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To the Least Painful End

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**********

The door opens on the darkened room. A hesitant silhouette stands framed in the doorway. He knows it’s okay when K.C, down on the floor, doesn’t start barking.

“Mom?” Jared asks. Softly, because he is dizzy, and his head hurts. She leaves the doorway and comes to stand over him, study his face. He guesses he probably looks pretty fucked up. Hard to hide it when he feels this bad. The room spins without mercy; the bed feels like it’s heaving and rocking under him. His center of equilibrium struggles bravely to anchor itself in a stormy sea.

“Can this be the last time?” he chokes out. His voice is hoarse and weak. He didn’t mean to ask her. He only meant to keep it inside, ask himself. Is this the last time? Is this the last straw for him, even if it isn’t (please let it be) for her?

She is silent. He tries to focus on her with eyes that won’t track the way they’re supposed to. Wants to reach for her hand, but he’s not sure he has the strength to so much as twitch a little finger. Bent over him, she looks distant, shadowy, and unreachable anyway. Slowly, she strokes out a slender finger, and it’s startling when she actually reaches him. She delicately traces a line of hair that flops across his forehead. He winces as she hits the edge of the goose egg at his temple, but her eyes are far away. He wonders if she’s thinking about the past, when he was little and listened to everything adults said.

“My beautiful boy,” she says quietly. And, finally seeming to focus on him, “Why did you have to start a fight with him, Jay? You know he just wants what’s best for you.”

Of course.

His tries, so hard, to pretend it doesn’t make his stomach wrench. His mother is the beautiful one. She is gentle, and loving. She’s the constant in his life, the only thing he’s always had. In the whole wide whirling world, she’s the only thing that ever manages to stand still.

She is, in a very real way, everything to him. And the way she looks at him... he can see that she loves him too, just as much as he loves her. He can’t see himself, of course, but he imagines he’s sending the same look up at her, that she’s sending down to him. Like echoing back at like echoing back at like. And he wonders why she didn’t help him, if she loves him so much.

“You always fight too much,” Mom whispers, tears in her eyes.

“I know,” Jared says weakly. “I know, Mom. I’ll do better from now on, okay?”

He’s lying. He’s not trying that hard to hide it either, but she believes him. He wonders how he can always see her so clearly, when she can’t ever seem to see anything at all.

“Thank you, lovebug,” she murmurs huskily. Her smile is painfully grateful. She straightens up and takes a step back.

“Will you rest with me?” he asks. “My head hurts, but I don’t want you to go yet. Please.”

“I- There’s work to do,” she answers.

“Just for a minute?”

“Aren’t you too old for that?” she asks, forehead wrinkled with genuine uncertainty.

“No,” he lies.

She relaxes, looks unbearably relieved. Mom can’t take uncertainty. He does understand
it, knows that’s why she’s tied them both to Roy. If ever there was anybody who felt born to tell people what to do, it’s Roy. Roy the asshole.

She coos to K.C, pats the bed, and then helps the old golden retriever scramble up and flop down on Jared’s left side. K.C. is warm and soft. Jared feels a few tears prickle at the pleasure of having her up there, when it hadn’t even occurred to him that she was exactly what he needed. Then Mom crawls over them both to reach the empty side of the bed, and although she moves carefully, the whole mattress sags and shifts and his head spikes with pain that blinds him for a minute.

When the pain ebbs a little, his mother is lying on her side to his right, her head resting on his chest, and her arm curled around his waist. Her dirty blond hair is softly tickling his chin. Soft like K.C.’s. Over them all, the ceiling spins and spins. His stomach wavers between alright and nauseous, and he has the feeling that sooner or later he’s going to be making a mess of himself. He wonders how much worse it’s going to get, before it gets better. He guesses he’s probably got a concussion at the very least, and he could have brain bleeding or something, and not even know it. He thinks it would be just like life, for him to finally die from this injury, just when he’s decided it’s going to be the last time. But at least he would die while he was content.

“Sixteen,” Mom murmurs to herself. She always talks out loud as she chases her thoughts through all the twists and turns and rabbitholes that Jared’s never been able to follow. “... like in Macey’s yard... those little pear trees her daddy planted, grew in crooked... that woman swore she’d burn them away. She thought they were just the ugliest things... Those black stumps were uglier, though.” Her fingers toy idly with a fold of his shirt at his waist, and if he thinks about that, and about the weight of her head on his chest, and about the gentle rhythm of K.C.’s breathing, the pain recedes and he barely even notices the room moving.

“... you remember Grammy’s teeth?” Mom asks.

Jared’s never met his grandmother, or his mom’s grandmother, whoever she’s talking about.

“Yeah,” he says.

Mom laughs. “They were just like chickpeas, you know? I mean, the color of chickpeas, and the shape, in the back. Don’t you think?”

“Sure. Just like.”

She laughs again, and squeezes his ribs, conspiratorially. They’re in on it together, gossiping about Grammy, and they’ll never tell another soul what they said.

When he can, he needs to run, but he’s not stupid. The world beyond his mother is too big, too confusing, too dark and shifting, and he can’t even imagine facing it alone. So, he’ll just have to convince her to run with him. That’s all. He’ll tell her that they all need to get out of here, together, and if he says it right, she’ll listen. She has to. If she believes every lie he tells her, it can’t be that much harder to get her to listen to the truth, can it?

 

**********

 

His new room, which won’t even be his room, because he will be sharing with the currant occupant, stinks like dirty socks heavily overlaid by incense, and delicately underlaid by weed. He gets a nice, big whiff of it as Fiona Collins opens the door, and he has to work hard not to wrinkle his nose. It wants to wrinkle so very badly. Then he actually catches sight of the room, and the blank face becomes an effort of heroic proportions. His new room doesn’t just smell. His new room turns out to be a dizzying, eye-crossing, psychedelic nightmare. Purple and blue paisley-patterned cloth swathes the ceiling, bellying down and then floating up as the air in the room shifts, like a lung expanding towards him before it contracts.

The floor is clear, but the one chair in the room is heaped with unfolded clothes, bent magazines, and, poking out from beneath the rest of the detritus, what looks like the brassy gleam of a large instrument. A trombone? A tuba?

Random papers are scattered across the dresser and the top of the low, light wood shelves that line the far wall, and there are CD cases on every surface. Some are closed, and others sprawl open and empty, gasping for the CDs to fill them. A quick sweep with his eyes reveals no wandering CDs, and he wonders where they are, whether Fiona Collins’ son has lost them, or merely temporarily relocated them. Maybe they’re lurking somewhere with the dirty socks. Because he can’t see any dirty socks, but their scent is strong.

He eyes the room carefully. They could hiding in the closet, or under one of the beds.
Under one of the beds would be a perfect hiding place, in fact, because who’s going to be able to tear their eyes away from the bedding long enough to look under it?

The two single beds are on opposite walls, (the fact that they aren’t right next to each other is probably their only saving grace) one with a lime-green pillow, white sheets, dotted with some kind of blue and yellow design, and a fuchsia comforter heaped at the foot end. The other bed is orange. Just horribly, horribly orange. Orange pillow, orange sheets, orange (old, raggedy) comforter. It would be coordinated with itself, at least, if someone had managed to find shades of orange that didn’t bear so little resemblance to each other, but whoever’s responsible for it was clearly color-blind, so the pillow is kind of a bright reddish-orange, while the sheets are faded pumpkin, and the comforter glares fluorescent, like the ink of a highlighter. Its brightness makes its mysterious stains (he counts at least three, of varying sizes) all the more obvious, and Jared considers what his options will be if Fiona Collins tells him he has to sleep in that bed. He squints back at the other bed, on the right side of the room. At least there are no obvious stains. But maybe the patterned sheets just work better to hide them. To be perfectly frank, he doesn’t want to sleep in that one either. He doesn’t want to sleep anywhere in this room.

“So, this is it,” she smiles a little nervously. Her dark eyes crinkle at the edges, but never quite lose their uncertainty, and he wishes she would just give up the act. She can’t possibly want him here any more than he wants to be here. Her smiling frantically and pretending otherwise is a complete waste of her time. She keeps pretending though, voice cheerful as she gestures around the room and babbles “You don’t need to worry about keeping it too neat or anything, or course. I had Mish clean it up before he left for school this morning, but I don´t want you to get the wrong idea. I don’t expect miracles or anything. I- I know how teenage boys are, and you don’t need to stress yourself out about anything extra anyway. I’m pretty sure you’ve got enough on your shoulders already, right? I mean- shit- I’m sorry- I probably shouldn’t... I probably shouldn’t bring that up first thing, and...” Her smile flickers, and Jared shifts uncomfortably, slumps himself into an even lower slouch than normal, because he’s not going to humor her stupid attempts at make-nice, but if she’s worried that he’s going to freak out or something, well, he’s not. He’s fine.

She takes a deep breath, pins him with a sincere gaze,“I just want you to know that, um, the most important thing is that this is a safe place for you, Jared. I want you to feel like it’s a stress-free environment, where you don’t have to worry about hospital corners, or getting A’s on every test, or being perfect, or anything stupid like that. I want this to be a place where you can just be yourself, grow into your own skin in your own time, okay? Whatever you need, don’t be afraid to ask for it.”

Jared lets her words flow over him, tries his best to keep himself blank and polite looking, because she keeps staring earnestly at him, peering deeply into his face like she’s trying to read him. And he still doesn’t know why she’s bothering, except that it reminds him uncomfortably of his mother trying to placate Roy, ease him into a better mood when he’d stomped in pissed at the world and just itching for a smaller target. His stomach twists at the thought, because he is fucking nothing like Roy, and because he doesn’t want to think about his mother and Roy right now. Anyway, it doesn’t make any sense for Fiona Collins to be afraid of him. He’s not big and strong like Roy at all; he’s just a scrawny sixteen-year-old, built like a coathanger.

But if she’s not trying to placate him, he doesn’t know what the hell those smiles mean, and the confusion’s kinda wearing him out. He just needs her to go away, leave him in peace. He’s so so tired, and so so miserable, and so so confused about how he ended up here, with this nervous stranger showing him her son’s room and babbling about ‘safe spaces’ and ‘letting him breathe as much as he needs.’

He studies the carpet, so she won’t read his thoughts on his face. It’s a worthy distraction. The carpet is freaking crazy, a paisley pattern in garish colors that hits every place on the rainbow, and yet manages somehow to completely avoid coordinating in any way with any colors to be found elsewhere in the room. He turns his despairing eyes from the horrible curtains (white, with yellow ducks with fangs, fangs), to the swirls of paint on the walls. Clearly “Mish,” or his mother, or both, consider themselves some kind of disciple of Picasso or something. He recognizes some disembodied eyes staring back at him, and what might be a tree made of red snakes, and possibly a lemon-yellow moose, eating one of the snakes. Or that might be an actual lemon, and a sloppy plate of spaghetti. He doesn’t care which.

There is nowhere in this room he can look without feeling dizzy, assaulted by ugliness. Craziness. He just wants a freaking normal room to sleep in, is that so much to ask? But apparently it is. He bites his lip and stares hard at the toes of his sneakers, surprised and angry at the sudden rush of tears threatening to flood his eyes.

“Jared?” Fiona Collins comes to an awkward halt, mid-speech, and she’s lost abruptly the sincere, new-age guru thing she had going on, and sounds kind of young now, ridiculous, when she’s got a teenage son about Jared’s age, plus two more, even older sons, from what he’s been told. She’s got streaks of gray in her hair, and wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She’s sharp though. He hadn’t expected her to notice him struggling so quickly.

