The first time Chris gets into a fight at school, Wyatt is there.
He’s eight and in third grade. He is very smart for his age but he tries not to show it; smart kids look like nerds, and nerds are easy targets. He already reads on a sixth grade level and he’s already read everything available in his class library within the first two months of school, so he starts bringing his own books but stashing them in his desk or his book bag because he doesn’t want others to ostracize him any more than they already do. He’s the infamous Wyatt Halliwell’s little brother, and he suspects that’s the only reason why he’s not bullied more often than he is. Wyatt has a strange appeal to everyone, some kind of charm and character that makes people flock to him and want to please him. Plus he’s a fifth grader, the top of the elementary school food chain. That in itself bestows a certain level of respect. Chris doesn’t understand it, but he also doesn’t question it too much, as it tends to mark him as off-limits to any would-be bullies.
Except, of course, for Adam.
Adam Caccario was held back a grade so he’s in Chris’s class now, which makes him older and bigger than his peers. He’s also still holding a grudge against having to repeat third grade, and he expresses this by lashing out at everyone around him, particularly those who seem to have the intelligence he lacks. One of the many reasons Chris tries to keep his intellect hidden at school, despite Mom’s insistence that he accept the invitation to join the school’s accelerated learning program. She tried to bribe him into it by telling him he’d get to go on all kinds of special field trips to the planetarium and museums and the like; Wyatt pointed out that it’d be hard to see anything with his eyes swollen shut from getting beaten up every day at lunch.
Then one day, the inevitable – and the unthinkable – happens. He’s pitted directly against Adam in a public math race, and he knows, even in his young mind, that he is hopelessly screwed.
Math, as it turns out, is the one area that Adam’s actually good at. He’s barely literate and Chris is pretty certain he should be knocked back down to first grade or lower, but he’s good with numbers. The only problem is that Chris is better, and he knows it. Everyone in the class knows it. Adam knows it. Their teacher, though, delightfully oblivious as ever, seems sadistically pleased that her two best math students are the only ones left standing in the classroom multiplication table showdown. Literally. Every student has to stand up by their desk and answer a random multiplication problem without help, and they only have five seconds to do it. Mrs. Maynard sits at her desk and moves up and down the rows with her questions, gradually eliminating students who give the wrong answer or can’t think of one before time runs out, until eventually Chris realizes he’s the only one left, as far as he can see. Then he hears the hushed whispers and he knows, he knows what he’ll see if he turns around.
“Alright, guys! Looks like it’ll be Chris and Adam facing off in the lightning round!”
She hates him. That’s the only explanation for it, and Chris can feel his hands go cold with fear and that fluttery sensation in his stomach he always gets right before he orbs . . . or pukes. Oddly enough, it feels the same to him.
Maybe, Chris thinks, those rumors about Adam are all wrong. He can’t even spell his last name; that’s reason enough to hold someone back a grade, isn’t it? Except that the rumor on the playground has it that Adam got suspended the year before for fighting, and he fell so far behind in his schoolwork that he never recovered. The kid he beat up was said to still be in recovery, and he still dropped to the ground and threw his arms over his face when he heard loud noises (Wyatt later told him, laughing, that that was a load of crap and that Corey Pelton had only gotten some bruises and a bloody nose, and that he was doing just fine in fourth grade).
His pride tells him that if Adam doesn’t win the contest, so be it. He shouldn’t have to bow down to someone else or apologize just because he got the brains instead of the magic in his family. Not that anyone else knows that, and not that Mom doesn’t try to convince him otherwise, but still. His rational side tells him he’s overthinking things as always and that Adam probably doesn’t even really care that much about some stupid math race. But all his self-preservation instincts are screaming at him: if orbing out in the middle of the classroom isn’t an option, then he needs to throw the match and take a fall. Figuratively, preferably than literally.
