seeing Jim's pained expression. Ed hugs an arm around himself, the other still busy holding up the ice pack to the swollen side of his face. He shivers, partly from the cold and maybe because Jim can't stop staring at all the bruises.
“Some of these are old,” he says, indicating a nasty yellowed patch on Ed's hip, and another on his right shoulder. He puts the ice pack on his hand to keep himself from touching any of the angry marks.
Ed curls his shoulders inward. “He's been home a lot this week.”
“I fucking hate your dad,” Jim growls. “Where was your mom?”
“She was there. I mean, not like, right there, but she was home.” He moves the ice pack off his face and gingerly touches some of the swelling. “They've been arguing more recently.”
Ed shakes his head. “I don't think it would be different if it was about me though.”
“Why can't we call the police?” Jim pleads. “Ed you're bleeding . And all this,” he gestures to Ed's torso, “is actual proof . You didn't even do anything wrong . But even if you did, Jesus Ed you don't deserve this.”
“I can't Jim, please just drop it.”
“I don't see why you think you have to put up with this. My parents would help . So would Oswald’s mom.”
“I’d have to move,” he whispers. “I did some research a couple years back. I have an uncle out of state. I barely know him, but that's where I'd be sent , because he's still family. I don't want to leave you both behind.” Ed's fragile composure breaks, tears start welling in his eyes and he sniffs. “Or, or they'd find a way to blame some bully, and it wouldn't help anything, and then it would just get worse. ”
“What happens if it gets worse anyway?” Jim asks. “This is already way worse. I don't think it's worth it, Ed. You can make more friends, and it's not like we couldn't talk or hang out on weekends.”
“No.” Ed shakes his head. “People don’t like me. You're both outliers, and I consider us close but I never expected you to come get me,” Ed whispers. He sniffles, voice getting thick again, and he says, “you actually came , and, and I know I'm just this, this annoying weirdo . But you're both still my friends anyway and you actually came and -”
“You aren't a weirdo.” Jim shushes Ed before he self deprecates too much. Ed sobs in response. Jim sets aside his ice pack again, watching it plop into the sink as he holds his arms out and lets Ed situate himself against his chest for a hug. Ed's hands move up Jim's back, clutching at handfuls of his sweatshirt and he hides his face against Jim's shoulder. Jim sees Ed's back in the mirror, at the bruises mottling his skin, and he closes his eyes, holding Ed tighter and rocking him a little. “I’ll try to always come, okay? I'll do my best. And I won't make you call the police, not if you really don't want to.”
Ed doesn't say anything and Jim doesn't push. He rubs his hand over Ed's back, feeling his eyes droop now that his adrenaline is fading. Ed starts getting heavy in his arms, and when Jim makes him stand up straight Ed snorts in surprise, eyes blinking slowly. “Did you fall asleep on me?”
“I'm tired,” Ed says though a yawn. “I'm sorry I woke you up.”
“Don't worry about it. Come on,” he says, grabbing Ed's hand and leading him the short way to his bedroom. His alarm blinks at him from the bedside table, 3:45 am. “School's in like, three hours,” he groans.
“I'm sorry,” Ed mumbles. He stands in the center of Jim's bedroom, hands knotted together and bare shoulders hunched.
“It's not your fault. Here.” Jim digs out a pair of sweats from his dresser and hands them to Ed. “They're going to be too short on you.”
“It's fine,” he says. Ed changed out of his pants and into the sweatpants, which stop well above his ankle, but he looks comfortable, and the addition of one of Jim's baggy sweatshirts gets him to stop huddling so much. Jim crawls back into his bed and holds up the blanket until Ed nods, slipping in beside him and scooting until his head is just barely touching Jim's shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” Jim yawns, and he rolls so his arm is across Ed's back. “I mean it. Or, maybe instead you could just sleep over in the first place.”
Ed is silent for a minute, and Jim moves his hand lazily across his back. When he speaks again it's quiet, cowed, but also hopeful. “Your parents wouldn't mind?”
“Nah,” he yawns. “Hell, maybe my grades would go up if we did homework together more often, and I'd rather not have to be a nurse again.” Ed doesn't reply, and Jim's expression goes from relaxed to mildly worried. “I mean, if I had to I would, okay? Ed?”
He snores softly, already asleep, and Jim laughs once to himself. “Guess it's okay.”
Chapter 2: Bluejays and Cardinals
canonical character death offscreen
Oswald dodges his fellow classmates, feinting left and right as he maneuvers down the hall towards the lunchroom, hands clasped on the straps of his backpack and a determined scowl on his face. Despite the crowd, and his diminutive stature, he sees Ed quickly, towering above most of the other sophomores, one hand clutching the handle of his lunchbox and the other adjusting his glasses as Oswald comes into focus.
“Where’s Jim?” Oswald asks as he comes to a stop in front of Ed.
“He’s in the office.”
“Still!? You said he got called there during third period!” Oswald stamps one foot in irritation. “What did he do this time?”
“I don’t know.” Ed shrugs. “The student runner didn’t say, she just handed over the note.”
“Well, we’re going to find out , then.” Oswald grabs onto Ed’s free hand and starts dragging him along behind him down the hall. “He at least owes us an explanation.”
“You know, the minute he left phys ed I got hit in the head with a volleyball. I think intentionally. It’s a good thing I wear my old pair of glasses during class because if they’d broken-”
“Shh,” Oswald stops abruptly and pats Ed on the chest, “hold on a minute, Ed, do you see what I see?”
Ed bites his lip and squints, moving his glasses up to see properly. “Is that his mother?”
“It can't be,” Oswald says. “She's never the one to come in.”
But they can easily see into the office through the large indoor windows. She's standing in the center of the open office, one hand scribbling at some forms attached to a clipboard. Currently Jim is nowhere to be found.
“Maybe he had an appointment?” Ed shrugs when Oswald's eyebrows go up in question. “She'd have to sign him back in.”
“Well he could have warned us is all I'm saying.”
“You just don't want to wait in line.”
“Do you blame me!? It's a long line!” he shouts, drawing attention to the two of them. Mrs. Gordon glances their way, and upon seeing her son's friends flapping about and making a small spectacle of themselves she smiles softly. Ed waves to her, a bright blush overtaking his face as Oswald rants about the inequality of making him wait in line for the crummy reduced cost lunches when everyone else gets the regular meals.
“And another thing, the quality of a student, no, a child's meal, the fuel that helps them succeed, shouldn't change just because my mother can't afford the fancy, whole cost meals.”
“I think you already argued this in debate,” Ed says, “and I agreed with you then.”
“Well the point hasn't reached the ears that make a difference, so I'm going to, oh, Mrs. Gordon!” Oswald calls out to her and waves frantically as she and Jim leave the office. She smiles back and Ed hides his face in his hands, willing to smudge his glasses if it means she won't see the blush. “Jim! Jim, you were supposed to meet us by Ed's locker.”
“Oswald,” Ed tries to pull him back. The regular lunch crowd is starting to mill about, filling the hallways and clogging the space between them and Jim. “Oswald stop calling from over here.”
“Well if he'd just come over I wouldn't have to yell.” Oswald grabs Ed and pulls him across the space to Jim and his mother. “Jim, you didn't come to Ed's locker for lunch.”
Jim shrugs, scowling at the floor and hunching his shoulders. He doesn't appear to have been in a fight; his hooded shirt isn't dirty or scuffed and his face isn't bruised or scraped. “Not hungry.”
“I'll go start the car,” Jim's mother says, squeezing her son's shoulder and patting him on the back before she goes.
“Oh, well,” Ed frets over his lunchbox and the uneaten food inside. “Usually you sit with us either way.”
“Are you getting suspended?” Oswald blurts out.
“No,” Jim's scowl deepens.
“But you're leaving,” Ed points out.
“Just go get lunch without me.” Jim says, curt, voice clipped and raspy.
“Jim if someone's treating you unfairly you should tell us,” Oswald says. “Or you can get your dad to come yell at the principal again. Most of the time you're just defending us , so-”
“Just leave me alone!” he shouts, fists clenched, “don't be such a baby! You can survive one lunch without me!” Oswald blinks, backing away until he bumps his back into Ed, and Jim shouts something unprintable, angrily stalking away and out the door to the front drive.
Ed puts a hand on Oswald's shoulder, and mumbles, “we can go eat on the back steps.”
“He snapped at me,” Oswald says, dazed. “He never snaps at me.”
They're at Oswald's tiny house, because they're always over at someone's, but right now Jim's isn't an option. Oswald's been to the Nashton home exactly once in his life, and he'll join track team before he even dreams of setting foot there again.
Ed's on the floor, lying on his stomach while reading a book for school, and Oswald's doing the same while lying in his twin bed, or at least he's trying to read along with Ed, but he keeps seeing Jim's angry face, the barely visible but still painfully there rage Jim keeps just under the surface was directed at him , and he tosses the book aside without bothering to save his place.
“You should finish reading. We have a quiz tomorrow on chapter one,” Ed says, flipping the page into chapter five. “It's about fifteen pages. The chapter, not the quiz. This book doesn't even have enough substance for a fifteen page final exam.”
“Jim yelled at me today.”
“I was there,” Ed says, not agreeing or disagreeing, just reminding Oswald of his presence. “I don't think he got in a fight.”
“That doesn't explain why he left , or why he got so angry.” Oswald rubs his eyes. He's proud to say he didn't cry over this, at least not until they got to the back stoop where no one would see. But the stinging redness around his eyes decided to persist long enough for his mother to see, and to worry. He'd lied and told her his allergies were acting up and she gave him a wet washcloth to clear away pollen; Ed managed to wait until she was out of earshot before correcting her logic.
“Jim is always angry.”
“Yes but not at me. Not at us. ” Oswald rolls so he's on his side, watching Ed as he speed reads another set of pages before flipping to the next. “Why aren't you scared?”
“I am,” Ed says. “I'm just better at hiding it.” Ed bookmarks his page at the end of the fifth chapter and sits up. “Can I sleep here?”
“You don't have to ask,” Oswald says. He knows Ed usually sleeps at Jim's house during the week. “My bed is getting a bit too small to share.”
“We're just too big,” Ed says. He moves so he's resting his back against the box spring. “Or I am, at least.”
“Hey,” Oswald fakes being offended and hits Ed in the chest with his pillow. “I grew half an inch last month. You're just part giraffe or something.”
“I don't think-”
There's a soft knock on the door and Oswald's mother pokes her head inside, smiling at the two boys and saying, “Oswald sweetheart, your little friend is at the door.”
Oswald sits up straight and looks at Ed, who's also looking confused, and then back to her. “Okay?”
“I'll send him in,” she says. She blows Oswald a kiss and he smiles briefly, then he turns to Ed.
“Do you think it's Jim?”
“I can't imagine anyone else it would be,” Ed says. “Perhaps, oh, hello.”
Jim stands in the doorway, just behind the seam separating Oswald's carpet from the hallway. He bites his lip, keeping his head down as he says, “sorry.”
“You’re forgiven, obviously. Think nothing of it,” Oswald says as if he didn't spend the entire afternoon agonizing over what he or Ed could have done to make him so angry.
“You aren't in trouble, right?” Ed asks.
Jim shakes his head. “I wasn't suspended.”
“You weren't in English,” Ed says. “We have to read that book,” he gestures to his copy in the middle of the floor. “It's painfully boring but a fast read.”
“I won't be in class tomorrow,” Jim says. He's still avoiding their eyes, and he still hasn't actually entered the room.
“But you weren't suspended,” Oswald clarifies.
Jim looks up at the two of them. His eyes are red and irritated, and now that he isn't hiding under his hood quite so thoroughly they can see how blotchy and red his face is. Jim bites his lip and crosses the small space into Oswald's room and shuts the door to the hall.
“Jim, are you alright?” Ed asks, standing, the pillow falling to the floor with a soft plop.
“My dad died,” he says abruptly, and he shudders, exhaling a raspy, choppy breath and sobbing. He doesn't even try to hide, arms limp at his sides as tears stream down his face.
Ed reacts first, rushing to close the gap and pull Jim to his chest, one arm firmly around Jim's shoulders and the other tugging his hood down and petting his hair. Oswald remains stunned on his bed for half a minute, then he jumps up, wanting to help, but Ed already has Jim wrapped up in a tight, comforting hug.
(Where did Ed learn to hug like that? Oswald wonders. Jim, he settles on. It must've been Jim, back before Ed started staying with either of them overnight. He'd needed plenty of hugs back then.)
He puts a hand on Jim's back, feeling the shuddering, gulping breaths as he cries. He rubs his thumb across Jim's ribs, unsure how else to include himself and hoping this is enough. As he rubs Jim's back Ed's hand slips down off Jim's head and over his shoulder until long, spidery fingers are resting just barely on top of Oswald’s, and Oswald presses his lips together tightly when Jim sobs are no longer muffled by Ed's shirt. He looks at Ed, at the sympathy and sadness in his eyes, and he moves a bit closer to Jim, pressing his hand firmly against his back and trying to absorb a bit of the sadness from him.