“Yeah?” he mutters, refusing to raise his eyes. He’s not freaking crying about being here, not if he can help it, and he’s definitely not freaking crying about it in front of her, that’s for goddamn sure.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Because...” she takes a breath, firms up her voice. “Because, it’s okay not to be alright, you know? After what you’ve... and now this whole- coming to live in a new place, with people you don’t really know well, or, or really at all yet- thing, I mean, I know that’s scary. That’s a scary thing for a kid, or for anybody really. Travelling to a new place, alone... I mean, I remember the first time I went to France, and I was so scared on the plane, I thought I was going to throw up. That was my first trip abroad, and I was reaching for the- you know the little bags for throwing up in, that they give you on airplanes?”

He takes a deep breath, let’s it out, stares quietly at his shoes. Tries to will the tears away as hard as he possibly can. Tries not to think about how this is all a mistake. How he’s not supposed to be here in this ugly, bad-smelling room with this weird woman who will not stop looking at him, or talking at him about things he most definitely does not care about until he wants to scream.

“Yeah,” he manages to squeeze out.

“So, they’re paper, you know? And I’m thinking ‘What? What happens if I throw up in here? This bag is paper! What the- heck? What do I do?’ And I start scanning the plane, you know? Trying to figure out the nearest bathroom, and whether I can even use it, because there are people blocking the aisle, cause the plane is still boarding, right? We haven’t even started, you know, moving down the runway, we’re still on the ground, and I’m already on the verge of puking. So I’m thinking, ‘if I vault over that seat, I can get around that business man, but the lady with the giant dufflebag is gonna be a real problem, shit, I’m gonna puke on the old woman three down the aisle, I’m gonna get kicked off the plane, and maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, because maybe I don’t need to go to France after all, even though it had been my dream since, like, grade eight... just, totally flipping out,” she laughs nervously. Then she pauses, like she’s hoping Jared will find it in himself to laugh too, make this situation a little less awkward. He disappoints her.

Only the first time of many, he’s sure. “So, anyway,” she carries on, gamely. “I’m wasting so much time calculating how far I can get before... eruption... that suddenly someone sits down next to me, blocking me in. And he notices I look a little green around the gills, definitely not my best, and he asks if I’m afraid of flying, and I start explaining that I’m totally flipping out, because it’s my first time traveling, and I don’t even speak French that well, and I’ve suddenly realized that I’m in way over my head, and he gives me this smile, and starts reassuring me... ten minutes later, I’m in love. And I’m not even thinking about puking anymore. The whole panicking thing is just done, like that. And that guy? I married him. We were married for ten years.”

I don’t care, Jared thinks. I don’t care one bit. I really really don’t.

“We’re divorced now,” she adds, hesitant again, losing her momentum as her story ends, and he’s still staring at the floor. “So it’s an ambiguous story, I guess. But the point is, Jared, sometimes, the worst times in your life are also the best, you know? And sometimes, all it takes is just someone to talk to, someone who understands, to turn it all around again, right?” She reaches out, and pats his shoulder, gives it an awkward little squeeze before taking her hand back again. “Whenever you’re ready to talk, you just say the word, okay? I’ll be here. Okay?”

The word dangles there, hopeful and out-of-place and desperate. He doesn’t have anything to say to her, he doesn’t have anything to say to anybody, but he can’t just leave that lonely word to hang.

“Um. Okay,” he mumbles, grudgingly. And that goes alright, so he gets cocky and adds, “Thank you, for, you know...” and makes the mistake of looking up at her. She’s biting her thin lower lip, hands clenched together tightly at her waist. He can see his mother in her. He looks back at the floor quickly, but the damage is done. “I’m tired,” he chokes out.

He’s half-expecting the reach she makes towards him, and he back-steps easily just out of range without even looking up at her again.

“Okay,” she says quickly. “Okay, sorry, I- I’ll just go, then. Leave you to get some rest, because of course you’re tired. I- I should have guessed you would be...” She hangs in there for another minute, despite her words, hoping for something, some sign of weakness or something, some sign that she can worm her way in, that she’s gotten to him already, at least in some small way.

She hasn’t, though. She hasn’t and she won’t, and he repeats that to himself until she’s retreated, closed the door behind her, finally left him to have some privacy and space to himself for the first time in what feels like days. He checks his watch, and almost feels like unstrapping the damn thing and dropping it in the trash, because there’s no way that it’s been 34 fucking minutes since he got here. But the second hand ignores him to carry on ticking merrily away, and he’s kinda forced to acknowledge that it’s true. So, apparently, this place they’ve dumped him is not only decorated like a late-career Beatles music video somebody rejected as being too trippy for the hippies, it´s also some kind of scientific anomaly where time moves at a glacial pace, and it’ll take 30 years to reach the magical age of eighteen, instead of just two.

He’s so exhausted by the thought, he decides to just suck it up and go lie down in one of the beds. But Ms. Collins never told him which was his, not that he can remember anyway, and he’s not going to ask her. He studies the one with the lime green pillow. The sheets are decorated by blue spaceships with yellow flares blasting them across the blank white spaces, like they belong to a five-year-old. Well, no self-respecting teenager, no matter how crazy, would choose those sheets, right? So this has to be his bed.

He sets his duffle gingerly on the surface, then stops to look back over his shoulder at the orange bed. On the other hand, that ratty, marked-up comforter is clearly inferior to the newer-looking fuchsia one, and he’s not some kind of idiot. No one’s ever saved the best for him before. It’s not like they’d start now. He picks his bag back up and approaches the other bed, sets it down.

On the other hand, this bed at least is orange, and, in theory, somewhat coordinated, as opposed to the other one, which has a purple cover, like, for a girl, spaceship sheets, like, for a five-year-old, and a green pillow that looks like it was taken off a couch, like, for a visitor. Fuck. He angrily pulls his duffle back off the orange bed and throws it to the floor in the middle of the room. There’s no way to know, and he’s not going to ask, because Ms. Collins would probably think he was an idiot for not somehow figuring it out on his own, or something. He sinks down onto his duffle bag, crosses his arms over his knees, and drops his head onto his arms. At least he’s got one thing he knows is absolutely his, as pathetically laughable and inadequate as he knows one medium-sized, scuffed-up duffle bag is, to count as one’s sole possession.

**********

Misha’s experiencing a definite mix of conflicting emotions as Jensen drives him home. He is having a fiercely contested internal tug-of-war between his (completely reasonable) nerves and his general hunger for new experiences, as Jensen’s Volvo chugs along, and it’s difficult to say whether one side or the other has the upper hand. If he had to, he would probably qualify it as a pretty even split.

He sees the end of the long dirt drive that leads to his house hove into view on the right, and realizes his heart has actually started pounding a little fast. It’s somewhat like Christmas morning, only, a Christmas morning unlike any he’s ever experienced, one where he’s worried that his presents may contain nailbombs.

But they may not. They may be awesome, and he tries to focus on that as Jensen slows and pulls to a smooth stop in the end of his driveway. The house itself is hidden from the road by a curving half mile of mixed deciduous forest: maple, oak, and various other leafy denizens of New England that Misha lacks the knowledge to identify. But down that drive, and somewhere inside the house he’s called home for the past year of his life, should be his cousin, Jared, who may be a complete asshole, or who may be awesome. And he’s about to find out which. Or, at least, get some inkling of which, because of course people are not just hollow like balloons, they’re full of things hidden on the inside, like pinatas. And, like pinatas, you have to work hard and take some time to discover what those things are. Although, unlike pinatas, where the things inside all tend to be delicious, some people aren’t full of candy, some people are full of bile and bitter, bitter gall. Which would easily make for the most disgusting pinata ever. Or would it?

The usual routine is for Misha to get out at the end of the driveway, because the mailbox is here, and Misha would rather grab the mail on the way home from school than have to walk all the way out and back later. All the same, as he slowly swings open the car door and hoists his bookbag into his lap, he’s torn. He could meet the cousin, Jared, ten minutes sooner if he asked Jensen to drive him to his door. Does he want to? Or does he want to put it off another ten minutes? Is Jared more likely to be a candy pinata, or is he filled with something else?

“We should make a pinata filled with all my bile and bitter, bitter gall, and also dog shit,” Misha muses to Jensen, still staring down his driveway. “Then maybe my father would finally stop showing up at my birthdays.”

“But what should it be shaped as?” Jensen asks mildly. After over ten years of being friends with Misha, he’s not easily thrown off by an odd topic or two.

“Hmmm. A telephone, perhaps?”

“He does seem to have an allergy to those,” Jensen agrees.

“Well, that or a penis. I’ve noticed that saying that word makes him very uncomfortable.”

“You were talking about penises with your Dad?”

“The subject came up. Why, what do you talk about with your Dad?”

Jensen cracks up, and Misha grins.

“So, any chance I can meet your mom’s new stray today, or are we thinking break him in easy, hold off on the introductions for a few days?” Jensen asks, sobering up a little.

Misha hesitates. He’d like the moral support, quite frankly, and he has no doubt that Jensen knows it. Misha’s aware that sometimes he weirds people out, says exactly the wrong thing, occasionally makes them fear for his sanity without meaning to. Jensen, on the other hand is charming and charismatic, and Misha has seen him put people at ease without batting an eyelash. The whole thing would almost certainly go a lot smoother with Jensen by his side.

“Sure, why don’t you stay for a little while,” he decides, finally. He’s not sure his mom will entirely approve, but she loves Jensen, and if Jared’s going to be staying with them for a little while, he’s going to pretty much have to get used to Jensen. Sooner is better than later, isn’t that what they say? “It’s only fair to give him full warning of exactly what he’s in for.”

“Ha ha,” Jensen says easily, and throws the car into gear. Then of course he has to put it back into park while Misha hops out and gets the mail.

They drive up to the house in comfortable silence. Misha catches sight of his mother kneeling in front of the flowerbed beneath the front porch as they get close, vigorously rooting out weeds with a hand fork. Her hair is tied back with an old baby-blue bandana, and she’s wearing her orange gardening jumpsuit, a garment that Misha is 90% sure she bought from a prison surplus outlet (if such a thing exists.) He watches as a weed comes free with a shower of dirt, and his mother flings it wildly back over her shoulder without looking. The grass in a ten foot radius is littered with similar cast-offs. He hopes she remembers to rake them up before they all wither, turn brown, and kill the grass in patches, again.

“Uh oh,” he says.

“She’s gardening,” Jensen agrees gravely.

“Maybe something went wrong, and they changed their minds about sending him?”

“Maybe. Can they do that?”

“Maybe if some closer family than third cousins, or second cousins twice removed, or whatever the hell we are, came forward...” Misha’s uncertain. Mom had seemed to think it was a done deal, but she’s been known to be... overly optimistic... when she gets an idea into her head.

Jensen parks, and Mom turns to watch them get out, wiping her forehead with the back of one gardening gloved hand as she watches. Her shoulders are tense, and she looks red-faced and sweaty, not good signs.

“Hey Fiona,” Jensen says, smiling brightly.

“Oh, hi Jensen,” Mom smiles back, and a little bit of the tension she’s carrying actually seems to leak out of her. How does Jensen do that?

“Hey Mom, did Jared arrive?” Her smile flickers, and the tension level snaps back up to high.

“Of course, sweetie. He’s in your room, resting. He was pretty worn out, you know. It’s a long drive from New York, and I think he’s having a hard time with... everything.” she turns her head away from them to give Misha’s bedroom window a worried look. Well, Misha guesses it’s not just his bedroom anymore. He stamps down the ignoble flash of annoyance that fact brings, because he does love this house, it’s better in almost every way than their old house in town, and if the smaller size means he has to share his bedroom for a little while, that’s a price he’s pretty willing to pay, all things considered. It’s not like he spends much time in there anyway, with Drama Club, and Model UN, and Jensen’s house always having better snacks than his.