The rules are simple. Both boys step up to the chalkboard and get the same problem. Though they are allowed to write the problem down and work it out, they are accordingly given much harder problems than in the earlier rounds. Also, they are not allowed to turn around and get help from anyone else in the class. Whoever finishes first wins, and they compete in a best three out of five match.
Chris wins the first three by a landslide.
He doesn’t mean to. One second he’s writing down the problem, and then he’s got the answer figured out before he even finishes writing. While Adam’s busy carrying ones and figuring out what goes where, Chris hesitates, takes a deep breath, and then writes his answer. Adam is surprised the first time, annoyed the second, and outright furious the third, to the point he begs Mrs. Maynard for a redo. He’s convinced somehow that Chris is cheating, like he has a calculator hidden on him somewhere; Mrs. Maynard just kindly but firmly tells him to sit down so that they can move on from math to reading. That, naturally, just makes matters worse, as does Chris’s prize of a Kit-Kat bar for winning the contest.
At lunch, Chris can barely focus on his chicken nuggets due to the unsettling sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knows he’s hallucinating, but he swears he can feel Adam’s eyes on him from somewhere across the cafeteria. He waits, tensing every time someone walks behind him and brushes too close against his back, but the anticipated attack never comes. His friend Luke notices his jumpiness and asks if he’s okay, and though he seems skeptical of Chris’s immediate nod, he shrugs and asks if he can have the rest of Chris’s fruit cup. Chris hands it over, not having much of an appetite anymore anyway.
By the time P.E. rolls around at the end of the day, Chris almost lets himself believe he’s actually going to live to make it home. Today is kickball day. Not one of Chris’s favorites, but it’s better than his woefully inept attempts at baseball, and definitely better than being smacked in the head during volleyball. After their initial warm-up exercises, the class gets sent on its usual set of laps around the playground. That’s when Chris learns that Adam might not be book smart, but he’s smarter than he looks. That, and maybe those rumors are true after all.
He doesn’t even realize Adam’s jogged up next to him until the older boy shoves him to the side just as they round the corner of the cafeteria, effectively trapping Chris between the wall and the fence that establishes the limit of the grounds. The rest of the class keeps on running, oblivious to what is happening, and the much larger boy is blocking the only entrance and exit into the narrow, hidden area.
Chris won’t yell for help. He knows better than that, because then any future retribution on Adam’s part will just be twice as bad. And he has his pride. He tilts his chin up and looks Adam square in the eye, confident that all those TV shows haven’t lied to him. To stop a bully, all you have to do is stand up to them and make it clear that they don’t scare you, even if your legs feel like Jell-O and you’re seconds away from spewing half-digested chicken nuggets everywhere.
“You think you’re so smart, huh, Halliwell?” Adam sneers, and Chris backs down immediately, shakes his head and takes a step back. He realizes too late that he’s driving himself farther into a corner; he can’t get out, not with the way the fence bends to connect to the back of the cafeteria a few feet behind him.
“Is this about the candy bar? ‘Cause you can have it. I don’t even really like Kit-Kats.”
“You embarrassed me,” Adam replies with rage flickering in his eyes, and Chris takes another step back, tripping over a rock and landing hard on his behind. For a moment, Adam looks impossibly huge, silhouetted against the afternoon sun and looking like nothing so much as a giant, shadowy monster. A demon. Chris’s hands twitch, eager to send the demon flying, but he scrambles back to his feet and forces his hands in his pockets. Demons are one thing. He won’t get in trouble for vanquishing a demon. Nine-year-old boys, no matter how mean they are or how much they deserve it, are another thing entirely, and something Chris doesn’t know how to fight.
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” Chris stammers honestly. “I just . . . I mean, you don’t want anyone to let you win, do you? ‘Cause then it’s not really winning, it’s—”
“Shut up!” Adam roars, his shout lost amid the sounds of other children running and screaming on the playground. The fifth graders are lucky and get the coveted last recess of the day spot, and all of them have better things to do than pay attention to two lowly third graders.