Chapter 3: Extreme Couponing, High School Edition
cw: child abuse/neglect
Ed spins the lock on his locker, opening it only for it to be slammed in his face, nearly catching his fingers in the door. He turns and ducks down when the neanderthal, Butch, from his third period English tries to grab him by the collar.
“I got my paper back and I only got a C!”
“Congratulations,” Ed mutters. He bites the inside of his cheek when he gets slammed against the lockers. It wasn't hard, but he can taste coppery, metallic blood as he feels for the wound.
“What am I paying you for if you only get me a C?” he asks, one fist raised and ready to fire.
“A C+!” Ed says quickly, before he can land a punch to Ed's glasses, “I got you a C+ right?”
“So it's far more believable if you get a grade only slightly higher than your average,” Ed explains. “I read your other papers and got a feel for your style, which admittedly could use work, but she believed you, right? No plagiarism accusations?” He can see the gears turning in Butch’s head. “Gradual improvement is less suspicious. It's believable.” He nods along as Butch's grip loosens. “She would have called you out for getting an A without good reason.”
“So if I keep paying you eventually I'll get an A?”
“I wouldn't get too hasty-” Ed starts but another slam startles him and he blurts out, “yes, eventually. Eventually you'll,” he gulps, “you'll get an A.”
Butch releases him and nods, apparently satisfied, and he drags out his wallet. “What's the rate? Five a page?”
“Ten,” Ed corrects him. “It's ten, because,” he tries to get out of Butch's line of fire, “it's ten because it's single spaced!”
“Right,” Butch smiles and claps Ed on the shoulder making him flinch. “Better warm up on Greek Myths next,” he says as he shoves the ten in Ed's hand. Ed nods, not that he needs a refresher but he does enjoy reading mythology, and he watches as Butch leaves for lunch and Oswald and Jim come barreling towards him. His stomach about drops out of his chest.
“Why did he give you money?” Jim asks. He's also fussing over Ed's shirt, straightening the collar and then inspecting Ed's face.
“I’m not hurt,” Ed says. His back aches a little and his cheek is starting to throb but it isn't anything he can't handle.
“Ed,” Oswald looks up at him, demanding an explanation. He's always managed to look stern and forceful despite his diminutive size. “Why did he pay you?”
“I am a skill you practice for years but never master, a-”
“Ed,” Jim, pats him in the cheek, lightly, but enough to startle him to a stop, “come on, no riddles, just tell us.”
“I'm writing his papers,” Ed mumbles, looking down at the floor. “For English,” he clarifies. It doesn't change the disappointed expressions on Jim and Oswald's faces. “He's paying me.”
“If someone finds out who do you think is going to end up in more trouble?” Oswald asks, snotty. Although attitude aside he isn't wrong.
“I have a foolproof system. A gradual, systematic improvement over several papers. And they aren't hard papers. The only reason he's in my class is because he paid someone else to write before.”
“Ed,” Jim says it so gently, enough that the following isn't a blow so much as it's a firm reality check, “you can't keep writing Butch's papers for him.” Jim squeezes his shoulder and Ed nods reluctantly. “You're a smart guy, and I know you're bored but doing that ass’ work isn't worth the risk.”
“Jim,” Oswald calls for his attention and tugs at his sleeve, “Jim the line .”
“Right, you coming Ed?”
“In a minute,” he whispers, still looking at the floor. Jim pats his shoulder one more time before letting Oswald drag him to the lunch line, leaving Ed by the rows of lockers while students begin filling the halls. Ed pulls out his wallet and unclenches his hand so he can put the wrinkly ten next to a five and some change he found on the ground. Fifteen dollars, eighty-three cents. “Oh crap.”
It isn't that unusual for Ed to skip eating during lunch every once and awhile. Some days he sits at the table, silent except for a few affirmative noises, nose buried in a thick book or his Gameboy, and on those days Jim and Oswald know to just carry on a conversation of their own and if Ed wants to join in later he will, but if not he's content to just be near others being social rather than an active participant.
But today there's no book, no Gameboy, and no lunch. Ed's twirling a pen on the surface of the table, resting his head in his hand and sighing tiredly.
“Rough morning?” Jim asks as he sets his tray down. Oswald claims the seat next to him, setting down his own meager portions and cracking open his juice. Ed keeps twirling and doesn't respond. “Hey, Ed, you alright?”
“Hm?” He looks up, blinking a few times. There are bags under his eyes from a lack of restful sleep, and his hair is limp and a bit greasy.
“You okay?” Jim sits down and opens his milk carton.
“Fine,” he mumbles. He pulls off his glasses and sets them aside. Then he crosses his arms and rests his head in the crook of one elbow.
Jim glances over at Oswald, but Oswald just shrugs, taking a bite and scowling down at his food. He turns his attention to his own tray and lets Ed sleep. It's been a few months since Ed traded his meal time for sleep, but it isn't unheard of either.
He waits until the lunch hour is nearly over before trying to get Ed to speak up again. Jim lightly kicks at Ed's legs under the table, and he startles awake with a soft snort. He directs a few groggy, slow blinks at his friends, and he doesn't make another sound until Oswald drags him up out of his chair and places he's glasses on his face.
“I have legs,” he mutters. Jim motions across the hall and Oswald nods before he pulls Ed out of the lunch room and props him up against a wall out in the common area. He paps Ed on the cheeks a few times, gentle but persistent. Ed's face crinkles with irritation after the first couple and he swats Oswald away. “I'm awake.”
“Are you feeling alright?” Jim asks again.
“You're pale ,” Oswald says before Ed can say anything. “And you slept through lunch. If you're sick you should go to the nurse.”
Ed shakes his head. “Not sick. I'm just tired. It's nothing to worry about.”
“You should sleep at my place tonight. You need rest if you're sick,” Jim tells him firmly. There's a measure of distress in his expression, but they can't make Ed go to the nurse if he's still well enough to make it to his classes without assistance, and even if they did drag him there his parents wouldn't sign him out of class.
“I'm not,” Ed mumbles. But the longing in his expression is enough to reassure Jim that Ed will accept his offer. “We're watching a movie in my history class. I've seen it, and the inaccuracies aren't worth remembering. I'll sleep then.”
“Don't get caught ,” Oswald demands. “Or we'll have to wait out here for you until after detention lets out, and those barbaric jocks will try to string me up the flagpole again.”
“Hey,” Jim fakes offense, considering he's one of those “barbaric jocks”, at least during track season, and at the suggestion that he couldn't or wouldn't stop that from happening. “You’re sure you're alright?”
Ed nods, and he turns away from them to open up his locker, pulling a fleece jacket out and putting it on, finishing with zipping it up all the way until it's nearly covering his chin. It doesn't help his argument against being sick but Jim and Oswald don't comment. “See you after class.”
Jim’s running late at the end of the day (track meeting before the season starts, which he’d planned on skipping, but the coach found him first) and he sprints across the halls, ignoring at least two calls after him to “walk in the halls, Gordon” as he hurries to find Ed, hoping he didn’t give up on waiting.
Not that Jim expects him to have done so. Ed’s waited in an actual blizzard, huddled against Jim’s beat up car in a too thin coat, rather than give up and go to his house. There isn’t a chance of snow today, but there is a chance of the other members of the track team finding Ed first. He speeds up his pace a few clicks, the door to the outside banging against the door guard as he exits the school and tears over to the parking lot.
Ed’s there, huddled in his fleece, hands worrying over the straps of his backpack, but otherwise untouched and unharmed. He’s alone; Oswald must have given up already, which isn't terribly surprising. The lot is relatively thinned out, only a few cars of detention servers and students still around for practice remain.
“Hey, Ed,” he unlocks the passenger door and Ed ducks inside without a word. “Okay.”
The car whines in protest as Jim starts it, but after a few nervous seconds it turns over and Jim pulls out of the spot, speeding away from the school and heading across town to his house.
“He was impatient.”
Jim watches Ed out of the corner of his eye. Ed is still huddling, his fleece jacket is up to his chin, and his eyes are closed. He’s pale, and a little gaunt, and there’s an unusually exaggerated thinness in his cheeks. When Jim reaches over, one hand landing softly on Ed’s forehead, he flinches awake, eyes fluttering in confusion. His forehead isn’t warm, but he’s clammy.
“Sorry,” Jim says. “You just look sick.”
“I mean it,” Jim says firmly. “Did you sleep in history?”
“Some. There was a worksheet, and Butch kept throwing things at me.”
Jim’s hands clench around his steering wheel. He takes a few measured breaths, nodding when Ed touches his arm. His expression is hard, angry, but he’s calm. Ed doesn’t look worried, at least. “I’ll deck him if he keeps it up.”
“Don’t get in trouble for my sake. He’s just angry with me.” Ed looks over at Jim, tired eyes full of hope, seeking something. “I stopped writing his papers.”
Jim puts his hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Good.” The tension in Ed’s shoulders goes away. “He doesn’t deserve the A you’d get for him.”
Jim unlocks the door to his apartment and lets Ed step inside. Ed toes off his beat up tennis shoes near the front door and glances around the living room. “Is your mother at work?”
“Probably.” Jim sets his bag down by the coat hooks and slips his shoes off. “Want anything?”
“Water, please,” Ed says quietly. He shuffles around fussing with his backpack while Jim goes into the kitchen. Jim fills a glass with water from the tap and tosses a bag of popcorn into the microwave on his way back to the living room. “Thank you.”
Ed sips at his water, hovering near the kitchen with his glass while Jim gets the TV started up and a game loading. “You know you can sit on the couch with that.”
“I don’t want to spill.”
Jim shrugs and starts up his game. He’s barely through the menu screen when the popcorn kernels begins popping, slowly building until it’s the familiar rapid fire pops, and as it overcomes the crescendo and begins to slow he hears Ed set down his glass somewhere and open the microwave door. “Bowls are in the cupboard.”
He glances back over the couch as Ed pours the popcorn into a bowl. Ed sneaks a few kernels into his mouth and wipes his hand on his jeans, abandoning his water on the counter and handing over the bowl to Jim. He takes a couple handfuls for himself and sets the bowl on Ed’s lap after he sits; Ed hesitates for a moment, then begins eating the popcorn one piece at a time.
“Play first or watch first?” Jim offers up the controller to Ed.
“Watch,” he whispers. Jim shrugs and loads his save file. The only sound aside from Jim's game is Ed eating the popcorn piece by piece, and when that sound stops Jim turns towards him and finds Ed asleep, one hand still dangling into the bowl. He moves the popcorn to the coffee table and drags a blanket off the back of the couch to drape it over Ed’s legs.
“Hey mom,” Jim says as she enters the apartment around five. He pauses the video game and tosses the controller onto Ed’s lap. Ed wakes with a grunt and his hands curl around the controller by reflex.
“Have you two been playing all afternoon?”
“No,” Jim says, also a reflex. “Ed fell asleep.”
“So you’ve been playing all afternoon?”
“Only an hour!” He rolls his eyes and watches as Ed takes over playing, hands moving nimbly as he focuses on the screen. “What’s for dinner?”
“I made up some lasagna last night. It just needs to go in the oven.” Jim slings his arms over the back of the couch and watches as she turns on the oven. “Ed are you staying for dinner?”
Ed tenses. “He’s staying the night,” Jim says quickly, and his shoulders relax. “Ed? You hungry?”
“I’m fine. I’m not hungry Mrs. Gordon,” Ed insists.
“You didn’t have lunch.”
“No one’s going hungry in this house,” Jim’s mother says. Ed looks mildly distressed; his mouth is open, but he doesn’t say anything. “If you don’t help us eat it I won’t hear the end of how often we’ve been eating lasagna from someone . You’re doing me a favor.”
Jim makes a face once his mother's turned away to start the oven, then he drops back down onto the couch and watches Ed play for awhile.
“My mom doesn't care if you eat with us,” Jim tells Ed. “She never has.”
“I don't want to impose.” Ed pauses the game and runs his fingers over the curved plastic. “You're already letting me sleep here.”
“Just promise to do the dishes then,” Jim offers. Ed nods and unpauses the game. “You could do my other chores too if you want,” he adds, and Ed bumps into his shoulder lightly. “Just trying to make you feel better.”
“I'll do the dishes,” Ed replies. “Thank you,” he whispers. Jim doesn't say anything, but he pats Ed's knee before sprawling out on his half of the couch.
“Don't get too comfortable,” his mom says, dropping a pile of Jim's laundry onto his stomach. “You were supposed to fold this last night.”
Jim scowls down at the laundry currently covering his torso and picks up a sock between two fingers. “I'll do it later.”
“Do it now. Dinner's going to be ready in about thirty more minutes.”
Jim grumbles and pointedly ignores the clothing until Ed pauses the game and starts folding his shirts for him. “I'll do it.” Jim shoos him off and starts pairing his socks. “She knew you'd guilt me into it.”
“I do my own at home,” Ed says. “It's in the basement, but, well it's usually quieter down there even though it's a bit musty.”