The first time Misha sees his cousin, Jared is fast asleep on the middle of his bedroom floor, curled around an old duffle bag. His dark hair is lank and greasy, and his jutting angles of shoulder, hip, and elbow make him look unwell. Through the holes in his worn-out jeans, his knees are visibly knobby, and scabbed. Upon catching sight of his cousin, Misha hurriedly shushes Jensen and his mother, then scrambles to put his backpack down and rummage through it as quietly as possible.

Because all the ugly little details of his cousin somehow add together into an image of almost indescribable pathos and beauty, and it demands to be captured.

“What is it?” Jensen whispers, then, while Misha’s getting his damn camera out of its case and turning it on, he cranes around Misha to get a glimpse of the room. Mom, behind them both, is also whispering “What? What’s happening?” and Misha feels a little bad that she sounds so stressed, but honestly, it’s not like he’d be dicking around with his camera if something were really wrong, so come on.

Misha’s camera is still something of a complicated, expensive mystery to him. He got it for his birthday last month, and he hasn’t read any of the photography books that came with it, out of some sense of half-assed rebellion. The rebellion doesn’t extend to the camera itself, which he’s been carrying around with him every day since he got it. He enjoys the way it makes him look harder at the world, pick out moments of strangeness, beauty, or humor that otherwise would’ve just passed by unremarked, and he secretly very much enjoys the way it seems to both cultivate and justify a sense of aloofness from the world, as well. Photography is such a delicate, time-sensitive art. It feels like he finally has license to step outside moments, like he’s always done, and observe the world as though it were a play, or a novel. Like this moment: a boy sees his cousin for the first time, his cousin who, in sleep, looks beautiful and vulnerable.

It seems to him that if Jared turns out to be just as he appears at this moment, Misha can be proud of any photograph that can capture that fragility, and if he turns out to be nothing like he appears in this moment, Misha will like the misleading nature of this image. But only if he actually freezes this moment in time, will he have the joy of looking back on it, comparing it to the real thing. He brings the camera quickly to his eye and fiddles around with the big zoom lens until his cousin’s face, half-hidden by a flop of dark bangs, but smooth and sharp and somehow unreal in the angles that lie revealed, is in perfect focus. He’s going to get a fantastic shot out of this, he’s almost certain, if Jared will only stay asleep long enough. He starts snapping away.

The clicking is quiet, and the teenager on the floor doesn’t even stir. Misha takes a cautious step into the room, because he thinks that a little different angle will make a much better picture, and resumes snapping.

“Misha!” Mom hisses behinds him. She sounds quite unhappy with him. He ignores her.

“Misha!” Jensen hisses too, though there’s a definite tone of amusement in his voice. “Quit that!”

He will. Just- one- more- There is a shadow across Jared’s eyelid that is absolutely perfect, but Misha is not actually sure how to zoom in that close without losing the clarity of the picture. Perhaps he should have read some of those books, but it’s too late now. He needs to get physically closer if he wants the picture, and he does. He does want the picture. Jared’s face... hollowed cheek and parted lips and long dark lashes... it’s perfect. He draws the camera away from his eye for a minute and studies Jared, makes sure that his cousin is still breathing deep and even. He raises the camera again. Holding his breath, he steps in close, closer, leans over and- there- perfect. Click.

Jared’s whole body stills, mid-inhale. The sudden absence of breathing is deafening. Cautiously, Misha lowers the camera. He is painfully aware of how closely he is leaning over Jared, just a few feet away now, really, and if he so much as breathes or tries to straighten up, he’s fairly sure it will be completely audible to Jared. He’s stuck. Please go back to sleep, he pleads silently. Nothing to see here.

Jared’s eyelid snaps open, and suddenly he is staring up at Misha, frozen. A beat later, he jerks his head up to look wildly around the room, gaze hitching briefly at the sight of the other two in the doorway before swinging back around to the nearest threat.

“What-” he says, hoarsely. His eyes rest briefly on the camera in Misha’s hand, before skipping back up to his face.

“Uh,” Misha offers.

“What-” he asks again. He sounds, and looks, well, startled at the very least. Maybe even frightened.

“I was trying to capture a first impression of you,” Misha explains. He tries to tamp down on his guilt. He didn’t mean to scare his cousin. That was not at all his intention. But he clearly did, and he’d better convince him that he means him no harm, and that he had a reason for taking his picture other than that he thought he looked ‘beautiful’ and ‘vulnerable’ or this is truly going to be the worst first impression he’s ever made in his life. “I thought it would be a worthy project to capture an important first impression, and this seemed to fit the bill, because you’re my cousin. And a- a first impression, in the general sense is such an interesting topic, don’t you think? Obviously, there can only ever be one, and human memory being what it is, you always think you remember correctly, but that’s hardly ever true. So then, how can you be sure you aren’t just making up a memory of instantly liking a friend the first time you saw them, or hating an enemy at first sight, because it comforts you to think you can tell how people are when you first see them, even though you can’t, nobody can? I thought a physical record of the moment would maybe help somehow.” Misha gives a weak smile and peters off. Everything he said was true, but he still feels somewhat deceitful, and he hopes Jared can’t detect that.

Jared’s face is blank. His eyes have lost their wild fright, though his fingers, Misha notes, are clutching the duffle bag so hard they’ve gone white, so he’s either still scared, or extremely, extremely angry.

“I was sleeping,” Jared says. “You were taking a picture of me while I was sleeping?” Jared’s eyes are fixed on his camera, dangling around his neck, and Misha is filled with a very, very bad feeling. Jared’s tone reminds Misha very much of his dad, and how his Dad gets all quiet when he’s two seconds away from erupting into righteous fury. Fury which Misha then responds to in kind, and which leads to shouting terrible things and everybody getting red-faced and sweaty, and not talking to each other for weeks or months, and shit, has Misha already set off a chain of events that will lead to he and his cousin having a furious screaming match within five minutes of meeting each other?

“I’m- Jared, I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I’m really, really sorry.”

He struggles for some stronger words to express his deep regret. But Jared’s shuttered eyes and clenched jaw make it very hard to come up with anything. He takes a deep breath.

“I am a total asshole,” he offers, hopefully. Jared ducks his head, and the words flow a little quicker now that his face is hidden from view. “I didn’t have any right, and I totally fucked up, and I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you, but I will, I promise. And I will never ever do that to you again, and-”

“Yeah. Alright.” Jared cuts him off in a mumble. “Nevermind, okay? It’s not a big deal.”

It certainly seemed like a big deal a second ago, but now Jared’s head is down, his shoulders are up, and his bangs are an impenetrable curtain. Misha can’t tell what he’s thinking at all.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

“Yeah,” is all Jared answers.

There is an awkward pause, while Misha waits for more, but Jared isn’t saying anything else, nor is he looking up. And, into the breach, rushes his mother. For once, he’s extremely, extremely grateful that his mother can’t stop herself from wading into these emotional-mess type situations.

“Jared, I am so sorry,” she says, fluttering over to squat down and try frantically to make eye contact with his cousin. He catches himself thinking for one millisecond about how best to frame the picture they make, Jared’s bowed head, his mother’s concerned hover, and shuts that thought down hard. Jared is off limits to picture taking, from now unto eternity. Off. Limits. “Misha didn’t mean to... to upset you. He’s been obsessed with his camera since his dad gave it to him last month, and he just wasn’t thinking, okay? It will not happen again, I absolutely promise.”

Jared finally looks up, but Misha still can’t read what he’s feeling from his face.

“It’s fine,” Jared says quietly. “No harm done.”

But Jared, for all that his expression is blank as a new whiteboard, is radiating an air of such bone-deep exhaustion, that suddenly Misha is wretchedly ashamed of himself, in a way he hasn’t felt in years. Misha didn’t have any way of knowing it would be such a big deal to his new cousin, but he should have considered the possibility, not selfishly ignored it. His mother has always raised him to be considerate of others’ quirks, because it isn’t like the Collins’ don’t have plenty of quirks of their own, so he knew better, but he’d gotten swept up like a child, playing with his new toy, and maybe the only surprising thing here is that it’s taken this long to majorly offend someone. But now he has. He truly fears he has.

Jared is still clutching the duffle bag painfully tightly, and there are circles under his eyes, so clearly he needed the sleep that Misha interrupted. He searches his mind for some way to make it better, and he can practically see his mother whirring along on the same problem. In fact, knowing his mother, she’s itching to reach out and hug Jared. His mother has always been a big believer in the power of physical contact. She has actually even written the book to prove it. (To this day, Misha has never read Chapter 8: Erogenous Zones from Your Ears to Your Toes, and he never, ever will. But she made him read the rest of it, and he’s a believer. There is something about simple contact that people seem to thrive on.) He silently urges for her to reach for Jared, maybe start unwinding some of the tension that is almost painful to watch.

“Jared,” his mother says gently. “It’s not fine, if it made you feel uncomfortable.”

She reaches out and covers one of his hands with hers, on the duffle bag. Jared lets it rest there for about one second, before he yanks his hand out from under hers and tucks it into his armpit. He tucks the other one in the other armpit for good measure, and he ducks his head back down, shutting them out completely.

Mom bites her lip.

Jensen steps up beside him, lays a hand on his shoulder, and murmurs in his ear, “Maybe we should go out to the kitchen. Give them a minute.”

Yes. That sounds like a wonderful idea.

“Jensen and I are going to go get a snack,” he announces. “We’ll see you later, okay?”

Later, and he wishes it could be never. He can’t believe how badly he already messed this up, in his wildest dreams he never imagined that his fears about having an unknown cousin come to stay for awhile could turn out to be so justified... and he really can’t wait until the inevitable first time he and his cousin are alone together. The awkwardness will no doubt be powerful enough to be viewed from space. God. Is it too late to go live with Dad for a few months?

He begins making for the door, Jensen leading the charge, as rapidly as possible without literally fleeing.

“Wait,” Jared says quickly. Misha whips around fast enough to almost stumble. Oh God, the awkwardness is not over yet. “I- I want to come too. I mean. If that’s alright? I’m hungry.”

“Uh, yes. Of course,” Misha manages to toss out, passably casually.

“Yeah! The more the merrier!” Jensen, of course, is able to sound completely un-phased and extraordinarily welcoming. “I’m Jensen, by the way, Misha’s friend. We’ll be seeing a lot of each other, probably, cause I’m his ride to school, and I was assuming I’d be driving you too. He said you’d be joining us at good ole Dover High once you got settled in.”

Jared finally lets go of the duffle bag to stand, and as he unfolds and rises, Misha sees that he’s tall. Like, seriously tall. Mom has risen too, and Jared’s got at least half a foot on her, which means he’s at least Jensen’s height.

“Uh. Yeah. I guess,” Jared answers without enthusiasm.

“That’s right!” Mom chirps, clearly going overboard with the enthusiasm to make up for Jared’s lack thereof. “And it’s not that big a school, so with any luck you’ll probably share some classes with Misha and Jensen.”

“Cool,” Jared mumbles.

“Shall we,” Jensen jumps in, gesturing grandly towards the hallway, and Misha’s grateful to get moving again, even more grateful when Jensen keeps the conversation going before yet another awkward moment can descend. “So let’s see, I know you’re sixteen, like us. So you’re also a junior?”

“Yeah.”

Jared’s quiet enough that Misha, leading the way to the kitchen, can barely hear him. He turns to look back, and finds that Jared is stealing quick glances at the pictures on the walls as he passes them. They’re a mix of his mother’s weird found-object collages and pictures of himself and his brothers growing up. He wonders what Jared thinks of them, but his cousin’s face continues to be perfectly unreadable.