Okay, so if he doesn’t want the candy bar and he doesn’t want an apology, what does he want? Chris wonders, realizing immediately that Adam just wants to hurt him. Even demons have more substantial motives. They want the Book of Shadows, or they want to gain power in the Underworld, or they want evil to rule the world, or they want . . . whatever it is that demons want; taking out the Charmed Ones is just a means to an end. Chris has never before encountered anyone or anything that doesn’t have any greater goals in mind, who just wants to cause pain for the sake of pain. Because he can. He doesn’t know it at the time, that this won’t be the last time he faces someone like that, but it’s definitely the first and definitely frightening.
“I’m not afraid of you,” he lies to Adam’s face, lifting his chin again and squaring his shoulders. Show no fear. Stand up to the bully. Make him back down.
The fist that drives into Chris’s stomach knocks the wind right out of him and sends him sprawling noisily backwards into the chain fence.
“Oh yeah?” Adam advances on him and Chris tries to get away, but he’s not fast enough, caught by Adam’s hand tangling in the front of his shirt and throwing him back against the fence. “Then I’ll make you afraid of me.”
Chris has been told over and over that he’s not to use his powers on mortals, and for that matter, he’s not to use his powers outside the Manor. It’s supposed to be a secret, one he has to guard very closely to keep himself and his family safe, and he’s always taken that responsibility seriously. So he does the only thing he knows to do: he pushes off from the fence and throws himself at Adam in a messy but effective tackle. The boy is so startled that Chris successfully takes him to the ground, straddling the boy’s ribs and drawing a fist back to punch. Then it hits him that he has no idea how to punch someone. He’s never hit anyone in his life. Well, Wyatt, but that doesn’t count. They don’t really hit each other, certainly not with their fists, and rarely even hard enough to leave a mark.
That moment of hesitation is all Adam needs. His face twists into a mask of rage as he rolls over and pins Chris to the ground. Chris instinctively shields his face and head with his arms, crying out as the blows rain down on his arms.
“Should’ve taken that hit when you had the chance!” It takes Chris a moment to realize that Adam is laughing at him.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to get free, he aims a blind punch straight out into the air. He feels his knuckles hit something hard before something gives. Alarmed, he pulls back and stares, uncomprehending, at the blood smeared over his fingers.
“Oh . . . oh man,” he breathes, wiping the back of his hand in the grass and looking up just in time to hear a guttural scream. Adam stares down at him, eyes huge with surprised pain, blood pouring from his nose and over his mouth to drip onto his shirt and the ground. “Oh man.”
“I’m gonna kill you, Halliwell!” he screams, and though it’s not the first time Chris has ever heard that, it is the first time he thinks that might really be in the cards.
He rolls out of the way when Adam aims a kick at him, but as he regains his footing he’s thrown against the cafeteria wall, crying out when his head connects harshly with the brick. The older boy punches him hard in the mouth, harder than any nine-year-old should know how to hit, and Chris almost immediately tastes blood in his mouth. He spits instinctively, eyes bulging when a tooth lands on the ground.
Another punch to his gut sends him back to his knees, breathless and coughing, and this time Adam’s kick lands its target to make Chris roll sideways and curl in on himself. Shame that he isn’t going to live to see puberty. Or graduate elementary school. Or even make it home for dinner, and it’s spaghetti night, too, of all the injustices. His tombstone will read something like, “Christopher Halliwell. Beloved son, total nerd. Killed on playground for being good at math.” Luke will probably run off with Angie, the girl Chris has been not-so-subtly eying for the past three weeks. Not that he even likes girls, of course. But it’s the principle of the thing.
The hits and kicks finally and abruptly stop, and Chris risks a glance up to see Adam get knocked backwards. There’s another shadowy figure standing over him, but this time Chris feels safer, if also terribly humiliated.
“Leave him alone!” Wyatt orders, and when Adam sits up and makes a move as if to approach them, Wyatt steps over Chris, in front of him, and balls his right hand into a fist. “I’ll hit you again, loser. And I’ll make it count this time.”
