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What You Did in the Dark

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Alexander Hamilton was no stranger to being hated.

Hatred seemed to be the common thread between just about everyone he’d met since arriving in America, actually. At the very least, it was a constant in his foster families. People of every color and creed had tried to give him a home; some who just wanted money, some who wanted the good publicity, and some who legitimately wanted to make the world a better place. And, regardless of their motives or how hard they tried to be accepting, they all ended up hating him within the first few weeks of knowing him.

Not for no reason, mind you. Besides having strong opinions on just about everything ― which was dangerous enough on its own ― he also lacked any sort of verbal filter. It was an unfortunate mix that often equated to him loudly voicing his political views at every possible opportunity. And, even when he wasn’t giving long-winded rants about the moral shortcomings of today’s society, he could never seem to shut up. So, needless to say, hatred of Hamilton wasn’t exclusive to just foster parents and the occasional schoolyard bully. The various forms of animosity tended to extend far beyond the walls of his latest placement.

Alexander Hamilton was also no stranger to people expressing their hatred for him in a rather violent manner. You didn’t get tossed between foster homes like a hot potato without getting a bit singed, after all. And, to tell the truth, he was more than just “singed”. It certainly didn’t help that something about him ― maybe his big mouth, maybe his brutal honesty, or maybe just the fact that he was irritating and insufferable in general ― tended to make even normal, well-meaning families snap within a week or two of meeting him.

He didn’t blame most of them. It wasn’t like every placement he’d ever visited had ended up beating him. Even some of the ones who did beat him weren’t so much “abusive” as “unable to put up with his constant bullshit”. But, then again, it didn’t need to be every placement, did it? All it took was one bad arrangement to turn a kid paranoid, and Hamilton had been in far more than one bad arrangement.

This wasn’t the worst home he’d ever been in. He reminded himself that often. It wasn’t so bad; it just seemed that way because this was the longest he’d managed to stay in one place since he was a kid. Six months; almost seven. He’d been counting, like some people counted how long they’d been in a relationship, except he was only counting because it helped him remember that he’d already survived this long. He recited the numbers under his breath at night, reminding himself that he’d pushed through for half a year; he could make it another hour. Another day. Another week.

(Just a year and a half until he was eighteen. Just a year and a half between him and freedom.)

On top of that, he’d been with Pace for six months, so he was more than used to the man’s incessant temper tantrums. Like most foster kids, he was accustomed to adapting to new environments quickly, and it had only taken him maybe a few weeks to get into groove at the Pace household. Pace himself was a very simple man; one-sided and easy to comprehend. Everything about him, from the words he spat to the beatings he doled out, was exactly as expected; absolutely nothing new.

Pace was bad, yes, but nothing Hamilton couldn’t handle. In a way, he was even comforting in his predictability: nothing ever came out of left field with Pace. He got mad; he beat you. His actions didn’t get much more complicated than that.

So, when he shuffled through the front door into his current home, slouched under the crushing weight of his backpack, he almost expected the fist that careened out of nowhere, catching him solidly in the gut.

The blow was neither especially strong nor especially surprising. Nevertheless, Hamilton grunted, stumbling back. His shoulder rammed into the door, which swung back open all-too-easily, and, maybe it was a little weird, but his first thought was ‘He usually isn’t this sloppy. Doesn’t he know someone could see?’

But, naturally, no one saw, even when he landed heavily on the porch with a loud thud, skidding a few feet as the cheap paint peeled off underneath him, old wood groaning under his meager weight. On instinct, he tried to squirm onto his feet, but no dice; his backpack weighed him down, keeping him sprawled out on the ground like a turtle flipped on its back.

Alex tried very hard not to feel helpless. It wasn't easy.

Without warning, a foot pressed against his shoulder, and he was half-kicked, half-swept back into the house like a deflated soccer ball. Or a particularly vexing speck of dust on an otherwise immaculate floor. The door slammed shut, and he felt his chest tighten when it locked with an audible click. By the time he coaxed his heart out of his throat, a boot was pressing into his abdomen, slotted in between his jutting hipbones: making sure he didn’t try to get up, he realized.

And, damn both him and his big mouth to an eternity of torment, but the first thing he said was “I just got here. What could I have possibly done?”

He regretted his words immediately, as he usually did. The noise that came out of his foster father’s throat was a straight-up snarl . There was no other way to describe it. Taking his foot off of Alex’s stomach, he grabbed two fistfuls of the boy’s tee-shirt, jerked him free of his backpack straps, and lifted him into the air without much difficulty. “You think you’re smart, Hamilton?” he growled, shaking Alex harshly. “You think you’re clever? Huh? Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Following the instructions yelled at him during a punishment only ever managed to make things worse, but, against his better judgement, Alex complied anyway, lifting his chin from where it rested against his chest and locking eyes with his attacker.

William Pace was hardly a sight to behold. His slicked-back hair always looked greasy, his cruel eyes seemed to pop halfway out of their sockets, and his facial features were screwed up tight and surrounded by deep creases, as if he was constantly swallowing a lemon that just wouldn’t go down. Still, he was tall and broad, and it was really hard not to be intimidated by the way his lip curled back to bare his crooked white teeth.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” In just a few quick strides, Pace dragged him across the room and slammed him into the wall; he hissed in pain, but, predictably, was ignored. “Did you think I’d just let this slide, Hamilton?” Almost too easily, his arms were jerked sharply above his head, both wrists pinned firmly to the wall with one of Pace’s huge hands, and he winced. That was definitely going to bruise. “You think you could get away with disrespecting me?”

Pace leaned closer without breaking Alex’s gaze. His breath smelled strongly of toothpaste.

“You think I’m ‘big and stupid, like an animal’?”

Alexander could feel his entire body go rigid at the familiar phrase, eyes widening. As if that didn’t give him away enough, his breath then hitched audibly, practically signing a written confession and handing it to Pace on a silver platter.

“Pace, as always, has size on his side,” he had scribbled down one night, his body covered with a dense coat of bruises and his pen itching to tear his foster father a new one, “but, big though he may be, he’s also brainless and bullheaded; not unlike a large, untamed animal or similarly unintelligent creature.”

Correctly interpreting his silence as an admission of guilt, Pace glowered, his entire face crinkling up like a plastic bag. With a low growl, he tightened his grip and tugged Alex’s arms up higher, forcing him to roll forward onto the balls of his feet, his body stretched and his shoulders straining. Automatically, he tucked his chin against his collarbone to protect his exposed throat, but Pace’s free hand quickly tangled in his hair, yanking his head back.

Alex crushed a pained yelp between his teeth, screwing his eyes shut and locking his jaw. “You think you can write whatever the hell you want about me in that stupid little book of yours, Hamilton?” Pace’s breath was hot against his face, entirely too close to his throat for comfort. “Is that what you think, son?”

‘Shit,’ Alexander breathed. ‘He read my journal. How did he find it?’

‘No,’ Alex sobbed, ‘please, I didn’t mean it; don’t hurt me, please―’

“Don’t call me son,” Hamilton said through gritted teeth.

Pace’s movements were clearly telegraphed, as always, and Alex was able to brace himself before the fist landed in his stomach. Doubling over anyway, he wheezed out the air left in his lungs, then quickly sucked it back in, anticipating another blow. He wasn’t disappointed. “God,” Pace hissed as he once again heaved back and unleashed a vicious punch into Alex’s gaunt frame, “why did I ever agree to take you in?”

This time, he aimed for the ribs, and Hamilton gasped, both legs seizing. “You never shut your mouth!” Pace grunted, his knee ramming into the boy’s side. “You think you’re better than everyone!” Another solid blow to the torso; Alexander choked on a yelp, too busy wheezing for breath to complete the sound. “You’re disrespectful. Downright insubordinate!” This time, it was a backhand; hard enough to hurt, but not enough to bruise. Alex’s head snapped to the side, bouncing roughly off the smooth drywall.

His head fell limp, lolling forward, but thick fingers wrapped around his chin before it could hit his chest. Pace pressed closer, wedging Alex against the wall with his knee, as if there was any chance of the nearly emaciated boy breaking free. “You’d be better off dead,” he hissed into Alexander’s ear, furious and cruel. “All you do is―”

Alex didn’t bother listening to the rest. Pace’s next words were predictable. All you do is make everyone’s lives harder. All you do is sit around and make people miserable. All you do is leech off of everyone around you because you’re too pathetic to take care of yourself.

Pace’s favorite hobby was probably hurling punches, but hurling accusations was a close second, and Alex had learned not to take what he said to heart. Besides, it was nothing he hadn’t heard plenty of times at previous placements. (Nothing he hadn’t told himself in the dead of night, palms pressed over his eyes, knees held tight to his chest.)

Without warning, his arms were released, collapsing at his sides. Before he had time to be relieved, fingers were curling around his neck, pinning him back up against the wall. Alex grimaced, instinctively reaching up as if to pry them off, but it was no use, and he knew it. He was smaller, weaker, and, at the moment, much more battered. Pace had the upper hand in every sense of the word.

Pace’s voice was in his ear, breath tingling against the back of his neck, and he felt his skin crawl. “Would you like to be dead, boy?” he asked quietly; almost serenely. His hold on Alex’s neck tightened, just short of obstructing his airway but certainly enough to hurt. “Would you like it if I just squeezed your throat until you fell asleep and never woke up? Huh? Would you like that, boy?”

Damn him. Damn him and his big, stupid mouth.

Damn him, but he looked Pace dead in the eyes and spit out, “At least then I wouldn’t waste any more energy trying to force logic into your miniscule brain.”

The consequences were swifter than he’d expected, and much more brutal. Without another word, Pace pulled back, holding Alex’s entire body up by the neck only. Just as rapidly, a knee rammed into his diaphragm hard enough to make the entire wall quiver behind him, and then all the breath was whooshing out of his lungs and he couldn’t get any air back in.

After a brief spasm of his legs, his entire body went slack, dangling uselessly from the fist clenched around his neck. That was when the blows started raining down. Pace’s free hand launched a furious assault on his chest and ribs, while his abdomen became intimately familiar with the tread of Pace’s boots.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Once again, the voice was uncomfortably close to his ear. “Just take it.” Alex winced, mouth stuttering open, trying and failing to suck in a breath. “Just take it, boy. Just lie down and take it.”

His teeth clenched, but he didn’t bother justifying that by thrashing or squirming. That was what the asshole wanted. Alex knew it, and he refused to give him the satisfaction.

Still, it was hard to ignore when the blows just wouldn’t stop coming. ‘What the hell?’ Alex hissed inwardly as a jab glanced off of his jaw, making his whole head snap back. ‘First he bruises my arms, then my neck, and now my face? It’s only Thursday. He knows I have school tomorrow!’

But another blow landed heavily in his stomach, making him gag, and the realization struck him even harder than Pace’s fists, curling sharp and tight around Alex’s throat and strangling the last bit of air from his lungs.

‘It doesn’t matter.’ The thought was leaden and almost numb, but cold terror twisted in the depths of his stomach. ‘He could put out cigarettes on my face if he wanted to. No one would even consider him a suspect.’

Alexander had been dubbed “the delinquent” a long time ago. He’d first received the title soon after the Le ― his worst family, who he wasn’t thinking about. Ever since then, no one had trusted him. But this was the longest he’d been in a placement since then ― just over half a year ― and, by now, he wasn’t just “the delinquent”. He was Alexander Hamilton, the kid who got into fights after school more often than not. Alexander Hamilton, the kid who had scars covering his entire body from years ago; scars that were spoken of only in hushed voices by those who’d seen him changing during gym class. Alexander Hamilton, the kid who’d been targeted by the school’s resident “gang” last June; the kid who had left that encounter with nothing more than a scrape on his cheek while his opponents spent the first month of summer vacation in the hospital.

Of course, he was never the one who started those fights after school. He hadn’t been the one to give himself those scars all over his body. He hadn’t been the one who cornered the gang after the last day of school with brass knuckles and two-by-fours. And he hadn’t laid a finger on those gang kids ― he’d just put those fancy words of his to good use. It was relatively easy to get them to argue with each other, and then he’d just watched in morbid curiosity as it devolved into a free-for-all fistfight.

But the school didn’t know that, and the school didn’t care. All the school cared about was the fact that, in their eyes, he was someone ruthless enough, reckless enough, and strong enough to take out a pack of gangster wannabes with barely a scratch on him.

They wouldn’t care if he came to school with his damn arm chopped off, he realized, nausea curling in the pit of his stomach. All they could see was that little scar on his cheek.

Apparently, Pace had finally picked up on that.

His entire body went limp against his will, all the fight draining out of him as if a switch had been flipped. ‘Perfect,’ he snapped at himself. ‘Once again, you’ve managed to make a situation worse by thinking too hard about it.’ But the vice grip around his neck tightened suddenly, and he could feel himself tense again, survival instinct overriding the dread of his realization. ‘Don’t fight,’ he had to remind himself as taunting laughter slammed into his ringing eardrums. ‘Stay strong. You have your will. Don’t let him take that from you.’

It was like his mother had taught him all those years ago; the advice she’d offered with tears in her eyes, clearly praying to God that he would never need it. Don’t fight. Don’t scream. Don’t struggle. Don’t let them know that you’re scared. As soon as you do that, you’ve lost your biggest weapon.

But, damn it all, Pace was way too close, and there was burning, too-clean breath in his nose as Pace whispered mutinously into his ear. “Just give up and admit that you’re too weak to save yourself―” ‘Don’t fight back, don’t fight back―’ “Yeah, that’s it, boy; just take it―” ‘Let him take out his anger; let him wear himself out, and then make your getaway―’ “Give in and take it like the coward you are―” ‘Don’t get kicked out; don’t risk another placement; a worse placement―’

A huge, sickly grin spread across Pace’s pinched face.

“I suppose it’s to be expected from the son of a whore,” he taunted. “Tell me, how many men per night did your mother spread her legs fo―?”

It happened so fast.

Red overtook his vision, and he was only vaguely aware of his knuckles hitting flesh. A powerful hook to something sharp and angular that might have been a jaw, or maybe a nose. A flurry of jabs that connected with something flatter; more solid ― a chest, probably. A torso. Pace released him and stumbled back; he didn’t even register the cold, cutting air that finally rushed into his lungs. He heard, rather than felt, his sneakers hit the ground. There was a gasp ― that was him; he was in pain, apparently, although he couldn’t tell you why. He probably could have collapsed right there, but adrenaline was already thrumming in his throat, leaping through his chest―

―and then he was on top of another person, raining down blows one after another; his tiny, beaten body keeping Pace’s much larger one easily pinned to the floor. Fists slammed against his chest in retaliation, but he barely even noticed, still on the offense, still half-aware of his surroundings.

Finally, he was thrown off, Pace’s hands locking into his hair and heaving, and he felt himself roll ― but, just as quickly, he was back on his feet, already lowering into a stance he’d been taught by Ms. Muller ― body low, fists in front of face; poised, ready to defend; ready to attack ― and now Pace was staggering upright, one leg underneath him to help him rise ― the words were still fresh in his mind ― son of a whore; how many men per night ― and he didn’t even think about it before attacking; shoving Pace back to unsteady him, letting his legs scramble futilely for traction, then closing in for the kill; aiming for the knee ― bending it backwards with a powerful kick and watching Pace collapse like a felled tree, howling, clutching his leg―

Alexander was left staring down at his foster father of six months, his chest heaving with each breath, his hands pulsing in pain. Numbly, he popped one knuckle back into socket. The all-consuming ache was catching up to him, now, as he once again became aware of the countless bruises littering his body, but it was so much milder than it should have been―

And what had ever happened to ― ?

Pace.

The man was now curled into a ball, pulling at his hair ― no doubt to distract himself from the agony radiating from his entire beaten body. Chiefly, his leg, which couldn’t be called anything but mangled. Definitely broken, if nothing else. Definitely warranting a trip to the hospital, if not the ER. Definitely the work of another human, if not flat-up foul play.

Clearly the work of a certain delinquent foster kid, who happened to look pretty beat up himself.

Alexander swallowed thickly. The saliva crawled down his throat.

“...Shit.”

Chapter Text

Alexander Hamilton was used to unfairly harsh treatment; to people making the worst possible assumptions about him without provocation; to glares when they thought he wasn’t looking and scathing words when they thought he couldn’t hear.

So it didn’t really surprise him that the police were no different.

They put him in a room with two chairs, two tables, and two guards. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all gray cement. The tables were a cold, gray metal that he couldn’t identify. One of the tables was pushed up against the wall; the other had a stiff gray chair on either side, and that was where they put him, his wrists cuffed in front of him with tight gray shackles. The guards were stationed on either side of the gray door, and wore gray; gray shirts, gray slacks, and gray hats.

In short, there was an altogether unreasonable amount of gray, and these people seemed to think he was a hardened criminal, not some stupid kid who had supposedly beaten up his foster father.

...He couldn’t blame the guards for that, though. No one told them the specifics of his case. The specifics of his case probably weren’t very flattering, anyway. All they knew was that he was considered dangerous enough to be cuffed to the table, and he looked like he’d gotten into a fight with an elephant―and won. No, the blame here fell to the arresting officers, who had barely even acknowledged his own injuries; as soon as they saw his foster father’s broken leg and recognized him as “that delinquent Hamilton brat”, he was up against the wall, hands behind his back, being read his rights.

Even they had some excuse, at least. He couldn’t deny that the evidence pointed to him, even if they did utterly ignore the fact that he was beat to Hell and Pace’s knuckles were splattered with blood. He hadn’t even been allowed any medical treatment once the paramedic declared his own bones unbroken, which probably wasn’t legal, but he wasn’t going to say anything about it. If anything, he counted himself lucky: he’d escaped a hospital visit, after all.

But the guards had nothing to do with it. They were just doing their job.

He reminded himself this when he fidgeted once in his seat, cuffs clinking, and their eyes snapped onto him immediately, sharp and glaring. They didn’t know him. They didn’t know that he was innocent; that he couldn’t be held accountable for breaking that asshole’s leg when there had been fingers around his neck and fists raining down onto his body and festering insults seeping into his brain. They weren’t foster parents, they were security guards. Security guards were safe. These were good, honest people just doing their job.

They weren’t going to storm over and take advantage of the fact that his hands were secured and his body was weak and it would be so easy to shove him against the cold, hard, gray table and―

Good people. Good people just doing their job.

The guard standing to the left of the door had to sneeze. He’d been holding it in for a while now. The fact that he was bothering to hold it in at all meant that, whoever was coming to visit Alex, they were going to be here soon. Good. Waiting wasn’t exactly his strong suit, and it wasn’t made easier by the cuffs biting into his wrists, keeping him firmly in place, holding him down while hands―

He was glad the person would be here soon.

Speak of the devil―the heavy gray door buzzed once, then swung open, and he managed to suppress his triumphant shout as a woman teetering on the brink of old age peered inside.

It took him a moment to recognize her, his mind turned to mush by the endless expanse of gray, gray, and more gray. She was much faster. “Hamilton,” she addressed him curtly, and that, more than anything, was what clued him in.

The tension drained from his shoulders. After a moment, he nodded sharply in acknowledgement. “Ms. Muller,” he returned, his voice polite, if a bit gruff. The guard nearest to them gave him an odd look―probably surprised that he knew how to be respectful. He ignored it. “Love what you’ve done with the place,” he continued drily, jerking his wrists against the cuffs to indicate the entire room and pretending he neither noticed nor cared when both guards instinctively reached for their tasers (just doing their job, won’t hurt you unless you give them a reason to). “The single hanging lightbulb and raw cement really sell the whole ‘holding cell’ aesthetic.”

Pressing her lips together until they formed a firm line―she looked irritated, but Alex knew that this was her trying not to smile―she stepped into the room, marching across the uneven floor with a certain graceful, yet commanding aura that he had never seen anyone else pull off. “Rosalie Muller, Hamilton’s case worker,” she introduced shortly, flashing her ID in the guards’ general direction. “The information we’re about to discuss is confidential. You’re obligated by law to leave the room.”

The guards jerked to attention at that, and Alex did his best not to smirk. “Miss―” one started.

She held up her palm, and he quieted instantly. “I hope you aren’t about to imply that I’m in danger of being harmed by a shackled hundred-pound kid who should really be in a hospital,” she said, her voice cold and sharp. “It’s illegal for you to remain here. Go.”

Alex ducked his head to hide the amusement on his face as the guards filed out with their tails between their legs. No one could withstand that tone, and she knew it. Only when the door swung shut and she took a seat across from him did he dare to look back up, still grinning.

Ms. Muller was a woman of contrasts: dark skin, but vibrant clothing, and a stoic, no-nonsense face, but understanding eyes. Most of the other foster kids thought she was either too confusing or too terrifying, but Alex had always liked her. Sure, she commanded respect, but she was also empathetic, and he knew first-hand that she would willingly descend into the deepest pits of Hell and claw her way back out again if it meant helping the kids under her care. Not that there was much she could do for him specifically, but he was grateful that she, at least,  actually gave a damn.

As always, she got right to the point. “What happened?” she asked, dropping a stack of files onto the table with a loud thwack.

The police had already asked him for his statement, and they’d rolled their eyes but dutifully noted his claims of self-defense. She had the files. That wasn’t what she was asking for. But, nonetheless, he looked down resolutely at his chained wrists and said, “Mr. Pace was beating the shit out of me, and I fought back.”

Ms. Muller’s gaze was heavy and piercing, and he squirmed under it. Against his will, he met her eyes, and, just like that, he was trapped, captured by her searching gaze. It was another thing she did that he’d never seen someone else successfully duplicate.

“First of all,” she said after a long moment, “watch your language. Second of all,” and here she narrowed her eyes, effortlessly destroying every single one of the facades he’d built in the last month, “that’s not what I asked and you know it.”

Finally, she released him, and he quickly looked back down at his hands, twisting his thumbs together. She waited with patience he wished he possessed, but her stare didn’t leave his face.

“...He insulted my mother,” Alex admitted eventually, and he could hear her exhale slowly and harshly, as if she’d expected as much, but had hoped for something more. His hackles raised. “He called her a whore and asked me how many men per night she spread her legs for! What was I supposed to do, just let him get away with it?”

She didn’t bother justifying that with a response, but her eyes had a reproachful edge that made him hang his head guiltily anyway. “You said he was beating you.”

Oh―then she thought―(she thought he was lying, she didn’t believe him, oh God, Ms. Muller always believed him; but not about this; not anymore; he’d lost her trust; he’d pushed her too far; without her, he had no one; he was alone)― “He was beating me,” Alex hastily reassured. “I wouldn’t lie about that―”

“―I know, Hamilton,” she snapped, and he stopped short, his mouth hanging open. For just a moment, distress flickered across her stony face: a mixture of anger, frustration, and something he’d never seen from her before―sadness.

“...I know,” she repeated after a long moment, schooling her expression. “Of course you wouldn’t lie. I don’t doubt that.” (And his heart didn’t soar at that; or, if it did, he resolutely ignored it.) “But I told you to call me if things went wrong, and you didn’t.”

Alex winced, shrinking into his seat. “I’m sorry―I thought the police would call you after―”

“No, Hamilton!” And there it was again―that frustration; that sadness. “I don’t mean you should have called me after beating Pace into the ground. I mean you should have called me the first time he hit you, or choked you, or denied you food for no reason―and don’t you dare claim he didn’t do those last two, because those bruises on your neck and the ribs poking through your shirt say otherwise.” Alex winced and shifted in his seat, wishing they’d left him something besides his crappy old t-shirt to hide the clear signs of abuse (the signs that everyone was happy to ignore, except Ms. Muller didn’t ignore anything).

Ms. Muller sighed heavily, placing her head in her hands. “I give you my number for a reason, Alex.” He flinched outright at the sound of his old nickname. It’d been… jeez, must have been years since he’d been called that. “Even if the higher-ups refused to believe it was abuse, I could have convinced them to do a visit premature. It would have forced him to be more discreet, if nothing else.”

Alex stared at the hand-shaped bruises on his arms, willing the pools of heat away from his face.

“...I’m sorry.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then, with one last sigh, Ms. Muller sat up straight again, brushing her hair over her shoulders. “Pace isn’t pressing charges,” she said without preamble. “He’s willing to continue fostering you once his leg heals.”

Alex just nodded dully, still staring at his hands. He’d expected as much. William Pace was nothing if not petty, and he would happily risk another hospital visit for a chance to get back at the kid who put him there in the first place. He could practically hear the strategically-timed sob story now― “I just wanted to help Alex, but I pushed him too fast. Don’t blame this on him, it’s all my fault!”

Ms. Muller paused, waiting for him to respond, but he had nothing to say. Yet another sigh. “It’ll be at least a couple months until he can take you back, Hamilton.”

He nodded. Another given. As beat-up as Alex was, Pace had come off worse from their fight; it would take a while for him to heal up.

Ms. Muller breathed deeply. “Alex.” And there it was again―his first name. Reluctantly, he looked up, meeting her eyes once again. She looked… somber. More somber than usual, anyway. As if she had some very bad news, and she really didn’t want to be the one who told him. Nonetheless, she matched his gaze and didn’t falter.

“They’re going to send you to juvie until then.”

Alex’s throat went dry.

“They can’t,” he said immediately, ignoring the nausea that bubbled up in his stomach. “Not without a trial―”

“And what verdict do you think the court would reach?” Her voice was quiet and deliberate, as always, but there was something else there that he’d never expected to hear from someone as stubborn as Ms. Muller. Something exhausted. Something resigned. “Do you think they would rule in your favor?”

He opened his mouth to respond―then closed it, swallowing thickly. ‘Oh, come on, Hamilton,’ his mind snarled at him, ‘get real. You’re a delinquent, remember?’

Dammit. He wanted to argue; wanted to say that he had proof it was self-defense―a vast array of scars ( “He gets into a fight almost every day,” his principal huffed in his ear ), belt lashes and cigarette burns from ages ago ( “He did grow up in slums of the Caribbean, you know,” Pace said with a shrug ), finger-shaped bruises wrapped around his arms and neck like macabre flowers ( “I was trying to get him off me!” his classmate claimed ). He wanted to say that the jury would give him the benefit of the doubt; that he was innocent unless proven guilty―

―but, here he was, a 16-year-old immigrant with long hair and a longer rap sheet.

“You said he wasn’t going to press charges,” he croaked instead, running his tongue over the small split on the inside of his lip where Pace’s fist had made his jaw snap shut around it.

Ms. Muller leaned over to rest her arms against the table, her breaths slow and even. “He isn’t,” she admitted. “But he doesn’t have to. No one is willing to take you in while Pace heals, and you’ve been deemed too dangerous for a group home.”

She paused to inhale deeply again, steadying herself.

“If you go to juvie, even temporarily… it will go on your permanent record.”

He knew that. He knew that. But still, he almost sobbed, hunching in on himself, his hand tugging at the cuffs in a futile attempt to press against his mouth, sealing any more cries in.

Very few prestigious colleges wanted to accept a broke immigrant now, and very few colleges would want to accept a broke immigrant when he aged out of the system.

But no college would be willing to accept a broke immigrant who’d been to juvie before.

And, without any hope of a college education, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t worth a goddamn thing.

Ms. Muller’s hand landed on his, and he might have relaxed in another situation, but, instead, he recoiled, not expecting the touch. She didn’t let go. When he looked up, she was staring at the stack of papers and files she’d dropped onto the table, her mouth set into a firm line.

Eventually, he got ahold of himself. “Is… is that it, then?” he asked numbly, staring into the distance but not really looking at anything. “I’m going to juvie, and that’s that?”

A long pause. That was all the answer he needed, and he closed his eyes, fighting to keep the bile down his throat. This was really it. His entire life was over, all because he couldn’t keep himself from getting thrown out of another foster home. All because he didn’t know when to keep his stupid mouth shut.

It was all over.

Ms. Muller cleared her throat. “Hamilton.” He didn’t bother responding or looking up. She didn’t push, for which he was grateful.

“...Hamilton,” she repeated after a moment. Her voice was cautious; wary. “If that was all there was to it, I would have opened with that.”

Alex’s head snapped up so suddenly that he nearly gave himself whiplash. As a rule, Ms. Muller didn’t startle, but a lesser woman would have jumped out of her seat. She sighed heavily, reaching up to run a hand through her tight curls. “I’m not making any promises,” she warned him, “and I can’t stress enough that you need to be careful not to get your hopes up, but…”

She paused to gather her thoughts.

“...I have an old friend who fosters,” she explained finally. “He lives on the other side of the state, and he doesn’t want more than the adopted kid he has right now, but… if I can convince my higher-ups that he’s equal to the task, I might be able to convince him to take you until Pace is better.”

For the first time, Alexander was thankful for the handcuffs. If it hadn’t been for them, he would have thrown himself over the table and crushed Ms. Muller in a hug right there. As it was, he settled for leaping to his feet and grabbing her hand in both of his, chanting “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over again until his tongue was rubbed raw against the roof of his mouth.

Again, Ms. Muller’s lips tightened, and, again, he knew she was suppressing a smile, not a rebuke. “Don’t get your hopes up,” she reminded him, even as she placed her other hand atop his comfortingly. “Even assuming they let me consider him at all, they might not let me ask him directly, and anyone but me will tell him you’re a violent delinquent who’s likely to attack him or his family at any moment. Basically, this plan revolves entirely around my boss being reasonable, and he really doesn’t like being reasonable.”

Alex choked out a laugh at that, releasing Ms. Muller’s hands; she pulled back, but not before giving his palm one last reassuring squeeze. God, that had been scary. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to be angry at Ms. Muller for letting him panic before revealing her possible out. If she hadn’t, his hopes would have been even higher, and that could only be disastrous.

She cleared her throat, breaking him out of his reverie.

“And, Alex?”

This time, he didn’t shy away, and met her eyes immediately. She looked as intense and earnest as ever, but, for once, he matched the mood evenly, just as serious; fierce determination burning in his chest.

“If they do agree to take you in, do not antagonize him,” she said firmly. “He’s a good man, and I know you are, too, but, above all else, he protects his own. If you give him any indication that you might be a danger to his family…” She paused, then shook her head. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what happens if this placement doesn’t work out.”

Alex gulped, but nodded. “Okay,” he said, praying that his voice wouldn’t waver. “I’ll… I’ll play nice.”

Ms. Muller nodded back.

“I believe you.”

And, with that, she turned and left, pausing only to swipe her files and papers back into her arms. “I should be able to get you out of here within a few hours, since Pace isn’t pressing charges. Don’t make any trouble until then. Hopefully, by the time we see each other again, I’ll be able to tell you whether or not my plan worked out.”

He nodded, even though she wasn’t looking at him anymore. “Alright,” he whispered, a sudden wave of exhaustion crashing into him and draining all of his energy. Too many earth-shattering revelations in one hour, he supposed. Wallowing in his sudden weakness, he almost called out as she turned and made for the door, begging her to stay; brighten up the drab gray surroundings with her brightly-colored clothing and ease the tension with her understanding eyes. Luckily, that same weakness made him too tired to beg, so he was spared the humiliation of losing his only ally because she finally got tired of dealing with him.

Still, he watched her go almost wistfully, her hair bouncing with a bubbly energy that she lacked, barely contained by her bright yellow headband. Just a few hours, he reminded himself as she reached for the buzzer to signal the guards. She would have him out in just a few hours.

She paused, her fingers hovering over the buzzer.

“Hamilton.”

Alex blinked―had she forgotten something? More bad news?―then smiled nervously, refusing to admit that he was fidgeting in his chair already, anticipation quivering in his gut. “Uh, yeah?”

She turned to look over her shoulder. For a moment, she just stared at him, her eyes boring holes into his, as she had a habit of doing. ‘She would have remembered if it was something too terrible,’ he told himself firmly. ‘It can’t be any worse than the news she’s already given.’

For the first time in the years he’d known her, Ms. Muller blinked first.

“Call me by rank after I’ve left, and watch the guards’ faces,” she said, her inflectionless voice not betraying her emotions. Then―was he seeing correctly?―the corners of her mouth twitched up into a light smirk. “I expect a nice, vivid description of their reactions once you’re out of here.”

She pressed the buzzer, and the guards were there immediately, ushering her out and closing the solid gray door behind her.


 

“Kid. We’re here.”

Alexander jolted awake at the unexpected voice, eyes snapping open; soaking in the scenery all at once in the way only foster kids with bad placement history could. No enraged adults in the immediate vicinity. Movement unhindered; wrists and ankles free of rope. Body heavy with the familiar ache of healing wounds, but not any more hurt than it had been when he’d fallen asleep. After a brief, tense moment, he relaxed, if only slightly. Alright.

He realized belatedly that he was in the back of a car. ‘A taxi,’ his brain supplied after a moment, shaking off the vestiges of sleep with some difficulty. ‘Paid in advance by Ms. Muller to take you to―’

Oh.

Right.

Blinking blearily, Alexander eased himself upright, pulling his hood out from between his teeth and ignoring the impressions he’d left in it with his teeth. They were parked up against a curb on what seemed to be a residential block lined with dim streetlights. He couldn’t make out much else through the foggy windows and thick blanket of darkness. It didn’t help that he was sitting on the left of the car, and the curb was to their right.

Yawning, he practically draped himself across the backseat, stretching his stiff body over the upholstery to press his forehead against the chilled window. He could still barely see anything.

He huffed, rolling his eyes. It was the middle of the night―they were so much later than intended; Ms. Muller would not have been happy about this―but, more importantly, it was so dark that he could barely make out his surroundings. If he squinted just right, he could peer through the pitch-black, but…

He blanched.

Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be in the middle of not just a normal residential block, but a street lined with huge houses; practically mansions. He didn’t dare look directly at the one they’d parked in front of, but, judging by the gargantuan buildings backing it on either side, it was probably equally large.

Each house was surrounded by an expanse of immaculately-maintained grass, which would have been enough, but he couldn’t spot a single lawn that wasn’t accentuated with something over-the-top. Winding brick pathways; large marble fountains; carefully-grown flowering vines―he even spotted hedge art. Actual, literal hedge art. Who the hell had hedge art on their lawn?!

For a moment, he was sure it was a trick of the light, or maybe the lack thereof. Surely, Ms. Muller hadn’t managed to find him a new family on such short notice that also happened to be filthy stinkin’ rich. She’d even told him that she knew the man of the household personally, and he knew for a fact that she wasn’t one to fraternize with the rich and pompous. And the rich and pompous probably wouldn’t fraternize with an unapologetic broke social worker who spoke her mind like she did, anyway.

But he rubbed his fists into his eyes, and nothing changed; he was still surrounded by rows of primly-painted houses that were too large to be just optical illusions or figments of his imagination. Damn. He’d been told that this house would be bigger than Pace’s, but still. Damn!

The taxi driver cleared his throat, and Alex jumped, immediately sitting back up straight and practically flinging himself back into his seat. He had completely forgotten that he wasn’t alone.

“It’s already late, kid. You should probably be on your way sooner, not later,” the man muttered, although it was impossible to discern whether he was genuinely worried or just wanted to be on his way. “It’ll only get colder as the wind picks up.”

Alex shivered preemptively, already tugging his hoodie tighter around his shoulders in anticipation. He’d been in America for years, and he still wasn’t used to how cold the weather could get. “Right.” Licking his dry, rough lips, he pointedly ignored the metallic taste of blood where he’d chewed through the inside of his mouth on the way here. “Right. Yeah. I’ll… get going.”

Shifting under the heavy backpack in his lap, he slid one hand under it and hefted it into his arms. Once he’d managed to awkwardly scoot across the backseat to the correct door, he slid hastily out onto the curb with uncooperative legs. They weren’t quite asleep, but they were weak and tingling after being crushed under his bag for the entire ride here. He could feel familiar aches rekindling in his thighs, and he winced. That was the last thing he needed right now.

It took him a moment to remember that he was the only one getting off here. Ms. Muller hadn’t come, citing an understaffing and a recent surge of runaways as the reason for her unavailability. She wasn’t here to walk him to the door this time. He was on his own.

“Uh―thanks,” he said lamely, not sure if he was allowed to go―but the driver just nodded curtly. After an uncomfortable pause, he swung the door shut, and the taxi pulled away almost immediately, its taillights vanishing around the corner. Alex couldn’t blame the man; it had been a long, arduous ride, and he probably wanted to be back home before midnight.

The reminder of just how late it was came unbidden, and he winced. They’d meant to get here hours ago; just in time for dinner. Ms. Muller had chosen his arrival time very deliberately, telling him point-blank that she wanted him to be eating when they met so he wouldn’t talk as much. “It’ll take them some time to get used to that big mouth of yours,” she had told him bluntly, but not unkindly.

It crossed his mind that he should probably have been offended, but, hey―she wasn’t wrong. Besides, he’d always appreciated the fact that she was so honest with him, and it was refreshing to know that she cared―she cared so much that she had honestly taken everything into account to help him make a good first impression, and he’d managed to screw it up by being late; several hours late―

Guilt coiled around his throat, but he quickly waved it away.

No―as tempting as it was, he wasn’t going to blame himself for this. It wasn’t his fault that they’d gotten stuck in gridlock on the way here. He didn’t control the traffic. Hell, he didn’t even control when he left; that decision fell to Ms. Muller.

Not that he fooled himself into thinking his new foster parents would see it that way. In all honesty, he probably wouldn’t see it that way, either, if someone kept him up this late waiting for some uncontrollable teenager.

A sudden jolt of panic hit him, and he felt his entire body go rigid. They… had waited up for him, hadn’t they? They hadn’t just assumed he wasn’t coming and gone to bed? Or, worse―gotten fed up with him and decided not to foster him after all?

He swallowed something cold and sharp. God, that would be bad―besides the fact that he needed this placement to work out, he had no way of getting back: no money, no car, and no phone to call Ms. Muller with. He didn’t even know how to get out of this damned row of mansions. In a normal neighborhood, he might be able to sleep in the street―not ideal in this weather, but he would survive―but this was Rich People Boulevard. Someone would call the cops on him so fast his head would spin.

He cursed his hastiness, digging his fingernails into his palms; he should never have let the taxi leave without even checking to make sure he had a way in. Or what if he was at the wrong house? He should never have let the taxi leave, period, no matter how awkward it was to ask it to stay; he should never have fallen asleep on the road, no matter how little sleep he’d gotten lately; he should never have gone berserk and broken Pace’s leg…

…Except he didn’t regret that. Not even slightly.

Not after what that asshole had said about his mother.

Squelching the uneasiness that swelled out from his stomach, he once again ran his tongue over his ragged lips, hoping that they weren’t visibly bloody. No―no, they wouldn’t leave him out in the cold. They couldn’t. There was totally a law against that or something. Plus, Ms. Muller had told him that they were good people, and she was always honest with him.

“I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him,” she had warned him drily as she drove him to Mr. Pace’s house for the first time. “But he’s probably the least suspicious of the three placements who offered, and he has a phone, so you can call me if things get bad.”

“They do good things, but for all the wrong reasons,” she’d told him as they were parked in front of the Buchanans’ house. “It’s hard to explain.” Leaning over the console, she had handed him a handful of granola bars and two bottles of water. “Save these. Try not to ask them for much. Eat at night, when they’re both asleep, if you can.”

“Miss Green is known for helping abused kids.” He remembered with perfect clarity how her lip had curled in a rare display of disgust. “By which I mean she likes prying into their past and making herself the ‘hero’ who ‘saves’ them. Pretend not to notice when she snoops. And always lock your bedroom door.”

( “I can’t quite get a good read on them. They seem nice enough, but…” )

He hastily shoved those thoughts out of his mind, shaking his head harshly. Several strands of hair fell into his face as his bun loosened further. Blowing them over his ear, he inhaled sharply and turned on his heel to inspect the house he would be living in for the next few months, or however long it took for Pace’s leg to heal ( ‘Oh, please. I give it two weeks, tops, before they get sick of you,’ his mind sneered at him).

Compared to the other houses he could see along the same street, it was actually quite modest. Not at all lacking in size, mind you, but much more sensibly decorated. There was no hedge art, at the very least. Pure white paint and a vivid red roof made it stand out from the green grass, and it didn’t bother with much else in the way of decorations; its defining feature seemed to be the driveway, which formed a perfect circle leading up to the front porch.

Lips firmly pressed together to make sure he didn’t bite them, Alexander swung his backpack over one shoulder and started to walk.

The circular drive was a long, annoying detour, but he didn’t want to risk stepping on the grass. He doubted these people (he’d already forgotten their names) would want him trampling their perfect lawn. Which was completely reasonable, he reminded himself, trying not to be bitter. Just because the affluent saw no problem with parading their wealth while his mother had to work ceaselessly just to keep them afloat―

‘Stop. You don’t have time for this right now.’

For as long as it felt, the walk only took a moment. Too quickly, he was stepping onto the porch, his dingy sneakers standing out against the crisp white wood. The house was even bigger up close, looming over him ominously. He felt like he was standing in front of a monster about to devour him whole, or maybe that was a little dramatic.

Sighing, Alex dropped his bag onto the ground beside him with a dull thud and glanced down at himself, teeth seizing his bottom lip with a vengeance. His old graphic t-shirt covered up the myriad of bruises on his chest, and he could pull the long, baggy sleeves of his hoodie over the angry red abrasions on his wrists, but what of his swollen, discolored knuckles? What of the hand-shaped marks on his neck, bruised so deeply that Pace’s fingerprints felt ingrained into his skin? They were still fresh and blatant; a dark sprawl of blacks, purples, and blues. A reminder of why he needed a home so desperately in the first place.

Flaunting them wasn’t exactly in his best interests at the moment.

Another weary sigh escaped him. He pretended that it didn’t make his chest ache. Reaching up to undo his bun, which was already plenty loose from his impromptu nap in the taxi, he let his long hair fall down over his shoulders. Shimmying his hoodie up as far on his collarbone as it would go, he tucked his hair into the front of it, wrapping the thick strands around his neck. This, at least, created a sort of barrier to hide the marks from prying eyes. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do until the bruises faded.

As for his knuckles… well, he would stuff them in his pockets when he could and let his sleeves take care of the rest. Even though he would look terrible and ragged no matter what, with his old, baggy clothes, and his long, scraggly hair, and his hoodie with deep teeth impressions in the hood that he didn’t have the strength to explain.