“I thought you didn't like it down there?”
“I don't.” Ed picks at the hem at the bottom of his fleece. Jim puts his hand on Ed's shoulder and rubs his thumb across Ed's collar bone. “But I don't really like being anywhere upstairs more.”
“You could do laundry here if you want. It just takes quarters.” Ed nods. “My mom would let you stay here with us if you want.”
“It’s only another year and a half.” Ed brushes off Jim's offer, and his hand, but his expression is appreciative. “Thank you again, really.”
“You say that a lot, Ed.”
“I mean it at least seventy percent of the time,” he jokes, and Jim chuckles quietly as he folds up some pants.
Dinner is quiet. Jim talks to his mom about track, and Ed keeps to himself on his end of the table, carefully cutting his helping of lasagna, which is considerably smaller than Jim's, into small bites and eating them slowly, one at a time. When his helping is gone he seems shocked, and Jim watches Ed fret with his napkin without saying a word, so he takes the initiative and scoops a second portion of noodles and meat sauce onto Ed's plate. His second helping is gone nearly as fast as the first, but he refuses any more, and he's already at the sink with the dirtied plates before Jim or his mother can coax him into taking a third helping.
When Jim's mom corners him before they abscond to his room he brushes off Ed's demeanor, claiming he's likely been feeling a bit sick lately. She doesn't believe him, and she shouldn't, but there's a fine line they both dance around when Ed is involved.
“He looks too thin. Would he accept leftovers?”
“Doubt it,” Jim says. “He's probably sick, mom. Maybe he barfed a lot over the weekend.”
“Don't be so crass.” She straightens some of Jim's hair and he shakes it back over his ears and forehead. “It's my job to worry, remember? Have you asked him about staying here? I know he said no before.”
“Mom, you know Ed.” Jim glances over his mom's shoulder to the kitchen and watches Ed dry the dishes he's just washed. “He’ll be okay. He's probably just tired. It's test season.”
“Then don't stay up too late.” She makes Jim bend down an inch to kiss his forehead. “Go do your homework, and get a good night's sleep. That's an order.”
Unlike Jim, Ed doesn’t have homework, and he passes out on Jim’s bed the second he finishes settling in under an afghan, glasses still on his face, getting bent out of shape between his head and Jim’s pillow. Jim works on his assigned reading across the room at his desk, slogging through a book previously described to him as “dull” at best and “a complete waste of time” at worst (courtesy of Ed and Oswald, in that order). He rereads the same page several times, groaning in irritation, his eyelids drooping steadily because it is, in fact, a very boring book.
Jim tosses the book onto his desk without marking his place and crawls onto his bed. He takes Ed’s glasses off, making Ed wake with a surprised snort, and he sets them aside on the bedside table before taking half the afghan from Ed.
“That book sucks.”
“That book? Oh, that book, yes. It’s not good.”
“You’re finished with it?”
“Sometimes the best way to end suffering is by taking it all on at once.” Ed closes his eyes and scoots a few inches closer to Jim. “You should finish reading. We have a quiz.”
“We always have a damn quiz.” Jim closes his eyes. “Every day,” he yawns. He tucks his arm across Ed's back and lazily moves his fingers across his shoulder blades. “Not everyone has a photographic memory, showoff.”
“Eidetic,” Ed corrects, speech drowsy and low. The beginnings of a proper explanation stutter out and fade into silence without Jim registering any of it properly.
Jim knows better than to give their classmates an opening on dodgeball day, and he does his damnedest to stay near enough to Ed to take the heavy hits but far enough to not get Ed yelled at for not participating. Ed keeps one arm curled up defensively, hand ready to grab his glasses at a moment's notice, and the other loose at his side. He isn't crouched like Jim, who's throwing balls back with plenty of enthusiasm, and his best strategy appears to be dodging the balls with quiet exclamations and squeaks. If he wasn't so clammy he'd be beet red.
“Look alive, Nashton,” the coach drawls. It sounds like a formality at best. There's no helping Ed's coordination. He's all arms and legs, and when a ball comes whizzing by he yelps, but he isn't hit. Jim tears after the ball and throws it back to the other side, only for another ball to come flying their way again.
“Ed, you might just want to let a slow one hit you,” Jim says. Half their team is already out, and Jim's measly three outs haven't evened the playing field. “Ed?”
Ed's legs have locked up, and his jaw is slack. He blinks a couple times and Jim sees the sign he's going down before Ed may even realize it's going to happen. He turns to Ed fully, exposing his back to the enemy, and the second he takes a step towards Ed someone hits him on the back of the head. Jim snarls and turns, already screaming, “fuck you!” at whoever just threw the ball.
“Gordon, language. Zsasz, no head shots,” the teacher calls out, sounding bored.
“Sorry 'bout that Jim! That was my bad!” Zsasz calls back. Jim makes sure the teacher isn't looking before flipping Zsasz off, which just makes him laugh. He mimes having a broken heart and Jim rolls his eyes.
He turns back to Ed and walks closer, holding out a hand and touching his arm. “You okay Ed?”
There's a brief flash of recognition in his eyes when Ed focuses on Jim, then they roll back in his head and he starts falling to the floor. Jim's hand grips Ed's arm in reflex and he catches him on the way down, but he's dragged to the floor as well. “Ed!” Jim pats Ed's cheeks but his eyes don't open. Another ball flies and Jim screams, “fucking stop!”
“Gordon, what did I,” when the teacher looks up and locks eyes with Jim he blows the whistle, sending students off to the benches, and the onlookers scatter as he approaches the two of them. “Did he get hit?”
“He passed out,” Jim growls, “not like you'd know or anything.”
Jim scowls in the face of his sure detention, daring him to take the time to write up a slip while Ed slowly comes to on the gym floor. He blinks up tiredly at Jim, one hand gripping loosely at his gym shirt and the other righting his glasses, which had slipped off one ear when he fell. “Jim?”
“You feel okay?” Jim whispers. His arm is straining a little from the angle, but he doesn't want to move it out from under Ed's head.
“Syncope,” Ed mutters.
“I passed out,” Ed says calmly. “Right?”
“We'll let the nurse make that call,” says the teacher. “Gordon, help him get over there.”
Jim nods and offers his free hand to Ed, and he grips it weakly. He's shaky once he's upright, and Jim lets him (makes him) sling an arm over his shoulders until he feels comfortable enough to walk on his own. He leaves it there the entire walk to the nurse's office.
“Gym again?” asks Essen once Jim's led Ed over to the single gurney. She gets up from her desk and beings along a clipboard. “What happened, Ed?”
“He thinks he passed out,” Jim says. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his shorts and leans against the doorframe.
“That true?” she asks, and Ed nods. She has a gentle, concerned look on her face, and she sets aside her clipboard to get a wet cloth for him. “Put this on your forehead. Did you overexert yourself?”
“No,” Ed whispers. He presses the cloth to his cheek and back up to his forehead.
Before she can ask anything more Ed's stomach lets out a long, low growl, and his cheeks pink up in embarrassment. Essen leaves Ed's side for a minute and returns to the main room with a bottle of juice and some saltines. “Did you eat breakfast, Ed?”
“No, ma'am,” he says. He accepts the snack and cracks open the juice. “Thank you.”
“I'll tell the office you're going to rest for this period. Gordon, you should to get back to class.”
Jim watches Ed and his blatant distress, he clearly doesn't want to be in here alone, and he scratches a hand over his sternum. “Can't I stay here?”
“Not if you aren't going to pass out too. I can't make excuses for you to skip class.”
Jim bites his lip and looks at Essen, and her expression is sympathetic, so he offers up an excuse, “I got hit in the back of the head in gym?”
“Good enough for me,” she says. She pats the gurney and Ed scoots to one side so Jim can sit. “Any blurred vision or confusion?”
“No?” Jim shrugs. “It doesn't hurt too bad.”
It doesn't actually hurt at all anymore, and when Essen checks for a bump she doesn't find anything, but she writes them both passes out of the rest of third hour, and after watching the way Ed quietly devours an entire sleeve of crackers she writes them passes out of fourth hour too.
“Your parents didn't answer, Ed,” she says. Jim sees her wink and he pats Ed's back a few times, leaving his hand there in the middle of his shoulders. “Jim, I have to tell your mother you don't have a concussion. Do you want her to come down here or are you going back to class?”
“I'll go,” he says. He has that stupid quiz in seventh hour English literature along with Ed and Oswald. “You coming to lunch?” he directs at Ed, and he nods, clutching the second sleeve of crackers a bit tighter.
“Make sure you check with your fourth hour teachers to see what you missed.” Essen rips two slips off her pad and hands one to each of them. “Don't forget to give these to the office if you want to avoid detention.”
“Thanks,” Jim says as he takes his copy.
“I'll catch up with you,” Ed says. He's fretting with the plastic wrapper, hands crinkling and smoothing out the edges. Jim nods and only spares a quick glance back over his shoulder to watch Ed shuffle over to Essen's desk.
The moment he leaves the nurse’s office Jim comes face to almost face (with the top of Oswald's head) with a very unhappy Oswald. His tiny frame is practically vibrating with anger, and Oswald drags Jim all the way back to the deserted gym hallway before he starts yelling. “Why did I have to hear from Barbara Keane that Ed passed out in PE?”
“Who told her?”
“I don't know, and that's the point , Jim. I shouldn't have to hear third or fourth hand that one of my friends passed out. What happened? Is he okay? There were rumors. I obviously don't believe them but-”
“Oswald,” Jim stops him and puts his hands on Oswald's shoulders, “he's okay. He skipped breakfast, and he passed out. He walked to the nurse's station on his own, mostly, and Essen gave him some crackers and juice. That's all.”
“Well,” Oswald huffs, “I still deserve to hear it first ,” he shrieks, although somehow he does it quietly. Oswald wipes the heel of his hand across his eyes. “Why didn't you text me?”
“My phone was in my gym locker. And even if I could have gotten it you're out of minutes this month.”
“Well maybe make some effort for my sake if this happens again,” Oswald pouts. Jim rubs his shoulders as an apology. “I'm starving. Can we just get lunch?”
“I need to change first, but sure.”
Jim grabs Ed's bag along with his own once he's thrown on his regular clothes. It's a little strange that he hasn't been back to the gym locker yet, but after a quick glance into the lunchroom Jim sees where Ed's gone. He's at their usual table, still in his gym tee shirt and shorts with a jacket thrown on over his shirt. He's holding a thin packet of paper in his hands, ignoring the small trickle of students with backpacks or lunch boxes as they claim nearby tables.
“I'll go give Ed his stuff if you want to, okay,” he sighs as Oswald scampers away to stand in the lunch line. Jim shakes his head, a small smile quirks up his lips as he rolls his eyes, and he ignores his hunger for now in favor of walking over and setting Ed's bag down in the table in front of him. “Hey, figured you'd want to change.” Ed says nothing, and he doesn't look away from the papers. “This a you ignoring me thing or-?”
“You would not believe how lucky I was,” Oswald proclaims as he sets his tray down. “Third in line. Third . And one of the cooks is new and gave me double fries.” Oswald shoves a fry into his mouth and looks to Ed. “What's wrong with you?”
“Don't,” Jim says. “I'm getting in line. You want anything Ed?”
He glances up to Oswald for a moment, then to Jim, and he bursts into tears, effectively silencing the nearby tables and leaving Oswald speechless, a half eaten fry still dangling from his mouth. Jim reacts first, kneeling by Ed's chair and rubbing his back, whispering nonsense and trying to quiet him. It's no use, and Oswald stamps up from his chair, shouting, “stare! Go on! I'm sure this is the highlight of your day!” He's gesticulating wildly, expression a sneer, making a far more interesting spectacle of himself than Ed and his measly crying. Jim takes the opportunity to coax him out of his chair and start making their way across the lunchroom. “Animals! All of you!”
“Os, come on,” Jim calls back to him. He pushes Ed along until they're inside the small, two stall bathroom in the back hall. Oswald bursts into the room shortly after and comes to a stuttering stop by Ed's side, anger melting now that there's no audience.
Jim pulls Ed into a tight hug, crinkling the papers between them while Ed clings to his sweatshirt. He burrows his face against Jim's neck and Jim just rocks him a little, rubbing his back and reminding him that they're here, they're both here, and no one's going anywhere until Ed says so. Oswald puts a hand on Ed's back and rubs small circles against his ribs. At one point someone tries to come in and Oswald stares daggers at the door, but whoever it was turns around the second they enter without even pausing to ask. Eventually Ed manages to quiet himself down to a few sharp sniffles with the occasional gulp of air, although his grip on Jim is still desperate and tight.
“Got yourself pretty worked up,” Jim says quietly. Ed clings a bit tighter and sniffs. “Ready to tell us why?”
“It's nothing,” Ed whispers.
“Nothing my foot . I made an absolute ass out of myself out there for your sake.” Oswald fumes. “But I guess we can't force you to say,” he mutters.