Count. Heh. Oh, the irony. Or is that a pun? Chris really couldn’t care less right now, not when the world’s still spinning and he’s having enough trouble just remembering to breathe.
Adam seems ready to take that challenge, but he finally just shoves his way past both boys and stalks off toward the playground. Wyatt watches him leave, waits until he gets from the grassy area behind the cafeteria to the edge of the gravel play yard, and then subtly flicks his wrist. Adam trips and stumbles headfirst into the edge of a wooden bench. Two girls sitting on the bench jump up and scream, throwing their animal crackers into the air before taking off to find a monitor. Adam lands hard in the gravel, moaning and clutching his forehead, which is now bleeding as freely as his nose.
Wyatt isn’t concerned with him, though, and instead he kneels in front of Chris, resting a hand on his shoulder and turning him gently onto his back. “Oh my God,” he whispers upon catching his first good glimpse of his little brother. “Are you okay?”
Chris glares hard enough to pierce stone, letting that and his groans answer for him as Wyatt helps him sit up.
“Oh man, Chris, Mom’s gonna kill us.”
“Better her than him,” Chris grumbles with a pointed look at Adam, still face-down in the gravel and crying hysterically. As a crowd begins to gather at the edge of the path, Chris angrily shoves Wyatt away. “Quit it. They’re gonna think you rescued me.” Wyatt raises an eyebrow, and Chris returns his irritation by rolling his eyes. “I don’t wanna get beat up again, okay?”
“What—What is going on here?”
Chris recognizes the reedy sound of his gym teacher’s voice and he cringes, ducking his head. To his horror, Wyatt stands up and speaks for him.
“That idiot was beating up my brother!”
“Thanks, Wy,” Chris mumbles under his breath, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and cringing at both the blood that stains the fabric and the burning sensation from a cut in his lip.
“So you decided to beat him up?” Coach Lynch asks incredulously, waving a hand at Adam as another teacher helps him up.
“I only hit him once,” Wyatt answers automatically, adding smugly, “Not my fault he can’t take a punch.”
“We’ll sort this out later. Both of you, come with us to the principal’s office.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong! He started it!” Wyatt protests, deeply offended, but Chris shakes his head and more or less climbs Wyatt’s side to help pull himself to his feet. He sways unsteadily, warring between feeling grateful for Wyatt’s arm immediately going around his shoulders and his urge to hold onto whatever meager dignity he has left; he decides to shrug Wyatt’s help away and limp after the procession leading into the main building.
“We didn’t do anything wrong, Chris,” Wyatt says quietly as they walk down the hall, and this time, in the relative privacy of the mostly empty hall, Chris lets Wyatt support him, leans slightly into him as the wooziness returns. “Holy crap. Are you missing a tooth?”
“It was loose anyway.”
“Yeah, but . . . ow.”
“How did you both end up getting suspended?”
Because the day can always, always get worse.
Chris sinks down in his seat, wishing the earth would open up and swallow him whole. Leo was the one to meet with the principal, and after Piper’s heated argument with Wyatt’s teacher the previous year, everyone was thankful that the calmer parent showed up. Everyone, of course, but Chris, who knew he was going to be in for another endless lecture about what pacifism meant and how he should know better than to get into fights. Like he hadn’t been the one on the defensive. Then, predictably, Wyatt would jump in and point out exactly what Chris was thinking, like he was some kind of telepath or something, and Dad would tell him to stay quiet because this wasn’t any of his business, except it totally was because Wyatt made it his business just like he did every time anything happened in Chris’s life.
He and Wyatt had been sitting in the waiting area outside the principal’s office, waiting for Leo to finish paperwork to send them off to boarding school or the gallows or whatever, when Piper stormed in. She’d started in discipline mode even as she walked through the door, having been filled in on the details on the phone while she drove over, but she takes one look at her youngest son when she gets there and her face crumbles.