But he could play it off. He would play it off. If he acted right, maybe these people wouldn’t focus on his appearance. So he would just have to focus on maintaining his good attitude. There weren’t exactly many other options if he wanted this placement to last.

…And he didn’t just want it to last. He needed it to last.

Just about everyone he’d seen between Pace’s house and here had told him very explicitly that this was a last resort. He’d made lots of enemies during his time in the system―they hated him; the kid who caused more trouble than he was worth and always claimed self-defense―and they all made sure to rub it in that literally no one wanted him.

No foster families wanted him, obviously. None of the group homes wanted him; they all told Ms. Muller that he belonged in juvie, not in a home with several other kids for him to victimize. Even these people, whose names he should probably double-check, hadn’t wanted him, but they’d reluctantly acquiesced when Ms. Muller called in a favor and personally vouched for him.

This placement wasn’t permanent, of course―Pace was still planning on fostering him once his leg healed. (He wouldn’t be able to strike the boy for a while, when CPS was keeping a closer eye on them, but soon enough he’d get his chance, and Alex no longer had the option to fight back. Or, hell, maybe Pace would tie him down this time. It didn’t matter much; either way, he was now helpless against the man, and they both knew it.)

But he had nowhere else to go, and it would be at least two months until Pace was ready to take him in again. Probably closer to three or four months, honestly. If this placement didn’t work out…

( “If you go to juvie, even temporarily… it will go on your permanent record.” )

It took all of his willpower not to chew on his lip again. Mauling himself wouldn’t help. He had to focus on nailing this introduction, because he knew better than anyone that a good first impression was crucial in a placement. These people―and he should really take a glance at their names, scribbled haphazardly on a folded-up piece of paper in his backpack―had every right to kick him out if he didn’t present himself well, and he had every reason to believe they would.

“All they know is that you’re a known delinquent and you broke your last foster father’s leg,” Ms. Muller had said. “I told them you’re a good kid, but you can’t fault them for being suspicious.”

(“Above all else, he protects his own. If you give him any indication that you might be a danger to his family…” Ms. Muller had said.)

He shook his head.

‘I will make this work,’ he told himself, even as mutinous thoughts ran through his brain. ‘I will survive,’ he told himself, even as his bruises throbbed, reminding him just where his last home had gotten him. ‘I will keep my mouth shut, as much as it hurts. I will be a model citizen. I will show these people that I’m worth something. I’ll show them all.’

And, even though he should have rooted through his bag for the paper with their names on it and smoothed down his greasy hair one last time and made sure his hoodie was on perfectly straight and scraped the dried mud off of the knees of his jeans―

Even though he should have done all that, he just sucked in as much air as his lungs could hold and reached for the doorbell, his finger trembling.

‘I am not throwing away my shot.’

Ding-dong.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t much of a wait. Within maybe twenty seconds, he could hear soft voices and hasty footsteps, muffled by the heavy door but steadily growing louder.

As soon as he heard the tell-tale click of the lock turning, Alex backed away and stuffed his hands into his pockets (which looked totally natural, he reassured himself. Not suspicious at all). Then the door was swinging open, clipping his bag on the way ( crap; he should have been more careful where he dropped it ) and he was frantically reminding himself not to shrink back; not to take a defensive stance―

A couple stepped into the doorway, bathed in the light that streamed out from the house.

They were similar in age to Ms. Muller: not quite elderly yet, but not exactly young, either. The similarities continued in the woman of the two, who shared Ms. Muller’s wispy graying hair and petite frame. Her face was much gentler, though; much softer. Alex wasn’t sure whether to relax or recoil, because this woman looked like she bled cherry Kool-Aid, but there was a definite firmness belying it; the aura of someone who wasn’t there to take anyone’s shit.

Standing by her side― don’t flinch, don’t withdraw, don’t tense up ―was a man who had to be at least six feet tall, probably taller; athletically built with broad shoulders. He had large hands, like Mr. Pace, but the similarities stopped there. Head smooth, and face smoother; expression carefully schooled. Skin a few tones darker than the woman’s. Sharp eyes: not cruel, but stern. Muscles corded thick. Large hands; maybe even larger than Pace’s; large enough to encircle his throat and strangle him; large enough for one to engulf both of his wrists, pinning him down effortlessly while the other―

“You must be Alexander,” the woman said warmly, and he snapped to attention, frantically kicking his panic back into the corners of his mind and thanking every deity whose name he knew that it was so dark out; that they couldn’t see his shoulders stiffen. ‘Calm down, Hamilton.’

Belatedly, he remembered that the woman had asked him a question. “Yeah,” he said quietly, feeling his back straighten automatically. “Alexander Hamilton.” The man raised an eyebrow, and he winced despite himself. ‘Smooth, Hamilton. Truly eloquent. Where are those fancy words that always get you into trouble? The one time you actually need them, and you couldn’t spit out anything better than ‘yeah’. The trip here was long, but the trip to juvie is gonna be even longer―’

A hand stretched toward him, and he didn’t flinch, but it was a close thing. Curling his toes into the soggy loam of his sneakers and digging his teeth into his lower lip, he fought down his knee-jerk reaction to flee as he stared at the large palm hovering in front of him.

“George Washington.” The man’s volume was carefully controlled, but his voice boomed anyway, echoing straight into Alex’s bones with the unyielding edge of a command: meant to be obeyed immediately and without question. If he shivered a bit too violently for it to be from the cold, the man―Mr. Washington―didn’t say anything. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, son.”

Three distinct urges struck Alex all at once. One: to laugh―because it was really hard to take someone seriously when they introduced themselves with ‘it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance’ , no matter how intimidating they were. Two: to slap the hand aside and snarl “Don’t call me son,” threats of juvie be damned. Or, three: to stumble back, frantically putting as much distance between himself and this huge, strong, dangerous man as possible.

Amazingly, he stifled all three. “The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Washington, sir,” he said on autopilot, training his eyes firmly on the man’s shirt collar. After a moment of hesitation, he clamped his teeth around his lip one last time and withdrew a hand from his pocket, sliding it into Mr. Washington’s too quickly for either of the adults to see how bruised it was.

Washington’s grip was strong, and Alex unconsciously tightened his own to mirror it, ignoring the resulting pulse of pain from his tender knuckles. ‘Just keep your eyes down,’ he told himself, seconds before glancing up and meeting the man’s gaze head-on. ‘Dammit.’

So much for that. He longed to look back down at his feet, but it was too late now; he was already locked in place. Squirming slightly, he channeled every last ounce of indifference left in his body―which wasn’t much, unfortunately―and tried to keep his face blank.

Mr. Washington, for his part, merely looked curious, but his eyes were keen and piercing anyway. Not like Pace’s eyes; more like Ms. Muller’s. They both stared right through you, stripping you down to your core and baring your deepest secrets with little more than a glance. Shivering, Alex clenched his free hand into a fist, glad that it was still hidden in his pocket. Now it was making a little more sense that this man and Ms. Muller were friends. They’d probably bonded over how terrifying it was to look them directly in the eye.

But Washington still hadn’t let go, and a rod of ice-cold panic lanced through Alex’s chest when he finally put a finger on the man’s facial expression. He looked expectant. He looked like he was waiting for something. But what? Had he missed something? Was he supposed to be saying something? Could Washington feel the puffiness of his knuckles? Could he see the handprints around his neck or the bite marks in his hood? Had he noticed the trembling and tension; had he picked up on Alexander’s panic; had he―?

―And, just like that, the handshake was over, Washington withdrawing his hand as suddenly as he’d offered it. “It’s cold out here,” he said, stepping aside and beckoning the boy forward. “Why don’t you step inside, son?”

It wasn’t a suggestion. Alex stepped over the threshold almost robotically, dragging his backpack behind him; he wasn’t sure he had the mental presence to pick it up. His heart wasn’t quite racing, but it was definitely beating faster and louder than usual. Logically, he knew the handshake had only lasted for a few seconds, but it had been more than intense. If this was what it felt like just to be in the presence of George Washington, then maybe he would be better off just trying his luck in juvie after all.

One last shiver racked his shoulders as Washington swung the door shut behind them, and he barely even noticed when the lock click ed into place.

“...but, please, just call me Martha,” the woman was saying when he tuned back in, suppressing his pounding pulse with some effort. “I get more than enough ‘Mrs. Washington’ at the capital. Oh―and just leave your shoes by the door, dear.”

Kicking off his sneakers, Alex nodded blankly as if he understood, although he was feeling like he understood this couple less and less every second. Then the words really sunk in. ‘Wait―the capital?’

He was half a breath away from saying as much when, fortunately, Martha kept talking, saving him from both embarrassing himself and possibly upsetting them. “Are you hungry?” she asked, a frown crossing her face as she stared at his hoodie, which hung loose around him. “We finished dinner a while ago, but I can heat some up for you if you want.”

“...Um?” It was official; he really was understanding these two less and less every second. He was a little too numb to be guilty, but he mustered up a slight blush anyway, scratching the back of his head. “N-no, thank you.” After a moment, he remembered how beat-up his hand was and immediately shoved it back into his pocket, jarring his recently-relocated knuckle against his hip.

Whether or not she believed him, he honestly couldn’t tell, but, either way, she smiled at him disarmingly. “That’s a first in this house,” she joked, her gentle smile morphing into a grin. “Our other boy, Gilbert, can never seem to get enough.”

Alexander’s mouth opened and closed. Oh. Oh. Right. How had he forgotten?―Ms. Muller had specifically told him to remember that the Washingtons had a son: a French immigrant who was named, in her own words, “blah blah Gilbert something-or-other Lafayette”.

“I think Gilbert’s bottomless stomach has less to do with his appetite and more to do with your cooking, dear,” Mr. Washington cut in, a lighthearted tilt to his voice, and Alex startled out of his panic as soon as it had begun.

“Flattery will get you nowhere, George,” Martha quipped back, but she was smiling. “You’re still not exempt from the seconds rule.”

Washington let out a fake groan of defeat, snapping his fingers, but Alex was only half listening. It seemed so surreal―he barely knew these people, and already they were joking around in his presence, as if he wasn’t even there? If they truly thought he was a dangerous thug like Ms. Muller said, then how were they acting so… casual? Why weren’t they throwing him wary looks and keeping plenty of empty space between his body and theirs? Failing that, why weren’t they pinning him in place with heated glares and harshly shoving him through the house? Ever since his reputation went from bad to “violent, murderous delinquent”, the only people who hadn’t held him at arm’s length were Ms. Muller, Pace, and the LeBla―

―but he. was. not. thinking. about. that. so he cut himself off there.

For a minute or so, an uncomfortable silence hung heavily between the three. Then

Martha yawned, stretching one arm over her head and rolling her shoulders with a satisfying crack. “Well,” she whispered, her voice quieting suddenly, and Alexander unconsciously shrunk down as if to make himself less visible. “It’s getting pretty late. We should all probably be shuffling off to bed.”

Mr. Washington stepped forward and grabbed his shoulder. He saw it coming; saw the man reach forward in what felt like slow-motion; tried to stifle his flinch and almost succeeded. “You go without me, hun; I’ll show Alexander to his room,” Washington volunteered, shooting his wife a quick, easy smile.

Alex’s stomach dropped.

He was vaguely aware that the hand had left his shoulder. Martha spoke―wishing him good night, he thought―but he could barely hear her through the sound of his heart in his ears, much less process the words. Swallowing, he nodded anyway, pretending that the room wasn’t spinning around him; that he wasn’t swaying, his throat tight.

Washington sounded eager to be alone with him; eager to lead him through an unfamiliar house to a room that he couldn’t know would be his own, hand heavy on his shoulder, weighing; restraining. Eager to― ‘get rid of you so he can sleep, not assault you; good lord, Hamilton, calm down―’ to teach him the rules of the household in painstaking detail― ‘maybe, but not to beat them into you; he doesn’t even hate you yet, you idiot―’

Yeah. Yeah, of course. He was fine.

Deep breaths, Hamilton.

Forcibly relaxing his tense muscles, he resolutely avoided looking at Mr. Washington; instead, he waved at Martha as she plodded up the stairs, trying to twist his mouth into something that resembled a smile. She grinned back at him so widely, so warmly, that he almost felt bad; no faded half-grimace of his could possibly live up to that . He looked almost irritable by comparison.

And then she rounded the top of the staircase and vanished, leaving him alone with―

‘Are you always this paranoid? Don’t answer that; I know you are, but still ―’

“Well―” Alex snapped to attention as Mr. Washington’s voice jerked him out of his thoughts. “―why don’t I show you to your room?”

Hastily shoving his pessimism into the back of his mind, Alexander swung his backpack over his shoulder and took off after Washington, who had turned to face the staircase and was already briskly striding away, unaware that he’d left Alex in his dust.

Alex allowed himself only one last wistful glance at the door.

It took some doing, but he managed to catch up with Washington before the man could leave him behind completely. “You’ll be staying in the room nearest Gilbert’s,” he said as Alex fell into step behind him, “but I’m afraid introductions will have to wait until tomorrow, as he’s already asleep.” At this, he huffed out what might have been a laugh, or maybe an irritated sigh. “He was quite upset that he couldn’t stay up to meet you, but, once it hit nine, we had to put our foot down.”

Alex winced and sped up. Was that a jab at his tardiness? Probably; it was rather late, even for a Saturday. It wasn’t his fault, though; there had been traffic, and he wasn’t the one who chose to set off so late.

…Only that didn’t matter; what mattered was that he was not only imposing himself on this family on short notice, he was imposing himself on them in the middle of the night, and, God, Alexander, it’s been less than five minutes and you already pissed off their son―y’know, the one who you were specifically instructed not to piss off?―haven’t even met him yet, and he already hates you; that has to be a new record―“Sorry, Mr. Washington,” he said hurriedly, almost as an afterthought.

Another indistinct noise, but―no, that one was definitely a laugh. “No need to apologize, son,” Washington reassured, and he choked down his immediate instinct to snap don’t call me son. “I’m sure Gilbert will be happy to meet you in the morning. By the way―” They had reached the top of the stairs― “is it ‘Alexander’?”

“Yes,” Hamilton responded automatically, struggling to match pace with the man’s long strides. His legs, as always, were burning in protest, and his less-than-noteworthy height wasn’t helping matters. Curse you, genetics… “Alexander Hamilton,” he added after a moment.

Mr. Washington stopped suddenly, and Hamilton flinched, stumbling to a halt mere inches from a collision. “No, what I mean is: what do you go by?” Washington clarified, glancing over his shoulder; Alex scampered a few steps away from him, as if afraid he’d be caught standing too close. “Alexander? Alex?”

He blinked. “...Oh.” Now this he hadn’t encountered before. Most placements just defaulted to ‘Hamilton’; except for Mr. LeBl―and he. was. not. thinking. about. that . But, if Washington was going out of his way to ask, did that mean he didn’t want to call him Hamilton? He had offered two options― Alexander or Alex . Was the idea supposed to be ‘which one of these should I call you’?

He took a deep breath. No―no, he was overthinking this. ‘Like you do with most things nowadays.’ Glancing down at his feet, he muttered, “Um… well, I…”

‘Um―well―I―’ his mind mocked in an exaggerated stutter. ‘C’mon, Hamilton, use your words. You never shut up until you actually have a reason to talk―’

He crushed the voice and clenched his fists in his pockets. “I usually just go by ‘Hamilton’.”

Washington raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

With a decisive nod, Alex opened his mouth to confirm, and words immediately began to tumble out without permission.

“Well, there was another Alexander in my first foster home, and we couldn’t both go by ‘Alexander’, because that would be far too confusing, especially since the parents had a hard time remembering our names even without having to distinguish between two ‘Alexander’s. And saying ‘Alex’ was still too ambiguous, because there was also an Alexis in the house―poor planning on the social worker’s part, really―but, in any case, I went by Hamilton to avoid confusion, for our foster parents’ sake, and it kinda stuck.”

‘Shut up,’ his brain hissed at him, ‘he didn’t ask for a sermon.’ But, like a car with its brakes cut, he couldn’t stop now that he was going. “I mean, I tried going by ‘Al’, too, but it just didn’t fit; probably because it’s monosyllabic and I never seem to shut up, so a long name suits me. At one point, the other Alexander began calling me ‘A.Ham’, but it was too confusing to say out loud―it sounded too much like he was actually calling me a ham, so the teachers thought he was making fun of me. Honestly, I think it should have been obvious, but there was nothing I could do about it.”

‘God, stop talking, you’re gonna get yourself beat to hell again before you even have a chance to heal up from Pace―’

“And Alexis said it was actually pretty ironic, because, honestly, I didn’t have any meat on my bones back then, so it was strange that the teachers would assume he was calling me a ham, when, really, calling me a twig would have been more accurate. Besides, everyone always had to ask me how “A.Ham” was written, which got old fast. We tried ‘Xander’, too, but that never stuck―”

‘He’s three words from throwing you out, Hamilton; just shut your mouth! You can’t afford to go to juvie; not now; not when you’re just two years away from finally going to college and being worth something for once in your god damned life―’

Mr. Washington cleared his throat, and that was what it took to stop him. Alex immediately clammed up, mouth still open; caught mid-rant. Finally looking up, he caught an incredulous look aimed at him and flinched despite his best efforts to suppress it.

A moment passed. Alex pressed his lips tightly together. His top lip was chapped and jagged; the bottom was raw and swollen. Beating wildly, his heart leaped into his ears, then sunk back down into his throat; he could feel his face flush crimson. “M’sorry,” he muttered when Mr. Washington made no move to speak, barely daring to open his mouth for fear of losing control of his tongue again.

For another minute or so, there was silence. He was distantly aware that Washington was still staring; not angrily (not yet, at least), but curiously, his gaze heavy and sharp, as if Alexander was a particularly intriguing puzzle. Then he stepped forward, bridging the gap between them, and stretched out his hand.

Mr. Washington would not strike him. That much, he knew. Even the LeB―the worst placement he’d ever had― he remembered them in his dreams more often than not, and always woke screaming― even they hadn’t hit him the first day.

And the Washingtons weren’t like them. They were just a regular family who didn’t know what they were getting into. The fastest he’d ever been hit by someone from that kind of family was on the third day, and that was when he punched Mr. Buchanan and, naturally, had gotten a punch in return.

No, this man was not going to strike him. Hopefully not for something petty. Probably not for another forty-eight hours. Certainly not for ranting about his choice of nomenclature.

But, when Washington’s hand came to rest heavily on his shoulder, the space between them gone, he flinched all the same, eyes squeezing shut, ice water trickling down his spine.

His breath hitched, and then it was silent.

The hand stayed on his shoulder, but he was not beaten. For a moment, they just stood there, silent. Then, slowly but surely, Washington’s free hand landed on his other shoulder, its grip firm but not restricting. Grounding. Alex’s eyes snapped open.

“Son,” Washington said, his voice remarkably even, “speaking is not punishable in this house.”

Alex stared. A belated spike of adrenaline seared through his veins, his fists tight at his sides; the words “I’m not your son” frozen to the back of his tongue.

Speaking is not punishable in this house. Ha. It was easy to say that when you’d only just met him; when you hadn’t been subjected to one of his infamous endless rants; when you’d never heard him spend three hours going off on a single tangent.

…It had taken Margaret, his best host, two weeks to scream, “God, shut up!”

“Son?” Washington asked, concern coloring his voice; the hands on his shoulders gave a reassuring squeeze, bringing him back to reality.

Damn him, damn him, damn him, but he looked up, eyes wide and pleading, and said―no, practically whimpered; breathless and desperate―

“Don’t call me son.”

Washington met his gaze steadily, still holding on to his shoulders. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it; his face remained impassive. It was both reassuring and terrifying.

“Then what should I call you?” he asked, his voice very soft, and Alexander was suddenly acutely aware of how quiet it was. In the dead of night, with Martha and their son soundly asleep in their beds, only he and George were stirring, and the only sounds were the soft whooshes of their breaths.

Swallowing, he fixed his eyes resolutely on the collar of Mr. Washington’s button-up shirt. “Alex is fine,” he said, shoulders drawing close to his neck. Call me whatever the hell you like, let’s just forget this ever happened.

For a few more moments, the hands stayed on his shoulders, and he fidgeted under them despite himself, already anticipating the sudden switch from gentle to unforgiving; already feeling them slide up to his throat; hoisting him by the neck and lifting him so the two were eye-to-eye, his feet kicking uselessly in the air; they would want to see his face twist in pain as he cried out―

Washington withdrew his hands.

“In that case, I insist you call me George.”

And, just like that, the conversation was over. Turning sharply, Washington―no, George―kept walking, moving so suddenly that Alex took off after him without even really thinking about it, moist socks scrambling for traction on the well-polished wooden floor.

“Like I said,” George continued, as if he had never been interrupted, “you’ll have the guest room closest to Gilbert’s.” A pause; his shoulders twitched with another harsh exhale that Alex assumed (or hoped) was a laugh. “Although I suppose ‘guest room’ is subjective. Gilbert’s friend John comes over so often that he practically lives here.”

That caught his attention. Although he didn’t speak, Alex bristled at the thought of taking someone else’s room, shame burning hot in his stomach.

George seemed to sense his unease. “Don’t worry,” he said, as if Alex had voiced his misgivings aloud. “It was actually John’s idea, so you don’t have to worry about angering him. I’m sure he’ll just commandeer another guest room in due time. He has a habit of taking over a space very quickly, you see. But this was the only room we could get prepared for you on such short notice.”

Oh―right. It was easy to forget that they’d had barely a day to prepare for him. He tried not to feel too bad about that.

They turned a corner into a disconcerting hall of nearly identical doors, and Alex started. As soon as his surprise faded, he started scolding himself for not paying any attention to where George was taking him. It seemed like they’d just left the staircase, and, already, he’d completely lost track of where they were. That would probably come back to bite him later when he needed to get through the house on his own, or when he was running from an irate George, completely lost, soon hitting a dead end, trapped―

‘Do you ever shut up?’

“Here we are,” George said, stopping outside of one of the rooms, and he shook the errant thoughts out of his head, grimacing. “Unless you have any objections, this is where you’ll be staying.”

Right. As if he would have any objections. As if he could voice them if he did.

Nodding absently, Alex hiked his backpack up higher on his shoulders and reached for the knob, hoping no one would look at his knuckles too closely. As soon as he’d pushed the door open, he tossed his bag into the unlit room and quickly shoved both hands back into his pockets, turning around to face Washington again.

“We’ve probably gotten all of John’s stuff out of there, but if you find some random things lying around, just give them to Gilbert in the morning, okay?” George said to fill the silence. Alex nodded, but didn’t respond. “Do you need any help getting unpacked?” Alex hurriedly shook his head.

“Alright.” He smiled slightly, and Alex couldn’t help but smile back, although his felt cold and insincere in comparison. “Well, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”

Alex nodded, although he had no intention of bothering them more than he already had. Hopefully, if he made it perfectly clear that he wanted to be left alone without being too rude about it, George would retire for the night, but wouldn’t feel the need to punish him for his impudence in the morning. ( ‘They won’t hurt you,’ he reminded himself for the umpteenth time. ‘They’re good.’ )

George seemed to get the message. “Good night, then,” he said simply, and Alex caught the tail-end of one last smile before he was gone, his footsteps echoing away in the otherwise silent hall.

By the time Alexander realized that he probably should have returned the sentiment and bid George a good night as well, it was too late; the footsteps had already faded.

Shit.

‘Nope. Nope, not gonna get hung up on that. Go the hell to sleep, Hamilton.’

Stepping back inside, he swung the door shut, flicked on the lights, and shut the door behind him.

It was just a door; nothing special. What really caught his eye, though, was the small lock that rested easily underneath the knob. Staring down at the innocent piece of metal, Alex bit his lip.

Slowly, he reached forward and turned the bar. With a satisfying click, the deadbolt shimmied into place, and he immediately felt some of the tension drain from his muscles. Knowing that someone would have to break down the door to get to him was… nice. Relaxing.

‘God, you’re weird,’ his mind hissed at him, and he cringed, his good mood vanishing. ‘You seriously can only feel safe when you’re behind bars? What a freak. Maybe you’re just a masochist. Maybe you liked everything that happened to you with the LeB―’

But he was not thinking about that .

Pushing the voice aside with a sigh, Alexander finally turned and glanced at his temporary lodgings.

George hadn’t been kidding: apparently, this “John” really had practically lived in this room―because this didn’t feel like a guest room at all. He couldn’t pinpoint it, but it felt much more lively than the usual guest rooms he was afforded.

Like everything else in this house, it was also pretty damn big, but that was relatively unimportant. In the corner, across from the bed, he spotted another door, half-open―an actual attached bathroom. Jeez, these people were rich.

Not that he was complaining, because he immediately hurried inside, wet his hands in the sink, and reached up to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Holy Hell, Washington was intimidating.

As soon as his forehead had dripped dry, Alex slipped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him. ‘Okay. Pull yourself together, Hamilton.’ Pointedly ignoring the large armoire he saw in the corner, empty and waiting to be used, Alex dragged his backpack over to lean against the nightstand at the head of the bed.

It had been a long, long day. But, when he sat on the edge of the bed, easily sinking into the plush mattress, he was still surprised to feel his eyelids droop in exhaustion. For most people, that would be nothing new, but for him? Usually, his nervous energy would slowly build up within him as the day progressed, becoming an urgent need to write; to get his thoughts out on paper as soon as possible.

But, as he eased himself onto his side, letting his muscles relax against the downy green comforter, it was as if someone had drilled a hole in his brain and was letting the words drain out. His limbs felt heavy and unresponsive, and he got the distinct impression that, even if he could form the words in his mind, he couldn’t form them with a pen.

Faintly, he remembered to peel off his sodden socks, letting them drop ungracefully to the floor, before tugging back the duvet and wriggling his way underneath. It surrounded him in a cocoon of warmth, and he could feel the stress ebb out of his bones.

The last time he’d been in a bed this luxurious…

...had been…

...the… LeBlancs…

‘Wait.’

His eyes snapped open, his entire body stiffening. Of course―in his sudden bout of exhaustion, he’d almost forgotten.

Shifting, he tugged his hood over his shoulder, biting down on it hard. The hoodie was old, and especially threadbare around where he usually bit, but it would do. With that, he settled back down, closing his eyes, again, but―

‘Dammit.’ It was no use―his miraculous calm was destroyed. And wasn’t that just great? Groaning, he spit out the hood and flipped onto his back, hair splaying out around him like a lion’s mane. The lights were still on, and it occurred to him that he should probably turn them off if he planned on going to sleep, but he couldn’t be bothered. Not when it meant leaving the comfort of the bed and abandoning any lingering traces of the serenity he’d found.

...It really was a nice bed, restless though he was. The sheets were smooth, soft, and warm, and this was definitely the most comfortable mattress he’d ever been on. It was almost odd to be so relaxed after he’d lived so long with crappy futons and fold-out couches. Shifting slightly, he pressed himself further into the cushy material with a contented sigh, eyes fluttering shut. He could definitely get used to this.

‘Even though you shouldn’t, because you’re only going to be here for a few months at most, and that’s assuming you don’t get kicked out within days once they realize that you’ll do nothing but hurt them―’

His entire body jerked like he’d been physically struck as he forced the thoughts down, simultaneously swallowing the bile that had arisen in his throat. No―no, this wasn’t helping. He needed to sleep so that he could make a good impression on the Washingtons’ son tomorrow morning.

‘A good impression? Don’t make me laugh. Even if he doesn’t already hate you, which is a pretty big ‘if’, you’re going to drive him off within minutes. I give you an hour, tops . Or, hell, maybe he won’t even try to make friends. Maybe he’ll skip the fake friendship and skip straight to the beatings, and that’s why Ms. Muller warned you about him. And you know the Washingtons will side with him. Looks like we’re doing the LeBlancs all over again―’

...But, dammit, as usual, his mind wouldn’t shut up . So, instead, he leaned over the side of the bed, reached down to his backpack, and hoisted it up beside him. Unzipping the largest pocket, he slid out the first notebook he touched, pushing aside a wrinkled t-shirt that was in the way, and paused to grab a pencil from the water bottle pocket on the side.

Flipping to the last page he’d written on, he smirked lightly. The first thing he’d done upon retrieving his belongings from Pace’s house was immortalize the utterly priceless expression on those guards’ faces when he casually mentioned how fond he was of Major General Rosalie Muller. Prose wasn’t exactly his strong suit, but it was practically his civic duty to record the way their eyes had widened, mouths falling open, and the one on the left had finally sneezed in the shock.

At the time, he’d been too numb to laugh, but afterwards it seemed the funniest thing in the world. If only his words could do it justice. But it wouldn’t do to dwell on his imperfect descriptors, so he started to write, beginning with a slash mark so that he would know when the last entry ended and this one began.

It didn’t take him long to decide on a topic. Within seconds, his pencil was scratching madly against the paper, forming vague, scrawled words about the intrinsic flaws of the American foster care system. It was his go-to topic; the one he fell back on whenever he just needed to vent without really thinking. At this point, he’d written so many scathing essays on the subject, he could probably pump out a flawless fifty-page thesis paper within minutes.

The curtains were still drawn, so he paid no mind to the changing color of the sky outside; the motion of his pencil on the paper consumed his every thought. As the words escaped, his pace began to slow, the cogs within his mind finally working themselves to a stop once more. Pages later, he began to wind his essay to a close as well, wrapping up with one last creative insult directed at whoever conceptualized the foster care system.

This time, there was no sudden burst of panic. ‘Remember the LeBlancs,’ his mind whispered. He remembered. Dropping his pencil onto the covers, he twisted his sweater until the hood was in the front, then bit down into the thick material, feeling his teeth rest easily in the indents they’d made over the years. It was a familiar feeling; a constant. Despite it all, he relaxed.

His last thoughts were of George’s kind words and Mr. LeBlanc’s dangerous, silky baritone as he drifted into a fitful sleep.

“All you have to do is say the word, and this all stops, Alexander…”

“Son, speaking is not punishable in this house.”

Chapter Text

He was laying on a bed.

It was comfortable. Extremely comfortable. The mattress was plush and soft underneath him, molding to the shape of his body, but he didn’t sink too far into it. There was just enough tension to perfectly support the curve of his back. A far cry from his usual stiff futon.

On either side of him, he could see pale blue paint―or maybe more of a lilac? It was hard to tell in the dark. Translucent curtains had been pulled over the windows, letting in only a bit of sunlight. It took him a moment to realize that there were curtains around the bed, too, though they were pulled back. A canopy, he realized. He was in a canopy bed.

‘This is not my room,’ he realized.

‘This is not my bed,’ he realized.

His head felt foggy and stuffed with cotton; it was hard to really comprehend anything around him. Numbly, without letting anything sink in, he analyzed his surroundings. Under his head―a downy pillow. Draped across his bare chest―a light linen blanket. Pressed against his aching back―smooth, silky bedsheets. Everything comfortable and gentle and much more luxurious than he was used to.

Twitching, he curled his fingers, clutching weakly at the mattress underneath him as if it was trying to throw him off. The gauzy sheets caught on his jagged fingernails, but he barely noticed over the twinge of pain that jolted through his arms when he moved. Groaning, he shifted, trying to push himself onto his elbows.

A wave of burning hot pain crashed across his body, from the base of his neck to the backs of his ankles.

Before he could even get off the bed, he was collapsing back onto it with a strangled gasp. Head pounding, he screwed his eyes shut, tightly gripping the sheets and arching his back. Pins and needles assaulted his arms, and pain curled tightly in the small of his back, stretching its fingers down toward his rear, but it didn’t matter. Anything to distract him from his legs, oh God, his legs, his legs were on fire, and oh God it hurts it hurts please please please―

Whimpering, he squirmed in place, harshening his headache. It accomplished nothing, but it made him feel better nonetheless. It sated the part of his brain that was screaming at him to struggle, fight, get away. The fog cleared from his brain for just a moment, pushed aside by a brief rush of adrenaline, but quickly returned with a vengeance, giving him just barely enough time to start panicking.

This was not his room.

This was not his bed.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder, gentle and warm. Utterly unthreatening. He flinched anyway, his eyes snapping open. “Shh,” a deep, soft voice cooed, and he whimpered again, lips parting but teeth clenched. “It’s okay, Alexander.” The words were soothing and delicate, but he only tensed up further. His muscles pulled taut and it hurt hurt hurt, but he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t stop himself from tensing up because he had to get away―

Sliding down from his arm to rest between his shoulder blades, the hand maneuvered him upright with practiced ease, then began to rub in small circles, as if to massage away the agony. He swallowed a sob and received a sympathetic hum in response. “I know, I know.” The hand vanished from his back, and he was instead offered a glass of water and two small white pills. “For the pain,” the voice whispered, and he sobbed outright, closing his eyes. “It’s alright, Alexander―really. You’ve earned them.”

‘It’s a trick, it’s a trick, it’s a trick,’ his brain told him.

‘No shit, Sherlock,’ he responded.

The pills hovered closer, almost pressed against his lips, and he sucked in a harsh breath, trying to back away. Bad idea. Red-hot pain in his back, white-hot pain in his legs; his arms buckled with a choked cry and he tumbled aside, rolling. He would have fallen out of the bed entirely were it not for the tightly tucked-in sheets, which slung him back into place like an overstretched rubber band, holding him down―

With a loud thud, Alex hit the ground, a muffled grunt that might have once been a scream reverberating in his ears.

In an instant, his eyes were open―when had he closed them?―and he was gasping for breath without much success, scuttling across the carpet like a spooked crab―his back rammed against a solid, rounded edge―he was cornered against the bedside table―a green blanket was tangled around his legs and torso―with a hiss of fabric crinkling, his backpack tumbled off the edge of the bed and landed on his hip with another dull thud―

What the hell what the hell what the―

A dream.

It had been a dream.

Rather suddenly, his entire body went slack, and he allowed himself to sink to the floor, his heart still pounding; his breathing heavy. His hood filled his mouth, and he reminded himself to breathe through his nose. His eyes stuttered shut and he groaned, muffled by the sodden material. Damn it. Nightmares were commonplace to him, but it was still unfortunate to dream about the LeBlancs on his first night here. Just his luck. Honestly, he didn’t even know why he was surprised.

Then again, that particular dream tended to resurface whenever he found himself in an unfamiliar bed. Again. Maybe it had been inevitable. Not that that was a particularly mollifying thought.

Sighing heavily, Alex reached up to run a hand over his face. The familiar drag of rough skin and callouses grounded him. Once his heart rate had subsided somewhat, he unceremoniously spit out his hood, disregarding the fact that it was practically drenched in spit. Wet or not, it appeared to have done its job―his scream had been muffled enough that no one had heard. Or, at least, no one had come to investigate.

Pushing his backpack off of his hip, he wriggled out of the blankets tangled around his legs, wincing when his hip throbbed. Great. Just what he needed―another bruise to add to his collection. Another pain to deal with on top of his knuckles, his chest, and the ever-present ache of his legs.

Staggering to his feet, Alex shook his head slowly, gently shaking out his hair. It was a rat’s nest, naturally, and he scowled. Today was the day he met “Gilbert”; he was supposed to be putting his best foot forward, yet his hair couldn’t even manage to look presentable.

He suppressed his nerves at the thought. ‘The Washingtons are good people who are in over their heads,’ he reminded himself for the hundredth time. ‘They aren’t the kind of people who would adopt some violent, out-of-control lunatic.’

Glancing down at his bruised knuckles, he pursed his lips.

‘Not willingly, at least.’

With that cheerful thought in mind, he looked wearily at the nightstand and groaned. It was six in the morning, according to the clock―which was perfectly reasonable, if you asked him, but had oft been described to him as “ungodly” by various foster parents and siblings. On the weekends, everyone else seemed intent on sleeping half the day away, which meant at least four hours until he could leave this room.

Not that he was particularly eager to see the Washingtons again, mind you, but, first of all, he was hungry, and, second of all, there wasn’t much for him to do in the meantime. Exhaling harshly through his nose, he glanced longingly at his backpack, where he knew his notebooks and laptop were, but that was out of the question. Writing in the dead of night was one thing, but writing when the Washingtons were awake was an entirely different matter. He didn’t want anyone to catch him mid-essay. Chances were, they wouldn’t care; he had yet to have a family get mad at him for writing, and the Washingtons were reasonable. But, after what happened with Pace…

“You think you can write whatever the hell you want about me in that stupid little book of yours, Hamilton? Is that what you think, son?”

―he couldn’t risk it. Not when there was so much banking on him making it at the Washingtons’.

Feet dragging, Alex shuffled across the room, kicking the comforter aside and making a beeline for the bathroom. He peeled off his hoodie on the way, carefully keeping the wet hood away from him. The last thing he needed was to make his first impression on “Gilbert” with dried saliva in his hair.

Nudging the door open with his shoulder, he set his hoodie aside and took a moment to map it out in his brain. It was big―surprise, surprise―and he frowned as he took stock. Toothpaste, a hairbrush, shampoo, deodorant―and there was more spread across the counter; bottles and boxes and brushes. Every amenity he could possibly have requested had been provided, and then some. This had been a friend’s room before (“John”, Mr. Washington had called him), so he might usually have assumed that this was all John’s, except that everything was brand new and generic. No, these were clearly meant to be his.

Simultaneously, his chest warmed and tightened in panic. Being indebted to people was never pleasant. Although he supposed he would have been indebted to the Washingtons no matter what, since they’d been practically forced to take him in.

Taking a deep breath and sweeping those thoughts away, Alex stepped into the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind him. At the very least, this gave him a way to kill time. A long shower was preferable to sitting in bed doing nothing for four hours, and it might make him a little less sore, if he was lucky.

He wasn’t quite bold enough to use any of the things the Washingtons had bought him just yet; not when they could still decide last-minute that he was too much trouble and send him packing. They wouldn’t get mad at him for using something they’d purposefully given him, but, for their sake, he wanted them to be able to return everything if things didn’t work out. And, really, it was incredibly unlikely that things would work out.

But pursuing that train of thought was just asking for disaster, so he double-checked the lock on the door and then tossed his hoodie onto the tile floor. After a moment’s hesitation, he shrugged out of his shirt and fumbled with his jeans, pointedly ignoring the bruises reflected back at him in the large mirror mounted on the wall. Once he’d stripped completely, he awkwardly clambered into the shower, pulling the curtain shut behind him.

‘Long shower,’ he reminded himself. ‘Long shower, no soap.’

So, naturally, by the time he was completely washed and back in his clothes, his hair pulled up into a fairly neat bun, barely twenty minutes had passed and he still had three and a half hours to go.

Groaning, he practically threw himself onto the bed, resigning himself to boredom. He couldn’t help it―even when he tried to slow down, he always moved through simple actions at lightning speed without even really thinking about it.

Pursing his lips, he stared up at the ceiling. Maybe the Washingtons wouldn’t mind if he got up early. Maybe he could safely wander through the house until he found the kitchen and―

‘And what?’ his mind sneered at him. ‘Take food without permission? Even you aren’t that stupid, Hamilton.’

...Which, unfortunately, was the truth. Alex wasn’t going to rifle through the Washingtons’ cupboards while they slept like some kind of scavenger. It was tempting now that the opportunity had presented itself― they’re all asleep, they’ll never notice, I can grab some things for later, just in case ―but it wasn’t worth the possibility of getting caught.

...But.

That didn’t necessarily mean he had to just sit here doing nothing until they came to get him. It was far too risky to eat without explicit permission, but the Washingtons probably wouldn’t mind if he walked around the house unsupervised. Sure, Pace would have minded, but the Washingtons were reasonable people. As long as he didn’t snoop around, it was probably safe to wander down to the sitting room he’d seen last night.

And, hey―maybe he could even offer to make breakfast. That might help remedy the horrendous impression he’d made last night, what with his freak-out in front of George and his inability to smile properly at Martha. Either way, it would be considerably less awkward than waiting around for someone to come “wake him up”.

The door clicked loudly when he opened it, and he jumped, but, luckily, it didn’t squeak on its hinges. Stepping out into the hallway and flicking off the lights as he went, he closed the door behind him and pretended not to be bothered by the sudden feeling of vulnerability that came with leaving his room. There was no door to lock anymore, and he tried to remind himself that he was safe here―

A tired voice murmured “Alexander?” and he stiffened.

Brushing off his instinctive panic with moderate success, Alex whirled around, his feet audibly peeling off the well-polished hardwood floor. Standing at the end of the hallway, wearily rubbing his eyes, was Mr. Washington―no, George, he reminded himself―in all his pajama-clad glory.

Seeing such an intimidating man in such casual dress probably should have been funny, but he was a bit too busy stumbling over his words to laugh. “I… I’m sorry if I… woke you,” he immediately shot out, not quite stammering, but close. Had someone heard his scream after all?

“You didn’t,” George responded just as quickly, shaking the sleep away and standing up straight. “I was just heading downstairs to get the paper and wait for everyone else to get up.” At this, he smiled, as if laughing at some inside joke. “Martha will probably be another hour, and Gilbert another thirty minutes after that.”

“Oh.” That, at least, was a small comfort; he wouldn’t have to wait as long as he had feared. “If I may say, sir… you’re up rather early,” he ventured cautiously. Pace usually couldn’t be bothered to drag himself out of bed before noon, and the LeBlancs had slept in as late as they possibly could every day. He had yet to have a foster father get up at the same time he did.

George shot him a dry look, and Alex had to remind himself that it was out of amusement, not indignation. “Not as early as you,” he replied. At Alex’s confused glance, he smiled; it reached his eyes. “You’ve had the time to shower.”

Wait―was his hair still damp? ‘Duh, Hamilton, it’s only been, like, ten minutes.’ His cheeks reddened, and George’s resulting laughter only made matters worse.

“To answer your question―” George stepped towards him, his long strides carrying him closer at an alarming rate despite his leisurely pace― “I was raised a farmer and then joined the military, so getting up early just seems natural to me.” As he neared Alexander, he slowed, but didn’t stop. “Martha and Gilbert, though… not so much.”

“Oh,” Alex responded eloquently. That explained how he and Ms. Muller knew each other―they must have met in the army.