Ed peeks out from Jim's shoulder, sniffling and curling in on himself, but he takes a deep breath and pulls the crinkled packet away from his and Jim's chests. He holds it out and Oswald accepts it, looking it over briefly, and frowning more the further down the page he reads until he's flipping to the grading sheet in the very back. “This?”
He holds it up for Ed to see, and Ed nods. Jim cranes his neck to see the nearly written 95/100 written at the bottom. “You got a ninety-five?”
“I made a stupid mistake.”
“You're upset about this? I would literally kill someone for a grade like this,” Oswald proclaims, and Jim makes a face. “Alright, maybe figuratively.”
“Isn't this still an A?”
“Minus, difficult grading scale. I can't get an A-,” Ed insists, standing straight and reaching out for his paper, which Oswald hands over. “If I get an A- I obviously won't get an A, and if I don't get an A then I won't have a 4.0,” he's talking faster, getting more frantic, “and if I don't get a 4.0 then I'm not going to college because I won't get a full ride, and if I don't go then,” he trails off, shocked, unable to finish the sentence, but they all know what it means. If Ed doesn't get in somewhere for free then he's staying home with his parents, plain and simple. “I have to get an A,” his voice breaks.
Jim rubs Ed's arm. “You can always talk to the teacher.” Ed shrugs, and Jim squeezes his arm. “We’ll help you figure it out once you're changed okay? Os, did you grab our bags?”
“No, I left them within arm's reach of all the heathens we call classmates,” he says as he holds up his armful of bags. “You're welcome.”
“Is your syllabus in there?”
“In a folder,” Ed says. “It's labelled.”
Oswald digs around in Ed's bag until he pulls out a pristine green folder with the word 'syllabi’ written in sharpie across the front. He hands it over to Jim when he holds his hand out and Ed takes his bag.
“Get changed,” Jim tells him, “and I'll look at it.”
Ed nods and shuffles into the larger bathroom stall. While he changes out of his gym clothes Jim flips through the syllabi until he finds the one for Ed's fourth hour English class. It's wordy with a bunch of unnecessary quotes from famous authors in between the actual information, but on the last page he finds a list of extra credit options he assumes Ed hasn't needed to use up until this point in the semester.
Ed shuffles out of the stall as quietly as he went in, with only the occasional sniffle as he walks past Jim and Oswald to wash his glasses in the sink. Jim goes over and stands beside him, one hand on his back and the other holding the paper up to his face. “There's already extra credit you can do. Should be easy right?”
“I suppose, yes. That looks manageable,” he gulps and straightens, using his long sleeved shirt to wipe away the water on his lenses. “Thank you.”
“Ed what's going on with you?” Jim asks quietly. Ed blinks his tired, red eyes a few times, feigning confusion. “You're sleeping all the time. You passed out today.”
“You started crying over an A-,” Oswald chirps, and Ed flushes. “You can't claim it's nothing when it's clearly something.”
Ed fidgets with the strap of his messenger bag, flipping a small button he's attached there up and down. He shrugs one shoulder and backs himself into a corner, leaning against the walls and letting his head rest there. “I haven't been eating much.”
“You should probably stop skipping lunch then.” Jim watches the pained expression take over Ed's face before it settles back to neutral. “Ed if you're sick you should tell Essen.”
“I'm not sick, although I might be,” he huffs, “malnourished. It isn't quite the same.”
Neither Jim or Oswald says anything, but Oswald's hands are balled into tiny, angry fists and Jim is having a hard time hearing anything over the sound of his breathing. He closes his eyes, mouth forming words but none are audible, and Ed fidgets with the cuff of his sleeve. Oswald speaks up first.
“What are they doing now,” he accuses, not asks.
“It's, I assumed, I shouldn't assume. An ass out of you and me, heh,” he laughs awkwardly. “But, well there was this, I don't even remember what the leftovers used to be but they were far from edible, so I threw them out and cleaned the fridge. Because, because I thought I'd get in trouble for letting it go so long, but instead, instead they got angry because I'd wasted the food, but it was behind my dad's beer and I can't move it aside. They didn't listen. And they said well, if I want to waste so much food then I can just buy it myself. So, I am. I was.” He takes a deep breath and continues at a rapid pace, “and it's for the best because neither of them can really cook all that well. I can make what I want, and smaller portions.”
“They aren't feeding you?” Jim asks. His voice is low, and a little dangerous. Ed shakes his head a few times and looks at the floor.
“How are you buying food when you don't have a job?” Oswald asks, genuinely curious and a bit worried. He puts a hand on Ed's arm and rubs his elbow. “Hm?”
“I was getting plenty from Butch when I wrote his papers.” Ed puts his hand over Oswald's and runs his thumb over Oswald's knuckles. “He's incredibly lazy, but he's also somewhat entitled so I made a fair amount. And I know how to coupon efficiently. I stretched my money out as much as possible until I ran out, well, nearly ran out. Sometimes I find pocket change on the ground or check the vending machines.”
Jim turns around and punches the stall door once, then again, ignoring the way Ed and Oswald jump from each impact and savoring the ache in his hand once he's done. He sets his forehead against the cool tile of the wall and huffs out a few breaths. “Why didn't you say something?”
“Your families only have a single income. And they already let me stay over all the time. I can do chores but it's not the same, I can't repay your mothers for offering me asylum and feeding me.”
“They don't mind. Our moms love you, Ed. I know it's scary as hell but you need to get out of there.” Jim straightens and walks over, covering Ed's other elbow and shaking his arm gently. “It's never been good but you passed out because of them. They aren't letting you eat .”
“Their food,” he qualifies. “I can eat as much of my own as I want.”
His stomach growls, and Ed becomes cowed, hunching in his shoulders and trying to disappear.
“At least let me get you something today,” Jim pleads.
“And you're coming over tonight,” Oswald says. “My mother's stew could keep me full for an entire day. I swear she's trying to make me fat.”
“We'll figure out something else later,” Jim says, “but just let us help for now, okay?”
Ed nods, and he pulls the two of them into a bit of an awkward three person hug.
“I can’t believe he has to skip lunch to work in the office.”
“He’s not skipping lunch,” Jim says, knocking his arm against Oswald’s shoulder as they approach the office. “He’s getting free lunch. He just has to eat it in there.”
Jim holds open the office door for Oswald and they approach the counter, Jim leaning his elbows on the edge and Oswald resting his folded arms on the surface. From behind the counter Ed snaps up from his lunch tray and a pile of papers, and when he registers it’s just his friends he gives them a small wave.
“How’s the office treating you?” Jim asks.
“It’s mostly clerical work,” he answers, flipping through the papers some more and eating some more of his food. “And occasionally people try to get me to fudge a number or two so they aren’t going to get detention, but I haven’t,” he adds quickly, before either of his friends can even react. “There isn’t any sort of potential reward for myself if I agreed.”
“It's Butch again isn't it?” Jim asks, looking very unimpressed with the notion.
Ed nods. “And others. But don't worry about me. If there's ever any trouble I'm behind a counter, and the office has a small camera.” Both Jim and Oswald glance around the room in confusion, and when they turn back to Ed he's holding up a finger to his lips, and they both nod. “If I work enough days in a row I'm allowed to still get my free lunch, but I can sit with you.”
“We'll make due,” Jim assures him, and Oswald nods emphatically beside him. “And early gym class is going okay?”
“I swear he's cheating,” Oswald pipes up before Ed can answer. “I've been part of the early morning yoga class for years and somehow he's more flexible than me?” Oswald gestures to Ed, and Ed merely shrugs. “It isn't fair .”
“Didn’t know you were so naturally flexible . I bet Barbara's jealous,” Jim teases him gently, and Ed's cheeks pink up a bit. “Sorry I can't switch too.”
“I am perfectly capable of defending Ed during yoga ,” Oswald insists.
“It's hardly necessary in any case,” Ed says. “Half the class is barely awake, and there's nothing being thrown.” He sets aside any pretense that he's still working on the same stack of papers and approaches the counter, speaking in a low tone once he's close enough to lean in. “Thank you, both of you. I should be able to manage dinner on my own, and eventually weekends, although I've been saving any leftovers to supplement for now.”
“You can help me eat more lasagne tonight if you want.” Ed shakes his head. “Do you have to make an appearance at home so they don't report you missing?”
“There's laundry to do, and as much as I appreciate your offer to use your building's Jim I don't really have the quarters to spare just yet.” Ed's expression is neutral, but when he looks the both of them in the eyes he smiles. There's something a bit strained at the edges, but it's minimal, a minor annoyance and not something more catastrophic. “I'm looking into some sort of more legitimate means of earning money in the future. Possibly something school oriented.”
“You could always tutor,” Jim starts to say, but the office door bursts open and in storms Butch, fuming with a pink slip clutched in his hand.
“Nashton!” he shouts, but his tirade drops off when he realizes Ed isn't alone in the office, and Jim's hands are clenched into fists at his sides. He smiles. “Hey buddy.” Ed blinks in confusion and glances around the room. “So when I came back from lunch yesterday you wrote down the wrong time and I got a detention.”
“Like hell-” Jim starts to tell him off, but Ed moves away from the counter and starts digging through some of the cabinets. “Ed you don't have to listen to him.”
Ed ignores Jim's insistence and pops back up with a pencil and a half sheet of paper in his hand. He places them both on the counter in front of Butch and explains, “this is the form you need to fill out to get your detention reviewed. If it was indeed an error on my part then the situation will be remedied shortly.”
Butch stares down at the paper for almost a full minute, and while Ed is able to maintain a perfectly straight face Oswald and Jim are struggling to not burst out laughing. He mutters something under his breath that sounds suspiciously like a few choice swear words and leaves the office without taking the form. The second the door clicks shut Oswald and Jim are howling with laughter, and Ed blinks down at them with his head tilted to the side, obviously confused.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Butch,” Oswald wheezes, and Jim wipes at his eyes.
“How'd you say that with a straight face?” Jim asks once he's breathing somewhat normally.
“I don't- that's the procedure. You fill out the form and if your reasoning is sound you can get a detention waived.” Ed picks up the paper and tries to hand it to either of them, but they're back to laughing, and he just sets it aside, looking down at it with a serious expression before he quietly gasps. “Oh, because he was clearly lying,” he guesses, and Jim nods through another bout of laughter. Ed chuckles to himself. “I suppose that does sound funny.”
Chapter 4: Wrong Side of Heaven
cw: child abuse
“Victor,” her tone is sharp, angry, and Victor's expression stiffens minutely before he puts down his pen on top of his homework notebook and gets up from the dining room table. He comes to a stop just in front of his mother, and although he's grown taller than her there's still a sense of being looked down upon as she clutches a packet of papers in her right hand. “What is this?”
His eyes flutter closed and he glances down before straightening his posture and answering her question. “My last history test.”
“And what was your grade?”
He glances at the solid red pen mark on the front of his test packet, almost pleading with the numbers to realign into something higher. “Ninety-six,” he pauses and licks his lips, a nervous habit, “an A.”
“Why did you get a question wrong about the War of the Roses?”
“I,” he sighs under his breath, “I forgot the dates.”
“Why are we bothering to get you a tutor for test prep if you're not going to listen to them?”
“Half the test was about dates,” he says, but he ducks his head immediately after, adding, “it's not an excuse, it's just-”
“A sign that you still aren't focusing.” She sighs with disappointment and sets the paper on the unused end of the dining room table, covering her eyes and letting out a second, long suffering sigh. “What do we have to do for you to take your academic career seriously?”
“It's still an A,” he mumbles under his breath, and her eyes harden. “I just mean, mom it won't bring down my GPA when it's still an A. And there's extra credit-”
“Enough,” she snaps, and he presses his lips together. “If you knew how to prioritize your schoolwork better you wouldn't need to rely on things like extra credit to bring your grades up. How much time did you waste chasing after that girl instead of studying?”
“I'm not chasing after her, we're dating .”
“Your father and I are going to discuss what our options are moving forward once he's home from work.” She talks as if she didn't hear his correction. “In the meantime, finish your homework. Dinner is at seven.”
Dinner is stiflingly quiet. The only sounds are of silverware clinking against the fine china and some throat clearing, and an empty compliment or two about the roast. Victor's shoulders are hunched over, and there's a palpable sense of anticipation from his end of the table. He refuses to meet either of his parents’ eyes during the first half of the meal, at least until the sporadic throat clearing becomes more insistent; an obvious request for him to pay attention. He tips his head up slightly and meets his father's judgmental gaze.
“I've come to understand that you're still wasting time on that girl.”
He sets down his fork and rests his hands on his lap. “We're dating,” he says, doing his best to keep any bite out of his tone.
“Then why hasn't this girl come over? If she's important enough to let your grades slip then she must be 'the one’ or whatever nonsense your generation is spouting out of their mouths.” He holds his glare steady and Victor has to look away. “I'm expecting an answer , Victor.”
“I,” he feels a stammer starting up and he clamps his mouth shut.
“Speak up, and look people in the eye when you're speaking.”
He sits back in his chair, fingers gripping the knees of his jeans tightly. “I just haven't invited her because she's busy. She plays two different sports. That's it.”