“Cool,” Jensen rolls on. “Well, in our school, Juniors take American History for Social Studies, and for Math we mostly take Geometry, though if you’re advanced you can move up to Trig, and Science this year is Chem, though again, if you’re advanced you can move up to Physics. Oh yeah, and we have a language requirement. Mish and I are taking German, because the German teachers in our school are the bomb. I’d highly recommend it, if you’re looking for a language to take. And I’m sure they’ll work something out for you if you’ve already taken any of this stuff, and, actually, if you’ve already taken three consecutive years of a language somehow, that’s all you need to fulfill that requirement.”

“Um. Okay,” Jared mumbles. “Thanks.”

“No problem. So, how different was your old school?”

“Uh, not, not too different, I guess.”

“You have a language requirement?”

“No.”

“So you should totally join us for German. I mean, you won’t be in the same class as us, but, like I said, the whole department’s cool.”

“Frau Riteman teaches first year German, and she’s awesome,” Misha jumps in.

“She really is,” Mom says. “I remember you boys liking her class quite a bit.”

“Yeah. I wish she taught third year too. But Herr Banks is good too,” Jensen adds.

“So much better than Senora Duvall.” Misha says, wandering into the kitchen and taking a seat at the table. “Well, from what our friends say.”

Jensen plops down on his right side, and Jared only hovers in the doorway for a second before taking the chair to Jensen’s right, which puts him directly across the small, round table from Misha. Staring at his cousin, much like taking pictures of him, should, Misha reminds himself, be strictly Off Limits. Except that Misha is aware that he has a bad habit of staring at things he finds beautiful, so he is in huge trouble already.

“Senora Duvall,” Mom says, popping open the fridge. “Is she the one who won’t let anyone turn in a paper late?”

“Yeah, that’s what Katie says,” Jensen answers.

“Ridiculous,” Mom shakes her head as she starts producing package after package of deli meats and cheeses from the meat drawer.

“I heard Mike Magorian tried to turn in some essay to her one day late because of his car crash, and she wouldn’t take it,” Jensen says. “I mean, granted, it wasn’t a very serious accident, but he still had to hang around in the ER for, like, three hours, waiting to get his neck scanned, or whatever. But I guess she thought he was just making that up, or something. Or maybe trips to the emergency room are still just no excuse for not getting your homework done.”

“Well God,” Mom turns to Jensen with her hand on her hip. “I hope his parents called the school. Did he tell his parents she wouldn’t take it?”

“I dunno...”

“I think he told his homeroom teacher, and she talked to Senora Duvall about it,” Misha jumps in.

“Well good,” Mom says.

She turns back to making sandwiches, and Misha glances across the table to find Jared staring at him. Jared’s eyes drop instantly to the table top when Misha catches him looking, though.

Misha scans his mind desperately for some conversational gambit to offer, but for once, he can’t think of anything to say. Not even a bizarre non sequiter, or something borderline insane.

“Jared, what do you like on your sandwiches?” Mom asks, and Jared’s eyes skip back up to her like a nervous cat’s.

“Uh, anything’s fine. Thank you.”

“But what do you like?” Mom laughs. It almost sounds genuinely relaxed. Almost.

“Everything.”

“Oh,” Mom laughs awkwardly again. “Well, that should make things easy. Do you have any allergies, or any non-sandwich-foods you’re not a fan of? Anything? Anything at all?”

“No.”

“Well. Okay then.”

Misha would like to take his Mom by the shoulders, give her a little shake, and tell her to relax. It’ll have to get better with time, right? Maybe Jared’s uncomfortable with them right now, but Misha and his Mom and Jensen are all very nice people, and once Jared gets to know them a little better, surely he won’t be able to keep this defensive wall up quite so high. And sooner or later, he’ll have to forgive Misha for the camera thing.

********************************************************************

As it turns out, Jared is astoundingly good at keeping his defensive wall high. Misha has never met a person so difficult to read, impossible to reach, and utterly indifferent to kindness. At the end of the first month of Jared staying with them, Misha looks back at the time and is about 95% certain that in 31 days, he has never seen Jared crack a smile. He certainly can’t recall it ever happening, and since he can’t even picture exactly what a smile from Jared would look like (and not from lack of trying, either) he’s pretty sure he hasn’t just forgotten an incidence.

And it’s not that Jared appears to be zoned out, like, too disconnected to notice people joking and having fun around him. It’s the opposite of that, which somehow only makes it worse. Jared watches everyone, quietly and intently. He watches everyone who enters and leaves a room he’s in, he watches everyone who gets pissed and argues, shrieks in mock-fear, or laughs too loud. He takes notes in class without ever seeming to look down at his notebook for more than a second or two, he can quote teachers back to themselves with eerie accuracy when they call on him, and he’s always the one to remind Misha when Mom said they should try to be home on time for some reason or other. And he’s considerate in small, detailed ways that are impossible to classify, because he’ll set the table ten minutes before dinner’s ready without needing to be asked, and he’ll sidle up to Mom with her reading glasses about a minute after she’s seated herself in front of the computer and started squinting at the screen, but he won’t smile back at her when she says thank you, or do more to acknowledge that she’s spoken to him at all than a brief shrug.

He does things for Misha, too. Like, Misha often loses his pen or pencil, but Jared always has an extra, and he’s got the ninja like ability to have it out and stretched across the aisle about five seconds after Misha’s realized his is missing. Twice, when Misha’s been in enough of a hurry leaving class to forget the book or folder he’d stowed under his chair, he’s had Jared pop up at his side, muttering “You forgot this” and taking off again before Misha’s gotten farther than “Oh, hey!” But it’s surprisingly hard to be grateful for these favors, when Jared is either blank-faced or actually frowning while he performs them, and won’t meet Misha’s eyes for longer than a few skittish seconds. At school, he treats Misha, Jensen, and everyone else who tries to befriend him as though they have leprosy. Their school has excellent teachers, but Misha can tell Jared’s getting to them, too. He never raises his hand in class, he never smiles back when they smile at him, and when they call on him he generally answers correctly, but with a sullen cast to his face, like he thinks they’re assholes for not just leaving him be.

And this is the lovely person with whom Misha has to share rides to and from school, n
numerous classes, and, oh yeah, his bedroom. The only reason it isn’t driving Misha completely insane is because someone has to keep a level head about it, and it’s not going to be Mom.

Because Jared is certainly driving Mom crazy. He shrugs in answer to almost all questions, even questions that he could probably get away with one word answers to: “How was school?” “What would you like for lunch tomorrow?” “Do you have a favorite TV show that you don’t like to miss?” And no matter what Misha’s mom tries in her efforts to connect with him, he rebuffs it. In the interests of being fair (and possibly bribery) she buys Jared the same band t-shirt as Misha a few days after he gets there. Misha thanks her and gives her a hug. Jared carefully refolds his and gives it back to her with a quiet “No, thank you.” Every time she tries to reach out and touch him, literally or figuratively, he slips away like an eel. He spends pretty much every waking minute that he’s not required to be at school in their room with the door shut. Every week since Jared arrived, Misha has come across his mother on the verge of tears, trying valiantly to hide how upset she is, and he knows it’s because of Jared.

The thing is, Misha knows his mother isn’t perfect. She’s impulsive, disorganized, unbearably nosy, and Misha understands if Jared doesn’t always want to accept her hugs or interest or gifts. That’s his right. God knows Misha has been driven to escape to Jensen’s house more times than he can count. But Misha’s mother is also one of the kindest, most generous people he’s ever met, the first to admit her flaws, the first to offer comfort, cookies, or the shirt off her back, if that’s what people need. She forgives other people’s mistakes, she gets outraged for them when an injustice has occurred, and she will turn herself inside out to comfort them when they’re down. And seemingly, all she’s gotten in return is a husband who cheated on her multiple times with people she knew, two sons who’d rather be traitors and have a swimming pool than live with her, a third who can be a manipulative asshole (Misha knows he shouldn’t take advantage of her. He knows, but he’s only human. You try not taking advantage of a Mom who’ll pretty much give you any damn thing you want because you’re the only son who chose her), and now a foster kid who’d apparently rather let his facial muscles atrophy than give her so much as a smile for taking him in when his own mother apparently wanted nothing more to do with him.

If there’s any silver lining to the whole Jared situation, Misha guesses it’s that he hasn’t experienced such acute awareness of his mom’s many virtues since before he entered his rebellious teenager phase. But his newfound awareness of his mom’s basic awesomeness makes it extremely painful to watch Jared stomp all over his mother’s heart again and again. He knows he should feel bad for Jared, but it’s kind of starting to piss him off. This is his Mom after all. Plus, it’s really difficult to emphasize enough how much it doesn’t help that Jared has made it clear over and over again how very little he values Misha’s company. Even if Jared has a valid reason to have grudges against mothers, or something, how can he justify shutting down every honest offer of friendship from people his own age?

Misha and Jensen spent at least the first week or two trying to convince Jared to hang out with them. They both talked up Drama Club, Misha tried to sell him on Model U.N, and Jensen tried to go behind Misha’s back to convince Jared that basketball was more fun than playacting politics. Every effort was shot down by the emotional black hole that is Jared Padalecki. Their efforts to convince him to come hang out at Jensen’s house after school, go out for coffee with Katie, Genevieve, and them, or play some frisbee on the weekends in the town park were all equally in vain, and increasingly frustrating. At first, Misha thought maybe Jared was just one of those shy kids that comes off as snobby due to poor social skills. Then he thought maybe Jared was actually snobby, but that once he learned to relax and unthaw, he’d discover it was fun to hang out with geeks and drama kids (and Jensen, who is both those things, but also a popular jock, and a friendly, ridiculously universally-liked guy.) Now, he thinks that whatever Jared’s problem is, it has something to do with the fact that he’s deep down to his core some kind of people-hater who just wishes everyone would go die. So if Jared wants to be left alone, it’s a kindness to do so, for everybody involved. If only Mom would get the memo.

**********

It’s a Wednesday like any other. Lunch is sadly over, and Misha’s standing outside Trig, waiting for Jensen, Gen, and Katie to abandon him for greener pastures. Trig is possibly his least favorite class. The teacher is uninspiring, the subject matter is not particularly relevant to Misha’s interests, and he has no real friends in this class. Due to some unfortunate quirk of the schedule, Jensen, Gen, and Katie all have Trig with cheery Miss Albertson right before lunch; Misha is stuck alone and friendless with the droning Mr. Dunlop in the dozy, eternal post-lunch period. Oh, yeah, and Jared’s in this class. So Misha has the comfort of knowing that he’ll be joined by a sullen, energy-sucking teen-shaped lump of dark matter, just to make it extra unlikely that anything that happens in class today will be any fun.

The bell’s gonna ring in about five minutes, which probably means his friends will have to abandon him in about two minutes, but they’re awesome, and are hanging around the math wing to help him stave off the hellish boredom for as long as they possibly can, through the miraculous power of gossip.

“The test isn’t til next week, and I swear to God, Rob Benedict is already on the verge of a nervous breakdown about it. Did you hear him in class today?” Katie is grinning evilly. Jensen grimaces and nods. Katie, who is a merciless mimic, slips into a neurotic whine. “But Miss Simonds, will a problem like- like- like this be on the test? But will it be exactly like this? It will? Oh God. Oh my God. What about um, numbers 12-14 on the homework last night? Them too? Oh sweet Jesus.”

Misha can’t help but laugh.

Genevieve smacks Katie’s arm. “Stop that,” she’s laughing too, as she cranes her head around, scanning the hallway for the poor guy. “You’re being mean... He’s not in this class, is he Misha?”

“Oh shit,” Katie giggles helplessly. “Can you imagine if he heard me? Seriously, Misha, he really isn’t in this class, right?”

“No, he’s not. Because nobody’s in this class. This class is the class of the damned, and I am doomed to suffer its torments alone.”