George beckoned him along with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “Would you like to sit with me while we wait?” he offered, as if Alex wasn’t already trailing dutifully behind him.

After a moment, Alex managed to throw a smile onto his face, although George couldn’t see it from in front of him. “Sure,” he answered simply. “Thanks.” He hadn’t done anything to make George angry, as far as he knew; or, at least, nothing that warranted punishment (“Son, speaking is not punishable in this house.”). Perhaps the man genuinely just wanted to get to know him? He wouldn’t dare assume that about most foster families, but Ms. Muller had been the first person to give him a chance; it wasn’t too unlikely that her friend would be the second.

Luckily, George seemed content to take the lead, guiding Alex to the staircase, then down into the sitting room where they’d met the night before. “I’ll have Gilbert give you a tour of the house later today,” he promised, gesturing to the comfortable-looking couch. “In the meantime, I have to get the paper. Pardon me for a moment.”

And, just like that, he stepped outside, closing the front door behind him. Frowning, Alex glanced at the couch he’d been directed towards. Chewing his tongue absently, he lowered himself onto the nice leather as quickly as he dared. Through sheer instinct, he pressed himself into the corner, his elbow sandwiched between his body and the armrest.

Not even a minute later, the door opened again and George reentered, glancing at the front page of today’s newspaper. His lips tightened a bit at whatever he saw, and Alex dug his fingers into his hip through his pocket. George was a reasonable man and wouldn’t hit him for something that wasn’t his fault. George was a reasonable man.

He wasn’t quite sure what he was expecting, but a casual “Do you keep up with politics, Alex?” definitely wasn’t it. For a moment, he just blinked, bewildered; George glanced up and sent him a reassuring smile. “Just trying to make small talk. I’m not great at it.”

At that, Alex actually managed a laugh, stilted though it was. “Neither am I,” he confessed after a moment, then bit his lip, weighing his options. “And, uh…” Might as well tell the truth. “Yeah, I try to keep myself informed.”

George raised an eyebrow. ‘He does that when he’s curious,’ Alex noted, tucking that information away. From George, a raised eyebrow meant “go on” or “please explain”, but in a non-threatening way. Not like Mr. LeBlanc, who always meant it as “shut up, you’re on shaky grounds”. It was a welcome change.

“I just think it’s important to stay up-to-date when it comes to matters that affect the entire country, y’know?” he elaborated when George remained silent, waiting for him to speak. “Sometimes, some innocuous event that seems relatively unimportant can have an enormous effect on the country as a whole, so it’s crucial to be aware of current events. Especially for…”

He cut himself short, silently cursing his loose tongue. Especially for queer immigrants like me, he’d meant to say. But, hopefully, George hadn’t picked up on that. He wasn’t ashamed of his identity by any means, but he had no way of knowing the Washingtons’ political views. It would take a bigger fool than he to announce it outright.

“Hey, I’m bisexual! Also, I’m a total prude and only like people once I’ve known them for a while! But I’m also a total slut who falls for multiple people at once! So I’m simultaneously incredibly greedy and incredibly picky; neat, huh?”

Yeah, that would go over well.

George gave a quiet hum of approval, folding his newspaper and setting it aside to give the teen his full attention. “I suppose I can’t argue with that,” he said, but there was a glint in his eyes like he knew something Alex didn’t. “Is political science something you would consider pursuing in college?”

The casual question filled Alex’s stomach with a bubbly mixture of pride and elation. Mr. Washington hadn’t asked if he was going to college―Mr. Washington had asked what he would study when he did. “Yeah,” he answered, squashing down the glee that rose in his chest and trying to recall the last time he’d chatted with a decent human adult. How was small talk supposed to work, again…? He coughed. “Are… you… very involved in politics?” he offered, although the question felt idiotic on his lips.

George smiled, although there was a laughter in his eyes that Alex wasn’t sure how to interpret. “I am. Although I find the political world as a whole rather unsavory.” He frowned. “So much of it is based on exaggerating or blatantly lying, especially about whomever you’re running against. And the media is ruthless nowadays. If you’ve done any wrong in your life, they have a way of digging it up and making it sound as despicable as possible.”

That certainly piqued Alex’s curiosity. It sounded like the man was speaking from experience. To keep himself from prying, he seeded through his stale memories of age-old genial conversations, trying to remember how to change a subject.

“But I digress,” George intervened before he had the chance, shaking his head lightly. “Let’s save the melancholy talk for later.” He shot Alex a small smile. “After all, I’m sure Martha wouldn’t approve of us talking about politics so early in the morning.”

“I don’t.”

They both jumped in surprise as Martha emerged from the staircase, fully dressed but bleary-eyed. Shooting a half-hearted glare at George, she strode purposefully toward them, although the effect was lost when she wearily rubbed her eyes. “George, really; the first opportunity you get, you talk to him about politics? Is this part of your grand master scheme to bore the poor boy to death?”

With a sheepish laugh, George rubbed the back of his head, and the habit was startlingly human. “Martha,” he greeted awkwardly, “what a pleasant surprise. What ever are you doing up so early?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Martha grumbled in return, but begrudgingly dropped the matter. “Gilbert was so excited last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up any minute,” she explained. “Remember how upset he was when we made him go to bed?”

At that, George frowned contemplatively, glancing at the staircase as if Gilbert would magically appear at any moment, much like Martha had. “I hadn’t thought about that.” Both adults turned to look at Alex, then mercifully averted their eyes when he stiffened under their scrutiny. He wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or humiliated at the gesture, so he settled for indifference. “Waking up early to meet someone new does seem like something he would do,” George admitted, exactly as if he hadn’t paused at all. “You’re thinking he set his alarm for 7:00?”

Martha nodded in response, glancing over at Alex before quickly looking away again. “I probably would have woken up anyway when he started running through the halls screaming, so I thought I might as well come down and get started on breakfast. Besides…” Here, she shot her husband a meaningful look. “…I wanted to give him and Alex some privacy.”

“Privacy?” George echoed, brow furrowing; silently, Alex seconded his confusion. Wouldn’t they want it the other way around? If they thought he was a delinquent, wouldn’t they try to avoid leaving him alone with their son?

Martha just smiled indulgently, with the air of someone who was surrounded by morons. “Think about it, hun. Gilbert is enough to overwhelm anyone on his own, especially now that he’s had time to get himself worked up. He might be easier to handle without us here making things even more uncomfortable.”

As Alex blinked owlishly, George considered this for a moment, then nodded decisively. “You’re right.” Heaving himself out of his seat, he absently rolled his shoulders, and Alex quickly looked away, stifling the weak sputter of adrenaline that flared up. On Pace, who was significantly bigger than him, a roll of the shoulders was a show of power; a resounding threat. On George, who was significantly bigger than Pace, it was hard to see it as anything else. “I think I’d better go get dressed.”

Just being in the same room as them both had made him tense, but, somehow, as Martha made for the kitchen and George for the staircase, Alex got even tenser. Digging his teeth into his cheek and his fingers into his palm, he glanced around the room for a clock, but found none. Still, it had to be nearing 7:00. In all likelihood, he had less than ten minutes.

And they were leaving him alone.

George and Martha may have been a bit of an enigma, but Gilbert was a complete unknown.

Swallowing around a protest, he turned away from the retreating couple, sternly reminding himself that it wasn’t his place to ask them to stay. Besides, it wasn’t like Martha’s whole story was a sham and they were only leaving so they could have deniability when their son beat him up. No, that was preposterous. An utterly ridiculous notion.

“Oh!” Martha said suddenly, just a few feet from leaving the room. Miraculously, Alex neither jolted with surprise nor flinched away as she turned to face him. “I forgot to ask―do you have any food allergies, Alexander?”

He could hear George shifting; could feel the man’s gaze resting heavily on him. Fighting back a wave of anxiety, Alex shot her a small, unconvincing smile. “Not that I know,” he answered, not as loudly as he had intended, and all three pretended not to notice how wary his voice sounded.

Nodding, Martha returned his smile with her own vastly superior version. “That’s good to hear. You must be starving after skipping dinner yesterday. Lord knows Gilbert would never go so long without a good meal.”

George’s eyes were boring holes into his shoulder, burning hot but icy cold. Wincing slightly, Alex opened his mouth to refute her―if nothing else, Pace had helped him develop an ability to go extended periods of time without food―and, although he was hungry, he didn’t want to take too much of the Washingtons’ generosity; the Buchanans had taught him better than that―

A loud slam echoed throughout the house, followed closely by a eardrum-shattering whoop of excitement.

Alex just about jumped out of his skin, a harsh gasp tearing itself from his throat, but the Washingtons didn’t seem to notice. They were too busy swapping long-suffering looks and trying to appear unamused. Martha rolled her eyes, belied by her fond smile.

“Speak of the devil.”

Rapid footsteps skittered across the hardwood, getting louder by the second. “Mère! Père!” Never before had Alex heard such a bubbly squeal in such a masculine voice. Despite the incongruity, it sounded bafflingly natural. “Is he here yet?!”

It took Alex longer than he would like to admit to realize who the voice must belong to. Masculine, excited, loud, in French. ‘Gilbert,’ his mind supplied helpfully. ‘It’s Gilbert.’

As if heralded by the thought, a flash of color hurtled around the crook of the staircase, bouncing off the banister with a thud when it couldn’t quite turn sharply enough. Alex reeled, already halfway onto his feet, as George quickly stepped aside to let his son rocket past.

The boy skidded to a stop next to Martha, his back to Alex, and immediately began to spew out words in rapid-fire French. “Is Alexander here yet?! Is he awake?! When can I meet him?! Is he―”

“Gilbert,” George interrupted, striding towards him with an amused smile. “English, please. And do try not to wake the neighbors.”

Gilbert continued to look at Martha, his bushy ponytail pointing in Alex’s direction, but you didn’t have to see his face to smell the smirk that crossed it. “It isn’t my fault that you failed French in high school, old man,” he shot back, the zeal in his voice sinking down to an acceptable level.

It was safe to assume that the Washingtons hadn’t become bilingual between his last sentence and this one, but the tone of his voice made his meaning clear. George placed a hand on his chest, feigning offense; it was almost jarring to see such an intimidating man make such a playful gesture. “Hey, whatever that was, you take it back,” he demanded. “You’re being a bad influence on Alexander.”

It took about three seconds for that to sink in. Gilbert began to laugh at first, then stopped suddenly as he registered the words. His head snapped to the side, and Alex caught a glimpse of his profile as he stared at George incredulously―then his peripheral vision kicked in and, with startling finality, he turned on his heel and locked eyes with the only other teenager in the room.

Alex was standing now, ready to make a break for it if need be, but he still had to tilt his head back a considerable amount to meet Gilbert’s gaze. The boy was almost as tall as George, his eyes bright despite their dark color, and something in his posture made him look almost regal, despite his haphazard ponytail and casual pajamas.

Shell-shocked though he was, Alex didn’t miss it when Gilbert’s eyes briefly flicked over him, scrutinizing his hunched-over shoulders and messy hair and shadowed eyes, and it suddenly hit him that this boy was quite a bit bigger than him, and it was imperative that he make a good first impression, and he looked like utter shit.

His fight-or-flight instinct kicked in around then, and he wasn’t sure whether to be proud or ashamed that he automatically leaned towards fight. No one had spoken, and he twitched restlessly, dropping his gaze from Gilbert’s face to his graphic tee and clenching his fists at his sides. Only distantly was he aware that Martha was silently retreating to the kitchen, whereas George was glancing between them. His mouth was dry. What was he supposed to say? How was he supposed to break the silence?

As it turned out, he didn’t have to. “Ah,” Gilbert began, switching into faintly-accented English, “you are Alexander, yes?”

Glancing up, Alex nearly sighed aloud in relief. Though Gilbert remained much more subdued, the enthusiasm was back; he was smiling widely, leaning forward as if he simply couldn’t wait for a response. It was… strange. Definitely strange. Not necessarily bad, though. The question was: how was he supposed to match the mood?

When no immediate response seemed forthcoming, Gilbert tilted his head to the side. Curiosity flashed through his eyes, then understanding; Alex had legendary people-reading skills, and even he could barely pick up on the change. Gilbert leaned back into a more casual stance, crossing his arms loosely over his chest. “How sure are we that he’s hungry for a fight?” he said in easy, fluent French, a teasing sort of grin covering his face. “He’s so small that I almost didn’t see him.”

Alex’s shoulders went rigid.

George sighed heavily, stepping closer to his son. “English, Gilbert,” he repeated, “and be poli―”

Afterwards, he would claim that it had been a calculated risk; that he’d taken into account George and Martha’s monolingual status and Gilbert’s playful nature. He’d say that he knew full well how unlikely he was to get in trouble; that he was rational enough to know the Washingtons wouldn’t take offense.

But, for as long as he was being honest: Alex wasn’t thinking about anything except for his own pride when he stood straight up, threw his shoulders back, met Gilbert’s gaze head-on, and responded in the same language, “Begging your pardon for my frank response, but I am not short so much as you are unusually tall, and I fail to fathom why my supposed diminutive height would have you brand me a coward, besides.”

For a brief, blissful moment, Alexander was soaring. This was something familiar; this was something he could do. Argument; debate; fighting. No one could ever best him when it came to words; fists, maybe, but never words. His chest swelled as all three Washingtons gaped at him, startled. Martha glanced over her shoulder, as if making sure she hadn’t misheard him. George’s hand hovered over Gilbert’s shoulder, frozen. Gilbert himself had let his jaw hit the floor.

Rather suddenly, his inflated ego was dwarfed by the panic that flooded over him.

Like liquid escaping from a shattered bottle, all of his confidence left him at once, leaving behind a cold, empty dread. Shit. He hadn’t even introduced himself and he was already antagonizing the boy who he’d been specifically warned not to antagonize. Ms. Muller would be so proud.

No―this wasn’t the end―this couldn’t be the end―not so soon. He could salvage this; he could mend this relationship into indifference again. Making friends his age had never been his forte, even with his words―they were too long; too scathing; too obscure for his peers―but he could change that; he could―he could―

Before he could start begging for forgiveness in a clumsy jumble of English and French, probably spotted with intermittent Spanish, Gilbert’s grin returned with a vengeance, his wide eyes sparkling. “They didn’t tell me you spoke French,” he babbled gleefully, and Alex reeled from the sheer sincerity of his joy. “They didn’t tell me you were so well-spoken, either! You sound like something we would read aloud in school. Is French your first language? You seem very comfortable with it.”

Frantic apologies dying on his tongue, Alex felt his panic melt away, a wary understanding taking its place. Gilbert’s happiness was infectious, and he could definitely relate to being comforted by a familiar tongue. “They… well, they probably didn’t know I spoke it either,” he said slowly, trying without much success to instill the words with some of his earlier confidence. “I haven’t used it in years. And, to answer your question, I learned French and English at the same time.”

Curiosity was rolling off Gilbert in waves, but before he could bombard Alex with any more questions, Washington cleared his throat loudly, and both teenagers startled. “Can we please save the French for later, boys?” he asked, rather drily, but there was a smile on his face.

Grinning sheepishly, Gilbert bobbed his head, his springy ponytail bouncing. “Sorry, George,” he offered lightly; then, to Alex: “My apologies if I offended you, mon ami. I was only joking.”

“Offended him?” George immediately intervened, offering Alex a startled glance before focusing in on his son. “Gilbert,” he chided with practiced exasperation, “I thought I told you to be polite. What did you say?”

“Not a thing!” Gilbert sang, batting his eyelashes in mock innocence. “Of course I was polite. I am always polite!” At that, he turned and shot Alexander an exaggerated wink that both boys knew the Washingtons couldn’t have missed.

With that, all eyes were on him, and he felt his shoulders tense, pulling close to his neck as if he’d just given their drawstring a sharp tug. “I didn’t know you were bilingual, Alex,” Martha spoke up, her eyes wide. Something like awe colored her tone.

Alex turned to face her, but he could feel Gilbert and George’s eyes resting heavily on the side of his head. He swallowed. “Well, trilingual, really―”

As soon as the words tumbled out, he realized what he was doing and shut his mouth with a clatter of teeth. ‘Shit. Why did I say that?’ he agonized, fingers fidgeting in his pockets. Best case scenario, they realize that he’s an arrogant braggart and lose any respect they may have had for him. Worst case scenario, they ask for more information about his past and throw him out when they realize that he’s dirty and worthless and disgusting and―

But it was too late to take it back now. “Trilingual?” Martha repeated, intrigued.

You’ll chew your lip completely off one of these days, LeBlanc whispered in his ear with a patronizing chuckle, and he grit his teeth. “Um… well…” And, forget multiple languages―wasn’t it just ironic that he couldn’t seem to speak at all right now? “English, French, and Spanish. Since I was a little kid,” he finally ground out, forcing himself to divulge as little information as he could without being rude. The less he said, the less likely he was to go off on a rant.

Martha just blinked at him. Alex couldn’t control it anymore―he bit his lip, risking a glance at Gilbert. Oh no. He’d done something wrong: the curly-haired teen was frowning at him. He didn’t seem angry, just thoughtful, but Alex had misread anger before, and curiosity could be just as dangerous sometimes. Swallowing thickly, Alex looked over to George.

Bad idea. He’d forgotten that George shared Ms. Muller’s inexplicable ability to pin someone in place just by looking at them. As soon as they locked eyes, he was stuck. George gave him a calculating look; Alex squirmed uncomfortably, but couldn’t look away. He didn’t look upset either, but it was hard to tell. Why was this entire family so hard to read?

George cleared his throat, the sound echoing in the awkward silence, and he snapped to attention. “Son―”

Alex cringed. ‘Don’t say it, don’t say it, you already told him before, he  overlooked it once, you know he won’t tolerate it a second time, he’ll throw you out if you talk back again, or, Hell, maybe he’ll just send just send Martha and Gilbert out of the room and beat some sense into you―’

“Sorry; Alex, that’s very impressive,” George amended, putting extra emphasis on the nickname, as if to reassure the boy that he hadn’t ignored his request.

His heart simultaneously soared and clenched, and that was what it took to break George’s spell. Seizing the opportunity, he looked down at his feet. “Thanks,” he said very quietly, ignoring the way George’s look only intensified. He could feel three sets of eyes on him; all three seeing right through him; all three watching in disgust as his true nature oozed out from between his bones―

“My friend, no need to sink down like that. You’re already small enough as it is,” came Gilbert’s smooth French, washing over Alex like a warm blanket. Instinctively, he looked up, meeting the older boy’s eyes, which were gleaming in triumph, like he’d just put the last piece into a particularly vexing puzzle.

And, just like that, the heavy atmosphere lifted, cleared away as easily as dust. Vaguely, he wondered how it was possible to lighten the mood that effectively. “Gilbert,” George groaned again, “I know you’re excited that he speaks French, but can we please stick with English for n― ow!”

With a soft thwack, Martha smacked her husband’s shoulder, her other arm folded disapprovingly across her chest. She was so much smaller than him that it was almost comical, and Alex was pretty sure that she couldn’t hurt George if she body-slammed him with all her weight, but he rubbed his shoulder anyway, shooting her an affronted look. “Let the boys have their fun, George,” she chided.

Lost, Alex glanced back over at Gilbert, but he appeared to have missed the whole exchange, still grinning widely as he waited for a response.

It took Alex a moment to even remember the conversation. “I already told you that I’m not short,” he claimed, choosing to ignore the part about him ‘sinking down’. The mood was finally fixed; he needed to be careful not to ruin it again. “Like I said, you’re just tall.”

“Gilbert!” Martha sounded absolutely scandalized. “You called him short?! You said you’d be polite!”

Crap―he hadn’t meant to get Gilbert in trouble― well, he definitely hates you now, Hamilton; good going ―but he didn’t have enough time to work himself into a panic before the french teen threw back his head and laughed, loud and clear. Alex relaxed immediately, before he even knew what was happening.

“My apologies, Mère . I simply couldn’t resist.” Stepping out from between George and Martha (although he skipped more than he stepped), Gilbert bounced up to stand right in front of Alex and extended his hand with a huge grin. “Perhaps we―how you say―got off on the wrong feet, non? My name is Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Washington-Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.”

Alex reeled, partially from the length of the name and partially from the blinding smile he’d been afforded, and Gilbert exchanged his brilliant grin for a wry smirk. “Ridiculous, is it not? You may call me ‘Lafayette’. Everyone does.”

Alex gratefully took the extended olive branch, but his head still spun with the eight names and single title that preceded it. Marquis? Nonetheless, he removed his hand from his pocket and robotically took the handshake offered him. “Alexander Hamilton,” he introduced. “And it’s foot, not ‘feet’. We got off on the wrong foot.”

Gilbert― Lafayette ―groaned, but, somehow, Alex just knew that the annoyance wasn’t directed at him. “American phrases,” he bemoaned, easily dispelling the tension remaining in the room. “They are so ridicule! What do they even mean?”

Martha scoffed at that, shaking her head―but, once again, she was smiling as she did it. “As if the French ones are any better.” Gilbert opened his mouth to respond, but she held up a hand, silencing him. “We can argue this later if you’re ready to lose. I’m going to go make breakfast.”

On her way out, she shot George a meaningful look over her shoulder, and he cleared his throat. “Then I’m going to go get dressed,” he announced, turning sharply and heading for the staircase. “Gilbert, Alex―play nice.”

This time, Alex didn’t tense up, even as George rounded the top of the staircase and vanished, leaving him alone with Lafayette.

The older teen raised an eyebrow at George’s retreating back, but he didn’t seem particularly surprised. As soon as the man was out of earshot, he leaned close and whispered “George is a terrible actor,” holding his hand on one side of his mouth as if he was sharing confidential information of the utmost importance.

Alex frowned. “Really?” Usually, he wouldn’t dare to question a new foster family so soon, but Lafayette seemed nice enough, so he threw caution to the wind. “His facade has seemed infallible so far. He has the aura of someone who always maintains his composure, unless he willingly abandons it.”

For a second, Lafayette just stared, his smile still firmly in place but his eyes much more probing. As soon as the serious expression arrived, it was gone, overtaken by the same victorious expression from earlier. “Ah, there you are, mon ami.”

Now Alex was the one staring, brow furrowed, but he didn’t get a chance to voice his confusion. “It does seem hard to believe,” Lafayette continued as if nothing had happened, “but I assure you, George could not act if his life depended on it. Rather strange in his line of work, I should think.”

It seemed like everything Lafayette said left him lost. “His line of work?” he parroted back.

Lafayette only smirked at him, eyes sparkling. “Come now, mon ami, I know that you know. You just haven’t―what’s the phrase―stopped to think about it, no?” His head tilted to the side playfully. “Tell me, what are the names of our lovely state’s senators?”

An easy enough question to answer; he kept tabs on the people who were supposed to represent him. “Senator George King Jr.,” Alex immediately recited, “and Senator George Washing―”

That was when it hit him.

He stopped mid-sentence, mouth hanging open, then turned to Lafayette with wide eyes. Infuriatingly, the french teen just grinned back at him, not bothering to confirm or refute his suspicions. “W-wait… he’s…”

Then it really sunk in. Rather strange in his line of work, I should think. Do you keep up with politics? I get enough ‘Mrs. Washington’ at the capitol.

(This house was pretty damn huge.)

“He’s that George Washington?!”

Much to Alex’s embarrassment, his voice came out much louder and higher than intended. Lafayette laughed, throwing his head back, and, once again, Alex relaxed without even thinking about it. “Calm down, Alexander! He’s not a serial killer!” the taller boy guffawed in his native tongue. “I’m surprised you couldn’t guess by looking at him. He really looks like a Senator, if you ask me.”

Scowling, Alex opened his mouth to protest, winced, then closed it. Lafayette was right; he had chalked George’s commanding aura up to his military background, but it wasn’t quite the same as Ms. Muller’s. Now that it was pointed out to him, it did seem rather obvious. Still―George was a common name. Common enough that both of their senators were named that.

(And what kind of Senator would adopt a kid like him, anyway? If he didn’t know for a fact that the Washingtons had only agreed to take him in for Ms. Muller’s sake, he would assume himself to be a pawn in some vast political ploy.)

“You’re right,” Alex said after a moment, shaking himself out of his stupor. An incredibly smug look crossed Lafayette’s face, and he hastily added, “It does seem unlikely for a senator to be a poor actor. Are you sure about that?”

Lafayette glanced side to side, as if making sure that George had really left the room and wasn’t lurking in the corner, before leaning close once again, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I once got in trouble at school for rap battling a homophobe until he cried.” (Alex choked on air and was dutifully ignored.) “He ran to the Principal, who called home, yeah?” Finally, he seemed to deem the room George-free and returned his gaze to Alex, eyes glinting deviously. “He spent the entire phone call laughing hysterically and failing to convince the Principal that I would be punished. You could hear it from across the room. I’ve never seen Mr. Adams look so affronted.”

For a moment, Alex just stared, face blank. Lafayette stared back, clearly dead serious. At first, he almost slipped into another panic, the word ‘punished’ setting off warning bells left and right. Then the story really sunk in.

Lafayette had―and George―loud enough that―and for the whole call―

He snorted once, his entire body jolting―then burst into uncontrollable laughter, doubling over and wrapping both arms around his midsection. “Wh-what?!” he choked out between laughs, eyes wide and incredulous before they squeezed shut; he was grinning so widely that his cheeks ached.

Nearly a full minute later, when he finally regained some semblance of composure, he looked up to find Lafayette grinning down at him, expression a bit softer now. “I―I guess you’re right,” he coughed once he’d recovered from the impromptu comedy routine.

Lafayette scoffed. “I am always right,” he sniffed self-importantly, tilting his head back to look down his nose; not that he needed to tilt much, considering their vastly different heights. “You will learn this soon enough, little Alex.”

Martha snorted loudly from the doorway, and both boys whirled around to face her. “Don’t make me laugh, kid.” The words were rough, but her smile was anything but. “Breakfast is ready, boys. Get it while it’s hot.”

Lafayette’s entire face lit up almost as brightly as it had when he’d first seen Alex. “Ah! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” he cheered, grabbing Alex by the wrist and tugging him along.

He probably should have been miffed at the rough handling, but Alex honestly didn’t have it in him to harbor anything stronger than amusement towards Lafayette. Instead, he just stumbled along behind the other boy, still trying to wrap his head around the overwhelming enthusiasm that seemed to radiate off him constantly. It was a stark contrast to George and Martha’s cooler, more collected auras, yet seemed to mesh with them perfectly.

Martha gave the two a meaningful look, appraising the bright mood between them, then turned towards the staircase to hide her widening grin. “I’ll go get George,” she volunteered, and Lafayette paused to snap a mock salute. She was facing away, and couldn’t have possibly seen it, but she giggled anyway, waving him off.

Once again, he made a beeline for the kitchen, dragging Alex behind him. Right outside the door, though, Lafayette halted suddenly, not letting go of his wrist, and the two collided, Alex stumbling back with a surprised grunt. Lafayette’s hand on his wrist kept him from toppling, and he was quickly back on his feet. His foster brother had turned around to face him, and it briefly crossed his mind that they were incredibly close together, their shirts almost brushing.

Unlike last time, Lafayette’s face didn’t look devious or even analytical. In fact, Alex couldn’t read his expression at all, even though his eyes were wide and brimming with… something. An emotion he couldn’t quite identify.

“My friend,” he whispered in French, so quietly that Alex had trouble associating his words with the loud, outgoing persona he’d presented earlier, “you wish to hide your hands, yes?”

If Lafayette had spoken any other way―if his face had looked any different; if his voice had been a sliver louder―Alex might have panicked. As it was, he just stared, wide-eyed, jaw hanging limp. He didn’t think ‘I made him mad.’ He didn’t think ‘They’re going to throw me out.’ All he thought in that moment was ‘Was I that obvious?’

When he didn’t respond, Lafayette smiled again, genuinely, although that indecipherable look didn’t leave his eyes. “We know that you came to blows with your last foster father,” he said softly, tugging Alex’s wrist up until his bruised knuckles were in plain view between them. “But we don’t know why. You’re so small; why pick fights?” There was a note of teasing in his words, but the question was serious.

Automatically, Alex matched his quiet tone. “I don’t seek fights, they simply seem to fall into my lap,” he muttered truthfully, curling his fingers into a loose fist, “and I am not so small as to lose easily.”

Lafayette’s smile widened a bit. “Clearly. You seem unscathed for the most part. I doubt your foe was as lucky. But that doesn’t answer my question,” he persisted.

Dammit. His diversion tactics had failed―though, on the bright side, he apparently looked ‘unscathed’ (he had to suppress a morbid laugh at that). In a last-ditch attempt to evade the question, he mimicked Lafayette’s smile, only for it to turn into a grimace as his dry lips cracked. Lafayette was still staring; still smiling; still serious.

Alex averted his eyes.

“Pace―Mr. Pace, my previous foster father―said something rather… caustic,” he said slowly. ‘Caustic’ wasn’t a strong enough word to describe it (“how many men a night”, God what an ass), but it would have to do.

Despite it all, Lafayette actually laughed; not loud and booming, this time, but a quiet chuckle that reminded him vividly of George. “If all it took was a harsh word, you would have been much shorter with me earlier,” he pointed out. “Although it would be hard for you to get much shorter.”

Alex bit his lip, gaze dropping even further. Lafayette made him feel like a terrible liar, even though he knew that wasn’t the case. And something told him that he couldn’t just change the subject on this one. There was nothing for it: he would have to tell the truth. Or… a partial truth, anyway. Taking a deep breath, he looked back into Lafayette’s eyes.

“I find it more satisfying to defend my own honor verbally, in order to prove myself to those who would doubt me,” he started slowly, his French careful and deliberate. “However, when the… ‘harsh words’, as you say, are directed at my mother, I tend to be slightly… less forgiving.”

Surely Pace having been halfway through strangling him to death had nothing to do with it.

After a moment, Lafayette hummed thoughtfully. His smile had never vanished, but now it grew, although there was a hint of sympathy on his face. “George and Martha wouldn’t insult you or your family,” he reassured, finally back to his regular volume, “and they wouldn’t care if they saw your hands. But,” and again he dropped back down to a quiet murmur, “if you want to cover them up, I won’t stop you. Just know that you don’t have to, d’accord?”

Alex swallowed thickly. “D’accord,” he breathed, lips barely moving.

A second or two passed between them. Then Lafayette’s other hand landed lightly on top of his, sandwiching it between his palms, and his grin turned into a mockingly lovestruck simper. “Maybe d’accord will be our always,” he crooned, switching back to English. He… winked? And… removed his second hand long enough to kiss Alex’s knuckles? Then let go entirely and took off into the kitchen, practically singing. “Martha, you are a blessing sent directly from Heaven above; what a delicious banquet you’ve prepared on this beautiful morning!”

“The seconds rule still applies to you!” Martha called down the stairs. In the distance, George snorted.

Numbly, Alex looked down at his hand. Besides the splattering of bruises, which he had become accustomed to, he could also just make out a faint red blush where Lafayette’s hand had covered his, firmly, but not enough to hurt. It had been a show of solidarity, he realized belatedly. The other boy’s warmth hadn’t yet faded from his skin.

Heart beating slow and steady in his chest, Alex tucked both hands into his pockets and followed Lafayette into the kitchen.

If he let his mind drift, it was almost like Lafayette was still leading him, fingers warm around his palm.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing no one could deny, it was that Alexander Hamilton was street-smart.

Sure, everyone was chomping at the bit to deny his book smarts, for whatever reason. He wasn’t sure if they were just unwilling to accept that a gangly Carribean teen with an attitude was smarter than them or what, but, whatever the reason, teachers and classmates alike seemed determined to keep him from getting recognized for his talents.

It was almost humorous at times. Often, when his peers accused him of cheating on tests or paying someone to write his essays―they did so about twice as vehemently as the bullies who accused him of “assaulting” them. Evidently, most kids took his intelligence as a personal slight, which was both sad and hilarious to him.

But even people who acted like it should be obvious that his grades didn’t really reflect his talent―even people who waved off his writing as “clearly plagiarized” or assumed he didn’t even speak English (that had been an interesting claim, to say the least)―even they had to admit that, if nothing else, Alexander Hamilton knew the ways of the world.

It was a necessity. After all, he’d grown up in the slums, been orphaned at a young age, survived on his own after the hurricane before being sent to live with his cousin, and then ended up being tossed around in the foster care system like a broken doll. Quite simply, it had been sink or swim, and Alex swam. From a young age, he’d had a firm grip on those harsh truths that children are so often shielded from, and he’d never really lost sight of reality.

So he’d survived the punishments of the LeBlancs. He’d tolerated the loaded questions and probing gaze of Miss Green. He’d weathered the insults and the beatings from the Buchanans and Pace. If anything, they strengthened his resolve; reassured him that the same information he’d picked up in Nevis still applied in America. No matter where he was, he knew how the world worked. He knew how to survive.

Never before had anything challenged that reality quite like the Washingtons did.

Sure, he’d been to nice homes before. Margaret was just about the sweetest woman he’d ever met; it had taken her two weeks to get tired of him, and those had been fourteen glorious days of pampering. Miss Green, despite her tendency to snoop, had provided for him without batting an eye, and she hadn’t hit him once. Hell, even the LeBlancs had seemed almost saintly for the first few days.

But he hadn’t been introduced to Miss Green as “the delinquent who broke his last foster father’s leg”. He hadn’t snarled “Don’t call me son,” at Mr. LeBlanc within mere minutes of meeting him. And even Margaret probably would’ve boxed his ears for talking back to her the way he had to Lafayette―whether or not she spoke French.

No matter how much he reassured himself otherwise, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was on shaky grounds already; that, any minute, the Washingtons would remember that they were a political family with a reputation to uphold and demand he cut and comb his hair. Or, barring that, smack him hard for whatever he’d done this time and call Ms. Muller to tell her, sorry, it just isn’t going to work out. Or, barring that, throw him to the ground and flay him alive for―well, any of the things he’d done since arriving here, really. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a family had lured him into a false sense of security, intentionally or otherwise, before jerking the rug out from under him with startling strength and speed.

Yet the Washingtons remained constant. They hadn’t beat him. They hadn’t thrown him out. They hadn’t even scolded him for anything yet.

It was… disconcerting, to say the least.

Breakfast was a relatively uneventful affair, although the four exchanged more words over the course of one meal than Alex and Pace had during the entire six months they’d lived together. Lafayette chattered excitedly the whole time about anything and everything, from things he’d heard on the school rumor mill to interesting tidbits from the local newspaper. When needed, George and Martha offered their own insight, and they occasionally extended casual offers for Alex to add his two cents. As such, he paid careful attention to every word, keeping track of the conversation so he’d be ready when the Washingtons prompted him.

As tests went, it was an easy one, and he felt himself grow a bit fonder of George and Martha despite himself. Of all the things they could have asked of him in exchange for such an exorbitant amount of food, they only asked that he pay attention for a while. They truly were kind beyond measure. Whatever he’d done in a previous life to deserve this, it must have been good.

Without needing to be told, he waited for the Washingtons to be served before taking a portion for himself, and he didn’t start eating until maybe twenty minutes after they’d all sat down, when George gave him a strange look―trying to decide whether or not Alex had earned his breakfast yet, he presumed―and said, “Dig in, Alexander.” Then, and only then, did Alex dare to pick up his fork.

(The family ate first, and the bastard got the scraps―it had been that way in most of his homes, and he didn’t mind. In fact, the Washingtons were better than the rest in this regard, as well: it didn’t escape his notice that Martha restrained her son from grabbing seconds until Alex had a steaming helping on his plate. Five minutes later, gratitude and guilt flooded him in equal measure when Lafayette glanced over at him and suddenly decided not to take the last piece of bacon.)

The food itself was, as Lafayette had promised, absolutely heavenly, and he scarfed it down despite his initial misgivings. Several slices of bacon, a fluffy omelet, and a slice of toast smothered in strawberry jam made up the rather extravagant meal.

In another world, Alex might have felt guilty for all the trouble, but, as it was, he was a bit too distracted by how amazing the food tasted. He barely had room to drink the orange juice he’d been given, though, and politely denied Martha’s offer of seconds.

Lafayette, on the other hand, had been eating and talking non-stop since plopping down into his seat, and didn’t seem intent on stopping for breath any time soon. He also seemed to have mastered the art of talking and eating in tandem, because, no matter how quickly he shoveled food into his mouth, his voice was never muffled. Over the course of one particularly long rant about his friends, who he seemed more than excited for Alex to meet, he devoured his entire third helping of food without missing a beat.

First up for discussion was John―the previous occupant of his current room, he presumed―whose full name was apparently John Laurens. “He’s a lot like you, Alexandre―oui, you two will get along well, I think. You both have… how to put it…” (Here, he paused for a long moment, staring directly into Alex’s soul.) “…More opinions than most, and much passion for these opinions, yes?”

Alex quirked an eyebrow. It wasn’t really a question, meaning it hadn’t really been an invitation to speak up, but he spoke up anyway, emboldened by the Washingtons’ friendliness. “What makes you think I have so many opinions?” Lafayette was right, of course, but Alex had been very careful to keep that information to himself so far.

He saw the look Martha and George exchanged out of the corner of his eye, and he got the feeling that Lafayette had seen it, too, but didn’t let on that he had. “I can see it in your eyes, mon ami,” he said, grinning over the rim of his glass. “Besides―” (He slipped back into French; George groaned loudly)― “it was evident in the way you talked in the parlor earlier.”

Clearly, the shift of languages was meant to shield their conversation from the adults, and Alex sent Lafayette a baffled but sincere grin, grateful for the courtesy. Not many foster siblings would respect his privacy like that, much less the actual kids of his foster parents.

His smile was met with a devious grin. “We must discuss these opinions of yours later, d’accord?” Lafayette declared, eyes glinting. “…But not now,” he amended after a moment, “as that would be breaking Martha’s rule.”

“Absolutely no politics at the table,” Martha confirmed, sending a covert glare in her husband’s direction. George coughed uncomfortably into his eggs and pointedly didn’t meet Alex’s eyes.

It took him a moment to put the pieces together. ‘Oh. Right. He’s a Senator.’ Their brief talk in the sitting room―the laughter in George’s eyes when Alex asked him if he was into politics; the weary frown on his face when he talked about how ruthless the media was―made much more sense now. Of course he’d have personal experience with the media; of course he was involved in politics―he was a United States Senator.

Oblivious to George’s embarrassment―or, more likely, just ignoring it, as Alex got the feeling that he wasn’t the type to be oblivious to anything―Lafayette swallowed a mouthful of omelette and happily continued, “John, like you, has many opinions, and feels very strongly about them.” Eyes sparkling fondly, he leaned his head on one hand, looking almost smitten. “He often complains that he cannot attend rallies and protests and such, but I am glad. This way, we can all share our first march together, yes?” He finished by beaming widely, as if this was a perfectly normal sentiment.

“You three are going to get into so much trouble,” George remarked solemnly, staring down into his coffee as if it contained the secrets to life. Lafayette laughed loudly. Alex didn’t laugh, but he didn’t panic either, so he considered it a success.

After he was done waxing poetic about how similar Alex and John were, Lafayette switched gears, instead regaling them with a full biography of his other best friend, Hercules Mulligan. “He appears intimidating at first, because of his size, but do not be fooled―he is very sweet.”

“Probably the least likely of those three to end up in juvie,” Martha noted, her voice dry. This time, there was a brief burst of panic, but Lafayette’s hearty laugh cured the worst of it, and he didn’t think anyone else noticed, so Alex allowed himself to mark that down as a success as well.

Snatching a bite of George’s omelette and ignoring the man’s affronted gasp, Lafayette gestured wildly with both hands, the light glinting off his silverware. “Hercules also loves to create clothing!” he exclaimed, his enthusiasm overflowing. Alex marvelled at how happy he seemed to be, even though all he was doing was talking about his friend’s hobby. “His mother taught him how to sew when he was little. Now, he can design and stitch the clothes professionally! He tries to downplay his abilities, but they are incredible!”

With one last violent gesticulation, a piece of egg flew off his fork and landed with a plop in George’s coffee. Gasping indignantly again, George made to stand―Alex tensed despite himself, eyes widening, grip on his silverware tightening―he would defend Lafayette, if it really came down to it; he was used to taking punishments meant for the other kids in multi-kid homes―he could take it better―he deserved it more―

Grabbing a fistful of George’s sleeve, Martha pulled him down with a single tug; immediately, he sunk back into his seat like a scorned child. “But Martha―” he muttered weakly, but she was having none of it, and he fell silent after a moment, slumping down in defeat.

It took Alex a few moments to regain his composure. Only then did he realize that Lafayette was cracking up; his head banging against the table; clutching the sides of his chair to keep himself from falling out of it. “I think we both know who wears the pants in this relationship,” he chortled, winking at Alex once he could drag his eyelids open.

George made a wounded keen like a hound, turning to look at Martha with wide, pleading eyes. “Martha…!” he urged. Lafayette only laughed harder, and soon Martha was chuckling along with him.

It occurred to Alex that they were probably playing up their good humor to put him at ease. Normally, the thought might have terrified him―the words false sense of security were always fresh in his mind―but, this time, it just made his chest warm.

It also occurred to him that he’d been far too willing to jump between George and Lafayette, brandishing his fork like a weapon, and he scolded himself―the Washingtons weren’t about to beat their own son. But they would be perfectly justified if they decided to punish him for threatening George with a god-forsaken fork. That could have been a disaster. He needed to get a grip―this house was too good to get kicked out already.

They had just about finished eating by the time Lafayette wrapped up, and he immediately switched into much briefer assessments of everyone else he knew. The subjects of his analyses included an Aaron (“Refuses to speak up about his opinions! Quite a shame, for he is very intelligent.”), a Peggy (“How you say―a memelord. Only a freshman, but quite ferocious.”), an Eliza (“Very trusting, very kind, but I dare not call her timid.”), an Angelica (“Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. You’ll like her.”), a Thomas (“My friend, but you should avoid him, d’accord? Too abrasive to have many friends, too proud to want more.”), and two Jameses―a James Madison (“Usually sick. Stays with Thomas, but you may be able to get along with him. No one knows how those two became close.”) and a James Reynolds (“Not my friend! Non, non. Not my friend. My enemy.”).