“You're leading us to believe she isn't worth the time you're insisting on dedicating to her,” his mother says. He focuses on her and then away, but quickly returns his gaze to his mother. “And the longer you insist on keeping this girl a secret from us the more I'm beginning to think your assessment is correct.” One of his hands twitches in his lap and he curls his hand into a fist beside his leg. He tries to keep his expression neutral; he fails. “We want you to speak to your guidance counselor tomorrow to discuss this. When is your free period?”
“I don't have one,” he answers through gritted teeth.
“Then go during your lunch hour. Make sure you get this straightened out before you need to take your PSATs. Your tutor is sending a study schedule to us by the end of the week.”
His parents both return to their meals and Victor sits in silence, seething, but he forces himself to shove his outburst to the side and manages about four more bites of food before he asks to be excused. Victor leaves the table before he gets a reply. He practically jogs out of the room and into the hallway by the stairs, but a short, loud call from his father makes him freeze up by the bottom of the main staircase.
“You need to start showing your mother some respect,” his father says.
Victor keeps his eyes turned to the ground and mumbles, “yes sir.” Almost instantly there's an arm on his shoulder and his back hits the stairs, the ornate wood of the bannister digging into his upper arm painfully. He forces himself to look up into his father's eyes and repeats himself, “I’m sorry, yes sir.”
“Yes sir, what?”
“I’ll show my mother respect,” he blurts out, trembling, but his response is accepted and his father gives him a curt nod before letting go of his shoulder and turning away. After Victor's released he leans against the stairs and waits for his father to finish leaving the room before barreling upstairs and hiding out in his room.
He shoves his earbuds into his ears and sits on the floor of his attached bathroom, running the water in the shower to drown out any involuntary noises he makes as he tries to piece himself back together.
The school's main office isn't very busy during lunch. A couple students are milling around the front desk; most of them are handing in admittance slips to the student worker and pushing past Victor as he stands just outside the doorway. Victor's stomach continues to complain as he pushes the side door open and starts walking towards the guidance counselor's office.
“She's seeing someone,” the worker calls out, and Victor turns away from the guidance counselor’s door and faces the worker. Ed Nashton. The one student doing better than Victor, if only just. His fingers are flipping furiously through a stack of crumpled permission slips, which he's giving his attention instead of looking up at Victor. “It's Jim. Could be a few minutes.”
Victor groans and leans against the nearest wall. “What did he do now?”
“Nothing.” Ed glances up for a moment. He either doesn't register the distaste in Victor's expression or he's chosen not to react. “He’s talking about college prospects. Everyone’s supposed to.”
“I know,” Victor says; he stretches his arms up towards the ceiling and leaves them resting on top of his head. “F comes before G.”
“It hasn’t been strictly alphabetical,” Ed trails off, staring at Victor’s arm, and he glances to the left. The bannister left a nasty, purplish bruise on his arm, which up until now was covered up by his tee shirt. Victor hurries to drop his arms and tug his shirt back into place, refusing to acknowledge the mark. Ed never bothers to finish his explanation.
There’s a long, awkward silence as a grim realization settles into both of their expressions. Ed touches the collar of his shirt briefly and clears his throat, sparing glances over at Victor as he tries to avoid making eye contact while he waits. Victor keeps his right hand at the bottom of his left sleeve, holding it in place over the bruise until Jim comes sauntering out of the guidance counselor’s office with a folder in his hand. Before Ed can draw any attention to Victor he slips into the office and lets the door shut behind him.
“Have a seat, Victor,” she says. He hesitates by the door until she mentions, “your mother called the school to let me know I should expect to see you today.” He nods and slides into one of the chairs across from her desk, settling against the cool faux leather and waiting for her to start. “It sounds like you're having some trouble juggling your schedule.”
“They think so,” he almost whispers. “It was a dumb test. Half the questions were just a timespan.”
“This is about more than just your grades, Victor.” He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I've looked back and this year you've gotten a few detentions this semester. You're talking back to teachers and getting into arguments with other students. If you're not managing things well and it's causing you unnecessary stress I can help you look at your class load and determine if you're taking too many homework heavy classes.” She turns to her computer for a few minutes and brings up his schedule, which she displays for him by turning her screen. “Does it feel like you're taking too many classes? How much homework would you say you do per night?”
“A couple hours.” He shrugs. “And I work on it during lunch. Can I go?”
“We only started talking a second ago.”
“I haven't had lunch,” he says. She gives him a pitying look and he shifts again. “My classes aren't that hard.”
She nods knowingly and folds her her hands together on top of her desk. “What you're dealing with might take more than one visit to a guidance counselor.”
“You want me to keep coming in here?”
“I was thinking something a bit above my level of expertise.” She turns her keyboard back around and begins typing. “I'll call your parents when I have a free minute and discuss a few options you have to help figure out what's causing you to lash out, but in the meantime you can always feel free to come back and talk instead of getting yourself in trouble. I'll write you a pass to come here as long as you don't abuse it.”
His expression opens up for just a second, flickering between hope and doubt in equal measures. “So you mean, like, therapy?”
“It's not up to me,” she says, but her expression is open and honest, and seems to agree with his guess. It takes her a few seconds to write up a pass to let him out of his classes, and she hands it over. He folds it twice before pulling out his wallet and slipping it behind Nora's school photo. The guidance counselor sends him a warm smile before telling him to, “go get yourself some lunch.”
Victor exits her office and immediately locks eyes with Ed, and he ducks his head before he can see the confused stare he's getting. He grabs his backpack from his locker and tentatively enters the lunch room, seeing zero empty tables, and he hones in on Nora from across the busy space. Her table is already full of her friends and teammates, and Victor doesn't linger long before he turns out of the room and goes out the back door of the school to sit on the steps. Sometimes there are a few others outside, but the air is chilly enough to deter most of the school population from loitering on the stairs for long. Victor pulls a light sweatshirt out of his backpack and pulls it on, then retrieves a lukewarm can of soda from the bottom of his bag and the sandwich he packed for himself this morning.
His mouth is full when the back door open and he turns around to see Nora as she approaches; he grimaces when he swallows before he finishes chewing, and waves with the hand that's holding his soda. Nora is pulling on a pair of gloves and zipping up her coat before sitting on the stairs to Victor's left.
“I don't know how you can sit out here without a coat.”
“I am wearing a coat,” he says, tugging at one of the strings of his sweatshirt. “You don't have to sit with me out here if you don't want to.”
“I want to,” she says, with a warm, bright smile on her face. “I tried to save you a seat inside, but my friends took over the table.”
“It’s okay. I was in the guidance counselor's office.” She brushes some of his hair away from his face and he looks up from his hands and into her curious expression. “I might see a therapist.” He's quick to add, “it's nothing big.”
“I'll listen if you want to tell me.”
“There's not much to tell.” He clasps a hand over his upper left arm and tilts sideways until his head is against her shoulder. “Just stupid stuff, probably stress. It's PSAT season.”
“I can help you study.”
“My parents got a tutor.” He relaxes against her shoulder when she starts touching his hair. There's a gentle tremble in her hand even though she's wearing gloves. “We can go inside if you want.”
“Do you want to?”
“No.” He takes another drink of his soda and sighs. “But if you want to I will.”
Ed doesn't miraculously appear beside Victor every step he takes, but they share several classes throughout the day, and from first hour band right to last hour biology there are only very brief respites away from Ed's blatant staring.
Victor avoids him as best as he's able, and Ed doesn't attempt to approach him either, but there's an unseen but very strong tension between the two. Victor can feel Ed's eyes on his back in classes where he's been forced into a front row seat due to a seating chart, and in classes where the seats aren't assigned and Victor is safely tucked away in the back of the room he still catches Ed staring out of the corner of his eye. On several occasions Ed is called on to answer a question in class, and he doesn't miss a beat before rattling off correct answers, proving that he's capable of giving Victor most of his attention while still listening to the lesson. Teacher after teacher is annoyed, but can't do anything to Ed as long as he's participating.
The only time he's truly free is lunch while Ed is stuck in the office. Victor, more often than not, braves the cold of late fall and sits out on the steps, or he's using his earbuds to drown out some of the excess noise created by Nora's friends while he sits at her table. She lets him keep one of her hands on his lap, and he scribbles down homework answers while running his thumb over her petite fingers.
As Victor closes his math book he glances to his right and nearly startles when he finds not one, but three sets of eyes on him. Ed's table is always sparse, with only him, Jim, and Oswald occupying half of the allotted chairs, and today Victor finds himself under all of their gazes. Even as his expression morphs from neutral to slightly stricken they don't look away, and his panic begins manifesting outwardly, first with a leg juggle, and then with some uncomfortably shallow breathing. Victor turns up his music a few tics and holds Nora's hand tighter, and he pulls up his Hood to block out everything but his sound and the blissful darkness provided by his sweatshirt.
And when he looks back up people are all standing around him, and his breath hitches, but they're not staring, just walking away from the tables and into the halls beyond. Lunch is over, and Nora is trying to snap Victor out of his panic without making him undo any of the coping mechanisms he's already implemented. He glances to his left at one of the doors leading outside and she stands, keeping her hand in his as she leads him out into the cold, calming air.
He takes several deep breaths and coughs when the cold air hits his lungs. He holds Nora at bay until the coughing fit passes, then he turns all of his attention to her and her too thin cardigan and shivering frame.
“You should go inside,” he says loudly, too loud, since he can hear himself over his music, which is pounding in his ears. He pops one earbud out and moves over to her, rubbing his hands over her arms. “It's too cold out here for you.”
“Are you okay?” She ignores his insistence and steps a bit closer to him. He bites his lip and looks away, and she tilts his face back with one shaking finger. “Victor?”
“It's just all the people. Got to me, for some reason. I’ll be okay.” He glances over to the school building and tries to drag Nora over, but she stops him and makes him stand still. Nora unzips the front of his sweatshirt and situates herself against his chest, and he tries to wrap the open flaps around her to keep some of the warmth in longer.
“I don't know how you always stay so warm, but I'm not complaining.” He tips his head on top of hers and hides his face in her hair.
There's a wide array of books in the therapist's office. Victor doesn't read all of the titles, and he doesn't hide his irritation when the vast majority of them seem to focus around organization and personal planning. He's giving her a rather unimpressed look, but he forces it away once she finishes reading the folder in her hands.
“From what I’ve come to understand you’re having some trouble with your priorities.”
Victor presses himself tighter against the back of the chair. He deadpans, “I thought you were supposed to talk to me first before deciding anything.” She regards Victor with a flat look for a few seconds. “And aren’t you supposed to have some sort of certificate on your wall.”
“Victor, I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea of why you’re here. I’m not a therapist. I won’t be providing those types of services for you today.”
“Do you even have a degree?” he snaps at her.
“Yes, and it is a psychology degree if you’re thinking of being rude a second time.” She adjusts her glasses and folds her hands into her lap. “I’m more of a life coach, or a more accurate title might be a time management guide. We’re here to help you understand where your priorities should lie and how to keep yourself accountable in the future.”
Victor stands abruptly and shoves one hand into his pocket to pull out his phone. He untangles his earbuds and jams the plug into his phone, then he starts up his music. He’s partway to the doorway with one earbud in his ear when the guide calls out to him. “Victor.” He pauses without turning back to her, one hand clenched around the door handle. “Sit down, please. I don’t want to have to tell your parents you left before we could make any progress today.”
He hesitates at the door for a few more seconds, savoring the loud music in his right ear, and then he turns back and rips the earbud out with an angry pop. Even after he’s sitting back in the chair he leaves his music playing in his jacket pocket as a small rebellion. If she can hear it she doesn’t tell him to turn it off.
“Now,” she pulls out a pen and a pad of paper and clicks the pen, “why don’t you tell me about Nora.”
He gets several texts after his session. All from Nora, and all go unanswered. Victor’s hands won’t stop shaking enough to type properly, and his breathing is too harsh and uneven to call.
“I hope you took what she had to say to heart,” his mother says offhandedly as she drives towards home. Victor glances over to her briefly and goes back to staring at his knees. “I mean it, Victor. She’s highly regarded in her field as one of the best.”
He worries his teeth over his lower lip and presses his hands against his thighs. “Okay.”
“Your test prep tutor brought over your PSAT prep information this morning. Review it after you’ve finished with your homework.” He says nothing. At the next stoplight his mother turns to him and pulls his chin up so he has to look her in the eye. “Do you understand me?”
“Did you tell her to make me break up with Nora?” His voice cracks and he swallows the rush of emotions down. He searches his mother’s face for signs of confusion or upset, but her expression doesn’t change from the mostly flat, stern look she had when she first made him turn to her.
“Did you listen to me? I know you still have homework to finish, and you have PSAT prep starting up next week. I expect you’ll be busy so I’ll bring you up a plate of dinner.” She releases his chin when someone behind their car honks for her to start driving, but even without her guiding hand Victor doesn’t stop staring. “We can revisit the idea of you dating once you get your academics back on track.”