“Oh come on, you drama queen, it cannot be that bad,” Katie challenges.

“Yeah, quit your whining,” Jensen chimes in. “You’re just trying to make us feel bad for you so we’ll buy you ice cream after school.”

“That would be the endgame, yes,” Misha admits. “But I deserve ice cream for suffering through this class.” He lowers his voice and gives the area a quick scan, but the hall is clear. “The closest thing I have to a friend this period? Jared.”

“Ooo,” Katie winces.

Genevieve gives him a sympathetic pat on the arm.

“How is ole Eeyore, anyway?” Katie laughs, loud.

“Seriously,” Gen punches her in the arm, harder than before. “Cut that out, Jared is in this class.”

Katie covers her mouth with her hand, still laughing, in a classic display of half-assed repentance that comes so very naturally to her. Everybody glances around, but there’s still no sign of Jared in the hall.

Misha needs to vent to his friends occasionally, and they’ve all heard more than their fair share of his complaints about his cousin, the misanthrope. It’s a healthy way to de-stress from suddenly sharing his home, his room, and his Mom with someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate human company. That doesn’t mean he needs his cousin to hear them talking about him like he’s a joke. Jared can be a cold, unfriendly downer if that’s what makes him happy, but Misha isn’t going to sink to the level of mocking him for that. Or at least, not where Jared could possibly hear him, anyway.

“Yes, if you’d like to make my home life a little more hostile than it already is, by all means, say that a little louder, Katie,” Misha grumbles.

“More hostile?” Katie snorts. “To hear you tell it, more hostile wouldn’t be possible without blood being drawn.”

“Exactly,” Misha says grimly.

“Ohhh,” Gen laughs, mock-horror widening her pretty eyes, “I hope you count the knives in the drawer before you go to sleep at night.”

“Hey, you cut that out too,” Jensen tells her, good-natured but serious beneath that.

“Oh man,” Katie crows, ignoring him. “A little more Patrick Bateman than Eeyore? I hope you’ve learned how to sleep with one eye open.”

“Oh wow! Look at the time,” Jensen says loudly. He wraps an arm around Katie’s shoulders and starts physically propelling her away, as she struggles against him half-heartedly.

Thank you, Misha mouths at him, and Jensen shrugs it off with a grin. Gen catches the exaggerated expression of gratitude and looks apologetic.

“See you later?” she asks. “We should do ice cream after school. We haven’t gone to Cabot’s in, like, a month.”

“Agreed,” Misha smiles.

“You could try asking Jared along, too. You know, just in case he’s had, like, a little change of heart.”

“Yeah,” Misha laughs, “I’m sure he’s had a complete personality change since this morning.”

He says goodbye to Genevieve, turns, opens the door to the classroom, and has one of those moments where his stomach instantly drops to his shoes. Jared is already seated in the classroom, about two rows of chairs from the door, watching him walk in, and it is entirely possible that he just heard that entire thing. Oh shit. Oh shit. He can practically feel his eyes bugging out of his head in panic, and for an instant his feet are glued to the floor.

Jared’s eyes drop back down to his notebook. Misha can’t detect any particular increase in hostility, but it’s not like Jared is such an open book, ever. Misha looks around the room for some kind of hint or something, he doesn’t know. Alona Tal is the only one who meets his eyes. She’s a pretty girl that he doesn’t know well, since she just transferred in last year, and they haven’t shared a lot of classes or anything. In fact, he has no idea who her friends are, or if she even has friends. He’s not sure he’s ever exchanged a single word with her. She’s also seated two back from the doorway, and he has little doubt that she, at least, could’ve overheard the entire conversation if she’d felt like eavesdropping.

She raises an eyebrow at him, but that could be because he’s staring at her right now, and he quickly shifts his gaze away. Back to Jared, who is now writing something with great concentration.

“Uh, hey,” he says belatedly, sliding into the seat next to Jared’s. “How’s it going?”

Jared glances up at him. His eyes are dark and penetrating, and give away absolutely nothing that could help. “Fine,” Jared says shortly, and goes back to writing whatever it is he’s writing.

Try as he might, Misha can’t find any indication at all that Jared heard anything, and he spends most of class trying. The part of class he doesn’t spend shooting Jared nervous glances, he spends trying to recall just exactly what was said, in particular, what he himself said, and how badly Jared was liable to take it. Jared certainly doesn’t act like the kind of wilting flower who takes any little thing anyone else says to him to heart, in fact, he seems to give off the strongest “Just don’t give a fuck” vibes of anyone Misha’s ever met. Maybe he heard everything, and Misha’s freaking out about nothing because Jared doesn’t give a fuck what Misha and his friends think of him. And it’s not like they said anything Jared couldn’t have kind of guessed they would feel anyway, right? He has to know that his presence is a little inconvenient, his demeanor a bit more hostile than is comfortable, and his general air a wee bit tragic. Still, suspecting that Misha and his friends may have a certain opinion of him, and having it rubbed in his face, are two different things.

But probably Jared didn’t even hear him. He glances back at Alona, but she’s actually paying attention to the teacher. Maybe he should corner her after class, ask her if she thinks Jared heard anything. But that sounds like kind of an awkward confrontation, and maybe he should just let sleeping dogs lie. How much does it matter that Jared might have heard him, if it doesn’t in any way change the way Jared acts?

At the end of class, Jared maybe packs up slightly faster than usual, but that doesn’t mean much. He might just need to stop by his locker before his next class or something, who knows? Unfortunately, Alona Tal packs up quite fast too, so even if Misha had definitely wanted to talk to her, he would’ve found it quite difficult to catch her. She’s out the door about five seconds after Jared. By the time Misha’s gotten his notebooks all jammed into place and his zipper done up at least enough that nothing vital will escape, they’ve both vanished into the squawking flood of underage humanity crowding the halls, and he’s only got three minutes left to get up one flight of stairs and across the entire building.

**********

They have a habitual after-school meeting spot to the left of the main entrance doors (outside on a nice day, inside if it’s rainy, snowy, or too cold, like today.) Misha and Genevieve head there after they’ve changed into regular clothes and escaped their respective locker rooms. Misha hasn’t mentioned to his friends that Jared may have overheard them, though he can tell that Genevieve knows he’s worrying about something. Usually, he tries his best in Gym, because Gen has a surprisingly large competitive streak for such a sweet person, and she always tries to get them on the same team. So maybe the fact that he got smacked in the forehead with a whiffleball ten minutes into class because he wasn’t paying attention tipped her off. She doesn’t outright ask him if something’s wrong, but she does link her arm with his as they break out into the main hallway, and she doesn’t release it again until they join Jensen and Katie.

“-stuck on this raft, right?” Jensen’s saying. “In nothing but their underwear, and-”

“You are such a perv,” Katie exclaims.

“Hey, now. There’s nothing pervy about it. Scantily clad youths are a staple of the whole horror genre. It just means you have respect for the classic elements of the form. Anyway, it symbolizes how they’re totally vulnerable and defenseless against the encroaching threat-”

“Suuure, Ackles-”

“What are we talking about?” Gen cuts in, releasing Misha’s arm to wrap her arms around Katie and rest her chin on her best friend’s shoulder.

“Some soft core porn story that Ackles just finished,” Katie answers.

“It’s not porn!” Jensen turns to Misha. “Why do I even bother?” he asks.

“Honestly? I don’t know.”

Jensen opens his mouth to say something else, and then his eyes slip over Misha’s shoulder to rest on something that makes him stop.

Misha turns to find that Jared has come up behind him and is standing there silently, hands on the straps of his backpack.

“Hey,” Misha offers, smiling as naturally as possible when his heart is suddenly beating double-time.

“Hey,” Jared returns neutrally.

“Hi Jared!” Genevieve says, flashing a friendly smile. Katie and Jensen join in with hellos and smiles of their own on cue.

Jared gives them all a stiff nod.

“So listen,” Gen continues. “We were thinking about going for ice cream, you want in? Cabot’s is the best ice cream in the state, so if you haven’t been there yet, you’re totally missing out.”

“It’s awesome!” Katie says. “Man, have you really not been yet? You need to come. It’s like a religious experience, seriously. It will change your life, to an extent you could not possibly imagine beforehand.”

“Yeah. C’mon, man,” Jensen says. “She’s not even exaggerating. Much.”

“We’d really like it if you’d come,” Misha agrees quickly. “Please?”

Jared looks him in the eye for a long moment. A quite long moment. Misha feels dread warring painfully fiercely with hope. Either Jared is about to explode on them (on Misha in particular), or he’s actually about to agree to hang out for the first time ever. Well, or he’s about to do something else huge and completely unpredictable. Whatever is happening, it’s important. Jared sucks his lower lip into his mouth and bites down, and it’s the most emotion Misha has seen him display in weeks. Then he releases the lip (which is now red and glistening and stirring something extremely inappropriate in Misha’s belly), clenches his jaw, and says softly, to Misha alone, “I don’t know why you guys are bothering, but it would be easier for everyone if you would just stop.”

“Is it... you heard us talking about you, outside of math earlier?” Misha asks miserably, and without much hope.

“Yeah,” Jared grits. “But that’s... whatever. That’s not actually what I’m talking about.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“I’m not even talking about your friends. You and your mom is what I’m talking about. Why am I here? We’re not even cousin cousins. We’re just... distant relations with absolutely nothing in common, who hadn’t even heard of each other until my mom... left. And I know you and your mom are not exactly rolling in the dough, but there are easier ways to make money, and you’re not exactly starving either. Are there some huge debts I don’t know about? Some giant crazy tax break that makes this worthwhile? What is it?” to Misha’s shock and horror, Jared’s eyes are beginning to water, his lips trembling slightly. “I just wish you would tell me, because maybe I’m supposed to have worked it out on my own by now, but I haven’t. I can’t. A dummy like me needs a little more of a clue, I guess.” Jared pauses and wipes angrily at his eyes. A very small part of Misha registers that Jared is still beautiful, even with a splotchy face and wet, clumpy lashes. Most of him is working frantically to come up with the right thing to say in the face of this insanity.

“Jared-” he begins, shakily. “First off, you are not stupid. And secondly, there isn’t anything like that. There isn’t a reason, okay? I mean, there is a reason, but it’s just that my mom is the kind of person who can’t let some kid, no matter how distant the relation is, get stuck in some group home or something if she can possibly help it. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

Jared is staring at him again, searching his face. He’s breathing hard, and his jaw looks painfully tight. He blinks, and a tear trickles down his cheek. He rubs it off with a swift, impatient motion, and Misha wonders how perverse he is, that there is still that small part of his brain, apparently existing outside of all codes of human decency, that thrills at how amazing every single movement Jared makes is. Then Jared’s talking again, quiet and firm.

“I don’t believe you,” he says simply. He turns on his heel and walks out.

**********

Misha isn’t sure whether Jared needs space, or something, but it’s maybe ten seconds before he realizes that Jared has no way of getting home without Jensen, and thus he definitely needs to go after him. By the time he’s out the door, Jared’s down the front steps and making his way across the football field at a brisk jog. He doesn’t so much as look back when Misha calls his name, just picks up his pace until his flat out running. His long legs eat up the field, and Misha knows he’ll never catch him. So he just watches Jared get smaller and smaller and then disappear into the woods on the far side. A frigid breeze, herald of the coming winter, is gusting the dead leaves around the grass. Misha’s eyes water with cold, and by the time he makes his way back indoors, he’s shivering.

His friends are waiting for him in a subdued huddle. They look about as shocked and upset as he feels.

“He took off,” Misha shrugs. “Across the football field.” He gestures vaguely.

“Shit,” says Jensen. “You all right, man?”

“Yeah. Sure. I’m fine.”