That got him talking about his enemies, and he quickly began to give equally succinct descriptions of all the people he wanted Alex to avoid. This list was even longer, but chiefly contained George King III (“Son of Senator King; almost as bigoted as his father, and has half the school―how you say―under his thumb.”), Charles Lee (“An avid hater of the Washingtons, for some reason.”), and the principal of the school, Mr. Adams (“Has no idea what he’s talking about half the time, and avoids doing actual work religiously.”).

When Lafayette finally finished, wrapping up with one last subtle insult to Mr. Adams’ intelligence, Alex found that it was hours later―and, much to his surprise, they were both sitting cross-legged on Lafayette’s bed. He didn’t even remember getting up from the table, much less being coaxed into the other boy’s room.

Talking with Lafayette seemed to have a pleasantly hypnotic effect on him, which was both impressive and terrifying. Briefly, he allowed himself to wonder what else the French teen could have convinced him to do while he was in his trance, but he hastily abandoned that train of thought and the panic that went along with it.

Then Martha called them down for lunch.

And―okay, yeah, maybe it was a little pathetic, but Alex couldn’t help but gawk at the offer. It was nothing superfluous, unlike the ridiculous breakfast she’d provided, but she’d still gone to the trouble of making some grilled cheese sandwiches and heating up some canned vegetables―and pouring them each a tall glass of milk.

A quick glance at Lafayette’s face confirmed that this was normal for the Washingtons, and he hastily wiped the surprise off his face. Three months of living with Miss Green had taught him that showing confusion would only lead to prying questions. Six months of living with Pace had taught him that seeming ungrateful was one of the most dangerous things you could do in a new home.

When he awkwardly tried to apologize for the trouble, Martha just gave him a confused smile and reassured him that it was fine. Nonetheless, he once again waited for express permission to eat―it was the least he could do. This time, it came in the form of Lafayette glancing over at him, frowning, and muttering, “You should eat now, before it gets cold, d’accord?”

He assumed that Lafayette was allowed to decide when he got to eat, and the Washingtons weren’t around to object, so he obediently nibbled on his grilled cheese as Lafayette rambled on about the teachers at his school.

Lunch didn’t drag on quite as long as breakfast had, and soon enough he was being dragged back upstairs. He lingered in the doorway despite Lafayette’s best efforts to remove him, guiltily taking in the dirty dishes stacked in the sink. “Should I… help clean up?” he offered tentatively, not quite meeting Martha’s eyes. Just because the Washingtons were willing to give him this much slack didn’t mean he was allowed to take it. He couldn’t let himself cheat them out of their kindness like that; they were far too honest; too good.

Martha just waved him off dismissively. “It’s quite alright, Alex; thank you for asking. Although―” Her easy smile transformed into a genuine grin― “I might take you up on that tomorrow.” With that, she turned away decisively, letting her son peel him off the doorframe and practically carry him back to his room.

Now that he’d given his opinions on everyone he’d ever known, Lafayette stopped pelting him with information and started trying to drag information out of him. Alex tensed as soon as the questions started, but apparently Martha wasn’t the only saint in the household, because Lafayette kept the topic firmly rooted in small-talk. Rather than asking about his family, his previous placements, and his ragged clothing, Lafayette asked him about his favorite color (“Um… green, I guess?”), his hobbies (“Well… I, uh―I like to write. Sometimes.”), and whether or not he thought Lafayette should paint his nails using Martha’s new “pink champagne lace” polish (“That’s a bit of a dull shade for you, wouldn’t you say? It doesn’t really capture your energy. Maybe try a light amaranth, or more of a coral, if you have it?”)

(At that, Lafayette had beamed at him like he’d hung the stars in the sky, and Alexander was left with the pleasant feeling that he had just passed another test with flying colors.)

Contrary to what Lafayette had said at breakfast, politics blessedly didn’t come up. Logically, Alex knew that they probably agreed on the important points (Lafayette had “rap-battled a homophobe”; John Laurens wanted to attend protests; George was a Liberal Senator―‘You got stupid lucky this time, Hamilton.’), but he wasn’t quite ready to open that can of worms. Besides―politics was something that could make him slip into a rant without fail, and he didn’t want to drive Lafayette away with his incessant rambling; not when he’d finally struck the jackpot.

(Because, good Lord, he had absolutely struck the jackpot with this family. The Washingtons were unbelievably kind, their son actually seemed to like him, and this house was huge. Apparently, the universe was attempting to reimburse him for all the horrendous luck he’d accumulated over the years.)

Time seemed to flash by lightning-fast as they chatted amicably, and, soon enough, it was dark outside. Only when he glanced over at Lafayette’s window did Alex notice how late it had gotten; he did a double-take at the sight of the midnight blue sky, streaked with orange where the last throes of the sunset hadn’t quite faded yet.

“Ah―we have spent much time talking,” was all Lafayette had to say. He fished around in his pocket for a moment before pulling out a smartphone. Glancing at the screen, he declared, “It is already 6:15,” then winced when his eyes flicked down. “And my friends are wondering where I have been all day.” Looking back up to meet Alex’s eyes, he offered a sheepish grin, scratching his cheek absently. “I may have promised them that I would―how you say― update them throughout the day? They are very curious to know about you, petit Alexandre.”

Alex rolled his eyes and scowled playfully at the nickname, but his mind was whirring, and the cynical voice lurking behind his subconscious jumped on the opportunity to rumble doubts into his head. ‘It’s a wonder you haven’t driven him away yet. It’s a wonder he hasn’t kicked you out yet. It’ll be a wonder if the Washingtons don’t throw you out after this. You wasted an entire day of his time; forced him to babysit you when he could be out with his friends―’

No.

No. Lafayette was the one who had been excited to get to know him. Lafayette was the one who had spent the whole day talking. It wasn’t like he had pushed his way into Lafayette’s room and plopped himself down; he’d been led there. He wasn’t forcing anything onto anyone.

…He hoped.

(Not just because he liked to think that he’d made a legitimate friend, but also because he didn’t want anyone to have to pretend to like him. Lafayette was too good to have Alex forced onto him. He didn’t deserve that.)

Still, it was better safe than sorry, so Alex cleared his throat and tentatively offered, “If you want, I can leave so you can talk to them.” He paused. “Sorry if I bothered you.” There. Now Lafayette had a way out, just in case he wanted Alex gone but was too polite to say so―and an apology, in case he found Alex as annoying as most people did.

Lafayette paused, glancing up from his phone, then started typing something rapidly with one hand, although his eyes remained on Alex. “What? No, of course not, mon ami.” His brow furrowed, and he hesitantly looked back down at his phone. “What makes you say so?”

Alex blinked back at him, then slowly plastered a bashful smile across his face. “Uh, nothing in particular, I just…” He paused, weighing the pros and cons of telling the truth, and finally decided that Lafayette, of all people, wouldn’t judge him for it. “I know I’m not really… the best of company, so I don’t wanna, like, keep you from your friends or anything. I wouldn’t be offended if you wanted me gone.”

For a moment, there was an eerie silence. Lafayette’s fingers froze on the screen, and he looked up at Alex with wide, surprised eyes. There were a few fleeting instants where Alex felt panic grip him as he suddenly regretted his decision to come clean. Then, with a loud, distressed sound, Lafayette shook his head rapidly, several locks of hair breaking free of his elastic. “Non!” he exclaimed, gesturing passionately with his free hand; the loose curls fell about his eyes, making him look even more frantic. “Non, non, that is not―”

Dropping his phone unceremoniously onto the bed―he let it slide out of his limp fingers more than he dropped it―he lurched forward and grabbed both of Alex’s hands in his own. Alex reeled back with an undignified squeak of surprise, but Lafayette only squeezed his hands tighter, tugging them up between them, similarly to how he had in the parlor just this morning.

“I do not wish you gone!” Lafayette cried urgently, as if this were a matter of great importance. Judging by the look in his eyes, it was, to him. “You have not bothered me at all! I wished to tell my friends that I had simply gotten carried away talking to you and forgotten to respond to them, but I got carried away only because I enjoy your company so!” Leaning forward, he stared pleadingly into Alex’s eyes. “You must know this, mon ami; tell me I have made my feelings clear!”

Alex stared, his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open. “I―” he started, but his voice trembled so badly that it died out almost immediately. Lafayette was upset, Lafayette was really upset, what had he done what had he done what had he done, why was Lafayette so upset― “I’m… sorry―”

Another distraught whine left Lafayette, interrupting him. His hands were released, and then Lafayette’s arms were winding around his narrow shoulders, pulling him close, weighing, restraining, holding him still for punishment, no no no friend friend friend, friend, Lafayette, upset not angry, not angry―

The grapple (hug, hug) lasted maybe ten seconds. Alex went rigid in Lafayette’s hold, air becoming stone in his lungs, as the French teen muttered, “Do not be sorry, petit Alex. I do not want you gone; I enjoy spending time with…”

Then Lafayette tensed suddenly, and then the arms were loosening and Lafayette was pulling back with a jerk, eyes wide and panicky. “Merde―je suis désolé, Alexandre, I should not have grabbed you without permission,” he fretted. His hands landed feather-light on Alex’s shoulders, thumbs barely brushing his hoodie as they gently twirled in soothing circles. “You are alright? I can count your breaths for you?”

Grounded by the fingers ghosting over his arms, Alex took a deep breath, muscles finally relaxing. “I’m fine,” he gasped, out of breath despite his regained composure. “You’re fine. S-sorry.”

Lafayette frowned, gripping his shoulders a bit tighter and continuing his ministrations. “Mon ami, you should not be sorry. Instead, I am sorry for embracing you so suddenly.” He paused for a long moment, biting his lip; for the first time that day, there was uncertainty in his eyes, backed with guilt. “And… I am sorry that I made you feel as if you were a bother.”

“I―no―Lafayette, no.” After a moment of hesitation, Alex reached up and placed his own hands over those on his shoulders, crossing his arms against his chest to do so. “You didn’t do anything wrong―seriously. It wasn’t anything you did. Promise.”

If anything, that made Lafayette look sadder. Twisting his arms around, he took Alex’s hands in his and pulled them close once again, gently rubbing his bruised knuckles.

“I see,” he said softly.

For a split second, that look was back on his face―the knowing, almost calculating look that made Alex feel more transparent than anything else―but then it was gone, replaced with a small smile. “Well, I apologize anyway. But I am glad to hear it.”

And, with that, the conversation was over. With one last squeeze, Lafayette released his hand and leaned back, picking up his phone and typing something before stowing it away in his pocket.

Only then did Alex wonder numbly, ‘How did he know how to calm me down?’

But he never got a chance to do any more than wonder, because then George was calling “Boys! Dinner!” and Alex just about fainted on the spot.

Okay, he was definitely pathetic. But he had a hard time believing that the Washingtons were going to just… give him another meal. For free. As in: asking for nothing in return. No chores, no favors, no beatings, nothing. Just… free food.

If there was one thing he’d picked up in his previous placements, it was that food wasn’t free.

Pace kept the cupboards stocked with cans of soup and the freezer with frozen dinners. Alexander could make himself what he wanted, but if he ate more than once or twice in a day, he’d get a slap or punch for his troubles and go hungry the following day. Sometimes even one meal warranted a beating, if Pace was in a particularly sour mood.

Miss Green, on the contrary, gave him three square meals a day, but she spent each meal grilling him for information on his past, descriptions of his nightmares, things that might send him into panic attacks―anything she thought she could “fix”. He left the table after each meal with a full stomach and shaking hands. More often than not, he’d puke at least one of the meals back up.

Margaret, bless her heart, was old, frail, and tiny―she barely came up to Alex’s chest, which was saying a lot. While with Margaret, he ate breakfast every morning at six and dinner every “night” at five; she needed nothing else, and assumed Alex didn’t either. He hadn’t the heart to correct her. Besides, he cooked the meals, so he usually ended up with the biggest portion anyway.

The Buchanans... well, they were their own sort. To this day, Alex couldn't identify just one reason for their behavior: it was a mixture of their own nature, their... less-than-tolerant religious beliefs, and (as always) his own mistakes. But, needless to say, food hadn't been free, or even obtainable, with the Buchanans.

And the LeBlancs―

Were nothing like the Washingtons. The LeBlancs were nothing like the Washingtons, the Washingtons were nothing like the LeBlancs, and he would just have to adjust to this new reality that happened to include free food three times a day.

Of course, nothing was truly free, but the Washingtons seemed to think otherwise, so he would humor them until they came around and gave him some chores.

Heaving a silent sigh, he extracted himself from the Alex-shaped impression he’d created in Lafayette’s matress and followed the excitable teen into the hall. Lafayette quickly grabbed his hand, and Alex allowed himself to be led back into the dining room. At the very least, there didn’t seem to be any hard feelings or lingering tension after his slip-up, proving his theory that the Washingtons were angels gifted with unrivaled patience and forgiveness.

Still, as he trailed into the dining room at Lafayette’s back, he was half expectiong to see a few pizzas stacked on the counter, or only three plates on the table and an awkward smile on Martha’s face, or some raw ingrediants spread across the counter and a recipe taped to the wall.

He saw none of those things.

Instead, he saw George, crossing the room in a few strides and holding out a plate to him, and on the plate: a baked potato, split down the middle, with melted butter and sour cream stuffed in the crevice; a mound of cooked green beans and carrots, sprinkled with salt and smeared with the extra butter; and meat―actual meat, seasoned and dripping with juices. He didn’t quite know what it was, since it had been a while since he’d had home-cooked meat, but it looked and smelled absolutely delicious, and it was decently-sized, and―

And it was all on one plate. One plate that George was handing to him, a smile on his face, and there were only three plates at the table, but the fourth was being offered to him, and it was piled with just as much food as the other three.

“Here―this one’s yours,” George said, shooting Alex a disarming smile when the boy just blinked up at him, flabbergasted. “We usually take our steak very rare, but most people don’t like it that way. This one―” He casually jerked his chin towards the meat―the steak; it was actual steak― “is cooked a bit more.”

“You made Alexandre’s Schuyler style?” Lafayette called from the table―when had he found the time to sit down?―and Alex blinked free of his shock, numbly taking the plate into his own hands. It was heavy, and the porcelain was hot against his skin.

Martha laughed from her own spot at the table as George strode over to join her. “Not quite that well-done, Gilbert.” Then, misinterpreting Alex’s blank, confused stare, she explained, “Our friend Philip Schuyler practically burns his meat to a crisp. His poor daughters always have to beg George to talk some sense into him.”

Alex didn’t respond, although his mind was whirring. Martha’s explanation had only raised more questions. ‘Philip Schuyler, the former Senator of New York?’ Mutely, he turned to stare at the food on his plate. Steam rose from it in lazy swirls; he could feel its heat on his face. The plate was smooth and untarnished under his fingers, contrasting starkly with his rough, bruised hands.

“Alex,” George said, and he looked up. The man was smiling at him patiently, gesturing to the empty spot at the table. Martha and Lafayette had already begun to eat. “Sit. Eat your food.”

That broke him out of his stupor, but just barely. Mechanically, he dropped himself into his seat, curling clumsy fingers around his fork.

Lafayette immediately began to talk, as Alex was growing accustomed to. His happy chatter made pleasant background noise when Alex found himself unable to pay attention, instead focusing on the meal in front of him. It was, without a doubt, the best meal he’d ever had the pleasure of partaking in, made better still by the good company in which he ate. And it was free.

There was only one problem.

A few bites into his baked potato, the issue presented itself, and he froze immediately, lips still sealed around the tip of his fork. With a satisfied gurgle, his stomach settled back contentedly as the bite slid down his throat, as if telling him, ‘Alright, you’ve finally decided to take care of me. Good for you. That’s enough, now.’

For the past six months, Alexander had lived off of very little. A handful of dry cereal was the best he could hope for in the morning; sometimes, he couldn’t eat breakfast at all. Before bed, he would make himself a can of soup or a pot pie, assuming he could do so without angering Pace. Days where he was being punished―days where he didn’t eat at all―were relatively few and far between, but they still popped up maybe once every ten days.

He was very much not used to having meals more lavish than a frozen dinner.

He was very much not used to having more than two meals per day.

Alex stared down at his own torso. His hoodie, which usually sagged dejectedly over the hollow underneath his ribs, was now resting against his stomach, which was protruding a healthy amount from his body. His stomach was protruding. His stomach was curved out, not in. For the first time in a long time, he was full.

There was still a whole steak, a heaping pile of vegetables, and over half a baked potato waiting on his plate.

‘Shit.’

Paranoia taking hold, Alex glanced up nervously―but, naturally, no one else had noticed. No one else was reaching the same conclusion. They didn’t know, he reminded himself. They didn’t know about Pace, or about Miss Green, or about the Buchanans, or about the LeBlancs, thank God.

Panic struck next, and he closed his eyes for a moment, breathing through the first wave. Nonetheless, some took root, immediately growing into sprawling doubts within his mind. The Washingtons had gone to all this trouble for him―making him food; cooking his steak a little longer; giving him his eating privileges right off the bat when they would’ve been justified in making him wait―and he wouldn’t even be able to eat it. How ungrateful would that seem? How strange would they find it that he had such a tiny stomach capacity? How many questions would they have about his previous placement? How many lashes would it take for them to be satisfied that he’d learned his lesson?

How many minutes would they think it over before calling Ms. Muller to send him away?

Shame crashed over him like a tidal wave, and he squirmed guiltily in his seat. Ms. Muller had done everything she could to help him stay out of juvie. She’d fought valiantly to convict the LeBlancs; she’d removed him immediately from the Buchanans’ on just his word; she’d called in a favor to get him an emergency placement on short notice. Was this how he repaid her? By getting kicked out for not being able to eat?

How pathetic could you get?

“Alex.”

Logically, he knew that Martha’s voice was no different than usual, but, somehow, it sounded sharper. He startled, looking up from his plate to meet her eyes. She smiled just as gently as ever―he knew he was imagining the irritated edge to it―and made scooping gestures with the knife in her hand.

“Keep eating, kiddo.”

Alex’s heart sunk.

‘That’s kind of the problem.’

Even he wasn’t stupid enough to say that out loud. Throwing a smile onto his face, he nodded unsurely, finally taking the fork out of his mouth and looking back down at his plate. The food was still steaming slightly, but it was much cooler now; there was no real reason not to eat it. Unless you happened to be an incredibly selfish, unappreciative teenager who had no real place in such a nice house with such nice people and couldn’t even eat a stupid meal that he didn’t deserve in the first place.

He prodded the hunk of meat first, watching it jiggle slightly. Biting his lip, he stuck it with his fork and twisted until a chunk tore off with a healthy squelch. Juice dripped onto the plate, another wisp of steam shimmering above it. The mouth-watering aroma hit his nose, and his stomach gurgled reflexively, then seemed to remember that it had already reached capacity and gave a sort of affirmative jerk.

Alex swallowed. In the background, George and Lafayette argued affably over which was the better play: Macbeth or Hamlet.

He shoved the food into his mouth and chewed.

And, by God, full or not, it was delicious; tender and flavorful, cooked and seasoned to perfection. Closing his eyes, he made an appreciative noise deep in his chest. George’s pleased grin was palpable, even as he vigorously defended the self-fulfilling prophecies of Macbeth.

The first bite went down without too much resistance. After a moment, he speared a few green beans on his fork, chewed them extensively, and swallowed them, too. He could feel his body catch on to what was happening; his chest tightened slightly in confusion, and his stomach twitched apprehensively.

When he didn’t immediately split at the seams, or whatever he’d expected to happen if he took another bite, he threw himself into the task with fervor, shoveling the rest of the food into his mouth. If he choked it down quickly enough, he didn’t have time to process it, and then his gag reflex didn’t try to push it back out. Luckily, the Washingtons were now all deeply engaged in their conversation about Shakespeare’s greatest work, so none of them noticed when he shoved most of the potato into his mouth, swallowed it almost whole, then downed his milk in a single gulp.

By the time George turned towards him to break the tie, his defense of Macbeth on the tip of his tongue, the deed was done. Astonishment briefly crossed George’s face as he scanned the cleared plate; Alex seized the opportunity and quickly spoke up. “Can I be excused?” he requested, trying his best to look tired rather than urgent. He just needed to lay down and wait for the cramps to subside, but if he puked now, it was all over.

“…Sure,” George said after a moment, relaxing again. He shot Alex a teasing smile. “Didn’t like the steak?”

Alex blinked. “…Huh?” he replied articulately, then had the sense to glance down at his plate. It was practically scraped clean, with the exception of a few scattered crumbs of potato, a shred of carrot―and a large chunk of meat laying smack-dab in the middle.

“Oh.”

Before he could second-guess himself, Alex stabbed the last bite with his fork and stuffed it into his mouth.

As he chewed, George laughed heartily, pressing a hand over his mouth to muffle the sound. “I stand corrected,” he chuckled, and Alex’s stomach chose that moment to give a tremendous lurch, twisting wildly like a pinned animal. He gagged, shoulders snapping forward, his hand flying up to clap over his lips in an effort to keep everything down―but, blessedly, blessedly, it sounded more like a cough than anything.

‘Shit.’

Smiling as best he could, Alex continued to chew the meat in his mouth, ignoring the sudden rebellion of his intestines. Apparently, the food was catching up to him. Tightly gripping both sides of his now-empty plate, he stood without finesse, turning and hastily depositing his plate in the sink. Now, Martha’s insistence that she didn’t need help with the dishes seemed a miracle beyond measure.

“Mon ami, are you tired?” Lafayette’s voice stopped him inches from the door, and he froze, slowly turning around. The French teen was frowning contemplatively, a chunk of potato hanging off of his fork. Apparently, something he saw in Alex’s face was all the answer he needed, because he didn’t bother waiting for an answer. “We will save the rest of our conversation for tomorrow, yes?” he said firmly, the statement cleverly disguised as a suggestion. “For now, you will sleep.”

Yes, whatever; he didn’t care anymore―but, damn it all, George was turning as well, now― “Ah, that reminds me.” Alex tensed despite himself, sending a jolt of pain through his stomach. “Alex―you and I will be heading to the school tomorrow to get you enrolled. Depending on how it goes, you should be able to start on Tuesday or Wednesday, if that’s alright?”

George’s smile was soft and unassuming, but, somehow, Alex felt like he was staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. His stomach churned; the meat was leaden in his mouth, weighing heavily upon his tongue. With some difficulty, he swallowed; it clung to the walls of his esophagus on the way down. “Sure,” he muttered, not even bothering with a fake smile this time―it would be so unconvincing that his default expression was less suspicious. “Good night, then.”

Hopefully, the Washingtons would forgive him for being so curt. He needed to go. Immediately.

Turning on his heel, he beat a hasty retreat, bile bubbling in the back of his throat. Forget trying to keep all this food down―he had to focus on getting to a bathroom before it came back up.

Running made his stomach twist dangerously, but he had little choice in the matter. Alex practically sprinted up the stairs, feet fumbling on the unfamiliar wood. The halls flashed by in a blur, and, before he knew it, he was bursting through a door, crossing the room to another door―

Hurling himself onto the toilet seat, he clutched the cool porcelain and puked.

Luckily, it was over pretty quickly. His stomach expelled only the excess, and he was left feeling just as stuffed as before, just slightly less queasy. Still, vomiting wasn’t a pleasant sensation, and he grimaced at the awful taste that filled his mouth and the slight burn of his throat. Quickly wiping his mouth, he stood, flushed the toilet, and reached for his toothbrush―

This was not his bathroom.

Only now did he stop to take in the sights around him, and he immediately cursed, throwing the bathroom door open. Sure enough, it was as he’d feared―he’d automatically gone for Lafayette’s room, having spent most of the day there. Hastily, he darted into the hallway, closing Lafayette’s door behind him and hoping the French teen wouldn’t notice anything―God, hopefully he hadn’t left behind a smell; not just for his sake, but for Lafayette’s, as well.

As soon as the taste of vomit was rinsed out of his mouth, Alexander collapsed onto his bed, worn down from the effort of puking his guts out and all the socialization he’d done today. Shoving his hood between his teeth, he bit down hard and curled around his pillow, not bothering to drag the blankets over himself.

His last thought was that maybe that dinner had been a blessing in disguise, as he was unable to worry about anything but the pain curled tightly in his abdomen, and quickly drifted into a fitful sleep, too exhausted to even dream.

Chapter Text

Hushed voices. Muffled footsteps. A soft rapping noise.

Somewhere, in the murky reaches of his mind, he absorbed the noises, but he was asleep, so he didn’t bother trying to comprehend them. He was asleep, and, for once in his life, he didn’t want to wake up. So, instead, he dozed, brushing off the noises as unimportant and allowing them to be lost in the thick haze of exhaustion that covered his mind.

More whispers. A pause. Doorknobs jiggling. The faint creak of usually unused hinges. Another pause. More footsteps, less muffled this time, but even quieter. He didn’t care. He was asleep, and he didn’t want to wake up. He was asleep, and he was warm and comfortable and so tired―

“Alexandre?”

As always, Alex snapped straight from sleep to complete awareness, sitting bolt upright in bed and scanning the room for danger.

A hissed “Merde!” Footsteps, then a soft thump.

He was, naturally, still in bed. Other than the strange looseness of his slack muscles and the characteristic vomit taste in his mouth, nothing was out of the ordinary, and Alex relaxed. Blinking his eyes all the way open and stretching both arms over his head, he turned in the direction of the noises he’d heard―only to see Lafayette sprawled out on the floor, one hand clutching his heaving chest and the other propping him off the ground. His eyes were wide and startled.

At the sight of Alex, now fully awake, Lafayette’s eyes fluttered shut and he let out a slow, shaky breath, sagging into the carpet. “Merde, Alexandre. You startled me,” he gasped. “Mon dieu. You sat straight up.” After a moment, he opened his eyes, purely for the purpose of narrowing them thoughtfully. “Did you have a nightmare?”

Alex just blinked down at him. For multiple reasons, he had no idea how to respond to that. First of all, Lafayette worrying after him was still… novel, to say the least. More importantly, though, the answer was that no, he hadn’t. For the first time in a long time, Alex hadn’t had a nightmare―he’d been too bone-tired to dream. Usually, Lafayette’s assumption would be right on the money, but, this time, it had honestly just been instinct that made him jump.

“I always wake up suddenly,” he answered honestly after a moment. Then, abruptly realizing that his violent awakening had startled Lafayette and Lafayette was still on the ground, he winced, throwing the covers aside and hastily scrambling off the bed. “Crap, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

Lafayette gratefully accepted the hand Alex proffered and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet (with some difficulty, as he was significantly taller than Alex, whose late-night worship at the porcelain altar had once again reignited his old leg pains, further complicating the process). “I am quite alright, mon ami,” he said, running a hand through his disheveled hair. “Are you okay?” Again, he gave Alex a searching look.

Clearly, Alex’s excuses weren’t going to fool him. Ironically, though, Alex wasn’t trying to fool him, and his answer wasn’t really an excuse. “Lafayette, I’m fine,” he reassured, a hint of amusement creeping into his voice. Catching the skeptical look sent his way, he rolled his eyes with a smile. “Seriously. Lafayette. I’m. Fine. I always wake up like this. It’s habitual, not reactive.”

That seemed to be what it took to convince the French teen, because he let the topic drop with one last dubious glance. “We must ready ourselves for the day,” he declared instead, clapping his hands once as a bit of his usual exuberance returned. “I have school to attend today, and you and George must come along to complete all the paperwork necessary for your transfer. That is why we must leave earlier than usual.”

Alex cringed guiltily (Lafayette hated waking up early, and this was the second time in a row that Alex had forced him out of bed prematurely), but Lafayette just continued on as if he couldn’t see anything wrong with that. “Martha is still asleep, however, so try not to shout. Breakfast is waiting for you after you are finished getting…”

Lafayette trailed off, his eyes scanning up and down Alex’s frame. His gaze came to a rest on the frayed drawstrings of Alex’s hoodie, and he frowned. “Alexandre,” he began with a confused tilt of his head, “did you sleep in your clothes?”

Alex blinked uncomprehendingly, then looked down at himself. “Oh.” Obviously, since he had never changed out of them in the first place, he was wearing the same hoodie, t-shirt, and jeans as yesterday. “Uh… yes?” What else would he have slept in?

Luckily, Lafayette seemed to find that answer acceptable, because his frown gave way to a fond smile. “Ah, you are very forgetful, petit Alex,” he teased, hand darting forward to give Alex’s hair a quick ruffle. Ignoring the subsequent affronted squawk, he rolled his shoulders (casually, not threateningly). “We shall both prepare for the day and meet in the kitchen, yes?”

Alex tucked his displaced hair back into the front of his hoodie, careful to fully conceal the fingerprints on his neck, as he pondered Lafayette’s response. Forgetful? What was he forgetting? Nonetheless, he nodded his assent, and, once Lafayette had left with one last parting grin, he peeled off his clothes and hopped into the shower. Once again, he opted not to use the shampoo and body wash he’d been provided, not wanting to leave the Washingtons with an almost-full bottle they couldn’t return to the store.

Backpacks were made to hold books, not clothes, and most of his belongings consisted of notebooks and pencils. As such, Alex had only one spare t-shirt and an extra pair of jeans to his name. He changed into both and covered the shirt up with his only hoodie, which was necessary for its long sleeves and high collar that hid his bruises and ligature marks (both of which were considerably harder to explain than his knuckles). The end result was completely indistinguishable from his previous outfit; to the casual observer, he looked exactly the same. He could only hope that the Washingtons wouldn’t take his lack of clothes as laziness or sloppiness.

Lafayette wasn’t there yet when he made his way down to the kitchen, but George was sitting at the table, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. The scene was so casual that Alex did a double-take, although he supposed he should have been used to it by now; this household was just like that. Still, the mundane pajamas on George’s intimidating frame―the kind smile on his face―the soft “Good morning, Alex. Help yourself to some breakfast; we have fruit and yogurt too, if you prefer.” ―was almost unsettling in its unfamiliarity.

(Again, he was allowed to eat immediately. He couldn’t help but feel crushingly grateful; his freshly-emptied stomach was more than ready for some more sustenance. He also couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly suspicious, but he didn’t bother asking what George wanted in return, knowing that he wouldn’t get a straight answer. It was best to just wait for the price to make itself known.)

By the time Lafayette joined them, Alex had already finished his cup of yogurt and was halfway through the small apple-cinnamon pastry he’d hesitantly grabbed from the large plastic container in the middle of the table. They were store-bought and had some French name that Alex had heard once as a child and then promptly forgotten.

Alex wasn’t a huge fan of the whatever-they-were pastries, although George informed him that Martha’s homemade strawberry variants were heaven on earth. He’d also been told he could have as many as he wanted, which instantly made them taste about twenty times better.

As Lafayette sat himself at the table and scarfed down his food, George stood, setting his empty mug in the sink and vanishing upstairs, probably to get dressed. Alex took the opportunity to grab another yogurt―another thing he’d been told he could have as many as he wanted of, but eating another in front of George just didn’t seem right.

Minutes later, Lafayette ran off, too, shouting something about packing his bag and finding his coat. Alex waved distractedly at his retreating back, wondering if he would get in trouble for eating another of the pastries―yes, he could have “as many he wanted”, but he’d already had two yogurts; did that make the offer void? And, yes, he wasn’t exactly hungry anymore, and he’d learned his lesson about eating too much yesterday, but surely one more pastry wouldn’t send him over the edge.

It took him entirely too long to realize that he was now the only one sitting at the table. With Martha still asleep, George off to get dressed, and Lafayette doing who-knew-what, the room was otherwise empty. He’d been left alone.

In the kitchen.

With food.

Instinct took over. Before he even knew what he was doing, he’d rocketed to his feet, his chair screeching backwards. Grabbing a napkin, he draped it over his open palm and, without even thinking about it, snatched one of the cookie-sized pastries and deposited it unceremoniously in the hollow of his hand.

Another quickly followed; then another. They were light and almost insubstantial in his hand as he stacked two―three―four onto the napkin in quick succession, hand flashing between the container and his growing pile. As the fourth pastry landed with a dull thunk that was almost a click, he reached forward for yet another, fingers shooting out and closing around it―

He froze.

Rather suddenly, he realized what he was doing, and the awareness hit him like a truck. For a moment, he stood stock-still; then, with a second burst of panicked realization, he dropped the pastry in his hand and jerked his arm back in disgust. With an easy twist of his wrist, he dumped all four pastries back into their box and fought the urge to stumble back, horrified with himself.

What the hell was he doing? The Washingtons gave him plenty of food; he didn’t need to take any more from them. He didn’t even like these. He wasn’t even hungry.

But it wasn’t as if there was a shortage of them. The box wasn’t overflowing, but it was a family pack; there were a good forty or fifty pastries left. George had smiled at him; had said “Take as many as you want, Alex.”

But what did that mean? “Take as many as you want” meant “There’ll be a price to pay for these and I’m looking for a reason to make the price high” in the language of the LeBlancs. How was he supposed to know that George didn’t mean the same thing?

But the Washingtons weren’t the LeBlancs. George was not Mr. LeBlanc. Martha was not Charlotte. This was not LeBlanc’s house; these were not LeBlanc’s rules. He doubted that he could literally “take as many as he wanted”, but George wasn’t the kind of man who would say something like that if he didn’t mean it at least partially.

But that didn’t mean he could just take advantage of their kindness. And he was pretty sure that, whatever George had meant, it hadn’t been “Wrap some up in a napkin and take them with you for later, Alex.” And, again, even if George didn’t mind―which was a pretty damn big “if”―that didn’t mean Alex was allowed to exploit the poor man. God, how selfish was he?

But―but―

But―

But he wasn’t even thinking about the LeBlancs.

All he could remember were the first few weeks at the Buchanans’.

The way they had fed him more than enough; had piled his plate high and stocked his wardrobe with more clothes than he’d ever owned; had provided everything he could have possibly asked for with kind smiles and caring eyes.

The way those comforts had been gradually, yet so quickly, taken away, leaving him scrambling for footing―trying to adapt once again to his old way of life; torturously reacquainting himself with the empty burn of hunger.

The way he’d had to sneak into the kitchen at night for food, heart pounding wildly in his chest, paranoid eyes darting side to side, breaths coming quick and heavy, before he finally grabbed the first edible thing he came across and scampered back into his room, barely managing to keep his steps quiet as adrenaline throbbed in his throat.

The night he’d finally broken and eaten the first of the granola bars Ms. Muller had given him, hunched over and hiding in the closet, muscles so tense they were already aching―his stomach so sunken that he could lay on his back and press his fingers into the undersides of his ribs.

(“Save these,” Ms. Muller had said, and he’d tried, but he was hungry hungry starving needed food couldn’t think of anything else, and he had to eat it now, and he’d always harbored a nagging suspicion that she was still upset at him for that. He was too weak; too easy to break. Too pathetic. Of course she’d be mad.)

(“They do good things, but for all the wrong reasons,” Ms. Muller had said, and he’d tried to keep that in mind, he’d really tried, but it was all too easy to disregard that; to let their kindness lull him into happy complacency and end up being too selfish; taking too much; being too much. And the worst part was that he knew that he was too much. No one could be expected to put up with him for long.)

(“Try not to ask them for much,” Ms. Muller had said, and he’d tried; he’d tried so hard to restrain himself; to not ask for much―to only ask for one meal a day―but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from being selfish, because they were still upset; he still watched them slowly get fed up with his neediness. He couldn’t stop it; he couldn’t stop it; there was nothing he could do. He hadn’t asked for anything but he was still taking everything; he just took and he took and he took.)

(“Eat at night, when they’re both asleep, if you can,” Ms. Muller had said, and he’d tried tried tried tried tried, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t enough, trying wasn’t enough, and he always failed in the end, anyway. And maybe that was his problem. Maybe he just couldn’t do anything right, and that was why he was so pathetic, and that was why he was too much for everyone, and that was why he just took and took and took and took.)

Alex remembered the gnawing pain of week-old hunger that never quite went away, and his hands trembled.

‘Just in case.’

Against his will, he closed his eyes, nausea curling in the pit of his stomach. Slowly, ever so slowly, he felt his arm twitch, then begin to drift forward, his fingers stretching out―

His fingers brushed the crust of a pastry, and his stomach seized rebelliously. Swallowing bile, he withdrew his hand for a moment―then steeled himself, his resolve besting his repulsion. Gingerly, he scooped the pastry up and carefully lay it down on top of the napkin.

It physically hurt, and his movements were jerky and unsure, but he repeated the process, placing another pastry on top of the first; then another. Two―three―his hands were shaking fiercely as he grabbed another―

His eyes fluttered open. Once again, there were four pastries in his palm, sitting neatly atop the open napkin. They weren’t very thick or rounded, so the stack wasn’t so unstable that it would wobble precariously like a stack of cookies might. It was ideal for wrapping up and keeping in his pocket. ‘Small blessings,’ he thought, ‘are wasted on something like this.’

Still, he stared. The pile swayed unassumingly.

‘Just in case.’

Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Alex once again screwed his eyelids firmly shut, unwilling― unable― to watch his own actions. As his fingers wrapped around another pastry, a phantom bruise shaped perfectly like Mr. Buchanan’s foot blossomed across his abdomen. Faltering, he momentarily froze in place―then jerked his hand back and dropped the fifth pastry into the pile, eyes opening again, if only to confirm that Mr. Buchanan wasn’t actually here.

(He wasn’t.)

For a moment, he just stared down at his loot. His pulse was vibrating in his throat. Now, he was supposed to wrap them up and carefully stick them in his pocket, but he couldn’t seem to convince his body to move. Or rather, his body seemed to want to move in a different direction entirely. His fingers twitched.

‘Just in case.’

Sucking in a single deep breath, Alex snatched one more pastry before he could stop himself, shoving it hastily into the pile and then folding the corners of the napkin over them almost desperately. Paper crinkled as he rolled the stack over in his hands before shoving it into his pocket so vehemently that he was almost afraid they would crumble.

His hand lingered on the parcel for a moment more before, with a shaky exhale, he withdrew his hand, leaving the pile in his hoodie pocket.

Just in case.

When George and Lafayette came back downstairs, ready to head out the door, he managed to smile at them with some sincerity, but his stomach squirmed guiltily every time they smiled back.


 

The car ride was relatively uneventful. Luckily, Alex was spared the awkwardness of trying to make conversation with George with the regret of his recent theft fresh in his mind, as Lafayette demanded that Alex ride with him, and George had no objections. Alex couldn’t for the life of him fathom why Lafayette had been so insistent, but he certainly wasn’t going to complain. True to form, Lafayette kept up steady chatter for the entire ride while still managing to pay complete attention to the road, which proved to be a wonderful distraction from his reprehensible actions of the previous hour.

In comparison, the actual process of getting enrolled was so uneventful that its uneventfulness made it remarkable. Remarkably boring, at least, as George quickly vanished to talk with Mr. Adams, leaving Alex alone in the office with a hefty stack of empty forms to fill in and only the clattering of the receptionist’s fingers on keys as background noise.

Alex had always liked filling out personal forms; he usually used his laptop only to write, and sparingly even then, but he was no stranger to fun little personality quizzes. School forms were an entirely different matter, though. Alex scowled when he saw only two options under “gender”―despite being binary himself, it was incredibly upsetting―and tried not to care that there were only five options listed under “race”. As if an “unspecified/other” category could cover all the people who weren’t “White”, “African American”, “Asian”, or “Latino”.

But the real kicker was when he reached the last few pages to find a slew of prying personal questions, all of which were marked with red asterisks that declared them as “required questions”. For a moment, he just gaped, astonished; almost unwilling to believe that even a high school would be that blatantly nosy.

Once the initial shock had worn off, it didn’t take very long at all for him to reach a decision. With very little hesitation, he went over the questions with painstaking care, assuring that his answers were as useless and passive-aggressive as possible.

At first, they were relatively mundane. The first question was “What are some of your hobbies?”; under the final of the five options listed, he scribbled, “This seems like a poor question to make multiple choice. I’m not interested in any of the above, and I doubt I’m the only one.” After that, there was “About how many texts do you send in a day?”, to which he responded “I don’t have a phone; I’m sure you considered this, but you forgot to include the ‘zero’ option,” followed by a patronizing smiley face.

He then scratched out the question “Who was your last text sent to?” and replaced it with “To whom was your last text sent?”, which he answered with “One possessing better grammatical skills than yours.” After a moment of deliberation, he grudgingly scratched that out, too, and replaced it with “See above explanation of my lack of a phone,” unwilling to take that big of a risk when these answers could easily be shown to the Washingtons―it didn’t escape his notice that the form never mentioned confidentiality. Yet another inexcusable breach, but whatever.

After a few more asinine questions, which he countered with several equally asinine answers, Alex huffed irritably and flipped the paper over. Spread monotonously across the final page were the last two questions, the dull 12-point Times New Roman almost blurring together in his vision. Thank God; it was finally over. This had been tedious as all hell―not to mention incredibly invasive. He was more than happy to get it over with.

Slumping over the paper and twirling his pencil idly, he scanned the first of the two questions.

What is your sexuality?

Alex froze in place, fingers stiffening mid-twirl. The pencil slid out from between them and fell to the floor with a soft thump. The receptionist glanced over at him, then looked away again.

(“Don’t touch me, sodomite!”) (“I won’t have that shit in this household, you hear me?”) (“Aw, is the little faggot gonna cry?”) (“Don’t worry, Alexander; your secret is safe with me.”) (stupid dirty prudish greedy fag slut―)

Almost automatically, his eyes darted down to the listed options. He could barely see them through the sudden dimness of his vision, but, somewhere, they registered in his mind. His eyes flickered shut, breath catching.