The rest of the drive is spent in complete silence aside from a few more buzzes from Victor's phone, but he doesn't pull it out of his pocket. He doesn't even touch it until he's already locked himself away in his bathroom, the hot shower already filling the room with a thick, almost choking steam. Victor sits on the floor beside his hamper and leans against the wicker side, ignoring the way it scratches his temple as he muster up the courage to look at Nora's responses.
Except he can't. He can't make himself reread the message he sent her, leaving just the last three messages on his screen. Victor you're starting to scare me. He bites his lip. This doesn't even sound like you? And the last, shortest one makes his suck in a breath. Are you okay ?
He shakes his head, but he can't get his fingers to move, and eventually the screen goes black.
Victor is up half the night trying to finish his homework, and the other half is spent tossing and turning on his bed, groaning at his alarm clock as it ticks closer and closer to his wake up time and shoving his face underneath his pillows to block the tiny alert light on his phone whenever he gets another message. If they ever stop coming he doesn't see, because around three in the morning the throws his phone across the room and doesn't check to see if the crack he heard was fatal to his screen, although the obvious relief that overtakes his exhausted, overworked expression is telling.
Victor cradles an energy drink against his chest on the ride to school, and he stumble-shuffles to the front doors without registering anyone he walks by. If the energy drink he chugs on the way to his locker is supposed to help it makes no visible difference. He shoves his backpack into his locker and pulls out his earbuds.
The halls are relatively empty before the first bell, but not deserted, and one of the few people always milling about before first hour is Ed, who's left hand is grasping a carton of milk and a single serve cereal box from the lunch room. His right is holding a book, and he's leaning against a row of lockers in the junior wing. He isn't touching his breakfast, although it isn't clear if he's waiting for someone or if he's just engrossed in his book.
He pulls out his earbuds and the brief angry drums fill the space in front of him until he tugs them out of his phone. This time Victor is the one staring, and the longer he does the more twisted and angry his expression becomes, until Victor's hands curl up into fists and he strides over to the lockers, trying and failing to not make any noise.
Not that it matters. Ed doesn't look up at Victor until he's already shoving him against the locker, his book and food clattering to the floor, and his eyes wide and fearful behind an old, beat up pair of glasses.
“Stop staring at me,” he demands.
Ed glances right and left, and he gulps. “I was just reading-”
“We have six classes together, and you stare in all of them .” Ed tries to stammer something but none of his words form properly. “And at band practices, and in the halls. And lunch . What did you tell your friends?” His breathing is getting steadily faster right alongside Ed's. “What did you tell them? Did you tell anyone else?”
“I didn't- I haven't- no one! I've told no one.” He swallows again, eyelashes fluttering rapidly as he blinks away a misty film in his eyes. “You, it's something you can have but the moment you share it it's gone. A, a secret, sorry. I know it's a secret.”
Victor’s eyebrows shoot up, mouth open with a silent ‘oh’ of surprise. And then Ed looks to his right, and Victor follows his gaze until it lands on an obviously furious Jim barreling over, one arm up and already reaching back, and just as Victor releases the front of Ed’s tee shirt Jim’s right fist makes contact with his left eye and sends him to the floor.
“Jim! Wait, stop-” Ed’s calling out somewhere above Victor, and he blinks a few more times while staring up at the hallway ceiling. Above him Ed has looped his arms around Jim’s torso, and Oswald’s appeared out of nowhere to keep a hand on Jim’s chest. “I’m fine, see? I’m not hurt; you shouldn’t get into a fight.”
“You could have said that before he punched me,” Victor groans.
“Shut up,” Oswald snaps, and immediately shifts back to concerned as he rubs his palm over Jim’s chest. “Just calm down, please. There’s a chance no one saw.”
Except there isn’t, because just as Victor is sitting up he looks right into the vice principal’s eyes. His shoulders droop in defeat. “Gordon, Fries, my office.”
Jim is still fuming beside Victor on the long, slow walk to the office in the front of the school. Behind them Oswald and Ed are trailing after the trio, twin expressions of fear biting into the back of Victor’s neck until they cross the threshold into the office and are made to sit in the chairs near the principal’s door. For a few seconds he can see them hovering outside the windows before Oswald drags Ed off somewhere beyond Victor's line of sight.
When they’re left alone Victor looks around, and he startles when he turns to Jim and sees him glaring from two seats over. “What?”
“Why were you fucking with Ed?”
“I wasn’t fucking with him.”
“He dropped his book and his breakfast.” He sounds angrier than he probably deserves to be. “You were fucking with him.”
“Misunderstanding,” Victor mumbles. He slumps down in his chair until his head is resting against the back. When he looks over again there’s an angry pulse line throbbing along Jim’s neck and two tightly clenched fists shaking on his legs. “You’re pretty pissed off.”
“Shut up,” Jim bites back, clenching his teeth and grinding them against the obvious drive to jump up and pummel Victor into the tile.
Victor scoots his left foot just a bit further away from Jim and adds, “he’s the one that’s been staring at me for at least a week.”
Jim blinks, and the shift in conversation seems to actually derail some of his anger. He blinks a few times and when he looks at Victor again there’s still an anger there, but it’s simmering now instead of the angry fire it was earlier. But he also doesn’t ask, and Victor is called into the principal’s office before he gets the chance to explain.
Victor and Jim aren’t the only ones in detention that afternoon, but Victor keeps his eyes trained on his table to try to ignore the other students’ bored expressions and Jim’s occasional sneering. The clock is the only sound in the room aside from the steady breathing of a handful of over-bored, tired students. Victor can’t resist looking up as the minute hand ticks forward once and covers the twelve.
“I better not see any more of you in here tomorrow,” the teacher grumbles at them as he stands up. He’s already out the door before most of the students are even standing. Jim stops in front of Victor’s table and stares down at him with a curious expression before continuing out into the hall.
Victor drags his phone out of his pocket and frowns down at his missed calls, all of which are from his parents. As he switches to his voicemail his phone starts ringing again and he drops it onto the table, watching anxiously until the call stops. Several seconds later his voicemail dings with an alert that he’s gotten another message, and he shoves his phone away before crossing his arms on the table and shoving his tender, bruised face into his arms.
After an indistinct amount of time the door to the classroom opens and closes, and Nora walks across the room over to Victor’s table. Without saying anything she reaches down and presses her hand over his shoulder and moves her palm in slow, steady circles. He huffs out a breath and she moves her hand up into his hair. While she smooths some of the tangles out of his hair he peeks up at her with his bruised left eye, and she smiles down at him, eyes a little sad but also full of fondness. He moves his arm so it’s looped around her waist and he holds his breath a few seconds, only for choked, gasping breaths to slip out once he’s hidden his face again.
Victor waits until it's nearly five before calling his mother back to say he's free to go. Nora waits with him and keeps a hand on his back until the sleek, black car pulls up at the drop off spot, and she squeezes his hand tightly and kisses his cheek before standing and making her way over to the bike rack out front. Victor stares at the passenger side door of the car until the horn honks softly, then more insistently when he hasn't stood up yet, and he reluctantly pushes himself up off the front steps and moves stiffly until he's getting into the car and doing his best to ignore the death glare he's getting from his mother.
“Be quiet,” she hisses, and he shrinks in his seat, fiddling with the band of the seat belt and keeping his eyes on his knees. “Fighting, and detention. Want to add anything to the list? Maybe you've started smoking with some of the more unfortunate members of your class?” He opens his mouth but she snaps, “I am not looking for comments,” and he closes I again with an audible click of his teeth. “We’ve had to reschedule your PSAT prep because of your delinquent behavior, and having another blemish on your already questionable record won't do you any favors. If this is the path you're prepared to take by all means, throw your life away.” She scowls at him while they're stopped at a stop sign. “You're just lucky you don't have any in person interviews while you have that on your face.”
He keeps a firm grip on the seat belt with both hands, twisting the stiff material and hiding his face until they pull into the driveway. Victor gets out and slings his bag onto one shoulder, and his mother slides out of the driver's side and grabs his arm with one manicured hand. Her stiff acrylic nails bite into the fabric of his sweatshirt as she drags him to the front door. Inside she points towards the kitchen and Victor nods, quick to follow her instruction. He comes to a stop beside the dining room table and sets his backpack on the ground before turning to face his mother. “It was a misunderstanding.”
“Did the principal misunderstand and give you detention by mistake?” He shakes his head no. “Speak up.”
“It was my fault,” he whispers, but also maintains a weak eye contact. The stern expression makes him flinch, but only slightly. She doesn't seem to notice.
“You're forcing us to consider alternative options Victor. There are plenty of schools well suited to teach discipline to unruly students.”
“You want to send me somewhere else for school?”
“Clearly allowing you to use the public school system has had a negative influence on you. There are private schools in the city but with your current habits I don't think you'd pass an interview.” She shakes her head sadly and sighs. “You used to be so well behaved,” she says to herself, and she turns away. “Your father and I will discuss our options moving forward.”
He takes a few breaths, watching her go, and he whispers, “no,” almost inaudible, but she pauses by the door to the kitchen. He says it again louder. “No.”
“I'm not going somewhere else,” he says, voice shaking but clear as day. She turns back to him with an angry fire in her eyes. “I’m almost a senior, and I have all A’s in every class.”
“And you're fighting, and yelling at teachers. And who exactly was that girl with you at the school?”
“Nora,” he bows his head, then lifts it back up and says it louder. “That's Nora.”
“You'd broken up with her. At least that's what you told me yesterday.” There's a clear yet unspoken demand for an explanation in the air.
“I didn't want to,” he says. “So I took it back.”
“Is she really worth throwing your life away for? You're acting like she's the one, or whatever nonsense you might've picked up in that cesspool of a school.” Victor clenches his fists, and she continues to berate him. “Don't you care about what this is doing to your father and I?”
“I care more about her than you!” he snaps, and there's a split second where he hears what he just said and founders, but another beat later there's a loud smack as her hand slaps his uninjured cheek. He looks her straight in the eye, his own watering from the sting but defiant and firm.
She fumes at him for another few moments before reprimanding him. “Do not raise your voice to me.”
“I'm not breaking up with Nora,” he says in a softer tone, but no less firm. There's a split second where his mother raises a hand and he flinches, but he continues to explain. “I'll invite her to dinner. Here, so you can meet her, like you want.”
She drops her hand to her side and a wicked smirk splits her face. “Does this mean you think we'll approve?” He nods, but he doesn't look very confident of this fact. She hums to herself and nods. “Thursday, promptly at six. Try to encourage the dear to dress a bit better.”
“That's tomorrow ,” he almost whines, but he keeps his tone in check. It doesn't matter that he looks like he's getting worked up anyway, because she's no longer looking at him.
“And that's the only day your father and I have free. She comes tomorrow or not at all. And don't plan on going anywhere tonight. Your father is going to have a few words for you when he gets home.”
He stays in place until she leaves the dining room, and once she's gone he drops himself into one of the chairs and pulls out his phone.
Do you remember that dress you wore to your cousin's first communion party? He texts Nora. Do you still have it?
He waits a few minutes until his phone chimes and he reads the reply. The ugly gray one? I should. ??
You're invited to dinner tomorrow. :( I'm supposed to tell you to dress nice or something. It probably means like you're going to church. He hovers his finger over the send button for a moment before sending of his explanation.
She replies just as quickly. Are you sure?
No , he sends off, followed by, but it's tomorrow or never.
Ok. I bet it'll be fun :) .
No, he says, but it's probably unavoidable. Thanks. <3
There's a split second where he appears consumed by his regret after sending the silly little heart Nora's way, but he can't take it back now, so he agonizes over his screen, tapping at it to keep it lit until her reply comes in.
His eyes water, and he can't stop smiling. It's still on his face even after he opens up his work book for English and begins organizing his notes.
Victor shuffle-walks into the office around lunch time, and he stands back until the counter is clear of other students and Ed is alone. He glances up from a stack of permission slips and his mouth opens silently with surprise.
“I need signed in,” he says a bit too loudly. He flinches when Ed startles. “Um, I wasn’t here this morning.”
“I noticed,” Ed says. He gives Victor a quick once over. “Your cheek is swollen.”
“Jim punched me in the face.”
“The other one,” Ed corrects him, and Victor touches the left side of his face gently. “And your movements are stiffer than usual.” Victor gets a far away, weary look on his face that Ed ignores. He scribbles something on a piece of paper and slips the form to Victor. “Sign in here,” he says. “And I wouldn't worry. I doubt others will notice, but I, well-”
“You stared at me for at least two weeks?” Ed's cheeks pink up and he mutters something under his breath. “What?”
“I’m sorry, is what I said. I'm not very good at approaching difficult subjects with tact.” He takes the form away from Victor and slides it into one of the inboxes behind the counter. “We are referencing,” he gets infinitely quieter, “abusive behavior,” and he returns to his normal volume, “correct?” Victor hesitates, but eventually he nods. “Why haven't you told anyone?”
“Why haven't you?” Victor snaps back.