“Should we go look for him?” asks Katie. “We should, right? He’ll probably pop up in the diner, or at the library or something, and he’ll need a ride.”

“Yeah, it’s too cold to stay outside for long,” Gen says quietly.

They spend about an hour ricocheting from hang out to hang out. They try everywhere, literally everywhere they can possibly think of, multiple times, but there’s never any sign of Jared, and no one they ask remembers seeing him, and finally Misha has to call his mom and tell her Jared’s missing, which she takes about as poorly as he’d expected.

She tells him she’d like him to go home, and that she’ll leave work right away (half an hour early, and Misha hopes she doesn’t get in trouble for that) and meet him there as soon as she can, and they’ll work out what to do from there.

As it turns out, what she wants to do is leave Misha waiting at home while she checks all the same places he and his friends have already checked, and calls every ten minutes to see if Jared’s turned up yet, even though Misha has already promised to call her the very second Jared sets a toe inside the door.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, with his homework spread out in front of him, when the side door clicks quietly open. Jared slips in, giving the room his usual thorough once over, taking in Misha’s presence without meeting his eyes. A waft of cold air ruffles the pages of Misha’s schoolwork and sends a shiver running through him. Jared quickly shuts the door behind himself, then slumps against it. Misha sees that his cheeks and nose are bright red (and that the tips of his hair flip enticingly out from under his knit hat), and that he’s breathing hard.

“Hey, you’re back!” he says.

“Uh. Yeah,” Jared mumbles.

“We were worried. I figured without Jensen you didn’t have a ride home, but then you didn’t call to say where we could come pick you up. So, I, uh, I kind of had to call my mom. She’s out looking for you, right now.”

“Your mom’s out looking for me,” Jared repeats flatly.

“Yup. Where did you go, anyway? And how did you get home?”

“I walked,” Jared shrugs.

“Shit. Jared. You didn’t need to walk. We would’ve driven you home. We would’ve been ecstatic to. It’s freezing out there, and that’s like, five miles.”

“Yeah, I, uh. I didn’t realize how long it would take when I started,” Jared has his head down, obscuring his exact expression, but... Misha squints. For just an instant he could swear there’s the little tip of a smile at the corner of Jared’s mouth. “Stupid,” he says under his breath, but he still sounds curiously pleased.

Misha is somewhat flummoxed. “I should call my mom,” he says. Then takes a deep breath and begins “Look, Jared, I just wanted to say... I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what my friends and I said, for the jokes we made, and I’m sorry you had to hear them. They were rude, and you certainly didn’t deserve to have us-”

“Really,” Jared interrupts, pushing off the door, and Misha hadn’t even realized how relaxed Jared looked for a minute there until his shoulders are back up around his ears, and his jaw has set. “It’s alright. You don’t need to apologize. You weren’t being unfair, and you didn’t know I was there. So. Whatever. It’s fine. You should call your mom.”

Jared moves past him, disappears into their bedroom without looking at Misha again.

“It’s not fine,” Misha murmurs to empty air. He frowns. He has never been more frustrated in his life. After today, he should know more about Jared than he did before, given that Jared showed more emotion today than he has since Misha terrorized him with his camera the first afternoon, plus spoke some actual complete sentences about how he was feeling directly to Misha’s face. Instead, incredibly, Jared seems like more of a mystery than ever. Does he feel anything about the incident today, or does he really not care, as he claimed? Was he actually just smiling, or was that Misha’s imagination? And if he was smiling, why? Could it possibly have been because Misha and his mother had been worried about him, or was that just wishful thinking? And why did he shut down when Misha was just trying to apologize? And by the way, why the fuck does Jared think he and his mom need some greedy ulterior motive to take him in? Who the fuck taught the guy to carry that kind of distrust around with him?

 

**********

 

K.C. can still do stairs, though maybe not as steadily as she once could, so Jared leads her down them, grip tight on the rail so he can stop her fall if she trips. His stomach churns with impatience, but he grips her collar loosely, lets her take the time she needs, because K.C. knows they’re in a hurry and she’s going as fast as she can anymore. At the bottom of the stairs, he leans down to give her a kiss.

“Good girl,” he croons, and she licks his face, and then he looks up into the living room. And everything goes to shit. His mom was supposed to be out in the car, waiting while he did one last sweep. She sure isn’t, though.

“I’m sorry, Jay,” Mom whispers. She looks so, so sorry, too. Jared knows her, knows she really means it, so he tells himself that he is not allowed to be mad at her. But she’s standing there with her hand clasped in Roy’s, and her big shining eyes, and her duffle bag is sitting right there on the coffee table in front of them. It’s still zippered, so maybe Roy hasn’t looked inside yet to see all her clothes, neatly folded, packed away, ready for the grand escape that now clearly, is not going to happen today.

But it doesn’t matter whether he’s poked around inside or not, Jared realizes with a sick lurch. Jared knows his mother.

“Did you call him?” he asks, voice strangled, despite his attempts to even it out.

“Yes,” she answers, biting her lip.

“Why?”

“Because he loves us, Jared. And we need him.”

“No, we don’t.”

“And we love him, too.”

The No dies stillborn in his throat. So useless. Just a useless, weak word. Too late to protest, or turn things around. The plan is blown. What’s the point in even fighting it? He just wishes he could understand why things have to go this way. She usually gets tired of things so fast, he doesn’t understand why this thing with Roy is so different. Maybe it was stupid to think that he could end it when she wasn’t done playing out this particular dream yet, but she’s never wanted to stay in one place for longer than six months before. Now they’ve been here almost a year, and that is completely bizarre, because his mother still wants to stay for some reason, while Jared has never hated any year of his life so much.

Roy is grinning.

“I’d like to see your bag,” he says, holding out his hand. Smug fucking- Jared wants to spit in his face.

“If we’re not leaving, I’m going back upstairs to unpack,” he says carefully to his mother.

“No you’re not,” says Roy.

His mother doesn’t say anything.

Roy stalks over, grabs his duffle bag out of his hand, and slings it onto the coffee table next to his mother’s. Jared makes a move to go after it, and Roy sidesteps to block him.

“You will leave that where I put it,” says Roy. Jared thinks about going for it, for real. He and Roy are long overdue for a knock-down drag-out fight, and Jared knows he doesn’t have the muscle to win, but it seems like it would be worth it if he could just get in a good shot or two. And maybe his mom would finally see... his eyes flick to her, and her anguished face stops him in his tracks. Scowling, he takes a couple steps back.

“I’m going to go through every inch of that bag,” Roy says.

“Go right ahead,” Jared snaps. “What do you even think you’re going to find? It’s just a bunch of clothes.”

“Really?” Roy grins.

“Yeah. Really.” He stares Roy down, and it’s at least a little satisfying, because he’s actually telling the truth. He hopes the asshole does waste all their time going through Jared’s bag. Then at least Jared won’t be the only idiot to make a fool of himself today.

Roy goes over and unzips the bag, starts taking its contents out piece by piece and inspecting them. He shakes out every shirt, unrolls every ball of socks, flips through the pages of the notebook Jared packed. When he’s done with each item, he drops it on the floor. Jared watches his muscles work, shoulders bunching and flexing visibly through the blue cotton collared shirt he’s wearing. The back of his neck is an angry red. His neatly-trimmed hair bristles out at the nape like a nailbrush. He is the ugliest person Jared has ever seen, which is funny, because the first time he met him, he could see right away what his mother liked about him. Strong, successful, well-groomed. Even attractive, in a high school football coach kind of way, not really Jared’s type, but objectively, not bad. Now, everything about Roy makes him want to puke.

Not wanting to look at Roy anymore, or his mom, standing quietly by with weepy eyes, he focuses on K.C. She’s sitting by his side, and she gratefully accepts his gentle strokes. He massages around her ears, whispering what a good girl she is under his breath. She looks up at him with big liquid eyes, tongue lolling out of her mouth. When Roy’s done with his little shitfit, Jared can cry his disappointment out into K.C.’s soft fur upstairs in his bedroom, so at least his life isn’t total hell.

She's always there for that.

Except, when he gets home from school the next day, K.C. is gone.

Mom tells him the whole story with her typical mixture of heart-deep sorrow and complete lack of awareness. She tells him how Roy got worried about how much trouble K.C. was having on the stairs, and took her to the vet, and the vet told him that K.C.'s arthritis had gotten too bad, that it would be cruel to make her suffer, that it was best to send her out peacefully. With a straight face, Mom tells him that it was really hard on Roy to have to make that decision, and that Jared should thank him when he gets home from work. Thank him.

All he feels, at first, is numb. Then the sorrow hits him, and he spends some time thinking about how K.C. must have felt, alone and scared, and wondering why he wasn't there with her in a strange place like that.

Later, curled on his side in bed with his tears drying on his cheeks, Jared picks up the phone and calls the cops, and he couldn't have said who he's trying to punish the most, as he reports that he's afraid of his mother's boyfriend, that his situation is unsafe, that he wants to be removed from the home right away.

He guesses he's trying to punish everyone: Mom, Roy, and himself. They all deserve it equally.

 

**********

“I’m gonna walk home,” Jared says, and continues on down the hallway while Misha and Jensen are still gaping.

He slips around clusters of other students, who are stalled out to chat, or just moving too slowly, like a man on a mission, and. Misha has to jog to catch up with him. He reaches him just as Jared gets a hand on the push-bar of the main entrance door. “Wait! Jared! What? It took you two hours yesterday!”

“Yeah,” Jared turns and shrugs. As he pushes his way out the door, he calls back over his shoulder, “It was fun, though.”

A cold gust of wind blasts Misha in the face, stealing his voice for a second, and then Jared is gone.

**********

“So, like, do you know anything else about his mom?” Katie asks, gnawing on a pink marker.

“Uuh, nope.” Misha says, and notices Jensen and Genevieve are looking over from the computer, suddenly less interested in typing up the captions for their group poster, and more interested in gossiping about Jared.

“Your mom doesn’t know anything about her? It’s her side of the family, right?”

“She doesn’t talk about her family much. I know there’s a history of alcoholism though. My dad brought it up one time, in an argument over whether she drank too much. She’d had like, two glasses of wine, because she was stressed out about hosting Thanksgiving.”

“Douche,” Katie says with wonder.

“Total douche,” Jensen agrees. “No offense, Misha.”

“None taken.”

“You should ask him,” Katie says. “Jared, I mean. What his mom’s like. Or, I don’t know, how our town compares to where he used to live, or how classes are going, or something.”

“Yeah, because he’s really starting to open up to me now,” Misha grumbles. “He’s walked home every day for the past week rather than spend an extra five minutes in the car with me. Now’s the perfect time for a heart to heart.”

“Well, this is exactly our point!”

“Our?”

“I told you to leave me out of this, Katie,” Genevieve groans.

“Et tu, Brute?” Jensen laughs. She punches him in the arm.

“Annnyway,” Katie rolls her eyes. “I’ll be happy to take sole credit when this turns out totally awesome, because it will. The point is, right now, you and Jared are at a low point in your pathetic excuse for a relationship. You insulted him behind his back-”

“You insulted him behind his back,” Misha points out quickly.

“Yes, but you did it first,” she says blithely. “And I’m pre-tty sure he could tell he could tell that based on how it all played out. I’d say the fact that he fakes sleep every night so he doesn’t even have to say goodnight to you is all the proof I need to rest my case.”

Misha concedes the point.

“So, at this point, what more harm could you possibly do? Once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up! The worst that could happen is that he shuts you down again, and then you whine to us some more.”

“And then we buy you ice cream,” Jensen cuts in.

“There you go, no downside,” Katie agrees. “My plans are all awesome. And this is my plan, ergo, it is awesome.”

Misha supposes he can’t fault that logic.