__  Heterosexual      __  Homosexual     __  Questioning/Other

Alex’s mouth was dry. Vaguely, through a sudden thick fog, he heard the phone ring and the receptionist answer it with a very bored “Hello?” In the distance, a school bell rung. Or maybe it was closer than it sounded. He didn’t know; he couldn’t bring himself to examine the thought further. He couldn’t bring himself to think at all. He―he couldn’t―he couldn’t think―

Lafayette had rap-battled a homophobe. John Laurens wanted to attend protests. George was a liberal Senator. But―even within the LGBT+ community itself―

(“What are you, a robot? Sex and romance are what make us human; there’s no way you don’t feel it… oh, you do feel it, but only for certain people? What, like literally everyone else? Am I just not good enough for you? Are you supposed to be bi or not? You give a bad name to the community. Fucking elitist asshole―”)

(“What are you, a whore? Just like to have as many fellow whores as possible to fill up your empty heart, huh? I can’t believe you actively want to cheat on your partner; what the hell is wrong with you? One person not good enough for you? You’re the reason people think we’re all sluts. Fucking greedy prick―”)

Heterosexual. Homosexual. Questioning. Other. That was the most pathetic list of possible sexualities he’d ever seen in his life, and, were it not for the fact that the entire rest of his life hinged on him making it at the Washingtons, it would be the perfect candidate for another of his passive-aggressive mocking answers. Numbly, he pictured what his response would look like if he was brutally honest.

“First of all, I am, in fact, bisexual, and it’s borderline biphobic that you didn’t deem it necessary to include that option within your expansive list of two sexualities and an “other” category. However, despite my bisexuality, I also happen to be an icy-cold prude who’s more attracted to personality and friendship than immediate impressions. Additionally, I’m incredibly interested in the concept of a relationship involving more than two people, all of whom are romantically intertwined with each other. Yes, man-whore style. Of course, your decision to not include any options besides the default “straight or gay” was likely a calculated, informed choice, and I wouldn’t dare question your logic, seeing as how I am just a silly little “other”. If nothing else, I know the difference between people who have just made an honest mistake and people who are bigoted beyond belief! :) :) :)”

Dear God. He’d be in juvie before the end of the day.

Of course, there was a smart thing to do in this situation. The logical course of action would be to mark down “heterosexual”, no matter how incorrect it was, to minimize the risk of being outed to the Washingtons. But the idea of lying to save his own skin; of hiding who he was, as if he was ashamed of it―

He couldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to, but he couldn’t.

Swallowing thickly, he passed that question and looked down at the last one, free hand clenching into a fist.

Have you participated in sexual intercourse before?

The oxygen left his lungs so quickly that his head spun. This time, his other hand was the one that slackened, and the clipboard with the forms on it slid off his lap and hit the carpet with a louder fwump.

Have you had sex?

(Heavy blankets; silken sheets; lilac curtains swaying)

__  Yes        __  No

(“Now, was that so bad?”)

(dirty broken used slut whore dirty dirty dirty―)

The door to the Principal’s office clicked open and Alex jumped, head snapping up. His wide eyes met George’s as the man stepped through, Mr. Adams hot on his heels and a cellphone pressed tight to his ear.

“…Yes, I can make it… Oh, no, not at all… But of course. I understand… Right. Thank you, Senator King. No, no, the pleasure’s all mine.” Not once did he break eye contact, so Alex was witness to each of his pained expressions, but his voice, at least, sounded convincingly apathetic, if not quite pleasant. “Yes, of course. I’ll see you there. Drive safely.”

With a soft beep, he ended the call and tucked the phone away, but he still didn’t look away, keeping Alex trapped with his signature Washington/Muller death gaze. Normally, that might have been terrifying, but there was a guilty look on his face that made it more disconcerting than scary.

“Alex,” he began after a moment, crossing the room in a few long strides―Alex’s pulse sped up, his brain still reeling from the flashback moments prior, but he didn’t visibly recoil―“I’m so sorry, son, but we have to leave. Senator King―” A poorly-masked look of loathing spread across his face― “just called to schedule a last-minute meeting of sorts, and it’s very important that I discuss―”

Cutting himself off, he glanced down at the papers and pencil on the ground and raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, did I startle you?” he guessed, crouching down and picking them up. Depositing the pencil in Alex’s waiting hand, he added, “How close are you to being done?” and flipped the clipboard over, scanning the last page of the form.

Wincing, Alex hastily averted his eyes. He hadn’t filled out the sexuality question yet, but it still might serve to raise a few questions, which he really couldn’t afford.

As his eyes skimmed down the paper, George’s brow furrowed, several creases marring his otherwise smooth forehead. Frowning, he turned towards Mr. Adams, still holding the clipboard in one hand.

“These questions seem very… personal,” he said slowly, although his pause was more accusing than hesitant. His suspicion was aimed unambiguously at Adams, and Alex could have cried. Of course. Whether or not he would accept a (prude, whore, robot, slut) anomaly like Alex, Washington was a reasonable man. Of course he wouldn’t stand for such a blatant invasion of privacy. ‘God, I’m lucky.’

Suspiciously enough, Adams clearly knew what questions George was referring to without having to be told, because he paled immediately. “Uh―y-yes, well,” he stammered like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, “those questions are all optional, you know―”

“They were marked as required questions,” Alex pointed out before he could stop himself, heartened by George’s support. Adams’ wide eyes darted over to him, and he suppressed a smirk. “Y’know, with the little red asterisk.”

Paling even further, Principal Adams tossed a forced smile onto his face. “Oh, are they?” His voice was shrill. “I… the person who made the test must’ve made a mistake,” he declared, managing to put himself back together and tell his blatant lie with an admirable poker face. “We’ll be sure to fix that. Feel free to just… tear that last page right off, if you want.”

Washington’s mouth gave a displeased sort of twitch, but he didn’t call Adams out on his obvious lie. “Alright, then,” he said instead, and―Alex nearly sighed aloud in relief―he actually did carefully remove the last page, handing the clipboard back to Alex. After a moment, he flipped the paper over and glanced at the questions that were actually filled out, curiosity smoothing out his wrinkled brow.

For a brief moment, cold terror gripped Alex again―there was still the matter of his obviously mocking joke answers; anyone would be mad about those; hell, even he knew that they weren’t quite wise, although he couldn’t honestly say he regretted them. Or, at least, he hadn’t regretted them until now, because now he could see the confusion on George’s face as he took in the unfilled bubbles, and he could pinpoint the exact moment when the man glanced down and read the hastily-scribbled retorts underneath.

George’s eyes widened, and Alex flinched, bracing himself for an earnest scolding that he probably deserved (what had he been thinking, downright antagonizing the school?!), but there was no yelling.

Instead, George slammed a hand over his mouth to muffle a snort, his shoulders jolting forward, and Alex glimpsed a shimmer of mirth, not anger, in his eyes.

Mr. Adams startled, turning to shoot George a baffled look. “Senator Washington?” he asked tentatively after a moment, watching George’s broad shoulders shake with suppressed laughter. “What’s… so funny?”

Trying and failing to wipe the grin off of his face, George quickly stuffed the paper into his pocket without a hint of his usual meticulous orderliness. “Nothing,” he reassured, too quickly. “Well, we have to go; sorry again for the inconvenience―you have everything you need, don’t you?―lovely; glad to hear it―” Striding forward purposefully, he placed a hand on Alex’s shoulder and effortlessly lifted him to his feet, urging him towards the door. “―we’ll be sure to get everything sorted out; call us if there are any problems; thank you very much; have a good day, John―and you, too, of course, Katherine―please give Abigail my regards!”

With that, he bailed on the conversation, dragging Alex along with him. Forced to accelerate to a heavy jog just to keep up with George’s powerwalk, Alex shot the man a bewildered look, but didn’t complain as he was led out the door and through the parking lot until they came to a halt at the Washingtons’ car.

Finally, George released him, stepping into the driver’s seat, and Alex quickly hopped into the backseat, unsure whether he was allowed to ride shotgun and unwilling to waste any time asking when they were clearly in a hurry.

Once they were both buckled, George put the car in reverse and gripped the wheel firmly with both hands. A second passed. Then, slowly reaching over to put the car back in park, the man leaned over and rested his forehead against the steering wheel, his back hunched and his shoulders trembling. Worry spiking through him, Alex leaned forward to ask if he was okay, but, before he could get a word in, George…

Laughed.

George laughed. Breathless and restrained, but genuine.

George was laughing.

“My God,” he gasped, running a hand over the top of his head. “You―you crossed out―” He cut himself off with a sharp bark of laughter before heaving in a breath. “Son―” Again, he stopped short, momentarily dissolving into chuckles. “I can’t believe you actually―”

As Alex stared, wide-eyed, he finally composed himself and sat back up, shakily replacing his hands on the steering wheel. “W-we’ll come back to this,” he vowed after a moment, and Alex caught his grinning eyes in the rearview mirror before he tilted it back to show the road instead. “But we need to go―we actually are in a hurry.”

Heeding his wordless command, his shoulders steadied and his laughs abated, although he still seemed oddly cheerful as he put the car in reverse again and pulled out, explaining, “King has been doggedly evading this meeting for weeks, always claiming last-minute schedule conflicts and dancing away from the subject whenever it comes up.” As the car stopped to let someone else pull out in front, he twisted in his seat and shot Alex a dry look over his shoulder, one eyebrow quirked. “Someone must have told him that I was busy today, because suddenly he has a two-hour gap in his schedule that he could have sworn wasn’t there before , so now would really be a perfect time to meet―if I’m not busy, of course.

Exaggerating his inflections and adopting a mock British accent, he sounded exactly like George King during his exclusive interviews in the news―the ones where he condemned immigrants or waxed poetic about a growing child’s intrinsic need for heterosexual parents―and Alex barked out an incredulous laugh, a baffled grin crossing his face.

George didn’t quite grin, but he definitely smiled as he directed his attention back towards the road, easing off the breaks and twisting through the parking lot. “He was strangely smug about throwing in the towel, too, and he didn’t have his secretary call, which is very out-of-character. He usually deems menial tasks beneath him. I’m fairly certain he expected me to be forced to decline.” Another chuckle; he sounded almost hilariously pleased with himself. “He was definitely a bit less smug when I agreed.”

Here, the residual laughter faded from his voice; when he spoke again, he sounded almost guilty. “I’m sorry about this, Alex,” he said softly, much more subdued. “Everything’s finished out on my end, but chances are we’ll have to go back in again tomorrow anyway to finish getting things sorted out.” Stopping at a corner and quickly checking his watch, he huffed out a sigh. “And I don’t know if I’ll have time to run home and drop you off without missing the meeting entirely.”

For a long moment, Alex didn’t respond, and they circled the parking lot in silence. George had no real reason to apologize; it wasn’t some huge inconvenience or anything, and it wasn’t his fault, anyway; it was Senator King who purposefully called when they were busy. But it occurred to him that George shouldn’t have to come back tomorrow when, as a Senator, he was clearly busy, especially not for the sake of some stupid foster kid who got dumped on him last minute.

Back straightening and chin lifting, Alex began with newfound resolve, “Then leave me here and come back when you’re done.”

George stilled, his hand hovering over the shift.

Taking this as consideration, Alex quickly plowed on, “If you have everything done that you needed to do, then it’s just me and the school who need to finish up, right? Drop me off here and I’ll run back to the office and get everything done that I can. It’s not guaranteed, but maybe then you won’t have to come back in tomorrow, which I’m sure must be a huge pain since you’re a Senator and all, and the quicker we get me enrolled, the quicker I’m out of your hair, right? So―”

“Alex,” George cut in, and he shut up immediately, falling still. After a tense few moments, the car pulled up to the sidewalk and came to a halt. Another moment passed before George put it into park.

The pregnant silence persisted, and, after a few seconds, Alex wondered if he was supposed to just get out and leave. But then George glanced over his shoulder, an unreadable expression on his face, and he stiffened. Was he… upset? Obviously, he wasn’t angry―George was more reasonable than that, and son, speaking is not punishable in this house― but he could be irritated.

“I mean, if that’d be convenient,” Alex amended; “I wasn’t trying to, like, demand it or anything―”

“If you want to,” George interrupted before he could work himself into a frenzy, “you’re more than welcome to. But I don’t mind coming back tomorrow, and there’s absolutely no rush to get you, as you put it, ‘out of my hair’, okay Alex?” He smiled, but it was a bit weak. “I’m happy to spend however much time it takes to get my kid enrolled in school, okay?”

My kid.

Oh.

Alex swallowed, averting his eyes. “I’d rather get it sorted out today,” he choked out, hoping that George couldn’t hear the sudden emotion in his voice. “Uh, th-thank you, though.” Still avoiding George’s gaze, he undid his seatbelt and slid across the seat, opening the door and quickly stepping out onto the sidewalk.

As the door swung shut, he swore he heard George say, “You’re welcome, Alex,” his voice fond and soft.

He practically sprinted back into the school.

Chapter Text

The rest of the enrollment process passed in a blur.

Mr. Adams’ not-so-subtle glares at least added a little bit of excitement, but, other than that, not much happened of note. He aced some hour-long timed test in 15 minutes (after which he tried valiantly not to smirk up at the stymied administrator, who faintly declared that he could definitely do AP English), picked some electives (amazingly, there was room in all of the classes he chose, including Newspaper, Debate, Journalism, and the cooking class he chose for kicks and giggles), and sweet-talked the counselor into giving him third lunch (she seemed suspicious, since most students tried to avoid third lunch to the best of their ability, but he recalled Lafayette bemoaning the fact that he and his friends had third lunch during their day-long talk yesterday).

Getting into George’s car after their less-than-typical parting was awkward, but not particularly painful. As he clambered into the passenger's seat, he was greeted with a smile and a mild “How did it go?”, which he met with a shrug and a “Fine. How’d your meeting go?”

As George gleefully recounted the tale of how he’d utterly destroyed Senator King’s arguments, his voice carrying a sort of smug abhorrence that made Alex happy he wasn’t on this man’s bad side, they once again circled around the parking lot to reach the exit. There was a bit more traffic this time―it was halfway through the school day, and all the part-time students were either just getting in or tearing out of there as fast as their wheels could carry them.

Propping his elbow up on the windowsill and resting his cheek on his palm, Alex listened attentively to George’s story and kept one eye on the road. They were probably headed straight back towards the Washingtons’ mansion, where he’d be left to his own devices, so he made an effort to participate in the conversation, no matter how stilted it ended up becoming.

It was a delicate balancing act―trying to talk enough to entertain George without blabbing on and boring the man―but, if that meant keeping their relationship where it was right now (“There’s absolutely no rush to get you, as you put it, ‘out of my hair’, okay Alex?”), then it was more than worth the effort. It was easier with George than it had been with Margaret, in any case; George was neither hard of hearing nor completely out of the loop when it came to politics.

Of course, it couldn’t last forever. He trusted George enough to know that being an irritation wouldn’t get him beaten, but he also knew better than to think anyone else would enjoy his company quite like Lafayette seemed to. If anything, chances were that the novelty of him would wear off soon and Lafayette wouldn’t be quite so… enamored anymore.

But, when the car eased to a stop against the sidewalk, the motor rumbling quietly, they weren’t back in Mount Vernon. Instead, they were parked alongside the street in an almost eerily empty downtown area lined with small businesses.

Frowning, Alex turned to shoot George a quizzical look. Putting the car in park, George turned aside and met his eyes. “How about we stop and get some lunch?” he suggested, as if he hadn’t already made up his mind. “I know a pretty good family diner near here.”

So that was how Alexander found himself hopping out of the car, crossing the road, and pushing through the door to a small, almost dingy diner whose sign read, very simply, “Ed’s Diner”―followed directly by Senator George Washington.

He had to admit: the place was pretty homey, although it still felt a bit too grimy to appeal to a United States Senator (then again, George had always been praised by his constituents for being down-to-earth and unpretentious). Rows of red booths hugged the walls on either side of the door, offering a good view through the corner-to-corner windows. A few more booths were tucked into the back corner, and the rest of the diner was scattered with tables surrounded by barstools. It wasn’t extremely busy, but several of the booths and tables were taken―which surprised him, given how dead the streets were―and one man was sitting at the counter, chatting idly with the cashier, who appeared to be the only staff member in the room.

As they entered, the bell on the door ringing, the cashier glanced up and made eye contact with George. She smiled at him and gestured to the basket of menus next to the sign that read “Please seat yourself :)”. Returning her smile, George snagged two of them, and she returned to her conversation.

Taking a hold of Alex’s elbow, George began to gently steer him towards the booth right next to the door, but stopped short. It was taken; occupied by a couple who kept shooting sarcastic remarks at each other, then giggling into their menus and kicking each other under the table, a bit too harshly to be considered “footsie”. They either didn’t notice George and Alex or disregarded them entirely, continuing with their game.

With an indulgent smile, George instead directed Alex to the next booth over. Unfortunately, he sat down first, taking the side of the booth that Alex had planned on claiming. It wasn’t like he could tell his foster father to move, so Alex bit his tongue and sat on the other side, with his back to the door, no matter how antsy it made him. Not being able to see a good portion of the room he was in had always made him jumpy, even before coming to the States, and it wasn’t as if his time in the foster care system had helped.

“What do you think you’ll want?” George asked conversationally as he gave the menu a cursory look, obviously already having it memorized.

Alex shrugged. “I dunno. I’m not that hungry,” he replied honestly. Besides, he had no idea what kind of food a diner like this would serve. He supposed that was what the menu was for, but menus had always confused him―he’d get terribly lost among all the entrées and appetizers, completely unsure what he liked, what the difference was between parmesan and provolone, what on earth cilantro was, and etc.

With a smile, George closed his menu and set it down on the table. “Fair enough. If you’re not hungry enough for a full meal, perhaps you can get an appetizer?”

“Sure.” Alex shrugged again. Behind him, the man and woman who had taken George’s booth of choice were snickering and teasing each other. For once, he didn’t mind the distraction.

The cashier―and the waitress, apparently―chose that moment to approach, her notepad out and a smile on her face. “Hey there, Senator,” she said almost teasingly. “Just couldn’t stay away, huh?”

With a mock sigh, George shook his head solemnly. “Not for long, I’m afraid. I simply had to come back for more.”

Snorting, she pulled the pen out of her breast pocket and clicked it loudly. “What can I get for you to drink? Same old, same old?”

“You know me too well. Coffee, please. Black.” He glanced over to Alex, and, for whatever reason, his smile grew even more. “Alex, how about you? They make some great coffee here.”

Trying to ignore the heavy, curious gaze of the waitress, Alex ducked his head and fidgeted with the edges of his menu. “Um… I’ll have―some coffee as well, please,” he said after a moment, reminding himself to speak up so she could hear him, but not to be too loud.

“Two coffees―gotcha.” Mercifully, she didn’t mention Alex’s clear discomfort or even ask for an introduction. She just jotted their orders down and took off, leaving them alone again.

For a moment, the silence persisted, even in her absence. Then, clearing his throat and trying to suppress a grin, George reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled-up piece of paper. “Well, I suppose now’s as good a time as any to address the elephant in the room,” he said, flattening the paper out to reveal―

The form. Alex’s breath caught. In the rush of George’s kind words and the monotony of getting enrolled, he’d somehow forgotten about it entirely. Now, as George scanned it once again, drinking in the passive-aggressive answers and mocking cheerfulness, he wondered how on earth he’d forgotten that he’d already screwed up big time.

Several seconds passed as George re-read the form, lips twitching. Then, slowly, he placed it back onto the table. Finally letting the grin spread across his face, George met Alex’s panicked gaze head-on, staring unflinchingly into his wide eyes, and said, “This is brilliant.”

Alex blinked.

‘What?’

Clearing his throat again, George hastily wiped the amusement off his face, replacing it with unconvincing sternness. “That is to say, it was incredibly foolish to antagonize the school like that. But―” And, again, he grinned widely― “it’s absolutely brilliant.” He laughed heartily, almost throwing his head back, before turning hungry eyes back onto the form. “ ‘One possessing better grammar skills than yours’ (you should work on crossing things out all the way)―that is great. Normally, I don’t approve of mocking people for poor grammar, but that comeback was perfect.”

Alex stared, his jaw slack, his eyes wide, and his overall expression flabbergasted enough to make someone confused just by looking at him. Behind them, the couple said the same insult at the same time and burst into giggles.

George coughed into his fist. “Not that I’m encouraging rebellion against the school, of course,” he muttered, pushing the grin off his face in favor of the same fake stern expression. “You should respect your teachers just as much as you respect me, young man.”

Alex swallowed without closing his mouth. “You’re―” he croaked, “―you’re not mad?”

With a soft chuckle, George shook his head. “No, I’m not mad. I’m not sure I approve entirely, mind you, because I do think it’s important to show your teachers some respect―but no, I’m not mad.”

As the waitress returned and unobtrusively placed their coffee down in front of them, Alex just blinked up at George disbelievingly. This time, when he swallowed, his closed his mouth first. His head was spinning.

“Oh.”

If George was bothered by his brief, stunned answer, he didn’t show it. Instead, he admirably picked up Alex’s conversational slack, quickly maneuvering away from the sore subject of the school form and instead launching into some story about the dangers of speaking imperfect English. Specifically, he told the tale of an incident in which Lafayette had made a rather grievous English error in a different diner, soon after coming the United States, and the wide-reaching repercussions of his mistake.

Alex tried to pay attention to George―he really did―but he was getting more and more distracted by the moment. The couple in the booth behind him had stopped bickering playfully with each other and were now muttering coldly under their breaths, their teasing jabs turning into piercing diatribes.

He knew the signs of an oncoming argument well enough, but he tried to brush off the panic that quickly swelled up in his chest. Scathing words didn’t equate to physical violence with most couples; they’d argue, spend some time apart, and either get back together or split up for their own mutual good.

Still, he winced when the man loudly slammed his palms onto the table, making the dishes clatter. Their voices were rising, now, although they were still just quiet enough that it was hard to make out what they were saying if you were any farther away than Alex was. Good thing, too, because a group of teenagers in the corner were filming the couple discreetly on one of their phones, sniggering, as if that wasn’t an inexcusable breach of privacy. Alex itched to storm over there and yell at them, but he doubted that would change anything―and, besides, one of them was rolling his eyes and trying to snatch the phone from the others, so it looked like they already had a voice of reason among them.

He tried to tune back into the conversation, but―no, George was getting distracted, now, too, his voice trailing off and his eyes drifting over Alex’s shoulder, where he could watch the couple quarrel. His brow was furrowed as he feebly tried to regain his train of thought, gaze flickering over to Alex every few seconds, then right back to the couple. Soon enough, he gave up the pretense of conversation altogether and just observed them alertly, shoulders tense.

Before Alex could ask why George was staring while everyone else pointedly averted their eyes, there was a single resounding thud, then a rattling series of clicks and squeals as the entire booth shook under him, vibrating against his back and legs―

―accompanied by a quiet gasp of pain.

They were familiar sounds, and Alex was already stiffening, ears twitching as he listened intently. He almost missed the scattered gasps from a few nearby tables as the man growled. Judging by the way the table rattled, he had stood, and Alex could tell from the angle of his voice that he wasn’t that tall. The woman, on the other hand, was right behind Alex, whimpering―judging by the angle of her voice, she was either slumped over the table or cowering into the booth.

The booth that the man had just shoved her into, hard.

For a long moment, there was relative silence. ‘The eye of the hurricane,’ Alex thought dully. The woman broke it with another shuddering sob, and Alex wished he could believe she was just afraid, but, if nothing else, he knew was fear sounded like, and this was not it; this was a sound of physical pain.

Then―

The quiet ended. “―you stupid bitch,” the man was saying―Alex was still facing George, but he could hear what was happening―and now the man was saying “―should’a just shut your mouth―” and George was standing, dropping his silverware tersely onto his plate, his face arranged into a glacial, stoic mask―and now the man was saying “―deserved it, you fucking whore,” and Alex could hear him wind up for a strike; could hear the woman flinch away as her breath hitched; could see George freeze in shock, obviously not having anticipated things to progress even further, his eyes wide and horrified with a glint of rage, and―

Alex slid back in the booth. With one deft move, his knees were pressed against his chest and his back slipping down the leather. His sneakers landed on top of the table with a thud not unlike that of the woman’s head against the seat. The reminder of how she’d gone limp afterward, not offering any resistance, likely for fear of making things worse, gave him the strength he needed, and―

He extended his legs; braced his feet against the table and pushed with all his might; pushed himself up the seat―hurled himself backward over the booth, body twisting in midair―pounced like a big cat, flying through the air almost gracefully, and―

The man’s hand came down in an arc, predictable even though Alex hadn’t been able to see him at the time. Alex intercepted the blow, feeling the harsh smack of knuckles against his cheek, quickly replaced by the awkward scrape of fingernails against his neck as the backhand ricocheted off, and―

For a moment, he felt suspended in time, hanging in the air and looking down on the frozen tableau below. The woman―the girl; she looked no older than Alex himself―was pressed into the booth, staring up at him. Her wide, uncomprehending eyes met his; they contained an all too familiar glint of concealed fear. The man―the boy; he was young, too, and he didn’t deserve to be called a man anyway―was glaring incredulously, reeling back as if offended―the audacity of Alex, to interrupt him―and Alex found himself wondering how many times this had happened before and why the girl had been more surprised to see someone intervening than to be struck in the first place, and―

Then he was slamming into the boy with all of his body weight, his right shoulder bracing against the boy’s collarbone; the boy’s own shoulder pressing into his neck, momentarily choking him; his arms automatically snapping shut around the boy’s chest. They tumbled back as the boy lost his footing, his back hitting the top of the booth; both of their bodies flipping gracelessly over it, and―

Belatedly, rage exploded behind his eyeballs. His vision went red, the corners dim and blurry from adrenaline. Reflexively, his grip tightened. He wanted to kill this boy. He wanted to beat him until he screamed and he cried. He wanted to show this piece of shit what it felt like, Goddammit, and―

“Dad, I wanna watch! Why won’t you let me help?” a familiar voice whined in his head; then, the same voice: “Oh God, oh my God, oh my―fuck―oh my God―there’s―no no no, fuck―I’m―there’s so much―fuck, no no no―I don’t―” and―

And then the voice was drowned out by a sincere, hearty laugh reverberating through Alex’s head. “We know that you came to blows with your foster father. But we don’t know why.” Rather suddenly, Alex felt the ghost of a warm, steady pressure on his hand. “You’re so small,” Lafayette whispered; “Why pick fights?” His voice was low and soothing, and his hand was warm and steadying around Alex’s, and―

And then, it was calm.

Sudden, startling clarity washed over Alex; an inexplicable peace. As if someone had poked a hole in his skull, and the wrath had drained away, leaving only a cool-headed conviction.

As if a switch had been flipped, he went from burning with rage to cold and calm. His frantic grapple became much more controlled; a firm, steady grip on the boy that pinned his guilty arm between their bodies. His bared teeth vanished behind his lip as his expression smoothed out into an even, stoic mask, not unlike George’s.

When they both toppled to the tile in a clumsy tangle of limbs, Alex landed somewhat unsteadily on the toes of his sneakers, his knees scraping the ground as he crouched low to keep his balance. A jolt of familiar pain traveled up his legs, but he paid it no mind.

It would have been so easy. It would have been so easy to lean forward, pinning the boy’s legs under his own; straddling him and shoving him to the ground; pinning his wrists above his head.

He did not.

Instead, Alex surged to his feet, dragging his captive with him, his grip unrelenting. Pleased to find that his assessment was correct and the boy really was no taller than him, he hauled him up, pretending not to even notice when a few flailing limbs hit their mark, no doubt leaving bruises that would rear their ugly heads later.

It was a bit of a stretch, even with the boy being just as short as he was, but Alex managed to toss the writhing body over his shoulder and carry him a few steps without stumbling or visibly straining. The important part was that he seemed completely unbothered, like a fully-grown man carrying a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, so when his arms started to groan in protest, he stopped and nonchalantly tossed the boy down.

He landed on his feet and managed to stagger back a few clumsy steps before he tripped and fell onto his ass, back slamming into the adjacent booth. Uninjured; unrestrained; looking for all the world like he had no idea what had just happened.

Alex’s heart was beating way too fast, and blood was thrumming in his veins, but, somehow, he felt calmer than ever as he stood to his full height, raising his chin and stepping in front of the girl to block her from view. “Please feel free to try that again,” he said coldly, “although I can guarantee that it will not go well for you.”

The boy glared up at him, outraged, but didn’t retort. Now that Alex got a good look at him, bathed in the sunlight streaming through the front door, he looked like a high school senior, right down to the ridiculous leather jacket that was clearly meant to make him look older―purposefully frayed around the edges to give him a devil-may-care aura.

He still hadn’t moved to retaliate, but he hadn’t retreated, either, so Alex slowly raised an eyebrow. Usually, he would have taken the chance for a fight; allowed his rage to overcome him once again. Now, though, with Lafayette’s voice fresh in his mind and George standing not too far behind him, his irritation was drowned out by a staggering, overwhelming desire to do right by the Washingtons.

Finally, with one last glance over Alex’s shoulder―perhaps trying to see his victim―the boy curled his lip and clambered to his feet, striding out the door in a huff as if he was the one who’d been wronged.

That was evidently what it took for the silence to shatter.

As if a spell had been lifted, the entire room broke out of its stupor, and was immediately consumed with hushed whispers and soft “Holy shit”s that Alex pretended not to notice. The cashier vaulted the counter, striding purposefully towards the door, and, for a terrifying moment, Alex was sure he would be thrown out. He backed up instinctively, meeting her eyes, but she just shook her head with a grin and a muttered “Nice going, kid,” before pushing through the door and running out, yelling something about damage to the booths and a lifetime ban.

As her voice faded, so did those of the spectators, and Alex stiffened. He could feel their eyes on him, even though his back was facing them, and his knee-jerk reaction was to hide, but that would only make things worse and he knew it.

Numbly, Alex turned around, the remaining adrenaline slowly beginning to simmer away. His eerie calm deserted him, but, luckily, panic did not take its place. He was left vaguely proud of himself, vaguely pleased with the way things had unfolded, and vaguely stressed about the fact that everyone was staring at him. There were certainly worse emotions to be having after a public fight.

Abruptly remembering what had started that fight in the first place, Alex turned sharply on his heel, his eyes landing on the girl. She had risen from her seat at some point, and was now staring at him with huge eyes, standing just aside the table. With voluminous hair, flawless mascara, and dark, wary eyes, it was no wonder he’d mistaken her for a fully-grown woman at first glance. But, no―she was clearly only his age, if that. It was in the slight bevel of her ribs sticking out from her stomach that she clearly didn’t know how to conceal yet; the way she looked up at him with something like awe even though, in her heeled boots, she was taller; her clothes, which were threadbare, but a balance between practical and fashionable, as if she picked them out because she knew they were the only clothes she was getting.

A fellow foster kid, his mind supplied, even though he couldn’t possibly know for sure.

A sudden anxiety seized him now that he was no longer protected by his calm veneer. What was he supposed to say to her? Certainly not You’re welcome, even if she did thank him―he didn’t dare imply that she owed him something. Are you okay? was something he’d always hated to hear―the answer was obvious, yet he was always obliged to say Yes, hiding behind a false smile. And he knew better than anyone that a You should call the police would make her close up immediately―because he never wanted to call the damn police, and people didn’t understand that it would only ever make things worse.

Besides―she probably already didn’t trust him. He knew instinctively, with an almost bone-deep certainty, that she wasn’t new to being struck, and he knew from personal experience that the person who shielded you from a blow usually ended up being worse than the blow itself, especially if they expected something in return.

(“Dear,” Mr. LeBlanc cooed, gently urging his wife away, “I think that’s quite enough, don’t you?” He pulled the whip from her hand and set it aside. “Poor Alexander must be exhausted. Why don’t you give him a break?” And there was relief, and a surge of gratitude, because ‘Oh my God, yes, please, a break, just one break, thank you thank you thank you,’ but then LeBlanc was turning around and shooting Alex a soft smile, his eyes sharp, and Alex got the sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be getting a break, after all.)

But Alex didn’t expect anything in return. He’d intervened because it was the right thing to do. He’d intervened because he knew how it felt to be beaten. He’d intervened because he knew how it felt to be treated like trash. But how was he supposed to reassure her that he understood without―?

That was when the idea struck him.

Alex swallowed, glancing from side to side. Uncertainty sent a quiver through his hands as he reached up to adjust his hoodie. His hair, which had been shoved awkwardly down his collar minutes ago, had gotten tugged free in the brief scuffle and was now splayed about his shoulders in a flurry. His neck was exposed, technically, but cast in harsh shadow by the bright light and still somewhat concealed by his mess of hair.

Again, he looked about himself. For a moment, every eye in the restaurant was trained on him―even the teenagers with the phone were recording him, now; even George was staring, flabbergasted. Then, in unison, the spectators turned their attention back to the girl. She hunched slightly under their gazes, but didn’t flinch. Stepping forward, she pressed the side of her body flush against the side of the booth, gripping it tightly, as if for stability. Not for a second did she break Alex’s gaze, her eyes distrustful but cautiously grateful.

Alex knew the exact feeling. He knew exactly how it felt to stare up at your savior and think, ‘Thank God, someone intervened,’ and think ‘Thank you for helping me,’ but mostly think, ‘If you were so keen on stopping the last guy, then what are you going to do?’

More than anything, that was what he wanted to tell her.

(Now or never.)

Taking a deep breath, he met her eyes, trying his best to make himself appear confident. Her own eyes widened, her lips parting in a small gasp, and Alex allowed himself to wonder, for a second, what she’d seen there that made her look so awed. Then, very deliberately, he jutted his chin into the air, allowing his hair to fall aside; putting his neck on display.

Her eyes darted down, drawn by the movement, and he could pick out the exact moment she saw them―the still slightly swollen red markings that scored across his neck. Fingers. He knew almost instinctively that she, of all people, would see them for what they were, even from a distance.

Immediately, she looked back up, her eyes somehow both wide with shock and narrowed thoughtfully. With a grim smile, he reached up and tucked his hair back into his hoodie, lowering his head slightly to hide what he could in the meantime. He doubted anyone else could make them out, much less realize what they were, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

Once the bruises were safely concealed behind his barrier of hair, he shoved his hands back into his pockets. Neither one of them had broken eye contact yet, and, in a different scenario, he might have squirmed uncomfortably, but the tension between them was lessening rather than building, mistrust ebbing away as the implications of the bruises sunk in.

Finally, the girl gave a single sharp nod. Alex returned it, well aware that the entire diner had caught the exchange and wondering, dully, what it looked like to them.

With one last searching look, the girl grabbed her purse, flung it over her shoulder, and left without a word. Alex let her go. Judging by the look in her eyes, she could handle herself from here.

As the door swung shut behind her, the silence once again shattered.

This time, the hushed whispers were more of hushed shouts, and the “Holy shit”s returned, but at a much higher volume and with much more vehemence. Someone cheered loudly, but their friend shushed them. An elderly couple sitting nearby shook their heads, saying something about kids these days, but their complaints included the phrase “poor young woman”, so Alex didn’t bother being offended. Just so long as they weren’t trash-talking the victim, he couldn’t care less what they thought about modern youth.

And then there were footsteps rapidly approaching, and Alex didn’t have the time to turn around or even tense up before a voice was saying “That. Was. Awesome.”

Blinking owlishly, Alex turned around, coming face-to-face with a teenage boy, who he recognized as one of the kids who’d been recording the whole affair on their phone. No―he’d been the one admonishing the others, Alex realized; he was wearing the same bright, distinctive hoodie as the so-called “voice of reason” had been. His inky black undercut suited him, and his expression was one of barely-contained juvenile glee.

“You should’ve seen it. It was amazing. The look on that asshole’s face? Priceless,” he cackled, grinning down at Alex ferociously. “You, sir, are great.”

And, with that, he stuck out his hand for a shake.

“Call me Lee,” he drawled. “I haven’t seen you around here. New to the area?”

When Washington’s voice answered, just as booming as ever, they both stiffened. “We’re fostering Alex for a few months,” George said, moving forward to stand directly at Alex’s side and placing a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Lovely to see you as always, Charles. How have you been lately?”

Despite his current emotional lag, Alex managed to put the pieces together at a reasonable pace as Lee turned to shoot George a glare, his lip beginning to curl into a sneer. Charles Lee―an avid hater of the Washingtons, for some reason.

Before Lee could respond, Alex’s hand shot out from his pocket and seized the proffered handshake. Startled, Lee snapped his head back around, automatically gripping Alex’s hand just as firmly. Alex took a deep breath, steeling himself. “Alexander Hamilton,” he introduced as evenly as he could, meeting Lee’s gaze head-on, both to keep the attention away from George and to impart his lack of tolerance for shit spoken about his foster father. “You got the whole thing on camera?”

Clearly, George hadn’t been aware of that little detail; his grip on Alex’s shoulder slackened in shock. Lee’s eyes darted over to the Senator’s face for an instant, but returned immediately to Alex, now narrowed suspiciously. After a moment, he scrutinized Alex from head to toe, and Alex allowed his shoulders to straighten and his chin to lift minutely as he stared back, daring Lee to find something worth complaining about.

Apparently, he passed the inspection, because Lee finally released his hand with a nod of begrudging acknowledgment, crossing both arms firmly over his chest. “Yeah, my friend got it on my phone,” he grunted. “I told him he shouldn’t have been recording, but I guess I’m glad he was. You were very… impressive, Hamilton.” Long gone was the glowing praise of before, but he seemed to have at least found Alex sufficiently dissimilar to the Washingtons and therefore worthy of civility. “I’m glad to have it for posterity.”

“Pardon my rudeness,” George cut in before Alex could think of a response, “but aren’t you meant to be in school right now?” Something new had entered his voice―a note of warning. He stepped closer, his grip on Alex's shoulder tightening almost protectively, and Alex managed to keep from panicking.

Lee’s expression soured rapidly, and he glared up at George once more, his sneer returning full-force. “I was unable to attend today, sir.” The provocation was clear in his voice; it was almost a snarl.

Before the conversation could continue in that vein, Alex hastily intervened. “That video could get me in a lot of trouble,” he said curtly, drawing Lee’s attention back to him. It was technically true, but, more importantly, it would harm George’s reputation, possibly beyond repair, as soon as someone realized who the crazy kid in the video was fostered by. Not that he was stupid enough to say that when Lee clearly despised Washington.

Lee’s eyes narrowed again, flickering between George’s face and Alex’s. Behind him, his friends crept closer warily, skirting around the three as if they were feral animals quarreling over food.

Alex held his breath, acutely aware of the power Lee had over him in this matter and the fact that Lee’s hatred of the Washingtons wasn’t exactly the ideal basis for a negotiation. If Lee demanded it, he would have to do anything within his power to make sure that video never ended up on the internet or in the media. And Alex didn’t have very much to give, but he had a hell of a lot to lose.

Luckily, it never came to that. With one last wry smile, Lee raised his hands in mock surrender, taking a step back. “I ain’t no snitch,” he said simply. As an afterthought, he shot George a scathing look, as if to let him know that this was not for his sake; Lee only had Alex’s benefit in mind, and their mutual disregard was still very much intact.

Relief softened the hard creases of Alex’s face, and his resulting smile was genuine, if small. “Thank you,” he said with resolve; “I owe you.”

Lee considered him for a moment, then shook his head. “Nah.” His expression was so guarded, and his eyes so wary, that Alex’s disbelief quickly yielded to understanding. “Nah, I’d say we’re even, Hamilton.”

Heartened by the strange humanness of Lee’s uncertainty and caught up in the heat of the moment, he impulsively corrected, “Call me Alex.”

A pause. Then―“Charlie,” Lee reintroduced. His smile was all teeth, but Alex couldn’t see anything deceptive in his eyes; only a dubious camaraderie. After a moment, he curiously looked Alex up and down one more time, then nodded decisively. With one last scowl in Washington’s direction, he turned on his heel and strolled back towards his booth, his friends scrambling to follow.

Well, there were stranger ways to start a friendship.

If George Washington hadn’t been too dignified to gape, he definitely would have been gaping. Alex could tell by the way he remained frozen, staring at Lee’s retreating back, not relinquishing his grasp on Alex’s shoulder. Judging by the sheer abhorrence in Lee’s face when their eyes met, Alex would stand to wager that he would never have let them off so easily had Lafayette, George, or Martha been the one to ask. Faintly, he wondered what had inspired that hatred, and why Alex was exempt.

The door dinged as the cashier stepped back in, grumbling under her breath. “Half a mind to call the police… wish I knew his name…” she muttered―then, stopping short: “Hey, you’re still here.”

Alex continued to watch Lee as he sat back in his booth, typing rapidly on his phone, but George turned to the cashier. “Sorry for the trouble,” he began, but quickly trailed off as she intercepted him, reassuring him that they had nothing to worry about.

George and the cashier chatted idly behind him for a few minutes, but Alex just stared. Eventually, Charlie glanced up and caught his gaze. Rolling his eyes, he wrapped up whatever he was doing on his phone, swiped a few times, then turned the screen towards Alex and theatrically pressed a button.

Thanks to a mix of being too far away to see properly and having no real idea how smartphones worked, Alex couldn’t tell what was happening, but he caught a flash of vivid red and deduced that Charlie must have deleted the video. Shooting him a grateful smile, which Lee waved off as he went back to texting furiously, Alex relaxed and turned back towards George and the cashier. George was in the process of shelling out some cash for the coffee and some extra for the trouble, which the cashier was politely denying―and, Alex realized after a moment, George was also paying for the teenage couple’s meal.

“Well, you two should probably be going,” the cashier finally said, reluctantly yielding and taking the money, although she pointedly took barely enough to cover both tabs. “It’s doubtful, but there’s always the chance that the media could show up. Besides―” She turned and smiled mysteriously at Alex― “your friend is waiting for you.”

Alex blinked at her, but she just winked cryptically before returning to her usual station behind the counter. Frowning contemplatively, he didn’t even wait for George like he probably should have; he just turned on his heel and pushed through the door, glancing side to side. George followed behind him, just as intrigued, as he twisted his head around, frowning. There didn’t seem to be any―

There.

Standing a few feet away, half-hidden behind one of the brightly-colored benches that stood under the diner’s awning, was the girl.

It took a moment for her to notice them, as she was leaning against the far side of the bench with her back to the diner. Only when the door closed behind George did she turn around to face them, pausing when she saw who it was. In her hand was a cheap folding mirror, which she was using to apply foundation.