“Oh, baby,” she coos, rushing to him and pulling him into a hug. Chris’s face is crushed against her chest and he can just barely make out Wyatt smirking at him over the top of Piper’s arm.
“Mom,” he whines, squirming to break free of her grasp before anyone he knows – or, God forbid, Adam – walks through the door and sees his mommy cuddling him like the baby he is.
“Sweetie, what happened?” Her concern is palpable, and Chris would really prefer her disciplinarian mode, such as it is. He hates it when she looks at him all teary-eyed, like he can’t take the slightest rejection or the mildest of rebukes. She doesn’t treat Wyatt like that. In fact, both his parents seem to go harder on Wyatt for some reason. No wonder Wyatt felt like he had to swoop in and save him.
“Nothin’,” Chris tells the top of his sneakers, and he still carefully avoids his mother’s eyes even when she holds his chin and forces him to look up at her.
“You’ve got blood and bruises all over you, Chris. That’s not ‘nothin’.” She stops short, mouth dropping open. “Are you missing a tooth?” Before he has a chance to reply or even kick Wyatt for snickering beside him, she swats Leo on the arm. “Leo! Look at him! A tooth, Leo, he’s missing a tooth. Where’s the little monster who did this to him? I’ll go knock a tooth out of his mouth and see how he likes it.”
“Piper, he’s nine,” Leo answers calmly, the corners of his mouth twitching as though he really wants to grin.
“So? I’ll aim for a baby tooth.”
“Mom, I’m fine.”
“You are not fine. Look at you. You look like you got hit by a truck.”
“He’d look worse if I hadn’t sensed that he was in trouble.”
Piper wheels on her oldest. “And you! You . . . you! You know better, young man.”
“Did you want me to just let him get the crap kicked out of him?”
“Watch your language. And-and no, of course not, but that’s not the point!” Piper shoots back, clearly flustered. “The point . . . the point is . . . you two are gonna kill me. I just know it.” She closes her eyes and rests her palm across her forehead, her other hand tightening on her purse strap before she appears to regain control of herself.
“Don’t think you’re just gonna sit around the house playing video games all day, either. You’re going to clean the house, top to bottom. Work in the lawn. Help me out at the restaurant. Whatever. And you’re going to keep up with your homework.” She stares the boys down as if expecting them to argue, and when they don’t, she glances toward the door and adds under her breath, “I don’t want you falling behind and turning into that little punk.”
“Can it, Leo. He hurt my kids. Nine or not, I still have half the mind to go kick his ass.”
“I already did,” Wyatt chimes in brightly, and when Piper starts tearing into him about his language again, however indirect, Chris reaches down to get his backpack from the floor, wincing.
“I got it, kiddo,” Leo stops him, picking the bag up for him and resting his hand on the back of Chris’s head for a few moments as he guides him toward the door to get him back to the car and away from any more mother-induced awkwardness.
“Do I really have to clean the whole house?” he asks once Piper’s out of earshot, and Leo chuckles.
“She probably won’t even remember saying that later.” He crooks his eyebrow down at his son, smiling softly. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Chris returns the smile, experimentally poking his tongue through the new hole in his mouth where a tooth used to be, and Leo ruffles his hair affectionately.
“And the restaurant?”
“No, she’ll definitely remember that one. I hope she doesn’t make you clean the bathroom floors with a toothbrush. She’s already lost three employees that way.”
“No way,” Chris gapes, staring up at his father in shock. To his credit, Leo manages to keep a respectably straight face when he answers.
“Way. But hey, that’s not as bad as that one poor kid who failed his spelling test and had to become a human mop. She tied sponges to his hands and knees and made him crawl all over the place until the floor sparkled.”
Chris laughs despite the pain in his chest. If Mom has to work, then that means Dad’ll have to stay home with the boys. And any chance Chris gets to keep his dad home for a little longer, he takes it.
He just really hopes he doesn’t have to lose a tooth next time he wants Dad to hang out for a while.