**********

Jensen drops him home around 5:30, and Misha spends the walk down the driveway practicing how the talk with Jared could go. He cannot imagine any scenario where Jared doesn’t stop talking and walk away within about a minute, so that’s depressing, but Katie’s right, it’s not like there’s a lot worse things could be.

His mother is puttering around the kitchen when he walks in, but she stops as soon as she sees him and asks him to have a seat for a minute, because she has something to tell him.

Uh oh, he thinks. She doesn’t look distraught, at least, but she does look a little nervous.

“Oh, how was school today?” she asks.

“Fine...”

“And your project’s coming along okay?”

“Uh. Yeah...”

“It’s so nice you got to work with your friends on this one.”

“Yeah. It’s great. So what’s up, Mom?”

“Well, um...” she squints at him a little. Tucks her hair behind her ear, looks down at the table, takes a deep breath, and then looks back up at him with nervous eyes. “I had an idea, and I wanted to talk to you about it before Jared got home. So. I was thinking about Thanksgiving this year... I wanted it to be a really special one for Jared. He hasn’t said anything but- well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was somehow lacking in good holiday memories, right?”

Misha nods, searching his brain for some indication as to where Mom is going with this, because making a holiday ‘special’ would not seem to require this level of nervousness.

“And of course last year we had Thanksgiving, just the two of us, and it was nice, but it wasn’t... the most special.”

Misha nods. They’d wound up watching a lot of TV.

“So, I talked with your dad, and he agreed that it would be a great idea for us all to spend Thanksgiving at his house. With him, and your brothers, this year.”

Misha is frozen, as the shock of the awfulness washes over him. He can see it all now: his douchebag father, and his douchebag brothers, and his mother, the traitor, trying to make small talk and act like a big happy family while his functionally mute cousin glares at his turkey and Misha tries not to say a single thing that he’s actually thinking.

He begins shaking his head, and finally, after a few seconds of that, finds his voice enough to say “No.” as simply and clearly as he can.

“Misha-”

He gets up abruptly from the table, chair scraping across the floor with a hideous noise that pretty well matches the sounds in his brain right now.

“I? Am not going to Dad’s for Thanksgiving,” he bites out, and hustles from the room before he says something he regrets. He swings open the door to his room, steps calmly inside, and hears “I think he already bought our tickets, Misha!” from the kitchen.

He slams his door hard enough to rattle the pictures in the hallway. Then he swings his backpack off his shoulder and flings at the closet door. It hits with a solid whump. Then he claps his hands over his mouth and shouts “Fuck no!” into them with all his might. It’s not until then that he finally registers the shape in the corner of his eye. He freezes. With his peripheral vision he can see Jared quite clearly. Jared is sitting cross-legged on his bed, staring at him open-mouthed, with a book in his lap.

Misha drops his hands and turns to his cousin.

“I’m sorry about that,” he says, still breathing a little hard. “That was not for you. At all. I didn’t know you were home. Mom said...”

“I came in through the window,” admits Jared.

“Why?”

“Didn’t want to talk,” Jared says.

Misha rubs his hand over his face. The window thing is hardly important. The important thing is that his mother has some of the stupidest ideas of any person on earth ever, and she is going to ruin Misha’s Thanksgiving, which he has been looking forward to ever since classes started up.

“Did you hear any of that?” he asks Jared.

“Um, something about tickets?”

“My mom wants us to go to my dad’s house for Thanksgiving. You know- do you know? He lives in California with my brothers. And I guess she thinks it would be great for us to all play happy family for a few excruciating days.”

“You don’t want to go,” Jared says cautiously.

“Definitely not.” Misha runs a hand through his hair. How to explain it? “See, my dad is a great big asshole. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself, he thinks he can buy love if he wants to, and for him, it’s more important to give the appearance of perfection than to actually be comfortable with yourself. I hate him. I always have. And Mom,” he glances at the door. “Mom should hate him too. She really should. He cheated on her all the time. Everybody knew about it, he completely humiliated her, and then he left her for a younger woman. Plus, he never treated her with respect when they were married. He never liked her ideas about anything, and he blamed her for anything that went wrong, even if it wasn’t her fault at all. If I got in trouble at school, or one of my brothers did, it was her fault, for not laying down the law or something, I don’t know. And yet for some reason, she seems to think she needs to get along with him, all ‘let bygones be bygones.’ And now she wants to go spend Thanksgiving letting him walk all over her. I wish someone would explain why the hell she wants to put us through that, I really do.”

“Maybe she still loves him,” Jared offers, quietly.

“Maybe. But if she does, why? He’s such an asshole!”

Jared surprises him by snorting. That is by far the closest to laughter Misha has ever heard him. “If I could tell you that...” he shakes his head. Mumbles down at his lap. “Probably my life would be a lot different.”

“Yeah?” Misha prods. But Jared doesn’t look up at him. He’s not reading though, because he starts fiddling with the pages, flipping them back and forth between his hands. Misha sighs and grabs the hair on either side of his head. “Whyyyyyyy?” he moans to himself. Then he squeezes his eyes shut and breathes deeply for a count of six. He would’ve gone up to ten, but, surprisingly, Jared speaks again.

“So do you think you’ll end up going? To his house for Thanksgiving, I mean?” Jared asks.

“Not if I can help it.” Misha opens his eyes and glares vaguely at the duck curtains, which always seem a bit too cheerful when he’s in mental anguish.

“But if he already bought the tickets...”

“He can get a refund,” Misha says darkly. “Oh, and he’s definitely buying a ticket for you too.”

“What?” Jared’s head snaps up. Misha tears his eyes from the ducks to study the rare sight of his cousin displaying actual emotion.

“I’m sorry, Jared. You’re one of the family now. She totally plans for you to come too, so you can meet my asshole dad and my asshole brothers, and revel in the joy of family togetherness. She specifically told me that she wanted to make this holiday ‘special’ for you.”

“What if I tell her I don’t want to go?” Jared asks, wide-eyed. “She can’t make me go, can she?”

“I think she’s your official guardian right now, so maybe she could. But, on the other hand, it’s not like she can physically force us to get in the car and go to the airport with her. So you know what? You’re right. She can’t make us go.”

“She can’t,” Jared agrees weakly.

“And thank God for that,” Misha sighs.

“But, you know... you think... if we just tell her we don’t want to go... She’ll let us change plans, right?”

“She’ll have to. You don’t want to go, and I don’t want to go, and I honestly can’t believe that she really wants to go stay at her ex-husband’s obscenely large house, and probably meet yet another new girlfriend who could practically be her daughter, and listen to my brothers brag about the new Thanksgiving BMWs he gave them. She probably just thinks she should, because last year she and I kind of, maybe, didn’t put a lot of effort into Thanksgiving when it was just the two of us.”

Jared nods, but he still looks a little unsure.

“But we have to maintain a united front, okay?” Misha adds. “Don’t let her convince you it’s going to be awesome. I promise you, it will not, in any sense of the term. We will be happier, and she will be happier if we all just stay here and have our own Thanksgiving. Right?”

“I really don’t want to go to California for Thanksgiving,” Jared agrees.

“Thank God,” Misha sighs. Then he wanders over to pick up his backpack off the floor in front of the closet.

“So your brothers, they’re in college, right?” Misha almost freezes, he’s so taken off guard by Jared actually starting a conversation. He forces himself to keep moving before he ruins the miracle, casually scooping up his bag and bringing it to his bed to unload.

“Yup. Mike is 21, and Morgan is 20. They both go to UCLA.”

“And then, in the summer, they live with your dad?”

“They live with my dad during the school year too. Apparently, he’s got quite the pad, and they know a good thing when they have it.”

“Oh. So. You...”

Misha crawls onto his bed, flops down on his stomach, and flips open his Chem notes. Then he looks across to Jared, who seems to be struggling with whatever he’s trying to ask.

“Yeah?” he prompts.

“Did you... get to choose? Between your mom and your dad?”

“Yeah,” Misha says casually. “And you know? It was not a tough call.”

Jared nods and goes back to his book, actually reading again, instead of just playing with it.

“Can I ask you something?” Misha keeps his tone casual.

Jared looks up and holds his gaze steadily, so Misha guesses that’s a yes.

“If you could choose, right now, would you rather be back, living with your mom?” He tries to keep his tone neutral, totally inoffensive as he asks, but he’s suddenly quite curious. Jared looks back down at his book, hair falling forward to hide his face. He scratches at some crud along the edge of the page. Misha waits. But Jared doesn’t look back up, and he doesn’t answer the question. So, that was probably one step forward, one step back. Wonderful.

 

**********

The month before Thanksiving amps up slowly but steadily, until the week before is barely controlled chaos. Papers are due, tests are popping up day after day, and, in acting class, Misha has a monologue he’s scheduled to perform last period, right before the break. And it is a long monologue, and it was chosen for him by the teacher because she wanted him to stretch himself, and he is kinda freaking out about it.

At home, Mom is also flipping out. She has a work project in its final stages, plus, Jensen’s mom invited them to the Ackles Thanksgiving (which, awesomely, is what they’re going to do) but Mom got assigned to bring pie, and she’s never made a successful pie in her life before. This means a lot of practice pies, and an increasingly hysterical mother, as every single one of them turns out somehow flawed.

It’s almost a relief that things with Jared have returned to status quo. Misha’s not sure he’d be able to handle it if, in addition to talking his mother down from pie-related suicide, studying, essay writing, and monologue memorizing, he had to make conversation with his roommate too. And maybe he’s taking it a little less personally that Jared has no desire to talk with him. He’s thought a lot about their one and only conversation, pretty much analyzed it to death in fact, both in his own head, and with his friends. What he took away from it in the end are these facts: 1.) Jared does, in fact, have at least some small level of curiosity about him, even if he seems to have no problem keeping it locked down most of the time. 2.) Jared’s mother has probably, at least once, dated and/or been married to a gigantic asshole. 3.) Jared has no desire whatsoever to talk about his mother. It’s not like Misha can fault him for that.

Anyway, Misha owes Jared big time for being such a staunch ally on the Thanksgiving thing. He has the sneaking suspicion that if it had just been him objecting, he would be packing for California right now.

And Misha doesn’t want to acknowledge it, even to himself, for fear of jinxing anything, but it seems to him like Jared has maybe begun to relax in Misha’s presence just the tiniest bit, since that night. It’s not that he talks more, makes eye contact more, or ever ever smiles, but he just seems to hold himself some unquantifiably tiny bit less tense around Misha these days. And it’s mostly noticeable because around Mom, Jensen, or any other human on the planet, Jared still snaps taut as a bowstring.

 

**********

On the morning of the day before Thanksgiving, Misha wakes up feeling like he’s going to puke, due to the monologue he will be performing at the end of the day. This is probably just as well, since Mom is trying to feed them pumpkin pie about as arid as the Sahara, with a crust that looks like it’s made out of coal.

“Not hungry,” Jared mumbles, eyeing it.

“I’m going to vomit if I put anything in my mouth,” Misha announces.

Mom sighs.

“What about a bagel?” she asks resignedly.

“No thanks,” Jared mumbles.

“I will seriously throw up if I put anything in my mouth,” Misha reaffirms.

“What is wrong with you two?” Mom asks.

“Monologue,” Misha says.

“You’re going to kill it!” she assures him, reaching out to ruffle his hair.

“Or vice versa,” he mutters, but he does feel a little better.

Jared doesn’t say anything, but that’s par for the course, and Mom doesn’t push it, just pulls Jared’s pie over and takes a bite.

“Shit,” she sighs, after choking it down. “I’m not going to get it right. I’m not. Joyce Ackles is going to take one look at whatever pitiful, malformed excuse for a pie I bring and dump it right in the trash. And she’s going to make fun of me.”