“I have, actually. My friends, mostly. And,” he huffs, “Essen, sort of. Nothing specific, but I was able to convince her to not call my parents if I'm ill or injured. They don't like to be inconvenienced.”
“Oh.” Victor chews on his lip and Ed retreats from the counter to sit at his small workspace beside a pair of old, green filing cabinets. “You're top of our class.”
“Yes,” he hazards, looking up from his workspace. “Why?”
“Then why do your parents,” he trails off, not wanting to be overheard, until he comes up with an alternative word, “suck?”
“I'm fairly certain my academic achievements aren't a factor.” He rests one elbow on the desk and sets his chin on his palm, one slender finger tapping at his cheek in thought. “They just do, I suppose.” Victor squirms uncomfortably and Ed tilts his chin to watch out of the corner of his eye. “I'll refrain from staring in the future, and I won't say a word, unless you want me to.”
“I don't,” he nearly threatens, but Ed's attention isn't on Victor anymore. “Fine. I won't say anything either.”
“Then we have a deal.” Ed pops out of his chair and holds out a hand, and after some confused looks Victor takes it. “To our mutual agreement to shut up about one another.”
Victor actually laughs, and he releases Ed's hand after a quick shake. “Sure, whatever.”
There's hesitation in Ed's movements and his expression as he handles the handwritten note Jim slides over to him at the beginning of lunch. “Your mother wrote this.”
“I,” Ed frowns down at the careful loops starting Jim was feeling sick this morning, “Jim I was at your apartment this morning.”
“And,” he huffs, “you weren't sick. You stayed up too late because you didn't finish your paper.”
“Yeah, but she wrote it so,” Jim shrugs, “it's legit.”
Ed sighs and adds the slip to the small stack behind the counter and pulls out a clipboard with a sign in sheet. “Here.”
“Thanks Ed,” Jim smiles easily and Ed's concern gradually slips away, replaced with a slight smirk. “What.” Ed takes back the clipboard and says nothing. “Ed I know you won't tell her.”
“Maybe,” he says, “if you give me your lemon bar from lunch today.”
“Ed come on,” Jim groans, “it's like, the only good dessert at lunch.”
“I'm aware, oh,” he looks up past Jim to the opening office door and Jim turns around in time to see Zsasz poke his head in, and then grin at the two of them. “Do you need to get signed in?”
“Jim Gordon, just the guy I was looking for.” Zsasz ignores their blatant confusion and slips into the office. “It's almost the weekend, parents are going out of town for two days, I'm throwing a little party, and I wanted to extend an invite to you.”
“Really?” Jim asks, mildly surprised. “Why?”
“You're a pretty cool dude, and it's my party so I get to choose who gets an invite.” He nods along with himself, then focuses on Ed standing behind him. “You're invited too.”
Ed turns around and looks at the office space around him. He points to himself, “are you telling me this?”
Zsasz laughs, “you're funny,” he points, “hey, bring that uh, that short guy. The one in Barbara's yoga class.”
“Oswald?” Jim asks, and Zsasz claps his hands together and nods. “You're being serious?”
“Yeah,” he says as if it's obvious. “No such thing as being late, just don't let the word get out too much. And you don't have to bring anything,” Zsasz assures them, “just be there.”
After he leaves Jim and Ed stare at each other for nearly a minute before Jim asks, “what just happened?”
“Mother I am fine ,” Oswald insists even as she straightens the collar of his polo shirt and begins fussing with his bangs. “It's just a party with some friends.”
“You're sure you don't want a nice tie? I have something, let me find it,” she leaves him standing in their small kitchen while she fusses with something in the hall closet. “You always looks so handsome in blue,” she coos at him from across the room. “At least let me do something with your hair.”
“It's not that kind of party,” he insists. She comes over with two ties over one arm and a comb in her hand. “Mom, please,” he grabs her arms and stops her from messing with his hair any more than she already has, “this is just a little get together between friends. We're going to watch some movies and eat popcorn. Nothing fancy.”
“You're sure you don't want a tie?”
“Mother,” he whines.
“I just want people to see what a handsome boy I have.” She brushes his hair aside and kisses his forehead. Oswald smiles briefly and shakes his head to get his hair back in place. “When did you get so big?” she laments. Oswald groans when she drags him into another hug but he’s also quick to hug her back. “You will call if you need anything .”
“Of course,” he says. A series of short honks outside interrupt their hug and Oswald slips free. “That’s Jim,” he says, and he’s dragged into one more quick hug and a kiss before his mother releases him. “I’ll call if I need anything, promise .”
“Have fun liebchen,” she coos, and as he opens the door she blows him a quick kiss, which he quickly returns before dashing off to the car.
Jim’s half hanging out the window and waving Oswald over, and Ed is sitting quietly in the seat beside him, hands occupied by something just out of view. After Oswald lets himself in the back he leans through the space between the front seats to see. “Rubix Cube?”
Ed nods, and Jim offers up more explanation. “He got a little anxious. I found it in the back of my closet.” He turns from Oswald to Ed. “You can just keep it, by the way. I wasn't getting anything out of it.”
“Time,” Ed says, Oswald blinks with confusion, but Jim holds up a stopwatch and looks at the numbers.
“Shaved off about ten seconds,” he says. “Let Oz mess it up for you.”
“I don't really know-” Oswald abruptly ends up with the solved cube in his hands, and he begins turning the pieces at random. Ed twists around in his seat and peers at Oswald over his shoulder.
Jim starts pulling out of Oswald's driveway and pats Ed's cheek, “don't watch him, you'll remember. Gotta do it right or it won't count.”
“What is he doing exactly?” Oswald asks, still spinning sections and undoing the solid colors.
“Trying for the record.”
“I have the basic theory down but I'm trying to improve on them,” Ed explains, going back to complete silence just quickly as he snapped out of it. When Oswald reaches forward through the seats and hands Ed the scrambled Rubik's Cube Ed closes his eyes long enough for Jim to start the stopwatch, and then he begins solving as fast as he can.
“Can you hold this?” Jim says as he tosses the stopwatch back into Oswald's lap. “Just stop it when he says time.”
“I assumes as much,” Oswald says. He rests his chin on the seat and watches Ed go. “You aren't going to keep trying at the party, right?”
Ed shrugs. “Depends.”
“Try for like, ten minutes,” Jim says. “I bet Zsasz has plenty of extra rooms to hide in if you need to get away.”
“It's one party,” Oswald says. “And it's not like we're going to abandon you.” Ed's fingers stop moving on the Rubix Cube and he shoves his fingers in under his glasses to rub his eyes. “You'll be fine.”
“You got your license Oz?” Jim asks, and Oswald nods. “There, you have two people that could drive you somewhere else. And Zsasz invited you. He's a weird guy but he wants you to be there.”
“It doesn't make sense,” Ed murmurs.
“If anyone tries to mess with you I'll deck 'em,” Jim says. “No parents or teachers to give me detention here.”
He parks behind a string of cars along Zsasz’s street just below one of the many streetlights. They haven't turned on yet, but they will soon; the sun is nearly behind a long row of trees just above the horizon line. Jim and Oswald get out quickly, and Jim opens Ed's door for him; he has to coax him out (“I promise I'll punch anyone that tries to do anything.” “Please don't get arrested.”), but once he's outside and examining the well manicured front lawn of the Zsasz estate he appears to be in better spirits.
“People will probably be too drunk to remember to mess with you,” Jim says offhandedly once they reach the door. Ed and Oswald share a look of concern as Jim opens it and they're immediately face to face with Zsasz.
“Gordon,” he singsongs, “aw man you got the whole crew to come out!” He lets them all inside and they're immediately met with a wall of music and people. Ed clutches one hand in the back of Oswald's polo and the other holds his Rubik's Cube up against his chest. “Kitchen is over past that guy standing on the counter,” Zsasz says calmly, “and the only rule is no changing the music, I got it covered. Oh, and I guess don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
“What is that exactly?” Oswald snaps, and Zsasz shrugs. “Great, you have a lovely home. Ed,” he tries to whisper but with the music he's practically talking at full volume, “if we're ever separated meet there,” he points across the room at a staircase, “deal?”
Ed nods his head and grips Oswald a bit tighter. “What if-?”
“Ozzie!” someone still in the crowd exclaims, and out pops Barbara Keane, her blonde hair curled and done to the side, but a lock has already escaped he bobby pins and she's wavering on her feet. “I didn't know you were coming! We could have gotten ready together.”
Oswald smiles at her mirthlessly and sidesteps the door as Zsasz lets in yet another group of people. He leads Barbara, and also Ed though not consciously, over to an empty space in a large dining room filled with chips and red cups and, much to Ed's dismay and Oswald's vague interest, bottles of alcohol and cans of beer. Jim is nowhere to be found. “I thought you told me you were cutting this,” he says while tugging at her loose curl, “because long hair is last season.”
“Well maybe if you'd pick a day we can finally go.” She starts playing with his hair again, trying to get his bangs to stay off his forehead. “This is cute and all but you have a lot of untapped potential.” Barbara seems to lose focus on Oswald and hones in on Ed as he continues to cling to him and cower. “Hey Eddie.”
She tries to sidestep Oswald to get closer but Ed keeps Oswald between them as a buffer. He gulps, “Barbara.”
“You know, I knew we'd get Ozzie out here one of these days but I never thought I'd see you at a party.” This time she's successful when she tries to get closer and she touches the collar of Ed's long sleeved shirt. “I am so jealous of those curls.”
She moves her hand to try and touch Ed’s hair but he releases Oswald and ducks away. “No thank you.”
She smirks at Ed, but when she looks past him she seems lost for a moment. “Where's Jim?”
Oswald shrugs, looking like he has no desire to actually tell her the truth. “I guess we must have lost him.”
“Kind of thought you three were a package deal,” she mutters as she looks around the room. “Well, you two have fun. I'm going to go find him.”
Oswald makes a face at Barbara once her back is turned and then focuses his attention on Ed. “Barbara has the hots for Jim.”
“Barbara Keane,” Oswald points at her as she bursts into laughter across the room, “has the hots for James Gordon. She likes him.”
“Oh,” Ed hums quietly and fidgets with one of the rows of his Rubix Cube. “Why?”
“I don’t know!” Oswald exclaims. “She thinks he’s cute , does it really matter ?” Ed hunches his shoulders and mutters something Oswald can’t hear over the chatter and music. “Hey,” Oswald gets Ed’s attention by placing a hand on his arm, and Ed moves in a bit closer, “you look miserable. Do you want to go?”
“Maybe,” Ed whispers. “What about Jim?”
“He’s somewhere, I don’t know, he abandoned us,” Oswald jokes, but Ed retreats further and starts looking for a way out. “Hey,” Oswald places both hands on Ed’s arms, “I was kidding. He probably just got pulled aside by someone. Let’s go find him.”
“What if he doesn't want to leave?”
“Then I'll drive you just, here, let's try splitting up to find him, okay?” Ed starts shaking his head and Oswald sighs. “I know it isn't ideal, but he's probably right about people not paying that much attention. That tends to happen when you consume alcohol.” Ed scans the room over Oswald's shoulder, and it's true that no one is really looking over at them. There's a sudden crash from somewhere in the room that causes Ed some alarm, but Oswald doesn't even flinch. “Neanderthals.”
“Okay,” Ed mouths. He worries his bottom lip between his teeth, but he straightens out his back and starts putting forth a genuine effort to find Jim. “I don't see him.”
“If you hear any sort of fight, I'd start there. Just keep a safe distance, and don't accept any drinks because it will have alcohol.”
“I wasn't going to.”
“I know,” Oswald says, “but you look like you want to die a little so I thought I'd offer some sage advice.” Oswald smirks at him. “And I know I'm not the physical specimen Jim is but I am disappointed you don't think I'd do my best to defend you against our classmates.”
“I was only kidding, but if it helps you're certainly forgiven,” Oswald sighs. He pats Ed's chest and indicates a direction. “I'll start this way.”
“Oswald?” Ed calls after him, but Oswald is already part of the ever changing crowd of people. “Okay.”
Ed keeps his arms in close to his chest and begins moving through the crowd, being careful to sidestep groups and couples as he examines the living and dining room for signs of Jim. There are cans and cups on the floor around his feet, and several wrappers and empty chip bags the closer he gets to the kitchen. Near the island counter there's a small clearing free of people, and he darts into the space and closes his eyes for a few seconds.
“Hey,” someone appears very close in Ed's personal space and he gasps, backing away and opening his eyes to Zsasz's lazy smile. His back hits the counter and he gulps, but Zsasz's expression doesn't change. “Don’t know if you heard but you're at a party.”
“Sorry, I,” Ed surveys the cacophony by the kitchen, watching students talk and dance and drink, and he shudders, “I'm not very fond of, this,” he gestures to the aforementioned cacophony. “People, or, loud people. A lot of people? Have you seen Jim? He drove, and, well-”
“You thinking of leaving? Cuz I don't know if he's good to drive,” Zsasz says as he points over his shoulder with his thumb. Ed cranes his neck to see past Zsasz at a smaller group of people Ed doesn't really recognize, but Jim is with them playing beer pong, laughing and throwing a ping pong ball into one of the opposing team's cups. “Gotta say, your boy's got great aim.”