Alex’s first thought was that putting on concealer was a strange reaction to being shoved. His second thought was that she was already wearing foundation; it wasn’t obvious, but he’d recognized the slight sheen of cheap makeup under the harsh lights of the diner, and it hadn’t gotten smeared or anything; there was no reason for her to be putting on more. His third thought was that her cheek seemed slightly swollen; again, it wasn’t obvious, but he was used to picking up the puffiness of a bruise, even from under masterful cloaking, and it was easier to pick up now that they were standing a bit closer to each other.

His fourth thought was ‘Oh.’

The girl closed her compact mirror with a click and turned to face him completely, meeting his eyes head-on. It was a familiar tableau―the same that he’d constructed in the diner, he realized numbly. That was when he divined her intent. Once again, he couldn’t think anything more eloquent than ‘Oh.’

So he wasn’t just seeing things. The boy really had hurt her before. Or, if not the boy, then someone else. Either way, she was accustomed to being struck; accustomed enough that she’d mastered the art of concealing her bruises, even when they were on her face. Which, having dabbled in cosmetics while trying to hide the evidence of the LeBlancs’ abuse, Alex could say from experience was no small task.

(“Dear heart, really, please. You need to be more careful,” LeBlanc chided softly with an indulgent smile that didn’t belong within three miles of this conversation. “You know Alexander can’t hide facial bruises very well.” Mrs. LeBlanc huffed in irritation, and Alex whimpered a little because oh God oh God she’s mad she’s mad, but LeBlanc just chuckled, patting her back. “I know, dear. I don’t like it either. I’m just trying to keep us both safe, is all.” He planted a kiss on top of her head. She responded with a love-struck giggle and a playful roll of her eyes. For a moment, if he ignored the pain in his body and the ropes cinched around his wrists, Alex could pretend that the LeBlancs were a normal couple.)

Swallowing around the memory, Alex met her eyes, tilting his head slightly to the side. “Boyfriend?” he asked quietly.

If the girl was surprised to hear him talk to her for the first time, she didn’t show it. She just shook her head. “Brother,” she corrected, the word slurring slightly with her slight southern drawl. Her voice was low and smooth.

He raised an eyebrow. “Parents?”

Barely containing a humorless laugh, she smiled ruefully. “Boys will be boys,” she quoted, monotone. Amazingly, she managed to keep most of the bitterness out of her voice. Alex certainly couldn’t have done the same in her situation.

As Alex winced in sympathy, her eyes wandered over to George, standing awkwardly behind him, clearly lost but sensible enough to leave them be instead of butting in. Her eyebrow raised and she looked back at Alex. “Father?” she guessed, pointing towards George with her chin, but there was a wary extra layer to the question.

Of course―he’d shown her his neck; he’d bared his secrets to her, and the most reasonable assumption, the most obvious answer, was that George had― “No,” he said hastily; an answer to both questions. “Foster father.” Also an answer to both questions. He trusted her to hear all four meanings.

Slowly, she nodded, tucking her concealer back into her purse. “Foster father,” she agreed.

Well, that confirmed his suspicions about her being in the foster care system, too. Briefly, he allowed himself to wonder if that boy was her biological brother or her foster brother. Even more briefly, he allowed himself to wonder if her foster parents were just apathetic or if they were more active participants.

Her eyes once again darted over to George, but quickly came back to rest on Alex. There was a pause as they both stared, silently sizing each other up just as they had in the diner. A gust of wind sent her hair in a flurry of curls, blowing it into her face for a moment before subsiding. She didn’t even blink as the locks settled back into place.

“Thank you,” she said, very quietly.

Alex nodded.

For a moment more, she held his eyes. Then, returning his nod, she turned and began to walk away, her purse dangling from her shoulder; the zippers clinked together as she walked, and her hair swayed.

He couldn’t quite parse the jumble of thoughts that compelled him to say it, but, as George reached forward to grip his shoulder, Alex brushed out from under his hand and said, loud and clear, “Alexander Hamilton.”

The girl stopped walking, but didn’t turn around. Alex held his breath. It wasn’t hard to tell that she was doing the same. At length, she let out a long, shuddering sigh that somehow conveyed both how reluctant and how pleased she was. When she spoke, it was barely audible over the soft rustle of the wind catching her waves, and Alex seriously doubted George could make it out.

“Maria Reynolds.”

With that, she turned the corner and disappeared, leaving Alex and George standing alone on the suddenly empty sidewalk, George’s hand hovering unsurely over Alex’s shoulder.

…Well, there were stranger ways to start a friendship.

They walked back to the car in heavy silence―not quite oppressive, but somewhere near there. Alex was too busy running over the past ten minutes in his head to wonder why George hadn’t spoken yet or worry about the lingering tension between them. Maria Reynolds. Then that boy―her brother―must have been the James Reynolds that Lafayette had called his enemy. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Reynolds wasn’t a very common last name, and, after having run into Charles Lee as well, it didn’t seem too unlikely that he’d run into another of the people Lafayette had told him about.

Maybe Lafayette would know more about the situation, then? Alex didn’t want to pry into Maria’s personal life or gossip about her after she’d placed her trust in him, but he needed to know that she was going to be alright. If he asked the right questions, then he could figure out whether or not she needed any help without quite invading her privacy. Or, at least, he could try.

As they reached the other side of the street, George fished his car keys out of his pocket and unlocked the doors with a click.  Fidgeting with the tattered sleeve of his hoodie, Alex absent-mindedly reached for the passenger's door―but a large hand landed over his, prying it from the door handle.

“Why don’t you lay down, Alexander,” George said smoothly, his voice low and uncharacteristically silky. Smiling, he placed one large hand on Alex’s back, ushering him towards the back seat.

Alex froze.

Logic fled him, the fading adrenaline mixing with the sudden panic to form a toxic cocktail of lightening thrumming through his veins, making him lightheaded and making his thoughts heavy-handed and Mr. LeBlanc was standing right behind him.

“Why don’t you lay down, Alexander,” LeBlanc cooed in that silky voice of his, sweet and smooth and thick and cloying, like honey. Smug―the cat that got the canary. His hand rubbed soothing circles on Alex’s back that did nothing but make him tense up more, breath hitching. “Make yourself comfortable. Try to relax.”

But the hand moved to his shoulder and squeezed gently, and Mr. LeBlanc never grabbed him by the shoulder; that was Pace, or Mr. Buchanan, or―George, he realized belatedly; it was not Mr. LeBlanc, but George, and he hadn’t said any of those things.

“You can lay right across the seats,” was what he actually said, nudging Alex towards the door that he’d already opened.

Mechanically, Alex bent over and scooted into the backseat, his heart still pounding. George swung the door shut behind him; it slammed a bit too loudly to have been an accident (it's never an accident), and Alex flinched, his breath hitching.

Oh.

‘Oh.’

Oh, God.

‘Oh, God.’

He was―

‘He’s mad.’

That was the only explanation. Despite how indifferent he’d seemed in the diner; despite the fact that Alex had tried so hard not to do anything that would warrant a punishment; despite the approval of Lee and the cashier and Maria―despite it all, George was mad. Of course. Of course he was mad―he had every right to be―but―but―

Damn it, he’d tried so hard.

The driver’s door opened, and Alex tried not to shy away as George clambered into the car. Even with the seat slid all the way back, the large man barely fit comfortably, and getting in or out was an awkward, clumsy ordeal, although George himself certainly wasn’t clumsy in any sense of the word.

Swallowing so thickly that his throat convulsed, neck muscles writhing against his hoodie, Alex ducked his head and tucked both hands into his lap. “Sir―”

“Shh,” George hushed, and he fell silent immediately, his body stiffening. It wasn’t the harsh or angry hiss that he’d expected; if anything, it was soothing; it almost pulled him out of his panic. “Just relax, Alexander. Lay down. I believe there’s a blanket under the seat.”

The words false sense of security echoed through his mind, and he winced again. No―George wouldn’t do that. George wouldn’t lure him out into the open, wait until he was completely vulnerable, and then strike. The Washingtons weren’t that kind of people. Nothing like the LeBlancs. But then―why was he acting so calm? Was he really that kind? Kind enough to comfort Alex even as he brought him home to be―

To be punished.

Alex shrank into the upholstery as the car started with a rumble and George put it in reverse. Of course. He had screwed up; he’d made George angry; he’d sullied George’s reputation and almost caused a disaster by displaying his savage tendencies in public and allowing his violence to be caught on camera. Now, he would be punished. That was why George was being so gentle with him. Either he was showing Alex what he’d ruined, the kindness that could have been his if he hadn’t screwed up (unlikely; the Washingtons weren’t that underhanded); or he was trying to help Alex relax before the punishment because―because he really was just that kind. Kind enough to help Alex even as he prepared to punish him.

Either way, Alex didn’t have long.

Oh. Oh, God. He had―he had―no, no, no; he could still fix this―surely there was something he could do to get back in George’s favor―surely there was something― “Sir, I―”

In a flash, George’s hand darted over and put the car in park again with a echoing click. Seatbelt hissing as he undid it, he placed both hands on the sides of his seat and used them as leverage to twist his entire body, locking eyes with Alex over the console.

For a moment, he just drank in the sight, and Alex cringed. He looked pathetic, no doubt; huddled into the car door, obviously fleeing from the punishment awaiting him. Briefly, he wondered if that would make George even angrier; if shying away so evidently was grounds for a few more blows or a few fewer meals. Probably. He didn’t want to think about it, though, so he abandoned the thought.

After a moment, George’s eyes softened, but his firm “Lay down, son,” couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a command. Slowly, he turned back around to face the road, refastening his seatbelt and putting the car back in reverse. Both of his hands wrapped loosely around the steering wheel, not white-knuckled as Alex had almost expected, but relaxed. “Don’t talk. Just focus on breathing.”

Something twisted painfully in Alex’s throat, blocking his airway for a split second.

Don’t talk.

But―

Of course. An apology wasn’t going to fix anything. No excuse could salvage George’s newly tarnished reputation. If anything, keeping his mouth shut would give Washington one less thing to worry about. But not talking at all just wasn’t plausible. Not for him. Already, he could feel the words clambering around in his lungs, eager to claw up his throat; jumbling about in his brain, slamming into the sides of his head like bulls; screaming so that he'd just say them already―

Lay down. Don’t talk.

He swallowed thickly.

Okay.

Lay down. Any remaining fight draining out of him, he obediently draped himself over the uneven upholstery, curling up on his side. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was better than whatever came next, so Alex took it gratefully.

(Because George was giving him time to relax―time to prepare before punishment. It was a kindness that almost overwhelmed him, and, once again, affection for the man bubbled in his chest. As if he needed any further proof that George, Martha, and Lafayette were the nicest people in the country. The Washingtons were so good, yet he’d managed to ruin it; he’d managed to piss them off anyway. They had every reason to just call Ms. Muller now.)

Biting his tongue, Alex screwed his eyes shut and wrapped both arms around his legs, hugging them to his chest.

Okay.

Don’t talk. Briefly, he allowed his lips to part, letting in a ragged breath that didn’t quite fill his lungs. Then he slammed them shut, pressing his tongue tight against the roof of his mouth. Don’t talk. Don’t talk.

“Don’t talk,” LeBlanc whispered in his ear, breath searing the back of his neck, and he shivered, teeth clattering slightly.

The scene shifted, pale leather becoming gauzy curtains, stiff seats becoming a plush mattress, and Alex stiffened, struggling to keep his lips firmly shut instead of whimpering like a scared animal. Hot fingers trailed down his back, sending a cold jolt down his spine, and his hair stood on end. “Just say the word, Alexander.” He was rolled over to lie facing up, his legs gently pried from his chest and stretched out in front of him. “All you have to do is say the word, and this all stops.”

“Just focus on breathing,” George’s voice rumbled, drowning out LeBlanc. Alex screwed his mouth into a twisted line, hiding his face in his knees, which hadn’t actually been pulled away from him, of course. Because LeBlanc wasn't here and Washington wasn't LeBlanc.

‘Don’t ruin this now,’ he instructed himself harshly. ‘You hit the jackpot here. You can shut up for more than five seconds to keep it.’

“Don’t talk.”

Not even to apologize, apparently. And if George, his most reasonable host in years, didn’t even want him to apologize, that meant speaking was off the table entirely. Not to ask if they were going to send him back. Not to ask what his punishment was going to be. Not even to beg for mercy, no matter what happened. Silence. “Don’t talk. Just focus on breathing.”

Panic was still trembling in his chest, now clashing with hot guilt and shame, and Alex felt his eyes mist despite himself. Dammit, why had he screwed it up―why hadn’t he been more careful; why hadn’t he kept his reckless stupidity away from the Washingtons when they were the best thing that had ever happened to him―

Shifting, he felt something give under his leg, pressed between him and the seat.

The pastries.

In an instant, his guilt turned from a distraction to a crushing, overwhelming anguish. What the hell was wrong with him? He had―dear God, he had stolen from them. He had stolen from the Washingtons. Just like he’d stolen from the LeBlancs; from Pace; from the Buchanans. Except, back then, he’d had no choice; he’d done what it took to survive. Yet, when the Washingtons fed him almost too much, he still robbed them the second they turned their backs. Was this how he repaid them for everything they’d done for him?

He wasn’t even hungry.

Biting down hard into his knee, Alex muffled the whimper that tried to escape his mouth. He was already restless, the words crashing angrily against the sides of his skull like waves in the turbulent sea, his fingers fidgeting and writhing as if they longed to flee him entirely, every single limb and instinct frantic to plead move talk escape, but he suppressed himself.

He had orders.

“Lay down. Don’t talk.”

Orders, he could work with.

Finally, after a handful of minutes that he felt as hours, the car pulled into that stupid circular drive and eased to a stop in the garage. Abruptly unable to breathe, Alex closed his eyes, teeth clamping down onto his knee again to stifle his mewl. ‘God, you’re pathetic.’ George had been kind enough to give him time to brace himself, and he’d only become more tense; more terrified of what was to come.

Beatings were nothing new to him. Punishments were nothing new. But this wasn’t just any old punishment. Pace was big, but George was enormous. LeBlanc was smart, but George was brilliant. Buchanan was brawny, but George was muscle-bound.

This was bad. This was really, really bad.

“Alexander?” George’s voice was impossibly gentle; dangerously gentle; so soft, so comforting, that it could only be a facade. “Wake up, son. We’re home.”

Jaw clenching, Alex felt his teeth sink further into the threadbare denim of his jeans as he choked back a “Don’t call me son.” He’d made it this far already; he couldn’t ruin it now; he couldn’t talk. Prying open his eyelids, he glanced up at the driver’s seat with wide eyes, hopefully not too fearful, and nonono, not now, he couldn’t start crying, not now―

George stared solemnly back at him, his brow creased, frowning and discontent. “Alexander,” he said again, almost doleful, as he released his seatbelt with a click and twisted around in his seat.

Alex’s eyes snapped shut against his will, and he fought down another quiet noise. George was reaching over the console―was climbing over the console―and he wanted to scramble away, but he had orders―“Lay down, don’t talk,” George had said―he had direct orders; he couldn’t disobey direct orders; not when he was already in hot water.

George’s hand pressed against his shoulder, urging him to sit up, and he hastened to comply, practically hurling himself upright; laying both hands in his lap and seizing his lip between his teeth, not opening his eyes.

“Son―” George cut himself off, his breath hitching. “―Alexander. Breathe.”

Oh. Right. Breathing. That was a thing he needed to do. It was hard: he couldn’t feel his own lungs; he couldn't force air into his windpipe; he couldn’t―he just couldn’t. But it was an order; it was another direct order and he couldn’t but he couldn’t disobey a direct order, and, before he knew what he was doing, he’d already sucked in a gasp of breath and shakily let it out, following the instructions he’d been given.

With a quiet hum of approval, Washington sat beside him, hand rubbing gentle circles on his back, and, oh, that didn’t help at all. Maybe his breath hitched too loudly, or maybe he stiffened too obviously, because the hand quickly disappeared and George instead placed it on his shoulder, solid and steadying, with a contrite “Keep breathing, s―Alex.”

Mr. LeBlanc never grabbed his shoulder; he would act like he was comforting Alex, sometimes, but he’d never grab his shoulder. He acted as if that was too impersonal; as if he and Alex were close friends and he actually cared about Alex’s wellbeing enough to give a shit whether or not Alex could breathe, outside of not wanting his plaything to suffocate.

Maybe it was this realization of the separation between LeBlanc and Washington; or maybe it was George’s low, steady voice; or maybe it was the light pressure of fingers on his shoulder. Whatever the cause, Alex heard rather than felt his own breathing even out, his heartbeat slowing from a frantic tattoo to a more reasonable thump, thump, thump.

George’s hand stayed a moment longer as he gave Alex a concerned look. Then, slowly, he removed it, and Alex’s eyes flickered shut again. This was it. The moment where George either called Ms. Muller or punished Alex himself. Or both. God, he hoped it wouldn’t be both.

He hadn’t even made it a week. How was he supposed to look Ms. Muller in the eye and explain that, after everything she’d done for him, he still couldn’t make it; that he’d upset the most patient family he’d ever been with? ‘Please,’ he thought to himself, unable to say the words aloud with Washington’s orders still in effect, ‘please, don’t call her. Just beat me. I don’t care, just don’t send me away.’

“Alexander.” George’s voice was still delicate and almost sympathetic. Slowly, he reached across the boy, hand hovering unsurely for a moment before coming down to land on Alex’s far shoulder. His arm pressed gingerly against Alex’s back, the crook of his elbow resting between his shoulder blades.

“Alex,” he said carefully, “You know I’m not mad at you, right?”

Momentarily forgetting his direct orders, Alex stopped breathing entirely, his lungs turning to stone. Eyes shooting open, he jerked his head aside and met George’s eyes, his own expression harried and incredulous.

This seemed to confirm something for George, who looked down on him with an almost distressed expression not unlike Lafayette’s from last night. “Alex,” he said, almost pleadingly, “you didn’t do anything wrong.” He paused, almost wary, but, when Alex just continued to stare, he continued. “I admit that, for a split second, I thought you were going to do something stupid, but you never even hit that boy, Alex. The worst thing you did was… bruise his a-ass.”

Alex promptly choked on air in some vague approximation of a laugh. The vulgarity sounded foreign and clumsy on George’s tongue, and he was clearly uncomfortable with saying it. But, at Alex’s almost-laugh, the man smiled at him genuinely, his thumb rubbing slow circles on Alex’s back. Alex thought again of Lafayette; in that moment, the Washingtons’ influence on him was abundantly clear.

Slowly, George’s smile faded, although he didn’t stop his comforting ministrations. “What are you thinking, s―Alex?” he asked quietly, staring through Alex’s eyes and directly into his head, as if he could read the thoughts there on his own―which, given the intensity of his gaze, didn’t seem too unlikely.

Alex swallowed. The saliva crawled down his throat slowly, like syrup, and he nearly choked on it.

“Can… can I talk?” he asked tentatively, warily shooting George a sidelong glance through his messy hair.

For a moment, confusion crossed George’s face. Then it was realization, and, finally, distress. With a deep, wounded sound, he gently gripped both of Alex’s shoulders and twisted them both around in their seats until that they were facing each other, legs folded awkwardly to the side. “Alex, no, that’s not―”

Cutting himself off, he shook his head, and Alex cringed, looking down at his lap. But, once he’d collected himself, George took a shaky breath and began again. “I didn’t mean that you weren’t allowed to talk,” he explained, his voice pained but firm. “I meant that you didn’t have to explain yourself, because I wasn’t upset. But I should never have…” Another steadying breath. “Alex―”

One of the hands on Alex’s shoulders disappeared, and instead he felt it press under his chin. By all means, that should have incited another panic, because George was enormous and brilliant and muscle-bound, and he could probably snap Alex’s neck with two fingers if he really put his mind to it. But, perhaps due to the sheer emotional exhaustion of his recent panic, Alex merely sat still as George gently tilted his head back until their eyes met.

“Son,” he said one last time, with fierce resolve, “you aren’t in trouble.”

Nothing made sense. Everything was wrong. ‘It’s a trick; it’s a lie,’ his mind whispered. He couldn’t trust it; he wouldn’t trust it. No matter how sincere it sounded.

Alex shook his head in disbelief, his chin rubbing against George's fingers. “But―you―” he croaked weakly, trembling under the meager weight of the hand on his shoulder. In that moment, it seemed a million times heavier, and its grip a million times tighter. His eyes drifted shut, unable to stand the even more crushing weight of George’s gaze.

“I was only trying to help you calm down, Alex. I would never forbid you from speaking.” With a self-depreciating chuckle, George released his chin and instead playfully nudged his shoulder. “That would be a pretty bad place to start a friendship.”

Alex’s eyes snapped open.

“Friendship?” he repeated incredulously, pulling out from under George’s hands.

For a moment, George just blinked at him, caught off-guard by his abrupt, violent reaction. “…Yes,” he said slowly after a few seconds, his gaze cautious and concerned, but not quite wary. “Our friendship.”

Shaking his head rapidly, Alex jerked back until he was pressed against the car door again. “You’re not my friend.” It was neither vehement nor venomous; just the bald truth. “You’re my foster father,” he added before he could stop himself, his tone almost accusatory.

If the cruel words hurt George, he didn’t show it. Expression blank and unreadable, he leaned back against the car door and considered the teenager sitting in front of him. Alex shifted uncomfortably in place, but didn’t drop his gaze. He needed to get across that it wasn’t some supposed defect of George’s character that prevented them from being friends, it was just impossible by the nature of their relationship. Outside the car windows, a few orange leaves drifted by on the wind.

Something like sadness flashed across George’s face for a split-second, but it was gone as soon as it appeared. Then he smiled softly, almost ruefully.

“You’re right,” he agreed quietly. “I am your foster father. In that case, I suppose a friendship won’t be necessary.”

Shifting in his seat, he leaned forward and stretched out his hand, open. If he noticed the way Alex flinched and scuttled back, he didn’t react.

“An alliance, then.”

Alex looked at George’s face, sincere and smiling gently. He looked at the hand stretched towards him, large and strong and inviting, fingers spread for another hand to slide right in. Another gust of wind hit, and he could hear the leaves rustling as they fell to the ground, even if he couldn’t see them.

He thought about Mr. Buchanan, grinning at him, and then snarling, fists swinging, shoving him to the ground and kicking him over and over.

He thought about Pace, narrowing his eyes and warning him not to make any trouble; hitting him even when he didn’t, with a slap to the face and a knee to the gut.

He thought about LeBlanc, smiling at him softly, his eyes sharp. He thought about lilac curtains drifting in the lazy breeze. He thought about a plush mattress and silken sheets and thick, downy comforters.

He thought about Martha, cooking an extravagant breakfast; stopping her son from getting seconds before Alex could eat; dragging herself out of bed early for his sake; not making him do dishes; offering to heat up leftovers for him in the middle of the night.

He thought about George, laughing with his forehead against the steering wheel; placing a hand almost protectively on Alex’s shoulder; calling him “son”; not calling him “son” anymore, just because he asked; telling him there was no rush to get rid of him; calling him “my kid” as if that were the truth.

He thought about Lafayette, honestly enjoying his company; calling him out on his bruised knuckles, but promising not to tell the Washingtons; hugging him; apologizing for hugging him and helping him work through the resulting panic attack; rambling on for hours about how he couldn’t wait for his friends to meet Alex, because he was just so sure they would love him.

(“All you have to do is say the word, and this all stops, Alexander.”)

Alex reached forward and shook George’s hand.

“An alliance,” he agreed.

…There were stranger ways to start a friendship.

Chapter Text

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Alexander was not at all what Lafayette had expected.

Granted, he hadn’t had much time to form opinions. After all, barely two days ago, he’d never even heard of Alexander Hamilton, even though it felt like so much longer than that. Even now, he had a hard time believing it―but it was true; it really had been only fifty-two hours since George gently shook him awake to break the news―Saturday, 3 AM.

Once he’d rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, he had automatically feared the worst. His parents (they had stopped being “his adoptive parents” a long time ago) knew full well that he needed his beauty sleep, and they rarely interfered with it. The last time they’d woken him up at this time of night had been the day they got word from France that he was now officially the last surviving Lafayette. So he knew that this wasn’t some petty social call; this was serious business.

George had mumbled something about Martha being able to explain it better and steered him downstairs into the sitting room, assuaging his fears only slightly. If it were such urgent news, they wouldn’t delay; they’d break it to him softly, yes, but they wouldn’t skirt around the issue. The Washingtons were not so cruel. Still, the rare uncertainty on George’s face was enough to keep him on edge, a hair’s breadth away from panicking.

So he was wide awake and listening intently when Martha gingerly asked him how he would feel about having a temporary foster brother.

And, Lafayette being Lafayette (and 3 AM being an ungodly hour), he had provided an eloquent, thoroughly thought-out response of “Huh?”

It was incredibly sudden. We got a call from an old friend of ours, George had said. General Muller―you remember her, right?―wants us to foster a boy your age for a few months.

He’s been in the system for years, Martha had said. He’s had a pretty rough go of it. Poor kid’s been juggled between placements one after the other, and now he has nowhere else to go.

They want to throw him in juvie, George had said. He broke his last foster father’s leg. Besides that, he’s gotten into countless fights, supposedly resisted arrest on multiple occasions, and been booted from dozens of foster homes with long lists of complaints. He’s a renowned delinquent.

…But, George had said.

That’s not who he really is.

And that was all it took to convince Lafayette.

Even if there hadn’t been evidence that the foster parents who kicked him out were abusive themselves; even if it hadn’t been clear that he’d only ever thrown a punch in self-defense; even if the test scores and grades and notes from awestruck teachers hadn’t crowned him a veritable genius, Lafayette probably still would’ve grinned from ear to ear and enthusiastically nodded his assent. The iron confidence in George’s eyes―the self-assured way he said that, if they gave this kid a chance, he would exceed all their expectations―was more than enough to sway him.

He trusted George’s judgment more than anything, so if George said He’s not dangerous, just mislabeled, then Lafayette would welcome him with open arms.

Alexander Hamilton, George had said. He should be arriving late tomorrow―or, well, today, I suppose.

And, instead of grumbling indistinctly past a yawn, as he usually would at this time of night, Lafayette had jumped to his feet and proclaimed, “Then we must ready a room for him without delay! Are we cleaning? I can vacuum, oui?”

Just because he was excited didn’t mean he wasn’t wary, though. He trusted George, and George said that this Alexander wasn’t the delinquent everyone made him out to be. But that didn’t change the fact that, delinquent or not, Alexander was strong enough to break a fully grown man’s leg, and at least volatile enough to be goaded into doing so.

Other than that, he was a complete unknown. For all they knew, they could be fostering someone like freshman-year John Laurens (irritable, defensive, and mistrusting, but kind and fiercely loyal underneath) or someone more closely resembling Charles Lee (just as irritable, defensive, and mistrusting, but with no discernible soft side). Or maybe they’d end up with someone as bigoted as George King III, or someone as cruel and underhanded as James Reynolds.

The image he’d painted in his head―with help from John and Hercules, who delivered their predictions via group chat―was a vague mix of all four. Presumably, they would get off on the wrong feet, as he and John had in freshman year. There would, naturally, be some questioning of his masculinity and/or sexual preferences, as there always was, but George and Martha would nip that in the bud. Above all else, Lafayette had known with crushing certainty that Alexander would be sullen and rude; would bristle at the slightest touch; would swing first and ask questions later.

But then he’d heard the words “You’re being a bad influence on Alexander” and whirled around to meet two dark eyes, wide and discerning, and Alexander Hamilton was not at all what he’d expected.

“You do not understand, Hercules,” Lafayette groaned, hurling himself dramatically against the lockers with a loud clang. “He was nothing like we thought he’d be. Nothing!”

“Yes, Laf,” Hercules replied monotonously, not looking up from the notebook he was thumbing through. “I know.” Nudging Lafayette aside, he opened his locker with one hand and ducked behind the slotted aluminum door. “You’ve only said it, like, a thousand times.”

Gripping the locker door with both hands, Lafayette stretched onto his toes and glared down at the back of Hercules’ head. “Oui,” he snapped, drumming his long fingernails on the flimsy metal, “I have said it, but you have not listened!”

With a snort that fell just short of being derisive, Hercules stepped away from the locker, his notebook tucked under his arm as he stuffed a few thick textbooks into his backpack. “Laf, it’d be kinda hard not to listen to you. You’re pretty loud, y’know.” Heaving his bag over his shoulder, he swung the locker door shut, ignoring Laf’s affronted gasp. “I know you were excited to meet the guy, but I didn’t think you’d be even more excited afterwards. Do you just need something to be excited about at all times, or…?”

And―okay, that was fair. “I was just eager to tell you about Alexander!” he cried defensively, gesturing wildly with both hands.

Again, Hercules snorted. “Yeah, that’s pretty clear.” He flipped his notebook back open, rifling through it for the page he’d been on last. “I’m surprised you didn’t blow up the group chat last night. Have you ever spent this long without texting me before?”

Ouch. Regrettably, that was fair, too. Nevertheless, Lafayette sniffed indignantly, turning away with a lofty toss of his head. “You offend me, mon ami. I have far more self-restraint than that. You should know better than to underestimate me by now.”

Glancing up from his notebook, Hercules slowly raised an eyebrow.

After a moment, Lafayette huffed irritably, crossing his arms over his chest and turning away. “I spent all day talking to Alexander and my phone died.”

Herc grinned. “There it is.” With that, he started off down the hallway, leaving Lafayette silently fuming in his wake. Immediately, Laf shot a glare at the only other person in the hallway―Samuel Seabury, who quickly abandoned his not-very-subtle eavesdropping spot and scurried away. After another heated moment, the French teen let out a low growl and took off after Hercules, his footsteps sharp and quick.

‘Underwhelming’ was one way to describe his reaction. ‘Infuriating’ was another. Lafayette could think of a few more apt descriptions, but he wasn’t quite sure how to translate them without losing their impact.

Yes, there was a difference between meeting your new foster brother and listening to your friend ramble on about someone you’ve never met. He knew that. But, still, Hercules had seemed perfectly interested before, and it was disconcerting to see him go from curious to apathetic so quickly. What could have possibly changed?

And… well, if Lafayette was being honest with himself (which was “paramount in being a healthy, balanced individual, as well as the first step of being honest with everyone else”, as Martha and George had once written for one of George’s speeches), it wasn’t just disconcerting―it was also highly irritating. Having his excitement rebuffed so thoroughly―completely written off as “just Lafayette being excited about something for no reason”―was more than a little disheartening.

Of course, Martha and George had also written that resolving conflict always had to start with equality―“everyone involved has to communicate their thoughts and feelings honestly and completely, or it’s impossible to reach a compromise”. So, taking a deep breath, Lafayette wrestled his anger into the farthest channels of his mind and began, with bald honesty, “Hercules, I really―”

He cut himself off when Hercules stopped short and whirled around to face him, a contemplative frown on his face.

As always, Hercules’ features were handsome―Lafayette often told him as much, and he never had to exaggerate―but his expression was one of concern; a familiar visage that John had once christened “the dad friend face”.

Ah. So perhaps Hercules had already picked up on his feelings.

“Y’know,” Herc began, smiling softly in a way that made his entire demeanor switch from long-suffering to understanding, “only you can have an angry-sounding walk in sneakers.”

Lafayette snorted, his shoulders relaxing just slightly, and Hercules’ smile became a triumphant grin. In all honestly, Laf was more comforted more by the sight of Herc’s face than his careful joke, but no one needed to know that.

(“Some things don’t need to be shared with others,” George had written once. “There’s a difference between keeping secrets and knowing when it’s nobody’s business but your own.” Martha had hastily scratched it out―there were some things that Senators couldn’t say, and ‘I think sometimes the truth should be withheld’ was one of them―but Lafayette considered them words to live by nevertheless.)

If it had been John who’d accidentally wounded his pride, the encounter might’ve ended there―or, alternatively,  John might’ve launched into a long, heartfelt confession of exactly why he’d acted so uncaring, and Lafayette might have responded in kind. But Hercules just smiled and continued, voice slow and even, “I’m still pumped to hear about Alex. Probably even more than I was before. I just think we should get John first so you don’t have to tell the same story twice.” And then, starting to walk again but not breaking eye contact: “It is you telling the story, so we might not even have time to tell it twice.”

Reluctantly, Lafayette allowed the tender moment to smoothly fade away, laughing once and falling into step beside Hercules. “You wound me,” he trilled. “I’ll have you know that I can be just as…”

Words failed him, and he paused for a moment, deliberating, but didn’t bother with a how you say. Exaggerating the imperfections of his English could lighten the mood every once and a while if used sparingly, but it wasn’t necessary here.

“…succinct as you can,” he finished eventually with a decisive nod.

If his pause was distracting, Hercules was unaffected. “Su-ure.” He dragged the single syllable out almost too long, giving Lafayette a dubious once-over (it was difficult not to preen under his gaze, but Laf managed to restrain himself). After a minute, Herc winced suddenly and looked away, coughing an awkward “Whatever you say, man.” into his elbow and pointedly not meeting Lafayette’s eyes.

Huh. That was… strange. But Lafayette couldn’t allow himself to dwell on that. If he did, he would inevitably fall into wishful thinking again.

It was easy to just assume that Hercules’ brief moments of awkward glancing―and subsequent hasty aversion of eyes―were motivated by attraction. Not to be vain, but he wouldn’t exactly be the first to be captivated by Lafayette’s good looks. But he couldn’t allow himself to even consider that; he couldn’t deceive himself like that. Not when he’d already asked Hercules out before and been rejected.

Of course, it was possible that his failed attempt to snag a date with his best friend had caused the slight tension between them, but Lafayette honestly doubted that was it. Hercules was far too understanding to let something like that get between them―hell, he’d certainly let Lafayette down easy enough back then, without even a single stammer or wide-eyed “Wh-what?!”

Which was strange in and of itself; he’d seen Hercules reject someone else before on multiple occasions, so he knew for a fact that Herc was the sort to blush furiously and at least stutter or use a few “Um”s. He always felt far too guilty for denying people, even though he knew that he didn’t owe them anything. But there had been no sign of that when he turned down Lafayette, evenly meeting Laf’s eyes and suggesting they invite John along as well. Which Laf might have dared to hope wasn’t a rejection, just a suggestion for a bit more complicated relationship, if Herc hadn’t casually added, “You know Laurens, man; he’d get it into his head that we don’t wanna be friends anymore or something.”

It was the most blatant friendzone possible, and, if nothing else, Lafayette could be proud to say that he’d taken it in stride, smoothly accepting the downgrade from date to hangout. The whole procedure had taken less than a minute, and, in the end, Lafayette couldn’t truly say he regretted asking. He had to try, after all.

(...Nevertheless, he’d spilled his guts to Martha the second he’d gotten home. She’d just stared at him helplessly for a long time, as if she desperately wanted to tell him something but couldn’t. Then, with a sigh and a shake of her head, she’d fetched him a carton of ice cream and left him to his brooding, muttering something about poor communication skills and oblivious Frenchmen as she left. In any case, the ice-cream really did help, and, by the next morning, Lafayette was emotionally bolstered and ready to cheerfully and platonically enjoy a nice Saturday hangout with his two best friends.)

So, long story short, Hercules clearly wasn’t interested. Which meant, among other things, that interpreting his awkward glances as romantic interest was simply incorrect, as well as highly rude. He had made his feelings clear, and disregarding those feelings would be an inexcusable breach of boundaries.

Not that Lafayette would or could stop flirting with Herc like he did with everyone, but Herc didn’t seem to mind as long as it never got too real. It was the genuine compliments that really seemed to make him uncomfortable. Anything more or less was off the table.

Lafayette shook his head slowly, dismissing those thoughts. Luckily, Herc had gone back to his notebook, so he hadn’t had the chance to notice Lafayette’s silence and start worrying again, as he was wont to do. “Where are we even going?” Laf quickly piped up before that could change. The last thing they needed was a heart-to-heart about the fact that Hercules wasn’t interested and Lafayette wasn’t over him.

“News HQ,” Herc explained. “We gotta meet up with Laurens. He said he had to meet up with Madison and Ange. I think there was some issue with his last piece that they had to talk about? Something like that, anyway.”

“Ah,” Lafayette responded simply, following Herc around the corner. He reeled for a moment when he saw that this hallway, too, was practically deserted. It was easy to forget that, thanks to Alex and George needing to fill out some paperwork, he’d arrived at school far earlier than usual. He wasn’t used to walking down the halls without having to swerve between groups of teens loitering outside the classrooms in clumps.

“How can you two stand wandering around early every day?” he demanded, glancing from side to side. “The quiet is so… eerie.”

A small smile flickered across Hercules’ face as he glanced over his shoulder. “It’s not really that weird, Laf,” he chuckled. “You’re just not comfortable unless it’s at least loud enough to rival a middle-school lunchroom.” The words were teasing, but his fond expression belied them.

Lafayette clicked his tongue. “Even so. Having to get up so early on every single day?” He wrinkled his nose. “I would not trade places with you for the world, Hercules Mulligan.”

With a melodramatic sigh that sounded like it could have come from Lafayette himself, Hercules tossed his head just slightly. “C’est la vie.”

Smirking, Lafayette violently quashed the warm pride that welled up in his chest, reminding himself that he probably wasn’t the one who’d taught Herc that phrase, and he certainly wasn’t the one who taught him how to heave a dramatic sigh. “I cannot believe the theatre is already making you come in early. The school year just started. Do you even know what play you will be doing yet?”

“Well,” Herc chuckled with a grin halfway between sheepish and devious, “no, we don’t. But Senator King will keep supplying us with more fabric, even if we don’t have costumes to make, and I’m always looking for another creative way to waste that asshole’s money, so I plan on taking full advantage of the situation. Might as well make some stuff that I’ve been wanting to while I have the materials. And―” Now, the grin was just plain sheepish― “to be fair, I’m actually the head of Wardrobe this year. So, technically, I’m the one making me come in early.”

Oh―right. For the second time in the past minute, Lafayette stifled his unwarranted pride in his friend. He’d already congratulated Hercules extensively, both for becoming head of Wardrobe and for single-handedly securing Senator King’s sponsorship for the theatre with some impressive diplomacy. There was no point in praising him again. “Why on earth would you do such a thing to yourself?” he moaned instead, throwing his own head back far more dramatically than Herc had. “Imagine the possibilities! Even despite your refusal to get reasonable amounts of sleep, you are already positively stunning, Hercules―”

Wait―shit! ‘Too gay; too gay! Abort mission; abort mission―!’

But it was too late to stop now. Okay, okay, think quick, Washington; how could he make this less creepy? He couldn’t just stop mid-sentence―but he could throw in a “how you say” to distract him! And, let’s see―maybe end by complimenting himself so it seemed more like a joke?

‘Perfect!’

“If you got your, how you say, beauty sleep more often, perhaps you could even surpass me!” Lafayette hastily revised, trying to sound self-important enough that the genuine compliment would go unnoticed. “That is to say: it is not probable, but it may be possible.”

Alright. Situation defused. He no longer sounded like he was making a pass at someone who’d already turned him down. And, not to toot his own horn, but Lafayette was pretty satisfied with his acting skills; his pause between calling Hercules “positively stunning” and making it sound like some big joke hadn’t been too suspect.

But Hercules didn’t roll his eyes or snipe back, and Lafayette’s pride quickly faded. Neither one of them stopped walking, but Herc’s shoulders were suddenly stiff, and Laf’s playful smirk was frozen on his face. Oops. Apparently, his acting hadn’t been so superb. ‘Dammit!’ Why could he not go five seconds without telling one of his best friends that they were “positively stunning”? (It was the truth; John and Hercules were positively stunning―but that wasn’t the point!)

By this point, their legs had managed to carry them all the way to Room 14-02, where Newspaper Headquarters was being hosted this year, on autopilot. Hercules still hadn’t reacted to Lafayette’s slip of the tongue; not even to stop and quirk an eyebrow or anything. ‘Merde.’ That meant he wasn’t just confused or bashful but pleased―he must be positively mortified.

‘Nice going, Washington. You did a great job with that whole ‘don’t hit on Hercules because he’s already turned you down and you can take no for an answer’ thing.’ Swallowing thickly, Lafayette quickly formulated an appropriate apology―Hercules deserved one, no matter how awkward it may be to admit his mistake―and opened his mouth to deliver it. “Herc…”

Before he could finish, the door burst open with a loud bang and John Laurens lunged towards them in a flurry of fabric and hair.

In the decades to come, all three of them would vehemently deny that this moment had ever happened. So, for all intents and purposes, Lafayette never screamed “MERDE!”, suffering a particularly bad voice crack halfway through; Hercules never screamed “WHAT THE SHIT!” and practically tackled Lafayette, latching onto him like a spooked kid watching a horror movie; and John never screamed “OH, LOOK WHO IT IS!” like a serial killer, his hair a frenzied cloud around his face, his eyes wide and unhinged, and his jacket hanging almost completely off of his shoulders.

Staggering towards the two, John grabbed both of them by the front of their shirts and tugged them forward, which really didn’t do any favors for his whole “currently suffering a psychotic break” aesthetic. “Oh, hey there, Herc, Laf!” he greeted, his voice strained and a little frantic. A slightly manic grin stuttered onto his face. “F-fancy seeing you here!”

“What the fuck, Laurens?!” Hercules screeched, still not letting go of Lafayette (who realized belatedly that he’d clung to Hercules just as tightly at some point). “You can’t just―” He paused to suck in a harsh breath. “You can’t just do that to me, man!”

“My god, why are you like this?” Lafayette panted. Only when Laurens shot him an odd look did he realize that he was speaking in french. “John,” he hastily amended, a bit more composed this time, “stop breaking my feet.”

John’s stare only intensified, and Hercules mirrored it.

“Wait. That doesn’t work in English.”

“Not… really,” John offered, his eyes wide.

Oops. “Ah, I mean…” He paused, furrowing his brow. “Stop… being… a sausage?”

Hercules didn’t even blink. His eyes had to be stinging by now.

“...Still no?”

“Still no,” John confirmed.