“Jensen’s mom is not going to make fun of you, she’s pretty much the nicest person on earth.”

“To you, she is. You’re just a kid. Secretly, that woman makes fun of all the other moms because she is a robot, and she is unable to comprehend how all us puny humans fail so constantly at everything.”

“Mom, stop.”

“Urgh,” she groans. “I hate Thanksgiving.”

“Well, I hate monologues.”

“Seriously, Mish, you have nothing to worry about, you were born to be a star, and you’re going to blow them away today. I have complete faith in you.”

“Thanks, Mom. And I have complete faith that you can make at least one good pie.”

“Thanks, Mish,” she smiles at him, a little watery.

He glances at Jared, who is still dully staring at the spot on the table where his pie used to be. Misha has the impression that he could strip naked and start dancing the hula and Jared wouldn’t notice. He wonders if Jared has some killer test he’s stressing out over or something. Something is definitely up with him.

 

**********

He finds out what third period. That’s English, which he shares with Jared and Jensen. Mrs. Clintock is asking for examples of some damn thing, Misha doesn’t know what because he keeps spacing out, worrying about his monologue, and suddenly, without warning, Jared lurches to his feet and makes a beeline out of the classroom.

Misha is still watching him go with the rest of the class, which has fallen abruptly silent, when Mrs. Clintock breaks the spell to say “Misha, do you want to go after him?”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks.”

He’s out the door about two seconds later, just in time to catch sight of Jared bending at the waist and throwing up in the middle of the hallway.

 

**********

Jared wakes up, and for a minute, he’s not sure where he is. The room is dark, he’s nauseous, and his befuddled brain can only come up with one name to put to the figure standing over him: Roy. He gasps and flinches back.

“Jared?”

The tension runs out of him like water, leaving him limp but relieved. Not Roy, Misha, and of course he’s at Misha’s house, in Misha’s room. He’s been living here for months now.

“Jared, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he pants.

“Are you going to uh, puke again? Cause...” Misha holds up a trash can.

Jared takes a minute to assess the situation. “Yeah. Think so.”

“Okay,” Misha pushes the trash can forward quickly, and Jared manages to lever himself up enough to curl over it. For a moment or two, it’s kind of a toss-up over whether he’ll need it after all, and then his stomach lurches in some kind of horrible bid for freedom, and he’s retching up bile.

Oh yeah, he only has bile left, because he threw up in the middle of the hallway at school. Which is pretty hard to beat for embarrassing, although he did heap more embarrassment onto the pile when he then threw up in front of Misha and the school nurse, on the floor of the nurse’s office. And fuck, his stomach aches from so much puking.

The bile hurts, and the retching hurts, and his eyes tear up and then overflow onto his cheeks. And his head hurts, and he’s too tired to hold himself up, but if he lies down he’ll end up with bile all over, and he lets loose a sob because he’s a mess.

“Shhh,” says Misha. “You’re okay. It’s okay.” He starts rubbing Jared’s back with one hand. He’s still steadying the trashcan with the other. And he’s doing it just like Mom used to do, sometimes, when Jared was little and he was sick, and she was with it enough to comfort him. He closes his eyes and leans into the touch, just a little. He doesn’t mean to let it go on, but then he does. He’s too tired to move, and it feels so nice, and in a minute he’ll lie down, but for now, he’ll just be. Just for a minute. Then his stomach clenches again like a total asshole, and he has to lean forward and try to retch up a whole lot of painful nothing for way too long. As if the crying weren’t enough, his nose is running, and he must be totally disgusting.

He can’t believe how long Misha’s willing to stand there rubbing his back and murmuring to him while he pukes and sniffles. When he’s finally gone awhile without his stomach attempting an uprising, Misha eases him back onto his pillow and nestles the trashcan against his side.

“I’m just gonna go get a fresh bag for this, and a washcloth to wipe your face,” he says gently, leaning in close, closer than Jared would recommend, since no doubt his breath is fatal. “You need anything else?”

“No,” Jared mumbles, voice all clogged with tears. Pathetic. And, because it needs to be said, “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing, Jared,” Misha says quietly. “I’ll be right back.”

Jared dozes off, and only wakes up halfway when Misha comes back to wipe off his face, and put a new bag in the trashcan. He holds Jared’s head up enough for him to sip from a glass of water, too, but even then Jared can barely keep his eyes open for longer than it takes to make a bleary sweep of the room. Whatever this bug is, it’s hitting him hard. He’s rarely been more exhausted in his life.

Later, he wakes up and Ms. Collins is there. She wants to take his temperature, which he sees no reason to fight her over. While she’s waiting for the thermometer to reach a decision, she sits on the edge of his bed, and at one point, she reaches out to feel his forehead. He can suddenly see his mother, so clearly, reaching down to trace along his forehead, after Roy had hit him and he’d tripped and clipped his head on the coffee table. He steels himself so he doesn’t pull away, but Ms. Collins must notice him getting all tense, because she pauses with her hand in midair, then tucks it back into her lap.

“Oh Jared,” she says, and bites her lip. She sounds upset. He thinks she might be on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to push, I just forget. You know I’ve got three sons. That’s a lot of sick boys I’ve tended. I forget you’re not them, that you don’t want a hug from me, that what worked for them isn’t what you need.” Her chin quivers, and he gives a slow, tired blink before letting his eyes slip closed. He doesn’t want to see her cry. Not when he knows it’s his fault. She’ll be embarrassed, and he’ll just feel more guilty than he already does. He tries to slow his breathing, so she’ll think he’s falling back asleep, too out of it to notice her distress. He feels the thermometer being slipped gently from his mouth, but he keeps his eyes closed and his lips parted slackly. She remains sitting on the edge of the bed for another minute, and he wonders if she’s checking the thermometer, or maybe watching him, to see if he’s really sleeping, or maybe just taking a minute to gather herself before she goes anywhere. Finally she gets up, whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you need,” before she goes.

Funny, that he almost wants to call her back. He opens his eyes, stares at the ceiling. He can’t even figure out what he would say to her.

 

**********

He misses Thanksgiving. He’s not throwing up anymore, but he pretty much sleeps it away. Just as well they didn’t go with the traveling to California plan, because Misha and Ms. Collins won’t even leave to go eat Thanksgiving dinner with the Ackles family across town. All day, they bring him gatorade. Misha helps him to the bathroom, when he needs to go.

Sometimes when he wakes up, he listens to the sound of the TV drifting in from the living room (they’re leaving the door cracked so they can hear him call) and he pictures them huddled on the couch together, maybe sharing a blanket. Maybe the thought should make him jealous, but it doesn’t. He kind of likes it.

He thinks about his mom, and how he wishes she were there, but only if she would be like he remembers from the best times. He thinks about Roy, and how happy he is to have that asshole out of his life, and then he spares a moment to think about how happy he is that Misha and Ms. Collins have Misha’s dad out of their life, because if Misha says he’s an asshole, then he is. He thinks about how he was waiting every day for his mom to show up, when he first got here, and he would’ve gone with her in a heartbeat. Now, he can’t even think of her without comparing her to Ms. Collins, and he can’t even think of Roy, without wondering how similar he is to Misha’s dad. It’s like, with his brain moving so slow, he’s finally forced to pay attention to his thoughts, and to realize that despite himself, his life here is becoming his real life. And his life before he came here is becoming... well... the past.

Then he thinks about K.C. and he cries, quietly, so no one will come in and ask him what’s wrong. He huddles down in his bed and remembers how she used to lick his hand, how it felt to press his face against her fur, how warm and heavy the shape of her was, pressed against his thigh. He misses her so damn much. He would still leave all this in a heartbeat, if he could have K.C. back. He can’t, he knows he can’t, but he goes to sleep still thinking of her, and clutching his ugly fuschia comforter.

**********

When he wakes up Friday morning, he feels much better. Weak, but just the kind of weak you get when you haven’t had anything but water and sports drink for the past couple days. He glances over to the opposite bed, but the orange comforter is thrown back. Misha’s up already. Feeling like a real superman, he heroically hauls himself out of bed and works his way into some fresh sweatpants. He has to sit down and take a break before he can put on a fresh t-shirt and sweatshirt.

He steadies himself against the wall in the hall, taking a minute to examine a picture of Misha and his brothers. Mike and Morgan and Misha, three little kids with big white smiles. Misha is by far the cutest, and Jared takes a minute to trace the smile on little three-year-old Misha before creaking his way on into the kitchen.

“Jared!” Ms. Collins cries. “You’re up! You’re up!” She looks torn between thrilled and scared. He guesses he probably looks a little rough.

“Hey,” Misha says, with a wide grin. “Look at you! Standing unassisted and everything!” He quickly gets up and pulls a chair out for Jared to sink gratefully into.

“What can I get you? Juice? How about apple juice? Maybe some toast? Are you ready for toast?” Ms. Collins flutters, and Jared nods weakly. “Yes!” she exclaims.

“So how are you feeling?” Misha asks. He’s sunk back into his seat, but hasn’t resumed his place in the book he was reading.

“Better,” Jared shrugs. “Um, I, uh, I wanted to thank you for driving me home from school. You didn’t get to do your monologue.”

“Are you kidding me?” Misha grins. “This was all a cunning plan of mine to get out of doing that monologue.”

Jared snorts. “Well, anyway,” he says, sobering. “Thank you. And thanks for, you know...”

“Mopping your fevered brow?” Misha grins.

“Yeah, all that stuff. Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Misha says, still smiling.

“Yeah, sure, it’s really fun to hang out watching some guy puke,” Jared mutters, rolling his eyes.

“Well, I know you’d do the same for me,” says Misha.

And Jared kind of startles himself when he realizes that’s true. Except he’d probably do a much worse job of it than Misha and Ms. Collins had. Which reminds him.

“Ms. Collins, um, I wanted to thank you, too,” he says to her back, as she’s popping two pieces of bread into the toaster.

“Oh Jared, it’s really not necessary to thank me,” she turns to gave him a quick smile, then heads for the fridge. “I appreciate it, but it was no trouble at all.”

He feels his chest getting a little tight, and maybe he should wait until he’s, like, feeling better, or something. Maybe in a few days, when he’s 100%... He firms his jaw. He needs to say it, and now’s as good a time as any.

“Not just-” he has to stop and clear his throat. “Not just for that.” She’s stopped with her head in the fridge. He rushes on. “For- for taking me in, when you didn’t have to, and sharing your home, your life...with me. And for, um, for caring. About whether I was happy or not. And being a safe place...” he takes a shaky breath. “I think this is the safest place I’ve ever been... I just wanted to say that. That’s all.”

He waits, and he can feel Misha waiting too. It takes her a few seconds to straighten into view, and she is definitely crying when her face appears.

“Thank you, Jared,” she says, voice wobbly, but somehow dignified. “That means a lot to me, to hear that. Now, I know you are not the hugging type,” she stops to sniffle briefly, “so I’m not going to force that on you. But I just want to say that if at any time from now until eternity you would like to hug me, the offer’s on the table... Now, would you like apple juice, or grape?”

 

**********

Jared doesn’t jump right up and hug Mom. Misha supposes that would be moving a bit fast, and Jared has already proved himself capable of creeping at a glacial pace, when it comes to getting comfortable in his new life. But when Mom turns around to pour the juice (and probably wipe her streaming eyes on the sleeve of her bathrobe), Jared turns around to face the table. And Misha can see his face, and for the first time since he’s met him, Misha can see his smile.

No doubt Jared feels his eyes on him, because he glances up, still smiling. Jared is looking into Misha’s eyes, and smiling, and it’s an image his camera could never do justice.

He doesn’t need his camera to help him remember this: Jared’s smile is goddam beautiful.