“Oh,” Ed sigh, “well, Oswald can drive, if I get Jim's keys-”
“Look,” Zsasz starts, and he leans in so he's really close to Ed. He braces for some sort of impact, but instead Zsasz just continues to talk. “There's this unspoken rule that my room is off limits, but I’m willing to extend an offer to let you use it, as long as you don't break anything or throw up. You don't have to throw up right?”
“I'm not feeling nauseated.”
“Good answer,” Zsasz grins and claps Ed's shoulder, and Ed jumps. “It’s upstairs at the end of the hall. Go chill out, watch a movie or something, just don't do anything I wouldn't do and it's all yours.”
Zsasz leaves Ed standing alone in the kitchen shortly after that, and Ed sighs, “I still don't know what that means.”
Ed moves over to the long table in the breakfast nook and taps Jim’s shoulder when he's standing back from the table. He spins around fast and smiles at Ed once an initial haze of confusion seems to wear off. “Hey Ed, you wanna play?”
“No. Do you have your keys?” He holds out his hand in anticipation and watches Jim struggle with his pants pockets until he pulls out his keys and hands them over. “I think I want Oswald to take me home, or, maybe his home. Somewhere not here.”
“You okay?” Jim asks, voice loud to overcome the music but still sincere. “Did someone fuck with you? Where are they?”
“No, it's fine, it's, well I just don't like it. Parties, and alcohol.” He shoves Jim's keys into his pocket and starts concentrating on solving his Rubik's Cube. “I'm okay.”
“Next time I'll tell Zsasz fuck no,” he yells over the music, and Ed smirks down at the Rubix Cube briefly. “I mean it, 'kay? Don't let me forget.”
“I have a good memory,” Ed says. He looks up from the Rubix Cube and smiles, but there's still tension around his eyes and shoulders. Jim drags him into a hug that Ed doesn't reciprocate but does tolerate, and when he pulls free from Jim's arms his cheeks are flushed. “Why did you hug me?”
“Tell Oswald I'm sorry!” He exclaims instead of answering, and then he's gone, back with the beer pong group while Ed rubs at one of his warm cheeks.
He backtracks his way through the party, weaving around people until he finds Oswald, and openly balking at the cup in his hand when he returns. “Why are you drinking?”
“I’m not ,” Oswald says. He shows Ed the nearly full cup and brings it back to his face to sniff it; the strong scent makes him wrinkle his nose. “Barbara gave this to me, and I’ve been waiting for her to leave the room so I can toss it.” He peers around Ed and when Barbara is nowhere to be found he subtly dumps the entire contents into a nearby potted plant. “There, see? Did you get the keys?”
“I did,” Ed says, and he licks his lips, “but Zsasz also offered to let me use his bedroom upstairs.”
“To do what , exactly?”
“To hide, or, to not be down here , at least. I didn't ask.”
“Well, I for one am not about to ignore what a rare opportunity this is,” Oswald says. He gets a firm grip on Ed's sleeve and begins leading him through the crowd. “We're going into uncharted territory, Ed. Be sure to take notes.”
As they ascend the stairs Ed takes a moment to look back over the crowd of students to get one last look at Jim as he pumps one fist into the air. Barbara's found her way over to his game; she's leaning over on the table, and although Ed can't hear whatever Jim tells her he smirks when her face changes from laughing to a heavy eye roll as she's, presumably, told to stop blocking part of the table.
“Which one is Zsasz's?”
“It's at the end of the hall,” Ed replies. He gestures with his Rubik's Cube and Oswald continues to tug him through the wide hallway and past several closed doors. Ed frets at the end of the hall, uncertain, but Oswald throws open a linen closet and the door to another set of stairs before opening what appears to be a bedroom. The moment they step inside and close the door Ed sighs as a relative quiet settles in the room.
“I'm not sure what I expected,” Oswald says as they walks through the space. There's a large bed along the left wall and a media space with a large tv. On the shelves on either side are rows upon rows of VHS tapes and DVDs. The walls have music and movie posters, and when Oswald snoops at the two doors along the right wall he finds an attached bathroom and a large walk in closet. “Are you kidding?” he shrieks. “I think his closet is as big as my room.”
Ed nods absentmindedly from in front of a large display of Zsasz's swimming awards. “He's rich. His family is, at least.”
“No wonder he's so popular,” Oswald mutters. He comes to stand beside Ed and bumps his shoulder against Ed's arm. “Don’t look so down. We can hide out up here all night, and we won't be abandoning Jim to Zsasz and his groupies.”
“Why did he invite me?” Ed asks. He turns from the trophies and ribbons to face Oswald and Oswald does the same. “I thought, well if coming up here just gets whatever they have planned over with sooner then we can leave sooner.”
“I,” Oswald pauses and grabs one of Ed's hands to stop him from fidgeting with the bottom of his shirt, “I don't think there's a plan. I haven't heard or seen anything. Unless the plan was to separate us from Jim, which great job, they figured out his weakness is a game that requires some dexterity.” Ed squeezes his Rubik's Cube tight enough that some of the plastic begins to creak. “Jim will be back, he's our friend.”
Ed shrugs one shoulder. “Then why did he leave?”
Oswald is quiet for a few moments, head tilted in thought. “Jim has a nice face, so girls are going to try and crawl all over him. And he hasn't gotten in as many fights, so people are getting chances to actually approach him during class time. Now that he's less likely to punch people in the nose he has a pleasant energy, and people gravitate to it. Jim has the foundation to become popular if he really wanted.”
Ed blinks sadly and lets his Rubik's Cube arm hang loose. “What about us?”
“Which part? Do we have nice faces? Good Energy? Girls fighting over who gets to date us first?” Oswald says this all lightly and full of jest, but Ed doesn't even smile. “Ed, you know me, and you know that means I'm not going to sit back and let Jim leave us behind without having a thing or two to say about it, but right now it doesn't matter because he's not trying to ditch us for these clowns.” He cups his other hand around Ed's and lifts it and the Rubix Cube up to eye level. “He might be having fun but he cares about us. He isn't going anywhere.”
Ed's eyelids flutter and he sniffs wetly. He curls himself in around it and also against Oswald, so the pointy, sharp edges of the Rubix Cube are poking at both of their chests, but Oswald doesn't make him move and instead wraps his arms up around Ed's shoulders. He pats Ed's back until the little quakes and shakes of Ed's shoulders stop.
“I'm going to pick a movie,” Oswald says, and he moves Ed so he's standing upright again. “Any preferences?”
“No,” Ed whispers. “Well, just something quiet, I guess.”
“Deal.” Oswald moves across the room while Ed kicks off his sneakers and situates himself at the head of Zsasz's giant bed. Oswald scans the movies, and after several minutes of searching he gives up with a groan and just switches on the cable and turns it down low. He tells Ed, “I don't often get the chance to channel surf.” Ed doesn't answer. He's finishing up solving his Rubik's Cube and mouthing along with a song that's loud enough to come through the walls. Oswald removes his shoes and places them beside Ed's. He clambers up beside Ed and situates himself in the center of the bed, stretching his legs out and frowning down at the remaining half a bed his legs don't reach. “Why on Earth would Zsasz need this long a bed?”
“He's tall,” Ed says.
“Not this tall,” Oswald counters. “I wonder if I could convince my mother I need a bed this size.” He sighs mournfully and stretches his legs out a bit longer. “Not that I'll ever need this much space on a bed.”
“Growth isn't always linear,” Ed mumbles. “It isn't impossible.”
“I'm fairly certain I'm just about done growing.” He lifts up an arm when Ed begins situating himself so he's stretched out on his side with his back to the door, and when Ed's head leans against his leg Oswald starts fussing with his limp curls. “Although you seem to never stop. Maybe I can convince her you need the extra space since you spend the night so often.”
Ed doesn't respond, already asleep, and Oswald takes a moment to remove Ed's glasses and set them aside before he settles in and starts flipping through the channels.
When Ed wakes he's the only one on the bed and he sits up frantically, but Oswald is still in the room. He's whispering into his cellphone, but the sounds from the rest of the house have stopped so he's easy to overhear.
“I'm sorry, I know,” he says placatingly. “I fell asleep and I forgot to call.” He's quiet for a few beats before adding, “mom I'm fine, no one's hurt, we just fell asleep. Can we spend the night please? I don't want to wake Ed or Jim. I promise, I'll be home right away in the morning.” Ed sits up fully and puts on his glasses. Oswald glances over, holding up a finger to his mouth as he listens to his mother. “Thank you, I mean it, I'll be right home. I love you too.” He hangs up and groans. “We're lucky she didn't send the police after me when I didn't call.”
“It's late,” Ed says.
“Relatively. It's one.” Oswald moves back to the bed and faceplants in the middle. “She was, In her words, distraught, so that means she was hysterical.”
“She hovers,” Oswald corrects him.
“She loves you,” Ed says back. Oswald doesn't have a reply. Ed breaks the silence with a question, “is Jim downstairs?”
“I didn't look. I assume the silence,” Oswald trails off as the bedroom door opens and in saunters Zsasz, looking drowsy and uncharacteristically quiet. Ed and Oswald scoot up to the top half of the bed, and Zsasz drops himself onto the foot of the bed, stretching out his limbs with a quiet sigh and turning his head to finally acknowledge the two.
“Oh,” he rolls onto his back and turns his head to look at them, “you didn't throw up anywhere right?” They both shake their heads. “Cool.”
“Sounds like your party is over,” Oswald says.
“Neighbor called the cops,” he says lightly. Ed starts to panic but Zsasz reassures him, “relax, everyone scattered. Music's off. No one got arrested.”
“Everyone?” Ed asks. “Even Jim?”
“Yes, wait,” Zsasz frowns and pushes himself up onto his elbows, “no. He's somewhere.”
“Somewhere,” Oswald repeats, and Zsasz nods. “Lovely.”
“Your boy can't drink for shit,” Zsasz sighs sadly. “Wait,” Zsasz pops up off the bed and walks across the room to his bathroom, and when he opens the door soft snores start being audible in the bedroom. “Found 'em. I knew I put him somewhere safe.”
They both scramble off the bed and crowd around the bathroom door; Jim is using his arm for a pillow as he sleeps on the cool, black tile by Zsasz's shower. Oswald stands up on his tiptoes enough to see past the rim of the toilet, and he sighs with relief. “He didn't get sick.”
“Naw he passed out too fast for that,” Zsasz says with a smile. He steps over Jim and loops his arms behind Jim's, forcing him upright until he blinks blearily up at Ed and Oswald. “Rise and shine Jim.”
Jim doesn't fall back over, but he doesn't register much going on around him even when Ed helps him sip at a glass of water and Oswald tugs off his shoes. Zsasz remains near the trio, hovering just out of reach but always willing to jump to attention and help when it's asked of him.
“I hope you don't expect your usual amount of space on your bed,” Oswald warns. He's busy trying to get Jim to settle on his side near the edge closest to the bathroom but he keeps gravitating towards Ed, which means he has the middle. “You better not get sick in the night or you'll have hell to pay James Gordon.”
“He'll be okay,” Ed murmurs, already part way back to sleep and eyes half lidded. He's playing with a few locks of Jim's sweaty bangs. “Right Jim?”
“Mmph,” is all anyone gets out of Jim, and Ed's hand settles against Jim's cheek as he gives in and falls asleep. Combined Ed and Jim using only a bit more than half the bed, leaving Oswald with the other half to spread out on.
“By not the usual did you mean none?” Zsasz asks as he stands over Oswald. He glares up at Zsasz and shushes him, glancing over to the other two already asleep on the bed. Zsasz's eyes widen. “It's kind of my bed.”
“And you've been such a gracious host. Thank you.” Oswald yawns and stretches out his back before he lets the last bits of tension slip out of his limbs. “I'll be sure to give you glowing praise when my mother grills me about the evening.”
Zsasz storms out of his own bedroom and Oswald closes his eyes, but a moment later Zsasz is stomping back in with a pillow and blanket in his hands. He tosses the pillow onto the foot of his bed and wraps the blanket over his shoulders before flopping onto his stomach.
“Your home doesn't have a spare bedroom?”
Zsasz doesn't answer; instead he curls up a bit tighter and scoots away from Ed and Jim's feet, utilizing the space Oswald can't reach even if he stretches out to his maximum height. When he does bother to say anything it's not even close to an answer. “You ever wonder if your friends are only around because of what you can give them?”
Oswald squirms uncomfortably. “Is this what it's like when someone is philosophizing while drunk?”
“I don't drink anymore.”
“Oh,” Oswald frets with the hem of Zsasz's comforter, “well, I can tell you I can only offer my fantastic wit-” Zsasz barks out a laugh- “yes, ha ha, not all of us have a mansion in the heights.”
“People kind of suck,” is Zsasz's only reply.
“They do,” Oswald agrees. “Present company excluded.”