A familiar voice, half-amused and half-mocking, made Lafayette jump again. “I think the phrase you’re looking for is ‘John, stop being a pain in the ass,” Angelica Schuyler offered as she emerged from News HQ. She was clearly dead serious, but somehow managed to sound sarcastic at the same time. It was truly masterful. Laf wondered, not for the first time, if she would ever teach him how to do that.

But John did not scowl playfully and feign great offense as he usually would. Instead, he turned crimson red from the ears down, his deranged expression returning full force. Finally releasing Laf and Herc’s shirts, he practically flung himself between them and Angelica, spreading his arms wide as if to block her from view. “DON’T LISTEN TO A WORD SHE SAYS!” he practically screamed. “SHE’S WRONG AND ALSO JUST JOKING AND DEFINITELY NOT AT ALL SERIOUS OR CORRECT!”

For a long moment, silence followed. Then Hercules cleared his throat. “Laurens, are you… okay?” he asked slowly, a hint of sincere concern bleeding into his voice. “You’re acting… really weird.”

That was putting it lightly. Lafayette raised an eyebrow. “Oui, Hercules is right, petit Jean. Never before have I seen you act so…” He trailed off. ‘Genuinely disturbed’ was accurate, but a little mean. “…strange,” he revised smoothly, hoping that was a little less rude.

Behind John, Angelica laughed―a hearty, ringing laugh; not the mocking chuckle she usually used when she poked fun at their antics. “Relax, John,” she soothed. “I was just teasing. I wouldn’t actually tell them. Promise.” There was a hint of playfulness lingering in her tone, but she clearly meant it.

John’s relief practically exploded off of him, pushing into Lafayette like a physical force as John slumped down with a vaguely grateful sigh, Angelica just smirking indulgently over his shoulder―and, okay, wasn’t that interesting? “Tell us what?” Lafayette said slowly, taking in the deep flush that had overtaken John’s entire face.

Immediately, the harried expression returned to John’s face. “Nothing!” he claimed, a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead. He straightened as if standing at attention. “Absolutely nothing important! It’s the least important thing that you could possibly ever be told and you wouldn’t even care anyway so who even cares! Not you! Not me!” He smiled that same unconvincing manic grin, and his eye twitched.

“…In no way does this convince me that you’re sane,” Hercules said flatly, but he relaxed even as he spoke, any real worry alleviated. Only then did he seem to realize that he was still hanging onto Lafayette for dear life; he immediately recoiled and stumbled several steps away. “But if Laurens doesn’t care than I don’t care!” he said hastily, turning on his heel and speed-walking away. “Well, time to go! Better, like―get to class or whatever! No harm in showing up early! I’ll see y’all at lunch, ‘kay bye!”

Blinking rapidly, Lafayette glanced back at John, who looked like he was contemplating the pros and cons of just jumping out the window and sprinting all the way home. Hercules had speed-walked his way down half of the hallway by now. Angelica just looked incredibly pleased with herself.

Lafayette quirked a brow. “John?” he prompted, just now thinking to straighten his disheveled shirt. Laurens jumped, his head snapping up. “Are you coming?”

For a moment, John just stared at him uncomprehendingly. Then, with a jolt, he nodded fiercely and took off after Hercules, shrugging his jacket back onto his shoulders as he went. After a few steps, he seemed to remember the sorry state of his hair and hastily tugged out his ponytail, tying it back again more neatly as he fell into step at Hercules’ side, matching his ridiculous power walk.

Lafayette watched them leave, keeping his eyes firmly on their retreating backs so he wasn’t tempted to look at anything lower. Only when he was sure they were out of earshot did he turn back to Angelica, his eyebrow raising again. “Did you mean what you said about not actually telling us?” he teased, half a grin stretching across his face.

Angelica laughed again. “Unfortunately. It would make things so much easier, I’m sure, but it would also be a breach of trust. Sorry, Laf.”

With a touch of melodrama, Laf sighed heavily and turned on his heel, his ponytail bouncing. “C’est la vie,” he muttered over his shoulder as he took off after John and Hercules, who were somehow already out of sight.

Angelica just laughed once more before ducking back into News HQ, muttering something about lovestruck idiots that Lafayette generously chose to ignore.

(Spilling to the Schuyler siblings about his less-than-platonic feelings for his two best friends had been inevitable; they knew about literally everyone in the school’s crushes by now. Still, sometimes he wished Angelica would stop dropping hints when John and Hercules were nearby, at least. Even if they weren’t in earshot or even eyesight anymore.)


 

By the time third lunch rolled around, Lafayette was just about ready to burst.

Withholding his discoveries about Alex had been difficult enough when it was just for long enough to find Laurens, but restraining himself all the way through third block had been absolutely torturous. He didn’t have any classes with both Herc and John until lunch, and both remained steadfast in their insistence upon not hearing the story unless the other was there, too.

Which meant he had to spend the entire school day suffering in silence, trying his best not to snap and just start screaming about Alex to anyone who would listen.

When he and Hercules finally got out of math and made their way to the lunchroom, John had already gotten situated at their usual table next to the Schuylers, and Lafayette briefly wondered how he’d gotten there so fast. Lafayette himself had practically sprinted there from math, his unbridled excitement quickening his pace, so John must’ve been moving at least twice as fast to have gotten there so much earlier.

Of course, this meant that John was sitting with an empty chair on either side, not paying attention to the world around him, which opened up a slew of wonderful opportunities, so Laf was hardly complaining.

With a huge grin, Lafayette strutted towards him, purposefully swaying his hips like a model. It was a technique that Peggy, of all people, had taught him, giving him the advice to “whip this out whenever there's someone you want to startle or intimidate, or both”.

Hercules glanced up over at him curiously, choked, and quickly looked back away; Lafayette swallowed a laugh. Across the table from John, Peggy looked up from her pizza and snorted when she caught sight of him, shooting him a thumbs up. Angelica just rolled her eyes, and Eliza laughed into her palm and ducked her head to hide her smile.

Unfortunately, though, John remained oblivious, so the intimidating never reached its target. He was flipping through his sketchbook, studying his past drawings intently with an adorable look of utter concentration on his face.

Despite himself, Lafayette felt his gait stutter as he took in the sharp focus of John’s wide eyes, and he quickly shook himself back into reality. ‘Now is not the time to be fawning over John, Washington,’ he scolded inwardly. ‘There is never a good time to be fawning over John.’

Nonetheless, John’s obvious distraction was a huge opportunity that it would be remiss to pass up, so Lafayette closed the rest of the distance between them and promptly threw himself into the chair beside him. Predictably, he ended up being flung into John’s side, his top half draped over John’s shoulders, with barely any of his weight actually in the chair.

“Ah, John, so good that you’re here already!” he chirped, ignoring Laurens’ startled squeak. “Now that we’re all together―” Hercules had just lowered himself into the chair opposite Lafayette with a weary sigh― “we can finally talk about Alexander!”

Collecting himself with enviable ease, John sighed once and squirmed out of Lafayette’s grasp. “Why am I not surprised that you’re still excited about that?”

He couldn’t quite keep the genuine intrigue out of his voice, and Lafayette beamed. “You know you’re curious, petit Jean.” Sliding all the way into his chair, he propped his chin up on his palm and leaned against the table. “Now, are you two still busy, or can I actually tell you about him this time?”

Both boys rolled their eyes, but neither bothered to hide their impatience as they pushed away their books and adopted similar poses, chins resting against their palms, listening attentively. “Go ahead,” John prompted, already invested―but, before Lafayette could say anything, he quickly added, “Was he like we thought he’d be?”

Hercules groaned at that, anticipating a sarcastic response, but Lafayette didn’t take the opportunity to smugly rehash everything he’d said that morning. He just smiled genuinely, with an almost far-off look, and leaned further into his palm. “Non, little John. He was not.”

With a huff, Hercules slid forward a bit in his seat. “Well, what was he like, then? C’mon, man; I’ve been waiting for, like, days. Don’t be cryptic now.”

Yet another chance to point out how uninterested Hercules had acted earlier this morning. Yet another chance that Lafayette didn’t take. Humming thoughtfully, he took his head out of his hands and rubbed his chin instead. John and Hercules waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts.

“Where to start…?”

The first thing Lafayette had noticed was that Alexander was cute. Which―okay, maybe that shouldn’t have been the first thing he noticed, but Lafayette was a teenager like any other, and it wasn’t within his power to stop himself from appreciating what he saw. Not that he had ogled the poor boy, of course―he had enough self-restraint to keep his eyes above the collar―but Alexander’s face was pretty enough on its own.

He didn’t have the same type of beauty as John or Hercules, but there was a unique appeal to the fierce set of his eyebrows; the haphazard splay of his hair; the tense lines of his neck and shoulders. And his eyes―Mon Dieu, his eyes. They were aflame; that was the only way to describe it. Lafayette had never understood the American phrase “fire in their eyes” until now.

To put it bluntly, seeing Alexander Hamilton for the first time was a strike of lightning, and Lafayette wasn’t quite sure how to put it into words.

“Alexander is quite the sight,” he said eventually, twirling a hair around his finger as he thought. “Very messy, very unkempt, but he has a constant… energy about him, yes?”

John tilted his head to the side, brow furrowing. “Like, nervous energy, or…?”

With a huff of breath, Lafayette hunched forward slightly, gesticulating wildly with both hands. “I suppose so, but that’s not really what I mean? It seems like more than just that. Petit Alexandre is very―very fierce.”

Startled, Hercules sat up straighter in his seat and scanned Lafayette head to toe, as if searching for any glaring injuries that he might have somehow missed. “By ‘fierce’, do you mean violent? ‘Cause we kinda predicted that, man.”

Shooting bolt upright, Lafayette shook his head rapidly. “Non! Not at all!” he hastily corrected. “He was not violent in any way, simply… passionate.” Relaxing again, he felt a smile flicker across his face. “I made a joke about his height when I first saw him, and you should have heard what he said in response―it almost sounded rehearsed, I swear!”

John made a loud sound as if he’d just spat out a mouthful of water. “You weren’t sure whether he was dangerous yet and the first thing you did was mock him?” he demanded, voice high-pitched and incredulous.

Waving off his disbelief, Lafayette absently corrected, “I was speaking in French, he just turned out to be trilingual. Oh, but you should’ve heard it, it was―ah, hold on, I think I’ve got it―”

Clearing his throat and straightening in his seat, he tried to mimic Alexander’s rather distinctive voice while simultaneously remembering the way he’d phrased it and translating it into English. “I beg pardon for my bluntness, but I am not short, you are just unusually tall, and I fail to see why my alleged shortness would have you call me a coward, anyway.”

John wheezed.

“Wait, he said that?!”

Lafayette lit up. Finally, the shock he’d been expecting! “Yes, almost exactly that! I doubt that I remembered it quite right, but I have a pretty good memory for these things.”

Curiosity now sufficiently piqued, Hercules and Laurens both scooted their chairs a little closer. “Wait, so does he talk like that all the time?” John asked, eyes wide. “Or just when he’s irritated or whatever?”

“Ah, not all the time,” Lafayette explained as he leaned forward, eager to share his analysis, “but not just when he is upset, either. He seems to slip into it when he feels more comfortable, as well. I think he usually hides it, for whatever reason.”

“Hides it?” John parroted at the same time Hercules muttered, “Comfortable?”

Lafayette grinned.

He spent the next twenty minutes solid describing Alexander to the best of his ability, and he was pleased to find that he never really ran out of things to talk about. Maybe five minutes in, the Schuylers shifted closer, engrossed in his tale. They lost interest ten minutes later, although Eliza was kind enough to go snag some pizza for them (“You seemed really into your story,” she explained as she set a slice down in front of each boy; “I knew you would all skip lunch entirely if I didn’t step in.”).

Luckily, Herc and John never seemed to get tired of listening to him rant, although, after twenty minutes, they finally drew the line. “I really wanna hear more,” John admitted as he pressed his hand over Lafayette’s mouth with an almost stern look, “but Eliza is right. You’ve gotta eat, man. You can finish telling us afterwards.”

He was more than capable of talking and eating at the same time, but Lafayette begrudgingly shut up and tore into his pizza, only now realizing how hungry he really was. “But do you see what I mean?” he pressed as he chewed on the crust. “He really is nothing like we thought he would be, am I not right?”

John laughed softly, smiling at him with a sidelong glance, and Lafayette’s frenzied energy immediately calmed into something much fonder that made his chest simultaneously warm and tighten. “Yeah, you were right, Laf,” he said, not a hint of mockery in his voice, and Lafayette was forced to look away, unable to handle the way John was looking at him. He swallowed thickly.

Dammit, he knew John wasn’t into him; not as certainly as he knew that Hercules wasn’t into him, but certainly enough to disregard John’s occasionally affectionate demeanour. Still, it was so hard sometimes when John just―just looked at him like that. Like Lafayette was everything he could have ever wanted.

But John was not into him.

He, like Hercules, had turned Lafayette down, once, although the difference between the two moments couldn’t have been more drastic. Lafayette had never asked him out, and Laurens hardly “let him down easy” as Herc had. Before the two were friends, back when John was mistrusting and defensive towards anything more heartfelt than stilted civility, John had curled both fists into the front of his shirt and slammed him up against the lockers. Lafayette remembered clearly how he’d been so startled, he hadn’t even fought back; he just let himself be pinned against the metal and let Laurens lean close to snarl in his ear, “If you think you can just fucking charm your way into my pants, then you’re mistaken, Washington, and I don’t know where the fuck you get off acting like you’re better than everyone else, but, news flash, you fucking aren’t.”

Months later, John―the real John, without the layer of defense mechanisms and fake hostility―had looked him in the eye and apologized so profusely that he was forgiven before he could even explain himself. “I thought you were flirting with me, and the last guy who flirted with me… didn’t have the best intentions, so I guess I just… panicked,” he explained miserably, wrapping his arms around himself. “I swear I didn’t mean any of it, and I… I don’t mind when you’re… affectionate. I’m not gonna, like… take it the wrong way again or anything. Promise.”

So Lafayette had been “affectionate”, as he was with everyone―and, once John had turned from his friend to his best friend, he’d started to flirt with John like he did with most people he got close to. John took it better than Hercules did, in any case―he’d go red and look away bashfully, but there would almost always be a pleased smile that he hid behind his hand (a smile that had no right to be so adorable, dammit).

So Lafayette might have let himself hope that he really could charm his way into John’s life, if not his pants―but, no matter how much or how blatantly he flirted, John never seemed to reciprocate. And, unlike with Hercules, he didn’t dare throw caution to the wind and ask him out anyway. The worst Hercules could do (and did do) was turn him down, but John could very well become convinced that this entire friendship was some elaborate scheme to humiliate him, and Lafayette wouldn’t risk erasing all the progress he’d made in trusting others over the years. Not for the sake of his own crush.

Lafayette swallowed the final bite of crust and pepperoni, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pushed away his paper plate with a flourish. “I am finished,” he announced. Then, with a touch of sarcasm: “May I speak now, Jean?”

“One sec, one sec,” John grunted, swallowing a mouthful of pizza. “I’m almost done, just gimme a minute.”

Lafayette was too impatient to even muster up a fake irritated sigh. But, at the very least, he supposed this gave him a moment to check his phone. “Take your time,” he encouraged, although he was still vibrating with eagerness; tapping his foot rapidly, he whipped out his smartphone, rubbing the screen on his shirt.

As expected, he’d amassed quite the stockpile of notifications in the past few hours. Scrolling through them idly and quickly deleting the ones he didn’t care about, he scanned a notif telling him how many new texts he had―

Wait.

What?

Lafayette sputtered, nearly falling out of his chair with shock. Beside him, John snapped to attention, but Laf paid him no mind. Squinting, he brought the phone much closer to his face and peered at the notification again, as if unsure he was reading it right. Maybe there was just something in his eye? But―no, it looked the same up close, even with his eyes squinted almost completely shut.

“Uh… Laf?” Slowly, hesitantly, John reached out to lay a tentative hand on his shoulder. When he wasn’t pushed away, he squeezed slightly. “Is… somethin’ wrong?”

Slowly, Lafayette looked up from the screen. John and Hercules were both staring at him, concern evident in the crinkles of their foreheads.

“I just got a text from Charles Lee?”

It was phrased as a question, hesitant and unsure, but they both reeled back anyway as if struck, their eyes widening. “Charles Lee?!” Herc repeated incredulously.

“What did he say?” John pressed, scooting his chair closer. “He wasn’t being an ass again, was he? ‘Cause I dunno why the hell he hates you three so much, but if he’s being an ass again for no frickin’ reason, I swear I’ll fight him. Seriously, I’ll do it, just say the word, man―”

“Hush, Jean,” Lafayette muttered distractedly, swiping the notification that read “5 new messages. Last message from: Lee” and hastily tapping in his password. “You need to give me time to read it first.”

Lafayette hadn’t updated Lee’s contact photo in over a year; the grinning Lee in the picture, his hair chopped short and dyed dark red, was a sharp contrast to the scowling Lee with his black undercut that Lafayette saw nowadays. He’d completely forgotten about this chat; his friendship with Lee had been casual and short-lived, quick to burn out when Lee suddenly decided that George was the worst man on earth.

The last message Lafayette had sent Lee was a simple “really, what did George ever do to you???” almost a full year ago. Under that were six messages from Lee in a row: five white bubbles and one black rectangle.

 

Today, 11:27 AM: 

 

oi washington
is this that brother you wouldn’t shut up about
-Lee sent a video-
cuz I like him

Today, 11:43 AM:

 

alex just made me delete that thing you so better damn well save it
somebody has to immortalize that shit

 

“What,” Lafayette said concisely, “the fuck.”

John leaned up against him, trying to read over his shoulder. “What? What is it? Am I fighting him or not?” he demanded, clinging onto Lafayette’s arm to steady himself as he peered down at the screen. “Is that a video? What’s the video of? I swear if he’s gossiping about someone I’ll kick his ass―”

“John, calm yourself,” Lafayette snapped, but there was no real heat behind his words. “I have not watched it yet, just let me have a second.” John huffed indignantly, but obediently fell silent, scanning the messages without a word.

With a beckon from Lafayette, Herc rounded the side of the table and came to stand at his other side, leaning over his shoulder. Vaguely, Laf wondered what an odd picture they must make―then he remembered that it was a high-school lunchroom and three people hunched over a phone wasn’t an uncommon sight in the slightest.

“Wait,” John piped up as he finished reading the brief messages, “what the hell? How has Lee met Alex? Isn’t he in class right now?”

Hercules gave a quiet grunt of disagreement, a contemplative frown crossing his face. “Senior skip day,” he corrected. “Everybody’s out getting lunch or whatever they do on skip day. It’s pretty much just Angelica and, like, five other seniors.”

“Oh, right, right―jeez, I knew that; there was pretty much nobody in science today.” John wrinkled his forehead, his lips quirking to the side. “But still―was he just, like, snooping around in your house or something? From what you’ve said, Alex seems like kind of a recluse. I don’t really think he’d be out on the town as soon as you left for school.”

Lafayette hummed softly, but his face was dead serious. John was right about that―and, although the chances of Lee actually breaking into their house and sending him a video of Alexander were astronomically low, he could feel his more protective instincts tingling. “Well, I suppose there is only one way to find out,” he said lightly, forcing himself to smile.

With that, he tapped play and turned the volume up.

At first, the video was an unintelligible mess of hushed voices crackling into the microphone, the camera jerking side to side rapidly as multiple people fought for control of it. “Dude,” Lee’s voice broke through, obscured by static but still identifiable, “come on, give it back―” and Lafayette raised an eyebrow. So, what―Lee had snuck in and then someone else had grabbed the phone and started recording?

Then the camera righted itself, and the picture cleared, showing the inside of a diner of some sort. After a second, whoever was recording zoomed in, focusing on what looked like a couple sitting at one of the booths.

Light was streaming through the window behind the booth, the video quality was less-than-stellar, and the camera was still shaking and jerking every now and then, so the couple was almost entirely blotted out by dark shadows. Past the quiet sniggering of the kid taking the video and Lee’s exasperated “Gimme my phone,” the blurry silhouettes sitting at the booth could barely be heard as they argued. Neither their faces nor their voices were easily identifiable. Nevertheless, after a few moments, John did a double take and leaned closer to the screen, squinting suspiciously at the figure on the right.

“Is that Maria Reynolds?!”

Lafayette’s eyes widened. He and Hercules bent closer in unison, staring at the faint outline John pointed out. Sure enough, it wasn’t a certain thing, but the shape of her hair and the faint details of her face and clothing definitely seemed like Maria. And, upon closer inspection, the figure sitting across from her beared a striking resemblance to James Reynolds, complete with his usual leather jacket.

Herc’s lip curled back into a sneer. “Does Lee think Reynolds is Alex? Or, what, is this supposed to be a crack about how he beat up his foster father? How would he even know about that?”

Placing a hand on Laf’s shoulder to steady himself, John leaned even closer for a moment, scrutinizing the footage. The camera jerked again as Lee, presumably, made another grab for his phone. “I can’t see anyone else he would be talking about,” John said after a long moment, using Laf’s arm to lever himself safely back onto his feet. “Maybe he sent the wrong video? Or it could just be some kind of stupid joke.”

Lafayette opened his mouth to respond, narrowing his eyes thoughtfully, but, before he could speak, maybe-James-Reynolds rocketed to his feet and grabbed maybe-Maria by the shoulders, slamming her roughly into the booth behind her.

Very abruptly, the camera stopped shaking.

For a moment, it seemed as if the audio had cut out entirely. The Reynolds stopped arguing; the teenagers stopped snickering; Lee’s voice petered out. Lafayette held his breath, staring wide-eyed at the screen, and he could tell that John and Hercules were doing the same. Even the deafening background noise of the cafeteria seemed to fade away around them.

After a weighty moment, John slowly sucked in a shaky breath.

“I’m… going to… kill… him.”

Barely a whisper.

Just like that, the noise returned. “That’s what you get, you stupid bitch,” Reynolds snarled―no mistaking it now, it was him―and the guy holding the camera breathed a quiet “Holy shit.”

Reynolds was still shouting at Maria, who was shrinking back into the booth, but it wasn’t audible over John’s sudden growl of “Oh my God, I am going to tear him apart,” and Herc’s quiet but glacial “Someone had better do something. Lee, I will never forgive you if you don’t do something.” Lafayette himself was simmering in silence, his eyes wide and furious, his mouth hanging open. Words escaped him. How dare that―that little piece of―

Reynolds drew back his hand for another strike, and Herc snarled “Somebody stop him!”, reaching for the phone, as John dug his fingers into Lafayette’s arm deep enough to leave bruises. Laf barely noticed. Lee’s messages were all but forgotten; all he cared about in that moment was tracking down James Reynolds and killing him. Slowly. In the back of his mind, he wondered if George would mind him skipping the last half of the school day. Surely not if it was for such a noble cause, right?

Then there was a loud thud, a squealing sound like skin rubbing against leather, and Reynolds’ voice; a snarl of “―you fucking whore!” as he swung his hand down―

An indistinguishable blur of color and shadow shot over the back of the booth like a bullet, slamming into Reynolds full force.

It was over in an instant. Lafayette jumped in his seat; John made a startled sound; Lee’s voice cried a sharp “Jesus!” The camera jolted, then fell still again, evening out just in time to catch the way Reynolds and his attacker tumbled over the booth, limbs and fabric and hair pinwheeling every which way.

They hit the ground, and the camera struggled to keep them in frame, jerking down to follow them and becoming an indistinct blur. When the picture came back into focus, one of the silhouettes had the other tossed over his shoulder, flailing and snarling like a wild animal. He took a few steps, then tossed his load to the ground, and the video went wild for a moment. The audio was completely consumed by static as the camera teetered side to side, zooming in and out and in again, until it finally refocused on the two figures.

One was standing, tall and sure, and the other was on the ground, back pressed against the adjacent booth. The doorway was right behind them, bathing their other side in light and turning them both into featureless blobs on the screen. But―no, Reynolds was definitely the one on the ground: otherwise, he would’ve lunged for Maria again by now.

It seemed as if the whole world was holding its collective breath; Lafayette stared at the upright figure, a faint sense of familiarity niggling at the back of his brain; the camera zoomed and refocused one last time, a brief spurt of static overtaking the audio; and then―

“Please feel free to try that again,” said Alexander, voice muffled and staticy but unmistakably his, “although I can guarantee that it will not go well for you.”

The video ended with a violent jerk of the camera and a cut-off “Holy shi―!”

For a moment, there was silence. John’s fingers went slack around Lafayette’s arm, and his jaw went even slacker. Hercules just stared, his mouth firmly shut, frozen mid-reach for the phone. Lafayette’s eyes were on the screen, but he stared at nothing in particular, numbly replaying the video in his head. Then―

“That was him,” Laf said. His voice shook, trembling with shock and disbelief, but the words were matter-of-fact; not up for debate.

More from lingering shock than uncertainty, Herc paused for a long moment before replying. “Alexander?” His voice shook, too, although not quite as much as Lafayette’s had. After a moment, he lowered his arms to his sides.

It was more of a rhetorical question than anything, but Lafayette answered it anyway. “Yes.” Raising one unsteady hand, he rewound the video to that last frame of Alexander, silhouetted against the light streaming through the glass, and paused. He was noticeably short, with long, disheveled hair, a baggy hoodie, and a familiar steel in the rigid set of his shoulders. Exactly how he’d looked when they parted ways that morning. “Yes,” Laf repeated, staring at the bedraggled tangle of his hair and the defiant jut of his chin.

The bell rang, and everyone around them groaned, gathering their belongings and tossing the contents of their lunch trays into the garbage. Lafayette didn’t move. He didn’t have to look to know that Hercules and John weren’t moving, either.

Laf took a deep, shuddering breath.

“…Hercules.”

After a moment, Herc copied him, inhaling sharply and collecting himself. “Yeah?”

“What do you have next block?”

“…Cooking.”

“Ah.” Lafayette stared at Alexander for another moment, captivated by his blurry, shadowed eyes―still fierce; still piercing, despite it all. “John?”

“Uh.” John was still staring, too, no doubt trying to make out any details he could. “College Readiness.”

“Right.” Lafayette nodded jerkily to no one but himself. “And we all have study hall together last block.”

“Yeah.”

“Uh-huh.”

Alexander’s cutting voice seemed to echo in the silence between them. Sharp. Cutting. Yet, somehow―composed. “Please feel free to try that again, although I can guarantee that it will not go well for you.”

Within ten minutes, they were piled into Lafayette’s car, abandoning John’s and Hercules’ in the student parking lot. Throwing the car in reverse, Lafayette maneuvered into the road and made for home, trying his best to keep from pressing down too hard on the gas pedal.

A quick text assured that the Schuylers would cover for them.

And, hey―it was senior skip day, anyway. Who would notice three absent juniors?

Chapter Text

As he followed George up the drive, silence hanging heavily between them, Alex quietly came to the conclusion that there was a good kind of awkward.

Of course, awkwardness was never really a good thing ― at the end of the day, it was still an uncomfortable feeling that Alex would rather avoid ― but maybe there was, at least, a tolerable form of awkwardness. Maybe “awkward” didn’t have to mean “agonizingly tense”. Maybe it didn’t have to mean “terrified and trembling as he awaited punishment”. Maybe it could just mean “slightly uncomfortable because no one really knew what to say”.

Or maybe the Washingtons were just so ridiculously good that their mere presence could make a pleasant experience out of something that would usually be unbearable.

That seemed equally likely.

A brisk autumn wind hit Alex head-on, and he shivered more from instinct than from actual cold, wrapping his arms around his midsection. George was paying just enough attention to notice the tiny motion. He glanced back at Alex with one eyebrow raised, and Alex bashfully ducked his head, cheeks heating. It wasn’t even October yet, and he had a perfectly serviceable hoodie on; it was ridiculous to be cold already.

Oddly enough, though, the knowledge that George was so finely attuned to his every movement ― so much that the man had heard him shiver from five steps ahead ― didn’t bring its usual stab of panic. Perhaps the surety of their newly-established alliance trumped his usual irrational fear of anyone older and larger than him. Or perhaps he was just too drained and detached from the situation right now to feel any strong emotions, even panic.

The latter was more likely, but he chose to believe it was the former.

They reached the front steps. In the back of his mind, Alex acknowledged that this was only his second time ever entering the Washingtons’ house, no matter how ridiculous that seemed. The past two days seemed to have passed so slowly. How was it that he’d gotten this attached already?

George didn’t quite fumble with the key as he unlocked the door, but it wasn’t an elegant movement, either, and his hands were definitely more unsteady than usual. Alex lacked the energy to frown contemplatively, but he furrowed his brow. Huh. Had something happened between the car and here? Because, in the car, George had seemed perfectly calm, even after Alex’s back-seat meltdown, and he definitely wasn’t angry ― that much had been made abundantly clear.

Once the lock was conquered, George paused, his hand loosely wrapped around the doorknob. He cleared his throat. Perhaps more sluggishly than usual, Alex snapped to attention, looking up to meet his eyes as he glanced over his shoulder. There was a hint of something in his gaze, but, whatever it was, Alex couldn’t decipher it.

After a moment, George swallowed thickly, sliding one finger under the collar of his button-up shirt and tugging at it. “I’ll stave her off as best I can,” he said slowly, a hint of genuine terror coloring his voice. “See if you can make it to the stairs. If not―” Wincing, he yanked at his collar again, then thought better of it and just undid the top button entirely. “Don’t worry about that. Just focus on getting upstairs before she stops you. If worse comes to worse, let me do the talking.” His eyes flickered over to Alex, and he cringed again. “The first time can be a bit… overwhelming.”

Alex was aware enough to know that this sort of vague but apprehensive speech would usually make him panic, but not quite aware enough to actually panic, so he just nodded dully. Tersely returning the nod, Washington readjusted his shirt one last time, took a deep breath, and put his hand back on the doorknob.

Only then did Alex really stop to think about how cryptic his orders had been ― See if you can make it? A bit overwhelming? ― but it was too late to start panicking now. George was already turning the knob, pausing for a moment as if he expected the house to explode, then hurriedly flinging the door open and ushering Alex inside.

Alex did as he was told and made a beeline for the stairs, not even bothering to take off his sneakers. “Martha, how nice to see you!” George blurted out from behind him as they both scampered over the threshold. “I hope your morning has been as lovely as you are!” He paused, then laughed uncomfortably, swinging the door shut with a loud slam. “Which ― which is very. I’m trying to ― I’m ― you’re very lovely.”

It occurred to Alex that Lafayette was right ― George really was a terrible actor. But Martha ― when had she gotten here? ― only responded with a quiet laugh. “Well, aren’t you smooth?” she teased, but she was clearly flattered. “Careful, George; you’re gonna rub off on Alex, and then where will we be? Virginia doesn’t need two charmers of your caliber running around.”

Ducking his head, Alex sped up slightly, but it was too late. Just as he reached the staircase, Martha called after him, “Alex, hold on!” He froze with one foot on the bottom stair; even from here, he could practically hear George’s heart skip a beat.

‘Damn. So close.’

Well, there was nothing for it now, unless he was supposed to disobey a direct order from Martha, which he seriously doubted. Keeping George’s advice in mind ― let me do the talking ― Alex slid his foot back onto even ground and slowly turned to face her, one hand perched uneasily on the bannister.

Martha was in the doorway on the other side of the room, but he could see her huge, disarming smile clear as day. As he met her eyes, she pushed off the door frame, ambling towards him without dropping the smile. “Don’t run off so soon,” she chided, passing George, who was frozen in place, staring after her with horrified eyes. “I want to hear about your day! How did it go?”

Alex didn’t answer ― partially because his head was still stuffed with cotton, but mostly because George had told him not to talk if he got caught and he had no idea why. Maybe, for some reason, George really didn’t want Martha to know that he’d left Alex alone at the school. Maybe he thought she would notice his emotional bankruptcy and blame him? Either way, it wouldn’t do to disobey now, so Alex just pressed his lips together, not averting his eyes but not quite meeting hers.

She was right in front of him now; close enough to reach out and touch him. “C’mon; there must be something of note,” she prompted with an almost beguiling smile. “You two were certainly gone long en…”

Martha trailed off as if she’d lost her train of thought, her eyes drifting down to scan Alex’s face. They locked onto his cheek, and her gaze abruptly sharpened into an intense stare. Alex blinked, caught off-guard. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw George wincing almost violently.

What were they freaking out about?

He was a half-second away from asking Martha what was wrong ― ‘Idiot; George said to let him do the talking.’ ― when her hand shot towards his cheek. Alex flinched just slightly on pure instinct, but Martha didn’t slap him; she just gently ran her fingers down the side of his face, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. He could practically hear the gears turning in her head.

Only then did Alex’s own brain kick into action. ‘There’s a bruise,’ he realized with a jolt as Martha took his chin into her hand, gently maneuvering his head around to get a better view of his cheek. ‘From my fight with Reynolds. That slap I jumped in front of ― it must have left a bruise.’ He had completely forgotten about that. Now that he was paying attention, it definitely ached like a bruise, but it was the least painful of his bruises at the moment, so it was barely noticeable by comparison.

‘But ― wait.’ The cobwebs lining his brain finally began to clear out, his thoughts coming through faster and less muddled. ‘Why was George so scared she would notice? Wouldn’t he just tell her anyway?’

As if he could read Alex’s mind, George cleared his throat from behind her, tentatively stepping closer. “Martha…” he began gingerly, his voice filled with a profound sort of dread that sounded strange and alien on his tongue.

The numbness hadn’t quite worn off yet, but Alex’s heart thudded a bit louder in his chest nonetheless.

‘Is he worried she’s going to punish m―?’

Before he could finish the thought, they were moving. It was so abrupt, yet strangely smooth, that Alex couldn’t pinpoint the moment they started walking. One moment, he was standing still; the next, Martha was marching into the kitchen, her hand firmly wrapped around his wrist, and he was stumbling along behind her.

She came to a screeching halt in front of the refrigerator, and Alex dug in his heels before he could run into her. Without breaking the stony silence that had overtaken them, Martha swung the freezer open and began to rifle through it. Almost as an afterthought, she released Alex’s arm, although he wasn’t dumb enough to move away. He just stood awkwardly in place as she bustled about the kitchen, staring at her with wide eyes.

Honestly, he shouldn’t have been surprised. Just because he wasn’t in trouble with George didn’t mean the same of Martha. Every couple he’d stayed with ― the Buchanans; the LeBlancs; the Dukes; the Deans; the Kelleys ― they’d all been the same in that regard. Evading the ire of one didn’t guarantee the same leniency from the other, and he was a fool to have thought otherwise. She was probably just going to punish him, he realized with a sinking feeling, but his mind was almost smug about it. ‘Of course she’s going to punish me. This is what I was waiting for all along.’

Yet, when Martha marched purposefully towards him and thrust something cold and soft onto his cheek ― not hitting him with it; just holding it there ― he still flinched, fists clenching at his sides.

“H-huh?” was his immediate reaction ― which, besides just being beyond eloquent, was also breaking George’s rule; you’re not supposed to talk, Hamilton ― and he cringed at his own stupidity. Martha, however, seemed unfazed; she just adjusted the… thing on his face until it was covering his entire cheek.

It was cold and damp, but not altogether unpleasant, and Alex stared at her, befuddled, as she fiddled with it. Was this supposed to hurt? Because it really didn’t. The center was cold and a bit rough, but it just felt nice pressed up against his tender cheek, and the rest was wrapped in cloth, so it was soft and cool against his skin. It made no sense, and he wondered, vaguely, what kind of punishment this was supposed to be―

But, after a moment, Martha muttered, “Just hold that right there, dear,” her voice impossibly soft, reaching down to guide Alex’s hand up to his cheek, and, with a sudden burst of reality, Alex understood.

Frozen peas. It was a compress. A simple cold compress made of frozen peas. She’d wrapped them in a towel, for some reason ― to make it more comfortable for me, his mind comprehended only vaguely ― but it was the same remedy he’d always used to get the swelling down when Pace or Mr. Buchanan gave him a particularly suspect bruise. At Martha’s prompting, he clumsily wrapped his fingers around the chilled bundle, and he instinctively adjusted his hold, pressing it against the center of the bruise.

Martha smiled at him encouragingly, wide and genuine, and Alex struggled to return it while simultaneously berating himself. Of course. It had been foolish to think Martha wouldn’t punish him just because George hadn’t, but the sheer idiocy of him ― how stupid did he have to be to think Martha would punish him without even asking what happened? These were the Washingtons, who gave him three meals a day; who bought him an entire arsenal of hygiene products before even meeting him; who waited up until the middle of the night to let him in, then asked him if he wanted them to heat up some leftovers. They wouldn’t jump to conclusions like that.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t still in for a beating when she learned what had happened, but Alex was definitely safe until then. And, knowing the Washingtons, it probably wouldn’t be a very harsh punishment anyway. Besides, if she let him keep the compress, then who cared what she did afterwards? Alex had a guaranteed method of treating any new bruises. That was more than he ever got at any other placement.

Soft footsteps padded up to the door, and Alex glanced over just as George leaned through, poorly-concealed apprehension on his face. He relaxed immensely when he caught sight of them, and Alex took a moment to consider and dismiss the thought that George really had expected Martha to hit him. The Washingtons weren’t just nice; they were also pretty damn smart. George wouldn’t make that kind of mistake; not like Alex had.

Martha seemed oblivious to his presence. She just briefly pulled the compress off Alex’s face and raked her eyes critically down the length of the bruise, then replaced the makeshift remedy with a displeased hum. [stopped here] It made sense; her back was turned, and she probably hadn’t heard him over the crinkling of the half-frozen plastic bag in her hands. After a moment, George raised a finger to his lips, then turned slowly and began to tiptoe back towards the door.

“George Jackson Washington, you stop right there.”

Martha’s voice was booming and frigid, yet all the more terrifying for how deathly calm it was. Everyone except for Martha herself froze in place; Alex could practically hear George’s heart sink. Dammit. So close. Again. Martha had quite the talent for thwarting them at the last moment, apparently.

As if sensing his apprehension ― or perhaps just seeing how tense his shoulders were ― Martha met Alex’s eyes and smiled again, running a placating hand across his unbruised cheek. The accompanying burst of anxiety was much fainter than usual, even taking his current numbness into account, and Alex managed a weak smile in return.

George cleared his throat from the doorway, rooted firmly in place. Immediately, the gentleness vanished from Martha’s face, leaving a stone-cold visage that Alex successfully fought the urge to flinch away from. Slowly, she turned around to face her husband, and it was easy to glean from his expression that hers hadn’t softened. His throat worked. “Martha…” he began.

Martha threw up a palm, and he immediately shut up. Taking one long stride towards him, she folded one arm tight against her chest. With the other, she held up three fingers, extending them almost aggressively, as if wielding a trident.

“Explain.” She didn’t sound quite so eerie as before, but her no-nonsense demeanor and chilly composure remained. “Three sentences or less.”

George cringed, but, to his credit, he met her with characteristic resolve, turning to face her and standing sharply at attention. His arms were tight at his sides, his back ramrod straight, and Alex wondered if this was a normal thing between them or if George was just drawing on his time in the army. Either way, George seemed used to this strange method of interrogation, and he carefully considered his words before speaking.

“Alex and I went to get lunch at Ed’s after we got his paperwork sorted out,” he began, and Martha put one finger down. He winced at the reminder and shifted his weight awkwardly. “There were two kids, a brother and sister, at the booth next to ours ― I’m going somewhere with this, I promise ― they were in the booth next to ours, and they eventually started arguing, and then the brother shoved his sister into the booth pretty hard.”

Martha’s eyes narrowed suspiciously as her second-to-last finger curled in, leaving only one up. “Wrap it up,” she warned.

George smiled sheepishly. “I am, I am. So he went to smack her, but Alex kind of…” He swallowed thickly, then renewed his cautious smile. “…jumped over the booth and intercepted it… and then pulled him off of her and told him to get lost.”

For a long moment, there was no response. Martha just stared at him wordlessly, unmoving. She didn’t even put down her last finger. She just stared, as if George had just told her that magical flying giants existed.

“So… that’s why his cheek is bruised,” George concluded awkwardly, hands fidgeting slightly at his sides as he averted his gaze. “Because they sort of… brawled.” After a moment, his eyes widened, and he immediately met Martha’s gaze again, leaning forward. “But ― but he didn’t do anything stupid!” he hastily cleared up, apparently more than willing to exploit the fact that Martha was still too stunned to enforce her ‘three sentences or less’ rule. “I mean, he really just dragged that guy off of her, and that’s it. He didn’t fight or anything ― the other boy fought back, but Alex himself didn’t―”

“George,” Martha interrupted, and he fell silent immediately. After a moment, she slowly lowered her finger, curling her hand into a tight fist. A long silence followed, but neither George nor Alex was brave enough to break it.

Martha took a deep, steadying breath. “Let me get this straight.” For once, her usually expressive voice was flat and dull. “Some boy was beating on his sister. And he ended up beating on Alex instead.”

George flinched. “I ― I’m not sure I’d put it like that―”

“George.” Though it lacked inflection completely, Martha somehow managed to make her voice just as frigid and intimidating as ever. “Don’t. It’s not a deep question. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer will suffice.”

For a moment, George didn’t answer. Then, slowly letting out a breath, he slumped down as if he’d been defeated in some massive game. “Yes,” he admitted, and Alex could hear Martha’s breath hitch.

Slowly, Alex looked between the two. “…Um?” he ventured after a moment when no reaction seemed forthcoming from either adult. “George? Martha?” Swallowing thickly, he worried his lower lip between his teeth. “…What’s wrong?” George had basically just reaffirmed something he’d already said ― why had Martha reacted so strangely? And why was George acting like her strange reaction was the end of the world?

A long moment passed in silence. Then, with a shaky sigh, George turned his head,  peering over Martha’s shoulder and meeting Alex’s gaze. Something in his eyes was deeply guilty. The realization very nearly reignited Alex’s panic.

“I’m so sorry, son,” George whispered.

With that, the spell was broken, and Martha was upon him.

One second, she was a few paces away, still as a statue; then, abruptly, she was right in front of him, so close he could count her eyelashes, and Alex reeled. He didn’t have time to pull away, though, before she gripped his shoulders tightly in both hands. Thoughtlessly, Alex jerked against her grip ― ‘Idiot; you know that won’t accomplish anything,’ his mind hissed ― but she didn’t relent, pushing him insistently through the kitchen. His feet tangled underneath him as he stumbled backwards, trying to match her pace as she steered him through the room.

Okay, there it was. Now Martha was pissed off. Judging by George’s obvious guilt, probably incredibly pissed off. Judging by the fact that she was manhandling him, her hands nowhere near tight enough to hurt but definitely tight enough to restrain, Martha was pissed off beyond belief. Okay. Maybe this punishment would be worse than he’d anticipated, the Washingtons’ inherent lenience notwithstanding.

A strange cocktail of apathy and adrenaline overtook Alex, and he cringed as his vision went dim and his chest pulsed in protest, unused to so many rapid mood swings in one day. It didn’t help that Martha was still half-dragging him through the room, and he had no idea where they were going.

With one final shove, he lost his footing entirely ― but Martha didn’t let him fall; she plunked him down in what felt like a wooden chair. Her hands remained on his shoulders for a minute, making sure he didn’t slide out of his seat, before she let go. ‘Huh.’ Alex’s heart was beating fast, but his mind was still sluggish and unconcerned. ‘How thoughtful.’

Martha turned on her heel and shot back towards the fridge, but Alex couldn’t see what she was doing; his vision was fading rapidly in and out; his body wasn’t meant to withstand five adrenaline rushes in one day, and his chest ached. ‘God,’ some part of him shrieked in the back of his mind, high and panicked, ‘George tried to back me up, but even he couldn’t sugarcoat what happened enough to get me off the hook ― God, she’s so mad ― shit, shit, shit―’

Her back was turned and her focus diverted; it would have been so easy to use this opportunity to flee, as the frantic instincts in the back of his mind were urging him to do. But, with weary resolve borne of having seen it all, Alex set his shoulders and resigned himself to his fate, whatever that fate may be. His time here so far had already established that the Washingtons were nigh-angelic in their kindness, with patience to match. So, if Martha thought he deserved punishment, he probably did. At the very least, he could accept her discipline with grace.

His vision flickered again, and Martha seemed to appear out of nowhere, looming close, her face flushed dark with anger. Her mouth was moving, but he couldn’t quite hear the words; his heartbeat was too loud, and the noises around him seemed to blend together in his ears. Something pressed against his unbruised cheek, hot and damp ― her palm ― and he mechanically pulled the compress away from his face, assuming she would want access to both, although he couldn’t tell you why she would.

He was wrong, of course; the instant the peas left his face, Martha shook her head rapidly, and her hand peeled off of Alex’s face to wrap around his wrist, urging it back up. ‘Nice going, moron,’ his mind sneered, but he ignored it entirely, replacing the compress; there was no reason to anger her further, and it was best to avoid a noticeable bruise; the last thing he wanted was to place the Washingtons under any scrutiny.

But surely he couldn’t keep the peas with him for long; not if he was going to be punished. They would just get in the way. Martha would probably tell him when she wanted them back, he decided, so there was no use worrying ― and then he realized, very suddenly, that she was still talking and he hadn’t heard a word of it. Damn ― she was probably giving orders; either telling him what to do in preparation for punishment or telling him not to come down for dinner that night or something, and now she would have to repeat herself, and he was already in hot water with her―

Hastily, he refocused, trying to listen to her, but he still couldn’t hear her; the buzzing of the refrigerator and the rhythmic whoosh of his breath and tha-thump of his heart were deafening in his ears, drowning out her voice almost entirely. He had to listen, but he couldn’t, and his eyes darted up to her face in some futile attempt to read her lips, even though he knew it was pointless. She was still furious ― surprise surprise ― with her eyes wide and her teeth bared as she leaned into his space, shouting and shaking and―

Crying.

Alex’s lids were heavy, but they opened themselves wide. The light stung.

Martha was crying.

He could barely see or hear her with his vision blurry and his ears ringing, but it was so obvious now that he was paying attention. Her face was dyed pink ― with anger, he had assumed, but this was the puffy pink that came with tears ― and her eyes were wide ― with outrage, he had assumed, but her eyebrows were sky-high and something wet and clear was glimmering on her face ― and her lips were moving at lightning speed ― shouting at him, he had assumed, but he strained to catch a snippet of the words she was saying past the cacophony in his ears, and he heard “...ey, I’m so proud of you―” and ― what?

Abruptly, the white noise around him vanished, his heart falling still, his breath frozen in his lungs, and Martha’s voice filled the sudden silence. “I can’t believe you did that, sweetheart ― why, if you had gotten hurt ― oh, but you did! ― Honey, your face ― that must be painful; I’m so sorry―”

She interrupted herself just long enough to thrust a bottle of Ibuprofen into Alex’s lap, then immediately flitted away, wringing her hands anxiously. “I’ll get you some water ― no, would you prefer juice? ― of course not; what am I saying? ― I’ll make coffee ― oh, and you never got to eat lunch! You must be starving, dear ― don’t worry; George will make you something, won’t you, dear? ― My Lord, I can hardly believe it! My son, treated like that! ― I’ve half a mind to find that boy and tear him limb from limb ― what do you want, darling; we have plenty of options ― no, no, you don’t have to answer; I’ll make something nutritious ― you’ll need something to replenish you after that fight, I’d imagine! ― George, don’t just stand there! Make yourself useful!…”

Alex was fairly certain she hadn’t heard a single word out of her own mouth. After a moment of zipping around the kitchen, she returned with not water, juice, or coffee, but instead a yellow can. “Don’t take more than two of those pills, dear,” was all she said as she dropped it, too, into his lap. Alex glanced down at it dumbly, his vision still swimming. ‘Lemonade,’ some distant part of him acknowledged as his heart rebooted itself, pumping softly in his aching chest.

She wasn’t ― she wasn’t going to ― ?

Even with the renewed thrumming of his own pulse, Alex could easily hear George mutter, “Honey, he’s fine. I’m sure he appreciates your concern, but don’t stifle him.”

Martha was having none of it. “Our child, George!” she shrieked, and Alex heard pans clattering together. “Thrown around by some lowlife!” Alex glanced up, but he still couldn’t make them out; his ears may have recovered from their temporary failure, but his eyes hadn’t gotten the memo yet. He still couldn’t see; he was vulnerable to the extreme ― defenseless against George and Martha both ― but no one was taking advantage of that, and he didn’t understand―

“Why, if I knew who that boy was, I’ll tell you what I’d do,” Martha snarled, her voice cutting through the ruckus of metal-on-metal; “I’d take him by the ear and escort that young man out of this life, understand?!”

And Alex understood.

Martha was angry, but not at him. She was angry at Reynolds. Well, of course she was angry at Reynolds ― the kid had tried to beat his own sister; anyone would be pissed at him ― but there was something else there, too. It wasn’t just righteous indignation; it was backed by something warm and fiercely protective, and Alex could’ve sobbed in relief if he wasn’t too busy wrestling his heart back into his chest.

My son, treated like that!

Our child, George! Thrown around by some lowlife!

I’m happy to spend however much time it takes to get my kid enrolled, okay?

He wasn’t their son. He wasn’t their son. But, even though he wasn’t their son and he knew he wasn’t ― his heart swelled. Barely two days he’d been with the Washingtons, and here they were. He wasn’t their son, and some bitter part of him buried deep in his chest was snarling in anger, because only Mom got to call him that, and Mom was dead. But, even though he’d fought with Reynolds and his hoodie was unwashed and he wasn’t their son, they were still here, and Martha had given him the peas, and George had called them friends, and the lemonade was cold against his leg.

The wave of feeling that hit him wasn’t even numbness anymore; it was exhaustion, plain and simple. Breath fleeing him in a sort of choked sigh, Alexander slumped over bonelessly in his chair, eyes slipping shut. The cold compress slid out of his limp fingers and landed on the seat of the chair with a thwump.

Martha’s reaction was immediate. “Alex, are you okay, dear?” she fretted; in an instant, she’d crossed the room again, and her hand was an unexpected but not unwelcome weight on Alex’s cheek. “Oh, the swelling hasn’t even started to go down, honey,” she chided softly. Much of her manic energy seemed to have fled her, and Alex took a second to be glad for it as she carefully picked the compress up and pressed it back against his face. It was much colder now, the towel damp and chilled. A single drop of condensation landed on Alex’s cheek with a plop and meandered its way down to his chin.

‘Get yourself together, Hamilton. You’re fine.’

Once his heart had settled back into place, he forced his eyelids open despite how heavy they seemed all of a sudden. His vision was still unsteady, but he could make out vague blurs that he presumed were George and Martha. After a few blinks, his eyes cleared a bit, and their concerned faces swam into view.

“Alex?” It was George this time; he was behind Martha, obviously trying to give them space but unable to stop himself from hovering. “Are you alright, s ― kiddo?”

A smile threatened to cross Alex’s face, but his exhaustion ultimately stifled it. Kiddo was patronizing, sure, but not nearly as bad as son. And, either way, George was making such a genuine effort that it was impossible not to be charmed. Damn. This family had sucked him in fast. ‘So did the LeBlancs,’ his mind pointed out, but he didn’t even have the energy left to panic at the realization. The Washingtons were nothing like the LeBlancs; that much had been made abundantly clear.

It was only when Martha placed her free hand across his forehead that he realized he still hadn’t answered George’s question. Absently shaking her hand off, he groped blindly for the bottle of Ibuprofen and can of lemonade, carefully scooping them back into his lap. “I’m fine,” he reassured, although he doubted his groggy voice alleviated their fears very much.

The pills and lemonade were snatched from him, the compress landing heavily on his leg, and Alex blinked, slowly lowering his head to stare at his now-empty lap in bewilderment. It took him a good five seconds to make the connection and look back up; at that point, Martha had already conquered the child-proof cap and shook two red pills into the palm of her hand. Her wild, aimless worry had apparently faded, and she was back to looking remarkably on top of things.

“Here,” she said simply, depositing the pills into his open hand and pushing his fingers shut around them. Then, opening the can of lemonade and offering him that as well, she added, “You must be tired. After you take that medicine, why don’t you scoot upstairs and take a nap?”

It was unmistakably a command, but her eyes were so gentle that it felt more like a humble request. Again, Alex felt a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth, but he didn’t let it take root. Instead, he blankly popped the pills into his mouth and chased them down with a gulp of lemonade. “Okay,” was all he said out loud. A nap didn’t sound particularly inviting, but it was probably a good idea.

When he made to stagger onto his feet, George and Martha switched places so smoothly that he didn’t notice until George was already helping him up. Alex glanced up at him, befuddled, but allowed himself to be gently lifted upright, too preoccupied to notice or care that the hands on his waist felt remarkably like LeBlanc’s.

Withdrawing his hands, George met his gaze evenly, but, for once, Alex was too detached to be intimidated. “Let me see you to your room,” he said softly. “I won’t come in ― I won’t touch you, either, if you prefer. I just need to make sure that you make it upstairs alright.”

It was a gentle request, cleverly disguised as a command. Affection welled up in his chest, and, this time, Alex really did smile. It was a tiny, strained smile, and his lips felt stiff and unnatural, but, when George returned it with one of his own, it almost felt like progress.

My kid, George had said.

He wasn’t George’s son. He wasn’t Martha’s son, either. Hell, he wasn’t even his father’s son; no, James Hamilton Sr. had lost the right to call him that the day he left. Alexander was his mother’s son, and his mother was dead.

He wasn’t the Washingtons’ son. But maybe, for now, he could be their kid.

That wouldn’t be so bad.

“Sure,” Alex said after a moment, nodding jerkily. He retreated even as he said it, sliding away from George and putting the chair between them, but he kept his posture loose. “I… I’m not…” He gestured vaguely, then abandoned the sentence, not sure where he’d been going with it. “No help necessary. But… you can walk with me. If you want.” He tried another smile. This one was marginally more successful.

At a safe distance, he didn’t dare add. You can follow at a safe distance.

Apparently, George got the message. With an understanding smile, he took two large strides back, giving Alex a clear path to the parlor. Alex smiled weakly in thanks. A mixture of faded adrenaline and pain had weakened his knees almost to the point of buckling underneath him, and just swerving to avoid George seemed a herculean task. Quietly grateful that he had a friend accompanying him to make sure he made it up the stairs, Alex shuffled forward, pushing the door open and shouldering through it into the parlor.

George followed behind him, keeping a good few feet between them, and Alex silently wished he’d taken the lead. Not only did Alex have only a basic idea of where he was going, but he really, really didn’t want George to notice the way his legs were trembling under his weight, as if they were ready to give at the slightest provocation. That would raise questions that he simply couldn’t answer.

“Alex!” Martha called when he was halfway to the stairs, and he stopped short. Like magic, she appeared in front of him, her footsteps muffled by the soft carpet beneath them. “Don’t forget this, sweetie,” she said, holding out the bundle of peas. “That might bruise something awful if you don’t take care of it.”

Well aware that it would bruise no matter what, Alex nodded nevertheless and dutifully took the proffered compress, replacing it against his cheek. “Thank you, Mrs. ― Martha,” he corrected himself before he could finish.

She beamed like she’d just won the lottery. “No problem, dear. I’m just glad―”

Slam.

“―you aren’t hurt worse! Things really could’ve been…” Martha continued, even as Alex jumped in place, peas jostling on his cheek. Only when his head snapped to the side did she seem to notice anything wrong. “What?” she asked, bemused, as he stared at the door. “What’s the matter?”

Brow furrowing, Alex squinted at the door, as if expecting it to burst open at any second. “I… I thought I heard something,” he explained after a long moment, shifting uneasily in place. “A door.”

It was the very distinctive sound of a door, except it was far too quiet to have come from inside the house, and far too loud to be one of the neighbors. Alex tilted his head to the side, worrying his lip. Had he imagined it? …No; there was another one ― slam ― and one more ― slam ― slightly quieter, but still that same distinct sound.

“I didn’t hear anything,” George offered from behind him. His voice almost drowned out the quiet chi-chirp of a car being locked and tap-tap-tap of hasty footsteps. “Maybe you’re imagining…” He trailed off. The footsteps were getting louder and louder; Alex would be surprised if the Washingtons still couldn’t hear them.

Then there was one loud thump and a shrill creak as someone hopped onto the porch ― by the sound of it, skipping the steps entirely ― and Alex flinched. At this point, he hadn’t nearly enough energy left to tense up, but he did take a cautious step backwards as a key audibly jingled in the lock and the door swung open.

Thanks to years of bad experiences, Alex identified Lafayette the instant he stepped over the threshold ― although he didn’t step so much as he shot over the threshold like a bullet, screeching to a halt in the middle of the parlor and looking around frantically. Within seconds, he’d caught sight of Alex, who barely had time to acknowledge the deja vu as it struck him. His only warning was a loud shriek of “Alexandre!” before Lafayette rocketed towards him at top speed.

In the instants before Lafayette was upon him, Alex caught a glimpse of someone else stepping through the door, but he didn’t have nearly enough time to actually absorb the information. Laf didn’t exactly barrel into him, but it was a close thing; his arms snapped shut around Alex’s scrawny torso and he lifted the much smaller teen off the ground completely, spinning him around in a circle like the love interest from some sappy romance flick. “Alexandre!” he repeated, his voice heavy-laden with both fear and relief.

Even if he’d known what to say, Alex couldn’t have said it. Lafayette had been as gentle as one could while practically tackling someone into a hug, but, at this point, Alex’s chest was one big bruise ― mostly thanks to Pace, although Reynolds had gotten a few good hits in while slung over his shoulders ― and it was inevitable that Laf’s shoulder would press against a sore spot. Alex managed to keep himself from hissing in pain, but he couldn’t help but go rigid in Laf’s arms, and Laf followed suit, freezing in place.

Just like that, the embrace was over. Depositing Alex back onto his feet as quickly as he could without being too rough, Lafayette retreated just enough to put a reasonable gap between them, although his hands stayed on Alex’s shoulders. “Shit; I’m so sorry, Alex; I forgot you didn’t like to be touched,” he gasped out, his French lightning-fast, and Alex was suddenly grateful that he’d never let himself get rusty with any of his languages. “Are you alright? Not with the hug ― well, that too, I guess ― but, physically, are you hurt? Ah, my friend, what happened to your eye?!”

His hand darted forward to grab the bag of peas, which had been shoved up almost to Alex’s forehead during the impromptu hug. As he peeled it away, leaning forward to scrutinize Alex’s face in search of a black eye, Alex’s vision swam back into focus, ice water dripping off his lashes. Lafayette’s eyes were wide and frantic, his movements sharp and quick. Concern practically emanated off of him.

There was no way school could be over yet.

Naturally, Lafayette couldn’t find a black eye, but he did spot the almost-bruise still forming on Alex’s cheek, and his indignant gasp could’ve killed a man from anger alone. “The next time I see that no-good bastard, I’ll bruise him up so bad his own sister won’t recognize him!” he vowed, rage burning bright in his eyes, but he met Alex’s gaze and the fire was banked so quickly that it might as well have never been there. “My friend, are you okay?” he repeated, pushing Alex’s hand back into place. The peas no longer felt cold against his cheek. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

Finally, he paused to allow an answer, but Alex’s tongue felt strange and unwieldy in his mouth. Faintly, he recognized that, underneath the layers of fatigue, some part of him was still trying to panic over the close proximity. He dismissed the panic with ease, allowing it to fade into another coat of exhaustion.

“For one day,” he eventually ground out, listing to the side, but hastily righting himself. Then, realizing he’d left off the first part of the thought, he cleared his throat and finished, “Too much excitement. For one day.”

Lafayette frowned, seizing his lip between his teeth ― ‘Guess I’m not the only one with that habit.’ ― and Alex shook his head. “I’ll be fine,” he reassured, and he wasn’t sure what compelled him to do it, but he reached forward and touched Lafayette’s shoulder ― a bit awkwardly ― with just his fingertips. “Promise.”

George chose that moment to clear his throat, stepping towards them. “Not to cheapen the moment,” he said dryly, “but why are you three here?” Crossing his arms over his chest, he glared at Lafayette sternly, but not unkindly. “Specifically, why are you here a good two hours before the end of the school day?”

Then someone ― neither George nor Martha ― coughed awkwardly from behind them, and Alex thoughtlessly turned his head towards the new voice as they muttered, “We just wanted to make sure everybody was okay.”

‘Oh.’

Halfway through the parlor, hovering awkwardly beyond Lafayette, were two boys his age. More importantly: two boys Lafayette’s age, both with backpacks slung over their shoulders, and neither of whom seemed too uncomfortable with George’s questions.

‘John Laurens and Hercules Mulligan,’ his brain supplied flatly, although, really, they could’ve been anyone.

The one who’d spoken already cleared his throat, and Alex’s eyes landed on him. He was all lean muscle, but only a bit taller than Alex himself, with dark, curly hair pulled into a low ponytail and a truly incredible amount of freckles splattered across his face. “We weren’t sure if Reynolds did any real damage, so we kinda… bailed after lunch,” he admitted, his drawl nervous but smooth. The sheepish grin on his face and open warmth in his eyes were a stark contrast to the flippant “Don’t hate us cause you ain’t us” shirt half-hidden behind his unzipped bomber jacket.

“You ― Reynolds? James Rey ― wait ― how on earth did you hear about that?” George demanded, more than a little bewildered. Immediately, Lafayette whipped out his phone, finally letting go of Alex’s shoulders. As he swiped through it rapidly, the other boy cleared his throat, and Alex’s eyes flickered over to him.

This one was much taller than the first, with broad shoulders and very impressive musculature that might’ve been intimidating if Alex hadn’t lost the capacity to be intimidated three adrenaline rushes ago. His short hair was covered with a beanie, and his wardrobe looked like it could’ve been done by a professional; all cool, dark tones that complemented his cool, dark skin beautifully. “Laf got a text from Lee,” he explained. His voice was deep, every inflection pronounced. “He didn’t really say much about what actually happened, but he did send a video.”

As he spoke, Lafayette handed his phone to George, who took it gingerly with both hands, squinting at the screen. “The video ends very abruptly, and we were not sure what happened afterwards,” he said. As George tapped at the screen with his thumb, Laf cringed, ducking his head bashfully and wringing his hands. “I… I apologize for skipping class. I just… I needed to know that Alexander was alright.”

And ― okay, Alex had not anticipated that, nor had he anticipated the wave of gratitude that crashed over him. It was heartwarming to know that Lafayette cared about him so much, even after such a short time.

Were it not for his aversion to touch, he would’ve hugged Lafayette just for that. As it was, he had to settle for stepping forward and grabbing his hand to get his attention.

Laf glanced over at him, eyes wide, and all of Alex’s elaborate words vanished as quickly as they’d appeared. “Merci,” was all he said in the end, his voice hoarse and unsure. After that he was forced to look away, unable to bear the weight of Laf’s gaze anymore. He just hoped that the sincerity of the message would make up for its brevity.

A moment passed. George glanced between Alex and Lafayette, absorbing the emotions on their faces, then sighed heavily. All four teens turned to look at him with wide, pleading eyes as he bent his head, rubbing his forehead in exasperation.

“...Under the circumstances,” he said slowly, “I probably would’ve done the same thing. And… I imagine Alex could use the company after such an eventful day.”

Lifting his head, he shot the four boys a weary smile. “Gilbert, you aren’t in trouble. John, Hercules; I’m not going to tell your parents. Just…” His smile became a bit strained, and he sighed again. “Try not to make a habit of it. School is important, senior skip day or no, and I don’t want any of you getting on Principal Adams’ bad side… well, more than you already are.” He paused, then huffed out an almost-laugh. “Besides, you three ought to know that I’m a terrible liar. If I have to cover for you every time, you’ll get caught very quickly.”

With that, he nodded tersely and stepped back, his lecture concluded. Before anyone else could respond, though, Martha strode forward to take his place, her eyes glinting with mischief.

“Just so you boys know,” she said, “George may be a bad liar, but I’m excellent at it.” A fleeting grin crossed her face. “So, in case you do make a habit of it, you know who to come to.”

As easy as that, the tense atmosphere melted away, and Lafayette gave an appreciatory whoop. George rolled his eyes, muttering something like “Don’t encourage them, dear,” under his breath, but he was smiling. With a small smile of his own, Alex wondered if Lafayette’s mood-lifting skills came from Martha, because they were both pretty damn good at it. George’s influence was everywhere in Lafayette, from the self-assured way he held himself to his habit of grabbing people’s shoulders, but sometimes Alex could see bits and pieces of Martha shining through.

Funnily enough, it was at that very moment that Lafayette grabbed his hand and began to drag him into the center of the room, much as Martha had earlier. “Come, Alexandre,” he called over his shoulder; “you must meet John and Hercules!”

Alex was more than happy to oblige, but, before they could get too far, Martha barked a sharp “Hold on, boys!” and they both stopped short, turning to look at her. Her hands were on her hips, but she wasn’t even trying to keep her face stern. “Alexander,” she reminded, much more gently, “weren’t you going to take a nap?”

Alex blinked. Oh yeah ― he’d forgotten about that. And, to be honest, the thought didn’t really appeal to him anymore. He was still tired, mind you, but Lafayette’s enthusiasm must’ve been infectious, because he was much more interested in meeting John and Hercules than going to sleep. Especially since it would be more than a little rude to go take a nap when these people had skipped school and risked George’s ire to come make sure he was okay.

Everyone was looking at him now, awaiting his response, and he fidgeted a bit, uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t want to be rude,” he started.

Lafayette immediately cut him off. “No, no!” he exclaimed, shaking his head vigorously. His bun bounced atop his head. “Nonsense!”

“Seriously, man,” the shorter boy agreed, ambling up to stand at Laf’s side, “don’t stay on our account. We’re not as exciting as Laf probably made us out to be.” Lafayette made a quiet noise of protest, but didn’t interrupt. Rolling his eyes, the boy smiled, wide and genuine, and Alex quickly averted his eyes before he could involuntarily smile back. “That fight looked pretty draining. If you’re tired, you should rest.”

“Definitely.” It was the taller boy, now; he rounded the trio to stand on Laf’s other side, then shot Alex a concerned look to rival even Martha’s. “It’s really important to rest up after a fight. We can wait.” He shot Laf an amused look. “And Laf probably was overhyping us. He does that a lot,” he teased, elbowing Lafayette in the side.

It was honestly impressive how at-ease they looked standing side-by-side; Alex could practically taste their effortless camaraderie. Their vehemence that he get some rest was also… touching, to say the least, but it only strengthened Alex’s resolve. “No, I’m not really that tired anymore,” he said semi-honestly, fidgeting with the edge of his hoodie.

Lafayette frowned. “Mon ami, that looked like quite a tussle,” he said slowly.

Alex blinked. “What? No, I―” He paused, shaking his head with a frustrated noise. “I’m ― it wasn’t bad. No new bruises, except this one,” he said, jabbing his thumb towards his swollen cheek. That was a bit of a fib, but he honestly couldn’t tell which of the bruises on his chest were from Pace and which were from Reynolds, and if they didn’t hurt enough to stand out, they didn’t count. “I’m not tired,” he repeated firmly, even though he knew how juvenile that sounded. “I mean… I’m tired, but… not sleep-tired.”

He hadn’t expected them to have no idea what he meant, but he hadn’t expected a series of commiserating noises, either. “Yeah, I get that,” the shorter boy said, nodding sagely; the other two mirrored his nods and sent Alex sympathetic looks. “Maybe we can, like… go to the back room and relax or something?”

Lafayette gasped excitedly. “Excellent idea! John, you are a genius!” he proclaimed, clapping his hands together decisively. “We will all go to the back room, oui, Alex?”

Ah ― then the shorter one was John, and the taller one was Hercules. “Sure,” Alex answered simply, watching George and Martha discreetly sneak up the stairs from the corner of his eye. “Let’s go, then.” He didn’t bother adding, ‘I have no idea what you’re proposing or what it will entail, so I’m just agreeing out of my blind trust for you that I’m pretty sure will come back to bite me in the ass at some point.’

Laf grinned, his usual exuberance finally wiping the solemn look off his face. “Great! Then let’s go!” He turned on his heel and started walking towards the dining room, then did another perfect 180 and strode right back towards Alex, frowning. “But what should we do once this has thawed?” he fretted, once again pulling the compress away from Alex’s face to survey the bruise.

Alex didn’t bother pointing out that he might not need a second compress if people would stop taking away the first one. “If the swelling hasn’t subsided, you just towel off any condensation and reapply another compress to the same spot,” he recited absently, nudging Lafayette’s hand aside and pushing the peas back onto his cheek. “And you only apply the compress for twenty minutes at a time, anyway.” The first twenty minutes was probably almost up by now, anyway ― although, given how many times the compress had been snatched away from him, who knew?

Peeking over Lafayette’s shoulder, John raised an eyebrow with an incredulous grin. “Woah. Okay. Did you, like, memorize the back of a cold pack or something?” he teased. Then, eyes widening with some sudden realization, he made a surprised sound at the back of his throat and shrugged out of his backpack, dropping it unceremoniously to the ground.

“Jean, be nice,” Lafayette chided distantly, but his focus was on Alex; he didn’t notice that John was too busy digging through his bag to be paying attention. With a contemplative frown, Laf peeked once again at the underside of the cold compress, but hastily replaced it before Alex could snatch it back. “We have no more peas in the freezer, I do not think. Ice cubes will maybe work?”

Before Alex could respond, John surged to his feet and thrust his hand forward. “I’ve got InstaKools!” he shouted triumphantly, a huge grin crossing his face.

Laf recoiled in surprise, automatically latching onto Alex’s shoulders. “Insta-quelle?” he demanded after a moment, letting go of Alex with an apologetic glance.

“Insta-Kool,” John corrected, brandishing a handful of white plastic packets in Lafayette’s direction. They’re cold packs! You squeeze ‘em, and there’s a chemical reaction, and then they’re cold!” With his other hand, he pulled a small cardboard box of the packets out of his backpack. “We can use them if y’all are outta peas.” With that, he grinned brightly, clearly pleased with himself.

No one responded. After a few long seconds, John coughed uncomfortably, his smile flickering and fading. “I mean, they don’t last as long, but they’re also, like, way more comfy than a bag of ice cubes,” he offered awkwardly with a half-hearted smile. Still, Lafayette just stared at him.

Another cough. His cheeks were dusted pink. “I mean, you don’t have to use them―”

“Jean,” Lafayette interrupted, “this is very good. You have my thanks. But I must wonder.” Slowly, he quirked one eyebrow, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Why do you keep cold compresses in your bag?”

John’s eyes went wide and his body went rigid, the exact definition of ‘kid with his hand in the cookie jar’. Or perhaps ‘deer in the headlights’ was a more apt description. “Oh,” he whispered. His cheeks were more crimson than pink now. “Uh.”

Alex glanced warily between the two. He wasn’t really worried anything would happen, but the tension between them was a bit too familiar. It was the same tension that always crackled between Alex and Ms. Muller when he was inevitably removed from whatever hellhole placement he’d gotten himself into this time. He wasn’t sure how to interpret it.

Before anything could happen, though, the taller boy ― Hercules, it must be ― cackled, lifting the heavy atmosphere almost immediately. “Ooooh, busted!” he snickered, ignoring the betrayed look that John sent him.

Lafayette clicked his tongue in disapproval. His grin ruined the effect. “Tsk, tsk, Jean. Are you so keen to start a fight, or can you simply not keep your thoughts to yourself?” Hercules snorted, shooting him a clear ‘like you’re one to talk’ look; Laf studiously ignored him. “Truly shameful. You embarrass me, mon ami.”

Alex blinked. So they just thought John got into a lot of fights? That seemed… incongruous with the mood. But, hey; he was no expert on John Laurens. If Laf and Hercules, his best friends, thought that was it, then that was probably it.

Lafayette shook his head. “Ah, but perhaps this is something I already knew,” he said lightly, but his face was a bit more serious as he added, “You would not be our Jean if you were not so prickly, non? Just try not to get too hurt over something silly.”

An indecipherable look crossed John’s face for a split second ― then he ducked his head with a sheepish grin. “You got it, Laffy Taffy,” he promised, and, just like that, the moment was over.

It felt like an imperfect conclusion, somehow.

But Alex wasn’t given the time to linger on that. Lafayette clapped his hands again, dismissing the matter, and immediately turned to Alex. “But where are my manners?” he demanded, beaming so brightly that Alex was nearly blinded. “I have not even introduced you to John and Hercules yet.”

Alex blinked, then furrowed his brow. Huh. Lafayette was right; none of them had actually introduced themselves. In the heat of the moment, it was easy to forget, he supposed; especially in such strange circumstances as these. Still, it didn’t really matter; any further introductions would be pointless now. They’d already learned each other’s names.

He opened his mouth to say as much, but John beat him to the punch. “I’m pretty sure we all know each other’s names by now, Laf,” he pointed out with a fond smile. As Lafayette huffed indignantly, his eyes flickered over to land on Alex, warm and welcoming, and his smile widened. Dropping the box of cold packs back into his bag, he stepped forward, placing himself directly in front of Alex.

“Hi,” he said, sticking out a hand for Alex to shake and utterly ignoring his own words from earlier. “My name’s John Laurens. Most people just call me Laurens.”

He wasn’t particularly close, but all his freckles were visible from this distance, and Alex was momentarily stunned by the sheer number of them. “Alexander Hamilton,” he replied distractedly after a moment, sliding his hand into John’s and giving a firm shake. Then he stuck his foot firmly in his mouth, and instead of saying “Nice to meet you” he blurted out, “I like your freckles.”

Laurens’ eyes widened, and he froze mid-handshake, lips parting in a quiet “Oh.” Before Alex could kick himself for ruining the moment, though, a wide grin spread across his face. “Oh! Uh, thank you!” he stammered. After a moment, he composed himself, his easy smile slipping back on, although his cheeks were a bit darker than before. “I, uh ― I grew them myself.”

Hercules snorted, but Lafayette just let out an exasperated huff, leaning forward to peer over Laurens’ shoulder. “John, I was going to introduce you,” he whined.

John just rolled his eyes, letting go of Alex’s hand and taking a half-step back. “You already practically did,” he muttered with a joking grin. “Seriously. You ranted about Alex for, like, thirty minutes, and I’m willing to bet you went on about us for twice as long.”

Alex wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or concerned that Lafayette could talk about him for thirty minutes after knowing him for a day. Either way, he just grinned apologetically when Laf shot him a pleading look. “He’s not wrong.” Laf’s rant about John and Hercules yesterday had probably lasted at least an hour.

Lafayette just sighed, crossing his arms against his chest. “Fine,” he snapped. “Be that way. I will simply have to introduce Hercules twice as well as I normally―”

Hercules interrupted him with a swift shake of his head, reaching forward to place a palm flat against Lafayette’s chest. “Hold up, Laf,” he said with a false air of arrogance. “You know I can’t let you do that.”

As Laurens groaned dramatically, dropping his head into his hands with a muttered “Not again,” Hercules stepped forward with a huge smirk. Fortunately, he came to a stop at Alex’s side instead of standing across from him, so Alex could still see both Lafayette and Laurens without craning his head. Nevertheless, Alex couldn’t help but shrink back slightly as Hercules grinned down at him.

“I’m Hercules Mulligan,” he said, his voice enthusiastic and booming, “and I need no introduction!” With that, he stuck out his hand for a shake.

What Alex meant to say was “I’m Alexander Hamilton; it’s nice to meet you.” It was a little bland, and very unassuming, but it was really the only safe choice. No one in the world could mistake that for sass. But, as he stared up at Hercules, blinking owlishly, Alex felt his jaw unhinge, and what he really said was “That is an introduction.”

Hercules’ smile vanished, and his eyebrows raised. “Huh?” he replied.

At this point, Alex had already caught his mistake ― but, like always, he couldn’t stop himself now that he was going. “That’s a self-contradictory statement,” he elaborated, even as his rational side screamed at him to shut his mouth. “You said that you need no introduction, but you said it right after you introduced yourself. That is an introduction.” He tilted his head to the side. “Although, to be fair, I knew who you were before you said it, so you were technically correct; you didn’t need an introduction. But you gave me one anyway, which is where you contradicted yourself.”

For a very brief moment, Hercules just blinked down at him, but Alex didn’t even have the time to start panicking before Hercules guffawed, his face splitting into an even bigger grin. “I like this kid!” he declared, lifting his hand into the air ― and bringing it down onto Alex’s back.

Alex had the time to realize exactly three things before impact.

One: This was a friendly gesture; nothing more, and nothing less. Hercules wasn’t trying to hurt him or even aware that this could hurt him; he was just slapping him on the back, probably because he thought Alex’s analysis was funny rather than irritating.

Two: Hercules may not have anticipated the results, but the action was clearly measured. He was carefully not using his full strength; it was evident in the way he swung his arm. He simply hadn’t taken into account Alex’s meager frame or the way his legs were weak and shaky underneath him.

Three: This was going to be very difficult to explain.

Then Hercules’ palm connected with his shoulder; a heavy impact that didn’t sting but sent a jolt throughout his entire body. For a split-second, he could see the surprise cross Hercules’ face as he felt Alex yield under his hand, legs crumpling uselessly ― before Alex was sent sailing with an undignified squeal.

A startled chorus of swear words echoed from all three boys around him, and Alex crashed directly into Laurens, chest-to-chest. “Shit, shit,” John hissed into his ear, instinctively hooking his arms around Alex and staggering under his weight.

“Holy shit, Alex, I’m so sorry, man,” Hercules cried from behind him, and Alex felt hands grip his shoulders. With a sharp gasp, Alex instinctively jerked away from Hercules’ hands, effectively pressing his entire body flush against Laurens’. John stumbled back with a surprised noise, overbalanced, and toppled into Lafayette, who frantically wrapped his arms around them both before all three could collapse, barely keeping them all upright.

“Shit,” Hercules hissed again, but he was laughing, now, covering his mouth to muffle the noise. “Oh my God.”

“Stop making fun of us and come help,” Laurens snapped, more panicked than angry; his voice was incredibly close to Alex’s ear. Thoughtlessly, Alex tilted his head up, sliding down a bit in Laurens’ hold to compensate, his legs still hanging limp under him, and John glanced down, meeting his gaze.

Laurens’ eyes widened, and his breath caught.

For a long moment, Alex didn’t understand it. He just blinked up at Laurens bemusedly, watching the crimson blush begin to spread across his face. Then Laurens let out a shaky breath, which Alex knew because he could feel it against his face, and that’s when it hit him.

They were close.

Very, very close.

Alex’s chin was almost touching Laurens’ collarbone, and their chests were pressed together entirely. With Alex’s legs dangling uselessly, Laurens was forced to pick up the slack, so he’d wrapped his arms around Alex and pushed his own legs between Alex’s to keep him propped up. And John was leaning heavily against Laf, putting both their bodies at a steep angle, meaning you could interpret their position in one of two ways. Depending on how you looked at it, Alex was either straddling Laurens or sitting in his lap. Either way, their faces were inches apart.

Never in his life had Alex been happier that he was such a prude. At the very least, the suggestive position wasn’t affecting him that way, even if a spike of panic did skewer him effortlessly, squeezing the breath out of his lungs.

Now Alex’s face was heating up, too, even as his heart seemed to still in his chest. He longed to spring away like he’d been burned, but his damned legs were still unresponsive and useless underneath him. He was powerless; he could do nothing but whisper “I’m sorry,” even as he twisted his hands into Laurens’ jacket, trying to keep himself from sliding down into an even worse position.

Fuck, he knew that John was just as powerless as he was; this wasn’t some asshole forcing himself onto Alex ― but, somehow, that made things worse. Because Laurens looked just as uncomfortable as he did, with his face cherry red and his eyes wide and his lips just barely parted, and it was practically the opposite ― Alex forcing himself onto John, even if he didn’t mean to ― and guilt wasn’t as all-consuming as panic, but he knew from experience that it didn’t go away as quickly.

Finally, blessedly, Lafayette managed to get them all onto their feet, although Alex’s legs were still dragging behind him, utterly limp. Thinking fast, John stumbled forward and hiked Alex up onto the arm of the couch, hovering close for a few seconds extra so Alex could find his balance.

As soon as Alex was situated, Laurens let go and took several steps back, but neither one looked away. Their eyes were still locked, even as Lafayette distantly asked if they were alright. Laurens didn’t seem quite so terrified anymore, but he hardly looked happy, either; his face was still bright red, his eyes were so wide that they must have stung, and, after a moment, he reached up and pressed his hand tight against his mouth, taking another step backwards.

Alex just blinked up at him, speechless for once in his life. What were you supposed to say in the wake of something like that? “I’m sorry”? “Are you okay”? “I swear to God, it wasn’t on purpose; please don’t hate me”?

Only the first of those options seemed at all palatable, so Alex sucked in a deep breath and opened his mouth to apologize again. Before he could, though, Laurens’ entire body shuddered, a quiet, muffled noise escaping past his hand. Alex flinched back, eyes wide ― but, rather suddenly, Laurens dropped his hand down to his side, threw his head back, and laughed.

‘What?’

Alex stared. John just doubled over, arms wrapped tightly around his midsection, and kept laughing. After a long moment, Lafayette joined him, and Hercules’ thin veneer of composure shattered, sending him spiraling into hysterics right along with them. Alex just stared, uncomprehending, as Lafayette literally collapsed onto the floor and started rolling around, still cackling like a maniac.

“Oh my God―”

“That was―”

“I can’t believe―”

“Are we in a fucking chick flick―”

“Hercules, Jesus Christ―”

Hercules quickly joined Lafayette on the floor; not because he was laughing that hard, but because Laf had latched onto his ankles and tugged him down. Only Laurens remained standing, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes as Laf and Hercules tussled on the floor.

“Laf, you little French shit―”

“Ah, language, mon ami!”

“Language yourself, Laf; no French, for shit’s sake!”

“Not my fault you took Spanish!”

As they laughed, Laurens slowly looked up and met Alex’s eyes. There was a huge, fond smile on his face, and his face was even redder than before, but his eyes were no longer the size of dinner plates. When he caught Alex’s blank stare, he laughed one last time, the corners of his eyes crinkling ― then grinned, shooting Alex a goofy thumbs-up.

Alex blinked. Then, slowly, uncertainly ― he curled in his fingers and returned the thumbs-up.

“Let’s head back,” he suggested, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the doorway. “Who knows how long these two will be at it? No point in waiting for them, and I wanna pick the game for once.”

It took Alex a moment to remember that the plan was to hang out in “the back room”. Slowly, he nodded, still a bit lost, and John’s face softened sympathetically.

“Do you need any help?” he asked quietly, gesturing to Alex’s legs.

Alex winced. “No,” he said hastily, praying that he really wouldn’t need help. He wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of being touched like that, especially after the whole fiasco with John earlier. “I ― please don’t. I’ve got this.

Blessedly, Laurens didn’t seem to mind. “Sure thing,” he said easily, although he gave Alex a brief calculating look. Alex chose to ignore it for the sake of his own sanity. It could mean anything. Maybe it meant nothing. Trying to analyze it would get him nowhere.

Taking a deep breath, Alex braced himself on the arm of the couch and slowly slid onto his feet. For a second, he thought he might topple, but his legs, as bad as they were, usually recovered quickly, and this was no exception. After a few wobbly steps, they stopped shaking almost entirely, and the pain died down to a faint tickle.

When he looked up, Laurens was watching him intently, and he cringed, hands curling into loose fists at his side. How was he supposed to explain this? He couldn’t write it off as just an injury from his fight with Reynolds; they’d demand to see his legs, and if they saw his legs―

He was so absorbed in his scramble to come up with an excuse, he almost didn’t notice when Laurens shook his head. “Let’s go, Alex,” he said quietly. Then he turned on his heel and left without asking a single probing question, despite his obvious suspicion.

Alex was so busy thanking God for his lucky break that he didn’t even notice Lafayette silently staring after him as he hurried after John, his mouth set in a firm line and his eyes tracking every quiver and half-limp of Alex’s clumsy legs.